Book Review Round-up

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Whoa. Been a while since I’ve updated my blog. Going to do better at that in the coming weeks, but for now…how about a few reviews of a few novels I’ve read lately. Some great stuff out there right now. Here are four:


weaponsmass_cvr_lrgWhen I was in high school, I starting reading Tom Clancy novels. I don’t remember if I saw Hunt for Red October as a movie first or read the book, but it all happened about the same time. Clancy had a knack for showing the military side of the U.S., the intelligence behind it all, the home life of the operatives, and yet give the audience a glimpse of the enemy at the same time. The formula works and David Bruns and his writing partner on this book, J.R. Olson, make it work to perfection in Weapons of Mass Deception.

Bruns and Olson give us a simple premise — what if the weapons of mass destruction President George W. Bush said Saddam Hussein had actually existed? From the get-go the reader is given a very plausible scenario of what might’ve happened to the nuclear warheads in the early days of the Iraqi invasion and the entire book spirals from there.

Just like Tom Clancy gave us Jack Ryan and Clive Cussler gave us Dirk Pitt, Bruns and Olson gave us Brendon McHugh, a Navy Seal, complete with a well-rounded backstory and friends throughout the U.S. military and intelligence community. It’s the details where the authors really shine as both are former Navy and completely convince you the story you are reading is real and authentic in every way possible. If it wasn’t for the “fiction” tag on the book, I might’ve been convince this was a true story, ala American Sniper.

I thoroughly enjoyed Weapons of Mass Deception. Bruns and Olson are right up there with Clancy, Cussler, and Vince Flynn in terms of a military and terrorism thriller. I think this is a perfect book to start a long-running series with McHugh as a central character. Well done!


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I first started reading Linear Shift by Paul Kohler when he first released Part 1 as a serial installment. I loved the premise and was intrigued enough to keep reading to Part 2. I somehow got off track when Parts 3 and 4 were released, but thankfully I was able to catch up and read all four parts together with the omnibus collection of Linear Shift, which makes for an interesting and moving time travel tale.

In the book, we meet Peter Cooper, an architect whose family is falling apart. After his wife’s death, his teenage kids are struggling and Peter isn’t much better. One day Peter is offered a chance to travel to 1942 on a mission to correct a mistake during World War II. The mission would be fairly straight forward if those in charge of the mission were more honest with Peter in the first place.

There is a fair amount of action before Peter and his traveling partner Julie actually travel to the past, but the book really takes off and gets interesting once they are in the past. There are plenty of subplots in 1942 and the world is rife with different agendas between the U.S., the French (even the Vichy), the Nazis, and plenty of issues even on the American side of things. Suffice it to say, Peter and Julie don’t have an easy time in the past, but it seemed that sometimes they made it harder on themselves. I really enjoyed it and don’t even have a huge problem with a time or two that seemed a bit “Ex Machina” to me.

I think Mr. Kohler did a great job on Linear Shift and his growth as a writer is evident throughout the four installments of the story. The first few installments are good, but the fourth part (which ends up being nearly half the overall book) is by far the best. I look forward to seeing what Kohler will do next.


heretic-ebookI’d had The Heretic by Lucas Bale sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but for some reason never started reading it. I don’t know why I ever waited — The Heretic is a fantastic read and the beginnings of something special.

As I read The Heretic, I kept feeling like there was something familiar to the story and when the book ended and I read Bale’s author note where he credited the TV show Firefly with much of the inspiration, I knew the similarities were not just coincidence. Like many other sci-fi fans, I too wished the show would have continued with the adventures of Captain Mal and crew. In a way, Bale fulfills that wish with the story he gives us in The Heretic.

But this is so much deeper than a simple hour-long TV show. Bale has intertwined the Roman Empire in a dystopian post-earth setting with the Firefly homage. The galaxy is under control of an authoritarian regime, using terms straight out of ancient Rome like Consul and Praetor. Only what is approved is taught, leading to conflicts between the government and unauthorized “Preachers.”

