Book Review – The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

An Orthodox Jew’s review: It’s not every book that I’ll stay up to 3 am on Shabbos just to finish it. Helene Wecker’s The Hidden Palace, despite being a direct sequel, is a different sort of book than The Golem and the Jinni–but that isn’t a bad thing. It focuses on a longer period of time, but it still has all the characters you love, and the prose is still so gorgeous yet fun and easy to read, I’d read it even if I didn’t care for the plot. And I do like the plot–yes, it can seem a little simplistic at times, and it could be argued that it relies too much on coincidence, but for me, the story just jelled really well. Besides, coincidence in stories like these feel more like the hand of G-d pushing things along, l’havdil like Megilas Esther, which is full of coincidences, until the end where everything ties together and it was all meant to be. Yeah, some folks may not like that in their storytelling, but here it really worked. It probably helped that I loved the characters, I loved the writing, and I loved how all the separate threads masterfully wove together to create a cohesive story.

My only real gripes were minor nitpicks, specifically regarding one character, who despite clearly being ashkenazi is learning Hebrew from her father with a sfardi pronunciation, when she’s reading what is clearly supposed to be gemara, she refers to it as Hebrew when it is actually Aramaic, and despite being uncompromising in her orthodox judaism, writes on Shabbos several times and doesn’t ever mention that it’s something she shouldn’t be doing, or rationalizing it. Oh, and there’s a scene where *spoilers* a character mentions the Golem of Prague, and how accoridng to some stories it went on a rampage, so he names his golem after a reletive of his who was very calm–and names the golem Yossele, which was the very name of the Golem of Prague–you’d think he’d know that, right? *end of spoilers*

Clearly though, these are minor nitpicks that unless you are an orthodox jew yourself, you probably won’t pick up on. As a whole though, this book is fantastic. Is it perfect? No–no book is. But it’s about as close as a perfect book could be, for me anyway. Jewish folklore, major historical events, magic, compelling characters, and a focus on storytelling that reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. This book is timeless, and anyone who picked up the first book would be doing themselves a disservice if they missed out on this one. I’m eagerly awaiting the third.


Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

516lvwmprbl-_sx303_bo1204203200_It’s no secret that Brandon Sanderson is a master of his craft, and The Stormlight Archive is his magnum opus. At first glance, the books are intimidating — with each one a 1000+ page brick. But don’t let that stop you. You’d be missing out on a fantasy series that rivals, and in many ways surpasses, A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones).

When I started to read the first book in the series, The Way of Kings, I was immediately turned off. The book begins with a prologue that in all honesty has no business being there. Half the words are made up, you have no idea what’s going on, and it doesn’t give you any information you don’t learn later on. I think including it was a huge misstep. Luckily, the book really picks up after that. The book focuses on several different characters, though it mostly spends time on three: Kaladin, a lowly former soldier, Dalinar, the king’s uncle, and Shallan, a girl from a lower, unimportant house. There’s politics, action, magic (with clearly defined rules),  deception, everything a fan of fantasy could want. Not everyone’s story is as interesting as you’d like, but there’s something there for everyone. (And Shallan’s story, which is arguably the most boring, really picks up toward the end of the book, and she’s given the most interesting story in the next one.)

What makes this book stand out compared to the other fantasy books out there is the world. Sanderson builds a world unlike anything I’ve ever read. This isn’t a world inspired by Tolkin (and that in and of itself is a rarity in the fantasy genre). The inhabitants, the societal norms, religions, money, animals, even plants and physics, all of it seems utterly alien and original. And yet (with the exception of the prologue) it is never unfolded too slow or too fast. You can’t help but become enamored with the world he created.

In short, The Way of Kings is not only an immensely entertaining book, but one of the most creative fantasy books I’ve ever read. If you like fantasy, check it out. Just be prepared to carve out a ridicules amount of time to finish each book, and then wait years for the next one. (Maybe the Song of Ice and Fire comparison is more accurate than I realized.)

