19 April 2015

Review: The Awesome

The Awesome
The Awesome by Eva Darrows

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early raves and reports on this one made me pick this up from Netgalley the moment it was offered. What I thought I was getting was another YA paranormal piece, but what I got what a really fun mix of genres that is best described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls having a weird kid that turns out to be Superbad.

Our heroine is Maggie, a teenage demon hunter in training. A little foul-mouthed, but who would be surprised given that her mother is a sailor in comparison. Maggie's got some work to do, but part of the problem she's running into in her training is that vampires are really into virgin blood, and given that Maggie is still a virgin, well... she needs to take care of that. And, of course, balance out her training and a situation that she's inadvertently gotten herself into along the way.

I used the cultural comparisons for a reason. It's Gilmore-esque because it's a really great, perhaps a little unhealthy mother-daughter relationship. You can tell they care about each other, though, and see themselves as more of a team than anything else. Given the fact that there's literal vampire hunting and demons and such, the Buffy comparison is apt, but so too is the quickfire dialogue and the use of these supernatural ideas to be a parallel to growing up. I don't know if I've read a paranormal piece that's done it better, to be honest. And then, of course, the fact that this is, in many ways, a bizarro sex comedy in all its forms. Drunken debauchery, awkwardness, the whole nine yards.

Really, it's just a lot of fun. Plenty of openings for this to be a series, and the heroes are fun with the villains appropriately nasty and villainous. It's a quick paced read, very few flaws, and probably closer to a 4.5 when it's all said and done. Check this one out.

View all my reviews

18 April 2015

Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, The Girl on the Train. Probably the biggest publishing story of late, being compared to Gone Girl, on the bestseller list for months now.

Really, I thought it was pretty shrugworthy. On one hand, I can say that because I've read a good deal of books like it (observational mysteries that may or may not result in murder combined with weird psychological flairs), and The Girl on the Train does have a very solid narrative going for it that's easy to keep up with. The mystery tropes are somewhat there, but it's depending a bit on some unreliable narration and the sort of "who do you trust" storytelling that those who read a lot already know.

Where this failed to really grab me and not let go was the characters. At least with Gone Girl, to use the comparative example, the characters gave you a strong feeling - you loved, hated, felt certain ways for specific reasons. The characters in Girl on a Train, to me, felt rather flat and wooden. They exist, and that's basically it. Instead of asking us to invest in them, the story instead seems to be asking for us to invest in the story itself and not those inside of it. It's a strange situation when the book really more needs that sort of emotional investment as opposed to trying to exploit it with shock and naked appeals.

Overall? Okay story, but I really just didn't enjoy reading it at all. I tend to not love books like this, but there are exceptions and I was hoping this would be one of them. Instead, I wanted another Gone Girl or something that would stick with me for a while. I completely understand why this is getting the praise and attention that it is, but I just know I've seen it before and seen it done better.

View all my reviews

Review: Care of Wooden Floors

Care of Wooden Floors
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, but I really enjoyed my time with this one.

At the start, this seems like a pretty basic tale of a guy who is housesitting. The guy he's housesitting for is clearly a little quirky, but the instructions are pretty clear that he shouldn't touch the piano, take care of the two cats, and make sure the floor is taken care of.

What isn't surprising is that things start to go a little south with a spill of wine. What is surprising is how quickly things spiral out of control. By the time I was halfway through the book and one significant accident involving the piano was involved, I was more than in for the ride, but completely strapped in. It's Very Bad Things-level insanity, with just more and more crazy being piled on until the very end.

The book has been described as Kafka-esque, which I get. Really, it's more of an absurdist comedy that balances terrible choices and terrible things with increasingly terrible results, and it's hard not to enjoy it, especially if cringe-worthy humor is your thing.

This, at least as I review it, is a Prime Lending Library selection, so if you do the Amazon+Kindle thing, it's absolutely worth one of your selections for the month. A strange book that far exceeded my expectations, and I hate that I waited so long to finally read it. Well done!

