25 January 2015

Review: Proxima


Proxima
Proxima by Stephen Baxter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I forget how I ended up reserving this one at the library, but given that it's arguably the most straightforward science fiction I've read in months, I'm kind of glad I did.

The story takes place in the distant-ish future, and we've found a new planet to colonize. Ships are sent, we follow a group that lands on this planet near Alpha Proxima, and much of the story stays with that group. It's very much a science fictional survival tale with some interesting ideas peppered throughout.

The issue is when the book gets to its true point. I don't want to give away the plot, but needless to say it's a great idea with really strange execution that doesn't pay off until literally the final pages.

If I was rating this based solely on the first 99% of the book, I'd say it was a book with great potential that lost its way. It's only getting to the very end that it all makes sense and makes me genuinely excited for the sequel, which is truly a problem with the way the narrative is ultimately structured. It left me with a good feeling, but getting there was a chore.

I'm very excited for the sequel here, and we'll see how it goes, but it doesn't come out in the US for a while. Hopefully it holds up!



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Review: Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues


Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues
Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues by Rick Dakan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Maybe closer to a 2.5?

I had very warm feelings about this series, liking the first book a lot in particular. Looking back at my review of the second book, I apparently bleached out my memory of it because I really didn't like it, but hey, the third book is available to me so I'll give it a shot, right?

The problems with this book are legion. The first quarter feels like a Cory Doctorow knockoff, the middle half a meandering mess of a cyberpunk mystery, and, while the end does kind of redeem things a bit, the full result is a hacker novel that provides little to truly get excited over.

I feel badly about this, as I just want this to be a lot better than it ends up being. But the unfortunate truth is that the characters barely resemble who they were when they started out (and not in a "character growth" way), and this book feels less like a necessary coda and more of an add-on.

I still think the first book is pretty great. This book pretty much solidifies, however, the way the rest of the series kind of falls apart. Unfortunate, but there are certainly other books and other series that do this better.



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19 January 2015

Review: The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help


The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help
The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I was wrong about Amanda Palmer.

I'm not saying I wasn't a casual-ish fan - I liked The Dresden Dolls, I really enjoyed her solo albums, but there was always something that didn't register for me. I appreciated The Art, but it wasn't For Me, if that makes any sense. It was similar to, say, Tori Amos or (ironically) Neil Gaiman for me, or how others feel about Radiohead or, for a literary equivalent, Area X. I was happy to listen, found the fanbase a little difficult, and left it at that.

The genesis of this book came at least in part from the backlash from her Kickstarter campaign for one of her albums and the completely ridiculously overblown "she's not paying her musicians" controversy following that. She had a TED talk that was, in part, about the culture she comes from - one that encourages giving, favors, and not being afraid to ask permission. This is really key to understanding The Amanda Palmer Experience, and was lost on her critics anyway.

The Art of Asking is an extended treatise on her TED talk, for sure. It's mostly anecdotal, with tales of her experiences as an artist in a number of forms and how the culture she exists in matters to her art, to how she goes about her business, and so on. It's also a memoir of her life, of her struggles, and of a lot of her own personal conflicts with her philosophy and her lifestyle and how her life was trending (famous musician, marrying a famous author, and so on). All of it matters, all of it is out there and raw and real, which is pretty much how Amanda Palmer operates anyway.

I loved this book. I read it in basically two sittings because her writing style is engaging and conversational, and because, really, the story is pretty fascinating. And, really, it made me realize that I didn't really understand Amanda Palmer either. While I always understood where Palmer was coming from, I didn't realize how ingrained it was in her. I didn't know a ton about her history, only a lot of second-hand stories and third-party tellings. While there is reason to be careful about taking things directly from the source, there is something to understanding how one is trying to be portrayed and the parts you missed.

I'm a bigger fan of Palmer now because of this book. I doubt that was her intention in writing it, but it happened regardless. I learned something, too, in dealing with the sort of "I'm a fraud" voices to seeking out the help you need. Even if I improve marginally in those areas, it will be an improvement.