My Favorite Comics (Part One): Superman Edition

In honor of Batman 5 Superman coming out this month (which, if Man of Steel is any indication, will be awful), I’ve decided to share my favorite Batman and Superman comics with you. This list will cover my favorite Superman comics, with my favorite Batman comics coming in another post.

41hajjckawl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Superman: Secret Identity
This is one of my favorite comics ever. It’s a comic anyone can pick up with no knowledge of Superman at all. It’s technically not even about Superman, but rather some guy named Clark Kent living in a world where Superman comics exist, and he’s often mocked for his name. The twist is, he actually has super-powers. This is not a superhero story, however. There’s no villain. It’s simply a story about life and growing up. The story starts with young Clark still in high school, and goes through romance, marriage  kids, and eventually grandkids  Its a beautiful, touching story. If you’ll only read one Superman comic book, this should be it.

“Maybe I had a ‘secret identity,’ but then when you think about it, don’t we all? A part of ourselves very few people ever get to see. The part we think of as ‘me.’ The part that deals with the big stuff. Makes the real choices. The part everything else is a reflection of.” — Clark Kent

51kvincrz9l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Superman: Red Sun
An Elseworlds tale, asking what if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. It’s a fun story with an amazingly clever ending. Its interesting to see Superman as the villain, plus Russian Batman is totally awesome. Oh, and commie Superman is STILL a better Superman than Man of Steel’s.

51og2bkd9kkl-_sx301_bo1204203200_Superman: Birthright
My favorite re-telling of the origin of Superman. This is everything Man of Steel should have been. Instead we got a murderous Superman who didn’t care about saving lives, ruined someone’s livelihood for insulting him, and likes to make out with women he just met when human ash is raining down all around him. Idiots.

51aj58tawbl-_sx318_bo1204203200_All-Star Superman
This comic by Grant Morrison is about Superman’s end. It’s something of a possible ending to the pre-Crisis Superman comics (the more outlandish Superman comics that came out pre-1985). It’s a touching story about Superman being tricked by Lex Luthor and succumbing to what’s basically some sort of ‘super-cancer’ and follows the last few months of Superman’s life, and how he lives knowing his end is near. An animated movie of the same name exists as well. It it’s good, but not as good as the comic.

61o7orlbv3l-_sx353_bo1204203200_The Death/Funeral/Return of Superman
These were some of the first comics I read, and its responsible for getting me into comics. While continuity heavy, it’s definitely worth a read. It’s about the time Superman died (as opposed to the time he made us all feel dead inside *coughmanofsteelcough*). An animated version of this movie exists as well, titled Superman: Doomsday. It isn’t as good, but still watchable. About halfway through it goes off in a totally different direction.

51uhk9qemll-_sx323_bo1204203200_Superman/Batman: Volume 1: Public Enemies & Supergirl
A fun couple of stories where Batman and Superman team up, one of which is also the origin of Supergirl. It’s really enjoyable because of the contrast in the two characters personalities. (How they’ll pull off a cross-over in Batman 5 Superman, with both of them being brooding, dark, angst-machines and still make it compelling, I don’t know.) Both Public Enemies and Supergirl have been turned into animated movies, titles Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Public Enemies is actually slightly better than the comic it’s adapted from, but Apocalypse pales in comparison.


This is far from a completed list, but it’s enough for now. Do you have any favorite Superman comics?

Indie Review: The Secret Circle of Imaginary Friends

51f-rqiw0pl-_sx310_bo1204203200_Mike Jeavons’ The Secret Circle of Imaginary Friends is an interesting children’s book, which I found reminiscent of Goosebumps, with a slight twist of Roald Dahl.

It follows a young boy named Simon, who, after hearing his little sister talking to her imaginary friends, discovers that they aren’t imaginary at all. He joins the ‘secret circle,’ a group of children who know about the imaginary friends, but he soon comes to realize there’s more to the circle than he first thought. Bad things happen to people who try to leave the circle, and the imaginary friends may not be as friendly as they seem.

