06 May 2015

Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 2.5.

I hate feeling negative about this book. It's gotten a ton of awards and accolades, is well-received by people who know books.

Meanwhile, I was just sitting there puzzled by what I was reading.

Pros: a unique voice, and a prose structure that makes sense given the protagonist. An interesting premise that will get kids to pick the book up.

Cons: The structure is so weird and experimental that it really feels disjointed. The plot itself leaves a bit to be desired too, as it ventures into sometimes-more-activist territory than warranted.

To really damn it with faint praise, it feels like a Newbery book even if it doesn't match up with the more recent structures. I didn't find it especially enjoyable, and a short book like this shouldn't feel like a chore. I can imagine a reluctant reader (who is already going to be wary with that medal on the jacket) picking up this book and thinking they're going to get a fun ape adventure, and ending up with this story instead, and it just makes my head hurt.

It's not terrible, but it's not what it could have/should have/might have been for me. I know I'm way out of step with this one, but it just didn't work for me at all.

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05 May 2015

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like I've been saying this a lot lately, but this might be my new favorite YA fantasy. I've found books set in the feywild to be really difficult for teen reads, and this one not only masterfully works the fey angle with the romance angle, but makes an incredibly compelling story that I really couldn't put down.

In the story, Feyre has unknowingly violated the treaty between humans and faeries when she hunts down a faerie that she thought was a wolf. She is quickly retrieved by one of the faeries and brought to his feywild kingdom as a prisoner of sorts, stuck in the fey for the rest of her life. The story starts out as a tale about her survival, but quickly becomes one of romance and political intrigue as the mysteries of the kingdom are slowly revealed.

I don't want to give a ton away on this because part of what makes this book work is the slow burn reveals. Sometimes books try to juggle too many ideas at once, and Sarah Maas definitely puts a lot of balls in the air on this book and they never come close to falling on the ground. The romance angle is solid, the stakes are high and the danger real, and the end result is a book that ends up being both engaging and satisfying, one that stands on its own as well as leaves the door open for a new book.

I absolutely loved this in ways I never expected. A great read, highly recommended across the board.

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02 May 2015

Review: Dreams of Shreds and Tatters

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm probably at the point right now where if a book is described as Lovecraftian in any way, I'll probably take a flier on it. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is a book that's been on my radar for a while, and, while it's more Lovecraft-adjacent than anything (given the Chalmers/King in Yellow inspiration), it does do one thing exceptionally well, and that's instill the sense of dread that Lovecraft was so good at and modern Mythos literature often forgets.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with a woman and her vivid dreams and a comatose friend who is basically under the thrall of The Yellow King. The story is a balancing act between the real and the supernatural, and is just unsettling from beginning to end in a way that just makes a lot of things work.

I wish I had more to say about the book. It's a light story (when it's described as Lovecraft without a lot of the excess, the slimness of the story and the lack of excess fat in the plotting is really what's being described) and the way things go are just worth it for the ride. While the dread was there, my investment in the story, on a whole, was not in the way it was for a lot of other stories. I felt like I was more watching a film or observing as a third party, which is not always my reading experience.

Overall? Horror fans who like the sort of Weird Fic balancing acts that are so popular will find a lot to like here. Chalmers fans should definitely check it out as well, but if you're looking for something scary or more splatter-style, this might just not be your cup of tea. Not for everyone, but if you read the synopsis and think it sounds interesting, you're likely to enjoy.

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Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

The Rabbit Back Literature Society
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is all sorts of weird and wonderful. It comes across as somewhat unassuming, and its critical popularity might be a turnoff, but reconsider it with that in mind, because this is really one of the stickiest books I've read in a while.

The story basically takes place in a small Nordic town, where a children's author created a small society of 10 children to train them to write. As time went on, some became famous, others are storytellers themselves, and they remain linked, even as one of them passed early on. A new person has been added to the society, the first since its inception, and we get to see the uncovering of the society's secrets unfold as they deal with the founder's disappearance and some strange things that are happening with the actual contents of books in town.

The book feels kind of odd and convoluted at first glance, but what's impressive (especially given that this is a really solid translation from a flow standpoint) is the way the book slowly reveals itself. It's not so much a slow burn as much as a steady drip of information and ideas that really just keep things going. Furthermore, it's a strange book - you're not entirely sure where a lot of this is coming from (it actually reminds me of Belzhar in a few key ways) and that question also acts as a sort of answer along the way.

Ultimately, though, it's really more that this book does a really good job of sticking around. I finished the book a few days ago, and still want to talk to everyone about it. I handed it to a friend the evening after I read it, saying "just look at it and tell me if you think it's interesting" and she quickly read 10 pages of it because it hooked her in so fast. It's traditional while still being nontraditional, and it's one of those books that will likely continue to fly under the radar long after it should. I definitely recommend it to everyone, flaws and all - definitely one of those books.

