Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sidelined: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion, and Perseverance By Chuck Pagano - Book Review

From the publisher: Chuck Pagano, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, has become one of the most inspiring, intriguing personalities in the game of football. Only three games into his rookie season in 2012, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, sidelined by the side effects chemotherapy and months of recovery. Undeterred, Pagano didn’t let the confines of his hospital bed keep him from coaching: texts, calls, and emails kept him in constant contact with players, staff, and assistants. Motivated to be just as strong and determined as their ailing coach the team started winning game after game, compiling an impressive 11-5 record. The players weren’t the only ones touched by Pagano’s hope and strength of character. Inspired by the tenacity and toughness of their beloved coach, a newcomer to town, thousands of fans united to form Chuckstrong, a movement that soon raised millions to help beat cancer. Pagano, fueled by his faith, his family, and his love of football, returned to lead the Colts to another winning season and the divisional playoffs in 2013. With Pagano’s practical lessons on living, loving, and leading, Sidelined, which includes an 8-page color photo section, inspires us all to stay in the game and never accept defeat.

With the release of Payton Manning in 2012, the Indianapolis Colts effectively wiped the slate clean.  They hired a new coach (Chuck Pagano), drafted a new franchise quarterback (Andrew Luck), and began a new run of what they hoped would be a return to excellence.  In the early stages of the 2012 season, Coach Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and thanks to a tweet from punter Pat McAfee, his battle with cancer took a very public turn with the #Chuckstrong movement.  Sidelined is the story of that season and Pagano's journey in his fight to overcome cancer, and his how his faith in God plays a role in his life (his faith is an understated part of the story).

Sidelined isn't an autobiography. Rather, it's a look inside an amazing season wrapped up in a tremendous personal struggle.  It examines the reconstruction of a formerly successful team while their coach was hospitalized.  It details the highs and lows of a season full of miracle comebacks and unexpected success (at least it was unexpected to the national pundits).  It also details the strength of a man who became the center of the rallying cry #Chuckstrong and how a team and community rallied to raise money and support each other in overcoming cancer.  Building on the themes of  Trust, Loyalty, and Respect, in addition to Faith, Family, and Football, Pagano developed strong personal relationships among the Colts, where the team truly treated each other like family.

Sidelined is a story about a man overcoming a terrible disease.  It's also a story of a team rallying to its head coach.  Finally, it's a story of a city embracing a team.  Together, they achieved victory in many areas.

As an aside, proceeds from this book go to cancer research and other charities.

I recommend this book to football fans, to those who are struggling with cancer or know someone who is, and to people living in the Indianapolis area.

I received a preview copy of this book from Zondervan and the BookLook Bloggers program in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tales of the Hidden World by Simon R. Green - Book Review

From the publisher: Seventeen delightfully unexpected stories from Simon R. Green—including a brand-new adventure of the Droods—take us deep into the Darkside, embroil us in the Secret Histories, and lead us into the shadowy places where monsters and demons roam

Welcome to the worlds of Simon R. Green. In this wide-ranging collection, the New York Times–bestselling urban fantasist opens doors into hidden places: strange realms bordering our own mundane existence and prowled by creatures of fancy and nightmare. Here are the strange, frequently deadly—and sometimes even dead—things that lurk in garbage-strewn city alleyways and grimy subway stations after midnight, visible only to the most perceptive human or inhuman eye.

In these tales, Green revisits the ingenious worlds within worlds that he created for his wildly popular novels. Take a stroll on the Darkside with a jaded street wizard, an underpaid government functionary responsible for keeping demons, vamps, and aliens in line. Enter the hidden recesses of Drood Hall, where the aging family member who creates powerful weapons that protect humankind recalls his long and bloody career. Join a squad of no-longer-human soldiers dispatched to combat the all-consuming jungle on a distant planet. Visit a house at the intesection of two realities that serves as a sanctuary from the evil of all worlds. Confront the unstoppable zombie army of General Kurtz in a brilliant homage to Apocalypse Now. And whatever you do, never forget that there are monsters out there. Really.

