09 December 2014

Review: Suspicion


Suspicion
Suspicion by Alexandra Monir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5.

I'm a big fan of Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries, and find the whole "unknown royalty/lineage" trope to be endlessly entertaining. Throw in the apparent new haunted house trope, and you have Suspicion, a great - bordering on excellent - book that jumps from genre to genre with relative ease and mostly succeeds at all parts.

Imogen's parents died in a fire, and she is spirited out of England to live with some guardians. She is quickly roped back in, however, as the heirs to her family's manor pass and Imogen, now of age, is forced to take over the family manor. As we expect, however, there are some pretty strange mysteries that threaten to blow the lid off of some really important mysteries.

The beauty of this book is that, for once, a story that can't decide whether it's a teen comedy farce or a mystery or a paranormal tale somehow succeeds at being all three. The book is credible in all accounts, and doesn't feel like it's too absurd even though the premise is entirely unrealistic. I can quibble with a lot of the choices, and the more aristocratic parts ring a little hollow, but, overall, a really fun read.



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07 December 2014

Review: Revival


Revival
Revival by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



This is only my fourth (I think) Stephen King book up to this point, and I wouldn't quite put him up there as an author that I need to rush out and read the moment he releases something, but when I hear that King is doing something Lovecraftian, I think I'll add it to my library hold list. The idea that it's Lovecraftian, however, is both spot on and a little misleading (at least in the modern era), and it's really more a really stark, nihilistic look at mortality that, if it were probably 100-150 pages shorter, might have an opportunity to be a real classic.

The tale is pretty much the life of one person, from his childhood where he met a charismatic-yet-mysterious pastor through middle and old age as the pastor keeps returning to his life in different ways. There's love and loss, drugs, failure, music, Maine, mystery, and a sort of roadshow/spiritual healer sensibility to it that runs throughout until the very end, where everything that has been happening up to that point finally comes together.

It's impossible to fully discuss whether this book fails or succeeds without giving away the ending, and, really, the whole book. While this is clearly a book that is a look at mortality from King's point of view, this is also definitely a Lovecraftian pastiche from start to finish, with the slow burn and seemingly meaningless plot points that come together. I can appreciate what King tried to do here by also noting that, well, it didn't completely work. A short story that spends 3/4 of its time on seemingly meaningless details is one thing, but a horror novel with 400 pages is a different story altogether. The ending pays off, but you have to want to bear with the investment first and I don't know if most readers would stick with it if another name was on the cover.

Overall, I liked the book more than I think the book was good. The whole thing really sticks with me in a few different ways, and if I'm being honest, it's closer to a 3.5 that I couldn't in good conscience recommend to anyone in particular. A lot of books do it better, this does it pretty well.



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30 November 2014

Review: The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits


The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits
The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits by Jim Geraghty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Satire can be tricky. It's one thing for satire to lampoon existing issues, another for it to be just existing in itself.

What happens when a satire is too realistic and not biting enough? That's where The Weed Agency comes in, telling a tale of a government agency as it grows and changes to adapt in order to not perish. It's a very straightforward, often journalistic approach, that ends in present day with things as one might expect.

The book has a conservative point of view, which is fine. The tale is realistic enough to a fault, mixing in the satirical (the environmental agency putting in a website that doesn't work, the agency being an inspiration to Al Gore) with the real (Gore, people like Newt Gingrich) to craft a fairly short tale designed to remind us all about the ever-growing, often unnecessary federal government.

So why rated so low? Really, it's just too one-note. There's no real dynamic here, the joke is given away pretty early and ultimately often, and would have benefited from some growth. The concept behind it is ultimately that the truth is ridiculous enough, but I just don't feel like it worked.

I like Jim Geraghty's writing at National Review, which might have impacted my expectations a bit. As a novel, though, it's just okay, filled with a lot of unrealized potential. Closer to a 2.5.



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26 November 2014

Review: Skin Game


Skin Game
Skin Game by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



So we've reached the latest volume of the series, and I have to say that, after seeing how it was going in the last volume, I thought this was quite the step backwards.

