Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon (Tracy Miller-Zarneke)

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon
Tracy Miller-Zarneke
Newmarket Press
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
****+ (Good/Great)

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon
DESCRIPTION: One of the standout animated movies of 2010, Dreamworks' spellbinding tale of the misfit Viking boy Hiccup and the dragon Toothless, based on the children's book by Cressida Cowell, captured the imaginations of dracophiles young and old. It displayed a marvelous mixture of realistic lighting and textures combined with surreally exaggerated designs, wrapped around a deftly-crafted story that ultimately broke free of the book that inspired it. This collection looks behind the scenes, revealing conceptual art and the artistic evolution of the award-nominated blockbuster.
Includes a preface by author Cressida Cowell and a foreword by Craig Ferguson, who voiced Gobber the blacksmith.

REVIEW: First off, if this movie fails to win an award, it's evidence of exceptionally poor taste and judgment... moreso than even I expect out of the industry.
That said...
As one might surmise, I loved the movie; it easily ranks in the top 5 animated films I've ever seen... and the top 5 films I've seen, period. This book made an excellent companion, revealing the story's long and sometimes awkward path from sketch to screen. Some of the text got a little thick with industry terms, but otherwise I highly enjoyed it. Anyone who loved the movie should get this book, to see how it all came together.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places (Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson)

Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places
Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson
Barnes & Noble Books
Nonfiction, History
*** (Okay)

Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places: The Life and Legends of Ancient Sites Around the World
DESCRIPTION: From all corners of the globe and across a wide swath of history and prehistory, a number of archaological wonders and puzzles - from legendary cities to confounding relics of lost cultures - are discussed and illustrated here.

REVIEW: Another bargain-shelf gamble, I bought it hoping for inspiration. Unfortunately, this is a case of the subject matter being far more interesting than the presentation. The articles are sketchy at best and classroom-textbook boring at worst, and the illustrations are sometimes maddeningly obscure, choosing to depict a random artifact rather than a coherent map of the structure and failing to highlight what the text claimed were the chief curiosities about several structures. Many of the cities and structures mentioned I hadn't heard of, except perhaps vaguely. Instead of walking away knowing more about them, mostly I walked away wishing I'd bought a better book. If nothing else, though, it succeeds in reminding readers that there is far more we've forgotten about our own history than we like to admit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to Paint and Draw Animals (David Astin)

How to Paint and Draw Animals
David Astin
Intercontinental Book Productions
Nonfiction, Art
*** (Okay)

How to Paint and Draw Animals
DESCRIPTION: The artist describes the basics of drawing such animals as dogs, cats, horses, and birds. Also included are demonstration drawings of several subjects in different media, as well as notes on colors, composition, and the value of sketching from life.

REVIEW: On the surface, this makes a decent primer for animal drawing. Astin's methods of breaking down the structures of various subjects almost go too primitive, to the point of being unhelpful. I also wasn't sure about the demonstration projects. But he has some decent stuff here, presented in a relatively unintimidating format. Astin also touches (briefly) on birds, which several animal drawing books I own ignore completely. If you wanted to start drawing animals realistically, you could do worse than to start here, but I think other artists have covered the same material in other works, with more interesting results.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Behemoth (Scott Westerfield)

Behemoth
(The Leviathan trilogy, Book 2)
Scott Westerfield
SimonPulse
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

Behemoth (Leviathan)
DESCRIPTION: The living airship Leviathan, carrying a top secret cargo under the care of Dr. Barlowe, has finally arrived in Istanbul... but not before running afoul of two German warships stranded in the Mediterranean by the onset of war. In theory, the Ottoman Empire is still neutral; though it has strong Clanker tendencies, its machines tend to resemble animals and myths more than the utilitarian German contraptions, making them more amenable to Darwinist sympathies. But the sultan, already gravely insulted when Britain's Lord Churchill confiscated a bought-and-paid-for Darwinist ship for the war effort, may not be open to Britain's diplomatic overtures, and the Leviathan crew finds more than a few German fingers resting on the Turkish shoulders.
Midshipman Deryn and Prince Alek have come to be friends despite their different stations and upbringings. For Deryn, she fears it's more than friendship; her deception as "Mr. Dylan Sharp" requires her to hide her gender, though more and more she finds it difficult to hold back, even as Alek confides in her. For Alek, their friendship is equally confounding; though he was raised to think of Darwinists and their fabricated animals as an affront to divine will, he has found a peace among the beasties of the Leviathan that he has never known before, and the rough-mannered commoner "Dylan" has proven himself a true and loyal friend. Strained by their opposing loyalties, Deryn and Alek must nevertheless stand together as they face traitors, revolutionaries, intrigue, and secrets that could change the course of the entire war.

REVIEW: The jump in the rating from the previous installment (Leviathan, reviewed previously) has two reasons. First off, Westerfield's steampunk alternate-history world has been decently established, so more time went into developing characters and their relationships here. Secondly, the previous two books I read nearly had me tearing my hair out wanting to smack the characters across the face and/or jab them with cattle prods to make the plot move along; after that tedium, Westerfield's more straightforward adventure tale went down very nicely. The action continues at roughly the same pace as in the first book. Westerfield continues to weave real-world details into his alternate World War 1 version of events. Like the first book, this one features black and white illustrations by Keith Thompson, which lend a wonderful old-school feel to the story (even if Alek still looks a bit too feminine in some images.) I found myself staying up late just to finish this book, and already looking forward to the third and final volume... whenever it comes out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

The previous eight reviews have been archived on the website.

For the curious, I have finally passed 700 reviews! (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer's DragonArt Evolution pushed it over the top.) Well, it was a personal milestone, if nothing else...

Enjoy!

Dragon Haven (Robin Hobb)

Dragon Haven
(The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Volume 2)
Robin Hobb
Eos (HarperCollins)
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

Dragon Haven (Rain Wilds Chronicles, Vol. 2)
DESCRIPTION: Dragons are back in the world... but not as they once were. The first of their kind to undergo the metamorphosis from sea serpent to dragon in centuries emerged from their cocoons malformed, many not even surviving their first year. But ancestral memories tell them of a great city far up the acidic Rain Wilds River, built by the humanlike Elderlings in the days when dragon and man lived in reasonable accord: if there is to be any hope of a future for the young ones, surely it is to be found there. With a contingent of keepers (castoffs from the Rain Wilds Trader families, so heavily marked by the mutations of the region as to be second-class citizens and marked for early death anyway) to help them forage for food, they set off into regions no traders have explored and survived to tell the tale.
Well into the journey, the tensions of travel and hardship wear upon dragons and humans alike. No dragon can recall the distance or route to Kelsingra, and even if they could, the land has been drastically altered in the centuries of their absence... assuming the Elderling city still stands at all. Even the captain and crew of the Tarman, a wizardwood barge sent to accompany the dragons as far upriver as possible, are feeling the stress. But tension isn't the only force at work. Between the harsh, acidic waters of the river, the rigors of survival, the close quarters, and the forceful presence of the dragons themselves, everyone finds themselves changing in ways they never expected. Yet a danger still lurks among them, a shadow stretching clear from the distant, dying Duke of Chalced - even far from all known civilization, the call of Chalcedean gold offered for a dragon carcass might be too great a temptation to resist.