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19 April 2015

Review: The Awesome

The Awesome
The Awesome by Eva Darrows

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early raves and reports on this one made me pick this up from Netgalley the moment it was offered. What I thought I was getting was another YA paranormal piece, but what I got what a really fun mix of genres that is best described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls having a weird kid that turns out to be Superbad.

Our heroine is Maggie, a teenage demon hunter in training. A little foul-mouthed, but who would be surprised given that her mother is a sailor in comparison. Maggie's got some work to do, but part of the problem she's running into in her training is that vampires are really into virgin blood, and given that Maggie is still a virgin, well... she needs to take care of that. And, of course, balance out her training and a situation that she's inadvertently gotten herself into along the way.

I used the cultural comparisons for a reason. It's Gilmore-esque because it's a really great, perhaps a little unhealthy mother-daughter relationship. You can tell they care about each other, though, and see themselves as more of a team than anything else. Given the fact that there's literal vampire hunting and demons and such, the Buffy comparison is apt, but so too is the quickfire dialogue and the use of these supernatural ideas to be a parallel to growing up. I don't know if I've read a paranormal piece that's done it better, to be honest. And then, of course, the fact that this is, in many ways, a bizarro sex comedy in all its forms. Drunken debauchery, awkwardness, the whole nine yards.

Really, it's just a lot of fun. Plenty of openings for this to be a series, and the heroes are fun with the villains appropriately nasty and villainous. It's a quick paced read, very few flaws, and probably closer to a 4.5 when it's all said and done. Check this one out.

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18 April 2015

Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, The Girl on the Train. Probably the biggest publishing story of late, being compared to Gone Girl, on the bestseller list for months now.

Really, I thought it was pretty shrugworthy. On one hand, I can say that because I've read a good deal of books like it (observational mysteries that may or may not result in murder combined with weird psychological flairs), and The Girl on the Train does have a very solid narrative going for it that's easy to keep up with. The mystery tropes are somewhat there, but it's depending a bit on some unreliable narration and the sort of "who do you trust" storytelling that those who read a lot already know.

Where this failed to really grab me and not let go was the characters. At least with Gone Girl, to use the comparative example, the characters gave you a strong feeling - you loved, hated, felt certain ways for specific reasons. The characters in Girl on a Train, to me, felt rather flat and wooden. They exist, and that's basically it. Instead of asking us to invest in them, the story instead seems to be asking for us to invest in the story itself and not those inside of it. It's a strange situation when the book really more needs that sort of emotional investment as opposed to trying to exploit it with shock and naked appeals.

Overall? Okay story, but I really just didn't enjoy reading it at all. I tend to not love books like this, but there are exceptions and I was hoping this would be one of them. Instead, I wanted another Gone Girl or something that would stick with me for a while. I completely understand why this is getting the praise and attention that it is, but I just know I've seen it before and seen it done better.

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Review: Care of Wooden Floors

Care of Wooden Floors
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, but I really enjoyed my time with this one.

At the start, this seems like a pretty basic tale of a guy who is housesitting. The guy he's housesitting for is clearly a little quirky, but the instructions are pretty clear that he shouldn't touch the piano, take care of the two cats, and make sure the floor is taken care of.

What isn't surprising is that things start to go a little south with a spill of wine. What is surprising is how quickly things spiral out of control. By the time I was halfway through the book and one significant accident involving the piano was involved, I was more than in for the ride, but completely strapped in. It's Very Bad Things-level insanity, with just more and more crazy being piled on until the very end.

The book has been described as Kafka-esque, which I get. Really, it's more of an absurdist comedy that balances terrible choices and terrible things with increasingly terrible results, and it's hard not to enjoy it, especially if cringe-worthy humor is your thing.

This, at least as I review it, is a Prime Lending Library selection, so if you do the Amazon+Kindle thing, it's absolutely worth one of your selections for the month. A strange book that far exceeded my expectations, and I hate that I waited so long to finally read it. Well done!

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13 April 2015

Review: The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac by Sharma Shields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really and truly have no idea what to make of this book. I do know that U thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though.

The story is fairly straightforward - Eli watches his mother leave with a bigfoot when he was 10. At least he's pretty sure it was a bigfoot. Regardless, the impacts on his life are pretty significant, and he dedicates his entire life to cryptozoology and trying to find this creature and, perhaps, his mother as well.

On the surface, that's the book. It's a man's quest to find bigfoot because bigfoot stole his mother away. In that the yeti consumes his life is one aspect, that he's got a whole bunch of issues concerning abandonment and commitment is another, that we get some insight into the mother's choices yet another. All of these come together in a really fascinating way to tell a pretty interesting story with a lot of weird twists and turns and some truly unexpected points to begin with, including apparent misunderstandings and questions about what is truly real.

