Saturday, February 24, 2018

Review: Truly Devious

Truly Devious Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really more of a 3.5, but I'll round this one up to a 4 - and hope that my generosity helps speed things up on the still-upcoming fourth and final Shades of London novel. Or maybe not, because it looks like Johnson's gonna be prioritizing this series instead - and yes, it's planned as a trilogy, at the very least, which explains the massive cliffhangers right at the end, including one that had me laugh out loud from mingled surprise, amusement, and exasperation. And, to paraphrase Shaun David Hutchinson's review, those cliffhangers essentially ensure that this first book doesn't bring the central mystery to much, if any, closure - which is actually pretty irritating.

There's good to Truly Devious, though. It's got a slow start, and it's setting up a lot of characters we know are doomed, and some of them are downright unlikable. I'm looking at you, Hayes. Nate too, a little bit, because sometimes he draws on the worst aspects of Jonathan Byers and Jughead on Riverdale, looking like he's willfully isolating himself and cultivating an "insufferable weirdo" vibe, but of course there's more to him than being a tortured artist.

A lot of characters also bring some marginalized rep to the table. Some better than others - for instance, when Janelle starts going out with Vi, she at one point corrects Stevie for calling Vi "her," telling her Vi's pronouns are they/them. And yet this is pretty much the only time throughout the entire book we get any sign that Vi's an enby - all other times, the narrative either uses she/her or carefully avoids pronouns altogether, which leaves me seriously scratching my head. Could be that Vi would use she/they - I've seen a few bios on Twitter of people who indicate their pronouns thusly - but otherwise, I'm gonna chalk that up to a copyediting mistake and hope, for enby readers' sakes, that Johnson has it corrected in future printings. Janelle, though, gives us some good queer rep (her exact sexuality isn't specified, though I'm gonna guess she's pan and leaning towards the lesbian end of the Kinsey scale), and of course Stevie, our star of the show, has anxiety and panic disorders for which she's on medication.

The mystery elements of the story are, again, a little frustrating when they don't wrap up for the most part. Johnson clearly plans to spread these out over the rest of the series, connecting not only the historical crimes of the 30s to the murder that happens in the present day - and also implying some connection between the two with still-living people, including at least one who's hyped up as a major Politically Incorrect Villain and will likely be a Big Bad - if not the Big Bad - for the rest of the series.

That said, though, Truly Devious is a rewarding read because of how the pace builds up with a slow but exponential acceleration. And, just like fellow Maureen Johnson works, the Shades of London series, I'm already finding myself using it as a comp title when querying agents.

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Review: Thunderhead

Thunderhead Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book of Shusterman's Arc of a Scythe was pretty slow to start, but the sequel, Thunderhead, builds so wonderfully on its predecessor's world-building that it somehow feels like the first book is just so much prologue. But really, for this series, we're averting Sophomore Slump but good. Sure, it's a bit long and slow at times just like Scythe was, but that's because Shusterman makes room for a ton of complexities and characters, each of which gets room to propel the book forward. Citra and Rowan, of course. Greyson Toliver. Tyger. Scythe Curie. The Thunderhead itself, even if it has a few too many shades of Kaufman and Kristoff's Aidan (half the time it comes very close to directly asking, "Am I not merciful?")

What really sells Thunderhead, though, is how much it builds on the first book's themes of corrupt power. Rowan's going around making an effort to eliminate the corrupt - but it's not so easy in a world where people are capable of dying and then reviving, which means at least one of his enemies - including someone entirely unexpected, whom I cannot reveal here because of spoilers - doesn't just die and vanish from the rest of the story. (I'll admit, though, one of his best successes comes from his gleaning of Scythe Renoir, an irredeemable racist who goes after First Nations - or Permafrost people, as they're called in this future world - because he thinks they themselves are racist for keeping to themselves socially.) Citra, as Scythe Anastasia, tries a whole new method of dealing death, a more humane one - and, therefore, a more controversial one. And ultimately, the whole book builds up to a fraught campaign to disrupt the official changing of the guard in Scythe leadership by installing a vile, reprehensible assbutt who's decidedly unqualified for the top role, and will either rise to a gloating victory or burn the whole thing down in the event of defeat.

It all builds up to the most Aveyardian cliffhanger since the original Aveyardian cliffhanger in Glass Sword. No bloody joke.

