04 August 2015

Review: Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a lot of issues with this book. A lot of issues.

First, seeing after the fact that this is probably meant to be more for the pre-YA crowd makes this book all the more puzzling as the subject matter is pretty mature on a whole, with a key plot point being middle schoolers sending racier and racier pictures to each other. Are we really ready to tackle the pre-teen texting issue like this?

There are other stories in the book, to be sure, and none of them are especially engaging - one involves a kid estranged from his family, another involves skipping school, a third about a kid in recovery from being hit by a car and being clinically dead. The tales intertwine, but not enough in a way that makes for an engaging tale, and it's unfortunate given how well the book is written on a whole. The story is extremely readable, but not especially enjoyable.

Beyond that, the kids sound and act older than they are - the voices sound like teenagers in high school and I had to consistently remind myself they’re middle schoolers. If you're looking for firm consequences for actions such as skipping class and sending scantily-clad photos, they don’t really exist in a significant enough way here - the suspensions levied for some kids and the punishments doled out for others feel like aftereffects and are quickly brushed off as opposed to being significant issues for the kids. While it's hinted at, the fact that kids are being arrested and put on sex offender lists for photos not too far from what is described here means this comes across as highly unrealistic.

It’s as if the focus on their own issues isn’t impacted by anything else happening around them. As well-written from a basic prose standpoint that this book is, it seems like a major miss across the board to try to walk this tightrope and yet seem to not really come to any sort of real solid resolution. It might be *too* realistic in that regard in that nothing is necessarily tied up with a bow. You have lockdown drills, talent shows, and none of it really seems to matter. It's all very strange.

I can't really recommend this to anyone. I get what the attempt was here, and it just doesn't work on a number of levels.

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01 August 2015

Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has gotten no lack of buzz over recent months, and I decided to seek it out from the library sooner rather than later. A lot of people will compare this to The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone, but it's actually less conceptual and more mainstream and, once everything gets established, this becomes and interesting ride.

The story is told from multiple points of view about the film career of young female director Sophie Stark, who gains some prominence from her first short film. It follows some of her relationships, her movies, the views from a distance and how she reconnects with people in her past, and so on. It's almost like an oral history than anything else.

Why does this work? The format means that you're not stuck in a lesser point of view too long, and the different feelings and ideas that people have about Stark and her work (as well as who she was and who she became) ends up having a reality/documentary feel to it in a lot of ways. It means that you sometimes don't get why you're supposed to care until a little too late, but by the time you get used to the format, none of that is a problem anymore.

Ultimately closer to a 4.5. A surprisingly solid read that I enjoyed a lot more than I initially thought. Great for people looking for somewhat nontraditional storytelling, and especially those who enjoy film and movie production.

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27 July 2015

Review: The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I kind of immersed myself into weird horror for adults, I've been trying to figure out how you can translate the sort of existential dread into a middle grade or YA audience. Especially when horror for kids typically means R L Stine or Christopher Pike, the room for the sort of creepy thing that I'm looking for seems difficult to nail down.

The Night Gardener, though, is probably the template I'd use. A little unsettling and plenty creepy without going too far over the top, it's maybe the closest thing to Weird For Kids we might see, and it's worth your attention.

The story revolves around two children who are servants at a very old home in Ireland. The house has a large, imposing tree on the premises, and everyone who lives at the home seems a little sickly and off. Then the nightmares start. And then there are footprints. And it all seems related to that tree.

It's a classic tale in a sense. Part ghost story, part creepy tale, its flaw may be the tone it has to balance for its audience and the length, which felt a little more overlong than it perhaps needed to be. These are minor flaws, though, as adult readers know what they're getting into and, if you're really into the setting and such, spending a little extra time won't mind.

Perfect as an exercise to see the boundaries pushed in fiction for young people, and especially great for those kids who like to be creeped out a bit. Definitely worth your time.

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26 July 2015

Review: Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good friend and great human being has been trying to get me to read this book since at least 2008, maybe a little earlier. I spent a year and a half reading one Dresden Files book a month between then and now, so I've become pretty well-versed in Butcher's style. So with all this in mind, and considering it's an author I like doing fantasy, now is as good a time as any to dive in, right?

The story is about a broader war between "furies," the magic users and such of this universe, and some loyalist factions. There is slavery, brutality, and all sorts of craziness going on along the way, and it's very traditional in a sense even with Butcher's take.

