Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Year in Review

New Year's Eve, and time for the reading year in review.

January started with the inspirational picture book I Am A Story, by Dan Yaccarino, a timely reminder that dark times can be endured. A little Terry Pratchet livened things up, with Only You Can Save Mankind. A few disappointments, such as Beatrice Vine's animal adventure The Hunt for Elsewhere, but overall January was a good month.

February began with another empowering picture book, Innosanto Nagar's A is for Activist, but took a nosedive with a sadly disappointing return to Tad Williams's Osten Ard in his bridge novel, The Heart of What Was Lost. (Zombies in Osten Ard? Really? I still have not bought The Witchwood Crown, the first in his new Osten Ard trilogy, and don't intend to until I find it in paperback - or even used.) The short month was unexpectedly ill-conducive to reading; I only got four titles in, including the classic science fiction tale Wild Seed by Octavia Butler and John Leland's intriguing (if sometimes wandering and scattered) examination of imported species, Aliens in the Backyard.

March, for once, didn't open with a picture book, but with actor David Duchovny's bovine adventure Holy Cow. I also finally cracked open the first book in James S. A. Corey's Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, having been impressed with the first season of the SyFy TV show. Sara Pennypacker presented a timeless tale of war and friendship between a boy and a fox in Pax, while historical author Amy Stewart's first novel (based on real-life people and events), Girl Waits With Gun, proved immersive and impressive - which is saying something for a person to whom history was traditionally the most boring subject in school. I encountered disappointment with Jeremy Whitley's once-amusing Princess series in Make Yourself, Part 1, but overall I liked what I found in March.

April began with a pocket guide to mythology by Philip Wilkinson, but the real high point was Stephen King's time travel tome 11/22/63 - which I hadn't really expected, given my iffy reaction to the author in the past. Another month with fewer reviews than I would've preferred, but so goes life.

May brought me outside my usual geographic comfort zone with Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese import, which intrigued me even if it wasn't ultimately quite my cup of cocoa. High hopes for Jodi Taylor's humorous time travel series were quickly dashed when Just One Damned Thing After Another failed to deliver. I hit a couple classics with the third collection of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery tales, Swords Against Death, and Terry Pratchett's first Tiffany Aching tale in his expansive Discworld universe, The Wee Free Men. Three picture books - Rebecca Young's Teacup, Sarah L. Thompson and the late Robert Gonsalves's Imagine A World, and Caroline McAlister's story of a young Tolkien, John Ronald's Dragons - impressed both visually and emotionally.

June had more picture books and graphic novels, including a return to Jim Henson's Storyteller tales in Daniel Bayliss's Dragons, but it was a fairly mixed bag of a month. On the one hand, Seanan McGuire's award-winning deconstruction of portal fantasies, Every Heart a Doorway, blew my mental socks off. On the other, much-vaunted author Louis L'Amour's The Haunted Mesa failed to impress, and Tamara Morgan's initially-witty romance Stealing Mr. Right set up a great heroine only to undercut her at every opportunity. The month wrapped up with the hilarious graphic novel spoof of old B-grade sci-fi flicks, Dan Boultwood's It Came. This was also the month when I stopped updating the old site to focus on the new one I'm building from scratch - a process that, due to numerous delays, is still ongoing, and not likely to be finished before the first half of 2018.

July was another mixed bag. Pierce Brown's Golden Son, the second in his Red Rising series set in a dystopian interplanetary future, was among the highlights, if a harrowing read. Rebecca Stead's classic When You Reach Me offered a small-scale tale with big-scale ideas. But other titles failed to live up to their potential, and while none were outright bad, few were outright good.

August kicked off with a disappointing graphic novel, Skottie Young's gory (and largely one-trick) twist on children's fantasy adventures I Hate Fairyland. It was a graphic novel heavy month, with Jim Henson's A Tale of Sand, the fourth in Joshua Williamson's Birthright series, and three volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls. Shawn Lawrence Otto's Fool Me Twice brought some needed perspective (if somewhat depressing perspective) on the ongoing assault on facts and science, and Tim MacWelch's How to Survive Anything offered practical tips for enduring the likely fallout of this assault. For fiction, my favorite would be Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons, set in an alternate world with a Victorian flavor. I wrapped up August with a Puerto Rican-flavored middle grade fantasy, Shadowshaper.

