Archive for the Reviews Category

Where The Streets Have No Name…

Posted in Reviews, Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2010 by Jessica Lada

…or in Denver’s case, WAY TOO MANY.

June 11th, Will and I raced to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport and got through security with 45 minutes to spare before our 8:13 p.m. flight. Fantastic. The schedule board said the flight was on time, but the moment we sat down at gate 10 we heard the announcement. Not only was our flight delayed, our plane hadn’t even left Denver yet and we weren’t scheduled to leave until 10 p.m. To make things better, the little deli counter, the magazine kiosk, and the bar were all closed. And there’s no vending machine. Brilliant.

After we finally boarded the plane, they told us it would be at least another half hour before takeoff.

Denver International Airport: I'm not sure why, but I am bothered by an airport terminal that is a tent.

We got up in the air and the pilot gave us the first good news of the night. He’d just gotten the flight path and our flight would only take an hour rather than an hour and twenty minutes. Except that with the thunderstorms popping up, the flight ended up taking two hours as we were diverted all over Colorado.

I can’t say I minded the length of the flight, though, because we had the most incredible view out the window. The thunderheads below us were lit from beneath by the city lights and from above by an incredible lightning display. We were flying at 38,000 feet and eventually the storm clouds ballooned to even greater altitudes and we saw only the black of night out the window.

The flight attendants passed out drinks and because the plane was only half full, we each got a full can of soda.  Score! But then the turbulence increased and the pilot turned the seatbelt sign on again, so the flight attendants rushed to collect the trash. It was a choice between chugging my ginger ale or wearing it, so I chose the former. Big mistake.

The plane was bouncing and I was doing the pee-pee dance in my seat.  So were half the other passengers.

Now, I know the seatbelt sign means you aren’t supposed to get up unless it’s an absolute emergency, but I was having a potty emergency. The cabin lights were off, so I felt my way toward the rear of the Canada Regional Jet where its only bathroom is located, only to find a flight attendant seated IN FRONT OF THE BATHROOM DOOR.

I would like to ask, as politely as possible, who the hell thought it was a good idea to put the jump seat in front of the damn toilet door? Because I’m telling you, it is not a good idea. It is a bad idea. A very bad, stupid, idiotic, horrible idea. Whoever designed that plane deserves to be strapped into a tiny little aisle seat, continuously force-fed liquids, and denied bathroom access for the longest, bumpiest flight ever.

So I ask the flight attendant if she can move to one of the numerous empty seats so I can pee and she says no. I know she’s just following protocol. I understood that, but my bladder did not. I returned to my seat and my fiance joked,“That was quick.” “Yeah, the flight attendant is sitting in front of the door,” I explained. The scowl on Will’s face mirrored my own. “So we can’t use the bathroom?” “Nope.” “Then can she at least bring me a couple of empty cups?”

The sad thing is he was barely kidding. By the time the plane finally landed, the barf bags were looking like a pretty good option.

Seriously, that's their slogan? I call BS.

After peeing, the next stop was the National Car Rental counter, which a nice man on the phone had assured me was open 24-hours. It was, of course, deserted. So Will and I ventured out into the rain to get on the shuttle bus which was supposed to take us to the main National Car Rental building. Again, the man on the phone assured me there would be agents working.

The bus driver told us there would only be two stops. The first was for emerald club members only and the next would be for Alamo rental cars. Since we weren’t renting from Alamo, Will and I tried to get off at the first stop. The driver totally flipped out. “Only Emerald Club! Yours is the next stop.”

We backpedaled and waited as the doors closed, the driver pulled forward (no joke) twenty feet, then opened the doors again. “THIS is your stop,” he said.

Inside the Alamo/National office, the National side was completely dark and unmanned. I used the kiosk to check in (thereby making my previous online reservation completely redundant), then went outside with my ticket as the kiosk screen instructed. We joined a group of several other people shivering in the fifty-degree, rainy, misery that was Denver at 1 a.m. We all looked around with matching “what the hell do we do now?” expressions on our faces.  One hoodie-wearing fellow customer (a hilarious dude whose name I didn’t catch) debated snagging a minivan.

