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Skinwalker: A Jane Yellowrock Novel

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3.5 stars

a somewhat original story in an utterly unoriginal setting, the first Jane yellowrock novel introduces us to a Cherokee-descent skinwalker: someone who can shapeshift into any animal she has genetic material from handy (bones, teeth, etc). she's hired to new orleans to hunt an out of control vampire before it makes the rest of the bloodsuckers look bad, and of course no one knows just who the crazy vamp is. the animal spirit part of her gives her increased strength and speed enough to hold her own with the undead, but it doesn't make her a super sleuthy braniac. because she out-awesomes her way through stuff rather than out-smarts the mysterious goings on, the plot does keep you guessing about the villain's identity. she's a one trick pony (rawr! big claws!), but it's a pretty badass trick.

aside from some odd editorial glitches (e.g., we're treated to two nearly identical lengthy asides about her motorcycle's construction in the first few chapters), it's a solid enough tale to make me want to pick up the second one soon.
The Hunger Games

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somewhen in the future, north america has become a collection of districts ruled over absolutely by the central capitol. as permanent penance for the long-ago lost revolution, each district must send an annual tribute of 2 teenagers to fight to the death in the capitol's arena. when hunter Katniss' sister is chosen as tribute, she takes the younger one's place and is shipped off to be brusquely prepped to kill her peers in the annual hunger games.

though it's tempting to dissect this down to it's constituent ideas (decadent mother Rome harvesting gladiators from everywhere in her scattered empire; the princess stepping up to take everyone's place in 'dragonslayer's lottery, the brutality of 'battle royale'), this is so much more than the sum of these parts. Collins skillfully creates a tale where the emotional stress and moral ambiguity of killing to survive feels horribly real. characters are vividly unique and utterly memorable, each with their own motivations and responses to the pressures to do whatever is necessary to survive. somewhat flawed by an overlong post-climax and soft ending, but more than enough to make you want to immediately snap up the sequel.
Fahrenheit 451

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once upon a time in the future, feeling too much is bad, intellectualism is right out, and reading any one of the near-infinite list of banned books is enough to get you imprisoned or killed. books are for burning, life is for living at high speed and with little regard for anything other than tonight's episode of desperate housewives. firemen light the paper bonfires, and this is of course one man's awakening from all the 50s cold-war future-that-isn't-yet.

I know it's utter blasphemy to only score this genre classic as merely ok, but it's been proven yet again that however marvelous I may find his short stories, bradbury's novels just leave me cold (no flaming pun intended). a future where all the damned "minorities and womens' libbers" have mucked it up for the rest of us somehow comes off vaguely uncomfortably as an old reactionary's response to our overly politically correct world, rather than the subversive call to arms I think it's supposed to be. all women are housewives, nobody cares about anything yet no one will just quit their crappy jobs, and the mysteriously well-read villain is infinitely more interesting than a protagonist that repeatedly tells everyone just how stupid he is. there is of course plenty of fantastic ideas in here (and here's where the blasphemy takes off), and I just wish someone would write a jazz riff on fahrenheit 451. take the bones of these great ideas and reflesh them in something more profound, or even just more up to date, and make it relevant again to the reality tv and instant gratification world.
The Blade Itself

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this was a solid 4-star book throughout: detailed, complex characters with individual motivations and backstories, each person a part of a nation going to war, each person working towards understanding their part in the larger game being played, and then it just ended. not so much as a little wrap-up, not even an obnoxiously staged cliffhanger, it just ended, abruptly enough in fact, that I want to check to make sure my kindle version didn't leave anything out. since the last chapter is followed by a "sneak preview" of book 2 in the series, I'd assume that's just how this book goes.
Breathless

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2.5 stars

sixteen year old dragon shapeshifter jacinda spends this book between the proverbial rock & hard place: mom flees the homeland in the middle of the night with her twin daughters because the pride were so desperate to keep jacinda's special talents that they would have entrapped her physically and emotionally...but the place they hide out is, by necessity, brutally inhospitable to dragonkind. she can't go back, she can't stay, high school is a bitch, and her star-crossed hottie is the scion of a family of dragon hunters.

chock-a-block full of teen angst ("oh, I must swear him off forever!") and most romance novel tropes ("we can't possibly actually discuss this!"), but saved by the fun premise, it's worth checking out, but only for teen romance novel lovers with a tolerance for this type of foolishness.
Cryptonomicon

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it took me a month to get through this book. amazing, considering my usual speed with the written word, but quite true. this behemoth refused to be devoured in my usual hours-at-a-time fashion, nope. more like very high quality cheesecake, in that it's so rich you can only take a few bites before you need to assimilate.

part of the story is about a WWII GI, who happens to be so gung-ho and talented at both completing difficult missions successfully and staying alive at their completion that he gets the dubious honor of being assigned to a squad so top-secret he has no idea what he's doing there. part of the story is about a brilliant but oblivious mathematician (clearly an asperger's syndrome kind of guy) who becomes a codebreaker during the same war. and part of the story is about the computer-programmer grandson of the latter and his infatuation with the tough-as-nails granddaughter of the former. part of it is about codes (both for war messages and for computer programs) and part of it is about war (both physical and digital). all of which makes it sound very dry when it's anything but.

