Thursday, May 26, 2016

Kids Review: HiLo by Judd Winick

As my son, Hebop, has become more of an independent reader, he’s become more interested in the books I receive for review. Arguably, it started with Star Wars and seeing Star Wars book covers that really got him paying attention, but I think that he really began to understand that some of these books are perfect for him with HiLo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick.

It was fall of 2014 when Hebop was looking over my shoulder as I opened a few books that had come in the mail. One of these was an advanced copy of a graphic novel: HiLo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. He immediately grabbed it and started to look, with me looking over his shoulder. ‘Dad, can have this book?’. I looked at my wife, we both shrugged, and said yes. He runs off to his room to read. He spent at least the next 2 hours reading, right up until bedtime. He repeatedly requested that either my wife or I (or both) read with him – him reading to us. And he finished the book. I believe this was his first true graphic novel.

‘Dad, I need more books like this.’

In short, it’s a charming story of friendship where a boy (D.J.) befriends a mysterious boy/robot he names HiLo who crashes to earth. The boy, his best friend Gina, and HiLo then save the world. It’s nice because the main characters are both gender and racially diverse, and in spite of the superhero sort of feel, it’s a story of friendship.

Hebop read HiLo over and over again (at least 6 times) for the next week or two. He told all of his friends and brought the book to share. Later, when I got the finished copy, I never even saw it as it went straight to his room. The advance copy was given to his best friend, who quickly had similar love for the book (his mom has thanked us repeatedly for passing on a book that he was so excited about). For the end of the year book exchange, we had to buy a copy of HiLo to include – no other book would do.

A couple of months ago, I got HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World in the mail. We excitedly gave Hebop the book, and he excitedly read the whole wide book that night. Then he read it again a few times. By now, graphic novels aren’t new anymore and we have a number around the house, so the excitement wasn’t as enthusiastic as before, though that’s not to say that he wasn’t extremely excited to get book 2. Though we were both (happily) frustrated with the cliff-hanger ending that left us wanting book 3 now.

So, HiLo is a hit in my house. It’s a ‘superhero’ graphic novel that I have no issues sharing with an 8 year old (or 7 year old as when he first saw it). And I am happy to highly recommend it.


HiLo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth: Amazon

HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World: Amazon

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Something New: Kids’ Reviews

Hi all, long time followers here on the blog and other social media know that in real life I am a father, among other things. It is not a surprise that I share my love of reading with my children, and I’ve long contemplated sharing that aspect of my reading life here on the blog. I’ve gone back and forth – separate blogs (I even have several registered, just never posted) or whatever, but the reality is that I will never post often enough to really justify that. So, I’ve decided that they will be integrated here on the blog.

My concept of this will likely evolve significantly through time and vary a fair amount from post to post. Some will be little more than the reaction of one (or both) of my children. Sometimes I might focus on my experience reading a book with them, and others will be a hybrid. But they likely won’t be typical reviews.

Also, I doubt I’ll spend much time on the ‘obvious’ books. For example, my son and I (and my wife) have been reading through the Harry Potter books. We do it slowly, because my wife and I feel that there are aspects of the books that an 8 year old is not ready for. And we don’t let him see the movies until we read the books (my daughter will start next year). Everyone knows that kids love the Harry Potter books and movies – and it is loads of fun to read those books with my son and then watch the movie, but that’s not something that really needs a lot of extra attention. So, don’t expect a lot of coverage there. Also, I may cover something that is really a very big thing, perhaps closing in on Harry Potter scale, but if it’s new to me (and a lot is/will be) then I may go ahead and cover it anyway. However it works out, I think we can all agree that excitement around children reading is a good thing to share.

So, I’ll introduce you to my children’s internet names (that I made up for this). It’s possible (likely) that I have inadvertently referred to them by name somewhere on my blog or social media, but I have chosen give them some privacy either way (hell, I don’t openly publish my own full name here on the blog, though it wouldn’t take too much digging to excavate it). 

Hermes (Hebop) is my 8 year old son. He loves all sports (especially soccer) and is always in motion. We work hard for balance and he also does piano and we have instilled a love for reading. He reads quite well for a second grader and reads a variety from silly comics, to rather long novels, to graphic novels. In the near future, most of these posts will focus on Hebop due to where he is at developmentally.

