Monday, November 28, 2016

One, The Loneliest Number

Last week, I made the huge, huge mistake of telling a girl I liked her, and she said she was seeing someone else. Embarrassing as hell for both of us. It'll have been a week since that embarrassment tomorrow, Tuesday, and the more I think about it, the more I realize it's just part of an ongoing, increasingly unhappy pattern.

Unfortunately, largely thanks to my parents keeping me back and discouraging me from socializing and/or dating from my teenage years onward (not to mention me being stupid enough to parrot their values, which made me further ostracized because their largely religion-based conservatism is incompatible with Bay Area society in general), I've literally been single all my life. I've never had a girlfriend. I've never even kissed a girl.

So what the hell am I doing writing what that little boy from The Princess Bride would call "kissing books?" Wish fulfillment, partly, along with my heavy use of flight and super speed motifs to represent the freedom I crave. (I promise, though, some of the deadlier stuff that happens in Red Rain, etc. is NOT wish fulfillment. More like a reflection of how I think my parents would treat me getting into relationships in real life.)

As it happens, that girl I tried to ask out (let's code-name her LA - it's where she comes from) bears a certain resemblance to Fionna Lee. Not only are they both half-Asian, but Fionna and LA have similar fashion sense, similar builds, and most importantly, similar personalities. They both have a certain fiery spunk, but can also be quite shy and reserved when they want to be. Of course, the resemblance was totally coincidental - I started writing Fionna almost three years before meeting LA - but it was enough that I actually attempted to use it as a flirting tool.

Yeah, look how well that turned out.

This has simply proven to be the latest, and worst, in a string of heartbreaks for me. Heartbreaks before I've even had a relationship - how fucked up is that?

My main problem is, again, my parents, who not only don't seem to want me dating, but also think I should meet a woman the way they themselves met. Dad made a friend or two, they set him up on a date with the woman who would be my mom, and the rest is history. I've told them countless times that even in my inexperience, I know dating today just doesn't work that way. For proof, I could call up all the times I've so much as attempted to make enough of a friendship with a girl that I could eventually ask her out and call her my girlfriend.

There are way too many of those, so I'll just go with my most recent experiences over the last year or so.

Winter 2016. Met a girl in my Graphic Novel class. Not only did she have great taste in just about everything (other than music - she liked Taylor Swift but not Coldplay, and I'm just the opposite, but I thought we could have potentially made it work), but she was, like me, a lapsed Catholic. Of course, I soon discovered she had a boyfriend. (But hey, she at least got me to listen to the complete Book of Mormon soundtrack. Too fucking funny!)

Spring 2016. Met a girl in my Shakespeare class. You might remember I wrote a poem about her - "Lady Smith." This girl, she was into Attack on Titan, to the point where I went and got a copy of the first book at the library and made it a point of reading it in front of her. I soon found out she had a boyfriend - to whom she's since become engaged. (And after a while, I stopped reading Attack on Titan too.)

Summer 2016. Long and lonely. Didn't get to go out and meet anyone.

Fall 2016...well, that was LA. From her, I'm moving on, slowly but surely. But with a full week of classes left this quarter, it's gonna be awkward af, especially if neither of us addresses the elephant in the room.

It's clear now. I absolutely, positively, undeniably suck at getting the girl. I not only consider it a sign of my ongoing immaturity, because I feel stuck at 17 mentally for so many reasons, but I also feel very bad about the fact that I often find myself wanting to date women just to say I've got a girlfriend, a Netflix viewing partner, a lover...hell, even a one-night stand. I ought to know better than that last one - I've got at least one online peep who speaks from experience when saying that's for no - but I'm also a very thirsty geekboy, desperate to feel like an adult for once in his life.

Again, I'm going back to the "blame my parents" well. Sure, I'm a socially awkward young man, being mildly autistic and all, so my undateability is somewhat on me too. But to my perception, my parents are also quite culpable, because they would have my hyperlexia define me. They've long used it as an excuse to hold me back socially and stunt my emotional growth. I've said before that they want me to be more of a Tobey Maguire Spider-Man than the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man I know I should be, but sometimes, I think they want worse. I think they would have me die alone and depressed, rather than spread my "defective" genes to the next generation. A bit of subtle eugenics that I don't think they're above, frankly. They've made it clear to me that they don't care enough about my mental or emotional health - probably thinking that my disorder makes me a psychological write-off. Why change now?

Okay, now I'm getting into territory I don't really care to tread. My point is, I need to step up my game if I'm ever to so much as date a woman, let alone eventually marry her or have kids with her. I can't just rely on meeting a woman with whom I click well in class, or perhaps at work, or anywhere in the narrow circle I get to exist in on the real-world, terrestrial plane. I can never find a single woman willing to date me this way, so I'll have to turn to the internet, somehow. Whether it's by a dating app, or if I someday wind up together with another writer I've met on Twitter or Wattpad or whatever, who knows?

