16 September 2014

Review: The Vault of Dreamers


The Vault of Dreamers
The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O'Brien

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



I definitely liked Birthmarked, the first book by this author, but never really felt compelled to finish the series. Seeing a new book form the author come up on NetGalley, I opted to give it a shot and, even with some quibbles about certain choices made, I'm ultimately glad I did.

The book throws a curve from the start, in that a girl is in a school environment complete with futuristic pods and such. We quickly learn that it is the future, and it's also part of a reality program of sorts for very creative types. Rosie skips her sleeping pill for the pod one night, however, and finds what she believes to be the true happenings and purpose of the school. It quickly becomes a story of perception and reality with some hints of future tech.

The ideas? Wonderful, and really advanced for a YA book in a lot of ways. I loved the choices and chances made, except for the end of the book where things quickly start to fall apart at the seams. The ending in particular outright angered me, and while I shouldn't judge a book so much by my disliking of an ending, there is something to be said about the ending fitting everything else.

All said and done, though, I did like this and would recommend. It's a strange trip, for sure, but one I'm glad I went on, all things considered.



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15 September 2014

Review: The Goblin Emperor


The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5.

I spoke a few weeks ago about trying and failing to get through a political fantasy. It wasn't very exciting and didn't really pull me in at all. The Goblin Emperor comes in with a lot of praise and hype behind it, and, as a book that largely deals with the political machinations of a court in a fantasy-setting, it absolutely delivers. It's the story of an unexpected heir having to learn to rule on the fly while figuring out if his parents were actually assassinated and whether his head is on the chopping block next.

It's hard to describe exactly what works here on a whole, especially when most of it does. Maia, in trying to be a better ruler than those who preceded him, feels mostly realistic in spite of the circumstances. The issues in the country are viable and carry some real-feeling danger, and the book is so readable that it's just all easy to get through. I can forgive some qualms with social agendas and narrative weirdness that seems to have been inserted for no real reason, but the book and story are so solid that it can be forgiven easily.

Overall, a great, great read. Definitely one everyone should pick up.



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08 September 2014

Review: City of Stairs


City of Stairs
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Epic fantasy is more or less defined by either Brandon Sanderson or George RR Martin these days, and I've been looking for that Next Great Series for a while. When I saw this book get previewed in a few places a while back, I made sure to check it out when I could. I figured I'd like it, but what I didn't expect was for the book to be one of the best things I've read this year.

The story takes place in a land where the gods are all dead and much of the history of them and their society has gone missing or is lost. In some ways, the city this story takes place in has some modernish flair, but is still very rooted in the basic fantasy ideals. The issue is when our diplomat/officer of sorts enters the city on one task and quickly gets involved in a conspiracy of sorts, one that is equally magical and deadly at the same time.

The appeal for this book is twofold. For one, the setting is outstanding. The city of Bulikov, which is where this book takes place, feels fully formed and immersive. I wanted the book to spend just as much time on this as it did on the rest of the tale, and the little nooks, crannies, architecture, everything about it feels rich and alive in a way that many other places do not. Unlike any other book I've read in recent memory, the city itself is almost completely essential even if it's not at the root of the story.

The better part, though, is the tale itself. It has Lovecraftian elements, some humor, plenty of fantasy tropes, the whole nine yards. There's a warehouse of sorts in particular that was easily my favorite part, and one specific result of that ends up being one of the highlights of the book. Without giving much away, those who like their fantasy a little darker will find plenty to like here, but those who prefer some lighter fare won't be left behind or turned off. It's a pretty perfect mix.

Overall, knowing that the sequel is in the works is good to know, but I'm going to be impatient for the next volume for a while. This is absolutely one of my favorite reads of this year, and should really start being discussed as one of the best releases in the genre as of late. You must read this book. Highly, highly recommended.



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06 September 2014

Review: Acceptance


Acceptance
Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



In what was really the surprise of the year for me, the Southern Reach trilogy was a quick three book hit this year that was among the best in "weird" fiction I've read in some time. You can look back at my prior reviews of the first two books, but needless to say, the concept behind the strange "topographical anomaly" that is central to the three books remains excellent, and the way the tales are brought together in this third book is mostly masterful.

There's some confusion in that we have some actual names for the first time (as opposed to "The biologist" or "The director") and it creates a little extra issue in terms of how to keep track of everything. That's my only complaint in what ends up being a book that answers a ton of questions while still successfully raising even more. A lot of it had me thinking of The Croning's ending in many regards, and that's definitely a complement, as things are about as bizarre as expected.

