Review: Arena by Holly Jennings

I remember starting to read this book around the second half of July. Yeah, it was around EVO 2017 was streaming. I thought that was the best time to do so. You know, I was in the gaming mood so reading this book during that time was a perfect combination! It wasn’t.

I requested this book from Blogging For Books and received it on the first day of Anime Expo, July 1st. I finished it a few days ago, September 21. This is a classic example of myself being a mood reader. I was psyching myself up for an epic eSports gamer girl kind of read but after the stress of EVO 2017, I was burnt the heck out.

But I’m here now. I read it. I finished it. And guess what… I liked it. A lot.

As you know, I love eSports. I’m usually a stream monster than an active player. I follow some Blizzard games and such but my gamer girl heart belongs to the fighting game community. My first foray into gaming (apart from JRPGs and survival horror) was Tekken 3, the national video game of the Philippines, and Marvel vs Capcom. I could play them for hours and this was the time before online gaming. Eventually, I got familiar with Street Fighter and Mortal Combat.

Fast forward to 2016. Specifically EVO 2016, my first and probably only EVO. We might go again but for now, I say “only” because… well, some people watch a stream for 9 hours straight in the comfort of ones room. My brother and I were on the stream for 9 hours. Straight. Like right behind the players’ chairs. It was an insane experience. No food, almost no drink, standing on our feet for about 9 hours. And thanks to Twitch, we have proof. The year before that, we also took a drive up to San Francisco for the Capcom Cup Finals where we bought our first fight stick. Up to that point, we were pad players. We’ve met most of our favorite players (I pretty much died when I met Nemo and Tokido so… I’m all good). I mean, these players are almost legendary. I was in awe. And I guess I always will be.

But I digress. That’s my background in eSports. This book, while it does mention Street Fighter, is about another kind of eGaming. It’s more of a virtual world. Think MMORPG. Our protagonist, Kali Ling is the first female captain of a team competing in the RAGE Tournament. It is an elite competition where virtual warriors fight to the death. Virtually, that is. But higher levels of the game become so intense that even real life players feel pain.

Kali, being the captain, has to deal with a last minute lineup change. Rooke replaces one of their longtime teammates and at first, he was hard to deal with. Apart from that Kali has to juggle being in the spotlight, her own personal problems, dealing with her inexperience with leading a team, and of course, the business aspect of a professional gamer. I enjoyed all the points mentioned in the book in explanation as to why professional gamers became athletes in their own right. For a geek/gamer girl, it was pretty awesome and so empowering.

I have to say that I half-read and half-listened to this on audio book. And I enjoyed both. It was a fast read. Sure, it wasn’t the best writing but it was fun and engaging. Although there were times when I felt the events in the book was all over the place. Some characters weren’t very developed but at the end of it all, they weren’t that needed to further the story. I loved Kali’s and Rooke’s back stories. Erin Spencer was a good narrator. She gave life to Kali and made it sound real. She was both strong and whiny at the same time. It actually reminded me of NA audio books for some reason. But then again, I wouldn’t 100% consider this YA either. Maybe an older YA? This does not shy away or sugarcoat sex and sexuality. Also, I love how easy and natural the addition of diverse characters felt. It was organic and not at all forced. There were characters of color and a lesbian relationship.

Another thing that I got an absolute trip from is that this book is set in LA! The final tournament was set “across the street from the newly renovated LA Convention Center”. Coincidentally, there’s construction going on right now at that general area. Hint, hint.

Overall, it was such an adventure. If you’re not much of a gamer, don’t shy away from this. There’s not much jargon and the few “classic” games mentioned are pretty familiar to many. And besides, the action was easy to follow and understand. It was pretty badass, if you ask me. I can totally see this played out in an RPG or an actual team tournament. I cannot wait to get my hands on the second book, Gauntlet. If that’s anything like this one, then I’m going to for sure enjoy it too.

Rating: 4/5 stars. I’m reading Warcross next so I’m definitely in a gaming mood!


Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

After my last review book from Blogging For Books, I told myself that I was going to take a break and not request another one. I have so many other books left unread and those don’t have the “pressure” of reading and reviewing it within a certain amount of time. I was starting to feel boxed in and frankly, some of the titles available just wasn’t interesting me.

Until I saw Dark Matter by Blake Crouch in paperback on the list. I got this baby in the mail a couple of days before its release and I couldn’t be more thankful. I finished what I was reading as fast as I could. I knew that I was going to like this.

