Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sure this 150-page Final Dossier contains a few spoilers for the 18-episode Twin Peaks revival, but I couldn't really tell, and in any case, it was a pretty good read. Not as in-depth as The Secret History, of course, and certainly a lot less historical-conspiracy oriented, but for its deep dive into what happened to a lot of popular characters in the 25-year-plus gap between the original series and the revival, it was fairly engrossing - and, at the very least, did eventually bring about some kind of resolution to "HOW'S ANNIE?!?!?!?!" I guess David Lynch, even if he fought tooth and nail, failed to prevent the answers from coming to light. Thank God for Mark Frost, in that case.

Someday, I'll be able to complete my journey through Twin Peaks and finally watch the revival. That day might be a long ways off yet, but it'll come. I promise.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: Moxie

Moxie Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By now, of course, I think it's pretty plain that the infamous Kirkus review of this book was...pretty misinformed in its suggestion that Moxie somehow promotes not "real" feminism, but empowerment through gender segregation. Nope nope nope. Just feminism, straight up, as only our heroine Vivian can serve it. Girl power and punk music and smashing the patriarchy, with a glowing recommendation from Amy Poehler as if you didn't need another reason to read this book? What's not to love?

And as for the idea that guys are excluded from this narrative and/or all painted as sexist pigs and rapist monsters, well, clearly that Kirkus reviewer must've glossed over Seth's character entirely. Seth ain't perfect, and his social blindspots do have a way of wreaking havoc and creating conflict from time to time. Most of the time, though, he's a damn good role model for all male-ally feminist dudes. (Sure, it's a low bar to clear, being respectful to women just because it's goddamn right, but Seth clears it with a pretty flying leap, I think.) And when he's the love interest to such an engaging and fundamentally good protagonist as Vivian, well, you've got the recipe for one of the most shippable ships I've ever seen in YA. In between the serious issues that Vivian has to take on with her school's systemic sexism, their romance makes a great counterpoint. Awkward, as can be expected, but sweet and real, and you gotta love how Mathieu makes sure they never, ever so much as make out without both giving and receiving consent.

Sexism is the main social issue this book tackles, but it's not the only one. We get a few allusions to race relations too, and sexual orientation. Not much, but it's a nice tip of the cap from Mathieu to remind us all that there's not just one problem, and that society can always benefit from being more inclusive.

While Moxie is my first Jennifer Mathieu book, it's absolutely not going to be my last. But her other books now have to live up to this extremely high standard - can they? It'll be quite the challenge, especially given that I read this book in one sitting. It's that good.

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Review: Flashfall

Flashfall Flashfall by Jenny Moyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After taking part in a BBTC chat with author Jenny Moyer in anticipation of this book's sequel, I realized I had to read the original for the first time - a book that somehow managed to fly under my radar, probably because of how YA dystopians are supposedly dead thanks to overexposure from the likes of Divergent, The Maze Runner, Red Queen, etc.

Flashfall, however, feels like a still-pretty-fresh spin on the genre, combining elements of The Maze Runner - solar-flare-induced apocalypse, lots of monsters in underground tunnels and the like - and Arclight, particularly in terms of this book also boasting a weird light barrier between the sheltered world and the broken remains of the world beyond.

The story itself treads fairly familiar ground, but its real strength is the characters, particularly Dram and Orion. They're tough, both of them, and of course they're in love, but I never once feel like they're in love just to satisfy the typical requirements of a YA novel. Their relationship feels genuinely sweet, and I'm honestly terrified that because I love them as a couple, the sequel is going to sink this ship in the worst possible ways.

But I'm going to read the sequel, hopefully soon, and if I don't enjoy it as much as I did this book, I'll be very surprised.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trigger warnings for this book: miscarriage, slut-shaming, rape.

I was lucky enough to acquire the ARC of this book in a trade, and I've since passed it along to one of the team leads at the Stanford bookstore, who's quite the Seraphina fan, enough to have made that book one of her official Staff Picks. Tess of the Road, it's quite a different kettle of fish than Hartman's previous two fantasy tales, and while I give it the same official GR rating, it's really more of a 4.25, if not a 4.5, than Seraphina or Shadow Scale were. While Tess has a way of rambling over its not-inconsiderable 500+ pages, and builds up to a strangely abrupt ending that doesn't feel like an ending at all, the character of Tess herself, and her interactions with a variety of other characters on the road (and also Seraphina from time to time), proves extremely endearing and supremely sympathetic.

Perhaps the strongest selling point of this book is its feminist take on the fantasy genre. Especially when it comes to sex-positivity, because one thing that Tess of the Road reflects from our world is the absolutely ridiculous preoccupation with sexual "purity," and particularly that of women, while men are expected to "sin" repeatedly and often and that's just the way nature goes, or so the culture of this world (the human culture, that is, not so much dragon culture) and ours would have you believe. Religion is greatly to blame for this problem, with so many references to St. Vitt and his Biblical-style admonitions. Not to mention how women are so repeatedly taught not to enjoy sex, ever, while men are told they have a basically saint-given right to do whatever the hell they will with a woman's body (and, during scenes when Tess takes on a male persona, the guys she winds up traveling with at one point actually set up a fund to relieve "Tes'puco" of his virginity. No joke.) And, on a related front, how does consent figure into this warped-as-hell dynamic? The answer...probably won't surprise you, but it'll leave you feeling pretty down and wishing to all the saints that you could use this book, literally, to beat some sense into those who would uphold the patriarchy.

This book was a very good, very thought-provoking return from Rachel Hartman. I imagine it'll be a hit when it comes out early next year, but again, be warned - it's not for the faint of heart, this book.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

That Inevitable Victorian Thing That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Am I the only one who's not really feeling that title, though? It just feels a little too much like a working title than an official one, you get it?)

As Johnston herself puts it, "That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a smallish story that takes place in a very big world." So true. While I felt that this book's main story was a little lacking, and a little thin, it boasted some very interesting romantic spins and more than lovable characters to keep those spins coming.

It was the bigger world-building that really boosted the book, though - nuggets of information at a time about this alternate world where the British Empire never fell, and yet it became a hell of a lot more progressive a hell of a lot quicker than the real world did. Between the original Queen Victoria's suggestion that her descendants marry interracially, thus normalizing a great degree of ethnic mixing by the time this book takes place some 150-200 years later, and the idea that this very normalization kept the Empire alive while America fractured, almost certainly due to racism (and ultimately became a Mexican-run Southwest, a Deep South now run by the descendants of former slaves, and an all-but-broken North)...yeah, I see what you did there, Johnston. Terrific ideas, and much better alternate-history world-building than in The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire.

The genetic-matching aspect of this culture, however, creeped me out more than a bit. Not only because of the eerie similarities to one of the teaser clips for the upcoming season of Black Mirror - "Hang the DJ," I believe - but because some cynical part of my mind kept me thinking, what if this genetic stuff is done to ensure that interracial pairings happen in certain predetermined quotas or something?

But no. In addition to the positivity of racial and gender and sexual inclusion, one of this book's primary themes is the promotion of free will, embodied not only in the life and times of Victoria I, but also in her descendants and those who mix and mingle with them.