Overall, a great series and one I'm sad to see finished. Needless to say, VanderMeer has become a must-read for me on this series alone, and I really look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.



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30 August 2014

Review: Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files


Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files
Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Side Jobs is about as mixed as you'd expect a short story collection of odds and sods to be.

It should be prefaced that the collection has a singular purpose of getting the shorter in-universe stuff published, plain and simple. So when the first story is described by Butcher as a bit rough, he's not kidding. It also allows Butcher to play around in the universe a bit, such as with stories from the perspective of the vampire Thomas and from Karrin herself (my personal favorite story in the book). It doesn't take itself terribly seriously, and that's a good thing.

The downside to the collection is that some of it, well, isn't great. The first story in particular is really tough to read, especially coming at it 12 books in when you've gotten used to a specific, more professional style from Butcher. Not all the stories work - the love spell one fell flat for me, the very short one toward the beginning, "Vignette," didn't really work for me, and a number of them are just flat-out unmemorable. There's one story in particular that really rubbed me the wrong way with the sexualization of Molly, and it really took me out of things. I don't know why, but I didn't expect it and really didn't like it.

As a whole, though? Not bad. Not great, but it has its moments, and you can really truly say that about any group of short stories that are out there. It's a solid collection in a universe I'm already really enjoying, so that's ultimately all that matters in the end. Closer to a 3.5.



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Review: Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files


Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files
Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Side Jobsis about as mixed as you'd expect a short story collection of odds and sods to be.

It should be prefaced that the collection has a singular purpose of getting the shorter in-universe stuff published, plain and simple. So when the first story is described by Butcher as a bit rough, he's not kidding. It also allows Butcher to play around in the universe a bit, such as with stories from the perspective of the vampire Thomas and from Karrin herself (my personal favorite story in the book). It doesn't take itself terribly seriously, and that's a good thing.

The downside to the collection is that some of it, well, isn't great. The first story in particular is really tough to read, especially coming at it 12 books in when you've gotten used to a specific, more professional style from Butcher. Not all the stories work - the love spell one fell flat for me, the very short one toward the beginning, "Vignette," didn't really work for me, and a number of them are just flat-out unmemorable. There's one story in particular that really rubbed me the wrong way with the sexualization of Molly, and it really took me out of things. I don't know why, but I didn't expect it and really didn't like it.

As a whole, though? Not bad. Not great, but it has its moments, and you can really truly say that about any group of short stories that are out there. It's a solid collection in a universe I'm already really enjoying, so that's ultimately all that matters in the end. Closer to a 3.5.



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Review: The Dragon's Path


The Dragon's Path
The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Having some time to kill on a plane a few weeks back, it felt like a good idea to try my hand at another epic fantasy, especially as my regular go-tos are ones I'm currently caught up on. The Dragon's Path is mostly good-to-great, and, perhaps more importantly, definitely scratches that itch that I was looking to solve.

Like any good long-term epic fantasy read, this one has its share of point of view storylines. There's the orphan girl, the noble heir, soldiers and politics, and all of these stories are, to Abraham's credit, interesting without staying too long. Even with my favorites like A Song of Ice and Fire, you have point of view characters that you want to ignore for a time to get back to the plot points you like, and this book doesn't seem to have that same sort of drag. It's not to say there aren't favorites - I'm personally partial to the story involving Cithrin the orphan banker - but nothing feels like filler or a way to keep the characters involved without giving them anything to do.

If there's a downside, it's that the story doesn't feel epic yet. Unlike ASOIAF or The Stormlight Archives, this feels a little lighter in both structure and story. This is not a bad thing at all, and it's in fact welcome in some regards, but if you're looking for that "true epic," this might not be the thing you're looking for. Then again, we're a number of books into the overall story now, so it might pick up significantly in the later volumes.

Overall, probably closer to a 4.5. Definitely a series I intend to continue, and definitely something that fills a significant void in what I've been reading of late.



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26 August 2014

Review: Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle


Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle
Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Closer to a 1.5, honestly.

This book is truly a bit of a mess. It doesn't know if it's a fantasy book, or a horror book, or a book centered around riddles, or a book centered around birds, or a book about animal companions, or a book about animal zombies/vampires. It could be all of these things, or it could be about none of them at all.

And did I mention it's a book for kids?