REVIEW: Okay, not the most helpful review, but it's difficult to not give away spoilers about Volume One. Having finished this second (and possibly final) book, I stand by my earlier conviction that the Rain Wilds Chronicles was never meant to be a multivolume story. The plot suffers under the unnatural extension. At least half of both books boils down to padding. Characters prove themselves impossibly dense and self-pitying, mostly to boost page count as they prod old wounds and endlessly ponder their pasts and futures, all while refusing to open their eyes to see what's right in front of them. Even those few I'd enjoyed from the previous book got on my nerves, and it was only when I passed the halfway mark that they started to redeem themselves in any way. For all that extra length, though, the ending feels oddly abrupt. Hobb still presents some nice ideas, and I still enjoy her world's dragons and Elderlings. I just wish she'd written a shorter story, preferably with more likable characters and less pointless introspection.
(I also have to say that the cover art, with its unconvincing 3D dragons that don't even match the book, could've been better.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)

Boneshaker
Cherie Priest
Tor
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books)
DESCRIPTION: In the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold in the Klondike sponsored a technology race to develop the most efficient machinery for work in the frozen ground. The winner of the Russian bid was Dr. Leviticus Blue, who set about building his prototype machine in the basement of his house in the boom-town of Seattle. One evening, in 1863, Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine roared to life, cutting a swath of destruction under the city... and breaching an underground vein of noxious volcanic blight gas. The invisible substance boiled of the ground, sickening and killing those who breathed it - and turning many of them into "rotters," shambling undead monsters who feed upon the living. Downtown Seattle was sealed behind a great wall, and those who survived began a new, wretched life on the tainted Outskirts as they cursed the name of Leviticus Blue.
Sixteen years later, Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes, works in a factory in the outskirts and struggles to raise her headstrong son, Ezekiel, under the twin shadows of blight and her dead husband. Further compounding the issue is her grandfather, Maynard Wilkes, captain of the Seattle police, who made a point of releasing all the criminals from the jailhouse before the blight killed them, losing his own life in the process: law-abiding citizens were convinced he was on the take, while criminals still treat Maynard as an underworld saint. With so many voices telling him terrible things about his ancestry, and with Briar too embittered and exhausted to realize how fast he was growing up, she shouldn't have been surprised when Zeke took matters into his own hands. He sneaks back into the walled-up city with only a gas mask and a map, determined that he can find evidence to clear the name of his maligned father in their old house on Denny Hill. As soon as she figures out where he went, Briar sets out to find him.
The blight-filled city has long been considered dead to the outside world, but within the walls lie secrets - and dangers - for both Briar and Zeke.

REVIEW: I mentioned, a few books ago, that I was on a bit of a steampunk kick. This book promised steampunk, plus a local flavor (being a Pacific Northwesterner myself), and a touch of zombies for good measure. Unfortunately, most of the book reads like the blight gas: insubstantial, smoggy, and hard to tolerate for long stretches. Briar comes across as a cold-hearted woman who once joined an equally cold-hearted man in an entirely loveless marriage, then raised the resulting son without an iota of human affection or interest. Zeke comes across as the kind of idiotic kid who honestly believes that plunging blindly into a city full of poisonous gas, desperate criminals, and flesh-eating zombies will somehow make his life better. Not one person in the book displays anything but the most calloused and bigoted of faces, and few display much in the way of logic, planning, or basic common sense. The entire story feels polluted, clogged with stinking blight gas and crooked gangsters and general rust, filth, dirt, and grime; I felt like scrubbing my brain down with Lysol after each chapter just to get the gunk out. Most steampunk I've read at least presents nice, shiny-object ideas to contemplate, but Boneshaker fails on this front, too; the retro-future technology exists on the periphery, never brought into clear enough focus to serve as more than a vague backdrop for the unpleasant people doing illogical and unlikable things. As for the zombies, they're mostly a plot gimmick, popping up and wandering off whenever Priest needed to goose the action (and, likely not by coincidence, appealing to the bizarre popularity zombies seem to be enjoying of late.) The logic behind them left me scratching my head. If the rotters are as dumb and determined as is claimed, willing to beat themselves to pieces trying to reach fresh meat, it's ridiculous that so many of them survived for sixteen years. The blight gas itself is supposed to be a naturally-occurring volcanic phenomenon; the characters cynically declare that it's slowly filling the city walls and will eventually spill over and poison the Outskirts, then the world, so those who stayed behind in Seattle and learned to live among it are really pioneers of the future. On a planet as tectonically active as Earth, then, why hasn't blight gas already consumed the entire planet... or did one man's puny drill somehow unleash something that numerous massive meteor impacts and supervolcanic eruptions have failed to trigger? As for the plot... eh, I hardly cared whether or not Briar or Zeke found each other, since I cared equally little about them. Then there's the persistent the matter of Dr. Blue - whether he took money to sabotage the Boneshaker, whether he meant to rob the banks whose vaults he undermined in the disastrous test run, whether he may have survived... oh, but why bother? I didn't give a dang about any of the plot twists concerning him, perhaps the least likable of all the unlikable characters mentioned in Boneshaker. The final revelation made most of those plot twists - and the fretting that the characters did over them - almost laughable. As a kicker, Priest has a sequel out, set in the same universe if not necessarily using the same characters (Dreadnought.) Having barely struggled through to the overlong, eye-watering ending of Boneshaker, don't expect Dreadnought to turn up in my to-read bookpile.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goblin War (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin War
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 3)
Jim C. Hines
DAW
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

Goblin War (Goblin Series)
DESCRIPTION: Necromancer, dragon, pixie invasion, and a brief stint as the chief of the goblin lair... the cowardly, nearsighted goblin Jig has been through a rough few years. Somehow, he's managed to survive, and even earn some respect from his fellow goblins - who still, naturally, would stab him in the back to swipe his boots, though at least they haven't tried killing him for a while. He's starting to think he just might live to a relatively old age, despite the burden of being a hero.
When humans raid the goblin lair in search of the powerful Rod of Creation, Jig's future suddenly looks a little less certain. Taken as a captive by the princess Genevieve, he and several of his fellow goblins find themselves far, far away from their mountain tunnels and deep into human lands. Not only do the humans tend to want to murder his species on sight, but word has spread of an army of monsters on the march, making for the very city where Jig has been taken. He wants nothing to do with armies or wars or anything but escaping, but his god, the forgotten Tymalous Shadowstar, insists that Jig stay in the center of action. For the coming battle may be about more than a clash of mortal forces. It may mean the difference between survival and extermination - for goblins, humans, monsters, and even the gods themselves.

