Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Scythe

Scythe Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A new book from the author of Unwind? Of course I'm in.

Scythe proves to be another interesting little look at an apocalyptic future that could very easily come to pass. When death no longer occurs naturally, thanks to a number of technological advances (some of which have something to do with the Thunderhead, an all-powerful ASI descended from today's Apple products, unless I miss my guess), there needs to be an agency devoted to ensuring that people die as needed.

Of course, no system is immune from corruption, which is a recipe for dystopian disaster any way you slice it.

Though the book does suffer from a pretty slow-paced first third or so, Shusterman more than makes up for that with impressive world-building. This world, in particular, carries shades of In Time and Brave New World all over the place. The Scythes pretend to be equal-opportunity dealers in death (there are numerous instances of Scythes being punished for targeting people based on wealth, ethnicity, etc.), but are of course predominantly interested in saving their own skins.

Even when the book starts out slowly, there's always that world-building to keep things very, very interesting. When the sequel comes out, I'll be waiting very impatiently for it.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

My 2016 Favorites: The Second Annual Pinecone Awards!

In general, we all know 2016 was a sucky, sucky year. America shot itself in the foot, and the head, and the heart, and every vital organ. As did Britain. And who knows how many other countries will follow suit? David Bowie died and the universe started to unravel, to the point where every idol who followed him into the unknown was probably invited to a Tomorrowland-style alternate universe where deserving people could live peacefully.

But in the worlds of pop culture, even as the real world devolved into a modern-day Game of Thrones nightmare, fictional worlds continued to deliver stellar entertainment. And as this year comes to a much-needed close, I'll now reward the Top 5, plus honorable mentions, in the four categories of the Second Annual Pinecone Awards.


Honorable Mentions: 

* Zac Brewer, The Blood Between Us
* Ava Jae, Beyond The Red
* Justine Larbalestier, My Sister Rosa
* Sara Raasch, Frost Like Night
* Rick Riordan, The Hammer of Thor

5. Pierce Brown, Morning Star

The conclusion to the original Red Rising Trilogy - but not the end of Brown's exploration of this deadly future universe, not with Iron Gold expected next year - caps Darrow's revolutionary journey off in gorydamn top-notch fashion. For the first time, we get to see the revolution beyond Mars, and how much it's more than just the Roman Empire influencing Brown - this book gets into some nasty Norse-influenced stuff as well, and is as deadly and explosive as any Mad Max movie. I swear, if this one had been made into a movie and put into theaters at the same time as Fury Road, they'd have dueling fanbases and Oscar campaigns cannibalizing each other right and left.

Per aspera ad astra.

4. Pittacus Lore, United As One

Not unlike the Red Rising Trilogy, we got an expectedly ass-kicking, and expectedly awesome, conclusion to The Lorien Legacies this year. The seventh book (in a series that was supposed to run for six), United As One is well and truly the Deathly Hallows of this story world, unremittingly dark and dangerous and flooded with action. All for a series that began relatively lightheartedly - and I'm still waiting for a reboot of the prematurely-cancelled film series! But until then, I'll remember the books, especially this one for its incredibly raised stakes and lack of an easy happy ending.

Don't let the cold bother you, my Loric friends.

3. Laura Lam, False Hearts

Thanks to one of my professors telling me about Laura Lam, I spent a short period in the spring reading the first two books in her debut trilogy, Pantomime and Shadowplay (can't wait for the long-delayed conclusion, Masquerade, next year!) This allowed me to get in on the game really quickly when Lam released her first adult book, False Hearts. Set in an eerily on-point post-apocalyptic future San Francisco, in a world where the US has fractured and the West Coast has become the nation of Pacifica, this mind-screwy hybrid of Orphan Black and Inception takes readers on a truly gnarly trip. Detailed world-building, a hyper-diverse cast of characters, and the ever-creeping sense that this world may well be our fate in less than half a century (unless we make ourselves something different - keep hope alive!) make this, the first in an expansive new saga, one of 2016's under-the-radar literary gems.

Pacifica. Like Tahiti, it's a magical place.

2. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Gemina

It took me a while to get ahold of these two Aussies' first brick-sized collaborative effort, Illuminae, so even though it would have doubtlessly won a Pinecone last year, I didn't read it in time to put it in contention. For the sequel, I vowed to rectify that mistake, and upon finding a signed copy at Target, I couldn't resist buying both books in glorious Technicolor hardcover. Let me just say this: Gemina took everything that made Illuminae super-cool - storytelling in a rough literary equivalent of found footage, complete defiance of convention without sacrificing comprehensibility, continuous sense of fun even as the death toll keeps on rising, general sci-fi weirdness - and boosted it up to eleven.

Also, Marie Lu did the illustrations.
Your opinion is invalid.

1. Cassandra Clare, Lady Midnight

At last, at long freaking last, Cassie Clare gave us the introduction to the LA-set Mortal Instruments sequel series we'd all been waiting for, The Dark Artifices. And truly, Lady Midnight lived up to the hype and merited the extended wait. Here, Clare gives us not only the most shippable leads she's ever penned in Emma and Julian, but also another wildly diverse cast of characters and more than a few parallels between the conservative, iron-fisted Clave and the rise of the right wing in the real world. It took watching the Supergirl/The Flash crossover the night after finishing this book (more on that under the TV category) to reverse polarity on my disrupted feels and bring me back to something resembling emotional homeostasis. It's that good a book, and frankly, I'll always be salty that it lost the Goodreads Choice Best YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi to ACOMAF ( But hey, these awards go to the books I feel deserve them, and deserve it Cassie Clare does.

Don't heart won't be able to take it!


