Defy The Stars by Claudia Gray

I have to admit to a great deal of ambivalence about Defy The Stars. Yes, as far as YA romantic sci fi goes, I can see why many would enjoy this adventure of our strong-willed heroine and her hunky android. But at the same time, I wish the heavy handed musings about what it means to be human had been jettisoned altogether. Too much pounding of a square peg into a round hole amounted to a fairly cliche sci fi plot done better and with more subtlety by e.g., Asimov and Dick. I didn’t believe the characters and their shallow world any more than I believed the plot was anything approaching realistic.

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Story: As the Genesis colony fights a freedom war with Earth, teen Noemi sets out on a large scale suicide run in the hopes that the deaths of so many of her people will temporary reprieve them of Earth’s android driven attacks. But before she can begin the attack, a series of events lands her on the Deadalus – a long abandoned Earth space ship still housing the prototype of Earth’s greatest android – Abel. She hates him on sight – his kind has killed thousands of her people. Abel must obey Noemi but plots to find a way to get back to his beloved creator/father who was forced to abandon him on the ship 30 years ago. Both are about to learn some hard truths as Noemi, through Abel, finds a better way than the upcoming suicide run to protect her people.

If you are looking for the standard YA cliches – they are here. People are always sniffing love interests, fate will put a master hacker in their midst so they can accomplish tasks, the hero/heroine will start out hating each other but fall in love, things like prison breaks are surprisingly easy, the bad guys are eeeeevil and selfish (never nuanced), and in a huge galaxy, people always find each other by accident and at the exact perfect moment. There are many sci fi genre cliches as well that became very frustrating.

But it was the big ‘message’ that was most problematic. Rather than using scientific outlines of intelligent life like the Turing Test and artificial intelligence, author Grey relies on philosophical human condition tenets and the concept of abstract thinking to define whether a machine is ‘alive’ – whether it has a soul. In other words, whether Abel can dream, be compassionate, and understand/appreciate religion is the determiner of whether or not he is a machine or a person. As such, there are some very heavy handed religion references throughout (including main character Noemi’s strong Catholic beliefs) and the fact that the ‘better’ planet Genesis relies on an almost luddite-like reluctance to use technology and instead focuses on religions and faith to better themselves (secular Earth nearly destroyed itself and is trying to do the same to others, natch). It’s a nice thought but not really believable or even a sustainable argument. So although this isn’t a Christian romance, it felt like it at times.

In order to couch the story within the human condition (and to further pound in that Noemi will hate machines) there are some really odd statements made:

<i>”What kind of cowards go to war but refuse to fight it themselves? Noemi thinks. How evil do you have to be to kill another world’s people and risk none of your own?”</i> Which is odd considering her people are supposedly all about protecting human life. If anything, i’d say a society that protects their people’s lives by using machines to fight a war is kind of smart.

<i>”Mechs aren’t afraid to die, because they aren’t even alive. They have no souls. The’re pure machines of death. Pure evil.” </i> Actually, one has to be sentient and have thoughts to be evil. Cars kill people all the time, too, and I don’t think my Toyota Camry is pure evil.

And this one is great: humans have destroyed the Earth because of greenhouse gasses and toxins from factories. But when visiting another planet, Abel shows how the industry on that planet is releasing greenhouse gasses on purpose to raise the temperature of the planet so it is more suitable to human inhabitation. <i>”Noemi had never considered that before, that one world’s poison might be another’s salvation.”</i> And I’m sure anything already alive and native to the planet and about to die out will thank the humans for destroying their flora and flauna so the humans have better weather conditions.

I started to have a hard time taking the book seriously. Abel, even though supposedly being an advance prototype model, never felt like a machine. Perhaps less time inside his ‘head’ would have been better and he would have felt more hate-worthy to Noemi if we only saw her perspective of him. But as it is, it feels like the usual YA romance complete with nearly perfect and handsome love interest frequently saving our supposedly strong heroine. Even when she comes to save him – she ends up getting saved of course. Cue lots of ponderings by Abel on “how can I defy my programming? How can I dream if I am an android?” And Noemi’s eiphanies: “if you have dreams, you’re human!” “You’re compassionate, you must have a soul!” etc. etc.