I'm actually kinda hoping that there'll be a sequel to this one, though if not, that's cool too.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Expelled

Expelled Expelled by James Patterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll give this book four stars if only because of Theo and Jude - a terrific narrator and a terrific Stiles, and even better, a Stiles they actually, on the page, write as openly bi rather than leaving it ambiguous and up to our headcanons. Sasha deserves mention too, because she's a very complicated character, much more so than I tend to expect Patterson to deliver. Though maybe that's his cowriter Emily Raymond's hand at work. Overall, this story is a longer one than it should be, and a little repetitive too, but the character dynamics are the saving grace. That said, though, I'm obligated to give you some trigger warnings for suicide, rape, and parental abuse - and the last two, especially, take those warnings seriously. The ending of this book made me more than a little queasy, especially since this isn't the first Patterson YA book to include it this year alone.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: 27 Hours

27 Hours 27 Hours by Tristina Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admit, my enthusiasm for this book was a lot higher before Aimal's review came along. Her review initially severely blunted my enthusiasm and, for a while, I didn't even want to read the book anymore because, well, Aimal pretty much says everything there is to know.

That said, though, I eventually went ahead and read the book if only to provide my own opinion, as informed as I could possibly make it.

So, as Aimal can tell you, the pros and cons of 27 Hours deal largely with issues of representation. On the pros - Wright's promise of "queer teens in space," which got me thinking this book would be a space Six of Crows when I first heard about it, is fulfilled, at least in terms of the fact that literally every main character, and quite a few secondary characters as well, are some flavor of queer. It's practically tailor-made as a real-life version of this hypothetical book proposed, as I remember, on a viral Tumblr pic calling for queer writers to write books where everyone is queer so The Straights have nobody to fully relate to - not that that's a bad thing, of course. Heck, one of my WIPs is somewhere in this vein, though I do include a few straight characters and m/f romance because it's just how I do things. On the cons, though - racial diversity aside, it's only too easy to read the book as (almost certainly accidentally, given Wright's strong promotion of social justice and activism in publishing) promoting a colonialist and imperialist agenda because it's entirely told from the perspective of the human colonizers, with no look in the heads of the indigenous aliens of the moon Sahara.

It's a shame, really, about those problematic elements. Not to sound too repetitive of my review of Carve the Mark, but considering that overcoming prejudice is a major theme of this book, it's too bad that that message is falling so flat in certain circles. Though I see where that flat-falling is coming from. As mentioned above, there's no alien POV whatsoever - and for all the faults CTM had, it at least was split between POVs of the colonizer and the colonized. And while Wright makes it clear that the humans done screwed up by colonizing another world without regard for its indigenous population, she doesn't cast the humans' or the aliens' moralities in a strictly binary light. Among the humans whose POVs we do witness, there's a wide variety of opinions on how to solve the sticky little problem of human-alien war, ranging from Rumor wanting to kill them all as revenge for the deaths in his family to Jude, having been raised in a place that values coexistence and cooperation between humans and chimeras, seeking peace, and Nyx and Braeden both being somewhere in the middle.

On a related subject, another major point of contention for this book was, to my memory, the characterization of Rumor. Not only because his anger makes him a pretty bad stereotype for a black guy (as does his perceived hypersexuality among other readers, opening up a whole other can of worms because that's a bi stereotype too - to be fair, though, the main characters in this book are very sex-oriented, except for Braeden because he's ace and implied aro as well, and Wright's bi herself so I'm more willing to forgive her for bi-stereotyping), but because he's the one who's most racist against the chimeras. This leads to a scene where, in an argument, his race is brought up as a reason why he shouldn't be racist - essentially whitesplaining. Yeah, not at all subtle, and certainly out of place in a society where, at least among humans, race doesn't seem to matter. Aimal commented on this, of course, criticizing Wright for only reflecting in-universe racism while doing away with that on display in the real world. She's got a good point about fiction not existing in a vacuum, but me, I maintain that real-world bigotry doesn't have to permeate everything, and it's perfectly okay for writers to craft characters who don't really carry the baggage they likely would in the real world.

To my mind, this aspect of Rumor as the most prejudiced of the leads was meant as an implicit challenge to the social-justice narrative that people exist on a binary of Privileged vs. Oppressed. Like, only white people can be racist, all white people are racist, all men and only men are sexist, and you can't be racist, sexist, etc. towards someone who's marginalized because bigotry's only a problem when it's systemic. (And to paraphrase Wright herself, in her apology to readers like Aimal who found this book offensive, white people are ignorant of racism and can't say at all if something is racist.) Obviously, these problems are a hell of a lot more complex than any reductive binary. But that's probably what Wright was getting at - that not only is prejudice nigh impossible to eradicate from humans in general (even when we appear to have gotten over intra-species racism as the people of this 300-400 years or so from now future have done, some other form of bigotry will just rise up to replace it), but there's no one group of humans that perpetuates it. The kind of vicious cycle Wright illustrates in this book - terrible decisions on the part of the colonizers and equally violent reactions from the colonized - can only serve to rip societies apart, which is why Jude, the one who believes in peace, wound up becoming one of my favorites by the time I finished reading this book.

It says a lot that as flawed as many of Wright's protagonists are, I still loved them all, even if I did love some more than others. Jude for sure. Braeden, definitely, because of his Stiles-like personality and sense of humor - he'd probably get along best with my own characters. Nyx and Dahlia are sweet and charming. And Rumor, even though his often hateful attitude rubbed me the wrong way, it's pretty clear that Wright cares for him deeply - if the acknowledgments are to be believed, his character was the genesis of this whole story.

27 Hours has a lot of flaws to go with it, most of which I've covered in as great detail as I can. The race issues, of course - though, for what it's worth, I'm glad Wright made it a point of not giving us an all-white cast. Heck, even the queer rep is pretty iffy from time to time, if only because in pretty much every case but Braeden's it appears to equate queerness with sex and sex with humanity (and that's before getting into Braeden's aro-ace rep, which let's just say has proven divisive at best among readers from those communities.) Rumor and Jude, in particular, have a very instalove-heavy dynamic, which would be a lot less credulity-straining if it were more clearly indicated as lust, especially given the book's relatively short time span. But Nyx brings in some (sadly rare) Deaf rep, with several other characters learning sign language in order to facilitate their own communication with her. Wright, as I understand, is promising more disabled rep in the sequels, including #ownvoices chronic pain rep. And in-universe, especially as our leads meet more and more chimeras whose genders aren't quite as clear to human perception, introducing oneself with one's pronouns and/or gender identity in addition to one's name is normalized in quick fashion.

This isn't my favorite book of the year, and the problematicness damaged my enjoyment of it, but not enough that I'd pass on reading the sequel. I just hope Wright does all our beloved characters justice - and takes a tip from her more critical readers and includes chimera POVs going forward. Hell, I'm taking tips in an effort to try and make my own book less problematic if and when it gets published, though I admit I won't be able to rid my books entirely of such elements. Which makes sense given that, like Wright, I'm not exactly writing a fluffy Becky Albertalli-type book here.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco: ¿Pero Quién No Es Un Poco Loco?

***THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW.***

I've loved Pixar movies for years. Toy Story. Finding Nemo. Monsters, Inc. Ratatouille. Brave. WALL·E. And especially The Incredibles.

Up there with all of these, and better than most of them, is the latest from the studio: Coco, a celebration of Día de Muertos that was worth viewing with my best friend for all the reasons. Not only because she's Mexican and can attest to the movie's cultural accuracy, but because it's perfectly tailor-made for us. A little dark, and with feels-bombs worthy of competing with the likes of Amazing Spider-Man and Big Hero 6, and so very absolutely life-affirming and heartwarming because you can't help but love the heroes of this story.

Has Pixar ever gifted us such a beautiful and lavish movie? Signs point to no...until now!

As my bestie can tell you, main character Miguel has a very typical Mexican family - so many people, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins all over the place, fiercely devoted to tradition. A lovely entity to be part of - unless you're an artist and your family doesn't respect you. I can tell you myself that it ain't just a Mexican thing. Maybe a Catholic thing? Whatever the case may be, it's such a universal theme that it helps make the movie super-duper-relatable.

