Sins of the Cities (An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice, An Unsuitable Heir)

Monday, November 13, 2017


Sins of the Cities (An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice, An Unsuitable Heir)
K. J. Charles, 2017

Premise: A lodging-keeper, a taxidermist, a crusading journalist, a scheming medium, an enquiry agent, and an acrobat. Six people find romance after being brought together in London by lies and murder.

I'm quite a fan of this author's period romances, and these are particularly nice. I like the balance between romance, sex, and action.

I don't read enough romance to know whether this is common, but I also really like the way this trilogy solves the potential contradiction of writing a romance series. Each book ends with its requisite happy ending, but each features a different couple in a set of interlocking stories. The background story (involving a secret marriage, blackmail, and murder), which affects each of the three couples differently, isn't solved until the third book.

This series also features a high number of untraditional traits in the leads, even for LGBT romance.

Clem (book one) is a half-Indian byblow of a prominent British family, and he also appears to be very mildly autistic. Of course they don't have a word or a definition for it in 1873, but his eventual lover is happy to work around his difficulties with crowds and inability with hints.

The third book features a really interesting portrayal of a nonbinary lead, although I wish the non-romance plot of that one had been a bit more interesting.

Overall I enjoyed all three books.

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Bird Box

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bird Box
Josh Malerman, 2014

Premise: Malorie is finally bringing the children to what she hopes is safety. The only problem is, she can't look.

I remember there being a good amount of buzz for this book early on, and then some backlash. So I know I'm not saying anything new when I say this book was rather disappointing.

The idea is intriguing. Something mysterious is causing people to go mad, and you can only protect yourself by not looking, so people are barricading themselves in buildings and learning to navigate by sound. The book is intercut between Malorie's journey trying to bring two young children to possible safety, with all of them blindfolded, and how she came to be alone in a house with two children.

The story is interesting and tense, but not especially scary until near the end. Of course this leads to a situation in which humans are worse to each other than the monsters are and some sections that were unnecessarily gross in my opinion.

I understand that it's sort of the point, but as a genre fan, I can't accept getting zero explanation of what is actually going on. The book doesn't care what was going on, it only cares about the extraordinary things people will do out of desperation.

I understand that, but I found it fundamentally unsatisfying.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Sunshine

Monday, October 30, 2017


Sunshine
Robin McKinley, 2003

Premise: Rae is a baker with a career, a boyfriend, and a community. She knows not to go through the bad part of town alone. The lake near where her grandmother had lived should have been safe. There shouldn't have been vampires anywhere near there.

This is one of the best damn vampire books I've ever read.

It takes place in a fascinating world that is revealed only slowly and naturally. It's in first person, and there is almost zero info-dumping. Very little is revealed until it comes up directly, including important facts about the world and the characters' history.

I loved the language in this book. Slang and conversation casually reflects the presence of everyday magic and myth. The world, as alluded to above, is a complex one. Vampires are the most dangerous paranormal critter, but not the only one. It's unclear how long they've been openly coexisting with humanity, only that there was a major conflict within living memory.

The main character is both strong and overwhelmed and had a great sense of humor. I enjoyed her practicality and her struggle.

The magic is intriguing and beautifully described. The writing is fast and gripping; I had a lot of trouble putting it down.

Just overall, fantastic.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Archivist Wasp

Monday, October 16, 2017

I would have liked this book more.
Archivist Wasp
Nicole Kornher-Stace, 2015

Premise: Every year, Wasp fights to keep the position of Archivist, the chosen one who researches ghosts. She will fall sooner or later, but first she finds a ghost unlike any she has seen before.

I feel some guilt about this review. This book was on my list because I'd read strongly positive reviews, but I didn't remember anything about the premise when I started.

The beginning grabbed me. We're dropped into the middle of a fight to the death, and only catch glimpses of the culture and world until Wasp wakes later, recovering from her wounds.

I also liked the ending.

I liked some aspects of the story in between, but I felt as though it didn't earn its implied emotional impacts. It didn't explain enough for me to care when twists came along to upend things. I didn't feel the payoff of the ending as much as I should have because I never fully understood the characters or the world.