There is plenty of pointless adventure as Abel and Noemi must obtain certain items to achieve their goal of preventing the suicide run. And of course Abel is going to have to eventually run into his ‘father’ figure creator. That action will keep readers invested though a closer examination would reveal a hollow set of activities all working toward a deus ex machina sequence at the end. But as a YA romantic adventure, I’m sure many will be enthralled by our sexy android and heartfelt heroine. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Go Slow by Michael Owen

As a biography, Go Slow is an easy read that rarely gets bogged down or goes off on tangents. The author sticks to the chronological history with a focus on the recordings/films/tv roles rather than Julie London’s personal life. But the author is clearly a fan and as often happens, perhaps loses a bit of subjectivity in the process. There isn’t really anything negative to be found in the book about the singer/star and it feels like we are left on the outside looking in – never really getting any understanding of the singer/actress. The read was very disaffecting and felt more like an extensive Wikipedia entry than an in depth examination of someone who must have been more interesting than as presented here.

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The text flows smoothly and the author is very personable. From the sources, it appears Owen mostly talked with London’s confidants, relatives, and good friends. As such, nary an unkind word was to be found. I did find too many instances of hero worship: anything she touched he felt she turned to gold or it was a magnum opus (if that is possible). After while, anything she did was full of superlatives whether it succeeded or not (and if it didn’t, the failure was due to things outside of London’s control). There are hints only at the end of the book that drinking was a problem, she gambled excessively, and had a problematic relationship with her children – but that’s it. Maybe 1-2 sentences in the entire book hint at anything less than pleasant going on. Especially missing is her relationships with her two husbands, both of whom appeared to have a very complicated and very different relationship with London. The focus is clearly on London’s accolades and not London herself.

I do wish the author had taken the biography to a more in depth place. Julie was a private person and it is almost as if he is respecting that; but at the same time, why would I want to read a biography that reads more like a catalog of achievements? By the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like I knew her any better and so much of it was very forgettable because it was a bit bland. Nothing really scandalous or revealing, none of the problems with husbands or children, none of the reasons why she drank so much or why she felt the need to protect herself so much. There’s a lot of tell but little show -e.g., we’re told a lot that she was strong willed and stood up for herself, but never given any actual situations that demonstrated that trait. We have to take the author’s word for it.

Especially missing were details. A good example is the brief pages about the Emergency! years – there are no anecdotes from episodes, funny outtake examples, or anything about those 5 years other than that the paycheck was great and the cast liked to come over to her house. There’s no real insight by the biographer and that leaves the book feeling very flat. Most of the book is about her recordings and describing the songs on the many albums she recorded. We learn absolutely nothing about her children and her relationship with them.

So, although the book was clearly well researched, it has no flavor or personality. Somehow, Julie London comes off as being as boring as the book itself – and there’s nothing to remember her by other than the author’s glowing descriptions of her achievements. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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World Trigger 15 by Daisuke Ashihara

With World Trigger 15, we go fully into the Galapoula infiltration arc. This means new triggers, new battles, and new ways that our Border agents can distinguish themselves. Of course, the real reason to read is to see how Jin’s prediction from the last volume (Tachikawa will get chopped in half) comes true.

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Story: Galapoula has begun their stealth invasion. They have one target in mind: the Meeden away ship – and to ensure that Meeden can’t launch any incursions into Aftokrator. But Border has a secret weapon: Jin’s foresight. Now that the battle is small, he can more accurately predict the future. But even Jin isn’t omniscient as a certain young boy is about to surprise everyone by entering the fray.