The basics of the story are still the same, as Harry is still the Winter Knight under Mab, but the difference here is that we're essentially getting Dresden's Eleven, as we are now in the midst of a pretty significant heist story.

Wait, what?

I'm usually fine with the way these individual books toy with existing tropes and conventions, but I found that this specific type of story just didn't work so well with me. I felt like there was a little more fanservice than usual combined with some left field-style scenes (most notably with Hades and Cerberus) that didn't really work for me. It's weird.

The problem with my whole viewpoint on this, though, is that Jim Butcher's strength in this area is also his weakness. He's great at balancing out the urban fantasy with the encapsulated tales that toy with these different ideas and genres, and when it doesn't work, it really feels wrong and weird. I just want more from it, I guess, and, especially with how excited I was for this volume, it might just hit me wrong even more.

Of course, now I get to wait a year plus for the next volume. After reading one a month for the last year plus, that wait is going to feel crazy. Maybe it's time for the Codex Alera?



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23 November 2014

Review: Conversion


Conversion
Conversion by Katherine Howe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5 only because the ending irritated me so much.

A few years ago, 18 girls (and one boy) in Le Roy, New York, came down with a similar affliction that was, at one point, blamed on an autoimmune issue and later on Lyme Disease, and they all eventually recovered and we all moved on from the strange mystery. Conversion, Katherine Howe's first young adult novel, plays with this idea a little bit while including a parallel tale centered around the Salem Witch Trials, where students at an all-girls school in Danvers, MA (not far from Salem) begin coming down with various maladies and the national press starts becoming curious and getting involved.

The book itself ends up being a pretty pleasant slow burn, where the mysteries of what is occurring are doled out in measured reveals, and there are plenty of little red herrings sprinkled about that make you think you understand what is happening, only to be brought down a path you didn't expect. Every time I thought I had it figured out, something else came along to have me doubt it, and that was great. It's really high-quality storytelling throughout most of this book.

And then we came to the end, and this will be spoiler central. For the record, I wouldn't let the ending stop anyone from reading this, as it's quite good, but I found it to be a bit of a letdown.

The hardest thing to do is end something. I get that. With a book like this, that has introduced a lot of complexities and thrown a lot of questions at the readers, the desire for answers is fairly immediate. While there are always reasons to leave questions open-ended and/or open to interpretation, it's another thing to outright give an ending that implies what you believe to be true about the story but doesn't outright give you the sort of closure you've earned for the investment. Yes, it's highly likely that the competing narratives were related and the Salem setting is very real, but, while the environmental angle was disproven, nothing else was in your face and clear about it. I get that the point was to leave it open to interpretation, but I am very much against that sort of open reveal in a book like this, especially ones that deal with a lot of other important issues that could have been solved with some decent closure.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I really think it's one of the better young adult books of the year. I also think it has a conclusion that is bound to irritate a lot of people, so don't beware, just be wary.



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22 November 2014

Review: Fool's Assassin


Fool's Assassin
Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I've been holding out on reviewing this one for a while in part because of time constraints, and in part because I really wanted to kind of enjoy my memory of this book so much. I have been holding out reading Robin Hobb for some time now, and after really devouring this book, I honestly don't know why I waited so long.

The first book in a planned trilogy, the plot involves a magical tracker-type who is a bit out of practice. He and his wife live in the woods, his kids are part of the nobility, and the couple are just enjoying their old age.

At least until his much too old wife gets pregnant.

This is a big deal due to the rules of the magic of the story as well as the weird situation of the pregnancy, and when the child is born we learn even more about what's happening, putting into play a variety of political, social, and magical mysteries that need to be unraveled.

The first 100 pages or so of this are kind of slow in the establishing of the tale. I get, after finishing it, why the slow burn happens, but it does take away from the overall narrative enough to keep me from considering this one a true favorite. With that said, the last 500 or so pages more than make up for it and create a really compelling, interesting, and original fantasy read even as it exists within established tropes and concepts. It may relate to Hobb's other books as well, but there's nothing in this book that points obviously to anything else and appears to stand alone well as a trilogy, so I wouldn't be scared off by that, either.

