28 February 2015

Review: My Last Kiss

My Last Kiss
My Last Kiss by Bethany Neal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Now listen, boys and girls, as this book has a very important lesson. Stay tuned for spoilers.

This story is of a girl who dies via drowning, falling into a lake off a bridge in the middle of the night. She's now a ghost, not so much haunting her old friends and places as much as stuck, trying to figure out the unfinished business that's keeping her tethered to this world.

Why does this book fail? In part because there's no consistency to how her ghostiness works, but, perhaps more importantly, the message this sends. It turns out that she's stuck, at least in part if not completely, because she sort of cheated on her boyfriend by kissing another boy.


The moment that reveal came along I wanted to just toss it aside. What a terrible message to send, never mind a really weird and kind of dumb cop out. It doesn't help that no one is likable, that the love triangle is convoluted, that the motives are suspect. Little about this works at all.

Skip it.

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25 February 2015

Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, what a disappointment.

I'm going to get a little spoilery here, so fair warning if you don't want to know anything about the final scenes.

Anyway, Funny Girl. Nick Hornby might be my favorite non-genre author, if not my favorite author outright, so I've been waiting for the United States version of this for a while. Granted, I've been reading a lot of other things while picking away at this, but I almost certainly would have given up on this very quickly had it been written by someone else. It turns out that, at least for me, the tale of an actress and her co-stars on a well-regarded British sitcom just doesn't do it for me. It's sort of like trying to be a Mad Men of sorts with the era, but comes across more like The Casual Vacancy in tone as I couldn't really wrap my head around a lot of this and how British it was in parts. I fully recognize that the problem might have been me in this case, but I've never had this issue with Hornby before which makes me believe this might have just been a misstep.


This book, in US hardcover, is roughly 450 pages or so. If this was a short story that started on page 400 or so (in the final section when they're talking reunion), or even started the story out with the reunion and moved forward from there, I would have been much more engaged. In a sense, the story being told for the first 80% of the book felt like really frustrating, almost unimportant setup for what ended up being a pretty compelling finale. While I'm glad I read through the end for that, at least, it also served in making me dislike the first parts that much more.

Given the lack of buzz around this one in comparison to, say, Juliet, Naked from a few years back, I don't know what to say. I can't expect them all to be winners, and maybe this is a misstep and it's difficult to write a story about sitcom stars from the 1960s, but I wanted to enjoy this so much and it ended up being such a slog. I can't recommend it as much as I wish I could.

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11 February 2015

Review: Flex

Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading Ferrett Steinmetz's blog for at least 10 years now, probably much longer. One of the first real "bloggers" I ever kept up with, I've always found his writing to be compelling and interesting, even when he's writing about things that I have limited interest in. Why, then, was I nervous about reading a book that he's written? He did the Clarion workshop, he's never done me wrong in our interactions, but the transition from blogger to Capital-W-Writer is always a strange one, especially for someone who is, in many ways, an online acquaintance.

So getting that out of the way, we have Flex. It's urban fantasy for sure, and it's billed as The Dresden Files (which I enjoy) mixed with Breaking Bad (which I understand the context of even if I haven't watched it). To try to compare it to them is not really fair, though - while a great elevator pitch, Flex has a lot more going for it than that, and it deserves to be noticed on its own merits as a result.

The situation in Flex involves an insurance bureaucrat who can do magic, and his magical ability is tied to his skill in bureaucracy (think Geekomancy or Celebromancy). There's a magical drug going around called Flex, and he's got a role in working against it. He's also got a daughter he loves, and that daughter has been severely hurt in a Flex-related accident. The insurance company is possibly/probably/likely to balk on paying out to fix things, so our hero is forced to get into the Flex trade to help make sure that ends meet.

The story is simple on its face, and appeals to a lot of different viewpoints without feeling like it's pandering to anything specific. What makes this book great instead of merely good is that it comes fully formed. The magic system makes sense from the very start, as opposed to having to make a variety of rules and limitations as we roll along to make the plot work. Everything makes sense. Yes, the way magic works for individuals is very Geekomancy (to the point where you could theoretically put Ree Reyes in the female lead role and still have it make sense), but it's much darker and more mature and actually feels like it carries some weight. Even with this "dark side," as it were, the story isn't afraid to go for the laugh - the geek-based magic of Paul's sidekick is clearly defined and would be eye-rolly in any other context, but works really well as a foil to the really nasty happenings that surround it.