The book was suitably creepy, with great atmosphere. At the same time, it very much feels like a kids book. It gets dark, but never too dark. Some twists may be predictable, but it’s still done so well that you can’t help but enjoy the ride. The only thing that really bothered me story-wise, was the fact that then ending seemed a little sudden and rushed. I think the book could have used another dozen pages or so, for pacing’s sake.

The writing style, as well as the format and spelling was a little off putting at first, though that could be because it was written in British English. It didn’t take long to get used to though, so I’m not going to take off any points for that.

All in all, this is a fine book to give a pre-teen (or pre-teen at heart) who likes scary stories. It is genuinely creepy, the ending is fun, and it’s fully appropriate for children, without too much blood or realistic violence. If this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend you check it out.

Indie Review: Catalyza – Book 1: Origins

51kcqoxbp1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Oh, boy. Here we go, I guess.

Tom Wright’s Catalyza – Book 1: Origins is a deeply flawed novella. It just does so much wrong. I don’t even know why the book is called Catalyza. The word isn’t even mentioned once.

The author is obviously obsessed with race. Aisha, the main character, it black. If you forget this, don’t worry, because it’s mentioned or referenced on every page. Every person in the book is described by their skin color. And the character is obsessed with going to a black church (and won’t go to a white church), making black friends, joining black social clubs (and won’t join clubs that are ‘too white’), sitting next to black students in class, not going to white parties, and avoiding white policemen because they’re all racist. Oh, and this was written by a white guy (which actually makes sense. I can’t imagine a black person is that obsessed with race. I mean, I’m Jewish. Very Jewish. I stand out in a crowd. I wear a yarmulke in public, and have gotten my share antisemitic remarks as a result. Yet I don’t go around thinking ‘Jew,Jew,Jew, oh, are they Jewish? oh, a Christian group, I’ll avoid them. Jew,Jew,Jew.’ I’m a person, plain and simple. And I’m sure African Americans or Muslims feel the same way). This book seems obsessed with race in only the way that someone who isn’t part of that of that group can be.

But I could be forgiving of that little quirk if everything else was good. It’s not. There’s also so much minutia here. Conversations and scenes that go nowhere. Its frustrating. I don’t want to read four paragraphs of how many movies you watched before bed, or a page of exchanging pleasantries with people over the phone!

As for the plot, it follows a girl, Aisha, through her first few days in college. She goes to church, gets involved in a protest, gets superpowers, saves someone from an accident she caused, and goes to a party when she and her friend almost gets date raped (at which point she endangers their lives and plants false evidence to frame them when calling the police doesn’t work. Naturally the potential date rapists are white guys, who she was initially distrustful of because they were white). That’s the whole story, basically. It ends with a teaser that our hero still plans on taking down a corrupt police officer. <sarcasm>Because having the power to essentially control time means that such a task will be a huge challenge.</sarcasm> Also worth mentioning, during the story, she reveals her powers, which she just discovered hours before, to her professor whom she barely knows (she only met once, the day prior). Not the brightest of people, I suppose.


A couple of panels from Milestone’s Icon

I’m not saying this story doesn’t deal with important issues. It just deals it poorly. There are much better ways to go about it, where you don’t cause your audience to eyeroll or feel like they’re being preached to. Look at one of my favorite comic books, Icon, for example. It deals with race, tensions between African Americans and cops, even abortion, and its all done in a non-hamfisted way. It makes the reader think about the issues without making them realize it, while feeling just like an average (or really good) superhero comic. This story feels like the reader is being hit over the head with a mallet of the author’s personal propaganda.

So yes, this was a bad book. The worst one I’ve reviewed thus far. In a way though, I’m morbidly curious about the next book in the series. Like watching a plane crash, it may be horrible, but I just can’t look away.

I’m obviously not going to be posting this review to Amazon or Goodreads, as I don’t believe there’s a reason to ever post any review two stars or less on an indie book (unless it’s purposefully offensive or meant to rip people off). But it crossed my mind.

Indie Review: Indomitable

51-wlfbaxkl-_sx384_bo1204203200_J.B. Garner’s Indomitable – The Push Chronicles: Book 1, is a superhero story unlike any superhero story I’ve ever read before. That’s because it just doesn’t feel like a superhero story. It feels closer to sci-fi if anything.