REVIEW: I actually came close to shaving a half-star off the rating. While Jig's adventures continue to be fun and unpredictable, his chief sidekicks - the warrior Trok and the blindly devotional Relka - feel like lightly redressed versions of his co-stars from the previous book. Unlike Veka, her Book 2 counterpart, however, Relka never does clue in, grow up, and bring more to the story than being an annoying, sometimes interfering follower. Most everyone else shows the extra dimensions I've come to expect from Hines. I especially enjoyed how Tymalous Shadowstar came to the forefront as more than a voice in Jig's head; in some ways, this book is more about him than about Jig. Overall, the story reads like a finale, though a few loose threads from this book and previous ones could form the core of future stories. A good, fast-moving yarn, despite a few bumps and blemishes, that makes for a satisfying conclusion to Jig's harrowing, heroic adventures.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dragon and Herdsman (Timothy Zahn)

Dragon and Herdsman
(The Dragonback Adventures, Book 4)
Timothy Zahn
Starscape
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

Dragon and Herdsman: The Fourth Dragonback Adventure
DESCRIPTION: The young human thief Jack Morgan and his companion, the symbiotic K'Da warrior-poet Draycos, have been through quite a lot since they met and formed their unlikely partnership. Though they've learned much about the forces who attacked Draycos's scout ship upon their arrival in the Orion's Arm section of the galaxy, they're no closer to discovering why - or how to stop them from exterminating the rest of the refugee K'Da species when they drop out of hyperspace in a mere couple of months. Having learned which mercenary group was hired for the job, Jack plans to break into their computers. The plan goes wrong almost from the start - but he's saved by an unexpected benefactor, the mysterious girl Alison, whom he met while impersonating a soldier recruit. When Jack and Draycos run for their ship, they wind up with Alison on board.
They flee to the primitive world Rho Scorvi, where Alison claims she has a planned rendezvous with friends. Here, amid the primitive yet peaceable natives, Jack and Draycos discover something unexpected: the Phookas, simple scavenger beasts that appear to be degenerated relatives of the dragonlike K'Da. While Draycos is still reeling from the shock - his people, after all, originated from far across the galaxy - the mercenaries turn up, eager to recapture Jack on orders from their powerful employer.
Jack, Alison, and Draycos head for the cover of the world's thick forests, taking a group of natives and Phookas as protection. Here, they will have to learn to trust one another... and Draycos will discover truths about his species that defy everything he ever learned.

REVIEW: A bit of a ratings dip, here, but still a fairly decent, fast-moving adventure story. Jack finds himself adapting surprisingly well to not only the primitive life of a Phooka herdsman, but to the K'Da code of ethics that contradict everything his con-artist uncle ever taught him. More comes of developments in the previous book, that the symbiotic K'Da are bound to their hosts as more than just a place to "rest" in two-dimensional form. I clipped it because it started to feel like Zahn was padding the tale, drawing out discoveries and bursts of combat. I also found Alison irksome on occasion. Still, I expect I'll track down the last two books in the series eventually.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Rampant (Diana Peterfreund)

Rampant
Diana Peterfreund
Harper
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

Rampant
DESCRIPTION: Every girl dreams of meeting a unicorn... except Astrid. She grew up listening to her mother Lilith's tales of the beasts - not the sparkly pastel-colored denizens of children's tales, but bloodthirsty, carnivorous monsters that rampaged across the ancient world. Only the unicorn hunters, virgin females of gifted bloodlines with supernatural gifts and inborn immunity to the beasts' venomous horns, could bring them down - and they did, running them to extinction, with Astrid's own ancestor Clothilde dealing the final death blow. Now a high school sophomore, she struggles to overcome a social life hampered by association with Lilith and her crackpot theories. They have to be crackpot; after all, everyone knows unicorns don't exist.
One night, sneaking out with her boyfriend Brandt (who just might take Astrid to the prom if she lets his hands get far enough under her clothes), she has a too-close encounter with a nonexistent unicorn. Brandt barely survives, and Astrid's world is changed forever. Apparently, unicorns aren't extinct after all, and they're making their presence known through increasingly bold attacks on wildlife, pets, and even humans. Those few who still know the old lore scramble to assemble a team of hunters descended from the old bloodlines. Astrid finds herself shipped off to Rome to train with them. Suddenly, all of her mother's terrible stories are coming true... but none of them can prepare her for the true life of a unicorn hunter, a life full of blood, violence, secrets - and sacrifices.

REVIEW: Killer unicorns? Any book with that premise is worth a look. Peterfreund based her unicorns on worldwide legends, many of which depict a far fiercer, less cuddleworthy creature than modern storybooks show us. Like faeries, unicorns have been softened through the ages as belief in them, and in the forces embodied by them, waned. The animals represented here blend old myths with a touch of cryptozoology, creating original fantasy creatures (or beings, perhaps, as Astrid learns that there's more to the unicorn mind than many hunters believe.) As the main characters struggle to understand the re-emerging unicorn population, some treat them as a wonderful scientific opportunity while some greet them with all the warmth of a resurgence in smallpox or black plague. The story starts fairly quickly, but it bogs down several times with sidetracks into rivalries between the hunters and other distractions. In particular, the link between the hunters and their virginity is discussed in exhaustive detail. Some plot twists are obvious (hands up, those who believe that a pharmaceutical company sponsoring a unicorn hunting institute doesn't have an ulterior motive), but others play out more convincingly. It took me several chapters to decide whether or not I liked Astrid enough to follow her through the entire book, though she was at least preferable to some of the other girls she meets in Rome. By the midpoint, the story had picked up decently, and it led to a nicely cataclysmic conclusion... which, as is typical these days, mostly serves to set up a sequel (Ascendant.)
Overall, while some of the characters grew irksome and the plot occasionally drug, Rampant promises some fresh perspectives on unicorn lore, and - for the most part - delivers on them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Goblin Hero (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin Hero
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 2)
Jim C. Hines
DAW
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

Goblin Hero (Goblin Series)
DESCRIPTION: Goblin. Hero. The two words are almost never found in the same sentence (unless the sentence is "Look how easily the hero killed that cowardly goblin!"), let alone in the description of one person. Jig Dragonslayer, however, is no ordinary goblin. Abducted by a band of adventurers on a quest to the very heart of the mountain and the deepest of tunnels, he alone returned to tell the tale. He even picked up a new friend along the way, the forgotten god Tymalous Shadowstar. But while heroism may be a virtue in many races, among goblins it's a virtual death sentence. They won't hesitate to stab their best friend in the back if they think they can get away with it. Never mind that Jig insists he's not really the brave hero everyone thinks he is; the more popular a goblin is, the more potential assassins there are, and there isn't a goblin, hobgoblin, or ogre in the tunnels who hasn't heard the name of Jig Dragonslayer.
One day, an ogre comes to the goblin lair - not to wreak havoc and snack on goblin-kebabs, but to seek the hero of the mountain to help him and his people. Since the death of the Necromancer and the mighty dragon Straum, something sinister has been afoot in the tunnels, something that has even the massive ogres running in fear of their lives. The current chief Kralk sets the resident reluctant hero up for almost-certain death by insisting he accept the challenge. To further seal his fate, Kralk sends along two less-than-useless companions: Grell, the bent old nursery hag who would do anything to never have to clean a diaper again, and Braf, a musclebound brute who once managed to lodge his own fang in his nostril. As if that weren't bad enough, Jig is followed into the depths by Veka, the only goblin who actually envies Jig his heroic adventures. She once found a wizard's spellbook and a book, The Path of the Hero, and after obsessively reading both is convinced that she is destined for Greatness herself.

