Saturday, December 31, 2011

December Site Update, Reviews Archived

So long, 2011!

I've archived and cross-linked the previous nine reviews at the main Brightdreamer Books website. I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations again.

Enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Dragon Book (Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors)

The Dragon Book
Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors
Fiction, Anthology/Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Fierce, proud, magical, majestic... Few fantastic creatures have infiltrated the human imagination like the dragon. This short story collection contains 19 tales from some of the top names in fantasy and science fiction literature today.

REVIEW: After finishing this book, I started wondering if, perhaps, my problem with anthologies isn't with the stories, but with me. Maybe I don't understand what a short story is. I always thought that a short story was a condensed tale, either taking place in a very short time or simply distilled into its purest form, without the subplots or scenery or false starts or deadweight characters that populate longer works. After reading this collection, each one written by a best-selling author who presumably knows more about writing and stories than I could begin to comprehend, I've been forced to conclude that I was mistaken. Apparently, most short stories are about unlikable characters doing unlikable and uninteresting things which only rarely advance whatever passes for a plot, only to end with either a non-event or an out-of-the-blue twist that feels like it was spliced in from another work of fiction. "Short" also apparently can be expanded to cover forty or more pages worth of this aforementioned meandering prose.
Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I have notoriously bad luck with short stories; Bruce Coville, who seems to rely more on story integrity than celebrity name-dropping, seems to be the only safe bet, in my experience. But I've read and enjoyed books by several authors included here, such as Naomi "Temeraire" Novik, Jonathan "Bartimaeus" Stroud, and Tad "Shadowmarch" Williams. (It was also at Half Price Books for a very good price.) So, I figured I'd make an exception to my standard No-Anthologies-Edited-By-Anyone-But-Bruce-Coville rule. Sadly, the stories by two of my favorite authors, had I read them alone, would've turned me off of their larger, better books completely: Williams gets too clever for his own good with malapropisms and other English language maulings in "A Stark and Wormy Knight," while Novik's "Vici" - about the beginning of the dragon-human bonding that forms the heart of her alternate-universe series - lacks the character depth and sense of historic realism that I so love about the Temeraire books. Out of the whole book, I only enjoyed maybe three or four of the stories (including the one submitted by Bruce Coville.) The rest varied between pointless and boring, lacking sympathetic characters or situations I gave a rat's tail about, and often relegating the titular dragons to bit parts. Once again, this seems to be a case of editors (or, I suppose, publishers) collecting Big Names to drop rather than good stories. Lesson learned the hard way... again...

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

The Art of War
Sun Tzu
Pax Librorum
Nonfiction, History/War
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since before the dawn of history, war has been an integral part of mankind. A wise general, however, does not simply rely on tribal chaos or pure chance to dictate the outcome of a battle. Based on the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles, this edition of the classic Chinese text offers timeless advice on the subject of war.
(NOTE: The Amazon link is not the exact version reviewed.)

REVIEW: Though the identity - and even the existence - of Sun Tzu is a matter of scholarly debate, the book attributed to him offers basic, sound advice on the matter of warfare and troop movements for rulers, generals, or would-be writers of fictional rulers and generals. While the weaponry and technology of warfare have advanced considerably since this was penned, the basic logistics and strategy remain much as they were when Sun Tzu lived (if he, indeed, lived at all.) I might have hoped for a little more depth, but on the whole I can't complain... especially as it was a free, public domain download for my Kindle.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: Embers (Abigail Hilton)

