Monday, October 26, 2009

And Another Thing... (Eoin Colfer)

And Another Thing...
(The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Book 6)
Eoin Colfer
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION:  The hapless human Arthur Dent, his hitchhiking Betelguesean friend Ford Prefect, the one-time human girlfriend of the President of the Galaxy Trillian, and Arthur and Trillian's moody teenage daughter Random were last seen on Earth - at least, an Earth from a dimension that wasn't destroyed by Vogons - facing down the planet-devouring death rays of the Grebulons.  This story, the long-anticipated sixth installment of the late Douglas Adams' classic sci-fi series, begins with Arthur, Ford, Trillian, and Random facing down the planet-devouring death rays of the Grebulons, after a brief mental sidetrack into the lives they wished they'd led.  With improbably good timing, ex-President Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Infinite Improbability Drive ship Heart of Gold (now powered by one of Zaphod's heads instead of the original shipboard computer) turn up to snatch the foursome from the soon-to-be-destroyed-in-all-remaining-dimensions Earth.  Meanwhile, Prostetnic Jeltz, the Vogon responsible for the destruction of Earth in this and all other possible dimensions (to ensure a smooth and large-planetary-obstacle-free hyperspace bypass passage), turns his bureaucruiser Business End toward a new target.  Evidently, a handful of Earthlings survived the fall of their planet on a small Magrathean-crafted world called Nano... and surviving Earthlings could mean official protests and demands for restitution, just the sort of justice the Vogons would rather avoid.
Thus begins another chapter in the lives of Arthur Dent and company, a chapter involving unemployed gods, a dark matter ship with a crush on its former owner, improbable love affairs, strained family ties, planet-endangering peril, and of course cheese.

REVIEW: I'm not sure how to review this one.  My original impression of the series was severely tainted by the final book, which read like a dark cloud spitting all over an otherwise enjoyable picnic lunch.  From what I gather, the late Douglas Adams wasn't too keen on the way he ended the series, and may have been considering a sixth book himself before Fate decided otherwise. Now comes this book, written by Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl young adult fantasy series. In tackling this book, he not only took on an iconic universe, but picked up the considerable challenge of writing a sequel to a series that ended fairly definitively in the previous volume, with the utter annihilation of the characters, the planet, and the titular guidebook.  Of course, in sci-fi, dead doesn't mean dead unless the rating say otherwise, and in a universe as irreverent and deliberately illogical as the one Adams created, it means even less than that.  Carrying on that universe, Colfer comes across as a bit over-eager; he frequently interrupts the narrative with bits from the Guide's vast repository of generally useless galactic trivia, a gimmick that works better on screen (as in the last movie or the BBC adaptations) than in print, and he almost goes out of his way bringing in species and characters from Adam's books as if hoping to give extra nudges and winks to any remaining skeptics about the revival of the Hitchhiker print franchise.  Other than that, he did a good job capturing the whimsical, occasionally fatalistic feel of the original books.  As for the characters, they were pretty much as I remembered them... unfortunately so, in the case of Random.  Except for the very last bit of the book, she was nothing but a cliche of a brooding teenager, and even then she took her moody selfishness too far.  But, then, the characters always had a touch of the exaggerated to them, as it was a deliberately exaggerated and silly universe.  In the end, Colfer manages to pull most of the story's wild threads together into a fairly cohesive ending... a distinctly better ending, I must say, than the one Adams smacked me in the face with in Mostly Harmless (the fifth Hitchhiker book.)  I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that there's a very strong hint of more books to come; I wonder if Colfer will get to write them, or if the resurrected franchise will be passed like a torch among authors, to carry where they will.  In any event, even if this wasn't five-star literature, it entertained me while I read it and left me reasonably satisfied, and for that it earns Good marks.  I mostly read it hoping to dispell the gloom of depression cast by the fifth book, and in that I have to say Colfer definitely came through with flying colors.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Site Updated, Reviews Archived again

I'd wanted to keep things on a monthly-update schedule, but computer issues and holiday projects conspired against me.  I lost a chunk of September to a rogue antivirus - read "malware" -  that hitched a ride on a free game I downloaded, and subsequently lost a chunk of October reloading the programs and files I lost when the shop had to reformat my hard drive extracting the rogue antivirus.  So keep an eye on your computer directories for programs you don't remember downloading, even if they look benign.  Even Norton couldn't catch this one...  Now, I'm up to my neck in projects for the holidays, in the hopes of finishing soon enough to actually enjoy the holidays.  I'm still finding some pockets of reading time, but they're few and far between.

