Friday, December 2, 2016

The Accidental Highwayman (Ben Tripp)

The Accidental Highwayman
(The Kit Bristol series, Book 1)
Ben Tripp
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Orphan Kit Bristol thought his prospects were looking up when he was bought from a circus by Master Rattle, to serve as house boy and errand runner for the nobleman. Little did he suspect, until he found his master dying of a musket wound on the kitchen floor, that Rattle was really Whistling Jack, notorious highwayman of the English countryside. He thought he was doing Rattle a favor by dressing in the highwayman's costume and riding Midnight, his horse, to throw pursuers off the trail. By donning the mask and boots, Kit has not only made himself a target of a ruthless colonel, but has taken up obligations he knows little of, obligations tied to the fairies of England and the schemes of their mad king. Now the fate of a halfblood princess, a former circus colleague, and England's fairies and humans alike rest on this accidental highwayman's young shoulders.

REVIEW: It looked fun and lightweight, an old-school yarn of highwaymen and magic. Early on, that's what it seemed like it would be. Kit's young and naive, but he does his best when confronted with his master's true occupation. Then he faces his first challenge, rescuing the halfblood fairy Princess Morgana from a marriage to England's young king-in-waiting George III, and the story grows shaky as it relies on too many coincidences and last-minute deus ex machina saves while Kit proves inept at basic tasks (though, to be fair, nobody tells him enough about fairy magic for him to anticipate its effects - then they often berate him for not knowing.) Before long, the inexperienced boy finds himself caretaker of not one but two overemotional and helpless women - one of them the self-same fairy princess, whose inexperience in the real world I could buy but whose utter ineptness about her own powers (plus her general uselessness for most of the story) I just couldn't swallow. Yes, this was written in the style of the 1700's, but for a twenty-first century audience... I would've hoped we'd be a little beyond the cliche of the helpless damsel(s) in distress who must rely on a man, even an underaged man, for protection and guidance. There's supposed to be a budding romance between Kit and Princess Morgana, but none of their interactions are anything but stilted, full of stereotypical girlish mood swings and boyish obliviousness and confusion, with not a smidgen of chemistry or genuine affection. There are also a number of fairy folk flitting about, who behave largely as comic relief (particularly in their light-up behinds, which seems like the kind of silly detail a younger target audience would enjoy more but which gets far too much page time in this longer, slightly more grown-up story) but also can pose serious threats, if somewhat watered down by ridiculous appearances. The tale lurches along, veering from plot point to plot point as Kit wavers between clever hero and bumbling idiot, before coming to a drawn-out finale that really drives home how helpless women are and how lucky they should be that they have an English boy to save them. I never did connect with the characters, who too often seemed like flimsy plot constructs, and I only enjoyed their adventures in fits and starts, not helped by the forced faux-period storytelling style. I liked a few of the period details, and now and again the tale gained interest and momentum, but it never lived up to its potential.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Misadventures of Maude March (Audrey Couloumbis) - My Review
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - My Review

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November Site Update

It hasn't been a great month in many ways, but I managed to archive and cross-link the previous five book reviews on the main site.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Last of the Giants (Jeff Campbell)

Last of the Giants: The Rise and Fall of Earth's Most Dominant Species
Jeff Campbell
Zest Books
Nonfiction, YA? Animals
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When people think of megafauna, they usually think of such lost behemoths as woolly mammoths - creatures long gone before the rise of recorded history, save a few enigmatic images left by our earliest ancestors on cave walls. Surely, driving animals to oblivion was something only our short-sighted cave-dwelling ancestors would do. But some have vanished in more recent centuries; the baiji, a river dolphin in China, was just declared extinct in 2011. As we stand on the brink of the "Sixth Extinction", even more species are poised on the edge. The author describes thirteen species - most lost to us, a few barely clinging to survival - and what humans have done to both destroy and save them.

REVIEW: By its very nature, this is a depressing book on many levels. For all the compassion we preach (if so rarely practice) in our religions and philosophies, for all the reverence we bestow upon animals, even for all the scientific progress we've made, we just can't seem to grasp how to live without destroying most every species and ecosystem we encounter - or how such destruction ultimately lessens our own chances of long-term survival. Campbell covers a wide range of animals, from the giant moa of New Zealand to the Steller's sea cow of the Arctic, the aurochs of primeval Europe to the passenger pigeon of the Americas. (Why include a relatively small bird? They existed in such massive numbers - over a million to a flock - and had such a large impact on the environment that Campbell fully justifies their inclusion with other earth-shaping megafauna like rhinos and giant tortoises.) This book is geared for the casual reader, suitable for older school-age children, so the articles aren't necessarily deep, but they are reasonably thorough, and an extensive bibliography offers further reading for those interested. For all the doom and gloom, some glimmers of potential hope remain; not all species in this book are gone, and one can only hope that humanity eventually matures enough, morally and scientifically, to take better care of our world and ourselves.
While the book itself was reasonably interesting, what cost it a solid star in the ratings was the terrible formatting of the eBook copy. In order to preserve the printed book's appearance, with several insets and asides, the text was rendered so small I could barely read it on my Kindle eReader; normally, enlarging the font size helps, but here I had to manually scroll around the page in order to read, which was highly inconvenient. Trying it on the Kindle app of my Nook (with its larger screen) was only marginally better; the book's font was eye-straining to read and couldn't be changed. The insets often broke between pages, and I couldn't just glance ahead to finish like in a printed book. An eBook just plain isn't going to look the same as the print version, and this forced attempt to make them identical hurt my reading experience. Otherwise, this is a good introduction to and exploration of (relatively) recent extinctions and the concept of the Anthropocene age. Just do yourself a favor and get the paperback.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White)