The story is incredibly long for what it is, has very cardboard characters and a far-too-confusing premise for the audience it's after. I really don't get it at all, and I'm at a loss to figure out where in the process it went wrong. I'm hesitant to call it a complete failure, but it's pretty much the closest I can get to "failure" without actually calling it one. There's redeemable ideas about virtue and selfless acts throughout, but you have to get through a LOT of nonsense to get there along the way, and it's just not worth it.

Avoid this one at all costs.



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16 August 2014

Review: Sisters


Sisters
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



This is a book I liked while reading it, and end up finding that I loved the more I thought about it.

Smile was a solid read because of the fun story and the way that Telgemeier is able to tell an uncomfortable story about her childhood with grace and charm. Sisters is a different story, this one partially a road trip story about coping with a family that doesn't really get you and maybe never will, and partially a series of flashbacks regarding growing up with a younger sister that you started out excited about but ended up not having a ton in common with.

It's a great tale about how family is supposed to stick together, how we cope with trouble in a family environment, how we don't always know how to fit in. I wish this book existed when I was 12, and, at 33, I still find a lot to relate to and learn from with this book. It's a truly beautiful read, and it really belongs on everyone's shelf. Highly recommended.



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09 August 2014

Review: The Circuit: Executor Rising


The Circuit: Executor Rising
The Circuit: Executor Rising by Rhett C. Bruno

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I'm always looking for a great space opera, even though the genre doesn't always work for me. Sometimes it's the plot, sometimes it's the attention to detail, sometimes it's just that the ideas aren't compelling. The Circuit is a space opera that draws from a lot of different ideas, and when it works, it's really solid, but sometimes there's less likable parts to wade through to get to the meat.

The story is more of an espionage piece in outer space, with a basically-unchallenged governing group and those who want that to change. There's mercenaries, there are government representatives, there's seemingly sentient transport units, and all of them have their own basic machinations.

The issue with broader "space operas," or anything with varying points of view, is that some storylines end up being more enjoyable than others. While the start and finish of this book were both very compelling, most of the middle I had a lot of trouble engaging with, whether it be due to my own personal feelings on the story or whether it being just that some characters felt better formed than others. Bruno excels at making ADIM, the transport android, a very enjoyable character, while the more rogueish types ended up feeling like background characters when they were the main thrust of the story. It really took me out of things a bit and made it a little more difficult to fully immerse.

Overall, though? It's not a bad book by any means. In a world where you have great space operas from Peter Hamilton, and newer pieces from John C. Wright and John Love, the genre has some mountainous competition. At the end of the day, I wanted the book to be as great as its start and finish was, and I didn't get there. Future books in this universe may succeed in that regard, and I'll definitely check them out, but this one might frustrate you from time to time.



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07 August 2014

Review: Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation


Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I grew up a Nintendo partisan. My brother had the Genesis, my friends at school certainly thought Sega was "cooler," but knowing that I liked RPGs from the beginning, you could only get Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, basically any SquareSoft game, on Nintendo. So I did the Nintendo Power thing and that was the end of it - there was no internet to know about the different plans for the companies like we see today, no discussion outside of classrooms/workplaces, and so on.

Console Wars is an oral history of sorts of the timeframe of the growth of the console market in the 1980s and early 1990s. It covers the time of Sega making their big run toward the Super Nintendo up until the announcement of the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn with the introduction of the PlayStation, and does so in a breezy, direct way.

The pros of this book are the personalities as well as the structure of the narrative. We get very distinct ideas of the people central to the discussions, and it's a great nostalgia trip for someone who lived it. The major con is that it is centralized almost entirely on Sega. As someone who lived the Nintendo dream, I appreciated that part, but if I were reading this ignorant of the whole situation, you'd almost think Sega ended up coming out ahead in the end, and we know how that resulted.

Overall, still a fun, solid read. Definitely good for anyone who loves or loved video games, and a great account of the times on a whole.



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Review: Full Fathom Five


Full Fathom Five
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've now read the three books in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence and, in a lot of ways, Full Fathom Five is the best of the three. There's something inherently great about excellent worldbuilding, and when an author makes such an interesting world and then plays in it in such a wonderful way, it means so much of the stories become a joy to read.

It's difficult to discuss one book without discussing all three, though. The middle book felt more like a traditional urban fantasy, the first a legal thriller of sorts, and this book is more, to me, a bureaucratic tale. Whether that's intended or not, I don't know nor care, but taken as a complete piece up to this point, that's where the pleasure derives, as Gladstone appears to be at his best here in describing the minutia of the situations and proving a look into his world. It's not to say the story itself is secondary (although the important points are known from the first book), but that my enjoyment stems from what's built.

