30 August 2016

Review: Spontaneous

Spontaneous Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spontaneous, at its core, is a book about teenagers spontaneously combusting.

No one quite knows why, and there doesn't appear to be a pattern except that it's happening in a small town. It gets media interest, government interest, scientific interest, but the kids just have to deal with the fact that they're all apparently blowing up in a mess of blood and guts at random times. This is a book about dealing with that reality.

On one hand, there is a bit of "coping with trauma" here that's pretty good, but, on a whole, this book is a little ridiculous and doesn't seem to miss that, but it's also where the charm of the whole story comes into play. While imperfect, there's definitely the survival instincts that kick in, and once they move along a bit toward the conclusion, it does become fairly charming.

Overall, a fun read and closer to a 3.5. Definitely nothing I can recall like it.

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24 August 2016

Review: Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand Red Right Hand by Levi Black
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been one of the more hyped-up Lovecraftian titles released in some time, so I had to dive at the chance to read it. My expectations were high because of the hype, and what's not shocking is that it surpassed it, but rather how well it did so.

The story is ostensibly about Charlie, who is attacked by some demons but ends up being rescued by a "Man in Black" with a "red right hand." We quickly learn that her rescuer is a major Lovecraftian god and Charlie, as repayment, must become his acolyte.

There's just so much here to love. The nods to Lovecraftian lore are all over the place here, and it's both respectful and humorous. There's a lot of action, a lot of really creepy stuff, and a couple scenes that even I found genuinely unsettling in a way most novels in this realm simply don't. The writing has a classic quality to it, yet is still paced in a way that keeps the pages turning throughout.

I mean, the horror stuff alone makes this a winner, but the way this entire book is structured makes this an added gem. I wouldn't say it's scary at all, but it's a must read for anyone who has even a passing interest in the Mythos, and, if the modern Weird movement is doing it for you but you wish the writing was a little more straightforward, you'll find a ton to love here.

A great, great read. Highly recommended.

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18 August 2016

Review: Love & Gelato

Love & Gelato Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't the first book that takes place in some time away in Italy, but this is absolutely one of the better ones. A romance that also has some family drama mixed in and some mystery elements, this was a pleasant read.

Lina is in Italy because her late mother wanted Lina to be with her father, a man Lina doesn't really know. Her father takes her in, and is given a journal that her mother kept. This journal begins the process of uncovering a life Lina never knew from her mother, and uncovers some secrets best kept hidden.

This is a very tropey read in many ways, but that sort of comfort, along with the little notes of Italy dropped along the way, results in a pretty fun teen romance on a whole, and one that might have extra appeal to teen girls with family structures similar to this one. If anything, the reveals as the book goes along keeps everything moving tightly and it ends up being a solid, readable affair across the board. Definitely recommended.

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15 August 2016

Review: Them: Adventures with Extremists

Them: Adventures with Extremists Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've noted before my love for weird conspiracy theories and cranks in general. As a fan of Jon Ronson's work up to this point, tripping up on this book where he explores those who believe some of the crazier stuff and where it ends up was a fun ride on a whole.

What's kind of weird reading this now is that it's sort of a pre-9/11 book in a post-9/11 world. Much of the book revolves around a Muslim extremist in London and it's significantly strange to read now following the 9/11 attacks as well as the more recent rise of ISIS. Everyone's favorite crazy person Alex Jones makes an appearance and I realized toward the end that events in this book lead to my first knowledge of Bohemian Grove, and I spent a good amount of time after reading it wondering where this would go in 2016 if it were being written now.

It doesn't feel dated at all outside of the terrorism/Muslim extremist angle, so if you have some interest in the subject you should absolutely dive in. Just a fun, weird, light read.

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Review: The Hatching

The Hatching The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you've been waiting your whole life for a novel about the spider apocalypse, your prayers have finally been answered.

This is a big dumb book about a bunch of carnivorous spiders taking over the world. The writing is functional, the characters one dimensional, the big conflict makes you feel dumber as you read it.

And yet.

Let's be clear - The Hatching is not trying to win any awards, and it's not trying to blow your socks off with some grand narrative or statement. It's a book where spiders are taking over, and you get a sort of Chrichton-esque bounce from scene to scene and group to group as things move along. It's a fast read, and it's fun in the way Sharknado is fun. It's big dumb entertainment.

