Saturday, June 23, 2018

Review: Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"As for the fact that Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle appeared to be going their different ways when they were usually inseparable, these things happened as people got older - Ron and Hermione, Harry reflected sadly, were living proof."
-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

That quote really came to mind to me after I read this latest Becky Albertalli book, a more direct follow-up to Simon Vs. than The Upside of Unrequited was. It's recognizably Becky's style, following one teenage protagonist struggling to come to terms with their identity (in Leah's case, bisexual - she's also fat, but that's something she's much better at making her own) and find some much-deserved love. Along the way, there's a lot of laughs - most of which are Simon's and Bram's faults, of course. Leah, though? Her sense of humor isn't really geared towards making me laugh. She rubs me the wrong way almost from the start, when she's ragging on Journey (was it really called for to compare their music to meth?), and she also has an alarming tendency to rub everyone the wrong way in-universe too. Open mouth, insert foot, chew thoroughly - and because she's Leah, she doubles down on the snark each time she does so, especially to someone she loves. Like her mom. Or the girl she's fallen in love with, who's also struggling to figure out her own sexuality - hell, there's a scene where Leah, while still closeted herself, tells this girl not to waffle on her labels and totally polices her sexual identity in the process. As a bi reader, that actually kinda pissed me off more than a bit, and I know I'm not the only one.

And in between all of Leah's rudeness, nearly everyone in her friend circle is struggling to come to terms with the end of high school and the forthcoming start of college, leading to a lot of drama that plays out like a Super 8-grade train wreck. I still actually kinda wish that Becky could've written a sequel from the POV of Abby or Bram - though we know she wouldn't do so because they're outside her lane racially, but if anyone could pull it off, we all know Becky could.

But hey, Leah and everyone else around her is only human, and they're all flawed as hell. Some more so than others, of course, which is why there's so much train wreckage going on. It makes this book less enjoyable than either of its Simonverse predecessors, but again, it's meant to show that we can't all be as fluffy and adorable as Simon Spider (I still can't stop calling him that, lol) all the time. This book represents all our anger and resentment just as Simon Vs. represents our sweetness and passions, and Upside represents our loneliness and insecurities. And again, Leah's not the only one contributing to the nasty game around here. Look no further than the one person who makes the huge mistake of claiming she didn't get into a certain college because she's white and Abby, who did, is black. (Cue Leah going all the way off in Abby's defense.) I know for certain of at least one black classmate in high school who got this same treatment from people he used to call friends - I didn't know it at the time, but I once found him talk about it in a Dartmouth student paper editorial after a random Google search. And, in hindsight, I'm really not surprised at these old classmates of ours at all.

Like both of Becky's books so far, I'm thinking this one's kind of a 3.5, but this one I'll round down to a 3. It's hard to read a lot of the time because after a while, Leah's whole "I'm a Slytherin, so that means I'm an asshole by nature" shtick really wears thin. But just like the Dracos in the fanfics she loves to read, she does have a soft center somewhere, and that does ultimately come out and win in the end. Even if that end is a little too neatly-tied-up-with-a-bow, but then it wouldn't be Becky if it wasn't.

Now I can super look forward to Becky's collaboration with Adam Silvera on What If It's Us. And seethe that unless my schedule changes, I won't be able to meet them on their Bay Area tour stop, not when it's on a night I currently work late enough to miss the event.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: A Reaper at the Gates

A Reaper at the Gates A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most authors in the YA biz give us a new book in their signature series once a year, every year, like clockwork. Sabaa Tahir has always been an exception to that rule, going at least a year and a half between books each time so far, and it's become one of my biggest selling points as I present her books to customers at my work, because I really think it helps raise the quality of the Ember Quartet...along with so many other factors.

Namely, the pure uniqueness of the setting, still the definitive vision of YA sandalpunk - and of sandalpunk, period, as far as I'm concerned. Literally nowhere else will you find Roman and Pakistani cultural influences in the same place - if only the cultures could coalesce, especially in the face of an even greater enemy from worlds beyond. But nope, there's not much room for reconciliation, not when the Martial Empire, and Keris the bloodydamn Commandant in particular, are even more ten-hells-bent on conquest than ever. A lot of fantasy, especially in recent years, has centered on themes of anti-imperialism and analyzing the levels of system-breakage necessary to carry out such goals, and this universe, where the Martials certainly do not have the market completely cornered on historical atrocities, is no exception. It may get analytical, but there's still only one conclusion - the Commandant, for the good of all humanity, needs to get gone yesterday.