REVIEW: Another fun outing starring the cowardly hero Jig, I enjoyed it nearly as much as I enjoyed the first book. The goblins come across as both pathetic in their self-defeating, short-sighted habits and oddly admirable in their tenacity and the lengths to which they'll go to get what they want - even if what they want is merely to survive for a few more minutes. Jig continues to grow, and while he never embraces the role destiny (and his sometimes-tricky deity, who may well have been forgotten for a good reason by the rest of the world's races) has set for him, he nonetheless figures out that hiding away from problems in time-honored goblin fashion may well doom his people and the other races of the tunnels to extinction. I found Veka annoying for much of the story, though she, too, finds that she has much more to learn about true heroism than her little book can possibly tell her. Once again, Hines pulls off a satisfying ending with a somewhat unexpected conclusion. As implied by the final pages here, there is a third book out; I expect I'll read it as soon as time and budget allow.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

DragonArt Evolution (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer)

DragonArt Evolution
J. "NeonDragon" Peffer
Impact
Nonfiction, YA? Art
****+ (Good/Great)

Dragonart Evolution: How to Draw Everything Dragon
DESCRIPTION: Despite being one of the most popular fantasy creatures of all time, no two people seem to agree on just what dragons look like. Are they huge or tiny? Squat and muscular or ethereal and serpentine? Bat wings or feathers? Rough scales or smooth - or no scales at all? Dragons come in an endless variety of sizes, colors, and styles. This drawing book, the third by J. "NeonDragon" Peffer, offers tips for creating all manner of dragons to suit any occasion, including several full-size step-by-step projects to kick-start the imagination.

REVIEW: What can I say? I'm a dracophile at heart. I'm also a half-arsed artist with delusions of eventual competence, hence my oversized art library and undersized used-sketchbook pile. Like Peffer's previous books, this may superficially be a step-by-step drawing book, but it simply bursts at the seams with imagination and inspiration. She repeats a little information from previous books by way of grounding new readers. The vast majority of the images are brand-new, with some wild variations on the basic dragon forms that should stoke the imaginative fires of dragon artists young and old. If you liked Peffer's first two DragonArt books, you ought to love this one... and if you're a would-be dragon artist who hasn't heard of them, you really should give them a try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett)

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
(A Discworld book)
Terry Pratchet
HarperCollins
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
DESCRIPTION: Everyone's heard the story of the rat piper. A small helpless town, plagued by rats, is saved by the arrival of a stranger whose music lures the vermin away; once the fee is paid by grateful residents, neither rodent nor man is seen again. If one were to look more closely at the tale, one might wonder just how many rats it takes to constitute a plague, and how convenient it is that a piper arrives so quickly. Look even more closely, and you just might find a clever cat at the heels of the piper... and, if one were very, very clever and very observant, one might even see rats, cat, and piper meet outside of town to divide the money.
Maurice was once an ordinary alley cat, living off the vermin around the rubbish heap outside a wizarding school, until he suddenly found himself empowered with speech and self-awareness. Like any self-respecting cat, Maurice set about using his newly-enhanced brain to fleece dimwitted humans and better his own life. The local rats, too, began developing unusual intelligence thanks to the magically toxic waste. Together with a stupid-faced young boy with a gift for music, they travel from town to town, making a killing with their "plague of rats" con. But lately, the rats have become restless, determined that there must be more to intelligence than this, and they've grown too clever for Maurice's oily tongue to dissuade them. They ride into the small town of Bad Blintz determined that this will be their last con. But things go wrong from the moment they arrive. Bad Blintz, it seems, is already in the grips of a terrible rat plague. Together with the mayor's daughter Malicia, a girl raised on fairy tales who stubbornly believes her own life is a story just waiting to happen, Maurice and his companions stumble upon a secret lurking in the dark places beneath the town - and a terrible danger that might devour Bad Blintz alive.

REVIEW: Technically part of the Discworld series, this book reads fine as a stand-alone novel. Pratchett's trademark humor cleverly masks a tale with some real shadows and bite to it at several turns. Maurice and the rats find themselves struggling with the dilemmas of their new-found sentience, dilemmas which the human characters are no better at dealing with for all that they were born with so-called higher intelligence. The story moves quickly, taking some unexpected twists and turns on its way to a satisfying conclusion. I was in the mood for a fun-hearted fantasy; I got that, and perhaps a little more, here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Brightdreamer Books has been updated, and the previous eight reviews have been archived.

I also rotated the Random Recommendations on the site; the current feature has a more seasonal flavor.

Enjoy!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Eyewitness Books: Eagle & Birds of Prey (Jemima Parry-Jones)

Eyewitness Books: Eagle & Birds of Prey
Jemima Parry-Jones
Knopf
Nonfiction, YA Nature/Birds
****+ (Good/Great
)
Eyewitness: Eagles & Birds of Prey
DESCRIPTION: No bird has been so honored by rulers the world over as the majestic eagle, and few can gaze upon a raptor soaring overhead without feeling a sense of wonder. This book offers an introduction to birds of prey around the world, discussing their unique anatomy, keen senses, flight and hunting methods, and their role in human history.

REVIEW: Like all Eyewitness books (and related knock-offs) I read, I primarily focused on the photographs. They are, after all, the main selling point of the series. Raptors make great reference animals for any number of fantastic creatures, and the many high-quality photographs - covering everything from skeleton to feathers and resting poses to active flight - make this book an excellent inspirational resource. The text is also informative, naturally, and written in a simple, kid-accessible style, describing the often mind-boggling abilities of these remarkable birds. This book makes a fine starting point for exploring the world of raptors.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stowaway (Karen Hesse)

Stowaway
Karen Hesse
Aladdin
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
**+ (Bad/Okay)

Stowaway
DESCRIPTION: In late August 1768, eleven-year-old Nicholas Young runs away from the butcher to whom he was apprenticed by his uncaring father. He pays off three sailors to help him hide aboard a ship bound far away - where, he doesn't care, so long as he's away from England for a good, long time. The sailors dutifully found the ship with the most remote itinerary they could find. Thus, Nick becomes a stowaway aboard the HMS Endeavor, under the command of Captain Cook. Their mission is to circumnavigate the globe and help chart the vast uncharted reaches of the southern Pacific and Indian oceans. With the ship travels a contingent of educated gentlemen to record new discoveries, of which there will be many in this voyage. For three years, Nick records his adventures in his daily journal, adventures filled with strange sights, rare wonders, conflicts, peril, and death.

