Sunday, January 15, 2017

All Things Bright and Beautiful (James Herriot)

All Things Bright and Beautiful
James Herriot
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Animals/Autobiography
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Yorkshire country veterinarian James Herriot collects more tales of his life and practice. Now a newlywed and a full partner, his life is still filled with eccentric farmers, peculiar cases, and other adventures.

REVIEW: Like Herriot's first volume, All Creatures Great and Small, this collection captures a lost time and place, a world on the cusp of great change and revolution that would eventually remake even small farm towns like "Darrowby," the author's somewhat-fictionalized recrafting of the small Yorkshire communities where he practiced. (Other details are altered as well.) He himself would soon depart to serve in World War II's Royal Air Force. More stories, some charming and some sad, unfold, including a few more flashbacks to his often-disastrous courtship of Helen. Brothers Siegfried and Tristan are less prominent here, as Herriot proved himself in the first volume and is now more a colleague than a wet-eared student. The harshness and beauty of the Yorkshire landscape and the farming life come through clearly in every story, as do the changes slowly remaking not only his practice (such as his first experiences with antibiotics) but the rest of the community (the waning of the draft horse, among other things.) It's an enjoyable collection of memories.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Being a Beast (Charles Foster) - My Review
All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot) - My Review
The Cat Who Couldn't See In The Dark (Howard Padwee, D.V.M., and Valerie Moolman) - My Review

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Monster on the Hill (Rob Harrell)

Monster on the Hill
Rob Harrell
Top Shelf Productions
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In mid-1800's England, monsters are all the rage. Every worthwhile town has its own beast, and regular raids mean a thriving tourist industry. But Stoker-on-Avon's monster, Rayburn, does nothing but mope and groan all day, an embarrassment that hasn't sold a single action figure or trading card. A discredited inventor and a street urchin take up the task of getting Rayburn into proper monstrous form - but their efforts may not be enough when a real threat comes to town.

REVIEW: Monster on the Hill is a bit of a riff on the old Reluctant Dragon idea, a monster who has little experience or interest in being a monster. Doctor Wilkie and young Tim, plus an old schoolmate (and highly successful monster), Tentaculor (also known as Noodles), help lure him out of his funk, though naturally at some point Rayburn must stand on his own two talons. It's a fun read, if rather lightweight and a trifle predictable... enough to almost, but not quite, cost it a half-star.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Princeless (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett)

Only You Can Save Mankind
(The Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Book 1)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Johnny Maxwell didn't play computer games like some of his friends did, to dissect their secrets or beat top scores. He just wanted help escaping the Trying Times he's going through, with his parents stomping and yelling and the news full of desert maps and missiles... and his buddy, Wobbler, always gives him pirated copies of the top-rated games for free. But when Johnny boots up the latest alien-shooter craze, Only You Can Save Mankind, something strange happens. Instead of trying to destroy him, the ScreeWee fleet surrenders. Now they want Johnny to give them safe passage to their homeworld, defending them from other gamers. Maybe Wobbler hacked the game for a joke, or the manufacturer included an Easter egg that the manual didn't talk about... or maybe all these games he and his friends play connect to something stranger and deeper, something with consequences beyond a high-score screen.

REVIEW: Written during Operation Desert Storm, this book attempts to deconstruct humanity's paradoxical relationship with war and games, and the disconnect with reality that both engender. Being a middle-grade title, it can be a trifle heavy-handed with its messages, but it never talks down to its audience or oversimplifies matters. Johnny is an average kid, part of a group of average, differently-talented and -challenged English schoolboys who are each, in their own ways, trying to figure out their lives and their complicated world. The desert war starts out as a backdrop, something to be ignored unless it preempts their favorite TV shows, but as Johnny becomes drawn deeper into the ScreeWee conflict (via increasingly-realistic dreams, plus waking-world developments in the game), he starts making connections that elude many grown-ups, seeing the "games" that make up life and realizing that the only way they'll ever change is if people stop being slaves to the perceived rules and start working to change them. As usual for Pratchett, he gets in some good side-digs at other issues, particularly sexism and racism and the ways people deny, downplay, and justify their treatment of others. The story moves decently and has some real bite, looking war and death straight in the eye and not allowing the characters or the reader to flinch. The games may seem a little dated to modern young readers, but Pratchett does a decent job capturing the culture (at least as it existed back then), and the general tone of computer games has stayed remarkably constant even with upgrades in processing power and plots: it still often boils down to "kill the Other and win," be they 8-bit pixel ships or 3D, AI-driven hordes. A few minor threads didn't quite come together, though this is the first of a trilogy, even if the ScreeWee storyline appears to wrap up here. All in all, it's a good read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
God Game (Andrew M. Greeley) - My Review
Caverns of Socrates (Dennis L. McKiernan) - My Review
The Last Starfighter 25th Anniversary Edition - Amazon DVD link

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I Am A Story (Dan Yaccarino)

I Am A Story
Dan Yaccarino
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: From the earliest fireside gatherings to the digital age, stories have accompanied humans around the world. Follow a story's journey through time.