Our main character is named Shepherd and seems straight out of the Firefly character book, which is not an unwelcome thing. He and his ship are hired to take a town and their Preacher out of danger, a situation he would naturally like to avoid, but something keeps him around — something that nags him from his past.

I really enjoyed The Heretic and have the next two books ready to go on my Kindle. Mr. Bale is a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre and I look forward to more stories from him.


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After reading previous books by S. Elliot Brandis in his Tunnel series, I thought I was prepared for The Pearl Diver. I was wrong. Starting a great new Young Adult series, Brandis does the unexpected, taking the reader in new directions with each step along the way.

In The Pearl Diver, we are quickly introduced to Elsie, a 17 (nearly 18) year old living on the planet Caelum, which is 96 percent water. Based on the descriptions, it seems wonderful, almost like a year-round tropical island in many respects, but Elsie longs for more, just like many young protagonists in stories like this. She wants, desperately, to be The Pearl Diver.

Caelum is one of six (or seven??) planets in the system, but each year administrators from the planet Dunamis, the head planet, organize a contest for a black pearl. The winner, if there is one, is named the Pearl Diver, and is taken to Dunamis where they are honored. The first half of the book is all about Elsie’s journey to the contest and her attempts to be the Pearl Diver, but it’s the back half of the book that really got me.

In Brandis’ previous books I’d read, he was liberal with hurting his characters physically. He literally plunged the knife in and twisted at times. In The Pearl Diver, Brandis has learned to do the same with emotions. The physical challenges and harm is still a factor, but when Elsie learns what life is like after the contest, we find the knife sticking out of our backs as well.

Well done, Mr. Brandis.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a larger and much broader plot Brandis has mapped out beyond the contest to find the pearl. I would definitely recommend this to any fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, or Susan Kaye Quinn’s latest The Legacy Human.

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Book Review – The Legacy Human

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legacy humanSusan Kaye Quinn has a winner on her hands with The Legacy Human. It is compelling, exciting, and a fine example of intelligent fiction. Susan doesn’t dumb it down for her audience, instead trusting her readers to challenge their ideas of what it means to be human as the story unfolds. If the next books in the Singularity series are anything like this book, I can easily see teenagers swapping The Hunger Games or the Divergent Series for her books. In a heartbeat.

Our hero is a 17-year-old artist named Eli, who craves one thing — to ascend. Eli is a Legacy Human, kept because of his genetic code. Once he ascends, he can join the elite group on the planet, ones that don’t age because their consciousness now inhabit bodies of metal. And, his ascension will bring his mother along with him, thereby curing her of her debilitating sickness. Unfortunately for Eli, that ascension can only come after he competes at the Olympics — an event not known for sports in the future, rather for the arts, such as writing, dancing, and painting. Eli isn’t good enough on his own to compete and win at the Olympics, until he goes into his “fugue” state. One painting done under these conditions catches the eye of one Ascender, Marcus, who sponsors Eli at the games.

Once Eli and his friend Cyrus get to the Olympics, they find the competition deadly fierce, but not always between the competitors. The Ascenders themselves have their own political games to play, and the Legacy Humans are just pawns in their eternal games. They also meet competitors who bring out the best in Eli — a dancer, and a writer who both challenge his way of thinking. The world suddenly expands for Eli, all while it seems to close in around him.

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a soul? Can a machine possess a soul?

Eli struggles to answer these questions, all while striving to figure out his own abilities leading up to the climax of the competition. There are secrets at play, many of which Eli doesn’t even know are there, but finding them out could change his life forever.

I really enjoyed The Legacy Human. I can see similarities between The Hunger Games and Divergent for sure: the games, the separate groups the teens get placed into, the grand machinations going on behind the scenes. The story has a very intimate feel, focusing on Eli and his role in this world, but the scope is so much larger than he could have possibly imagined. In another way, I really got a Ready Player One feel from this novel as well. There was hope even in the midst of a human dystopia and a lot of other slight ways I could connect RPO to Legacy Human.

I would definitely recommend this book to any lover of Young Adult thrillers and look forward to Quinn’s second book in the series. Well done!


