Wednesday, September 13, 2017

REVIEW: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Horror

My Ratings:
4/5 stars
PG-13 for swearing/racial slurs, disturbing images, and some violence.
Recommend to fans of dark fantasy, character development, and origin stories.

Summary (via Goodreads):
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

The Review:

The Ballad of Black Tom possesses an eerie ambiance where unexpected magic lurking in the corners of 1930's New York, amid a bustling nation still trying to find its identity as a melting pot and against a backdrop of cruel and violent racial prejudice.

This is a story of ultimate evil, but also of a more garden variety of evil -passive, selfish, and ignorant- an evil that continually plagues the human race. It is the story of ordinary humans committing ordinary evils -and the extraordinarily terrifying monsters that are born from it. It is brutal and despicable and honest.

I feel lately my reviews tend to talk more about characters, characterization, and character development than anything but, guys, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. It's a magnificent beast, especially when executed so beautifully!

And so, it's my pleasure to I introduce to you, Black Tom.

Black Tom's development is the making of this story. He's so ordinary and lovable then compelling and complicated and I ADORE HIM. LaValle expertly manipulates my sympathy, disgust, and horror as he weaves the elements of Black Tom's journey through an increasingly disturbing and tragic narrative. Detestable characters slither through the pages and more than once their cruelty made me want to THROTTLE them. Each fist-clenching moment is another stepping stone for Charles Thomas Tester's development -the crux of the entire piece- and another building block toward the epic climax of the story.

Most of all, I think, I love that the story ends on a note of revelation and reflection, all the more tragic because it comes too late, leaving us ultimately with the desire for redemption but the despair that it may never truly happen.

I'll admit the abrupt ending left me scratching my head at first...
...but after reflecting and letting it all sink in I've realized that it is magnificent. I've also decided that I'm not quite done with this yet.


Even with it's satisfying finale, we are left with open-ended questions. The story obviously doesn't end here, so I'm not finished with it yet. I need to see what happens next. I need to see what happens after that window opens and I need to know what answer -if any- is found through it. So, Mr. LaValle, you might just have to write a whole novel for this magnificent character you've wrought.

The Ballad of Black Tom surprised me with its depth, its character, and the direction it wound up taking ...which brings me to a rather unconventional request. Only after reading this novella, I learned that it's actually a retelling of a story called "The Horror at Red Hook". If you don't know what that is, I beg you, DON'T LOOK IT UP.

Read Ballad first, because it should be approached with an innocent mind and read by one with no idea what to expect because it is a delicious experience and I want you to have that, just like I did.

(If you do know "The Horror at Red Hook" then DEFINITELY read The Ballad of Black Tom, because everyone says it is infinitely better.)

What are some of the best developed characters you've encountered?

Monday, September 11, 2017

REVIEW: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher (Dresden Files #2)

Fool Moon
Author: Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Crime

My Ratings:
4/5 stars
R for strong language, violence, some gore, disturbing images, sexuality.
Recommend to fans of hard-boiled detective stories with a flair of the fantastic; clever use and meshing of mythologies.

Like the sound of it but not the rating?  
Try these similar YA titles instead!  

Summary (via Goodreads):
Business has been slow. Okay, business has been dead. And not even of the undead variety. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. But lately, Harry Dresden hasn't been able to dredge up any kind of work--magical or mundane.
But just when it looks like he can't afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise.
A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses--and the first two don't count...

The Review:

A few years ago, I DNFed the first book of this series, Storm Front, despite an interesting concept and good story because it had way too much sexuality for my taste. That's always disappointing, right? I decided to give the second book of the series a chance for a couple of reasons. One, because I've gotten better at compartmentalizing when I read, skipping over the stuff I don't like so I can enjoy the stuff I do. It's a constant balance. But the big reason is because my friend Mage really enjoyed this series for its use of mythologies (something we discussed often) juxtaposed with the modern world.

I'm so glad I gave Fool Moon a try because I really kind of loved it. Mage was right; Butcher has a great way of using and meshing mythology and the modern world. What I love most is how many mythologies Butcher uses, implying in-story that ALL mythologies are true, instead of cherry-picking them or creating his own take on it. In a weird way, this actually makes Fool Moon feel more realistic. In this book, Harry Dresden is faced with a werewolf problem, but he quickly discovers it isn't just a werewolf problem. Butcher uses four different versions of werewolf from mythology and folklore and uses them as separate 'classes' of werewolf. Hello, ensuing chaos! So we have a lot of furry beasts running around this story.

