Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Going back a little further in Hutchinson's bibliography, The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley touches on a lot of the same themes as the next two books he's written since this one hit shelves, but on a smaller scale (it's only a shade under 300 pages as opposed to the 400-plus of both We Are the Ants and At the Edge of the Universe) and with less genre inflection, aside from the presence of the comics that the title character draws about his original antihero character, Patient F. But overall, this smaller, though no less personal, piece of emotional Hutchinson wonder reads like a mashup of Winger and Red Band Society, with Drew being an even more unique lead character than Henry or Ozzie, and the best characters being Trevor and Lexi, two adorable and awesome kids cursed to be patients in the hospital's pediatric ward. All these characters, and Rusty too, will make you laugh and cry, sometimes both at once. It wouldn't be Hutchinson if they didn't, no?

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: The Darkest Minds

The Darkest Minds The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alexandra Bracken's first big novel, when I first read it a few years back, was a gripping, if sometimes slow, piece of Twenty Minutes Into The Future YA dystopia - basically, a pandemic kills off most American children, and those who survive develop X-Men-style powers. (In this case, however, there are only five to choose from. Red = pyrokinesis, Orange = telepathy including mind control, Yellow = electrokinesis and technopathy, Green = polymath and increased intelligence, and Blue = telekinesis. I'll have to remember that better now - it was very hard for me to keep track sometimes when I read the series the first time.)

Rereading it, I found it to be pretty classic Bracken - full of interesting ideas, but also full of dead air and static because of its length. I mean, seriously, almost 500 pages - and there are two more novels this length in the series! Really, it's the tiny nuggets of interesting info that keep this story strong and addictive - especially now, when the book feels a lot more relevant as, like in the real world, it depicts a fascist "president" swapping time between DC and New York (although that may just be coincidence rather than prophecy, unless there's a secret Purple Psi power that Bracken has that we don't know about?) And at least President Gray is marginally more sympathetic than a certain Agent Orange...but maybe I'll be able to develop the comparison more (or less) after rereading the rest of the series. I've already got Never Fade on order, though it might be a while because my library has so few copies of that one, for some reason. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: Blood Rose Rebellion

Blood Rose Rebellion Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first tried reading this one a couple of months ago, and at the time, I couldn't get into it. This time, however, I found it an easier read, and while I can't say I love this book, I was able to finish the whole thing and am still intrigued enough to want to read the sequel, which has a pretty interesting-sounding title and cover, no? As for this one, though, it's a pretty strange little story, an alternate-history fantasy focusing on a very little-known mid-19th-century event, but with the twist that there's magic involved. And that magic is, normally, accessible only to the upper classes - hence the common comparison between this book and Red Queen. It's an upper class that wants to control everyone else, because isn't that what they all want to do? And in this case, there's certain ethnic tension due to Romani involvement (and, Eves being a modern author, she has her heroine learn, very quickly, how inaccurate and insulting the term "Gypsy" is.)

Though Blood Rose Rebellion is a story we've seen time and again in YA, it's also got just enough unique factors that it's really not to be missed - and who knows? The sequels might just get even more interesting.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Ink and Bone

Ink and Bone Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?...An idea."
-Dom Cobb, Inception

"If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist."
-Jocasta Nu, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

I can't believe I've been sleeping on this series for as long as I have, but seeing the third book appear on the Lucky Day shelf of extra copies of new books at the library, I realized I had to start at the beginning. And when I did, I had no idea that I was going into one of the most unique, most inventive pieces of fantasy dystopian in all of YA literature. Alternate history, Twenty Minutes Into The Future, science-fantasy, a wonderfully diverse cast...what more could you ask for?

Well, there's one thing that could really be asked for, and that's a one-of-a-kind villain - or villainous organization, or perhaps two. One of which is the very Erudite-esque Great Library itself. Never thought a Library would be such bad news, did you? In this case, though, they are, being more about controlling the dissemination of information than about spreading the intellectual wealth. Basically, the capitalists of this world, while the Burners (so named for using Greek fire to wipe out the Library around the world) serve as communist anarchists gone extreme. And somewhere in the middle, we have Obscurists, subtracting both the greed of the Library and the violence of the Burners.

This story is longer than it appears, but it's very wonderful and addictive and if you aren't reading it yet, why not? Pick it up immediately, my friends.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Ignite Me

Ignite Me Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another lousy good book from Tahereh Mafi!

I must add I was pleasantly surprised to find myself switching ships. God, Mafi not only sank my original ship, she torpedoed it with extreme prejudice for shit's sake (as Kenji would say). And it's definitely for the better, too, because of the character growth and development involved in the victorious ship, and the unexpected character regression in the original (which, I now notice, includes a real ton of ableist insults which, of course, Juliette does not tolerate.)

And I have to say that while Chapter 55 was certainly hot and heavy, I have a confession: Chapter 58 is even more so, IMHO.

Ave atque vale to the original Shatter Me trilogy...but not forever, not to this story world. Not when there's a new trilogy on the horizon, and thank God for that!

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: Generation One

Generation One Generation One by Pittacus Lore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Lorien Legacies sequel series?

A Lorien Legacies sequel series!