Atë/Artemis/Aristaeus (Arty) is my 5 year old daughter. As the Greek references imply, she’s a bit mischievous (much more sly than my son), and also a very big animal lover, especially dogs. She doesn’t yet read on her own (that will be a summer project this year in prep for Kindergarten). She dances ballet, occasionally plays soccer, and will (hopefully) start piano soon. It’ll probably a few years before Arty is a big focus for these posts.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this new direction (I’ll try to remember to tag the posts with Kids Reviews) and just maybe fellow parents, and anyone looking for reading ideas for little ones, will discover a few gems along the way.

Friday, May 20, 2016

‘Review’: Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

What feels like a long time ago and practically a different life, I wrote this review of The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. In that review I was excited – I was reading a new Mistborn book by Sanderson, one that basically came out of nowhere and pleasantly surprised fans, and one that I was reading months before Sanderson’s rabid fan base was going to see it. It seems to have surprised Sanderson nearly as much, because a small side project, one that wasn’t planned to have sequels has grown into a fully-fledged trilogy (EDIT: I have been informed that The Alloy of Law is a stand-alone, and technically Shadows of Self is the start of the trilogy).

I’m now a few years older and a lot more overwhelmed in life. My reading tastes have evolved and grown a bit. I’ve become a bit more bitter and jaded at a time when I’ve also become more hopeful as I often intentionally pull on the blinders to the world around me and simply enjoy fatherhood.

Anyway…I’m getting a bit too self-indulgent.

After a having a copy of the sequel to The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, for over a year, I finally got around to reading it, in spite of just how much I wanted to immediately see a sequel 5 years ago. Anyway, for whatever reason (perhaps all the reasons?), I can’t say that I’m equally as excited after reading Shadows of Self as I was back then – I literally stayed up half the night to immediately write my review of The Allow of Law, immediately requested an interview with Sanderson (and was granted that request in short-order). Now…well, I finished reading the book a month ago and am just now reviewing it, I haven’t done an interview in years and don’t plan on doing one now. So… is this lack of enthusiasm me or the book? (It’s me, but really, that’s not what I want to dwell any more on).

Shadows of Self is an excellent follow-up to The Alloy of Law – it does everything a sequel in a fantasy trilogy setting should do. The scope grows, the stakes are larger, more is explained, characters grow and history is revealed, things get dark, and for fans of Sanderson’s Cosmere, goodies abound. And Sanderson revels in his strengths – the magic is right in the reader’s face, there are adventures and battles, and the world of Mistborn is further revealed. Which of course only leaves more questions to be answered. As I said, this is a very solid second act for a trilogy not-trilogy. 

This is the second book, of a second trilogy set in a secondary fantasy world (surely, this unlocks some super-secret epic fantasy magical power?) (EDIT: Note, I'm keeping this line because it's cool, even if it doesn't work since technically Shadows of Self is the first book in the trilogy). It’s pretty safe to say that if you are considering reading this book, you are already a fan of Brandon Sanderson. You are a fan of Mistborn. You probably know more about Mistborn and the Cosmere than I do. So, let’s face it, this review doesn’t matter. The only people reading it have either read the book already or will read it regardless of the words here at my little blog.

Which brings me full circle to the indulgence of self. Hell, this review jumped the shark, went off the rails, tipped back the bottle a while back. Hell, I’m just excited that for the first time in years I won’t have a backlog of reviews to write and I can’t believe that anyone is still actually reading this. Bless you for that, but really, I’m sure there’s something better that you can be doing with the time.

Anyway…read Shadows of Self – it’s a fun book that fans of Sanderson will love. And I suppose I should read the final next book in the trilogy: The Bands of Mourning. I should probably even ‘review’ it, though will I be able top this piece of …


Mistborn: Amazon
The Well of Ascension: Amazon
The Hero of Ages: Amazon

The Alloy of Law: Amazon

Shadows of Self: Amazon
The Bands of Mourning: Amazon

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mini-Review: Mystic by Jason Denzel

Author Jason Denzel is best known for running the Wheel of Time fansite, Dragonmount, and in 2015, he published his debut novel, Mystic. Fans who know Jason (and I’m one, going back to my days spending untold of hours on Wheel of Time message boards), probably expect Jason’s novel to be world-spanning, epic fantasy adventure in the same vein of Wheel of Time. They would be wrong.

