Saturday, August 14, 2010

I'm back! Plus, Grease Monkey by Tim Eldred

Hi guys! I disappeared for three months, and in all probability you've all forgotten that I exist! Sorry! Basically, my computer died for a while, and then I was in the throes of summer college and I just wasn't up for it. I didn't read any blog posts during the time I was gone either, so I'll be catching up for a long time. But I'm back, and I read some awesome books while I was gone!

Grease Monkey was one of those awesome books. It's a black-and-white science fiction graphic novel about a space station in a future where an awful lot of humans have been exterminated by aliens. Benevolent aliens came along and helpfully lifted gorillas up to the level of humans, so that the world wouldn't be too underpopulated to survive. Now, the gorillas and humans who populate the space station are in constant preparation, just in case the bad aliens come back. The book follows Robin Plotnik, a new cadet, as he assists Mac Gimbensky, the gorilla on the cover who happens to be the mechanic for the best squadron of fighter pilots on the station, the all-female Barbarians.

That's all just the set-up, though. What you get when you read this is the experience of living on that space station, with those people. It's not a sweeping space-military war epic. It's not a "how disturbing could I possibly make these aliens?" story, or an "in the future we all have weird sex every second of every day" story. It's not a "realistic" story wherein unlikeable people make stupid mistakes and just live with it. It's about real people having normal everyday problems, and TOTALLY COMING OUT ON TOP. It's awesome!

Like I said, it's not a sweeping epic. It's written in vignettes, for the most part, and that's where the day-in-the-life feel comes from. It's lots of days in their lives, and their lives are way funnier and more awesome than mine. It's a rich, complete story, it tries to make you think, and it's intense sometimes, but it's not trying to shock you or impress you with how trendy it is. You can read it in tiny little sips, one vignette at a time, and enjoy it, but it's the kind of book you just WANT to read, because when you're reading it, you're happy.

Since it's a graphic novel, a word on the art: Fantastic. Very clean and crisp and fun to look at, a pleasure to look at. There's no trouble telling which characters are which or what's going on in the panel, and a big spread will take your breath away. It really will.

You can read the ongoing sequel at the Grease Monkey site, as well as find all kinds of art, suggestions for further reading, and other cool stuff. I say once again: Awesome.

I've got loads of books to post about and plenty of spare time, so I'm hopefully back on a weekly schedule now. I hope y'all will bear with me as I get back into the swing of things.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Many and profuse thanks to my buddy Bookmonkey for recommending this totally awesome series way back whenever he did. It was months ago. Check out his blog, there's a lot of awesomeness over there.

Night Watch is kind of the Russian version of The Dresden Files, but better. (Please don't kill me, Dresden fans. He's awesome too.) It follows Anton Gorodetsky's life as a low-level operative of the Night Watch, the organization of good-guy magic-users devoted to foiling the plots of the Day Watch, the bad guys. They have a careful truce set up, so that for every good deed THEY do, the bad guys get to do one EVIL deed, and vice versa.

So, they don't do all that much good. What makes them the good guys, again?

That's what the book is about. It's totally frikkin awesome. There's some navel-staring toward the end, but for the most part it's action, magic, chase scenes, and murders! It's divided up into three separate parts with some time in between each one, so we get an overview of a slightly bigger picture, three major events happening in sequence. We see some of the consequences of actions further down the road that we (or I, at least) never saw coming. It's like life, like that.

In a book with a theme like this, you expect to get a lot of Dark, Broody, Controversial characters (i.e. characters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever), and there is some of that, but I really like these characters and I like how all of them have legitimate reasons for their actions. Not just excuses or "I have to have motivation for my villains" reasons, REAL reasons. Of course, Anton is my favorite, and in no small part because he's one of the few characters who doesn't want to take part in the dance and the compromises, who doesn't just assume things are they way they should be because someone else tells him they are.

This is a book about subtlety. And it's about plots, and intrigue, and mysteries. And also about hurling fireballs. And a note on the translation: Absolutely flawless. I never would've guessed that it was originally in Russian, there's no awkwardness at all, and the writing isn't only competent, it's amazing.