And I did. Oh boy, this was great. But not without flaws.

That book was intense. For a while. A total mindfck. At the beginning. Then it became something that I’m sure I’ve encountered before. Parts of this seemed so familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not that it’s a bad thing. It did not take away from my overall enjoyment of this book. In fact, it made it easier to follow. It’s best to go into this book knowing very little or nothing at all. Just be ready for anything. A quote in the book says is the best, “The most beautiful think we can experience is the mysterious.” Blake Crouch, sir. Thank you for taking us to this journey, pushing the limits of my own mind, and opening up so many possibilities.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We begin with Jason Dessen, a scientist in his late 30s living in Chicago with his wife and son. He’s a physics professor at a local college. The Dessens live a normal life, nothing special at all. But there was a time when it could have been special. Jason was well on his way to becoming a famous scientist. Daniela, his wife, was going to take the art world by storm. However, they instead started a family. They were content. Life was good.

Until Jason was abducted. “Are you happy with your life?” Those were the last words he hears before everything goes black. He then wakes up in a world that looks similar to his but is totally different. It had the same people but it’s a different life. He wasn’t the run of the mill physics professor anymore; he had awards in the field of science. Dani was there but their son was not. He had achieved all that he wanted. But did he really want this life over the one he had before he was kidnapped?

I’m struggling to describe the events of this book without giving out spoilers. You just have to go in blind. The premise alone is intriguing enough to have you picking up this book. But even with the obvious sci-fi thriller feel of this book, it was easy to follow. We follow in Jason’s POV and it’s an adventure from the first page to the last. I was rooting for Jason all the way and man, what a ride. Like I said above, the first half will mess with your brain. A certain suspension of disbelief is required of the reader but it’s not that hard to consider its possibility in reality. Everything was so intense. And then it kind of slows down in the second half once you get used to the circumstances. But it’s not any less powerful. The ending gives way to an unknown and to me, that is a scariest part of all.

This book explores the “what could have been” and “what else is out there”. I love this quote from the book:

We all live day to day completely oblivious to the fact that we’re a part of a much larger and stranger reality than we can possibly imagine.

It is so scary yet so human at the same time. We go by with our lives day to day, just minding our own business. But do you ever stop and think… what if I took the right turn instead of straight ahead? How would my life be right now if I did?

Rating: 4/5 stars. This can possibly be a great TV mini-series. Maybe by SyFy or FX.

Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

I started reading this over the South Korean air space.

I’ve always wanted to get my hands on this book. Thanks to Blogging For Books, I got it for free!

And very timely too. NASA’s Juno space probe just reached its destination, Jupiter. Heh, NASA and their humor. Jupiter’s moons are named after his mistresses. Juno… his wife. So Juno is checking up on Jupiter. Hah! This book is about an alien race invading the Earth from one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.

Ernest Cline is the author of the amazing book that every geek/nerd needs to read, Ready Player One. That book has heavy video game influences, set in a dystopian Earth but mostly lived in virtual reality. Armada is set in the (possibly) near future, the people of Earth are called upon to fight these aliens, training themselves through… video games.

Zack Lightman is a dreamer. His big dreams consist of fantastical worlds, technology, and excited only found in science fiction books, movies, and video games. An avid gamer, he belongs to the top tier of the popular Space Invader-like game called “Armada”. He’s played it a million times but he never gets bored with it. It’s his escape. As long as he knows what is real and what’s not, he’s fine. Until he sees a flying saucer from the game he’s playing. Was it a hallucination? Is he going crazy?

Next thing he knows, the world is under attack. He gets “kidnapped” by an organization, drafted to save the world from the aliens. He finds other people who are also top-ranked and together they fight a real war through the screens of their devices. The whole world comes together, playing video games, saving the world.

If you’ve read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, all off these might sound familiar to you. I admit, the book became a bit predictable because of it. However, I still enjoyed it a lot. I’m sort of a gamer and I have played similar games when I was a kid. Shooter games are pretty popular with me at arcades as well as fighting games. While I can’t say I’m particularly good, I can hold my own. So if this were to be true, hey… sign me up. These people unwittingly received combat training through video gaming and that is something that’s not so far from the truth. Real military personnel are starting to use virtual reality in simulations and training programs. It’s a fascinating idea but then you add the aliens then it becomes scary.