This is a year where there have been some truly excellent genre books released, from the second book in Sanderson's series to The Slow Regard of Silent Things to Area X to Maplecroft to The Goblin Emperor and beyond. Fool's Assassin shouldn't get lost in the shuffle, as it almost did for me, it's really one of the best reads of the year.



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11 November 2014

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things


The Slow Regard of Silent Things
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



So this is a weird one.

I love The Kingkiller Chronicles, first and foremost. The wait has been difficult, but I don't want to be that guy who's like "less talking more writing," and goodness knows I have enough books to get me through the lean time. Still, a somewhat-in-universe novella from one of my favorite authors? Sign me up.

Rothfuss has explained countless times that this is a different book and not for everyone. He's right. It's a short tale, basically no dialogue to speak of, about a girl who isn't what we'd call normal. It actually reminds me in tone of a lot of those sweet middle grade stories I love so much, and that's great.

The story is really well-written, and has its moments, but my issue is less about what it isn't and more that I personally struggled to fully engage with it. It's so short and so specific that I just wanted to be more immersed in it.

On the other hand, I finished it and immediately wanted to read it again. It's that good and that subtle.

So overall? Yeah, I liked it. I wanted to love it. I might be completely wrong about it. That's the sign of something solid, right?



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05 November 2014

Review: The Silence of Six


The Silence of Six
The Silence of Six by E.C. Myers

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



Cory Doctorow, in a lot of ways, has the market cornered on sort of technopunk/cybersecurity issues tales, so seeing someone else enter the space and give things a shot is welcome no matter what. That EC Myers, who wrote the solid Fair Coin series, the one who made the jump is even better. That the book is actually a really solid, suspenseful tale? Further icing on the cake.

The story starts with a hack into a political debate and an on-screen video chat suicide. With a question about "the silence of six" and a reactionary government in place, a former hacker teen is dragged back into the culture to try and solve the issue as to why his friend offed himself and what the government is hiding.

There's going to be unavoidable comparisons to Doctorow's Little Brother, and they're fairly well deserved on a whole, as they are, at its basis, about the era of privacy in a world where it's disappearing fast. Where Doctorow's books invariably devolve into advocacy, however, Myers keeps it simple by presenting the sorts of apps and programs and activities a privacy-minded person would use as simple plot points rather than paranoia. It works well as it allows the story to remain just that even when more savvy readers might know where things are headed.

The downside? The pace is almost too breakneck for its own good at times, meaning the slower points feel really draggy in comparison. There's the occasional issue of the government agents both being far too competent and bumbling all at once, and I can't say the ending felt all that realistic, but in what is a book that celebrates paranoia a bit, it works in the setting.

Overall, if you're looking for lighter fare that hits upon a lot of notes we don't see too often in YA or otherwise, this one is worth a look. Certainly one of the better reads in the genre as of late.



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01 November 2014

Review: Cold Days


Cold Days
Cold Days by Jim Butcher

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



Cold Days may have already supplanted the previous book as my new favorite in the series, even with its questionable ending.

Cold Days takes place not long after the resurrection of Dresden by Mab, who has been a thorn in Harry's side since the beginning. Harry's the Winter Knight now, and along with that responsibility comes a bit of a reputation to go with it, combined with questionable alliances and difficult magic. Harry's been tasked for one specific job, and if we've learned much from the last few books, it doesn't really go smoothly.

I continued to love the direction this opted to take, a slightly darker affair where things are muddled yet not totally unclear, either. I like that Harry is a complicated hero even moreso now - there's still the desire to do the right thing even as he knows/believes/feels he's done the wrong, and yet it still stands with his interactions with Bob and Toot and Molly and Karrin. A specific scene with Molly really stuck out at me as a strong one of the right/wrong dichotomy, and, if it weren't for the very end, the scene where Harry meets up with Thomas for the first time since returning may have been one of the most powerful in the series so far.

I get the choices with the Summer/Winter Lady shifts, and I don't love it, to be completely honest. I want to withhold judgement a bit if only because I don't know where it's going to go, but it felt like a bit of a hail mary of sorts in terms of how to advance things further. Plus, that the shift was effectively the end of the story up to this point created a bit of a situation where the end was a whimper more than a bang. This is probably my choice over what was a good or bad idea.