Really, there wasn't a thing about it that I didn't love. There are three sequels, which I'll be reading as soon as possible: Day Watch, Twilight Watch, and Last Watch.

Buy Night Watch

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Captivate by Carrie Jones

Last year, I reviewed Need by Carrie Jones. In that review I said that I enjoyed the book and the basics were excellent, but it was a Twilight read-alike, the execution was shaky, and it wasn't entirely satisfying. I said I hoped she'd write a sequel, because she could make it so much better. This is that sequel. Is it as awesome as I'd hoped? Read and find out. (Sorry guys, it's a pretty long review. I didn't do it on purpose.)

First, Captivate a lot more coherent and solid than the first book, for the most part. It starts to look at the ramifications of the first book and the consequences for the characters' actions, (mostly Zara's,) so you should definitely read the first book first for it to make sense. There's more fantasy, with the odd inclusion of Norse mythology this time around. I love Norse mythology, and it could be a really interesting choice, but I think she's getting in over her characters' heads with Ragnarok.

A note on the pixies. That example for it not being Twilight is out the window, because these are vampires. 1) They drink blood. 2) A pixie's kiss can turn you into a pixie. 3) They can't enter a home uninvited. 4) They're arranged like vampires tend to be, in coven sorts of things under a king or lord. (Or Sheriff, or what-have-you.) 5) They glitter. Aside from the glitter, they're more like vampires than the Twilight vamps are. Need I go on? (Pun!)

Speaking of pixies and Ragnarok: There are plenty of people (like, say, ME) who would be overjoyed to discover a supernatural world, even if it was realistic. (i.e. There are villains, people still die, etc.) There are also characters (less common than I'd like) who are capable of dealing with that kind of supernatural world when they find it. I can only wish that Zara was one of those characters. It's not that she's a waste of space or something, she's a fully-rounded character and I like that, but she's just not mature enough to be dealing with this kind of thing with so little guidance. She goes on and on about "most people don't know about this dark underbelly," but she really doesn't know a thing. She thinks she can take on vicious pixies by herself with a sword, but, as she promptly finds out, she has no idea how to fight (with a sword or without.) And she doesn't have the life experience she needs to make balanced decisions.

(minor spoilers await)
Case in point. Around the halfway mark of the book, something happens to her boyfriend. Instead of, say, being upset that her boyfriend of some three months is gone now, she compromises one of her most integral principles in her despair, then resolves to become the one thing neither she nor her boyfriend wanted her to be, in the name of saving him from something he'd probably WANT in the first place, even though she has no plan for saving him and other people are volunteering who are far more capable of succeeding. She totally derails her life in the name of saving him by herself. Guys, he's not that motivating. He's kind of oafish and bloodthirsty, and while he does genuinely care about Zara, she's obviously not the most important thing in his life, and he never listens to a word she says. Maybe if they'd been together longer and forged more of a relationship, sure, but this kind of reaction after three months of a relationship built on making out is simply not healthy. This is what therapists are for, Zara.

I do approve of the direction in which Zara has derailed her life, but I'd rather she went off and did that rather than making it all about some guy with little or no personality. And the derailing is the ENTIRE second half of the book! It doesn't end in a cliffhanger so much as she ran out of space and stopped between chapters. I might even have believed it more if it was in the heat of the moment, but it wasn't. It was almost 150 pages of Zara being too dumb to live. Does this remind y'all of something? Say, the second book in a certain famous series? (I do give props to Jones for not being afraid of drastic changes, though. I think if you're going to bring up an idea you should go all the way with it, and she does.)

So yes, it is better than the first book, but not by as wide a margin as I would have hoped. It IS better than Twilight though, the plot is way more interesting and the characters have much more depth. Despite all that ranting I just did, for the most part I enjoyed it, and there are some very interesting new developments and characters. I'll still pick up the third book, and hope Zara matures a bit during it.

The series I reviewed two weeks ago, Soul Screamers, is actually really similar, but Soul Screamers succeeds in all the places where Need flags.

