Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: Battle Royale

Battle Royale Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a huge fan of The Hunger Games, books and movies both - especially the movies. But for this very similar piece of dystopian, I spent years sleeping on it, until a Twitter mutual of mine convinced me I should try all the Battle Royale media there was - book, manga, movie. So I started with the book and, while I still enjoy The Hunger Games more, Battle Royale presents a very chilling alternate world, a dystopian Japan of the late 90s where teenagers are selected to go to an island and fight to the death, all in the name of a government program designed for national security or something. While the book itself is very long, and often protracted with white noise, it's still an addictive, fast-paced read that you think represents a world removed from ours, except maybe not. Maybe, especially now that fascism (the very evil this book's government delivers better than any other, and very insidiously too) lurks at virtually every corner in today's society.

My only real complaint about the book is that it has an open ending, promising a continuation that would've nicely paralleled the likes of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, but so far, nearly twenty years down the line, Koushun Takami hasn't announced any sequels. Though at least there's the manga, which, as I understand it, further fleshes out the world beyond the confines of this one book. I've got the manga ready to read very soon - at least, the first two volumes of it. Hopefully it'll live up to that promise.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Stalking Jack the Ripper Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first time I read this book, I have to say, I didn't really enjoy it. It felt like it didn't live up to its potential, not even close, not for a story inspired by Jack the Ripper. And it certainly didn't help that there was that "I was the girl who loved the Ripper" back-cover blurb, which actually kinda put me off. I picked up the book again, though, because now I know that its follow-up will be an even more interesting-sounding book - Hunting Prince Dracula. The second read was an improvement, though I still think the book suffers from not enough emphasis on the grossgusting stuff and a generally slow pace throughout, except right at the beginning and then again near the end when this world's version of the Ripper is unmasked and killed.

In hindsight, from the looks of things, this book was also pretty standalone, so hopefully the Dracula book will not only be better, but I'd also be able to recommend skipping Stalking Jack The Ripper, possibly, if you can handle missing just a tad bit of the continuity in this series. (Though I'm sure HPD won't be quite so standalone.)

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Empire Decayed

Empire Decayed Empire Decayed by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, I liked the first volume of The Death And Life of Zebulon Finch well enough, but I found that this one followed a path similar to Kraus' Rotters in that it began wonderfully, only to end as a mere shadow of its former self. It certainly doesn't help that, even more so than its predecessor, Empire Decayed is a giant brick of paper and ink, a collection of smaller stories that build up to the promise of the prologue of At The Edge Of Empire, but don't really meet that premise.

I mean, there's a ton of material to cover - World War II (in both Germany and Japan), creepy fifties suburbia (almost Burtonian in style with its constant repression and dark secretive undercurrents), the sixties with hippies and Black Panthers (some of whom are quick to take Zebulon to task for attempting to appropriate their style and customs, namely calling himself "Zebulon X," to which they respond by calling him "Obnoxious White Motherfucker"), the seventies with a cult who calls themselves "Savages" (don't ask) and the onset of the AIDS crisis, and some shenanigans in a retirement home in the eighties and early nineties, all leading up to the incident that began the first book at the World Trade Center.

Kraus tells the second half of Zebulon Finch's story in the same virtually-sociopathic, perpetually-misanthropic, always-politically-incorrect style, which, while not terribly conducive to a reader's enjoyment, nevertheless highlights that this book really isn't meant for enjoyment. As does the ending, which is an absolute mind-screw of epic proportions that, like much of the rest of the book, feels like a whole bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. How I managed to finish the whole thing, I still have no idea. But finish it I did, and once again, I'm probably going to go forward with reluctance to read another Daniel Kraus book.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: Blood of Wonderland

Blood of Wonderland Blood of Wonderland by Colleen Oakes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Queen of Hearts last summer and was really enamored with it, being that it was basically Alice in Wonderland meets Game of Thrones, but in a smaller form. While I very eagerly awaited Blood of Wonderland - and with a title like that, how could I not? - I think maybe this book got a little too GRRM-like for its own good in a way. Not because it was long - it wasn't. Not because it killed my faves off - it didn't. But more because it felt less like this was about Dinah and more like it was about Daenerys Targaryen, winding up outside her home kingdom and allying with a distant tribe of dark-skinned warrior-type people who have a certain...uncivilized reputation back home. To be fair, though, Dinah's very quick to learn that the bad stereotypes about the Yurkei (who, to me and others, read like Native Americans) are wrong, and that their society is pretty harmonious and prosperous. But she wants to rise up and take down her evil father, and to do that, she's going to need the Yurkei. Thus she forms a very tenuous alliance.

I imagine there would be those who find this book problematic because of the aforementioned Yurkei storyline, which does take up most of the book - which means that it has surprisingly little to do with Wonderland, and also the "blood" in the title is surprisingly absent as well. (Though, in truth, the title refers to a big twist that isn't entirely impossible to foresee. No spoilers, however.)