My general reaction when they announced this:

And my general reaction having finally finished reading Generation One:

So. The skinny, the looks like ol' Mr. Frey has decided to keep Pittacus Lore's storytelling career going in a slightly different form, one that borrows a bit from the Endgame trilogy in terms of style. Not so much the strange formatting with unindented paragraphs and numbers numbered out like Frey got possessed by Tahereh Mafi, but from the multiple POVs of a very diverse ensemble cast like Frey instead got possessed by Leigh Bardugo. Here we have six main third-person narrators, all Garde. Two of them, we've met in the original series - sonic-manipulating punk Nigel and the troubled, Mako Mori-like Ran. The other four are new to us - the Jekyll and Hyde-ish Caleb, the bold, brash Isabela, Kopano (the first new Garde we meet, who has a Luke Cage-type power combined with a gentle-giant personality) and Taylor, a healer. (Perhaps because she's the white female lead, she's the only one named in the dust-jacket blurb, but then again the original series also liked to focus on one character at a time with each blurb too.)

Then there's the seventh POV, belonging to a villain who wants to kidnap the new Earth Garde and use them for his own ends...and then it's hinted he's got superiors who really are in charge and really want to use the Garde. The villains are fairly diverse too - an Icelander and a Saudi being the main ones, in addition to your standard Bible-thumping white-supremacist human-supremacist American shit-for-brains - but they're pretty damn ruthless. Hell, in their first scene, they steal a boy from an Australian Aboriginal village and massacre the rest of the inhabitants - shades of Kylo Ren here, not to mention some nasty colonialism that reminds me of some of the more disturbing scenes from Cleverman.

This book really takes its time to get going, but when it does, it rockets into the stratosphere as only Pittacus Lore can take us, easily going toe to toe with the original series in terms of action and thrills. It helps that a few of our faves from the original series make comebacks - Dr. Malcolm Goode, "Professor" Nine (who now resembles Man Bun Ken, but I still think he's cool, that lovable assbite), Daniela, the aforementioned Nigel and Ran...and even John, who makes one surprise cameo in all his Superman-esque glory. Though I kinda wish I could've seen Sam, Six, or Seven...but there'll be more books in this series, and more chances for them to return.

Make no mistake - this new series is shaping up to be a more than worthy follow up to The Lorien Legacies. I never expected Generation One to happen, but all praise be to Pittacus Lore and the Book Gods.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I guess I'm reading Shaun David Hutchinson's books in reverse order? Okay then, that's cool. Between this book and At the Edge of the Universe, I've got no problem picking up on a few elements of what seems to be a signature Hutchinson style. Contemporary with sci-fi elements, a gay protagonist making very bad choices because he's very depressed after his first relationship failed, a jackass older brother, family troubles in general, bullyboys...except, in this case, one of the bullyboys is closeted and likes to hook up with our protagonist (or as Hutchinson's narrators seem to like to call it, "fool around"), all in secret, of course. And then there's the mysterious new boy for whom our protagonist falls, who turns out to be into him as well, but has to deal with his dark and troubled past. Also, a ton of triggering elements, ranging from abusive relationships to miscarriages to a grandmother with Alzheimer's and suicide and pictures of assault on the internet and attempted rape.

Yeah, really, it feels like a lot of story elements from this book resurfaced in Hutchinson's next one, but in the latter, I feel like he did it better. I think this one felt a little more detached, but then that was probably the point, highlighting certain insignificances in the grand scheme of things.

Not gonna lie, though. Henry and Diego make a far better couple than any featured in Edge, except Tommy and Ozzie, perhaps. I especially liked how Diego gives this book some bi rep (or possibly pan - it's left ambiguous.)

Next up on my reverse time-travel course through the works of Mr. Hutchinson: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. Why my library doesn't have it, though, I'm really not sure.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For my second Mohsin Hamid book, I picked his latest - on Aimal Farooq's recommendation, just like with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Rather similarly to that book, Exit West is short and lyrical. Unlike TRF, this book is very low-key, not so much a geopolitical thriller, but very much rooted in magical realism. It follows two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, as they escape their war-torn home and migrate around the world, going a little further west each time. Greece, Austria, England...and then, finally, about as far west as they can go, to the San Francisco suburb of Marin City. Along the way, they keep running into more of the same kinds of trouble - refugee problems, war following them wherever they go, the works. Though this book feels like a short story padded to novella length with its run-on sentences and frequent interludes looking into happenings around the world that are pretty much disconnected from the main narrative of Saeed and Nadia, it's no less quick and addictive a read for it, and is very much worth a look for its unique, dreamlike feel.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Unravel Me

Unravel Me Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Want to read? No, I absolutely cannot. This series is too depressing. Oh boy do I! This book is a must must must read!

Wow, everything is wrong in this world - a world that I really hope this one doesn't turn into. And to think, Tahereh Mafi sounds like such a happy bright young woman in her bio, on her website...and yet she writes this sad sad sad moving moving moving and nightmarish




literary wonder.

If you haven't noticed by now, I love love love the broken fragment-y writing style Mafi uses.

Feels like one of the closest things to authentic teenager speak (the kind that doesn't use 1 2 3 42 atrocious slangy and/or sweary words every 5 10 20 minutes.)

Feels almost like the way I talk. Like Xander or Topher or Coulson or Fitz or whoever will be the next Joss Whedon Author Avatar. So caffeinated. Buzzy like bees flies mosquitoes buzzing things. Deliciously random stream-of-consciousness language spoken when (to quote MGMT) "time takes a rain check." Escapist pleasure like none other.

Beautiful. And it still holds up four years after I first read it.

And also - great cover. Wish the first book had started with this cover style, it's a real improvement. Cannot wait to reread Ignite Me and then move on to the new trilogy, whenever I get my hands on the first of those books!

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: And I Darken

And I Darken And I Darken by Kiersten White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was about to read this book last year, but a Muslim friend advised me against it because she disagreed with its representation of her religion, so I followed her advice and returned it to the library unread. But then recently, another Muslim friend read and reviewed this book pretty favorably, especially in terms of Muslim rep, so inspired by that (and the fact that the sequel is now out), I decided to give And I Darken the chance I would've given it a year ago.