REVIEW: According to the author in the post-story notes, there was, as a matter of record, an eleven-year-old boy named Nicholas Young who appears on the Endeavor's roster only after eight months' sailing: he could very well have been a stowaway, as Hesse suggests here, or just an unrecorded boy brought on board by a sailor to help with his mending and other menial tasks, as was not uncommon in those days. Little else is known about him, except that he was educated enough to write and that Young Nick's Head in New Zealand was named thus because he was the first to spot it from the rigging. The rest is sheer speculation on the part of the author. I wished she'd done more speculation and less journaling. The majority of this book is brief, uninformative journal entries, interspersed with Nick's observations of his shipmates. I never got a great sense of Nick as an interesting character with much to contribute aside from being a set of eyes looking over the crew's shoulders. What issues and conflicts he does bring to the table - his resentment over how his father treated him in England, his efforts to teach a sailor friend to read, his long-running rivalry with a cruel midshipman, and his efforts to make himself useful aboard ship - seem to ebb and flow around the edges, with most revelations and resolutions happening in offstage anticlimaxes. Cook's danger-fraught journey and the collection of conflicting personalities and goals aboard ship should have made for more interesting reading, but not here. I have the impression that this is a book teachers make students read in an attempt to personalize one of the landmark journeys of the Age of Discovery... and, like most schoolwork, it will be read dutifully by glaze-eyed kids who still won't make a personal connection to Cook's voyage, and who will promptly forget most of what they read as soon as the test is done.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Prophecy (Elizabeth Haydon)

Prophecy
(The Symphony of Ages series: Rhapsody trilogy, Book 2)
Elizabeth Haydon
Tor
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

Prophecy: Child of Earth
DESCRIPTION: The half-Lirin woman Rhapsody and her companions, the brutish giant Grunthor and the former assassin Achmed, are refugees from a land and a time swallowed by centuries. Unfortunately, an ancient evil, the one that destroyed their homeland of Serendair centuries ago, has also come halfway around the world to continue its quest for complete chaos and destruction. As Achmed and Grunthor continue building their Bolg kingdom in the abandoned subterranean city of the late King Gwylliam (once a shining beacon of hope for the displaced - and immortal - first generation Serendair refuguees, but now a curse after his actions destroyed the very land he once united), Rhapsody sets out into the world of Men to follow her own path. Her often-prophetic nightmares warn her that the evil demon plots against a religious leader, but her efforts to save the man are complicated. The demon acts most often through a host, who can be entirely unaware of the dark influence compelling their actions... and thus impossible to track until it is too late. She also keeps crossing paths with the handsome, mysterious man known as Ashe, whose tormented past is as shrouded as his motivations. In a land full of secrets and lies, Ashe could be a powerful ally - or an enemy as terrible as the demon itself.
As Rhapsody pursues the demon's agents and works to thwart its plans, King Achmed and Grunthor discover a long-lost secret beneath the mountains that not even the great architect Gwylliam found... and, with it, more clues to the prophecies that might save the world - or see it consumed in demonic fire.

REVIEW: I have a few books running around that managed to lose themselves after I started reading them; recent reorganization efforts unearthed them, and I've been slowly picking my way through them. This book is one of them, so perhaps my rating should be taken with a slight grain of salt. What I loved about the first book in this series (Rhapsody) was the wonderfully realized world - not just a continent, not just a short span of years, but an entire globe, peopled with disparate cultures and races that merge and break through the centuries - Haydon created. Here, she continues the process, but I found my interest waning as my eyes glazed, with large chunks of information interrupting the flow of the story. Her characters, intriguing in the first volume, start to feel strained as she develops them further. Actually, it was the heroine Rhapsody and her significant friend Ashe who nearly whined me out of finishing the book, going to elaborate, nearly comical lengths to bemoan and bewail their Tragic Pasts and Deep Dark Secrets. Once their relationship kindles (as expected), they bemoan and bewail even in their happiness.
The story, when it moves, does at least move quickly, and when Rhapsody and her friends actually do learn something (instead of dancing around it or taking history lesson breaks), they tend to act on it in a reasonably intelligent manner. Those moments seemed to be a bit thin, given the overall length of the book... and Haydon still has (at least) one more to go to wrap things up. By this point, though, I'm starting to wonder how much of the third book will be world-building and character-whining padding as opposed to actual story. Still some nice ideas in there, and still an impressive world, but I just had to push myself too hard to keep reading to merit a Good rating. I'm not sure I have the reading stamina to wade through much more. (The third volume in the trilogy, Destiny, is sitting in my reading backlog as I type, but I don't expect I'll be getting to it soon.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leviathan (Scott Westerfield)

Leviathan
(The Leviathan trilogy, Book 1)
Scott Westerfield
Simon Pulse
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

Leviathan (Leviathan (Quality))
DESCRIPTION: In 1914, the world's nations stand on the brink of war. Many in Europe are "Clankers", espousing the superiority of gear and metal, with walking machinery and bat-winged aeroplanes. Other nations, such as Britain, Russia, and France, embrace Darwinist ideals, ever since the great naturalist discovered the keys to the "life threads" within all living cells; by rearranging these threads, scientists create fabricated, purpose-built life forms that have replaced virtually all steam engine technology in their lands. Clankers believe that the Darwinist beasties are soulless abominations against God, while Darwinists see Clanker technology as loud, stinking, polluting blights upon the Earth. With such deep ideological schisms piled on top of centuries of political and ethnic rivalries, all-out war is merely waiting for a single spark.
When the Archduke of Austria and his wife are assassinated, that spark flies. Stealing away in the middle of the night with his two most trusted servants aboard an armored Clanker walker, the archduke's fifteen-year-old son Aleksander cannot begin to comprehend how quickly his life has changed. All his life he has felt like a pretender, his mother's commoner blood preventing him from ever inheriting his father's wealth or title; now, as a potential rallying point for his late parents' supporters, he is targeted both by invading Germans and by those Austrians who, like his emperor grandfather, never approved of the archduke's marriage beneath his class.
In Darwinist London, Deryn Sharp has slipped away from her widowed mother, following her brother to the city to complete the midshipman exams for the Air Service. All she has to do is pass a written test - easy enough for a girl practically raised in the air aboard her late Da's balloons - and convince the military brass that she's a Dylan, as women are forbidden from service... a somewhat taller order, but one she's willing to tackle rather than live a dull life of dresses and tea parties. Her first test flight aboard a hydrogen-breather goes awry when a storm blows her far off course. The ship sent to rescue her is none other than the Leviathan, one of the greatest airborne beasties devised, with an entire living ecosystem aboard its vast whale-based body. Before she can be returned to the recruitment station in London, war breaks out, and the Leviathan is diverted for a special mission. With a clever-boots lady scientist on board with a top-secret cargo that must be defended at all costs, "Dylan" quickly discovers that passing as a boy is going to be the least of her troubles.
The paths of Clanker-born Alek and Darwinist-loyal Deryn cross under highly inauspicious circumstances. With the known world plunging into a bloody war and paranoia running high, their struggle to see past their differences and learn to trust one another may mean the difference between life or death for both of them - not to mention their friends, their companions, and the great living airship Leviathan itself.

