Lyle Fontanelle is working at cosmetics company NewYew when he accidentally creates a hand lotion that rewrites your DNA. He doesn't realize he's in aLyle Fontanelle is working at cosmetics company NewYew when he accidentally creates a hand lotion that rewrites your DNA. He doesn't realize he's in a book where the chapter headings include a countdown to the end of the world, so...sucks for him. And humanity.
Dan Wells's Extreme Makeover (aka Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition) has a ridiculous premise but it's rooted in enough handwavey science and cynical views of humanity that it's not hard to go along with. Of course a cosmetics company would decide to make money off a lotion that could literally turn you into a supermodel. And of course this would go horribly, horribly wrong. Because that lotion has many uses, some of them commercial, some of them charitable, and some of them...not so charitable.
The early chapters of the book make you wait for Lyle, our hapless protagonist, to realize what the premise of the book is, but Wells still keeps the exposition and the lead-up to exposition fun and intriguing, as Lyle tries to put together the clues. Even though we know the destination, the journey's still entertaining. What's great is that once we get to Lyle's revelation, we know the next destination—the end of the world—and that journey is immensely entertaining. This book is like Michael Crichton meets John Scalzi.
The first chapter declares that there are 267 days to the end of the world, which means that things devolve fairly rapidly, and I don't even want to hint at the many disastrous repercussions of a hand lotion that rewrites your DNA. Things get out of hand, people are horrible, good intentions go awry, it's a goddamn shit show, okay. There are so many post-apocalyptic books, but it's rarer to get an entire book where you watch the apocalypse happen. Early on, you may think that they can stop things, but at a certain point—not a specific chapter or anything—you realize that the world is fucked. It's just...too fucked to unfuck. Dan Wells is evil, and your only hope is that the characters you like somehow make it out okay. Will the book end with the end of the world, or will it continue after it? The end of the world doesn't mean the end of the story, after all. It's just a glorious, tense catastrophe, this book, and while I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending, I'll give Wells props for going there. Also for an amazing Emperor's New Groove reference.
What's also great about this book is how it examines identity, which is one of my favorite themes. What makes us who we are? If there are five thousand clones of you, are you special? What if they're better at being you? Does our DNA define who we are? Because of the nature of the lotion, Wells does get into some sticky race and gender issues (the lotion can indeed change your race and/or gender), and for the most part, he's aware of the ramifications, though a few comments here and there seemed insensitive, even if they could be attributed to a character's opinion. The book doesn't dwell on these existential themes too much (there's an apocalypse to engineer), but I relished every little moment of musing.
I haven't even mentioned the characters yet, and I was surprised at how much I liked the characters, many of whom I didn't expect to become so interesting (especially the female characters—the book feels very male initially but by the end of the book I thought there was a good gender balance). I won't even say anything about the characters because then you get to like them for yourself. This is a fun book, dammit, have I not convinced you of that yet....more
Conventional writing advice says never to start a story with dialogue but when the dialogue is "I want you to kill my step-dad," it's worth it. In HamConventional writing advice says never to start a story with dialogue but when the dialogue is "I want you to kill my step-dad," it's worth it. In Hammers on Bone Cassandra Khaw deftly smashes up classic noir with Lovecraftian horror and transplants it to modern-day Croydon (ie, London). It's a deliberately artificial move, as the hardboiled PI narrator notes that he speaks in that vernacular as an affectation...in honor of the body he's wearing, hold up, wait, what the fuck. John Persons (I see what you did there, Khaw) is not your ordinary detective, and that is why a boy named Abel comes to him for assistance. Abel's step-dad is a monster, and...so is Persons.
There's no mystery here, since Persons has essentially been hired as an assassin rather than a detective. But he certainly wants to know who—or what—exactly he's up against, and this leads to several encounters with visceral images and occasional viscera. Persons is a fascinating character fighting his own inner monsters, and while he may not be entirely sympathetic (noir lingo requires him to constantly refer to women as broads or skirts or birds, though he's not overtly gross otherwise), he's worth rooting for, especially when the tentacles come out. And boy do they ever come out. I'm not well versed in the mythos so I don't fully appreciate everything Khaw does here, but I'm superficially aware enough to enjoy the various twists.