I can't say this will be for everyone, just because of how divisive Palmer can be. With that said, though, I do think everyone who is trying to be successful doing the things they love should at least give this one a shot. You very well could learn something from it.



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Review: Lagoon


Lagoon
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



There's a lot to love about Lagoon. I love a first contact story, and this one decides destroying New York is overdone, so we're headed to Nigeria instead. It tosses a little wrinkle into an existing trope that works pretty well and perhaps masks some of the overall flaws.

The story effectively follows the impact the visit has on three characters, but quickly becomes more of an invasion story as we learn more about the area, the aliens, and the motives. The book's chief strength is this balance, and all the relevant characters feel fully formed, with interesting aliens as well.

If I have criticism, it's that the book does feel uneven at times, and the brutality of the third act is not something that is at all expected given the first two. There are reasons storywise why this is the case, and readers better versed in the culture and politics of Nigeria may see some parallels that I missed, but better preparation might have blunted that a bit.

Overall, though,a pretty good science fiction book. I somehow got a British release of it from the library, so I'm not sure when this will hit US shores, but it's definitely worth a look.



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18 January 2015

Review: Missing Reels


Missing Reels
Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Honestly closer to a 4.5.

This was originally presented to me as a young adult book, but it's really more a new adult book set in the late-1980s with subject matter I love reading about - old, lost films and coming of age tales. This one contrasts feeling like you're lost in time/in the wrong era while using the history of old movies and lost films as a parallel.

The book's strengths are its references. The more knowledge you have of old movies, the more fun the book's references are. I'm better versed than many and still missed a lot of the references along the way (perhaps reading on a Kindle would have helped in this regard). The story itself is not groundbreaking, but the late-1980s setting provides some good wrinkles and brings a lot of the plot around in a good way.

I did enjoy reading this, but there are some really draggy parts. Nehme's characters love their monologues, and while they are in character, I couldn't help but feel a bit of a "get on with it"-ness on occasion.

Overall, a great book that shouldn't sail under the radar if there's any justice. It's a great read for anyone with an interest in old cinema in particular, but is basically one of the better sort-of-contemporary reads I've picked up as of late.



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Review: All Fall Down


All Fall Down
All Fall Down by Ally Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



As a big fan of the Gallagher Girls series and as someone who was into, but not as impressed with, the Heist Society books, my expectations were still pretty good for Embassy Row, and the result was a bit lacking for me.

Ally Carter definitely has the formula down at this point - get a teenage/high school age girl, throw her in a situation that requires a particular set of skills, and let the characters play. The end result sometimes works, but it was impossible for me to read All Fall Down and not feel like I've read the whole thing before. The ending was not as telegraphed as I thought it would have been, to its credit, but considering how great the previous books are, this felt rote and unmemorable.

There are parts to like. The prose, while paced properly, is probably better for a more reluctant reader. If you're really into Carter's previous books and style doesn't bother you, you'll probably like a lot of what's here. Even the way it ends leaves me with some curiosity as to where the series is going in spite of my not loving it.

So it's not a failure, but far from a success. Ultimately closer to a 2.5.



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Review: The Three-Body Problem


The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5, all things considered.

This is the English translation of a hit sci-fi series in China. The story is, at least on the surface, a first contact tale, but also one about technology and communication under the shadow of the basically-oppressive Chinese government. First contact, in this tale, comes through an MMO-style computer game, and the way this contact occurs is really, really fascinating and basically sells the book for me on its own. I don't want to give that part away, but if you've found like-stories interesting, this twist will certainly grab you.

I wasn't a huge fan of how the book started, but reading an interview with the author and the translator, this is more a cultural choice that makes sense in context. If you're looking for a race to start the story, it won't happen here, but the way the tale ultimately builds makes up for it. I'm also sure I missed plenty of cultural nods and touchstones along the way that might have made more sense for me as a reader, especially from the start. It certainly didn't impact my enjoyment noticeably, however.

Overall, I'll be seeking out the sequel as soon as it's available in English. A really solid overall read, and a great science fiction tale to start my year off on the right foot.