Plus, Paul is a bureaucromancer. That's just great in its own really specific way. That'd be my power too, I think.

No book is perfect, and there is a specific voice in this narrative that I know to be distinctly Steinmetz's given that I've been reading him for so long that might trip up other readers. If you found the conceit in Geekomancy to be ridiculous, this probably isn't going to help, and Flex is not shy about wearing its influences on its sleeves - it definitely feels like a Dresden book from pacing to the exchanges, for example, but without the predictable third act. But, truly, if I'm looking to criticize Flex, it's more nitpicky in nature. I started this book on a three hour plane ride and finished it before I landed, it was that good.

Overall, I'm really glad this book exists for a lot of reasons, and the fact that it's actually pretty awesome is significantly one of them. This is a must read for fans of urban fantasy, for those who know what I'm referencing above and enjoy them, and those who are really looking for something a little different in their urban fantasy reading. Now, can we get that sequel already?

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08 February 2015

Review: The Just City

The Just City
The Just City by Jo Walton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess to not having a ton of interest in (for lack of a better term) ancient philosophy. I've read a lot of it, but never really kept up beyond coursework and such. The Just City is rooted in that sort of philosophy, and provides a great little sandbox to play in as a result.

The idea behind it is that the god Athene has opted to try and recreate Plato's Republic as an actual society. She takes people from all walks of life in all times (past and future), adds some robot workers, and lets the people go at it. Socrates is there, the god Apollo opts to become a mortal and is there, many famous philosophers are there as well, all there to try and see if they can make it work.

The story is very much just the society dealing with the challenges of staying true to Plato's ideals while coping with modern ideas, surprises, and so on. There's probably a lot I missed due to not being versed in it, but I still enjoyed the whole thing very thoroughly. The way the book ended, too, was a really interesting reveal that I, frankly, should have seen coming, but I was so immersed in all of it that I never considered it.

Overall, I definitely recommend this. If you're not so much into science fiction, those elements are very subdued and really exist more to serve a few specific points. Certainly worth your time.

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Review: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I've considered myself a Joe Hill fan for a while now, but Heart-Shaped Box stayed unread on my Kindle for years. I finally decided to open it up, and now I just hate myself for waiting so long.

Basically, Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story. A guy buys haunted things off eBay, and this happens to be the suit of a dead man who was a hypnotist, and it now compels people to murder. The book immediately dives right into the creepy compulsions and weirdness, and it becomes a race to see if this situation can be solved before it's too late.

The book works best when it's man versus mystery. The first quarter of the book is almost perfect on its own, with the ghost activity ramped up to a point where I had no idea where it was going to realistically end up. The heightened tension that persists as a result gives a great immediacy to the rest of the tale, and kept me on edge as the couple at the center of the story moved from place to place. It's rare to have a book where you feel literally anything could happen at any time, and yet this book succeeds better than most other books I've read that I can recall. Yes, it relies on a little more gore and profanity than is necessary or that I'd prefer, but it didn't really take away from the story at all, and that's the most important thing.

Overall, I'd put this ahead of Horns but behind NOS4A2, but it's clear that, at least for more "traditional" horror, Joe Hill is pretty much right at the top of my list. This was absolutely brilliant, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the genre. Just great.

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Review: Autumn Falls

Autumn Falls
Autumn Falls by Bella Thorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


So I didn't know who Bella Thorne was going into this, or if I did know, I had already forgotten. Thus, seeing a lot of the reviews already makes me wonder a bit about the baggage that might come with this book. For me and my inner teenage girl, I thought this story was pretty great.

The book is about Autumn Falls. A teen girl who moves to a new school after her father dies in a car wreck, she quickly makes some friends but also some enemies from one of the mean girls in her class. The wrinkle is a journal that Autumn's grandmother gives her - the journal appears to grant the writer the fulfillment of wishes written into its pages, and Autumn quickly learns about the power in play.

There's plenty to make this rise above the standard starlet teen YA trends. Autumn has a learning disability and it isn't played for laughs or even as a significant highlight, but rather a fact of life. The bullying is realistic in a way similar books and similar bullying descriptions have not been as of late. The story is short, but the result is a tight contemporary tale with fantasy aspects that are ultimately worth your time.

I'm excited to see what comes next. This was a pretty great read on a whole, and I'm definitely looking forward to where this could go in the future. Surprisingly well done.

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