View all my reviews

13 April 2015

Review: The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac by Sharma Shields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really and truly have no idea what to make of this book. I do know that U thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though.

The story is fairly straightforward - Eli watches his mother leave with a bigfoot when he was 10. At least he's pretty sure it was a bigfoot. Regardless, the impacts on his life are pretty significant, and he dedicates his entire life to cryptozoology and trying to find this creature and, perhaps, his mother as well.

On the surface, that's the book. It's a man's quest to find bigfoot because bigfoot stole his mother away. In that the yeti consumes his life is one aspect, that he's got a whole bunch of issues concerning abandonment and commitment is another, that we get some insight into the mother's choices yet another. All of these come together in a really fascinating way to tell a pretty interesting story with a lot of weird twists and turns and some truly unexpected points to begin with, including apparent misunderstandings and questions about what is truly real.

It's closer to a 4.5 because, as well-crafted and interesting as this is, I really don't get it. Taken solely on the surface, this book is really just about a man and a sasquatch. Is it about megolomania? About family drama? About selfish choices? I have absolutely no idea. A little more clarity (or perhaps more personal perception) would have gone a long way, but perhaps some of the mystery is what makes this great on its own? I don't know.

Still, a pretty fun ride even with the flaws. Definitely glad I scooped this one up, and definitely one I think people who don't mind some left-of-center fiction would enjoy on a whole.

View all my reviews

11 April 2015

Review: Harrison Squared

Harrison Squared
Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a NaNoWriMo, I had opted to try and write a Lovecraftian piece for young adults. I think I got to about 1700 words before throwing in the towel.

Daryl Gregory has a book here, Harrison Squared, that decidedly is not young adult but has some strong YA overtones, and ends up not only being a better book than I could have come up with, but really one of the better modern interpretations of Lovecraftian themes I've read in a while.

Harrison Harrison (thus the nickname) had his father die in a freak accident at sea when a large creature capsized the boat his father was on. Now, Harrison and his marine biologist mother have moved to Dunnsmouth on the east coast, and nothing seems quite right with the weird rituals, weirder people, strange myths and stories, and, finally, Harrison's mother also becoming lost at sea. Harrison's new problem is not only trying to find his mother, but trying to navigate a town that doesn't seem to want him there and that he doesn't seem to quite fit into or understand.

All the classic tropes are there, even if they're Lovecraft-adjacent (Dunnsmouth instead of Innsmouth, creatures with strange, difficult-to-pronounce names, offhand jokes about ancient languages), and they're treated with equal reverence and with tongue firmly in cheek. It's not so obvious that a non-Lovecraft fan would catch all the references, but it's also such a good homage that there are more than a few jokes and references interspersed to make you smile. Even better, most Lovecraftian pieces seem to feel as if they must also be as verbose and descriptive as Lovecraft himself was (to the detriment of many of his stories), and this does away with that habit - possibly part of the reason so many people want to call this young adult.

Overall, this was a fun and quick and enjoyable read. As a fan of the related Lovecraft Mythos, this is a welcome addition to the overall subgenre, and there's more than enough here for fantasy or light/weird horror fans to dive into. Overall, it's closer to a 4.5, but I'd give a lot of bonus points just to my overall sheer enjoyment of the ride that I went on with this one. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Review: The Empathy Exams: Essays

The Empathy Exams: Essays
The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the surface, this looked really interesting. A book about pain, about understanding other people's pain, about describing it and so on? Sounds like an interesting read. The end result is a little more mixed.

In a way, Jamison is trying to be a cross between Mary Roach and Sarah Vowell, providing short essays investigative/immersive journalism-style about various topics from fake internet diseases to people in jail to hardcore marathoners. When she is a reporter, or a minimal participant, the essays can be absolutely riveting. When the focus is more on Jamison, though, things feel less interesting and less essential. Probably the strongest essay in the bunch, about Morgellon's Disease, straddles that line expertly and ends up being the most compelling thing in the book.