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10 January 2015

Review: Seeker


Seeker
Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



On one hand, it's great to see a neat modern sci-fi/fantasy hybrid for the YA set. On the other, with a handful of unnecessarily weird sexually-charged scenes that don't match up with the book and an ending that more peters toward a sequel than moves full-blast into the next book, this ends up being just a good, interesting read as opposed to the great one with excellent promise I thought it was about a fifth of the way in.

The book basically follows three teens training to be "Seekers," some of the last in their lines. There's history behind the Seekers, a lot of mystery, and daggers seemingly infused with magical energy of some sort that are of great power and value. This, of course, tears families apart, and while the first bit of the book is largely about this fallout, the second part (which is a more modern Hong Kong tale) strives to try and put the story back together. Oftentimes strange (in a good way) and epic feeling, the story keeps running along these lines through the end.

I do wish the climax was more climactic. The book is violent, but not exploitatively so. The couple of questionable scenes don't even seem to fit in with the writing style of the book, so I don't know why it's there, especially given how basically chaste the book is in comparison. There's a lot of early reviews saying this is like The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones, but it's really more like The Testing with familial intrigue mixed in.

Again, very good, could be great if it were fixed up in a few places. I'll look out for the sequel, but this is probably closer to a 3.5 for me.



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Review: Wayward


Wayward
Wayward by Blake Crouch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Closer to a 2.5.

This series took a nosedive pretty quick.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, it was an interesting timejump novel with a weird bent to it that had a solid reveal to boot. Even finishing it, I wasn't sure where the series could go for two more books, but okay.

The bad news is that the second book isn't nearly as good. It's not as well-written, for a basic start, but a bigger problem is that the series stops being a science fictional mystery and starts being a mystery with science fictional elements peppered in. The story could be told without the wrinkle in the tale and still be as relevant, and since you're only reading this for the wrinkle in the tale, the result ends up being just being something that becomes progressively less interesting as it goes on.

The ending does rescue things a bit, as it sets up something interesting for the third book that could be of consequence, but this was such a disappointing read I don't feel as if I'm any significant rush to dive in further. Ultimately, I know I will, and it will be better to take the series as a whole as opposed to the sum of its parts, but for now?



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08 January 2015

Review: Thrown


Thrown
Thrown by Kerry Howley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



It figures that it would take a columnist from a libertarian magazine to get me to be fascinated by MMA. Or CM Punk. One of the two, but, either way, Thrown was not previously down my alley and ended up being one of the better "nonfiction" reads I've taken in of late.

To call it a book about mixed martial arts isn't really fair, because there's not a lot about MMA here. Granted, there's information about some of the wrinkles, and the book does assume some basic knowledge, but this is less about cage fighting and more about the cage fighters - one, following a post-read Google search, is at least somewhat known, and one that didn't really seem to pan out. We get a glimpse into their lives, into what it's like to train, what it's like to be around an MMA fighter, and so on. It's immersive journalism in a sense, but it's also a little more than that. It kind of takes down the spectacle of the whole MMA "thing" a bit, a peek behind the veil, and it's constructed in such a way that it feels like you're part of the observation process instead of reading about it.

If there is a flaw in the book, it's that the tone feels a lot more like a long-form magazine article that would end up in one of the more serious publications than a book. It's not the sort of traditional narrative you come to expect, perhaps it's very "new journalism" and I'm just an old man reader archetype, but it was jarring from time to time until I got used to it.

With that said, it should be added that there's a wrinkle to this book that does throw (heh) a bit of the narrative into question. I don't want to give it away, as the information (to a point) is still solid, just... tweaked. I don't know how to describe it a bit.

Overall, really, this was a fascinating read. It's a good example of a book I read nonfiction for on purpose - I didn't know how interested I'd be in this aspect of sports or entertainment until I read about it. I still don't think I'll be watching MMA - it's a bit brutal for my taste - but I've come out with an appreciation for what it's about and the people involved with it, even in the state it's presented in. Very interesting, very strange, very much worth the time to read.



