Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Unwanted: Dead or Alive (Gene Shelton)

Unwanted: Dead or Alive
(The Buck and Dobie series, Book 1)
Gene Shelton
Pecos Press
Fiction, Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Cowboys Buck Hawkins and Dobie Garrett may not be famous or wealthy or even particularly intelligent, good-looking, or ambitious, but they do all right for themselves. At least they have a good job with an honest boss in the Texas Panhandle, roping strays and tending livestock for the modest Singletree ranch... or they used to. Just when the region's being hammered with the hardest winter in memory, an overstuffed pig of a banker turns up to foreclose on the property, and that's just the start of their troubles. A fight with a drunkard leaves the other man dead, and false accusations of horse theft and cattle rustling put a price on their head. It was hard enough finding a job in a changing frontier - now they can't show their heads in town without someone trying to shoot it off. While Buck wonders how long it'll take to be hung, Dobie comes up with the perfect solution. If the world's forced them to ride the "owlhoot trail" anyway, he reckons, why not turn outlaw for real? It has to pay more than a cowboy makes these days - and maybe they can even get that banker pig back and help their old boss with the cash. There's just one problem with Dobie's plan: neither one of them could steal an egg from a chicken, let alone money from a bank.

REVIEW: This lighthearted Western takes a little while to find its stride, but once it does it's an amusing romp, full of spirited horses and fast getaways and colorful cowboy jargon in a trope-riddled Wild West. Buck and Dobie are close friends, and where Dobie leads Buck always follows, but they just plain aren't suited to the outlaw life; Buck's too nervous and kindhearted, and Dobie, despite his tough talk and more worldly experience, is better at (cow) pie-in-the-sky ideas than actually planning, let alone executing, a crime. They also have the worst luck a pair of cowpokes ever had. Nevertheless, they persevere, in part because Dobie insists they'll learn the trade eventually and in part because they really have no choice. About halfway through their efforts, they encounter Marylou, a sharp city girl looking for some excitement and adventure on the range. She becomes key to their minimal successes, a fun and unladylike addition to the duo's dynamics. It all builds up to their great moment of revenge - which, naturally, goes completely haywire when real outlaws become involved. There's nothing hugely deep or original or startling here, but it makes for a fun, quick read.

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Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
A Sky So Big (Ransom Wilcox and Karl Beckstrand) - My Review

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Some Like It Perfect (Megan Bryce)

Some Like It Perfect
(A Temporary Engagement series, Book 3)
Megan Bryce
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In her mid-thirties, Delia still embodies the stereotypical college dropout, perpetually broke and more interested in her painting than in savings or making long-term plans... but, even though her friend Justine lets her crash on her couch for nothing, the romance of suffering for one's art eventually wears thin, even for a girl raised on a hippie commune. So, when Justine brings her an offer to paint a high-powered CEO's office ceiling, Delia swallows her pride and steps up to the job, even if it means climbing a hated scaffold and working around the arrogant embodiment of every capitalist ideal she's spent her whole life rejecting. But the moment she first lays eyes on Jack Cabot, sparks fly.
Jack didn't even want his office redecorated, but when his mother insists, he can't bring himself to turn her down. She's had more than her share of tragedy, after all, having buried two husbands and turned into a virtual recluse out of grief. Chaotic Delia brings everything into his office that he's spent his forty years denying: spontaneity, a rejection of material wealth as the measure of a life, and a refusal to submit to authority. So why can't he stop thinking about her? And why, after seeing what love cost his mother, is he now wondering what he's been missing by refusing to let love into his life?

