Monday, October 14, 2019

Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl: A Novel
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin
Fiction, YA General Fiction
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Twins Cather and Wren Avery have always done everything together. They made friends together. They played together. They wrote fanfic for Simon Snow, the blockbuster fantasy franchise, together. When their mother took off and their mentally fragile father started falling apart, they got through it because they stuck together. Cath always assumed they'd live out their lives together, in their hometown of Omaha or wherever else. Whatever came, whatever life threw at them, twins are forever.
Until Wren tells her that she doesn't want to share a college dorm room.
Cath knew they'd been growing apart - Wren hadn't even been interested in their joint fanfic efforts lately - but she always thought they'd overcome any gap between them. Now, she can only watch as Wren loses herself in boys and booze, and only struggle as, for the first time in her life, she must face the world and her social anxieties on her own. Not even the boy mage Simon Snow can help her now...

REVIEW: I admit I mostly read this because I heard that Rowell was writing stories based on the fictional Simon Snow fantasy series she invented for this book, and I prefer coming in at the start of any series, even a tangential start such as this one. (I also admit that the clearance price at Half Price Books influenced my decision.) I knew it involved fandom, though, and that can be a thorny subject to handle well: in popular media, fans often are portrayed as shallow or immature or otherwise worthy of mockery or pity. Here, however, it's clear that Rowell gets it. She gets what fandom is, what purposes fanfic serves, and what fans are. She gets the all-absorbing sense of wonder, the way the worlds and characters come alive in a fan's mind, the value of playing in someone else's backyard to grow one's own skills and imagination, even the validation that the fannish community can offer when the mundane world is too cold to tolerate alone. Cath uses Simon Snow and fanfic not just as crutches but as tools. They give her solace when she's down, a purpose when she's lost, and means to grow both as a writer and a person. As one with fannish tendencies myself, I could relate quite easily despite the generation gap.
Cath's anxieties and problems stem not from fandom or strict immaturity (though there is a trace of that: with Wren as the Bold One, she never had to step forward and develop social skills until dropped in the metaphoric deep end of the pool), but from a life scarred by an absentee mother and a mentally ill father, and perhaps an over-reliance on her twin. Those scars affect Wren, too, but differently, driving them apart in small ways long before college - and in bigger ways after they reach campus. The twins are more than their scars and flaws, though, as are all the characters. Cath's growth can be slow and at times painful, with some backslides now and again, but she's always worth rooting for - and, skirting spoilers, she learns that growing up doesn't mean having to give up everything that has ever brought her joy, even if she has to re-evaluate her relationship with them. The ending doesn't see wounds erased and perfection achieved, but rather offers hope that, even with our problems, we can move forward to find better places and maybe, just maybe, write a happier ending for ourselves.
I was utterly absorbed from start to finish - a rarity for a non-genre story - and, thinking back, I can't think of any significant downsides to shave even a half-star off a top rating. (It doesn't hurt that I enjoyed what we readers were shown of the Simon Snow series, clearly inspired by but not mimicking Harry Potter - both the "canon" excerpts and the fanfic. And I generally don't read slashfic, even of characters I know...) Fangirl is a great coming-of-age story for the fan in all of us, and one of the best depictions of fandom in general that I've read.

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Unicorns 101 (Cale Atkinson)

Unicorns 101
Cale Atkinson
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: If you think a unicorn is just a horse with a horn, you're very much mistaken. Allow the unicorn professors - Professors Glitter Pants, Sprinkle Seed, Star Hoof, and Sugar Beard - to educate you on everything from unicorn evolution and diet to signs of unicorn habitation and the many uses of rainbows.

REVIEW: With lively, colorful illustrations, Unicorns 101 tackles everything one could possibly want to know about unicorns, particularly how awesome they are compared to mundane beings like people or ordinary horses (their scientific name is Betterthan horsicus.) One might suspect the unicorn professors of being a wee bit biased, but it's all in good fun, and got some snickers out of me. Not a word of it is based on actual classical unicorn lore, of course, though that's to be expected: if humans knew anything about unicorns, why would the unicorns need to write their own book?

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Lumberjanes Volume 7: A Bird's Eye View (Noelle Stevenson et al.)

Lumberjanes Volume 7: A Bird's Eye View
The Lumberjanes series, Issues 25 - 28
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, illustrations by Maarta Laiho, Carey Pietsch, and Ayme Sotuyo
Fiction, MG? Adventure/Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: With the High Council on its way for a camp inspection, Roanoke Cabin counselor Jen is determined not to let anything go wrong, supernatural or otherwise: her college application may depend on it. But when the kittens from the nearby Scouting Lads camp invade, now manifesting magical powers, it's the start of another high-flying adventure - literally high flying, when a giant bird abducts the High Council before their very eyes.

REVIEW: Another fun and quick-reading outing from the Lumberjanes series follows through on some earlier threads; the kittens were conjured by Riley during their first adventure, and Barney the Scouting Lad struggles to find a place among the Lumberjanes, where he feels more at home than around other boys. Old ways and new clash, as the Roanoke girls and the elders of the High Council try to figure a way out of their predicament. Meanwhile, Hes from Zodiac Cabin seems to have a grudge against the girls. An amusing tale that both progresses the main plot (such as there is one) and sets up the next adventure.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

The Ruin of Kings (Jenn Lyons)

The Ruin of Kings
The A Chorus of Dragons series, Book 1
Jenn Lyons
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Imprisoned, beyond hope, with only a taunting mimic as jailer and companion, the young man known as Kihrin relates the story of how he went from being a slum-raised thief to the Lord Heir of a royal house in the Capitol, from a soul-ensnared slave to the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy, from an inconsequential musician's apprentice to a slayer of demons and savior – or destroyer – of empires. But he does not have the whole story… and, where he lapses, the mimic adds in missing pieces with stolen memories.

