30 December 2014

Review: Untaken

Untaken by J.E. Anckorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Young adult novels continue to be a hot property as of late publishing-wise, with readers of YA novels pretty much driving the industry at present. Even so, straight, non-dystopian YA science fiction tends to be a little hard to come by. We've come a long way since the Heinlein juveniles and the Tripods series, yes, but when everything feels like it's either a retread of The Hunger Games or Twilight (and may the higher powers help us all if someone ever finds a way to combine those two things), adult readers of genre fiction and YA fiction may feel like they're out in the cold.

I was able to land an advance copy of J. E. Anckorn's debut novel Untaken, and it follows well in the old-school tradition of science fiction for the younger set. Instead of trying to push the envelope with over-the-top ideas and themes, the book is instead an enjoyable throwback of sorts to the alien invasion science fiction of another era while keeping things feeling fresh and new.

The story follows two teens in New England following an alien invasion. They're pretty sure they can get to a family member's cabin to safety, but it's not going to be easy. One girl's parents have already been taken by the aliens, and the two kids have everything working out until they meet a 5 year old kid who won't talk and is pretty hurt. What becomes complicated is when the teenagers learn that Jake has a secret, and it is likely to change everything.

Untaken works best when it is allowed to exist in its own setting. In a way, the book feels like a love letter to the Boston area, with references to landmarks and cities and even a local AM radio station. The alien threat is handled in a different way from what I'm used to as of late as well - the alien existence is a given, and while it feels real, it also feels like part of the setting itself, much like any other problem someone might be facing. Compared to, say, The 5th Wave (a book I definitely enjoyed), the difference in how the threats are handled by our protagonists and by society feel stark. The kids aren't superhuman, they're just surviving, and it ends up being very realistic.

I can't discount, either, the old-style feel it has. While it might be a turn-off for some readers used to a different type of setting, this story feels a lot like the old science fiction that Gracie enjoys in the book. Consciously or not, the book feels very War of the Worlds-ish at times, and that is mostly to its benefit. The narrative along with the plot speaks directly to this sort of throwback, and I love the cover as a result - this would have absolutely sat on my shelf 20+ years ago.

My chief criticism, however, is that the book does take a while to get rolling. The first quarter or so of the book does move a bit slower than the rest as it works to establish what it seeks out to be, but this is both a product of the style it's presented and a product of modern expectations. The payoff (especially the way the book ends) is well worth the wait, but readers looking for a more direct route to the story might find themselves frustrated to start.

Overall, though, an excellent debut and a sci-fi novel I didn't realize I wanted until I was done with it. The book doesn't come out until March, but there is a pre-order available at Amazon that won't break the bank. I'm glad I got to take a look at it, and you will be as well.

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29 December 2014

Review: The Investigation

The Investigation
The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Books don't always need payoffs, but if you're going to set up a lot of weird stuff going on, you had best have a good reason for it and give some satisfactory reveals to make my investment worthwhile. The Investigation is sort of the prototypical modern "weird" without being quite as good as your Barron or VanderMeer as it forgets how to finish in favor of what ends up being a really fascinating start.

The story follows The Investigator, who has to do an Investigation into some suicides at The Enterprise. Along the way, he runs afoul of The Policeman, ends up talking with the Psychiatrist, is mistaken for a Tourist, and so on.

You get the idea.

The book's successes are in setting up this really confusing, really interesting setting and sequence of events. As we go further down the proverbial rabbit hole, we get both more information and less information. The problem is really at the end, where the resolution feels kind of thrown together. In a way, many resolutions in life are like that, but in fiction? Especially sort-of experimental fiction? Not so much.

Try it if you're in for a challenge, but know that it's going to get a little weird and that it might not be quite what you want it to be in the end.

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Review: Macaque Attack!

Macaque Attack!
Macaque Attack! by Gareth L. Powell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In what has become a sort of holiday tradition, we have a new book in Gareth Powell's Ack-Ack Macaque series this winter. I liked the first one and thought the second one was okay, but how about the third and final?

I wasn't sure what I'd think about the third one given my relative ambivalence about the second. Macaque Attack is the logical conclusion of the results of Hive Monkey, with plenty of monkey clones and some further universe bending that we've come to expect from the series. As the world grows, so too does the character base, and one of the best benefits of the newest book, oddly enough, is that Ack-Ack Macaque isn't present for a ton of it in comparison to some of the other books, and the result is a better read on a whole. We get a good exploration of the post-Hive Monkey world, and it ends up being pretty fun.

For me, I didn't find the conclusion to be the most satisfying thing in the world, as everything is tied up and together for the most part, but considering that it started out with a foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping monkey hero and ended up a lot broader than that, I suppose I can't complain too too much overall.

Ultimately, though, you have to really take this trilogy as a sum of its parts. A surprisingly ambitious story that starts as a video game and ends in basically saving the universe isn't a bad journey to be on, and I honestly think I might feel more fondly about the series had I not read it over the course of 2+ years. It's designed for that sort of pulpy quick hit, and that's ultimately where and how it succeeds. So yeah, overall, if you haven't dove in yet, there's no better time than now to start, and it will probably be a pretty fun read for you if you do.

