May 31, 2016

Review: Thicker Than Water

Review copy By Brigid Kemmerer
Available now from Kensington
Review copy

I loved Brigid Kemmerer's Elemental series (even if I think it didn't entirely stick the landing), so I'm not sure why I let THICKER THAN WATER languish on my Kindle so long.  When I did start it, I devoured it in a single sitting.

When the book opens, Thomas Bellweather is getting ready for his mother's funeral.  She was strangled in her bed while he was home.  He is, understandably, a suspect.  He doesn't realize how much everyone in his new home suspects him until he shoves Charlotte Rooker aside when she accidentally causes him to flash back to finding his mother's dead body.   This arouses the wrath of her older, overprotective cop brothers.

What follows is a Romeo and Juliet story that fits the forbidden love pattern that showed up so often in the Elemental series.  Because I was familiar with Kemmerer's other books I suspected a paranormal twist was coming, and I wasn't wrong.  While THICKER THAN WATER shares much of the appeal of Kemmerer's debut series, it has its own strengths.

Thomas is wonderfully free of guile.  He's been stripped to the bone by the changes in his life, and all he wants are answers - and Charlotte.  Charlotte, meanwhile, is struggling to define herself in a paternalistic family and worries if her attraction to the "bad boy" really is as dangerous as everyone else says.  Thomas is thrilled to find someone who believes him, but even Charlotte has her doubts.  I found it realistic that she questioned her instinct to just believe him because he seemed to be telling the truth, but at the same time it makes some of her decisions dumb even from her own point of view.

THICKER THAN WATER is a standalone novel, although the ending leaves some ends open for a potential sequel.  I was very satisfied with the ending, but I must admit I'd love another story about Thomas and Charlotte.

May 30, 2016

Movie Monday: X-Men: Apocalypse

I had a great time watching X-Men: Apocalypse and want to see it again.  It was big and silly, and it left a smile on my face.

The movie has too many plotlines to let them all breathe as they should, but I can't think of one I'd want to cut.  Instead, I want to spend more time with these characters - especially young Jean Grey, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Storm.  All manage to get standout moments against the established cast members.

Quicksilver, as in X-Men: Days of Future Past has one of the coolest scenes in the movie.  But my favorite character moment might be Professor X showing what makes him so dangerous.  I've enjoyed James McAvoy's performance, but I think this is the first time his Charles Xavier gets to feel dangerous.

From what I've read of critical reviews, X-Men: Apocalypse isn't getting the love of X-Men: First Class, much less Days of Future Past. I have to disagree with the critics.  This isn't a smart movie, sure, but it is one that gets what makes comics fun and has an appealing cast of characters.  It's also not insultingly dumb.

I must admit, I'd love another movie with the older cast to show what has changed due to Days of Future Past, but I can definitely live with these younger versions.  I'm hoping for more fun movies in the series to come.  Maybe we'll even see Deadpool in the main continuity one day.

May 23, 2016

Review: Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

Summer Days and Summer Nights Edited by Stephanie Perkins
Stories by Leigh Bardugo, Francesca Lia Block, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Brandy Colbert, Tim Federle, Lev Grossman, Nina LaCour, Stephanie Perkins, Veronica Roth, Jon Skovron, Jennifer E. Smith
Available now from
Review copy

Stephanie Perkins' follow-up anthology to MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME is another set of twelve strong stories by popular and up-and-coming authors, including adult author Lev Grossman.  The only repeated author is Perkins herself (who writes a sequel to her story from the first anthology).  The theme of summer is a little looser than the theme of winter holidays, and the stories range wider in tone and style as well.  There's contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, and historical stories.  The protagonists are diverse too, both in skin color and sexuality.

In fact, not all of the stories end happily.  "Sick Pleasure" by Francesca Lia Block tells of a doomed summer romance.  "Souvenirs" by Tim Federle tells of two boys who know they have to break up because one of them is going to college.  "Souvenirs" is one of my favorite stories in the collection, for how it gets lots of messy emotions into so few pages, including those little things that make you love someone even when you know they aren't the best person.