I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as its predecessor, but I suspect it's merely a lower-quality bridge book between Queen of Hearts and the forthcoming finale, War of the Cards, for which Oakes promises more bloody awesomeness (though at this point I think I've learned to take her promises with a grain of salt.) I was, however, able to speed through the whole thing in less than an hour, so Oakes, for all the faults she put into this book, hasn't lost her addictive streak, not by a long shot.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've only seen six episodes so far of the Syfy TV series based on these books, but based on that, I wasn't really expecting quite what came up in Leviathan Wakes. It's a massive, expansive (of course) piece of space-opera, a little like Red Rising in its depiction of the future of our solar system a couple hundred years from now (but not progressed to the point where it becomes an enormous space Roman Empire), and also reminding me a lot of the new movie Life, which I'm dying to see still, because of its depiction of a vomitously disgusting alien...something that sure seems to have a taste for human flesh.

Though it's not my favorite book ever, this one's motivated me to finish the first season of The Expanse that much sooner.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Review: The Forever Song

The Forever Song The Forever Song by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally, three years after this book comes out, I've read and enjoyed it and, for now, I'm all caught up on the complete bibliography of Julie Kagawa. I'm sure if I look back at some of her earlier Iron Fey books, I'd see her remark on how her readers' tears feed her muse, but now this is the earliest I've seen her acknowledge this fact that I remember. And while those tears may be a powerful energy source, they mostly go towards powering up some wild and crazy plot twists. One of which I was predicting all along, only because I didn't want this series to end without a little hope - and because I was pretty sure we never saw a certain body.

It actually gives me a little hope for some of Kagawa's future work, namely the Talon Saga.

And while The Forever Song ends a tad bit openly, knowing how Kagawa also suggested she might return to The Iron Fey someday, I bet she could just as easily return to Blood of Eden someday too.

In which case, I'll now wish this series vas ir...anoshe.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: Clockwork Prince

Clockwork Prince Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, well, well. Ms. Clare is truly in fine form now! As notorious as she is for her Draco Trilogy fanfic (which is basically the Grindelwald to My Immortal's Voldemort), Clare is one of my favorite authors, and it is all because of this ever-expanding universe of wildly awesome fantasy novels.

Why do I like these books so much? These characters are a most wonderful Victorian set of equivalents to the TMI (haha) character set. I love the Victorian setting too, because it's darkly beautiful and beautifully dark and feels just like the world of Sweeney Todd. And, they're guilty pleasures in every way.

What really boosts this novel for me is the romance that Tessa has. Rather than just go with Will (who, as the more prominently depicted boy compared to Jem, I expected to end up having a relationship with Tessa), she gravitates towards Jem. This makes me happy because so far the ship I'm a passenger on is canon - for once. Many of the ships I have boarded in my time - Xander/Willow, Clary/Simon, Whit/Janine, SnowBarry, etc. - have been unfortunately sunk, sometimes with extreme prejudice.

Not to mention, the fact that Clare's writing is so intensely visual. That's not something any writer can do right. Clare really strokes the imagination, especially with her outrageously beautiful descriptions of people and places. And yet, sometimes it's a little too hard to visualize properly. I was very happy to see the cover art on this one for the first time, because until that time I had had lots of trouble trying to sketch a mental picture of Jem. The overall silverness was what really got stuck in my craw as I attempted to imagine what he would look like. Tessa, Will, etc. were a lot easier.

As always, I highly recommend Clare's work for everyone. Sure the romance gets cloying at times, but the action, fantasy, off-color humor (yes, even in Victorian times there's off-color humor aplenty), and sheer imagination really make up for it every time.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: The Darkest Magic

The Darkest Magic The Darkest Magic by Morgan Rhodes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed all the Morgan Rhodes books I've read to date, but this one, the middle entry in the Spirits and Thieves trilogy, suffers from a bit of Sophomore Slump. It's a surprisingly slow read, with a lot of POV switches that are sometimes hard to keep track of unless you go back to the headings at the start of each chapter, and a pretty convoluted story that leaves me scratching my head quite often. But the cast of characters in this book remains as compelling and complex as ever - well, maybe not so much Maddox, of whom I'm not terribly enamored, but Crys, Becca, and Farrell for sure. In addition, this book makes the timeline relative to the main series a little more clear - the Mytica scenes act as a prequel, with this book following the establishment of the three kingdoms, and the origins of their names being made clear.

At least now I know there's only one book left in each series, and I'll be waiting for both of them pretty impatiently.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: The Eternity Cure

The Eternity Cure The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reread of Blood of Eden continues, and I'll be reading the third book very soon, because this time, not only did I finish The Eternity Cure, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I did the first time around. Sure, the book did have a bit of a disjointed, slapdash feel at times, but it keeps Allison Sekemoto's story going into some really weird and messed-up territory as a new, and of course, deadlier plague (the source of the book's title) arises and threatens to upend this apocalyptic world all over again.

Oh, and the ending. Without going into spoilers, let's just say that now, the ending of one of the Talon sequels makes a little more sense, and I should've seen it coming based on what happened here.

Coming soon: my first-time read and review of The Forever Song, and at last I'll be finished reading all of Kagawa's books to date.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Clockwork Angel

Clockwork Angel Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*finally posting my old review to my blog, with some minor edits*

And so it begins, the prequel to Cassandra Clare's (deservingly) glorified fanfic story.

Tessa Gray (who thankfully has no relatives - that we know of! - named Christian), teenage American in the Victorian days, travels to London to see her brother - and ends up imprisoned by a pair of creepy old ladies. You know things are not what they seem when the globe in their house shows a completely nonexistent country in Europe between France and Germany (those who have read Clare's other books, especially City of Glass, will know that said country is Idris, home of the Shadowhunters.) Or when they insist that Tessa change into different people and creatures.

