31 May 2015

Review: Wonderbook

This book really amazed me.

I've been struggling on rewrites for my decidedly not-fantasy novel, and it has stayed on my mind as it continues to collect dust. The writing book that got me thinking about seriously writing to start was Stephen King's On Writing, but Wonderbook, for me, really took that basic inspirational template and blew it apart into a lot of usable pieces.

From a purely reading standpoint, the book does take a fairly solid textbook form. The way it's set up, however, works for what's being presented in a really unique and necessary format. Much like the inspiration it tries to put in the writers the book is geared toward, it uses the fantasy constructs to help build out the ideas within.

The book is just valuable. I had ordered a copy to keep for myself by the time I was halfway through, but the interviews and the sidebars from authors were some of the most useful parts, and they're not only useful for those writing fantasy, but to someone like me writing a little contemporary story and struggling with a lot of different aspects of bringing his story together. It says a lot about the strength of the book on that alone, and I can only imagine it can be just as helpful to speculative-style writers.

Simply indispensable, and arguably belongs on every writer's shelf. I expected to like it simply because I like Jeff VanderMeer. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did, though.

Review: Seveneves

I feel like it's been ages since I read a truly epic, fulfilling science fiction novel. Anathem is one of my favorite reads, so Stephenson is still an auto-buy, but I really honestly didn't expect to love this one the way I did.

The plot is deceptively simple - on the first page, the moon explodes. We don't know why or how, but we do learn very quickly that it spells extinction-level-event for the people of Earth, and the book follows the way the human race deals with this new reality.

What I loved about this book is that it was straightforward without losing its complexity. It's hard sci-fi in a lot of ways, and the amount of science and theory Stephenson jams in here is pretty great. Why this worked for me, though, is that the politics and social activities that surround the disaster and beyond felt extremely real. While it's hard to give away crucial plotpoints in what is a nearly 900 page book, the fact that the book kept me so engaged on a lot of those issues ended up being a really pleasant surprise.

Another benefit of the story is how things came around toward the end, and how so many quality payoffs occur. One specific incident toward the end had me pounding the book in excitement, which never happens, and really brought the whole thing around for me.

I guess, if I have a warning, it's that this book won't lend itself to falling for specific characters. Just don't do it. You'll be better off. Instead, enjoy the long-term ride that this provides - it's a different book than Anathem, concerned less with philosophy than with technology and science, but still balancing things out in a good way. It might even be a better book than Anathem, even though Anathem appealed to a lot more of my base interests.

If an almost 900 page epic science fiction tale isn't daunting to you, get your hands on a copy of this immediately. This is, without a doubt, the best book I'e read in 2015 so far, and it's not even close. Highly recommended, a great ride from start to finish.

22 May 2015

Review: Forging Divinity

A surprisingly epic fantasy from someone who's involved with the Obsidian game studio, I was offered this for a review and I was pleasantly surprised.

At its core is a story of a sorceress investigating a small offshoot of believers, but the tale quickly becomes a multi-layered conspiracy tale we don't see a lot of in fantasy. Familiar-looking prisoners, warring power factions, things quickly expand out and devolve into a substantial situation.

The book itself is a fast read and a lot of fun. There's a lot going on, with a great setting and some interesting choices made along the way. The big complaint, for me, is that the old writing precept of "show, don't tell" is one that could have been applied a lot more in this book. For the type of epic this tries to be, a little less on-the-nose descriptions, especially of character motivations, would have taken this fully out of the "self-published" place and into something that might get more attention.

This, however, is still a great read in spite of that caveat. A very enjoyable read that reads a lot smoother than you'd expect for the genre.

12 May 2015

Review: Love, Fortunes, and Other Disasters

I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with silly. The problem is when silly becomes almost self-parody in a way. Love, Fortunes, and Other Disasters is a book about a town that has been basically governed by love charms in its romantic relationships, and about the students who have tasked themselves to end this entire thing. The story is actually fairly low-key and sometimes a little sad, as one might expect. The problems with this book, though, are fairly significant. The story attempts to have a weight of sorts with the charms and the impact it has one the people, but the stakes never feel too high. And I don't want to spoil the ending, but I can say that the ending is entirely ridiculous in a way that almost negates the limited good will that the book had created to start out. It's not easy to toe the line between seriousness and whimsy, but this book either doesn't try at all or utterly misses the mark as it swings wildly between the tones. I can't even figure out the audience for this one on a whole, as the appeal is so strange and limited. Ultimately, skip this one.

06 May 2015

Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 2.5.

I hate feeling negative about this book. It's gotten a ton of awards and accolades, is well-received by people who know books.

Meanwhile, I was just sitting there puzzled by what I was reading.

Pros: a unique voice, and a prose structure that makes sense given the protagonist. An interesting premise that will get kids to pick the book up.

Cons: The structure is so weird and experimental that it really feels disjointed. The plot itself leaves a bit to be desired too, as it ventures into sometimes-more-activist territory than warranted.