REVIEW: Romances can make nice palate-cleansers between heavier works. They're usually fairly quick reads (as this one was - I read it in half a day, breaks included), with no great surprises so far as the general thrust of the plot goes. Here, however, I found some sour notes in the usual, familiar harmony, enough to disrupt my overall enjoyment. Delia and Jack aren't particularly deep as characters go, spending more time denying their star-crossed attraction than is strictly necessary... until Delia, the ultimate hippie-raised girl who proudly rejects society's standards and authority figures, lets one shrewish comment almost completely destroy her. (No spoilers, but the threat made zero sense, as there'd been no indication of anything resembling truth behind it... nor did it make sense that Delia latched onto it so readily and stupidly.) For large parts of the story, Jack and Delia are shunted to the side by other characters. Jack's teenaged half-sister, Augustus, sticks her growing pains squarely in the middle of the romance - and is inexplicably welcomed into their oddly cozy group, her anticlimactic issues mostly serving to distract the would-be-lovebirds from each other. Delia's roomie Justine is going through a midlife crisis with regards to her planned dream of family life and her lukewarm feelings toward her long-term boyfriend Paul, who doesn't seem interested in even spending weekends together, let alone marriage and fatherhood. Justine decides to take matters into her own hands by skipping her birth control - and here is where the book really falls flat and hard on its face. Justine and Paul's storyline falls back on every sexist stereotype in the book: all women want to be mothers and will become pregnant by any means necessary, while all men are grunting cavemen who only ever settle down because "their" woman tells them to, and because they're allowed to get out of really messy parts of parenthood because they're guys. Oh, and "oopsing" a man into marriage works, because he'll just get plastered and decide, yeah, he really does want to be a father enough to forgive the betrayal even though he'd been having second thoughts about the relationship beforehand. Yes, this was indeed written in the 21st century. I'm aware that this is a "thing" in some subgenres of romance, that some people find this relationship idea attractive, but I'm not one of them. The optimist in me wants to believe we've come farther than that, that maybe communication ought to be attempted before sabotaged contraception, while the pessimist just thanks her lucky stars she's never been that desperate to fulfill a picket-fence dream, if that's what it takes to get it. A manufactured crisis or two occurs between the leads and the secondary characters, and finally the story ends without me ever really caring about any of them. All around, it's not a terrible story, but mostly bland, with too much competition from side characters that muddle the tale - not to mention some very irritating and backwards messages on love.

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Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear)

Range of Ghosts
(The Eternal Sky series, Book 1)
Elizabeth Bear
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the wake of the Great Khan's death, warring brothers destroy the vast Qersnyk empire he built until the steppe grasses turn red with blood and the sky black with vultures, as the moons that mark the Khan's heirs vanish from the night skies. When Temur, son of the rightful heir, wakes alone on a battlefield, he turns his back on war and power struggles, hoping for a simpler life as he joins refugees fleeing the embattled realm... but after ghostly attacks steal his new lover, Temur must brave sorcery and hardship to rescue her - and may be riding straight into a trap.
Samarkar-la was once a princess, but her marriage ended in humiliation and disaster. Rather than be another pawn in her brother's quest for power, she instead goes to the Citadel to undertake training as a wizard. Even if she never finds her power, the training process leaves her barren, never to bear a child who might be used to threaten the Ragan crown. It's a better life than she might have hoped to live - but not without dangers, as she discovers when she is sent to investigate the fate of a fallen city and discovers instead a sorcerous taint and an unspeakable atrocity.
As Temur and Samarkar soon discover, dark forces lurk behind the unrest spreading across the land, forces bound to an ancient enemy known as the Sorcerer-Prince or Carrion-King, who rose from the mortal plane to challenge the very gods in the heavens in a conflict that nearly destroyed the world.

REVIEW: I've been meaning to try Elizabeth Bear's work, so when this title came up in Tor's eBook-of-the-month club, I figured I'd give it a try. She bases this world on Asian mythology, centered around steppelands and a nomadic race of conquerors in the vein of Genghis Khan and his Mongols. It lends the work a nicely exotic flavor, albeit one that took a while for my American mind to adapt to, with some interesting mind's-eye-candy. The skies of a realm change depending on whose culture (and gods) are ascendant, while exotic creatures like the giant rukh bird, living stone talus beasts, and humanoid tigerlike Cho-tse populate the land. Bear takes her time establishing this new world and its quirks, positioning her characters slowly and carefully before finally bringing them together and getting the main plot going, a slow-burn opening that might've frustrated me more if there hadn't been so many neat things to learn and see along the way, and decently-drawn characters to experience them with. Some few plot elements felt a little weak, and I admit I couldn't keep track of all the various realms and some of the peripheral players, but overall I found it a refreshing change of pace from the many pseudo-European fantasies I've read. I expect I'll track down the second volume soon, even if it's not a free download.