Meanwhile, Laia and Elias and their people are still reeling from the ending of A Torch Against the Night, with supernatural horrors creeping closer on the horizon with every page. Elias' chapters, in particular, run red with dread. Ironic, considering this is the book in the series with the green cover accents - I'm still convinced Elias resembles the Green Arrow with that hood. And while these two are no less shippable than ever, leave it to Tahir to turn even their love into a nightmare.

And between Laia and Elias, and Marcus and Keris, we have Helene. Note that her POV chapters are indicated not with her name, but her title of Blood Shrike - I'm thinking that was a deliberate choice on Tahir's part to indicate how little those in charge of the Empire really care about her and her humanity. It's a humanity that's stretched super thin with all the trauma she has to go through - and that includes witnessing all sorts of atrocities happening to her loved ones. For all the flack Helene gets from the fandom, I'm willing to bet her story arc in this book, for sure the most compelling after that of Elias, will help gain her a lot of sympathy. It sure gained mine.

I have no idea how long it'll be until we get the fourth and final book in the quartet, but it'll be another long wait. And a more agonizing one too. Because while the ending of Torch was seriously feels-abusing, this one manages to run even closer to the original maddening Aveyardian cliffhanger of Glass Sword. It even feels, to me, like the ending of Infinity War in a way or two - no, not how you're thinking, but more like just emulating one of those last shots of the movie.

But yeah, it's going to be a long time, waiting for Tahir to finish one of the most intelligent and gripping series in all of YA.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: White Rabbit

White Rabbit White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Last Seen Leaving, I found myself ready to be super-hyped for any future novels which Caleb Roehrig was to give us. Maybe his sophomore book doesn't quite reach that standard, but it's every bit as compulsively readable as Last Seen Leaving was. Believe it or not, though, the main mystery wasn't the greatest selling point for me, not when it became clear that it involved some of the asscrownest (not to be too Mara Dyer-y) characters you'll ever meet. Seriously, the rich kids who form the ranks of the suspects in this crime, they're all ingloriously gross and grossly insensitive and casually offensive to just about everyone else around them. I almost expected a sort of Murder on the Orient Express situation, to be honest, especially since the murder victim here is pretty much the worst of them all.

But the best part of the story, for me, is the relationship between Rufus and Sebastian (aka "Bash," which reminds me of the nicknaming of Bass Monroe on Revolution, but that's neither here nor there.) Relationship, or as the story begins, lack thereof, the two boys being exes. I've seen a couple of other reviews complain that Rufus is a victim of manipulation on Sebastian's part, especially highlighting the passage where Rufus metaphorizes himself as a violin - useless without being played, to paraphrase him. Admittedly problematic on the surface, but keep on reading the book and you'll also see things from Bash's point of view. While Rufus is out of the closet, Bash is not, and while he's got one public relationship with a girl, does that publicity mean he loves Lia more than Rufus? If he loves Rufus at all? Well, I won't get too spoilery, but Bash more than earns my sympathy. As does Rufus, because I actually super-relate to his little violin metaphor. Not because I was ever played with emotionally, but because nobody has ever wanted to make my heart sing like that, period. And I do, way too often, internalize it as a failure on my own part. So Rufus doesn't always make the best decisions, but that's to be expected when he's a teenager with emotional and mental health issues - he's particularly prone to anger, but he's nowhere near as bad as his bio dad and dangerous brother. (Just for the bio dad alone, this one's going on the reading lists of my Red Rain boys, Alex and Gabe.)