Honorable Mentions:

* Finding Dory
* Independence Day: Resurgence
* Doctor Strange
* Lights Out
* The Divergent Series: Allegiant

5. Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

God, I love Tim Burton movies. The bizarreness, the visual treats aplenty, and the quirky lead characters you can't help but love. Quirky...or, in this case, peculiar. Asa Butterfield perfectly captures the essence of Ransom Riggs' reluctant hero, Jake Portman, and Eva Green is spot on in the title role, even more so than Helena Bonham Carter would have been. And with Jane Goldman writing the screenplay, it's no wonder this movie is a true spectacle, outclassing its source material in sheer awesome.

#StayPeculiar, my friends.

4. Captain America: Civil War

Each and every new movie in the Captain America sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an improvement on its predecessor, and Civil War, the start of the MCU's third and most intense phase yet, is no exception. As incredible as Age of Ultron was, Civil War was just jam-packed enough with abundant characters vying for space and signature Marvel storytelling - that perfect blend of high action, high emotion, and high thrills - that it felt like a more proper Avengers sequel than the official one. But lest we forget, this is Captain America's story coming full circle - from defending his country in The First Avenger, to realizing his country's been undermined in The Winter Soldier, to turning his back on his country here because it's the right thing to do. Ideas to live by in a post-America world where many of us may be forced to make this choice soon.

Dammit, boys, stop fighting! You're letting the bad guys win!

3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

We expected, and received, a damn good prequel to Star Wars. We did not expect, however, that the prequel would be so gut-wrenching and emotionally draining. Well, then again, it's the most warlike of all the Star Wars movies, easily, even compared to Revenge of the Sith or The Force Awakens. But do be warned - it's a full-spectrum emotional experience like no other Star Wars movie ever has been before.

Jyn, Cassian, and K at play. The Imperial scum better watch themselves.

2. Deadpool

What else is there to be said about this, the most irreverent-as-fuck movie of the year? *side-eyes Deadpool to make sure he doesn't try and hack the post the way he did on my review way back in February*

Who has two thumbs and might join "Polverine" on camera next year?

1. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling is too precious for this world, and she proves it again here, writing the screenplay to the first movie set in Harry Potter's Wizarding World, but not based on any of the seven books. Harry may be a hero for the ages, but Newt Scamander does him one better by being so much more relatable, and especially more adorkable - the better to connect him to awkward little fanpeople like me and my friends. If I want to emulate an example Rowling gives us to get ahead in life, I'd want to emulate that of Newt - devoted to his studies, polite even when he's socially dreadful, possessed of strong morals, and so very good with animals. A true Hufflepuff. Like me. :)

Also, try not to watch this GIF without laughing.
Go on. I dare you.


Honorable Mentions:

* Supergirl
* Bosch
* Colony
* Person of Interest
* Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

5. Eyewitness

Consistently and masterfully flying under the radar is this top-notch adaptation of a Norwegian crime-drama miniseries (from which this Canadian-filmed American version inherits a cool Nordic-noir vibe in its visual style.) It's also loaded with world-class thrills, flawed and multifaceted characters, a similar less-about-whodunnit and more-about-why-they-did-it storytelling method to the Canadian thriller series Motive (with which Eyewitness shares cast member Warren Christie, here playing against type as the main villain), and some seriously thought-provoking explorations of non-traditional gender roles (top-billed lead character Helen is the primary breadwinner in her family, not her husband Gabe) and sexuality (the two boys who witness the murder that kick-starts the whole plot both being gay - Philip is more or less out, while Lukas is deeply closeted and suffers from internalized homophobia in addition to PTSD.) It may fly under the radar, but Eyewitness does, at the very least, boast a devoted fanbase, of which I'm a very proud member. If you can catch all ten episodes on demand somewhere, treat yourself. You'll be in for quite a ride. And if you have any questions, the two real-life halves of Philkas, Tyler Young and James Paxton, are very interactive with fans - another bonus to joining this fandom.

Philip = me evangelizing Eyewitness.
Lukas = everyone else being all, "Well, okay, I'll try it..."

4. Teen Wolf

It's no secret that this is one of my favorite shows on TV, largely because, tonally, it's one of the closest matches there is right now to my Red Rain novels. Hell, when I first discovered the show back in the summer of 2014, I found it to have a lot in common with Red Rain in terms of character dynamics, personalities, target audience, etc. (Makes sense, given that Jeff Davis and I are both strongly influenced by Buffy.) Now it's begun its final season with some of the highest stakes yet - the Pack's mission, and they choose to accept it, being to recover Stiles from the Wild Hunt who've taken him out of this reality. (Though I've yet to see confirmation about it, I'm pretty much 100% sure they wrote Stiles out of the vast majority of Season 6A - so far! - to allow Dylan O'Brien sufficient time to recover from his injuries on the set of The Death Cure early this year.) 6A continues in January, with the final batch of ten episodes (bringing it up to a grand total of 100) to follow later in 2017...and I'm pretty reasonably sure it'll win a 2017 Pinecone too. But until then, I award Teen Wolf a 2016 Pinecone in hopes that it'll hasten Stiles' much-needed return.

The first time Lydia said it all those years ago, it was funny.
Now? Still funny, but it'll bring tears, this callback.

3. Designated Survivor

Frequently compared to The West Wing and also to Homeland and Scandal, Designated Survivor owes a lot more to the likes of 24 - as well it should, given both shows star Kiefer Sutherland. Though not perfect - some of the subplots, namely those involving President Kirkman's suspiciously Chris Manawa-lookalike son, are soap opera fodder with no business on a show like this - ABC's next big hit is loaded with timely and important political commentary (including some much-needed jabs at the GOP and a celebration of political independence shared by Madam Secretary) and pulse-pounding thrills from the ever-mounting ongoing conspiracy responsible for the Capitol bombing that kicks off the series. Ten addicting episodes have gone by too quickly, and now we have an unnecessarily long hiatus until the series returns March 8. Catch up now, but beware of the weapons-grade cliffhanger at the end of the road.