REVIEW: I picked this up for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm on a bit of a steampunk kick lately. Secondly, I was a fan of the late, lamented sci-fi series Farscape, which featured a species of living spaceships known as leviathans, so naturally the title and the concept leaped out at me. When I got a coupon from Barnes & Noble, I figured I'd give it a try. Westerfield creates a highly detailed world based roughly on the real-world politics of World War I. His Darwinist animals and Clanker machines come to life in one's mind, full of interesting details. The story picks up quickly and keeps going until the very last pages, often at a breakneck pace. With the black-and-white illustrations, I couldn't help thinking of old-school adventure books and those (often-butchered) illustrated adaptations of classics. Characterization mostly takes a back seat to the near-nonstop action and the building of Westerfield's alternate Earth, but I cared enough about the people to keep turning the pages. Of course, being a trilogy, a fair bit is left up in the air at the end. I wound up shaving a half-star for the occasionally annoying slang of Deryn's chapters, and for leaving just a few too many threads unresolved at the ending. (I also thought some of the illustrations were unneccessary... that, and more than once the illustrated Alek looked more like an "Alice" to my eye.) I'll still probably read the second book when it comes out in paperback... if Barnes & Noble remembers to send me another coupon, that is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin Quest
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 1)
Jim C. Hines
DAW
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

Goblin Quest
DESCRIPTION: Scrawny, selfish, and craven, tunnel-dwelling goblins are so insignificant a race that not even one of the myriad gods of the realm bothers watching over them. They are picked on and preyed upon by their nastier hobgoblin cousins and by countless parties of treasure-seeking adventurers from the surface world. Any goblin who lives long enough to take a few humans down with them is considered a hero, but of course all heroes get killed just as dead as their less-brave kin, so what good is heroism in the end?
Nearsighted Jig is clever for a goblin, but even among his own people he's considered a cowardly runt. His only friend, Smudge, is his pet fire-spider, who ignites when panicked. When he gets bullied into guard duty, it's just his bad luck that he gets captured by a team of adventurers. The arrogant human prince Barius, his wizard brother Ryslind, their dwarf companion Darnak, and the young elfin thief Riana want to find the Rod of Creation, a legendary artifact of unimaginable power created long ago by a great wizard and hidden in the deepest and most dangerous of tunnels... beyond the lake of poisonous lizard-fish, just past the requisite Necromancer, and in the talons of a foul-tempered dragon, naturally. They force Jig to act as their guide, though he has even less of an idea of where to find the Rod than any of the bickering questors - not that they bother listening to him, of course, as it would be beneath them to listen to a lowly goblin. It isn't long before Jig's bad luck lands them all in trouble... though the biggest threat of all may turn out to be within their own party. Jig may never have wanted to live the life of a brave adventurer, but it looks like he has no choice - at least, not if he wants to survive long enough to go back to his old life as a cowardly runt.

REVIEW: Humorous fantasy books walk an even finer line than straight-up fantasies, for much the same reason that humorous movies walk a finer line than serious ones: you can't laugh at an unfunny joke. A bad serious story, you can roll your eyes at and mock, but a bad funny one deprives you of even that luxury - it just lies there, dead, on the screen or on the page. Thus, it was with some hesitation that I picked up Goblin Quest... but I thought I could use a change of pace, and it was on sale. (And a relative bought it, which always helps.) I was very pleasantly surprised. Goblins, often little more than a mild annoyance to adventurers or an easy level-up opportunity to gamers, get their due with Jig, the unlikely hero who nevertheless decides that traditional heroism is highly overrated, not to mention more than a little suicidal and occasionally outright stupid. During his adventures, he learns to see the weaknesses of his own kind, and while he does grow, he never fully embraces the ideals of the so-called superior races. The questors turn out to be more than cardboard cutout RPG-class characters, each in their own way at least as selfish as goblins in their willingness to sacrifice everything for their own personal gain. The humor isn't heavy-handed slapstick or low-brow body part jokes, playing off the cliches of the genre while still presenting a nice, unpredictable adventure. The ending wraps things up in a way I didn't expect, yet which felt eminently satisfying. I enjoyed reading this one much more than I'd expected; hopefully, I can track down the next book.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Under the Jolly Roger (L. A. Meyer)

Under the Jolly Roger
(The Bloody Jack Adventures, Book 3)
L. A. Meyer
Harcourt
Fiction, YA Adventure/Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber (Bloody Jack Adventures)
DESCRIPTION: Mary "Jacky" Faber has come a long way from her days as an orphaned girl scraping a living off the streets of London. Since then, she's lived as a ship's boy aboard a British sailing vessel, traveled halfway around the world, survived pirates and stranding... and, along the way, fell in Deepest and Truest Love with the highborn James Emerson Fletcher. Once her gender was revealed, Jacky spent a disastrous term at a private finishing school for young ladies in Boston... a stay that ended with her name well-known among the local rabble-rousers and police, and with half the school in flames.
Stepping off a whaler (where she'd booked passage as companion to a captain's wife), Mary finds herself once again in London... and, here, her celebrity as the roguish "Bloody" Jack precedes her by way of a book published by a friend from Boston. This cannot bode well for her planned surprise reunion with James, whose family has actively discouraged their courtship, but Mary isn't one to back down from a challenge. Soon, she's swept up in another wild adventure as her impulsive nature and good intentions land her in one scrape after another, from society misunderstandings to brutal press gangs and back to the high seas with her own ship, a Letter of Marque... and a price on her head.

