31 January 2015

Review: Backlash

Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really want to dismiss this outright as a ham-fisted after school special of sorts, but even adult novels are filled with blunt force cautionary tales, so it's really not fair to single out this young adult title about cyberbullying.

Based on some true stories regarding cyberbullies convincing teens to kill themselves or act out, this story takes place over multiple points of view, both from the aggressor, the victim, and family members of both. The pacing is quick, and the story ultimately wastes no time and holds little back.

Where does this story fall apart a bit? For one, the characters seem less realistic and more like caricatures. The fact that the mother joins in (even though, unfortunately, that is a direct correlation between the tale and the real-life incident that sparked it) feels forced and out of character. The actual character growth feels less realistic and more forced than anything, and the end results feel a little too pat.

I don't know. I get why this book exists and is getting attention, I just also feel like the actual topic perhaps deserves a better treatment. Especially in the wake of more recent incidents of harassment and cyberbullying and the media's irresponsibility in its treatment, it's difficult to simply accept this narrative simply as is, never mind how relevant it may or may not look in a short amount of time.

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25 January 2015

Review: Proxima

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I forget how I ended up reserving this one at the library, but given that it's arguably the most straightforward science fiction I've read in months, I'm kind of glad I did.

The story takes place in the distant-ish future, and we've found a new planet to colonize. Ships are sent, we follow a group that lands on this planet near Alpha Proxima, and much of the story stays with that group. It's very much a science fictional survival tale with some interesting ideas peppered throughout.

The issue is when the book gets to its true point. I don't want to give away the plot, but needless to say it's a great idea with really strange execution that doesn't pay off until literally the final pages.

If I was rating this based solely on the first 99% of the book, I'd say it was a book with great potential that lost its way. It's only getting to the very end that it all makes sense and makes me genuinely excited for the sequel, which is truly a problem with the way the narrative is ultimately structured. It left me with a good feeling, but getting there was a chore.

I'm very excited for the sequel here, and we'll see how it goes, but it doesn't come out in the US for a while. Hopefully it holds up!

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Review: Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues

Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues
Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues by Rick Dakan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe closer to a 2.5?

I had very warm feelings about this series, liking the first book a lot in particular. Looking back at my review of the second book, I apparently bleached out my memory of it because I really didn't like it, but hey, the third book is available to me so I'll give it a shot, right?

The problems with this book are legion. The first quarter feels like a Cory Doctorow knockoff, the middle half a meandering mess of a cyberpunk mystery, and, while the end does kind of redeem things a bit, the full result is a hacker novel that provides little to truly get excited over.

I feel badly about this, as I just want this to be a lot better than it ends up being. But the unfortunate truth is that the characters barely resemble who they were when they started out (and not in a "character growth" way), and this book feels less like a necessary coda and more of an add-on.

I still think the first book is pretty great. This book pretty much solidifies, however, the way the rest of the series kind of falls apart. Unfortunate, but there are certainly other books and other series that do this better.

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19 January 2015

Review: The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help
The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was wrong about Amanda Palmer.

I'm not saying I wasn't a casual-ish fan - I liked The Dresden Dolls, I really enjoyed her solo albums, but there was always something that didn't register for me. I appreciated The Art, but it wasn't For Me, if that makes any sense. It was similar to, say, Tori Amos or (ironically) Neil Gaiman for me, or how others feel about Radiohead or, for a literary equivalent, Area X. I was happy to listen, found the fanbase a little difficult, and left it at that.

The genesis of this book came at least in part from the backlash from her Kickstarter campaign for one of her albums and the completely ridiculously overblown "she's not paying her musicians" controversy following that. She had a TED talk that was, in part, about the culture she comes from - one that encourages giving, favors, and not being afraid to ask permission. This is really key to understanding The Amanda Palmer Experience, and was lost on her critics anyway.

The Art of Asking is an extended treatise on her TED talk, for sure. It's mostly anecdotal, with tales of her experiences as an artist in a number of forms and how the culture she exists in matters to her art, to how she goes about her business, and so on. It's also a memoir of her life, of her struggles, and of a lot of her own personal conflicts with her philosophy and her lifestyle and how her life was trending (famous musician, marrying a famous author, and so on). All of it matters, all of it is out there and raw and real, which is pretty much how Amanda Palmer operates anyway.