An unconventional salute from an unconventional Mr. President.

2. Agents of SHIELD

Though I'll miss Agent Carter and I'll never forgive ABC for yanking her show from the air (and giving Hayley Atwell a piss-poor consolation prize of a role on Conviction), 2016 was also the year Marvel's broadcast flagship really surged back to the fore. It all started in the latter five episodes or so of Season 3B last spring - the "Fallen Agent" storyline. When they revealed Daisy Johnson, my favorite character (after Coulson, but who can top Coulson?) got infected by Hive's Inhuman-mind-controlling spores, that made me go all, "NOOOOOOO!!! WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!" And it solidified my need to watch the show live whenever possible, which became easier in Season 4A with the shift to the 10pm timeslot (so it wouldn't compete with Bull, which I watch live with my dad) and the introduction of Gabriel Luna as Robbie Reyes, aka Ghost Rider. (Incidentally, Lorenzo Henrie playing his brother Gabe meant both my Red Rain lead face claims - for Alex and Fionna, the latter being modeled after Chloe Bennet - actually got to share screen space.) So while this section of the MCU goes horribly underappreciated in the face of the movies' success and the Netflix series getting all the love (still haven't seen those, sadly), I'm always happy to claim a place in Agents of SHIELD fandom, which I've been part of from the beginning - but now, thanks to "Fallen Agent," "Ghost Rider," and the forthcoming "LMD" story arc, more solidly than ever.

Ghost Rider's had a little work done. Try not to stare.

1. The Flash

Okay, I'll admit it - The Flash isn't quite the instant classic it used to be. The time-travel mechanics are tangled and confusing (and that's without figuring in the antics they get up to on Legends of Tomorrow, but those are very subtly and deeply enmeshed with the timeline of the rest of the Arrowverse, so it's hard not to figure them in), and the writers are so blatantly shipping WestAllen that it's driven away some of my friends (and given rise to an infestation of trollish WestAllen stans - DO NOT FEED THEM.) 

Bees are the worst. Except for wasps.

But me, I'm a Hufflepuff, and loyal Flash Trash to the end. I stuck with Arrow through their god-awful third season (mostly 'cause Olicity was canonically there to make me something of a happy fanboy), so it'll take a lot more to make me give up on The Flash. Especially since, after all, this show is home to my unofficial guardian angel, Barry Allen, who can never let me down no matter what. It's also home to two Kevin Smith-directed episodes (one of which, "The Runaway Dinosaur," prompted me to write a blog post detailing the absolute emotional wreck it left me in), and also the first full part of this year's stellar "Invasion!" Arrowverse crossover. Which of course included many moments of Barry being super-friends with Ollie, the Legends, and of course Supergirl. God, I ship him and Kara so hard...but that's why I love this show, because as good as it is, it inspires me to do it more justice, which I do in the form of fanfic. And because if I can't grow up to be Spider-Man, I'd just as much love to grow up to be The Flash, feeling the liberation of super speed and making a secret career out of it. And knowing that I wouldn't be alone in my fight to save the world.

#SuperFlash #KareBears forever!


Honorable Mentions:

Bruno Mars is pretty versatile a songwriter, and always a very capable singer...and with his latest lead single, he's given us a little mashup of rap and 80s synthpop that will never, ever fail to put a smile on your face or your money back.

"I'm a dangerous man with some money in my pocket; keep up!"

I didn't get the best first impression from "Wherever I Go," the lead single to OneRepublic's fourth album Oh My My. But in between a lot of forgettable acoustic tunes, weird experiments with French house, and other assorted strangeness, OneRepublic collaborated with one of the 80s' best and brightest. Peter Gabriel sounds as great as ever, the 80s synth style is on point, and why the hell is this one not getting any radio airplay? Probably because it doesn't reach for the rafters like "Kids" does (literally), but oh well. Just like how "Love Runs Out" was my underrated fave from Native (reissued, that is), "A.I." is destined to be my underrated fave from Oh My My.

"I just want your love, I'm an addict
Artificial intelligence..."

I've long thought Michael Giacchino's best work is the end-credits music he creates. Classic examples come from The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Land of the Lost. But with this end-credits soundtrack piece from Doctor Strange, Giacchino has seriously outdone himself, beautifully capturing the psychedelic magic of Marvel's latest side-trip movie with this Pink Floyd-influenced, all-but-guaranteed earworm. And Marvel's not done working with Giacchino yet - looks like he'll be composing the score for Spider-Man: Homecoming. Time will tell if he outclasses this work, or any previous Spidey-soundtrack (The Amazing Spider-Man for sure, but Danny Elfman's original-trilogy work is unparalleled, as is the deadly elemental nightmare of the "Electro Suite" from TASM 2), but if these "Mystic End Credits" are any indication, Homecoming is musically in top-notch hands.

"Dormammu, I've come to bargain..."

RIP, David Bowie. But if there's one thing your experimental final album Blackstar told us, it's that you knew full well it was your time to go, and you were going to go out with a bang. But if you're out there somewhere - and the opening line to my selection for the Pinecone winner "Lazarus" gives me a shrewd idea where - can you bring the rest of us with you to whatever Tomorrowland you've got going on in another world?

"Look up here, I'm in heaven..."

