28 October 2014

Review: Shadowboxer

Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a frustrating 3.5.

Two types of books probably don't get enough play in the YA marketplace right now - books about cagefighting/MMA and the like, and books where the souls of children are being stolen. If you agree, add in some shapeshifting for good measure and Shadowboxer might just be the book for you.

The book follows two stories - one with troubled but talented fighter Jade as she is shipped all over to train as a cage fighter and grow up a bit, and Mya, a girl who is stuck in a mysterious story with a creepy old man in the woods with a bunch of other children. These stories eventually converge into an often-interesting but fairly bizarre conceptual horror novel that has a lot of action and a really interesting mechanic to go along with the ending.

Shadowboxer is ultimately frustrating because, while the Jade story is interesting and mostly well-written, the Mya portions do not provide any clear indication of why we should care or how it's related to Jade's story until much later. The temptation to skim through the parts of the story that ultimately end up being some of the most important is a critical miss in terms of structuring the story, and is a significant drawback keeping this story from becoming great instead of merely good. Thankfully, the Jade parts are quite good, and sprinkle just the right amount of action, humor, and heart to make up for some of the less exciting Mya bits.

Overall, definitely a story worth your time. I didn't think much of any of this would appeal to me, and it ended up doing so even with its flaws.

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26 October 2014

Review: All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill
All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I try my best to read the books movies are based on before seeing the movie. It was pretty difficult to get my hands on a version of this from the library before seeing Edge of Tomorrow, but given that I really enjoyed EoT, I still stuck with getting the book.

In a word, though? Wow.

The concept, like the film, is pretty simply on its face - humanity is at war with an alien race, and our soldier at the center of the story has somehow gotten the ability to replay the same day repeatedly following his own death, sort of like a video game. He thinks it might be linked to one of the aliens he killed, but as time progresses and more information comes about, the complexities of the war and his situation come around.

The book is ridiculously fast-paced, and where it diverges from the movie are things that I really loved about it and probably would have hated in the film had my consumption of the two had been reversed. The confusion, the reveals, the overall fun of what the book offers changes it from a story similar to Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day into something a lot more.

This book can't exist without the current sort of video game cultural touchstones that it uses to push its narrative. That it's nearly 10 years old and feels new and fresh is also interesting, and the specific American translation feels really natural, which was welcome. Overall, it's absolutely a book that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to and really think every science fiction fan should read.

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25 October 2014

Review: Everything Leads to You

Everything Leads to You
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, but I really enjoyed this.

The story centers around two girls obsessed with old movies, and, upon hearing that a famous star is having an estate sale following his death, end up purchasing an old record that has a letter inside to be delivered. This places them on a path that introduces them to the actor's family, uncovers a lot of old problems, and creates a lot of new relationships along the way.

A lot of the focus, as I've read up on this now that I'm done, focuses on the "two girls in romantic love" aspect, and it's actually understated enough to be barely there except as any other love story, which is refreshing and really well done. The story itself isn't bogged down from the old movie subplot/parallel plot, and the voices are realistic as well. Just really well done.

I could quibble a bit about the choices, about the somewhat-rushed ending, about some of the ways the plot winds through, but that would be more negative than deserved. Absolutely a solid read through and through, definitely worth some space in your contemporary young adult reading this year.

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Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been really interested and fascinated with the history of cinema for some time. There's a lot of fascinating pieces to the overall history, although I find the Hays Code-era wranglings to be almost as interesting as the creation of the classic films themselves.

What if I told you there was a book that combined both?

Pictures at a Revolution covers the time in American movies surrounding the creation of five classic films that ended up being nominated for Best Picture in 1967, including Bonnie and Clyde, Look Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Graduate. The films are put up against the social and cultural situations of the time, the struggle of American filmmakers to stay relevant with the censorship and Code issues of the day being ignored by European filmmakers, and the changing landscape of films and their audiences overall.

It's a really fascinating narrative. The book balances out a lot of the topics really well, doesn't dwell too long on any specific aspects, and is ultimately pretty straightforward about some of the issues some movies (most notably Doctor Doolittle in the context of the lineage it came from). It's long, but doesn't feel long, as the details all feel relevant. Harris also got a good deal of input directly from people involved with the film, giving a lot of inside knowledge I wouldn't have expected.

Overall, I think this is ultimately a must-read for film enthusiasts as well as cultural history buffs. There's a lot here for everyone, and it's a book I'm glad I took the time to read.

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Review: Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I've written before about my enjoyment of the sweeter, more pointed-style middle grade/YA books - your Pie, Stargirl, and the like. Counting By 7s is another one of those, sort of a sadder version of One for the Murphys with an implied autistic main character and some really strange choices made with certain characters.