Clare has never shown a single shape-shifting Downworlder, Nephilim, or mundane before. So now you know, something is really up.

I enjoyed The Mortal Instruments immensely, but I think that this is when Clare started to improve to real auteur status. Despite the setting changing to the repressive Victorian age, there's still delightful comedy of the kind we remember from TMI to spare. And this is when Clare started setting the stage for her considerably more complicated multi-plots of City of Fallen Angels and beyond.

And, best of all, no ridiculous "incest" storylines! That was the one thing I hated about the original TMI trilogy. I mean really, what was Clare thinking?

To those readers who think Clare just wrote the expanded TMI universe for $$$, read this: Clare knows what the readers want, and she's more than able to deliver. As long as she puts out satisfactory literary creations, I will continue to count her among my favorite authors ever.

Also, after rereading, I've figured out that after seven years, I've been quoting the two sentences of "Bloodthirsty little beasts. Never trust a duck." backwards all this time. THE HORROR. XD

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: Silver Stars

Silver Stars Silver Stars by Michael Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I speak a lot of how I sometimes have trouble finding good YA historical fiction, mostly because last year, I read a couple of examples - Razorhurst and Salt To The Sea - that just didn't cut it for me. I keep forgetting, however, that Front Lines exists - and now, so does Silver Stars.

Michael Grant's series continues in its exploration of an alternate history where women got to fight in World War II...and make no mistake, this brick of a book gives readers a visceral blend of warfare both physical and psychological. Mostly psychological, because as I've said before (especially when I read Front Lines last year), that's Grant's specialty. And Grant really shows the darkness of the war, not only in the considerable toll taken in the fight to preserve Western civilization from the creeping evils of fascism, but also in the tension and strife within the Allied camps - which, given the presence of women in the military, only gets worse because there are those men who engage in frequent sexual harassment because they think this should be a boys' club. Not only that, but with Grant also including soldiers of color (such as Frangie), racial tension also flies thick and fast. Even outside the military settings - such as in Rainy's home in New York, or in the homes of Mafia dons in Sicily - you'll see people slinging every racial and/or ethnic slur you can think of, casually as you please (and the author's note at the end suggests that for those who think it's too much, the reality was even worse.) In-universe and out, just about everyone's uncomfortable with it. And then the three POV characters have their own personal issues to deal with - such as Frangie being the only one in her family talking to her Communist brother, Rainy's involvement with the Mafia, and Rio's worries after she sleeps with a guy she knows from back home, and how does that change their tenuous relationship, especially given the dreadful sexual politics of this time? (Not that any of the politics are any good, really.) Let's face it, Silver Stars brings up some armor-piercing questions that, naturally, don't have easy answers.

It's a tough, tough fight for Rio, Rainy, Frangie, Jenou, and all their comrades in arms. From Tunisia to Sicily to mainland Italy (and being half-Maltese, I'm just a little miffed that Malta doesn't appear at all, not when that island was quite the battleground in World War II), and the war's not over yet, not for these fine ladies with everything to prove even as they fight for a country that doesn't give them the respect they deserve. Grant's got one more book lined up - which I believe will be called Purple Hearts, a title which makes me scared for these Soldier Girls. But I'm most certainly up for reading it - I have to see this series through to its conclusion now.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Aftermath

Aftermath Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So I went into this first Aftermath book having read maybe...one Chuck Wendig book before, and having not really liked it. That said, this book, as Star Wars novels go, isn't half-bad, but I can see why it gets a lot of bad reviews. Wendig goes for a somewhat George R.R. Martin-esque storytelling approach - not in terms of killing your faves off, but in terms of short, choppy chapters that jump around between multiple POVs, many of which are brand-new characters you don't really know anything about, and don't really know if you should care about. But then, this book takes place in the immediate galactic aftermath of the Battle of Endor, so of course there's going to be a lot of confusion as the Rebellion really starts chasing out the last vestiges of the Empire. Vestiges that aren't going to go away without a fight.

It's not the best book ever written, but for what it's worth, it's a pretty decent read, and I'm pretty ready to read the two remaining Aftermath books soon.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: A Conjuring of Light

A Conjuring of Light A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one was a little low on my current library-haul TBR pile, which has ballooned to a pretty massive size since I'm currently done with school, but thanks to Aimal Farooq's urging, I bumped it up and decided to read it before tackling Star Wars: Aftermath.

I think I made the right choice.

The first two books in this trilogy, I liked them but didn't love them. Compared to The Archived, The Unbound, and Vicious, I thought they were good Schwab books, but not her best. Hell, based on the first parts of this book, I thought A Conjuring of Light would be too long and slow and damaged by hype to properly appreciate.

I was wrong.

600 pages? No problem when you have a book as fast-paced and twisted as this one, with the stakes at their absolute highest. Our five core characters get their shares of time in the spotlight - and that includes Holland, whom I didn't really like before, but now I feel a lot of sympathy for him, especially given what happens in his flashback scenes. There are, in fact, a lot of flashbacks, not just for Holland, but also for Rhy as well, with more information about the development of his and Kell's brotherhood, and his always-tense relationship with Alucard. Only Lila, I feel, gets a less attention than she deserves, which is a shame, but then she's so integral to the story that she really doesn't need any flashbacks anyway.