The Galapoula arc is a nice contrast to the Aftokrator invasion arc. Instead of battles in a large scale, we have Border trying to keep the battle small and discreet so as not to alarm the populace. It could be dangerous, though, to not have all the participants there. Osamu and his squad, for example, aren’t seen in this volume since they are getting ready for the next rank battle.

As the Galapoula strengths are revealed, it makes for some great battles. Unlike Aftokrator and their ego-driven and aggressive style, Galapoula are stealth based and use strategy. They are also much more team oriented; you almost want to root for them. They use as few resources as possible to get the mission accomplished. Ashihara gives us some great characters with the infiltration unit and it is especially fun to see who of Galapoula will get paired up against whom in Border.

With Border having two fronts – melee at the base of the HQ (and inside) and then the snipers up above, there are some really interesting battles. In this volume, we get to see Nasu Squad’s strengths, very fun stuff with Ninomiya and Kako squad interactions (Inukai playing with Futaba’s ponytails is priceless!), Suwa taking charge(!) and especially the mysterious Amo and his unique abilities (Ashihara describes amo as a sad stray puppy).

This is a volume you want to take your time really checking out the images or you will miss important small details that lead up to a surprise action a few panels later. A pivot from Konami’s foot here or a ‘snick’ sound from Kazama there lead to some great twists. And as always, our upstanding knight Murakami to the rescue!

In previous volumes, we’ve pretty much only seen how teams work against other teams. With this volume, we see how the teams work together, either as a unit or singly, during the battles. It makes for some great synergies. I also love the humor – from Galapoula assuming Kazama is a kid to Ninomiya and Kako bickering like a married couple. Now, if only we get to finally see Kusakabe A04!

As of the time this review is written, World Trigger has been on hiatus in Japan due to health issues with the author. Since this is one of my favorite series, I hope we won’t have to wait too long after volume 18 marks the beginning of the hiatus.

Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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My Fairy Godmother Is A Drag Queen by David Clawson

Admittedly, I did not enjoy reading My Fairy Godmother Is A Drag Queen as much I had expected. While the dialogue is crisp, often quite funny, it was also unrealistic and none of the characters ever really felt fleshed out and full of nuances. As well, the Cinderella aspect was missing all the magic and warmth that made the source fairy tale so endearing. If anything, I felt like someone had binge watched every episode of RuPaul’s drag race and then tried to force a marriage between several of the characters in there and Cinderella. In the end, it just didn’t work for me.

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Story: Chris lives what should be a fairy tale life in Manhattan – prestigious family, gorgeous house, and he’s not bad looking himself. But his family is nearly out of money, his father committed suicide after the stockmarket crash, his social climbing stepmother loves her wine more than her family, Chris is single handedly keeping the family going now that there are no servants any more, and there is a push to marry his stepsister to the high society ‘big catch’ J.J. Kennerly. But a chance meeting on the street with a drag queen with connections allows him to attend the big society ball – and meet Kennerly in person. Turns out, it is love at first sight for the two boys. But how will these two ever get to be together when J.J. can’t come out of the closet and Chris is too anxious and unsure to go after what he wants?

First and foremost, I really disliked how the Cinderella theme was handled. The entire Cinderella story is only loosely used and mostly finished by 25% into the book. There’s no ‘search’ for the owner of the lost Ferragamo and Chris’ identity is never a secret. As well, we have a case of insta’sex as J.J., despite supposedly needing to be cautious, quickly moves in on Chris, blows hot, then backs away fast as the attention is returned. It goes from insta kiss to butt pinching, to insta tearing off clothes. There’s no time spent on emotional attachment, it is pure lust at sight for the boys and, while perhaps more modern, really begs the question of why bother with Cinderella in the first place?

Also problematic for me were the characters. Author Clawson does try to give us more than evil stepmother with idiot children. The stepmother is a pampered princess who has to deal with a reversal in fortune. The stepsister is a social climber but not without a conscience. The other sibling, the stepbrother, is a meathead jock who says whatever comes to his brain, without preamble. He ended up being the most entertaining as a result. There are some good observations on human nature but at the same time, I didn’t believe any of the characters at all. There was a serious lack of warmth and pathos of, e.g., a Becky Albertalli or Adam Silvera novel.

