Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

This book seems to polarize opinion in the way that most bestsellers do. I’d been hearing about this one in librarian circles for a bit before it exploded into the mass market consciousness, and decided it was worth a buy solely due to what I knew about the story. While the book carries a couple of substantial flaws, I enjoyed it about as much as I expected to, rational criticism be damned.

Jacob Portman spent his childhood in the thrall of his grandfather’s amazing stories, and the bizarre photographs that were displayed as proof of them. Even as Jacob grows into a sullen teenager, the unlikely recollections of a magical island where kids could float and lift boulders exerted a strange, nostalgic pull on him. On the night of his grandfather’s unexpected death, Jacob sees something impossible lurking in the night. Determined to find out once and for all if his grandfather was crazy (and whether he is heading down the same path, himself), Jacob ventures to the remote, supposedly magical Welsh island that sheltered his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. Expecting to find closure, Jacob instead discovers that the weird tales and photos made more sense than he realized.

The first half of this book was absolutely perfect, as far as I was concerned. The writing is fantastic and the macabre mood is established and maintained with subtle skill. The full-page photos, genuine oddities around which Riggs wrote the book, are a nice gimmick and add a dark weirdness. Between all of this and the sinister-looking cover of the book, I think a lot of people got tripped up on the notion that this is a horror story. It certainly feels that way at the beginning, but before long, the plot takes a left turn and becomes a mishmash of superhero fantasy and standard YA action. The transition is pretty seamless, from a technical standpoint, but it takes some adjustment for readers who were expecting more horror or mystery.

Unfortunately, though I didn’t mind this new focus in the second half of the book, the writing didn’t work nearly as well past the halfway mark. The photographs that were so effective in the beginning, when the story and characters were being established, started to feel a little shoehorned in once the action got going. While some of the characters felt genuine, others seemed inconsistent or shallow. Emma in particular seemed a bit halfhearted in her characterization, which is kind of a big problem to have with your love interest. Worst of all, the ending of the book is decidedly weak, possessing a distinct episodic feel. “Want to know what happens next? Tune in next time!” For all of its charm, this book simply does not carry its weight as a standalone book, from a story perspective.

Still, the creepy wonder that suffuses the beginning of the book made a lasting impact on me. This is one of those rare books that captured me so thoroughly with its premise and atmosphere that I forgave more than I usually would in the actual plot. It is definitely not a perfect book, and its novelty doesn’t quite balance out its problems in execution. However, it is an extraordinarily fun book with an evocative setting, a slick presentation, and a genuinely interesting angle in the antique photos. The writing style is definitely skewed towards teen readers (and Riggs does a great job in capturing an authentic teen voice, at least in Jacob’s case), but this is a worthy read for anyone with a taste for gothic adventure. I look forward to the next book, even if I am annoyed that I don’t really have a choice in the matter.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Graphic Novel Review - Astonishing X-Men Vol. 3: Torn, by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

I feel like I might be overzealous in my praise of this series, but I'm really, really loving it. None of the small annoyances from the second volume are here; this one is back to high bar established by the introductory volume. Whedon’s run on X-Men makes me feel like the reckless fanboy I used to be when I first discovered the X-books during the Claremont years.

This story arc begins with the faculty and students of Xavier’s school recovering from the hard-fought battles and somewhat pyrrhic victories over Ord and Danger, respectively. Cyclops continues with his seemingly endless inner struggle over whether he has what it takes to lead. Shadowcat tries to get used to the fact that Colossus is alive, and what that might mean for the two of them. Emma Frost, on the other hand, sets a long-dormant plan into motion, after the mysterious meeting with a new incarnation of the Hellfire Club at the end of the last volume. As each X-Man succumbs to their respective version of telepathic hell, the architect of and motive for the attack becomes horrifyingly clear. Meanwhile, in planetary orbit, Ord and Danger discover that they share a singular purpose, if for different reasons, and S.W.O.R.D. tries to locate and stop them before they make it to mansion to carry it out.

I devoured this volume. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot of deep character work going on until the very end, but there’s a pitch-perfect balance of action and melodrama that makes the collected issues eminently readable. Things are ridiculously convoluted in the way they should be in any good X-book, but the story arc comes together in a cool and elegant way at the end of the volume. And this bears repeating: Whedon’s take on Wolverine is hilariously dead-on. The panels that detail his thought processes are light on dialogue, but the art design and panel progression are marvelous, and had me chuckling every time.