The Toll can't come soon enough, gorrammit.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: Batman: Nightwalker

Batman: Nightwalker Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never thought I'd live to see the day when my five-star streak for Marie Lu books ended. (Well, in hindsight I'd probably rate The Midnight Star four stars, but I'm talking about reading a Marie Lu book and getting an instant five-star vibe here.) I think the main reason why Batman: Nightwalker didn't click for me as well as I was hoping was, not unlike The Midnight Star, it was just too short a book to let Lu's strengths truly shine. And there's a lot of tiny gripes I've got that seem to magnify themselves the more I think about them. Like how Bruce Wayne isn't really Batman here, not at age eighteen, while Leigh Bardugo's Wonder Woman: Warbringer really made it clear that we were getting a younger but no less iconic Diana. And it's not like the Gotham TV series where pre-Bats Bruce isn't the sole focus of the whole thing - Gotham is a big old crime-time soap filtered through a Burtonian lens, while Lu's book only gives us a 250-page glimpse into this particular 'verse. Not to mention the title villain group feels more than a bit formless, like a strange cross between Occupy and the Court of Owls, but more opportunistic than the former and less spooky than the other. And as for Madeline...interesting she was, but as a sort of femme fatale to confound and intrigue Bruce, she kinda fills Catwoman's role here, and doesn't that make Sarah J. Maas' upcoming Soulstealer a little redundant in that case?

But for its faults, this book has some pretty good strengths too. Mostly in terms of social commentary. Lu's no stranger to that, of course, not with the class warfare present in much of her earlier bibliography. But here, we get some pretty stark and standout moments - like, when Bruce is hospitalized after trying to chase down Nightwalkers in his souped-up Aston Martin, and runs into the police, and Lucius Fox tells him he's lucky he's a white guy or else he might have gotten worse than a concussion. Or, again, the Nightwalkers themselves. Like I said, they're a pretty nebulous group, but some of their schemes take their Occupy-inspired ideology to some sick, diabolical extremes. It reminds me a lot of how Bane was perceived as an allegory for Occupy in The Dark Knight Rises.

And then there's teenage Bruce himself. I already expected he'd be better than the version we got on Gotham - no offense to David Mazouz, but as good as his performance is, it doesn't make up for the fact that the show's writers basically pigeonhole him into playing a spoiled rotten assbutt (who, especially in the current season, has been hitting the club scene pretty hard, sex and drugs and rock and roll and all that.) Then again, Mazouz is playing a sixteen-year-old Bruce, I'm thinking. Or maybe seventeen. Either way, Lu writes Bruce as older, and while not fully mature, he's definitely wiser than his Fox TV counterpart all the same.

At this point, I'm thinking Bardugo's Wonder Woman will be the best DC Icons novel when all is said and done. That is, unless Salami impresses me with Soulstealer, though let's be honest, that's exceedingly unlikely. And unless they bring in a new author for the Superman novel, which they'd better now that the original author's been outed as a serial sexual harasser. I'd like to nominate Neal Shusterman or Jay Kristoff for the job myself. Or, even better, one of Supes' biggest fans, the great Sam Ayers.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: Invictus

Invictus Invictus by Ryan Graudin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this one's my favorite Ryan Graudin book yet. More connectable than The Walled City and more expansive in its historical and temporal scope than the Wolf by Wolf duology, it's also the most complex book I've seen Graudin give us. Not for nothing does it earn the comparison to Fringe, and also perhaps to A Thousand Pieces of You, but all condensed into a single story. Really, I'm hashing pissed this is only a standalone.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention for me was Graudin's use of futuristic swears. Some of them, like the aforementioned "hash" and "haze" as F-word substitutes, made a certain amount of sense. Characters making it a game of swearing in as many languages as they could was, for me, tons of fun. But then there was the constant use of "shazm," which was where Graudin's phony-swearing skills kinda deserted her. I think she was trying to go for something that sounded like a cross between Glader-speak and the mangled, kid-friendly swears of Dan Schneider's Nick Verse, particularly in the iCarly and Victorious days, but there's a reason why the Maze Runner movies largely did away with most of the Glader swears anyway.

Where Graudin really shines here, though, is plot and characters, both of which she crafts with complexity and intricacy the likes of which aren't seen as often as they should be in YA. Eliot is gonna get a lot of fans for sure because of her sheer deadliness, but the rest of the core cast are all a bunch of awe and some dorks even as they're hardened time heisters whom the system's wronged in some way or another. And while the story is rooted in the future, the world both past and present (relative to us) still impacts it and the people within quite strongly.

I eagerly await whatever Graudin gives us next, but again, I'm not happy it won't be Invictus 2.0 in any form.