But while the story does take its time building up to an explosive climax (reminiscent in many ways of Teen Wolf, actually) that's really only in terms of page count. The book flies through its short chapters, allowing it to be devoured in a surprisingly short amount of time. And while it's not perfect, A Conjuring of Light finally, for me, validates me as a passenger on this hype train.

Normally, when I come to the end of a series, I say ave atque vale. But for Schwab's unique four Londons, I'll instead have to say this.

Vas ir...

...anoshe.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: Mistborn

Mistborn Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been wanting to explore this section of Sanderson's Cosmere for a while, but it's been hard to get ahold of the books because my library has a way of losing them. After getting reminded by my friend Aimal (though she wasn't so impressed with the book herself), I finally ordered it from another library, and now I've read this first book and judged that maybe Aimal was right - the book's a little bit overrated, though not bad at all. The story's pretty hard to follow sometimes, even with what should be a fairly easy to keep track of story of rebellion and revolution, but at least there's a cool magic system (comprised of variously powered metals) to keep the reader engaged.

Hopefully, the remaining books in this series won't be so hard to find at the library, not like this book.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Logan: My Feels Are NOT OKAY!

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

Two movies, two days, two movie reviews. Yesterday was an explosive funfest with Kong: Skull Island, and now I'm here to review Logan, the latest extension of the often quite tangled threads of the X-Men movie 'verse. Like last year's Deadpool, Logan is pretty damn different from all the other X-Men movies, to its benefit, and is not only among the best in the entire franchise, but also one of the best superhero movies of all. (Though you know it won't top either of the two Amazing Spider-Man movies for me, not those supremely underrated gems.) However, while Deadpool is a breath of fresh air and breezy summer sunshine in between all the gore and carpet cluster F-bombage and other adult content (not for nothing is Ryan Reynolds God's perfect idiot!), Logan is the moon to DP's sun, the night to its day. It's gritty, violent, and will make you cry buckets - and that's a promise.

For the final time, Hugh Jackman as the clawed wonder.

Every art form has its heyday, and that heyday has to eventually come to an end. Superhero movies, for instance, are all the rage now, much more so than they were ten years ago (though the real revolutionary game-changers like The Dark Knight and Iron Man had yet to come along in 2007.) One day, superhero movies will fade away, and some other filmmaking style will come into vogue. Logan proves that even in an increasingly grimdark world, this is not that day, even though this movie does get very, very dark and deadly as it explores themes of mortality, extinction, and uncertainty that the next generation will have anything worth inheriting.

Logan is set in a near-future (2029, to be precise) where mutants are starting to slowly die off, as it's said none have been born in 25 years, and those who are left are succumbing to the ravages of time. Professor Xavier, in his nineties, is afflicted with dementia, and suffers from seizures that cause devastating psychic explosions in a large radius around him. And as for our title character, played in one of Hugh Jackman's best performances ever, he's dying in spite of his virtual immortality from his healing factor - dying of adamantium poisoning, calling to mind shades of Iron Man 2 where the very thing that helped make Tony Stark a superhero was killing him. Unlike in IM2, however, there's no easy solution to Logan's illness - it's not a simple matter of upgrading his machinery, especially because those who have the expertise to do so most certainly cannot be trusted.

Such as those responsible for the creation of a new mutant, using Logan's DNA. (Ironically, the scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse focusing on Logan's imprisonment in Alkali Lake, which are most important for setting this movie up, were the most forgettable for me - completely unlike this movie.) Laura looks like a sweet, innocent little girl, but is really very dangerous, with top-notch martial arts skills and double claws, as well as spikes in her feet - all covered with adamantium too, so try not to think about how she'll eventually get poisoned to death by that metal unless she figures out a way to get her claws and spikes reinforced by some less harmful material.

Logan doesn't want to help her - he just wants to take himself and Xavier away from the world and live on a boat, which he's been wanting to buy from some guy down in Mexico. But because Laura is his daughter (even if she was basically test-tubed without his knowledge or consent), he reluctantly agrees to follow the suggestion of Gabriela, the nurse who set Laura free from a Transigen facility in Mexico (the descendant of Alkali Lake), and take Laura to a rumored safe haven for mutants in Canada, called Eden. Clues to Eden's location and existence are, unbelievably, hidden in vintage X-Men comics which Laura likes to read - a plot device that I'm frankly astonished the MCU didn't do first, and now if they so much as attempt to do so, they'll look like they're copycatting this movie instead.

As for copycatting (or, more accurately, homaging), Logan is pretty full of it too. Plot details in this movie borrow liberally from Real Steel (grim near-future featuring somewhat decayed tech from today, and of course Hugh Jackman's presence) and Mad Max (pretty much all the movies in this series, except perhaps The Road Warrior, but especially Fury Road with its extended mashup of road-movie and chase-movie story elements). I also noted some similarities to the early parts of Transformers: Age of Extinction (private army in big black gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs pursuing our heroes), the Divergent movies (particularly Insurgent with the scene where our heroes have to get past an oncoming train - and Logan, unbelievably, manages to weaponize that train beautifully), Maximum Ride (the lab full of genetically-engineered kids - and also Dark Angel with the near-future setting) and even 2012 (Logan's vehicle of choice in the early parts of the movie being a limo - which, incidentally, is a "'24 Chrysler" that looks like a bizarre mashup of a current 300 and a customized 70s sedan.)