Finally someone came from the building. He briefly glanced at each person’s ticket and pointed to a car lot. “Anything over there!” he said.
He didn’t have to tell us twice. Someone else beat us to the Dodge Charger. We decided we didn’t need an SUV, so we jumped in a Chrysler 300. About the time I found the headlights and adjusted my seat, Hoodie-dude pulled up in front of us in a bright yellow VW bug and rolled down his window. “I had to give it a test drive, man!”

We settled into the Chrysler 300 with a welcome sigh of relief. We could relax finally because we were on our way to the hotel.

I had my list of directions on hand. I drove and Will navigated. We exited the parking lot and headed for Pena Blvd. Unfortunately, the entrance to said boulevard is not marked. You pull up to a stoplight and see an underpass painted with huge letters saying “PENA BLVD. TO I-70.” How does it help to know what street is going over the top of your head with absolutely no way, at that point, to get to that street? So we ended up having to double back toward the airport.

I have a question for the City of Denver. Do you not believe in EXIT signs? Most airports have a way to loop around and get back out. Denver did not have this. Oh sure, in daylight I’m sure it all makes perfect sense to someone who has been there before. But for my first time driving in Denver at 1:30 a.m. during torrential rain, it was less than clear.

So we finally manage to get to Pena Boulevard. After lots of merging and such, my directions tell me to take “the CO-121 exit toward 287/Broomfield/Lafayette”.  This makes sense once you get there… but six or seven miles before you get to the correct exit there is a DIFFERENT exit for 287. Yeah, that’s not confusing at all. And instead of taking me to my hotel, this exit took me to a bunch of strip clubs and assorted shady stuff.

Let’s just cut to the chase. Driving in Denver sucks. It’s like sprawling Oklahoma City and oblique New Jersey spawned some weird, deformed baby. Streets change name without warning. Is it so hard to let a street be named ONE THING along its entire span? Granted, there’s a street in Norman, Oklahoma that begins as HW-77 on the south side of town, becomes Classen, is called Porter through the old part of town, and then becomes Sunnylane Road to the north of town. Four names within ten miles. Heading to breakfast in Denver, I took Fox Street, which turned into 23rd Street, which turned into Park Avenue West, which turned into 22nd Street. Four street names in the span of ONE MILE. Come on, Denver, is that really necessary?

Driving around Denver doesn’t suck because of traffic but because of the roads. You exit in one place but there is nowhere to get back on or turn around. I don’t know how long it would take before you could navigate the city without a map. Denver is the greatest argument for GPS that I have ever seen. If I hadn’t had a Google Maps application on my phone, I’m pretty sure we’d still be driving around trying to find the hotel. But for all the navigational difficulties, Denver was fantastic whenever the car was parked.

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–Originally posted at blogcritics.org


Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy is filled with gripping plot hooks, inventive and compelling characters, and intriguing conflicts.  The main characters, Stephanie and Skulduggery, make a captivating and often hilarious team.  I was itching for a sequel long before I got to the end of the book.


In modern-day Ireland, Stephanie Edgley’s uncle Gordon has just died.  At the reading of the will, twelve-year-old Stephanie is surprised to inherit nearly the entire estate.  She’s even more surprised to meet a witty detective named Skulduggery Pleasant, who also happens to be a sorcerer and a skeleton.  After surviving a few attempts on her life, Stephanie joins Skulduggery in a quest to solve her uncle’s murder.

Each character has such a unique voice and personality that attribution isn’t even necessary during dialog exchanges.  Stephanie and Skulduggery have a quick and witty rapport and complimenting personalities.  Even uncle Gordon, who is dead from the very first line of the book, has a unique personality.  Through only third party recollections and the words of his last will and testament, Gordon is the coolest uncle ever.

The only flaw I encountered in the novel was the climax of the story.  Stephanie drives the action through the entire story but when we get to the climax, she turns passive and winds up getting rescued.  The protagonist of a story should never be a bystander during the climax, but at that point I was so hooked by the story I didn’t care.  A swat team led by Bruce Willis and Wesley Snipes could have busted through the wall and I probably would have bought it.  Landy answered the story question and wrapped up the current plotline nicely, but left plenty of enticing potential for future stories.  I’m not going to get tired of these characters anytime soon.