Ultimately, in a book at least partially designed to make you care, being annoyed by aspects of it seems counterproductive. Part of it is the general problem in journalism about agenda-driven or too-personal storytelling, but part of it is simply the tone and attitude. Some will find it endearing, others annoyed, but the good parts of this ultimately far outweigh the bad. Closer to a 3.5.

View all my reviews

Review: Eutopia

Eutopia by David Nickle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one hand, if HP Lovecraft were to write a a modern-day eugenics tale, it might look a little like this.

On the other, if HP Lovecraft were to write a modern-day eugenics tale, it would look little like this.

The book goes in your face with the ideas, the racial animosity, the anger and hate and all the fixings that go with the eugenicist movement in the beginning of this plot, but also attach a very New Weird twist to it with horror and supernatural elements. While I'm unsure if it's exactly the point, the use of the racism as a skewer toward Lovecraft's own beliefs tend to sit in the front seat of the tale, and it comes across as more shocking unless you know that context going in (and even so, the habit to overstate the impact of Lovecraft's views on his fiction does seem to arrive here as well).

On a whole, though, the problem with the story is that it only sort of works. When you really dive into the more horror elements, the writing is riveting and superb. The rest, well, I can give or take a lot of it. As with much of the New Weird, there's a lot of exposition that has some questionable relation outside of detailing the edges of the story, and when the story is fairly straightforward, it's not as necessary. It could have absolutely used a trim.

As someone who loves the Greater Mythos, and likes seeing it played with, I'm not against this book as much as I'm just not really for it. It was a bit of an unfortunate slog for me most of the time, and that took away from the great parts of the book.

View all my reviews

08 April 2015

Review: My Secret Guide to Paris

My Secret Guide to Paris
My Secret Guide to Paris by Lisa Schroeder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read far too often that people avoid reading YA books (and, in turn, younger books) because they don't really deal with issues well, don't have the sort of emotional maturity, what have you.

I say hogwash, and offer My Secret Guide to Paris up as a counter.

The story itself is very simple, and it's written toward its target audience, for sure. A young girl has a great relationship with her grandmother, and their combined desire is to go to Paris together. Unfortunately, the grandmother dies in an accident and Nora isn't sure she'll be able to go anymore until her mother finds three tickets and some envelopes in a trunk. Quickly, they're off to Paris and what becomes a fun scavenger hunt for Nora to enjoy Paris and everything that goes with it.

This book is actually pretty solid on a few levels. It deals with loss, with family drama, with independence and spreading your wings, with new experiences. A lot of these feel really pure and realistic, which is not always true of middle grade books, and the end result is one that you really hope for, which is great. No, the book isn't dealing with Important Social Issues or forging any new frontiers, but it doesn't have to - instead, it's a book that kids will pick up thinking they're getting a light story, and end up with one that they'll probably find something to relate to. That's what makes good fiction for kids work.

Just a solid read across the board, and I wish I read it earlier. Definitely recommended for any kids in your life, and if you're into books for kids, you should read it, too. A ton of heart.

View all my reviews

07 April 2015

Review: Bomb

Bomb by Sarah Mussi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not going to lie - I didn't expect to love this book the way I did.

This story is ridiculously simple. Genesis wakes up in a dark basement, and she quickly learns she has a suicide bomb strapped to her body. She quickly deduces it's related to her boyfriend who has become aligned with a radical Islamic sect. She also has a bluetooth earpiece in her ear, and the voice in her ear is giving her a lot of directions. She knows her time is limited, and she doesn't really know what to do.

It's a really, really action-packed book, unlike anything I've ever read. The pacing is almost breakneck, the way the plot is revealed absolutely incredible. It really kind of brings home the type of strange tactics we've only really read about when it comes to terrorism. It's just a wild thrill ride, action-movie-style, and that's all that matters.