Simon R. Green is best known as a novelist, but he began his career writing short stories.  In Tales of the Hidden World, seventeen of Green's stories are collected, including his first published story, the last he wrote before becoming a novelist, and some from more recent times.  Among these stories are classic sword and sorcery, science fiction, zombie tales, and urban fantasy.  There are also two stories that tie in with current series by Green, The Secret Histories (The Drood Family) and the Nightside.

Because there are so many favorites, I'll just mention my favorite three: Question of Solace, Dorothy Dreams, and Jesus and Satan Go Jogging in the Desert.

Question of Solace is a story that fits in the Secret Histories series. Previous exposure to the series is unnecessary, as the story concerns a side character, Jack Drood aka the Armorer.  As the overall series has a James Bond-ish bent, this story follows suit, with the Armorer as an analog for Q.  It is a touching look at a man, coming to the end of his life and career, who questions whether he did more good in the field or out, and how his career and life compare to that of his more well-known brother, James.  Based on this story, I'll probably be checking out the main Secret Histories series.

Dorothy Dreams is a look at Dorothy Gale, of Wizard of Oz fame, as an old woman in a nursing home. She is always stuck inside and yearns to go outside and maybe visit Oz one final time.  When she gets her wish, things aren't what they seem.  Again, there is a bittersweet feel to this story, but the ending opens up many possibilities to explore.

While not exactly according to the Gospels, Jesus and Satan Go Jogging in the Desert is an interesting take on the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Told from Satan's point of view, there is a resigned feeling to the proceedings.  The conversation between the two has a nice view on Jesus's role; however, I don't suggest that it is in anyway what the Bible is saying.  In the wrong hands, this story could become very sacrilegious; Green treats the material with respect, regardless of whatever his personal views on religion might be.

The stories vary in length, and the quality varies from good to superb. Green switches genres and styles fairly easily.

I would recommend Tales of the Hidden World, particularly as in introduction to Simon R. Green, his writing style, and his worlds.

I received a preview copy of this book from Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Batman and Robin Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian by Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason - Book Review

From the publisher: Spinning out from the tragic death of Damian Wayne in the pages of Batman Incorporated, the Dark Knight attempts to cope with the death of not only his partner, Robin, the Boy Wonder, but also his son. Will he be able to deal with his grief on his own, or will he turn to his allies to try and help him through the pain?

Collects BATMAN AND ROBIN #18-23.

Requiem for Damian, by Peter Tomasi, may be the best Batman collection I have ever read, and that's saying a lot. This book immediately follows the events of Batman Incorporated Vol. 2.  The death of his son Damian, aka Robin, has devastated Bruce Wayne.  The events of this book follow his attempts to come to grips with the reality of Damian's death and the grief that is overwhelming Batman.

The collection starts off with a spectacular "silent" issue, which shows Batman dealing with the loss of Damian and trying to move forward.  The art, by Patrick Gleason, is fantastic and truly expresses the struggle Bruce Wayne is going through.  As an aside, this issue deserves an Eisner Award for Best Single Issue.

The rest of the collection shows Bruce continuing to work through his pain, with a supporting member of the Bat-family as a foil.  Some of these stories seem hopeful, such as Batman's reconciliation with Jason Todd, aka Red Hood.  Others, like Batman's encounter with Batgirl (who is having her own crisis of confidence), are more confrontational.  Each "team-up" highlights aspects of the supporting hero's character, finally concluding with Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing.  In typical fashion, Grayson adds a ray of hope to Batman's grief.  However, the conclusion, spotlighting the interaction and relationship between Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne, is nearly heartbreaking, but perfectly wraps up this story.