Note: The Legacy Human will be available for purchase on Monday, March 2. 

We should ALL read YA books (If you want)

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I just finished reading this missive by Slate’s Ruth Graham, where she admits people can read whatever they want, but they should feel embarrassed when…if they decide to even pick up a Young Adult novel — what she calls “children’s books.”

Ms. Graham is wrong. I don’t know anything about her; the Slate biography page about her only says she is a writer from New Hampshire. But, I am not embarrassed to read Young Adult, nor should anyone else feel that way.

TFIOSWhile I haven’t read all the books she mentioned in the piece, I have read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which movie’s release is why Ms. Graham feels compelled to attack Young Adult literature at this point in time. TFIOS is a monumental work, Young Adult or not. I’ll confess I was an very early fan. I pre-ordered the book months before its release and my book has both John Green’s signature, as well as a Hanklerfish as drawn by his brother, Hank. (Nerdfighters know what I’m talking about.)

You can certainly make arguments about the quality of some Young Adult books that have been overhyped (I stopped reading the Twilight series after the second book and my dislike for the third book of the Divergent series is well-known among my friends). However, what harms Young Adult books is also what makes them great.

Passion.

Here is what is missing about Graham’s argument. She claims once you reach the age of 18 (and apparently enlightenment), you must automatically crave adult books. Literary fiction. She says:

But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. 

How pretentious. That teenagers need to aspire to read something besides what they have. When I was a teenager, no one was telling me what I could and couldn’t read — I wasn’t desperate to “earn my way into the adult stacks,” because I could already go there and read books from there already. I wasn’t clamoring to read books by the Bronte sister. I did read “adult” books before I had my driver’s license and you know what?

I hated them.

I will never read a Gore Vidal book again after a failed attempt when I was in high school. His Lincoln may have been the worst reading experience of my life. I certainly read non-Young Adult books now, but most of the books I do read have the “passion” in common.

Adolescents think with their heart, not with their head. As a high school teacher, this is both the best and worst thing about them. If you know how to communicate with teenagers, you can earn their trust and loyalty, but when you betray that trust, it is almost impossible to gain back.

To think you’ve moved on and won’t ever read a Young Adult book again, does NOT mean everyone is like you. I certainly hope people have varied tastes. She specifically mentions the books The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting and that she has no desire to go back and re-read them.

I have a confession to make. Last year, I went back and re-read The Westing Game. I remembered the feelings I had in junior high when I read it and wanted to re-experience those feelings, even in a small way. It doesn’t detract from my adult-ness. It doesn’t mean I regret growing up and want to escape my job and responsibilities. It simply meant I loved it and wanted to find out if it still held up, all these years later. I also re-read Tuck back about four or five years ago just to re-experience the same feelings.

I have another confession to make. I don’t think I’m strong enough to re-read The Bridge to Terebithia. That book wrecked me as a kid. I read it when I was in fourth or fifth grade and while I loved it, there are a lot of childhood feelings I’m afraid to encounter again. Just because of this article, I think I may have to challenge myself to read it again.

And that’s the thing. The passion that is inherent about so many of these books is what makes them so great. Naturally most people lose that passion and emotion when they reach a certain age. Do they then move on to James Joyce and Hemingway?

Nope.

Most people stop reading. Would I prefer people read, even it if has the label of “Young Adult?” Yes. Yes, I would.

We shouldn’t be shaming people for their reading choices, especially when the criticism centers around so many great books available today, like TFIOSHunger Games, Divergent, etc…

“But they don’t get people thinking!” a Ruth Graham apologist might say. Bull. I read the Neal Shusterman novel, Unwind, a couple years ago. You want to think? Read that book — if it doesn’t get your brain going, you’ve got some major issues. It may be couched in the emotion of a teenager, but the thoughts that swirl around in your head…

One book isn’t good enough? Try Feed by M.T. Anderson, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak, and I haven’t even mentioned Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. There are deep thoughts in each of these books. There are aspects that push people to think differently about the world around them. They are excellent books and it doesn’t take an “adult” label to be classified as such.

