28 June 2016

Review: The World from Up Here

The World from Up Here The World from Up Here by Cecilia Galante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like when books can surprise you. While The World From Up Here rightfully gets praise for its handling of a character with Asperger's, the impressive feat is how it dances with the stories we all tell and the way ideas and concepts spread regardless of evidence, both in our own families and in our town.

In the story, a girl has to stay with her cousin for a time when her mother is hospitalized. Her cousin is a little flighty and fearless, and the town has a big story about a witch who lives up on the hill. The cousin decides, for a class project, that she wants to interview the witch, and our protagonist is quickly forced to work outside of her comfort zone and get some things together.

It's a decent book, although I have a lot of reservations in play here. I found the cousin to be more than a little unrealistic in the context of this story - a Manic Pixie Dream Girl works in a John Green book, not a family story like this one. The benefit of how the story is structured is that the last act really keeps you guessing, especially about the witch. The ultimate problem, though, is that this tries to be a little heavier than it ends up being. It's a Rules-style story without the Rules-style weight, and that's why this stumbles a bit.

Overall, this book can and should find an audience, and I hope it does. I just wish it did a few things better.

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Review: My Miserable Life

My Miserable Life My Miserable Life by F.L. Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Francesca Lia Block is not an author I'm significantly fond of, but she is an author of a number of well-regarded/important young adult books. My Miserable Life is her first foray into middle grade, and it definitely carries some of the darker aspects of what we've come to expect from her realistic fiction while not losing the appropriateness or realism of the genre.

For Ben, nothing seems right. He can't seem to win with his folks or at school, his sister isn't really great to her, he's being bullied, and so he lashes out as one would expect. The story is told through journaling, often with his teacher, and we get some insight into not only what hits him emotionally, but how he copes (or in some cases doesn't).

The book is good, but not great. It's more nihilistic in a sense than the cover or title implies, and there's not a lot of humor to offset the depression. While it ends on an optimistic tone, getting there can be a bit of a downer. I appreciate, however, the realism in this book. I don't feel as if middle grade really handles this sort of emotional despair well, and this one certainly comes closest.

Overall, closer to a 3.5. There's definitely an audience for this, although it might be specific kids who would respond to this the best.

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27 June 2016

Review: Stiletto

Stiletto Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book took me eleven days to finish.

That doesn't happen to me very often, except when a book is, like, 1200 pages and I'm super busy, and that's not the case here. As someone who loved The Rook and evangelized it up and down to everyone I knew, I preordered this two years ago when it showed up on Amazon and I was so, so excited when it finally landed on my doorstep.

So why didn't this connect so well for me? I still don't know, but I have a few ideas.

For one, The Rook was great because of the world O'Malley developed. The world of the Checquy and what they're fighting was just off enough, and Myfawny was the perfect type of hero with a lot of interesting things happening to her from page one. Stiletto suffers from having a lead in Odette early on that simply isn't as engaging (by no fault of her own, as we learn later), and seeing as we already have an established universe in which to play, the expansion of what's happening just isn't the same. Granted, I am a sucker for worldbuilding, so I carry my own biases in this area, but if you're going to inflate a book a couple hundred pages, I might end up looking for more of it.

The solid part of the book, though, is that it does reward patience. The early part of the book has parts greater than the sum, but a reveal midway through ties it all together and created an investment for me that I didn't have before, and the book largely works its way to the finish in a much better state than it started. The book's lack of balance, however, ends up being its downfall - while I can think of a lot of different parts of The Rook that amused or resonated with me five years after the fact, Stiletto is missing a lot of those, resulting in a more standard narrative that just doesn't have the same heft.

I feel like I'm overly negative about a book that's probably closer to a 3.5, but it's worth noting that this book is just very different from its predecessor, and that the differences make for a lesser book as a result. Does it keep me from being excited about this series and where it might go? Will it keep me from recommending this series to everyone I know who likes quirky urban fantasy? No on all counts. But do I kind of wish this book was able to keep my interest and enthusiasm enough so I could finish it in three days instead of keeping me from other things I preferred to read for nearly twelve? Absolutely.

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18 June 2016

Review: Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let's put everything else aside for one moment - this series is amazing.

"Bitch Planet" is a prison planet in some sort of dystopian future run by a corrupt collection of politicians, and the planet is an all-women's facility, complete with the sort of collective abuse and degradation one would expect. There is a sport competition of sorts, the guards and those in charge want to use it to break some of the women, but they're not having it.

There's a definitive The Longest Yard-meets-Orange is the New Black with a dash of 1960s-70s exploitation film thing here that just works. Granted, Kelly Sue DeConnick is kind of awesome at this sort of thing, but the full package just works from top to bottom. It's a heavy read at times, but it's also a lot of fun along the way, too.

There's also a lesson here for other writers, especially in this era where there's a lot of socio-political pandering in fiction. DeConnick clearly went into this looking for a certain message about feminism, intersectionality, etc, etc. Those looking for the message will find it, but those who really prefer to leave that sort of thing out of their comics won't find that Bitch Planet beats you over the head with messaging in particular. The characters and story stand on their own, which is really important, and there's something here for everyone.

One of the best recent comic reads I've taken in. Can't wait for the next volume.

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17 June 2016

Review: The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you've been on the internet since the early 1990s, you've seen some things.

And yet, the internet itself has expanded out far beyond that since then, and the seedy underbelly gets some press but not a lot of the detail you'd expect. The Dark Net attempts to fix that by giving some short pieces and details from known things like the deep web and 4chan to lesser-known situations involving the GNAA and camgirls. The end result is a good read with some magazine-article-sized chunks of information throughout.