Of the speculative stories, my favorite might have been "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things" by Lev Grossman, a groundhog-day tale of a boy and a girl who are trapped in a loop and manage to find shocking beauty in a single mundane (but tragic) day.  Close behind is "Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail" by Leigh Bardugo, which taps into my love of mythological sea creatures.  The inventive ending gets my approval.  Okay, I loved "Last Stand at the Cinegore" by Libba Bray, too.  It's a trippy meta tale about a horror film coming to life and the apathetic cinema workers who are the only ones that can stop it.

The more mundane stories were a bit more uneven to me.  "The End of Love" by Nina LaCour is an adorable story about two girls finding their way to each other while one of them goes through a difficult time. "Love is the Last Resort" by Jon Skovron is a farce about multiple couples who need a few tricks to get them to take that leap of faith and ask each other out.

This made for a very fun read on my plane ride home from California.  (Can you get more summer than that?)  There was only one story I didn't think fit the anthology.  "Inertia" by Veronica Roth was a nifty sci-fi romance, but I'm not sure what it had to do with summer.  Overall, this was a strong set of stories, although not quite as strong as MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME.  I hope for fall and spring sequels!

May 9, 2016

Movie Monday: Captain America: Civil War

The newest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an adaptation of the (mostly hated) comics event Civil War.  However, the central issue of the comics - registration - doesn't quite work in a world where everyone knows who the superheroes are.  Luckily, Captain America: Civil War finds another issue to divide our heroes: accountability.

The Avengers are US-based group that answer to no governments and cross borders with impunity.  What, or who, gives them the right to superhero wherever they want, especially when superhero battles tend to damage infrastructure and result in casualties?

Unfortunately, the issue comes to a head just as Captain America's old pal Bucky is accused of a terrorist act.

There are a lot of moving parts in Captain America: Civil War, including new villains (Daniel Brühl as Baron Zemo) and new heroes (Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, Tom Holland as Spider-Man).  The new actors acquit themselves well.  Brühl has the advantage over many Marvel villains in that he isn't trying to act through a thick mask of makeup.  Boseman gets a showcase emotional arc, and he plays it to the hilt.  Holland brings the energy and humor Peter Parker needs in his brief appearances.  I'm eager to see both Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming now.

Then there's all the returning heroes.  Captain America. Iron Man. Falcon. Black Widow. Scarlet Witch. Vision. Hawkeye. War Machine. Ant-Man.  If you have not seen any of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is not the place to start.  Captain America: Civil War builds off the character arcs of the previous Captain America movie (The Winter Soldier) in addition to Avengers: Age of Ultron.  This movie expects you to know who these people are.  It has too much to do to re-introduce old characters.

If you do know these characters, it is a crazy ride.  There are plenty of serious moments in this battle of friend against friend, but there's also a healthy dose of humor and plenty of inspired action scenes.  The story is grim, but Captain America: Civil War never forgets that superheroes are fun.

May 6, 2016

Review: Wild Swans

Wild Swans By Jessica Spotswood
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

Jessica Spotswood leaves fantasy and historical fiction behind for contemporary, but keeps the themes of sisterhood and family legacies.  WILD SWANS is unlike Spotswood's debut trilogy the Cahill Witch Chronicles in genre, but I think her fans will be satisfied if they make the trip to contemporary with her.

Ivy Milbourn comes from a long line of talented, troubled women, most of whom died tragically.  She is, however, perfectly ordinary.  She pushes herself hard, and her grandfather pushes her harder, but she's generally good at most things but never great.  But those expectations are only one of her burdens.  Her mother abandoned her when she was two, and she's always wondered if there was something wrong with her that drove her mother away.  She gets her chance, fifteen years later, when her mother is forced to move back into her father's house.

With her two other daughters.

Spotswood's writing beautifully expresses Ivy's emotional turmoil as she juggles her family issues, boy problems, and her expectations for herself.  Her intended summer of fun imploded, but she finds far more to enjoy than she first expected.  I thoroughly enjoyed Ivy.  She's refreshingly mature (although she still has the naivety of a sheltered teen), and I thought she struck a really good balance with how she shook things up. 

WILD SWANS is painfully earnest at times.  One of her best friends has a younger sibling who might grow up to be transgender, and for now prefers to identify as a girl instead of a boy.  The other is bisexual, the pioneer of the town's Gay-Straight Alliance, and very vigilant about women's sexual freedom.  These are timely issues that helped flesh out the setting and the secondary characters, but some of the longer scenes felt like Ivy's story stopping for a Very Special Episode.  (At the same thing, I think Spotswood's characters were often saying things that needed to be said.)

