27 September 2016

Review: How to Avoid Extinction

How to Avoid Extinction How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciate middle grade books that take some chances. This book, however, maybe took a few too many wrong turns along the way.

The story is mostly a road trip tale, where Leo, a caretaker for his afflicted grandmother, has to go with her on her latest fling many states away. He gets on board with his cousin and they effectively drive cross country with a dog and figure out exactly what Gram needs and keep her safe along the way.

It's a strange read in some regards, but I had some personal issues with the fact that the grandmother clearly has dementia or Alzheimer's and it's played less for the conflict and more for laughs. The story itself isn't the most realistic thing, but we know that going in, and while this adult reader was ultimately unhappy with the payoffs, I'm not sure kids will notice enough compared to a lot of the other things the story has going for it.

It didn't work for me, but it might work for other kids. Worth keeping on your radar, but there are a lot of better options available.

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18 September 2016

Review: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 3.5/3.75.

I'm an admirer of Barry Goldwater. While most conservative and/or Republican people my age point to Reagan as the standard bearer and such, Goldwater was much more my speed. Both a product of his time and way ahead of his peers, Goldwater was the presidential candidate in 1964 who lost huge, but ushered in a conservative movement that has largely dominated the American political structure ever since.

This book tells the story of the Goldwater rise, starting from the era of Goldwater's rise to national prominence through the end of the 1964 contest. There is a lot of detail about the sociopolitical situation of the time as well as the explicitly political era from Joe McCarthy to the assassination of JFK. It's ridiculously detailed and provides a pretty strong narrative flow for such a dense history title.

Where this falters a bit is that Perlstein does come in with a bit of an axe to grind. From the subtitle, we understand where he's coming from on this and, while he's more fair than not throughout, there's a lot of incredulity in the text about Goldwater and how he was able to catch fire the way he did. While Perlman is not wrong to highlight a lot of the dysfunction in the campaign, too much of the book does focus on events otherwise unrelated to the time that better fit the Johnson/JFK narrative, and a lot of time is spent with an almost mocking eye toward many of Goldwater's supporters. Maybe the most frustrating parts are things that were known by the time of publication, such as Perlman's dismissal of Joe McCarthy without even recognizing some of the disclosures from the Venona cables. This sort of narrative nonfiction, which has a real Howard Zinn-like quality in many aspects, takes away from the harder history of the overall piece.

I nitpick because I know this era fairly well (although I'm far, far, FAR from an expert) and because this is a widely acclaimed book, with much of the acclaim missing the real problems. The real problems, however, do not overshadow how compelling and detailed a read this ends up being, and there's more than enough rigor here to make this a valuable asset in the overall canon of the political era. I do look forward to reading Perlman's other books, and I hope the other books improve on what's already a good piece of scholarship.

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Review: Whisper to Me

Whisper to Me Whisper to Me by Nick Lake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like this book is not getting the proper attention for how good this is.

This book has a very unconventional style, but it is about Cassie who wronged her boyfriend and wants to make sure he knows why. She also hears voices, and the voices definitely have an impact on this. This is a stilted, crazed look at a stilted, crazed situation.

This is kind of a love story, kind of a lost love story, but largely a tale about mental illness that's handled in a very interesting and different way. The briskness and the urgency that drive the narrative along made this a read that I basically blew through in less than 24 hours. You both feel a lot of sympathy for Cassie's situation while still allowing her a bit of agency in the situation she's in, and the whole of the story makes for a great read.

It's long, but don't sleep on this book. The alternative narrative style will likely keep your interest even if the book itself takes some time for you, but the overall experience was a huge winner for me and I hope it gets the acclaim I think it deserves. An absolute page turner.

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Review: A Week of Mondays

A Week of Mondays A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know quite how many ways I can state how much I loved this book.

Ellison has a really bad Monday for all sorts of reasons, from school to her boyfriend. She vows that if she could do it again, she'd get it right. The next morning she wakes up and it's Monday again, and she gets the opportunity to set everything straight.

Yes, this is basically Groundhog Day for the teen girl set, but it's so endearing. Ellison is fun and flawed, thoughtful yet impulsive. Her journey as a character is just great from start to finish, and I really felt for her toward the end, which is always a good sign.

This is a light and fun teen book, for sure, but there's also some good messages throughout to provide some added value. But just the fact that this book is such a great ride from start to finish is reason enough to give it a look, especially if you have love for this sort of repeating day story.