Butcher's magic system, too, is an eclectic array of mythologies, folklore, and wizardry; everything from the Faerie courts to potion making to summoning lesser demons. And behind the mythology, we also have an interesting magic community at play. Though it lives secretly in the dark corners of the world, this magic community isn't in hiding from persecution or in fear. Instead, it's the 'real world' that refuses to see it as anything more than outdated mythos. As Dresden puts it, the rest of the world has bought into their new religion of Science, which effectively blinds them to any logic or proof of the magical that might touch their lives.

Fool Moon is full of gruesome murders, shady customers, hidden agendas, and great characters. I particularly love Murphy; police lieutenant of the Special Investigations Unit and someone who doesn't take any of Harry's crap, Murphy is a kick-ass female character I can get behind. She is tough as nails and quick on her feet. She and Harry rarely see eye to eye, but they (usually) find a way to work together -and I LOVE their banter.

Harry Dresden, despite his powerful wizard skills, is still kind of an Everyman when it comes to facing down terrifying evils; he wants nothing more than to run away, but he possesses such a strong determination to do good and fight evil, that he'll do it no matter what, and I am a sucker for this quality in heroes. I like, too, that Harry's attempts at chivalry in trying to keep the women around him out of danger might actually be more of a character flaw born of trust issues, because those chivalrous acts keep landing people in danger. People like Susan, his girlfriend/not girlfriend, who investigates the magic side of the world for a tabloid magazine; and people like Murphy, whose sole job is to protect innocent bystanders from the creatures in the shadows that Harry knows so well. I like this for Harry as both a strength and a flaw because chivalry is a good quality and one I highly respect and appreciate, but trust is a better one. Butcher has pitched these two strengths against each other and it demonstrates a thin line that Harry is walking, between 'protective' and 'overprotective', between strength and flaw. I'm very intrigued to see where Harry goes from here.

Which brings me to the last character I want to mention, Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Marcone is a gangster extraordinaire. Marcone is slime; I know that. I applaud Harry for never giving him the time of day, but still deigning to save him from the jaws of death. But I'm also intrigued by Marcone. I blame this on my love of The Blacklist's Raymond Reddington (talk about a character crush!), but I want to know more about Marcone and, more than anything, I want to see Harry forced to team up with him for a whole book to solve some nefarious magical goings-on.

To sum up Fool Moon, I say it has some fantastic characters, a gritty hard-boiled detective story, and a fantastic dose of dark mythology woven in.

I'm definitely reading forward in The Dresden Files for now and I'll keep you apprised.

Patriot Day

Today we remember the tragic events of 9/11, to honor those who died and those who fought to save the survivors.

But today, too, I think it only fitting to show continued support to those who protect our country and its citizens every day.


I support you.

for your service, for your valor, and for your sacrifices.

God bless and protect you.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ARC REVIEW: Invictus by Ryan Graudin

Author: Ryan Graudin
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: September 26, 2017

My Ratings:
4/5 stars
PG-13 for some violence, made-up swear words, and a few non-graphic make out scenes.
Recommend to everyone. It's the kind of science fiction that will appeal to even non-science fiction readers.

Summary (via Goodreads):
Time flies when you're plundering history.
Farway Gaius McCarthy was born outside of time. The son of a time-traveling Recorder from 2354 AD and a gladiator living in Rome in 95 AD, Far's birth defies the laws of nature. Exploring history himself is all he's ever wanted, and after failing his final time-traveling exam, Far takes a position commanding a ship with a crew of his friends as part of a black market operation to steal valuables from the past.
But during a heist on the sinking Titanic, Far meets a mysterious girl who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Armed with knowledge that will bring Far's very existence into question, she will lead Far and his team on a race through time to discover a frightening truth: History is not as steady as it seems.

The Review:

With backdrops of exotic locales, infamous historical settings, and swashbuckling adventures, Graudin gives us a gripping story with vibrant characters. Hint: Time travel is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, I can't tell you how big that iceberg is without spoilers, but Graudin has managed to take a fairly standard concept and redefine it with her own flair.