The only complaint I can think of is a tiny one, and has to do with the art. Specifically, a few close-ups of Kitty’s face seem oddly proportioned in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, and I only noticed it because she looked like an entirely different person in those panels than she did throughout the rest of the book. Considering that the art up to this point has been expressive, attractive, and consistent, though, I’m willing to let that go.

Yup. More please. Maybe this isn’t the most objective review, but I went into this volume ready and willing to harp on something, and couldn’t really find anything worth complaining about. I’m a longtime X-Men fan, though, so keep that in mind. Even so, I can guarantee that anybody who likes the snappy repartee and black humor of Joss Whedon’s various other projects would do well to read these graphic novels, even if they don’t know a thing about the X-Men. This story arc does ramp up the inside baseball; I actually had to look up a villain that was a big deal in the series during the intervening years in which I didn’t read it. I still maintain, though, that these graphic novels are accessible enough to be a great starting point for getting into the X-books.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review - Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

I don’t get it. This book has everything I could possibly ask for in an escapist action read: plucky characters, air pirates, steampunk weaponry, and zombies. Yet, I could never rise above a general feeling of benign tolerance while making my way through the book, with the exception of a few mildly exciting scenes. I can’t really pinpoint anything wrong with the book, specifically. For whatever reason, though, I just couldn’t get on board, no matter how much I tried. Some spoilers follow, so proceed at your own risk.

The story takes place in an alternate, steampunk version of 19th century Seattle. The title of the book refers to a massive drill built by the eccentric genius Dr. Leviticus Blue, conceived as a response to a challenge from Russian investors looking for a new way to dig for gold under the Klondike. His first test run of the device, however, ended up destroying entire blocks of the city, precipitating the mysterious disappearance of both Blue and the Boneshaker. Even worse, however, was what the drill uncovered during its destructive test run: the Blight, a mysterious gas that pours out of the broken ground, killing anyone who comes in contact with it and transforming them into a ravenous undead creature. Seattle is turned into a sealed-off ghost town, and most of the survivors relocate to a shanty town outside the massive walls. Dr. Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, lives a hardscrabble life in this refugee camp with her teenage son. Briar does her best to forget the past, but her son Ezekiel refuses to accept the shame of his father’s work (and, as an additional problem, his grandfather’s reputation for assisting criminals during Seattle’s evacuation). With typical teenage bravado, Zeke concocts a poorly designed scheme to slip into the toxic, zombie-infested city and redeem his family legacy. Briar follows him in, intent on nothing more than retrieving him, but discovers that the living residents of the Seattle wasteland may be even more dangerous than the dead ones.

Everybody I know who has read this book has gushed over it, without exception. I don’t know if I fell victim to an excess of hype, but I just couldn’t get as excited about this as everyone else seems to be. To be sure, the setting is fantastic and the writing is solid. I’m not so sure about the characters, though. Priest puts a lot of love into sketching them out; their mannerisms and dialects are perfect, their physical descriptions are evocative, and the masks and weaponry are a fun and intriguing touch. But underneath the surface, they all share a curious blandness. The story says they get emotional at all the right parts, but for some reason, it wasn’t really coming across. It didn’t help that there isn’t any real exploration of character motive, other than Briar (mother searching for her son) and Zeke (disaffected youth searching for meaning). Everybody else stumbles in and out of the story, without any real elaboration on why they do what they do.