Honestly, I'm sick of feeling so constantly, crushingly lonely. I play it too safe, and I want out of my claustrophobic shell. (Preferably on a route that takes me to Vancouver - outside this increasingly gone-to-shit country, and where I can potentially work as a TV writer. The Flash better still be in production three, five, even ten years from now!)

For now, I'm just a speedster boy, waiting for his Supergirl.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Review: Chaos Choreography

Chaos Choreography Chaos Choreography by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally, I'm back in the InCryptid world, and more importantly, Verity's back in the driver's seat after two Alex-led books in a row. Not that Alex's books aren't as good, but I did miss Verity, that kick-ass danger dancer - and this book takes that side of her to new heights by having her investigate some paranormal cryptozoological shenanigans on the set of a TV dancing competition, aptly named Dance or Die.

Coming up next, I believe we could be looking at some kind of two-parter: Magic For Nothing and Tricks For Free. Love those punny titles. Until then, I'm happy we had this little piece of fun with Verity and Dominic and, of course, those bloody adorable Aeslin mice, of whom I will never, ever, EVER get enough. Not ever.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Last Seen Leaving

Last Seen Leaving Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book after taking part in a Twitter book chat a few months back with the author.

I was not disappointed.

Going into Last Seen Leaving, I saw quite a few comparisons to Gone Girl, which gave me reservations because I was one of the few who didn't like that book at all. After reading it, I see that the comparisons were pretty spot-on in terms of storyline - girl goes missing, boy who loves her reevaluates their relationship in light of stuff we're only seeing in flashbacks - but Roehrig delivers a far better, more unputdownable, and certainly more relatable story than Gillian Flynn ever did.

A better comparison, for me, would be USA's new series, Eyewitness, with which Last Seen Leaving has a few threads in common. Like a general Nordic-noir vibe (appropriate since Eyewitness is adapted from a Norwegian miniseries), or flawed teenage male leads you can't help but love, especially because of their coming-out stories. Not unlike Eyewitness' Philip, Flynn gave me those protective big-brother feels - which made me an absolute sucker for this story, because I just needed him to come out the other end unscathed, even as he unearthed all manner of potential suspects in his girlfriend January's disappearance and almost-certain murder. So much loathsome classism, political-aspirational bullshit, and victim-blaming going on. (And the part where Flynn finally comes out - while being questioned about January, too, so the police think he's lying or deflecting or something. Um, no.)

It's a hard read, but only because of the visceral reactions it gives you. Especially, for me, the climax, which had a few shades of some of those I've written myself. (I won't say which ones, because - insert River Song voice here - spoilers.)

I have the feeling that after Jeff Davis is done with Teen Wolf and all the other projects he's got in the pipeline, he might want to tackle this story - it's right up his alley. (Oh, and on the subject of Teen Wolf, I'd like to offer my own viewing experiences as proof to debunk Micah's supposition that a guy can't watch that show for the plot.)

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: Black Widow: Red Vengeance

Black Widow: Red Vengeance Black Widow: Red Vengeance by Margaret Stohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few things in the Marvel multiverse that I'm forever salty about. Like the fact that Andrew Garfield isn't playing Spider-Man anymore, but he'll always be Spidey for me, and always my number-one storytelling inspiration. Or the fact that we were introduced to Alexei in Forever Red, only to see him get killed off after only one book. (Yeah, Margaret Stohl, I'm still never forgiving you for that.)

Or the fact that Stohl's Black Widow series is still the closest we've gotten to a Black Widow movie, and that's not even officially happening yet.

Especially after this book, that's the biggest cardinal Marvel sin of all.

Stohl outdoes herself stylishly in Red Vengeance, delivering another globetrotting Black Widow and Red Widow adventure that takes the fledgling world of Marvel YA to new, incredible heights. From Brazil to New York to Sicily and more, we're treated to some seriously insane spycraft hijinks, involving the usual elements of the genre, and also some not-so-usual ones, like Alexei's ghost appearing to Ava - which I liked because A) Alexei was my favorite character in Forever Red, and B) because his ghost is written quite similarly to the way I wrote that of Gwen Stacy in one of my many Amazing Spider-Man fanfics, which I appreciated considerably. Also, we get more of Dante's involvement in the story (to further make up for Alexei's death - seriously, I can't let that go, can I?), a nice Spider-Man reference ("with great power comes great responsibility") to reflect the character's inclusion in the MCU now, some seriously cool lightsaber-type weapons (maybe Stohl would be the first to write an official story where SHIELD discovers a portal to the world of Star Wars - that would make for the biggest mass geekgasm since The Avengers hit theaters!), a nice look at Captain Marvel before she even makes her MCU film debut, and what the prologue promises to be an ass-kicking Christmas like Marvel has never done before, not even in Iron Man 3.