I am aware that authors google themselves. To Ms. Jones, should she happen by:
Hello! I just totally dissed your book, and I feel really bad about it. Please don't think I hate your guts. I'm just the sort of person who obsesses about flaws, you know? The point is that I have read your book, and I cared enough about the characters to be this frustrated. I enjoyed the book, I think you have some great ideas, and your characters are awesome. I hope this review brings you business, and I can't wait to read your next book. -Fate

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Shades of Green by Rhonda Parrish

So, I'm a little shy today, because I got this book for review from the author, so it's a fair bet she's going to be reading the review shortly. Of course I'll be my usual honest, nitpicky self, not to worry. I was afraid I was going to have to be scathingly rude and snipey, but I'm shy because I liked it, so I'm a bit giggly, and I'm shy because I'm still going to be nitpicky right in her face. Am I allowed to criticize when she's published and I'm not? I'm going with a resounding "yes." This entire blog is me criticizing published authors, so I think my opinion on that should be obvious. But that's probably an essay of it's own.

Anyway, the book. It's a novelette, which means it could be considered a very short novel, but it has the structure and scope of a short story. It's about the a girl who is the last swamp elf in the world and lives with the big lizard people (the Reptar) who hate her guts. She meets a human, falls in love with him, and has to choose between him and causing the destruction of the entire Reptar race.

First, the sniping. There are a lot of what I consider simple mistakes in the first ten or fifteen pages: "as you know, Bob," fantasy names that sound made up, etc. There just seem to be too many words on the pages, when those sentences could be much more streamlined and get to the point a lot faster. I don't want to have to sit and decipher oddly phrased sentences when we could be getting on with the plot. I also think the Reptar are too human--just humans wearing crocodile suits, really. I would expect a reptilian culture to be noticeably different from a primate culture, just for starters. They wouldn't build things the same way. But that was less important as the story went on.

After about twenty pages, I was far too interested to continue making notes. Rhonda's strength definitely looks to be in the area of plotting, (Twists! Reversals! A totally unexpected ending, but still a square peg in a square hole!) and worldbuilding to a slightly lesser extent. A lot of it is pretty standard fantasy fare; some of it is fascinating. The Reptars have a post-technological society centered around a magic stone that seems to be alive in some way. It kind of creeped me out, but it's supposed to be benevolent. I'm terribly curious. It reminds me of Interstellar Pig, and oh, how I love Interstellar Pig...! Also, I thought the romance was done really well. It rang true.

You can read the first chapter at Rhonda Parrish's site, as well as see a bigger picture of the cover. (I'm not crazy about most of it, to be honest, but I love the Reptar in the background and you can't see his teeth in my little picture.) Keep in mind that it gets much better than the first chapter, after the plot picks up. If you like it, you can buy it here, or go here to browse her other work. (More stories set in this 'verse, surely?)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Soul Screamers series by Rachel Vincent

Kaylee screams when people are about to die. Her "panic attacks" have already landed her in the hospital once, so she doesn't want to tell anybody now, but if she really can predict deaths, what is she supposed to do about it?

These really remind me of something I might have written when I was a tween. "Girl discovers she has special powers and joins the awesome secret society of other people with special powers, at least one of whom is a hot boy" kind of thing. Not terribly original, but here at least, really good. Fair warning: I'm going to swear in a paragraph or two.

My Soul to Take, the first book of the series, is mostly about introducing you to Kaylee, her friends and family including boyfriend Nash, and the world she lives in. The characters are all good (all of them are more than they let on in the beginning), especially Kaylee. She's got a great mixture of personality traits, so it's hard to sum her up in one or two keywords. She's self-conscious, but doesn't have an inferiority complex, tempestuous but not exhausting, sometimes kind of an idiot but only when she's really upset, and sometimes selfish but always trying to help. The story is half mystery and half romance (published by Harlequin Teen, here) and it just has that indefinable something that draws you in and makes you care.