I loved this book. I read it in basically two sittings because her writing style is engaging and conversational, and because, really, the story is pretty fascinating. And, really, it made me realize that I didn't really understand Amanda Palmer either. While I always understood where Palmer was coming from, I didn't realize how ingrained it was in her. I didn't know a ton about her history, only a lot of second-hand stories and third-party tellings. While there is reason to be careful about taking things directly from the source, there is something to understanding how one is trying to be portrayed and the parts you missed.

I'm a bigger fan of Palmer now because of this book. I doubt that was her intention in writing it, but it happened regardless. I learned something, too, in dealing with the sort of "I'm a fraud" voices to seeking out the help you need. Even if I improve marginally in those areas, it will be an improvement.

I can't say this will be for everyone, just because of how divisive Palmer can be. With that said, though, I do think everyone who is trying to be successful doing the things they love should at least give this one a shot. You very well could learn something from it.

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Review: Lagoon

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's a lot to love about Lagoon. I love a first contact story, and this one decides destroying New York is overdone, so we're headed to Nigeria instead. It tosses a little wrinkle into an existing trope that works pretty well and perhaps masks some of the overall flaws.

The story effectively follows the impact the visit has on three characters, but quickly becomes more of an invasion story as we learn more about the area, the aliens, and the motives. The book's chief strength is this balance, and all the relevant characters feel fully formed, with interesting aliens as well.

If I have criticism, it's that the book does feel uneven at times, and the brutality of the third act is not something that is at all expected given the first two. There are reasons storywise why this is the case, and readers better versed in the culture and politics of Nigeria may see some parallels that I missed, but better preparation might have blunted that a bit.

Overall, though,a pretty good science fiction book. I somehow got a British release of it from the library, so I'm not sure when this will hit US shores, but it's definitely worth a look.

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18 January 2015

Review: Missing Reels

Missing Reels
Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Honestly closer to a 4.5.

This was originally presented to me as a young adult book, but it's really more a new adult book set in the late-1980s with subject matter I love reading about - old, lost films and coming of age tales. This one contrasts feeling like you're lost in time/in the wrong era while using the history of old movies and lost films as a parallel.

The book's strengths are its references. The more knowledge you have of old movies, the more fun the book's references are. I'm better versed than many and still missed a lot of the references along the way (perhaps reading on a Kindle would have helped in this regard). The story itself is not groundbreaking, but the late-1980s setting provides some good wrinkles and brings a lot of the plot around in a good way.

I did enjoy reading this, but there are some really draggy parts. Nehme's characters love their monologues, and while they are in character, I couldn't help but feel a bit of a "get on with it"-ness on occasion.

Overall, a great book that shouldn't sail under the radar if there's any justice. It's a great read for anyone with an interest in old cinema in particular, but is basically one of the better sort-of-contemporary reads I've picked up as of late.

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Review: All Fall Down

All Fall Down
All Fall Down by Ally Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a big fan of the Gallagher Girls series and as someone who was into, but not as impressed with, the Heist Society books, my expectations were still pretty good for Embassy Row, and the result was a bit lacking for me.

Ally Carter definitely has the formula down at this point - get a teenage/high school age girl, throw her in a situation that requires a particular set of skills, and let the characters play. The end result sometimes works, but it was impossible for me to read All Fall Down and not feel like I've read the whole thing before. The ending was not as telegraphed as I thought it would have been, to its credit, but considering how great the previous books are, this felt rote and unmemorable.

There are parts to like. The prose, while paced properly, is probably better for a more reluctant reader. If you're really into Carter's previous books and style doesn't bother you, you'll probably like a lot of what's here. Even the way it ends leaves me with some curiosity as to where the series is going in spite of my not loving it.

So it's not a failure, but far from a success. Ultimately closer to a 2.5.

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Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, all things considered.

This is the English translation of a hit sci-fi series in China. The story is, at least on the surface, a first contact tale, but also one about technology and communication under the shadow of the basically-oppressive Chinese government. First contact, in this tale, comes through an MMO-style computer game, and the way this contact occurs is really, really fascinating and basically sells the book for me on its own. I don't want to give that part away, but if you've found like-stories interesting, this twist will certainly grab you.