Oh, and a cliffhanger that guarantees we're not done with Stohl's singularly amazing Black Widow series yet, not by a long shot.

Instead of shopping, this and a cup of coffee (to enhance my speed-reading superpower) made for a perfect Black Friday morning for me. Thanks again, Margaret Stohl, for being an author I can always count on to entertain like few others.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Turn Coat

Turn Coat Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't think any of the other Dresden Files books plunge the reader into the action nearly as fast as this one does - literally on the first page when that one assbuttish Warden, Morgan, shows up on Harry's doorstep, wounded and on the lam.

That's when you know it's serious trouble Harry's in for on this misadventure, because if Morgan, that holier-than-thou type who's supposed to be beyond reproach, is in trouble...that bodes so badly it's not even funny.

Coming up next on my Dresden Files reread: Changes. Hoo boy.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: The Rose & the Dagger

The Rose & the Dagger The Rose & the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another duology done.

The story begun in The Wrath and the Dawn wraps up neatly in The Rose and the Dagger, which, despite a fairly slow start, picks up the pace in the second half as it completes Ahdieh's lush, multilayered retelling of the Arabian Nights story. As in the first book, characters are this story's strong point, with everyone - especially the points of the love triangle, one of the best ones in YA if I do say so myself - being beautifully complex and compelling.

It's a shame this series is done, but at least Ahdieh's got another good story soon to be published, and I'm now looking forward with great interest to The Flame In The Mist.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: Once Broken Faith

Once Broken Faith Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The lady named for the tenth month appears in her tenth full-length novel...sorry, but I had to go there. Seanan McGuire gives us another addictive October Daye story, this time with more than a few parallels to the real-world political issue of gun control, and also with - at last - a world map of the West Coast Faerie kingdoms. (I'm not surprised to see no less than three covering California.) And along the way, we get more of Toby and Tybalt's ongoing romance (they're a ship I'm so happy to sail on), among other ongoing subplots and more fun times with our favorite characters from the Luidaeg (more adolescent than ever) to Quentin (who reminds me more than ever of a certain blond demon boy I love to write.)

Coming soon from the world of Seanan McGuire - my read and review of Chaos Choreography, because God do I miss those Aeslin mice or what? (I'm still waiting for a Toby/Verity crossover of some kind.)

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Small Favor

Small Favor Small Favor by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's face it - when a Faerie queen, especially when said queen is Mab, no favor is a small one. Ol' Harry Dresden's pretty deep in debt to this supernatural royalty, and it shows in this book with the ironic name even by Dresden Files standards. Rereading this one, I forgot just how long Michael's involvement runs in the series - he's a favorite character of mine mostly because his deep faith always serves as a perfect foil to Harry's cheerful agnosticism. (And, also, Fidelacchius. Please don't forget that.)

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts: Expanding The Wizarding World


I'm too much of a fan to not check out whatever J.K. Rowling gives us - she's by far the number-one inspiration behind my writing. The world of Harry Potter has touched my entire generation and then some, and as Rowling proves in the long-awaited Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them movie prequel, it's not a world you'll soon want to leave the moment you've set foot in it. For proof, look no further than the crowd that gathered when I saw the movie today. A short line at first, but while my friend and I got our snacks, the line tripled in length. (At least we were able to pass that time talking with another moviegoer. Take it from me - espresso chip milkshakes make a shockingly magnificent conversation starter.) None who gathered in that theater today were disappointed. Together with David Yates in the director's chair once again, Rowling weaves another truly magical and incredible story, taking us back in time and halfway across the world from Harry's adolescent years.

Now with a hearty helping of the Roaring Twenties.

Fantastic Beasts was, like a few other books from within the Potterverse, defictionalized and sold on Muggle bookstore shelves years ago. (Even though I'm now aware of the American term "No-Maj," I still have considerable trouble not saying "Muggle.") So when the news of this movie trilogy (now expanded to five films) first broke, my first assumption was that it would prove to be something of an Indiana Jones-style magical adventure, following Newt Scamander as he travels the world in search of these magical creatures. I've known this for a while now thanks to the trailers, but this movie defies those expectations thoroughly. It takes place almost entirely in late-1920s New York, and while the first shot of the city lingers long on the Statue of Liberty, this place is no land of the free and home of the brave, whether it be the Wizarding or No-Maj world.

While the original Harry Potter series was no slouch in the social-commentary department, Fantastic Beasts, particularly in the wake of the travesty that was the 2016 US election, feels acutely timely. While the No-Maj community in New York deals with Prohibition, the Wizarding community in America tries way too hard to keep itself separated, to the point of enacting anti-miscegenation laws and strictly demanding that all No-Majes be Obliviated. It's a reactionary response to the rise of Grindelwald in Europe - which is covered, briefly, at the very start of the movie, first in a scene where the man himself (by now you've probably seen the screenshot of bleached-blond, in-character Johnny Depp from behind) takes out a few of his enemies, and then in a montage of news articles about Grindelwald, and increased security measures enacted by MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the USA). It's very much inspired by America post-9/11 too, right down to the "high-alert" system on display in MACUSA headquarters, which uses the same color scale as the post-9/11 terror alert system we had.