To really damn it with faint praise, it feels like a Newbery book even if it doesn't match up with the more recent structures. I didn't find it especially enjoyable, and a short book like this shouldn't feel like a chore. I can imagine a reluctant reader (who is already going to be wary with that medal on the jacket) picking up this book and thinking they're going to get a fun ape adventure, and ending up with this story instead, and it just makes my head hurt.

It's not terrible, but it's not what it could have/should have/might have been for me. I know I'm way out of step with this one, but it just didn't work for me at all.

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Review: The Grace of Kings

I absolutely wanted to love this, and all reviews and accounts and what was being said about the book ahead of time said I would. Unfortunately, the book is more like A Song of Ice and Fire on easy mode, and, while there's a lot to like about that sort of thing, the cohesive whole for this one isn't quite there. The book itself, the first in the series, follows an uprising against an emperor from a few points of view. These points of view are designed to get the different perspectives of things as they're occurring (and perhaps less about the individual storylines) and thus we get a lot of background and setting from the area. Where this works best is with the emperor and when things finally converge toward the end. The problem is perhaps the level of detail, which feels like detail because that's what epic fantasy entails rather than detail that enhances the plot. Worse is that the prose and presentation works extremely well when it's working, which makes me think more that this was an error in editing, overall, rather than an error in anything else. This just had a ton of missed potential overall, unfortunately. I might have had too high expectations, or maybe it's just something else, but this was basically even between hit and miss for me.

05 May 2015

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like I've been saying this a lot lately, but this might be my new favorite YA fantasy. I've found books set in the feywild to be really difficult for teen reads, and this one not only masterfully works the fey angle with the romance angle, but makes an incredibly compelling story that I really couldn't put down.

In the story, Feyre has unknowingly violated the treaty between humans and faeries when she hunts down a faerie that she thought was a wolf. She is quickly retrieved by one of the faeries and brought to his feywild kingdom as a prisoner of sorts, stuck in the fey for the rest of her life. The story starts out as a tale about her survival, but quickly becomes one of romance and political intrigue as the mysteries of the kingdom are slowly revealed.

I don't want to give a ton away on this because part of what makes this book work is the slow burn reveals. Sometimes books try to juggle too many ideas at once, and Sarah Maas definitely puts a lot of balls in the air on this book and they never come close to falling on the ground. The romance angle is solid, the stakes are high and the danger real, and the end result is a book that ends up being both engaging and satisfying, one that stands on its own as well as leaves the door open for a new book.

I absolutely loved this in ways I never expected. A great read, highly recommended across the board.

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02 May 2015

Review: Dreams of Shreds and Tatters

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm probably at the point right now where if a book is described as Lovecraftian in any way, I'll probably take a flier on it. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is a book that's been on my radar for a while, and, while it's more Lovecraft-adjacent than anything (given the Chalmers/King in Yellow inspiration), it does do one thing exceptionally well, and that's instill the sense of dread that Lovecraft was so good at and modern Mythos literature often forgets.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with a woman and her vivid dreams and a comatose friend who is basically under the thrall of The Yellow King. The story is a balancing act between the real and the supernatural, and is just unsettling from beginning to end in a way that just makes a lot of things work.

I wish I had more to say about the book. It's a light story (when it's described as Lovecraft without a lot of the excess, the slimness of the story and the lack of excess fat in the plotting is really what's being described) and the way things go are just worth it for the ride. While the dread was there, my investment in the story, on a whole, was not in the way it was for a lot of other stories. I felt like I was more watching a film or observing as a third party, which is not always my reading experience.

Overall? Horror fans who like the sort of Weird Fic balancing acts that are so popular will find a lot to like here. Chalmers fans should definitely check it out as well, but if you're looking for something scary or more splatter-style, this might just not be your cup of tea. Not for everyone, but if you read the synopsis and think it sounds interesting, you're likely to enjoy.

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Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

The Rabbit Back Literature Society
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is all sorts of weird and wonderful. It comes across as somewhat unassuming, and its critical popularity might be a turnoff, but reconsider it with that in mind, because this is really one of the stickiest books I've read in a while.

The story basically takes place in a small Nordic town, where a children's author created a small society of 10 children to train them to write. As time went on, some became famous, others are storytellers themselves, and they remain linked, even as one of them passed early on. A new person has been added to the society, the first since its inception, and we get to see the uncovering of the society's secrets unfold as they deal with the founder's disappearance and some strange things that are happening with the actual contents of books in town.

The book feels kind of odd and convoluted at first glance, but what's impressive (especially given that this is a really solid translation from a flow standpoint) is the way the book slowly reveals itself. It's not so much a slow burn as much as a steady drip of information and ideas that really just keep things going. Furthermore, it's a strange book - you're not entirely sure where a lot of this is coming from (it actually reminds me of Belzhar in a few key ways) and that question also acts as a sort of answer along the way.

Ultimately, though, it's really more that this book does a really good job of sticking around. I finished the book a few days ago, and still want to talk to everyone about it. I handed it to a friend the evening after I read it, saying "just look at it and tell me if you think it's interesting" and she quickly read 10 pages of it because it hooked her in so fast. It's traditional while still being nontraditional, and it's one of those books that will likely continue to fly under the radar long after it should. I definitely recommend it to everyone, flaws and all - definitely one of those books.

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