Sunday, February 22, 2015

Zero Sum Game

Title: Zero Sum Game
Author: SL Huang
Series: Russel's Attic, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 6/10

Review: I took a note of S.L. Huang in the fairy-tale anthology Retold that I read last month. Her story was one of my favorites, so I thought I'd give her novel a try. The premise sounded interesting: a mercenary with math superpower fighting a mind-controlling psychic.

So, I like math and I think math is cool and powerful and you can do a lot of different stuff with math. But this book pushed it well past the point of where I could accept it. There was one thing that bothered me in particular -- being able to do a crazy calculation about bullet velocity and direction is really not enough to dodge a bullet just because you know where it's going. I would have been much more accepting of a math super-power that also didn't turn into a physical super-power of precise motion and crazy strength. As it was, the heroine was pretty ridiculously overpowered and her constant math rationalizations for it made me rather annoyed.

The story itself was a pretty fun thriller type plot, which just kept escalating throughout the book. Drug cartels, mystery government organizations, hackers, and a psychopath with religion all figure into the plot that takes the main crew all around L.A. area. All-in-all, it was rather entertaining, if not entirely believable. I liked Arthur, the P.I. investigating a shadowy organization called Pithica who teams up with the heroine, Cas.

He has some serious reservations about Cas's moral compass and her murdering people left and right and I agree with that. I just wish he didn't eventually decide it wasn't that big a deal after all and strike a friendship. After all, by the end of the book Cas has probably murdered 4-dozen people as a very conservative estimate. Of course, they are all bad guys... Still, sometimes that much violence just doesn't sit well with me.

The other part of the book that could have been better is the writing. It's hard for me to put a finger on what exactly bothered me there, but I could easily tell it's a book by a new writer. I guess it just felt a little sloppy and under-edited.

All-in-all, it was entertaining, but I don't think I am going to pick up the next book in the series. Still, it's heartening to see books with female math ass-kicking superheroes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind

Title: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
Author: Zack Whedon, Geoges Jeanty
Series: Serenity, vol 4
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: Leaves on the Wind is a meatier and longer story than the previous three. It takes place after the events of the movie Serenity. As with the other volumes, I think this one makes most sense to read only if you are already familiar with the TV show and the movie, many details would be lost on someone who is new to the universe.

The book follows the adventures of Serenity's crew -- with Alliance breathing down their necks. They find some new supporters and get into plenty of trouble as usual. There are 6 chapters to the story and a pretty complete story arch. The illustrations are a bit different, but I found them easy to read and discern what's happening.

At the end of the story there's a cover gallery, which I thought was really excellent. I enjoyed looking through it. Finally, there's a small bonus story following the main one. The story is titled "It's Never Easy" and it's a pretty short skit involving Malcolm and Zoe as main characters. The story is drawn in a very different, more angular and sketchy style. I liked it a bit less than the rest of the volume, but it was quick and quirky, so not bad at all overall.

I was hoping there were more volumes following this, but turns out this is the last one and there's no regular schedule for these. But I am hoping that more might yet get published.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale

Title: Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale
Author: Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Chris Samnee
Series: Serenity, vol 3
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2010
Rating: 8/10

Review: This volume tells Shepherd Book's life story. It starts at the end and keeps going backwards in a series of flashbacks. It's a pretty thin volume, but also one of my favorites because it explains the back story that I've been curious about for quite some time.

In episode Safe of Firefly, Book gets hurt, but then he gets medical care by showing his ident card to an Alliance cruiser. The viewer never gets to find out why they help him out and that mystery was never resolved until this comic.

This finally goes through Book's backstory, which is a rather twisty path. It resolves a lot of small mysteries about Book that we see in the TV series, but never have an explanation for. So, I definitely recommend this one to those curious about Shepherd Book.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories

Title: Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories
Author: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews. Will Conrad
Series: Serenity, vol 2
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2008
Rating: 7/10

Review: This volume contains four different stories. The first one is called Better Days and seems to be taking place between the end of the Firefly series and the beginning of Serenity movie. Wash and Inara are both on board of the ship for this story. The crew unexpectedly makes a large amount of money from a job. Then they fantasize about how they are going to spend the money.

There are some pretty funny moments there, for example, Jayne imagines himself a captain of a ship and refers to himself as Radiant Cobb. They go to a luxury planet to spend some of the money and of course trouble follows them there.

Overall, there were a few twists in the story, which I found a bit difficult to discern from the pictures. I had to go back and re-examine panels in detail to see what they were talking about. But the story itself was well put-together and the twists made it interesting.

I also enjoyed the full-page artwork in this novel. There are crew portraits spread out between different stories that have a lot of detail and look very well done.

