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!