So why didn't I love it? I've been trying to place it since I finished the book. It was a good read, but I slogged a bit through it. I've never been one for dark fantasy, and this is is definitely on the dark scale (although I'm not sure I'd place it in the grimdark area). The characters are solid, I liked Tavi in particular but pretty much all the heroes are worthwhile (which is a standard for Butcher, I'm finding), and the worldbuilding is great, too.

I just didn't connect. I can't place it, I'm not sure if it was me or just how everything worked out or what, but it ended up being something I kind of endured rather than enjoyed.

I'll keep going with the series. Also in true Butcher form, the final act was really great and maybe I just needed to get over that hump first, but I would never dissuade anyone from reading it. It might just not be the type of fantasy I love?

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24 July 2015

Review: Forever for a Year

Forever for a Year Forever for a Year by B.T. Gottfred
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes, when you don't like a book, it's better to say as little as you can about it lest it become a big dump of nonsense.

So it is with <>Forever for a Year, positioned as a multi-point-of-view tale about a burgeoning relationship of first love between two high school kids. It goes through them falling for each other, first sexual experiences, jealousy, and so on and so forth.

Why doesn't this work? It is overboard as a cautionary tale, the actions simply aren't realistic for the setting put in place, it works under the assumption that sex and such are really the only things kids care about, and it's just a painful read. The voices of the characters come across as the sort of faux-realistic type that sounds like an authentic voice but just tries too hard.

Long and short, everything about it feels wrong.

I think we have a good number of books that portray realistic relationships enough that are higher quality than what exists here. I was hoping for better, and this didn't deliver. Readable but that's it.

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21 July 2015

Review: El Deafo

El Deafo El Deafo by Cece Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always nice to see an award winning book for kids that deserves it these days. El Deafo, while somewhat flawed, is still an inspirational read that manages to be fun, informative, and touching all at the same time. The story about a girl (well, rabbit girl, but whatever) who becomes functionally deaf after falling ill and receives a hearing device that makes her feel like a superhero, the story does a great job of demonstrating the difficulty of the disability and both the expected and unexpected issues that come with it while keeping the tone light enough to have some fun with it as it goes on. The graphic format lends itself well to the topic, but the downside is that there is not a significant endpoint to the story and, much like other tales in this genre, the story just sort of exists without coming to an enjoyable conclusion. It doesn't take away from the ride, but just the destination. This book belongs in every public and school library, for sure. Kids who like realistic stories will find a lot to love here, and this is definitely a demonstration of where diverse books can go in an era where the clamor for such books is so significant. Definitely recommended.

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16 July 2015

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak

Closer to a 1.5. I *really* didn't like this book.

I'm a firm believer that kids need creepy. There's a reason Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have persevered over time, and Serafina and the Black Cloak tries pretty hard to be in that same vein, but ends up wildly missing the mark.

Serafina is a girl who was found in the woods, battered and broken. Taken in by a man and kept secret for the first decade or so of her life, she is witness to a strange disappearance that she feels uniquely qualified to get to the bottom of, and so begins our tale of Serafina exploring and uncovering a dark, weird secret.

The first bit of the book, the parts that establish who Serafina is and what she's really up to? Pretty great. The moment we get to the meat of the plot, however, the story screeches almost to a halt, with a few interesting scenes scattered amongst a tale that plods toward a conclusion - a conclusion, by the way, that is a very pat, firm, almost Disney-style ending that nearly betrays the entire tale. It's a frustrating read because all the parts are there for a truly great read with some really interesting elements, but basically only a third of the story is really truly worth the time or effort, leading to a supremely disappointing story.

Of course, as is typical, I appear to be in the stark minority on this. People seem to overwhelmingly love this book, from the setting to the characters to the tale itself. As for me, while Serafina is an engaging enough heroine, she deserves a much better story than this, and middle grade readers who are looking for a creepy story to keep them up at nights deserve something that's much more substantial. I don't know if I missed something significant here or what, but this didn't do it for me at all.

11 July 2015

Review: I Am Princess X

Stealth YA mystery!

May and Abby were best friends growing up, and they developed a comic together. When Abby died, so too did the comic.

Until stickers with the comic started popping up all over Seattle.

May quickly recruits an at-home IT "expert" to help track down who has been putting Princess X comics up online and who the anonymous, mystery author is. Because May is convinced Abby is actually alive and well.

