30 August 2015

Review: Ultima

Ultima Ultima by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ultima is the second and final book of this duology that had a first book that basically took the entirety of the story to reach a good payoff. The way it ended so clearly redeemed the concept that I was curious as to how the sequel would figure everything out, and the result is a book that is even better than its predecessor and turned this into one of my favorite duologies. Spoilers going forward.

The end of Proxima had our crew running into a group of people who were speaking Latin. What we quickly learn is that the hatches from book one are designed as portals into alternate dimensions, and where our crew happens to be is an alternate universe where the Roman Empire continued its dominance. The story continues along the same lines as time progresses and we visit more universes and the mysteries are untangled.

I love both time travel and alternate universe stories, so the fact that Ultima was able to exceed my already-high expectations is awesome. I understand a lot of the flaws in the story and why some aren't finding it to be as great as I am, but it's a great mix of genres (including a way to do alternate history without disrupting existing timelines) that just hit all the right spots for me.

Definitely recommended for sci-fi fans and people who like weird alternate histories. A fun ride.

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27 August 2015

Review: Time Salvager

Time Salvager Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time travel is tough to get right. There are a lot of factors that go into it, and typically works are okay as long as the rules are consistent within the universe. Time Salvager succeeds in that regard, but ultimately peters out in the second half once the concepts have been exhausted a bit.

In the tale we have James, working as a "chronman" to grab resources from the past and bring them into the future for use without destroying the timeline in the process. There are ways to see how actions impact the timeline, which is why there are so many important laws of time to follow. James meets Elise on one of his missions and brings her back to his present to save her life, and now they're on the run.

Great concept, and good execution in the first half. Once we're largely centralized in one spot, though, this becomes more of an action/escape movie than a time travel novel, which, while appealing to some, ends up not being the same strength as the first half. I'd say it's almost like a Michael Bay movie, but since Michael Bay has already optioned this for a movie, it's probably too obvious an observation to make.

I guess I'm not saying to avoid this, but I'm also not necessarily arguing this is as mind-blowing as others seem to think. The characters aren't especially well fleshed-out, much of the plot relies on immensely stupid decision-making, and, especially within the time travel genre, there are other books I'd much prefer to read and recommend. This might appeal to a lot of readers, but just be wary.

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26 August 2015

Review: Fish In A Tree

Fish In A Tree Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We're only two books in, but I think Lynda Mullaly Hunt is fast carving a nice niche for herself in middle grade literature that demands a lot more attention. It's difficult to get the tone right on a lot of these books that deal with a significant issue, and, like One for the Murphys before it, Fish in a Tree generally nails it.

This is a dyslexia story, and Ally has been able to fake it for a while, although the result is a lot of lashing out and a lot of trouble. After one significant incident, she is transferred to a new class and a new teacher who starts to break down the walls a bit.

It's a simple premise, and perhaps it loses a few points because we all know this story from other books or mediums, but it's hard to understate exactly how well this one is done. Ally is sympathetic from the start, we have a model teacher, and the right mix of emotional heft and narrative flow to make it work. It's a book that you know will be special to a special someone in your life, and one of those books that most readers who enjoy true-to-life stories will enjoy.

A solid recommendation.

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25 August 2015

Review: We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a True Story

We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a True Story We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a True Story by Josh Sundquist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As much as I read a lot of broad genres and style, nonfiction for kids and teens has always been a bit of a gap for me. I picked up We Should Hang Out Sometime for a specific reason unrelated to filling any gaps, and ended up absolutely loving this story.

Josh Sundquist is a guy who had cancer as a kid and lost his leg. In his 20s, he realized that, by no fault of a lack of effort, he had never actually had a girlfriend before. This book is effectively a log of his trials and tribulations in love, including reaching out to old crushes, dates, and firsts to maybe figure out what went wrong.