Ultimately, I feel sorry for Ms. Graham. If she wasn’t allowed to read adult books as a teenager, perhaps that is why she feels the way she does today. Another thing about teenagers is they want what they can’t have. If that was the “forbidden fruit” of her childhood, maybe that is why she grasps so tightly to it today.

Read what you want. If it doesn’t fit in a specific genre, who cares? Read.

Another great view on this by Lauren Davis from io9.

2013 in Movies — Top 20 List

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The other day I did a “Best of” list for the books I’d read in 2013. That got me to thinking about the movies I watched in 2013. Since I didn’t write down what I watched, I had to find a release schedule for the past year and find the movies I saw. Turns out, I watched 16 movies in the theatre as well as four that were released in 2013 that I saw later on DVD or some premium channel. I will now rank these movies as to which I enjoyed the most to the least. My criteria for this follows this line of thought: Would I watch it again? If so, which would I watch first?

Another thing to remember as I begin. This is the year I told my daughter (she turned 9 in August) that I was not going to take her to “crappy” movies. Basically, if Daddy decided they looked stupid, we weren’t going. For the most part, that worked. There are a few regrettable choices, however.

Image1. PACIFIC RIM. Big, loud, and silly. Yes, yes, and yes. I loved it. It was the only movie on this list that I’ve seen twice and both times in the theatre. I’ve got a Pacific Rim movie poster hanging above my desk at school. I know it didn’t do well at the U.S. box office, but that means nothing to me. It was my favorite 2013 release, in spite of the lack of A-list stars.

2. FROZEN. I’m a sucker for Disney musicals. Frozen looked good before I went to the theatre a few weeks ago, but after seeing it, I knew it was GREAT. So great, I bought my daughter the soundtrack for her to play endlessly in her bedroom. Just like when I was young, I listened to the Lion King soundtrack over and over, she can now do the same to an equally good movie. Go see it if you haven’t already.

3. OBLIVION. Can you keep a secret? I’m a big Tom Cruise fan. Mission Impossible, Jerry McGuire, War of the Worlds. I love to see that man run. He is great at running. And yelling. And being near things when they blow up so he has to run and yell. You take that and put him into an ORIGINAL sci-fi movie, and you’ve got my second favorite movie of the year.

4. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Alright. I know there are the haters. THE ORIGINAL TIMELINE! some will shout. I do love the original timeline stuff, but I gotta say, I loved J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek movie as well. The lens flares do get a bit distracting and the whole “Khan” reveal got to be a bit tedious, but overall I thought it was a well done movie.

5. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Better than the first movie by far and I loved the first one quite a lot. It almost seems so ridiculous to have a sequel to movie where so many of the characters die and then they do it again! I thought it was really well done and am anxiously awaiting the Mockingjay movies (and yes, I liked Mockingjay and I know I’m in the minority).

Image6. CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. Silly and not afraid to show it. The first one gets put on repeat by my daughter and this one will be a mainstay in the DVD player as well. All the food puns…she was quoting them before we even saw it and it was even better than I thought it would be. Would watch again in a heartbeat.

7. IRON MAN 3. This movie worked on many levels. The kid in the middle was fantastic and worked very well with Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark when it could have fallen flat on its face. What really put this movie over so many others was the final action sequence. Wow.

8. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. My second animated movie on this list and ahead of a few others…one of which you might find a little shocking. I so-much loved Monsters, Inc. that perhaps my feelings towards that transferred to this movie, but as an adult, I loved the hints towards movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and dozens of other “college” movies. I loved that they managed to get a prequel out of Sully and Mike and will definitely watch it again.

9. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Peter Jackson should have stuck with the plan to make two movies. I could have understood that. But when my daughter turns to me halfway through this movie and says “This movie is long,” then I know it’s long and drawn-out. She doesn’t usually comment on movie lengths, but what saves this movie from being farther down the list is the barrel scene as the dwarves and Bilbo escaped the Mirkwood Elves. I am looking forward to the final Hobbit film, but there is a certain aspect of simply checking it off the list with these movies.