Skulduggery Pleasant is a book for anyone who has ever walked through the winding, twisting house of a relative and imagined hidden passages tucked around the corners.  Landy seamlessly weaves magic into the modern world to create a setting and tone that’s a little bit like the Dresden Files for kids.   So far there are four books available in the series, the fifth is slated for September 2010, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a movie soon.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Originally posted at blogcritics.org

The Giver by Lois Lowry was assigned to every other English class in high school except for mine, so it seems, and I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it.  I knew the author’s name and read her Newberry Medal winning novel, Number the Stars many years ago.  I expected a poignant and provocative story, but I was surprised by the intricacies of the story world she created in The Giver.

Also a Newberry Medal winning novel, The Giver introduces the viewers to a seemingly utopian society through the eyes of twelve-year-old Jonas.  Things are orderly and simple.  Each person has a distinct place in society and clear-cut duties.  The rules are simple and everyone obeys.  But Jonas unfolds the community before our eyes, the vision becomes flatter, starker, and dystopian.  When Jonas turns twelve, he gets his assignment.   He is to become the Receiver of Memory.  We learn that all memories of anything OTHER or ELSE belongs solely to the Receiver of Memory.  Now the former Receiver becomes The Giver and starts handing over memories to Jonas, one by one.  Jonas learns of snow and sun and love.  It’s a little bit of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” with “The Matrix” thrown in for good measure.

Lowry paints the outlines of this world by describing the structure, how things work.  But that is only the first half.  Then she fills it in not by showing what is there, but what is not.  The community is vivid in its emptiness, in its lack of things.  And by doing so Lowry points out the most important parts of humanity.  She shows us the things that make life truly meaningful and enjoyable, but she doesn’t beat us over the head with it.

Lowry could have taken the ideas and pushed each to the extreme, beating the readers over the head with her point, but instead she took a much gentler approach.  This isn’t like the third installment of “The Matrix” when Neo gets blinded and dies and you can almost hear the Wachowskis shouting, “Get it?  Because he’s Jesus!” in the background.    I know.  I want to forget that movie too.  But remember “The Matrix”, the original that was so full of nuance and delicious ambiguity?  This is more like that, but without the black leather, dark sunglasses, or the best shot of a helicopter flying into a building ever.   Lowry presents her ideas in a clear and understated way and then steps back and lets them sink in.  This isn’t shock and awe, but the point definitely comes through.  A lesser author could easily have taken the idea to a place of disdainful finger-wagging.  I find myself wishing the ending had been clearer, but that would have destroyed some of the nuance I was just lauding.

The story isn’t full of action or drama, but it doesn’t need it.  It’s a coming of age story that doesn’t just deal with a boy learning who he is, but learning what it means to be human.  For science fiction and fantasy lovers alike, the story world here is nothing to scoff at.  Among fictional visions of the future, The Giver doesn’t usually stand alongside Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, but perhaps it should.  In its own quiet way, The Giver makes a potent statement about the world and all our human flaws and strengths.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–originally posted at Blogcritics.org

Despite a twelve-year-old protagonist and utilization of many fairy tales, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly should not be mistaken as a children’s novel.  It’s sort of a coming of age story, but from the angle of an adult looking back at lost innocence rather than the angle of a child looking forward to gained independence and strength.

Set in England at the beginning of World War II, the twelve year old protagonist David has just lost his mother.  His father soon remarries and gives David a half-brother.  David sees these new additions as interlopers and he turns to the stories on his shelves for solace.  The books whisper to him and he occasionally blacks out.  Eventually, he retreats into the world of the stories and his imagination.  For much of the book it isn’t clear whether these happenings are real or imagined.

It’s strange to read about a hero who is so internalized.  David’s path is often dictated by those around him rather than his own actions, and he more often stifles his thoughts than expresses them.  The book can’t quite decide what kind of a book it wants to be—whether it is an internal, psychological, literary sort of novel; or whether it is an action-filled, myth-bending, children’s fantasy novel.  In the end it’s both and neither.   Perhaps Connolly did too good of a job conveying David’s confusion about his state of mind and passed that confusion onto the readers.

Many parts of this novel are brilliant.  The twist of the communist dwarves was unexpected and amusing, but I wish it had integrated better into the story as a whole.  As it was, the tone stood out from the rest of the book.  It was a Tom Bombadil sort of interlude—entertaining, but not absolutely necessary–with tinges of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle and Monty Python’s repressed Dennis.  Connolly did a nice job of putting new twists on old fairy tales and lore.  The more liberties he took with the legends, the more successful he was.  The thing that disappointed me most was that the father’s profession didn’t tie into the rest of the story at all.  But maybe it’s just my interest in that part of history shining through.