In a way, it only scratches the surface, both as a detailed read and of all the things that you might know of that the book doesn't cover. As I often feel with these more mainstream takes, I wish this had more detail, but that's a small complaint for what was a good read on a whole. Especially good for those who haven't been as ingrained in the culture.

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12 June 2016

Review: Calamity

Calamity Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With the finale of this series, Brandon Sanderson seals up what's been a pretty great series about superpowers gone rogue. While Calamity ties up a lot of the loose ends nicely, it does falter a bit by taking a while to get to the point before racing toward a conclusion.

What I found interesting was some of the tropes Sanderson chose to work with in the final portions of this book. Without giving anything away (and the books have been derivative, but not in a bad way), the way to the conclusion here was surprising in its lack of real risk, especially given the way the series has been handled so far. A subverted trope un-subverted, in a sense.

Either way, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better modern science fiction tale for YA these days, and Brandon Sanderson is an absolute master in nearly everything he does anyway, so this series was still very solid on a whole. If anything, it might have benefited from another volume to expand on what was here in this book.

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08 June 2016

Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part of why I've enjoyed everything I've read from Erik Larson up to now is that he dives deep into topics that I have a lot of interest in. With Dead Wake, this was his first foray into a topic I didn't care as much about, the sinking of the Lusitania.

There are a lot of interesting geopolitical notes about the sinking of the Lusitania that take a backseat to the lives of the people on the ship as well as many of the U-Boat/submarine operators who were serving in the Atlantic at the time. This serves as a narrative where you spend a lot of time waiting for that eventual shoe to drop, as everyone knows what's coming right away. This isn't a bad way to do it, but it ends up feeling less like a history story (a la The Devil in the White City) and more a social history. The balance struck here isn't the same as the balance in his other books, so that's probably the one downer.

Still, Larson is a master at what he does. If this ends up being the worst thing he ever publishes, it's still better than most everything else like it out there. I wouldn't not recommend it, it's just that the story has a different feel to it than his other works.

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Review: Modern Romance

Modern Romance Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

I'm an Aziz fan, so I'm probably going to like what he's up to anyway. Hearing about what this book was about to start, I knew it wasn't a humor book as much as a book on dating from a humorist, so there's that. Also, having been out of the dating pool for 12+ years now, it's not a topic that's remotely relevant to me, but I also love stories about data and modern... everything. So then there's this, where Ansari actually spent a lot of time talking to those who are dating, plenty of data scientists, people who run services and apps, and gives a pretty basic, top-down overview as to what it's like to date today.

I can't say whether it's representative or anything, but it's an impressive take and Ansari offers such a good conversational tone as well as a good level of humor to make this worth the time. It maybe fails from not being detailed enough, and he even cops to it early in detailing his focus, but it's mostly a nitpick. This is a good read for fans of his as well as those who like pop sociology books.

I waited a while to pick this one up, and I kind of hate myself for waiting so long. Give it a read.

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Review: The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes books aren't for me, and this book, positioned as a fun urban fantasy-ish tale of mystical librarians was extremely reminiscent of the Deborah Harkness books in terms of overall feel, but with a much lighter touch. For me, the lack of real meat ended my enjoyment of this before it started, and nothing grabbed be through its entire duration.

Those looking for something a little less significant, this might be for you. Otherwise, though, there's just not enough here to like to spend any significant time with.

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07 June 2016

Review: The Fireman

The Fireman The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I will preface this by saying that I don't feel that I "got" this book.

On the basic level, this is a strange, post-apocalyptic thing with the Joe Hill touch. People have a disease that eventually makes them combust, and one man is able to control it. The story is somewhat about him, but also about the other people surrounding him, and people sort of figuring out how to exist in the world they're in.

I don't know if there's another message here, or if there's just the sort of inventive way of dealing with existing horror/fantasy tropes that Hill does so well. It's a very well-written page turner, for sure, and there are a lot of little nods throughout that are nice to see, but I can't help comparing it to NOS4A2 (given the similar size/scope) or even Heart-Shaped Box, both of which just seem to work better across the board.

I guess I was just looking for a little more meat, a little something different than what I got. It's a solid read, and if you're into horror or Hill at all, this is basically a must-read, but knowing what he's done before and what he's really capable of on a whole, this just seems like a misfire on a whole. If you want to try Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box probably has to come first, but this is probably just a book that shouldn't be at the top of your priority list.

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01 June 2016

Review: Anomaly

Anomaly Anomaly by Skip Brittenham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've generally had a struggle, for whatever reason, with science fiction graphic novels. Something about the format mixed with the topic rarely seems to click, but I read something from Skip Brittenham not too long ago and saw this graphic novel available, and I had to check it out.

The story is basically about an interplanetary expedition to bring a planet into a confederation, but the system malfunctions and space flight issues keep the team stranded on this planet. The team is quickly attacked and enslaved, and the story is about them dealing with this new situation and how they get out.

There isn't a ton of new ground from a story perspective here. However it is a well-executed attempt with engaging characters and a few cool surprises along the way. The artwork is essentially 3-D renders that are painted, so some might find the visuals a little off-putting, but I thought it worked great for what was being presented. Also, there are apparently some augmented reality options that I didn't explore, but if you read this and are into that sort of thing, it's an added bonus.

Overall, though, on the basic level of a cool science fiction graphic novel (in an impossibly large format, I should add), I certainly enjoyed this. Worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy.

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