Honestly, I don't know if I just wasn't in the mood for this story, but the book never fully won me over. It might have helped for me to be ready from the start for a truly non-traditional story that blends genres and tones. As it was, I found the shifts annoying (for a semi-spoilery example, going to the land of the dead for most of the book, when what I wanted was to understand more about Wasp's village).

I sympathized with Wasp, and there were moments of emotional depth, and intellectually I liked the ghost's story, but it wasn't quite the right blend of fantasy and sci-fi for me.

I think that there are many people who would love this book, but there just wasn't any overall satisfaction for me when I finished.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Darth Vader Volume 1: Vader and Volume 2: Shadows and Secrets

Monday, October 9, 2017


Darth Vader Volume 1: Vader and Volume 2: Shadows and Secrets
Kieron Gillen, 2015, 2016

Premise: After the destruction of the first Death Star, Vader has to rebuild his power and influence within a changed Empire. Collects Darth Vader #1-6 and #7-12.

This is a lot of fun, but I might advise people to hold out for the whole run.

So, I know a lot of people who loved the end Vader scene in Rogue One. Myself, I didn't quite get it. I've been told that it was satisfying to see Vader be a threatening, unstoppable force. I say it felt pandering. (I had already kind of checked out of this movie by that point, to be fair.)

I say, if you want to see Vader be Vader, read this comic.

What I think is really well done here is the balance between comic-book conventions and cinematic conventions. Vader is a quiet, menacing figure. He doesn't get thought balloons or narration, which keeps him slightly aloof and cryptic. We see full panel images when we need a clue to what memories are going through his head.

He's placed in a position where he needs to act outside of the Empire. He wants to figure out what happened at the destruction of the Death Star, and he needs his own power base because he knows the Emperor doesn't trust him (or anyone).

This story of factions, in which all the players are villains, is twisty and fascinating. Some levity is provided by a pair of homicidal droids and the breakout character: Dr. Aphra.

She's an interesting character, a largely amoral tech specialist whose natural habitat seems to be hazardous secret missions. I only wish she'd been introduced more clearly. It feels as though she was name-checked once and then immediately dropped out of a clear blue sky to become a core part of the cast.

She's important to have around, not just because she's interesting in her own right, but because her chatterbox nature balances the pacing when your lead character is often silent.

That reminds me, a shout-out is due to the art, which is dynamic, clear, and lovely.

As I alluded to at the top, the most significant fault I can find is that neither of these volumes had what I would consider an ending. You could argue that a surface-level plotline was closed at the end of each, but I read straight from the first to the second without even considering stopping, and really regretted that I didn't have the next one.

Note: The next one is not Volume 3, because comics are difficult. The next few issues are part of a crossover volume: Vader Down.

But it should tell you something about these books that I'm probably going to go buy that volume as soon as I finish typing this...

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Elite (Hunter, Book 2)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Elite (Hunter, Book 2)
Mercedes Lackey, 2017

Premise: Sequel to Hunter. Joy is part of the elite squad now, so she's under less public scrutiny but even more private pressure. She doesn't know who else might be behind the attempts on her life, or whether she might be targeted by political enemies of her uncle. Meanwhile, the Othersiders' attacks on the city are increasing...

The first book in this series was a lot of fun, and this one followed suit.

We learn a little more about the psychic cops and more about how human magic works. We don't learn much more about why Othersiders (aka, beings of myth and legend, apparently from another dimension) are attacking humans, or why Hounds have allied with humans to fight them.

The book is simply more concerned with Joy's relationships with the other hunters and her status and life as a hunter than about metaphysics or interdimensional politics. White Knight, her "Christer" friend, plays a big role, as do new friends among the other elite hunters, her uncle, and her boyfriend. Joy is adapting to life in the city, but every time she turns around there's still something she finds strange.

The magic battles are pretty great. Lackey's a pro at this, so I'd expect nothing less, but the use of magic is constantly inventive and exciting, and it's fun just to read about their practice.

Again similar to book one, there isn't much more to this tale of adventure and intrigue, but there doesn't need to be. It's great as it is.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Parable of the Sower

Monday, September 25, 2017


Parable of the Sower
Octavia Butler, 1993

Premise: The world outside is getting worse. Their neighborhood is safe for now, but it won't be forever. But who will listen to a young girl with a diary and some profound ideas?