Stephenson's typical doses of randomly-applied hilarity are out in full force here. he does an incredible job of painting the world through the individual voices of his characters...and quite often, those guys are thinking very odd things about very odd situations. the hefty book could have been trimmed by, say, 30% if it left out these random observations, sometimes comical, other times simply beautiful examples of what letters can do in the hands of a gifted wordsmith, but then we'd miss out on things like:

"a red dragonfly hovers above the backwater of the stream, its wings moving so fast that the eye sees not wings in movement but a probability distribution of where the wings might be, like electron orbitals: a quantum-mechanical effect that maybe explains why the insect can apparently teleport from one place to another, disappearing from one point and reappearing a couple of meters away, without seeming to pass through the space in between. there sure is a lot of bright stuff in the jungle. randy figures that, in the natural world, anything that is colored so brightly must be some kind of serious evolutionary badass."

no, i'm not recommending it to everybody. it's long and meandering and insanely technical in many places. but yes, i am gushing about it. it's lovely.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary

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I wonder very much if I would have liked this book better had it not been written by Dave Sedaris. I thoroughly love his short-story anecdotes, and reading a few books' worth of them has him firmly pigeon-holed in my head into the "hilarity" category. though this book remains in the short-story format, it's most definitely rarely approaching anything resembling hilarity.

a dozen or so stories in the format of fables (i.e., anthropomorphic animals have some distinctly human desires), some of them bring a smile to your face, but not much is really LOLsome, and a few are downright uncomfortably gross or cruel. additionally, framing these as fables had my mind primed for the pithy final "life lesson", and few delivered on that front, either. a few gems are to be had, but for the most part we're learning the various ways that people are fools or assholes, and I kinda already knew that.
Touch the Dark

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a solid 3.5 stars - starts off a little rocky, marred by some confusingly written action/body-swapping "mystical vision" sequences in the middle, but by the time the story finally lays all the pieces out on the board, a really fun ride.

Cassie is a clairvoyant, occasionally inflicted with true visions of doom & destruction. she ran away from the vampire crime lord that raised her when she found out he was using her visions to further his business interests by knowing how everyone was going to horribly die, and she's been on the lam ever since. so how come all of a sudden, every supernatural political faction wants her in their clutches right now?

Cassie gets tossed from one frying pan into another fire at every possible opportunity, sometimes begin bailed out by powerful friends, and sometimes using her own savvy and brainpower to escape danger, but never knowing until the end just what the hell is going on. her being in the dark means we're right there, too, and thought it's fun to be unable to solve the mystery too soon, some things aree just written so confusingly that it's distracting. that being said, Cassie herself is easy to care about, and it's refreshing to read a heroine who's neither dumb as a box of rocks nor a mouthy badass just for the sake of being edgy.

the ending doesnt quite count as a cliffhanger, but it's certainly open (and compelling) enough to make you want to have the sequel handy immediately.
Unholy Ghosts (Downside Ghosts, Book 1)

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the urban fantasy shelves at the bookstore are pretty full lately, and separating out something unique from the piles of same-ol can be pretty tricky.

this is most definitely not the same-ol stuff.

the world as we knew it is dead and gone. after a group of people who'd been studying magic were the only ones able to save the population of earth from a mass uprising of murderous ghosts, that group became the church of truth and supplanted all the world's religions. Chess grew up in a world protected by this new church, doesn't remember the way things were "before truth", and now works as a church witch banishing stray ghosts. she's in with her drug dealer by a whole lot of debt, so she really can't refuse when he asks her to take care of a haunting at one of his business sites rather out of her usual jurisdiction.

wait, drug dealer? yes, Chess is a bombed-out junkie, carrying a pharmacy in a plastic baggie in her work bag. like most junkies, she's jonesing frequently, she's secretive about her habits, and she doesn't apologize to everyone about being f'ed up. it's easy to create a villain or a slimy side-character with this dossier, but the deft way Kane handles the writing makes this an engaging, likable, sympathetic character. she's nicely talented and tough as nails, but deeply flawed and imperfect. you believe that bad things could happen to her, and fervently hope she escapes them.

very well done, and well worth checking out the sequel.
The Fire Lord's Lover

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a solid 3.5 stars.

for a free book (or for the $5 it's currently selling for on amazon), this was pretty damn good. i like romance novels to have a plot beyond 2 people making puppy eyes at each other, and this one has a fantastic set-up: a handful of rather evil elves have set up shop as the rulers of 1700s england, with the english king passed among them as a trophy for winning the season's war games. the underground rebellion, sick of their elvish overlords, has trained the young woman betrothed to the local elf lord's son & general as an assassin.

the alternate historical setting gives plenty of opportunities to describe rolling countryside and corset stays all blushed over with elven magic. the "timely" lingo only occasionally gets silly, and the quick, fun plot avoids the most obnoxious of romance novel cliches (i.e., these two people actually communicate on occasion, instead of spending the whole novel misunderstanding each other). a promising start to a new series.
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