The Book of Lost Things wasn’t what I expected when I picked it up, but I enjoyed the surprises.  It breaks the rule that the main character of a novel dictates the age of the readers, and rightfully so.  Anyone who enjoyed the films “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Brothers Grimm” would enjoy this book.  If Connolly can make fairy tales this creepy, I can’t wait to read some of his thrillers.  But I have to say, I’ll never look at Red Riding Hood the same way again.

Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

I had a copy of Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett on my shelf a long time and kept putting off reading it.  I didn’t have a good reason for avoiding it except that the cover says “Terry Pratchett” but has a space ship rather than an ogre or a wizard or Death on it.  Now I can safely say this book is a perfect reason why authors shouldn’t be pigeon-holed.  Pratchett doesn’t just write satirical fantasy for adults featuring bumbling wizards and trolls whose knuckles make bink-bink noises.    He also writes children’s books about video games and aliens, and he pulls it off splendidly.

Set in England during the Gulf War of the early ‘90s, when video games still looked more like games than real life, Johnny Maxwell has a lot on his plate.  His parents might be splitting up, there’s a war on, and most importantly he’s trying to beat a game called “Only You Can Save Mankind.”  But when he’s about to blast the alien spaceship, the aliens surrender to him.  And when Johnny falls asleep at night, he wakes up in the game.  When he dies in the game, he just comes back again.  But the dreams make him wonder, what happens when the aliens die in the game?   This book is only part one of the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.

The story caught my attention immediately; it reminded me of “The Last Starfighter” in a good way.  Johnny’s playing the sort of game I remember from when I was a kid.  I’d play for hours on end and I can’t count the times I continued playing even in my dreams.  Johnny makes a compelling and likeable hero, despite his nerdiness.  As a trademark, Pratchett packs a punch even with the secondary characters.  This book is no exception and David’s friends add surprising depth and realism to the story.  I think I remember these kids from middle school.

I read the entire novel in one sitting and wished I had the remaining two books of the trilogy.  I also had an itch to dig out my Commodore 64 and play some old-school video games.  (And I kinda wish “Only You Can Save Mankind” was a real game.)  This novel reminded me how great Pratchett is at creating distinct and vivid characters in a very efficient way.  He isn’t just fantastically funny; he also tells really well-crafted stories that poke at your emotions and vices in just the right way.   No matter your age, if you like humor, video games, aliens, or geeky characters, you’ll love Only You Can Save Mankind.

–originally published on Blogcritics.org

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2010 by Jessica Lada

I didn’t notice at first that  Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver was the first book of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, but I am thrilled it is.  This is a world I want to spend more time in.  It isn’t a typical fantasy with magic wands and spells.  It’s a spiritual, elemental sort of magic and it’s integrated completely into the story world.  It doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all as you’re reading.  Not only does Pager take you back six thousand years to show you the European forests and technology, but she puts you in the ancient mindset and strips away modern paradigms.

Set in prehistoric forests of Europe, Wolf Brother is the story of twelve-year-old Torak whose father has just been killed by a demon bear.  With the help of his wolf guide, Torak must find the Mountain of the Spirit World and defeat the demon bear before the next full moon.  If he fails, the bear will be invincible and he will kill until the entire forest is destroyed.  Along the way, Torak encounters other tribes, prophecies, and glaciers.

In this day and age it’s tough to forget about technology or imagine what it would be like without it.   But Paver cleverly tricked me into forgetting about cell phones and televisions and for the span of the story I saw the world like Torak did.

Paver splits the book between three viewpoints: Torak, Wolf, and Renn (a girl from the Raven clan).  I’d like to camp with this trio.  Torak is the hero and the dominant point of view.  He has a likeable and compelling mix of determination, fear, and loyalty.  Torak perpetually rides the exciting edge of discovery.  It’s his first time on his own in the forest, so even though he has been taught well, there is a new level of anxiety.  It reminded me of my very first time driving a car solo.  I met my friends at the zoo.  I’d been there hundreds of times before, but riding in the passenger seat is different from actually driving the route yourself.  There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captured perfectly in Torak’s voice. I’d been there hundreds of times before, but driving the route myself was radically different than riding in the passenger seat.  There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captured perfectly in Torak’s voice.