In any event, the previous book reviews have been archived on the website.  I also went through and fixed some niggling little errors and added more Amazon links, on the theory that I'll get around to promoting the place in some meaningful fashion in the future.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

Red Mars
(Book 1 of 3)
Kim Stanley Robinson
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION:  Mars.  The red planet.  For untold centuries, it has gleamed in the night skies.  It has been an omen, a warning, a god.  Now, in the twenty-first century, it is about to become something more: a home.  After John Boone's successful manned Mars landing, momentum quickly gained across the overpopulated Earth for a permanent colony.  Now, Boone and ninety-nine hand-picked international scientists, from engineers to geologists (or areologists) to bioengineers and more, are on their way to establish the first manned outposts.  The logistical challenges of sustaining life on the frozen planet will be difficult enough on their own, but each of those first hundred colonists brings with them something potentially more powerful and dangerous than the thin toxic atmosphere or the ever-present threats of global dust storms and meteor strikes: their emotional, illogical humanity.
This begins the saga of Mars, a story spanning generations, written in tales of raw courage, international greed, love, rivalries, revolution... and even murder.

REVIEW:  I've been feeling a need for some sci-fi to balance out the fantasy in my reading list, so when I found this for a buck at the secondhand book store, I gave it a try.  I actually placed this on the line with Excellent.  Robinson somehow manages the tricky feat of incorporating human storylines with global - even interplanetary - sciences, such as terraforming, space travel, minerology, geology, psychology, and anthropology, among others.  I'm not exactly a science major myself, so a good deal of it went over my head, but I found the ideas fascinating, and fascinating ideas are why I read sci-fi (and fantasy) to begin with.  I also found it vaguely depressing; when this book was written in 1993, it seemed entirely plausible that something like a Mars colony (or even a permanent moon colony) would at least be in the works, if not actually started... and that America might be in on the ground floor of such a project.  That was before we became a nation of short-sighted, undereducated slobs who seem to relish in our own growing ignorance and lack of scientific leadership... but I digress.  Getting back to the book, several of the characters ran together in my head, but the main ones stood out decently in my mind, even if I sometimes had to think a bit to remember who they were, why they were on Mars, and where they fit into the overall story when they popped up again.  The action picks up as the book - and the colonies - go on.  I clipped it because some of the politics grew overly tangled, and every so often the science tangents interfered with the story rather than enhancing it. (It could be because I haven't read any "hard" sci-fi in a while, so I was a bit thrown while I reoriented my brain.) On the whole, though, this is a suitably epic tale given its vast topic, and I plan to keep an eye peeled for a budget-friendly copy of the second book, Green Mars.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dracopedia (Wiliam O'Connor)

Dracopedia: A Guide to Drawing the Dragons of the World
William O'Connor
Nonfiction, Art
***** (Excellent)

DESCRIPTION: Since ancient times, the world has been filled with a mulitiude of dragons. Great serpentine sea orcs, multiheaded hydras, diminutive feydragons, eight-legged basilisks, traditional winged dragons... all these and more continue to inhabit the wildest and most hidden realms. The author describes many dragon species and offers step-by-step instructions for painting them.

REVIEW: O'Connor's art appears in titles from Wizards of the Coast, Lucasfilms, and other prominent names in the fantasy entertainment industry.  Here, he offers a look into his work process. By presupposing dragons to be real, he fleshes out each species with exploratory sketches, giving them each peculiar markings, habitats, and other traits. The "step by step" part isn't so much about how the image is drawn as it is about how to render it in color; he jumps from thumbnail to finished sketch in one step, then scans it in for color work in Photoshop. This can get a bit repetitive, image after image, though each one has a slightly different focus. His images are so diverse and lively, and the dragons he invents so imaginative, that I readily forgave this flaw. This one may not walk you through drawing dragons in baby steps, but the inspiration factor alone makes it a winner for any aspiring fantasy artist or dragon fan!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold! (Terry Brooks)

Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold!
(The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, Book 1)
Terry Brooks
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Attorney Ben Holiday's life ended two years ago with the sudden death of his wife Annie. Now, he lives as a virtual recluse, increasingly disenchanted with the legal profession and increasingly resistant to the efforts of his last remaining friend to draw him back into the social world. One evening, he finds a chance at salvation in the pages of a high-end catalog's Christmas Wishbook: for a mere million dollars, he can purchase a magic kingdom and rule as King. Dragons, knights, fairies, chivalry... Landover promises all this, and more. It has to be a trick. At the very least, it's a waste of good money. But something about that ad pulls at Ben, and he can't come up with a good reason to walk away. After all, he's been living like a dead man in this world - why not try for something better in another?
Advertizing, Ben quickly discovers, is not always accurate. The magical kingdom of Landover is a fixer-upper if ever there was one. The magic that sustains it has been slowly but surely draining away since the last true King died twenty years ago. The human lords squabble and backstab amongst themselves, a dreadful dragon stalks the skies, and demons roam freely through the land, putting many a would-be ruler to a gruesome death. Even the Paladin, legendary defender of Landover, has seemingly vanished from the world. In fact, the only allies left to the throne are a half-baked wizard who can never seem to find the right spells, a court scribe who was turned into a dog, and a pair of kobolds who don't even speak human tongues. Worse, Ben's fledgling rule is swiftly challenged by the dread demon lord Iron Mark.. a challenge no mortal can hope to survive.
As a lawyer, Ben has faced many difficult trials. Convincing the people of Landover to accept an offworld king - and living long enough to actually rule - will quickly become the trial of his life.

REVIEW: A fun book, it moves decently, if not necessarily at a breakneck pace. Landover has all the trappings of a typical fairy-tale kingdom, and while it may not be startlingly original at least it's nicely described. Likewise, Ben's new advisors lean on fantasy cliches, but have some traces of true and distinctive personalities. More than one plot twist relies on other people knowing things Ben doesn't and choosing not to tell him about it until sufficiently pressed, which grew a bit irritating. The ending leaves plenty of openings for sequels, which evidently comprise the rest of the Landover series. All in all, I enjoyed reading this book, though I can't say I feel a need to read any further.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Learn to Draw Like the Masters: Dragons (Eugene Caine)

Learn to Draw Like the Masters: Dragons
Eugene Caine
Walter Foster Books
Nonfiction, YA? Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Throughout history, dragons have been a popular subject for artists around the world. While dragons today are exceptionally rare, many of history's great art masters left behind masterful renderings of their own encounters with the great beasts. Modern dragonologists and artists alike can learn much from their techniques, as the author demonstrates through several studies and exercises.

REVIEW: This is one of the most unusual dragon drawing books I've come across. It stars with the not-entirely-original idea that dragons are real, if remarkably rare and elusive, and that important historical figures were part-time "dragonologists" (a word coined by Dugald A. Steer's incredibly popular Dragonology series, I believe, and now in danger of being overused.) Caine, however, applies this idea to the world of classical art. Using images both authentic and imaginary, he demonstrates various art techniques used by the masters - including Da Vinci, Picasso, Rubens, and Van Gogh - with dragons as a common subject. There's a nice section on dragon anatomy and art media, then step-by-step demonstrations highlighting each artist's particular style. He also describes how to artificially age one's dragon sketches to make them look like old documents, a process I found oddly fascinating. I had a minor quibble with some of his anatomy; for all that he did an excellent job drawing a dragon skeleton (and actually remembering the "elbow" of the wing, which many artists sadly overlook), his main demonstration sketch has an impossible secondary "wrist" in the far forelimb that not only runs counter to general anatomy, but to his own dragon skeletal sketches (and the anatomy of the other forelimb on the same exact dragon drawing.) At least, I can't work out how that joint could possibly flex the ways he shows it and still be based on the same skeleton - it looks distractingly awkward, not to mention painful. That aside, I enjoyed the variety of techniques demonstrated, and I liked how he explained that all art styles have merit, even when drawing dragons. This book should appeal to dragon lovers and aspiring artists alike, teaching art appreciation as well as technique. An enjoyable book all around!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Spindle's End (Robin McKinley)

Spindle's End
Robin McKinley
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In a faraway country where fairies and humans live side by side and the magic's so thick it falls as a chalky dust over the land, a king and a queen give birth to a long-awaited daughter. The princess's naming day is to be quite a spectacle: representatives from every community in the land are invited to officially welcome the babe, and in honor of her twenty-one names, she is to have twenty-one fairy godparents, who are each to bestow a magical gift. But an old rival of the royal family, the dark fairy Pernicia, determines the occasion fit to exact dark revenge. She places a curse upon the girl's head: by her twenty-first birthday, she shall prick her finger upon the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. The king and queen order all spinning wheel spindles to be blunted, but in a land so steeped in magic a curse isn't going to be so easily thwarted.
Katriona hails from a small villiage in the swampy section of the kingdom called the Gig, a place where the magic dust falls a bit thicker and the fairies are a bit more plentiful than the rest of the land. A young fairy whose own powers haven't awakened yet, she was as surprised as anyone to be chosen to travel to the royal naming-day ceremony. Once there, she inadvertently finds herself directly involved the the struggle to save the princess from her cursed fate: Katriona somehow pierces the dark fairy's magical barriers and, with a seemingly meaningless gift of her own, finds herself bound to carry off and hide the royal child. In the Gig, the girl she calls Rosie will have quite an unprincessly upbringing, but - for a time - her obscurity should render her safe. As the days tick closer to her fateful birthday, however, the truth about her heritage and possible fate cannot remain hidden for long, from Rosie or the kingdom... or the ever-waiting, ever-hateful Pernicia.