For all of us longtime Panic! fans, this one really takes us back to A Fever You Can't Sweat Out. Exactly as its title suggests, this song right in the middle of the Death of a Bachelor album is chaotic, catchy, and a celebration of all things that dance on a tightrope of weird - something we're gonna need a lot more of with David Bowie gone. Brendon Urie is our generation's Bowie, and this is his new anthem.

"You can set yourself on fire
But you're never gonna burn, burn, burn!"

Whew. Took me hours to compile all this. Hope you enjoy these Pinecone Award winners!

Till next time...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes, contemporary YA really isn't my thing (The Lovely Reckless), and sometimes, it's more my thing than I ever knew (More Happy Than Not, although it helps that that one dips more than just a toe into sci-fi as well). I rarely find any middle ground. Well, there was The Great American Whatever...and now there's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Don't get me wrong, Becky Albertalli weaves a nice little story around Simon Spier (I keep misreading his name as "Spider," LOL), his role in the school musical (Oliver!, which reminded me of my own high school days reading and re-reading John van de Ruit's Spud), his secret email exchanges with a guy named Blue with whom he can be himself, his Oreo obsession (now I get why Oreo jokes are all over YA Twitter - the one thing I have most in common with Simon being a serious sweet tooth!), and his and Blue's mutual nervousness about coming out.

So, yes, the book does prove as adorable as promised. But only when Simon and Blue - and a couple of Simon's other friends, namely Abby - are involved. Most of the cast of characters have a way of fading into the background and not having definable personalities, and that, for me, is the book's greatest failure. I get the feeling Albertalli wanted to write so many characters into the story, but with only about 300 pages in which to do it, there wasn't enough breathing room for a bunch of fully fleshed-out personalities, so a lot of the supporting characters (except maybe Simon's parents, who are of course clueless af) really fall flat.

But, again, it's a sweet and funny little story, one that made me laugh a few times. And also cringe in sympathy with Simon a few times. No spoilers, but there's one character who does something so disgusting, I wanted to punch his lights out on Simon's behalf. And I was happy to find it loaded with classic rock and other assorted 80s music references - so, for once, listening to Pandora stations heavy on these styles actually jelled super-well with the story.

And I'll leave you with a very important quote from Simon's internal monologue, one I feel I relate to a little too well.

"Nothing is worse than the secret humiliation of being insulted by proxy."

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Review: The Hammer of Thor

The Hammer of Thor The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Magnus Chase returns in his second adventurous trip through Rick Riordan's madcap vision of Norse mythology. While the first book had a few certain similarities to The Lightning Thief with its depiction of a boy discovering his connection to a supernatural world of gods and monsters, The Hammer of Thor feels a little more similar to TLF in its focus on the hunt for a lightning-themed MacGuffin - in this case, the signature weapon of a thunder god who, in this non-Marvel 'verse, looks a little less Hemsworth-y and a little more like a flatulent sailor.

It's classic Riordan, updated as always for 2010s readership, with special focus on diversity because we need to teach the middle-grade audience about that early on so they know diversity is just part of reality. Magnus gets into some interesting conversations with Sam about her balancing the knowledge that she's the daughter of a Norse god with her devout Muslim faith. Also, we get some kickass genderfluid and transgender representation with newcomer Alex Fierro, Loki's daughter (unless stated otherwise.) And because it's Riordan, it's filled to the brim with pop-culture references (some of which, most notably the Game of Thrones jokes, will of course fly over the heads of ten-to-twelve-year-old kids) and general snarkage all around, including from that world-class First Person Smartass, Magnus.

Best of all, the book ends with hints that Percy will be joining the fun in the upcoming third (and hopefully not final!) novel, The Ship of the Dead. In which case, all I can say is this: Bring. It. On.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Coming Soon: Orange Crush

Going to church again, even if it was just for Christmas Eve, made me feel depressed and stuck in Hell for another hour I could have spent writing instead. So I made the most of it and thought about what else to write for the Red Rain series. My brainstorming continued into Christmas Day, while my parents drove us to my grandparents' house, and the hellish visions continued. Hellish visions that wouldn't fit into Black Mirror or Peppermint.

So I've decided to extend the series, again, to six books.

Up to now, I've planned five...

...but now the hellish visions will come to you in the sixth of these books, entitled Orange Crush. Yes, like the R.E.M. song. If you've never heard it before, go look it up, and good luck keeping it out of your head.

And for your viewing pleasure, here's the brand-new cover of Orange Crush, as designed, of course, by Sam Ayers.

Looks beautiful and beachy and sunset-y, huh? But it's one of my books, so you know it's almost certainly...not.

My plan for this one is to have the narration split between Alex (of course) and Kelly Jackson. I was a little torn between making Kelly the co-narrator of this book, and choosing Harris, 'cause I love Harris and haven't written nearly enough in his POV. But in the end, Kelly, whose POV I've never written in before, won out, because she's going to really be leading the charge...but the details of that charge, I can't reveal here without spoiling material in Black Mirror and Peppermint that hasn't been written yet!

Until then, enjoy all six Red Rain series covers and get ready for some serious awesomeness to come in Orange Crush!

And once again, a huge thank you to Sam Ayers for designing all these magnificent covers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Review: Cold Days

Cold Days Cold Days by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A perfectly timed read in this winter season, the follow-up to Ghost Story gets absolutely frigid as Harry Dresden is forced into yet more faerie work as the Winter Knight. Freshly-revived beggars can't be choosers, I guess.

Once again, it's an example of Butcher delivering a massive 500-page-plus piece of fantasy awesomeness. And it's an example of how he can take forever to give us new material in a timely fashion...but it's Butcher, so once again I'll forgive him.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the almost three years I've been building my own science-fantasy multiverse in my writing, I've written a couple of characters named Jason and Daniela (though they go by Jay and Dani, respectively), who paired up together before the events of the series begin. Sheer coincidence, then, that I discover this book by Blake Crouch and find a couple named Jason and Daniela in it - though Crouch writes adults and I write teenagers. Given the quantum-nightmarish, universe-hopping premise of Dark Matter, however, I can't help but think, what if my own Jay and Dani are among the many alternate versions of Jason and Daniela hinted at in Crouch's expansive multiverse?

Crouch's Wayward Pines books took a lot of inspiration from Twin Peaks. If any TV series inspired this latest book of his, I bet it was either Awake or Fringe. Probably both.

Whatever the inspiration may be, it certainly allowed Crouch to pen another wild, intense, unputdownable, world-class sci-fi thriller. And I hear Roland Emmerich's set to direct a film adaptation, which means I'm almost certainly going to love the movie to death just as much as I love this book.

If you don't read Dark Matter before you die, shame on you.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Review: Bad Boy

Bad Boy Bad Boy by Elliot Wake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Lie awake in bed at night
And think about your life
Do you want to be different?
-30 Seconds To Mars, "A Beautiful Lie"

Let's face it. This is the book Elliot Wake was born to write.

It's barely 250 pages, but in those 250 pages, Wake gives us his most psychologically raw and intense material yet. He gives us his best protagonist yet, too, in Renard Grant - a vlogger documenting his gender transition (some of his vlogs form interludes in the story, which consist of transcripts that even include intermittent jump cuts, perfectly capturing the style as is often seen on YouTube, etc.), when he's not lending his services to Black Iris. I'm glad to see Wake isn't at all abandoning the 'verse he created when he wrote as Leah Raeder - in fact, characters from Black Iris and Cam Girl play strong supporting roles here, but this is Ren's standalone story to tell.

And what an eye-popping story. It's not only loaded with issues specific to Ren as a trans man, but also deals heavily in the dark side of social justice. Because, after all, Black Iris carries out social justice in the shadows, and in this line of work, Ren finds himself wondering about everything he sees. Are men always aggressive and women always fragile, or is that merely how society paints them? This, and many other questions, linger in my mind after reading this book, and of course there are no easy answers.

More easily answerable, however, are the questions of who's out to get Ren - because as much as Goodreads would have you believe this book is a romance, they lie. It's a pretty dark thriller, with someone out there orchestrating a massive campaign to drive Ren's raw psyche into the abyss. And it works wonders too. Ren may be a physically tough guy, but emotionally, he's fighting to overcome his gender dysphoria, and that makes him vulnerable to some pretty nasty gaslighting attacks. I won't get into specifics because spoilers, but you're not gonna see most of it coming - and much of it will really tap into the book's thematic question of whether your gender is what you make of it, or what others decide for you.

I'll tell you which part of the book stuck with me the most, though. Perhaps it was the most universal of Ren's experiences, even with his own spin on it as a trans man. At one point, he films a vlog describing, very candidly, his struggles with depression. Going into this, you know it doesn't go up on YouTube, because it's prefaced with "Deleted Vlog," but it still hurts all the more when this is followed by a far more chipper, and very artificially chipper at that, vlog.

Not gonna lie. This was me reading the deleted vlog.

All along, Wake has promised his most visceral, most harrowing novel yet, and for sure, he's delivered. Not only is this my new favorite book of his (sorry, Cam Girl), it's also the first where I want to read another story centering on its protagonist. In other words, a direct sequel. Seriously, as meaty as these 250 words are, I'm dying to see Ren headline more Wake books.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be putting this book into the hands of a character of mine who needs this read. Desperately.

And I'd also like to offer Ren a hug, as paltry as it might be given what he's gone through.

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Review: The Obsidian Chamber

The Obsidian Chamber The Obsidian Chamber by Douglas Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love how the latest Pendergast books have gone for a color scheme not unlike my own Red Rain series, although with the first three colors being in the opposite order from what Preston and Child are doing. The fourth, however, is a black-themed title just like my fourth Red Rain book. After the ending of Crimson Shore, this book, I expected to be the darkest and most horrifying Pendergast yet.

Turns out it was a bit damaged by hype for me, The Obsidian Chamber. It started out wonderfully, reminding me a lot of the early chapters of Two Graves with Proctor giving chase across the world as Diogenes, somehow back from the dead (as we long suspected) having taken Constance and spirited her away. Afterwards, however, more storyline threads - including where the hell Agent Pendergast got around to - cropped up. Sadly, many of these - particularly the Diogenes and Constance storyline, which went for some kind of disturbing Beauty and the Beast, Feyre and Rhysand-type dynamic - tended to clog the plot and keep it from advancing at nearly the same breakneck pace as the early chapters.

That said, though, it's Agent Pendergast, and at least we can confirm very quickly that he is, in fact, still alive. Because unlike Diogenes, Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast must never, never die.

So, overall, The Obsidian Chamber is a pretty serviceable Pendergast thriller, but compared to the intensity of Crimson Shore, and especially the world-class White Fire, it does feel just a bit lacking. I'm not done with this series by a long shot, but I do hope the quality takes an uptick with the next installment.

And that they finally start work on movie adaptations of these books (besides Relic, unless they intend to reboot that one) soon enough.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: Boy Robot

Boy Robot Boy Robot by Simon Curtis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I have this human heart
My mother told me so
She said, 'This shit can go to pieces, boy, be careful...
-OneRepublic, "Lift Me Up"

Enough book bloggers were raving about this book that after months of my library not ordering it, I finally special-ordered it from Sacramento. Worth it.

It's a commanding read, completely unputdownable, even when the story shifts into horrifying violence - which it often does, especially when digging into the backstories of the other Robots besides our protagonist, Isaak. Hell, all the Robots have had some damage inflicted on them in their time, whether physical or psychological (Isaak mostly got the latter himself.) Be warned that there's considerable violence in some of these scenes, up to and including rape.

While the book does suffer from a pretty confusing second half (confusing mostly because of an onslaught of other Robots' nightmares), it's also got a ton of excellent sci-fi world-building, taking inspiration from X-Men, Star Trek, and so much more. Including, unless I miss my guess, Margaret Stohl's Icons. You'll know the Icons reference when you see it, and it threw me for a loop when it showed up because I recently wrote a similar reference in my own book.

At least now I know I've got another potential comp title for queries in Boy Robot, at least in terms of weird science, artificially-engineered "chosen one" protagonists (though mine is at least more inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man than Icons), and diversity of cast.

After that cliffhanger ending, though, I desperately need the sequel.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: The Wall of Storms

The Wall of Storms The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's amazing how Ken Liu was able to first put out his debut last year, then grace us with a collection of short stories (which I haven't read yet) and this brick of a sequel only a year later. Unlike a few other fantasy stalwarts I can name, Liu appears to be quite the workhorse, delivering high-quality reading material in a short amount of time.

I'm not sure if they invented the term "silkpunk" just for Liu's story, but it seems like just as apt a term as any to describe this rich Asian-inspired fantasy. It's mostly based on medieval China, but with hints of Mongolia and Turkey in its DNA. Liu does a masterful job of building this world, though, with long but very engrossing looks at his world's linguistics and philosophy in particular. Not only that, but Liu takes care to ensure that we get to see as many perspectives of the story's events and characters as possible. It's a very intellectual piece of fantasy, this book.

Whenever the third book comes along, I'll be ready and waiting to read it.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: Ghost Story

Ghost Story Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While Changes brought pretty much the highest stakes Harry Dresden ever faced, bouncing back from that book's infamous cliffhanger is a whole other challenge, one to which Harry rises magnificently...even without his powers for a good chunk of this book. It's a bit bigger than any of the previous Dresden Files books, and foreshadows Butcher's days of making his books so big he can barely put one out every two years, and he's become so slow to deliver anything these days...

...but in the meantime, we'll always have his previous books, especially Ghost Story and its supernaturally wall-to-wall awesomeness.

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Review: The Lovely Reckless

The Lovely Reckless The Lovely Reckless by Kami Garcia
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's a little hard to believe that this is from the same author as Beautiful Creatures and the rest of the Caster Chronicles 'verse, and the still-unfinished Legion trilogy. It's a little something completely different for Kami Garcia, and it carries a similar "I want to keep going" addictive prose...but unfortunately, it fails to deliver characters I can care about to go along for the ride. I'm at a loss to see what possessed Garcia to write such a hackneyed story that checks off all the "edgy YA contemporary" boxes, particularly the dreaded "bad boy" trope. Unless perhaps it was to beat Maggie Stiefvater to writing an auto-racing-themed YA book and make Stiefvater gnash her teeth furiously over it?

Seriously, I hope this detour into the "real world" is only temporary, because I know Garcia can score well in paranormal fiction, and she still has to finish the Legion trilogy, doesn't she? For now, though, I'm DNFing this book after about 75 pages.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: Hellfighters

Hellfighters Hellfighters by Alexander Gordon Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book in Alexander Gordon Smith's devilish little trilogy got off to a pretty good start, but the sequel improves on its predecessor so very much. While the first book was brought down a bit for me by the romantic elements not eliciting so much interest, this book is all action, all the time. It's a rip-roaring, pure-hellfire adrenaline rush on the level of Fury Road, with the usual Darren Shan-esque levels of horror we've come to expect from Smith - something very much needed while we're all waiting for Shan to serve us his next scary vision.

One more book left in the trilogy, which I'm dying to read now after this diabolical cliffhanger...

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Review: The Diabolic

The Diabolic The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have something a little different from S.J. Kincaid - another futuristic sci-fi tale, but with a bit of a fantasy twist, centering on imperial court dealings and backstabbings in a space-opera setting. It's not as quick and easy to get into as Insignia and its sequels, but The Diabolic does live up to the Kincaid hype with its compelling lead character, the titular engineered assassin, and the pulse-pounding action and suspense all throughout the whole book, even when we're focusing on upper-class people doing upper-class things.

I believe I saw another reviewer - Joey from Thoughts and Afterthoughts, I think - say that The Diabolic feels like an entire trilogy in a one-book package. I think he might be right. Up to page 170 or so, it feels like there's one story going on, then it kicks into a higher gear for the next 100 pages, and finally, the conclusion.

That said, though, I really hope there's a second or even a third book at some point, because I trust Kincaid to always keep things interesting with all the stories.

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Rogue One: The Dark Side Of The Rebellion


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Ever wonder how, exactly, the Alliance was able to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia uploaded into R2-D2, thus setting in motion the events of A New Hope?

Now you have your answer, and it's a surprisingly dark, gritty answer.

Welcome, Rebels, to the first Star Wars Anthology movie: Rogue One.

"I am one with the Force, the Force is with me."

The title alone has so many meanings - referring to the Rebel callsigns used in The Empire Strikes Back, and also to the first canonical usage of a "Rogue" callsign in this movie, on its climactic final mission - the very mission to steal the Death Star plans. It also refers to how different this one is from all previous Star Wars movies. Not only in a few superficial details - most notably, the lack of an opening crawl, the lack of a lightsaber-wielding and/or Force-using main character, Michael Giacchino lending his signature style to the score as he updates the time-honored John Williams themes, an intro sequence taking place years before the movie's main action...and, as mentioned above, a dark, gritty tone not matched by any previous film in the series, except perhaps Revenge of the Sith or The Force Awakens.