September began and ended with a couple of the strangest novels I've read in some time, starting with David Wong's surreal John Dies at the End and ending with Edgar Cantero's Lovecraftian spoof on Scooby-Doo and other kid mystery series, Meddling Kids. I ventured into classics with Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book and Guy Gavriel Kay's portal fantasy The Summer Tree, and if Andrew Clements's examination of word origins and challenging authority in Frindle doesn't count as a modern children's classic, maybe it should. Spencer Ellsworth brought the old-school Star Wars-inspired space opera back to life in Starfire: A Red Peace.

October kicked off with a great examination of animal intelligence (and human resistance to the idea of animal intelligence) in Frans de Waal's Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. A couple more classics - Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree and Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon - made it into my reading list, along with John William Polidori's The Vampyre. Seanan McGuire returned to the world created in Every Heart a Doorway with a beautiful, bleak prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and Drew Daywalt offered a hilarious backstory for the classic children's hand game in The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors. On a down note, I found myself disappointed by Jeremy "CinemaSins" Scott's fiction debut, The Ables; if it had been a movie, ironically, I think he would've had little trouble picking out flaws. The popular author Connie Willis also disappointed with her telepathy-based Crosstalk.

November brought two Stephen King reviews, the classic horror novel It and his memoir/writing advice book On Writing. I laughed my way through D. C. Pierson's take on portal adventures and adolescent failure in Crap Kingdom, and got several chuckles out of Rachel Hoffman's blunt (but very useful) book on cleaning, Unf*ck Your Habitat. I also finally ventured into E. L. Konigsburg's classic From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, with a mixed-up reaction. Three volumes of James Tynion IV's sci-fi graphic novel series The Woods filled out the month.

December began with yet another graphic novel (blame Hoopla), Marjorie Liu's Monstress, which was visually impressive but a bit jumbled in the telling. Another mixed-bag month, I had high hopes dashed with Robert Repino's Mort(e) and a picture book cash-in - er, tie-in - to the X-Files, Earth Children Are Weird. But I got a great many chuckles out of Pseudonymous Bosch's Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, and enjoyed the throwback feel of Dennis E. Taylor's story of space exploration and artificial intelligence in We Are Legion (We Are Bob).

So, as with most years, it's had its ups and downs, its surprises and disappointments. Here's hoping 2018 brings many more adventures... and maybe, at long last, the debut of the new review site!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor)

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
The Bobiverse series, Volume 1
Dennis E. Taylor
Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Robert Johansson's software company hit it big, the first thing he did was secure his own future with a visit to CryoEterna, a cryogenics company... though a man in his thirties surely has plenty of time before worrying about death.
He doesn't make it through the next weekend.
Revived over a hundred years in the future, Bob is now at the mercy of a theocracy that took over America and determined "corpsicles" like himself to be nonhuman; his assets were stripped, his mind uploaded into a computer, and failure to cooperate with his new masters means immediate termination. Nor are they the only threat to his existence, as factions within the theocracy and external saboteurs continually threaten the project he's supposed to be part of: a self-replicating deep-space probe meant to scout for habitable planets. There may even be other AI-manned probes already out there, launched by rival nations, none of which will be friendly to him or his mission. Plus the sheer stress of being reduced to a computer AI has driven more than one revived person insane, not helped by the possibility that his new masters may have manipulated his new "brain" in ways he doesn't know.
For a lifelong science fiction fan and all-around computer nerd, it's both the dream of a lifetime and a nightmare. To survive, Bob will need all his wits about him... or, at the very least, a few more Bobs.