REVIEW: I saw this at work, and decided it needed to be my first review of 2017, given the challenges facing my country and the world this year. Author and artist Yaccarino tells a simple story of a profound concept, one that challenges and comforts, threatens and reassures, but ultimately is a deeply intrinsic part of our humanity. Even when people try to kill them, stories find a way to endure and thrive. A quick read, with bright illustrations and an ultimately uplifting message... one that even grown-ups need to hear sometimes, when we're at work surrounded by stories and ideas that others likely find threatening and will do their level best to silence as they gain the power.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett) - My Review
The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup) - My Review
What Do You Do With an Idea? (Kobi Yamata) - My Review

Saturday, December 31, 2016

December Site Update and Year in Review

Well, the last ten reviews of 2016 have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.

Looking back, it wasn't the greatest of years on many levels (perhaps the understatement of all time). I thought I'd take a look back on my reading year.

The year started off with some decent reads that linger well in the memory. Jess E. Owen's Song of the Summer King, a magical tale of gryphons, still has me wanting to read the sequel. Kennedy Warne's Let Them Eat Shrimp introduced me to yet another global environmental disaster, with some few shreds of hope that people might wake up in time to change things. And I remembered why I loved Katherine Applegate when I read her delightful, deceptively simple The One and Only Ivan.

I went on a Princeless binge this month, enjoying the first two volume collections of Jeremy Whitley's trope-inverting fantasy comic books. Thanks to a discounted eBook, I finally read the first published Discworld novel by the late, great Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic. And I had my greatest reading surprise of the year when a nonfiction book about sports and history became one of my favorites: Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat, about the underdog college rowing team that went all the way to the Berlin Olympics.

This month, I ranged from new publications to classics. Behind the Canvas, Alexander Vance's middle-grade art fantasy, was the first 2016 publication I read in the year. Then I ranged back to the mid-20th century with Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. I also finally explored the world of English rabbits in Richard Adams's Watership Down... little realizing that Adams would be following the Black Rabbit at the end of the year.

April proved a generally disappointing month. High hopes were dashed when I read the first Sharing Knife book by Lois McMaster Bujold, Beguilement; after reading so many positive things about it, my own reaction was profound disappointment.

After a dull April, my reading selections picked up in May. James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small remains a classic worth revisiting. Jeff Vandermeer's peculiar writing advice volume Wonderbook informed and inspired.

This month brought me one of the year's most amusing reads, Platte F. Clarke's Bad Unicorn. It also marked a personal reading milestone as I finally crawled across the finish line on the unabridged Moby Dick, Melville's "experimental" classic... an experience I now never have to repeat.

Not all classics need be tiring slogs though; July introduced me to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which still brings thrills and twists more than 70 years after it was published. I also took a trip down memory lane when I found a half-price copy of Dragon Magic, an Andre Norton fantasy my impatient childhood self never finished. And I discovered how lyrical an autobiography could be in Beryl Markham's West With the Night.

Another month running the gamut from old works (Clifford D. Simak's City) to new (Anthony Ryan's The Waking Fire.) Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road gave new life to Westerns, and Jack Horner's How to Build a Dinosaur explored new and exciting discoveries and possibilities in paleontology. I also finally "met" the noted, popular author Sherman Alexie with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I learned the hard way that nostalgia should sometimes be left alone when I read Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, and found the book less wondrous than my memories of the movie. I also explored the roots of modern fantasy with Fritz Leiber's still-readable first collection of tales about the iconic heroes Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser in Swords and Deviltry. And I got around to George Orwell's Animal Farm, blissfully unaware how prophetic it would prove.

Old-fashioned adventure yarns are alive and well in David D. Levine's throwback-style space fantasy Arabella of Mars.Mac Barnett's picture book How This Book Was Made made for delightful reading. And Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts explored beyond the usual pseudo-European roots of fantasy as it mined Asian and Mongolian myths. Finally, I hit the nostalgia bin once more to reread a childhood favorite, Norma Fox Mazer's Saturday, the Twelfth of October.

A gut-punch of a month, all in all, in which I only managed to read four books, about the lowest monthly total since I've been keeping this blog. Wade Albert White's The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes provided some much-needed levity, as did Joshua Hale Fialkov's King: The Graphic Novel.

The year closed out with another graphic novel binge, this time Joshua Williamson's and Andrei Bressan's Birthright series. Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, struck a little close to home with its alternate-future fantasy world in which knowledge is controlled by a corrupt global force. And Peter Brown, whom I'd only known from picture books, moves to longer-form middle grade work with his imaginative The Wild Robot.

And that wraps up the year in review. The previous summaries glossed over several excellent (and less-than-excellent) titles, naturally, but they're a rough look back at what stands out in my memory after twelve months and numerous reviews.

Onward to 2017!