I wasn't a huge fan of how the book started, but reading an interview with the author and the translator, this is more a cultural choice that makes sense in context. If you're looking for a race to start the story, it won't happen here, but the way the tale ultimately builds makes up for it. I'm also sure I missed plenty of cultural nods and touchstones along the way that might have made more sense for me as a reader, especially from the start. It certainly didn't impact my enjoyment noticeably, however.

Overall, I'll be seeking out the sequel as soon as it's available in English. A really solid overall read, and a great science fiction tale to start my year off on the right foot.

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10 January 2015

Review: Seeker

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On one hand, it's great to see a neat modern sci-fi/fantasy hybrid for the YA set. On the other, with a handful of unnecessarily weird sexually-charged scenes that don't match up with the book and an ending that more peters toward a sequel than moves full-blast into the next book, this ends up being just a good, interesting read as opposed to the great one with excellent promise I thought it was about a fifth of the way in.

The book basically follows three teens training to be "Seekers," some of the last in their lines. There's history behind the Seekers, a lot of mystery, and daggers seemingly infused with magical energy of some sort that are of great power and value. This, of course, tears families apart, and while the first bit of the book is largely about this fallout, the second part (which is a more modern Hong Kong tale) strives to try and put the story back together. Oftentimes strange (in a good way) and epic feeling, the story keeps running along these lines through the end.

I do wish the climax was more climactic. The book is violent, but not exploitatively so. The couple of questionable scenes don't even seem to fit in with the writing style of the book, so I don't know why it's there, especially given how basically chaste the book is in comparison. There's a lot of early reviews saying this is like The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones, but it's really more like The Testing with familial intrigue mixed in.

Again, very good, could be great if it were fixed up in a few places. I'll look out for the sequel, but this is probably closer to a 3.5 for me.

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Review: Wayward

Wayward by Blake Crouch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 2.5.

This series took a nosedive pretty quick.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, it was an interesting timejump novel with a weird bent to it that had a solid reveal to boot. Even finishing it, I wasn't sure where the series could go for two more books, but okay.

The bad news is that the second book isn't nearly as good. It's not as well-written, for a basic start, but a bigger problem is that the series stops being a science fictional mystery and starts being a mystery with science fictional elements peppered in. The story could be told without the wrinkle in the tale and still be as relevant, and since you're only reading this for the wrinkle in the tale, the result ends up being just being something that becomes progressively less interesting as it goes on.

The ending does rescue things a bit, as it sets up something interesting for the third book that could be of consequence, but this was such a disappointing read I don't feel as if I'm any significant rush to dive in further. Ultimately, I know I will, and it will be better to take the series as a whole as opposed to the sum of its parts, but for now?

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08 January 2015

Review: Thrown

Thrown by Kerry Howley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It figures that it would take a columnist from a libertarian magazine to get me to be fascinated by MMA. Or CM Punk. One of the two, but, either way, Thrown was not previously down my alley and ended up being one of the better "nonfiction" reads I've taken in of late.

To call it a book about mixed martial arts isn't really fair, because there's not a lot about MMA here. Granted, there's information about some of the wrinkles, and the book does assume some basic knowledge, but this is less about cage fighting and more about the cage fighters - one, following a post-read Google search, is at least somewhat known, and one that didn't really seem to pan out. We get a glimpse into their lives, into what it's like to train, what it's like to be around an MMA fighter, and so on. It's immersive journalism in a sense, but it's also a little more than that. It kind of takes down the spectacle of the whole MMA "thing" a bit, a peek behind the veil, and it's constructed in such a way that it feels like you're part of the observation process instead of reading about it.

If there is a flaw in the book, it's that the tone feels a lot more like a long-form magazine article that would end up in one of the more serious publications than a book. It's not the sort of traditional narrative you come to expect, perhaps it's very "new journalism" and I'm just an old man reader archetype, but it was jarring from time to time until I got used to it.

With that said, it should be added that there's a wrinkle to this book that does throw (heh) a bit of the narrative into question. I don't want to give it away, as the information (to a point) is still solid, just... tweaked. I don't know how to describe it a bit.

Overall, really, this was a fascinating read. It's a good example of a book I read nonfiction for on purpose - I didn't know how interested I'd be in this aspect of sports or entertainment until I read about it. I still don't think I'll be watching MMA - it's a bit brutal for my taste - but I've come out with an appreciation for what it's about and the people involved with it, even in the state it's presented in. Very interesting, very strange, very much worth the time to read.