Hammers on Bone is a swift read with colorful language and evocative imagery. There are bits in the last third that may keep you up at night....more
What if it suddenly and inexplicably became impossible to murder someone? What if someone who was murdered simply...came back? In The Dispatcher, JohnWhat if it suddenly and inexplicably became impossible to murder someone? What if someone who was murdered simply...came back? In The Dispatcher, John Scalzi takes this simple, bizarre idea and plays with it, exploring some of its ramifications, particularly with regards to the profession of Tony Valdez, the titular dispatcher. Much of the early chapters—and, frankly, the majority of the novella—revolve around what a dispatcher does, so it's best to simply enjoy the mechanics as Scalzi explains them. The basic plot involves Valdez helping a detective investigate the disappearance of a fellow dispatcher, and it's fairly rote, with scene after scene of Valdez talking to someone, getting a small piece of information, and following the bread crumbs until the more interesting scenes later on that start to reveal what actually happened. Zachary Quinto reads well, with a pretty good differentiation between voices, although I only ever remembered Detective Langdon was a woman when pronouns were used. Even though it's not a thriller, it's consistently enjoyable, as Scalzi always is, thanks to the banter and worldbuilding. There's definitely a novel here if he ever wants to write it....more
"MARA YOUR BOOK IS REALLY GOOD," I Tweeted to Mara Wilson a couple chapters into Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. Having"MARA YOUR BOOK IS REALLY GOOD," I Tweeted to Mara Wilson a couple chapters into Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. Having finished the book, I stand by that assertion, capslock and all.
Where Am I Now? is a memoir in the form of a personal essay collection, and it works incredibly well, playing to Wilson's strengths as a storyteller always looking for the narrative in things. Rather than take us through a chronological journey featuring anecdotes about life as a child star, those awkward teenage years, and the transition into adult writer and performer, she organizes her life—and her self—into thematic journeys featuring the evolution of her views on sex and sexuality, her relationship with her own physical appearance, her OCD, and so on. Each essay has a razor-sharp focus, never straying from its main purpose, even for the sake of a joke. There's not a dud in here.
Wilson effectively time travels into her younger selves, giving us their limited, naive perspectives with few apologies (for instance, a reference to "hypothetical bisexuality" at an age when, in fact, such a thing was hypothetical). This allows each individual narrative to proceed fairly linearly, without constant intrusion by Adult Mara and Her Reflecting on Every Little Thing. It shows an admirable amount of restraint and a respect for her own craft; even when I would expect some sort of aside or footnote like in other memoirs, I had to acknowledge that her way flowed so much better. And so we go through portions of Mara Wilson's life via these various thematic threads, and there's a lovely recursion that reminds me of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, especially in how so many stories focus on her mother (with one essay slyly devoted to both her mother's death and her little sister, for whom she became a sort of surrogate mother [look at that thematic coherence!]).
While I would have liked to see one or two more non-traditional essays like "Elementary Existentialism" (told as a series of scenes at different ages) and "A Letter" (told as a letter to the fictional character Matilda), Wilson's general essay format is comfortably engrossing, with a strong voice anchored by dry humor and honest emotion. And it's that honesty that makes these essays so powerful; I related to so much of what she was saying, and it was a relief to read about someone else, confirming I wasn't alone. I felt like I was connecting with her through the pages, and I think that is the purpose of her stories, to connect with people, to reach others. But I think they are also a way to connect with herself: it's as if each essay is Wilson resolving a part of her own personality, piece by piece, discovering who she was and who she is now.