And one more thing - who else was reminded of the opening to J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek movie with the prologue?

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Radio Silence

Radio Silence Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got myself to think this book had autistic rep, but - correct me if I'm wrong, but it doesn't really mention that on the page. Oh well, even if not, I headcanon Aled as autistic anyway. And hey, Radio Silence is damn good about not skimping on the rep of any kind, particularly given that it's narrated by a girl who's bisexual (💗💜💙 FTW!) and biracial (English and Ethiopian, specifically), the male lead is demisexual and in an m/m relationship, his sister is gay herself, his boyfriend is Korean, our leading lady's friend is Indian...I could go on.

I'm giving this, my first Alice Oseman book, five stars for rep and also for feels. Seriously, she's that good an author in both respects, just like Adam Silvera or Shaun David Hutchinson. The feels are particularly strong with this one - a lot of humor, but also a lot of heartache poured out through Universe City and its in-universe fandom, and also the pain of teenagers struggling to balance their lives with their education.

I also have to provide a very strong trigger warning for parental abuse. There are quite a few scenes of Aled's mum being just plain awful, refusing to accept his agency as a man and invading his personal space as well. There's one scene in particular that, no shit, brought me to tears. Though I haven't experienced such abuse myself, I can very easily see myself having suffered it in a universe maybe half a remove from ours, if not a full one. I'm not going to explain exactly how close to home this hit for me, but if you know me well enough, you probably understand anyway.

This book, I'm not kidding, will wreck your heart if you read it and that's a promise. I'll leave you with the same GIF I add to every review I write for Adam Silvera's books.

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Black Panther: In Which Wakanda Is The World's Role Model


As I said last time I reviewed a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, it says a lot that the weakest link of the third phase so far has been Doctor Strange. And with the first of three big 2018 MCU releases now out and dazzling the world, Black Panther continues that trend of MCU excellence. But it also highlights black excellence every step of the way, with a good 80% or so of the cast being black, and much of the crew from director and co-writer Ryan Coogler on down as well. On a mission to impress Marvel fans and everyone else, nobody's slacking off, not in the slightest.

This king stands poised to change the world.

Though we've seen allusions to Wakanda pop in and out of previous Marvel movies, most notably in Age of Ultron when we first met Afrikaner arms dealer and vibranium thief Ulysses Klaue, it was in Civil War where we first got ourselves a hint of the magnificence Black Panther's homeland had to offer. A hint, or two, but nothing more than that, except maybe in the post-credits scene where we got to see Bucky Barnes go into cryo-sleep in a secret Wakandan lab. Other than that, there's no sign of just how advanced Wakanda is, blessed by the cosmos as it was when a vibranium meteorite impacted there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. a point. As outlined in the movie's very first sequence, Wakanda's several tribes fought over possession of the vibranium until one warrior set out from the rest of the pack and, aided by a purple heart-shaped herb that enhanced his strength and agility, took leadership as the first Black Panther. Most of the tribes, save one, united with him and formed the Wakanda we know today - highly advanced and prosperous, but also hiding itself from the rest of the world for fear that outsiders, were they to know the truth, would come in and exploit Wakanda just as was done to the rest of Africa and other parts of the world.

It's this precise combination of fear and pride that shapes much of the movie thematically. Though Wakanda was never colonized by any Western powers, for many years the leadership has insisted on maintaining strict isolation. That isolation is already starting to break down as the movie begins proper, only a week after the explosion that killed T'Chaka in Civil War and left T'Challa to take his father's place as ruler.

Of course, it's not that simple, and while Civil War sets us up to think that T'Challa just gets the power as part of a familial dynasty, there's a lot more to it that's been saved for this movie. The aforementioned heart-shaped herb, for one thing - which makes it clear that as badass as T'Challa was the first time we saw him, he wasn't even at full potential. Not to mention how, at his coronation, he must stand before relatives and representatives of the other tribes and accept challenges of ritual combat from any who offers one. Only one does - M'Baku, leader of the mountain tribe which broke away from the rest of Wakanda and pretty much only comes down from their own isolation just to throw a wrench in what could otherwise have been a pretty smooth ceremony unanimously approved by all else in attendance. M'Baku and T'Challa fight in a very small pool of water perched at the edge of a waterfall, halfway up the walls of a massive canyon. Here, Coogler brings his experience directing Creed to the table - a fight scene in a pretty spacious area with numerous spectators, but the actual space for the fight is confined and dangerous. It certainly helps that the two men's respective guards keep narrowing a semicircle around them, their spears pointed in the whole time. But again, M'Baku is here more for disruption than anything else, to give the movie a chance to showcase some of its greatest strengths. Not only action, but natural beauty in all the ways.