It's a fun premise, and at just a hair over 200 pages, a very quick and straightforward read. The mystery elements are there, but it's pretty light on a whole and, if the books have any fault, it's that the stakes don't feel terribly high and everything seems pretty simple. I didn't love the reveals, but that's just more nitpicky than anything else, especially for a genre I don't generally love.

Still, recommended for YA readers. If you're into Cherie Priest's adult work, this is probably going to throw you off a bit, though. Fair warning.

Review: Those Girls

Closer to a 1.5.

There are plenty of mean girl books. There are plenty of books that have absolutely despicable characters with little to no redeeming values. Those books sometimes know how to handle those topics, and Those Girls utterly fails at creating anything worth noting in this genre. Filled with characters who are rotten and criminal who seem to learn nothing from their actions, it's almost questionable as to what the point of this was at all.

The story follows a handful of girls around their senior year. They sleep around with each other's boyfriends, they frame them for different things. One is in a band, others can't be happy for her. It all culminates in a situation that just ended up being gross and disturbing, and I don't even know what anyone was thinking here.

I thought a few days away from this one might temper my mood about it, but it's clear this is one of the worst things I've read recently. Avoid this one at all costs - the rare times you'll need a book like this, there are a dozen better ones out there that might actually improve your lot in life a bit.

07 July 2015

Review: Silver in the Blood

Closer to a 3.5.

If you read Twilight and thought "Man, I wish the story focused more on those European vampires," I might just have the book for you. Granted, this is much better written and works more off of the Stoker-level Dracula/vampire tropes than the more popularized ones of, late, but it's still a good, albeit flawed, read.

The story takes place shortly after the publication of Stoker's Dracula, where some high society girls are brought back to Europe to meet their families in time for their birthday. Meeting the family, of course, results in taking their place among the Dracula family and learning of their true nature as vampire shapeshifters. Yep.

So the idea is a little corny, but the book reads more like a teen literary piece, keeping us firmly in the time period intended. The author seems incredibly fixated in pointing out how naked everyone is when they shapeshift, which was just strange, but the way the story flows and moves is something that did a good job in keeping my interest, so there is that.

I originally read this without knowing what it was about, so I wonder if at least part of the issue with the story is that the hook is given away so freely, but given the great cover and topic matter, it should still find an audience for what it is. Worth a look if you're into historical fiction or different takes on vampire mythologies.

Review: Shadowshaper

Sometimes books are frustrating.

Urban fantasy for the YA set is a mixed bag, with a lot of it going toward the paranormal romance. This is described as sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type tale, but it really reminds me more of a teenage female Harry Dresden in that the city is, in many cases, a character along with our heroine and her abilities regarding shadows and those she's up against. The plot itself almost feels secondary to whatever is trying to happen here, which is never a good sign, and ends up being something where the notes the author is trying to hit seem to take precedence over good plotting and action.

The concept is cool but the execution ends up lacking in a few ways, with the actual meat of the story taking seemingly forever to get rolling and the thing truly picking up only toward the last quarter of the book. It tries to be true to the cultural heritage but ends up feeling forced in more than a few ways, which is unfortunate. There's just a lot of potential in play here with a lot of negatives going along with it.

This is a decent read, but ultimately left me with something to be desired. Certain readers will enjoy this, but it didn't work for me.

Review: The Fixer

While my love for teen romance novels is hardly a secret to those who have read my reviews for any length of time, political intrigue for the YA set is something I've wanted to see more of, and, time and time again, the stories seem to let me down. Gallagher Girls is the ideal in many ways, but it's less House of Cards and more James Bond. Embassy Row's first book was disappointing, and most of the rest try to be humorous spoofs. I figured I'd enjoy The Fixer, being a book more in line with some of my other interests. What I didn't expect was to love it.

Tess lives with her grandfather, who is falling more and more seriously ill. Her parents, dead in an accident, left her with him, and her older sister, Ivy, left them to go to Washington. With grandpa sick, though, Tess is off to DC to live with her sister. Quickly, she learns that her sister is a bit of an important big shot, someone who "fixes" the problems of high-profile people and politicians. At Tess's new school, that reputation is shifted onto Tess, who really doesn't want it. Quickly, though, it looks like she's going to have to anyway, and she learns how dangerous her sister's life really is.