Zack is your typical protagonist. He doesn’t really have a personality which helps the other characters around him shine. His relationship with this closest friends and family is my favorite; his two friends, the Mikes, made me laugh even in the direst of times. His teammates felt so real. Gamers come in all forms and I’m happy to say that a lot of us were represented here.

As mentioned, I’m a huge nerd so I absolutely loved the references in this book. It even has a playlist. I mean, thank you for providing that so I won’t have to do it. Music is a huge part of gaming. I download a game’s score and soundtrack and use that as reading music. It sets the mood and I totally get where Zack is coming from when he blasts his music right before a mission.

The ending… well, it’s bittersweet. Zack must save two worlds: the actual earth and his own personal reality. I love that even in this setting of sci-fi and aliens, the author managed to sneak in a very human concept of love, longing, and family. Zack is a pretty good gamer but he needed something real for that final push to save the world. And it’s heartbreaking.

Rating: 4/5. Next time, don’t scoff when your sibling/son/daughter refuses to go quit a video game. S/he might save the world in the near future.

PS: Speaking of gaming, I’ll be going to EVO 2016 in Las Vegas this Friday and Saturday.

Review: Steins;Gate, Volume 1 illustrated by Yomi Sarachi

Steins;Gate Volume 1 (manga)

DISCLAIMER: I got this eARC for free from NetGalley.

I have yet to play the visual novel. It is one of my brother’s favorite and most recommended ones. We have it on PS Vita. We even ordered it from Rice Digital from the UK because they had a package that included a metal upa and lab member pins. The anime is one of my favorites and I still rewatch episodes from time to time. English SUB though. I refuse to acknowledge that English DUBS exist.

How much do I love Steins;Gate? I cosplayed it.

Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo 2015

Yes, I have an actual upa plush. 😉 Shiina Mayuri is now my go-to cosplay character.

But that is not what this post is about. I was going through the graphic novel/comics/manga tab on Netgalley one day and I spotted this gem. I snatched it right up. It’s not a new release or anything but it’s something. Now, I don’t read many manga; I’m more of an anime person. But I do read them from time to time, my favorite being Mars by Furumi Soryo. Since I already love Steins;Gate, what’s there not to love with this?

Well… a couple of things. Remember I mentioned above that I dislike the English dubbing of the anime? Eh, that “bias” kind of carries over to the manga. First of all, Mayuri’s signature greeting is not “toodle-loo” or some crap like that. It’s “tuturuu~” – definitely cuter. Whenever I read “toodle-loo”, I hear the English dub in my head. Now, this might be just nitpicking to some of you but really, it bothered me. As a Mayuri cosplayer, I require that people get things right about my character.

I know that the manga was released first but it was still based on the visual novel. Then the anime came out after all that. Please forgive me if I take most of my comparisons from the anime… that’s what I know.

I liked the art of this manga. Mayuri is still cute as a button, Okabe is still crazy, even Makise’s tsundere tendencies aren’t to be missed. To those not familiar with Steins;Gate, this can get confusing. I’m so familiar with the anime and I still got a bit confused. Some jokes just sound… different… in English. Didn’t work as well. With a story like this, a visual – moving – storytelling is more effective.

I don’t know. Maybe it is disadvantageous that I’m a huge fan of the anime before digging into this manga. With that, I brought high expectations that were not met. I’ll just stick to the anime. With the 2nd game awaiting English localization, I should go ahead and play the visual novel soon.

Rating: 3/5. El Psy Congroo.

Review: Legend by Marie Lu

Legend / Marie Lu

This book had been in my TBR since the day it came out. Countless friends and family recommended it to me repeatedly over the years. I don’t know why it took me this long to finally go ahead and read it.

Legend is another trilogy in the long line of YA dystopian fiction. It’s tough to shine through a such a saturated genre and I’m happy to say that this book definitely made an impression. It sets itself apart from the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent by having two leads, a boy and a girl. The story is told through their POVs interchangeably.

June is a 15-year-old prodigy. When Republic citizens reach a certain age, they need to take a test to determine their direction in life. June is from a rich family and she scored perfectly on the test. She’s immediately groomed to join the military elites, joining her brother Metias. On the other side of town, Day grew up in the slums. Not only that, he’s the Republic’s most wanted. No one knows what he looks like, who he is. His reputation as a vigilante sparks fear even in the most experienced military personnel. June and Day can live their lives without crossing paths until Day becomes the prime suspect to the murder of Metias. June is then recruited to hunt down her brother’s killer while Day continues his struggle to keep his family safe.