Wow. Now I completely understand why I've seen people referencing this book recently.

The society in the novel isn't the society we have now, but it's a very plausible future on the way to a total breakdown. Corporate profit above all else, vast poverty, violence, and dangerous drug abuse, no infrastructure that individuals don't pay for, no social safety net for anyone but the wealthy.

The main character lives in a walled neighborhood and records her thoughts in a diary. She is a teenager, but she recognizes that the world is not "going back to the way it was," the way the adults in her life hope. They have to figure out how to live in the world that will come.

Part of her insight is practical, and part is religious. The book has at its heart her relationship with suffering and empathy and her beliefs about the world. Her beliefs drive her to prepare for the worst, but also to reach out to others and share her insight. It's clear from the start that this black girl from California has to potential to grow into a religious leader.

I think if I'd read this book in high school, my life's relationship with religion might have been very different. That's how good this book is.

It's insanely good. The writing is beautiful and powerful. It drives the reader to think harder about the world and our place in it, to plan for the future. To believe in each other and our potential, without minimizing how much evil we bring on each other.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

A Dragon of a Different Color (Heartstrikers, Book 4)

Monday, September 18, 2017


A Dragon of a Different Color (Heartstrikers, Book 4)
Rachel Aaron, 2017

Premise: Julius finally has some pull in his clan and an alliance with the Three Sisters. Of course, that was before his favorite brother killed his favorite sister, the girl he loved apparently died, and the entire clan of Chinese dragons set forth to conquer the American clan, ostensibly to protect them all from the rage of a powerful lake spirit. Follows No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished

After I was somewhat disappointed with Book 3, I'm happy to report that I loved this installment. I think there's only one more book in the series, but this managed to raise the stakes in a way that felt organic, set up for a grand finale, and deal with all the fallout of the last book at a breakneck pace that kept me reading.

In case it's at all possible that the premise above wasn't clear enough, this would not be a good jumping-on point. The networks of character relationships are key to this one. We find out where Ghost took Marci, why magic went away from the world, what Amelia's plan is, why Chelsie was her mother's enforcer, and more.

The characters are still charming, and the world is getting more interesting. I really liked how much more exploration there was of the spirit realm and how spirits work in this one. More dragon clans is also always a good thing.

There were so many awesome or sweet moments in this that my heart got all gushy. It's great fun, and the series as a whole is strong.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Blueprint for Revolution

Monday, September 11, 2017


Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World
Srdja Popovic, Matthew Miller, 2015

Premise: The principles of nonviolent resistance, illustrated by practical examples of every scale from all over the world.

I have been frustrated trying to read books about the current moment in politics. Popular politicians' hottest takes on how we should react to the darkening timeline we seem to find ourselves in leave me cold.

But this. This is the book I needed. Maybe it is the book you need as well?

It's not about dealing with today specifically. It's about changing the world. It's about overthrowing dictators, resisting oppression, fighting corporate policies, improving societies, and building social movements.

It's also incredibly friendly and readable and has Tolkien references.

The book lays out the principles that the people from the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) have seen work around the world in conflicts and issues of all sizes. Each principle is explained with examples of successful and unsuccessful applications and supported with cited research when possible.

The history alone (recent and less so) is fascinating enough to make this a great read. The examples are fascinating, and the commentary is great. Working with CANVAS, Popovic has acted as an advisor or consultant to many recent movements, and his perspective is really down-to-earth and practical.

The book is funny and encouraging and inspirational, and I really do encourage everyone to check it out.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Girl with All the Gifts

Monday, August 28, 2017


The Girl with All the Gifts
M. R. Carey, 2014

Premise: Melanie goes to class with a group of other kids. She likes their teachers, one in particular. She learns a lot in class, but she doesn't learn why she and her classmates live in cells on the base, or why no one is allowed to touch them, or why they only eat once a week...

This book suffered a little for me from expectations that were one hundred percent not the book's fault. I had heard a lot of hype about this book, but on reflection, I only knew two things about it - it's about a little girl who is a zombie, but she doesn't know it, and it was really popular.