REVIEW: Sometimes, you just want a good adventure yarn with larger-than-life characters and near-nonstop action. The Bloody Jack series is an excellent choice for those times. This book, the third installment in the ongoing series, carries the tale back to the world of pirates and sailing ships, where Mary/Jacky has always seemed to belong. Though mostly a rollicking yarn, she is no perfect angel of a heroine, and her habit of leaping before she looks causes her at least as much trouble as it gets her out of. As she starts encountering old friends and enemies, some of those spur-of-the-moment actions come back to haunt her. Even at her lowest points, though, she always keeps an eye out for opportunities for freedom, a little money, or learning something new to help her through future potential problems. Her courtship with James continues to linger, mostly on the back burner, but at least in this book he starts showing some signs of being a worthy suitor for the famous "Bloody" Jack; in the previous installment, he proved remarkably obtuse, to the point where I wondered what Mary ever saw in the twit. The ending sees her on her way to her next adventure with yet more touched lives and wanton destruction floating in her wake. I expect I'll read the fourth book in the series, at least.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lord of the Changing Winds (Rachel Neumeier)

Lord of the Changing Winds
(The Griffin Mage trilogy, Book 1)
Rachel Neumeier
Orbit
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)
Lord of the Changing Winds (Griffin Mage Trilogy)
DESCRIPTION: In the kingdom of Feierabiand, earth magic pulses through the populace. Many have the gift of making or an affinity with animals, and some few even have a strong enough bond and a deep enough devotion to become full-fledged earth mages. But timid Kes is simply an ordinary girl from a small mountain village; aside from her mundane talent for healing, she has shown no mage signs by her fifteenth year. Then the griffins come over the mountains, and everything changes.
Griffins are creatures of fire and air. Their shadows are as flames, and where they lay deserts sprout. To see them over the skies of green Feierabiand, whose earth magic should be repellant to their fire natures, is indeed a troubling sign... but not to Kes. She is enraptured by their majesty, even as they make themselves at home on the mountains above. Soon, she finds herself among them, summoned by a mage who is not what he seems to be, and wakening to a fiery gift within her own heart that could consume her very earthborn humanity. She also learns that the griffins did not come to this land by choice; they were driven here, by enemies who may soon bring the whole of Feierabiand to its knees. The realms of fire and earth are natural enemies - can even the threat of a greater darkness bring them together?

REVIEW: I bought this book because it's about griffins. I like griffins. I even liked Neumeier's griffins: proud and majestic to a fault, their blood falling as rubies and opals to the desert sands, they are not simply odd-looking humans, but follow an alien, even animalistic thought process. I wanted to like this book more than I did, but it kept tripping itself up. A mind-numbing abundance of four- and five-syllable names, most very similar in look and feel, left me guessing half the time who was talking to whom about what. Kes's shyness flickers and gutters like a windblown candle, tending to cause plot-prolonging flare-ups of temper and why-me whining amid long stretches of overall spinelessness unbecoming a heroine. Other characters also suffer from similar mood afflictions; at some point, I was ready to reach into the book and smack each and every one of them across the face... often more than one point, to be perfectly honest. Neumeier also drops in large chunks of world-building exposition that feel forced, as characters inexplicably contemplate the paths of roads and rivers they often aren't even following through towns and countrysides that have no bearing on themselves or the plot. There were, of course, some high points, aside from the aforementioned griffins. The world's magic system is nicely realized, and I liked some of the descriptions. Overall, I had to push myself to keep going just a little too often to merit a four-star Good rating... or even a three-and-a-half. I don't expect I'll follow this trilogy through the second book unless I find it for an exceptionally good price.

Starclimber (Kevin Oppel)

Starclimber
(Sequel to Airborn and Skybreaker)
Kevin Oppel
Harper
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)
Starclimber
DESCRIPTION: Matt Cruse, born aboard a hydrium airship, has come a long way since his days as a cabin boy aboard the luxury liner Aurora. He has fought pirates, discovered new life forms, and seen a lost legend of the skies. With him on all these adventures has been Kate de Vries, a wealthy socialite girl with the very unladylike qualities of curiosity and independence. Matt has long been in love with her, but despite his heroism and hard work, he cannot overcome his class... and Kate, a headstrong girl and outspoken advocate for women's rights and independence, has gone so far as to declare her own intentions never to marry, lest she sacrifice her dreams of scientific exploration.
Before his final year at the Academy in Paris where Matt has been training to be a sky sailor, he takes a job as captain of an aerocrane helping the French construct "the Eighth Wonder of the World": the Celestial Tower, already two kilometers tall, aiming to pierce the firmament. But, proud as the French are, they haven't a clue that Canada is ready to beat them into space with a top-secret project... a project Kate and Matt, both loyal Canadians, are recruited for. The Starclimber is like no other vessel known on Earth. Not a hydrium airship or a powered ornithopter, it clings to and climbs an electrified cable spooled out from a rocket.
Among the first humans to peek above the atmosphere, Matt and his fellow astralnauts find themselves facing wonders and dangers beyond imagination... and possibly beyond their ability to survive.

REVIEW: The third book in Oppel's untitled series about Matt Cruse and his alternate-history Earth, this story reads like a finale. Like the first two books, it's mostly a larger-than-life adventure tale, with people tending to fit into nicely predetermined roles to enable said adventure. Matt continues to rise to the challenges presented, but not without struggle and the occasional failure; his victories, when he reaches them, feel earned rather than simply granted by virtue of his status as protagonist. I found Kate less annoying here than in the previous installment (Skybreaker), in no small part because she wasn't the one who kept getting them into trouble; trouble finds them without any help on her part whatsoever. The story moves along at a nice pace, and Oppel presents some nice shiny-object ideas with this tale of pioneering steampunk space explorers. A fun, fast read that makes a nice conclusion to the story of Matt and Kate. (I'm hoping Oppel knows how to quit when he's ahead... though, of course, I'll happily read more in this series if he's got a worthy story to go with it.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Site Updated and Enhanced, Reviews Archived

The previous six reviews have been archived on the main site.

I also finally finished the cross-linking project; now, when you visit any book review on my website, you should also find a list of other books you might enjoy.

Additionally, I tweaked the ratings to add the half-star I've been using on this blog. Accordingly, some existing review ratings have been altered. (Reviewer/webmaster's prerogative... I reserve the right to change any and all content on my site.)

And, finally, I added a new page: the Genre Book Review List organizes reviews by subject. Some books appear more than once, here.

Enjoy!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass)

Writing the Breakout Novel
Donald Maass
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

Writing the Breakout Novel
DESCRIPTION: It's one thing to write a novel, but something else entirely to write a breakout - a story that suddenly surges ahead of sales expectations, that raises the stakes for established writers and launches unknowns into household-name status. So, what makes a breakout novel happen? Is it promotion? Cover art? Following a proven formula? Pure luck? No. It's the story itself, and through careful craftsmanship, any author can raise the odds of their next novel being their own breakout. Donald Maass, a longtime agent with many successful clients, has studied the industry and the common factors of breakout novels for some time, and offers his advice to authors new and old here.

