Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book Review: Jack, by Al Lamanda

It was a humid day in Northern Virginia when I picked up Jack, by Al Lamanda. The loving description of the weather in my hometown—“It was one of those rare summer days in Virginia when the temperature was moderate”—told me I was reading a book by someone who knew the area well. But it was the fast-paced, suspenseful story that told me I was reading a book by someone who knew how to spin a story. Reminiscent of a Steven King novel mixed with a spy thriller, Jack will keep you turning pages until the final shocking twist.
Despite the cover art, there are no creepy green pointy things in the book. I think

            We meet Jack and Jennifer Grant right off the bat. Jennifer lives with her son and six Secret Service agents. Why? Her son, Jack, is a psychic of immense power. Jack has the ability to transfer information from one person’s brain to another’s. The government uses him to keep the memories of brilliant scientists alive. But growing up in secrecy, Jack has no chance of a normal childhood—and it’s his mother’s greatest dream to provide that for him.

            Enter Secret Service agent Ryan Dunn. Dunn’s a talented operative with years of experience who loves his trusty Glock. When he’s assigned temporarily to Jack’s security detail, he takes it upon himself to reinforce the kid’s defenses with bulletproof shields made from phone books. Throughout the book, he whips up all sorts of makeshift weapons, from bulletproof vests to bombs, using everyday materials. He’s a good shot and willingly kills in Jack and Jennifer’s protection.  But he also becomes a father figure to young Jack. Their bonding over chess games comes across as one of the most touching moments of the book.

 In many other books, kids with psychic powers are portrayed as creepy. Here, the reader sees Jack as just another kid. And when Agent Dunn whisks Jack and Jennifer on a long-distance trip to hide from their pursuers, we see real family bonds forming between them even as Dunn struggles to uncover a leak in the Service itself. Part of what makes this story so compelling is the touch of realism. We have all the elements of a gritty spy novel included in the same universe as powerful psychic children, yet they blend together in a way that doesn’t feel forced at all.

As much as the protagonists drive the story, the antagonist drags it down. Roman, a Russian mafia boss, is both two-dimensional and feels like he was added as an afterthought. His senselessly evil past includes ordering Dunn’s wife and daughter beat to death with lead pipes, and it’s never quite clear what he wants with Jack. Much better antagonists are the shady government agents struggling to control young Jack, the doctors who run countless tests on him, even Jack’s struggles with controlling his powers and the temptations of his own personal ‘dark side’.

High points: The relationship between Jack and Dunn. This makes both characters sympathetic and easy to root for. Suspense. The audience sees threats to Jack—and because of the sympathy we have towards him, we want him to be safe. Jennifer’s attitude. Loved one scene where she walks around naked to make the agents around her feel uncomfortable. Jennifer and Dunn’s romance. You really want these two to be happy. Dunn’s search for the leak. I thought I had it figured out all along, but I was totally wrong. The idea of transferring memories. Very interesting from a sci-fi point of view and military considerations. Dunn’s impromptu weapons. This guy can whip up spy gear from tin cans and duct tape.

Low points: The twist ending. It feels certainly plausible, but a little more foreshadowing would make it even more powerful. The action sequences. Some fight scenes read like a laundry list of who punched whom. The reveal of Dunn’s past. It motivates his vengeance against the Russian mafia, but we never really see him grieving over his losses. Racial profiling. There’s one scene where a man is arrested as an Iranian spy when Jack reveals Persian is his first language.

Did I like this book? Yes. Would I read it again? Probably. Would I recommend it to people who like sci-fi spy thrillers? Yes. It’s a great story with a few loose ends, and from what I’ve seen of the writer’s skill, those ends could easily be fixed. My rating? In the sci-fi spy genre, I’ll give it four and a half stars out of five. As a novel? Four.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can download Jack here

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Family Dinner

So last night, my family decided to hit up RTC for some fine dining at Uncle Julio's.

With mints like these, it has to be a pretty classy joint.
It's this big, loud, obnoxious Mexican place that I'd walked past thousands of times but never set foot in, for some reason. Tonight, I learned the reason it that it's a big, loud, obnoxious Mexican place.

The real trouble started when the margaritas arrived. Seeing the value in being a cultured, educated individual, I asked my mom how exactly margaritas were made.

Me: Mom, how do you make a margarita??