It's closer to a 4.5 because, as well-crafted and interesting as this is, I really don't get it. Taken solely on the surface, this book is really just about a man and a sasquatch. Is it about megolomania? About family drama? About selfish choices? I have absolutely no idea. A little more clarity (or perhaps more personal perception) would have gone a long way, but perhaps some of the mystery is what makes this great on its own? I don't know.

Still, a pretty fun ride even with the flaws. Definitely glad I scooped this one up, and definitely one I think people who don't mind some left-of-center fiction would enjoy on a whole.

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11 April 2015

Review: Harrison Squared

Harrison Squared
Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a NaNoWriMo, I had opted to try and write a Lovecraftian piece for young adults. I think I got to about 1700 words before throwing in the towel.

Daryl Gregory has a book here, Harrison Squared, that decidedly is not young adult but has some strong YA overtones, and ends up not only being a better book than I could have come up with, but really one of the better modern interpretations of Lovecraftian themes I've read in a while.

Harrison Harrison (thus the nickname) had his father die in a freak accident at sea when a large creature capsized the boat his father was on. Now, Harrison and his marine biologist mother have moved to Dunnsmouth on the east coast, and nothing seems quite right with the weird rituals, weirder people, strange myths and stories, and, finally, Harrison's mother also becoming lost at sea. Harrison's new problem is not only trying to find his mother, but trying to navigate a town that doesn't seem to want him there and that he doesn't seem to quite fit into or understand.

All the classic tropes are there, even if they're Lovecraft-adjacent (Dunnsmouth instead of Innsmouth, creatures with strange, difficult-to-pronounce names, offhand jokes about ancient languages), and they're treated with equal reverence and with tongue firmly in cheek. It's not so obvious that a non-Lovecraft fan would catch all the references, but it's also such a good homage that there are more than a few jokes and references interspersed to make you smile. Even better, most Lovecraftian pieces seem to feel as if they must also be as verbose and descriptive as Lovecraft himself was (to the detriment of many of his stories), and this does away with that habit - possibly part of the reason so many people want to call this young adult.

Overall, this was a fun and quick and enjoyable read. As a fan of the related Lovecraft Mythos, this is a welcome addition to the overall subgenre, and there's more than enough here for fantasy or light/weird horror fans to dive into. Overall, it's closer to a 4.5, but I'd give a lot of bonus points just to my overall sheer enjoyment of the ride that I went on with this one. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Empathy Exams: Essays

The Empathy Exams: Essays
The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the surface, this looked really interesting. A book about pain, about understanding other people's pain, about describing it and so on? Sounds like an interesting read. The end result is a little more mixed.

In a way, Jamison is trying to be a cross between Mary Roach and Sarah Vowell, providing short essays investigative/immersive journalism-style about various topics from fake internet diseases to people in jail to hardcore marathoners. When she is a reporter, or a minimal participant, the essays can be absolutely riveting. When the focus is more on Jamison, though, things feel less interesting and less essential. Probably the strongest essay in the bunch, about Morgellon's Disease, straddles that line expertly and ends up being the most compelling thing in the book.

Ultimately, in a book at least partially designed to make you care, being annoyed by aspects of it seems counterproductive. Part of it is the general problem in journalism about agenda-driven or too-personal storytelling, but part of it is simply the tone and attitude. Some will find it endearing, others annoyed, but the good parts of this ultimately far outweigh the bad. Closer to a 3.5.

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Review: Eutopia

Eutopia by David Nickle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one hand, if HP Lovecraft were to write a a modern-day eugenics tale, it might look a little like this.

On the other, if HP Lovecraft were to write a modern-day eugenics tale, it would look little like this.

The book goes in your face with the ideas, the racial animosity, the anger and hate and all the fixings that go with the eugenicist movement in the beginning of this plot, but also attach a very New Weird twist to it with horror and supernatural elements. While I'm unsure if it's exactly the point, the use of the racism as a skewer toward Lovecraft's own beliefs tend to sit in the front seat of the tale, and it comes across as more shocking unless you know that context going in (and even so, the habit to overstate the impact of Lovecraft's views on his fiction does seem to arrive here as well).

On a whole, though, the problem with the story is that it only sort of works. When you really dive into the more horror elements, the writing is riveting and superb. The rest, well, I can give or take a lot of it. As with much of the New Weird, there's a lot of exposition that has some questionable relation outside of detailing the edges of the story, and when the story is fairly straightforward, it's not as necessary. It could have absolutely used a trim.

As someone who loves the Greater Mythos, and likes seeing it played with, I'm not against this book as much as I'm just not really for it. It was a bit of an unfortunate slog for me most of the time, and that took away from the great parts of the book.

