Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)

The Wee Free Men
(A Discworld novel: The Tiffany Aching series, Book 1)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The quaint, backwater downs of the Chalk aren't the sort of place one would associate with high magic or witches or problems greater than the odd lost sheep, yet something peculiar seems to be happening there nonetheless. First, the girl Tiffany Aching sees a couple of strange little blue men fishing in the creek - then a great monster, like something from a fairy tale, tries to grab her little brother Wentworth. This is the kind of problem that probably calls for a wizard or a witch, or at least a clever king or queen. Unfortunately, there are no wizards in these parts, and not only is chalk too soft to grow a proper witch on, but the last old woman the people thought to be a witch met an unfortunate end by fearful locals. As for the king or queen, all they have is a Baron who hardly listens to grown-ups, let alone commoner girls. Armed with a head full of words from the dictionary (because nobody told her she wasn't supposed to read it), a trusty frying pan, a talking toad (who may have been a man once), a gaggle of piskies who fight first and think later (if at all), and memories of her late Granny Aching (who always seemed to know just what to do about whatever went wrong), Tiffany sets out to save her little corner of Discworld. If she can't do it, after all, who will?

REVIEW: This book begins the Tiffany Aching series in Pratchett's greater Discworld universe, starring a bold and clever girl starting out on the path to witchhood, even if nobody will (or can) show her the way. On the surface, there's plenty of humor and fun turns of phrase, with the usual tweaking of fantasy and fairy tale tropes... but Pratchett never stops at the surface. Dig down a level, and it's a fairly solid story about a middle-grade heroine facing down a dangerous, mind-twisting enemy with some unlikely, and not always helpful, companions. Another level down, and it's the story of a girl with "First Sight and Second Thoughts," who must learn to see the world as it really is and think deeply about not just the dangers she faces but everything else: her life, her memories of Granny Aching, and the responsibilities she's shouldering, voluntarily or otherwise. Go deeper still, and you see themes of reality and illusion, individual thoughtfulness versus group assumptions and prejudices, and more. There's almost always more going on in Pratchett's characters and stories, bits and pieces that stick with you after you read them and elevate what could be standard fair or just plain silliness to another, unique level, and Tiffany Aching's debut is no exception. I expect I'll follow this series through at least one more book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White) - My Review

Friday, May 19, 2017

Swords Against Death (Fritz Leiber)

Swords Against Death
(The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Volume 2)
Fritz Leiber
Open Road Media
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In Nehwon, realm of strange magic and dark secrets, countless gods and unnumbered devils, lost secrets and found dangers, two heroes lived a legend that would tower over all others: the tall, brash Northern swordsman and skald Fafhrd, and the slight, cunning thief and magic-dabbler the Gray Mouser. Here, their adventures continue in ten more tales that take them from the great sprawling metropolis of Lankhmar to the unseen Bleak Shores, from the forgotten crypts beneath the Thieves Guild to the tower of a banished god, even as far as the throne room of Death itself.

REVIEW: These stories, like those in the first volume, are the stuff classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy is made of: swordfights, thefts, lost treasures, strange and cunning traps, and the obligatory wine and women at the Silver Eel tavern on the side. They're not particularly socially progressive, particularly with regards to women, but such were the times these stories were written in, and the state of the genre they represented. The tales are still entertaining for what they are, grand adventures brimming with imagination and some sly tongue-in-cheek pokes at the genre's grandiose nature. Fafhrd and the Mouser remain larger-than-life archetypes who are nevertheless more human (and thus more interesting to spend one's time with) than some classic fantasy characters. This volume introduces the recurring figures of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble the Seven-Eyed, archmages to whom the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd are compelled to swear fealty to respectively, who sometimes pit the two heroes against each other in their ongoing magical rivalry. A few of the stories seemed a little short, but none of them stand out as particularly weak. Indeed, overall, I found them a little stronger than the origin stories in the first volume. They remain decent examples of classic sword and sorcery, worth reading today by anyone interested in fantasy's roots or just looking for some old-school Conanesque adventure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Phoenix on the Sword (Robert E. Howard) - My Review
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review
Hero for Hire (E. B. Pratt) - My Review