And then there's the more uniquely Mexican aspects of this movie - though, as with my viewing of The Book of Life three years ago, I came out of Coco wondering why the hell Día de Muertos isn't celebrated more around the world. Recently, I saw some tweet somewhere - can't remember where - wherein it called out Western culture for being all about forgetting and erasing, while Indigenous culture was more about remembering, especially across generations. Terrific point there, working in neatly with the note at the end of this movie's credits talking about the holiday's Indigenous roots and advising viewers, "For more information, visit your local library."

One of the biggest lessons this movie imparts is that even when you're dead - no, especially when you're dead - being forgotten is about the worst possible thing that can happen to you. Perhaps that theme, more than any other Coco offers, resonates the strongest of all, especially for those of us who, like me, feel alone and friendless more often than not. And nobody's better at offering that lesson than Hector, one of the many souls inhabiting the Land of the Dead, where Miguel winds up after accidentally cursing himself by picking up the wrong guitar. The Land of the Dead is so wonderfully animated, full of color and life even more than in the real world - and when our glimpse of the real world is in Mexico on Día de Muertos, laden with fully-loaded ofrendas and joyous music and marigold petals, that's saying something. Heck, the entrance to the Land of the Dead resembles a cross between Disneyland and a 19th century train station, with more than a hint of one of my favorite tropes, the Celestial Bureaucracy. That Bureaucracy proves quite the challenge for my other favorite character in this movie besides Miguel: Héctor, a pile of skeletal fun and games with whom anything goes, up to and including cross-dressing as Frida Kahlo. (Naturally, my friends and I headcanon that he does this all. the. time.) Speaking of Frida Kahlo, the real deal (at least in this world) appears as well, as a super-cool performer whose artistry, though incomprehensible, is memorable as all get-out.

I can't really get into detail about the movie without spoiling it, and I promised you I wouldn't. So I'm not going to write a super-long review on this one. All I will say is this: while the 20+ minute Frozen special that, sadly, preceded the movie on my viewing was largely a draining waste of time (other than a few great laughs from Olaf in the "Explain Christmas Badly" vein and Elsa, whose queer subtext and lovably icy nature I still relate to all too well, having an even prettier dress) and worthy only of a C-, Coco is an absolute A+ movie, one of the best animated films I've ever seen, loaded with surprises and laughs and feels and music and heart all over the place. It's now a virtual lock for this year's Pinecone Awards too, and in a crowded field of contenders from Marvel to DC to Star Wars, it's mowing down a lot of worthy competition.

Till next time, Pinecones...

#AlimentarAlLoboCorrecto
Recuerda: Denis Leary siempre está mirando. Siempre.

Review: Winter

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

Marissa Meyer's conclusion to her star-making series is 800 pages of perfection. It's got that perfect romance-action-humor-feels balance which all writers (myself included) really should strive for. It's got the four coolest heroines this side of Orphan Black or Buffy or Once Upon A Time. Here we have Cinder, the face of the rebellion, alongside Scarlet, the warrior spirit; Cress, the brains; and Winter, the heart. And for a villain, we can do no better than the supremely detestable Levana, among the worst non-Umbridge, non-Negan Big Bads ever put to paper. I've wanted to see her get what's coming to her for four books now.

At 800 pages, it's a little daunting. But hey, our good guys really have to fight to earn their happy endings, and fight they do, to the bitter end. With the main series now over, I'm sad to wish The Lunar Chronicles ave atque vale. Though I'll soon be rereading Stars Above, though, to complete the set fully!

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Review: Before She Ignites

Before She Ignites Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I remember, Francina Simone, in her review of this book, said Mira Minkoba was something of a Hufflepuff.

After reading Before She Ignites, I'm pretty sure Francina was right on the money.

It was only after this book's cover was revealed (and the resulting controversy brought this author to my attention) that I read several of Jodi Meadows' other books to date, and was generally underwhelmed with them - largely due to poor world-building (in the case of the Incarnate trilogy) and/or a derivative nature (in the case of the Orphan Queen duology). This book, the start of the new Fallen Isles trilogy, has a bit of the former flaw, mostly in the form of a lack of a world map and most of the Fallen Isles - and the gods they're named after - being relegated to the background. The latter flaw? Not so much.

For all the talk I've heard about this book being slow and plodding and surprisingly lacking in dragons, I have to say that all of the above are wrong. Well, maybe not so much the "slow" part, though that's no surprise given the book is close to 500 pages long. But it's a real page-turner, uniquely smart and thought-provoking. Maybe a tad derivative, but not of what you'd expect. Sure, there's the obvious Shatter Me comparison owing to the book largely taking place in a prison setting and dealing with strange superpowers, but with the incorporation of themes of social justice and environmentalism and the condemnation of imperialism, I think Meadows owes a lot to the likes of Kate Elliott, Sabaa Tahir, and N.K. Jemisin.

With those themes in mind, it makes a lot of sense that Meadows chose to write Mira as a black girl. Sure, this is a fantasy world where the racial politics of ours need not necessarily apply, but knowing that Mira's black allows the reader to look at the book and its in-universe politics through a certain unsettling lens. Unsettling, but again, thought-provoking. Because though Mira finds herself incarcerated for doing the right thing (see, there's that Hufflepuff-ness in her, her sense of justice!), she draws on an inner bravery she never knew she had, pushing through the obstacles she has to face both without and within. The latter, of course, being her mental health issues - her compulsive counting and her propensity for panic.

#ownvoices is always desirable, of course, but if you know me, you know I won't knock a book for not being so in and of itself. Though I can't speak with authority on the racial rep, I'll say it was well-done in that while many characters' (dark) skin is mentioned in-text, I'll guess that this was Meadows' way of establishing a black default while having to contend with the fact that many readers, unfortunately, would probably have a white default in mind unless told otherwise. Race is actually something of a non-issue in this book - though, on a related front, nationalism is the major social ill rearing its ugly head behind the scenes in the Fallen Isles. I'm more qualified to talk about the mental health rep, undiagnosed though I am, because I do relate to some of Mira's symptoms. Especially her counting, which I think could be a symptom of autism in addition to the more clearly-coded OCD. On that front, I'll give this book my #ownvoices approval for sure.

Without a doubt, this is Jodi Meadows' best book to date, a vast improvement over her previous fantasy stories, and definitely better than I was expecting. Next order of business: get my bookstore to order and stock this book so I can hand-sell it!

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Queens of Geek

Queens of Geek Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if my own book will get published through SwoonReads, but if it does, it'll be in good company with the likes of Alex Evansley's Love Scene, Take Two, and also with Jen Wilde's Queens of Geek. A short but sweet piece of borderline YA/NA contemporary, Wilde's book drips with fandom references and fandom fun, and terrific autistic and bi rep brought to the table by our two co-protags, Taylor and Charlie, respectively. I relate to them both so very much on so many levels, as well as to Jaime because he's so very much me, especially down to his Peter Parker resemblance. (Though, for some reason, I picture him looking a little more like Holland than Garfield, but that's okay.)

Is it coincidence that I special-ordered this book from the San Diego library just to get my chance to read it? I don't think so.

I've seen a few other reviews that say this book suffers from a lack of plot and poor dialogue, to which I say, what were you expecting, a plot as detailed of the in-universe hit Firestone books? You go into this book for light, fluffy stuff - and a fair few moments where our heroes have to crack down on micro- and macro-aggressions - and you'll hopefully come out with a smile on your face at the end. Kinda like when you read a Becky Albertalli book - that's the easiest comparison I can think of, though I find this book better than any of Albertalli's releases thus far, if only because it's a little more inclusive of fandoms that aren't Harry Potter and doesn't have more characters than it really needs. Just the ones we need to get most invested in. (And Reese, who's an epic asshole and needs to get gone immediately.)