There's a ton of action to go around, and also some flashes of humor (although most of this is saved for a Deadpool 2 teaser that plays right before the movie proper - get ready for Ryan Reynolds' bare ass plastered against a phone booth door!), but definitely a metric shit-ton of feels as well. That's because family is such an important part of this movie, and you're going to feel so much for the unconventional family of grandpa Xavier, daddy Logan, and daughter Laura. On some level, you'll relate to them all, or you'll have a family member of whom you'll be reminded by one of the above. Like Amazing Spider-Man, The Flash, or Big Hero 6, Logan is now my platinum standard for fictional feels - especially because the movie doesn't leave any breathing room in its conclusion. The ending is absolute devastation, with only the barest hint of a ray of sunlight at the end of the tunnel. You'll want to grasp that ray with all your might, and keep hold of all the tissues - you'll need them.

But don't worry - while the movie is powerfully sad and grim, remember that hope. Remember it when you think about how there's so much other grimdarkness in recent comic-book adaptations (think BvS, or The Walking Dead Season 7), but what sets Logan apart from those is its broad-spectrum emotional experience, rather than going for a bunch of nihilistic sound and fury signifying nothing.

And for me, I really loved this movie because of how much it must have influenced the Red Rain series even before I began writing those books. Looking back, I realize that Alex and Gabe, being produced from Elijah's stolen DNA, were made in a way not unlike Laura. And as for the future of the series...well, I've recently started work on Peppermint, the fifth novel, and thanks to this movie, I've managed to add a lot to my world-building for that book. For further details, stay tuned...but suffice it to say, the next chapter of Peppermint will include some of these Logan references, presented to my heroes - and my readers - in the mouth of a Hugh Jackman lookalike villain named Kristoff Scoville.

(Yes, I came up with the idea to name my villain after author Jay Kristoff while watching this movie. Judge me.)

Logan deservedly earns an A+ from me, and even against the more lighthearted likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, it's locked in as a shoo-in for this year's Pinecone Award film winners. It's that good, and that deserving of the $400+ million it's earned at the worldwide box office - so far.

Till next time, Pinecones...

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

Review: Frostblood

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

It seems like this first Elly Blake book is pretty love-it-or-hate-it because, as YA fantasy stories go, Frostblood takes a lot of inspiration from previous YA fantasies, to the point where, more than most of its contemporaries, it feels like it's copycatting at times. Especially given that its premise centers on a girl of a different type of blood, looked down on for it, and drafted into the rebellion to use her secret powers against the oppressive royalty. Hell, even the cover apes Red Queen a bit, with its dripping blood and plain silvery-white background.

I'm going to take a third option and say I neither loved nor hated this book. Sure, the copycatting is there, and very obvious, but there are a few unique touches which Blake weaves into her worldbuilding - like the powers in this 'verse explicitly associated with specific gods, specifically, the gods of the four winds. Which means there are two additional powers, not just fire and frost - and you'd be very surprised what some of them are (though not if you're a Sherlock fan, let's just say that.) So this book has a pretty even balance of overdone and new elements, enough to keep me interested and awaiting the sequel, Fireblood, with interest.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island - A Well-Oiled Chaos Machine

***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.***

Kong. He's been a staple of American cinema for 84 years now, from his first groundbreaking movie to the campy af '70s remake to Peter Jackson's love letter and three-hour tour from 2005. Now, in 2017, he's back on the big screen, rebooted into the Legendary Pictures MonsterVerse which secretly began with 2014's Godzilla reboot, and headlining an inspired, propulsive film that's probably the best genre Vietnam War movie since James Cameron's Aliens.


Try not to love the smell of napalm in the morning too much. Kong might shove a palm tree into your face for that.

Though this movie's set in 1973, and was filmed quite a few months back, releasing it now, in the spring of 2017, makes the movie's themes resonate surprisingly well. Just look at the early scene where John Goodman's Bill Randa, an agent of the secret Monarch team featured in Godzilla, comes to DC and comments on the unprecedented corruption of the Nixon administration, which he's pretty sure will never repeat itself again. (Fast-forward 44 years and see how wrong you are, Randa, when the corruption reaches new highs in the absence of a legitimate administration.) Together with his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins - now we know the other reason, in addition to 24: Legacy, why Heath's been MIA for a while on The Walking Dead), Randa seeks funding for a Monarch expedition to find the mysterious Skull Island, traditional home of Kong and other assorted MUTOs. To get said funding, he takes advantage of the rampant confusion in the system as the book closes on one particularly troubling chapter of American history - the Vietnam War. For additional support for his Monarch team (which also includes San Lin (Jing Tian), a biologist with whom Brooks bonds), he picks up some military-types who are looking to come home from the war at last - a US Army squadron led by Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston looking unusually rugged and ragged), late of the British Special Air Services, who brings hunting and tracking skills to the team. Assisting in visual documentation (it wouldn't be a proper Kong movie without someone to film it all!) is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, our forthcoming Captain Marvel), a professional photographer and peace activist hoping to use her art to make a difference.