To say this isn't absolutely charming would be a lie, because it really is. Sundquist has a great, relatable writing style that makes this read that much more entertaining, but I also wish I had this book in my teen years, because I saw a lot of my own stupidity in here. If I knew then what I know now and such, this book can easily act in the same way for a lot of teens, both male and female. Even adult readers would probably find a lot of fun nostalgic reasons to enjoy something like this.

Overall, just a great, quick read that I loved. Highly recommended for all readers of all ages.

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Review: Run

Run Run by Blake Crouch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So even as much of a mixed bag as it was, Wayward Pines was an interesting science fiction exercise.

This, however, was a mess.

Run is about a family on the run after an alien-style aurora hypnotizes those who did see it into killing off those who did not. It's a lot of brutality within the simple premise of pages and pages of running from this threat.

It's readable. I'll give it that. As a piece of candy science fictional suspense, I've seen worse. The issue is that the entire thing feels stilted and strange, and the narrative doesn't really work on a whole. It's such a simple premise (which is fine) that just feels hastily put together (which isn't). I'm not kidding that the idea is very simple here, there aren't a ton of layers to explore.

The ending isn't much better, either. I don't want to give it away, but I'll just say that, if you're looking for quality payoffs, this one isn't going to provide it.

If you're a huge fan of Wayward Pines, you might get something out of this. If you've spent a lot of time in the genre, though, there are a ton of other options that approach this concept better.

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Review: Randoms

Randoms Randoms by David Liss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is the current generation looking for their own Ender's Game? I'm not really sure, but with Randoms, we might have found it anyway. It's a great story with both modern societal analogues and some classic tropes to go along with them, and there's a lot to love.

Zeke is a typical, average kid who is effectively drafted to be part of a four kid delegation in the universe's federation. He's the "random," chosen not for any particular skills or reason, but simply to have a wild card draftee. In this outer space, the society advances through video game-style leveling up, complete with experience points, which is right in line with Zeke's skillset. Unfortunately, his skillset also ends up getting him involved in what becomes an intergalactic incident that threatens the universe as we know it.

The book is really well done and brilliant in its execution. The use of video game logic for the societal rankings has certainly been done before, but the way it's done here feels fresh and different. The stakes also felt high throughout, which is, frankly, a rarity in young adult literature period, never mind in science fiction. There's a lot to enjoy about the story, about how it handles the diversity concepts, and just the overall fun of the book. Very well done.

Ultimately, if you like science fiction, this is worth a look whether you read YA or not. It's a fun read with a lot going for it, and I can't wait for the sequel.

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24 August 2015

Review: Axis

Axis Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So Axis is the sequel/companion to Spin, and Spin is basically regarded as a brilliant science fiction tale. Axis, while in the same universe, ends up feeling more like an add on than a solid expansion of the story.

The book basically takes place on Mars, created by the same aliens who put a shell around the Earth. Part mystery and part excuse to come back to the story, we get more mysterious happenings from the alien race along the way.

I read this a few weeks ago before writing this, and it's stunning how little I remember about it. That's how utterly disposable this story is on a whole, and one has to wonder what went wrong overall. While Robert Charles Wilson can be hit or miss, it's just a fascinating read to see where this missed.

Just not a great read at all, but not terrible enough to toss aside. Sort of like a b-side compilation album that you're glad exists even if it isn't great.

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23 August 2015

Review: The Philosopher Kings

The Philosopher Kings The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I finished The Philosopher Kings, my first thought was that it wasn't nearly as good as its predecessor, The Just City, but was still really good. After sitting with it a bit, I think that's really the most apt description. It's still really good, almost stand-alone while existing in the universe established from before, while still not reaching the conceptual or useful heights of the former.

This is basically an Apollo revenge tale, with a few factions at war and Apollo obsessed with avenging tragedy. The quest that comes about on this ends up going into really strange and terrible directions.

Why is this not as good as the prior book? The conflict is less interesting, for one, but, more to the point, the result of the conflict is really the most compelling part and it happens very late in the narrative. It's weird and strange and arresting, but the travel there just isn't as solid. Given that it is directly correlated with the existing Apollo myth, it's just a lack of strength in this story in comparison.