After reading through all almost 500 pages of this book, I've concluded that my thoughts on this novel fall somewhere in between those of my two friends in terms of how we rated it. I didn't dislike it, but I can't really say I liked it, either, not when it was so long and slow and half of it was in the head of Lada, the genderswapped Vlad the Impaler, who proved to be one of the most unlikable (if not the most) protagonists I've seen in the world of YA. Lada is an absolute misanthrope, disdainful of anyone who shows any sign of weakness (including herself), very violent, and suffers from a certain case of internalized misogyny. In short, her head is tons of no fun to inhabit, and it really does drag down my rating for this book, to be honest.

The day to Lada's night, though, is her younger brother Radu, a really gentle soul - and one who has a much easier time making friends, when he's not surrounded by those who think it's cool to beat him up. And also, Radu has a certain appreciation for the finer things in life. Like natural beauty. Or religion. While neither he nor Lada much enjoy the Orthodox Christianity to which they were born and raised, he, unlike his sister, doesn't shy away from religion (unless to use it as a hill to die on for why she thinks the Ottoman Empire is evil incarnate.) Radu takes to Islam like a fish to water, appreciating the religion's relative simplicity and devotion to peace, charity, and virtue in general. And unlike Christianity, where the book focuses on sharp sectarian divisions like Orthodox vs. Catholic, White presents a largely positive outlook on Islam, especially as soon-to-be-sultan Mehmed seeks out multiple interpretations of scripture to expand his education.

The one thing I didn't like about Radu's characterization was how it relied a lot on stereotypes of gay men being effeminate, weak, prone to excessive emotion, etc. Not to mention, in the second half of the story when he comes to realize he's gay, it gives him tons of angst because the society of the time wouldn't accept him for that. To White's credit, though, she does not make religion a reason behind Radu's angst - more his fear of alienating those he loves. But there's that problem with stereotypes rearing its ugly head - not only for Radu, but for Lada as well, because Lada is, again, stricken with some serious internalized misogyny, as she considers being a woman to be a weakness. In early scenes, Radu treats his own puberty like a curiosity, while for Lada, hers is traumatic and terrifying, probably because, well, it only means she's maturing and will be expected to take on traditional female roles to which she cannot, will not, adhere.

In general, though, Lada's refusal to bend to social expectations, while making for interesting reading, also makes her supremely unlikable because it comes across sometimes like she's just super-duper petty. A bit of the worst parts of Daenerys and Cersei, to be honest - and sometimes going beyond the latter's "love to hate." And while we're at it, no, this book is not a YA Game of Thrones - it's not bloody enough (even if it does deal with the early years of an alternate-historical Vlad the Impaler), and there's no magic. The only thing it really has in common with A Song of Ice and Fire is endless politicking.

Though I'm definitely planning to read Now I Rise as soon as possible, I'm going into that one with trepidation because, frankly, I think Lada's just going to get worse from here on out. But at least there should be some nice chapters in Radu's third-person POV to liven things up.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Seeker

Seeker Seeker by Veronica Rossi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So this, as I understand it, is supposed to be the end of a duology...but you know what? I really hope not. Not just because I'm not really a fan of the whole duology thing - like, it always feels like the story's a little incomplete, or it should've been a standalone from the get-go, but two books? It's so...weird to me, for some reason. But really, Rossi gives us some really good Four Horsemen mythology, with her own unique spin, and I'd be really disappointed to see it come to an end so soon. But hey, at least we'll have Riders, and now Seeker, told in a pretty cool dual POV - Daryn and Gideon, both of whom play off each other beautifully. Though I didn't quite like this book as much as the first one - the second half tends to get a little confusing and jumbled for me - it still has much of its predecessor's high-intensity action and fun. Really, the thought that this one is the end of the series? It sucks.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book manages to break my previous rule for this series that even-numbered books are better than odd-numbered ones, because it's really not much of an improvement over Nemesis Games. Instead, Babylon's Ashes manages to take the story threads its predecessor leaves us and focus on the least interesting, most procedural ones, and even manages to turn the military thriller elements surprisingly pedestrian. Of course, the real problem is that Nemesis Games ended with a pretty wild cliffhanger, and this book barely addresses said cliffhanger, leaving the whole plot thread about the ships vanishing through the ring gates dangling like fringe on some 70s-style jacket. I know the Corey team is planning as many as nine novels in this series, but really, at this point it feels like they're stretching it into so much textual taffy. At least this book has its highlights - such as Filip's involvement in the terroristic Free Navy (you can tell if they win, they'll become like the pigs in Animal Farm) and of course Avasarala continuing to be her usual foul-mouthed, venom-tongued self, and with a lot more involvement in the story (not just a voice and face on a screen) because it's an even-numbered book in the series, after all. At least I can now say I'm caught up on the series, with the seventh book pretty close at hand - and I hope the final third of the series really picks things up again. Like that story thread about the ships that keep vanishing.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review: This Savage Song

This Savage Song This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although The Archived series remains my Schwab favorite, This Savage Song is a pretty close second, I think.

You always gotta love a bit of fantasy dystopian, and this book, perhaps the closest thing to a Black City spiritual successor there's been since that trilogy came to an end, is no exception. Schwab expertly blends zombies, vampires, and demons (the closest analogues I can think of to this world's three classes of monster) into a walled-off, claustrophobic big city of the post-apocalyptic near future. It's a well-built world, but you know there's a ton more details just waiting to be unveiled in later books. (And I really hope Our Dark Duet, at the very least, includes a world map.)