Mom: Tequila.

Then she started explaining the whole history of tequila, including the traditional method of taking tequila shots. Apparently, you put salt on your wrist, lick it off, take the shot, and stick a lime in your mouth. Although at first this appeared to be a tradition only at Kutztown University frat houses, this is actually a real thing, at least as far as the internet is concerned.

So my sister gets bored. Dad takes all the sugar packets out of the packet holder thingie and starts a competition to see who can build the tallest tower. At first, it appears to be a creative way to cheer up my sister and keep the dinner happy. Then he starts winning.

I should mention that we're all yelling at the top of our lungs.

Food comes. This tends to calm things down, as we can't really scream at each other with food in our mouths. Life becomes simpler, a matter of guac and pico, homemade tortillas. It's nice. Then my sister starts giggling.

Sister: Stick your hand under the table, Dad. Feel this.

Dad: Ew! Gross!

At this point, she turns to me and repeats her demand. I tell her she's nuts. Something disguising is rubbed against my leg. I politely inform my sister that she is a horrible child.

Sister: At least I use deodorant.

Me: At least I don't pee in the swimming pool.

Sister: You know I pee in the hot tub, right?

My jaw drops. That hot tub is my favorite reading spot in the whole house. I spend hours in there. Dad rushes to inform me that pee isn't bad for you, just full of chemicals like ammonia and uric acid. That's when I loose it.

Me: There's no uric acid in human pee! That's urea, dad. Sheesh, you're paying enough for my college education, I should at least be able to tell the difference.

Pictured: a place my family is no longer permitted.
 Dad: Jeez, you don't need to know all this biology stuff. We all know you're going to be a policy lawyer.

Me: Dad, if I'm going to work in Washington, it'll help to know something about crap.

Sister: Haven't you learned enough from your dates?

Oh, yeah, and we're all YELLING at the top of our LUNGS.

So now, three fajitas heavier and with three more reasons to wish I was an only child, I better hit the sac. After all, I've got to drain the hot tub tomorrow. And wash it out with bleach.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

STOP! It's vegan time

As some of you may know, one of my best friends happens to be a vegan. Tomorrow is her birthday, so I'm making her muffins as a present. This is very exiting, since I haven't been allowed to bake since The Tapioca Incident last fall.

I'm not vegan. She knows that. What she doesn't know is that I'm not just following a recipe--I'm improvising. I'm doing something new. Heck, every time I follow a recipe, it blows up in my face (that's The Tapioca Incident again).

Step one: Gather ingredients. I'm missing baking soda, white vinegar, and one and a half lemons. Proceed to Google substitute ingredients and dig around in refrigerator some more

Step two: Pre-heat oven. I don't screw this up at all.

Step three: Cut up fruit. Google zest a lemon.

Step four: Mix ingredients. Bake. Blog while waiting for muffins to cook. Eat leftover batter. Love vegan baking. Love batter.

Step five: Post pic.

As you can see, they actually manage to look like muffins! Now comes the big test . . . taste.

Hey! It worked!

Happy Birthday, Taylor!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: Illicit Magic, by Camilla Chafer

If you enjoyed recent best-seller A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, you’ll probably enjoy Illicit Magic, by Camilla Chafer. If you didn’t enjoy Discovery . . . well, I’ll get to that. A clear protagonist with a strong voice creates a sense of connection and flow throughout the story, spiced up by threatening antagonists and numerous secrets, while a mildly static romance and dragging middle tend to make one skim ahead. Illicit Magic builds an intriguing world. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see as much of it as I would have liked.

Stella Mayweather—which translates to Star of Spring Weather—comes off as a likeable, smart protagonist. Although she claims no one likes her because she is ‘weird’, all we see is a normal, lonely young woman. Though orphaned at a young age, she’s no Harry Potter. In fact, as someone who has read pretty much all the popular fantasy written in the past ten years, I can’t really put my finger on who Stella reminds me of. She’s independent without being off-putting, young without being immature, and smart without being overbearing. In fact, I can’t think of a single flaw Stella possesses.

That may or may not be a good thing.