Still highly recommended if you liked the first one, but just be aware.

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Review: Winter

Winter Winter by Rod Rees
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've probably had this book on my to-read list since it came out. A longish plane ride and finding this on a library shelf on a lark later and it turns out that I tripped up on a great read similar to Tad Williams's Otherland.

In the near future, the US military has developed a computer program to help train soldiers against a more insurgent style of warfare. To provide leadership, they uploaded the personality profiles of some of history's greatest psychopaths to help round things out and make things a little more realistic. As with any good plan, though, it goes haywire in a hurry and the president's daughter ends up logging into the simulation. Our heroine, Ella, has a very specific personality and identity profile to perhaps be the person who can go in and extract the president's daughter before it's too late.

The book is just really outstanding. From the start, the gravity and lunacy of the situation hits. As the story moves into the Demi-Monde itself, the situation in place and the gravity of everything just gets amped up and doesn't really stop. The politics of the simulation, the way everything is crafted, it's incredibly well thought-out and entertaining as a result. Plus, Ella is really an awesome, interesting protagonist and the way the book interweaves a more diverse cast with the needs of the story is one that should really be a model in how to do it.

Just well done all around, and I'm really looking forward to jumping in on the next one. I have no idea where it would go next, and I can't wait to find out.

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Review: Circus Mirandus

Circus Mirandus Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

Sometimes comparisons for books can be a bit of a death knell right from the start. At a conference I was at recently, this book was quickly one of the more popular options both for the excellent cover treatment and the very obvious comparison to being The Night Circus for kids. The Night Circus was a truly wonderful read, and while Circus Mirandus is solid in its own right, the comparison is only sort of apt.

At its base, the tale is about a magical circus that a child's grandfather speaks of. All sorts of wild and wonderful things happen there, and the master of ceremonies still owes the grandfather a miracle to boot. The kid seeks out to find the circus and get some answers as a result.

For kids, this will be a fun and interesting fantasy, especially for those into circuses and magic. Adult readers of middle grade will probably find the tale lacking a bit, but some of the magic and mystery really works out well. That the comparison to Night Circus exists is ultimately the problem, as the expectations that are set up here just cannot be met in this instance.

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19 August 2015

Review: Hunter

Hunter Hunter by Mercedes Lackey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Mercedes Lackey is well-known in adult fantasy circles, and this is (I believe) her first foray into young adult fiction. It's sort of like The Hunger Games, sort of like a book that uses gaming tropes to advance a plot, and mostly a swing and a miss.

The story follows Joy, a Hunter in her area of Colorado. The book takes place in a future America where there are a lot of supernatural creatures (seemingly right out of the D&D Monster Manual) running rampant. Joy has been moved to a more central location, where she will help defend the main city while taking part in what is essentially a reality television competition, but things are a little darker than what is initially implied with the move.

The story takes at least a fifth of the book to really get rolling. It's exposition on top of exposition on top of exposition, and with a length of 400 pages, there's a lot that arguably should have been cut here. It becomes so overbearing at times that I almost felt like a detached observer (much like those watching the show in the book) than really immersed in the narrative, and Joy as a seemingly near-flawless character doesn't really help matters. If that was the point from the start, it didn't work, but I do doubt that to be the case.

The book, however, isn't completely off. The battle scenes in particular are really well-done and pretty exciting at times, and the overall conspiracy aspects as well as the society isn't terrible. You just have to cut through so much stuff to get there. Maybe the move to YA lost something in translation, maybe it's just not a great read, but I can't say this even came close to meeting my expectations. An unfortunate disappointment.

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15 August 2015

Review: Fool's Quest

Fool's Quest Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Middle Book Syndrome strikes again!

