Monthly Archives: March 2017

The True Meaning of Smekday (The Smek Smeries #1)

Title: The True Meaning of Smekday

Author: Adam Rex

Series: The Smek Smeries #1

Gratuity is a precocious 11-year-old who happens to get a first-hand look at the alien Boov takeover of the planet. Little does she know a chance encounter with a Boov mechanic on the run will pull her into a war that’s spanned the galaxy. All she really wants, though, is to find out what happened to her mother (preferably while not being shot at by aliens).

The writing on this is strong, with a good sense of voice and engaging main characters. Gratuity (Tip) is independent enough to tackle her problems herself, even when it involves a long drive cross-country through alien-occupied territory. But she still wouldn’t get very far without a Boov who calls himself J.Lo, whose mechanical genius is matched by his appetite for toxic substances.  And the humor is also pretty strong, much of it in Tip’s wry observations about her circumstances.

But I found myself losing steam as the book progressed. The literary style started into a lot of literary tropes I’m tired of seeing. Oh, here’s a homosexual who got beaten senseless because people are nasty to homosexuals (this is one sentence and feels more like trying to check an Issues bingo card). Here’s how the greatest problems with sticking the entire country into one state are mostly people of different races devolving into bouts of racism (personally, I think the far, far, FAR bigger problem that wasn’t addressed was the severe lack of bathrooms. You can’t just stick millions of people into Arizona and expect to have enough toilets for everyone. And that’s discounting the fact that Arizona is kind of noted for being rather dry, so are the aliens running the plumbing systems now too, so that everyone can afford to flush? What about toilet paper? My thoughts go here because a large portion of the plot does get spent in bathrooms. But you could make the same argument about basic shelter or hygiene or medicines. But the story never talks about people dying left and right, unless they’re shooting each other.)

There were others, but it was in the same vein. The second big thing that bugged me with the end was Gratuity’s mom. The beginning paints her as lovable but not quite all there, easy to manipulate, easy to take advantage of. Given that, I never could believe what she ended up doing (trying to avoid spoiling anything, but it was before the Gorg).

So . . . nice prose, sure. But not for me. I kept fighting to suspend disbelief with the setting, and I didn’t like how the whole book felt like a Message about certain Issues in addition to a story. I rate this book Neutral.

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Noragami Aragoto (Anime)

Title: Noragami Aragoto

Episodes 1-13 (13-25 overall; it’s season 2 of Noragami)

Yato’s trouble as a stray god of calamity are only getting worse. Bishamon, the war goddess with a huge grudge against him, has finally pushed him too far. And beyond that, Yato’s shadowed past is coming back to haunt him . . .

This season focuses on two major arcs, which was great for me since I prefer longer stories. I particularly liked what happens with Yukine this season.

Last season, Yato went far above and beyond to give Yukine every chance he could, and Yukine is determined to repay the favor. He’s too new to really know what’s expected of him, so he’s determined to learn how to fulfill his role to the best of his ability (and his abilities are considerable). The methods he chooses surprise those around him, and although he succeeds in many things, it’s still an open-ended question whether or not he can grant Yato’s dearest wish. That part will likely hinge on Yato himself.

It’s also interesting to see Yukine’s building rivalry with Nora, the other major Regalia in Yato’s life, but one Yato doesn’t seem to want—perhaps because she has multiple names from multiple masters. Yukine wants to be dependable enough that Yato can abandon Nora for good. Nora, however, has her own plans for Yato.

Some parts of these arcs felt a bit rehashed, as Hiyori loses her memories multiple times, although one of those times was a good reminder to her that she’s not specially immune from the consequences of forgetfulness. But Hiyori in general is still a great character. She knows she’s important to Yato, but he can still be really annoying to her since he has no concept of how to relate to people as friends. Still, when she does attempt to do something to make him happy, she never expects the kind of reaction she gets. She’s HUMAN (mostly), and although that puts her under basically everyone who has powers, she’s got her own strengths that none of them can duplicate.

And I liked the direction Yato took here, where his troubles are more evident and his hyper personality comes off more like a desperate wish for how he wants to be. He’s hardly mentioned his own history. Yukine and Hiyori are stuck asking the gods who knew him about a lot of the details, but even they only have fragments of the full story. Yato still has his really aggravating moments, but overall I’ve come to appreciate him more as a character, and I hope he and Yukine will be able to work out a new direction for his life.