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08 April 2015

Review: My Secret Guide to Paris

My Secret Guide to Paris
My Secret Guide to Paris by Lisa Schroeder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read far too often that people avoid reading YA books (and, in turn, younger books) because they don't really deal with issues well, don't have the sort of emotional maturity, what have you.

I say hogwash, and offer My Secret Guide to Paris up as a counter.

The story itself is very simple, and it's written toward its target audience, for sure. A young girl has a great relationship with her grandmother, and their combined desire is to go to Paris together. Unfortunately, the grandmother dies in an accident and Nora isn't sure she'll be able to go anymore until her mother finds three tickets and some envelopes in a trunk. Quickly, they're off to Paris and what becomes a fun scavenger hunt for Nora to enjoy Paris and everything that goes with it.

This book is actually pretty solid on a few levels. It deals with loss, with family drama, with independence and spreading your wings, with new experiences. A lot of these feel really pure and realistic, which is not always true of middle grade books, and the end result is one that you really hope for, which is great. No, the book isn't dealing with Important Social Issues or forging any new frontiers, but it doesn't have to - instead, it's a book that kids will pick up thinking they're getting a light story, and end up with one that they'll probably find something to relate to. That's what makes good fiction for kids work.

Just a solid read across the board, and I wish I read it earlier. Definitely recommended for any kids in your life, and if you're into books for kids, you should read it, too. A ton of heart.

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07 April 2015

Review: Bomb

Bomb by Sarah Mussi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not going to lie - I didn't expect to love this book the way I did.

This story is ridiculously simple. Genesis wakes up in a dark basement, and she quickly learns she has a suicide bomb strapped to her body. She quickly deduces it's related to her boyfriend who has become aligned with a radical Islamic sect. She also has a bluetooth earpiece in her ear, and the voice in her ear is giving her a lot of directions. She knows her time is limited, and she doesn't really know what to do.

It's a really, really action-packed book, unlike anything I've ever read. The pacing is almost breakneck, the way the plot is revealed absolutely incredible. It really kind of brings home the type of strange tactics we've only really read about when it comes to terrorism. It's just a wild thrill ride, action-movie-style, and that's all that matters.

One can quibble with some of the unrealistic parts of the book or the simplified characterizations, but I don't think this is necessarily meant to be a broad treatise on international politics for a teen audience. It's more of a "based on current events" roller coaster that keeps you on the edge of your seat, guessing the whole way through.

Definitely recommended, but only for the strong of heart. This one's truly intense, but absolutely worth it.

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05 April 2015

Review: Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop

Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop
Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop by Matt Fraction

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5, but I'm annoyed. The first arc was a lot of really weird insanity, and the tone was set pretty quickly and kind of made it the awesome, unique fascinating story.

This arc decides to go the more quiet, slower, sometimes preachy route. If this were the first volume, I probably wouldn't have reached for the second and might not have made it to the last issue/chapter of this arc when things get interesting again.

I get what is trying to occur here. We've been introduced the conceit and the characters, and now we're getting to know them a bit more, getting some backstory and so on. Okay. I can get behind that, but tonally it's a bummer as opposed to staying with the broader themes. It makes it feel like our creators don't know what kind of comic they want to make as opposed to running with something that was working.

I liked this more than a 3/3.5 would indicate on a whole, but, overall, the series needs to ultimately decide what it wants to be.

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04 April 2015

Review: My Best Everything

My Best Everything
My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So this is basically Breaking Bad for teens, right?

Lulu lives in rural Virginia in what is a stereotypical hick town. People don't generally leave, and it's not the most wealthy town in the state. And the locals love their moonshine. Abby, however, is going to get out of there and go to school in California, her father has some money set aside...and then he doesn't. Her dreams of leaving shattered, she comes up with an audacious plan when an old still arrives at the junkyard she works at - make her own moonshine, sell it, and get the money for college that way. Enlisting her boyfriend and some other outside help, this becomes a race to get out of town by any means necessary.

I don't know if I've ever read a YA book so soaked in booze before. It's a fun premise with not-so-fun stuff attached to it in a cultural setting that doesn't get a lot of serious play at all. The stakes actually feel high, and it's a question throughout whether things will work out. Things just feel realistic, which is good, and while the premise is funny, the story is pretty serious without being too heavy. There's something to be said about that.

Overall, a good read! As things progress, it does get a little draggy and the madcap parts don't always work, but it's a fast read on a whole and a pretty good experience with a topic I can't recall ever reading for this age group before.

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Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe closer to a 2.5.

In this book, Piddy has a problem, and it's a bully at school. Her entire existence is being dictated by the problems Yaqui Delgado is causing, and she doesn't even know what she did to get the ire directed at her. This is basically a story about dealing with a bully as well as the expectations of a family with their own cultural issues and situations to work out.

