31 May 2016

Review: Save Me a Seat

Save Me a Seat Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of Sarah Weeks after reading Pie however long ago, and pretty much anything she does is an automatic for me at this point. Save Me a Seat is a collaborative effort with first-time author Gita Varadarajan, and, while flawed, ends up being a charming book about acceptance and friendship.

The story follows two kids. One, Joe, has some special educational needs and is struggling in school but at least knows how to navigate the social aspects a bit. Ravi, our other main character, just moved into town. An Indian-American boy, he speaks with an accent and his family is proud of their heritage, but it's causing him some distress at school both in terms of outright bullying and smaller issues. Over the course of a week, we follow these two kids who get to know each other in a specialized class for struggling students.

On one hand, the book is a really charming story about friendship and acceptance. We get just enough in the way of the cultural and social navigation to be a good entry point for the intended age group without overwhelming the story, which is good. On the downside, some of the issues are a little heavy-handed, and I probably noticed it more because of my awareness of the current literary climate in regards to cultural issues than a regular 10 year old reading this would. Still, it's not enough by any standard to not recommend this across the board.

Sarah Weeks continues to be great, and I also hope we get more from Gita Varadarajan as well. This was a wonderful read for everyone.

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Review: Sing

Sing Sing by Vivi Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I'm not part of Taylor's Squad or whatever, I can appreciate what she's accomplishing culturally and I find the constant attention to her personal life to be fascinating even if the details don't matter much to me. Sing absolutely takes advantage of that cultural zeitgeist (up to and including the obvious cover) and succeeds extremely well in the process.

The story follows one of the biggest pop singers in the world months away from her next tour. Her album is coming out and it's basically about her boyfriend, but they just broke up, so Lily heads to a small island to get away from it all and maybe write some new songs there. She, of course, meets another boy and things are hit off a bit, and the story quickly becomes about this balance between work, fame, and love.

It's a surprisingly quiet book for this genre and age group, which was sort of refreshing. You got a good sense of the speed that things move on these small island/coastal towns (I could absolutely picture this taking place on Cape Cod), and while the book doesn't throw you much in the way of curveballs, this felt different enough across the board where I fully enjoyed it from start to finish.

Definitely worth your time if you're into the contemporary YA stuff. A fun, solid read.

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30 May 2016

Review: Lily and Dunkin

Lily and Dunkin Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lily and Dunkin is one of the latst in a long line of stories about trans kids and, in part, the trans experience. I've read a number of these now, and I think this one might be the best even with some of its flaws and sameness.

On one side we have Lily, an eight grader born Timothy that is seen out front of his house by a classmate in a dress. That classmate, Dunkin, has bipolar disorder and has been treating it, but just moved into town and he's not taking it well. The two strike up a bond and friendship even as the world around them changes rapidly.

An issue with the trans books for YA and middle grade, at least so far, is that the stories all follow a similar trajectory. I appreciated what Donna Gephardt did in contrasting one story that few readers will be able to relate to in Lily's tale with a more accessible one in Dunkin's, but Lily's story does still suffer from that sort of sameness that others like it have followed. Plus, having to handle sensitive and confusing topics for this age group is difficult as is, and Lily's story in particular has its share of difficult-to-read parts from an emotional standpoint.

Still, this is miles ahead of George (in spite of some of the age differences), and easily the best in the space I've read in spite of a lot of the tropes being replicated here. The trend of featuring trans issues in books for kids and teens isn't going to go anywhere anytime soon, and it's great that we have one that is mostly appropriate and well-written. Especially if you're running a library and looking for the right book in this topic space, this one is worth your time.

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Review: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 2.5 or so.

When you see a book titled Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, you pretty much have to scoop it up, right? I got an early copy of this, was very excited, and it left me... I don't know.

The story takes place at a high school where a pterodactyl randomly shows up. And he's hot. And the girls like him, as do a lot of people in town. And he plays football. And when you get romantic with the pterodactyl, you're branded in a way. and the whole thing really turns the town upside down.

The book was inspired by a quote at a writing summit, where an author recommended to the writers to not "go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel." So, of course, this guy does exactly that and kind of proves exactly why it was a bad idea. I still wonder if there was a good was to put this story together, but there was a lot of ridiculousness beyond the initial conceit added in on this (including an ending where it all completely goes off the rails) that ultimately makes this not even too much fun as a curiosity. I can't even recommend this as sort of campy fun, unfortunately, it just doesn't work.

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29 May 2016

Review: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True by Ryan North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the first volume of the rebooted/"new" Squirrel Girl. The second volume? I just felt like saying "yeah, that's enough."