We get two main characters telling the story in third-person POVs - rebellious Kate, and August, a tortured, soul-eating Sunai, one of only three known. While Kate's head was so much harder to get into (something I think Schwab herself acknowledged), August was a different story, and when the narrative jumped into his POV, I found him surprisingly relatable, mostly because of how he's kept so isolated and pretty much only gets involved in society, in any way, when he hides who he really is. It actually kind of got to the point where I dreaded Kate's POV, because frankly, I connected infinitely better with August. Both of them, however, fit neatly into the Schwab tradition of morally gray leads.

As for the story, it sags just a little bit in the middle or so, where it feels like nothing's happened for a while. But then in the final third, Schwab piles on the twists and turns like nobody's business. I mean...holy crap balls.

So, while this book did get a little damaged by hype for me, it's still a unique and enjoyable read, and as long as I'm still waiting (with decreasing patience) for The Returned (or whatever the third Archived book will be called), this and any other new Schwab book had no problem keeping me entertained.

Since I first read this book last year, I've come across a review from another autistic reader that condemned it as harmful because August was coded as neurodivergent, and she felt it offensive because he's inhuman - but wants very much not to be. Looking back, and upon my reread in preparation for Our Dark Duet, I realize that she was right on the money with August's coding, but me, I found it the opposite of harmful, because I felt that August reflected me beautifully. Being autistic myself, I agreed that August feeling constantly subhuman, only at ease when practicing his art, extremely uncomfortable in society, people-watching to try and understand how to look human, feeling like a constant burden, etc. etc., was all very accurate to my own neurodivergent experience as well, even before applying the whole soul-eating Sunai thing to it all. So, though rereading this book may have contributed to me being a bit more depressed than usual lately, I nevertheless applaud Schwab for writing August as she did. Remember, no group is a monolith.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Dove Exiled

Dove Exiled Dove Exiled by Karen Bao
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taking the action down to Earth - literally - does this second book in Karen Bao's kick-ass trilogy a great service. It allows her to expand the world-building by showing us a little more of what the world is like 300 years into the future, when the continents are pretty much all either water-damaged or otherwise uninhabitable and all the remaining territory is either small islands full of natural resources, or deadly floating cities that try to capture everything else. And the cities of Pacifia and Battery Bay don't just float, either - they move around. You can see one of those moving floating cities bearing down behind Phaet and Wes on the cover, and it looks pretty scary...

Another bonus to this book is how sharply critical of humanity it is. Not just Western civilization and capitalism, but communism as well. There's even a point made of Phaet's days in Lunar school, when her teachers condemned both those extremes of the economic spectrum. And while the two floating superpowers try to gobble up as much of Earth as they can, up on the Moon, there's sinister alliances happening, and even a storyline of election fraud that resonates so much more strongly now after Russia rigged our election last year.

Really, my only complaint about this book is that it's too short. But it's got me raring to get my hands on a copy of the third (and, I believe, final) book ASAP.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Review: Crazy House

Crazy House Crazy House by James Patterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The cover alone promises that this book is the next Hunger Games, and it's not entirely wrong to say, especially not when, for this book, Patterson collaborates with the same co-author behind the first Witch and Wizard novel. Like that series, Crazy House has a peculiar dystopian vibe (minus the paranormal elements, that is), set in a Twenty-Minutes-Into-The-Future world where the pop culture is different, small-town life is the way to go, a seemingly all-powerful leader resorts to screaming at you when things go wrong (although this book's Provost ain't exactly The One Who Is The One, not when there are higher-ups beyond him), and innocent teenagers are imprisoned for pretty much no reason other than being teenagers. Well, not really, but I'm not about to spoil the surprises this book has in store. Though a lot of those surprises are pretty predictable, and only marginally help this book's shockingly paper-thin world building, the book is still classic Patterson, a speedy and addictive read. And there are still some surprises you don't see coming - some really heavy ones. Be warned: this book contains allusions to rape.

I've noticed that this book isn't getting much buzz out there - I mean, sure, it's Patterson, and his reputation in the YA community hasn't been the best lately, and that title probably repels a lot of readers for its ableist overtones, but then again, there must be enough buyers of this book out there that it managed to hit #2 on the bestseller list. Though not perfect, Crazy House is a loving reminder, for me, of my high school days when Max Ride used to be cool, when Witch and Wizard was the best, and (though these books came out when I was in college) Confessions of a Murder Suspect was addictive and soapy and sometimes sci-fi-tinged fun.

Though the list of JIMMY Patterson books at the start of this one (including Stalking Jack the Ripper) includes this one under stand-alones, it's clear after reading this book that it's the first in a series, as it ends on a cliffhanger that finally blows this strange new world wide open. To which I say: Bring on Book 2, Patterson and Charbonnet.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming - Holland Swings Out Of Garfield's Shadow


"Hey! Ho! Let's go!"
-The Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop"

If you read my blog with any level of religiosity, then you know that I, Ricky Pine, am the last of the great Andrew Garfield stans, and I will defend The Amazing Spider-Man movies, bar none the biggest influences on my own writing, to my dying day. Hell, the whole reason why I started this blog in the first place was to articulate my distress and disappointment when I learned that Garfield basically got fired from the franchise and Sony was starting from scratch. Even if they were finally incorporating Spidey into the MCU like nature intended, I thought that it was a massive mistake to recast everyone, especially Garfield, whose performances mirrored me and resonated with me like nobody else before or since ever has.