I love this book. Set in 2371 AD (at least some of the time), Invictus shows us the future -and thank goodness it's not another hopeless, dystopian one. Instead we find a future Rome the capital of a time traveling society. Time travel is used only in the name of science and education and with every successful mission into the past comes 'a day in the life' style data streams of one era or another, edited and distributed to the clamoring public. Not only do we get a society fueled by time travel, but our main characters are TIME TRAVELING PIRATES!

Invictus centers on five main characters, which sounds like a lot and, honestly, in most other books would be too many focal characters. But within the folds of a fast-moving plot, Graudin manages to weave in enough time to flesh out each of these characters individually, familiarizing readers with their distinct personalities, quirks, and unique voices. And she does it all in less than 500 pages, without dropping any of the story's action or tension! This is not a skill to be taken lightly. (In fact, it is the complete lack of this in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that continues to grate me to this day. They should ask Graudin to proof The Last Jedi script before it's too late!)

This character work is FUNDAMENTAL because the story doesn't see any major developments or growth for most of them. Usually, this is a deal-breaker for me, BUT because Graudin gave me a front-row seat inside each of their heads, I completely understand these characters. This is very much a plot-oriented story, so the characters did not need major developments, but it is Graudin's ability to paint them so clear and vibrant that is truly satisfying.

Take Farway McCarthy, for example. Far is cocky, but this arrogance bemoaned by his crew mates doesn't wind up causing some catastrophe or heartache he has to mend or live with; instead it's used as one of his greatest strengths. The same is true for the rest of the characters. Priya, Eliot, Gram, Imogen -they might butt heads and bear the brunt of each other's flaws but they also know exactly who and what they can rely on when the tables turn. And while I love stories about people overcoming their weaknesses, I really enjoyed seeing this depiction focusing on the strengths of their flaws.

Eliot is probably my favorite character. She throws herself in with Far and his crew on less than amiable terms. She is the only person who's ever managed to best Far and everyone knows she has a hidden agenda. But what I like about her is the underlying Eliot we get to see -a bitter and desperate girl hiding enough pain to fill worlds- outside the facade she shows everyone else.

Time travel fiction is one of the hardest sub-genres to master (especially without half the community shouting 'That's not how time travel works!') but Graudin makes it look like child's play. She's managed to find a tightrope on the lines of popular schools of time travel thought and balanced right there between them. Plus, she writes the type of sci-fi I love -she cuts out the tech talk without sacrificing the big concepts. Everything is explained in layman's terms or by example, so even us less geeky nerds can still understand the science behind what's going on. ;)

This is the kind of science fiction that will appeal to everyone. Fast-paced and character driven, it's got a little bit of everything, and Graudin excels at penning this fantastic read that at once feels close and personal and far-reaching and mind blowing.

Be sure to grab Invictus when it hits shelves September 26.

And before you go, let's chat!
What's your favorite time travel story?
Personally, I'm horrid at picking one favorite, but I love Frequency, Timeline, Shadowed Glass by Charlie Pulsipher, and, of course, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L-Engle (though that's a different sort of time travel).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

REVIEW: Kitty Hawk and the Hunt for Hemingway's Ghost by Iain Reading

Kitty Hawk and the Hunt for Hemingway's Ghost
Author: Iain Reading
Series: Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency #2
Genre: Mystery/Adventure

I received a copy of this book from the author and Book Publicity Services in exchange for an honest review.

My Ratings:
2/5 stars
PG-13 for mild swearing throughout.
Recommend to readers looking for realistic, history-heavy adventure stories. Also for armchair adventurers and fans of strong heroines and little to no romance.

Summary (via Goodreads)
Kitty Hawk and the Hunt for Hemingway's Ghost is the exciting second installment in a new series of adventure mystery stories that are one part travel, one part history and five parts adventure. This second book in the series continues the adventures of Kitty Hawk, an intrepid teenage pilot who has decided to follow in the footsteps of her hero Amelia Earhart and make an epic flight around the entire world. After flying across North America Kitty's journey takes her down south to Florida where she plans to get a bit of rest and relaxation before continuing on with the rest of her long and grueling flight. As Kitty explores the strange and magical water world of the Florida Keys her knack for getting herself into precarious situations sweeps her headlong into the adventure of a lifetime involving mysterious lights, ancient shipwrecks, razor-toothed barracudas and even a sighting of the great Ernest Hemingway himself. This exhilarating story will have armchair explorers and amateur detectives alike anxiously following every twist and turn as they are swept across the landscape and history of the Florida Keys all the way from Key West to the strange and remarkable world of Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas.