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07 January 2015

Review: The Science of Interstellar


The Science of Interstellar
The Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I really, really, really loved Interstellar. I love good science fiction, I love a good time travel tale, and the movie really blew me away on a few levels. The science in the movie in particular can get really confusing, especially with the relativity and the time shifts and such. Thankfully, the science adviser for the movie wrote a book explaining the science and the motivations between the usage of it in the movie.

Is it a little textbooky? Yeah, it is. Dry? Not really. It stays pretty close to where the movie was going, explaining things in very simple terms. I never felt myself getting too lost (and science is not my strong point). Do I feel like I understand the really basic quantum physics aspect of things more? Well, since I was near zero to start and further away from zero now, sure, but this isn't going to make anyone an expert, nor is it meant to.

Overall, a good companion to the movie, a great introduction to a lot of the theories within the film. Not really great if you don't know the movie, but as someone who has seen it once, I now really want to see it again.



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06 January 2015

Review: Blindsight


Blindsight
Blindsight by Peter Watts

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Closer to a 2.5.

No book has been recommended to me quite as much as Blindsight. It constantly pops up on the "science fiction books you should read," constantly gets recommended on "what to read" threads on message boards and subreddits, was recommended personally to me on countless occasions, was nominated for a Hugo, the whole thing.

So what on earth did I just read?

This is, at its core, what they like to call a "Big Dumb Object" book, this taking place in the future with said object out near Neptune. The book is, at least in part, about those involved with the contact and communications.

Where does this go wrong? It feels like it's trying be a lot of different ideas and messages, but never really succeeds at any of them. The consciousness angles feel forced, the actual story secondary, the ideas there for the sake of ideas (the "vampires," for example, seem like a cool idea in theory but just get executed kind of poorly). The ending, also, was really abrupt and, even knowing that there's a sequel, felt just...there.

I don't know. I found the book very difficult to read because of its structure and its attempts at being a Big Idea Book, and not nearly interesting enough for me to want to spend more time with it than I did. It's not a complete failure, but it's definitely not something I'd recommend nor do I really get the hype behind it, either.



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05 January 2015

Review: Small as an Elephant


Small as an Elephant
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I can't help but be a little thrown off when I get to read books about kids who end up fending for themselves in society. It's different than the "lost in the woods/desert/city" books because those are at least trying to tell a specific story, but this one, while well done, is just a little sad.

Jack's mother clearly has some sort of mental illness and ends up leaving Jack in the middle of the night during a camping trip. Jack decides he's going to head home from Maine to the Boston area on his own, hopefully before anyone else catches up with him, and the result is a tale of urban survival that ends up hitting a lot of Maine landmarks on the way to its conclusion.

This is a tough subject to tackle for a middle grade audience, and the story does a great job of dancing around the issue of parental mental illness while still addressing it appropriately. Jack's story is sometimes a little too smart for its own good, but the "I can get that" feeling from a lot of the choices does make up for it. The ending is perhaps too tidy, but appropriate for the age group.

Overall, a pretty solid read. Doesn't exactly stand apart from similar fare, but it does a good job of staking its own place within the existing tropes.



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02 January 2015

Review: The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant


The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant
The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant by Joanna Wiebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I'm starting to think we're seeing some sort of Faustian trend in young adult literature.

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is another one of those "a girl goes to a school that is mysterious, and Things Happen" stories. In this case, the school, at first blush, is an ultracompetitive boarding school on an island off the coast, and the school is not one that seems to have a traditional education as much as exists to help kids advance their innermost talents. Very strange way to do it, and Anne is a girl who is an artist and is being told her talent is something much different. This, of course, prompts her to further uncover the mysteries of the island, from why they can't interact with the villagers to the overbearing concern her "guardian," the person assigned to her at the school, has on her well-being.

While this book appears to be pretty divisive, I ultimately liked the conceit and where it went with it. There are a lot of ideas that float around that generally work well with the understanding that new situations can be chaotic and weird. The odd sexuality bits felt superfluous because of how they were introduced and basically abandoned, but that is really the only major fault. A more straightforward approach in all areas might have been beneficial on a whole, but that's more a style preference.

Overall, I'm definitely interested in where this will go next. A cool, different take on some existing YA tropes.