One final note: a new character, Carrie Kelley, makes her first appearance in the New 52 universe.  Careful readers will note that she shares a name with a character from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

If it was possible to rank this book as better than Highly Recommended, I would do it.  It is touching, heartbreaking, and hopeful all in one shot.  Buy it; read it.

I received a preview copy of this book from DC Comics in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

California Bones by Greg van Eekhout - Book Review

From the publisher: When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.

When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.

Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch's storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian's sword, an object of untold power.

For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There's Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.

Extravagant and yet moving, Greg van Eekhout's California Bones is an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true. 

What got me to read Greg van Eekhout's California Bones was the hook: A heist story with magic.  I'm a sucker for a good heist story.  Plus, I like magic in my stories.  What was not to like about this book?  As it turns out, there wasn't anything I didn't like.  I was sucked in right away and carried along until the very end.

Here's the summary: Daniel is an orphan, a petty thief, with a bit of magical ability.  His father was killed in front of him when he was young, and he has been hiding out from the Hierarch's men ever since.  Oh, the Hierarch is the ruler of the country of Southern California.  He's also an extremely powerful and dangerous magician.  When Daniel is hired to break into the Hierarch's vault to retrieve a sword, he gathers some friends and decides this is his chance for revenge.

California Bones is a great book.  The characters are very engaging, especially Daniel, Cassandra, and Moth.  The setting is great; Southern California is very similar to our California, with some subtle changes here and there, such as the use of canals for travel rather than roads.  The magic is unique, if a bit icky: power is transferred to the user by ingesting it.  That means eating the bones of other magicians will give you their power (this is a little gruesome, but is not overwhelmingly prevalent).  In addition, there are quite a few surprises and twists throughout that keep the reader from completely figuring out what is going on.

I really enjoyed California Bones, enough so that I checked on the possibility of a sequel as soon as I finished it (this is actually supposed to be a trilogy, so that's good).  This is a cool story, and I'd highly recommend it to fans of non-standard Urban Fantasy, Magical Heists, Cool Characters, and Unique Magical Systems.

I received a preview copy of this book from Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fairest Vol. 3: The Return of the Maharaja by Sean E. Williams - Book Review

From the publisher: New York Times bestselling, award-winning creator Bill Willingham presents a new series starring the female FABLES. Balancing horror, humor and adventure in the FABLES tradition, FAIREST explores the secret histories of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Snow Queen, Thumbelina, Snow White, Rose Red and others.

When Nalayani seeks the help of the Maharaja to save her village from the Dhole, she uncovers a secret that could change the Fables Universe forever: the still alive and long-thought dead Prince Charming!

This volume collects Fairest #15-20

Fairest is a spin-off of the excellent Fables series by Bill Willingham.  Generally, it relates the stories of the female fables, who may not get a lot of screen time in the main book.  However, Fairest Vol. 3.: The Return of the Maharaja (written by Sean E. Williams) isn't really about one of the ladies.  Sure, it stars Nalayani, a fable living in a village in India (or at least where Indian fables live).  She displays the courage and intelligence we've come to expect from these characters.  But, as far as I know, she is not really a well-known fable like the other stars of this book have been.  The real star of The Return of the Maharaja is Prince Charming, who was last seen sacrificing himself in the pages of Fables.  Charming's return seems to be hinting at a greater storyline in upcoming issues, and was done in an entertaining way that showed great development for the character.

This is where I have a slight problem with this book.  While the collection is a great vehicle for re-introducing Charming into the Fables storyline, the concept is supposed to focus on the female fables.  This is a minor quibble, I know, because the writing is fine and Nalayani and Charming have a very interesting story.  But if there is going to be a side-vehicle for telling stories about any of the fables, then that's what it should do (and I would totally read that).  Otherwise, I think the core concept of a title needs to be adhered to.

Overall, this was a good book.  It will please fans of the series and characters.  Williams does a nice job, and it will be interesting to see where this storyline heads in the future.

I received a preview copy of the book from DC Comics in exchange for an honest review.