Overall I think this is a stronger season than the first, with Yukine’s big moment and subsequent development my favorite parts. But I also liked the deepening relational dynamics, the high level of action, and the rising stakes. There’s a bit at the very end that hints at further complications to come, so I hope a third season will be announced at some point. Until then, I’ll be reading the manga to figure out what happens next. I rate this series Recommended.

Noragami (Anime)

Title: Noragami

Episodes 1-12

Yato is a minor deity so desperate for recognition he’ll do any odd jobs that come his way. But while chasing a stray cat he encounters a girl whose attempt to save him causes her to leave her body. Add to that his attempts to gain a new weapon have landed him with a middle-school boy with a troubled personality . . .

I actually found this show because I stumbled across the second opening on Youtube. When I first looked Noragami up the summary made me discount it as some slice-of-life with a bit of supernatural thrown in, but I kept wondering why they’d pick such a rock-heavy song for an opening if the show was really like that. (For the curious, the song is Hey Kids! by The Oral Cigarettes, and has quickly become one of my favorites. Although it is the opening to the SECOND half, so it’s not actually on these eps at all.)

Fortunately, even the first few minutes of the first episode was enough to disabuse me of that notion. We begin with Yato hunting down a Phantom, a monster invisible to ordinary people, in the middle of the city in broad daylight—although after he vanquishes it, his life starts to go downhill, as much of his power as a god is tied up in the Regalia he uses as his weapon, and his weapon has decided she’s had enough and quits.

I never really liked Yato that much. Most of the drama in this first season results from his insensitivity and careless treatment of Yukine, and it’s hard not to get frustrated when some of the biggest moments could have been avoided or reduced dramatically if they’d just sat down and talked a few things out. But Hiyori helps keep things balanced, as she’s sensible in ways Yato isn’t. Although both Hiyori and Yukine don’t know anything about the supernatural world, they have different ties to it, and different roles.

The humor was also a bit hit or miss for me. I did enjoy some of the gags, but I’m not fond of Yato’s over the top hysterics.

That said, the show as a whole was something I liked. It’s fast-paced, and the supernatural aspect allows for new and strange things to show up on a regular basis. Yato when he’s serious (usually when he’s fighting) is a lot of fun. Hiyori is a great counterbalance for him, as she’s sweet and personable (when she’s not trying to beat up monsters or knock some sense into him). And Yukine somehow manages to be an innocent deliquent.

Overall, this has a good balance of action and character, so if it sounds appealing give it an episode or three to see if it catches your interest. I rate this show Recommended.

St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys (Xavier #1)

Title: St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys

Author: E.M. Cooper

Series: Xavier #1

Xavier never suspected life wasn’t going well—until his parents dropped him off at St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys, and never returned. Now more or less a prisoner at the school, which is surrounded by high walls and a deadly forest, he dreams of escape, rescue, anything. But the purpose of St. Griswold is more sinister than he knows, and if he can’t get out soon, he might lose more than his life . . .

I really wanted to like this one more than I did. Angels are hit-or-miss for me (I prefer general people with wings over the various things angels bring into the picture), but I didn’t mind them here. There’s a fair amount of flying, certain fun powers, and hints Xavier is growing into something more than anyone really knows (JUST BE ABLE TO FLY, is all I ask).

The biggest problem with the book for me was the fact that I spent the entire thing really confused about the big picture. It would have helped to have the map on the front page instead of at the very end (I only noticed it after I finished the book). By default, I’m going to assume a book is set in the present-day on Earth unless informed otherwise—and the beginning of the book appears to support that. Except then we get a creepy school in a haunted forest, which turns out to be supernaturally infested with a lot of things, and a wider world where apparently telephones and computers aren’t all that common anymore. If I had to guess, this is Earth after some sort of world war, but even THAT only came up very close to the end. And the story doesn’t help by completely glossing over anything big-picture-related, which makes the very detailed focus on the immediate environs frustrating.

What HAPPENED? Is this Earth after a war? The kids are in school—can’t their history class (or memories of a history class outside) just say so? Why are the people outside apparently used to actual demons running around, when Xavier is shocked to find out they even exist? Same with magic. Some people shrug it off and some act like they’ve never heard of it before. Which would be fine if I had more CONTEXT.

And the plot is a mess of cliches interspersed with more interesting original ideas. St. Griswold is stereotypically evil in a lot of ways: bad food, poor clothing, prisonlike atmosphere. Introducing Gabe into the whole mess helped liven things up a lot, because when someone born out of a stroke of lightning shows up things are bound to get better. And I’m definitely going to pay attention when people with wings start appearing.