I liked Day more than June but that’s just my bias talking. I find that male characters seem more developed, sane, and relatable than YA female leads. They whine less. But June is not that bad. The author did a great job writing her so we see her as start out as this cold and perfect soldier and then throughout the story, she changes and shows her vulnerability. The moment she realizes that there are more in this world than her elite life was intense. The stuff that Day goes through… it’s no joke. All his hardships endears him more to the reader and only solidifies his hero – and martyr – status in this story. They really are exceptional characters without sounding Mary-sue or Gary-stu.

Each day means a new 24 hours. Each day means everything’s possible again. You live in the moment, you die in the moment, you take it one day at a time. You try to walk in the light.

The story starts and picks up almost at the same time. None of that long-winded backstory and character introduction. The author included that seamlessly into the plot. So we get to know the characters as we see them do things. I love that technique. I found myself connecting faster with the characters. Rather than getting to know them by reading their accomplishments, I see them actually doing it. Yes, there wasn’t much in terms of excessive world building but the story isn’t really about where it happened. It could take place in outer space and the story would remain the same. The “otherworldly” concepts were easy enough to grasp and there was nothing that I cannot pronounce.

Overall, I loved it. It was fast, exciting, and interesting. I’m definitely going to see this series through. In fact, I may have found my new favorite YA pair!

Rating: 5/5. Don’t be like me… read it now!

Review: The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials / James Dashner

I had such high hopes for this book. And the movie. I loved the first book. And movie. My friends and family said that the second book is good. Kind of like how Catching Fire was for The Hunger Games trilogy. I tend to like the middle book(s) in the series the most because it’s all action and development. The first book is mostly introduction and the final one is, well… final.

And I genuinely like James Dashner, as a person. I met him last year on his promotion tour for the first movie and I enjoyed watching him speak and I loved how enthusiastic he was about this whole movie adaptation business. This year, I met one of the stars of the movie, Kihong Lee, who plays my favorite character Minho. (I wonder who I’ll meet for the 3rd film.)  This all just makes it harder to think/say… I don’t like either the book or the movie. (The movie less so but that’s for another blog.)

I admit, I saw the movie before finishing the book. I wanted to do it the other way around like any normal person but I had no time. Well, not really. I had enough time but I just found the book repetitive and dragging. I watched it on my birthday (September 17), the day before the official release so I figured, what the shuck. I think I’ve read enough of the book; I won’t be lost. Reading the rest of the book will go by much faster after watching the movie.

So wrong. I went and I think I spent half of the movie bored and half-asleep and the rest saying “oppa” every time Kihong Lee came on screen. Either read the book and forget about the movie or the other way around. Because I am truly convinced that I read and watched two different things with the same title and character names. And this is what frustrates me. I soldiered on with a book that I should have DNF’d only to be disappointed with a movie that I had been so excited about. I feel so sorry for Mr. Dashner.

The book starts off with the Gladers in a sort of dormitory where they were bathed, clothed, and fed. I like these moments where you see a glimpse of their youth… after all they’ve been through, they’re still kids. They enjoy the food, they joke around, but when things get tough, they bond together like a little army. Just when you think things are finally going well, WICKED tests them once again. They were infected by an illness called the Flare and in order for them to find the cure, they have to go through the Scorch. Aptly named, the Scorch is a stretch of land with almost unbearable heat and sunlight. The Gladers need to find a way to survive not only the extreme temperatures but also several variables stacked against them.

The “Scorch” is a fantastic idea. I’m not quite sure what the “Trial” really is. In theory, it reads like a great action-packed adventure but with all the things going on in the book, I’ve lost track of what this trial really is. It is… action-packed. But it didn’t really make much sense. A lot of it was running. To where, no idea. It had more running than the previous book. Minho and Thomas just… run. It’s good that the author mentions the other Gladers from time to time, just to remind us that they’re there but I ended up not caring for any of them. The book tries so hard to be more than what it is. I have the same comment about the movie… it has so many things going and it takes so long to get to the point. I felt that a lot of it was filler and scenarios kept repeating over and over. So much so that some parts don’t even make sense. Some parts even sound so ridiculous.