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01 January 2015

Review: The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing


The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Probably closer to a 4.5.

I really liked this book, although the word I'd prefer to use for it is "unsettling" rather than strange or weird. It's unsettling in the way Night Film stuck to me, but without some of the elements in that book. It's structured like a story of an interview of a filmmaker, Laing, but there are some dark undertones both to the work and to the results.

I say it's unsettling because you never fully get the whole idea, but the scenes painted and the concepts discussed just leave you with that weird sense of dread and negativity that doesn't quite want to shake off. The payoff? Who am I to say, really, except that closing the book felt both stress-relieving and unfortunate, as I didn't have to experience what I was experiencing, but still wanted to know and experience more.

If there are flaws here, I could quibble about the execution a bit. The book feels much longer than its under-200 pages, and the literary undertones don't exactly work, resulting in a narrative that feels a little heavier than it needs to (even if it works well within the basic concept).

Overall, I wouldn't have found this without a recommendation from Jeff VanderMeer, and it's a book that really encapsulated a lot of things I was looking for. This won't be for everyone, but you'll know pretty quickly if it's for you.



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Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise


How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Growing up, I was definitely more of a Trek than Wars guy. With the next set of Star Wars movies coming about, though, I can't help but get excited about what's coming. How Star Wars Conquered thee Universe is not only a great way to rekindle one's love for this scrappy little franchise, but is also a great overview of the making of the series as well as its societal impact on a whole.

The book jumps around a bit, which is actually a pretty good way to swing the narrative. Sometimes it's about George Lucas and the making of his career and the films, other times it's a more immersive look at the culture Star Wars has created, from lightsaber training to cosplay to the folks who camp out.

I can't really think of much in the way of flaws about this. The length looks daunting, but nothing feels overexplained or left out. The way the film productions are portrayed certainly gives an impression of financial distress that I'm not 100% convinced on, but the book not being a hagiography of George Lucas (a flawed individual for sure) is also a benefit. Overall, Taylor walks the line on this issue pretty well.

Whatever the next chapter is regarding Star Wars, we're less than a year away on what will be coming up. If you're a fan, lapsed or current, this is a great read that should get you counting down the days until Episode VII.



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Review: The Rosie Effect


The Rosie Effect
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Closer to a 2.5.

Some things are best left unsullied. The Rosie Project was a super-cute, enjoyable read that tackled a variety of different issues without being condescending or immediately problematic. It was a nice fictional piece of candy, and I thought it sorted out well. Why mess with a great thing, right?

This is not a necessary sequel, and it's not especially good, either. The core of the story is that, after about 10 months of marriage, Rosie is pregnant. Unexpected for Don, schemed by Rosie. The book is now, instead of Don coping with how to find a mate, it's how to figure out how to be a father.

As a newish parent myself, I can relate to this in parts. It's not that I'm mildly autistic, but there isn't a manual for this sort of thing. The situations Don ends up getting into, however, are on the unrealistic side of the measure, with a lot of bizarre occurrences almost for the sake of being bizarre.

The biggest crime, though, might be the ruining of Rosie. While I'm not giving anything away with how she gets to her pregnancy given the topic, her actions after that are not in the same vein of what we came to understand from the first book. She becomes almost unlikable, which is really not the point.

This is supposed to be a wacky, light read, but it just ends up feeling depressing and unfortunate. My expectations were high, yes, but this didn't even come close to meeting them or anything close to them. Just an unfortunate state of affairs, and one I wish didn't exist to bring down the reputation of its enjoyable predecessor.



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Review: Komodo


Komodo
Komodo by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I'm certainly thinking I should read more short fiction, so seeing as there was a Weird Fiction Storybundle put together by Area X's Jeff VanderMeer, I dove in. One of his shorts, Komodo, was part of it.

Yep, it's weird all right.

The story is a strange one to describe, our narrator giving a tale to a child that gets progressively stranger and more disturbing as it goes on. It's almost a short game of one-upsmanship, as each break in the story seems to introduce an even more bizarre wrinkle that didn't exist before. True or not to the narrator, it's just that classic piece of unease throughout.