It's not that she's not necessarily fun, or that it's not necessarily well-written or anything like that. The character is fun, in capable hands, and so on. It's just kind of exhaustingly self-aware already, a sort of self-congratulatory idea behind it that's nodding to a lot of the discussion surrounding the property these days that I could have just done without. If you want to wink at the meta, wink at the meta, y'know?

There's so much that could be done with this character, and I wasn't seeing it from this in what I felt was kind of an annoying fashion. Maybe we'll get some better expansion moving forward, but so much of the major comics right now don't seem to know what they're doing and it's a little frustrating to see such a positive comic possibly head down this road, too.

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Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For some time now, I've really been struggling with depression issues. Stress, malaise, the whole bit. This book was recommended to me as something that I might be able to relate to and get something from, and imagine my surprise when I did.

Dan Harris is a national news anchor, born and raised not too far from where I live. He had a panic attack while on the air after years of, well, not dealing with a lot of the issues he was having mentally. Resorting to drugs, more work, unhealthy habits, all of these things came to a head on national television, and 10% Happier is basically the story of how he explored the idea of staying more mindful and grounded in the face of some of his biggest mental health issues.

I got quite a bit out of this if only because I saw a lot of my own personal situation with Harris (minus some of his worst behaviors), and he was a fellow skeptic both of religion and of a lot of the sort of Secret-style, Eckhart Tolle-ish solutions we see paraded around on television and the internet these days. While I can't go as far as he did regarding meditation and the like, he was able to explore some of those concepts and find a way to get a little better, and we see the road throughout the book.

I respond well to this right now because of what it offered me, but for those interested in these sorts of mindfulness exercises or just looking for a story of someone who broke past their problematic behaviors and responses, Harris spins a good read in that way as well. I'm glad I read this for many reasons, and you might be, too.

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Review: Providence Act 1

Providence Act 1 Providence Act 1 by Alan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one of maybe a dozen people who actually enjoyed Neonomicon, getting my hands on the first set of Providence, Alan Moore's latest foray into the Mythos, was a bit of a priority. I don't know if we call this a prequel, spiritual or otherwise, to his Neonomicon/Courtyard, but the mood it exists in certainly matches up, and that might be all that matters.

For this story, though, we're in late-1910s New England (of course) with a journalist-type exploring some information on a story supposedly inspired by The King in Yellow (which gained some prominence for those of us in the real world thanks to True Detective a few years back) that is causing people some issues (to put it mildly).

The story is a real slow burn in many ways. One thing Moore does in this one is intersperse the comic form with a lot of text, and, frankly, this doesn't work so much for me as I would have preferred all one way or all the other. The way the tale jumps back and forth between comic and prose is too jarring (and the prose is not simply like you'd expect in book form, either) to really be resonant. The art, however, continues to be second-to-none, and Burrows in particular has a style that I really associate with Lovecraftian comics for better or for worse, now.

Overall, I don't see this drawing in new readers to the Mythos or to Moore's Lovecraftian stuff period, just because of how strange and nonstandard it is. For someone who is a major fan of both, however, this felt like a bit of a misstep in comparison while still being one of the most engaging reads in this area I've had in some time. Really, your enjoyment of this will depend on your tolerance for the weird (and The Weird) as well as the format Moore opted to run with here.

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Review: Vermilion

Vermilion Vermilion by Molly Tanzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I have any real issues with some modern fantasy these days, it's that there's a certain level of try-hard-edness that's permeated some of the less mainstream stuff. In a rush to make a book that is Different and Edgy and perhaps meets up with some of the current societal trends, you end up with books that have great concepts and disappointing execution. This brings us to Vermilion.

Vermilion is sort of a fantasy-western-steampunk hybrid in a sense, but doesn't really delve too much into either area while our heroine, Lou, heads on a rescue mission of sorts. There's not a lot of trust for the work she does at home, but a lot of strange encounters on her way as well.

This ultimately just didn't connect for me. Sometimes a book will focus on the main character and it will work, but other times it will feel a little more forced than it needs to, and that's where I sat with Vermilion. By trying to get me to care so much about Lou, it almost felt like the rest of the story went by the wayside, and it just ended up not being the type of worldbuilding I was looking for.

Some might like this, especially if the modern shift in fantasy/science fiction excites you. For me, though, this didn't do it.

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Review: The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm trying to figure out what it was about The Portable Veblen that didn't work for me. A well-written piece of contemporary fiction about a woman with a few quirks and a curious squirrel navigating through pre-marriage life, it's just a little off-center from the genre that it exists in, and yet it just didn't 100% connect for me.