One can quibble with some of the unrealistic parts of the book or the simplified characterizations, but I don't think this is necessarily meant to be a broad treatise on international politics for a teen audience. It's more of a "based on current events" roller coaster that keeps you on the edge of your seat, guessing the whole way through.

Definitely recommended, but only for the strong of heart. This one's truly intense, but absolutely worth it.

View all my reviews

05 April 2015

Review: Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop

Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop
Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop by Matt Fraction

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5, but I'm annoyed. The first arc was a lot of really weird insanity, and the tone was set pretty quickly and kind of made it the awesome, unique fascinating story.

This arc decides to go the more quiet, slower, sometimes preachy route. If this were the first volume, I probably wouldn't have reached for the second and might not have made it to the last issue/chapter of this arc when things get interesting again.

I get what is trying to occur here. We've been introduced the conceit and the characters, and now we're getting to know them a bit more, getting some backstory and so on. Okay. I can get behind that, but tonally it's a bummer as opposed to staying with the broader themes. It makes it feel like our creators don't know what kind of comic they want to make as opposed to running with something that was working.

I liked this more than a 3/3.5 would indicate on a whole, but, overall, the series needs to ultimately decide what it wants to be.

View all my reviews

04 April 2015

Review: My Best Everything

My Best Everything
My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So this is basically Breaking Bad for teens, right?

Lulu lives in rural Virginia in what is a stereotypical hick town. People don't generally leave, and it's not the most wealthy town in the state. And the locals love their moonshine. Abby, however, is going to get out of there and go to school in California, her father has some money set aside...and then he doesn't. Her dreams of leaving shattered, she comes up with an audacious plan when an old still arrives at the junkyard she works at - make her own moonshine, sell it, and get the money for college that way. Enlisting her boyfriend and some other outside help, this becomes a race to get out of town by any means necessary.

I don't know if I've ever read a YA book so soaked in booze before. It's a fun premise with not-so-fun stuff attached to it in a cultural setting that doesn't get a lot of serious play at all. The stakes actually feel high, and it's a question throughout whether things will work out. Things just feel realistic, which is good, and while the premise is funny, the story is pretty serious without being too heavy. There's something to be said about that.

Overall, a good read! As things progress, it does get a little draggy and the madcap parts don't always work, but it's a fast read on a whole and a pretty good experience with a topic I can't recall ever reading for this age group before.

View all my reviews

Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe closer to a 2.5.

In this book, Piddy has a problem, and it's a bully at school. Her entire existence is being dictated by the problems Yaqui Delgado is causing, and she doesn't even know what she did to get the ire directed at her. This is basically a story about dealing with a bully as well as the expectations of a family with their own cultural issues and situations to work out.

This book has gotten heaps of praise and I'll be honest in wondering what the big deal is. It's about as straightforward as a book can get, with characters that feel very surface level. Piddy, who is the person we're supposed to care about, instead comes across as entirely helpless and without any real agency of her own, cruising along in this world where her life is dictated either by her family or by Yaqui or by any other situation that comes around. Toward the end, she finally does appear to make a choice for herself, and that choice just seems empty and pointless after everything that's happened.

It's just disappointing. If we want to look at this in the framework of the diverse books "movement," this ends up just being representative culturally without providing the type of message we'd want in any direction - if you're going to make a bully get his or her comeuppance, make us care, but if you're not going to redeem the victim, give us a reason why not. This book does neither. Especially with such a compelling title (really the best part of this book), expectations were fairly high for me and they just didn't come in at the end.

There are better books that handle everything that this book does. Find a list of them and read those first.

View all my reviews

Review: Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

For as much as I read, I have my share of gaps in things I haven't read, and one of those gaps is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Why I've skipped it thus far, I have no idea, but I know that it didn't hurt my enjoyment of Belzhar in the slightest.