The other three stories in this volume are much shorter. The Other Half focuses on River's increasing involvement with the crew and her use of psychic abilities. Downtime has the crew stuck in a snow storm and again sets up River as an important character. Finally Float Out takes place after the events in Serenity. Three Wash's friends buy a ship together and tell stories about Wash.

The three stories are somewhat disjointed and I liked Better Days best out of the four. Still, there are small reveals about the characters contained in every story, which makes them totally worthwhile.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Serenity: Those Left Behind

Title: Serenity: Those Left Behind
Author: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad
Series: Serenity, vol 1
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2007
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I received a set of Serenity graphic novels for Christmas. As a big fan of Firefly, I was pretty excited to get more works set in the universe. I didn't even know these existed.

Those Left Behind is structured a lot like a typical Firefly episode and seems to be taking place directly after Objects in Space. Mal and his crew are getting in trouble with yet another job and Alliance is continuing to hunt River. Inara is planning to leave, but keeps getting delayed.

I prefer TV series as a medium for telling this type of story, but I have to admit that the comic book felt very authentic for telling this story as well. It was point on when it came to character dialogues and action. I found a few panels were a little difficult to follow, but overall it felt very much like just another episode.

I wasn't a huge fan of Will Conrad's drawing style, though everyone was clearly recognizable. Still, it was enjoyable to get immersed in the world of Firefly once again.

Ancillary Justice

Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, book 1
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 8.5/10

ReviewAncillary Justice appeared so often in genre blogs last year and was spoken about with so much enthusiasm, that I was sure it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. I put off reading it for some time, but in the end I think the book both disappointed and exceeded my expectations at the same time.

The neat concept in Ancillary Justice is that the main character is an AI fragment. The Justice of Torren is a troop carrier that can control a host of human bodies -- one of these bodies is Breq, the protagonist of this book.

The book starts off with Breq on a faraway frozen world in search of a particular artifact that she needs in order to kill Anaander Mianaai the ruler of Radch empire. The story of her quest and her background is what keeps the story going, albeit a bit slowly at first. The ending is interesting and somewhat wraps up the story arch, but leaves a few plot threads going for the next books in the series.

What really worked in this book for me was the psychology of the protagonist. She really comes off as real and in a way very human, but in other ways clearly different. The author really pulled off the narrative from Breq's point of view and that is something that makes the book a real success.

Another distinctive feature of the book is that Breq cannot tell genders apart. It seems a bit odd, considering her sophistication in say understanding human emotions. The author explains it away as a cultural thing among Radchai. There are two genders, but no particular distinction is made between them -- the language doesn't account for their sex and the appearance is similar. Because of this, Breq calls everyone "she" in the book. The real fun comes in when you try to discern the real genders of the characters. I've seen many reviews that condemn the feminine gender use as a gimmick, but to me it was really interesting in that it drove home how genders define expectations of the characters behaviour. It was interesting to see how assigning certain actions to a certain gender and then finding out they are the opposite gender changes your perception of the character.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and will most certainly pick up other books in this series at some point.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Openly Straight

Title: Openly Straight
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: The first chapter of Openly Straight strongly reminded me of Looking for Alaska. Both novels begin with the protagonist starting a new boarding school far away from home in order to get a fresh start. Both protagonists are left in their un-air-conditioned dorms by their loving parents to face their new strange roommates. Both novels involve characters drinking a fair bit -- if I were a parent, I don't think I'd let my kids go to a boarding school.

The main protagonist's name is Rafe and he decides to go to an all-male boarding school to escape his "gay guy" label back home. In Rafe's mind, everyone thinks of him as gay first and everything else second. So he decides to pretend to be straight, though according to him, he'll just avoid mentioning that he's gay. It's funny how he keeps saying that to himself and his parents and his friends back home, but in reality he lies about who he is almost immediately and continues lying.

From the start, Rafe gets in with the jocks at the school. He plays football and soccer and then feels much more comfortable ogling guys in the shower than he ever did before. He also slowly makes friends with his dorky roommate and his openly gay friend. Rafe also becomes very good friends with Ben, whom he meets playing football.

Of course, his little omission about being gay becomes pretty significant after Rafe gradually falls in love with Ben. I thought the romance aspect of the novel was very well done. It felt natural and realistic, though I have never known a straight guy to behave the way Ben does throughout the book.

There is a secondary narrative in the novel, written in the form of a diary assignment. Rafe is recounting his "gay" experiences in Boulder and each diary has feedback from the teacher at the end of it. While I liked getting the background on Rafe, I thought the whole writing diary thing was extremely unrealistic. I think most teens wouldn't share those sort of thoughts and experiences with an unfamiliar adult. It's just weird.

These details aside, I found the book was absorbing and enjoyable. I read it quickly and late into the night to find out what happens next. I think the ending was reasonable and realistic, even if I perhaps wished for something less realistic and more fulfilling. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA genre.