The Review:

The sequel to Kitty Hawk and the Curse of the Yukon Gold did not grab me like its predecessor did. While it has more of a mystery angle than the first one, it lacks the same kind of compelling characters that really pulled me into that story. While Kitty does stumble into a mystery, she didn't have any personal connections to it or befriend anyone who had personal connections to it or who is even affected by it, so the lack of stakes made it hard to care about the outcome.

Reading is great at giving his readers in-depth descriptions of locales and working in the important events, figures, and history that call them home, complete with a factual guide in back of the book. It provides a sense of place and makes for good armchair adventuring, but it also slows down the story and pulls attention away from the characters and plot tension. There is quite a bit of info-dumping, too; whenever Kitty needs to know something, there always seems to be someone on hand to teach her the section of history she needs in its entirety (in this book, that's the life of Ernest Hemingway and Spanish Treasure Fleets).

Kitty is still spunky as ever and just setting flight on her Amelia Earhart-inspired flight around the world. As a heroine, Kitty has a lot of great qualities for younger readers to look up to. She's determined, knows how to pluck up her courage in dangerous situations, and when she figures out what she wants and she goes for it. She's a strong character and -in Nancy Drew fashion- a little too nosy for her own good. Aside from the mild swearing, this series would make a great read for tweens -full of adventure, fascinating historical details about shipwrecks and lost treasures, and a tough and confident role model in Kitty.

Despite lost treasure ships and some high-flying action from Kitty and her trusty De Havilland Beaver, this book was not a win for me. It simply didn't have the same draw character- or plot-wise as the first one. However, there were just enough references about the compelling characters from Curse of the Yukon Gold that I'm holding out hope they'll still pop back in later on in the series, so I'll probably read on to see that happens.

What good mysteries have you read lately?

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Impact of a Life and Books for the Grieving

For those of you thinking I dropped off the face of the earth -well, I kind of did.

In July, I lost one of my best friends -Mage- after a car crash and I'm having a hard time getting my feet back under me. Mage -I only ever called him Mage- has been a constant companion of mine for five years and the best friend I could ever ask for.

Mage was my favorite person to talk to. He was a great guy; funny, kind, smart, and probably the nerdiest human being I have ever known. He cared about people and he loved God; he was eloquent and a great writer, always ready to defend his views with a poignant and cleverly-worded argument, be it political, religious, or on his loathing of The Legend of Korra and the new Star Wars canon. Despite his unshakable views and staunch defense of them, he told me once he’d much rather lose an argument than a friend and I admired him for all of this. I always wanted to discuss politics and religion with him -two of his favorite subjects of conversation- but I never had the guts because my knowledge base was woefully inferior to his. Instead, we discussed writing, mythology, and our favorite fictional universes. We never ran out of things to talk about, even when we weren’t talking about anything particular at all. I've been truly blessed to have his friendship in my life and I plan to continue on being blessed by it.

Surprisingly, perhaps fittingly, one of my greatest comforts in coming to terms with this loss and the questions that arose from it came from something Mage himself once told me. While discussing and analyzing a film, I mentioned being disappointed in a certain character's unsatisfactory death, how I wish there had been more to it. He said: “...remember, sometimes death doesn't serve a greater purpose in-story (although it should impact other characters...”

In the past few weeks, I have come to realize that the impact of Mage's life and death -whether it will be significant or detrimental- is completely up to me. I can choose to let this loss break me or I can choose to let it develop me into a better person. It is not an easy choice, nor does it always feel like a choice, but it IS. 

Before I met Mage, I was mostly an outskirts kind of fan; I liked Star Wars, but I never dove headfirst into Star Wars fiction and lore outside of the films because there was no one to talk to about it. I have a hard time investing time into something I know will only get me eye-rolls when I try to discuss it, and I always want to discuss it. I only met Mage because the one thing I didn't feel self-conscious obsessing over was Avatar: The Last Airbender; we met on an ATLA fanfiction website, of all places. I recently came across something I wrote six years ago, talking about how my ‘inner fangirl’ was showing and I laughed. Six years ago, I insisted my fangirl was inner; I kept her on the inside because I was embarrassed to show her to people who couldn’t relate to the things I loved. I couldn’t stand that eye-roll when people thought I was spending ridiculous amounts of brain-power on something so unimportant as a nerdy fandom. I hated how their eyes glazed over when I started talking about the intricacies of something I loved that they didn’t care about.