That I'm just about caught up means we're getting to the point of long delays between books, but I'm looking forward to being able to read fan theories and such at this stage as well. This series just keeps getting better and better, though, so that's definitely worth something.



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Review: Anatomy of a Misfit


Anatomy of a Misfit
Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars



What on earth did I just read?

I picked this one up solely because it was the "Big Library Read" on the digital library catalog, so why not grab something a little extra, especially if its recommended enough to be something offered to anyone who wants it. I've since found that it's one of the hotter reads of the year, got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and is pretty well-regarded.

And I have no idea why.

This story follows two teens in Nebraska. There's a hot boy, a mean girl clique, and an eventual love triangle that goes a little haywire along the way. Meanwhile, we get some b-plots about theft, racism runaways, bullying, sex, and even some incoherent, barely-justified violence, all to an end where our terrible, horrible, no good very bad protagonist (who is actually the hero of the story by default of being only marginally better than the borderline evil people she's forced to be associated with) is lauded for hijacking a specific event to get verbal revenge.

Man, what?

I wanted this to be satire, or at least satirical, where then I could simply say it missed the mark. As this is apparently intended to be taken somewhat seriously, complete with a note that says it's based on the author's ninth grade year, I am either woefully out of touch with what goes on in the world or maybe, just maybe, this is a little off-center.

Either way, I can't find a single thing redeeming about this that I would be comfortable recommending. It's not obviously tongue-in-cheek enough to work in that direction, and there are no lessons to be learned from the actions of those in the story. It's just a miserable failure that I somehow convinced myself to read all the way through. I don't know why this exists or why it's gotten the accolades it has. I strongly recommend avoiding it at all costs.



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28 October 2014

Review: Shadowboxer


Shadowboxer
Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Closer to a frustrating 3.5.

Two types of books probably don't get enough play in the YA marketplace right now - books about cagefighting/MMA and the like, and books where the souls of children are being stolen. If you agree, add in some shapeshifting for good measure and Shadowboxer might just be the book for you.

The book follows two stories - one with troubled but talented fighter Jade as she is shipped all over to train as a cage fighter and grow up a bit, and Mya, a girl who is stuck in a mysterious story with a creepy old man in the woods with a bunch of other children. These stories eventually converge into an often-interesting but fairly bizarre conceptual horror novel that has a lot of action and a really interesting mechanic to go along with the ending.

Shadowboxer is ultimately frustrating because, while the Jade story is interesting and mostly well-written, the Mya portions do not provide any clear indication of why we should care or how it's related to Jade's story until much later. The temptation to skim through the parts of the story that ultimately end up being some of the most important is a critical miss in terms of structuring the story, and is a significant drawback keeping this story from becoming great instead of merely good. Thankfully, the Jade parts are quite good, and sprinkle just the right amount of action, humor, and heart to make up for some of the less exciting Mya bits.

Overall, definitely a story worth your time. I didn't think much of any of this would appeal to me, and it ended up doing so even with its flaws.



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26 October 2014

Review: All You Need Is Kill


All You Need Is Kill
All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I try my best to read the books movies are based on before seeing the movie. It was pretty difficult to get my hands on a version of this from the library before seeing Edge of Tomorrow, but given that I really enjoyed EoT, I still stuck with getting the book.

In a word, though? Wow.

The concept, like the film, is pretty simply on its face - humanity is at war with an alien race, and our soldier at the center of the story has somehow gotten the ability to replay the same day repeatedly following his own death, sort of like a video game. He thinks it might be linked to one of the aliens he killed, but as time progresses and more information comes about, the complexities of the war and his situation come around.

The book is ridiculously fast-paced, and where it diverges from the movie are things that I really loved about it and probably would have hated in the film had my consumption of the two had been reversed. The confusion, the reveals, the overall fun of what the book offers changes it from a story similar to Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day into something a lot more.

This book can't exist without the current sort of video game cultural touchstones that it uses to push its narrative. That it's nearly 10 years old and feels new and fresh is also interesting, and the specific American translation feels really natural, which was welcome. Overall, it's absolutely a book that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to and really think every science fiction fan should read.