Torak’s sidekick Renn is charming and likeable.  She is feisty, capable, and talented; but also humble and grounded securely by morals.  The use of Wolf’s voice as a character was absolutely brilliant.  His keen mind and observations stripped away all labels.  If you lived without books or school or written language, how would you describe things?  Wolf’s point of view broke the world down to the barest level, observing rivers, snow, fire, humans, and even death by using only concrete ideas rather than abstract concepts.

Occasionally the transitions between viewpoints were rough and had confusing pronouns, but luckily the character voices are distinct enough to sort things out.  I worried that the descriptions of survival (hunting, clothing, making arrowheads, etc.) would become longwinded, but Paver kept the details concise and interesting.  I have to commend her for resisting the temptation of info-dumps, especially after all the research she did.  (According to the book jacket, Paver ate lichens, chewed pine resin, and slept on reindeer skins in the forests of northern Finland during the research process.  That’s what I call dedication.)

I was shocked that this novel functioned on so many levels all at the same time.  Not only was it an exciting young adult fiction, it also touched the root of humanity and what it means to be a part of this blue planet.  I started reading this book on Earth Day (by mere coincidence) and it turned out to be surprisingly apropos.  Beneath the adventure and coming-of-age, it was a story about harmony with the world around us and harmony with each other.

If you enjoy Tamora Pierce, Brian Jacques, or even Jack London, Wolf Brother and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness are right up your alley.  It is more than just a fantasy novel or a coming of age story.  The real magic in this story doesn’t come from potions or artifacts but from the world around us.

St. Patrick’s Day Music Pick!

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2010 by Jessica Lada

What do you get when you cross a kilt-wearing bagpiper, some traditional Irish songs, Irish dancers, electric guitars, and a crowd full of jumping, screaming fans?  The Dropkick Murphys.  And in their latest CD/DVD LIVE ON LANSDOWNE, BOSTON MA, available today March 16th (just in time for St. Patrick’s day), the band is at their finest.  Studio recordings don’t manage to capture the full spirit of a band such as the Dropkick Murphys.  They feed off the energy in the crowd and pour that raucous enthusiasm into their music.

Their performance last year for St. Patrick’s day was not a performance for band and spectators, but an experience for all.  The fans are just as important in this experience as the band, shouting along the lyrics, clapping, pumping their fists in the air, and crowd surfing.  During their performance of the ever popular “Kiss Me, I’m S&!%faced”, the band even invites the ladies of the audience up onto the stage to sway and sing along.

The album’s 20-song set list (including “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya”, “Fields of Athenry”, “Tessie”, “The Dirty Glass,” and “(F)lannigan’s Ball”) is completely different from DKM’s 2002 album Live On St. Patrick’s Day From Boston MA but follows the same tradition.  This album includes a special guest appearance by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on DKM’s platinum-selling single “Shipping Up to Boston.”

Tomorrow wraps up DKM’s seven shows in six days at Boston’s House of Blues.  In April they continue their tour in the UK, and then return to the US for the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, TN this June and the Vans Warped Tour in August.  If you can’t make it to any of the live dates and will miss out on the fun in person, this album is the next best thing.  This is a group of talented musicians who seamlessly blend Celtic and punk genres and traditions into one of the most unique sounds you’ll ever hear.  Their energy is absolutely infectious.  It isn’t something you can listen to in the background as you wash the dishes and file your toenails.  Live on Lansdowne shoves itself to the forefront and demands not only to be heard but to be experienced.  You’ll want to paint yourself green, shoot some whiskey, and jump around with your fist in the air.

If you’re already a DKM fan, you’ll want this for your collection.  If you aren’t a fan yet, this is the perfect album to get you properly introduced to this group of Celtic punk stars.  Even if you’ve never heard the Dropkick Murphys before, you’ll still find familiar tunes on the album.  You’ll find yourself singing along before the album has played all the way through even once.  Irish or not, do yourself a St. Patty’s day favor and pick up The Dropkick Murphys Live on Lansdowne, Boston, MA , raise a pint, and enjoy.

originally posted at blogcritics.org