American wizards may be a touchy bunch, but it's not like the No-Majes are much better. It certainly doesn't help that there's a seriously high-and-mighty New Salem Preservation Society trying to make a name for itself in New York. Its leader, Mary Lou Barebone, feels straight out of Stephen King, or perhaps American Horror Story: Coven, in her religious extremism, especially as she forces children (some of whom she's adopted, given positively Puritan names like Credence and Modesty, and abuses to no end - Ezra Miller, as Credence, spends the movie looking scared shitless at every turn) to distribute pamphlets as she stridently rails about the dangers witches and wizards pose to society. She even attempts to expand her audience in a deal with Hearst-esque media mogul Henry Shaw (Jon Voight, playing a role that's minimal but apropos for a Trump apologist.) On all sides, Wizarding and No-Maj alike, the evils of social conservatism are on full display, and intolerance is the order of the day.

It's a contentious, dangerous world, a powder keg waiting to go off.

Enter Newt Scamander.

This is the second Eddie Redmayne movie I've seen, but I'm ashamed to say that the first was Jupiter Ascending, in which he played quite an ineffectual villain. As Newt, however, Redmayne gets to be much more himself. Eccentric, a bit blundering, but very capable, and, in my friend's view, downright adorable. Quintessentially British, setting the character up for a bit of culture shock in New York - at least once, he comments that American society is backwards, specifically citing MACUSA's anti-miscegenation laws.

What really gets the movie going is when one of the magical creatures he's carrying in a suitcase, a treasure-hunting niffler, escapes and starts tearing apart a bank for gold and silver. In the ensuing ruckus, he manages to mix up his case with that of No-Maj and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. (It doesn't help that their cases are virtually identical, except for the obvious fact that Newt's has a whole magical zoo inside.) The niffler, and a few other creatures, manage to get out and wreak holy hell of so many kinds. Meanwhile, MACUSA has their hands full with some mysterious No-Maj deaths, which appear to be the work of one of these creatures. It's up to Newt, as well as Jacob, and of course the Goldstein sisters, Queenie and Tina (the former a sweet but socially-awkward Legilimens, the latter a disgraced ex-Auror) to set things right.

Unlike most of the Harry Potter movies (with the exception of Deathly Hallows, Part 2), Fantastic Beasts takes place in a relatively short span of time, during which the plot tends to move at two speeds - breakneck and Gringotts train cart. The twists fly thick and fast, often subverting and even double-subverting expectations. One, in particular, makes so much more sense if you've seen The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Along the way, we the viewers are treated to some serious visual wonder, as spellcasting sparks fly and beasts run amok in the streets - and, sometimes, run around in well-crafted facsimiles of their natural habitats inside Newt's suitcase. This part is particularly beautifully filmed, with extremely long shots shifting gracefully between environments ranging from deserts to jungles to snowcapped mountains and following Kowalski's wide-eyed amazement alongside our own. And, of course, the aforementioned social commentary. I won't give any spoilers, but let's just say that the creature that proves to be the biggest threat in the story (which, by the way, is NOT mentioned in the defictionalized FB book) is a manifestation of the extreme stress of not being allowed to come as you are, just as the dementors are a physical manifestation of depression. (Incidentally, it also sheds some light on the fate of one side character in the original stories - now we have a stronger idea how that character wound up dying.) If you thought the original Harry Potter books and movies were scary enough, there are sections of this movie that are a total emotional horror show.

Again, though...visual wonder. Keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that Newt Scamander is one of the closest things to a superhero the Harry Potter world has ever known. Even more so than Harry himself, I'm thinking. There's one scene in particular where Newt and his new American friends stop to watch before taking action as the deadliest monster of them all cuts swaths of destruction through the city. In that scene, as Newt takes off running and/or Apparating after the creature, one of the first things that came to mind for me was Spider-Man. Maybe it has a little something to do with Eddie Redmayne being good friends with Andrew Garfield in real life (or so I've heard.) Or maybe because Newt really does feel like a vintage Spidey of sorts, particularly in terms of personality. Passionate about what he does, but in the real world, something of an awkward geek.

I can't say whether or not Rowling had Marvel in mind when she wrote this screenplay. In any case, the product she presented to us is Marvel-quality, and coming from the one guy on the planet who counts The Amazing Spider-Man movies as his all-time favorites, that's high praise. As I expected from the outset, I give Fantastic Beasts an A+.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Gemina

Gemina Gemina by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


"Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm.
-Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence"

"Look at me with daggers
It won't do you any good
All the looks that you've used on me
Don't work now that you've fallen
Fallen, fallen...
-Fleetwood Mac, "Freedom"

"I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes...
-Rush, "The Enemy Within"

"Confidence is you is confidence in me
Is confidence in high speed.