They go to Skull Island (here said to be in the Pacific, not in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean southwest of Sumatra like in previous versions) daunted to various degrees by the storm system that perpetually encircles the place, but the helicopters soar through the rain and lightning and soon start flying over the island, dropping seismic charges to map the island's underlying geology. The mission soon falls to pieces, however, when Kong himself looms out of the jungle and starts throwing palm trees at the choppers, which fall spectacularly and explosively all over the place. Who knew Skull Island was so huge? Conrad, for what it's worth, indicates that the wreckage of all the choppers and the crew are scattered over a roughly 45-square-mile area once Kong's done with them. (And take note - because he's not distracted trying to hold on to the Beauty to his Beast on top of a huge NYC skyscraper, he's got no trouble making mincemeat of these choppers even as they attempt to shoot him down. At one point in this first extended fight, he even jumps into the air and successfully tricks two choppers into shooting each other down.)

The plan, from this point forward, is to rendezvous at an exfil point on the north end of the island, but to get there, everyone has to trawl through the jungle like it's Vietnam all over again. And, just like Vietnam, our fighters are horribly outmatched - not so much by human inhabitants, though. In fact, unlike previous Kong movies whose depictions of the Skull Island natives have aged badly due to overuse of harmful "savage" stereotypes, here we see the local human population as a small, peaceful society living in relative harmony with Kong, their god and protector. They also count among them a fallen World War II pilot, Hank Marlow, played terrifically by John C. Reilly. (Don't worry, if you think the movie's gonna portray the tribe as a cargo cult, they don't.) Marlow actually first appears in the movie's prologue, wherein he and a Japanese pilot, Gunpei Ikari, crash-land on Skull Island's shores in 1945, fight each other for a while, and then witness Kong himself rising out of the jungle. When we meet Marlow again in 1973, he reveals that, having found a place where the war no longer mattered, he and Gunpei wound up becoming friends, and both came to live in the tribe's village (although Gunpei has since died.)

Marlow's function in the story is to represent the perfect antithesis to the movie's more warlike characters, particularly Sam Jackson's Col. Packard, who pretty much forgets the Vietnam War is over the second Kong starts acting up. From there, another parallel to the present day is drawn - not only does the movie take place at a time when corruption and cynicism were infecting the government at the highest levels (just like today), but also, like today, the movie's time period is coming down off a war that, in hindsight, has proven totally unnecessary, a waste of precious resources, money, and manpower fought only because those in charge were hawks who just wanted any excuse they could get to rattle their sabers. (And, as Packard says to try and justify his ways, "We didn't lose the war. We just abandoned it.")

They may have abandoned it, but they've sure as hell found their way into another one, this time on a scale far greater than human. As per tradition, Skull Island is populated with a wide variety of Pokémon - sorry, MUTOs, to use the official MonsterVerse acronym. Some of these, like a massive water buffalo, are pretty harmless. One is Kong, not the nicest guy around, but he's easily counted on to keep you safe from the worst of them, unless you piss him off. But then there's a bunch of other nasty monsters, such as giant spiders and ants and even the deadly, dinosaur-like Skullcrawlers (whose design, according to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, took inspiration from Neon Genesis Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away, and the Pokémon Cubone - a surprisingly terrifying mashup in practice). These monsters have a way of lurking in wait, camouflaging themselves and only striking when it's too late. They're monsters, but their ecosystem perfectly represents a foreign land in which American military might really has no place - again, just like Vietnam. And again, just try telling that to Packard, who by the end of the movie basically wants to blow it all to hell as revenge for the team's first encounter with Kong, with no regard for the terrible impact this will have on the rest of the island. Including the villagers.

While the producers' approach owes a lot to the Marvel Cinematic Universe - #ItsAllConnected in the tangled story threads, some of which wait until a post-credits scene to make themselves known; and they've also hired a little-known director with more than a strong flair for filmmaking, very clearly standing on the shoulders of the giants Abrams, Spielberg, Whedon, Gunn, etc. - Kong: Skull Island manages to be even more of a thinker's movie than some MCU films. It's brutal and blistering, to be sure, but its themes and messages resonate shockingly well in the wake of America's fall to fascism.

Go and watch this grade-A movie if you can. You're welcome. Obviously.

Till next time, Pinecones...

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

Review: Caraval

Caraval Caraval by Stephanie Garber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not unlike last year's Ruined by Amy Tintera, Stephanie Garber's debut novel Caraval is set in a Spanish-influenced fantasy world, and has a bit of a slow-paced beginning but really picks up the pace in the second half. The similarities end there, however. While Tintera's fantasy was a more action-packed piece in the vein of Throne of Glass, Garber gives us something more akin to Alice in Wonderland - and especially Splintered. But there was one character in particular that kept coming to mind quite often as I read the book, and that was Teen Wolf's infamous Nogitsune.



Along the way, Garber treats protagonist Scarlett Dragna - and, by extension, us readers - to a sumptuous, surreal, and often quite violent ride. Let me not sugarcoat it - this book isn't for the faint of heart, between the horribly abusive Governor Dragna treating his daughters Scarlett and Tella like doormats and the frequent bloody murders that saturate the second half of the story. As YA stories go, this one is dark and full of terrors, so consider yourself warned going in.

Though it doesn't quite live up to the hype for me (reminding me a bit of Truthwitch), Caraval makes for a strong and unforgettable debut, and I can't wait to read the sequel next year.