Overall, I don't know what (if anything) comes next from this series. Regardless, even as I was a little iffy on the middle book, this brought me right back in, and I really enjoyed it. Start at book one, and you'll want to get into this in no time.



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04 August 2014

Review: Changes


Changes
Changes by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



With Changes, some mixed reviews had me wary on this, but outside of a pretty deliberate curveball, this ended up really restoring my faith in the series.

The story begins with a pretty much out-of-nowhere plot development that Dresden has a daughter. Okay. Sure. Weirder things happen, I guess, so why not just run with the story. The daughter, however, is a MacGuffin of sorts to drive us to what's essentially an ultimate goal of a conspiracy to eliminate Dresden and his line from the universe entirely. Where we go from there is very typical Dresden adventure, complete with a final quarter of the book that is both exciting and fast-paced as any other in the series.

It's becoming easier to be critical of these books now that we're 12 in, but even the choices made here, especially with the daughter, do not seem to be done for story purposes as much as to provide an excuse to do things. The good news is that this story in particular does wrap up a lot of the loose ends I was complaining about when looking at the previous book, which was a happy surprise. Plus, the sense of danger is alive and well, and perhaps not the way I had considered (not to give anything away to those who might not be twelve books in). Even when this book is ultimately about 30-40 pages too long, it's not dragged down from start to finish with that problem, a testament to the overall storytelling involved.

Really, with this book, there's just a "what's next" element that hasn't existed in some time. We get some hints of what Dresden can do that we didn't before, and the door is wide, wide open now in a way that it wasn't before. I'm still frustrated by some of those choices, but it's more than made up for by the continued quality of what we're seeing. While I know I'm reading the short story collection next, I'm probably more invested in the overall story now than I have been for a few volumes now.



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29 July 2014

Review: The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 1: Doom Maidens


The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 1: Doom Maidens
The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 1: Doom Maidens by Cullen Bunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Man, I loved this.

Cullen Bunn hit my radar with the flawed but still pretty cool Sixth Gun series, and I saw there was another series he was doing, so I requested it for a shot.

First, I truly had no idea this was a Marvel property, and this being a Marvel Now piece, I went in somewhat skeptical, since I haven't liked much of the Marvel Now comics coming forward. This, however, was great. A crazy ride from start to finish with big bad guys, fun c-list characters, and a schlocky, b-movie feel to the whole proceedings. No one is taking this especially seriously, and that's why it works - it just feels like a fun, crazy ride.

I don't know what to compare this to. It's a lot like the New 52 Suicide Squad in format, but a lot lighter. It's like an Avengers team-up, but with everything being a little more ridiculous. I want this to be a movie so, so much, and maybe we'll get lucky, but, for now? This was exactly what I was looking for and I didn't even know it.

Highly recommended.



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21 July 2014

Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



So I guess I'm an introvert?

I've had this on my to-read list since the day I heard about it, but only got around to it now. Partially because it's been on perpetual library hold, but more because it's only recently that I realized that I actually appear to hold more introverted traits than the extroverted ones I expected.

So reading this book, which is essentially a love letter to introversion, did a lot in terms of kind of confirming a few things about myself that I already kind of knew or believed, and put them in a good context. That was good.

The bad is that it might lead me to some confirmation bias issues to work out, but that's on me. That the book felt a little long is one that I can't control, though, and keeps it from being an all-star of a nonfiction book.

As it stands, though, a solid read overall and one I'm glad I read and can recommend. Worth the time, intro- or extroverted.



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20 July 2014

Review: Just Like the Movies


Just Like the Movies
Just Like the Movies by Kelly Fiore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I came away from this book somewhat frustrated. In a lot of ways, it's a really solid YA teen romance read, and the concept behind it is solid. It reminded me quite a bit of a few of the recent reads in this genre that I've read, which was great. My complaint is more about how it never really reaches the concept that it presents in a way I'd expect.

The short answer on this is that the book is about a couple girls who aren't so lucky in the love department and end up trying to woo their crushes using romantic movie tropes. They start a small business, they try it on their own, and it is very much a comedy of errors in some senses.

The story is pretty straightforward on a whole, but the somewhat stuttered efforts to get the hook of the book involved really took away from the rest of the story for me. It had moments that felt like a bad comedy that were offset by other pretty fun scenes. That inconsistency was ultimately what kept me from enjoying this more on a whole. Closer to a 3.5, and good for a lighter read, but that's about it.