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25 October 2014

Review: Everything Leads to You


Everything Leads to You
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5, but I really enjoyed this.

The story centers around two girls obsessed with old movies, and, upon hearing that a famous star is having an estate sale following his death, end up purchasing an old record that has a letter inside to be delivered. This places them on a path that introduces them to the actor's family, uncovers a lot of old problems, and creates a lot of new relationships along the way.

A lot of the focus, as I've read up on this now that I'm done, focuses on the "two girls in romantic love" aspect, and it's actually understated enough to be barely there except as any other love story, which is refreshing and really well done. The story itself isn't bogged down from the old movie subplot/parallel plot, and the voices are realistic as well. Just really well done.

I could quibble a bit about the choices, about the somewhat-rushed ending, about some of the ways the plot winds through, but that would be more negative than deserved. Absolutely a solid read through and through, definitely worth some space in your contemporary young adult reading this year.



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Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood


Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I've been really interested and fascinated with the history of cinema for some time. There's a lot of fascinating pieces to the overall history, although I find the Hays Code-era wranglings to be almost as interesting as the creation of the classic films themselves.

What if I told you there was a book that combined both?

Pictures at a Revolution covers the time in American movies surrounding the creation of five classic films that ended up being nominated for Best Picture in 1967, including Bonnie and Clyde, Look Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Graduate. The films are put up against the social and cultural situations of the time, the struggle of American filmmakers to stay relevant with the censorship and Code issues of the day being ignored by European filmmakers, and the changing landscape of films and their audiences overall.

It's a really fascinating narrative. The book balances out a lot of the topics really well, doesn't dwell too long on any specific aspects, and is ultimately pretty straightforward about some of the issues some movies (most notably Doctor Doolittle in the context of the lineage it came from). It's long, but doesn't feel long, as the details all feel relevant. Harris also got a good deal of input directly from people involved with the film, giving a lot of inside knowledge I wouldn't have expected.

Overall, I think this is ultimately a must-read for film enthusiasts as well as cultural history buffs. There's a lot here for everyone, and it's a book I'm glad I took the time to read.



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Review: Counting by 7s


Counting by 7s
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Closer to a 3.5.

I've written before about my enjoyment of the sweeter, more pointed-style middle grade/YA books - your Pie, Stargirl, and the like. Counting By 7s is another one of those, sort of a sadder version of One for the Murphys with an implied autistic main character and some really strange choices made with certain characters.

Essentially, Willow, our lead character, his a supergenius who is immediately misunderstood by her teacher. Her adoptive parents die in a car accident and she is forced to deal with her entire world being turned upside down in the process as she seeks out a surrogate family and copes with everything around her.

Whether she is supposed to be autistic is left unsaid, which might be part of my struggle with it. In a modern context, it would be exceptionally difficult for her to slip through like that. The guidance counselor comes across as creepy, which isn't really the intent as far as I can tell even if the point was for him to be just kind of bad at his job. All these points pulled me out of the narrative more than a little bit and keep it from being as profound as some of the other books like it.

It's not a terrible read, by any stretch. If you can forgive the missteps, it ends up being a pretty solid story. It's just difficult to separate the two for me.



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21 October 2014

Review: How It Went Down


How It Went Down
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



At minimum, I truly do believe that kids need and deserve books that reflect the world they live in, even if I see literature more as an opportunity to escape than anything else. How It Went Down is a book, given the situation in Ferguson and the Trayvon Martin case from last year, that will have a lot of relevance to many readers. Unfortunately, the book lacks the nuance that such a topic requires and ends up being a questionable read in the end.

The story is told from multiple points of view in the time during and following the shooting of a black teenager that may or may not have been armed and may or may not have been associated with a gang. His shooter was white, the store he might have robbed or might not have. The tale tries to take all the points of view into consideration as the story gains national attention and draws in other outsiders.