So, basically, five stars to this book for fun alone. And rep, of course. Can't forget that great rep, especially since, again, I share marginalizations with both of Wilde's protags.

And with my own first-ever convention visit coming up in exactly a week from now, how strange would it be if this book proved in any way prophetic for me?

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Shadowhouse Fall

Shadowhouse Fall Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shadowshaper was a great book demanding a great sequel, and on that front, Shadowhouse Fall absolutely delivers. Longer and more intense than its predecessor, this book gives us a more involving storyline for our 'shapers and company: Sierra, Robbie, Juan, Tee, Izzy, Bennie, Anthony (better known to us civilians as Pulpo), etc. Taking full advantage of its setting circa Brooklyn 2017, Older also raises his social commentary game, weaving in racism and police brutality (with an enemy supernatural force backing it up, which makes an eerie amount of sense) in a manner reminiscent of Jason Reynolds' Miles Morales. Older even throws in the unfortunate trend of excessive police force used in the case of psychological emergencies - and, of course, there is no such psychological emergency, not that the misguided (white) teacher who calls the cops realizes that.

Though this book is sometimes a little too complex for its own good, especially regarding the magic system and the powers of heroes and villains alike (I found myself scratching my head a bit too often while reading this), it's really the social commentary moments, and the moments of fun and games and teens just being teens reminiscent of some of those funny little-things scenes Angie Thomas gifted us with in The Hate U Give, that make Shadowhouse Fall a worthy continuation of the Shadowshaper Cypher.

Oh, and one more thing - sorry to say that Rosa shows up again and is clearly no better than before, but she gets epically taken down once again, this time in perhaps the best and most actually-appropriately-timed use of the Interrupting Kanye meme.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Buried Heart

Buried Heart Buried Heart by Kate Elliott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Court of Fives trilogy concludes in this long but tense and terrific novel, bringing the whole series full circle, especially where its ongoing themes of colonialism and racism are concerned. Truly, Efea will rise, but it'll be a long and difficult road for Jes and her people to get there, and they'll need a few allies among the Saroese first. Kal, perhaps? Of course, first he has to make himself overcome his natural inclination to uphold the corrupt institutions of his people, purely to keep his own power and social standing, tenuous though it may be. A little heavy these themes get at times, but like most examples of literary allegories for social justice, it's not exactly meant to be a comfortable read. Best of all, though, the series makes it clear that mercy is a better route than vengeance and blood (I'm paraphrasing here, but at least it makes for a better ending than the - also paraphrased - line about a tree being too diseased at the root to cure implied for the future of Efeans and Saroese alike.) I'm actually more than a bit surprised that this series hasn't been called out all over the place for Kate Elliott writing outside her lane in terms of race, but I'm very glad that there's at least one other case (like, say, the works of Corinne Duyvis) to serve as proof that it's perfectly okay to do so, provided it's done with sensitivity of course, and that maybe people shouldn't be asking writers of color these kinds of unnecessary questions? I'm thinking Elliott did write pretty sensitively, especially given that Justina Ireland gets herself a space in the acknowledgments as a beta reader.

To the Court of Fives, I now say vas ir...anoshe, and now I find myself needing to read a few more of Kate Elliott's books.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League: Snyder Can't Save The World Alone

***NO SPOILERS FOR JUSTICE LEAGUE, BUT SPOILERS FOR PREVIOUS DCEU FILMS ABOUND HEREIN. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.***

Ah, the other big comic-book movie universe, the DC Extended Universe (still not a big fan of that name, BTW, but that's neither here nor there.) Two weeks after Marvel gifted us with its MCU latest in Thor: Ragnarok, DC stepped back up to the plate with Justice League, its answer of sorts to Joss Whedon's Avengers (with Whedon himself co-writing the screenplay and giving uncredited director work on the reshoots.) But you already knew that. You also knew that this movie had a pretty troubled production due in part to the increasingly poor reception of previous DCEU films, with the obvious exception of this year's super-smash hit Wonder Woman. And also the fact that it ultimately wound up being shockingly expensive, with a disappointing first weekend at the worldwide box office that doesn't even meet its $300 million price tag (though it comes close.) And that Rotten Tomatoes wouldn't even release the movie's official score until practically the day of its release, effectively delaying the inevitable news that DC had another Zack Snyder turkey travesty on their hands as far as the critics were concerned.

But hit pause on that, and if you're still torn on whether to watch this movie, consider...no, not the coconut. Consider that maybe Snyder not being 100% involved with this one's production was actually to its benefit, at least as far as tone goes. Because while this movie winds up suffering from quite a few flaws - like the over-reliance on some often piss-poor CGI, or the surprisingly thin plot for a jam-packed superhero blockbuster, the revealing Amazon armor compared to Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, Batfleck's phoned-in performance, and Snyder's general mishandling of Superman - its tone, not quite MCU-light even with Joss Whedon's trademark battle snark but certainly more hopeful than the overly nihilistic Batman v Superman and chaotic misfire of Suicide Squad, was a step in the right direction while acknowledging the film's own hamstrung-by-its-predecessors'-mistakes nature.

"Children," Diana says. "I work with children. Also, where in Hades is Bale when you need him?"

It's funny, I actually thought Batfleck was quite a nice novelty in BvS, one of that movie's saving graces alongside Gal Gadot's terrific, if underutilized at the time, Wonder Woman. Now, though, especially knowing how visibly ashamed and disappointed Ben Affleck's become with his DCEU involvement in recent months (he's not even going to be headlining The Batman if and when that's ever made, is he?), it's so clear that he's let that negativity contaminate his performance as Bats in this one. More than anyone else (except maybe Cavill's Supes), he's a relic of the days when it looked like Snyder was going to run this franchise into the ground - almost perpetually tired and dour and gruff. Meanwhile, Supes (who died in BvS and made the kids in the theater cry ugly tears the day I saw that movie, but we all knew he was coming back from that final shot where it looked like we were about to get zombie-Supes!) comes back, of course, but the question is, is it even worth the price of admission to witness this dark Kryptonian perversion of Jesus? Is it really too much to ask that we please just have Supes be fun and optimistic like Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal on Supergirl, say?

Yeah, make Cavill more like this.
I wouldn't mind if they did, Ricky. That Hoechlin man offers some stiff competition.

Going forward from this movie, I really expect that Cavill will get to show more of Supes' fun side. More hope, and not get it nastily truncated like in the movie's prologue where a kid's interviewing him on cell phone video for a podcast, where the kid's asking what his House of El symbol means and the video abruptly cuts off and cue "Warner Bros. Pictures Presents." He'll have a lot of catching up to do, though, compared to the rest of the (currently) half-dozen-strong Justice League. Even Cyborg (who starts out brooding and wrapped up in a hoodie because he's got to stay locked up at home while he's presumed dead) and Aquaman (who's a sarcastic assbutt pretty much the whole damn time, but often just plain a dick - like, when Batman first comes to find him and he makes it a point of refusing the call to action) brighten up the day far better than our should-be-sunnier Kryptonian buddy does.

Who're you callin' "brooding?"
He's callin' you, brother. And damn straight I was a dick to Bats. "I hear you talk to fish?" *untranslatable Atlantean*

But of course next to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman and Ezra Miller's Flash, no one's exactly gonna look like the life of the party. Even more than Superman, who's supposed to be the symbol of hope in the DCEU, Wonder Woman shoulders that symbolic responsibility right alongside her already-in-place personification of love, and loses not a single badass point. This in spite of the camera's unnecessary fondness for her ass (hard to say if Snyder or Whedon's more to blame on this one), but Diana Prince is all the flavors of strong as she forms another movie's beating heart.