REVIEW: Obviously a retelling of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, this should've been a Good book. Rosie makes a likeable heroine, her animal friends are decently realized characters and (usually) not just cheap plot tricks, and if Katriona wasn't always the most intelligent guardian... well, nobody's perfect, even in fairy tales. And a land where magic is so thick it dusts the shelves, where outbreaks of "baby magic" among infants mean many children must be temporarily fostered out until they can no longer conjure phantom tigers or turn themselves into animals or plants or something hideously else... how can a setting like that be boring? By spending nearly half the page count on irrelevant tangents, backstories, and sidetracks, evidently. The plot suffers under the extra weight, being little more than a vague, misty path through a great bog. I found myself struggling to push forward until nearly the final fifth of the book. By then, I suppose McKinley had told all the side-tales she'd wanted to tell; the climax moves at a fair clip, and it almost made up for the previous tedium. Almost. In the end, the earlier slog proved too much of an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of the fourth star in the ratings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eccentric Circles (Rebecca Lickiss)

Eccentric Circles
Rebecca Lickiss
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: All her life, Piper Pied Dickerson has wanted to lead a normal life, with normal friends and a normal home. With her eccentric family, though, that's never been possible. It doesn't help that she's still drifting years after college, nursing half-formed hopes of publishing novels. After her great-grandmother dies, Piper unexpectedly inherits her house, a small Victorian cottage in a Colorado suburb. It's full of dust, old furniture, books... and magic, as she learns when she comes down the stairs in the morning to find an elf sitting at the kitchen table. His name is Aelvarim. He hails from the land of Fairy - just through the cottage's back door, if you know how to pass through it right - and he's come to solve Grandma Dickerson's murder: her death, he insists, was no mere accident of old age, but a magically-committed crime. Though Piper can't help but feel attracted to the handsome, likely lunatic man in her kitchen, she wants no part in his delusions... but she may not have a choice. When her great-grandmother died, the world of Fairy began falling apart, with bits and pieces falling into black rifts and nothingness. The rifts will spread to Piper's own world soon, for if the realm of imagination fails, the real world will quickly follow. Like it or not, Piper the would-be writer finds herself cast in a story of her own. Will she become an unlikely hero, or another tragic victim?

REVIEW: A fast read, I found it vaguely enjoyable, yet oddly bland at the same time. Piper takes too long figuring out that Fairy is a real place and Aelvarim is a real elf.  After that she remains wishy-washy on the whole "saving the world" part of her job; she'd much rather drool over the handsome elf, even as she frets and worries over his sanity and whether or not coming from different dimensions would significantly impede romantic relationships. The world of Fairy should've been more captivating, but it feels more like a cul-de-sac than a world. There are only three inhabitants - a dwarf, a wizard, and the elf, plus a handful of generic, pesky fairies - and one little path in an endless, featureless wood. This not only limits the imaginative horizons, but it limits the suspect list in Grandma Dickerson's murder to three on the Fairy side. I'd actually hoped more would come of Piper's large and eccentric family, after the time Lickiss spent establishing them; it would've added a nice twist in the tale if Piper wasn't the first Dickerson relation to stumble across Great-Grandma's back door to another world, especially if one of them was presented as a potential suspect in a magical murder. But, no, mainly her family exists to distract her from the search for clues (and provide people who embarrass her about her new elfish boyfriend.) As for the murder itself, Piper and Aelvarin spend more time looking for clues and not finding them than they do solving anything, and the culprit proved too obvious. The ending wraps up a bit too easily. Overall, it's not a terrible little book, but it missed several opportunities to be a better story than it was.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Brightdreamer Books has just been updated, and the previous two reviews are now archived on its pages.

The design's still rather sparse at the moment - I'm still deciding how fancy I want to get with CSS and other design toys - but the content's been redesigned for easier access (I hope.)