Considering all the alternative history zombie airship goodness in this book, I would be fine with the dearth of introspection as long as there is plenty of excitement in the story. And there is, in a basic sense. The zombie attacks are sufficiently scary, and the creeping threat of the Blight lends a sinister, claustrophobic element. There is a treasure trove of added coolness, what with all the airship chases, gun battles, and hand-to-hand combat. The problem, though, is that there are no real surprises in the plot itself. Briar sets out to find Zeke, and finds him. The first person Zeke meets is bluntly foreshadowed as untrustworthy, and it turns out he is, but he’s removed from play before that revelation has any real impact on the story. Despite everybody’s well-founded suspicion that the book’s villain, Dr. Minnericht, is actually Leviticus Blue, Briar is grimly sure from the very beginning that he isn’t. This is set up as one of the book’s main mysteries, even though there’s one quite obvious reason why she might be so sure. Once we get to the big reveal at the end, we find that’s indeed the reason, exactly as constructed, and neither Briar nor the reader is a bit surprised. Bleh.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be so underwhelmed, because there really is a whole lot here to like. The secondary characters are really interesting, and the world itself is meticulously realized. The action sequences do not disappoint, and things start to get really good in the last third of the story. But there’s something robotic about the whole endeavor. I couldn’t get invested in the story, and wasn’t distracted enough by the shiny stuff. I did like it enough to be interested in the next Clockwork Century book, since I love the aesthetic and am curious to see if I’ll find a different story in this setting more engaging. But while this is a good book that is a great choice for steampunk and zombie fans, I just wasn’t as captivated by it as I thought I’d be.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review - Notes from the Blender, by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

I’m a bona fide genre enthusiast, so I’ve been trying to expand my reading out into general literary fiction, both in adult and YA titles. This one seemed like a safe bet: an odd-couple story, replete with quirkiness and devoid of any sci-fi gimmicks. I never really got enthusiastic about it, but it ended up being a decent, enjoyable read.

Declan is a fairly typical suburban teenage boy, but ever since the death of his mother, he has hidden behind a thorny exterior. Immersed in Finnish death metal, porn, and violent video games, he gleefully cultivates a loner persona, though he’s secretly as insecure and desperate for affection as any other teenage boy. He'd love to get the time of day from popular girls like Neilly Foster, who he’s pretty sure isn’t even aware of his existence. Neilly, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Her dad is getting remarried, and she just found out that her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend. Worst of all, she recently walked in on her mom cavorting with a secret paramour. Who, by the way, happens to be Declan’s dad. When their twitterpated parents decide to drop another bomb on them- everyone’s going to move in together and be a nuclear family- Declan and Neilly decide that their lives might as well be over. However, as they prepare for their impending forced relocation, they discover that they might have more in common than meets the eye. All that remains is for Neilly to get over her preconceived notions of who Declan is, and for Declan to be able to consider sharing a roof with Neilly Foster without his thoughts immediately heading into the gutter.

I liked this book immediately. The authors handle the teen voice pretty well (at least as far as a rapidly aging person like myself can tell), and the two protagonists are charming and likeable. This book uses the familiar trope of alternating first-person perspectives each chapter, but the transitions are seamless. Declan and Neilly are strong and distinctive enough characters to ward off any confusion at the narrative jumps. Most importantly, there’s a humor and sweetness about this story that stays consistent from beginning to end.

There’s also a predictability to the proceedings, though, and that kept me from getting too excited about it. I also ran into a few minor annoyances as I read. The heavy emphasis on the characters being straight edge, or at least taking a dim view of drinking and drugs, felt a bit preachy to me. It fit well with the story, especially with Declan, where it is actually a pretty interesting bit of characterization. But it gets thrown into Neilly’s chapters, too, and no real effort is made in the plot to make it a shared outlook or experience between the two of them. That makes it an organic bit of character development, true, but it also has a whiff of “just say no” when presented this way in a teen novel. Speaking of Declan, even though I liked his chapters the best, the masturbation jokes got a little tired. Yes, teen boys are eternally horny, and yes, it doesn’t take much to rev up the ol’ internal sexual fantasy machine. Some of the humor derived from that angle flew into American Pie territory, though, which didn’t really do anything for me.

All in all, while I didn't think this one was much of a standout, it was competent and enjoyable. It works in the way you would expect it to, and provides interesting characters and a positive, funny story. It's a solid choice for those who like upbeat teen slices of life, or quirky romances.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Friday, January 6, 2012

Graphic Novel Review - Level Up, by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

This trim little graphic novel has been picking up some buzz, much like everything else that Gene Luen Yang does. Plus, the cover looks like a classic Game Boy. Win. Seriously, though, I was pleasantly surprised by this graphic novel. What looked like and began as a familiar story about a disillusioned young person finding solace in video games turned into a quirky, profound morality play about coming to terms with your family and creating your own destiny.