I have very little to complain about when it comes to this book. It balances political intrigue and conspiracy with a great family story, at nearly 400 pages it doesn't feel as if it's dragging at all, and the story ends on a solid note while leaving a good opening for sequels as well. Nearly pitch perfect, and really does the whole concept well as a result. Truly, it might be closest to a House of Cards for kids we'll ever see, and that's definitely high praise from me, at least. I'm hoping the rest of the series can stand up to how good this one is, and I can't wait to see what comes next. Highly recommended.

05 July 2015

Review: Bios

As I traverse through Robert Charles Wilson's body of work, I'm somewhat impressed by how hit or miss it can be. This book is almost a love letter to scientific/science fictional exploration and study, but it doesn't work more than it works, even if the ending is enjoyable and the parts are greater than the whole. It's a simple tale, almost a novella, about clones and alien races and the dangers in study, and it is a markedly different take than a lot of the books like it I've read.

What is it lacking? I'd say a sense of wonder, but also a sense of horror. It's surprisingly mundane in its presentation, which, in one sense, may have been the point, but this is where relying on existing tropes does matter. We're very conditioned to find the extremes when we read about new races, civilizations, and so on. This doesn't give that sense of revelry throughout, and, if that was in fact the point, it's simply not direct enough to be clear or engaging.

I just felt disappointed. So much promise unfulfilled on this one. I can't imagine recommending this to anyone other than really solid fans of his.

Review: The Vorrh

Closer to a 2.5.

I finished reading this close to two weeks ago and I'm only writing a review now. This is emblematic of my frustration with The Vorrh, a book that came with a lot of buzz in some circles and, in the first 80 or so pages, really established something I thought I was falling in love with.

This is, at its heart, a sort of Weird fantasy tale. There's a small town bordering a forest that is believed to be magical or haunted or dangerous or some combination of all of those things. One man seeks to explore the Vorrh, others are trying to stop him, and just the strange character of the town in general ends up dominating everything.

It's a book that suffers from the same thing we see a lot of the New Weird doing (even if this is not explicitly categorized as such), in that the setting and mood of the book overwhelmingly take precedence over the plot, and what ends up happening is that the construction of the story takes a back seat over the worldbuilding aspects. What was constructed deserved a better tale to go with it, and it became repeatedly difficult to care about anything that was going on.

Just a definite disappointment. Some readers might find some interesting stuff here, and if you're into significant worldbuilding this might be one to look up, but otherwise...

30 June 2015

Review: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

Yeah, this is more like it.

Delilah Dirk is a woman who is kind of a pirate and kind of Robin Hood but mostly just notoriously awesome as she steals from the rich and busts out of jail and swings her sword around and wows those around her along the way. This is basically her story and the story of a man entranced by who she is and what she does without it being a crazy romantic trope.

In other words, yeah, cool!

It appealed to me because it was a fun, action-packed adventure that did a lot of fun things with a classic type of story. Others who are concerned with gender representation and strong female characters will find plenty to love here as well, as Delilah is independent and awesome in all the right ways and the story isn't sexualized or filled with romance in the least. And it's rare for a book of late to straddle that line without going fully in either direction, and Tony Cliff somehow figured it out.

The next volume simply cannot come soon enough. I absolutely loved this, and it comes highly recommended. A well-done read.

Review: Trollhunters

Closer to a 2.5.

I enjoy Guillermo Del Toro. I thought the first bits of The Strain were solid, I've enjoyed many of his movies, and so a foray into children's books really seemed like it should have been down my alley. Why, then, didn't this work for me?

The idea behind the story is a kid who is dragged into a multigenerational conflict regarding underground trolls and prophecies and such. The kid is quickly trained to be part of the war and start working to end the conflict.

This book is tough because it can't really decide who its geared toward from an age level standpoint, and can't decide whether it's creepy or campy in the meantime. Del Toro is an expert in both, which might be part of the problem in any regard, but that expectation only further muddies the water. Worse, it's hard to buy the antagonists as a true threat at any real time, which is a pretty big problem considering the impacts we expect them to have and how they're affected others in the story.

It's just a hot mess in a lot of ways. I can see a lot of appeal, and it's not terrible, it's just something I expected a lot more from than what I ended up getting. Kids would benefit from a campy monster book at this age level, or a creepy one, or even one that walks the line in a successful way. Trollhunters, sadly, is none of those things.