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28 December 2014

Review: J

J by Howard Jacobson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I understand why people enjoy literary fiction. I assume it's a lot of the same reason why I like independent movies and such. For me, a book is something that needs to usually grab me to keep me interested, and J at least had a pretty cool hook that got me into reading it. Unfortunately, the execution left me wanting a lot more.

The story follows a few different plots following some sort of event. We don't know what that event was, and neither does anyone else - they just know something happened, and refer to it in the abstract. It couldn't have been too bad, as there's not significant damage or loss of life, but it's still pretty much changed everyone.

The problem is certainly a lack of payoff with this book, something I've come to expect from the more literary genres. A few conspiracy threads felt unresolved, the main storyline unsatisfying. I wanted a lot more from this than I ended up getting. With all of that said, however, there's a reason this has been nominated for so many awards - the flow is good and the book is fairly engaging in spite of some of the really significant flaws.

Those who enjoy these types of books will probably love this. If you're looking for an adult dystopia of sorts that keeps the action coming, however, there are different places to look instead.

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24 December 2014

Review: Flat-Out Celeste

Flat-Out Celeste
Flat-Out Celeste by Jessica Park

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of this Flat-Out series for a while now, and this one takes place a few years after the initial story. I spoke a lot about the trials of independent publishing and the Amazon platform in a past review of Park's works, and I don't see a need to rehash that again, but I only liked this in the way I kind of loved Flat-Out Love, which is fine.

As much of as the story follows Celeste following the events leading up to and in Love, we get a mix of a love story and a story about someone who, really, ins't really quite right. Celeste speaks in very direct tones and in sentences without contractions, giving a characterization that comes across as almost autistic in some senses regardless of intention. Celeste's condition, however you want to describe it, drives the core of the book, as it's a girl who doesn't fit in finding ways to do so and people who will accept her for who she is. It's awkward and off-putting and uncomfortable, but it works.

If I have a complaint, it's that it really does feel a little...overmanaged might be the term. There are flashes of the heart and the emotion that has come through in other Jessica Park books, but this one lacks that serious spark that made me fall for the others. It might just be Celeste as a character, it might be that I found the budding relationship in the book to lack the realistic qualities I was looking for, but I couldn't help but feel continually detached.

With that said, did I enjoy this? Absolutely. It's a fun little book in spite of my minor quibbles, and if you've enjoyed the series up to now, it's worth continuing. Just know that it's not your standard YA/NA piece.

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09 December 2014

Review: Suspicion

Suspicion by Alexandra Monir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

I'm a big fan of Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries, and find the whole "unknown royalty/lineage" trope to be endlessly entertaining. Throw in the apparent new haunted house trope, and you have Suspicion, a great - bordering on excellent - book that jumps from genre to genre with relative ease and mostly succeeds at all parts.

Imogen's parents died in a fire, and she is spirited out of England to live with some guardians. She is quickly roped back in, however, as the heirs to her family's manor pass and Imogen, now of age, is forced to take over the family manor. As we expect, however, there are some pretty strange mysteries that threaten to blow the lid off of some really important mysteries.

The beauty of this book is that, for once, a story that can't decide whether it's a teen comedy farce or a mystery or a paranormal tale somehow succeeds at being all three. The book is credible in all accounts, and doesn't feel like it's too absurd even though the premise is entirely unrealistic. I can quibble with a lot of the choices, and the more aristocratic parts ring a little hollow, but, overall, a really fun read.

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07 December 2014

Review: Revival

Revival by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is only my fourth (I think) Stephen King book up to this point, and I wouldn't quite put him up there as an author that I need to rush out and read the moment he releases something, but when I hear that King is doing something Lovecraftian, I think I'll add it to my library hold list. The idea that it's Lovecraftian, however, is both spot on and a little misleading (at least in the modern era), and it's really more a really stark, nihilistic look at mortality that, if it were probably 100-150 pages shorter, might have an opportunity to be a real classic.

The tale is pretty much the life of one person, from his childhood where he met a charismatic-yet-mysterious pastor through middle and old age as the pastor keeps returning to his life in different ways. There's love and loss, drugs, failure, music, Maine, mystery, and a sort of roadshow/spiritual healer sensibility to it that runs throughout until the very end, where everything that has been happening up to that point finally comes together.

It's impossible to fully discuss whether this book fails or succeeds without giving away the ending, and, really, the whole book. While this is clearly a book that is a look at mortality from King's point of view, this is also definitely a Lovecraftian pastiche from start to finish, with the slow burn and seemingly meaningless plot points that come together. I can appreciate what King tried to do here by also noting that, well, it didn't completely work. A short story that spends 3/4 of its time on seemingly meaningless details is one thing, but a horror novel with 400 pages is a different story altogether. The ending pays off, but you have to want to bear with the investment first and I don't know if most readers would stick with it if another name was on the cover.

Overall, I liked the book more than I think the book was good. The whole thing really sticks with me in a few different ways, and if I'm being honest, it's closer to a 3.5 that I couldn't in good conscience recommend to anyone in particular. A lot of books do it better, this does it pretty well.

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