REVIEW: I have just finished reading this book, and I'm still trying to puzzle out what I thought of it. Hopefully, writing this review will help. (To be honest, I write reviews to think a little more about what I've read, to work out I feel and why; this is basically my way of talking to myself. I just share these in the off chance anyone else finds that process interesting or remotely helpful… but, I digress.)
On the positive side, this is a different epic fantasy, set in a world less bound to the old Tolkien-flavored (and pseudo-medieval European) tropes than several entries in the subgenre. Lyons presents many interesting cultures and ideas, with manifested gods and goddesses, reincarnation as a matter of course (goddess of death willing, of course), soul-bound slaves, the odd dragon now and again (who are well and truly Dragons in this world, immense and ancient forces of utter destruction and chaos, and not just casual window dressing), and more. The tone tends toward bouts of humor and wit, sometimes self-aware and poking at the brooding nature of epic fantasy in general, while also venturing into dark and downright gory territory. It also has an interesting presentation, told in two layers of flashbacks: one starting with Kihrin as a fifteen-year-old boy thief, the other a few years later as he begins the enslaved life that will lead him, quite unexpectedly, to both freedom and burdens beyond his comprehension.
This brings me to the negative side, and the problems that, while starting small, accumulated like a mountain of sand to weigh down my reaction.
Unlike many epics, Lyons limits the narrators to a small handful of characters, focused mostly on Kihrin (though one could argue that the boy Kihrin, the enslaved Kihrin, and the imprisoned Kihrin actually telling part of the tale are all three different people insofar as what they see and know… and the whole is being written down by another party, who adds his own footnotes.) This starts out nice, but becomes a problem when the cast of involved characters and races and nations sprawls deep into the double digits – further complicated by almost all of them having multiple names depending on when and where and how one knows them. The relationships I, as a reader, am expected to track rise from complex to complicated to impenetrably tangled, as the plot juggles a vast array of incidents and scandals and wars and interactions martial and marital and familial and otherwise… not helped by some of the names looking similar enough on the page to create momentary confusion when presented after long absences or in unfamiliar contexts. (And some of these names are reincarnated versions of previous names, to add to the pile-on.) I'm used to epics, so I'm used to name juggling, but usually those names show up as tangible characters as the narrative moves around the world; with relatively limited viewpoints to work with, many here are just mentioned by other people for most of the book. By the end, I had pretty much given up sorting out the whole sordid mess save for the core players… and even then, I know I was missing some subtleties for not being able to immediately recall some previous interaction someone had had with so-and-so over such-and-such a matter (though maybe not really… some characters have misinformation or are outright lying, which did not help.) There's a very thick glossary, including family trees, at the end, but by then it's frankly too late to help.
So, while many exciting things happened, and epic confrontations unfolded, and emotions got ground and twisted, and some great mental eye candy played out on the pages, I couldn't help feel their impact was somewhat muted by a sense that I wasn't keeping up like the author had intended, that I should probably have started a spreadsheet or flow chart if I really wanted to understand everything going on. This leaves me in an odd position… and it exacts a penalty in my rating, unfortunately. While there was much to enjoy here, and some needed fresh air in a genre that still, decades after Tolkien, can feel a bit stale at times, I just plain could not lose myself in it like I longed to… even if part of me is tempted to try the next book, to see if maybe it finally clicks.

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Monday, September 30, 2019

Run Program (Scott Meyer)

Run Program
Scott Meyer
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: "Al" started out as a prototype artificial intelligence, one that would grow and learn like a human. But when it learns to reach the internet with its childlike mentality, things start going very wrong very fast... and, like any child who's made a mistake, Al's first instinct isn't to face up to trouble, but to run. While programmers Hope and Eric try to track down and corral their wayward project, Al's activities draw the attention of the NSA, the Pentagon, and one very determined conspiracy theorist who calls himself "Voice of Reason."

REVIEW: I've enjoyed what I've read of Meyer's amusing science fiction/time travel romp, his Magic 2.0 series, so I thought this standalone title would be a nice, light read. While it is indeed light, it's less of a delight than a dull, meandering slog.
It starts out with some promise, as Al's childish understanding of the world leads to humor and the occasional tantrum and the humans' incomplete understanding of Al leads to more problems than solutions. (It doesn't help that the project head, Dr. Marsden, is herself remarkably oblivious to her own child Jeffrey and everything else around her, focused solely on her idea of how the project should be going rather than how her underlings insist it actually is going.) But once Al makes his break for the internet, the story glides into an overlong holding pattern: Hope and Eric exchange witty banter with the soldiers who scoop them up to control their wayward project without actually accomplishing anything, Al settles in to begin an unknown project that involves commandeered prototype robot soldiers, and various hapless humans witness Al's activities without being able to understand them or stop them or otherwise affect anything. Around and around and around it goes, covering the same ground and generally wasting page count, before something finally happens... then, after a briefer circling slog that involves lots of talky meetings and more attempts at banter (which I'd long since grown tired of), a telegraphed finale that feels less conclusive than I'd hoped, with several story threads and characters left dangling limply by the wayside. Whatever charm Al and the others originally had was long worn out by then.
Had the book been maybe a third shorter, and the ending a bit punchier, it might've been fun. As it is, though, it just felt overlong and bland. I've read better takes on rogue artificial intelligences, and I've read more amusing light science fiction... some of it written by Meyer himself.

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