Image10. THOR: THE DARK WORLD. The second Marvel movie on this list and yet I will say it was a million times better than its predecessor. Thor is a tricky hero to capture on film because he is a “god,” but this movie was much better at making him relatable and showing his world as opposed to him as an outsider on Earth.

11. ENDER’S GAME. Finally. That was the reaction of so many after reading the book as adolescents and finally seeing the dream fulfilled this year of seeing Ender on screen. Asa Butterfield did as good as could be expected and I actually thought Harrison Ford did fine in his role. What I didn’t like was the lack of Peter and Valentine’s storyline on Earth as well as the Battle Room sequences sped up a little too much, but you’ve got to trim for a movie and that’s where they had to cut, I guess.

12. DESPICABLE ME 2. I know this will be a little unpopular, but I honestly enjoyed Cloudy 2 and Monsters U better than DM2. I thought the girls were a huge part of why the first part was so good and yet this one was all about those yellow minions. I think they are a little funny and cute, but not enough to base the whole movie and its marketing around. Just not as good as what it could have been.

13. MAN OF STEEL. This past summer, I probably would have put this higher on the list. I was so disappointed after the last Superman movie that this one had me feeling positive after leaving the theatre about the future of the franchise. I thought Supes did an outstanding job of destroying IHOP and other businesses in and around Smallville, but there were some serious flaws with the movie and I’m not so sure that adding Batman and Wonder Woman to the sequel is the way to go.

Image14. WARM BODIES. I didn’t see this in the theatre, but looking back I kind of wish I did. Great zombie movie with a twist. Not lighthearted like Zombieland, but a good turn on the genre anyway. If it is possible to have a zombie romance, Warm Bodies did it well.

15. THE CROODS. I waited to see this one for a while, but my daughter and I had some free time to kill one day and this was playing, so I caved. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. Nicolas Cage as the father certainly didn’t help in my opinion, but overall the movie was better than I expected from the previews.

16. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. Did this movie really come out this year? I saw it on DVD this summer — must’ve been a quick turn-around from theatrical to DVD release. I love Die Hard 1 and 2 (Yes, I know they are essentially the same movie) and the third is highly underrated. The 4th was okay, but this one was just disappointing. I love the John McCLane character, but I hated his son. A lot. The action was good, but I found myself checking my phone a lot, which was good that I was at home, instead of at the theatre.

17. PERCY JACKSON AND THE SEA OF MONSTERS. My daughter loves the Percy Jackson books, so I took her to see this. She liked it, but there were so many (I lost track how many) times during the movie that she leaned over and said, “that’s not what happens in the book.” I eventually had to remind her that sometimes the books are different than the movies even with the same name. For a movie directly named after a children’s book, they really did a poor job of trying to connect with the source material.

18. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. I also saw this on DVD, but I kind of wish I hadn’t. I just really didn’t get into it. I like the Wizard of Oz, but some of the things they did in this movie didn’t really work for me.

19. THE LAST STAND. It’s a fun and stupid movie. I saw this a few weeks ago on TV and Arnie is about the only thing that saved it for me.

20. FREE BIRDS. This is the worst movie I watched that was released in 2013. This means one thing. I didn’t see Disney’s Planes. Again, my mantra to my daughter of not seeing stupid movies worked for Planes and Turbo, but we had some Daddy-daughter time in November and no kid-friendly movies, save for Free Birds. I saw it and I can now say I’ve seen an animated movie about time-traveling turkeys. Oy.

 

So….what does that mean? It means I didn’t see some (what I’ve heard are) great movies like Gravity or some really dumb ones like After Earth. Summer is also prime movie viewing time as I’m not teaching then with winter coming in second with a few weeks off for Christmas. Because of this, some movies simply get missed simply because I couldn’t get to the theatre when they were out.

Overall, I liked a lot of what I saw this year and only regret a few of the movies I saw. Hopefully my discernment will lead me down wise paths in the future as well.