So yeah. You get your behind-the-scenes stories about Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda. You get your touching Robin Williams tribute. You get your embarrassing childhood photos. But, my God, you get so much more. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll think deep thoughts about feminism and show choir. Where Am I Now? is a wonderful read, each essay so satisfying you won't know whether to sit and savor how good it was...or eagerly go to the next one....more
It would be gauche to formally review an anthology in which I appear, but I can informally, casually do it, right? This is the anthology with my firstIt would be gauche to formally review an anthology in which I appear, but I can informally, casually do it, right? This is the anthology with my first sale in it, and I think it's a pretty great story, and it fits in quite well alongside these other tales of the spirit of place. Genius Loci is one of the more tonally cohesive anthologies I've read: the stories are generally rich in atmosphere and setting (which makes sense), and they tend to be dark tales with dark endings. Some lightness does sneak in occasionally, though. The settings are mostly American, with a handful in other (mostly European) countries, but I enjoyed learning about the various worldwide folklore through the introductions written by Carrie Sessarego and Jaym Gates. The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-esque black-and-white illustrations by Lisa A. Grabenstetter and Evan M. Jenkins definitely enhance the ominous tone of many stories. Overall, it's a unique, interesting collection about the titular concept....more
Wesley Chu's Tao trilogy introduced an awesome world where alien symbionts have been using Earth as a battleground for centuries, shaping the course oWesley Chu's Tao trilogy introduced an awesome world where alien symbionts have been using Earth as a battleground for centuries, shaping the course of human history, so it's great to see him continuing it with a new protagonist and setting.
The Rise of Io follows Ella Patel, half-Singaporean/half-Indian street rat/conwoman in Surat, and her Quasing, Io. Chu wisely makes these two characters as different from Roen Tan and Tao as they can be to avoid rehashing The Lives of Tao (apart from the obligatory training). Where Roen was lazy and aimless, Ella is self-assured and clever. Where Tao was renowned for his success, Io has been struggling to make a name for herself. Where Roen and Tao had a cute, snarky relationship, Ella and Io are far more confrontational—Ella is not happy to have an alien inside her. It's a host-Quasing relationship like we've never seen in the series, and it's a smart choice.
As before, Chu also gives us a villain POV in Shura, a ruthless, dangerous Russian Genjix operative with her eyes on freedom or at the very least power. Usually the villain is an unrepentant dickbag, but Shura's actually sympathetic. Not enough to, say, root for her against Our Heroes, but she's more layered than some of the monomaniacal Genjix villains past. She has goals, and she has opposition, and so we feel almost as invested in her as we do Ella.
And, man, do I love Ella. She's a fucking scamp, and I love how much she actively disobeys Io. It's hilarious. As are all her adventures with non-Indian food. Thanks to growing up in the slums an orphan after the Alien World War, she's uneducated and ignorant of a lot of the world, but she's not stupid. It's a fine balance, and sometimes things she didn't know strained credulity, but I appreciated this character who was very much not book smart but still street smart as hell.
I also love the depiction of Crate Town, the Surat slum where most of the action takes place, filled with colorful characters like Wiry Madras, crotchety owner of a bathhouse and laundry, and Moog, deceptive ganglord (both women, this book has lots of cool women). I liked the small details like the presence of a Jain temple and the fact that the urchins refer to the policemen as uncles. There's enough description of the geography and various locations that it feels like a real place.
But, hoo boy, much of the portrayal of this Indian character in India confounded me and didn't ring true. Why does Ella use "gods" as an epithet (as in "What the gods") when Hinduism has one Supreme Being and a host of devas and devis? I've...never heard anyone say that; I hear "O Bhagavan!" which is "Oh God" singular. A comparison of Christmas and Diwali confused me since I've never associated Diwali with gift-giving, but Wikipedia says it is, so they must celebrate it differently in India (at least it's better than The Office calling it "Hindu Halloween"). I saw hardly any recognizable Gujarati food; nearly every Indian food mentioned—and I had to look them up because, thankfully, they were not just items from a typical Indian restaurant menu—comes from another region of India. No pav bhaji (which is Maharashtran but very common in Gujarat), no pani puri, nothing I remember from my trips to Gujarat. Now, I haven't been in over a decade so some of these issues could be a matter of my own experience, and others may find the portrayal more authentic and relatable. But there's no excuse for misspelling Gujarat. THE STATE THE BOOK TAKES PLACE IN. A book published in 2016 should not include phrases like "Hindi gods" and "spoke Hindu." Frustratingly, "Hindi" and "Hindu" are used correctly in some parts of the book but not others.