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: The Orphan Queen

The Orphan Queen The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've admittedly been sleeping on the works of Jodi Meadows for a while, but recently, when there erupted a furor over the cover of her upcoming series starter, Before She Ignites, I realized I might have been missing out on some good books. So I'm going to be combing through her oeuvre for a while to get a taste before BSI - which I really want to read - hits shelves.

As a first impression of Meadows' work, I probably would've found a better one with her Incarnate series, because The Orphan Queen certainly isn't as stellar as its first 100 pages or so might imply. Sure, the book has a pretty interesting premise - its main character being a lost princess stolen from another kingdom, raised in cozy captivity, but now wreaking havoc in a gang of thieves - but those first 100 pages or so, the most five-star parts of the book, quickly give way to a slow remainder. The world-building is pretty minimal, although we do get enough details to notice certain strong similarities to competing fantasy books. Like those of Leigh Bardugo - a distant dark entity toxifying the landscape like in the Grisha Trilogy, heisting and magic like in Six of Crows - or V.E. Schwab - Wil's tendency to cross-dress as needed reminding me strongly of Lila Bard - or Sara Raasch - lost princess fighting to get back to her magic kingdom.

There's not a lot that's new in The Orphan Queen, but it does have that strong beginning going for it, and I certainly hope the sequel is an improvement. And also the Incarnate series. And certainly Before She Ignites, which looks like it'll be really unique and fun to read.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: Teeth

Teeth Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If Andrew Smith wrote a story about merpeople, it'd probably be a little something like Hannah Moskowitz's Teeth. This book is a bite-sized piece of modern Gothic magical-realist surrealist weirdness, so literary it hurts. Parallels to The Metamorphosis, in particular, run wild - and take note that I LOATHED The Metamorphosis when I had to read that book in high school, because it was so relentlessly downbeat and impenetrable. Moskowitz's book isn't so impenetrable, but it does carry strong undercurrents of literati pretension in how obsessively character-oriented it is at the expense of a meaningful plot. That's not to say that there isn't a plot - it's just that that plot has a way of hiding behind layers upon layers of repetitive narration and dialogue (basically about 25% of the book is carpet F-bombage, and another 25% is waxing poetic about the book's titular disfigured mer-dude), grimdark stories about fish rape, and characters that, try as I might, I can't care about them as much as I should. Really, about the only things I appreciated were the bonding moments between Rudy and Dylan (I'm always a sucker for brother stories), and also Rudy discovering that his sexuality extends beyond hetero as he connects more and more with Teeth (hence my earlier Andrew Smith comparison.) Unfortunately, aside from all of that, I felt unable to connect with this story in any way. As a first impression of Moskowitz's work for me, I'm sorry to say this is a poor one, and because I picked this one first specifically because it was the most "genre" (and, theoretically, the most in my wheelhouse), I'm pretty reluctant to try any of her other books.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In recent months, I've been working to find a good YA historical piece, often with poor results (as was the case with Salt To The Sea or Razorhurst.) This brick of a book from Daniel Kraus, with a larger-than-life title to match, fits the bill a little better, perhaps better than any YA historical I've read since The Monstrumologist. Appropriate, given that the first Kraus book I read, Rotters, had some strong Monstrumologist vibes in the modern day, whereas this book follows its corpse-y title character throughout a long stretch of history from the late nineteenth century through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression years (spent in Old Hollywood), and finally leaving off right at the start of World War II, with the implied promise that the second book will cover everything from there to the present day.

It's a long, long journey for Zebulon Finch, perpetually seventeen and always seeking redemption, though, like an erection without blood flow (it makes sense in context), it may be very damn near impossible to come by for him. You can tell that Kraus, that "esteemed fictionist," had a blast writing this book, sprawling and disgusting and engrossing as it is. It's a look at the seedy underbelly of US history at this time, dealing heavily in organized crime, ethnically-marked gang wars, horrors in the trenches, scam artistry, prostitution and hedonism among celebrities, and other assorted politically incorrect subject matter.

It's not for everyone, not by a long shot, but if you happen upon a copy of this book, do give it a shot.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: Blood for Blood

Blood for Blood Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the sequel to Wolf By Wolf, Ryan Graudin takes the reader on another whirlwind tour of this alternate history where Hitler lives eleven years longer than he did in the real world...and the Valkyrie plan has been revived to try and effect a long-needed coup. Though Blood for Blood is no less fast-paced than its predecessor, it also suffers from a tendency to get lost in too many plot threads and too much focus on characters other than Yael (though Luka's redemption-and-disillusionment arc makes for the most interesting reading after Yael's part of the story). However, it all builds up to a gripping final act that wraps the series up pretty neatly, even if it feels like there's a loose end or two. Gripping...and deadly.