Then along came Tom Holland last year in Civil War, and for his relatively limited screentime in a jam-packed movie that was basically Avengers 2.5 as opposed to merely Cap 3, he made a strong, strong impression. I thought he did a great job giving a Spidey performance very distinct from Garfield and Maguire both, though I knew I'd never find him to be as spot-on a mirror to me as Garfield simply because I'd gotten too old. And that's okay, because hey, it allowed me a chance to write the dynamic between Garfield!Spidey and Holland!Spidey in my Deadpool Syndrome fanfics as mirrors of my relationships with those characters - with Garfield being me, and Holland being like a little brother. Pesky but not annoying, a ball of pure energy, the sun to Garfield's moon.

And in his first time headlining a Spidey-film, Holland builds beautifully on that sunshine. While The Amazing Spider-Man movies (especially the second) remain my platinum standards for fictional feels, Spider-Man: Homecoming joins the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy as my platinum standard for fictional fun.

I'll hear what he's hearing.

Let's face it, if you go into this movie a student of Holland's predecessors (though I'm more of a B student at best with the Raimi trilogy, as opposed to an A student for Marc Webb's Amazing duology), you'll be doomed to endlessly compare this movie to those predecessors in every way. But that kind of comparison is sorta moot because really, Amazing and Homecoming, they're awesome apples and outlandish oranges.

Though I can tell you this much - there's a lot that Homecoming vastly improves on compared to its predecessors. The casting, no longer so overwhelmingly white, feels far more typical of the movie's New York setting. Peter isn't the loner he used to be, not when he's got a loyal Hufflepuff like Ned Leeds in his corner (and why the hell have we never heard of Jacob Batalon until now?) This movie doesn't focus on how Peter got his powers and learned to use them, not now that that storyline's been done twice (including the death of Uncle Ben, who - get this - is never even mentioned in this movie!) Flash Thompson is no longer a big jock - what he is, well, just say "Rick Castle" super-fast and you'll get the idea. (Nobody tell him, though, how surprisingly spot-on his invented nickname for Peter is, not when Peter's name, unfortunately, happens to be synonymous with "dick" in the right context.) Peter isn't paired with MJ or Gwen this time around - and while the romantic subplot between him and Liz is low-key compared to the Peter/Harry/MJ love triangle or the Stonefield-enhanced natural chemistry of Peter and Gwen, it's no worse off for it.

And the villain. Marvel had the right idea, bringing in a villain who hasn't had his time to shine in any Spidey film to date (though I hear the abandoned Spider-Man 4 from the Raimi days would've cast John Malkovich in that role.) Michael Keaton, however, is a downright deadly and awesome Vulture, up there with Ultron and Zemo and Ego and Loki on my list of Top 5 MCU villains. This owes not only to his fearsome wingsuit (you can feel the rumble when he's coming in with that unwieldy, deadly sharp monstrosity), but also to his surprisingly sympathetic motivations - the prologue reveals him to have been a contractor working salvage after the Battle of New York, only for the Damage Control team to come in and basically fire him - so, of course, he takes to the black market to undermine them in revenge, because he has a family to support, gorrammit!

(In other news, I'm now kinda glad that ABC passed on the planned Damage Control MCU work-com series, because this movie makes them look like a bunch of bureaucratic assbutts.)

When Vulture finally crosses Peter's radar, he has no choice but to go after him - but Tony Stark doesn't seem to agree. Stark is basically Peter's father figure, but like a lot of fictional fathers (including his own), Stark is distant and constantly critical of the younger guy he's supposed to be sort of mentoring (and STILL hitting on May, because, well, he's Stark.) That said, though, he's given Peter a suit full of nifty little gizmos and gadgets, including an AI whom Peter names Karen, has conversations with, and she constantly tries to get Peter to use the most ludicrous - and ludicrously lethal - features he has at his disposal after she activates. (How he manages to activate her despite the "Training Wheels Protocol" being in place, I'm still not sure, though. It feels a bit like the writers pulled that out of their half-dozen asses, but I'll forgive this little flaw.)

It's funny how when Spidey wasn't part of any cinematic universe, he had pretty much no friends, but now he does. Metaphor much? But seriously, Peter's friends really help liven up this movie like nothing else. They're all smart as whips - well, it's Midtown School of Science and Technology, so that's a given, and they're academic decathletes besides. But the standouts, of course, are the aforementioned Ned (hilarious as hell), Liz (a real sweetheart like you wouldn't believe, and refreshingly sincere and un-ironic about it too), and Michelle. Though she's a little underused, and she comes off cold and condescending sometimes, she's got more than enough of a deadpan sense of humor (like outside the Washington Monument where she says she won't go in because it was built by slaves - and, selling the scene, the nearby tour guide silently agrees with her!), not to mention her damn good sketching skills. I still ship her with Peter largely because Tom Holland and Zendaya play off each other terrifically outside the movie (like in a few Freeform-specific promo pieces, and on Lip Sync Battle where he cosplayed Rihanna and she cosplayed Bruno Mars), but also because, well, they each remind me a little of Brian and Allison from The Breakfast Club, and I always shipped those two because A) I'm that geekboy nobody's given a chance romantically, and B) I like Ally Sheedy and I'm not afraid to admit it.