REVIEW: With a throwback feel, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) evokes both a sense of fun and a sense of wonder. Bob's deep-space adventures are grounded in science, but even a lay fan like myself could follow along easily enough. It moves fairly well, even before it splits to follow copy-Bobs (each with a variant personality and new name) through multiple adventures, from dodging rival AI probes to exploring new planets and alien life-forms to salvaging what's left of Earth's population after the seemingly-inevitable planet-killing nuclear war. If I have any complaint, it's that the ending feels a bit incomplete, as though the book was never intended to be its own arc; there are at least two more Bobiverse books out, so that may be the case. Overall, though, it's a well-paced and enjoyable read, particularly for fans of science fiction and space exploration.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Stardragons (Bob Eggleton and John Grant) - My Review
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird (Chris Carter, series creator)

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird
Based on The X-Files series
Chris Carter, series creator, illustrations by Kim Smith
Quirk Books
Fiction, CH Media Tie-in/Picture Book/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Young Dana and her friend Fox are having a camp-out in her back yard when Fox's imagination runs away with him... or are there really aliens out there?

REVIEW: As a former X-phile, I was curious about this title, and finally cornered it during some down time at work. Unfortunately, I just don't think it quite works on a number of levels.
First off, there's the title, which is not only a spoiler, but irrelevant for most of the story. (It's such a disconnect that one is basically just tapping one's fingers waiting for the title to make sense... and when it does, it's not so much an "aha" moment as a vague sigh.) Secondly, there's the concept of retconning Mulder and Scully into childhood pals. This could've been a fun homage, with numerous opportunities for nods to the original series, but nothing much stood out. Plus, young Dana and Fox are reading X-Files stories in their tent, which really warps a concept that already retcons characters. Either this was a very subtle nod to the show (which once had characters watching Chris Carter's Millennium series before doing a crossover), or this thing wasn't even trying to be anything but a quick cash-in on the reboot (or re-reboot, given that a second "special" season is airing soon.) Then there's the matter of using an early-reader picture book to tie into a series that was definitely not for the picture book audience. (What next, a pop-up book with a pull tab for the Flukeman to tear out a victim's liver? A See-and-Say toy for monsters?) I know there are people who happily let their toddlers and kindergartners watch Outlander and Game of Thrones, but it still feels like brand confusion to me, especially as there doesn't seem to be much here for the adult X-phile reading this to their kids. But even setting all that aside... something about the storyline, simple as it is, just doesn't quite play out right to me - a feeling definitely not helped by a title that tips its hand before the reader even picks it up.
In the end, what could've been an amusing little outing for 'philes of all ages ends up feeling flat and forced. But I suppose all's fair if it earns more money for the franchise owners...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The X-Files: Fight the Future (Chris Carter, adapted by Elizabeth Hand) - My Review
This Book Is Not About Dragons (Shelley Moore Thomas) - My Review

Monday, December 11, 2017

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery (Pseudonymous Bosch)

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery
The Secret series, Book 6
Pseudonymous Bosch
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, MG Mystery/Writing
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Writing books is hard work, even when a talking rabbit does your typing. After five volumes of his popular Secret series, author Pseudonymous Bosch is tapped out. So he's going to let you, the reader, take the reins on this one. He'll give you a basic setup and some pointers, plus a few genre options, but this book's going to be all yours.
Are you ready?
Too bad - the story's already started...

REVIEW: When I downloaded this book on Overdrive, I was unaware that it was technically the last book on Bosch's humorous middle-grade Secret series, which I've seen at the library but haven't yet read; a few elements here constitute spoilers. However, it works fairly well as a standalone title.
Write This Book is a nice twist on writing books, somewhere between an ongoing exercise, a commentary on the process, and a story in its own right, all infused with a strong sense of humor. For the most part, the balance works; he starts by giving the reader/writer a few characters and a mystery (with notes on how to start a story), then guides the reader through the process of crafting the plot and finishing, emphasizing that things can (and will) be refined in future rewrites and the important thing is to keep writing. For genres, he offers a choice between noir mystery, fantasy, and gothic horror, a unique demonstration on how genre may color the story, but it generally does not dictate it: the same basic idea can work in many settings and genres. Bosch's style lies somewhere between improvisation ("pantsing," or writing by the seat of one's pants) and organization (outlining), leaning towards the former; he likens it to cooking, where one gathers one's ingredients (ideas and inspirations and references) before one starts but isn't strictly bound by a recipe. It's a nice method, loose enough to make readers feel excited about exploring a story, and not like they're trudging through yet another graded assignment - plus it shows that, despite what English teachers like to say, there are many published authors who aren't strict outliners or bound by other "rules" (three-act structure, snowflake method, etc.)
Bosch and his typist bunny, Quiche, frequently appear in the pages via doodles and cartoons, an ongoing rivalry with an unexpected climax. He offers many procrastination break ideas that will probably amuse experienced writers at least as much as, if not more than, newcomers. (One of these advises one to reread one's manuscript, decide it's crud and rip it up, then realize it's not so bad and painstakingly tape it back together, then make sure nobody knows how crazy you are.) The clever voice walks a fine line between amusing and annoying, mostly staying on the former side.
All in all, despite being unfamiliar with the Secret series, I found this an entertaining read, especially for writers. It earned an extra half-mark for evoking a few laugh-out-loud moments.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett) - My Review
Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Spilling Ink (Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter) - My Review