It's only later, of course, that T'Challa gets a more serious threat to face. Not so much Klaue, who spends his time in the movie having a ball and hamming it up like he's some kind of big-name mogul. (He's actually pretty funny most of the time, at least until he starts saying some pretty racist stuff against the Wakandans and then nobody's laughing.) No, the real villain of this piece is Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, who's got a surprising connection to Wakanda all his own but otherwise lives like an American. Without getting into spoilers, let's just say that he's one of the best villains in the MCU not only on the strength of Michael B. Jordan's kickass performance (when isn't he kickass, though?), but also because of his sympathetic backstory, rooted in an incident that took place when he was a boy in Oakland in 1992. (It's a very nice touch on Coogler's part, going back to his own Oakland roots.) And because (even though I'm not at all sure he means it) he talks a good game about changing the world and improving the lives of the downtrodden.

That's the biggest theme of the movie by far - a sort of "with great power comes great responsibility" but for entire nations. Wakanda, though prosperous, is secretly flawed, with a history of its most powerful men making some pretty terrible decisions for the good of the kingdom. Just like when Taika Waititi, as a Maori, filtered Thor: Ragnarok through a strong anti-imperialist lens and added quite a bit of Aboriginal-pride imagery, Black Panther showcases the continuing repercussions of colonialism and teaches that maybe the right solution isn't to add to a perpetual cycle of war, but to break down walls and pursue an agenda in favor of the collective, not the individual, greater good. Further underlining these themes are the differences in reactions to Killmonger between the men and women of Wakanda in general. Many of the men in T'Challa's inner circle have a way of cleaving to tradition at all costs. T'Challa's closest women advisers, however, tend to challenge tradition, are more loyal and dependable, and also prove to be dynamic, outside-the-box thinkers. None more so than Shuri, of course. Letitia Wright, as T'Challa's sharp-witted, whip-smart sister, carries more scenes than almost anyone else who's come before her in the MCU. She needs to meet her fellow MCU genii yesterday - Stark, Banner, FitzSimmons, and of course Daisy Freaking Johnson would all love to work with her, and she could help them all save the world in two seconds flat.

About the only flaws I can spot in this movie are really small ones - a bit of an overlength problem, but no more so than a lot of previous two-and-a-half-hour MCU tours, and also how some pieces of CGI (like a climactic fight sequence on the maglev train tracks in Wakanda's main vibranium mine) look a bit unfinished. Other than that, however, Black Panther has no problem securing its status as Marvel's latest A-grade masterpiece, thematically resonant and crafted with painstaking attention to detail. That attention will come in handy for further Black Panther films, and especially if and when Marvel commissions someone to write some damn good fantasy novels that allow us to really explore all of Wakanda.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: The Cruel Prince

The Cruel Prince The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sooooooooooo...I think this is my third attempt at trying a different Holly Black book, and while I surely like this one better than the earlier books of hers I've tried (Tithe and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown), that doesn't really say much when neither of those other books were anything special to me, and this one, while not a total failure for me, suffered from being equal parts infuriating and boring. Mostly because of the title character, an epic asshole cut from the same cloth as Rhysand back in the early ACOTAR days before character development really set in. Not that Black doesn't give him character development, but even that feels at times like a Rhysand rip-off - like, his cruelty is the result of constant abuse, that sort of thing. And...I mean, I've got a soft spot for a few bad boys of this type, most notably Kylo Ren (come on, the poor guy wants to be good but everyone else pigeonholes him.) But Cardan...I feel like Black wants to fill the void of "bad boy fae you can't help but love" that Julie Kagawa's Ash left open, and Cardan can't fill those shoes no matter how damn hard he tries.

That said, though, I loved Jude's character, if only because, flawed as she is, she ain't no damsel in distress, and you'll never forget it. Vivi was another standout for me too - I'd much rather have a book where she was the star of the show. And while the storyline tends to move very slowly in this book, when it's moving fast, it moves FAST. And bloody violent too - there's one scene in particular that owes a lot to the Red Wedding. No joke.

So this one's more of a 2.5 for me, but I'll round it up to a 3 and hope that if I pick up the sequel, Black will give us something bigger and better. With that ending, there's no reason why she shouldn't.

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