With that said, this is probably closer to a 3.5 because of how ham-fisted so much of this is. It's so matter of fact that it's almost a problem, and it's perhaps even too dime store pulpy for those who can tolerate it. Perhaps it's a little too self-aware? I don't know, but it was the one major drawback to an otherwise passable book.

You'll know if you're into this pretty quickly. If you are, you'll finish it in basically no time at all, but if your goal is a meatier, more meaningful read, this ain't it.

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Review: The Art of Not Breathing

The Art of Not Breathing The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The trope of teens dealing with loss in destructive and questionable ways continues with The Art of Not Breathing, a novel that deals with a girl's continuing quest to move on from the drowning death of her twin brother by meeting a dreamy, edgy boy and taking up freediving.

Under normal circumstances, I'd have a ton to say on the matter, but this almost has a paint-by-numbers aspect to it. Take a protagonist, make her lose X to Y, insert Z love interest that exposes her to A activity, and add in a few risky scenes and we're all set. This is a very straightforward, mainstream approach to a well-worn narrative.

The Start of Me and You does this much, much better, and with characters you actually want to root for along the way. This just feels a little melodramatic throughout, but will likely appeal to the readers who are actively seeking books like this. If you're looking for a little more meat, though, you'll have to look elsewhere.

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12 August 2016

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was weird.

I think we need to get that out of the way. It's not weird because it's a play, it's weird because it exists at all, in a sense. There's always a desire for more in-universe stuff in any widely-loved property, Harry Potter being no exception. So a story that comes nearly a decade after what we all assumed was the final book that takes place many many years in the future? Yeah, it's gonna feel a little weird. But if you move past the weirdness, the overall story itself feels very familiar and enjoyable.

The story takes place many years after the events of Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter is a middle aged father, married to Ginny, friends with Ron and Hermoine still, and his son Albus is close with Draco's son, Scorpius. Albus feels a lot of pressure, though, and not just because he's the son of The Boy Who Lived, and, with the help of Scorpius, acts out.

I would stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled, but it's impossible to not talk about the major plot point here, which involves a stolen time turner from the Ministry of Magic. This time turner is something Albus and Scorpio opt to use to try and change the outcome at the Triwizard Tournament from Goblet of Fire, and what happens is along the same lines of any time travel story where the future is changed in a variety of ways. And, kids being kids, they do it over and over again.

The point of all the setup comes about in the final quarter of the story, and that's likely the best part and the part that feels the most "true" to the overall series. Yes, we get the humor and heroics back, but so much of the book/story spends so much time re-establishing who these characters are that it's just somewhat jarring. And, if we're being really brutal, it's very fanfictiony. I don't know if any Potter fan has tried to have a detailed conversation about Potter that doesn't end up talking about time turners and why they never used them throughout the series, but this essentially tries to answer that question and it's... kind of silly.

Still, though. It's more Harry Potter. And it's very good. Maybe better than the worst parts of the overlong books late in the series, but as an inessential tacked on piece of work, I don't think it was bad unless you have really, really high expectations for the results of this. It's also worth remembering that this is a play, thus meant to be performed. The lack of seeing a performance on this might mean missing some of the flow of nuance that would have made this a better experience otherwise.

Still, though, I flew right through this. It was a pretty enjoyable read even with my share of nitpicky issues throughout. I could complain about the changes in the characters, but I know I'm not the same as 35 as I was at 17. I could complain about going back to the well a few too many times, but this is meant to be fanservice in a way. So enjoy it for what it is, but maybe set your expectation bar a little lower than you might have wanted.

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Review: The Ravickians

The Ravickians The Ravickians by Renee Gladman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, would have been a 5 if not for the rather flawed ending.

For all the books I've read that deal with new or mysterious or different places, I can't really think of one that attempts to evoke the experience of just being in one of those places. The Ravickians does this, and does so in a way that was one of the more compelling recent reads I've had as of late. The first book, Event Factory , had a strange outsider perspective, but most of this book takes place from the perspective of a citizen of Ravicka, the result being one that really brings about the feel of a city in transition as opposed to a lot of detail.

This book was great until the last third, where it devolves into an experimental piece of sorts that, while intended to give a deeper feel of things, resulted in my being taken completely out of the setting entirely. A lot of this is "what I wanted" as opposed to what it is, but this story, longer than either other volume that bookends up, didn't really need the diversion.

Still, this is a middle book that feels independent. It's a group of books that are really different and interesting in and of themselves. I can't wait to pick up the final volume.