That was another thing I couldn't help but love about this movie - it being, as promised, a love letter to the work of John Hughes. The references vary from on the nose (Michelle going into detention just 'cause she felt like it, again like Allison; Peter running through a bunch of backyards like in Ferris Bueller - and he even catches some people watching that movie and compliments their taste) to general aesthetic appreciation of 80s teen movies (Peter and Ned's dynamic being strongly reminiscent of Weird Science, the Homecoming dance helping set the stage for the movie's climax...until it doesn't, because twists, you know.) Further helping in this regard is the movie's soundtrack, one of the best of any Spidey-movie ever. Though Raimi's trilogy had Danny Elfman's iconic score, and Webb gave us some great musical cues in Coldplay's "Till Kingdom Come" and Philip Phillips' "Gone Gone Gone" (and of course "My Enemy," Electro's sinister leitmotif), this movie was loaded with not only a toe-tapping Michael Giacchino score (which featured a soaring orchestral rendition of the classic Spidey theme over the Marvel Studios logos), but also some of the best retro music. Including the Ramones - which, now I think about it, was something the Amazing movies sorely lacked, especially given that Garfield's version of Peter once wore a Ramones T-shirt.

Between the general John Hughes vibe, the smaller and more personal nature compared to other MCU entries (yeah, Joss Whedon, you promised that on Age of Ultron, but you didn't pull that off, did you?), and the bold and bright color palette, it's no wonder that I spent a good 75% or so of this movie with a big old smile on my face - the antidote I needed to the devastating ending of Cassandra Clare's Lord of Shadows, which I finished reading last night. As for the remaining 15%, well, there were a few downbeat moments, of course...but those make up only about 2% of the movie overall. The remaining 23% are amazingly kick-ass action scenes. Jon Watts proves himself a great director, commanding all the visual panache of Raimi or Webb at their best and then some. There are so many great action sequences to choose from in this movie - the climactic final fight between Spidey and Vulture (which takes place on and around a camouflaged plane), the Staten Island Ferry ripping apart from stolen alien weaponry gone awry, Spidey being literally dragged through the streets by Vulture's goons in a van...but none beat the Washington Monument scene smack in the middle of this movie, a nearly symmetrical peak of white-knuckle action and acrophobia. It's truly iconic cinema - you heard it here first!

All in all, while Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn't manage to usurp the throne shared by TASM 1 and 2 in my heart (and nor did I expect it to), Holland takes the torch Garfield passes him, and takes it with A+ aplomb, continuing the MCU's hot streak - a streak I don't anticipate ending anytime soon, not with the likes of Ragnarok, Black Panther, Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp on tap for the next 365 days or so. I'm really just very bummed that we have to wait two years now for the sequel to this movie - provided Sony doesn't have a fight with Marvel over the whole snarl of creative control and film rights. At least I know the franchise is in top-notch hands.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

And one more thing - when you stick around for the post-credits scene (and it amuses me that there are still those who don't - like, have they not learned about Marvel tradition yet?), be prepared for the greatest meta-twist on the post-credits formula since that of Deadpool. You'll love it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review: Lord of Shadows

Lord of Shadows Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"In violent times, you shouldn't have to sell your soul."
-Tears for Fears, "Shout"

"You say in love, there are no rules...Sweetheart, you're so cruel."

WHOA. Bloodydamn goryhell.

I think it's safe to say that this second book of The Dark Artifices is Cassie Clare's equivalent to Victoria Aveyard's Glass Sword. That comes from not only this book being a slightly-flawed, but very much jaw-dropping sophomore effort like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not only from the plot that starts out strangely slow and accelerates rapidly to a screaming finale, but oh my God, that finale. It not only emulates Glass Sword not unlike how that book was similar to my own Blue Monday, but delivers a truly Aveyardian cliffhanger, diabolical and infuriating and BY THE ANGEL WHY WOULD CASSIE GO THERE?

Yes, the book starts out pretty slowly, to the point where I found myself wondering how Cassie was able to give us 700 pages only about a year after Lady Midnight. After all, LM and City of Heavenly Fire both came out about two years after their immediate predecessors (Lost Souls being the predecessor for CoHF despite Clockwork Princess coming out between them), so their being 700-page bricks was pretty well worth the wait. Here, the wait was shorter, and we weren't expecting Lord of Shadows to be another brick, were we? Hell, I was really, really hoping it wouldn't wind up being like TACOWAR, long and numbing and drawn out.

Nope. Not when Cassie Clare is writing, because even when the story is long, her writing still sucks me in like nothing else. Just like Lady Midnight, what draws me in is the characters. Emma, Julian, the rest of the Blackthorn family...even Mark, as much as I deplored the fake relationship he had with Emma because there was really no getting around how fake it was, and how much it interfered with my Emma/Julian ship to no end. But then Kieran comes back into the picture, and hoo boy, the mess that ensues...also, Kit starts slowly incorporating himself into the Shadowhunter world, very slowly and reluctantly, but the Blackthorns are only too eager to help him along. Especially Livvy and Ty, both of whom seem particularly attached to him. Now, I know that a lot of readers ship Tykit hard, but me, I'd be cool with Cassie writing them with either romantic or platonic love, and while this book doesn't quite settle the question, there's no getting around the fact that there's some flavor of love between them.

As for Ty and how well he represents the autistic community...being autistic myself, I have to say that while Ty doesn't reflect me 100% (the biggest difference between us being his trouble with figurative language, which I don't have nearly as much of), he reflects me enough that, more than anyone else in this book, I really just want to scoop him up and hug him and tell him everything will be fine even though Cassie Clare really can't be trusted to leave her characters - or our feels - alone. What I relate to most with Ty are his Baby Driver-esque need for musical distractions from the real world (even to the point of wearing headphones to sleep), as well as his tendency to talk to himself - though where he whispers strings of words just because he likes the way they sound, I tend to run through summaries of my favorite movies and/or books like I'm writing their Wikipedia articles. I can go on for days getting myself through the entire Harry Potter series, for instance. From an #OwnVoices readership perspective, I give Cassie full marks for Ty's characterization.