Mystic takes a different, more focused approach. This book is an origin story, almost a prequel to a series that hasn’t been published yet. It’s not (well, mostly not) the story of an epic journey to save the world. Mystic is the story of a young woman’s (Pomella) journey, her personal struggles against a severely stratified society, and her own baggage from that society. It’s the journey of a young woman breaking barriers and learning her magic. It’s heartwarming, sweet, with a good bit of misguided teenage action. In this, it’s a classic YA book with a good bit of cross-over appeal.

Yes, there is a threat, a threat that could have dire consequences to the world. But the threat feels almost contrived – it really was a placeholder, something to pitch the growth and struggles of Pomella against. In this way, the book is more about her own internal struggles than the external struggles around.

This internal, almost small-scale focus is both the strength and weakness of Mystic. The fan base Jason is chasing after is most likely expecting a sprawling epic that stand on the shoulders of 1990s era big fat fantasy. They may bounce off of the modest page count and ‘lower stakes’ journey of a young woman. That would be unfortunate, as the story is well told, even as it shows many of the signs of an author still in development rather than full command of their skills.

I enjoyed Mystic, and I look forward to reading what Jason does with this series in the future. However, it does not really cover any new ground. That’s not (necessarily) a bad thing – not every book can or should be groundbreaking, but in a time when so many exciting things are happening in the world of SFF books, this is the sort of thing that could fall through the cracks. Or maybe it’s the sort of book that could really take off due to its accessibility. It’s hard to say.

Mystic: Amazon

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

First, I need to get this out of the way right up front: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott is one of the most extraordinary epic fantasy books I’ve ever read.

Got it?

Good, because that is a very important perspective that must be understood, especially as I dive into what is undeniably a rambling, unfocused review that says little about book plot and probably says more about my own relationship with epic fantasy than anything else. Feel free to move along knowing that as I said above, Black Wolves is extraordinary and I cannot recommend it enough.

Still with me? Good.

The aspect of Black Wolves that makes it so extraordinary (get used to this word, as I will keep using it), is the scope of its ambition. Black Wolves embraces the full history of epic fantasy, converses with it, moves into interrogation, then subversion, and spits it back out as something new. And this is done in every aspect of the book.

The beauty of this approach and the shear skill and will Elliott wields to pull it all together makes for a reading experience more fulfilling than any I can recall in recent years. For one thing – I literally had no real idea of just where the story was going to go. There were too many options – I could see a vast array of possibilities, and then Elliott would go in a different direction, bring in a new reveal. It was absolute fun and entertainment – yes, as I will discuss soon, this book has a lot of serious and important things that it does, but that fun and entertainment is never lost. The reader is cheering the characters, invested and rewarded. The dark, grim nastiness of the book, it’s interrogation with more than just itself, but an entire genre and those writing it today, are present without ever losing that critical enjoyment of reading, the investiture of the fan. It’s a bloody brilliant maneuver to see succeed.

Black Wolves takes on many of the most common thematic elements of epic fantasy – colonialism, religion, role and execution of government, class system, war and its consequences, violence, gender roles, racial/ethnic tensions, inspirations from non-Western societies, and many more. Any one of these aspects could become quite a lengthy discussion, along with a few that I didn’t mention.

Many reviews and discussions of Black Wolves have (rightly so) devoted time to discussing gender, and to a lesser degree, age, aspects of the book. Black Wolves is full of strong women with agency, which is becoming much more of the standard to achieve rather than an exception to the state of genre, so I won’t focus on that too much (others have already done this and much better than I can anyway). The aspect that I enjoyed and felt was more fresh was the inclusion and focus on older characters. An aging, retired spy/soldier and a Princess who has grown into a commanding role in a corps of specialized soldiers who bond with and fly giant eagles (which, is really cool in of and by itself). It’s rare for older characters to play more than an aging sage, mentor, monarch, etc. – and when they do, it’s very often that they will be killed off early in the series. So, it’s refreshing that arguably the two most important characters in Black Wolves are long past their youth. And I would certainly speculate that it takes an author with a long history in the genre to make these characters work so well.

It’s also nice to see that every single character in this book has its flaws – there simply isn’t anything universally likeable or unlikeable about any of them. That is a difficult balance to pull off. But, I’m not going to go into any detail of this beyond this mention that characters a fully rounded people and never an encyclopedia entry.