"Jump down the shelters to get away
The boys are cocking up their guns
Tell us, general, is it party time?
If it is, can we all come?

-Men At Work, "It's A Mistake"

"I am sorry to report fair Paris is burning after all."
-St. Vincent

"War, war just moved up a gear
I don't think I can handle the truth
I'm just a pawn, and we're all extendable
Incidentally electronically erased by your
(killed by)
(killed by...)
-Muse, "Reapers"

"Just like an animal, I protect my pride
When I'm too bruised to fight
And even when I'm wrong, I tend to think I'm right.
Well, I'm bored of the game
And too tired to rage...

-Foster The People, "Coming Of Age"

"She's always out making pictures
She's always out making scenes
She's always out the window
When it comes to making dreams...
-The Cars, "All Mixed Up"

"I'm ready to go
(Get me out of my mind, get me out of my mind!)
-Panic! At The Disco

Bonus Track: Daft Punk, "Contact"


I was a tad bit disappointed when I first heard that the sequel to Illuminae would focus on a new set of characters, not Kady and Ezra, but then I discovered Kaufman's These Broken Stars series and found that following different POV characters in each book was actually to that trilogy's benefit. So I was able to look forward more to Gemina first as a result. And when I discovered a signed copy on the store shelf at Target, I couldn't resist splurging on both books in glorious Technicolor hardcover.

Kaufman and Kristoff, as expected, deliver magnificently in Illuminae's long-awaited follow-up - with an assist from Marie Lu, of course, doing the lovely and adorable journal illustrations for Hanna, one of this book's two new co-protagonists. Being the daughter of the commander of the Deep Space Nine-esque station that serves as this book's setting, she feels like classic Kaufman, even more so than Kady or Ezra (both of whom were quite different from any protagonist Kaufman or Kristoff have created before or since). Male lead Nik, meanwhile, feels a little more Kristoff-esque in his bad-boy-ness, which normally I wouldn't enjoy (just look at Jace, or Adrian from Vampire Academy and Bloodlines - it took me forever to warm up to these guys), but because he's part of The Illuminae Files, I had no problem making an exception. It helps that he's got such a cool cousin in Ella, and his name being Malikov, it's my headcanon that he's descended from the sweetly spunky Kenzi Malikov of Lost Girl.

Even with limited involvement from Kady and Ezra, though, the story continues the whole corporate interstellar war thing, with BeiTech leading an invasion force against Jump Station Heimdall. Too bad they didn't count on Hanna and Nik and Ella helping lead a staunch resistance. Or some nasty alien monsters with psychoactive venom - did they learn NOTHING from what happened with the Phobos virus? Or the...well, I won't spoil the book's biggest surprises, but let's just say that if you thought Illuminae was mind-bending, Gemina blows it out of the water.

It remains to be seen how wild and crazy and epic in size and scope Kaufman and Kristoff can get for the trilogy's grand finale. My hopes, however, remain very high after reading this book, now a very, very strong contender for this year's Pinecone Awards.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: The Death Cure

The Death Cure The Death Cure by James Dashner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so I complete my reread of the Maze Runner trilogy with The Death Cure, and now I can recognize how elements of this book slipped into the Scorch Trials movie in 2015. Launchers, breakouts from a WICKED facility, Janson the Rat Man being, well, Janson the Rat Man...that sort of thing.

I'm really dying to see how Wes Ball adapts this book for the upcoming 2018 movie - can't wait to see that one! Although there's one character death in particular that I really, sincerely hope the movie NEVER adapts. They change a lot of other stuff, they could do with making that one change as well.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Executive Power

Executive Power Executive Power by Vince Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This (chronologically) sixth Mitch Rapp thriller is a quick and easy read, but it doesn't really amount to much compared to the two prequel novels, or to its immediate predecessor, which are the series' high points so far for me. This one, on the other hand, has a bit of a "more of the same" vibe like one of the weaker Brad Thor or Lee Child books - and in the wake of our recent travesty of a presidential election, reading this book, though it was written last decade, feels more than a bit insensitive to the Arab community.

At least Flynn kept on trucking with his formula, because it sure as hell worked for him. I'm still reading the next book, but I'm a little scared that that might be the point where I really give up on the Mitch Rapp series.

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Review: The Scorch Trials

The Scorch Trials The Scorch Trials by James Dashner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven't read this book in five years, but when I saw the movie in theaters last year, I remember thinking it was the weakest of the trilogy. Rereading it now, I think I was right - and that while this book was the weakest, the movie adaptation is so much stronger because it took the creative risk of changing the story so much. Not to mention adapting in elements of The Death Cure as well. But compared to the movie, the book feels slower and more plodding.