Onto the plot. We first meet Stella in London, where a pack of witch-hunters known as the Brotherhood are, well, hunting witches. As they firebomb her apartment (these ain’t yo mama’s witch hunters), the stylish √Čtoile Winterstorm (Star of Winter Weather) materializes and whisks Stella away to New York in the nick of time. Here, Stella meets Robert and Eleanor Bartholomew, whose names have no meaning and who lead the powerful Witches Council. Their son, Marc, who has no magic of his own, comes across as a sad supporting character struggling to find his place in the world. He and Stella quickly bond.

At a meeting of the Witches Council, we learn that Stella is the “last of the English witches”. This line made me shiver (and I was sitting in my hot tub when I read it, too). For a group of thugs up against supernatural beings, the Brotherhood is pretty effective—and even more so when they (or somebody) stages an attack on the Council meeting. The target is unknown, but the Council decides it’s best to ship Stella off to a safe house where she can learn to use her magic while protected from the Brotherhood. Oh, and Marc kisses her.

So we have this great set-up: young woman being chased by serial killers and other unknowns across the globe for no apparent reason, falling for a man who can’t protect her at all. Unfortunately, then we get to this safe house—which is so safe nothing really happens there until the end.

Stella spends a great deal of this section of the book mooning over Evan, her handsome as hell teacher of magic. Evan is tall, muscular, handsome, single, and powerful. He and Stella have a lot in common. Neither of them have flaws. When Stella finally gives him her V-card, the sex is so perfectly wonderful I wanted Evan to fart or something, just to make him seem human (which—spoiler—he isn’t). Stella plays volleyball on the beach, makes a bunch of good friends, and finds an amazing  boyfriend. While that’s great in real life, it doesn’t work so well in literature. The conflict from before is gone. I found myself skimming pages.

The book ends with a sharp, intriguing twist—I won’t give it away, but it’s good. The middle of the book could have been used a lot more to build up to the end. Mysteries abound: Who is the Brotherhood? What do they want? What happened to Stella’s parents? What is Evan? Why doesn’t Marc have magic? Where’s √Čtoile’s missing sister? I wished Stella had been sitting in the driver’s seat, searching for answers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember which side of the road Americans drive on and got in the wrong door.

High points: The clearly established antagonist. The Brotherhood’s a creepy group, which I wish we’d seen more of. The voice. Stella’s got a clear handle on her side of the story. The mystery. I really did want to have my questions answers. The clear ending. It felt like most major threads had been resolved, with a nice twist. Marc’s character. You have to feel sorry for the poor guy.

Low points: Stella’s relationship with Evan. There’s no conflict here. Action scenes. During one dramatic fight scene, while under attack from a clear enemy, one secondary character pauses to tell the entire backstory of another secondary character. The sex. There was nothing unique about it.

Did I like this book? Eh. Would I read it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it to the target demographic (women who like light fantasy and romance)? Yeah. It’s not a bad story. It just needs more conflict in the middle. Conflict the readers care about. My rating? In the adult light fantasy/romance category, I’d give it four stars out of five. As a novel? Three and a half.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Course Registration

Okay. So. I think I need to take a language. And PE. Ooh, I get AP credit for computer science. GridWorld was actually useful for something! No credit for Human Geography? How could they? That course teaches kids all about useful stuff like . . . the capital of Bosnia? The location of the Andes? How to interpret a topographical map?

What does that class teach? Okay, skip it.

Calculus . . . eight credits. Ick, I have to take Multivar again? Guess I’ll have to see if it’s possible to be even lazier in a math class this time around. I already slept through second-order differentials and skipped the day we did vector fields.

On second thought, retaking it is probably a good idea. Add MATH 2130.

Oh, I get to place out of GOVT 1111.  Add GOVT 1817. Does placement out of mean I get credit for it or that I don’t have to take it? APUSH counts. I get to get out of PHYS 1112, 2207, and 2213.

They offer AP Turkish? And I get NOTHING for Bio?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Treason (Wolf Prints), by Kimberlee Long

Christian werewolf fiction is an under-appreciated genre, especially in the YA area. If there’s a reason for that, the fault doesn’t lie with the first volume of the Wolf Prints series. Keen attention to detail and strong supporting characters build strong, believable dynamics . . . while a less than original lead actor leaves the book lacking a little fire. Christian fantasy is all about walking the fine line between boring and blasphemy, and this story walks it well. This book exemplifies the nuances of that genre, yet still plays it safe.