What really makes this book stand out, of course, is the continued storylines of the Cold Peace and its dreadful effects on both the Shadowhunter world and the Faerie world. War is brewing in Faerie, with the Unseelie Court, heretofore mostly unseen, finally starting to rise up and lead the charge against the Shadowhunters. (You would almost think it's the Seelie Court 'cause they really are just the worst - I still haven't forgiven the Seelie Queen for that Clary-Jace kiss in City of Ashes, which the Freeform series just adapted into its latest episode and utterly dashed my poor Climon fanboy heart to pieces! But then remember, every book in this series has a dark-themed name associated with the Unseelies.) As for the Shadowhunters, there's a new ultra-conservative faction, the Cohort, who really wants to take the Nephilim back to their bigoted days when they oppressed the Downworld like nobody's business - and their main representative in this narrative, Zara, is an utterly loathsome piece of Young Republican backpfeifengesicht shit, even worse than any other Cassie Clare villain to date.

And in between all that, there's Emma and Julian's forbidden love, the method for which they can save themselves requires an ominous-sounding Black Volume of the Dead. No spoilers, but the cost for how to save their love, it's really just too much.

And that ending. But I'll come back to that later.

I just also wanted to address one other tidbit about this book - the way they highlight the Clave's disdain for mundane medicine. Because the Nephilim are so backwards scientifically, they really don't have the language to explain Ty's autism - which is why he was merely coded as such in Lady Midnight, but enter Kit with his mundane-world experience and he recognizes Ty's condition right away. There's also the case of Diana Wrayburn, a transgender woman who, under Clave law, would not have been allowed to transition because that requires mundane-style surgery, hormone-replacement therapy, etc., to which the Nephilim have no equivalent. This just goes to show, as awesome as the Shadowhunters are, they're flawed as hell too, and that helps explain why it's only too easy for rabid right-wingers in their ranks (like the Cohort now, and the Circle before) to keep on rising up and challenging progress in a vicious cycle that seems so much more relevant now than it did when Cassie started working on these books over a decade ago.

Though it'll be a while before we conclude this trilogy with Queen of Air and Darkness, at least we'll have the first book of Cassie and Wes Chu's Eldest Curses trilogy to look forward to. And maybe even the first of The Last Hours, if I'm not mistaken. But to have to wait possibly till 2019 for QoAaD, especially after that weapons-grade ending to this book where there was just too much death, including that one super-aggravating one right at the very, very, very end...

Let's just say that this one's clawing with The Hate U Give for second place in the Pinecones this year, and hell, it may even beat out King's Cage - something I previously thought would've been impossible.

Cassie Clare, you are a mad, mad genius.

And now if you'll excuse me, I have to figure out a way to reverse polarity on my disrupted feels the way I had to do after Lady Midnight. I may not have a new Supergirl-The Flash crossover episode to do the trick...oh, but there's Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I'll finally be watching tomorrow, and hell of about time!

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Monday, July 3, 2017

Review: The Devil's Triangle

The Devil's Triangle The Devil's Triangle by Catherine Coulter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The previous thrillers in this series have been pretty surprisingly ambitious compared to Catherine Coulter's main FBI thriller series, but this book, which took a bit longer of a time to come out than the once-a-year scheduling of the previous Brit in the FBI stories, really, really, really takes the cake. Trust me when I say that for diving headfirst into the pool usually occupied by the likes of Cussler, Rollins, and Dan Brown, Coulter and Ellison give us, in this fourth Brit in the FBI adventure, the most outrageously damn good story in their collaborative career. If nothing else, at this point I think if I ever recommend this series, I'd recommend you start with this book - and I hope that they make a movie of this one more than any other Coulter book to date. It's that bloodydamn good.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review: At the Edge of the Universe

At the Edge of the Universe At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this one managed to fly under my radar for quite a while, but after reading it and double checking when it came out, I wish I'd gotten my hands on it much earlier, like back in February so I could've made this one pair with another slightly sci-fi-twisted (though not really) YA contemporary heartbreaker of a book - Adam Silvera's History Is All You Left Me. It would've made a terrific pairing, as both books feature protagonists struggling with their mental health, off-kilter perceptions of the universe (though unlike Griffin, Hutchinson's Ozzie has a far less hopeful view, not of infinite multiverses, but of one that's perpetually shrinking), missing boyfriends, tentative feelings for new boyfriends with their own issues...and oh my God, the issues. Unless you're as soulless as any evil speedster Barry Allen's faced in his career, you will cry reading this book, and that's a promise.

Though I'm not diagnosed officially, I'm pretty reasonably certain I've got anxiety and depression something fierce. So, naturally, this book cut me deep, but I appreciate it for that, oddly enough. Not only because it's so honest, and doesn't shy away from issues of mental and emotional health or bullying or self-harm or relationships or sex, but also because, long as it is, it's addictive because you need it to end on some level of okay. And even if it does (I'll leave the specifics out because spoilers), you'll still have been crying, and probably will still be crying. (Good thing I had some seriously salty Chinese food, as well as salted caramel espresso ice cream for dessert, to balance my sodium levels back out again.)

I'm sure now that I'm going to start picking up more of Hutchinson's books, I'm soon going to have to further expand the room in my mind palace where I've now placed Ozzie and Calvin and Lua and Tommy, along with all of Silvera's boys, for group hug sessions.