That said, though, it's unmistakably Dashner, full of action and horror and "Rose took my nose, I suppose." That's always good for a few hours of light reading, yeah?

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review: Frost Like Night

Frost Like Night Frost Like Night by Sara Raasch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world...

-Tears for Fears

Recently, I read The Midnight Star and, while I loved the book, I was a little bit disappointed in that it wasn't quite the epic finale I was expecting. Frost Like Night, however, is every bit as epic in scale and story as The Midnight Star should have been, and has earned itself a well-placed spot in my Top 5 Books of 2016 so far. (I expect this one to win a Pinecone Award for sure.)

As I remember for the previous books in this series, Snow Like Ashes was a really cool, really original, really fast-paced piece of fantasy dystopian, while Ice Like Fire slowed things down for a sort of combination of road movie and political drama. Frost Like Night, I'm happy to say, returns to the series' roots for high-stakes thrills, chills, and ice-above feels spread out over nearly 500 meaty pages. My ship of Meira and Mather resurges to its important position at the head of the fleet, and Ceridwen's revenge-driven story serves as an excellent counterpoint to Meira and Mather's concerns with the world at large.

I'm just so sorry to see this series end now, but I know Sara Raasch will give us more amazing stories in the future.

Until then, to Snow Like Ashes, Ice Like Fire, and Frost Like Night, I say ave atque vale.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner The Maze Runner by James Dashner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quite fitting, isn't it, that the first book I read after Trump's victory is a dystopian? Because as this tweet says:

Legit fear for the future aside, though, rereading The Maze Runner allowed me to turn the clock back not fifty or a hundred years, but more like five. Back to a time when Obama was in the White House and things were getting better, though to hear my parents talk about it, you'd think otherwise. Back to a time when dystopian YA was the next big thing because it came with timely social commentary but wasn't exactly predicting the future for us...right?

At least in this case, the dystopia isn't entirely man-made.

I first read this book in my senior year of high school, in the spring, a few months before The Death Cure hit shelves. I remember reading this one while sitting in the car waiting for my parents to get the van out of the service department at the dealership, baking in a little leather-lined greenhouse - which actually kind of helped set the mood for the Glade's tropical-type environment, as best as you could approximate it in the Bay Area.

Now that I'm rereading it - I think for the first time after seeing the movie - it still holds up very well, although I still like the movie a bit more.

I want to keep hope alive. Let's not allow fear to rule us all and drive us into a true dystopia.

Because after all, WICKED is not good, and don't let them try to convince you otherwise.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: The Star-Touched Queen

The Star-Touched Queen The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I guess this book just isn't for me...which is a shame, because it sure looks pretty and fantastical, and at least it doesn't suffer from a bad case of purple prose. More like lilac. Unfortunately, The Star-Touched Queen proves to be seriously hard to follow, and the characters feel a little half-baked, mostly because dialogue is something of a weak point for Chokshi. Her characters talk so formally that it gets distracting, which makes me feel even more detached from the narrative as well. And then the magical elements feel a little out of place, like the book can't really decide if it's high or low fantasy.

It's good to see more diverse reads out there, and #OwnVoices too, but this isn't one I can recommend. If you're looking for non-Western fantasy, I'd recommend The Wrath and the Dawn instead.

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Review: The Revival

The Revival The Revival by Chris Weitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was expecting better for this conclusion to the Young World trilogy, but I confess myself a bit disappointed with the final result. It's shorter than I expected, which isn't really to the book's benefit. There are simply too many POV's to keep track of, which makes the story feel pretty disjointed, and there isn't much of a resolution. But at the very least, Weitz keeps things interesting with an always-moving plot, and at least we get to see more of the characters we know and love - Jefferson, Donna, Peter, etc.

If only Weitz could have had the chance to write maybe 100 more pages to settle the most annoying lingering details.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: Ahsoka

Ahsoka Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll admit, I don't know as much about Ahsoka as I should. I haven't seen any of the animated Star Wars movies or TV series, whether because of the off-putting animation style of The Clone Wars or the Rebels ads playing up bizarrely Phantom Menace-esque humor, I'm not sure. But at least E.K. Johnston's book provides enough backstory for people like me who aren't so well-acquainted with Ahsoka. Not to mention glimpses into the lives of other major figures in the early days of the rebellion, like Obi-Wan or Bail Organa. And, being Star Wars, there's tons of action to go around in this fast-moving story - which, hopefully, will be just the first in a new Ahsoka series. :)

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review: Labyrinth Lost

Labyrinth Lost Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Labyrinth, like Pan? A little bit, to be sure.

Labyrinth Lost is a little something completely different from The Vicious Deep - although it still carries a lot of Zoraida Córdova's trademark style, darkly fantastical and often darkly humorous too. Alex, our bruja heroine, is a powerful young woman with so much potential, and yet she's every teenager that's ever been in that she wants to forge her own path, turn her back on what her family wants for her...