What's impressive about this is that it's the first truly short story (between 30-40 pages depending on device) that seemed to feel complete to me while also not losing any sort of edge or feel like it needed more. Would I love to read more about the universe described here? Without a doubt. Does it take away from what's already in this tale? Not at all.

Definitely worth a look, and shouldn't take you too long to read, either. Very enjoyable piece of short fiction, and perhaps a nice little gateway into the weird fiction universe everyone's talking about.



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30 December 2014

Review: Untaken


Untaken
Untaken by J.E. Anckorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Young adult novels continue to be a hot property as of late publishing-wise, with readers of YA novels pretty much driving the industry at present. Even so, straight, non-dystopian YA science fiction tends to be a little hard to come by. We've come a long way since the Heinlein juveniles and the Tripods series, yes, but when everything feels like it's either a retread of The Hunger Games or Twilight (and may the higher powers help us all if someone ever finds a way to combine those two things), adult readers of genre fiction and YA fiction may feel like they're out in the cold.

I was able to land an advance copy of J. E. Anckorn's debut novel Untaken, and it follows well in the old-school tradition of science fiction for the younger set. Instead of trying to push the envelope with over-the-top ideas and themes, the book is instead an enjoyable throwback of sorts to the alien invasion science fiction of another era while keeping things feeling fresh and new.

The story follows two teens in New England following an alien invasion. They're pretty sure they can get to a family member's cabin to safety, but it's not going to be easy. One girl's parents have already been taken by the aliens, and the two kids have everything working out until they meet a 5 year old kid who won't talk and is pretty hurt. What becomes complicated is when the teenagers learn that Jake has a secret, and it is likely to change everything.

Untaken works best when it is allowed to exist in its own setting. In a way, the book feels like a love letter to the Boston area, with references to landmarks and cities and even a local AM radio station. The alien threat is handled in a different way from what I'm used to as of late as well - the alien existence is a given, and while it feels real, it also feels like part of the setting itself, much like any other problem someone might be facing. Compared to, say, The 5th Wave (a book I definitely enjoyed), the difference in how the threats are handled by our protagonists and by society feel stark. The kids aren't superhuman, they're just surviving, and it ends up being very realistic.

I can't discount, either, the old-style feel it has. While it might be a turn-off for some readers used to a different type of setting, this story feels a lot like the old science fiction that Gracie enjoys in the book. Consciously or not, the book feels very War of the Worlds-ish at times, and that is mostly to its benefit. The narrative along with the plot speaks directly to this sort of throwback, and I love the cover as a result - this would have absolutely sat on my shelf 20+ years ago.

My chief criticism, however, is that the book does take a while to get rolling. The first quarter or so of the book does move a bit slower than the rest as it works to establish what it seeks out to be, but this is both a product of the style it's presented and a product of modern expectations. The payoff (especially the way the book ends) is well worth the wait, but readers looking for a more direct route to the story might find themselves frustrated to start.

Overall, though, an excellent debut and a sci-fi novel I didn't realize I wanted until I was done with it. The book doesn't come out until March, but there is a pre-order available at Amazon that won't break the bank. I'm glad I got to take a look at it, and you will be as well.



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29 December 2014

Review: The Investigation


The Investigation
The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



Books don't always need payoffs, but if you're going to set up a lot of weird stuff going on, you had best have a good reason for it and give some satisfactory reveals to make my investment worthwhile. The Investigation is sort of the prototypical modern "weird" without being quite as good as your Barron or VanderMeer as it forgets how to finish in favor of what ends up being a really fascinating start.

The story follows The Investigator, who has to do an Investigation into some suicides at The Enterprise. Along the way, he runs afoul of The Policeman, ends up talking with the Psychiatrist, is mistaken for a Tourist, and so on.

You get the idea.

The book's successes are in setting up this really confusing, really interesting setting and sequence of events. As we go further down the proverbial rabbit hole, we get both more information and less information. The problem is really at the end, where the resolution feels kind of thrown together. In a way, many resolutions in life are like that, but in fiction? Especially sort-of experimental fiction? Not so much.