Oh, and one more thing - yes, I'm pretty sure Oswald Pinkerton got his full name as a Doctor Who reference.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Pitch Wars 2017: Pimp My Bio

Hey peoples. So, as a hopeful Pitch Wars mentee, it's time for me to take part in the #PimpMyBio blog hop, because as much as they said it was optional, I get the feeling (insert Honey Lemon voice) it's really...not. Or I just want an excuse to write some fun stuff about myself. Something like that.

As a YA contemporary fantasy/science-fantasy writer in need of publication, with over 150 queries under his belt, I'm thinking conventional routes might not cut it. Already I've got a small Wattpad fanbase (though they have yet to read my more recent, more polished drafts), and on SwoonReads as well, but any help from seasoned tastemakers and writers (like the Pitch Wars mentors) I can get, that would absolutely give me a shot at getting ahead.

And getting ahead is exactly what my book, Red Rain, needs. First, a brief synopsis:

Heaven and Hell aren't above or below Earth. If you want to find them, you should be looking sideways.

Coldfire Creek, California, is a small mountain town straddling the border between Heaven and Hell - but not the Heaven and Hell we think we know. Instead, they are simply alternate versions of Earth. In this split-up town lives teenage angel Alex Snow, whose life is a very weird one. His twin brother Gabe is a demon, his tastes in pop culture are quirky at best...and one of his classmates has been brutally murdered. After some more bodies start to pop up in a string of gruesome homicides, all with some connection to water, the brothers are contacted by the still-living souls of the victims, who ask them to help stop this "Aqua Killer." What they do not expect is to discover their own shocking connection to the madman. And when Alex's girlfriend becomes a target, he must put a stop to the Aqua Killer or risk losing his first love.

And not only that, but thanks to the brilliant Sam Ayers, I even have a wonderful piece of cover art that I seriously would LOVE to see on the actual printed book someday.

If all this doesn't whet your appetite, I've failed as a reader, writer, and fanboy.

And actual bio. (Please note that most of the following material is getting pasted straight from the "About Me" page already up on my blog.)

Ready, Pitch Wars peeps? Here we go!

The Pinecone General, wishing he had this outfit for real. Especially the lightsaber.

Hey everyone.

Officially, I was born in 1993 in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a town too far south for driving winter rain and too far north for blazing summer heat. Unofficially, I was born in 1983 in Los Angeles, where the government immediately took me away, froze my infant self for ten years, and tried their best to make me forget I was Andrew Garfield's evil half-Maltese twin.

They failed. ;)


Unable to wait tables for lack of hand-eye coordination, and barely able to land a (seasonal) retail job for lack of the ability to maintain eye contact with the customers, I've instead turned to writing YA contemporary fantasy to fuel my career. It doesn't pay the bills, which is why I still live at home with my parents. Speaking of which, they were always bound and determined that I should grow up to be a nerd when my real dream was to be a geek, which is why we have so much trouble seeing eye to eye. That, and the fact that they usually see me through tracking the GPS on my phone, which is why I pretty much can't go anywhere except work, the library, and the movies maybe once a month, if that.

Because of my long-standing feeling that I don't belong in this world, I've either lost myself in the fictional ones of movies, books, and TV, or made up my own. It's a time-honored defense mechanism, and if my parents didn't want me to be a doe-eyed autistic INFP geekboy dreamer...

You should see how often I practice this in the mirror.

...they shouldn't have bought me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at age seven. Sadly, it's gotten to the point where happy endings are just so hard to come by in my work, because deadly feels are right where it's at, or so it appears. I blame Harry Potter, of course. And Divergent. And The Amazing Spider-Man, Supernatural, Buffy, Danny Phantom, Teen Wolf, Avatar: The Last Airbender, E.T., The Flash...the list goes on.

Ad infinitum nauseam.

I should also mention that after my last deal with the Devil, I'm required to continuously lament my single-pringle status lest I lose my soul. Even if I get a girlfriend (this in spite of the fact that I'm perfectly undateable), I must continue lamenting. That way, my parents won't suspect a thing, and won't get to disapprove of my significant other. They really would, too. They tend to disapprove of my dreams. Like being a writer, or writing official Spider-Man YA novels for Marvel, or getting a tattoo, or getting a motorbike, or even getting a hat. (I don't know why, but my parents hate it when I buy another overpriced beanie.)

Like so.
If you want to find me, I'm often in my writing cave (my bedroom), or perhaps listening to my Pandora because I'm mentally stuck at age 17 and that was super-hot back then in 2010. Believe it or not, none of my writing has ever been produced under the influence.

Though much of it was inspired by scenes like this one, scenes that make angels' wings shrivel all across the universe.

And thus concludeth my overlong bio page...for now.

Sending love to all my Pinecones. <3


Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Review: The Crown's Game

The Crown's Game The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended by at least two of our faves in YA fantasy - Sabaa Tahir and Sara Raasch, specifically - this book makes me think of the Grisha Trilogy right away, except unlike Leigh Bardugo, Evelyn Skye gives us a straight historical fantasy rather than make up a whole new country loosely based on tsarist Russia. And while Bardugo is super-duper-steampunk, Skye is more about the magic, and also the culture of 19th-century Russia, a place where the local tongue is eschewed in favor of French in court, the food is to die for, the art is lovely, and the magic and romance are some of the strongest I've ever seen. You thought The Hunger Games had some star-crossed loving? You ain't seen nothing yet till you've read about Vika and Nikolai. And Pasha too, because I really liked him. He was my favorite character in this whole book by far.

I'm actually really bummed that there won't be more than two books in this series, but at least I've got the second one already on order at the library.

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