...which, incidentally, catalyzes her trip down the rabbit hole.

Although the journey through Los Lagos is at times a little too fast-paced when it should be savored more slowly, what kept my interest high most of all was Alex and her traveling companions, all of whom were engaging and complicated and just plain clicked very, very well. And then there were all the surprises, particularly towards the end of the book, when I found myself seriously torn between loving and hating one of these characters. (No spoilers.)

I'm surprised my library actually got this book - but then again, they seem to be very good at ordering Córdova's books before they hit shelves, more so than for a lot of other authors I enjoy (Taran Matharu, Jay Kristoff, Danielle Paige...) Hopefully next year they won't spoil their good track record, and they'll provide copies of the as-yet-unnamed sequel ASAP.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange: Marvel's Most Literal Movie Magic


"I've come to bargain..."

Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began this year with Captain America: Civil War, an absolutely A-grade thriller. The next in the series, Doctor Strange, has a lot of hype to live up to - not only as Civil War's follow-up, but also from hype of its own making, with the marketing campaigns highlighting what promised to be the movie's greatest strength - its unique visual style, completely new for the MCU.

Welcome to the New York Sanctum.

A few people were leery of Benedict Cumberbatch getting cast in the title role, but me. I thought he pulled it off perfectly. He brought the right amount of arrogance and snark to channel his inner Dr. House - and hell, with his gravelly American accent (not as good as Hugh Laurie's, but then Laurie wasn't quite perfect either), he sounds uncannily like Fox's former favorite pill-popper. But then this origin story takes a huge turn off a cliff, literally, when Strange gets distracted while driving and crashes his speedy Lamborghini. His origin story parallels that of Tony Stark very strongly in that respect - a rich genius playboy (though Strange is neither a billionaire nor a philanthropist) who falls from decadence and learns a few long-overdue lessons in humility.

And that's not the only lessons he learns. On the advice of a man who seemingly pulled off a miraculous recovery from a paralyzing spinal injury, he goes to Nepal to seek spiritual enlightenment at a place called Kamar-Taj.

There, he gets a little more than he bargained for. He finds his way into a world of sorcerers, and under the guidance of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton being, well, Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (traditionally a villain, but prepare for some surprises), starts to learn the magical arts himself. Everyone has the power to draw on the energy of infinite other worlds, it seems. All one has to do is learn how to harness it.

Naturally, there are those who don't harness it properly. Enter our villain, Master Kaecilius (is Mads Mikkelsen ever a good guy?) He's been drawn in by an evil god's empty promises of immortality and being one with the Dark Dimension - a little bit of subtle Satanism in a movie where the mysticism is otherwise predominantly Eastern - and now he's out to bring the Ancient One's world crashing down around her ears.

This is when Strange must stand up to be counted as a hero - and overcome his primary flaws of arrogance and anger. And, if Mordo is to be believed, his unwillingness to kill. Sure, a lot of his fellow comic-book heroes make it a point of not killing - Batman and Spider-Man in particular come to mind - but hey, given how deadly Kaecilius and his minions are...

Overall, the movie's one major weakness is the basic story, which I've recounted as much as I can without spoilers. It's a unique, fresh twist for the MCU, dovetailing beautifully with the introduction of Ghost Rider and the Darkhold on the current season of Agents of SHIELD, but it's another origin story, and it carries a lot of the same old tropes we got in Iron Man, Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, etc. etc.

However, what sets it apart from a lot of previous MCU installments (particularly those of Phases One and Two) is its more serious tone. Though it's still lined with considerable levity - a few one-liners and sight gags got the entire theater roaring with laughter. It doesn't have the same emotional range as, say, Guardians or Civil War or The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Big Hero 6 - that is to say, fewer big tear-jerker moments, although there's one death scene in particular that'll give you some real feels.

Characterization is done very interestingly too - Doctor Strange is the most anti-heroic MCU film since maybe Guardians of the Galaxy. Strange himself, as stated above, is quite flawed - although the Cloak of Levitation can look beyond that enough to take a considerable liking to him. (You're gonna love the Cloak, that's for sure. It's got an eerily similar personality to Aladdin's Carpet.) But Strange isn't the only complex character in this movie. Mordo, Wong, the Ancient One, even Kaecilius show considerable depth and dynamism. And they're all deadly badasses. Did I mention that?

This badassery extends to the filmmakers as well - especially those responsible for the movie's visual effects, which, as promised, are incredible. Think Inception on steroids, kaleidoscopic and gravity-bending. Most of these action scenes take place in a "Mirror Dimension" in which reality itself fractures into broken shards, but it has no effect on the real world - at first, the Ancient One introduces it to Strange as a safe space to practice his powers. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 won't give up its throne as my favorite visual-treat movie easily, but Doctor Strange is the closest contender yet to TASM 2's electric slow-mo awesomeness. The only reason why Strange doesn't quite manage to take the throne is because while its effects are top-notch, they have a habit of upstaging the human actors because they're so prominent in their otherworldliness. Your eyes will want to follow the warping matter (which makes the sort of mechanical clicking sounds you'd expect the model machinery behind the Game of Thrones opening credits to make, if only they were actual models instead of CGI - and if only Ramin Djawadi's ear-worm theme tune wouldn't play over it) instead of the fighting sorcerers.

