24 February 2014

Review: Tin Star

Tin Star
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of Cecil Castellucci for some time now. I haven't read everything she's done, but she's always had interesting takes on the things that I have read. Noticing that she was taking a dive into science fiction was an exciting opportunity for me, and so I looked forward to seeing what she was going to do with the genre. The great news is that the book is pretty solid, but it's a lot darker and starker than one might expect.

The story itself is both fairly typical and still feels unique. Tula is beaten and left stranded on a space station during a colony ship's diversion. She has little to her name and less ability to get much of anything accomplished, and all she can do now is try to survive. She befriends a winged alien, becomes part of the station's scavenger culture, and the story is pretty much a survival tale in a diverse city landscape with some plans for revenge.

What worked best for me here is partially because there's so little competent, solid science fiction we get for the young adult age group. It's refreshing to read a science fiction YA book that isn't just another dystopia, as well as one that doesn't have a love triangle at its center. Tula's interactions with the society around her, as well as the space station itself, is a bold and different direction that reminds me of a lot of good science fiction reads, and it can absolutely be taken as an allegory for diversity and acceptance on its own as well. There's definitely a little bit for everyone here.

If there are flaws, it might be its overall accessibility. Part of it is the little niche Castellucci has carved out for herself - I went in with a certain expectation, and the result didn't match. Part of it, though, is that this really reads more adult than young adult in many ways, up to and including some of the ways she tries to get by and survive. It's realistic, for sure, but I question whether this would appeal the same way to the intended audience.

Overall, a great read. Dark and creepy, sometimes unsettling, but a fast-paced, interesting ride nonetheless.

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22 February 2014

Review: Fangirl

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a bit of a Rainbow Rowell kick after the excellent Eleanor and Park, Fangirl is another solid entry, but is also very different from Eleanor in a lot of ways.

The story follows Cath, a freshman in college and a severe introvert, who also happens to be a superfan of the extremely popular Harry Potter/Twilight mashup in this world. And, oh year, she writes one of the most popular fanfictions for the books in the world. Meanwhile, her family is continuing to fall apart a bit, she has her roommate's boyfriend around all the time, and she's just trying - and struggling - to navigate the world she's in.

It's a touching story, albeit one with a lot less gravity than Eleanor, but still ends up being a love letter to fanfiction and embracing who you are in spite of the challenges often inherent in being part of something frowned upon in polite society or being more naturally introverted. The book doesn't always work (as someone who's never been able to get into fanfiction, the fanfiction bits were a little rough for me), but it works most of the time, and the overall experience is what ultimately matters.

A definite quality read, and I'd certainly recommend it. It's got a ton of solid things to work with.

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16 February 2014

Review: Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family

Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family
Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my.

So I've been thoroughly enjoying the Snyder run on Batman, a superhero I've never really been a fan of. Snyder's taking it into territories I didn't expect, and I'm really loving it. Thus bringing us to Death of the Family, which is largely a Joker-focused arc.

My experience with the Joker is almost entirely based on the old television show, the more recent movies, and a handful of trade arcs prior to The New 52 that ended up portraying the Joker as pretty crazy but not necessarily dangerous due to having focus. The point, at least from my perspective, was more of how unpredictable and crazy the Joker was, not so much that he could develop a plan, put it in action, and largely succeed based on those merits. I could be way off on my perception of the character, I admit - I base this fully on my limited exposure and little else.

New 52 Joker is certainly nuts. His tendencies are off the wall, he clearly has something wrong with him (why else would he be wearing his stripped-off face around all the time), and even Harley Quinn sees that there's something really wrong about him. Thus, we have a five issue arc that really makes the Joker into the insane-yet-calculated personality that one might expect. This Joker is possibly closer to the Heath Ledger Joker, but even that Joker is not as sadistic and unpredictable as Snyder's. Snyder's Joker leaves you uncomfortable. Creeped out. You truly believe he can and will do anything to achieve his goals, even if you're not 100% sure you understand what his goals are.

And Batman, in this universe at least, is far too sane and logical to quite know how to handle it. That's what truly makes this arc special - we all know what it feels like to seemingly be trying to work with/against/in tandem with someone we're simply not able to figure out. Someone acts in a way you can't explain, you don't know what to do or how to really respond? That's Snyder's Batman/Joker relationship. Rather than being an adversarial relationship, two sides to the same coin, Snyder pits the logical, well-grounded, successful Batman against the ultimate wild card, a wild card that isn't afraid to kidnap everyone you love and make you think the worst things have happened to them. A wild card who isn't afraid to make you crack, to break you down mentally for good, and for seemingly no reason at all. Plus, there's a great scene at the very end that really calls into question who is truly responsible for what, and it becomes not only a question of sane versus insane, calculated versus crazy, but also about our own responsibility to our own adversaries, internal or external.