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07 January 2015

Review: The Science of Interstellar

The Science of Interstellar
The Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really, really, really loved Interstellar. I love good science fiction, I love a good time travel tale, and the movie really blew me away on a few levels. The science in the movie in particular can get really confusing, especially with the relativity and the time shifts and such. Thankfully, the science adviser for the movie wrote a book explaining the science and the motivations between the usage of it in the movie.

Is it a little textbooky? Yeah, it is. Dry? Not really. It stays pretty close to where the movie was going, explaining things in very simple terms. I never felt myself getting too lost (and science is not my strong point). Do I feel like I understand the really basic quantum physics aspect of things more? Well, since I was near zero to start and further away from zero now, sure, but this isn't going to make anyone an expert, nor is it meant to.

Overall, a good companion to the movie, a great introduction to a lot of the theories within the film. Not really great if you don't know the movie, but as someone who has seen it once, I now really want to see it again.

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06 January 2015

Review: Blindsight

Blindsight by Peter Watts

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Closer to a 2.5.

No book has been recommended to me quite as much as Blindsight. It constantly pops up on the "science fiction books you should read," constantly gets recommended on "what to read" threads on message boards and subreddits, was recommended personally to me on countless occasions, was nominated for a Hugo, the whole thing.

So what on earth did I just read?

This is, at its core, what they like to call a "Big Dumb Object" book, this taking place in the future with said object out near Neptune. The book is, at least in part, about those involved with the contact and communications.

Where does this go wrong? It feels like it's trying be a lot of different ideas and messages, but never really succeeds at any of them. The consciousness angles feel forced, the actual story secondary, the ideas there for the sake of ideas (the "vampires," for example, seem like a cool idea in theory but just get executed kind of poorly). The ending, also, was really abrupt and, even knowing that there's a sequel, felt just...there.

I don't know. I found the book very difficult to read because of its structure and its attempts at being a Big Idea Book, and not nearly interesting enough for me to want to spend more time with it than I did. It's not a complete failure, but it's definitely not something I'd recommend nor do I really get the hype behind it, either.

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05 January 2015

Review: Small as an Elephant

Small as an Elephant
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't help but be a little thrown off when I get to read books about kids who end up fending for themselves in society. It's different than the "lost in the woods/desert/city" books because those are at least trying to tell a specific story, but this one, while well done, is just a little sad.

Jack's mother clearly has some sort of mental illness and ends up leaving Jack in the middle of the night during a camping trip. Jack decides he's going to head home from Maine to the Boston area on his own, hopefully before anyone else catches up with him, and the result is a tale of urban survival that ends up hitting a lot of Maine landmarks on the way to its conclusion.

This is a tough subject to tackle for a middle grade audience, and the story does a great job of dancing around the issue of parental mental illness while still addressing it appropriately. Jack's story is sometimes a little too smart for its own good, but the "I can get that" feeling from a lot of the choices does make up for it. The ending is perhaps too tidy, but appropriate for the age group.

Overall, a pretty solid read. Doesn't exactly stand apart from similar fare, but it does a good job of staking its own place within the existing tropes.

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02 January 2015

Review: The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant
The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant by Joanna Wiebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm starting to think we're seeing some sort of Faustian trend in young adult literature.

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is another one of those "a girl goes to a school that is mysterious, and Things Happen" stories. In this case, the school, at first blush, is an ultracompetitive boarding school on an island off the coast, and the school is not one that seems to have a traditional education as much as exists to help kids advance their innermost talents. Very strange way to do it, and Anne is a girl who is an artist and is being told her talent is something much different. This, of course, prompts her to further uncover the mysteries of the island, from why they can't interact with the villagers to the overbearing concern her "guardian," the person assigned to her at the school, has on her well-being.

While this book appears to be pretty divisive, I ultimately liked the conceit and where it went with it. There are a lot of ideas that float around that generally work well with the understanding that new situations can be chaotic and weird. The odd sexuality bits felt superfluous because of how they were introduced and basically abandoned, but that is really the only major fault. A more straightforward approach in all areas might have been beneficial on a whole, but that's more a style preference.

Overall, I'm definitely interested in where this will go next. A cool, different take on some existing YA tropes.

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01 January 2015

Review: The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 4.5.