Essentially, Willow, our lead character, his a supergenius who is immediately misunderstood by her teacher. Her adoptive parents die in a car accident and she is forced to deal with her entire world being turned upside down in the process as she seeks out a surrogate family and copes with everything around her.

Whether she is supposed to be autistic is left unsaid, which might be part of my struggle with it. In a modern context, it would be exceptionally difficult for her to slip through like that. The guidance counselor comes across as creepy, which isn't really the intent as far as I can tell even if the point was for him to be just kind of bad at his job. All these points pulled me out of the narrative more than a little bit and keep it from being as profound as some of the other books like it.

It's not a terrible read, by any stretch. If you can forgive the missteps, it ends up being a pretty solid story. It's just difficult to separate the two for me.

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21 October 2014

Review: How It Went Down

How It Went Down
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At minimum, I truly do believe that kids need and deserve books that reflect the world they live in, even if I see literature more as an opportunity to escape than anything else. How It Went Down is a book, given the situation in Ferguson and the Trayvon Martin case from last year, that will have a lot of relevance to many readers. Unfortunately, the book lacks the nuance that such a topic requires and ends up being a questionable read in the end.

The story is told from multiple points of view in the time during and following the shooting of a black teenager that may or may not have been armed and may or may not have been associated with a gang. His shooter was white, the store he might have robbed or might not have. The tale tries to take all the points of view into consideration as the story gains national attention and draws in other outsiders.

I say this is questionable because of the nuance, as the story doesn't really reflect that. The point is that we don't really know and never will, but the tales its pulling from are not so complex. The ideas within the book are adult and complicated, and the story unfortunately simplifies matters too much to be a real commentary on the topic it's very obviously discussing. In a place where ideas can be explored, the characters instead do not come across as complicated, but instead all simply flawed and not so nuanced. The Reverend character, in particular, is a disgusting and disturbing caricature that offers little to no reason to accept him as realistic or to understand why his portrayal even matters.

I'm overly critical because I think this is an important topic that probably doesn't get fair treatment in schools or in the public dialogue, and this book misses so many opportunities to execute better. I wish it was something it isn't, and that's unfortunate. I can't recommend.

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20 October 2014

Review: Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I'm nitpicking, this is closer to a 4.5. If I could give a bonus star for how much fun and how much I loved this story, though, I would.

So I know, growing up and living in Massachusetts, the story of Lizzie Borden quite well. Accused of murdering her parents with an axe, she was later acquitted but her legend ultimately remained. Maplecroft takes that story and essentially retells it as if HP Lovecraft were putting it together. Yes, all the necessary tropes are there, and done beautifully.

The story is incredibly fast-paced and readable, with plenty of fun little nods to the Cthulhu Mythos and a few nice little curveballs along the way. It's a book I'm sure hardcore Lovecraftians might find something to quibble with, but, truly, if you are just looking for a fun ride? This is probably the most fun I've had with a book in months, and that should say something right there.

Highly recommended. Definitely check this one out.

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Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers

The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers
The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers by Peter F. Hamilton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of my favorite science fiction books of all time is Pandora's Star by Peter F Hamilton, with the sequel, Judas Unchained, a fairly close second. A duology within a group of books labeled The Commonwealth Saga, it's hard sci-fi that doesn't really try to forget about the human elements, and invites a lot of cool ideas that go along with the overall theme.

The companion books, the Void trilogy, I couldn't get into. It was less of what I liked in a hard sci-fi book, especially given what I loved about the two prior books, and more about some fairly out-there ideas and concepts that left me a little cold. It wasn't really Hamilton, it was me.

So what do you get when you get a new series of books with people and concepts from both Commonwealth tales? It's ultimately mixed.

There's a lot going on, and it's almost not really worth recapping in some senses. There are names and faces that readers of the old books will remember, but the tale is centered at least in part around Nigel, who we first met in Pandora's Star. He's been recruited to infiltrate The Void (first introduced in the Void trilogy, naturally) and what he learns there is more than what was initially bargained for.

I have to say that my memory of this book is quite shaded from where it ends as opposed to how it begins. I really disliked a lot of the setup, as it relied ultimately on a lot more Void information and setting than I really was looking for. Once we get some information on what's going on and how it's being addressed, however, it becomes a lot more clear and a lot more enjoyable. It's still a highly imperfect read, but it saves itself with the setup for the future.