I say this is questionable because of the nuance, as the story doesn't really reflect that. The point is that we don't really know and never will, but the tales its pulling from are not so complex. The ideas within the book are adult and complicated, and the story unfortunately simplifies matters too much to be a real commentary on the topic it's very obviously discussing. In a place where ideas can be explored, the characters instead do not come across as complicated, but instead all simply flawed and not so nuanced. The Reverend character, in particular, is a disgusting and disturbing caricature that offers little to no reason to accept him as realistic or to understand why his portrayal even matters.

I'm overly critical because I think this is an important topic that probably doesn't get fair treatment in schools or in the public dialogue, and this book misses so many opportunities to execute better. I wish it was something it isn't, and that's unfortunate. I can't recommend.



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20 October 2014

Review: Maplecroft


Maplecroft
Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



If I'm nitpicking, this is closer to a 4.5. If I could give a bonus star for how much fun and how much I loved this story, though, I would.

So I know, growing up and living in Massachusetts, the story of Lizzie Borden quite well. Accused of murdering her parents with an axe, she was later acquitted but her legend ultimately remained. Maplecroft takes that story and essentially retells it as if HP Lovecraft were putting it together. Yes, all the necessary tropes are there, and done beautifully.

The story is incredibly fast-paced and readable, with plenty of fun little nods to the Cthulhu Mythos and a few nice little curveballs along the way. It's a book I'm sure hardcore Lovecraftians might find something to quibble with, but, truly, if you are just looking for a fun ride? This is probably the most fun I've had with a book in months, and that should say something right there.

Highly recommended. Definitely check this one out.



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Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers


The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers
The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers by Peter F. Hamilton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



One of my favorite science fiction books of all time is Pandora's Star by Peter F Hamilton, with the sequel, Judas Unchained, a fairly close second. A duology within a group of books labeled The Commonwealth Saga, it's hard sci-fi that doesn't really try to forget about the human elements, and invites a lot of cool ideas that go along with the overall theme.

The companion books, the Void trilogy, I couldn't get into. It was less of what I liked in a hard sci-fi book, especially given what I loved about the two prior books, and more about some fairly out-there ideas and concepts that left me a little cold. It wasn't really Hamilton, it was me.

So what do you get when you get a new series of books with people and concepts from both Commonwealth tales? It's ultimately mixed.

There's a lot going on, and it's almost not really worth recapping in some senses. There are names and faces that readers of the old books will remember, but the tale is centered at least in part around Nigel, who we first met in Pandora's Star. He's been recruited to infiltrate The Void (first introduced in the Void trilogy, naturally) and what he learns there is more than what was initially bargained for.

I have to say that my memory of this book is quite shaded from where it ends as opposed to how it begins. I really disliked a lot of the setup, as it relied ultimately on a lot more Void information and setting than I really was looking for. Once we get some information on what's going on and how it's being addressed, however, it becomes a lot more clear and a lot more enjoyable. It's still a highly imperfect read, but it saves itself with the setup for the future.

I sometimes feel like Hamilton is trying to ape Heinlein in many regards, especially with issues of sexuality and Grand Ideas. I pretty much end up wishing he'd just do what works for me, which is why this is partially my problem, but this book is ultimately a little too convoluted for what I wanted to see from a science fiction book or from Hamilton. Meanwhile, you probably wouldn't reach for this book without having at least sampled his other Commonwealth books first, so you would have a good idea as to what you're getting into.

Overall, be cautious, but know what's coming.



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19 October 2014

Review: The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All


The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All
The Fearless Defenders, Vol. 2: The Most Fabulous Fighting Team of All by Cullen Bunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Excuse me while I use this review to rant for a few minutes.

There's a lot of desire for diversity in books, especially in comics as of late. The desires are not completely unreasonable, although I think that there's a broader discussion that needs to take place regarding the genre, the history, the expectations, and so on. The better news, however, is that we have a comic right here that hits a lot of those marks - diversity in character set, in gender, in race, in sexuality, and it does so without calling attention to itself or coming across as some sort of attempt to check off different boxes. It's a marvelous series that knows what it's trying to do and has a keen sense of the tropes it's aping and understands that comics are often supposed to be fun romps.

So that's why Marvel cancelled it, right?