For those looking for a summery, feminist bildungsroman, look no farther than WILD SWANS.  It has poetry, hot tattooed guys, and a mother who is a major piece of work (but sometimes makes a few good points).  It's a lovely book, the sort that isn't huge on event but sucks you in anyway because of the characters.

May 4, 2016

Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands

Emperor of the Eight Isles Book one of the Tale of Shikanoko
By Lian Hearn
Available now from FSG Originals (Macmillan)
Review copy

Have you ever been absolutely loving a book, when suddenly the ending splashes a bucket of cold water on you?  That was my experience with EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS.

EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS is the first book in The Tale of Shikanoko, the new series from Lian Hearn.  There are four books, all to be published before July from Farrar, Straus and Giroux's (fairly new) digital imprint.  I still intend to read the second book, AUTUMN PRINCESS, DRAGON CHILD, but it is going to have to work to earn back my goodwill.  The ending of EMPEROR OF EIGHT ISLANDS soured me quite a bit on Shikanoko, the hero.

Shikanoko means the deer's child, and was not the name he was born with.  He was once the heir to an estate, but his uncle arranged to have him killed.  Instead, he was forcibly turned into a sorcerer, albeit one who doesn't know much about his powers.  His life intersects with that of Kiyoyori, a young lord; Aki, a shrine maiden; and Yoshi, the rightful emperor.  Their stories weave together to tell a bloody tale of betrayal, courage, and strange magic.

Hearn uses an episodic structure, which suits the nature of the story.  EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS is an epic about legendary heroes, and each adventure leads into the next.  It also has strong characterization.  Even characters who could be flat-out villains, like the jealous Lady Tama, are understandable from their point of view.  She's motivated by love for her children, even if it turns out poorly.

Don't expect a feel good read.  EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS had me turning the pages, but it isn't the lightest of reading.  Many bad things happen to good people, and even more bad things lurk on the horizon.  At the same time, I have hope that good will triumph in the final novel of the series, THE TENGU'S GAME OF GO.

May 2, 2016

Movie Monday: The Huntsman: Winter's War

The Huntsman: Winter's War I'll be honest: I fell asleep during Snow White and the Huntsman because I was so bored.  I only saw the beginning and end of the movie.  I mostly found it a waste of some nice costumes and Charlize Theron chewing the scenery as the villain.  When I got a chance to see The Huntsman: Winter's War for free at Alamo Drafthouse, I decided to go see it despite my apathy for the previous movie.

The Huntsman: Winter's War starts before the first movie, when the eponymous Huntsman Eric was just a child.  He was kidnapped by the Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna's younger sister, along with many other children.  She decided to raise an army free of love after her lover murdered her daughter.  Eric, of course, breaks the rule and falls in love with Sarah (Jessica Chastain), the dead wife of the first movie.  The first thirty minutes or so cover their courtship and her death.

The movie then skips forward seven years and becomes a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. I know some disliked that Sam Clafin, who played the love interest, got to come back when Kristen Stewart didn't.  I found it more palatable in practice, because he shows up for a few minutes only to direct the Huntsman to find Ravenna's mirror, which Freya is searching for to boost her powers.

What follows is a quest to find the mirror.  Eric is accompanied by two dwarves, which becomes four dwarves when they meet two female dwarves on the way.  Entirely unsurprisingly, they also run into the still alive Sarah, who believes Eric left her to die and isn't too pleased he's off jauntily living his own life.  I thought these characters made for a fun ensemble.  Chris Hemsworth was quite mopey in the first movie, but here he gets to crack some jokes and play off of the comic dwarves.  Eric and Sarah's romance is perfunctory, but Chastain and Hemsworth manage more chemistry than Stewart and Hemsworth.

The Huntsman: Winter's War is cheesy, and could use far more of Charlize Theron's Ravenna, a performance that remains the highlight of the series.  But you don't need to see Snow White and the Huntsman first, and I found it an improvement overall due tot he greater use of humor and the wider range of female characters.  I also liked that the child soldiers weren't an entirely faceless crowd, nor entirely warped by their childhoods.  This is a fairy tale that offers redemption.


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