Despite all that, however, I really enjoyed The Rise of Io thanks to Ella's general awesomeness and the fast-moving, twisty plot that is accessible to newcomers (Io retells the history of the Quasing on Earth) but even more rewarding for those of us who have read the Tao books. The ending leaves things mostly unresolved, making this first book feel more like an introduction than a complete story, but it promises a lot more excitement for the rest of the trilogy....more
Hamilton: The Revolution would earn itself an automatic five stars simply by printing the text of Hamilton: An American Musical, an absolute work of gHamilton: The Revolution would earn itself an automatic five stars simply by printing the text of Hamilton: An American Musical, an absolute work of genius by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But the hefty Hamiltome is more than that: it is Jeremy McCarter's chronicle of how the show came to be, and it is fascinating. McCarter takes us through every aspect of production, highlighting the many people responsible for making Hamilton the enduring work of art it has become. Even the props get, well, props. McCarter mostly follows a chronology from idea to opening night, though sometimes the timeline gets muddied in order to tell individual stories of actors or scenes. I loved all the personal anecdotes and connections people made to the show and the history; it speaks to the passion that's poured in from all directions. McCarter also speaks to the legacy of the show and its impact on those who will be most affected by it: children of color. While I never full-on cried, I did tear up at various points throughout the text! The book also includes exclusive cast photos (behind-the-scenes as well as in-show) and Lin-Manuel Miranda's commentary on the songs. Because of the extensive genius.com commentary, these notes aren't as ~*mindblowing*~ as they otherwise might be in an academic, critical context. They're far more effective as a peek into Miranda's brain and how he sees the show and the characters and the lines; I loved the personal flair of showing off his favorite lines and invoking his wife whenever possible. To be completely honest, the Hamiltome did not reach the stellar heights of Hamilton itself for me; that would simply be impossible and require Lin-Manuel Miranda to sit down and talk to me about every single line in the whole show and Jeremy McCarter to find a way to convey years of simultaneous creative fervor in a way that perfectly mirrors the progression of the play, song-by-song. Hamilton: The Revolution has given me an even greater appreciation for Hamilton, and it's an incredible peek at the collaborative creative process behind one of the defining works of our generation. And, you know? That would be enough....more
After the events of Time Salvager, none of the protagonists are having a good time. But they all have goals: James Griffin-Mars wants to save his siAfter the events of Time Salvager, none of the protagonists are having a good time. But they all have goals: James Griffin-Mars wants to save his sister, and Elise Kim wants to save the world. So, you know, no biggie.
You know who also has a goal? Senior Securitate Kuo Masaki-Europa of the Valta Corporation, who has been tasked to find temporal anomaly Elise Kim. As before, Wesley Chu gives us the antagonist's POV, but unlike the more sympathetic Levin Javier-Oberon, Kuo is a villain to the core, though a corporate one who is held accountable to her bosses. So as James tries to find a doctor and Elise tries to build a community in a wasteland, we know Kuo is on their trail, and we know how close she is even if they don't.
Time Siege has a bit of Middle Book Syndrome (assuming this is a trilogy) in that it seems to stretch the story out to get everyone and everything to the point it needs to be at the end. Part of it may have been my own reading experience (reading the first quarter-ish post-Clarion, being too tired to read much on the plane to Gen Con, not getting much read at Gen Con, then burning through most of the rest on the way home), but the first quarter moves very slowly, and the plot didn't come alive for me until a quarter of the way through when a new character joins the narrative and also we finally get some fucking time travel. But from then on, though, things really do get hopping.
I found James's character arc to be stronger in this book because of its focus on his alcoholism, the curse of the chronman, coupled with his being haunted by a character we knew and cared about. (His love and devotion for his sister still doesn't quite land because it's mostly told, not shown; Sasha hardly appears onscreen so it's difficult for the reader to form any attachment to her.) He's got a bit of a redemption arc here, trying to figure out who he is after all he's done, and that's a good driver. I also liked that Elise played a more active role in this book; she's practically leading a tribe, acting as both President and ambassador and occasionally general. Grace Priestly, Mother of Time, entertains with every interaction. And even though the jacket copy spoils one of the major characters (who is not really a surprise but since it is an actual reveal in the book I won't say), I can't totally fault them since they were one of my favorite characters in the book.