Proof you shouldn't make me angry. Someone help me spam Snyder's and Whedon's inboxes with this until they stand aside for Patty Jenkins, please?

The funnest piece of sunshine, though, is Ezra Miller's Flash. I wasn't terribly impressed with his ten-second-or-so cameos in BvS or Suicide Squad, especially not when Grant Gustin already charmed his way into my soul with his angelically gifted performance on the CW series. But you know what? Not unlike Tom Holland vs. Andrew Garfield, Miller does his own thing as Barry Allen, making him the adorkable kid of the gang. Inexperienced, and a bit bogged down by his insecurities and fears (extra-bad news when your enemy commands an army of zombie-things that target people's fear), but also more powerful than he realizes, and more ready than he realizes to finally become a functioning member of a society operating on a plane he has little grasp of.

Feel free to headcanon me as autistic. Ricky encourages it. And also queer - come on, you totally saw me checking out Aquaman's butt, right?
I'm in a relationship, you know.

The villain Steppenwolf, though, is one of the movie's weak links, mostly for not really adding anything to the table. He looks like an unholy hybrid of Surtur, Ronan the Accuser, and Ares; he speaks entirely in agonizing clichés; his evil plot manages to mash up both of Whedon's Avengers movies, Age of Ultron included; and his name makes me think only of a certain classic rock band. He's also one of the movie's many CGI failings - as cool as a lot of the visuals are, usually when we get into slow-mo bullet-time with Barry and/or Diana, the CGI gets way too much at times, and considering the movie's massive price tag, it really has no business looking this bad. There are so many shots of everything looking artificial, like the Gotham skyline like it's still Tim Burton making the movies in the late 80s.

The cherry on top, though, has to be the infamous CGI Supes-face. Done to remove the mustache Henry Cavill had to wear for his next high-profile role in Mission: Impossible 6, it's gotten a lot of noise for giving him what amounts to a poorly animated upper lip. (And why would they even go there anyway? There's precedent for Supes having full facial hair in Man of Steel, after all.) For all that noise, though, I didn't see quite what everyone else was seeing. I saw not so much a CGI mouth as an entire CGI face at times. Not really as bad as the infamous video-game quality Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One last year, but glaring enough to stand out and further drag down many of Supes' scenes, including his inevitable Lois Lane reunion. On that subject, even more than in BvS, Lois feels like such an afterthought, begging the question of why they'd even include her here to begin with and all but waste Amy Adams' time and talent. To be fair, I'm not a big fan of Lois Lane in general, except maybe for Erica Durance's portrayal on Smallville - and maybe Gwenda Bond's YA Lois Lane series if I ever get around to reading those books - but Amy Adams' version of the character, as always, remains tragically underwritten, and is one of the many reasons why I insistently ship SuperWonder instead of Clois.

On a related note, here's another one to spam Snyder with. I sincerely hope he'll stop trying to make WonderBat happen.
Actually, that's probably Whedon doing that. Black Widow and Hulk, anyone?
O Zeu kai alloi theoi...in that case, I'll spam them both.

Though Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon's collaborative effort leaves a little to be desired, it's not anywhere near as dreadful as some of the previous DCEU films. I can't exactly call them "bad," the previous Snyder DCEU movies, because they're really more undesirable than anything else with their relentless deconstruction of Superman in particular. But here, when Snyder at least relinquishes enough control to allow some of his darkest instincts to be reined in, resulting in a faster, shorter, and tighter-paced movie in addition to a happier one. I gave BvS a B on first viewing, though in hindsight I'd downgrade that to a C. Justice League, I'll give it a B+ and hopefully it'll stick through the years.

Till next time, Pinecones...

#FeedTheRightWolf
Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War Old Man's War by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first John Scalzi book I read wasn't his first, but instead Lock In, which was suitably complex and well-thought-out but not so well-executed, due to its general lack of interesting characters or even much of a sense of humor. Seeing Scalzi's debut, a sly parody of classic sci-fi from Heinlein to Bradbury to even Orson Scott Card (though of course far cruder in content than anything Card would ever serve up), I think I've got a much better measure of his style and talent with this one.

Though Old Man's War isn't perfect, largely because its second half tends to suffer from a thin and meandering plot, the first half is where it truly shines, loaded as it is with laugh-out-loud moments. This book is at times quite crude and crass, but no less intelligent for it, and hell, it makes me almost want to get KloraDerm skin (almost, because the infertility is too much of a drawback for me, since I'm not an old man yet.) Also, reading about the whole KloraDerm thing makes me realize that here's another way Avatar, though I love that movie to death, turns out to be a bit derivative - Scalzi gave us a concept of colorful humanoid avatar bodies for use in the interstellar theater four years before James Cameron got to release his movie!

And one more thing - the opening lines. Three sentences, not one opening sentence like is traditional, but if you read those three (as my boss at the Stanford Bookstore has suggested I suggest to customers), you will not fail to laugh, and that'll be just the first taste of Scalzi's screwy sense of humor you get.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leigh Bardugo's look at the folklore of the Grishaverse gives those of us who thus far never read any of the three short stories she wrote in this department a chance to see some more subtle world-building for Ravka, while also including three additional short stories to give us glimpses into Zemeni, Kerch, and Fjerdan culture. (Not Shu, though, but that's no surprise given that Shu Han is by far the Grishaverse nation about which we know the least.) The stories themselves all read like some of our world's fairy tales with a very dark, original-Brothers-Grimm style, sometimes to the point of predictability - though not always, of course. Bardugo's too inventive for that. The best part of the book, though, is the lavish illustrations that accompany each story, with a little more to the picture being revealed on each page until each story ends with a beautiful full-page image. Though these illustrations sometimes distract from the text, they also become extremely inventive, to the point where even when you think you know what's next in this little flipbook effect, your expectations will be seriously challenged. At least this book is here to help tide us Grishaverse fans over since Six of Crows ended with two books (God, I'm tired of the duology trend) and until King of Scars comes along in about two years' time.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Dumplin'

Dumplin' Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This month's book club read at work was a little not my style, though certainly good as another #ownvoices read I've spent some time sleeping on. Though Dumplin' wasn't quite to my taste, it had more than its share of small moments of relatable humor - like Will's laments early on about how people in relationships always get way too public with their displays of affection - and some very well-written relationship drama. I think the biggest flaws this book had were a few too many characters, and the pageant storyline taking over the book slowly but surely to the point where the latter half starts to feel repetitive, and finally a very abrupt ending that doesn't really tie the story up - though at least there'll be a sequel, Puddin', next year. But I can tell you that for what it's worth, this book, the first Julie Murphy novel I've read, is pretty lighthearted and fun and really not to be missed by the YA audience.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: Fairest

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

Thank you, Marissa Meyer, for giving us this piece of insight into the increasingly evil, increasingly deranged, and surprisingly sad story of the appalling, atrocious, love-to-hate-her-'cause-she-is-so-freaking-evil Queen Levana. It's a short story, only a shade over 200 pages, but Levana is so Cersei-grade nasty that it proves compulsively readable to a shocking degree. And I do mean Cersei-grade - of all the books in this series, this one is the least family-friendly by far, the only reason I would hesitate to recommend The Lunar Chronicles to anyone under, say, thirteen years old. Now I've got one more full-length novel left in my reread, and of course the short story collection. Haha, but remember when I thought this book would be just another e-book exclusive? Nope, not the case, and thank the stars for that.

