18 October 2016

Review: Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Commander S.T. Bolivar, III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by this book, more because of the subject/topic-matter for this age group than anything else. It's rare to find this topic in middle grade, so I was quite pleased.

At its core, Munchem Academy is just another reform school. But Carter quickly realizes that everything is a bit strange, teachers included, and he's going to get to the bottom of it. Doing so requires him to be a little more heroic than he's used to, and uncover a dastardly plan along the way.

I don't want to give away the big reveal, since it's such a major part of the charm of this, but the twist alone doesn't rescue this from being largely paint-by-numbers in many regards. The similarities to countless books in many ways keep this from being great, but also gooses the appeal to kids who might be more reluctant to branch out a bit. Overall, though, the end picks up better than the beginning, and that lifts it from being okay to being pretty good.

Good for kids looking for a fun creepy story, or who like more supernatural mysteries. Not a lot of adult appeal here.

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13 October 2016

Review: Age of Blight: Stories

Age of Blight: Stories Age of Blight: Stories by Kristine Ong Muslim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, this book.

A collection of (very) short weird stories, I think my only complaint about it is the overall length, as the collection is only a hair over 100 pages. But within those hundred pages you get great stories about clones, about sea monsters (and the discovery therein), apocalyptic diseases, and so on.

Why is this so great, though? I think there's a reasonable comparison to Kelly Link here, but where Link keeps her tongue firmly in cheek throughout, Kristine Ong Muslim succeeds in perfectly balancing her stories on the line between disturbing and ridiculous. There's enough of the awkward, gross, and strange here to satiate the hunger for strange stories, but it's hard not to giggle at the kid who used to use his tentacle to swing from the bannisters in his house, too.

Overall, I don't know how well known this book is or how easy it is to get it, but if you like weird short stories, you need to get your hands on it. Such a great surprise.

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10 October 2016

Review: Death's End

Death's End Death's End by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At this point, I think I may have fully and completely been wrong about The Three-Body Problem. That was a book I liked but found very flawed for a lot of reasons, but the sequel, The Dark Forest, blew my mind. Absolutely crazy, and Death's End became maybe my most anticipated read of the fall.

The good news is that the quality of this series doesn't drop. Following the craziness at the end of Forest, we have what ends up being another interesting narrative shift where we slide back and forth between the traditional narrative and some more "primary" references, whether they be writings or reports or stories from the universe. This really kind of helps with the universe building and does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out some of the more complicated ideas. Always a plus. Also, the sense of urgency and despair remains throughout, with some genuinely difficult passages throughout as we race to the end.

The downside? Well, if we want to call it one at all, and if we want to refer to the one thing that keeps this from being as amazing as Forest, it's the book's way out. I have some issues with the way it ended, and I feel like it has too much similarity to another recent series (even though I believe this predates it even though there wasn't an English translation), and it's an ending that sometimes feels a little overdone. Still, I give it credit for trying to have some scientific underpinnings for it, and that's ultimately good enough for me given the journey to the destination.

Still? I think this is ultimately one of the best science fiction series of the last decade. I almost want to go back to Three-Body and see what I ultimately missed from that book because of how great the final two were, and I'm just sad that I can't experience this for the first time again. Hopefully we get more Cixin fiction translated into English soon.

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09 October 2016

Review: Hero of Dreams

Hero of Dreams Hero of Dreams by Brian Lumley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a fairly strange book. Previously unpublished before this volume was put out close to 30 years ago, this is the story of two people who are heroes in a dreamworld they share even though they're perfectly mundane in the real world. The heroics they go through int he dream world have a lot of Lovecraftian angles to them, and go full-blown by the end.

I enjoyed this well enough, but I suppose it's just strange in that the story itself just happens. There doesn't feel like there's a lot of agency to any characters, and perhaps that's intended with the dreamlike state in place for a setting, but so much of the plot is "this happens, and then this happens" that it becomes less about engagement with the characters and more about the overall setting.

I will absolutely keep running with this series, but it's just one of the weirder things I've read recently, and I don't think anyone but hardcore Lovecraft-philes like myself might get much out of it.

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Review: Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Matthias Buchinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love little pieces of historical esoterica, and I don't use "little" as a play on words when it comes to this look at the life and work of Matthias Buchinger, who was a German artist born with dwarfism but without hands or feet, yet capable of artistic and slight-of-hand feats that are difficult for anyone. Ricky Jay was able to curate an exhibition of Buchinger's work, and this is a companion piece for the exhibition.