This book has gotten heaps of praise and I'll be honest in wondering what the big deal is. It's about as straightforward as a book can get, with characters that feel very surface level. Piddy, who is the person we're supposed to care about, instead comes across as entirely helpless and without any real agency of her own, cruising along in this world where her life is dictated either by her family or by Yaqui or by any other situation that comes around. Toward the end, she finally does appear to make a choice for herself, and that choice just seems empty and pointless after everything that's happened.

It's just disappointing. If we want to look at this in the framework of the diverse books "movement," this ends up just being representative culturally without providing the type of message we'd want in any direction - if you're going to make a bully get his or her comeuppance, make us care, but if you're not going to redeem the victim, give us a reason why not. This book does neither. Especially with such a compelling title (really the best part of this book), expectations were fairly high for me and they just didn't come in at the end.

There are better books that handle everything that this book does. Find a list of them and read those first.

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Review: Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

For as much as I read, I have my share of gaps in things I haven't read, and one of those gaps is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Why I've skipped it thus far, I have no idea, but I know that it didn't hurt my enjoyment of Belzhar in the slightest.

This book takes place at a boarding school and focuses mainly on a girl who joins the school following the death of her boyfriend. She is placed in what is viewed as a special, exclusive English class with four other students, all of which have fairly tragic stories of their own. The class will focus on the works of Sylvia Plath, and they're given a journal to keep their thoughts and feelings in, required to write in it twice a week. When they write in the journal, however, they're transported to a place where what went wrong is seemingly set right again. The question then becomes why, as well as what happens in this land being righted.

It's a weird book, no doubt about it. What's kind of great about it is how plainly and directly it handles the issue of depression, especially in teens (and unsurprising given the topic central to the tale), and in behavioral ways to deal with it. I liked that it didn't pretend to trivialize the issues in play - Jam's problem, when revealed, is treated with the same weight and importance as anyone else, one girl's options toward the end are clearly meant to mirror something specific and are given the proper weight, and so on. It's weird to say this in a sense, but it feels rare to see a young adult book tackle the concepts behind depression in a non-pandering way, if they opt to address it at all. It also doesn't hurt that the story itself is good, with interesting characters, a unique conceit, and a pretty solid pace for a book like this.

Overall, a good read. Definitely recommended for fans of Wolitzer or Plath, but also worth it for those teens who might be struggling a bit. We don't talk about depression enough as is, this might be the shift that someone needs before it's too late.

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03 April 2015

Review: Nightbird

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say I'm too too familiar with Alice Hoffman. I know she's responsible for a lot of well-loved stories, but I can't recall reading anything of hers before now. Nightbird is her first foray into middle grade and it's pretty wonderful on a whole.

The story is about Twig, who lives in a small Massachusetts town that's best known for having a local monster. A few have claimed to see it, but it mostly just steals things and is one of those local attractions that small towns tend to have. The wrinkle for Twig is that her family was cursed by someone in this town centuries ago, and, since the moon is right and the monster might be personal, this might be the best possible opportunity to break it.

This book is a little quieter than most middle grade books like it, which might be a flaw if the tone wasn't so specific. Being from Massachusetts, we all grow up with stories of the Salem Witch Trials, of Lizzie Borden, of small towns having lake monsters or yetis or what have you. With the length of history in the area, these small towns get their charm in part from these tales and the benefits and drawbacks that come with them. This book becomes charming due to how accurately it portrays these little pockets of interest in a small town, and, really, how it can sometimes impact families as well (even if the example in this book is more fantastical in nature).

Overall, I believe fans of Alice Hoffman will like this, but, as a short and charming middle grade read, a lot of other readers will, too, especially those kids who like books in this style and have interests in the more weird portions of local history. A fun read.

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Review: Reboot

Reboot by Amy Tintera

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So this read was take two on this book for me. The first time around, it was a tough attempt for me, as the book sounds like a cool teen robot dystopia, but it just felt really draggy with a plot that left me wanting a lot more. Simply not what I was hoping for after under 100 pages, but it's hit a few award lists and the ratings were good and I had another opportunity to try this again.

I really should have trusted my gut.

This post apocalyptic/dystopian world has teens "rebooted" after they die, so they're effectively being groomed as robotic-style supersoldiers with healing powers and such. Different classes in society as a result, and on and on. Our heroine, Wren, finally rebels against the system as it stands, and thus we get rolling.

Why does this book not succeed? The pacing is all wrong, with a lot of almost-mindless action to start that just halts right when things should be ramping up toward a thrilling climax. Wren, for all she is, just isn't someone you can really root for, and that's unfortunately due to a character design rather than anything else, and there's a feeling that this is sort of trying to ape a Starship Troopers ideal without the glorification of military that just never seems to arrive.

A lot of people like this, so I might be off-base, but when there's already a lot of good stuff in this genre available, this book becomes easily skippable as a result. Definitely consider passing on this. Grab The Testing instead.