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Review: Cress

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

Long, but oh so totally worth it. The Wham Line at the very end sells it, natch. Along the way, Cress, the semi-official midpoint of The Lunar Chronicles, delivers the most globe-hopping adventure up to this point in the series, with a jam-packed storyline full of not one, not two, but three vastly reimagined fairytale heroines. And Cress, of course, is perhaps the most radically reimagined of them all, a Rapunzel whose tower is a satellite, and whose painting skills get a serious upgrade to world-class hacking. All the books in this series are great ones, and Cress is absolutely no exception.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

When Dimple Met Rishi When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like The Upside of Unrequited, this piece of lighthearted YA contemporary is more of a 3.5 for me, but I'll round it up to a four. After spending six months sleeping on Sandhya Menon's debut, I've finally read it, and I found I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, especially given that I got a lot of spoilers. Most of which had to do with Dimple's actions and attitude, which didn't endear her to me very much. After reading the book and seeing the contrast between her and Rishi, however, that endearment finally came into play, rather unexpectedly. Obviously I'm not Indian and can't fully relate to Dimple or Rishi, but on many levels, I do. Not only because I can totally picture their stories happening in real life as those of various classmates and friends of mine (and also my boss' sons, of whom Rishi and Ashish remind me greatly, but because there are just enough surface similarities between my own life and those of Dimple and Rishi. Like Dimple, I tend to reject the traditions in which I was born and raised because I no longer feel comfortable participating in that life. Like Rishi, I know how it feels to have artistic ambitions which parental pressure forced me to tamp down. And of course, I especially appreciated this book's Bay Area setting, which, like many other recent Bay Area-set reads of mine, is spot on point. I'm definitely down to pick up other Sandhya Menon books in a more timely fashion in the future!

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review: Looking for Group

Looking for Group Looking for Group by Rory Harrison
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sorta remember I picked this book up because of Zac Brewer's blurb on the cover, because as far as I know, Zac Brewer almost never blurbs books, and he's one of a few authors whom I would absolutely LOVE to see blurb for mine someday. Suffice it to say I was actually extremely disappointed in what I read. I mean, it should've been pretty well tailor-made for me, this book, with its strong queer rep - Dylan being gay, Arden being trans. And I totally see why Uncle Z blurbed this one, because like his own books, this one offers a few lessons on fluidity of sexuality and blurring the label lines (though it's also backfired somewhat; I've peeked at other reviews and found a lot of people, including trans women, either confused or dismayed or outraged or some combination thereof).

Me, though, my problem with this book wasn't rooted in its queer rep in any way. No, it was a combination of unusual formatting (when was the last time I saw a book where all the paragraphs were unindented with breaks between each one?) and a storyline that mashed up a bunch of John Green books at once. TFIOS for Dylan being a cancer survivor, Paper Towns for the road-trip elements, Turtles for the extremely rambling narrative style hiding a surprisingly paper-thin plot, and pretty much all the other John Green books for its (admittedly unique) spin on the manic pixie dream girl trope. So, while this book does get credit where credit's due, it's not enough for me to recommend it, I'm afraid. Shame, I had high hopes.

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Review: Scarlet

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

It's hard to say which I like more: the OUAT-verse or The Lunar Chronicles. Though I'd probably go with the latter only because the true stellar-ness of OUAT lies in its all-too-short-lived Wonderland spinoff, which, by coincidence, I remember I was watching around the same time that I discovered The Lunar Chronicles. Which might explain why Scarlet and Wolf in this book remind me so much of my failed Knalice ship, except maybe not so failed here...and of course with Scarlet bearing a stronger resemblance to Merida than Alice, but that's neither here nor there, really. Scarlet continues this series in fine form, building even more of this world with a whole new heroine while continuing to add to Cinder's story (and introducing fan-favorite Carswell Thorne and the Rampion in the process, of course), and continuing Kai's story as well as he has to deal with Levana's ramping-up threat. Bottom line, Marissa Meyer is a YA genius, virtually unparalleled, and I live for the day when all her books, starting with The Lunar Chronicles, get their long-overdue film adaptations.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: Dear Martin

Dear Martin Dear Martin by Nic Stone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Easily comparable to Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, Nic Stone's debut Dear Martin, while delivered in a physically smaller package, is no less gut-punching and devastating and firmly rooted in the real-world issues of systemic racism and police brutality. That gut-punch quality owes a lot to the fact that unlike THUG, Stone's book, being so much smaller, doesn't have nearly as much room for the little things in life to liven things up. Not that it doesn't have some of those little things, though - especially when we see Justyce's friendship with Manny and relationship with SJ, strained though both may be. But Stone delivers greatly on an emotionally raw and yet minimalist narrative, splitting the novel between news transcripts, sections written to resemble a screenplay (and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Stone began this as a screenplay, actually) with heavy emphasis on dialogue, and of course Justyce's letters to MLK, which serve more as a diary than anything else. And just like Angie Thomas, Nic Stone is dangerously gifted at tackling issues to which there are no easy answers, and making that crystal clear. Jus has to deal with way too much stress in his life, poor guy, between the blatant ignorance of his classmates and his having to keep his relationship with SJ secret because his mother wouldn't want him dating a white girl...and of course the crime that serves as this book's climax, almost smack in the middle.

(I shouldn't have been reading this one at the cafe so soon before starting work.)

I eagerly await whatever other books Nic Stone writes in the future, and until then, I'm headcanoning this one as part of the Albertalli-Thomas universe as well. No doubt Jus and Starr can bond over their all-too-similar experiences, and then go hang out with the likes of Abby and Bram and Simon to lighten things up.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: Renegades

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

OFFICIAL RENEGADES PLAYLIST:

"I know you don't listen to me, 'cause you say you see straight through me, don't you?"
-Coldplay, "Shiver"

"The gods decree you'll be right here by my side
Right next to me, you can run but you cannot hide...
"
-Depeche Mode, "It's No Good"

"I'm gonna fight 'em off
A seven nation army couldn't hold me back...
"
-The White Stripes

"I guess in love there's no guarantee
Sometimes it's not what it seems to be
Even though you're still the one I care for...
"
-Europe, "Heart of Stone"

"And if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me!"
-Björk

"I'm so lonely on my way
Waiting for a better day
Only one thing left behind
A world of lust and crime...
"
-Peter Schilling, "The Different Story"

"They reached for tomorrow, but tomorrow's more of the same
So they reached for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came...
"
-Berlin, "Masquerade"

"Can you break away from your alibis?
Can you make a play?
Will you meet me in the dark?
"
-Billy Squier

"Do you really believe my tongue?
I'm not afraid I've angered God
I never meant to hurt no one
It's how I stay alive...
"
-Shiny Toy Guns, "Waiting Alone"

"Don't you believe, girl
You'll change the world
At least you changed the world for me...
"
-Finger Eleven

"Rise up and take the power back
It's time the fat cats had a heart attack
You know their time's comin' to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend
SO COME ON!
"
-Muse, "Uprising"

Bonus Track: Mark Mothersbaugh, "Planet Sakaar"

REVIEW:

For the first time, Marissa Meyer gifts us with a book that isn't a fairytale retelling, though it still retains a lot of the slick post-apocalyptic sci-fi style of The Lunar Chronicles. Maybe a little less stylish, but Renegades, the first in at least a trilogy of original superhero stories, more than makes up for that with the sort of moral grayness Meyer put on display last year in Heartless.