As for the plot – there were several things that really set the wrong flavor for me. J.J. Kennerly being so obviously modeled after John F. Kennedy Jr. was imprudent and a really poor choice. Yes, he was America’s ideal of a prince but I’d still rather have stayed in the fictional realm here without needing to use such an obvious reference to someone recently and tragically deceased. And drag queen Coco Chanel Jones was so perfectly an amalgamation of RuPaul Drag Race contestants that he ended up feeling ‘off’ – never a nuanced whole so much as a construct. Chris himself is all confused bundle of insecure hormones – more of a Marty Stu than a sweet character we want to follow.

The writing is dense and something you need to follow closely in order to get the ‘in jokes.’ It ended up being a chore after awhile and I had to keep going back to reread after missing key points in chunky paragraphs. A stream of consciousness approach did not really allow a reader to get deep into the character of Chris.

I know I’ve gone over the negatives quite a bit. On the plus side, the dialogue is very funny, laugh out loud “Oh snap!” at times. The author definitely knows his subject well. And this would probably make a funny movie if trimmed down quite a bit. Certainly, it wasn’t a terrible read even if I really had to press myself to finish it. I think the big factor, for me, was that it wasn’t magical or fun. It tried too hard to be sharp and au courant – at the expense of heart. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Water Dragon’s Bride by Rei Toma

Those who like Rei Toma’s other series, Dawn of the Arcana, will find many of the same themes here. Oppression, adults preying on children, helplessness, moments of kindness, ambivalence, pain, and callous torment/despair. Indeed, the overall theme here in this dark fantasy is even more oppressive than Dawn of the Arcana, which is saying quite a bit. But at the same time, so many conventions were ejected by author Toma to create a wholly unique story without the platitudes one would typically see in the shoujo genre.

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Story: Little girl Asahi is happily living with her family in the modern world – until the day she approaches a pond and is taken from the present to one resembling a feudal era Japan. Confused, scared, alone, she is found by a boy her age – Subaru. He brings her home to his village to protect her. But his mother sees an opportunity to use her as a sacrifice to the water dragon and ensure prosperity for the village. Saved by the water dragon god as a source of possible entertainment, Asahi is confusing to the god and he is unsure how to even keep her alive. Now a pawn of the gods of the realm, Asahi seeks to return to the village and eventually to her own home in modern Japan. But the villagers don’t take kindly to a sacrifice returning – and Subaru may not be able to save her from the villagers cruelty once again.

The recurring theme here is that humans are greedy and the gods are capricious. This is no heartwarming story of a god who falls in love with a mortal; Asahi is nearly starved to death and emotionally tormented by the gods who are unsure what to do with the mortal in their midst. Petty jealousies and rivalries among the gods makes this feel more like a Greek tragedy than a Japanese shoujo manga.

In the feudal era human world, motivations are purely for survival and then subsistence. Sacrificing a child for the ‘greater good of all the villagers’ is an acceptable act, of course. Subaru objects but is easily manipulated and gone around by his mother, the instigator of much of Asahi’s torment. An “if the witch burns she must be evil” type of scenario only adds to the ugliness of the scene.

The pain of being with ambivalent gods and cruel mortals definitely creates a pall that can make this title very hard to read. It’s one cruelty after another heaped on our young lead character and then Asahi’s utter confusion and even despair in understanding why her wonderful life was supplanted without warning.