Maybe it was the way it felt like it moved from scene to scene in a less organic way? Maybe it was the way Veblen was portrayed and how I couldn't figure out if she was meant to be what she was or if it was an attempt to subvert any specific trope. I can't place it, but I think a lot of people would find a lot to like about this one even if I didn't.

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27 May 2016

Review: Six Impossible Things

Six Impossible Things Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

YA contemporary titles try so hard to stay relevant and fresh that sometimes books like this come out that feel more like they're trying too hard as opposed to being truly essential to the current experience. While this book is a few years old and is Australian, the subject matter of a kid with a gay parent who is also being bullied using similar sexual-orientation-charged language who also has a crush is so well-worn and done so often that a book really needs to clear a pretty high bar, and Six Impossible Things, while readable and entertaining enough, doesn't meet that high standard.

This may be a book that resonates with a very specific teen, but it's more subject-oriented toward boys with a marketing appeal that seems specific to girls, which means those who might get something significant out of the story will miss out entirely.

Overall, just an unfortunate miss. Skip this one unless this sort of genre is your thing or you know a kid who would gain a lot from a story like this.

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Review: The Silent History

The Silent History The Silent History by Eli Horowitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While The Silent History is proof that sometimes the medium matters, put aside on its own merits, it's a solid science fiction tale. I just wish I had followed it as it was released in a more serial form.

The book takes place over many decades, with children being born basically silent and wordless. We see some things from the perspective of parents, teachers, politicians, and scientists as the situation is understood and dealt with.

The concept is great, and it was serialized online as part of an app, I guess, so the narrative does suffer a little bit in the 500 page print form with shorter chapters and a more streamlined experience. I do wonder what it would be like under normal publication or under the app itself, but in terms of a basic story plus everything else, this was a pretty great read.

Definitely recommended.

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17 May 2016

Review: My Best Friend's Exorcism: A Novel

My Best Friend's Exorcism: A Novel My Best Friend's Exorcism: A Novel by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Closer to a 2.5.

What do you call a goofy period piece that doesn't bother with anything advertised in the plot until nearly the end? For me, it's My Best Friend's Exorcism, a book that let's you think you're getting a funny tale about an exorcism and ends up never quite pulling the trigger on any real aspect of the tale.

The story is about two girls in the 1980s. Best friends in everything until one of the girls starts acting different and it's decided that she's actually possessed by a demon, and she'll be the one to get it fixed.

What annoys me so much about this book is just the lost potential. There's such a great option to do an 80s-tastic Exorcist sendup, but nothing really comes about and the "is she or isn't she possessed" back-and-forth becomes kind of tiring as time goes on. The end almost certainly and completely rescues the book, as it gets truly insane, but the issue is ultimately getting to that point. It's just not engaging enough, which is especially unfortunate given Quirk's track record as a publisher.

Overall, skip this one unless this is a specific interest of yours. I hope we get a better book like it at some point in the future.

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15 May 2016

Review: Keep Me In Mind

Keep Me In Mind Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sick lit is still a thing, right? How about amnesia lit?

Ella falls during an early morning run with her boyfriend, and she loses the last two years of her memory. Her boyfriend can't quite understand, but neither can anyone else, but Ella quickly has to relearn what her life was like and begin trying to piece together a life of someone who she isn't sure she actually likes.

This is a book that hits a lot of good notes, from its handling of diversity to the somewhat unique plot to even how it ends. The issues for me feel nitpicky, but still took me out of the story. Why is the boyfriend so seemingly okay? Why is Ella coping so well with this? Why isn't there more of an identity crisis in play? A lot of the individual pieces work, but I ultimately feel like it never goes as far as it should.

Overall, a solid read, especially for those looking for something different from the teen romance/sick lit genre. It won't blow you away, but it's an enjoyable one.

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13 May 2016

Review: The Future for Curious People: A Novel

The Future for Curious People: A Novel The Future for Curious People: A Novel by Gregory Sherl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ina way, this book was a somewhat frustrating read, but it's rare when characters and concept win out in a science fiction book. In a way, The Future for Curious People is the sort of anti-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind in how it handles relationships and technology, if that makes any sense, and that makes it an interesting read.

The story is about a future where people can essentially hook themselves up to a computer and see various iterations of their future. The story bounces back and forth between two people who have their own issues, but find some solace in the technology as well as some other information that begins influencing things.

This is not hard science fiction in any regard, and tends to be a little light around the edges, but that works. It's less about the tech and more about the people, so if you're looking for significant future ideas here, you're not going to find them. What you'll find instead is a story about a dream many of us already have and the pitfalls that invariably come from them.

Not for everyone, but absolutely what I needed to read right now. Certainly a quality read on a whole.

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