20 June 2015

Review: End of Discussion

I mean, this one's obvious, right? If you've spent any time on the internet lately, you know the types. They shut down discussion before it starts, they're trying to keep things from being discussed at all, and it's getting to the point where college policies, government rules, and so on are being dictated by a sort of heckler's veto. End of Discussion is a book that sort of charts that recent rise and provides some examples along the way. The book is far from perfect, but it is necessary. The problem, as is with a lot of books in this sort of subgenre, is that there's no way the people who need to read this will see it. The result, instead, is a sort of preaching to the choir as opposed to being a vehicle for the necessary change in this area before it's perhaps too late. As a political conservative, though, it's interesting to see a lot of these stories compiled into one place. I just wish I knew how to get this into the hands of the people who need to read it.

16 June 2015

Review: Every Last Word

So there are books we call "sick lit," and books that tend to be just traditional "finding your place" books. Sometimes they meet and work, but sometimes, like with Every Last Word, they just don't.

Sam has OCD, and it sort of defines her life a bit. She has her friends, who are more of a clique, but a girl leads her to a more artsy group of teens, and she quickly starts to learn about what matters to her and how it can help her with her mental problems.

It's a very straightforward story, and the OCD is front and center in the descriptions, but not so much the story. The plot, instead, is more of a traditional "finding new friends" story with some mental illness aspects to try and help it stand out. What resulted, for me, was a book that I did finish, but really struggled with. It's just almost too straightforward, with the various twists in the plot (especially concerning Caroline, her friend who steers her in the new direction) being telegraphed from miles and miles away.

I think we're seeing a lot of this due to A Fault in Our Stars. Yes, we need more books that look honestly at illness. No, this one really isn't it.

13 June 2015

Review: The Affinites

I've been a fan of Robert Charles Wilson for a while now, and I can't say I've read anything I've disliked from him... until now. The Affinities is a rare miss, ultimately filled with a lot of ideas and some fairly rough execution.

The point of the book appears to be to sort of play with the whole dystopian trope we've seen of late, especially in YA literature. In this one, social media analytics, in part, help with the classification and understanding of humanities, to the point where a number of Affinities exist to separate some of the top members of society out there. These Affinities become the most important things in society, and, as is typical, they begin getting more and more power.

The book feels ham-fisted in a similar way to The Circle, except that I think Wilson understands what he's getting at here and it just doesn't work. At least with The Circle, it was a luddite-style misunderstanding of technology, this just feels like it's trying on an idea that doesn't work. Are we supposed to root for the top Affinity? Is there a reason to like anyone? What's the point?

I don't know. This just didn't work for me as much as I wanted it to, and I ultimately found it to be just a frustrating read. So many good books from this author, I would point to many others before this one.

Review: The Fold

I struggle a bit to describe what this book is. While part of it is the way this book shifts, the best description I can have is to think about what Stargate might be with a different take on the physics behind it.

The story is about a group of government scientists working on a top secret discovery. Mike, who is in a position to investigate the project, learns that they've developed a door of sorts that can bridge long distances, and, even better, it appears to be completely safe. It almost sounds too good to be true, and yet...

This book is a pretty simple premise and has the extra benefit of throwing a lot of fun curveballs along the way. The premise itself will tell you whether you have an interest, and there aren't really strong hard sci-fi elements to trip you up in the dimensional physics of the whole concept. If I have a complaint, it's just how the shift in the narrative toward the end feels a little out of place from the rest of the book, but that's ultimately a personal preference and not really a condemnation of the book even though it doesn't completely work. With that said, though, this was a really fun read on a whole and I pretty much enjoyed the ride throughout.

Definitely recommended for a fun science fiction ride.

Review: The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak

Closer to a 3.5.

On one hand, I don't think I realized how much a Nick and Norah for convention culture was needed. On the other, I just wish this was a little better as a result.

The root of the story is about Ana's brother ditching quiz bowl to go to a nearby sci-fi convention. Ana and Zak go on the hunt for him and it ends up being a fairly crazy, ridiculous adventure at the con through the rest of the night. It's the sci-fi nerd teaming up with the quiz bowl nerd and it's sort of a fish out of water scenario times two that ends up hitting upon a lot of general tropes while also successfully navigating some crazy waters.

I just... I don't know. I'm not so much critical that it's a book that went in a few different directions that it didn't like, and I did enjoy how well it normalized a lot of the "weird" con stuff, but I guess I more wish it took one tack and ran with it in a strong way as opposed to playing a few games (is it about quiz bowl? About cons? About fandom? About the mystery?) and not killing it at all of them.