Try it if you're in for a challenge, but know that it's going to get a little weird and that it might not be quite what you want it to be in the end.



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Review: Macaque Attack!


Macaque Attack!
Macaque Attack! by Gareth L. Powell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



In what has become a sort of holiday tradition, we have a new book in Gareth Powell's Ack-Ack Macaque series this winter. I liked the first one and thought the second one was okay, but how about the third and final?

I wasn't sure what I'd think about the third one given my relative ambivalence about the second. Macaque Attack is the logical conclusion of the results of Hive Monkey, with plenty of monkey clones and some further universe bending that we've come to expect from the series. As the world grows, so too does the character base, and one of the best benefits of the newest book, oddly enough, is that Ack-Ack Macaque isn't present for a ton of it in comparison to some of the other books, and the result is a better read on a whole. We get a good exploration of the post-Hive Monkey world, and it ends up being pretty fun.

For me, I didn't find the conclusion to be the most satisfying thing in the world, as everything is tied up and together for the most part, but considering that it started out with a foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping monkey hero and ended up a lot broader than that, I suppose I can't complain too too much overall.

Ultimately, though, you have to really take this trilogy as a sum of its parts. A surprisingly ambitious story that starts as a video game and ends in basically saving the universe isn't a bad journey to be on, and I honestly think I might feel more fondly about the series had I not read it over the course of 2+ years. It's designed for that sort of pulpy quick hit, and that's ultimately where and how it succeeds. So yeah, overall, if you haven't dove in yet, there's no better time than now to start, and it will probably be a pretty fun read for you if you do.



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28 December 2014

Review: J


J
J by Howard Jacobson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I understand why people enjoy literary fiction. I assume it's a lot of the same reason why I like independent movies and such. For me, a book is something that needs to usually grab me to keep me interested, and J at least had a pretty cool hook that got me into reading it. Unfortunately, the execution left me wanting a lot more.

The story follows a few different plots following some sort of event. We don't know what that event was, and neither does anyone else - they just know something happened, and refer to it in the abstract. It couldn't have been too bad, as there's not significant damage or loss of life, but it's still pretty much changed everyone.

The problem is certainly a lack of payoff with this book, something I've come to expect from the more literary genres. A few conspiracy threads felt unresolved, the main storyline unsatisfying. I wanted a lot more from this than I ended up getting. With all of that said, however, there's a reason this has been nominated for so many awards - the flow is good and the book is fairly engaging in spite of some of the really significant flaws.

Those who enjoy these types of books will probably love this. If you're looking for an adult dystopia of sorts that keeps the action coming, however, there are different places to look instead.



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24 December 2014

Review: Flat-Out Celeste


Flat-Out Celeste
Flat-Out Celeste by Jessica Park

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've been a fan of this Flat-Out series for a while now, and this one takes place a few years after the initial story. I spoke a lot about the trials of independent publishing and the Amazon platform in a past review of Park's works, and I don't see a need to rehash that again, but I only liked this in the way I kind of loved Flat-Out Love, which is fine.

As much of as the story follows Celeste following the events leading up to and in Love, we get a mix of a love story and a story about someone who, really, ins't really quite right. Celeste speaks in very direct tones and in sentences without contractions, giving a characterization that comes across as almost autistic in some senses regardless of intention. Celeste's condition, however you want to describe it, drives the core of the book, as it's a girl who doesn't fit in finding ways to do so and people who will accept her for who she is. It's awkward and off-putting and uncomfortable, but it works.

If I have a complaint, it's that it really does feel a little...overmanaged might be the term. There are flashes of the heart and the emotion that has come through in other Jessica Park books, but this one lacks that serious spark that made me fall for the others. It might just be Celeste as a character, it might be that I found the budding relationship in the book to lack the realistic qualities I was looking for, but I couldn't help but feel continually detached.

With that said, did I enjoy this? Absolutely. It's a fun little book in spite of my minor quibbles, and if you've enjoyed the series up to now, it's worth continuing. Just know that it's not your standard YA/NA piece.



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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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