John Ronald's Dragons (Caroline McAlister)

John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien
Caroline McAlister, illustrations by Eliza Wheeler
Roaring Book Press
Nonfiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since childhood, John loved dragons, even if his world was devoid of them... until he grew up and discovered a dragon of his very own, in a story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

REVIEW: This picture book explores the life and influences of famed author J. R. R. Tolkien, who would create one of literature's great wyrms with Smaug. Bright illustrations hint at magic and wonder even in mundane settings; in the muddy trenches of war, for instance, tanks can be seen spouting flames like dragons. At the end of the book is a brief section of bonus material, discussing Tolkien's life and his influences, plus some notes from the artist; many details in the images have extra meaning. It's an enjoyable and informative read about an iconic author.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tell Me A Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Teacup (Rebecca Young)

Rebecca Young, illustrations by Matt Ottley
Dial Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A lone boy sets out on a voyage across a wide sea, with little more than a teacup full of earth from his lost home.

REVIEW: This book is simply beautiful. The brief prose evokes a sense of wonder and of loss. Ottley's gorgeous paintings create a vast and strange world, a voyage through fear and hope and imagination, as a boy faces the unknown future after an unnamed tragedy tore him from everything he knew. It's a book that speaks to anyone of any age who has experienced loss and turmoil, who has ever been alone with memories and fear of what lies ahead.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
Imagine a Night (Sarah Thompson) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Just Good Friends (Rosalind James)

Just Good Friends
(The Escape to New Zealand series, Book 2)
Rosalind James
Rosalind James, publisher
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: California girl Kate Lamonica didn't used to take risks, but stalker Paul forced her out of her comfort zone. Now she's in New Zealand, half a world away from her old friends and old life; it's the only way to stay off Paul's radar until he gives up. It's not all bad. Her new job, accountant for a rugby team, is challenging, and the country is gorgeous and friendly. If only she could say the same for the people - or, rather, one man in particular...
Koti James dislikes the American Kate the moment he lays eyes on her - and she rejects his usual lady-melting smile. She's not his type, anyway; he usually goes for the long-legged blondes, not the short, dark ones, plus she's clearly got a chip as big as the country on her shoulder. As a star athlete with supermodel looks, he's never short on female companionship, and he certainly doesn't need a proper relationship... so why is she such a persistent thorn in his side?
Their mutual dislike comes to a head with an argument that leads to a bet: for six weeks they'll play at being friends, and nothing more. Given their animosity, they both figure the bet's as good as won - it'll be the other one who breaks and makes a pass, or walks away altogether. But irritation soon gives way to something much stronger, and more dangerous.

REVIEW: It was on sale, and I needed a palate-cleanser after a disappointing read. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be something of a letdown, as well. Neither Koti nor Kate (or any of the rest of the cast) ever come alive as people beyond the page. They spend much of the book immersed in long, wordy conversations that spell things out unnaturally. At several points, I almost saw the author standing right behind the characters, making them talk out their relationship rather than experience it. There are even multiple conversations that seem intended to let me, as a reader, know that the characters all understand the difference between stalking-level possessiveness and the normal urge to protect a loved one in a healthy relationship, not to mention the difference between a dangerous control freak and consensual dominance/submission in the bedroom. I'm a big enough girl to figure that out, and I prefer doing so from context, not with characters deliberately leading me along like a child. The plot itself feels thin, with too little going on in either characters' lives (or, at least, too little going on that makes it into the book; comments are made, particularly about Koti re-dedicating himself to rugby practice to earn a coveted national slot, but the reader doesn't see any of that, so it's just more talk), and the little we do see of them sets up elements that never come into play. Things unfold about as one might expect from the blurb, with the odd sidetrack into Maori culture, New Zealand history, and more than one steamy moment. The telegraphed climax offers no surprises, either. While it was nice "seeing" New Zealand, because it's a culture I don't see or read a lot about, I wish I'd had more interesting tour guides than these two, not to mention an itinerary with a few more twists and turns.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles) - My Review
Whale Rider (Witi Ihimaera) - My Review
Bidding on Brooks (Katy Regnery) - My Review