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bad Kitty (Nick Bruel)

Bad Kitty
The Bad Kitty series, Book 1
Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kitty didn't mean to be bad. She's usually quite good. But then the family runs out of her favorite food. An alphabetic diet of asparagus through zucchinis leads to alphabetic revenge, as Kitty takes misbehavior to a whole new level...

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, so I read this while waiting for things to pick up again. Kitty really is pushed over the edge, given the nauseatingly healthy (and meatless) options she's presented with. (I was also impressed that Bruel found a fruit for X.) Her revenge is hilarious... as is the family's attempts to make amends with more appealing food (including such options as a whole buffalo burrito, elephant eggs, and a donkey named Dave.) Appeased, Kitty then repeats the alphabet repairing the damage. An amusing read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch for You (Lee Harris) - My Review
Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan) - My Review
Dragon Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mort(e) (Robert Repino)

The War with No Name series, Book 1
Robert Repino
Fiction, Sci-Fi

DESCRIPTION: Sebastian used to want nothing more than his patch of sun on the carpet, a bowl of food, and his neighbor dog-friend Sheba. But he was an ordinary cat in extraordinary times. After millennia of patient plotting, the ant queen Hymenoptera Unus has begun the war to eradicate humanity as an invasive species. First, she bred tank-sized Alpha ants. Then, she initiated the Change, a combination of airborne hormones and ultrasonic signals that transformed many of the birds and the beasts into upright-walking sapient soldiers in her global army... everything from wolves and bobcats to rats and pets.
And thus, one day, Sebastian found himself aiming a shotgun at his former "master."
Shedding his "slave" name and becoming Mort(e), he became a hero in the elite Red Sphinx under the ruthless Changed bobcat Culdesac... but always, in the back of his mind, he remembers that patch of sun and the canine friend he shared it with, a friend he hadn't seen since his former master shot at her moments before his own Change. And nothing - not time, not war, not the dreaded human bioweapon EMSAH, not even the ant queen herself - can stop him from his search.

REVIEW: The cover hype frequently invokes Orwell's classic allegory Animal Farm, the tale of the pig-led revolution in the barnyard that led a barn of deluded animals into a dark future of oppression and betrayal. That is about the closest comparison I can think of, one reinforced by numerous nods in the narrative. (There's even a Changed lieutenant pig who took the name Bonaparte, because Napoleon had been taken "many times over.") Unfortunately, while Orwell kept his allegory focused on his message, Repino tries to build a broader world - one that devolves into a commentary on the merits of Abrahamic religions in a Message at least as heavy-handed (or heavy-pawed, or -hooved) as Orwell's, often moreso. Sebastian-turned-Mort(e) becomes an empty mouthpiece of this message, as do the other characters, intriguing as they may have started.  The internal logic of the piece falls apart under its weight, the suspension of disbelief cracking under animals that seemed far too human and self-aware in some ways and too naive and easily bamboozled in others. For instance, it's painfully obvious what the real source of the bioweapon EMSAH is almost from the moment it appears, but the thought doesn't even occur to otherwise-intelligent beings. By the end, I was almost literally grinding my teeth as the "inspirational" Message grew increasingly incandescent, throwing even more holes and flaws into sharper relief - holes I would've flown over happily had my belief remained suspended, but which crashed and burned long before the finale. What's left without that suspension? A collection of half-developed characters and often-gory images, trampled under their own Message.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animal Farm (George Orwell) - My Review
Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift) - My Review
The Hunt for Elsewhere (Beatrice Vine) - My Review