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17 September 2016

Review: Family Plot, The

Family Plot, The Family Plot, The by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I honestly didn't know how much I wanted a good old fashioned ghost story until I picked this one up. Cherie Priest is best known for her steampunk stuff, and the non-steampunk stuff I've read of hers has been mixed for me, but this really worked.

The story takes place entirely at an estate on a hill in a small town. A family that clears out old estates and resells the contents has been contracted for this house, a house with a bit of a reputation in town of being a little creepy. Still, there's a lot of stuff here and could be a lucrative deal, so they buy and get to work. And then they find something in the back shed, and the fun begins.

This book feels shorter than it is, which is always a good time, even though the mysteries unravel at a slower-than-expected pace. There's a lot of love for the overall tropes here, and I can't help but wonder if the literal deconstruction of the haunted house was somewhat intentional here in its format. The big flaw, however, is how it never fully ramps itself up to a truly exciting climax. The pacing is such where by the time we get to the peak of everything, it's not nearly as impactful as I wanted it to be. As someone who likes the journey more than the destination much of the time, this wasn't a huge problem, but it was just an unexpected way to go.

Still, this was a very fun read for me and one I can recommend even for people who want to try this genre but avoid it due to being scared easily. It's no Nyctophobia, but it's a really solid entry into a tried and true genre.

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13 September 2016

Review: The Memory Wall

The Memory Wall The Memory Wall by Lev A.C. Rosen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was probably about two-thirds through this book that I broke down sobbing on the couch.

My mother has Alzheimer's. I was very close with her, my family moved back home (at great expense both personal and emotional) to help take care of her, and, as I write this, she has been in a nursing home for well over two years after having been given less than half of that to live.

The Memory Wall is about a kid, Nick, having to deal with a similar situation. He's very young and his mother also has Alzheimer's. The family makes a decision that she, too, will go to a nursing home, and the kid doesn't really understand everything that's going on with the medical situation in play. He does, however, know a certain fantasy MMO that he plays quite a bit, and he's convinced his mother is playing it with him from the nursing home.

It's really a heartbreaking story. I can forgive some of the realism aspects of this in what's a challenging story to tell for this age group because it absolutely digs into the emotional struggle that comes with Alzheimer's caregiving. In particular, Nick's denial of what is actually happening and his ways to try and mentally craft how the doctors have it wrong and how his mother will actually come through or recover or however you want to phrase it is extremely realistic (to this day, even though my mother hasn't recognized me for five years and I rarely see her because it hurts so much, I keep thinking, in the back of my mind, that we'll get some phone call that will never come that tells us that she snapped out of it), and the use of a video game construct to literally play out these scenarios us caregivers who struggle to let go is a bit of a genius move.

I could nitpick on a lot of things here and there, but that's not the point. This book succeeds on its emotional core and the harsh realism of accepting the fate of a loved one you can't do anything for. The added helplessness of being a child in this situation is not one I can relate to directly, but will resonate for a lot of readers who might have grandparents in this or similar scenarios. It's closer to a 4.5 because of a lot of the nitpicks, but why bother when this is a book that anyone who has a situation even close to this should read.

Honestly, it's just a beautiful, gorgeous account of a very real struggle. I sobbed because it was perhaps too real for me, but those who can be a little more objective might appreciate it for what it does, if not what it represents. Just an amazing read.

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12 September 2016

Review: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I tire of professional bureaucracy, so of course I read a book that's pretty much a significant skewer toward it.

A fictional collection of letters that are letters of reference and recommendation to a post, the humor in them are the little tales about each recommended person and the overall frustration of those who have to read and write them.

More sensible chuckle than laugh out loud, the joke sort of gets stale by the time things end, but there are enough pleasant bits throughout to at least make this worth powering through. And at under 200 pages, it's not a huge investment, so it's perhaps worth a look. Especially good if you're into epistolary narratives.

Closer to a 3.5.

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07 September 2016

Review: The Warren

The Warren The Warren by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, good old fashioned existential horror.

X is in a bunker of some sort, perhaps the last remaining part of an experiment or maybe just massive hallucinating, but he's been imprinted on and holds lots of old personalities and so on. He's alone, or so he thinks, until someone (or is it something) outside the bunker changes things and makes him question his own existence.