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31 March 2015

Review: The Start of Me and You

The Start of Me and You
The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's something about these teen romances that always get me. A good one can be tremendous, though, and The Start of Me and You is really one of my favorites that I've gotten to read as of late. A fun mix of outcasts, coping with loss, and typical high school drama, it just works on all levels and quickly became one of my favorite reads of all time.

The story is about Paige, who sees her first boyfriend drown and has spent the last year struggling to cope. Starting school in her junior year, she's vowing to do things differently and face her fears, and her friends are helping along with her new classmate who she meets through quiz bowl. Paige has plans, but things don't go the way she expected, as we'd think.

This book just has a ton of heart. Paige is believable, her friends and love interests great, the story itself has a lot of fun little nods and references without being too obscure. I pretty much tore through this one as quickly as I could because I really felt the need to know what was coming up and around. It doesn't rely on any real hokey conventions - there aren't any movie stars, nothing is going out of business - it just ends up being a really believable story with a solid message and a lot of fun along the way.

What is the most important thing with this book, though, is how it mixes the basic romance plots with a lot of realistic, little-discussed topics. The death of someone close who was way too young. The family member melting away in front of you when you need them the most. I related a lot to this book, and had more than my share of moments with it, both while reading it and long after.

Highly, highly recommended. I loved this book. I have become, and will continue to be, a crazy evangelist for how great and awesome and important this book is. Everyone - yes, everyone - should read this, it is absolutely and without a doubt some of the best YA has to offer in terms of the total package without using existing tropes or popular trends as a crutch. It may not have the emotional weight of The Fault in Our Stars or the literary value of Ship Breaker, but when we talk about books that teens need (or, well, all of us), this is what I think of.

Well done. Now go find yourself a copy.

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29 March 2015

Review: Half Bad

Half Bad
Half Bad by Sally Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.

This is basically a story about witches. There are good witches and bad witches, and Nathan is literally caught in the middle, as he is the product of a white and black witch. The witching community views him as an abomination, he is constantly persecuted and has very little chance for escape unless he's somehow able to track his father down.

It's a weird book, both in structure and style and in the overall plotline, which is arguably trying to make a broader social point and kind of stumbles a bit. Even so, it's weird enough to require a bit of a investment and an effort to stick with it, but the payoffs are pretty great. It's hard not to sympathize with Nathan while also not exactly missing the points of everyone else involved. It's a cool, complicated book that, in many ways, is unlike anything else I've read, especially in the YA space.

How this will hold up over a multi-book series, I don't know. The book leaves things set up explicitly, so I do look forward to jumping in sooner rather than later, but this is a pretty interesting read on its own.

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27 March 2015

Review: Alex + Ada, Volume 1

Alex + Ada, Volume 1
Alex + Ada, Volume 1 by Jonathan Luna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this just jumped way up on my "favorite comics list."

Alex is lonely, and the future world he lives in is full of androids. His grandmother, having gotten an android herself in her later years, decides to buy one for Alex. The android is about as creepy as you'd imagine, in part due to some reactionary laws following an earlier violent incident, and Alex isn't initially into it, until he learns about some of the workarounds.

Where this goes, I don't want to spoil. The real heart and soul of this is really what matters, and it toes the line between emotional and funny really well. In terms of basic, modern "robots and humans living together" tropes, however, I'm not sure I've read a better story about robot/human interliving overall, and it's one that lends itself well to the graphic novel format (which isn't always the case) as well.

I think the Lunas are quickly becoming some of my favorite comics writers. I rushed out and ordered the next volume (as well as a copy of this one for my own collection) almost immediately, and hope to get to it soon, it was that good.

Absolutely something anyone who loves comics should read. Really and truly great.

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21 March 2015

Review: The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon the time, I was somewhat serious about music. Went to college for it, the whole nine yards. I was never as serious as Lucy or Lucy's family in The Lucy Variations, but I did see a lot here that I recognized from others, and this story was both wonderful and heartbreaking because of that.

Lucy quit music months earlier due to how she felt her priorities were being governed following the death of her grandmother. Worse for her family, she quit right before she was going to take part in a major international competition in a rather spectacular fashion. With the aftermath of this and how it has impacted her family, as well as how it's changed things for her younger brother, the story is really about Lucy's growth and redemption as well as the complicated relationship many of us have with art.

It works because you don't have to be a musician to appreciate the struggle here, both in terms of identity and familial expectations. It definitely doesn't hurt that Lucy is likable and her issues entirely valid. The issues she deals with, some of the problems she runs into during the course of the book, I've seen it first-hand. It's real, and I can see this being just as valid for sports jocks as it would be for the more arts-oriented.

Read this. Read it whether you relate or not, give it to people in your life who are struggling with their issues of personal identity and such. It's a great read that I shouldn't have waited so long to pick up.