Time Siege succeeds best as a gnat-versus-lion story, the downtrodden people of Earth going up against the massive military forces of the Valta, with ChronoCom caught in the middle as an entity with a noble goal of preserving the timeline but still rife with corruption. While I didn't connect with a lot of the individual members of the tribe, I felt for them as a collective, as a group of humans trying to live in the shitty dregs our species had left them but hoping for a better life (and a cure for the Earth Plague). It becomes clear that the book is leading up to the titular siege, and Chu does deliver a very action-packed climax that pulls together lots of story threads and character arcs for a conclusion that definitely has me wanting to read the next book....more
Romeo and/or Juliet gets to be even sillier and more ridiculous than To Be or Not to Be because Romeo and Juliet is a pretty goddamn ridiculous play in comparison. Ryan North relishes in skewering the central romance and the utter teenness of its protagonists (and you can play as either one, switching back and forth during scenes at some points). He unpacks the language and dismantles the metaphors, he attempts to explain strange plot mechanics, he so deftly inserts a character into the finale that I thought I had forgotten him in the original play.
This is not as deep and complex a play as Hamlet, so North's commentary is not nearly as revelatory in strengthening your understanding of the play, but it does make you look at it in a new light. Romeo and Juliet had so many possible paths! And...and they consistently chose the wrong ones. But now you can rectify those wrongs! (You can also follow the original path and unlock a new character! That's right, this book has an unlockable character.)
The drastic forking of paths is highly entertaining, as something as simple as going to breakfast can end up completely changing the story. But that's not all! As before, there are in fact mini-CYOAs within this CYOA, plus a Nurse Quest text adventure. The things Ryan North manages to do with the CYOA format never cease to amaze me. All of this mayhem contains hundreds of endings, happy and brutal and somewhere in between, with illustrations in many different styles. Endless entertainment!
I am here for Ryan North turning the entire Shakespeare canon into chooseable-path adventures....more
Smoke and Shadow goes out strong with good battles, emotional confrontations, and unexpected redemption. Plus Zuko learns a lesson about ruling! And USmoke and Shadow goes out strong with good battles, emotional confrontations, and unexpected redemption. Plus Zuko learns a lesson about ruling! And Ursa's quiet arc resolves as well. Maybe it's because I read the last two parts together (skimming the first to refresh my memory), but I felt this was definitely one of the best miniseries. Very well put together, and a healthy amount of dark politics for a children's comic. Good to tackle some of these concepts early....more
Smoke and Shadow recalls "City of Walls and Secrets" in its dark subversive political tone, as Zuko teams up with Aang to learn more about the KemurikSmoke and Shadow recalls "City of Walls and Secrets" in its dark subversive political tone, as Zuko teams up with Aang to learn more about the Kemurikage and why these spirits would be stealing children. Meanwhile, Mai has a new boyfriend and Zuko is not happy about it. I suspected one plot development here but not...the other one. Nice build-up of intrigue!...more
Charles Thomas Tester is a black man in 1920s Harlem, and he's got himself a guitar, though he can't play very well. Or sing very well. What he can doCharles Thomas Tester is a black man in 1920s Harlem, and he's got himself a guitar, though he can't play very well. Or sing very well. What he can do is con people (especially white people) into thinking he's hot shit, which helps him with covert ops like sneaking an arcane text to a sorceress that gets him wrapped up in Lovecraftian shenanigans. For, lo, this is Victor LaValle's remix of "The Horror at Red Hook," but it centers a black man and gives him the real power, which is something Lovecraft would have hated. I read the story before reading the novella, and it was very interesting to see LaValle's twist on it, how he made cultist Robert Suydam more of an interesting character and Detective Malone (Lovecraft's protagonist) more of a racist asshole. I mean, Tester is a better character than anyone in "Red Hook" anyway, and LaValle's prose is clearer and more readable, so this is a vast improvement in many ways. But the way it addresses racism through cosmic horror is [fire emoji]....more