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: Embers
(The Guild of the Cowry Catchers series, Book 1)
Abigail Hilton
Abigail Hilton Books
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The myriad islands of Wefrivain, populated by all manner of beasts, talking animals, and animal-human hybrid shelts, have long been under the sway of the Priestess of the wyvern gods. Grishnards, half-griffin shelts, dominate their lesser kindred in her name, even exercising their blood right to enslave and consume hoofed fauns. Between the Temple Sea Watch on the waters and the Police on land, the Priestess intimidates and controls all within her domain... but, keen as the eyes and ears of the wyverns may be, sharp and deadly as their fangs, they cannot quash all whispers of rebellion.
Gerard was once in line for the throne of the Wefrivain kingdom of Holovarus, until he defied the temple and his father by taking to wife the low-born but gifted court minstrel. He finds himself in the Temple Sea Watch, where he catches the eye of the Priestess herself with his heroism. She promotes him to captain of her dreaded Police... a promotion that might prove to be a death sentence. Most captains don't last out a year, and the Police are in a sorry state, picked off by the Rebellion faster than they can be replaced, let alone trained. Gerard grimly sets himself on the trail of Gwain, the near-legendary leader of the Rebellion... only to find that trail leading him right back to the Temple Sea Watch and the domain of Admiral Silveo. A rare foxling in the grishnard ranks, the thoroughly unpleasant little shelt hasn't made himself any friends in his vicious climb up the ranks. Gerard himself has crossed paths with Silveo before, and nearly lost his life. Silveo harbors no love for grishnards and even less for the former princeling Gerard. The thought of having to work with each other knots both their tails no end. But, as the Priestess demands, they must obey.
Assuming one of them doesn't wind up dead along the way...

REVIEW: Some time ago, I saw a humorous little graphic on the Internet, a graph showing how the likelihood of a book being good dropped in increasing proportion to the number of words invented by the author. Hilton's story falls on the wrong side of that line. Don't get me wrong - she has obviously taken her time to craft her complex world, with three moons and numerous sapient species and shifting alliances and rivalries and all. She even starts her chapters with information about said world, purportedly written by the leader of the Rebellion - an amateur trick, but one that provided clues to the world's make-up that the biased viewpoints of the protagonists couldn't provide. I cannot fault her for stinting on the world-building, here. But the story she attaches to that world suffers, albeit not solely because of the many made-up words that the reader must learn to keep up. The cult of the Priestess and the pseudo-god wyverns, the cruel dominion of the grishnards over every other sapient species, sets up an Establishment so corrupt and so thoroughly unredeemable that I couldn't sympathize much with any character, protagonist or otherwise, who in any way supported its continued existence. Yet, somehow, out of this stew of injustice comes Gerard, an almost laughably naive hero who inexplicably has a heart of gold, even rejecting the common practice of slavery despite having obviously been raised to consider it normal and, indeed, a privilege of his race. His wife Thessalyn, the blind singer whose gifts border on magical, is another anachronism in this mean-spirited world, so lovely and so innocent (yet so capable of melting even the hardest and most wounded of hearts with her voice) that she's downright ridiculous. As Gerard squirms his way through his unpleasant job of torturing innocents and oppressing the masses, he finds himself surrounded by characters who revel in their power and their sadism. The Rebellion itself remains a nebulous concept throughout the book, only briefly gaining a human (or rather a shelt) face that quickly dissolves into the unreal again... a shame, as I fully sympathized with their plight, while I barely could stand the so-called protagonists' point of view. This e-book edition features several illustrations, which had the unfortunate effect of making the shelts look like cartoons rather than characters. Their boots inexplicably lace up to their true ankles, making them look like they're walking around on tiptoe in clown shoes, and the one illustration of Gerard's companion griffin shows a significant lack of knowledge of feline or avian anatomy. (Combine the sub-par artwork with misused words - "compliment" instead of "complement," "censor" instead of "censer" - and the whole thing took on an amateur sheen.) Then, after all the unpleasantness, it ends on something just shy of a cliffhanger, but equally unsatisfying.
Much as I could appreciate the painstaking lengths Hilton went to in constructing the world of Wefrivian, I just could not enjoy my visit to her world. I blame the company I was forced to keep during my journey... and an itinerary that never took me where I most wanted to go.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Just My Type (Simon Garfield)

Just My Type
Simon Garfield
Gotham Books
Nonfiction, Art/Typography
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century, letters took on a new form, one that relied not on a scribe's quill but on a tooled stamp. These new alphabets, these fonts, soon broke away from their hand-written progenitors, veering off in directions both simplistic and complex, understated and overpowering. