Friday, July 29, 2016

Review: A Drop of Night

A Drop of Night A Drop of Night by Stefan Bachmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A girl with a pen and a dream recommended this book to me.

Sierra...thank you so much.

At first, I went into A Drop of Night thinking, oh no, a bunch of rich kids of various levels of spoiled packing off and going to Europe for some kind of corporate-sponsored archaeological dig? Do tell me, what could go wrong?

The answer: everything.

Anouk, along with everyone else in her party, winds up trapped in a truly steroid-enhanced clockpunk house of horrors hidden deep underground just outside of Paris. The place dates back to the French Revolution, and it's got a pretty bloody history even before one takes into account the presence of so many tons of lethal booby traps at every turn.

The storyline feels a tad bit predictable at times, but aside from that, Bachmann's got the gift of unending high-octane action - and high-octane nightmare fuel. He sure knows how to weave this love child of Indiana Jones and Scooby-Doo.

I look forward to any and all future books by this author - including any further adventures in store for Anouk, if any.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: More Than This

More Than This More Than This by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third Patrick Ness book I've read in a row thanks to Adam Silvera's glowing recommendation of the man's work. I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go and wasn't so jazzed with The Rest of Us Just Live Here, but this book is much closer to Knife in terms of style, so I ended my Ness mini-binge on a high note.

Now I know why Silvera's a fan - I bet this book, in particular, was a huge inspiration for More Happy Than Not. Like Silvera's debut, More Than This essentially gets five stars for feels alone, as well as for its twisting sci-fi/fantasy plot that never stops throwing up new details to throw the reader off, not even when it comes to an end.

The details of this book, however, must not be spoiled for any new readers. Seriously, this book has to be seen (and gone into blindly) to be believed.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lights Out: Moody, Self-Aware Scares

"If Mommy's crazy, does that mean we're crazy too?"
-Martin, Lights Out

***Some spoilers, but none for anything beyond the movie's prologue.***

In order to properly set the mood for this movie review, I'm going to first share the two-and-a-half-minute short from which it originated. 

Sufficiently scared yet, my dear Pinecones? Let us press on.

What you see in the short film above translates quite smoothly into the opening sequence of the feature-length version now hitting theaters, but with a few changes to reflect the feature-length version's better budget (though it's still a relatively low budget at only $5M.) Instead of being set in an apartment with one woman all alone, it's set in a textile factory, with a woman (played by the same actress as in the short) experimentally flicking the lights on and off as she sees a shadowy figure that only appears when the lights are out. Also in the scene is a man named Paul, played by Billy Burke of Revolution fame (and currently starring in CBS's Zoo). He's looking at files pertaining to a place called "Mulberry Hill, California," and there are a few mannequins in and around his office that aren't creepy at all. And he's Face-Timing with his son Martin (Gabriel Bateman, who reminds me so much of the kid from Jurassic Park), who's wondering why he doesn't come home, and is worried as hell because Mom's acting strange...again. Then Paul gets swept up in something strange when the woman tells him she saw something scary. Paul tells her to go home, while he stays where he is and soon winds up in a merry chase with this creature of the dark. Said chase turns deadly when the creature lashes out, bloodying him up really good, and he learns the hard way that somehow, the creature can make the lights go out so it can stalk him more efficiently. Next thing you know, he's left as a horribly broken corpse on the factory floor...

...wait, they killed off Billy Burke in less than ten minutes? That's how you know how serious this movie's monster is.

In the wake of Paul's death, his family is left in disarray. His wife, Sophie (Maria Bello, Touch) is clinically depressed, among other mental illnesses, and even when Martin repeatedly asks if she's taken her "vitamins," it's clear she hasn't, because she keeps talking to herself - or, more accurately, to an imaginary friend known only as "Diana." Meanwhile, Sophie's twentysomething daughter from a previous marriage, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, whom you might remember from The Sorcerer's Apprentice or I Am Number Four), is living on her own, away from the mess at home, and getting into amusing situations with her boyfriend Bret (relative newcomer Alexander diPersia - my research has only unearthed a string of bit parts on his IMDb bio), who wants to be able to leave a pair of jeans at her place but hasn't quite earned that right yet, not even after eight months.

Sophie's grown worse since Paul died, going off her meds. And as for Martin, he's starting to see the same monster that took his father's life, and it's scaring him to death - to the point where he keeps falling asleep in class because he can't sleep at night. Rebecca goes to school (with Bret in tow, as he's the driver) to pick Martin up after the third such incident in a week, and there she meets a Child Protective Services caseworker who's now set to investigate Martin's home life. Rebecca's told to take Martin home, but when she sees how unstrung Sophie's become, she decides to take it upon herself to get Martin out - and he's such a smart little cookie that he packs his bags before she can even ask him to do so.

Then reality ensues when the CPS lady points out that it's not so simple for Rebecca to just take Martin away - she would have to petition for guardianship, sue Sophie for negligence, and prove that she can provide a fit home in which to raise the kid. (Her apartment's full of scary posters depicting horror-comic-type characters and punk and metal bands, which I think are the CPS lady's primary concern about Rebecca's living space.) Not to mention, Bret accuses Rebecca of doing this not so much for Martin's sake so much as to hurt the already-vulnerable Sophie, with whom she's got considerable bad blood for having run away at the first opportunity. Sophie may be sick, but she's determined to raise Martin herself all the same.

But first, she and everyone else around her will have to deal with the creepy monster that keeps following them all around. Not only has it been stalking Sophie's place way up in the hills, but it makes trips into the city to haunt Rebecca in her apartment as well. And that's before Rebecca discovers Paul's research, which provides clues to the monster's identity - and makes it clear just how much of an otherworldly threat it really is.

What sets Lights Out from most of the rest of the horror movie pack is how grounded it is. There aren't any easy solutions to the problems posed by this monster, especially not when it's so inextricably linked to the family. Luckily, our heroes are possessed of guts and brains uncommon for this genre, so even when they appear to be on the point of doing something boneheaded, they're able to correct their mistakes as best they can. And it's a very likable cast this movie has - likable and sympathetic. You can't help but feel bad for poor bedeviled Sophie, because she really wants to make things right with her family. Bret and Rebecca make a good couple with their alternative style (not unlike Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain in Mama) and their adorable interactions. And Martin, you just want to scoop him up and hold him pretty much at all times throughout the movie, because he's the little brother you never had. (Or maybe that's just me.)

The story itself doesn't tread territory that's too new, but it at least demonstrates a certain self-awareness of what happens when you find yourself in a big old haunted house (my dad would like to see this movie just for the house, because of its vaguely Craftsman-styled interior). Not to Cabin in the Woods levels, but it knows how to not play most of the standard tropes straight. It finds inventive ways to turn some of the old tropes on their heads, particularly the "imaginary friend" trope, because you wouldn't think it's the mom who has one of those, would you? Also, speaking of the house, you'll notice that it's actually better-lit at night than during the day, because the curtains are often drawn with no lights on - which not only makes it easier for the monster to get around, but helps increase the movie's moody atmosphere.

I will say this much, though...the ending (which I will not spoil) is bittersweet, to say the least. Emphasis on "bitter," really.

Overall, this movie, I give it a B+. Plot-wise, it's not terribly original - and hell, the monster's origin seems to mash up all the past horror movies at once. But it's the character department where the movie truly excels.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I find it very hard to believe that this book was written by the same guy who wrote The Knife of Never Letting Go. Not only because the books have totally different settings and genres - this one being set in the modern day and straddling lines between contemporary YA, magical realism, and paranormal, as opposed to Knife, but The Rest of Us proved impenetrable.

Sure, I get that it's supposed to parody YA paranormal by showing the real-world things happening to real-world people who would otherwise exist in the background of these stories, and hey, points for not tumbling into full-on Pretentious John Green Mode, philosophizing about stuff that teenagers should never philosophize about. (For the most part, the philosophizing that I saw in the first fifty pages I read dealt with love and mental disorders.) But the problem for me is that we're given tiny blurbs at the start of each chapter about what the "indie-kid" heroes (who are all pretty much comical Mary Sues, with their increasingly oddball names and increasingly dramatic issues), and then we see nothing about what "save the world" adventures we're doing. I get that it's done for satirical effect, but it's not making me laugh. Instead, it makes me feel nothing but a sharp disconnect between the cast of real people populating this book and the heroes fighting to save the world behind the scenes. It's so distracting, and it interfered with my reading so badly that I felt forced to DNF the book.

Don't get me wrong, I do get what Ness is going for. I get that he's affectionately poking fun at YA lit tropes. I get that he's giving us characters with real-life dramas and issues that some readers can, no doubt, relate to. The narrator's got OCD, his sister has bulimia, his best friend is gay...and, somehow, seems to have magical powers of his own. That got me really confused - I thought these characters were supposed to be the "normals" in a Night Vale-esque town where the school blowing up in a fight against ghouls or whatever is treated like a more mundane disaster than it really was. So then why is Jared "three quarters Jewish, one quarter God?" I'm still scratching my head over that, largely because, again, I didn't finish this book.

Also, points to Ness for diversity. The aforementioned mental illnesses, Henna being biracial, and Jared's LGBTQ status all qualify. (On the subject of Jared, Mikey casually mentions at one point having "done stuff" with Jared before. This got me thinking about how one of my readers really ships a couple of my characters - one a straight boy, one a bi boy - and how I've considered rewriting the story so that they've had their own history of "doing stuff," and yet the straight boy still identifies as such.)

But again, the disconnect between the "indie kids" and the normal kids proved too much of an obstacle for me in reading The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Not only that, but I feel that in highlighting this disconnect, Ness effectively dehumanizes the "indie kids," implying that even if they do have feelings or dramas or issues, they're not important because their primary responsibility is saving the world. It certainly doesn't help that, because these "indie kids" aren't the primary characters in Ness' book, they're given next to no depth. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Amazing Spider-Man movies, of which I'm huge fans (which is also why I hate the movie Birdman for its contemptuous view of superheroes), take exactly the opposite approach. These characters are humanized because they have personalities and feelings, even if said feelings often have to take a backseat to the action. (Except, for instance, in Civil War, or, again, The Amazing Spider-Man.) Those superhero movies are such big influences on my own writing as a result. I follow their examples when crafting my characters, giving them slice-of-life moments in between the action - and I parody the "chosen one" trope in my own way, deliberately making them artificially engineered chosen ones (among many other Amazing Spider-Man references.)

It may just be my own natural allergy to contemporary YA, and my own belief that speculative fiction is more original and more lifelike, but I feel like I have no choice but to DNF this book for now. At least the contemporary characters in this book weren't people I couldn't care about. It wasn't like a John Green book, where the characters would sacrifice authenticity for an endless intellectual pissing contest. Maybe someday, I'll get back to this story, if only for Mikey's and Jared's and Mel's sakes.

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Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Adam Silvera's recommendations very rarely go wrong, so when he recently fanboyed about Patrick Ness blurbing his next book, I decided it was high time I read some books by Mr. Ness. So I got out three from the library recently - not the whole Chaos Walking Trilogy, but this book and two of his standalones. After reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, though, I think it's safe to say I should have picked out the rest of the trilogy while I was at it.

It's a strange new world, to be sure. Our narrator, twelve-year-old Todd, talks in a weird phonetically-rendered dialect that, combined with the general post-apocalyptic western-type Mad Max setting, reminds me a lot of Moira Young's Blood Red Road. But unlike Young's book, where the dialect flies thick and heavy and comes combined with intentionally nonexistent grammar, Ness keeps things readable, not only because the dialect is still comprehensible to those of us used to something a little more standard, but because the plot keeps on moving at a breakneck pace, with more and more secrets around every corner.

It's also engaging because of the deal with the Noise, the inescapable telepathy of every man in Prentisstown (and Todd, who's still a month or so shy of official manhood - that is, turning thirteen). The author bio on the blurb makes it clear how the Noise represents the information overload of today's society, but there's another metaphor involved as well, one that you have to read the book to really truly discover. Small towns with no secrets? That's the sort of society where dictatorial theocracies would thrive best, and that's essentially what Prentisstown is. The men are controlled by those who would put the fear of God into them, which helps make them some of the most despicable villains in YA fiction by far. (Also, they're among the most despicable because of a certain fan-favorite death that, sadly, got spoiled for me years ago because of how popular this book is.)

For sure, I'll need to pick up the remaining two books of the trilogy ASAP.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Review: The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rick Riordan knows what his readers want - drama worthy of the gods, action-comedy like nobody's business, a smartass narrator, and characters you've just gotta love.

This time, he's delivering something a little different - not a teenage mortal discovering their true calling as a hero, but an age-old god, brought down to normal and forced to slowly overcome his superficial tendencies as he discovers a new unearthly conspiracy to bring down the worlds of humans and gods alike.

Apollo doesn't remember what it was he did to Zeus to make him mad, but whatever it is, it must have been really bad to merit him being cast down into mortal Manhattan in the body of a perfectly unassuming Greek-American teenager. He's been stripped of most of his powers (although his poetic wit remains intact enough to allow him to compose humorous haikus that preface each chapter) and most of his good looks - a lot of the laughs in the early chapters lies in his overreaction to discovering that his mortal-teenager meat suit is plagued with acne scars and flab as opposed to eight-pack abs.

Never let it be said that the gods are perfect, though. After reading the book, it's easy to understand just how much the others in the pantheon have hurt Apollo over the centuries. From him and Artemis not at all seeing eye to eye (I wonder how much of that has to do with her apparently being a "womb-hog"), to various gods getting petty revenge on him by destroying those he's loved, it's no wonder that, when Zeus punishes him now, he's so devastated over what he's become. He's learned by now that other gods have a way of treating him with malicious intent.

I've seen a few people complain that Uncle Rick's a "sellout" now because all his books go back to the classic-mythology well, and he's always writing more and more stories with the same characters he first presented way back in 2005. But I disagree - every new Riordan series brings something different, some fresh new spin on the formula. The Trials of Apollo brings perhaps the freshest spin yet, putting us in the mind of a god - even if he narrates uncannily like Percy or Magnus would (though with more juvenile and/or groan-worthy jokes because he's a dad, so he's free to make dad jokes like there's no tomorrow.)

Flawed Apollo may be, but because he doesn't lose his sense of humor, he's still quite engaging. It helps, of course, that he's surrounded by a game supporting cast, including new young demigod Meg, Percy Jackson himself (who helps get Apollo and Meg to Camp Half-Blood and gets infected by a plague demon for his trouble), the two halves of the popular Solangelo ship (I didn't feel much chemistry between them when they were introduced as a couple in The Blood of Olympus, but now they've been together long enough to show how well they work as a couple), a deadly new villain who's indicated to be responsible for the rises of Kronos and Gaea both, and right at the end, a returning favorite of mine who, I feel, really got the shaft at the end of Heroes of Olympus.

For sure, I'll be reading the rest of this series eagerly - especially now that that old favorite of mine has come back at last.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: Wink Poppy Midnight

Wink Poppy Midnight Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Maybe it would have helped if I didn't somehow lure myself into thinking this book was fantasy, instead of some kind of contemporary...magical realism...surrealist...thing. As it happens, however, genre-busting is not to the benefit of Wink Poppy Midnight, especially not when one of the genres the book throws in is surrealism. As a result, the book, while bite-sized, is extremely difficult to follow. The nigh-indistinguishable triple POV's don't help either.

Surrealism, I think, works better in a visual medium, like TV. Hannibal, while plagued with a tendency to lapse into impenetrable navel-gazing, at least had gloriously dark visuals to keep the viewer engaged. Same goes for the compulsively watchable Mr. Robot and its often drug-addled stories that go nowhere fast.

Frankly, I couldn't make much sense of who's who and what's she between the three title characters (those were really their names?), if at all. From what I gathered, Midnight was the center of the story, a boy endlessly examining his self-worth relative to those around him, like his brother Alabama. Wink, however, mostly fades into the background and makes little to no impact, and Poppy wavers unnervingly between popular girl and Gone Girl.

But I'm pretty damn sure I'm wrong.

I really should have known better than to try and look at this book in the aisle at Target today. I thought I learned from We All Looked Up that even if a book is remotely genre, if it's on the shelf near the John Green books, it's a "Must Avoid." Once again, I've made the mistake of reading a book from the contemporary section - although this book is about as un-contemporary as contemporary YA can get. And not in a good way like More Happy Than Not. Speaking of which, Adam Silvera recently said something on Twitter about reading this book - the main reason why I picked it up, I think. Sorry, Silvera, but this time, your recommendation has failed me.

I'll think twice before picking up another book by this author.

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Review: Shades of Earth

Shades of Earth Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final book in the Across the Universe trilogy gets into some seriously different territory. No longer are Amy, Elder, and their comrades forced to survive on a wayward spaceship. Instead, they're finally going down to Centauri-Earth and finding it every bit as lethal as you can expect, populated as it is with toxic plants and deadly pterodactyl creatures. And that's just the beginning. There's some kind of sentient creature out there, also extremely murderous, and it's prompting some seriously extreme responses from the humans - especially Amy's dad.

Romance largely takes a backseat (other than a few key scenes with Amy and Elder further exploring their physical relationship) to the action, particularly in the last white-knuckle hundred pages. One major supporting character dies, and another one soon appears to bite the dust in a huge sacrifice - but thank God the latter actually lives, because otherwise the book would end on a tragic note, not the more hopeful (though still bittersweet) one we get.

Ave atque vale, Across the Universe.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: A Million Suns

A Million Suns A Million Suns by Beth Revis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Across the Universe definitely held back a few answers to its many questions, which is only for the better as far as its sequel is concerned. A Million Suns, unlike its predecessor, doesn't take its sweet time getting started. From the get-go, we're plunged into a world of moves and countermoves that could make President Snow take notice. (Funnily enough, I'm saying this while watching a House episode guest-starring Beetee himself, Jeffrey Wright, but that's neither here nor there...)

At times, there are some spots where the story stalls, usually those when the power plays take a backseat to the budding relationship between Elder and Amy. I wasn't feeling their chemistry much in the first book, but A Million Suns improves on that - although I still feel like Amy isn't as into it as Elder. I feel more chemistry on Elder's end, and also a lot of sympathy for how clueless he can be sometimes (especially since, when it comes to romance, I'm extremely clueless myself.) I'd like to put it down to him having been raised by the tyrannical idiot Eldest, which means he still doesn't quite know how to be human. Especially in terms of love. Isolation will kill your heart, people. And so will Phydus, to which a fair few people on board Godspeed seem to be addicted, to the point where they're desperate to get it back after Elder does away with it.

The ending of this book, however, perfectly validates my rediscovery of this series, and also sets up a completely different kind of story in Shades of Earth. I'm looking forward to that one even more now, because of how promising it looks.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: Across the Universe

Across the Universe Across the Universe by Beth Revis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading this one for the second time after giving up on it in March. The second read improved it, but not as much as I would have hoped. The first half of the book still suffers from a slow plot, seemingly full of dead ends, but then it becomes clear that there is more to this story and its weird sort-of murder mystery and the creepy-ass Season and creepy-ass Eldest. And Elder, who still creeps me out to an extent, mostly because I hear his name, I see what Eldest is, and I suspect that he really is an old soul, in love with a teenage wrong.

The second half of the story, at least, dials up the action and answers a lot of questions - though not all of them, because there are two more books to go. At least this time, I actually finished the book, right? :)

I'm hoping that I'll get a little more improvement out of Books 2 and 3, though. And at least I can see a lot more promise in Revis' upcoming A World Without You.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Review: United as One

United as One United as One by Pittacus Lore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's finally here.

The glorious end of the Lorien Legacies.

And holy bloodydamn goryhell, how far this series has come from its beginnings in I Am Number Four. More than any of its predecessors, United As One is dark and intense and unremitting in its pulse-pounding action. It's the Mockingjay or Deathly Hallows of this series, by which point it's all-out war, and everyone's out for blood.

Including our heroes. Including our perennial Boy Scout, John. Now he knows how Marina feels, having lost his first love forever, and like many of us poor fans, he's not recovered. He's permanently damaged by this, more than any physical battle scar he'll ever get.

Meanwhile, there are ever more human Garde popping up all over the planet - most of them teenagers, of course. One has to wonder, why teenagers? Because, as some of our favorite Garde come to suspect over the course of this harrowing final novel, perhaps the last of the Loric species won't be enough to stop Setrakus Ra (come on, you didn't think that Satanic piece of shit was really dead at the end of Book 6, did you?)

And if the remaining Loric Garde aren't enough, well, that's what the new human Garde are for. They could form the next generation of the resistance if the Loric fail - and that's what really sells this book, because the darkness is so thick that eventually you start to doubt that there'll be a happy ending.

No spoilers, though.

If you're like me, you won't be able to put this book down. I read the entire thing in one sitting, it was that amazing. As I said before, this one really ramps the action up to an all-time high, and employs the series' signature move of jumping to the other POV (this one, for the first time since Book 2, contains only two POVs, John and Six) and leaving the previous chapter on a nasty cliffhanger to perhaps its greatest effect since at least The Fall of Five.

I'm convinced that this book is going to be one of my end-of-year Top 5 winners at the Second Annual Pinecone Awards, certainly beating out such contenders as The Inquisition, Morning Star, Glass Sword, and even Lady Midnight. Perhaps it'll even top the list, although Marie Lu's Midnight Star won't make it easy.

Ave atque vale, Lorien Legacies. And to Hollywood, I say only this - it's a crime that only the first book got a much-deserved (and criminally underrated) movie adaptation. A rebooted movie series is in order, desperately. And may that reboot be every bit as stylish and killer-cool and pitch-perfect as, say, The Amazing Spider-Man or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Review: Zero Hour

Zero Hour Zero Hour by Pittacus Lore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perfect timing - I got this one at the library almost at the same time that they acquired extra copies of United As One, so I was able to get myself properly prepared for the Lorien Legacies' Grand Finale.

The first story in this collection is told by Dani, one of the newly Garde-empowered humans featured in the brand-new final book, and details her initial flight from New York in the wake of the Mog attack. Then she meets John and Sam and gets to take part in the fight for real. Narration-wise, she's not unlike Six - a sassy, strong-willed young woman, but with even more of a sense of humor. (The part where she asks Sam whether or not he and John are a couple was especially funny, because she basically tweaked the noses of however many John/Sam shippers there may be. And I'm sure there exist some.)

Malcolm narrates the second story, which is the most important one before the final book because it introduces a few of the military-industrial complex-type characters with whom the Garde must coordinate their final assaults against the Mogs.

The third, unusually, is split into three parts, each with its own Mog narrator hunting the Garde - human and Loric alike. One of them dies, one of them is a budding traitor to the Beloved Leader like Adamus, and one is one of Setrakus Ra's top dogs, who proves to be quite the menace in the final book.

Thank God I special-ordered this one when I did - my library still doesn't have most of these Lost Files compilations, for whatever reason. And what better way to follow it up than by reading through United As One? My review for that one is coming up in just a few minutes.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Review: The Games

The Games The Games by James Patterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four years ago, Patterson put out a Private novel centered around the London Olympics. Now I'm thinking Private Games was the first in a pattern, and that there will be more Olympic-themed Private books every four years.

Based on the example of Private Games and this book with the oddly similar title (I'm a little mystified as to why they changed it from Private Rio), Patterson's right on point with the timely Olympic-themed terrorist-thriller plots. This book may return to the same basic theme as Private Games, but it puts forth its own unique twists, dipping into Rio's unique culture - a mix of beautiful beaches and favelas with their own social systems - and adding a bioterror element that seems more than a little on the nose in the wake of the Zika virus epidemic. (The virus in this book, however, is less Zika and more Ebola, and unusually deadly too because of its multi-headed nature, hence the name "Hydra.") The bioterror is only a small part of a deadly plot to expose rampant corruption in Rio, with the criminals drawing some noticeable parallels to Ancient Rome. As a result, unusually for a Patterson book, you actually want to root for the bad guys, if only a little.

Maybe it's a little far-fetched that every single Olympics will be targeted by terrorists without fail, but if they are, we can trust the Jack Morgans of the world to take care of business.

If the pattern holds, we can expect to see the release of Private Tokyo in 2020. For sure, I'll be eagerly awaiting that book.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Red Rain: Goodbye Dani, Hello Gideon

When I wrote the first draft of Red Rain, I ended it by committing a pretty serious writing foul - I gave in to my fans and their shippers' demands. At the time, the most popular ship among my Wattpad and Goodreads fanbase (this was back when I put my stories on GR as well, although I've long since taken those atrocious early drafts down) was Danex - that is, Dani Cabrera and Alex Snow. So I gave the fans what they wanted by pairing these young angels first. After writing about ten chapters of Blue Monday, I decided that the chemistry between Dani and Alex was sorely lacking, and I wasn't feeling it. So I took a break from Blue Monday. When I came back to that first draft, I also went into Red Rain and changed its ending so Alex would get together instead with Rachel (who's since been renamed Juliet), and I paired Dani with Luca, who's established from the get-go to have a huge crush on her.

And yet, I still wasn't satisfied with the chemistry I was cooking up for Dani and Luca. First and foremost, the way I put them together at the end of Red Rain is, frankly, awful, because I've shoehorned them together and passed it off as Alex playing matchmaker in-universe. Even when looking at their improved, more seasoned relationship dynamic in Blue Monday, something about Dani and Luca being together still bothered me. This only increased when I changed Dani's appearance to match not so much Shailene Woodley playing MJ Watson (which is what you can still see in the drafts published on Wattpad) as Shailene Woodley playing Tris Prior in Insurgent. Especially with the super-short hair, which Woodley wore very well in that movie, IMHO. It suits her, just like it suits Dani and makes her look more beautiful. Luca agreed with me, too. ;)

But making Dani more androgynous opened up another line of thoughts in my head. Is she a girl, a cisgender female? Or is she something else? For a while, I considered the possibility of her having a non-binary gender identity. One of my best friends has a few connections within this community - a number of her Twitter friends, I've noticed, publicly identify as agender, prefer "they" pronouns, etc. I considered asking her to help introduce me to these friends of hers so I could ask them research questions, but ultimately this never happened.

I think the main reason for that was because I found another alternative that, in my brain, suited Dani's identity much better.

Last year, one of my favorite authors came out as transgender. Since then, Zac Brewer has made a few videos talking about his transition process (among other important news), which I've watched with interest. You can watch one of those videos below. (grab some popcorn if you wanna watch the whole thing, it's over half an hour long!)

More recently, I got into the works of Laura Lam, and after following her on Twitter, I eventually discovered - through one of her retweets, as I remember - the profile of trans author Elliot Wake. If you don't follow him on Twitter or Instagram, you should - he's quite the character.

Looking into these accounts of trans life made me realize the truth about my character, the one who was the original Red Rain protagonist, the one who divided opinions most sharply.

Dani Cabrera is transgender too.

And, starting today, I'm finally making the much-needed edits to Red Rain to incorporate this storyline after so many months of it percolating in my head. These edits will have a massive snowball effect on the sequels, to the point where I'll need to severely edit those as well very soon, especially if I plan to put the first draft of the fourth and final novel in the series, Black Mirror, on Wattpad. For one thing, the Luca/Dani ship will be no more, because both of them prefer girls and after the end of Red Rain, Dani will no longer identify as a girl. He'll begin transitioning, changing his pronouns to match, and he'll also change his name to Gideon Cabrera. (For most of Red Rain, however, he'll continue to use his original name and pronouns, until he publicly comes out near the end of the book.) He'll continue to have POV chapters in Blue Monday, but with far less focus on his love life and far more focus on the positive impact of his transition. I'm also considering writing a novella set between Red Rain and Blue Monday in which Gideon details his transition more greatly, but that's just a glimmer in my mind yet, and I won't be able to write it without further research anyway.

Gideon's gender identity will also form an essential part of his story, with his mother's refusal to accept him for who he is (and his frustration at being forced to live as a girl) helping provide the impetus for him running away to Heaven. At first, he'll be afraid that, in a conservative angel culture, he'll be shunned and bullied for daring to live as a trans boy. But Gideon goes to school in a town on the border between Heaven and Hell, and he lives in the Bay Area, which in Heaven is every bit as LGBT-friendly as its Earthen counterpart. He'll have no problem being accepted by his peers - and his father, who's much less devoutly religious than his (estranged) wife, will support him wholeheartedly.

As for Gideon's mother, Leah Cabrera (who's already universally loathed by my readers, and for good reason), her politically-incorrect treatment of Gabe in Blue Monday (where she refuses to refer to him as anything but "[Alex's] boy-fucking brother") will take on a whole new dimension now. Her anti-LGBT bigotry will be fueled by not only her conservative mindset, but also her own visceral rejection of Gideon - whom, when she eventually meets him, she won't even recognize, nor will she acknowledge that he's her child when he tells her to her face who he is.

I'm not trans myself, so the biggest responsibility for me is to ensure that I write Gideon with the utmost respect towards the trans community. That's a job I'm sure I can perform admirably, because for me, it's not just about Gideon's gender identity. At its core, this new story direction is about the freedom of being yourself - and the best version of yourself you can be. Or, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying to yourself, as Elliot Wake might, "This isn't even my final form."

To cap this all off, I'll give you a set of freshly-made Rinmaru avatars to illustrate the change.

Dani Cabrera, pre-transition.

Gideon Cabrera, being himself.

While Dani goes the bleached-blonde route, Gideon wears his hair in its natural color. The subtle skin tone difference is the result of Red Rain taking place in autumn and winter while Blue Monday takes place in spring and early summer. As for the difference in wing size, Dani, having lived on Earth and having been forced to hide her wings, isn't used to flight. Gideon, on the other hand, is free to work out - and that includes building up his wing muscles.

With all that in mind, I'm going forward on this mission, giving Gideon the development he needs.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The Emperor's Revenge

The Emperor's Revenge The Emperor's Revenge by Clive Cussler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best Oregon Files novel since Plague Ship, The Emperor's Revenge is a long, complex, action-packed ride. The beginning, in which we see the stuff of conspiracy theories - did Napoleon really die in exile, or did someone stage it that way? - is classic Cussler, but then we get a veritable metric ton of insanely fast-paced action dotting the Mediterranean and the former Soviet Union. There's even a very welcome crossover appearance by Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala, who cross paths with Juan Cabrillo in Malta while they're investigating the "incident in Lampedusa" from The Pharaoh's Secret.

And, because it's been a while since we had one of the supporting characters in the Corporation get killed, I lose another favorite of mine. How positively Whedonian. :(

But yes, this really is the best Oregon Files book in quite a while, so of course it goes highly recommended.

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review: Beyond the Ice Limit

Beyond the Ice Limit Beyond the Ice Limit by Douglas Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has been a long time coming.

The sequel to The Ice Limit, last seen as a fictional book-within-the-book in one of the Pendergast stories (Still Life With Crows, if I remember correctly), is finally a reality - and as part of Gideon Crew's adventures too!

Without a doubt, Beyond the Ice Limit is one of Gideon Crew's best stories yet, especially given how much the previous installments in the series have all been building up to this one. None of those earlier books, however, can match the alien horrors in store here - a sci-fi horror techno-thriller the likes of which Preston and Child, together, haven't given us in years. Unfortunately, the book is kept out of five-star territory by its tendency to shift the story away from Gideon's mission and highlight something tangentially related in, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico. That got on my nerves a few times because I really just wanted the story to move back to the disgusting gruesomeness of the alien worms spawned by the ever-growing Baobab.

But did I mention the disgusting gruesomeness? Maybe not since Relic have we had such a positively Alien-like story from P&C. Seriously.

I wonder if this is perhaps Gideon Crew's peak of excellence...but of course I hope not. (Though I'm looking forward even more to the next Pendergast book, especially after the Crimson Shore cliffhanger...)

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: Staked

Staked Staked by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't remember how long it's been since I read an Iron Druid Chronicles book - and it doesn't help that this latest entry in the series has, I think, been delayed. (Though not to the degree we've been seeing lately on the Dresden Files - or, really, any Jim Butcher book.) But like all the best urban fantasy series, this here Atticus O'Sullivan adventure was well worth the wait.

The title is pretty much a dead giveaway that vampires will be the primary threat, but they're not the only problem our globetrotting friends have to deal with. Various fae and gods from a number of pantheons (mostly Slavic) pop into the picture as well, further complicating the plot but not at all distracting from the darkly humorous fun. Of course, the best parts of the story were those with Atticus and Oberon. I'm just a sucker for smart - and smartass - dogs, I guess. I certainly love writing one into my own work (though my dog, unlike Oberon, is a silent snarker.)

One more little thing - just as I cracked the book open, after reading the very helpful recap of the previous Iron Druid novels and novellas, my iPod put on a Rush song before the story finally began in Toronto. Coincidence? I don't think so.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: Bluescreen

Bluescreen Bluescreen by Dan Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little something new from Dan Wells? Sci-fi like the Partials sequence, but less apocalyptic? Combining elements of Blade Runner and Dollhouse? Yes, this was a very good idea, and Wells definitely delivered on yet another addicting adventure.

It was nice to see such a diverse cast of characters, all of whom have reasonable competency in each other's languages - but I did have one minor issue with the fact that none of the foreign-language dialogue was italicized like it usually is. Isn't that some grammar rule somewhere?