I extrapolated from there that it would be a psychological book, full of unreliable narration, twists, and theories. I thought it would be entirely or mostly from her perspective, that the adults around the character might not know what was going on, that there would be a slow-burn reveal, and maybe she was the beginning of an outbreak.

It's not that book. Instead, it's a perfectly fine thriller with a decent theme.

It takes place some time after a zombie outbreak, and although the children in the compound are a mystery of sorts, everyone but the kids themselves knows that they are zombies. You read plenty of the perspective of the teacher, the scientist, the military leader and his men.

I liked it well enough, it was well written and clipped along at a good pace. The mythological parallel is a little forced at times, but works overall. However, by the time I got to the end, I thought that it might be a better movie than it was a book. The emphasis on action set pieces and occasional awkward expository dialogue meant that it felt like a movie pitch first and a novel second.

And it turned out that not only is it a movie, but the screenplay was being written concurrently with the novel! (I haven't tracked the movie down.) So, I guess, that's good.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Patsy Walker, A.K.A Hellcat: Vol. 1: Hooked On A Feline, Vol. 2: Don't Stop Me-ow, Vol 3: Careless Whisker(s)

Monday, August 21, 2017


Patsy Walker, A.K.A Hellcat: Vol. 1: Hooked On A Feline, Vol. 2: Don't Stop Me-ow, Vol 3: Careless Whisker(s)
Kate Leth, Brittney Williams, 2016, 2017

Premise: Patsy has been through a lot. She's been an Avenger. She's been to Hell. Now she just wants to figure out how to make enough money for rent, and help other people out along the way. Collects Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat #1-17 (complete run).

Aww. Shelve this book next to Squirrel Girl, they're both great examples of friendly comics with diverse casts of interesting characters that deal with emotion and action without losing a sense of hope and camaraderie.

Patsy Walker is a really interesting character in a meta sense. She was created as a teen humor comic that turned to romance as the characters aged. (There were many of these comics in the 40s and 50s; the Archie comics are nearly the only surviving example of the type.) A cameo in an superhero title established that the characters might exist in the Marvel universe, and later another author took that cameo and folded the character in by giving her a hero identity.

Yet another series later established that the original humor/romance comics existed in-world, written by Patsy's mother. This modern title comes full circle by establishing other characters from the original comics, having the publication of them be a major part of the plot, and generally melding Patsy's superhero life with humor, romance, and interpersonal stories that wouldn't be out of place in an all ages comic.

(More recently the character appeared in the Netflix show Jessica Jones, although she went by Trish and was only beginning her journey toward becoming a hero.)

I enjoyed all of the minor characters, B-list villains, and entertaining twists of this book. It was just good hearted and pleasant to read. (Also both funny and exciting!) Even when a very light tie-in to a major crossover event meant that the characters had to face some dark events in the larger world, they faced it the way real people do: some denial, some tears, and a lot of muddling through to the other side.

This book also gets bonus points for the most fun version of vampire-Jubilee I've read and copious cat puns,

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Final Girls

Monday, August 14, 2017


Final Girls
Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, 2017

Premise: A new technology for completely immersive VR promises extremely effective therapy by causing the patient to feel as though they lived through a specific traumatic experience. A reporter is determined to determine whether it's a hoax.

I've liked all of McGuire's novellas so far, and this didn't break the streak. It's interesting that this was released under her horror pen name; it does fit that paradigm. The world created by the VR technology is less intriguing than the magic and ghosts in Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day and a lot less inventive than the world of Every Heart a Doorway (which just won a Hugo!), but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

This one is a tense, short thriller in which, after everything predictably goes wrong, the main characters are trapped in an unreal dream that is trying to really kill them. It's more compelling than most spins on this premise, partially because it ties in strong themes of female rivalry and friendship.

I could have wished for some more satisfying twists on the way to the ending, but the way it is fits McGuire's sometimes fatalistic-poetic style.

3 Stars - A Good Book

A Fire Upon the Deep

Monday, August 7, 2017


A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge, 1992

Hugo Winner - 1993

Premise: The galaxy is a big place, full of old civilizations, ancient powers, and ancient traps. What are the lives of two children and a librarian worth in all the universe?

It took me a while to get through this book, and I'm not 100 percent sure what I think of it.