Because of the very heavy themes, I have to admit I’ll probably not continue this series. The writing is excellent, the illustrations well done, and this is just as good as Dawn of the Arcana. But at the same time, I tend to read manga for adventure and as a feel-good experience. This is just a bit too harsh an indictment on life for me. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk

Simply Clean is a way to approach cleaning to make it easier and less frustrating. Author Rapinchuk zeroes in on the big problem with housecleaning: it’s easy to let it snowball until tasks become a day long episode of unfriendly burden. By breaking tasks down into 5-15 minutes a day, she creates a plan for keeping the house consistently clean but without becoming overwhelmed by the scope of it all. This also ensures that the home is always clean – rather than messy until the monumental weekend cleaning rage occurs.

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The book breaks down as follows: Part one delves into
the Simply Clean plan of breaking tasks down into small bits as well as the initial ‘big clean’ to get the house ready for the plan. Part Two is the 28 day challenge – with 4 weeks dedicated to different parts of the house (kitchen, living spaces, bathrooms, bedrooms). P:art Three is about customizing the plan for your particular lifestyle. Part Four gives tips for organizing, cleaning options, and decluttering.

The book is quite thorough on the subject and the author covers nearly all topics – from making your own cleaning solutions to how to wash window. Lifestyle changes include eg., a decluttering plan of attack (to make dusting easier) to organizing your socks and undies.

Because there is a clear plan in the 28 day period to get the house ready for easy cleaning for years afterwards, I feel this is a good book for those having trouble keeping their houses in shape. But for those who love the warmth and ‘hominesss’ of chochkis and clutter, they may find the spartan approach to keeping a home a bit anti-intuitive. That said, though, there are great tips in here that are well worth the read alone. The information is nicely presented, broken down in small chunks, with a friendly tone and easy to follow. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Shadow Run by by AdriAnne Strickland, Michael Miller

Shadow Run fits into the category of Romantic Sci Fi rather than Sci Fi with a touch of romance. Depending on your preferences, that distinction will become important since the focus really is on the romance rather than the sci fi aspects. But Shadow Run is a very enjoyable read that never feels insipid or overly melodramatic: a trap into which so many heavy romance sci fi fall.

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Story: Nev is undercover – trying to recruit Qole, a freighter captain with a secret, to help stabilize his family’s empire. But things will soon spiral out of control as his past soon endangers both. Getting her trust will be the least of their problems, however, as Qole becomes a hot property in the galaxy – and wanted dead rather than alive.

As noted, this is very much a romance. The cliches are there: main female character is a ‘speshul snowflake’, gets kidnapped and needs to be rescued multiple times, thinks about the guy all the time instead of her mission/reality/danger, love interest guy is a ‘prince’/in touch with his feelings/thinks about how beautiful the girl is all the time, lots of characters sniffing each other and thinking how nice they smell, one or another character walking in and finding the other underdressed and thinking how sexy they are, characters with supposed tough pasts but very well adjusted, black and white evil and good characters, a ball where our heroine gets to wear a fancy dress and dance with the ‘prince’, etc. etc. I like romance in my books as much as the next person but I also prefer to avoid so many of the cliches. Especially that our supposedly ‘tough’ female character is continually rescued/saved by the guy. But there are also some frustrating sci fi/adventure cliches as well: the ship’s crew being full of people with perfect abilities to push plot points: ultra talented hacker, super-navigator, super skilled pilot, mysterious person with amazing connections, etc. etc. So those are the downsides that keep this from being a 5-star read.

Ultimately, what is most rewarding about Shadow Run is that these are characters that you want to root for as they go through their trials. It lacks the grittiness of a Firefly since the character alignments are blatantly obvious and twists are well telegraphed. But we don’t have the endless amounts of plasma weapon descriptions and space technical terms to slog through either, which is a relief. So while this is not as strong as a Tanja Huff or Jack Campbell book, I’d say it is definitely on par with a Linnea Sinclair. There’s a nice mix of conflict and adventure vs the romance.

Shadow Run is a fairly quick read that doesn’t bog down anywhere and with good pacing. It has a definite arc in this first book in the series and ends on a satisfying note while also leaving enough intrigue to look forward to the next book in the series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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