This book takes place at a boarding school and focuses mainly on a girl who joins the school following the death of her boyfriend. She is placed in what is viewed as a special, exclusive English class with four other students, all of which have fairly tragic stories of their own. The class will focus on the works of Sylvia Plath, and they're given a journal to keep their thoughts and feelings in, required to write in it twice a week. When they write in the journal, however, they're transported to a place where what went wrong is seemingly set right again. The question then becomes why, as well as what happens in this land being righted.

It's a weird book, no doubt about it. What's kind of great about it is how plainly and directly it handles the issue of depression, especially in teens (and unsurprising given the topic central to the tale), and in behavioral ways to deal with it. I liked that it didn't pretend to trivialize the issues in play - Jam's problem, when revealed, is treated with the same weight and importance as anyone else, one girl's options toward the end are clearly meant to mirror something specific and are given the proper weight, and so on. It's weird to say this in a sense, but it feels rare to see a young adult book tackle the concepts behind depression in a non-pandering way, if they opt to address it at all. It also doesn't hurt that the story itself is good, with interesting characters, a unique conceit, and a pretty solid pace for a book like this.

Overall, a good read. Definitely recommended for fans of Wolitzer or Plath, but also worth it for those teens who might be struggling a bit. We don't talk about depression enough as is, this might be the shift that someone needs before it's too late.

View all my reviews

03 April 2015

Review: Nightbird

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say I'm too too familiar with Alice Hoffman. I know she's responsible for a lot of well-loved stories, but I can't recall reading anything of hers before now. Nightbird is her first foray into middle grade and it's pretty wonderful on a whole.

The story is about Twig, who lives in a small Massachusetts town that's best known for having a local monster. A few have claimed to see it, but it mostly just steals things and is one of those local attractions that small towns tend to have. The wrinkle for Twig is that her family was cursed by someone in this town centuries ago, and, since the moon is right and the monster might be personal, this might be the best possible opportunity to break it.

This book is a little quieter than most middle grade books like it, which might be a flaw if the tone wasn't so specific. Being from Massachusetts, we all grow up with stories of the Salem Witch Trials, of Lizzie Borden, of small towns having lake monsters or yetis or what have you. With the length of history in the area, these small towns get their charm in part from these tales and the benefits and drawbacks that come with them. This book becomes charming due to how accurately it portrays these little pockets of interest in a small town, and, really, how it can sometimes impact families as well (even if the example in this book is more fantastical in nature).

Overall, I believe fans of Alice Hoffman will like this, but, as a short and charming middle grade read, a lot of other readers will, too, especially those kids who like books in this style and have interests in the more weird portions of local history. A fun read.

View all my reviews

Review: Reboot

Reboot by Amy Tintera

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So this read was take two on this book for me. The first time around, it was a tough attempt for me, as the book sounds like a cool teen robot dystopia, but it just felt really draggy with a plot that left me wanting a lot more. Simply not what I was hoping for after under 100 pages, but it's hit a few award lists and the ratings were good and I had another opportunity to try this again.

I really should have trusted my gut.

This post apocalyptic/dystopian world has teens "rebooted" after they die, so they're effectively being groomed as robotic-style supersoldiers with healing powers and such. Different classes in society as a result, and on and on. Our heroine, Wren, finally rebels against the system as it stands, and thus we get rolling.

Why does this book not succeed? The pacing is all wrong, with a lot of almost-mindless action to start that just halts right when things should be ramping up toward a thrilling climax. Wren, for all she is, just isn't someone you can really root for, and that's unfortunately due to a character design rather than anything else, and there's a feeling that this is sort of trying to ape a Starship Troopers ideal without the glorification of military that just never seems to arrive.

A lot of people like this, so I might be off-base, but when there's already a lot of good stuff in this genre available, this book becomes easily skippable as a result. Definitely consider passing on this. Grab The Testing instead.

View all my reviews