REVIEW: As a would-be fantasy writer, I admit I approached this book with my tablespoon of salt in hand, expecting to see mainstream fiction glamorized and genre writing belittled (as seems to be the general attitude in many circles.) Fortunately, Maass treats most any fiction equally; the stuff of a breakout transcends genre classification, and his advice applies to romantic tearjerkers as much as hard-boiled detective thrillers or sprawling fantasy epics. Most of what he said (or wrote, rather) seemed sound and sensible, and if his writing grew a bit tangled now and again, helpfully clear checklists at the end of each chapter reiterated the high points. Now to see if I can't apply a few of those points to my most recent monstrosity...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dead and the Gone (Susan Beth Pfeffer)

The Dead and the Gone
(The Last Survivors series, Book 2)
Susan Beth Pfeffer
Graphia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

The Dead and the Gone (The Last Survivors, Book 2)
DESCRIPTION: On a Wednesday night in May, as seventeen-year-old Alex Morales workes at a neighborhood pizza joint in New York City, life on Earth changes forever. A massive meteor strikes the moon, altering its orbit and throwing the planet's tides, volcanoes, and climate completely off-kilter. At first, Alex doesn't believe the news. He's spent his entire life trying to be as good as the rich kids at his private Catholic school, determined to someday become the first Puerto Rican-born American president. How could the loving God he prays to take those dreams, his very life, away from him?
When he gets home, he finds it's worse than he thought. His mother was working at the hospital, and his father had flown to a small coastal Puerto Rican town for a family funeral the day before, but the subway line Mami would've taken home has flooded and no planes are flying to bring Papi home - assuming he survived the massive coastal flooding and devastating tsunamis. Neither parent has called, and as days go by and the disasters mount he slowly realizes that they probably never will. Now, Alex has to be the man of the house, with two younger sisters to take care of, in a doomed city with dwindling food supplies and sporadic electricity. But how is he supposed to hold his family together when he feels like he's falling apart himself?

REVIEW: Much like her previous book (Life as We Knew It, reviewed on my site here), Pfeffer paints a grim, stark reality in a horrifically altered world. New York City, which always seemed to Alex as eternal, solid, and reliable as a mountain, quickly erodes away in both a figurative and literal sense. I clipped this book a half-star from a Good rating because it took a while to get the story moving, and because I wasn't that impressed with her protagonist, Alex. He is a devout Catholic and very much old-school about the relative roles of men and women, and early on he even goes so far as to hit one of his sisters for disobedience. (He does express regret for having picked up that trait from his beloved Papi, but it took me a while to forgive him.) Towards the end, the tension ratchets up to a fine pitch, as Alex sees possibilities for survival and escape flash temptingly before his eyes only to vanish even as he reaches for them. By then, I was enjoying the ride, harrowing as it often was. Overall, I'd recommend it and its companion to anyone who wants to read a nice, dark tale of disaster  and raw survival.
I see Pfeffer has a third book out, This World We Live In, where she brings together characters from both stories. I'm not sure if I'll go too far out of my way to read it, but it might make it onto the list someday.

Monday, August 9, 2010

How to Draw and Paint Dragons (Tom Kidd)

How to Draw and Paint Dragons
Tom Kidd
Barron's
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)
How to Draw and Paint Dragons: A Complete Course Built Around These Legendary Beasts
DESCRIPTION: Behold the dragon. Be they legless wyrm or classical winged fire-breather, they are the undisputed monarch of the artist's fantastic bestiary. Tom Kidd, an accomplished artist, discusses how to draw dragons, from initial gesture through building up three-dimensional forms and adding colors and textures. This book also includes a gallery of dragon paintings for inspiration and "scan-it, trace-it" templates to work from.

REVIEW: Yes, I have quite the collection of dragon drawing books on my shelves. I like to draw, and I like dragons. I also like books that make me want to draw dragons, and this is one of those books. Kidd's methods lean toward developing visual memory and imagination, downplaying the importance of life drawing and references in favor of training the mind's eye and the artist's hand. This is not a fast process, and while it's possible to follow Kidd's in-book tutorials and belt out a few dragon images, it's not going to be nearly as easy as he makes it look without some experience and a few photo refs on hand. Still, he does some nice dragons with interesting variations, and if this book isn't precisely the "complete course built around the legendary beasts" that the cover claims, it still does a decent job covering the subject. A worthy addition to any dracophile artist's library.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Leepike Ridge (N. D. Wilson)

Leepike Ridge
N. D. Wilson
Yearling
Fiction, YA Adventure
***+ (Okay/Good)
Leepike Ridge
DESCRIPTION: Fourteen-year-old Thomas Hammond lives on the outskirts of town with his mother, in an old house chained to the top of a giant boulder. He has never thought to question it, never thought to wonder about the occasional rumor of tunnels through the nearby mountains and treasure hunters disappearing; he's more concerned with the willows and the frogs in the creek... and, more recently, with the unsavory man courting his widowed mother. One night, too full of anger to sleep, he slips out of the house and drifts on a piece of packing foam in the water to clear his head - and finds himself grabbed by the current and pulled into a mysterious cavern next to a dead body. Thus begins Tom's adventure under the mountain, an adventure that careens from raw survival through impossible discoveries and the unearthing of long-buried secrets. Meanwhile, above ground, Tom's mother Elizabeth begins her own journey, beginning with her conviction that her son is still alive in the face of all evidence and leading down paths nearly as deadly as those faced by Tom.

REVIEW: I read and enjoyed the first two books of Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy (reviewed earlier on this blog, and on my site here), so I thought I'd try this, his first young adult book. I wasn't as impressed as I'd hoped to be. Tom's adventures strain credibility more than once, and I couldn't help thinking that part of the story had been trimmed in the speed and neatness of its wrap-up. Wilson has some nicely descriptive prose, however, and presents several neat scenes for the mind's eye to contemplate. I didn't hate it, but I definitely preferred the 100 Cupboards trilogy (what I've read of it, at least.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race (Bob Fenster)

Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race
Bob Fenster
Barnes & Noble
Nonfiction, Sociology/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

Duh! The Stupid History Of The Human Race
DESCRIPTION: Ah, the great species Homo Sapiens. Whether it evolved over millions of years or was placed here intentionally for reasons unknown, the human race has dominated and devastated the planet as no other creature has. We have gone from scrounging up grubs and living in caves to nuking nachos and building skyscrapers, from chipping stones to splitting the atom... but are we really all that bright? Evidently not, to judge by innumerable examples historic and modern. The author uses many stories to show just how smart we aren't, followed by a discussion of our persistent lack of intelligence as a race and some hints on how to make oneself slightly less stupid than one's neighbors.

REVIEW: In the vein of Hey Idiot!: Chronicles of Human Stupidity (by Leland Gregory) and The Darwin Awards (by Wendy Northcut), Fenster reminds people that we have a long, long way to go if we really want to call ourselves the best brains on planet Earth. His many examples make the point abundantly clear, though their brevity sometimes takes them out of context, and more than one almost sounds like an urban legend with so little information given for corroboration. His discussion of why we're a dumb race and how intelligence is apparently not a great survival tactic starts to feel like a comedian hitting the same jokes on the same note over and over again, expecting the same laughs every time. The last section, offering suggestions for breaking oneself out of the rut of laziness and associated stupidity that many of us fall into in the day-to-day course of life, has a little more going for it, and earned it the half-star to put it marginally above merely Okay.