I was worried that the second book, My Soul to Save, would be mostly teen wangst and relationship issues. That it wouldn't deliver on the fascinating ideas and potential the series was offering But not to worry: Save takes everything that was good about the first book and makes it TOTALLY AWESOME. We know who Kaylee is now, we know what she's capable of, so now we go and do some shit. Trips to the Netherworld! Showdowns with demons! Fame and fortune! And of course, relationship issues, but these weren't boring or wangsty. This was one of the best treatments of teen romance I've seen; passionate, but uncertain.

Vincent has succeeded in doing the one thing that every urban fantasy writer wants to do: She created a supernatural world and made me really believe it was there, totally alien, but right next to me. Kaylee has matured already, she's brave, she's smart, and she strong. I could totally see her as the heroine of an adult urban fantasy series (like Anita Blake or Harry Dresden) in ten or twenty years. It helps that I'm convinced Nash is evil, and that would be great backstory after the fact. (I have no evidence for this belief, he seems perfectly nice, but there's something he's not saying. Such as "I'm a serial killer" or "I'm a hellbeast in disguise" or something interesting like that.)

The third book (My Soul to Keep) comes out in June, and if you have a Kindle there's a prequel story called My Soul to Lose that you can order. Somebody please read this series and come theorize (and spaz) with me! Some similar books I'd recommend are Sucks to Be Me by Kimberly Pauley (review here) and Need by Carrie Jones (review here.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gladiatrix by Russel Whitfield

Some other reviews led me to believe I was going to hate this and deride it mercilessly for being utter crap, but I don't and won't. I kind of loved it, and I'll tell you why.

It's not because of the historical accuracy. That obviously wasn't a concern here. The story was based on one image, and focused on what might have happened to achieve a moment like that. This is a highly stylized, highly fetishized, highly modern-opinion-ized version of Rome.

It wasn't because the heroine was likeable, because she wasn't. There's not anything likeable about her at all, really, except maybe her perseverance. But she's interesting. I'm not asked to like her, only to understand her.

It was because this is a really great pulp action novel. Blood, sex, violence, exotic locations, intrigue. The writing flows well and isn't too stylized or self-aware, and it's no chore to read. It's not a timeless work of literature or one of my favorite books, but it'll only take one afternoon to read. Embrace the glorious VIGOR of it, the intensity that's so serious as to be a bit silly. It's liberating. It's the perfect vacation book, whether you're on vacation or not. A bucket of popcorn wouldn't be amiss, either.

It sort of reminded me of Mara, Daughter of the Nile... Mara is a cut above, though, better history and focused on absolutely delicious intrigue.

Buy Gladiatrix

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament by S.G. Browne

Andy is a zombie, in a world where zombies are well-known but not accepted. He still has all of his faculties intact, but he is dead and decaying, and zombies are second-class citizens if they're citizens at all.

This is a really interesting zombie book, thoughtful, quirky, original, and gross, on every page. It's written in that modern men's Nick Hornby fiction style, which I don't always like, but in this case it makes the story very clear and accessible. It's easy to start reading, and hard to put down. (The book design has a lot to do with that too... Great cover and overall design, the physical act of reading was pleasurable.)

But, lest you think it's all whining and introspection, let's not forget Andy's new friend Ray and that tasty, er, venison, he's been serving.

I'm not sure I'd say I "liked" the characters, plot, etc., but it was definitely worth reading. There are two conflicting ideas coming from the text and I'm not sure which one is the intended (or even unintentional) Aesop. Are zombies just people like us, or are they total monsters that need to be killed for our own protection?

I hate the ending a little bit, but it's not out of the blue, and it certainly isn't disappointing. Browne doesn't rely on his premise to carry the book, he definitely puts in the effort and writes the whole way through, which I think is fantastic.

World War Z (reviewed last week) was the book that piqued my interest in zombies, and is without compare for zombies on a global scale, like Breathers is for the personal scale. Breathers also reminded me of The Reformed Vampire Support Group (reviewed last August), although RVSG is firmly YA and Breathers is firmly adult. Browne also has an (unrelated) new book called Fated coming out in November, and I'm super excited.