No, Marvel cancelled it because sales dropped significantly, in part because it was a difficult draw in some senses, with characters that only hardcore comics readers would know and with plots that intentionally bordered on the absurd. That's what made it fun and drew in people like me, but I also get why it might not have caught fire with a lot of others. It's a shame, because it definitely felt like a comic that I could point to and say "this is what we should be striving for" in a lot of ways, from character to casting to plot. Instead, well...

I get that the industry is in trouble in some regards. It's just a shame there's not more room for a team-up that's off-kilter a bit. No, there's no foul-mouthed raccoon, but that doesn't mean that Valkyrie couldn't be the next Gamora, either, right?

And I suppose we'll never know.



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13 October 2014

Review: Wolf in White Van


Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Books by musicians, I've found, are continually risky. I can hear at least two of my close friends saying "but wait, John Darnielle!" and I would simply respond with how much I didn't care for Colin Meloy's efforts, and the two of them are both good lyricists. Still, when Wolf in White Van hit my library system, I made sure to put a hold on it.

Then it got nominated for a National Book Award.

Okay, so I guess I'm in. Award-nominated, I'm a fan of The Mountain Goats, so I dive in on a book where my expectations were understandlibly tempered and ended up finishing the book over the course of the evening, as it's one of the more poetic, straightforward, enjoyable contemporary reads I've consumed in a while.

The story is a little fractured, which only helps with the reveals along the way. We have a murder/wrongful death case, it involves a man who has been significantly disabled due to an accident (I don't want to give too much away), and he also ran a roleplaying-game-by-mail service. These are all interrelated issues, and we get a peek into his childhood and upbringing along with his mentality along the way.

It's the tale of a broken person, or broken people, and has enough cultural touchstones and references to go along with the tale to end up being a very different story than what I normally read, and one I really loved. Whether this breaks a lot of new ground in the sort of literary fiction universes that I don't spend a ton of time in, that's for other people to say. The book, however, deserves every accolade it's gotten and is definitely something I recommend for everyone. Really solid book.



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06 October 2014

Review: Nyctophobia


Nyctophobia
Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Nyctophobia is defined as a significant fear of the dark. I'm not generally someone who is afraid of the dark, although I've been known to have my overtired darkness hallucinations from time to time. While I'm not really into scary books, this story in particular kind of feeds into the latent fears that I think we all thought we might have grown out of.

I also hadn't slept well in a week while reading this, and realized that (given I was reading this before bed every night), perhaps the warm glow of my Paperwhite was not enough to keep my mind firmly rooted in reality.

The tale is, in a way, a book about architecture. Callie marries and moves to Spain with her husband. Their home is an older building that is constructed in a certain way to allow light in at all times, but also has a closed-off servants quarters and is built to have some severely dark wings as well. The home also comes with a housekeeper and a gardener, both of which are as mysterious as the house itself. And then there are the weird things going on, the stuff in the dark behind the doors, and how protective of the dark side of the house the housekeeper tends to be.

The book is super creepy, and uses the concept of the fear of the dark in a pretty cool way. The reveals along the way are all pretty crazy, and it becomes almost a game of one-upsmanship along the way as the story speeds toward its end. The book does sputter a bit toward the end as it moves away from what made the rest of the narrative so scary in favor of a neat, but strange, explanation, but the fun of this book is more about the ride than the destination.

Overall, for a book that's generally outside of my genre preferences, I was very pleased and really enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it probably kept me up for a week. Might be a good gateway for this type of story for some, and I think those who are already happy to be a little scared when they read will find something to enjoy here.



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05 October 2014

Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After


Isla and the Happily Ever After
Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Judging by when I first added this to Goodreads, it appears I was waiting for this book for at least three years. It was mostly worth the wait.

Much like the first two books in this cycle, it's a teen romance of missed connections, missed communications, and dramatic outcomes. This story basically takes place in a French boarding school with the son of an American politician and an upper class New York-area girl. The two love interests go through the typical motions and the story works as the last two did as well.

If I have a complaint, it's more that the plot kind of upped the ante on the age groups a bit. Isla and Josh have a much more mature relationship than shown in the prior two books, and I was actually kind of surprised and taken aback by it a bit. The story also took quite a long time to get rolling, as well, with the first hundred or so pages being frustratingly slow in comparison to the parts after it.