As I’ve matured in my own reading journey through the years, I’ve become far less focused on battles, world-building, and other such details of fantasy books. Often what really gets me excited is fully developed political maneuvering and all of the unpredictability that come from a multitude of intelligent, motivated people all working to further their own interests within and beyond the constraints the world places on them. In Black Wolves we have all that through a King, his wives, his sons and daughters, and a few other, more mysterious groups. Throw in the cultural/colonial appropriation and re-write of history and things get very interesting indeed. As I said above, this creates a mystery and unpredictability of the narrative that keeps tensions high, even as the book drags a bit in the middle.

And this brings us to perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Black Wolves, one that occurred to me much more in retrospect than while I was too busy simply enjoying the book: change. Cultural change to be sure, but Black Wolves is more than just an epic fantasy thriller wrapped around a period of monumental cultural change. To a degree (in my opinion, a large degree), it’s a meta commentary on the cultural change that the entire SFF field is going through. And it’s brutally unapologetic in this interrogation as it revels the change of today and those to come. Change is messy: it’s messy in Black Wolves, I suspect it’ll get messier in the sequels to come, and cultural wars facing genre today, while overall moving things into a much better place, are too often cruel, disheartening, disgusting, tortuous, as they leave countless casualties in their wake. Black Wolves is an answer of perseverance to all that. As I’ve hinted at above, it takes an author who has been too often on the receiving end of a brutal patriarchy for her entire career to seize the opportunity of this time and celebrate the possibilities of the future, all the while shouting ‘Fuck You’ to the haters. Bloody brilliant I say.

As I have now repeated said, Black Wolves is an extraordinary epic fantasy that can be enjoyed on many different levels. One does not have to see the meta interrogation of genre if one doesn’t want to – it can be enjoyed as a great, fun book to read. And, one can enjoy it for other reasons than I focused on in this review. This book is the real deal and a shining example of what can be done. Simply put, the best thing I can say in this review is: READ IT NOW!

And I figure I should get out a few final details that some may find important and/or helpful. Black Wolves is the first book in a planned trilogy. It is also set in the same world, though many years after the events of the Crossroads Trilogy. Black Wolves is the first book by Elliott that I’ve read (and it certainly won’t be the last), so it can easily be enjoyed with no knowledge from the first series, though I predict that knowledge from that series may enhance some aspects of one’s enjoyment. Anyway, do not let this book pass you by.

Crossroads Trilogy

Spirit Gate: Amazon
Shadow Gate: Amazon
Traitors Gate: Amazon

Black Wolves Trilogy

Black Wolves: Amazon

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Mini-Review: The Builders by Daniel Polansky

The Builders by Daniel Polansky is at its basic, a novella about a bad joke. No, I won’t give you the punchline or even tell you what the joke is – knowing that it’s there, you’ll figure it out. And the suggestion that book is about a bad joke is in no way my saying that the book is a bad book – it’s quite the opposite, but it does help frame the story. Appreciation of just where this book comes from makes it all the more enjoyable, as for example, a Quentin Tarantino movie is.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold”

The Builders begins with this idea at its core, and the story is very much full of references not only to revenge tales, but also to variations of small teams at war and/or criminal gangs on a mission. I will not list them – they are legion – and I suspect many a reader will come up with their own, and those may or may not align with the ideas of Polansky as he wrote it all.

The mysterious Captain begins the story by recruiting his team, or more correctly, getting the old gang back together for one final mission to redress their last failed effort. We know one of the crew was a traitor, of course we do not know who. We can only suspect that it’s all only the beginning.

The Captain’s crew is a mixed group of the most unlikable sort – assassins, artillery, demolitions, snipers, etc. – but one and all, they are killers. Some of them get along, some hate everyone, the Captain holds them together, and for all that it may only be due to the blood they have spilled together. Or that the Captain is the meanest, most dangerous of them all.

And I suppose that I should mention that all the characters are anthropogenic animals whose personalities, instincts, and deadliness often correspond with their species. The mysterious, deadly Captain who all fear – he’s a mouse. His crew has a weasel, badger, rat, mole, salamander, owl, and possum. One of them may be French. They are up against the likes of an ermine, armadillo, cat, snake, fox, skunk, and legions of rats.

Personalities may be large, but the prose is minimal, dark, and dripping in morbid, gallows humor. There is bombastic boasting, dark grumbling, and the flash of knives in the dark. The final, suicide mission is told, blood and gore abound, betrayal, victory, and death. Who lives, who dies? Does it mean anything? Was it cold enough? Was it worth it…was it worth anything?

Who has the final laugh?

Will it be you dear reader, will you get the joke?

The Builders: Amazon


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