I was a big fan of Fool's Assassin, a book which, after it got through the early doldrums, ended up being an excellent fantasy read with a lot of wrinkles and points of interest. It was contained while still keeping an epic feeling, and that's not easy to do.

Fool's Quest falters, yes, but not in a terrible way. As an anticipated title, the amount of time the book spends effectively milling around and waiting for an endpoint or some action feels almost inexcusable, but it's part a style choice that doesn't always work when the scale of the story has grown so much. Fitz (basically) the bureaucrat isn't entirely the same as Fitz the woodsman away from the world he was once part of, and it becomes a stumbling block for a lot of the book. Only when a key decision is made regarding Fitz and certain family members does the book really kick into gear and, while the final quarter of the book doesn't exactly redeem the first three-fourths, it does create a marvelous run up to an interesting finale and some significant anticipation for the third book.

The problem with Quest, though, is that so much of it could have been excised. Many strange choices (including an explanation for Fitz's daughter, Bee, that was a little unsettling and yet didn't quite seem to intend to play that way, although my lack of experience with prior Fitz/Fool books may shade this) and some character confusion keep this from being the great tale it could be, but that's why Middle Book Syndrome is a thing.

I'm excited for the third book and I enjoyed this second one more than I sound like. Just maybe hold off until we're close to the final release date of the next book first.

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04 August 2015

Review: Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a lot of issues with this book. A lot of issues.

First, seeing after the fact that this is probably meant to be more for the pre-YA crowd makes this book all the more puzzling as the subject matter is pretty mature on a whole, with a key plot point being middle schoolers sending racier and racier pictures to each other. Are we really ready to tackle the pre-teen texting issue like this?

There are other stories in the book, to be sure, and none of them are especially engaging - one involves a kid estranged from his family, another involves skipping school, a third about a kid in recovery from being hit by a car and being clinically dead. The tales intertwine, but not enough in a way that makes for an engaging tale, and it's unfortunate given how well the book is written on a whole. The story is extremely readable, but not especially enjoyable.

Beyond that, the kids sound and act older than they are - the voices sound like teenagers in high school and I had to consistently remind myself they’re middle schoolers. If you're looking for firm consequences for actions such as skipping class and sending scantily-clad photos, they don’t really exist in a significant enough way here - the suspensions levied for some kids and the punishments doled out for others feel like aftereffects and are quickly brushed off as opposed to being significant issues for the kids. While it's hinted at, the fact that kids are being arrested and put on sex offender lists for photos not too far from what is described here means this comes across as highly unrealistic.

It’s as if the focus on their own issues isn’t impacted by anything else happening around them. As well-written from a basic prose standpoint that this book is, it seems like a major miss across the board to try to walk this tightrope and yet seem to not really come to any sort of real solid resolution. It might be *too* realistic in that regard in that nothing is necessarily tied up with a bow. You have lockdown drills, talent shows, and none of it really seems to matter. It's all very strange.

I can't really recommend this to anyone. I get what the attempt was here, and it just doesn't work on a number of levels.

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01 August 2015

Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has gotten no lack of buzz over recent months, and I decided to seek it out from the library sooner rather than later. A lot of people will compare this to The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone, but it's actually less conceptual and more mainstream and, once everything gets established, this becomes and interesting ride.

The story is told from multiple points of view about the film career of young female director Sophie Stark, who gains some prominence from her first short film. It follows some of her relationships, her movies, the views from a distance and how she reconnects with people in her past, and so on. It's almost like an oral history than anything else.

Why does this work? The format means that you're not stuck in a lesser point of view too long, and the different feelings and ideas that people have about Stark and her work (as well as who she was and who she became) ends up having a reality/documentary feel to it in a lot of ways. It means that you sometimes don't get why you're supposed to care until a little too late, but by the time you get used to the format, none of that is a problem anymore.

Ultimately closer to a 4.5. A surprisingly solid read that I enjoyed a lot more than I initially thought. Great for people looking for somewhat nontraditional storytelling, and especially those who enjoy film and movie production.

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