But hey, we'll always have the scene where the Ancient One first blasts Strange's astral form out of his meat-suit physical shell. That part, with all the wild colors and ridiculous speeds and Michael Giacchino score, feels like a Disneyland ride. Thank God the trailers never showcased that particular highlight so much. And also, the chakra-like light shields the sorcerers like to use for defense - these remind me so strongly of Stark tech that they feel like perfectly MCU-aesthetic magic.

But I'm going to go back to the Ancient One for a moment so I can address the controversy surrounding that character. One of the screenwriters, I think, called her casting a "Kobayashi Maru" for Marvel - essentially unwinnable. Cast an Asian person and the movie would run the risk of presenting the Ancient One as an offensive "Magical Asian" stereotype, so the movie went the other way and rewrote the Ancient One as Celtic, though still ambiguously Asian in appearance. While a testament to Tilda Swinton's chameleonic acting style, given the character's standout complexity, Marvel really should have striven harder to cast an Asian actor in the role. Director Scott Derrickson, however, has spoken on this controversy with considerable candor and awareness, much more so than a lot of his contemporaries - and of course, the movie does, to its credit, further distance itself from harmful stereotypes by rewriting Wong, who (as I understand) used to be a manservant, into a librarian you'd do well not to cross.

Doctor Strange isn't a perfect movie, and it's certainly not the MCU's best, but as a shaker-upper, it does its job beautifully. From me, it gets an A-. 

And so we close the book on MCU movies of 2016. Next year, we're getting the most yet, I believe, with three - Guardians Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. All of which I'm really looking forward to, especially the former two because for sure they'll keep Phase Three from getting too grimdark.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: The Midnight Star

The Midnight Star The Midnight Star by Marie Lu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First and foremost, I have to say, I'm surprised at how short this book is compared to its predecessors. Short it may have been in terms of physical size, but in terms of content? Twists, turns, power failures for all the Young Elites, uneasy alliances aplenty, and impending worldwide environmental disaster? The Midnight Star was every bit as big and five-star as we've all come to expect every time Marie Lu releases a new book. It never ceases to be the same gripping, dark-fantasy world we've all come to love over the last couple of years, and I'm really sad to see it go, especially after this book officially takes us out of the mortal world and into others beyond.

But hey, at least this won't be the last Marie Lu book, ever.

To The Young Elites, I now say ave atque vale.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review: Nevernight

Nevernight Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Those who are dead are not dead
They're just living in my head.
-Coldplay, "42"

This week, a creative writing classmate of mine presented a story told in the point of view of an awkward young man at the laundromat who picks up a girl, goes home with her, and appears to sleep with her...except he's stabbing her dead, violently, and then he moves on to her sisters as well. Our general consensus - even the professor agreed with it - was that the story was senselessly violent against women, and with no purpose too. (And this was from a guy who takes pride in writing women, the better to understand them, or so he would have us believe.)

This short story came to mind when I read the first few pages of Nevernight only because Kristoff writes his own interplay of sex and violence the opposite way to how my classmate did it - having the woman be the killer, and having it be her job, because she makes her living as an assassin. I wonder how that first chapter, were it presented in this class, would have been received. (For sure, Kristoff writes women better, and he's got the track record to prove it.)

It's definitely an eye-popping introduction to this dark, gripping fantasy, that's for sure. After that first chapter, though, the book slows down a lot, to the point where for about 100 pages or so, I worried that it would be a damaged-by-hype write-off for me. Luckily, Kristoff keeps the reader interested with a storytelling device you wouldn't expect to see in a fantasy book (and certainly not one inevitably comparable to the works of George R.R. Martin or Sarah J. Maas) - hilarious Jasper Fforde-esque footnotes. Even though the footnotes do sometimes distract from the main story (because they're so funny, and often so huge they spill onto the next page), they're the main reason I kept going until the story picked up the pace and made up for the slow-moving first quarter or so. They help so much with the world-building too, adding extra detail to the history of Itreya. It's a well-built world, too, combining sci-fi elements (the triple suns) and sprinklings of recognizably Spanish and Italian influences (a bit of the Inquisition here, a Carnival-celebrating canal city there, and a Renaissance-esque artist famous for his portraiture skills and for being executed for treason for sleeping with a prince.)

My quest to find a Jay Kristoff work that lives up to the extremely high standards of Illuminae continues, but Nevernight is my second-favorite of his books now - though that'll probably change whenever I finally read Gemina.

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