Mage did two things that had a huge impact on me:
First, he listened. He not only listened, he discussed those same intricacies with just as much enthusiasm as me. More, even. Mage was a bigger nerd than I ever was, my Jedi Master, my comics guru. Second, is that he did it all with a blazing self-confidence in his nerdiness -too, in his faith and his opinions- that I envied and to this day try to adopt. I don’t have an ‘inner fangirl’ anymore; I AM a fangirl. I’m a geek and a nerd and I don’t care if they roll their eyes or stop listening to my nerdy rambles because this is me. I own it, and I am working at becoming just as confident in other aspects of my life.

It is, of course, better to have someone to share your interests and obsessions with. Right now, these wonderful, nerdy things meant to be happy are bottling up inside me with no where to go and no one to share them with. So I’m going to blog about them. I’ve discussed a lot of these things at length already on the blog -namely MCU, comics, and Star Wars- but I expect I’ll be writing more on them in the future. Mage has also left me with a rather lengthy list of recommendations -movies, shows, anime, comics, and books- and I’d like to blog about progressing through those as well. I may not be able to share and discuss these things with Mage, but I can certainly share and discuss them here.

The best way I know how to cherish and honor his memory -how to ensure the impact he has on me- is to adopt the beautiful qualities I admired about him into my own life. He has already helped me become more self-confident and he taught me how valuable it is to be willing to listen. Everything I admired about him, everything I respected, I want to emulate it all. I want to be the kind of person that Mage was.

For now, I can only take one day at a time and do what I have promised so many times these past weeks: To continue cherishing our friendship despite and outside of my sorrow; to ensure he has made a good and significant impact on my life; and to have faith that I will see him again someday.

I almost said I'd try to do what I've promised, but Yoda came to mind:
“Do or do not. There is no try.”

For those of you who may also be dealing with loss, there are a few books I can recommend:

  • The Bible, specifically Psalms.
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis -While I do not agree with a lot of his religious conclusions, this book illustrates the process of grieving through Lewis’ own words and experience, through stages of anger, hopelessness, and -finally- acceptance. This had a profound impact on me, if only to assure me that I was not alone in the things I was feeling and thinking, and Lewis provides consolation on questions we both struggled with.
  • Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe by Menachem Mendel Schneerson -A book of Jewish doctrine and philosophy, it sets out to teach just as the title implies: how we can live meaningful lives. I would encourage everyone to read this at some point in their lives -whether or not they are Jewish or even particularly religious at all- because it demonstrates how we can be better, kinder people. This book helped me come to terms with many of the impossible questions I had about death and Mage’s death in particular; while the sections entitled Death and Grief and Pain and Suffering offered some consolation, it was the sections on Faith and Reason, Good and Evil, and Miracles that offered comfort and understanding.
  • The Committed Life by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis -This, too, is a book I recommend everyone read at least once, as it shares advice through uplifting stories for living well and becoming the best ‘you’ you can be. I have read this a few times already, but several stories offered considerable comfort and advice, such as If Only and Sometimes the Answer is No.
  • The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz -This is the odd one out, I know. (Pun intended, by the way.) A speculative murder, borderline horror series about a man who can see ghosts and demons isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you’re looking for something to battle grief, but Odd deals throughout the series with his own grief and loss, and he does it in such a beautiful, even uplifting way. Despite moments of doubt or sorrow, Odd Thomas is always, without fail, staunch in his belief that he can be reunited with his lost loved one in the next life; that belief drives him to do good, to be the best person he can be, and to do the right thing in the face of all his trials, and that is a beautiful way to cope with such a loss.

For those of you who have suffered or are suffering grief, I'm sorry for your loss. Find the people who will listen to you and talk with them, even when it's hard. Let them hug you when you cry. I would hug you, too, if there weren't the screens between us. Loss is a part of every life, but knowing its inevitability hardly makes it easier to handle. Hold onto God, hold onto your faith, cherish your loved ones, and remember that the impact the departed have on your life -on all of our lives- is part of the legacy they leave behind.

In closing, please drive safe and be careful on the road. I encourage you all to further your driving education on your own. I myself take a Defensive Driving course every few years through work based on the Smith System, with their Five Keys for safer driving, filled with simple steps to help you drive more safely and to equip you with the skills to avoid being hit by those who aren't driving safely. The #1 thing to remember is to be aware of your surroundings.

God bless.