Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker

The cover made me hope for some “cooking is magic” action, so I felt a bit betrayed by it when that didn’t happen.  Mooncakes had no impact on the plot! But otherwise a cute story.  Some coming of age stuff, some excellent representation, but most of the beats felt a bit trite. This didn’t feel like it tread any new ground, which is fine, but disappointing after all of the good stuff I had heard about this.  I also wasn’t a huge fan of the art.  Most of the characters looked so similar to each other that I had a hard time some times remembering who was whom, and I also found the omnipresent warm color palette monotonous.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Devolution by Max Brooks

I’d been thinking a lot about Max Brooks lately. This pandemic has made me looking for my copy of his Zombie Survival Guide.  When I requested an eARC from NetGalley months ago, I never imagined that the world would start to resemble something from one of his novels.

I have enjoyed Max Brooks’s work for years.  I still remember picking up the Zombie Survival Guide at the Borders bookstore in Columbus Circle from the new paperback table.  I knew nothing about it and was instantly hooked.  Later, I devoured World War Z - it was so creative and well thought out.  It felt very realistic.  Too realistic.  

I saw Max Brooks at New York Comic Con a few years ago, talking about some of his comic work.  He didn’t want to talk about the execrable World War Z movie, and neither do I (but I expected better from a script by J. Michael Straczynski). Brooks was cool, and funny, and thoughtful, and kind.  I love it when authors I like turn out to be cool people in real life!

I was stoked when I got this book, hoping I would enjoy it as I did World War Z.  It did not disappoint.  Devolution is about. Bigfoot attack that wipes out a small enclave of about a dozen homes.  It is presented as the diary/journal kept by a woman for her therapist, annotated by a researcher and supplemented with a few interviews.  Max Brooks has an incredibly readable style and this is quite the page turner.  Sometimes the conceit of the structure of the novel worked against it - there were times where I just stopped and said to myself “no one would actually write a journal like this” or “ if these events were happening, this woman would’ve quit journaling by now.” That being said, it was a super fun book.  The monster biology was interesting and the human dynamics felt very real.  

But a lot of this novel hits home a little too hard during this pandemic.  I’m sure that Max Brooks didn’t know when he wrote it how jarring it would be to reference the hospital ship Comfort heading to a major metropolitan area to help out during a disaster, or how raw it would feel to read about some isolated lonely people desperate for the world they once thought was safe.  

I saw the video Max Brooks posted with his dad about social distancing.  I read his piece in the New York Times in March.  I think he might agree that while this is a great book,  it not necessarily a great book for right now.  

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Big Nate: the Gerbil Ate My Homework by Lincoln Pierce

With schools closed for the pandemic, I’ve been getting more and more ebooks for my 7-year-old to read. She was talking over the fence with her 8-year-old neighbor about books and he recommended the Big Nate series. She’s been enjoying them, and when I saw this new book on NetGalley, she said she’d write an review if I got it for her. Here it is:

“The Big Nate book series is about a boy name Nate who gets in a bunch of trouble and doesn’t have the best grades and doesn’t really like his teachers and he goes to beaches and he goes to school and sometimes in the panels he is just sitting with a water bottle. 

There are almost 50 Big Nate books and I don’t think that they get any worse throughout the whole series if anything they get really good because it has Big Nate doing mischief with his teachers or playing pranks on his friends but it’s always interesting. 

The one other thing that I don’t really like is that Big Nate isn’t very nice to his friends and family or his teachers people he gets bullied a lot but he also is mean to other people.”

From what I’ve read, it seems a little less crass than the Captain Underpants books, but it hits the same vibe. I will note that I didn’t love all of the language. On one page, a character called something “lame”, which is an ableist word that I would rather my children not be exposed to. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Virtual Unicorn Experience by Dana Simpson

This is the 12th volume of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, and, once again, it was a delight. I love this series, and so does my seven-year-old daughter. She wanted to write this review, so here she goes:

“Phoebe and her Unicorn is a great book series.  The book Virtual Unicorn Experience is one of the best ones. I thought at the beginning it was very interesting that Marigold had to say bad things about herself to keep herself from floating away every day! I thought that it was very amazing that it that she could float up high and make it a lot easier for nail polish, but I did wonder why they didn’t use that in the other books because they have had a lot of makeovers! 

I think that they should’ve had more Dakota in it because she is a very interesting character with her magical hair and her goblins which is why it confused me that she was only in like three panels. 

I think that is impressive that the author manages to take her daily strips and make them into a book. I think that it makes it more interesting and a lot funner to read!!”

Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

’ve never read anything before by Laura Lam, but Goldilocks had shown up on several “upcoming 2020 SF releases to look out for” lists at the end of 2019.  I’m often a sucker for “Earth is failing, lets get off planet now” stories, so I thought this would be right up my alley.  I didn’t realize until I started reading it just how many things this book was going to try to do at once.  The prologue asks more questions than it answers, setting the reader up for the idea that there will be some surprising revelations and all is not as it seems.  I didn’t realize at first exactly what the prologue wa# trying to accomplish; halfway through the novel I skipped back and reread it, and I appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish more at that point.  Chapter one begins 30 years before the prologue, starting out in an imminent climate apocalypse near future, which quickly reveals itself to also be an all too possible super misogynistic America, as if All of Mike Pence’s dream came true.  5 women heist Earth’s only interstellar-capable spacecraft to try to colonize a habitable planet.  The narrator is a scientist whose adoptive mother designed and bankrolled the spacecraft project. Sadly, the book sometimes feels like a bit of a bait-and -switch, because the characters never do get to the planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone.  The book tries to achieve a Martian-like feel of “science people sciencing in space” but it never quite achieves it - the scientific problems are solved a little too easily and don’t really further the plot very much.  Instead the book pivots into mystery and intrigue.  The mother-figure starts out as an Elon Musk type, but eventually reveals herself to be a full on Lex Luthor type.  Maybe I’m just more cynical than the average reader, but her villainy was not too big of a surprise for me - it felt very telegraphed.  What was a surprise was the extent of her villainous plot - not just trying to seize control of a new world, but mass murder through an engineered viral pandemic back on Earth was unexpected.  When written, the book was not meant to be tone-deaf, but as I am sequestered at home in the midst of the Covid19 crisis as I read the book and write this review, the virus plot probably came off much differently than it might have if I had read this a few months ago.  That was also the weakest link plot wise in the book - it is just glossed over that of course the Mother-figure has a virologist on staff who was perfectly happy to engineer a virus she knew would murder 90% of humanity.  That felt a tad too cartoonish.

I don’t want it to come off that I didn’t like this book.  I did! It was well written and enjoyable and I would seek out another book by this author In the future.  I guess I just took the virus plot end a little hard and I am still miffed that this was not the planetary exploration book I had envisioned it being from the cover and blurb.  Which is not the author’s fault at all.  

Monday, May 4, 2020

Adventures of a Dwergish Girl by Daniel Pinkwater

I have been enjoying the books of Daniel Pinkwater for probably 35 years. I still remember my favorite book of his fondly: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. It was a book about an unpopular outcast and I felt very seen. I loved the fact that he got to find a friend and have adventures and smoke cigars and travel to another plane of reality. I enjoyed all of his books that I read, including Young Adult Novel and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Didn’t he have fantastic titles? And I’ll never forget listening to Car Talk with my dad and realizing that it was Daniel Pinkwater calling in. If memory serves, they decided to use a new method of measuring car seat size for ample rumps “the “Pinkwater”. Recently, I’ve been finding some of his books geared for younger kids for my own children. My eldest really enjoyed the Hoboken Chicken Emergency. 

So I was very excited to get an eARC of Adventures of a Dwergish Girl from NetGalley. It envisions a community of Dwergs, people resembling fairy tale dwarves, living in update New York. But, like many a Pinkwater book, it doesn’t dawdle. It quickly sets our protagonist, a Dwerg who goes by Molly, off on a series of wacky adventures, which include the most loving description of a papaya-based New York hot dog eatery you have ever or will ever read. It really made me nostalgic for when I lived on the Upper East Side. 

Like many Pinkwater books, this one is filled with zany characters that seem so unrealistic that you know they must be based on real people. Also, like many Pinkwater books, the plot zigs and zags with many unexpected turns that could easily give you whiplash, they are so abrupt. 

Is this book perfect? No. But it captures that classic Pinkwater vibe. And that’s good enough for me!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

This was an enjoyable conclusion to an enjoyable trilogy. There were some twists and fakeouts, one of which I totally fell for, and I am very angry about the deaths of one of my favorite characters. 

John Scalzi is an excellent author - he really has an ear for dialog and a flair for creating notable characters that feel real. Other than his Christmas themed short story collection, I have thoroughly enjoyed every book of his that he has ever published. He is on my short list of books I will happily reread and I’ve listened to Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation, and Agent to the Stars multiple times in audio. 

I am also a regular reader of Mr. Scalzi’s longrunning blog, at whatever dot com, where he shares, among other things, details about his creative process. He has been quite forthcoming about the fact that he turned each book in this trilogy into his editors at the last possible minute, and book two he wrote in two weeks after 18 months of mentally plotting but procrastinating.

Sad to say, it shows when you read the trilogy. Don’t get me wrong! I love these books and will reread (or relisten) to them again. I like the characters and the overall story. But, even for a Scalzi book, it seems overly dialog heavy and light on the description. There is a very tight focus on the main characters, which is fun because they’re enjoyable to the extreme, but the promise of this entire universe created in the first book makes the narrowing of focus in this volume to feel unfulfilling. 

Basically, my complaint boils down to: I want more. I would read an entire trilogy about the events on the planet End that paralleled this narrative and are given short shrift here. I would love a follow up to these character’s stories a few years on. The author indicated that, although the trilogy is done, he might revisit this world if he is inspired to one day. So I will reread and hope for more.