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14 March 2015

Review: The Eighth Day

The Eighth Day
The Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Eighth Day involves an Arthurian legend, a secret magical 8th day, and the people who can cross between the seven day world we live in and the magical 8th day that exists in parallel. Your enjoyment of this book will likely mirror how much that intrigues you.

The book is exactly that - a kid wakes up one day and sees the world is basically stopped. Electronics don't work, no one exists, and everything is just quiet. The next day, everything is okay again. The rest of the story involves the conspiracy/world with this in mind, pretty high concept stuff for a middle grade book.

In its favor is the fact that the book bursts right out the gate with the plot, not wasting a ton of time. The problem with that is the way the story itself kind of stalls out as things progress. It doesn't necessarily help that this weird mashup of science fictional tropes and high fantasy doesn't always make a ton of sense, but that this is a pretty fast-paced read with some cool concepts and ideas definitely makes up for it.

Overall, not bad for a middle grade book, although some more sophistication and aging up of the material might have benefited things on a whole. Worth a look if you're into this sort of thing.

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13 March 2015

Review: Puppy Love

Puppy Love
Puppy Love by A. Destiny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, hear me out.

If we're just going off of quality of literature and story? This is a one. It's candy that's old and stale for just about everyone.

It's the "just about" that's the key here. This book isn't a serious read by any stretch of the imagination, it's a love triangle with cute puppies. That's it. But in that I do love me some teen romances, in that romance as an overall category continues to essentially keep publishing afloat, this is basically a gateway drug into that industry.

In that way? It works. It's a fast, quick, surface-level story designed to hit a few quick plot points and resolve a love triangle. That's basically it, and it is completely functional in that regard. It has nothing to offer anyone with knowledge of the genre because it's not for us, and I'm sure this book (along with anything else in the Flirt line) will hit those preteen girls looking to move up to something a little more substantive. They need these books, too.

So yeah. If you're old enough to be reading this post, stay far, far away from this book. But if there's a 12 year old girl in your life who has shown some interest in this genre, this might just be the place for them to start.

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28 February 2015

Review: My Last Kiss

My Last Kiss
My Last Kiss by Bethany Neal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Now listen, boys and girls, as this book has a very important lesson. Stay tuned for spoilers.

This story is of a girl who dies via drowning, falling into a lake off a bridge in the middle of the night. She's now a ghost, not so much haunting her old friends and places as much as stuck, trying to figure out the unfinished business that's keeping her tethered to this world.

Why does this book fail? In part because there's no consistency to how her ghostiness works, but, perhaps more importantly, the message this sends. It turns out that she's stuck, at least in part if not completely, because she sort of cheated on her boyfriend by kissing another boy.


The moment that reveal came along I wanted to just toss it aside. What a terrible message to send, never mind a really weird and kind of dumb cop out. It doesn't help that no one is likable, that the love triangle is convoluted, that the motives are suspect. Little about this works at all.

Skip it.

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25 February 2015

Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, what a disappointment.

I'm going to get a little spoilery here, so fair warning if you don't want to know anything about the final scenes.

Anyway, Funny Girl. Nick Hornby might be my favorite non-genre author, if not my favorite author outright, so I've been waiting for the United States version of this for a while. Granted, I've been reading a lot of other things while picking away at this, but I almost certainly would have given up on this very quickly had it been written by someone else. It turns out that, at least for me, the tale of an actress and her co-stars on a well-regarded British sitcom just doesn't do it for me. It's sort of like trying to be a Mad Men of sorts with the era, but comes across more like The Casual Vacancy in tone as I couldn't really wrap my head around a lot of this and how British it was in parts. I fully recognize that the problem might have been me in this case, but I've never had this issue with Hornby before which makes me believe this might have just been a misstep.


This book, in US hardcover, is roughly 450 pages or so. If this was a short story that started on page 400 or so (in the final section when they're talking reunion), or even started the story out with the reunion and moved forward from there, I would have been much more engaged. In a sense, the story being told for the first 80% of the book felt like really frustrating, almost unimportant setup for what ended up being a pretty compelling finale. While I'm glad I read through the end for that, at least, it also served in making me dislike the first parts that much more.

Given the lack of buzz around this one in comparison to, say, Juliet, Naked from a few years back, I don't know what to say. I can't expect them all to be winners, and maybe this is a misstep and it's difficult to write a story about sitcom stars from the 1960s, but I wanted to enjoy this so much and it ended up being such a slog. I can't recommend it as much as I wish I could.

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11 February 2015

Review: Flex

Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading Ferrett Steinmetz's blog for at least 10 years now, probably much longer. One of the first real "bloggers" I ever kept up with, I've always found his writing to be compelling and interesting, even when he's writing about things that I have limited interest in. Why, then, was I nervous about reading a book that he's written? He did the Clarion workshop, he's never done me wrong in our interactions, but the transition from blogger to Capital-W-Writer is always a strange one, especially for someone who is, in many ways, an online acquaintance.