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Review: Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It


Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It
Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It by Matthew Berry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



It should be noted, to start, that I'm really, truly bad at fantasy football. My best year, for those who will understand this, was when the best starting QB I could get was Kyle Orton when he was with the Bears. I somehow rode that horse into the finals, no idea why.

Fantasy Life is a book with two agendas. One, it's a memoir of sorts from Matthew Berry, former screenwriter and now full time fantasy guru. The other part is an accounting of some of the truly insane lengths people will go for their fantasy leagues and fantasy sports in general.

Having heard Berry discuss Crocodile Dundee 3 on a podcast before, it was fun to get some insight on his Hollywood career as well as how he is significantly responsible for the rise in popularity of fantasy sports in the United States. He's got a good way of telling his story, and it's a quick, compelling read.

The draw of this book, however, are the really weird stories regarding fantasy leagues he's heard about or witnessed over the years. It makes me glad the leagues I'm in are basically not so serious in comparison to what some people have had to go through for having a better track record than I do. If books about people being insane is something you're into, this will be worth your energy.

Overall, a fun, light read. Well exceeded my expectations overall, and definitely worth a look if you have any interest in fantasy sports. At minimum, you might find a few ways to torture your fellow fantasy owners.



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18 July 2014

Review: The Three


The Three
The Three by Sarah Lotz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



No book I have read recently that I've enjoyed and finished has frustrated me the way The Three has.

The book is sort of a World War Z take on four plane crashes that occur at the same time around the world. There are three child survivors, and it ushers in a weird reaction where some see it as a biblical apocalpyse, others various conspiracy theories, there are questions of immortality, and so on and so forth. Conceptually, the idea is really fascinating and certainly kept me going on this book.

What's frustrating about it? For one, far too many of the characters end up sounding exactly the same, which just doesn't work in a book like this. While there are really fully-formed, distinct characters (most notably the Asian survivor's contingent), the rest feels really similar whether you're in Cape Town or in the Americas. For another, the journalistic angle the narrative takes ultimately leaves a lot more questions than answers, and, while I get that the choice taken here is the point, it really didn't work within the existing narrative. This is not to say all raised questions needed to be answered, but it also means that, when providing a Lost-style story, the end result of leaving some questions unanswered needs to be much more compelling than what was ultimately offered.

This is less a story of survivors than a story of people dealing with a confusing world. I can see why I was drawn to it, and I can see why other people have come to enjoy this. It's just so flawed and so riddled with unforced errors that made me feel like it could have been more that those issues offset what was otherwise a quick and occasionally entertaining read. I can't recommend as much as I'd like to, although you could do worse if you're looking for a sci-fi beach-style read.



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29 June 2014

Review: Turn Coat


Turn Coat
Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



With book eleven, I feel like I'm sort of mired in the same midpoint I was with The Wheel of Time toward the middle, where not a ton is happening and it's getting frustrating. It's not to say it's outright bad like some of the middle Wheel of Time stuff, but I hesitate to call this book in particular good.

We're knee deep in the White Council conspiracy, there's some sort of supernatural being they're calling a "skinwalker" that's doing a good deal of damage, we're still mentoring Molly, and Thomas is still wavering a bit because he's a vampire and that's what they do. That's essentially what's going on with Harry Dresden right now, and that's why this book is a little frustrating. After a great run of book after book of action and plot development and payoffs, I feel as if the story stalls out a bit here. It's not to say we have no movement, as there's a lot that goes on with the Council and Thomas and Molly, and the end of the book in particular is paced extremely fast, but the books have created a bit of an expectation of things happening and there wasn't much of a payoff for this one.

This may be just a basic problem with multi-volume books in general. I don't doubt, by this point in publication, that Jim Butcher has some sort of endgame in mind - I've read one thing that claimed it would end at 20, and another that there's enough story ideas to bring it into the "lower 20s." It's just interesting to read these books where there is no apparent or necessary end in sight. What more, this book appears to be really well received in comparison to others, and I definitely had a different impression of it.

Overall, I'm far from throwing in the towel on this series. It's still pretty high quality even if there have been missteps. I am hoping, however, for a more cohesive, more exciting read in the next one. We'll see.



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28 June 2014

Review: Leviathan Wakes


Leviathan Wakes
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Let's get one thing out of the way first: I loved this book. Why, then, has it taken me almost a week to write a coherent review? Mostly because some of it was just frustrating? I don't know.