Suffice it to say, I'll be on the lookout for anything else Graudin gives us in the future.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Devil's Advocate

Devil's Advocate Devil's Advocate by Jonathan Maberry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pairing beautifully with Kami Garcia's Fox Mulder origin story Agent of Chaos, Jonathan Maberry whips up another masterful horror-mystery in Devil's Advocate, wherein he focuses on teenage Dana Scully. Raised Catholic - or, at least, in Catholic school - Scully finds herself troubled by horrifying visions of devilish murders, and in order to get to the bottom of a rash of deaths at her new school, she needs to delve into some Eastern mysticism (as well as martial-arts training) to really solve the mystery in ways that her original faith can't properly explain. Less conspiratorial than its companion novel, Devil's Advocate makes up for it by being even more of a detective story, with Scully engaging the services of her schoolmates and her sister to help her out, even though all of them are amateur detectives at best. Both stories could easily have made wonderful flashback episodes for the original series, and hell, at this point, I really wish Fox would, before attempting to make an eleventh-season miniseries event, give us at least a couple of one-offs based on these books, if only to entertain those of us who've read and enjoyed these books.

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Review: Agent of Chaos

Agent of Chaos Agent of Chaos by Kami Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of the two X Files Origins books, this one focuses on teenage Fox Mulder, as written by Kami Garcia. I've been waiting for Garcia to really dazzle me again for a while, since I'm still waiting on continuations for the Dangerous Creatures and Legion series (there's no way those could end where they did!) But for another opportunity for Garcia to show how good she is at writing teenagers getting into paranormal creepery, this book delivers. It reminds me a lot of Super 8 because of its 1979 setting, but also of Teen Wolf - the MTV series in particular - because of the dynamic between Mulder and his friend Gimble. Together with Mulder's best friend (and girlfriend, or so he desires) Phoebe, it's a cool piece of supplementary material to the classic TV series, loaded with Easter eggs and proof positive that geeks are the real heroes, always.

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: Empire of Storms

Empire of Storms Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off, I have to say that flaming blue-orange contrast cover with Aelin looking incredibly more beautiful and kick-ass than ever is just downright awesome.

Second off, the one and only proper reaction to that doozy of an ending:



So. Empire of Storms.

Honestly, after Queen of Shadows with its Lovecraftian horror and demonic possessions every-freaking-where, I thought Maas had peaked. Maybe she has - the books she's put out in the last year or so, I wasn't quite as impressed with (certainly not on the first read) those as I was with the ones she published in 2015. ACOMAF had an infuriating beginning (especially when my initial ship got torpedoed with extreme prejudice), but built up to a high-intensity ending. EoS, meanwhile, was less infuriating, but it did have a way of boring me a bit at first, largely due to its length. Knowing Chaol wasn't in this book didn't help - he's long been a favorite of mine - and I'm so, so, so done with the whole Rowan/Aelin ship, which built up to new romantically messed-up heights...and meanwhile, EVERYBODY ELSE pairs up with someone, heedless of sense most of the time, which pads this 700-page book unnecessarily. (Ironically, the book appears slimmer than its predecessors because it's printed on thinner paper.)

However. That ending. Oh my God. Without going into spoilers, let's just say that Victoria Aveyard might have started a trend with the ending of Glass Sword, and Maas has given us something unsettlingly similar here.



Along the way, there's a lot of sailing, a lot of wvyern fighting (now THAT was awesome!), a lot of burning (some of which is an extremely on-the-nose visual metaphor for the current ship du jour having some heavy, explicit sex), and also a major surprise twist about 100 pages from the end - even before the Aveyardian ending. (Yes, I'm calling Aveyardian a word now.)

Looks like for Book 7, we can expect quite the epic finale - but first, Chaol's novel later this year. And thank God for that, because I can do without an entire book populated with Rowan now, you know what I'm saying?

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: Hunt for Jade Dragon

Hunt for Jade Dragon Hunt for Jade Dragon by Richard Paul Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fourth Michael Vey book, which I know now to be the middle entry in a seven-part series, improves a bit on its predecessor by weaving a somewhat more complex - and yet, comprehensible - web of story. While I was a little unhappy about the previous three books consistently sprinkling in side sections of the story that I felt detracted from the overall experience, here, the side trips finally feel necessary, because some storylines from the previous books - like the Elgen kids, especially - are coming back into prominence, and it's becoming a little more clear how deeply involved in Michael's life Hatch really was.

Two to go and then I'll be caught up in time for the seventh and final novel - which, as I understand it, is still unnamed.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Queen of Shadows

Queen of Shadows Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first, I was a bit worried that the length of this book would make it too daunting a task to really enjoy. Luckily, like with a good Harry Potter or Song of Ice and Fire book (or Cassie Clare's epic-sized City of Heavenly Fire), this book delivered lots of high action over its considerable length. Even though I'm not at all happy with some of the character development (Aelin being quite an epic jackass compared to the previous books, Chaol's role in the story being reduced into further oblivion, the ship tease with Rowan and Aelin that I no longer enjoy the second time around), there will always be all that action, and, dare I say, the Lovecraftian horror. Those Valg... *shudders*

I still feel like, aside from the aforementioned character-development and serious shipping annoyances (as well as the ongoing preponderance of characters who do this book no good in the diversity department - any and all known PoC and/or LGBT+ characters being minor at best), Queen of Shadows would have made a good ending to the series. Much of the story is wrapped up, with a few loose ends, but none too annoying. It helps that a major antagonist dies in the end (I hope - it would be just like Maas to revive this character in later installments, I think.)

It used to be that I thought this was the series' peak, but now I think it's just part of a slow downhill slide from Book 1 overall. I get the feeling I'm going to drop the rating for Empire of Storms upon rereading that one as well...but I'm still seriously hoping for the upcoming Chaol novel to really rescue the series for me.

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