It's a long book, over 500 pages, but it's terrifically action-packed and gripping the whole way. This, of course, owes largely to its collection of super-cool characters, particularly those among the Renegades, and even a few of the Anarchists as well. Well, maybe not the Puppeteer - thankfully he's not in the story much, but he makes the most disturbingly creepy impression. But Nova and Adrian, among others, display a variety of super-duper-original powers. Sure, we get our elementals and our mind-controllers and our super-strong types, and even some insect-based powers (controlling bees, butterfly teleportation, etc.), but when was the last time you saw a super who could literally weaponize their own blood? Nova's power deserves mention too, especially her side effect of not getting any sleep herself while she can induce it in others. But Adrian. My God, Adrian. I think the last time I saw the power to bring drawings to life was the infamous "Frankendoodle" episode of SpongeBob, but Adrian gets it so super-cool because he can literally tattoo himself with powers. Though I'm still a speedster boy forever, I'm extremely mad jelly of Adrian's gifts.

All these powers, and the psychological mind games, and the turning of all the superhero tropes on their heads, combine to make a diabolically page-turning story in Renegades. You'll also love the book for its highly inclusive cast of characters - queer rep and PoC rep aplenty, the latter especially in the two leads, Nova and Adrian.

And most of all, you'll need this book just to have that glorious cover, perhaps the best of 2017, in your collection immediately.

Two more books? Please let them be even more epic than this one! (Though when it comes to Marissa Meyer, we the fans know she can't fail.)

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: Madness

Madness Madness by Zac Brewer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Does Uncle Z ever fail? I say no, and this latest, perhaps his darkest novel to date, is no exception. Take all the trigger warnings at the beginning of the book seriously, and if you have issues with depression and/or suicidal ideation, take all the caution if you decide to go forth and read this book. Me, I do have such issues, though perhaps more mildly than most (and my depression is only self-diagnosed, but there's really no diagnosis to make suicidal ideation sound more "official"), which means while Madness was a painful read - and probably the only book by Uncle Z I'd only ever read once - it was nevertheless a powerful one.

It's also a strong continuation of the style of Z's previous dark contemporaries, The Cemetery Boys and The Blood Between Us, with strong undercurrents of psychological nastiness and a lot of thriller twists right at the end that totally overturn the story and leave you gasping for breath. I also saw a lot of myself in Brooke - though I've never engaged in self-harm (and I still credit that, to this day, to having written that into my own books), I completely relate to how she describes her own depression. No discernible source, no obvious trauma behind it all. It just...is, and there's no explanation. Maybe if I were to find myself a therapist, they'd help me further manage it before it ever gets to the level Brooke experiences.

And then there's Duckie's story, which keeps this story from getting too deep into the abyss, and makes me think a tad bit more of Becky Albertalli than Z Brewer. Duckie makes me think a bit of how my high school life would have been if I were a little less afraid of my own queer self at the time - and if I'd had the sort of parents who didn't make me afraid. Brooke's parents, though, are more like mine, pushing Brooke into extracurriculars as they do - and acting like her mental problems are less from illness and more from toxic, attention-seeking behavior.

Oh, and Derek. But if I say too much about him, here there be spoilers, so I won't say too much. Let's just say even if you're a student of Uncle Z like I am, even if you appreciate him as a deconstruction of the "bad boy" archetype, you'll still not see a lot of what he does coming. he's also got a Siberian husky named Vikas - yes, Uncle Z, we all see what you did there.

Like I said, this is probably the one Zac Brewer book I'll only ever read once. But that once is enough for such a masterpiece as this, what only Uncle Z can give us.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: Monster

Monster Monster by Michael Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A follow-up to Gone at last?

YES. PLEASE.

Four years after Michael Grant seemingly ended the series with the sixth and final novel Light, here beginneth a new trilogy that takes the FAYZ and its alien virus and all its ramifications and brings them to a more global stage. Well, so far a lot of the action is confined to the US, and especially to California (there's a lot of Bay Area action scenes, including one of the most inventive spins yet on Golden Gate Bridge destruction), but there are sprinklings of worldwide action as more pieces of the space rocks that first brought us the gaiaphage are starting to show up around our planet. Though Grant's indicated a few times in recent months that he might be quitting the YA biz, the events of this book are only the first taste of things to come, so I'm still hoping that he brings us Villain and Hero to wrap up this new story arc.



I was a little surprised by how much the early information about this book kept changing. First there was the working title Shade Darby, then the assertion that Dekka would be the protagonist. Elements of both of these show up in the final product, with Shade being one of several new characters through whose POV we witness the apocalyptic horror (and body horror) with which Grant gifts us like back in the old days of Plague, especially, and Dekka being the sole original-series character whose POV we get here. Our other major POV characters are Justin, who's got a seriously monstrous streak that helps give this book its name; Tom Peaks, who to my mind feels like a mashup of Nicholas Lea's best-known characters, Alex Krycek from The X Files and Tom Foss from Kyle XY; Cruz, who is genderfluid (said to be "multiple choice in a true/false world") and becomes very good friends with Shade and her ex, Malik; and Armo, whose Oppositional Defiant Disorder is, if I'm not mistaken, something he shares with Grant himself. There are so many characters to follow here, and it's clear that Grant focuses more on some than others - Shade, Cruz, and Dekka get the most attention, I think. But even though not every POV character gets equal page time, that doesn't terribly undermine the book's central theme - the extremely blurred lines between monster, villain, and hero. No Golden or Silver Age comic book stuff here, kids.

The original Gone series, dark though it was, proved very foundational for me as a YA reader - and also as a YA writer. I'm sure there are many who would side-eye me for saying this, but a lot of Grant's old heroes and villains - especially Sam, Quinn, Edilio, Dekka, Sanjit, and even Caine and Diana - have been quite influential on me. Monster takes the darkness of the old series up a few more notches, really ratcheting up the psychological scare and body horror factors. And also the in-universe bigotry factor. It's nothing new for this series - racism, in particular, flew thick and fast coming from the original series' worst villains. A lot of our heroes in this book have to put up with aggressions both micro and macro - Dekka hearing people frequently talk about her "the black lesbian," reductive as that is, Cruz having to put up with a ton of transphobia (including repeated use of her deadname, which is still her legal one) and getting asked what she's got in her pants, etc. There's also inclusion of mental illness among the good guys and the bad both, though, like I said, the lines between good and evil are extremely blurred here. Think Netflix Marvel as opposed to ABC Marvel (not that Agents of SHIELD doesn't blur the lines a lot itself.)

Monster isn't quite the five-star read I was hoping for, but then again, I only gave Gone four stars too and came to super-appreciate the series as it went on. That said, though, it really harks back to the days when Gone and sequels were among the darkest books in YA, and this one's even more thought-provoking than ever. I bet there are many who'll give it a miss for precisely those reasons, but that's okay. Everyone has their own preferences.

Oh, and one more stray observation...that scene where Shade and Cruz sing along to some good old Tom Petty. "I Won't Back Down." Never let it be said that Grant's good guys and gals and enbies don't have great taste in music.