Indomitable follows Irene Roman, a scientist who witnesses the birth of a new reality: A world of superheroes. She takes it upon herself to try an return reality back to the way it was. Saying anything more would spoil the book, I think, but it seems heavily inspired by my favorite issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (issue #18, I think), A Dream of a Thousand Cats.

The novel plays with a lot of classic comic book tropes, such as monologue, with the main character being the only one aware of whats going on. It was very cleverly done, especially having the POV character being aware of the reality and tropes, but because she’s not a huge comic book fan (she doesn’t even like the things), she avoids coming across as smug.

Something I found interesting was that there is no true villain, which is quite a rarity for a story like this. Oh, sure, there are characters who are jerks or mentally ill, but no one comes across as evil. Sure, there’s mention of an evil mastermind pulling strings from behind the scenes, but he has almost no presence in the story and seems like almost an afterthought, although I’m sure he shows up in the sequel. Speaking of the sequel, one thing that felt a little off putting about the book seemed to be the build up to a specific ending without the payoff. I have a feeling that was intentional though, given the last line. The ending subverted the expectations of a superhero origin story, which is something I really enjoyed.

I did find it annoying, however, that the author commonly employed words that, to me at least, came across a little too pretentious,  like he was trying to show off or enjoyed abusing the thesaurus, usually using ten dollar words when a fifty cent word would’ve done the job. He also often chose awkward sounding choices when it came to the phrasing of his sentences (although they were grammatically correct). I do know that the author just recently come out with a new edition of the novel wherein it was reedited, so its possible those issues are now fixed.

All in all, it certainly wasn’t what I expected, but I’m glad I read it. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or superheroes, give it a read. It’s a superhero book for folks that aren’t necessarily big on superhero stories. It isn’t what it appears at first glance, but that’s not a bad thing.

Indie Review – Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins

51cxfkvjcyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Michael C. Bailey’s Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins, is a ridiculously fun superhero novel. It follows Carrie Hauser, a teenage girl who recently gain superpowers, as she deals with her parents divorce, tries to start a superhero team with her friends, deals with veteran superheroes who don’t seem to like her very much, and of course fight supervillains and a shadowy evil organization. I know it sounds very paint-by-the-numbers, but it really isn’t.

This book fixes all the issues I had with Earthman Jack. This guy gets how teenagers talk. It feels real. More impressive to me was just how well he captured the voice of a teenage girl. I legitimately would not have been able to tell it was a man who wrote this. Throughout the story, nearly every character is fleshed out. You really get to know not just Carrie, but her friends, her parents, her friends parents, the other superheroes, etc. They all feel like people, and you can’t help but feel like you have to turn the next page just to get the chance to know them better, which is more than I can say for most books.

While the characterization is flawless, the plot is rather episodic. It mostly ties together in the end though, but rather than seem like a big story, it seems like a lot of smaller ones. Personally, I like this approach, especially to a superhero story which by its nature is episodic. And don’t worry about a cliffhanger ending or anything. There’s a little teaser at the end, but otherwise its basically a complete story.

Something this book does that I found pretty distracting was that it switched from first person to third person mid-chapter. It was confusing at first, but I eventually got used to it, and at least there was a break within the chapter to indicate a different point of view. I understand the decision behind this. The first person narrative makes the reader feel as though they’re in Carrie’s head, and the author didn’t want to lose that. At the same time, there are other things going on that the main character isn’t privy too that is necessary to move the story along. It is a strange, jarring choice, and it wouldn’t have been the one I would’ve made, but at the same time, I understand it. I’d have been much happier though, if it had been done by having a chapter break, with the new form of narration taking place in a new chapter entirely, or use a few different POVs to tell the other parts of the story. In the writer’s defense, however, while it was pretty jarring at first, eventually I got used to the switching between first and third person. I just wish it was handled better.

All in all, despite my issue with the switching between writing styles mid-chapter, this book is by far the best of the indie books I’ve reviewed thus far. The story was fun and engaging, the characters felt real, and the prose itself was very well done. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you like superheroes or even just a good teen drama, check this book out. You won’t regret it.