This is a short read, and there's a lot of confusion baked into the narrative to help tie this story together. By the end, you think you've pulled apart all the threads, but the beauty of the narrative is that you ultimately can't be sure and can't trust what you're seeing from point to point. It's done surprisingly well and doesn't feel as if it's just a narrative gimmick. It does take the supposed/possible weight off the ending a bit (or, maybe now that I think more about it, gives it more gravity) depending on how you interpret what's happened, but there's just such an interesting runup that I didn't mind too much.

Overall, though, this is unique enough to stand on its own while still fitting into some of the existential science fiction horror that's come about as of late. Definitely worth the quick read.

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06 September 2016

Review: The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft

The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft by Jacqueline Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I guess it was only a matter of time before Lovecraft himself started winding his proverbial tentacles into the New Weird as a character, but here we are with The Broken Hours, a quiet, creepy affair.

The story is mainly about a man who takes an assistant position in an old house in Providence. He never meets the man he works for, communicating only in letters. The house is believed to be haunted, there is unexplained phenomena throughout, and the book follows these reveals slowly throughout.

The most frustrating part of reading this book is that Jacqueline Baker makes a conscious decision to place all quotes within italics instead, which is something I never got used to and really drew me out of the story instead of perhaps drawing me inward as intended. The result is that the narrative itself, while an interesting, slow burn, feels more than a little stilted as one tries to get back into the tale. Other readers might not have the same issue, though.

There's not a lot of obvious mythos here, and the payoff isn't what I personally expected, but this is still a fun read. Things are just uneasy and creepy enough to keep the reader engaged, and the Providence of this book feels appropriately Lovecraftian (even though people aren't fornicating with the sea monsters as far as we can tell), so there's a lot to love here for those interested in weird fiction or Lovecraft in general. There's just too much here that doesn't quite work that keeps The Broken Hours from being great instead of the very good that it is.

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Review: Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry

Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes that one book comes around that inadvertently hits upon a bunch of things you like reading about or can relate to. History, family secrets, the whole package. To distill Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry to only its base components, however, does it a disservice, as this book is really one of the best books for this age group I've read in some time and is a book with weight and importance for all readers.

Dani's grandmother has Alzheimer's, and gives Dani a key to open... something. Dani isn't sure what, but she thinks it could be related to why her grandmother doesn't speak with her old friend anymore and a book on some race riots from the 1960s. The book explores Dani and her friends looking into the key, the riots, and the family mysteries surrounding them.

I'll generally always be on board with kids researching history way above their heads. What I found really interesting is how well the book balanced a very, very heavy topic with the sort of necessary storytelling and appropriateness that comes with navigating this space. Dani's devotion to her grandmother shines through, the racial politics are addressed without being preachy or heavy-handed, the race riots central to the story are described matter-of-factly, and there's a great celebration of research and the proper historical record that is put in play throughout. It's basically pitch-perfect, and I can't think of a negative about this book at all.

Grab a copy of this one. Put it on your shelf, in your library, in your classroom. It deserves a lot of attention for being so solid.

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05 September 2016

Review: Fix

Fix Fix by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having now gone through all three of the Mancer books, it's interesting not only to see the growth of the stories, but also how well this ties all the tales together. This is a book about more than just saving the world or saving your daughter, but also has a lot to do with sacrifice, and it's handled in such a great, adept way that it's hard not to consider this one of the better reads of late in this genre.

The book jumps forward in time a bit, and we have our protagonists from the previous books resettled and trying to live a little more normally in spite of the Mancer situation worldwide (given the destruction of Europe and all) (yes, really). Of course, magical powers don't always cooperate as they should, and we quickly run into a plot overrun with kidnapping, a Borg-like collective of magic users, and an amazing run up to what's a really great ending.

I can't really give a ton away, because so much is established by the early books and so much is detailed by the existing plots. The book does work to a point if you're coming in blind, but it's enriched by the knowledge of the previous stories. It makes plotlines with doughnuts funnier and more impactful, it makes some of the major plot points toward the end weightier, and it just makes the whole thing a lot more substantive. The book moves at a solid pace from start to finish, and I just loved the flow of it completely.

No complaints except that this will likely be the last tale for the major players in this story. Flex was great, as was its sequel, but this really brings the series into a solid cohesive unit that's worth a slot on anyone's shelf.

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