Well, aside from that, Wells has done a masterful job of keeping the story going at a breakneck pace, so all the props for that. Can't wait for the next Mirador tale!

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: The Crossing

The Crossing The Crossing by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to my parents having recently signed up for Amazon Prime, I've been able to watch Bosch. Now, going into Connelly's latest a few months late to the party, I can only read it while picturing Titus Welliver in the lead role, and hearing that theme song that'll never leave my head ("got a feeling and I can't let go, can't let go, can't let go...") But this has the added benefit of allowing me to sink into a Bosch book like I haven't done in quite a while, and to really get the neo-noir feel all over again. It helps that this is one of the best Bosch stories in years, not to mention one of the best Lincoln Lawyer stories in years. I'm not forgetting this particular team-up between Bosch's two top dogs anytime soon.

Now, I think I need to rewatch the series, just 'cause. And I'm really hoping that they plan to adapt this book's events soon.

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Review: Cross Kill

Cross Kill Cross Kill by James Patterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Patterson wasn't done with Alex Cross' first nemesis just yet.

The first Alex Cross BookShot brings the late Gary Soneji back to torment Cross yet again. This is a Cross who's survived betrayals, the abduction of his entire family, and so much more - and yet, despite Soneji having faded into the background long ago, his specter is back and deadlier than ever.

Just like fellow first BookShot Zoo 2, this novella ends with a serious cliffhanger. Unlike Zoo 2, Cross Kill is part of an ongoing series - which begs the question of just how canon it'll be. Will the next full-length Cross novel pick up where this one left off? Or will this story thread not be picked up until the net Cross BookShot?

As Julie Chen might say, "We'll soon find out."

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Review: Zoo 2

Zoo 2 Zoo 2 by James Patterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The original novel was an excellent standalone thriller, now the inspiration for an underrated, amazing CBS summer series. With the release of this bite-sized novella continuation, the source of the TV series' new storyline about humans getting the same kinds of mutations as the animals is now known. Turns out they're adapting Zoo 2 now, and like the original Zoo, they're going to build on the story considerably, of that I'm sure.

One thing I was definitely NOT expecting, though - the massive cliffhanger right at the end. Does this mean Patterson has plans for more Zoo BookShots - or, even better, a full-length sequel?

If so, I want more.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review: The House of Secrets

The House of Secrets The House of Secrets by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've been kind of losing my faith in Brad Meltzer lately, and after this book, I think it's time I gave up on him for a while. I couldn't get more than 75 pages in without stopping, because for some reason, the book just wasn't cutting it for me. I can't really explain it, but I felt no connection to any of the main characters or any of the goings-on in this book. And it was often really hard to tell what was a flashback and what was supposed to be set in the present day.

Sorry, Meltzer. For me, this book will just be a forgotten footnote.

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Friday, July 1, 2016

Review: False Hearts

False Hearts False Hearts by Laura Lam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"You don't know if it's fear or desire
The danger of a drug that takes you higher..."
-U2, "So Cruel"

"The dream is collapsing."
-Arthur, Inception

Funny that I should read this book today right after I started a new chapter of my own work, a chapter in which the villain is revealed to the reader (and the narrator) as a US Senator - and closet fundamentalist Mormon leader - who owns an entire town in Utah full of people loyal to him and his warped, bigoted mindset.

Laura Lam's latest book reinforced for me why I loathe cults. There is no quicker way to deprive an impressionable person of any agency they may have than to brainwash them. So I always have tons of respect for those, real and fictional, who manage to break away.

Like Taema and Tila, the formerly-conjoined twin protagonists of False Hearts.

This near-future dystopian mystery is accurately compared to both Orphan Black and Inception, two of the most amazing pieces of sci-fi in the history of humanity. From the former, we get one main character going undercover as her sister and delving into the shady goings-on she's wound up stuck in, as well as, of course, a sick, sick cult (Tila's narration mostly contains flashbacks to the twins' time in Mana's Hearth, which made me look forward to them more because I found her disillusionment and desire to escape so very compelling.) From the latter, we get psychoactive drugs that take people into dream worlds as a way to escape the confines of reality - with horrific side effects, naturally.

Lam also lends her own uniquely Continuum-esque take to the book by setting it not in the present day (like Orphan Black or Inception) but in the near future. It's at least fifty years ahead of where we are now, and features a broken-up US (the West Coast is now the nation of Pacifica), a San Francisco Bay full of even more artificial islands and algae farms than ever (something I've long foreseen as well - well, maybe not the algae farms, but the man-made islands for sure), and corporations holding too much power for their own good. Far from the alternate fantasy past of Lam's Pantomime, here she moves in the opposite direction to apply some stellar world-building.

Thank God the second book's already been announced - because, while not leaving the reader prone to violence, this book is easily as addictive as some of the drugs of this deadly, dangerous future.

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