I sometimes feel like Hamilton is trying to ape Heinlein in many regards, especially with issues of sexuality and Grand Ideas. I pretty much end up wishing he'd just do what works for me, which is why this is partially my problem, but this book is ultimately a little too convoluted for what I wanted to see from a science fiction book or from Hamilton. Meanwhile, you probably wouldn't reach for this book without having at least sampled his other Commonwealth books first, so you would have a good idea as to what you're getting into.

Overall, be cautious, but know what's coming.

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19 October 2014

Review: The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All

The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All
The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All by Cullen Bunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excuse me while I use this review to rant for a few minutes.

There's a lot of desire for diversity in books, especially in comics as of late. The desires are not completely unreasonable, although I think that there's a broader discussion that needs to take place regarding the genre, the history, the expectations, and so on. The better news, however, is that we have a comic right here that hits a lot of those marks - diversity in character set, in gender, in race, in sexuality, and it does so without calling attention to itself or coming across as some sort of attempt to check off different boxes. It's a marvelous series that knows what it's trying to do and has a keen sense of the tropes it's aping and understands that comics are often supposed to be fun romps.

So that's why Marvel cancelled it, right?

No, Marvel cancelled it because sales dropped significantly, in part because it was a difficult draw in some senses, with characters that only hardcore comics readers would know and with plots that intentionally bordered on the absurd. That's what made it fun and drew in people like me, but I also get why it might not have caught fire with a lot of others. It's a shame, because it definitely felt like a comic that I could point to and say "this is what we should be striving for" in a lot of ways, from character to casting to plot. Instead, well...

I get that the industry is in trouble in some regards. It's just a shame there's not more room for a team-up that's off-kilter a bit. No, there's no foul-mouthed raccoon, but that doesn't mean that Valkyrie couldn't be the next Gamora, either, right?

And I suppose we'll never know.

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13 October 2014

Review: Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books by musicians, I've found, are continually risky. I can hear at least two of my close friends saying "but wait, John Darnielle!" and I would simply respond with how much I didn't care for Colin Meloy's efforts, and the two of them are both good lyricists. Still, when Wolf in White Van hit my library system, I made sure to put a hold on it.

Then it got nominated for a National Book Award.

Okay, so I guess I'm in. Award-nominated, I'm a fan of The Mountain Goats, so I dive in on a book where my expectations were understandlibly tempered and ended up finishing the book over the course of the evening, as it's one of the more poetic, straightforward, enjoyable contemporary reads I've consumed in a while.

The story is a little fractured, which only helps with the reveals along the way. We have a murder/wrongful death case, it involves a man who has been significantly disabled due to an accident (I don't want to give too much away), and he also ran a roleplaying-game-by-mail service. These are all interrelated issues, and we get a peek into his childhood and upbringing along with his mentality along the way.

It's the tale of a broken person, or broken people, and has enough cultural touchstones and references to go along with the tale to end up being a very different story than what I normally read, and one I really loved. Whether this breaks a lot of new ground in the sort of literary fiction universes that I don't spend a ton of time in, that's for other people to say. The book, however, deserves every accolade it's gotten and is definitely something I recommend for everyone. Really solid book.

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06 October 2014

Review: Nyctophobia

Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nyctophobia is defined as a significant fear of the dark. I'm not generally someone who is afraid of the dark, although I've been known to have my overtired darkness hallucinations from time to time. While I'm not really into scary books, this story in particular kind of feeds into the latent fears that I think we all thought we might have grown out of.

I also hadn't slept well in a week while reading this, and realized that (given I was reading this before bed every night), perhaps the warm glow of my Paperwhite was not enough to keep my mind firmly rooted in reality.

The tale is, in a way, a book about architecture. Callie marries and moves to Spain with her husband. Their home is an older building that is constructed in a certain way to allow light in at all times, but also has a closed-off servants quarters and is built to have some severely dark wings as well. The home also comes with a housekeeper and a gardener, both of which are as mysterious as the house itself. And then there are the weird things going on, the stuff in the dark behind the doors, and how protective of the dark side of the house the housekeeper tends to be.

The book is super creepy, and uses the concept of the fear of the dark in a pretty cool way. The reveals along the way are all pretty crazy, and it becomes almost a game of one-upsmanship along the way as the story speeds toward its end. The book does sputter a bit toward the end as it moves away from what made the rest of the narrative so scary in favor of a neat, but strange, explanation, but the fun of this book is more about the ride than the destination.

Overall, for a book that's generally outside of my genre preferences, I was very pleased and really enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it probably kept me up for a week. Might be a good gateway for this type of story for some, and I think those who are already happy to be a little scared when they read will find something to enjoy here.

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05 October 2014

Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After
Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Judging by when I first added this to Goodreads, it appears I was waiting for this book for at least three years. It was mostly worth the wait.