Long and short is that this is a nearish-future tale where Earth and Mars are colonized, but we still really can't leave the solar system. There's interplanetary politics, some advanced science/technology that exists, and there's also some strange happenings overall involving some conspiracies and such. There's also a more traditional mystery story that takes place, and these two ideas converge on each other to really get an impressive story out there.

I liked basically everything about this. It's not quite a space opera, but it has that feel and it's been a long time since I've read anything like it that hooked me in this well. The book is really readable, it's not taking too many chances and not bogging itself down in minutiae like many long science fiction books do. This works really well in that regard.

If I have a negative, it's that the book feels really surface level, and the last 10% or so of the book really accelerates things in a way that didn't feel very true to the rest of the book. The frustration comes in with a story that's great but is not memorable on the detail level, partially because it feels like things simply happen as opposed to having any real reason or the characters having significant agency. It's a weird case, but one that didn't take away from my enjoyment. It's just really different, and, looking back, perhaps a little frustrating.

Overall, I can't wait to pick up the second book in this series. I'd love to think this holds up long term over the multiple books, but we'll see.



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13 June 2014

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts


The Girl With All The Gifts
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Maybe it's just me, but the whole zombie thing is really wearing me out. I'm still reading (not watching) The Walking Dead, but the idea if the World War Z movie or another zombie book or comic is frankly tiring. Thus, when it became evident early that The Girl With All The Gifts was in the same universe as so much zombie fiction right now, I probably would have thrown my hands up in frustration if the book wasn't so good.

The basic setting is not the most original thing in the world, with the United Kingdom in a post-apocalyptic state after the "hungries" have effectively taken over. Yes, they're zombies, I just don't think the word is ever used. The story starts out in a holding area of some sort, however, with a bunch of children in a school. They're constantly restrained because they want to bite and lash out, but still capable of learning and thought and such, and they even have future plans, all of which really upsets one of their teachers. The real secret comes later, and it upends both everyone's understanding of the crisis and raises some overall questions about humanity as well.

The book comes with a very simple premise, and the first quarter of the book ends up being some of the best I've read recently. The reveals are spaced out perfectly, the setting is not too detailed without feeling like anything is left out, and the overall trajectory of the story is great. It's extremely well-written with very few flaws, except for maybe the shift in overall plot if you were expecting the beginning to be like the end. I have no complaints.

What's also interesting is that the author is a pen name for comics author Mike Carey, best known as of late for the amazing Unwritten. While Unwritten (along with some of his Fantastic Four efforts) comes across as convoluted at times, this book is rock solid in terms of where it's going and what it's doing. A great read.



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Review: We Were Liars


We Were Liars
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I had actually forgotten that E Lockhart was the same author as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which I love. With that said, it's...easy to categorize her recent output as being focused on the trials and tribulations of the economically privileged, and, while that might at least be part of her intent, it really misses the broader point of what she accomplishes. Disreputable History was more of a focus on friendships and fabrications at a boarding school, not so much the super rich and their secret societies. We Were Liars is not so much about how They live, but how We live, and the way families lie to each other when they don't have to as well as when they do.

The story takes place on a small semi-private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where four children have grown up over the course of a number of summers. In summer 17, years after one girl's accident, the four are finally back together and nothing is really the same, and no one is willing to admit why.

This book works well because it's honest, and brutally so. As an adult reader, I saw a lot of dynamics portrayed in this book in my own life, and that's not a happy thought now or before. The curveball, of sorts, might be a little far-fetched, but it makes sense within the context of the story being provided, and the little hints and glimpses into the lives of the people who all come to this island every summer feel real and end up being continually heartbreaking.

Another solid read all around, really. If you've waffled on this a bit, don't. It's one of the better reads of the year.



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12 June 2014

Review: Starbird Murphy and the World Outside


Starbird Murphy and the World Outside
Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I can't remember it at this point, but I distinctly remember reading a YA or middle grade book about a cult a number of years ago. Was it good? I'm not sure, but it wasn't good enough for me to remember the title, apparently.

Anyway, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside is about a cult. Specifically, a more hippie-ish spiritual communal cult that Starbird has grown up in. She receives her "calling," and it is to help run the Free Family's restaurant in Seattle. This means venturing off the group's farm for the first time, enrolling in a public school, and so on.

This book is really brilliant in a lot of ways. I started out side-eyeing it a bit because, as an adult reader, it was obvious almost from the very start that the Free Family was a bonafide cult and not some sort of futurist organization created solely for the book. The slow burn of the group's reveal ends up being a significant plus for the book as a whole, as it allows us a better chance to understand Starbird, what she knows, and how she ultimately has to interact with the world that she has been shielded from the whole time.

