30 January 2016

Review: Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I feel like we're closing in on a decade of one dystopia after another. Falls the Shadow is far from perfect, but I give it credit for trying a different tack on what's quickly becoming a tired genre. In this futuristic setting, human cloning is a thing, and Cate becomes embroiled in a situation involving a murder and some clone issues.

This isn't Orphan Black-style clone stuff, but instead government-directed. It's a compelling read from a writing standpoint, but where this kind of lost me is that the story just isn't quite engaging enough to take that next step into something great. I have so little to say about it because it left such a lackluster impression even though I enjoyed it as I read it.

I mean, if you're doing dystopia, you're reading Hunger Games or Divergent or The Testing first. If you're hungry for more, this might be worth the time, but I can't see this as a first or second choice for most.

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Review: Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The politicization of science is not a new situation in the world, but with a lot of social justice concerns taking precedence over good science, we've reached what might be a different version of a recognizable problem. Alice Dreger ran into some of it first-hand with her research on intersex people, and she spends some time in this book talking about similar situations and how the politics got in the way of the science.

While she certainly has a point of view (and not a conservative one, it should be said), she does do her best to present the information as it is. The story is less about the science and more about the reactions to it, though, so those expecting a certain type of scientific fare might be left disappointed. Those also looking for a condemnation of certain types of activists won't find it here - the activism she speaks out about is real, but the target is narrower than you may expect.

Overall, I think it's a necessary read, especially in today's political climate. I'd like to see some rebuttals from the other side, but this is still something that should be on the list of anyone interested in science and sexuality topics.

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Review: Awkward

Awkward Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It feels weird to say this, but I haven't seen enough good graphic novels that are just simply about school for older kids. The Knights of the Lunch Table comes close, but is for a younger audience, but Awkward ends up being a fun story that pits the artsy kids against the science kids in a pretty unique and different take. All the characters are fun and likable, the story is solid, and the way the story ends, while somewhat telegraphed, ends up being exactly what I wanted.

The story perhaps tries too hard in a few regards, though. It has a very anime feel to it, which kind of took me out of the tale a bit just because of how out-of-step it is with the current popular graphic climate. The diversity aspect, while to be commended in some ways, was also very noticeably checkbox in particular, and was kind of hard not to notice in its overintent. There's a way to do it without being so ham-fisted.

Overall, though, a really great read and one that really belongs on a lot of bookshelves. Looking forward to seeing what else we get from Chmakova.

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26 January 2016

Review: City of Blades

City of Blades City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was blown away by City of Stairs, a fantasy story that had a ton of things that were just right up my alley. So I was very excited for the sequel, and, while it's a great read on its own, it's very different than its predecessor and isn't quite as solid.

The story follows a retired general who, due to administrative error, has to go back into service and find a missing agent, but things in the city are catching up with her rather quickly, and the tale quickly becomes one of dealing with one's past.

I think what I loved about Stairs was the overall plot, with the character of the city being so central to the story. I never got that same feeling from Blades, and with so much of the narrative being caught up in the investigative, it truly felt like things didn't pick up until the second half of the book. This does not make it a bad read, but given how much of a hook it sets in the beginning (the opening scenes are amazing in particular) and with the precedent of the prior book, it became frustrating at times as I spent a lot of time waiting for major things to happen. Still, the writing is so good and the characterization so solid that it wasn't a slog by any means, and that means a lot for me as a reader.

On a whole, Stairs is better but this is great. I look forward to what the next installment will look like, and to see these worlds and their relationships combine.

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12 January 2016

Review: Zero Day

Zero Day Zero Day by Jan Gangsei
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of Homeland, especially the first couple seasons. I also love some good political thrillers (as hard as they are to find), and Zero Day may be the closest thing to a Homeland-style political thriller for the YA set I've seen in some time.

Addie was kidnapped from the home of her politician father eight years earlier, and it became one of the most well-known kidnappings in history. She then reappeared eight years later, just as her father was elected President of the United States. This raises a lot of suspicion within the intelligence community, and begins a tale of espionage and suspense that really kept me guessing.

This was an intense read. For someone familiar with the genre overall, I could complain about some of the things that were telegraphed, but it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the story at all. Addie is a believable character, as is her brother that was so caught up in the initial kidnapping. The balance between the operation of government and the family issues are also really well-represented as well as a positive for the age group.

I honestly just loved everything about this. Really one of the better recent YA books I've read, and I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing more like this in the future. Highly recommended.

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08 January 2016

Review: American Elsewhere

American Elsewhere American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I thought I loved this book about fifty pages in.

I knew I loved this book about one hundred pages in.

I think I knew it was going down as one of my favorites about two hundred pages in, and then I still had four hundred to go.

I didn't want it to end, but it did, and it's easily one of the weirdest, strangest, most straightforward weird/horror books I've read. It's a little ahead of its time, too - if this had come out in 2015 it would be heralded as the book that could propel the New Weird into mainstream acceptance, but instead it's a little/not little 2013 title that won some horror awards and has otherwise not shown up on my radar, and that's a shame, because this is an absolute gem of a book.