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Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley) - My Review

Thursday, October 20, 2016

No Such Thing As Dragons (Philip Reeve)

No Such Thing as Dragons
Philip Reeve
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Ansel has been mute since the death of his mother - and his innkeeper father doubts he'll ever be rid of such a small and useless child, until the knight turns up in search of a cheap servant. Brock touts himself as a dragon hunter, bearing a wicked scar and exotic claw as proof, and he needs a boy to tend his armor and horses and perform other menial tasks below a hero's dignity. Ansel's terrified, but he has no choice. Then Brock, knowing the mute boy can't spill any secrets, tells him the truth: there's no such thing as a dragon, but superstitious fools pay him well to chase off phantoms of their own hysteria, and the tales of his exploits earn him free board (and often free bedmates) at any inn in medieval Europe.
When Brock and Ansel arrive at the Drachenberg, however, the stories flow dark and thick of the monster haunting the icy slopes. Maybe these alpine villagers are more easily spooked than most, or less devoted to the light of God. Or maybe Brock is wrong, and there's still at least one dragon left in the world...

REVIEW: I freely admit I bought this almost solely on the title and cover, plus the discounted price at the thrift store. At first, it looked like a fairly predictable tale, one in which the "dragon" would be easily explained away... a feeling reinforced when the characters' Christian faith comes up often. However, I was pleasantly surprised. There's a little more going on than meets the eye, and faith in God isn't an automatic golden ticket to victory. Ansel tries his best to be loyal, even though he has mixed feelings about serving a charlatan, but ultimately must become his own master to endure what proves to be a very real encounter (not a spoiler - the fact that the dragon exists isn't the main twist). Brock himself never set out to be a fraud, but has rationalized his choices... only to find himself tested to the utmost when he faces the very thing he never believed possible, yet which he built his entire false reputation upon. Along the way, they encounter an outcast village girl whom villagers used to bait the beast, who is anything but a princess or a helpless damsel. Even the dragon has a bit of an unexpected story, for all that it's a beast. The story plays out on the high, remote slopes of the Drachenburg, a fierce and forbidding landscape from another age, where upstart humans and their notions of truth and logic and what may or may not exist have little place. It's a fairly fast-paced tale, with some startling encounters and lessons learned, coming to a reasonably satisfying conclusion, especially given my usual luck with Christian-themed fantasy.

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The Dragonslayers (Bruce Coville) - My Review
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Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Julie Andrews Edwards
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Potter children - Ben, Tom, and Lindy - didn't even want to go to the zoo, not until their parents pushed them out the door that October day. If they'd never gone, they'd never have met Professor Savant, an eccentric old man who tells them about the elusive Whangdoodle, an animal stranger and more wonderful than any beast at any zoo. Long ago, Whangdoodles and other peculiar animals like dragons and unicorns lived alongside people, but over time humans forgot about them; those who didn't pine away in sorrow found sanctuary in a world created by the last and greatest and wisest of all the Whangdoodles. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Potter think it's all make-believe, but Savant's a Nobel-winning professor of genetics: surely, if he believes in the Whangdoodle, it's likely such a beast exists - and if it does, the three kids want nothing more in the whole world than to meet it. Under the professor's tutelage, the Potter children learn to stretch their minds and open their imagination, all in hopes of reaching Whangdoodleland and seeing its wonders... but the Prock, prime minister in charge of the last Whangdoodle's safety, mistrusts humans and will do anything to keep them away.

REVIEW: Considered a classic by many, this book is a fun old-school children's adventure tale hearkening back to a more innocent time, along the lines of Edith Nesbit or L. Frank Baum. The kids are simple enough characters, but worth rooting for, as is Professor Savant, whose struggle to reconnect to Whangdoodleland and its long-forgotten inhabitants is partially tied to his work in genetics. With humans on the verge of creating life, he reasons, we need our imaginations as well as our intellects on full alert lest our power run away from us, which means remembering all of what we've forgotten through the centuries (and even through our own lifespans; the differences between childhood imagination and adult intellect come into play at key moments in the journey) - a bit of a simplistic message, maybe, but not everything has to be deep and brooding. Whangdoodleland is the sort of place one can't help imagining in Technicolor animation around the live-action children, full of such contrivances as the Jolly Boat (which runs on joke power) and beasts like the helpful Whiffle Bird and deceptive High-Behind Splintercat, and while it's not without its hazards, nobody acts out of evil or malice. Even the Prock just wants what's best for his master. Younger readers will encounter wonders and peril and frequent fun, while grown-ups will find a glimmer of hope that long-lost days of imagination may not be completely lost. It's not quite my cup of cocoa, running silly for my tastes, and it can't help reading a little dated (I wonder how many children today even know what a Soda Fountain is, outside the fantastical Whangdoodleland version that serves up any ice cream treat one can imagine), but I can see and appreciate the charm.

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