I felt Court of Owls was brilliant because it took the Batman I thought I knew and put something really special and different in its place. Death of the Family is better than Court of Owls because it truly uses the comic art form and the traditional superhero story as a lens for the rest of the world around us, and succeeds brilliantly in doing so. It's more than a Batman story, it's more than a superhero story, and it's more than a comic. It's a real demonstration of who we all are, and the different personalities we fight with, both inside and out. At the end of the story, you forget that Batman is wearing a mask because he always is, but there's a very sharp reminder that, really, the Joker is wearing one, too. Literally and figuratively.

Just read this. Find all the New 52 main Batman arcs and read them. You'll be better for it.

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13 February 2014

Review: How Music Works

How Music Works
How Music Works by David Byrne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I should preface this by saying that I'll likely give anything David Byrne does a shot. I am a fan of him even if all of his endeavors, musical or otherwise, don't always do the trick. This book is pretty much exactly what's advertised on the cover: David Byrne telling us how music works. And that's not a bad thing.

The book is part history, part biography, part polemic. It covers a lot of Byrne's experience as a recording artist and collaborator, a good deal about the machinations of the music industry, a lot of the research domestically and worldwide about music production and enjoyment, and so on. There's a lot he covers over 300+ pages, and his voice is distinct enough where, even as someone who has some background in this, it's a nice recollection/reminder/resource.

If I have a complaint, outside of its overall lack of focus, I'd be really curious as to who this is intended to reach. There's not enough biographical stuff to be a story about Byrne, the people who would grab this for the historical elements probably already know what's here, and it's through the McSweeney's group which means most of the people who would find this would already be well-read. I spent more time than I thought I would wondering who, exactly, he was writing for.

Overall, it's a solid read that I think should be read by people who see this and say "yeah, I might want to read this." It's one of those books I'm glad exists, even if it has its flawed moments.

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10 February 2014

Review: The Gunslinger

The Gunslinger is a lot like what you'd expect Stephen King writing fantasy to read like.

This seems pretty obvious to say in many regards, but it's almost jarring to have King working in this realm. As I'm still somewhat new to the King library, and my first exposure being On Writing, his voice is very distinctive to me for whatever reason, and this has been the case for everything of his I've read.

This is not typically a bad thing, but it did really make me question The Gunslinger quite a bit. On one hand, it's a well-written book with some really good worldbuilding and a good balance of exposition and action. The book feels almost pulpy at times, being equal parts western and more traditional fantasy. All these things come together for a solid, coherent narrative that reminded me very quickly why King is so popular and held in such high regard.

The issue with The Gunslinger, I suppose, is just that, at least in this volume, it's a standard story that has a pretty straightforward trajectory and doesn't take a lot of chances. Granted, part of it is due to the serialized nature of its initial publication, which required a different type of storytelling, but when I think of a more grandiose epic that spans seven books and thousands of pages, this is not it. The story is almost so tight that there's little reason to get invested in the characters or the world or the story itself, which I didn't expect. That so many think so highly of this book (and The Dark Tower in full) is an indication that I may need to plow ahead a bit with it, but for now, my expectations and the reality didn't match up.

Overall, a disappointing read for me. Hopefully the next volume, whenever I get to it, will perhaps bring me around.

08 February 2014

Review: Tesla's Attic

Closer to a 3.5. Tesla's Attic is what you get when you get a well-known, experienced author like Neal Shusterman to tap into the resurgence of popularity of Nikola Tesla while offering up a science fiction adventure for a middle grade audience. The results, honestly, are mixed, but the good is solid enough to make up for the missteps along the way. The story is about kids who find some of Tesla's old inventions in the attic of a Victorian house and sell them at a yard sale. The inventions turn out to be part of a larger set, do some strange things to those who possess them, and are actually part of a much larger conspiracy called "The Accelerati," thus requiring the kids to retrieve the sold items and keep them out of the hands of the Accelerati. The science fictional elements of the story are very solid. The gadgets are fun and inventive, and Tesla-esque enough to spark some interest in a man that the target audience almost certainly wouldn't know. The downside to the book is that the story feels like it slows down very quickly once things are established and we reach the second half of the book. In a section where the plot's pace should be scrambling forward, it instead lumbers, and that's a shame for a book that's looking to be a series. Overall, a decent, but flawed read. Certainly worth a look for the right reader.