And who is this Brenda character? Why is Thomas experiencing “insta-love” with this chick? I’m not a Thomas/Teresa shipper but I feel that that makes more sense than this new girl. She doesn’t bring anything to the story other than the cold shoulder she gave Thomas when Teresa went back to the picture. She is terribly unlikable, at least to me. Thomas and Brenda are merely characters on a page but they have ZERO chemistry with each other. My brother warned me about her and now I know why he said the story will start to go downhill upon her introduction. I did like Jorge though. I wish there was more about him.

I don’t know, guys. If I were to pick, I’d stick with the book. It made more sense and a lot of stuff happened in it. Watching the movie only served to confuse me. I like some of the actors but the story just falls short. Like I said, same title… different story. I like the treatment of the story better in the book and the events in it were easier to follow. I will still read the 3rd book in preparation for the 3rd movie (although a part of me says that it won’t matter anyway). And I will continue to explore James Dashner’s works. I just didn’t like this one.

Rating: 2/5. It pains me greatly to say this but alas.

REVIEW: Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

They call this a mix of The Night Circus and Pixar movies… two of the many things that I absolutely love. I can see The Night Circus comparisons but Pixar? I don’t remember either of them using footnotes in their printed material. (Yes, footnotes. I’ll get to that later.)

I got an ARC of this book in the mail. I don’t know how I got on the list or why I won. But a free book is a free book. In the memo, they said that the sender will email me when they need the review for the book. I received this after the book’s release date so I figured I’ll be getting that email soon. It never came so I guess they don’t need it? I finished this book last night but, I hate to admit this, it took me almost a month to get through this book.

The cover art is very pretty. Yes, it’s yet another one of those YA “from the back” shots because they want the reader to imagine what the characters looked like based on the descriptions. The title, Illusionarium, is quite interesting. What is that? It sounds like some big deal magical event or place. I was looking forward to be taken into a unique world, ala The Night Circus. But even after finishing the book, I still can’t vividly picture what it is.

What if the world holds more dangers—and more wonders—than we have ever known? And what if there is more than one world?

Parallel worlds? It should sound interesting and quite challenging for the author. Unfortunately, I just finished with an excellent JRPG game that did parallel worlds so right: Ni No Kuni. This book did okay but there is a lack of explanation and world building. It was as if the author assumes that the reader will automatically suspend her disbelief upon reading. No, I need more than that. Especially when you establish your timeline as 1800s, somewhere in London. You can’t blame me for pulling image references from the *actual* 1800s London from history. Maybe it’s just me but I had a hard time imagining what the places and things looked like. Ironic, considering the theme of this book is “illusion”.

It’s not just in world building that the author lacked. I didn’t care much for the characters either. I don’t know who they are, what they want to happen, why they’re doing what they’re doing. All of them are pretty much one dimension, especially the protagonist, Jonathan.

Jonathan is perfectly ordinary. But then—as every good adventure begins—the king swoops into port, and Jonathan and his father are enlisted to find the cure to a deadly plague. Jonathan discovers that he’s a prodigy at working with a new chemical called fantillium, which creates shared hallucinations—or illusions. And just like that, Jonathan is knocked off his path.

Yeah, Jonathan discovers his abilities the same time we do. And apparently, he’s the best at it. Huh. Okay. The rest of the characters felt so random. All the character story twists happened in one or two paragraphs towards the end of the book. They kind of made sense and it could’ve been something that grabbed the reader’s attention but it happened so late in the story, way after the point where I just wanted it to be over. I found myself skimming some parts because they just went on and on. It was like the author was the only one excited and interested in what was happening.

Just like with every made up worlds, there are strange words and items found in that world. The book provides little to no explanations as to what they are. They’re just… there. Fantillium, illusionarium, the Grand… whatever. I don’t even remember them anymore. All of these sound very special and “ooh/ahh” but they way they’re introduced and presented had zero fanfare. I was told of them but not what they’re about.

But the number one thing that annoyed me the most was the use of footnotes. Why? We’re experiencing the story in Jonathan’s POV. Why did the author have to use footnotes? And they were so out of character. He’s serious in the actual text but the footnotes come across as whiny. (Note that my copy is ARC. I have not checked the final release copy. It might not have the footnotes anymore, thank goodness.)

Overall, it was more along the lines of Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked rather than The Night Circus or any Pixar movie. It had potential to be something very good but it fell flat. I wanted it to be something that could take me into its magical world. It did take my hand and yet it failed to pull my whole body through the portal.

Rating: 2/5. I originally gave this a 3 out of 5 but I just… I think I was just being overly nice.