Dennis Ouyang is on the verge of being kicked out of college. Pushed to succeed since he was a small child, Dennis has instead devoted himself to the video games he was entranced by as a child, and found solace in after the early death of his father. However, his lack of motivation and direction attract the attention of four cute, domineering cherubs, who insist they have arrived to help Dennis achieve his destiny. Dennis goes from slacker and college dropout to medical school student, back on the path to achieving the goals his father had set for him. But is that path really the right one for Dennis? Whose well-being are the angels really looking after?

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but Yang works with a very familiar theme and still manages to produce an original, heartwarming tale. Despite the cover design, video games are only an ingredient, adding spice to a savory mix of dry humor, magical realism, and introspection. Video games are a consistent theme, though, and effectively shape both the format of the book and the plot itself. Most impressively, though, Yang writes deftly about growing up as an Asian-American teen, something he has done quite well before, and yet does so with a universal approach that makes the issue understandable and sympathetic to just about anyone, regardless of ethnicity.

Pham’s art is rough and cutesy, but honestly, it’s perfect. The panels are always drawn and laid out in exactly the right way to convey the humor or sadness in that particular part of story. The caricatures are simple enough to forgive any inconsistency, but vibrant enough to carry a genuine emotional impact. It took me a few pages to get on board with the art style, but I loved it once I did.

I can’t really think of anything bad to say about this book, other than that it’s short and the story resolves itself fairly quickly. It’s a good read for graphic novel enthusiasts and reluctant readers who are inclined towards video games, but honestly, it’s a good read for just about anyone.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Book Review - Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi personally coerced me into taking an autographed copy of this book from him, under threat of being hunted down by Wil Wheaton. No, seriously, that's a true story. I’m glad he did; even though this probably wasn’t the best starting point for the Old Man’s War series, it’s a tight and fun read that promises even better stuff from his other books.

Zoe’s Tale is a retelling of the previous Old Man’s War book, The Last Colony, from the perspective of teenager Zoe Boutin-Perry. A small group of pioneers are chosen to establish a new colony on a fringe world, with Zoe’s parents plucked from a quiet agrarian community and chosen to lead the expedition. Things go awry from the very beginning, though, when the world they arrive at is revealed to be a different world than the one they were supposed to settle. The colonization mission is revealed to be a ploy, culminating in a confrontation with a vast, heterogeneous armada that seems dedicated to preventing human colonization of the galaxy. Zoe is unfortunately caught in the middle of this intergalactic chess game, along with the people she cares about. However, her unique status as a demigod/treaty provision for the fearsome Obin race allows her to do something about it, if she can summon the courage to do so.

It became clear to me fairly early on that I would have liked this book a lot more if I had read The Last Colony beforehand. This book seems to place a lot of emphasis on filling holes and explaining plot points in that book, and there are a lot of deleted and extended scenes meant for readers that are already familiar with the series. That makes Zoe’s Tale a great companion book, but for a first-time reader like me, it didn’t quite hit the mark. I read somewhere that this book goes a long way in fleshing Zoe out so that she doesn’t seem like a deus ex machina in the previous book, but unfortunately, all that extra focus makes a lot of the rest of the story seem a little too convenient. The bad guys are mysterious, ill-defined, and ultimately irrelevant. The introduction of a crucial alien character near the climax, while heavily foreshadowed, feels a lot like a deus ex machina, itself. Worst of all, there is a lot of world-building done in the beginning, and most of it is promptly ignored once Zoe’s story gets going (since the ideal reader of this book already knows that stuff), which makes for some baffling inconsistencies.

While that sounds harsh, it doesn’t necessarily make for a bad standalone book. Zoe is a great character, and exhibits the right mix of teenage insecurity and adult intelligence. The book is a nicely paced, genuinely exciting space opera, which is all I really wanted from it. Since the book is narrated in the first person by a teenaged protagonist, there is a dry humor and whimsical flightiness injected into the proceedings that nicely complements the serious nature of the plot, making it a true “alternate perspective” tale. Even though I wasn’t on board the whole time with the setting and how the story progressed, things move at a nice clip and are punctuated by some extraordinarily well-written scenes, particularly near the end.

I left the book with a definite feeling of regret that I didn’t read the original Old Man’s War books before trying this one. Even so, the characters and lore are affecting enough that I’m eager to jump into Scalzi’s other books. I wouldn’t recommend using this one as an entry point, like I did, but I’d definitely recommend it to sci-fi fans that are already familiar with Scalzi's work.

Verdict: 3 / 5