Overall? A good, but not great, read. I'll definitely seek out more from this author, though.

09 June 2015

Review: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave

I think I understand why authors want to tackle difficult ideas and concepts for a middle grade audience. I don't get some of the choices that are being made, though. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave is closer along the lines of Sara Pennypacker's Summer of the Gypsy Moths, complete with a questionable narrative and truly unfortunate plot to go with it. The story is about a pair of siblings trying to survive in what is effectively the middle of nowhere because their father abandons them at a gas station.

Yup.

I don't even know what to say about this in any real detail. Does this happen? Sure, I'm positive it's not just concocted out of nowhere. Does that mean this book really meets the needs of the intended audience? Do the complexities of the decision being made (complete, by the way, with an utter lack of understanding of those complexities, creating a black and white situation out of emotional necessity as opposed to something more nuanced) offer anything? I don't know.

Skip this one. It's too juvenile for those looking for sophistication or even YA-level narratives, and it's too complicated for most middle grade readers anyway.

07 June 2015

Review: Royal Wedding

Closer to a 4.5, but as if I wasn't going to love this.

I was skeptical of the middle grade play with Notebooks of a Middle School Princess, and trying to age up an existing series is strange in and of itself. This book pretty much just takes place five years after the entirety of the initial YA series and covers exactly what the title entails. Like all the Princess Diaries books, it's fairly straightforward and dives right back in.

The book is basically a warm blanket with a bit of an adult twist. It's decidedly PG-13 and is ultimately less scandalous than the YA the series introduced so many readers to, but the really interesting part for me was how it wove itself into the middle school timeline so well. The middle grade book actually happens in the same timeframe as this book does, and it means that, for an adult reader, the middle grade book almost feels like a tiny bonus feature. It was a neat little thing Cabot did that made me appreciate both books more as a result.

At the end of the day, you'll know if you're going to like this before you even pick it up. If you liked the original books at all, this doesn't feel like a needless add-on, and the fact that it's actually pretty great doesn't hurt, either.

02 June 2015

Review: Book Scavenger

Far be it from me to criticize a book that embraces and celebrates the love of reading, but I'm not entirely sure this one is it (and i say this while, at the time of this writing, having not yet read Mr Lemoncello's Library). A book that sort of presents itself as the Willy Wonka of books about books, it's not quite light-hearted or fun enough to hold that mantle, nor whimsical enough to allow for the comparisons.

The book is about some kids obsessed with Book Scavenging, a game about finding and reading books developed by a man who is also a bookseller and publisher. He's got a new game coming, but he's mugged before it can be revealed (yes, people are mugged over books in this world). The kids suspect a bigger problem and begin doing their own investigations into finding out what the new game is and maybe what happened.

The story is a little darker than you'd think. Kids chased by bumbling muggers without the comedic relief element is problem enough, but the idea behind this is more suited to a book about puzzles and solving mysteries, yet the book doesn't provide enough of either for the reader, instead going into more non-fictional histories of books and authors. In a sense, even if it wasn't the intent, this is how Common Core-aligned middle grade books fail our kids (forcing information in over narrative), and while the end result of the book is a nice little surprise, the trajectory to get there is not the most appealing.

It will definitely find an audience. We absolutely need more books that normalize and celebrate literature and literacy for kids. I just ultimately don't know if this is it.

31 May 2015

Review: Wonderbook

This book really amazed me.

I've been struggling on rewrites for my decidedly not-fantasy novel, and it has stayed on my mind as it continues to collect dust. The writing book that got me thinking about seriously writing to start was Stephen King's On Writing, but Wonderbook, for me, really took that basic inspirational template and blew it apart into a lot of usable pieces.

From a purely reading standpoint, the book does take a fairly solid textbook form. The way it's set up, however, works for what's being presented in a really unique and necessary format. Much like the inspiration it tries to put in the writers the book is geared toward, it uses the fantasy constructs to help build out the ideas within.

The book is just valuable. I had ordered a copy to keep for myself by the time I was halfway through, but the interviews and the sidebars from authors were some of the most useful parts, and they're not only useful for those writing fantasy, but to someone like me writing a little contemporary story and struggling with a lot of different aspects of bringing his story together. It says a lot about the strength of the book on that alone, and I can only imagine it can be just as helpful to speculative-style writers.