So getting that out of the way, we have Flex. It's urban fantasy for sure, and it's billed as The Dresden Files (which I enjoy) mixed with Breaking Bad (which I understand the context of even if I haven't watched it). To try to compare it to them is not really fair, though - while a great elevator pitch, Flex has a lot more going for it than that, and it deserves to be noticed on its own merits as a result.

The situation in Flex involves an insurance bureaucrat who can do magic, and his magical ability is tied to his skill in bureaucracy (think Geekomancy or Celebromancy). There's a magical drug going around called Flex, and he's got a role in working against it. He's also got a daughter he loves, and that daughter has been severely hurt in a Flex-related accident. The insurance company is possibly/probably/likely to balk on paying out to fix things, so our hero is forced to get into the Flex trade to help make sure that ends meet.

The story is simple on its face, and appeals to a lot of different viewpoints without feeling like it's pandering to anything specific. What makes this book great instead of merely good is that it comes fully formed. The magic system makes sense from the very start, as opposed to having to make a variety of rules and limitations as we roll along to make the plot work. Everything makes sense. Yes, the way magic works for individuals is very Geekomancy (to the point where you could theoretically put Ree Reyes in the female lead role and still have it make sense), but it's much darker and more mature and actually feels like it carries some weight. Even with this "dark side," as it were, the story isn't afraid to go for the laugh - the geek-based magic of Paul's sidekick is clearly defined and would be eye-rolly in any other context, but works really well as a foil to the really nasty happenings that surround it.

Plus, Paul is a bureaucromancer. That's just great in its own really specific way. That'd be my power too, I think.

No book is perfect, and there is a specific voice in this narrative that I know to be distinctly Steinmetz's given that I've been reading him for so long that might trip up other readers. If you found the conceit in Geekomancy to be ridiculous, this probably isn't going to help, and Flex is not shy about wearing its influences on its sleeves - it definitely feels like a Dresden book from pacing to the exchanges, for example, but without the predictable third act. But, truly, if I'm looking to criticize Flex, it's more nitpicky in nature. I started this book on a three hour plane ride and finished it before I landed, it was that good.

Overall, I'm really glad this book exists for a lot of reasons, and the fact that it's actually pretty awesome is significantly one of them. This is a must read for fans of urban fantasy, for those who know what I'm referencing above and enjoy them, and those who are really looking for something a little different in their urban fantasy reading. Now, can we get that sequel already?

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08 February 2015

Review: The Just City

The Just City
The Just City by Jo Walton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess to not having a ton of interest in (for lack of a better term) ancient philosophy. I've read a lot of it, but never really kept up beyond coursework and such. The Just City is rooted in that sort of philosophy, and provides a great little sandbox to play in as a result.

The idea behind it is that the god Athene has opted to try and recreate Plato's Republic as an actual society. She takes people from all walks of life in all times (past and future), adds some robot workers, and lets the people go at it. Socrates is there, the god Apollo opts to become a mortal and is there, many famous philosophers are there as well, all there to try and see if they can make it work.

The story is very much just the society dealing with the challenges of staying true to Plato's ideals while coping with modern ideas, surprises, and so on. There's probably a lot I missed due to not being versed in it, but I still enjoyed the whole thing very thoroughly. The way the book ended, too, was a really interesting reveal that I, frankly, should have seen coming, but I was so immersed in all of it that I never considered it.

Overall, I definitely recommend this. If you're not so much into science fiction, those elements are very subdued and really exist more to serve a few specific points. Certainly worth your time.

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Review: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I've considered myself a Joe Hill fan for a while now, but Heart-Shaped Box stayed unread on my Kindle for years. I finally decided to open it up, and now I just hate myself for waiting so long.

Basically, Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story. A guy buys haunted things off eBay, and this happens to be the suit of a dead man who was a hypnotist, and it now compels people to murder. The book immediately dives right into the creepy compulsions and weirdness, and it becomes a race to see if this situation can be solved before it's too late.

The book works best when it's man versus mystery. The first quarter of the book is almost perfect on its own, with the ghost activity ramped up to a point where I had no idea where it was going to realistically end up. The heightened tension that persists as a result gives a great immediacy to the rest of the tale, and kept me on edge as the couple at the center of the story moved from place to place. It's rare to have a book where you feel literally anything could happen at any time, and yet this book succeeds better than most other books I've read that I can recall. Yes, it relies on a little more gore and profanity than is necessary or that I'd prefer, but it didn't really take away from the story at all, and that's the most important thing.

Overall, I'd put this ahead of Horns but behind NOS4A2, but it's clear that, at least for more "traditional" horror, Joe Hill is pretty much right at the top of my list. This was absolutely brilliant, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the genre. Just great.

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