The story follows Mona. She has inherited a house in a small town called Wink in New Mexico, and it's become a hassle to even find this town, never mind get information on her mother and what's part of the inheritance. As she makes her way through town, nothing seems quite right. As a police officer, her senses are tingling a bit, the woman at the town hall is strange, and the guy who runs to motel perhaps a little too friendly for a place that doesn't ever seem to have customers.

And then things get strange.

The pleasure I derived from this book comes more from the little reveals along the way, from the small vignettes of townspeople and the happenings to how it all comes together only to unravel again as the story goes on. While the ideas perhaps fail to break any new ground from a storytelling standpoint, it's ultimately how Bennett ties them all together in an off-putting, uncomfortable way that makes this book so much more special than your typical horror/weird tale. And I didn't see the end coming, which was nice. Or, for that matter, the middle. Or much of anything - it's familiar enough to not feel absurd while still being completely strange nearly from page one.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's not a difficult read even though it's a long one, and I just absolutely love the ideas and concepts behind it. This is now two masterful books I've read by Robert Jackson Bennett, and he's fast becoming someone I'm going to have to seek out when his next books come out right away. Find a copy of this book and read it, you absolutely won't be let down.

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05 January 2016

Review: Bounders

Bounders Bounders by Monica Tesler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

A lot of people tend to be looking for the "next" something. This aspires to be the next Ender's Game, and surprisingly succeeds on the merits.

The story follows kids at a military-space school. Technology has allowed us to identify a link regarding the structure of the brain and space travel, so kids are brought to the academy to be trained. Of course, this is under false pretenses, and the kids soon learn what role they're supposed to play in an interplanetary situation.

I found this book to be unique in spite of the many tropes it employed, being a fun read overall with enough action and humor to balance the rest out. Might be a little more sophisticated than the age group it's initially intended for, but if you have kids who are looking for some great science fiction (especially after seeing the new Star Wars), this is definitely worth the time.

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04 January 2016

Review: Firsts

Firsts Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

This is one tightrope of a contemporary young adult book, let me tell you.

Mercedes provides a service of sorts to her classmates. Virgin high schoolers come to her to lose their virginity, she gives them tips in order to improve their relationships and not be a disaster in bed with their girlfriends. She keeps detailed logs for her records, has strict rules in place, and everything. It seems like the perfect scheme until things get a little rough around the edges.

I really got worried initially that this would be some sort of attempt at an after-school-special cautionary tale, or that it would turn into some weird sex farce, and neither of these things happened. As the story panned out, we learned a lot more about motivations and empowerment and sexual politics for teens, and, in the end, it ended up being a pretty decent read. There's a lot I could quibble with, but in terms of what really ended up being a unique plot, I can't fault a lot of the different choices made along the way.

Overall, I don't know if this is a book that would necessarily speak to anyone. Sexual empowerment is a weird subject to tackle for this age group anyway, never mind handling the darker sides of sexuality in an appropriate, non-preachy way. As a decent, left-of-center tale, though, it's one I'm actually glad I got my hands on.

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03 January 2016

Review: Aurora

Aurora Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's incredibly difficult to fully discuss this book without spoiling things, but I'm really going to try because this, in a way, is the anti-Seveneves - a multi-generational science fiction tale that has a fair share of nihilism and darkness underneath it while still providing a really great (and often unique) narrative along the way. The story of a number of people from Earth sent to colonize a nearby habitable planet, it surprised me a lot and ended in ways I didn't expect.

It's kind of the best of science fiction in a sense not necessarily because of the message it does or doesn't send depending on your perspective, but in that it offers a new take on the colonization story that I really didn't see coming and didn't consider before, to the point where it actively has me rethinking a lot of what I believe regarding the future of humanity and its ability to settle off-planet. It's that good. The story is largely told by the ship computer, which both gives a level of detail and enough moments of levity to both detach us as observers and include us in the travels as well, which is a nice touch.

Kim Stanley Robinson hasn't always connected with me. While it took some time for me to get going, this is quite the start for the new year in terms of reads for me, and I'm sure it will get some deserved award consideration. Absolutely worth adding to your list if you're looking for new sci-fi.

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01 January 2016

Review: The Visible Filth

The Visible Filth The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having spent a good deal of the last couple years delving into horror and weird fiction when it comes to my adult choices, a book that kept popping up on a few recommendation lists was this novella, The Visible Filth. I figured I'd like it, but certainly not as much as I ended up loving it.

The story is about a bartender who grabs a cell phone left behind after a fight. He tries to communicate with a friend of the owner, but what he thinks is a prank quickly escalates into something much, much more sinister.

Why this worked for me is, in part, due to a lot of the weird/horror stuff I tend toward, which either takes place in alternate worlds entirely or exists in a world where technology isn't central to the story. This tale instead takes the existing tropes (it's The Ring-esque in some regards) and adds a technological element to it that is both relatable and uncomfortable along the way. The reminders to the popularity of shock sites from early internet days was not lost on me, either, and all combined made for a creepy and awesome read.

Got this one from the Amazon Prime Lending Library, so it's worth a read if you're into this and have a freebie for the month. I assume it's Unlimited, too.

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