            The town of Titusville, Florida, brims with detail. Even from the start, readers are treated to descriptions of the town’s “ceramic alligators, UCF banners, and pro-military bumper stickers”. We meet our lead: the dreamy, mysterious Drake Everacre, a name which roughly translated means ‘Dragon of Endless Land’. As male fantasy leads go, he’s got all the wit of Jace Daddyissues from The Mortal Instruments and all the breaking and entering charm of Edward ‘Stalker’ Cullen of Twilight fame. More interesting are Drake’s male foils: Cody, his dimwitted old friend from the wrong side of the tracks, and Steven, a devout Christian struggling to keep Drake’s destructive impulses in check. As the story progresses, we see Drake isn’t just any old asshole—the author is careful to step back and provide other points of view on his actions. He might still be a hero, but he’s not one we’re told to blindly approve of.

            Drake’s come to Titusville to protect it from evil shapeshifters. The lack of these creatures in the narrative slows things down a little, as we’re left without a clear antagonist save the bitchy cheerleaders, lurking like alligators in the swamps. These girls have nothing better to do than plot ways to humiliate the poor Sophia Salina Salgada-Sanchez, whose name made me smile (in a good way). As an albino Latina, Sophia’s got problems everywhere she goes. The dynamics of her large, energetic family bring a touch of realism and warmth to the book, especially in the form of her loving father, who bakes his daughter giant cakes on her birthday and trades his car for a boat so the whole family can go out on the water. Sophia’s struggles with her classmates, however, have a more conventional and two-dimensional feel to them. As a recent high school graduate myself, I know that some of the pranks the ‘popular crowd’ pulls on poor Sophia would get them expelled and barred from colleges.

            High points: the supporting characters: dim Cody, devout Steven, ditzy Elly. They really add power to the story. Sophia’s story. It’s a coming of age story in a town with secrets. The mystery surrounding Drake’s identity. You want to know who this guy is, even if it’s for the sake of everyone else in town and not necessarily him. Christian elements. Steven’s faith and Elly’s struggles ring clearer than almost anything else in this story.

            Low points: Drake’s obsession with Sophia. This reads like Twilight and isn’t very convincing. The cheerleaders. Some of the nicest girls I knew in high school were cheerleaders. Sophia’s black cousin, Trey. From the moment he’s introduced, phrases like “they is to be respected” and “my other black brothers” fly off the page (as well as multiple mentions of his mother’s fried chicken). Lack of a clear antagonist. Save for a creepy woman trying to lure Sophia on a boat, there is none. Grammar. The word High School grates on my eyes—not a proper noun. Cliffhanger ending. None of the major plot threads are concluded, which feels like a cheap way to lure the reader into buying a sequel.

            Did I like this book? Yes. Would I read it again? Maybe. Would I recommend it to the target demographic (Christian teens who read fantasy)? Yes. It wasn’t a bad book. It just needs more to really stand out. My rating? In the Christian YA fantasy category, I’d give it four and a half stars out of five. As a novel? Three and a half. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

How To Avoid Chores

It's Sunday morning, and once more a power outage is crippling my beloved NoVA. No church, no work . . . and it's the middle of the biggest June heat wave ever to hit the D.C. Metropolitan area--though Reston doesn't really count as metropolitan, seeing as how the building of the actual Metro has been pushed back to somewhere in 2027.

My parents have decided this is an excellent day to do some chores. I just spend an hour grommeting my little sister's trampoline back together. Who knew seven teenagers could cause so much damage? And whose bright idea was it to stick the trampoline in the ivy patch? I  have mosquito bites on my mosquito bites.

Is grommeting even a real word?

So now I'm hiding up in my nice, air-conditioned room where my parents can't find me. I know they want to make me do work. There's a huge stack of college paperwork sitting downstairs with my name, address, and SSN on it. There's room cleaning to be done.

Okay, Dad just made me open the package. Turns out, I have a summer reading assignment. Some book translated from the French about an Arab boy and a Jewish prostitute. The back blurb brags the book's cast as full of 'transvestites, whores, and other groups liberals throw in your face and assume consist of a great portion of society'. It's not that I have anything against transvestites, whores, or Arab orphans. It's just that I fail to see how any philosophical lesson they impart is more valid than one from an old white guy.

Ah, Sunday afternoons.