Monday, September 7, 2009

A College of Magics (Caroline Stevermer)

A College of Magics
Caroline Stevermer
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Faris Nallaneen came to the college of Greenlaw intending to be expelled. After all, she's heir to the dukedom of Galazon - possibly, according to some, the throne of Aravill - and her greedy, scheming Uncle Brinker isn't fooling anyone when he says he sent her to the distant school for her own good: until she reaches the age of majority, he gets to rule in her stead, and the longer she's away the more time he has to plot to make his temporary dukeship permanent. Besides, everyone knows that Greenlaw's chief interest is training witches, and like many Faris doesn't believe in magic as anything other than a mind trick. If she were expelled, she could at least go back home to try to reassert her presence and future claims; if nothing else, it would surely anger Brinker, who must've paid a pretty penny to secure her a spot at such late notice. Surprisingly, the Dean accepts her as a student, but Faris's misgivings compound when she finds that a rival - Menary of Aravill, whose family deposed Faris's late mother and father from the Aravill crown and sent them to die ignobly in seabound exile - is in attendance as well. Whether or not she wanted to learn magic, Greenlaw has its own ways of teaching, ways which even the headstrong dutchess-in-waiting cannot ignore... for if she does, the balance of the whole world may suffer.

REVIEW: I can sum up my problem with this book in four words: I did not care. Why I didn't care, I cannot precisely say.  Partly, it was because, wherever Faris is, her mind (and therefore the narrative) is focused somewhere else. When she's at Greenlaw, she can think of nothing but Galazon, the long-ago exiles of her parents, and the political machinations of her uncle. When she's away from the college, her thoughts keep going back to Greenlaw. It made me feel as though I was always a few steps removed from the plot, as though Stevermer, for whatever reason, didn't have access to the story itself, and had to imply its progress secondhand.  So maybe that's why I couldn't feel a thing for Faris, her British friend Jane, her enemy Menara, or even her Great Destiny and the Fate of the World. It may also have had something to do with the fact that Stevermer only created half of a world - four small duchies, in fact, plus a magic system so Vast and Profound it was impossibly vague to Faris (and therefore, to me as a reader) - and shoehorned them into an otherwise-normal early 20th century Europe. One would think that the simple presence of magic, no matter how elusive, would have some impact on such an alternate world, but if it had an impact we readers weren't advised of it, except in the vague way that "witches" from Greenlaw were accepted into high society whether or not they displayed true talent. Whatever the reason, I found myself filled with a profound apathy about the world, the story, even the magic system. I couldn't bring myself to care much about the climax, let alone the conclusion, which pushes the envelope of credulity in the neatness of its wrap-up. I only bothered finishing this book out of a vague sense of duty, and in a vain attempt to figure out why Stevermer named it after a college which only occupied a third of the total story. In the end, I couldn't even care enough to give it an Okay rating, though I know I've read far worse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dragon's Keep (Janet Lee Carey)

Dragon's Keep
Janet Lee Carey
Magic Carpet Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Rosalind Pendragon was born to rule Wylde Island, and more. Twenty-one generations ago, the wizard Merlin himself spoke a prophecy of her birth, foretelling great power and glory... but even the stars can be read wrong, it seems. For Rose was born with a hideous disfigurment, a dragon's claw in place of her ring finger. Only her mother, Queen Gweneth, knows the dreadful secret - the girl has worn long gloves her whole life - but if Rose is to ever wed, let alone wear the crown, she must be perfect. As healer after healer fails to dispell the curse, the queen grows more and more desperate to heal her child, to the point of smothering her beneath mountains of expectations and frustrated dreams. Meanwhile, the countryside is plagued by killers and rogues, not to mention black witches and the great, fiery dragons from the isle of Dragon's Keep. Witches, wars, and murders await as Rosalind struggles to find the truth behind Merlin's prophecy and save her home.

REVIEW: Dragon's Keep starts out slow and builds its action in fits and starts. In between, Rosalind's character is fleshed out remarkably well, as is the superstition-riddled world she lives in. Carey's dragon culture - it's no spoiler that dragons come into play as more than incidental marauders - is also nicely dealt with. A certain stubborn obtuseness keeps Rose (and some other key characters) from connecting vital dots until nearly the last minute, but this isn't the first case of Plot-Extending Stupidity I've read, nor is it the worst by far. The whole book has a nicely dark feel to it, in Rose's angst and seemingly futile hopes of fulfilling impossible expectations. Overall, I found it a nice, fairly fast read, a bit different than the average fantasy tale. If there is a sequel - and, naturally, there's every hint of one at the end - I expect I'll give it a try.

First Post in a New Blog

Greetings, and welcome to my new blog!

As the title implies, I'll be posting book reviews (and possibly the occasional DVD or movie review) here. I rate on a 5-star system, with one star being Terrible and five being Excellent. Reviews posted here will eventually be archived on my book review website, which is currently in the process of a major makeover. (The results will be posted before October, I hope...)

So, enough introduction. Let's get this thing posted and start reviewing!