I was thrown off at the start, as it takes a lot of pages to introduce all the characters, factions, and situations. I started expecting one kind of story and ended up in quite another.

I think overall it's a good book, and an interesting one, but it's much more about world building than characters, so how much you enjoy that type of thing will probably dictate how much you enjoy this book.

To be fair, the worldbuilding is really neat. It questions the breadth of consciousness that might be possible across a diverse and strange galaxy. The major alien races include one who is more or less a plant augmented by technology, and a race made up of "individuals" which we might call small hive-minds.

The galaxy is divided up into zones in which different levels of technology not only predominate, but actually function or do not function. Amorphously identified Powers operate at the highest levels, and species can move, or be brought, up into broader levels of civilization.

The story, meanwhile, is good, but I wasn't compelled by it until rather late in the book. The stakes for some of the characters are immediate, but it's rather vague for the galaxy at large, despite lots of threatening description. The climax was viscerally satisfying, but I have little idea what happened.

3 Stars - A Good Book



List of Hugo Award Winners

Thor: The Goddess of Thunder and Thor: Who Holds the Hammer?

Monday, July 24, 2017


Thor: The Goddess of Thunder and Thor: Who Holds the Hammer?
Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina, 2015

Premise: The son of Odin is no longer worthy to wield Mjolnir, and the only one who can lift the hammer is an unknown woman who takes on the power and the responsibility of being Thor. Collects Thor #1-5 and Thor #6-8 and Annual.

The nice thing about waiting and catching up on comic books later is that you tend to only read the good stuff. The less nice thing is that sometimes you know the ending.

Happily, the fact that I went in knowing the reveal at the end of the second volume (the identity of the new Thor) did not diminish my enjoyment in this case.

For me, these issues had just about the perfect balance of humor and drama. The art and writing take the larger-than-life characters and plot seriously, but it never gets too dour or bleak.

It wouldn't be a perfect jumping-on point for someone who's not used to sprawling comic universes and stories that continuously build on each other, but I don't mind reading the set-up in the front of the first issue and moving forward from there.

New Thor is awesome. I loved her powers, her wit, her determination, and her simple conviction that because she could be a force for good, therefore she would.

I like that she's Thor, not Lady Thor or Thor Girl or whatever. The only downside is that, similar to Hawkeye, it makes the characters challenging to talk about.

Her relationship with "Odinson" (the now-unworthy-Thor) is great. He appreciates her strength and courage, and he soon chooses to support her as chosen by the hammer. Of course, he's also determined to figure out who she is.

Lots of awesome ladies who are connected to Asgard in various ways appear by the end of book two, and I might appreciate some of them even more if I catch up on the rest of Aaron's Thor run. I liked that the story played out several intersecting stories of female power, most notably contrasting Odin's blustering attempts to reclaim rulership of Asgard from Frigga with Odinson's cooperation with the mystery Thor.

I've often enjoyed the idea of Thor comics more than the execution, but this was just a solid, fantastic experience, the writing, art, action, and humor all ideal.

Also, frost giants, elves, evil CEOs who dabble in dark magic, and, of course, Valkyries. I'll definitely be reading the further adventures in (the frustratingly numbered) The Mighty Thor #1.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha

Monday, July 17, 2017


My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha
Jolie Kerr, 2014

Premise: Learn how to clean all your things, with a dollop of motivation and a side dose of humor.

I wish I'd had this book years ago. As an aspiring Clean Person (to use the author's somewhat tongue-in-cheek terminology), I had to muddle through figuring out how, how often, and with what to clean various surfaces and appliances over my adult life. (Seriously, there was way more trial and error in those early days than there should have been.)

I do okay these days, but I still found good tips and knowledge here. I especially like the balance between basics and exceptions. She features some of the wild questions she received as an advice columnist, but the solutions to most of them build on the fundamental advice about types of stains, types of methods, and types of cleansers.

The book also features the same mix of gentle shame and funny encouragement that I loved in her online writing. She distinguishes between things you maybe should do, things that will be nice, and things you must do.

On fighting bugs in the pantry: "You have my permission to wear one of those plastic horned Viking helmets if it will make you feel better about things."

On "hairbleweeds": "the best cure I can prescribe is a combination of a handheld vacuum and constant vigilance."