Indie Review – The First Ark

51rmnfzpodl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Ah, how to describe this one? Chris Fox’s The First Ark is an… interesting novella. It’s certainly creative. However, it makes a vital mistake. It isn’t a full story.

It takes place in a time before written history, during an ice age. The main character is Isis, a shaman of an ancient human tribe. It is implied that this is the same Isis as the Egyptian god, and the other characters from the story seem to share the same names as other Egyptian gods. It comes across essentially as an origin story for this pantheon, but with a sci-fi twist. It is, unfortunately, incomplete. I understand that it is a prequel novella, meant to lead into a series a books. But being a prequel novella is no excuse for being incomplete. If you’re offering something as a book, novella, or short story, it shouldn’t feel as though it stopped in the middle. Sure, Meta and Earthman Jack had small teases of what’s to come, but they felt like complete stories. This one did not.

It was well written and interesting. And at the end of the day, it was still good enough for me to ultimately decide to pick up the first book in the series, but only because it was free. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have picked it up. Let this be a note for aspiring writers: writing a short story or novella is a great idea to give folks a taste of what you have to offer, but please leave them satisfied with an ending.

Indie Review: Earthman Jack vs. The Ghost Planet

51gv9hmqcjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Matthew Kadish’s Earthman Jack vs. The Ghost Planet is certainly an ambitious book. For a younger-skewing YA novel, its ridiculously long. Possibly too long, but I’ll get to that later. It follows Jack Finnegan, an average teenager, who stumbles into an interstellar adventure. While I won’t summarize the plot for risk of spoiling it, I will say that it has space battles, alien invasions, a princess to save, and ancient order of knights, Michael Chrichtonesque ‘science,’ pirates, robots, basically everything a young teenager would be into. And the book mixes all these diverse ideas excellently. Every one of the characters, and there are a whole lot of them, has a fully realized personality. The plot, while it has shades of Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, still feels fresh. The narrator is also quite funny, and seems reminiscent of Lemony Snicket at times. Another thing I really liked about it was during a point where Jack loses something important to him, he actually morns, something you usually don’t see in a YA novel (which usually jump right to anger and revenge). It was a nice realistic touch. As a whole, this is a fun YA novel, with a lot going for it.

My biggest issue is probably the dialogue, specifically Jack’s dialogue. At times, it sounds very real and genuine. Other times, it sounds like an older person trying to write what he imagines kids sound like. It can be very unnerving, and took me out of the story more than once. Another thing I found a little annoying is that it seemed just a little too long, purely because of meandering description or pointless dialogue or detours. It could have been a good 10% shorter without losing anything important.

Ending this review on a positive note, this is probably the first book since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where I actually bought the second book before I even finished reading the first. To put it simply, it is just a good, fun, enjoyable book. If you like science fiction or young adult fiction, check it out.


Short Story Review – The Bottle Imp

Robert Louis Stevenson is probably best known for Treasure Island  (which gave us a fantastic Muppet movie) and  Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (which was a brilliant mystery that’s marred by the twist ending undoubtedly being spoiled before you read it). However, my favorite work of his is a short story, The Bottle Imp.

The Bottle Imp follows Keawe, a Hawaiian (not an American, as it was written before Hawaii became a state, and was still called the Kingdom of Hawaii), who buys a bottle from an old man, who tells him the bottle can grant any desire. There’s a catch, of course. If the bottle is in someone’s possession when that person dies, then that person’s soul will spend eternity in hell. There are also rules surrounding the bottle, such as how exactly it can be sold (it must be sold at a loss, which means inevitably, someone will be stuck with it) and the way the wishes are granted are reminiscent of the Monkey’s Paw. It is an unholy object, after all.

The story is written almost like a fairy tale, and has  all these great twists and turns. They even tie in historical events and figures. The best way to describe it would be clever. It’s just a fun, clever story. Not to mention it has a fantastic ending, which probably ranks as one of my favorite ending to a short story ever. If you have the time, you really should check this one out.