From the beginning, Rogue One promises the viewer something completely different, showing us a look at the childhood of new heroine Jyn Erso (wonderfully played by Felicity Jones, aka Felicia Hardy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.) When she was young, her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen in a rare non-villainous role), was taken away by Imperial science officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), and she also witnessed her mother dying trying to protect her husband - though not without getting off a shot that winged Krennic's shoulder.

Years later, Galen Erso has helped the Empire build their ultimate weapon, the Death Star, which is now nearing completion. However, Galen has plans to bring it down, using a backdoor he built into the system, like all good little engineers and/or programmers. The trouble is how to get the word out to the Rebels. So he sends an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to the planet of Jedha, where he hopes to meet Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), a man so rebellious, even the Alliance disowns him. That's when the Alliance, after picking up Jyn from an Imperial concentration camp, send her along with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk in a wonderful, and wonderfully humorous, motion-capture performance) to Jedha to make contact with Gerrera themselves. There, they lay waste to some hapless Stormtroopers, and also make a couple of new friends in not only Bodhi, but also two local warrior types: the devoutly religious blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his buddy with the big-ass gun, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

Jyn hears a message from her father telling her where to find him, and also where to find the Death Star plans. And that's when the Death Star arrives, under orders from Krennic and from Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing's face is CGI-ed onto a body double, and his voice replicated equally digitally) to test the weapon on the planet. This is when we learn that the Death Star actually has a less powerful setting than the instant destruction we saw with Alderaan - they can launch a shot that doesn't destroy the entire planet, but sets off a massive nuclear-looking explosion all the same, which leads to one of the movie's most intense set pieces as a slow-moving cloud of destruction shakes the place to pieces. It strongly resembles the Yellowstone eruption in 2012.

In fact, Rogue One benefits a lot from being a more modern creation than the original trilogy to which it's closely linked. Even more so than The Force Awakens, its visual style tends to harken back to the old days, with a lot of Star Destroyers that look like Lego models - not that that's a bad thing. But there's a lot of modern-day CGI work as well. Some of it doesn't work - like, say, this weird tentacle monster thing that Saw Gerrera uses as a biological torture device (it reminds me of the ugly tentacles and beak they unnecessarily added to the Sarlacc pit in the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, or those god-awful Rathtars from The Force Awakens), or Tarkin's 1977-Peter-Cushing face, which looks like they pulled it from a video game and is painfully distracting every time he appears on screen. But then there's the aforementioned test of the Death Star, as well as the combat scenes - especially the big one at the film's climax. The latter allows us to actually see one of those impenetrable energy shields for the first time, and to see what happens when a Rebel X-wing collides with it. Even Independence Day beat the Star Wars franchise to showing that on screen. And also, in that final battle, we get the most glorious shot of Star Destroyer destruction ever put to film. You'll know it when you see it.

On a story front, Rogue One is aggressively different from the rest of Star Wars because of its far less clear-cut divisions between heroes and villains. Obviously, we're supposed to root for the Rebels - they win the day in two of the next three movies chronologically anyway. But here, we get a look at some of the Rebels who are a little less virtuous than Luke, Leia, or even Han Solo. Some of these Rebels are ready and willing to kill anyone who stands in their way, even if they may be helpful to their cause. Some are unconvinced of the strength of their own cause, and come across a bit cowardly as a result. And on the Imperial side, well, there's a lot of internal strife, particularly with Krennic and Tarkin's power plays against each other, and also with Galen Erso, who's working with the Empire only under duress.

The Rebels may not be perfect, but the ragtag band that leads the Rogue One mission proves to be the most heroic of them all in this movie. Everyone has their own reasons to fight, all of them pretty disparate, but they band together anyway for the greater good. And they liven the movie up with surgically-precise humor, especially Kay, the droid, an instant favorite for me and my friends (especially my robot-loving best friend). Also Baze for basically being Drax the Destroyer minus the terminal literal-mindedness, Bodhi for being a bit of a jittery geek and a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, and Chirrut, who gets one of the best lines in the movie when Gerrera's forces bag everyone's heads, and he deadpans, "Are you kidding me? I'm blind!" Even Darth Vader gets in on the humorous action, if you can believe that, with a one-liner so lame it's awesome. (No, I will not spoil it.) But beware - all that humor belies an emotional sucker-punch of an ending, an ending that puts this movie squarely in Amazing Spider-Man and Big Hero 6 territory with its full-spectrum feels.

No spoilers, of course.

Rogue One continues the Star Wars franchise's huge comeback with an always-compelling, and extremely thought-provoking, narrative. Though marred at times by spotty, even glaringly bad, CGI, this A-grade movie is an absolute must-see in theaters.

May the Force be with you, Pinecones.

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first attempt at reading a Justine Larbalestier book, Razorhurst, didn't really impress me...but My Sister Rosa is truly something else.

Much of the story centers on Che, who fulfills a fish-out-of-water protagonist role as an Aussie freshly moved to New York. Right away, he starts trying to make friends (though he continues to text his old friends back home in Sydney), and soon finds himself part of a very diverse social circle, making friends of all stripes, and even working up the courage to romance Sojourner, the beautiful girl who works out at the boxing gym he discovers.