I definitely think I would have gotten more out of this if I had spent less time working out my own preferred solutions to general cleaning conundrums, but it was still an enjoyable and informative read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Swordspoint

Monday, July 10, 2017


Swordspoint
Ellen Kushner, 1987

Premise: Richard St. Vier is a sword for hire, a skilled duelist who calls out nobles on request when the situation and the price are right. But the politics of the city is larger than any one man.

I don't think I'd ever heard of this book until I saw some excitement about a new book that returns to this world. I can see why it is beloved by some and enjoyed by others. Unfortunately, it just didn't grab me.

Today, the city of this type is a fantasy archetype - the scheming nobles on the hill contrasted with the fighters and thieves in the slums. I don't know how prevalent it was when this book was first written.

The relatively unique thing about this book is that many or most of the male characters are bisexual. It's not commented on until near the very end, and it seems normal to most characters that St. Vier has taken up with Alec, a troubled scholar with a secret past. Having a gay couple at the center of the intrigue is neat, but it did feel a bit strange that after almost the entire book, a few off-hand comments suddenly implied that society frowned on homosexual behavior and no characters expected such liaisons to last. It was just an odd surprise that didn't seem to match the rest of the book. Also, there were no confirmed lesbian relationships that I noticed.

The politics of the book were extremely complex, which was nice. The nuances were well handled, and I liked all the different characters' motivations.

However, for me, it was just a bit dry. Characters came in and out of the narrative quickly, and the characters you spend the most time with were very secretive or very stoic, and the book gave you little of what they were thinking or feeling.

I think that it's skillfully written, and I enjoyed the related short stories that followed in the edition I had. I just didn't love it.

3 Stars - A Good Book



Princess Leia (Marvel Mini-Series)

Monday, July 3, 2017


Princess Leia (Marvel Mini-Series)
Mark Waid, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, 2015

Premise: After the destruction of the first Death Star, Leia is at loose ends when she hears that the Empire is targeting Alderaan citizens on other planets. Collects Princess Leia #1-5.

I have heard nothing but good things about most of the Marvel-branded Star Wars comics, and after some recent sales, I'm finally getting around to them. This one I found enjoyable, but not amazing.

I really liked the premise. Leia sets out to collect and protect as many survivors from Alderaan as she can. She feels a personal responsibility, not just because she's their leader, but because she suspects Alderaan would not have been targeted if she hadn't been working with the Rebellion.

I really liked the characters. Evaan is a brash Rebellion pilot who respects the royalty that Leia can claim but doubts her commitment. Tula is a girl they pick up early on who doesn't know her sister is working for the Empire. Jora is the leader of a paranoid splinter group who doesn't trust Leia's intentions. All these ladies also have fun, big hair, which makes Leia's various styles seem more like her heritage and culture.

The art is overall great. I've been an off-and-on fan of the Dodsons' style for years. They can stray too far into cheesecake, but there's none of that here: it's just clear, colorful, and kinetic.

Unfortunately, I didn't think 5 issues were enough to convey any sort of real character growth or development. We know what characters are feeling when they tell us, and while there are a few poignant moments, the story moves along too quickly for any real depth. Most notably, the potential emotional weight of the destruction of the planet is almost entirely sidestepped. There was some real potential for nuance and intriguing questions (such as digging more into Leia's feelings of guilt, or her responsibility to Alderaan vs. her responsibility to the Rebellion), but they're skipped for easy twists about secret transmissions or bigotry against mixed heritage.

It was fun, though, and Evaan is a fun addition to the tradition of kick-ass Star Wars women. It does give you that warm, fuzzy Star Wars feeling.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal

Monday, June 26, 2017


The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
K.J. Charles, 2015

Premise: Journalist Robert Caldwell has told the world about the exploits of famous ghost hunter Simon Feximal for years, but he has never before revealed how they met, or their true relationship.

In the spectrum of works inspired by other works, there is more than enough room for delightful books like this one. You can see from the very premise that something is owed to Holmes and his ilk, but it is not as simple as a Holmes story with a paranormal/LGBT overlay. It turns out to be a love letter to Victorian adventure and occult stories.