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This middle book of The Kingkiller Chronicle is, for me, really more of a 3.5, but I'll round it up to four in the hope that such good karma will hasten the long-delayed release of the third and final novel. Though The Wise Man's Fear rather suffers from considerable overlength and a slightly scattered string of plotlines, Kvothe is no less fun to follow in his exploits. Hell, we get quite a few looks at some of the more outlandish stories of his, such as his encounters with Felurian. And while there's definitely a sense of this book ending on a very strange note, almost deliberately cliffhanging us readers, I'm really too invested to be too angry. That, plus with the announcement of the forthcoming TV series (with Lin-Manuel Miranda exec-producing!), Rothfuss should really be motivated to finish the trilogy lest he wind up with a similar reputation to George R.R. Martin in this regard.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok - The Thunderous Apotheosis Of Taika Waititi

"We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow..."
-Led Zeppelin, "Immigrant Song"

***THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW.***

It says a lot that of all the Phase 3 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, the weakest link is Doctor Strange and, for once, neither a Thor nor a Hulk film. (Well, aside from the perpetually annoying timeline error of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that's neither here nor there.) Thor: Ragnarok not only bucks that weakest-link-of-each-phase trend for both Thor and Hulk, but also soars above the pack to become not only the best Thor film of all, but also one of the best of the MCU overall. With Taika Waititi and his high quirk factor helming this voyage, there's no shortage of what we've all come to expect from the MCU - alien oddities, hammy acting, spot-on humor (most of the time - sadly, there are a few moments where the jokes are ill-timed and fall flatter than flat), the perpetually tense dynamic between Thor and Loki, and some of the MCU's most terrific action scenes yet.

Taste the alien rainbow.

While previous Thor entries rely heavily on Shakespearean melodrama, and end up often feeling pretty generic and forgettable otherwise, Ragnarok, in spite of its apocalyptic name, dials up the humor and action all the way. Not that either of the first two films failed in the humor department, especially, but this one feels like the first time where the filmmakers genuinely have our amusement as a top priority. Perhaps a little too much so - as I said earlier, a few of the jokes don't quite work. Heck, even the movie's bittersweet ending (quite akin to Guardians Vol. 2, in fact) gets a tad ruined by a joke from the mouth of the master himself, Taika Waititi. But most of these jokes will get the entire theater roaring with laughter, guaranteed, so at least Marvel's doing their job right 95% of the time with this one. Naturally, the trailers already spoiled some of the best moments...

"YES!!!!! We know each other! He's a friend from work!"

But there are also some very good funny moments that the trailers do not spoil, and I will spoil none of them myself. Well, except for Hulk, after he inevitably reverts back to Banner, being forced to wear some threads from Tony Stark's wardrobe (don't ask), and among them is a T-shirt bearing the image of Duran Duran's Rio album cover. That shirt is just one of many bits of 80s influence on this movie - turns out the retro-themed title on the trailers and posters, as well as the frequent use of classic Zeppelin and a heavily synth-driven score from Devo's very own Mark Mothersbaugh, foreshadow a product tailor-made to ride the recently rising wave of 80s nostalgia.

As the above GIF and the array of colorful teaser posters indicates, this movie is one of the most colorful yet in the MCU, building on the style of Guardians of the Galaxy and going for an even more vibrant style than any other. It's perhaps halfway between Guardians and the overblown color-splosion of the Suicide Squad ad campaign, a pretty happy medium and perfectly timed to come exactly a year after the MCU's other most unique visual treat yet, Doctor Strange. Speaking of Strange, he cameos in this movie, building on the promise of Thor's appearance in Strange's own mid-credits scene, and helps provide one of the best highlights simply because of how he even manages to catch powerful Asgardians Thor and Loki off guard. Also catching them off guard is Hela, the long-lost goddess of death, played by Cate Blanchett with less ham than her unforgettable role as Irina Spalko in Crystal Skull, but more visual panache and badassery. She proves pretty damn difficult to beat, especially for Thor and Loki as they wind up sidetracked elsewhere for much of the movie (as much as you gotta love the Bartertown-esque environment of Sakaar, and also Jeff Goldbum channeling his inner David Bowie for what may well be his most iconic role yet, the Sakaar scenes do feel a bit padded to bring the movie to a well over two-hour runtime), not helped by the fact that she's also their long-lost sister, lending a Holmes-sibs air to their dynamic - Thor is Sherlock, Loki is Mycroft, and Hela is Eurus.

Perhaps the most impactful scenes are those where Hela bursts back onto the scene in Asgard and starts laying waste to everything. She's not just destroying Asgard, but unveiling the whitewashed secrets of Asgard's history, particularly where Odin and his rise to power are concerned. It's hard not to read these scenes as an implicit rebuke of current American culture and its tendency to pretend that what's in the past is simply in the past and has no impact on today, and knowing Waititi, I wouldn't be surprised if this was intentional. As much as I love the Marvel movies, I have to really take my hat off to Waititi with this one, because it's surprisingly rare that there's such a thoughtful theme underlying it all. A theme that makes me actually lowkey scared this movie's (bittersweet) epilogue could somehow prove prophetic. But with this thoughtfulness gives me hope that Waititi gets a lot more jobs in Hollywood going forward. Starting, if not with a follow-up to this film, with an adaptation of a most well-deserving book. Red Rising comes especially to mind.

The third time proves to be the charm for Thor's section of the franchise, delivering an A-grade movie that proves brawny and brainy and charming all at once, the perfect combination of Thor and Hulk and Valkyrie. Yes, Valkyrie. Can't forget her. Tessa Thompson's character, though a shade or two underwritten, is every bit as awesome as the other two lead heroes, and Loki of course. Just look at the scene where she cuts down a swarm of Sakaarian junk collectors with her craft's machine guns while drunk off her ass. Can I have Valkyrie as my Jaeger copilot? Please please pretty please?

Till next time, Pinecones...

#FeedTheRightWolf
Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: Godsgrave

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

Gentlefriends, it's now been exactly a year since I read and reviewed Nevernight, so I now return with my review of Godsgrave. Since I read the first book, it's been called out for its highly unflattering portrayal of the Maori-coded Dweymeri people, as well as Mister Kristoff's waffling on whether or not the Dweymeri are meant to represent the Maori to begin with (the original, #ownvoices review is no longer available from what I've heard, having been taken down due to harassment.) That said, though, it appears that even in the limited time Kristoff would have had between the time of that review going public and the time he finished writing Godsgrave, he did take some steps to give the Dweymeri a better portrayal, making them less offensive (and less prone to obscene dialogue), and also showing Mia calling out an in-universe rando for anti-Dweymeri comments. Perhaps not enough to appease some of those who've written off Kristoff as yet another problematic white dudebro (to the point where I've seen many boycotting the Illuminae Files), but it's better than if he'd doubled down on the in-universe racism. So while this series is still one of the grittiest and darkest pieces in fantasy, at least Kristoff is focusing instead on more universal darkness that scares pretty much everyone.

And that darkness...yeah, it'll have you going "what the 'byss?" pretty damn often while you read this book. Just like Nevernight, this book is loaded for bear with overwrought writing, hilarious and overlong footnotes that prove more entertaining at times than the actual book itself (seriously, give me an entire book of Kristoff's footnotes, I'd give it ten stars out of five!), blood and guts galore (that goddamn retchwyrm!), swears by the names of various gods and their genitals (and it never fails to amuse me that Aa has his name in common with a subtype of lava, so every time someone says "Aa's burning cock" - do NOT attempt a drinking game based on Mister Kristoff's swears, gentlefriends - I keep thinking of a well-hung lava monster, lol), fantasy games of the kind that wouldn't be out of place in certain other sophomore stories from big-name new-adult fantasy series (A Gathering of Shadows and The Mime Order come especially to mind), interplays of sex and violence (including Mia showing herself to be bi, thus making her resemble Clarke Griffin in my mind as well as Octavia "Skairipa" Blake), Mister Gently being the best supernatural cat thing you've seen since the Coraline movie, and of course a fair few weapons-grade cliffhangers almost rivaling those of Glass Sword and Insurgent and Empire of Storms. Especially Empire of Storms. You'll know it when you see it.

Two books down in this trilogy, and now only one left. Bring it the 'byss on, Mister Kristoff. And until then, remember, I've named one of my own original villains after you for a reason.

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