It's a nice little story...but there's just a little something off about it. That something off is the title character, who falls firmly in the uncanny valley (it's even discussed among Che's new friends while they get high) with her personality and affect. She's a cute little genius, but feels just artificial, and possibly psychopathic, enough to be creepy. It certainly doesn't help that she tends to lurk around the periphery while Che tries to have his own life rather than be her surrogate parent while their real parents are off doing what my own little sister would call "businessy stuff." (Think Confessions of a Murder Suspect, but far less "1% of the 1%" in its wealth and opulence.) And that she treats everything like some kind of experiment, especially of the social kind (it's hinted that she can get into people's heads and make them do violent things) and of the psychological kind (I shouldn't have been eating chips while reading this book - the part where Rosa sits in to watch Che sleep, and witnesses him having a wet dream, AND appears to know exactly what happened, made me gag and almost spit half-eaten fried potato bits all over the book.)

Between this and Razorhurst, Larbalestier is definitely one of the more unique and experimental YA authors out there. But for My Sister Rosa, Larbalestier absolutely wins all the points for crafting what must be the most psychologically bloody disgusting YA book of the year, and making me not want to stop reading it. Though, of course, Rosa and her creepiness aren't all the story is about. Che's new social circle brings up tons of social commentary, including arguments on race relations and gender roles and non-traditional applications of Christian messages. Then there's Che himself, who proves a very relatable teenage protagonist - realistically average-looking, though plagued with acne; frequently preoccupied with sex and frustrated by his continued virginity; always seeking independence - and a touch of rebellion, as he does in his boxing. I liked how that was included in the story, because boxing is something I'd convince my own teenage self to take up if I could, and I write it a lot into my own books as part of my ongoing writing-as-therapy process.

And, lest we forget, the plot twists - which, particularly in the last fifty pages or so, fly thick and fast and even wreck my feels.

Though I was a little wary of trying other Larbalestier books after Razorhurst, I'm rethinking that after reading this book. I'll have to look into ordering anything and everything else she's published at the library, as soon as possible.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Heartless

Heartless Heartless by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If this is well and truly a standalone book, that's a crying shame.

In Heartless, Marissa Meyer does another retelling, something completely different from the sci-fi future of The Lunar Chronicles - a lovely little origin story for the Queen of Hearts, with additional influence from Poe's Raven for good measure. It's a dark, twisted tale of love and heartbreak and a king who just doesn't understand when his feelings are unrequited, because the real ship of the story is between young Cath, who wants to open a bakery rather than be a queen, and Jest, the wonderfully enigmatic Joker of the court.

Meyer may have delivered a story of truly epic size and scope in The Lunar Chronicles, but here in Heartless, even if only for one book, she gives us more of a taste of the incredible breadth of her imagination. Truly, in Wonderland, nothing is as it seems, and with every page, darkness piles over this fanciful tale and turns the reader's hopes (if not expectations) completely upside down.

I reiterate - if this story doesn't continue, I'll be sorely disappointed.

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: The Sound of Seas

The Sound of Seas The Sound of Seas by Gillian Anderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm sorry to report that while the first two books in Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin's trilogy managed to deliver surprisingly good adventures, the finale caps things off in a slipshod, disjointed fashion. It splits its story too many ways to count, doesn't focus enough on the main plot with Anderson's obvious Author Avatar Caitlin O'Hara (I hear she narrates the audiobooks too, of course), and overall feels like it's throwing up too much information to keep track of for its barely 300-page length.

Such a shame. Anderson and Rovin had a great idea, only for it to go off the rails in the home stretch. Don't quit your day job, Agent Scully.

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Review: Wax

Wax Wax by Gina Damico
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gina Damico is a go-to source of kooky YA horror-comedy fun, and her latest, Wax, is no exception.

While the book does suffer from a long and muddled beginning (particularly in terms of protagonist Poppy's backstory, which feels a little more convoluted than it should be), Damico gamely delivers on atmosphere to keep the reader interested. Naturally, said atmosphere is poisoned by the stench of overly scented candles, this book being set in a small Vermont town famous for the production of scented candles.

But when the story threads start to unravel, with that candle factory at the center of it all, that's when the story really starts to shine. Even more so than any of Damico's previous works, Wax proves incredibly original in its thrills and chills, because I'm pretty sure the closest I ever saw to a story with living wax people was a classic Scooby-Doo episode, and of course the monsters there are always bad guys in masks. Not so in the waxily-named town of Paraffin, Vermont.

Also, I have to say, I thought the story thread of Poppy and the wax boy known as Dud was pretty adorable. It made me think of a genderswapped Weird Science - a girl at the center of the adventure, and an artificially alive boy. (And hey, the slow process of teaching Dud to act like a human? Surprisingly sweet.)

One more thing, though - don't read the dust jacket before starting this book. Go into it blindly. That's my recommendation.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Rebel Spring

Rebel Spring Rebel Spring by Morgan Rhodes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another Falling Kingdoms book for the list. Like its predecessor, Rebel Spring is loaded for bear with high-fantasy magic and court politics and the occasional ultraviolence - some of which stem from rebel activity. I only wish there was more of that rebel activity - in the first book, I thought the biggest flaw was not enough focus on Jonas, and that problem continues for me in Book 2. Though there's more of Jonas and his perspective, it still feels like the royal shenanigans take precedence. Especially the king's plan to force a royal wedding for Magnus and Cleo, with more than a few shades of Katniss and Peeta, and Magnus' creepy ongoing attraction to Lucia (which reminded me of the WestAllen ship on the DCTV version of The Flash, because adoptive siblings, but worse because it's so clear Lucia doesn't return his feelings at all.)

That said, though, even if the story's priorities aren't what I'd like to see, it does move pretty quickly, and never fails to enthrall. Even when there's tons of drinking involved when, frankly, I'm more interested in when the bloody action happens.

I think there are three more books in this series so far? Hopefully those will be just as enjoyable for me going forward.

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