The book itself is structured as a series of linked short tales. Characters from works of the time come in and out like Easter eggs for the reader, but not being familiar with them doesn't detract anything from the experience. There is a list of references in the back of the book for the curious.

As always, this author crafts her characters to feel incredibly accurate to their time period, and the supernatural elements are often viscerally creepy.

I have enjoyed many books by this author and I especially appreciate how different she makes each relationship. In the fabulous Charm of Magpies series, the main couple is largely effusive and talkative about their frustrations and feelings, and the reader follows both characters closely. Here, the stoic, quietly powerful Feximal and articulate but tentative Caldwell provide a subtler romance than is to everyone's taste. (Don't worry, there's still lots of sex.) Caldwell is also the sole narrator, which is a better match for the stories this is a homage to.

In short, I found this to be an engaging and exceedingly well-written story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda

Monday, June 19, 2017


Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda
Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, 2016, 2017

Premise: Bobbi Morse is a lot of things. She's a spy, a superhero, a scientist. She's an ex-wife and a SHIELD agent and an Avenger. And she is done taking anybody's shit. Collects Mockingbird #1-5, Mockingbird SHIELD 50th anniversary #1, Mockingbird #6-8, and see below.

Like too many people, I only heard about this series when it met its untimely cancellation. I picked up the first trade almost immediately but didn't get a chance to read it until recently.

It is a metric ton of fun.

A few different aspects contribute to the brilliance of this book. One is the balance of superheroic and mundane. Bobbi's life is punctuated by crazy escapades, but she also deals with annoying medical check-ups and clothing stains and relationship drama.

Another is the fun meta-stuff that I love. Tons of little jokes in the background art or the intro pages for each issue or comic pages that include diagrams or flowcharts. (FYI, I have the first volume in both hard copy and digital, and the digital is better because it includes more of the intros, letter pages, etc.) I felt that the inclusion of minor geek celebrities as minor characters in the final arc was a bit silly, but I didn't hate it, and I'm sure plenty of people were tickled.

Also, there's the unapologetic feminism. There are a few moments when you could argue that it's a bit too on-the-nose, but I loved it. Bobbi is loud and proud of her opinions.

It also stays entirely with her. No matter whether or not she's being stubborn, judgemental, or unreservedly kickass, this is her story, and she is at the center.

Related to this, the art is awesome. There's a touch of amusing fan service in two separate male characters running around secret bases wearing very little, but there is no male gaze to be found here. It reminded me of something I read in some reviews of the new Wonder Woman movie - that as a viewer, I didn't realize how much I was used to that male-centric style until it was gone.

Connected to that - the second half of the second book was a big old DNF for me. It reprints a couple issues of New Avengers from before this series started to fill out the page count. As I paged through the beginning, skimming, I was struck by - Bobbi in a coma, men contorting their faces with pain and making important medical delicious for her, and lots of lovingly shadowed boobs. Screw that. I refuse to sully how awesome the Mockingbird issues were by reading that useless page filler. The contrast made me realize how much I have come to hate certain "traditional" comic styles that are used so often in superhero comics.

Anyway, Mockingbird is awesome, and Marvel was dumb for canceling it.

Mockingbird #1-8 - 5 Stars - An Awesome Book
New Avengers - :p

Stranger at the Wedding

Monday, June 12, 2017


Stranger at the Wedding
Barbara Hambly, 1994

Premise: Wizard-in-training Kyra is surprised to receive a letter from her estranged family, even one informing her that her sister is to marry. Her teachers advise her not to go, but the letter crystallizes the premonitions that have been plaguing her - if she doesn't stop the wedding, her sister could die!

This is set in the same world as the Windrose books (The Silent Tower and its sequels) but doesn't involve any of the same characters, except peripherally. It does hinge on the hostile and complicated relationship in that world between "normal" people and those with magical abilities.

Kyra left home because her merchant father wanted to rise in society, and having a wizard as a daughter would be a scandal. But being born to magic is an irresistible call, and no matter what else she wanted, Kyra couldn't not learn to use her abilities. She found a local teacher and her parents looked the other way for a while, but it ended very badly.