Much like the first two books in this cycle, it's a teen romance of missed connections, missed communications, and dramatic outcomes. This story basically takes place in a French boarding school with the son of an American politician and an upper class New York-area girl. The two love interests go through the typical motions and the story works as the last two did as well.

If I have a complaint, it's more that the plot kind of upped the ante on the age groups a bit. Isla and Josh have a much more mature relationship than shown in the prior two books, and I was actually kind of surprised and taken aback by it a bit. The story also took quite a long time to get rolling, as well, with the first hundred or so pages being frustratingly slow in comparison to the parts after it.

Overall, a good read. Not great in the way I felt the first two were, but Perkins has become a master of the ridiculous teen romance fantasies that tend to hit a lot of good notes for me. If I wasn't such a fan of the first two, I may have ended up being more forgiving on this third one on a whole.

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Review: Ghost Story

Ghost Story
Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In many ways this was my favorite book in the series so far, and in many ways it was easily the most frustrating.

So, spoiler alert, Dresden's dead, baby. The final scene of the previous (non-short story) book was Dresden dying, and we open with the Dresden version of the afterlife. Harry's a ghost in a ghostly version of Chicago, and we get a good amount of time with his dealing with this new existence before we get into the meat of the story, which is really less an urban fantasy than a straightforward fantasy book steeped in death and destruction. It's a really interesting turn for the series on a whole.

What I loved, for starters, was that the Dresden/Butcher view of the afterlife is a pretty interesting one on a whole. I won't speak to its true originality, but it felt new and fresh to me as I read it. Seeing Dresden cope with this situation, meeting a lot of new characters, having him interact both with the new world he inhabited and the old one left behind? All of these things were really well done and presented throughout. It's not so much that the series needed a shift in tone or plot or anything, but it's a welcome one and a nice addition to the canon.

What's maddening about this book in particular, however, is that the consistent rules in place that one assumes to exist only seem to benefit Harry. While we're long past the idea of the story working for Harry's benefit, this takes it to a really absurd conclusion. He's dead because of something he did on purpose to screw over Mab, which just happens to be convenient to the story and to his own needs while dead, and that he somehow excises that memory from himself which either means that he also excised the memory of what he knows about death or that he just happened to fall conveniently into a situation in the afterlife that worked to his overall benefit when it comes to Mab? I'm especially annoyed by this because I love watching the other shoe drop, and this felt like a really convenient end-around.

And don't even get me started with his adventures in the Molly treehouse scene.

I feel as if I'm really overly negative about a book I actually really enjoyed, but I just don't get a lot of these choices in this instance. It really stopped the book from being the great book in the series it could have been, and that's frustrating. With that said, though, the book yet again did what just about every other entry has so far, and that's get me really excited to get to the next tale. With only two books left before I'm caught up with everyone else, though...

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01 October 2014

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not generally one to really react to a book in general. A funny book for me might elicit a chuckle, but I'm typically a silent reader. With this book, however, I'm pretty sure that the old ladies at the Dunkin Donuts where I was reading this was wondering why this grown man, beard and all, looked about ready to sob all over the place.

Yes, Thirteen Reasons Why is that good.

The plot is fairly straightforward in that we get to listen along with a teenage boy as he listens to the audio records of the girl who killed herself a few weeks earlier. She recorded the tapes with the intention of those who were involved in her making the choice she did knowing exactly why it happened.

It's gut-wrenching. It's heart-breaking.

A common problem with the teen "issues" books is that they can really do a lot in trivializing the emotional core of teen life. It's easy for us, as adults, to look back at what we spent our emotional energy on years earlier and forget how tough it was (heck, that's part of the reason why YA books are so popular with adults currently), but it also runs the risk of diminishing the real feelings involved along the way. If depression and emotional angst are a series of crushing weights (and, for many, they are), Thirteen Reasons Why just marches us right along as we watch that slow decline.

As someone who struggles with depression to this day, this book really hit home for me. I always tell people about how Stargirl is the best book I can think of for teens to read about acceptance and treating people right, and this book has lodged itself directly next to it as something not only important because of the message it sends, but also important because of how genuine and sincere it is. It's a narrative about how the small things become big, and maybe reading this book might just make some people treat their peers a little better, because it might be all it takes.

I don't know. It took me over a week to write up anything on this and I feel like I could spend forever talking about it. It's a beautiful, tragic, amazing, disturbing book in every regard. I'm glad I read it. I hate that I read it. I love that it exists, I hate that it needs to. No one should have to read this, but everyone really should. If you've been holding off, as I have for years and years now, just find a copy and read it now. You'll be really, really glad you did.

I'll supply the tissues.

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