Simply indispensable, and arguably belongs on every writer's shelf. I expected to like it simply because I like Jeff VanderMeer. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did, though.

Review: Seveneves

I feel like it's been ages since I read a truly epic, fulfilling science fiction novel. Anathem is one of my favorite reads, so Stephenson is still an auto-buy, but I really honestly didn't expect to love this one the way I did.

The plot is deceptively simple - on the first page, the moon explodes. We don't know why or how, but we do learn very quickly that it spells extinction-level-event for the people of Earth, and the book follows the way the human race deals with this new reality.

What I loved about this book is that it was straightforward without losing its complexity. It's hard sci-fi in a lot of ways, and the amount of science and theory Stephenson jams in here is pretty great. Why this worked for me, though, is that the politics and social activities that surround the disaster and beyond felt extremely real. While it's hard to give away crucial plotpoints in what is a nearly 900 page book, the fact that the book kept me so engaged on a lot of those issues ended up being a really pleasant surprise.

Another benefit of the story is how things came around toward the end, and how so many quality payoffs occur. One specific incident toward the end had me pounding the book in excitement, which never happens, and really brought the whole thing around for me.

I guess, if I have a warning, it's that this book won't lend itself to falling for specific characters. Just don't do it. You'll be better off. Instead, enjoy the long-term ride that this provides - it's a different book than Anathem, concerned less with philosophy than with technology and science, but still balancing things out in a good way. It might even be a better book than Anathem, even though Anathem appealed to a lot more of my base interests.

If an almost 900 page epic science fiction tale isn't daunting to you, get your hands on a copy of this immediately. This is, without a doubt, the best book I'e read in 2015 so far, and it's not even close. Highly recommended, a great ride from start to finish.

22 May 2015

Review: Forging Divinity

A surprisingly epic fantasy from someone who's involved with the Obsidian game studio, I was offered this for a review and I was pleasantly surprised.

At its core is a story of a sorceress investigating a small offshoot of believers, but the tale quickly becomes a multi-layered conspiracy tale we don't see a lot of in fantasy. Familiar-looking prisoners, warring power factions, things quickly expand out and devolve into a substantial situation.

The book itself is a fast read and a lot of fun. There's a lot going on, with a great setting and some interesting choices made along the way. The big complaint, for me, is that the old writing precept of "show, don't tell" is one that could have been applied a lot more in this book. For the type of epic this tries to be, a little less on-the-nose descriptions, especially of character motivations, would have taken this fully out of the "self-published" place and into something that might get more attention.

This, however, is still a great read in spite of that caveat. A very enjoyable read that reads a lot smoother than you'd expect for the genre.

12 May 2015

Review: Love, Fortunes, and Other Disasters

I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with silly. The problem is when silly becomes almost self-parody in a way. Love, Fortunes, and Other Disasters is a book about a town that has been basically governed by love charms in its romantic relationships, and about the students who have tasked themselves to end this entire thing. The story is actually fairly low-key and sometimes a little sad, as one might expect. The problems with this book, though, are fairly significant. The story attempts to have a weight of sorts with the charms and the impact it has one the people, but the stakes never feel too high. And I don't want to spoil the ending, but I can say that the ending is entirely ridiculous in a way that almost negates the limited good will that the book had created to start out. It's not easy to toe the line between seriousness and whimsy, but this book either doesn't try at all or utterly misses the mark as it swings wildly between the tones. I can't even figure out the audience for this one on a whole, as the appeal is so strange and limited. Ultimately, skip this one.

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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Review: The Grace of Kings

I absolutely wanted to love this, and all reviews and accounts and what was being said about the book ahead of time said I would. Unfortunately, the book is more like A Song of Ice and Fire on easy mode, and, while there's a lot to like about that sort of thing, the cohesive whole for this one isn't quite there. The book itself, the first in the series, follows an uprising against an emperor from a few points of view. These points of view are designed to get the different perspectives of things as they're occurring (and perhaps less about the individual storylines) and thus we get a lot of background and setting from the area. Where this works best is with the emperor and when things finally converge toward the end. The problem is perhaps the level of detail, which feels like detail because that's what epic fantasy entails rather than detail that enhances the plot. Worse is that the prose and presentation works extremely well when it's working, which makes me think more that this was an error in editing, overall, rather than an error in anything else. This just had a ton of missed potential overall, unfortunately. I might have had too high expectations, or maybe it's just something else, but this was basically even between hit and miss for me.