How badly is part of the story of the book. Kyra reveals her backstory in occasional stories and flashbacks, and the full complexity of her past lends a different depth to the book than I expected going in. I should have known better and looked past the somewhat silly cover art earlier, though. I've read enough of Hambly's work to know that her stories always twist in unexpected directions.

At first, Kyra seems to be a common character type - the girl set up to be different from the flighty, feminine girls around her. But just because she's practical and clever doesn't mean she isn't also interested in art and sympathetic to love, even before she understands it herself. I really appreciated that she repeatedly defends her more traditionally attractive sister's intelligence and skill with both design and math.

The main romance tends a bit toward sudden and dramatic, but it mostly works given the society/family drama set-up.

Overall this was an enjoyable fantasy about trust, passion, the expectations parents put on their children, the struggle to choose a future that society (or family) condemns, dark pasts and predatory men, and of course, one woman's exhausting struggle to rescue her sister from a curse. I quite liked it, but I'm not sure I loved it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)

Monday, June 5, 2017


The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)
N. K. Jemisin, 2011

Premise: Sequel to The Broken Kingdoms. Time is passing, and the balance of power in the mortal world is affected by the changes in the gods. The power in the gods is changing too, as Sieh finds to his peril.

Sieh is one of the more memorable characters from the first two books - the child-trickster, first-born of the Three's many children. Naturally, he starts the first pages of his book telling the reader in no uncertain terms how his book will be different from those that went before.

This was a worthy sequel to the first two books, although I wasn't sure that was possible. I liked how much of this book was about consequences. The characters in books one and two made what seemed to be good choices at the time, but when the primary (corrupt) structure falls, is that actually a net positive?

For a parallel: if you take away Rome's power, you end the Pax Romana - for good and for ill.

Meanwhile, Sieh has bigger, personal issues. He, the ever-young god of childhood, is aging, and no one can figure out why. Nemisin's tremendous skill in balancing between a world that feels textured and real and a story that feels mythic and fated is on full display here.

I had some moments of existential horror in this book, as it draws the reader most fully into the scope of the gods' powers, and how easily life or light can be extinguished, even accidentally.

There's plenty of humor as well, of course. Don't miss the character list in the back of this book - Sieh has made some edits to the first part.

One final note: the omnibus edition I read also included the related novella, "The Awakened Kingdom." This was a fantastic cap to the series, although it did make the ending of the third book feel less momentous.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Lost Stars (Star Wars, Journey to the Force Awakens)

Monday, May 29, 2017


Lost Stars (Star Wars, Journey to the Force Awakens)
Claudia Gray, 2015

Premise: Thane and Ciena grow up together, even though their families couldn't be more different and still be from the same planet. When they join the Imperial Academy, everything will change.

I wanted to love this book. I heard nothing but praise for it. "It's a YA in Star Wars; it's great!"

Unfortunately, for me, the combination of YA romance and Star Wars novel ended up accentuating the worst of each.

To be fair, I quite liked the beginning, which followed the two characters growing up on a planet that is annexed by the Empire during their childhood. The way they didn't understand galactic politics as children felt realistic. They both work hard to enroll in the Imperial training school to get to fly starships.

As the characters got a little older and started to fall for each other it was a little melodramatic but not bad. Then, however, the plot started to take turns for the obvious, and it just kept taking them.

The YA/romance tropes included a complete inability to solve simple problems by talking to each other, the dramatic makeover that makes the girl-next-door suddenly desirable, the forced reasons they can't be together, despite being willing to sacrifice anything for each other.

The Star Wars tropes included really obvious moments of "the Empire is evil" without any of the nuance of the earlier sections, convenient and somewhat unlikely evidence of the goodness of the Rebellion, forced references to the movies, and belaboring the morality (for example, explicitly explaining the points about indoctrination that had been just implied in the beginning until they weren't interesting). I have enjoyed licensed books, including Star Wars, in the past, but I hate it when tie-in books are used to explain and fill-in every possible moment. It usually feels forced and awkward.

The combination of these two styles ended up being less good than either alone, for my taste. I found the characters unbelieveable and unlikeable by turns, and I was only frustrated with their romantic miscommunications. The book twists itself into knots trying to keep the partner who stays in the Imperial service sympathetic, and for me, it just didn't work.

2 Stars - An Okay Book