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09 August 2016

Review: Marvelry's Curiosity Shop

Marvelry's Curiosity Shop Marvelry's Curiosity Shop by John Brhel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up, like many kids, I had an affinity for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, complete with their creepy illustrations and stuff teachers hated. I know they rebooted them a few years back, and I don't know if they're still as crazy popular as they were in my classes, but they occupy a very firm spot in my memories.

Marvelry's Curiosity Shop bills itself as a collection of strange tales all centered around supernatural items sold from his shop. By the third story in, I couldn't help but think how much it reminded me of Scary Stories in that the self-contained tales had a similar, classic structure to them and they weren't scary as much as strangely comforting from a nostalgic standpoint to somewhat unsettling in some other places.

The pacing and length of the individual stories are a strength, and, truly, the best story is the last one in the collection, but if there's a flaw to the overall collection, it's that it doesn't feel as if the book knows what it wants to be. If it went all-in on a nod to its inspirations, that would be one thing, but some tales are kind of silly and others maybe a little too far from a tonal perspective in terms of horror/macabre tropes. This imbalance keeps the book from being everything it could be.

Overall, though, this was a fun collection on a whole. If you put on your nostalgia glasses and put yourself back in fourth grade for a bit, you'll definitely find some enjoyment in it even if you tend to like things a little darker these days.

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05 August 2016

Review: The Marvels

The Marvels The Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 3 for the story, a 5 for the art/presentation.

This is a multigenerational story at its core surroudning a family of actors and a kid who is uncovering the mysteries of his family's past. This is common ground for Selznick, who again uses hundreds of pages of illustrations with a text story in the middle, much like Hugo Cabret and Wonder Struck.

The way he structured the story felt more organic than in his previous books, to its credit, but the issue I had overall was how relatively thin the actual story was. I was more invested in the artwork than the actual story it was telling, and the text portions ultimately felt more like placeholders to get to the end.

I wouldn't *not* recommend this to anyone, as Selznick is a master at what he does. I was just more wowed by his previous work and I ultimately don't feel as if this holds up quite the same way. Part of it might just be the subject matter, but so much of it felt like a retread that the core of the tale didn't ring the same way.

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02 August 2016

Review: The City of Mirrors

The City of Mirrors The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I loved The Passage. In a world where vampire novels are really a dime a dozen and burnt out, this take felt fresh and mature and different, and I was excited for the next volume.

Then came The Twelve, which took a more post-apocalyptic tone. Part middle book syndrome, part shift in overall tone, it was good but not great, and I was still on board.

The City of Mirrors is none of those things.

Among its many flaws is a massive, massive diversion that ends up being a history of one of the characters that is both utterly compelling in its framework and completely unnecessary in a book of this size. There is a major battle toward the end that feels like it has a complete lack of true stakes. Everything else around the story meanders toward a conclusion-that-isn't, where the most compelling stuff happens in the jump at the very end. Under normal circumstances, I would have given up on a book like this before I got to the parts worth reading, and that's just a shame.

For such an ambitious project with such a great start, this just feels like a massive, significant miss. Cronin is clearly a talented writer and I will seek out what he does next, but this was just a very disappointing end to such a solid beginning.

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Review: Every Anxious Wave

Every Anxious Wave Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is often described as High Fidelity with time travel. This is an accurate description in so, so many ways, and a book that I fell in love with within the first twenty or so pages and just blew through until the end.

Effectively, a guy finds a wormhole in the closet of his apartment. A former guitarist for a well-regarded and now-defunct indie rock band, he does what any music lover does and uses it to see old concerts. He quickly monetizes the wormhole, gets caught up in an issue with his landlord, meets up with a theoretical physicist to try and figure out what's going on, and really messes with the timeline in the process.

If there are two things I love in life, it's time travel books and indie rock. A combination of the two was going to be a winner for me regardless, but this works in part because it doesn't take itself too seriously while still doing a good job (at least on a basic level) of making the time travel work. There are tons of indie rock references throughout, and much of the history behind the plot takes place in the Boston area at one of my favorite now-defunct rock clubs, and it's just a solid read. Not perfect by any stretch, and things kind of get weird in the end, but it's not a big enough deal for me to get hopped up over. This was probably one of my favorite things I've read this year, and is just an enjoyable ride throughout.

A must for time travel aficionados, a must for those who love the indie rock of two decades ago, and a pleasant light read from start to finish. Highly recommended.

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