So yeah, I'm still counting myself a loyal Caleb Roehrig fan. And using his books (this one included) as comp titles for my queries because his boys would get along with mine that well.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: Fireblood

Fireblood Fireblood by Elly Blake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Somehow, my review of Frostblood became one of my most-viewed on my blog - my most-viewed book review ever, I think, and second only to my coming-out post in total views. I'm not sure this one'll come anywhere close to those stats, but if so, it'd be just as weird and random as the Frostblood review, short and little-fanfared as it was. This book shall go similarly little-fanfared by me. It's not a bad book, but not exactly a good one either. Maybe a shade better than its predecessor, especially in the second half when it becomes clear just how sinister the mystery really is. But the first half just feels way too long a slog to get through that it's almost not worth it to get there. Almost. It does validate itself in the end, I promise you that. And as soon as my library gets ahold of Nightblood, I'll be sure to order it. Or maybe wind up waiting several months like I did for this one.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: These Rebel Waves

These Rebel Waves These Rebel Waves by Sara Raasch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here's another ARC I'm very happy to have found at work, and to see it being Sara Raasch's first book in two years or so, I'm excited just on that front alone.

It's an interesting world Raasch sets up in this story, separate from her seasonal fantasy kingdoms of Snow Like Ashes and sequels. No, here we get one that's a little more clearly rooted in real-world history in its inspiration. I've noticed for a few years that a lot of Western-based fantasy has shifted away from the traditional styles of Northern Europe - Viking and/or Anglo-Saxon and/or Celtic influence - in favor of Southern European influence. And I Darken, Nevernight, The Young Elites, Ruined, Truthwitch, and now These Rebel Waves all carry strong elements of influence from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Greece, Romania, and/or the Ottoman Empire.

This particular book is heavy on the Spanish and Portuguese influences - from the Portuguese-sounding language (hell, I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was actually some kind of archaic form of Portuguese) to the heavy dominion of the Catholic-like Church of the Pious God over the royal court and all the culture of Argrid. As you can imagine, it's a highly oppressive Inquisition-like theocracy full of hypocritical assbutts, one that deserves to have a few wrenches thrown into its works.

And among those wrenches are our three protagonists. Adeluna (nicknamed "Lu," which I'm thinking is more than a tip of the cap to Marie Lu and Adelina, because let's face it, this book would pair magnificently with The Young Elites), Devereux (aka "Vex"), and Benat (aka "Ben.") The rebel, the pirate, the crown prince. All have their part to play in this theater, and all subvert just about every expectation you may have of them and then some. They also bring a good amount of diversity to the table - all three have some shade of brown skin (brown is virtually the default in both Argrid and Grace Loray, with white merchants from northern nations standing out like sore thumbs in the region's harbor cities), Vex has only one eye (another Young Elites reference for the list?), and Ben is gay. Openly so, even. Turns out that as nasty and backwards as the Church of the Pious God is, they're not intolerant of gay people, so long as they stay true till marriage. (Cue me and my friend Harry raising our eyebrows.)

But make no mistake, the Church is out for nothing short of power and dominance. They already got beaten back from Grace Loray's shores, and would love nothing more than to swoop in and colonize the place and its numerous magic-enhancing herbs.

Can't have that, can we?

It's a great little book, this one. A little long at times, and I'm a little sad that it's only the first of a duology. But I'm glad I got to read it in advance!

Except, of course, for that ending, undoubtedly the most diabolically Aveyardian since the original Aveyardian cliffhanger of Glass Sword. Even Godsgrave and Empire of Storms didn't make me so mad!

For sure, when this book hits shelves, I'll be hand-selling it to as many bookstore customers as I can, though not without fairly warning them of the weapons-grade cliffhanger at the end.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Review: The Outcast

The Outcast The Outcast by Taran Matharu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After last year concluded the original Summoner trilogy, Taran Matharu announced a fourth book, The Outcast, a prequel. Wait, didn't we already have a prequel in Summoner: Origins? Well, yeah. But now we get that prequel expanded to full novel size, and while it feels a bit strange to go back in time when we know how the original trilogy ends, it also makes me want to reread the original trilogy from the start all over again. Which, in due course, I shall soon do.

But for here, we get the origin story of Arcturus and his sweet Canid demon, Sacharissa. Here, we get more in-depth about how there can be common summoners when it's supposed to be limited to the noble classes. Here, we get more looks at the world of the orcs, reminding me a lot of World of Warcraft, especially. I'm pretty sure my buddy Koda hasn't read these books yet, but seeing how he's all about the fantasy and the WoW stuff - he got me playing for about a minute myself! - this is right up his alley. Though I think I'll start him out on the original trilogy like I did. And like I do for customers at work. Though I might have to hold off on that for a while after I sold the last copy of The Novice to this ten-year-old kid on Friday...but I digress.