It's not significantly detailed, and much of the book is about Jay seeking out and procuring various Buchinger ephemera (interesting in itself), but for what it is, the book is really great. So many reprints of Buchinger are scattered about in the book as well that you get a good grasp as to his craftsmanship and ability first hand, which is often difficult to do in projects like this.

At the end of the day, this felt like a generous taste of an artist I absolutely want to learn more about. Absolutely recommended for those who love art or strange history.

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07 October 2016

Review: Uzumaki

Uzumaki Uzumaki by Junji Ito
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comics by Junji Ito make the rounds on the internet constantly, and Uzumaki is constantly recommended as a good horror comic/manga, so I finally got a hold of an omnibus release. It mostly meets the standard, but sometimes it's a little off the rails.

The premise is that there is a small town in Japan near a lake that has been cursed. The curse involves spirals. The spirals possess people, they exist everywhere, and things become more and more insane as the spiral curse progresses. The curse takes a lot of forms, and the story unwinds itself in a way that answers a lot of the questions that come up along the way, but not without some seriously gross happenings.

There's always a suspension of disbelief in play when it comes to horror, and this in particular really needs it in a lot of ways. It's less jump scare and more just really gross and awkward, and while we can handle snail people or blood-sucking children, it makes the really absurd even more absurd as a result. This may be where some (lack of) knowledge of cultural and/or manga tropes comes into play for me, but some of the more eye-rolly parts kept me from loving something I really only liked.

I'm still excited to read more from Ito, for sure, and those who like horror and haven't done much in the manga space should absolutely check this out. Just manage the expectations a little bit and it might be more fun as a result.

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Review: Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I feel like I completely missed the TRL era of MTV, at least in terms of when I watched MTV. The years of N'Sync, Britney, et al were sometime in high school for me, so Dave Holmes is a name I only kind of know. But a friend raved about this book, and so I grabbed it because I sometimes like books like this, and it just worked out really well.

The book follows Holmes as he grows up, goes to school (local to me, at that), gets to MTV, and all the stuff in between. As a gay man, he talks about how his sexuality was handled at his Jesuit college and how it's worked out in the entertainment industry, and there are tons of fun musical and cultural references to fill up the spaces in between.

This is a very light read, but that's not anything negative about the book itself. In terms of a book I could just pick up and put down every so often, it was near-perfect, and Holmes knows how to tell a good story on a whole. I really have no complaints, and I tend to be very critical of memoirs anyway.

Pick this up, especially if you know Holmes or love pop culture. Just a quick, fun, enjoyable read.

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04 October 2016

Review: Hamstersaurus Rex

Hamstersaurus Rex Hamstersaurus Rex by Tom O'Donnell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Closer to a 1.5.

There's a rich tradition in children's books for seemingly absurd premises. The Chocolate Touch, How to Eat Fried Worms to a point, there's a lot of stuff out there that just gets to the heart of the crazy imaginations that kids can have.

That brings us to Hamstersaurus Rex, the story of a classroom hamster that gets into some protein bars and becomes part-T-Rex.


I have to say that this is really, really dumb. Like, really dumb. I love the lowbrow, but the caricature of the gym teacher, the really bad-at-being-a-bully-bully, the Evil Corporate Conglomerate (TM), all of these things mesh together for a story that just doesn't seem to work. There's nothing wrong with dumb books for kids - goodness knows there are enough dumb books and movies and shows for adults - but this one, just... yikes.

Avoid this if at all possible. It should have been better than it was.

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Review: Rebel Genius

Rebel Genius Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

It's great to see middle grade books going a little darker in some regards, and even to see some tropes refreshed. Rebel Genius will get attention because of the author's association with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it really should get some points more because of its treatment of the familiar/spirit animal motif.

The setting is sort of a Renaissance-era Europe where artists get Geniuses, a sort of familiar that represents their talents. People with them are persecuted, and so our hero finds an enclave where he's taught how to use his Genius and eventually fight back.

This isn't forging anything resembling new ground, but the use of these ideas along with some little-used concepts (like sacred geometry) make this a more interesting read even while it remains imperfect. More recent books like the Claire/Black Magisterium books do this sort of darkness better, and The Golden Compass remains a gold standard of sorts for the familiars concepts, but that doesn't mean kids, especially reluctant readers who are fans of Avatar, might not find a lot to love in this as an entrypoint.

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