I really liked this book, although the word I'd prefer to use for it is "unsettling" rather than strange or weird. It's unsettling in the way Night Film stuck to me, but without some of the elements in that book. It's structured like a story of an interview of a filmmaker, Laing, but there are some dark undertones both to the work and to the results.

I say it's unsettling because you never fully get the whole idea, but the scenes painted and the concepts discussed just leave you with that weird sense of dread and negativity that doesn't quite want to shake off. The payoff? Who am I to say, really, except that closing the book felt both stress-relieving and unfortunate, as I didn't have to experience what I was experiencing, but still wanted to know and experience more.

If there are flaws here, I could quibble about the execution a bit. The book feels much longer than its under-200 pages, and the literary undertones don't exactly work, resulting in a narrative that feels a little heavier than it needs to (even if it works well within the basic concept).

Overall, I wouldn't have found this without a recommendation from Jeff VanderMeer, and it's a book that really encapsulated a lot of things I was looking for. This won't be for everyone, but you'll know pretty quickly if it's for you.

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Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Growing up, I was definitely more of a Trek than Wars guy. With the next set of Star Wars movies coming about, though, I can't help but get excited about what's coming. How Star Wars Conquered thee Universe is not only a great way to rekindle one's love for this scrappy little franchise, but is also a great overview of the making of the series as well as its societal impact on a whole.

The book jumps around a bit, which is actually a pretty good way to swing the narrative. Sometimes it's about George Lucas and the making of his career and the films, other times it's a more immersive look at the culture Star Wars has created, from lightsaber training to cosplay to the folks who camp out.

I can't really think of much in the way of flaws about this. The length looks daunting, but nothing feels overexplained or left out. The way the film productions are portrayed certainly gives an impression of financial distress that I'm not 100% convinced on, but the book not being a hagiography of George Lucas (a flawed individual for sure) is also a benefit. Overall, Taylor walks the line on this issue pretty well.

Whatever the next chapter is regarding Star Wars, we're less than a year away on what will be coming up. If you're a fan, lapsed or current, this is a great read that should get you counting down the days until Episode VII.

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Review: The Rosie Effect

The Rosie Effect
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Closer to a 2.5.

Some things are best left unsullied. The Rosie Project was a super-cute, enjoyable read that tackled a variety of different issues without being condescending or immediately problematic. It was a nice fictional piece of candy, and I thought it sorted out well. Why mess with a great thing, right?

This is not a necessary sequel, and it's not especially good, either. The core of the story is that, after about 10 months of marriage, Rosie is pregnant. Unexpected for Don, schemed by Rosie. The book is now, instead of Don coping with how to find a mate, it's how to figure out how to be a father.

As a newish parent myself, I can relate to this in parts. It's not that I'm mildly autistic, but there isn't a manual for this sort of thing. The situations Don ends up getting into, however, are on the unrealistic side of the measure, with a lot of bizarre occurrences almost for the sake of being bizarre.

The biggest crime, though, might be the ruining of Rosie. While I'm not giving anything away with how she gets to her pregnancy given the topic, her actions after that are not in the same vein of what we came to understand from the first book. She becomes almost unlikable, which is really not the point.

This is supposed to be a wacky, light read, but it just ends up feeling depressing and unfortunate. My expectations were high, yes, but this didn't even come close to meeting them or anything close to them. Just an unfortunate state of affairs, and one I wish didn't exist to bring down the reputation of its enjoyable predecessor.

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Review: Komodo

Komodo by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm certainly thinking I should read more short fiction, so seeing as there was a Weird Fiction Storybundle put together by Area X's Jeff VanderMeer, I dove in. One of his shorts, Komodo, was part of it.

Yep, it's weird all right.

The story is a strange one to describe, our narrator giving a tale to a child that gets progressively stranger and more disturbing as it goes on. It's almost a short game of one-upsmanship, as each break in the story seems to introduce an even more bizarre wrinkle that didn't exist before. True or not to the narrator, it's just that classic piece of unease throughout.

What's impressive about this is that it's the first truly short story (between 30-40 pages depending on device) that seemed to feel complete to me while also not losing any sort of edge or feel like it needed more. Would I love to read more about the universe described here? Without a doubt. Does it take away from what's already in this tale? Not at all.

Definitely worth a look, and shouldn't take you too long to read, either. Very enjoyable piece of short fiction, and perhaps a nice little gateway into the weird fiction universe everyone's talking about.

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