By the time everything comes together, I was entirely invested and couldn't put the book down even if I wanted to. It's a really solid way to end it, it's sophisticated without being condescending, and it ends up being a great way to do the "coming of age" story as well as handling the cult topic in a mature, reasonable way without introducing (too much) danger into the system. That many cults are not Heaven's Gate, "drink the Kool Aid" type organizations often get lost in the shuffle, and the way everything pans out with this specific story is an absolute plus.

Highly, highly recommended. Definitely one of the better books I've read in the young adult field as of late, and could be a contender for one of the best YA books of the year period.



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05 June 2014

Review: A Really Awesome Mess


A Really Awesome Mess
A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Truly closer to a 3.5.

I like Brendan Halpin's collaborations, and I don't think I've read anything of Trish Cook up to this point. The competing male/female narrative structure for YA generally seems to work for me, and this is no different, being sort of a young adult It's Kind of a Funny Story meets Orange is the New Black-type story of kids who meet in a reform boarding school.

The story itself is compelling enough with the reasons the kids are in there, the interaction between each other and the staff and so forth. The problems, though, from the reliability of the kids as narrators as well as the questionable utility and worth of the center they're at hurts the story a bit. We're stuck solely from one point of view, and it's really difficult to figure out what's positive and negative. Accepting an unreliable narrator is one thing, but not knowing for sure whether that's the angle being pursued is another, and I can't say it with confidence. There's also a really, really bizarre sequence in the second half that just defies believability in many ways, but I won't give it away in case you disagree.

Overall, worth reading. It's not "sick lit" per se, and it doesn't glamorize bad behavior, but it does come with its share of problems overall.



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02 June 2014

Review: Small Favor


Small Favor
Small Favor by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



The sixteenth book came out this past week, and it's really weird hearing some chatter here and there while reading this one. Even weirder is how this started out as possibly my favorite and unfortunately dragged a little until it picked up at the end. They can't all be crazy winners.

I've said this a few times about this series at this point, but it's worth repeating - Jim Butcher's strength as a writer comes from keeping a lot of old storylines in his back pocket and in keeping his characters in danger. Yes, at this point, I am fully on board with the fact that Harry Dresden is very much a bend-but-don't-break character, but it means we have a lot of extras along the way, from Murphy on down, that are in danger instead. It's an interesting way to tell a story, and one I'm fully on board with in terms of how unique it is.

Putting aside that, this book again wastes no time in diving in. Harry battles gruffs, gets caught up in supernatural politics, and is thrown right in the middle of a centuries-long affair regarding artifacts and remnants and so forth. If you're diving into the series in book ten, none of this makes sense, but for the sake of a midseries tale, we're doing okay.

Where it drags is in the latter half. So much great preparation comes into play where we essentially skid to a narrative stop within the progression. I think it's more that I've gotten used to the bang-bang prose that a portion of the story that seems a little broad makes me impatient, but there we have it. The typical final battle was awesome and typical, with the added bonus of this book essentially leading us into the next as opposed to keeping things kind of tidy.

Overall, not my favorite, but far from my least favorite as well. It's flawed, but solid. Still loving this series, though, overall, and I'm looking forward to the next one even still.



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23 May 2014

Review: Why Orwell Matters


Why Orwell Matters
Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I first read this back when it came out. I was sort of getting into Orwell for the first time as an adult, I was really into Christopher Hitchens, and, well, why not?

This is biographical in a sense, but more from the political and social points of view rather than his own story. Granted, Orwell's story very much speaks to his actions as a writer, but this short piece is more about Orwell's thoughts and such.

Hitchens is always good at drawing out the conclusions necessary when it comes to a topic, whether you agree with him or not. In the decade plus since this was written, combined with losing Hitchens entirely and the continued attempts of certain ideologies to claim Orwell as their own, this book feels both dated (as it includes nothing of the last decade, nor would it be expected to) and current (given that Orwell's ideas and themes have carried for generations at this point).

Really, anyone with an interest in Orwell should give this a read based on that point alone. There's plenty to like here on a whole, even if the sum of its parts might feel lacking from time to time.



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13 May 2014

Review: Since You've Been Gone


Since You've Been Gone
Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



There's a bit of an interesting trope in some contemporary young adult novels where the protagonist is given a list of some sort to accomplish, or to help bring out the best in someone, or just complete some basic tasks for the sake of character development. Since You've Been Gone is one of those books, for sure, but ultimately does it better than any other ones I've read up to this point.