I'm not sure what else Matharu has in mind for this 'verse - hell, I'm pretty sure I saw him say his next planned project was a sci-fi book. But I'll happily pick up whatever he publishes next, and until then, I hereby again bid the Summoner 'verse ave atque vale.

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Solo: Damn, You're All Sleeping On This


For the first time since...maybe the Clone Wars movie? If we can count that one? Anyway, for the first time in a long time, we're getting a Star Wars movie that's not earning beaucoup bucks at the box office, and certainly not enough to recoup its massive budget, made even more massive because of behind-the-scenes trouble and major creative changes resulting thereof.

Though tell that to the nearly-packed house I sat in to watch the movie today, on its third weekend of business, when Ocean's 8 is looking to snatch a handy #1 spot.

Maybe some of those people were packed in to watch the movie a second or even third time? I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe Solo isn't the best Star Wars movie that's ever been, but it's a damn good fit into the franchise. Maybe it ties itself in a few too many knots to explain some of Han's backstory - and not even all of it, not now that they're planning a possible Solo trilogy, even! - but it does a great job of capturing viewer interest the whole way.

Everyone's here to play. Especially Han and Lando, of course.

I won't get into too much detail about the storyline, even though it's been long enough that the spoilers are probably all over the place by now. I managed to avoid most of them, though - with one exception, but that was for a surprise that was really there more for the hardcore fans in the audience (of which I can hardly count myself, despite my repeat viewings of every movie so far and consumption of a lot of the EU books and such.) I will tell you, though, that one big theory my friend Sam and I thought of together? It didn't happen. Such is the nature of this movie, a heist story to its core, unpredictable and predicated on tons upon tons of twists and backstabbings. I'll say this much, though: the establishments of certain plot points from the original trilogy's backstory are mostly well done (except for the occasional ass-pull that feels a little too well-highlighted), and there's one death in particular that'll have you all up in your feels without a doubt.

One of the biggest worries I had going into this movie was that Alden Ehrenreich wouldn't be able to hold a candle to the OG himself, Harrison Ford. Maybe not. But it's been repeatedly pointed out that Ehrenreich is doing his own thing, which isn't entirely divorced from Ford's portrayal, but still has to showcase a certain inexperience. Not a lot of it, though, not when he's gotta be a player and schemer with the best of them. Then again, though, there's a reason why I liked Ehrenreich in Beautiful Creatures, and here, where he's something of a happy medium between Harrison Ford and Dylan O'Brien, he shines just as much. Donald Glover deserves special mention too - not only because, well, he's DONALD FREAKING GLOVER, but also because of the depth he gives his performance as Lando. Not unlike Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan in the prequels (and hopefully in his own solo spinoff down the pipeline), Glover channels Billy Dee Williams to such a degree that he looks and sounds almost exactly like the guy. In addition, playing Lando as pansexual (though they don't outright say so, it's all but spelled out anyway) made this bi boy have a few extra chuckles. And for the supporting cast, franchise newcomers Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, and Emilia Clarke add more notches to their already-well-scored belts. Especially Clarke - because while I find it nigh impossible to unhear Daenerys, Qi'ra is a different kind of Star Wars leading lady, definitely more to the Jyn Erso end of things than Leia or Rey or Padmé. And your favorite character by far, if your tastes run anything close to mine, will be L3-37. She's a friggin' blast.

Perhaps the greatest strength in the movie is visual - no surprise given this franchise, but I swear this one steps up the special effects game like none other in the franchise have before. Highlights include the monorail heist - in which the train and rails bend several times, forcing Han and Chewie and everyone else in the crew to really keep on their toes - and of course the storied Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, which simply has to be seen to be believed. While the earliest movies in the Disney era didn't quite make good special effects standards (Rogue One, I still mostly remember it for its terribad CGI), this and The Last Jedi really show a step up in this department.

Solo, again, isn't the best Star Wars movie ever. But it gets an A- from me, especially because while every trailer had me saying, "Please don't suck," the actual product still managed to exceed my expectations. And I'm actually glad they chose Ron Howard to direct in the end - Lord and Miller may be talented guys, but their talents would've been wasted trying to make a Star Wars movie so funny it turned into self-parody.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.