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes
(The Adventurer's Guide series, Book 1)
Wade Albert White
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After a life spent toiling in Saint Lupin's Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children, orphan Anne is finally on the brink of freedom. Like all orphans who turn thirteen, she's to be sent off on the supply ship after its annual visit, and even though her unknown parentage has kept her out of any of the academies or quests the other kids can look forward to, she'll at least be away from the horrible Matron and the coal mines - plus, she'll have her exuberant best friend Penelope with her. But a series of uncontrollable events lead to her getting a quest gauntlet stuck to her arm... a gauntlet that activates itself with a rare and powerful quest medallion. This has to violate any number of rules with the Wizards Council, but quests have their own rules, and Anne and her friends (plus a magical book of marginal usefulness) are stuck right in the thick of one. On the plus side, maybe she'll finally figure out where she came from before she was dumped at Saint Lupin's. On the minus side, there's a very high chance that she and the rest of the world will be utterly obliterated.

REVIEW: I needed a fun pick-me-up, and this fast-reading middle grade fantasy adventure fit the bill. Anne's world - composed of floating tiers of land around a gravitational nexus of raw magic - is a fantasy homage/send-up along the lines of Diana Wynne Jones's Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, or the more recent Bad Unicorn by Platte F. Clarke, but with some technological twists along the way, not to mention hilarious asides from various in-world writings on everything from questing to dragons. Anne's a good-hearted heroine who works through problems with some help from Penelope (who becomes the Fighter of her Rightful Heir quest) and Hiro (the designated Wizard, whose spells have catastrophic side-effects), plus a few other allies she encounters along the way. It's also worth noting that Anne is black, which shouldn't be surprising in this day and age but which is still something of a rarity in fantasy. The story moves at a good clip, though now and again it felt rushed and jumbled even for a middle grade title, and several threads are left unresolved at the end as White teases future installments in this series of undetermined length. That was just enough irritation to knock off a half-star this book almost earned with some laugh-out-loud moments that approached Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett in their hilarity. I had fun reading this one, and expect I'll explore future books if and when they appear.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
Princeless (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Seas of Ernathe (Jeffrey A. Carver)

Seas of Ernathe
(The Star Rigger series)
Jeffrey A. Carver
Laser Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Star pilot Seth Perland arrives at the colony world of Ernathe as part of a two-pronged mission. The native Nale'nids, or "sea people", used to leave the colonists and their plankton harvesting ships in peace, but lately they've been interfering in strange, potentially deadly ways - and nobody can figure out how to communicate with them. The disruption has far wider consequences; Ernathe's plankton may hold the key to rediscovering the trick of star-rigging, using a pilot's own mind to navigate the Flux of hyperspace for faster, more reliable interplanetary travel... and with interstellar war on the horizon, rigging could well mean the difference between survival and extermination for humanity. What Seth finds is not at all what he expects, but this is a mission he cannot afford to fail.

REVIEW: This was the first novel Carver wrote, though chronologically it occurs centuries after his other Star Rigger novels - he himself notes that this will wreak havoc with any attempts to organize and number the series in any meaningful manner. Being a first, and written so long ago (in 1976), it unfortunately shows its age. We have the stock characters of the star pilot outsider coming to a somewhat skeptical and insular colony, the "primitive" natives growing restless, a cast of characters that, despite lip service and occasional token nods being given to women having important jobs, is overwhelmingly male, and the beautiful Nale'nid who bonds with Seth and only just stops shy of the cliche line of "show me more of this strange Earth thing called kissing" during their inevitable affair. Having read other Star Rigger books, I guessed at some of the secrets behind the Nale'nids far before the characters clued in, which made for some frustration. Carver excels at creating detailed scenes and worlds, and his concept of star rigging and the Flux make for some nice twists. Unfortunately, his characterization suffers somewhat, as does the plot, which feels a little stretched. It's worth reading if you enjoy Carver's Star Rigger universe, though I'm not sure it holds up on its own otherwise in this day and age.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Rigger's Way (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review