Things went reasonably well (except for the whole being-totally-confused-about-what-year-and-country-this-is bit) until the escape. The boys have a lot of close calls, and for a while are managing on their own, but eventually they have to turn to other people for help, and this is where I hit the second bit cliff of disbelief. Pretty much everyone Xavier turns to for help does help, very nicely, with no payment required and no questions asked, up to and including a random guy who shows up one page and dies the next. And this after all the talk about shapeshifters and spies. (Yes, yes, there was that one incident, but technically Xavier didn’t fall into that, Gabe did).

And the END . . . made me so angry. It felt like the entire journey had basically been pointless. I am curious about seeing Xavier with full-fledged powers (and hopefully some wings sooner or later), but I’m not sure I want to go through another book to get there.

Overall, the inconsistent quality of the writing bogs down what could have been a much better story. Big details are skimmed or nonexistent while little ones get tons of focus. This especially hurts towards the end, when the story tries to widen to include more of the country. I’m only rating this slightly higher because I feel like it could possibly get better. I rate this book Neutral.

The Rescue (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #3)

Title: The Rescue

Author: Katheryn Lasky

Series: Guardians of Ga’Hoole #3

Soren has recovered his sister, Eglantine, but lost his new mentor, Ezylryb. The danger posed by St. Aegolius still exists, but whatever took his sister might be the “You only wish” danger Soren was warned about before. With evil at loose in the owl kingdoms, it may be up to Soren and his friends to fight sooner than they expected . . .

At last, a single story that manages to combine some lighter moments with a more serious plot. I found it odd that Soren apparently turned Ezylryb from a grouchy, disfigured leader he had just barely got over being afraid of into a beloved mentor somewhere between the end of the last book and the start of this one.

The mystery of the flecks, Eglantine’s whereabouts, and Soren’s growing leadership are the strongest part of the story. I wasn’t too surprised by Metal Beak, though. His identity was all but revealed the moment his name comes up. And the final fight was a bit odd because we have a few extra owls appearing out of nowhere to even up the sides–and I don’t recall the plot ever mentioning why or how they got there.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, by all means keep reading. Younger readers may not be as quick to spot some of the obvious plot turns, and the characters are a generally enjoyable bunch. I rate this book Recommended.

The Journey (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #2)

Title: The Journey

Author: Kathryn Lasky

Series: Guardians of Ga’Hoole #2

Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger set out to search for the Great Ga’Hoole tree and the noble order of owls that lives there. They’re eager to report the horrors they’ve seen. But Ga’Hoole isn’t what they expected, and the owls are reluctant to launch an attack like Soren expected. Instead the four are tasked with learning various skills so they can become full-fledged members of Ga’Hoole.

I liked this book better than the previous, but it was a bit odd to get to the destination only halfway through. The plot feels like two different books, comprising the before and after of the owls’ arrival at Ga’Hoole.

Since they are traveling, though, Soren and his friends get to see much more of the world. It’s literally a flyover, but they make a few stops. I do wish they’d bothered explaining exactly why a certain area was so dangerous. Why would it have been bad to linger, other than forgetting their original mission? Technically, they don’t really try to mobilize the Ga’Hoole owls once they get to the tree after being told they have much more to learn.

And I know the owls are being humanized, but it was still odd to see them drinking tea and eating cooked meat.

All in all there isn’t much to say, other than it feels like two very short books rather than one short book. The break in the middle splits the story pretty well, and makes it difficult to hold an overarching plot, since the goals of the first and second halves are markedly different. If you liked the first book, you might as well keep going. I rate this book Recommended.

Audiobook Roundup – Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday

Title: Mister Monday

Author: Garth Nix

Series: Keys to the Kingdom #1

(Also Grim Tuesday, which is the second book in the series)

I had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook versions of Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday recently. Both of them are narrated by the same reader and generally very well done. I wasn’t too fond of Suzy’s dialogue as she’s read in a bit of a whiny tone, but the variation in voices was good (so you could tell who was talking before you got to the dialog tags) and there was a lot of emotion in the actual lines.

I still find Grim Tuesday less interesting than Mister Monday, mostly because the Will doesn’t show up until basically the end, and doesn’t do anything much. And the Second Key also isn’t in Arthur’s possession until basically the last chapter. But it helps that Nix’s stories make very good audiobooks—he doesn’t have wasted prose, the plots are tight and energetic, and his characters are well drawn.

Check out my reviews on the books if you want farther thoughts on the plot. The story is good in either case, but you won’t go wrong with the audiobook.