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson)

Walk the Earth a Stranger
The Gold Seer trilogy, Book 1
Rae Carson
Greenwillow Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Leah Westfall has worked her whole life helping her parents on their Georgia land claim, her ability to sense gold helping them scrape a living even as the local mines run dry. Word of a strike in California has many in town buzzing, but Leah has no plans to follow... until her parents are murdered, their stash stolen, and a greedy uncle takes over the land. He knows her secret, and has "plans" for her - plans she wants no part of, especially not when she realizes he pulled the trigger. Dressing as a boy, she heads out after a friend who set off for the Californian gold fields. It's a harrowing journey by land and river... and, though she'll be crossing the whole continent, she may not be running far enough to escape Uncle Hiram's reach.

REVIEW: Walk the Earth a Stranger, start of a trilogy, establishes a strong yet imperfect heroine in an era of both promise and despair, the decade before the Civil War; though her family doesn't keep slaves, she's surrounded by those who think nothing of owning a human being, reinforcing an underlying theme about personal freedoms and how far one must go to secure them. Carson brings the long journey to life with many details, some of them unpleasant, yet part of the pioneer experience. Leah (who travels as "Lee" for much of the book) faces all manner of challenges, but persists, even as she struggles to keep her gold sense hidden. It's a minor enough quirk that it almost could've been written out of the book with little change, though her abilities do come into play at a few key points. Through the whole journey, Leah learns how to trust, finding family and friends where she least expects them. It's a decent tale, occasionally unpredictable, and the characters are real enough to care about, if not always particularly deep. The ending feels a little flat and rushed, though; part of me wonders if this wasn't originally intended to be a standalone, and the conclusion had to be rewritten to accommodate sequels. Even if it's not a 24-karat story, Walk the Earth a Stranger has a nice glitter about it, making for a good read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman) - My Review
Boston Jane (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinor Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Friday, December 1, 2017

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu)

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening
The Monstress series, Issues 1 - 6
Marjorie Liu, illustrations by Sana Takeda
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Maika Halfwolf lost her arm and her most important memories as a child, bearing only a strange, eye-like scar and a terrifying, hungry something inside her skin to remind her of what she doesn't know. Her search for answers takes her into the human-held city of Zamora: a dangerous journey for an arcanic like herself, as the powerful matriarchal Cumaean witches derive lilium, source of power, magic, and miracles, from the rendered bodies of her kind. But she must know what was done to her, what the strange entity in her wants - and how to get control of her life back, before the thing's hunger costs the lives of the handful of people she cares about. Little does she suspect that her quest for answers may well trigger another war between humans and arcanics, and may even reanimate the long-dead gods whose shadows still stalk the evening skies.

REVIEW: I had a mixed reaction to this graphic novel. On the one hand, it's undeniably imaginative, set in an alternate steampunk version of Earth where a matriarchal society rules in what we would call Asia. On one side of the Great Wall are the humans, and on the other all manner of strange, semihuman beings out of legend, from winged people to fox-girls to multi-tailed talking cats, while vast echoes of supposedly dead gods periodically appear. The style evokes an art deco aesthetic with heavy influence from magna. It's a complex, many-layered world, often grim and grotesque but not without the odd touch of levity. On the other hand, it's a little too complex, especially at first, throwing the reader into the deep end with characters that can be hard to keep straight and are often harder to care about. By the end, I still felt like I was missing large chunks of information, though at least I'd come to find the story interesting, even if the characters often struggled to evoke sympathy. Maika herself is often dark and broody to the point of repulsion, prone to kicking would-be friends in the teeth (figuratively, usually.)
It's definitely a different tale, I'll grant it that, and something about it intrigues me enough I might read the second volume. Ultimately, it's just not quite up my alley.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Testament of the Dragon (Margaret Weis) - My Review