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.)