The story is of Emily, who has a best friend, Sloane. Sloane has up and disappeared, and the only remaining record of her leaving is a mailed letter with a list of different things to do over the summer, including kissing a stranger, hugging a Jamie, and skinny dipping. Emily is extremely introverted, so this entire list is well outside of her comfort zone, but as this might be the only way for her to find her best friend, she begins working on the list.

It's a longish-book, for sure, but it doesn't really take away from anything. Very little feels drawn-out or unnecessary, and it escapes from the gratuitous nature of the events of many stories like it. Emily is a believable character in many regards, as are the people she meets along the way. The adults in the book are a pretty significant flaw, however, and Emily's parents in particular come up with a random scheme midway through that does derail things for a moment, and for no real significant reason either. That's probably what keeps this book from being near perfect, but it's more a strange aside than a story-ruining exercise.

I know Morgan Matson's previous book was well-received, and I think this one, with its really solid cover and fun story, should be a hit as well. Definitely enjoyed this quite a bit, highly recommended.



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11 May 2014

Review: Authority


Authority
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



This is fast becoming one of my favorite stories period, never mind stories in the weird genre.

I talked before about how great Annihilation was, and I'm not going to say Authority is better, because it's hard to compare the two. I found Authority to be engaging not only because of how it built on the mysteries first presented in Annihilation, but also about how it made the overall banality of normal drudgery equally weird and creepy. Authority takes place almost entirely within the confines of whatever offices or home bases the Area X project is centered out of, dealing with debriefing interviews and mystery solving projects and what have you. The madness comes into play as we delve deeper and see exactly how far some of the worst aspects of the power plays reach.

It's great because it's a shift in how the story is told. It's less matter-of-fact and detailed about the area and instead lets experiences take center stage. A lot of the bizarre things happen when we start getting a greater understanding of how deep everything runs, and it becomes clear very quickly how much the trust in what we know and see melts away.

I feel like I have to dance around a lot of what goes on here because, as a middle book, it creates as many new questions as it answers and thus makes it difficult to really go into detail as to what is going on without a lot of giveaways. This series is successful because of how deft the reveals are along the way, and how the story just sucks you in and forces you to accept what's going on in front of you, throwing enough minor curveballs along the way as to get you to not trust your own perception, much like everyone else in the book. It's been a long time since I've read something that's even come close to that before this series came along.

Long and short, this book, while different, has pushed this series out of "must read if you like weird fiction/horror" and into "everyone should just read this because it's a unique and addictive experience." Waiting until September for the final installment of this story is just terrible.



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07 May 2014

Review: Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself


Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself
Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself by Bob Pflugfelder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Sometimes being an adult reader of middle grade books creates a pretty significant conundrum. The best way I can do this is detail my overall thoughts on this.

I liked that this was, at its core, a fun enough story involving science and adventure and mystery.

I also liked that the science involved was germane to the story and not just shoehorned in for the sake of science content. But...

I didn't love the fact that the science content almost felt like a Common Core play. Is it organic? Sure. This is where the "adult" reader comes into play, where a kid reading this would never be aware of it.

I questioned the need to even hint at a supernatural element with the girl, especially when the resolution lent itself to a more scientific solution that never arose.

I hate that I can't think of an eccentric scientific uncle without assuming it's Rick from Rick and Morty in my head.

Overall, a solid read and a fun little book in spite of my personal issues. I can see this having tremendous boy appeal, which is a great plus.



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06 May 2014

Review: The One


The One
The One by Kiera Cass

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



The only thing worse than the second book syndrome that far too many dystopian YA books have had over the last few years have been the petering out at the end. Mockingjay is the worst offender, lifting us sky-high until it eventually abandoned the initial pretenses in favor of whatever it was, but far too often the satisfying ending is not one that comes around very often in these multi-book series efforts.

Thankfully, The One is not that book.

We take up basically immediately following the end of The Elite, where there are only a handful of girls remaining and the rebel stakes are higher. The king is getting restless, the girls anxious, and America and Maxon and Aspen's love triangle is ever deeper.

Oh Em Gee.

I poke fun, but I *love* this series, and this book was really no different than the others. Things move very rapidly, nothing seems telegraphed, and everything is as it's supposed to be at the end. America is an excellent heroine, and there are subtle, yet important, lessons throughout.

I'm glad this series exists, and I'm ultimately sad it's over.



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