Overall, a good read. Not great in the way I felt the first two were, but Perkins has become a master of the ridiculous teen romance fantasies that tend to hit a lot of good notes for me. If I wasn't such a fan of the first two, I may have ended up being more forgiving on this third one on a whole.



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Review: Ghost Story


Ghost Story
Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



In many ways this was my favorite book in the series so far, and in many ways it was easily the most frustrating.

So, spoiler alert, Dresden's dead, baby. The final scene of the previous (non-short story) book was Dresden dying, and we open with the Dresden version of the afterlife. Harry's a ghost in a ghostly version of Chicago, and we get a good amount of time with his dealing with this new existence before we get into the meat of the story, which is really less an urban fantasy than a straightforward fantasy book steeped in death and destruction. It's a really interesting turn for the series on a whole.

What I loved, for starters, was that the Dresden/Butcher view of the afterlife is a pretty interesting one on a whole. I won't speak to its true originality, but it felt new and fresh to me as I read it. Seeing Dresden cope with this situation, meeting a lot of new characters, having him interact both with the new world he inhabited and the old one left behind? All of these things were really well done and presented throughout. It's not so much that the series needed a shift in tone or plot or anything, but it's a welcome one and a nice addition to the canon.

What's maddening about this book in particular, however, is that the consistent rules in place that one assumes to exist only seem to benefit Harry. While we're long past the idea of the story working for Harry's benefit, this takes it to a really absurd conclusion. He's dead because of something he did on purpose to screw over Mab, which just happens to be convenient to the story and to his own needs while dead, and that he somehow excises that memory from himself which either means that he also excised the memory of what he knows about death or that he just happened to fall conveniently into a situation in the afterlife that worked to his overall benefit when it comes to Mab? I'm especially annoyed by this because I love watching the other shoe drop, and this felt like a really convenient end-around.

And don't even get me started with his adventures in the Molly treehouse scene.

I feel as if I'm really overly negative about a book I actually really enjoyed, but I just don't get a lot of these choices in this instance. It really stopped the book from being the great book in the series it could have been, and that's frustrating. With that said, though, the book yet again did what just about every other entry has so far, and that's get me really excited to get to the next tale. With only two books left before I'm caught up with everyone else, though...




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01 October 2014

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why


Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I'm not generally one to really react to a book in general. A funny book for me might elicit a chuckle, but I'm typically a silent reader. With this book, however, I'm pretty sure that the old ladies at the Dunkin Donuts where I was reading this was wondering why this grown man, beard and all, looked about ready to sob all over the place.

Yes, Thirteen Reasons Why is that good.

The plot is fairly straightforward in that we get to listen along with a teenage boy as he listens to the audio records of the girl who killed herself a few weeks earlier. She recorded the tapes with the intention of those who were involved in her making the choice she did knowing exactly why it happened.

It's gut-wrenching. It's heart-breaking.

A common problem with the teen "issues" books is that they can really do a lot in trivializing the emotional core of teen life. It's easy for us, as adults, to look back at what we spent our emotional energy on years earlier and forget how tough it was (heck, that's part of the reason why YA books are so popular with adults currently), but it also runs the risk of diminishing the real feelings involved along the way. If depression and emotional angst are a series of crushing weights (and, for many, they are), Thirteen Reasons Why just marches us right along as we watch that slow decline.

As someone who struggles with depression to this day, this book really hit home for me. I always tell people about how Stargirl is the best book I can think of for teens to read about acceptance and treating people right, and this book has lodged itself directly next to it as something not only important because of the message it sends, but also important because of how genuine and sincere it is. It's a narrative about how the small things become big, and maybe reading this book might just make some people treat their peers a little better, because it might be all it takes.

I don't know. It took me over a week to write up anything on this and I feel like I could spend forever talking about it. It's a beautiful, tragic, amazing, disturbing book in every regard. I'm glad I read it. I hate that I read it. I love that it exists, I hate that it needs to. No one should have to read this, but everyone really should. If you've been holding off, as I have for years and years now, just find a copy and read it now. You'll be really, really glad you did.

I'll supply the tissues.



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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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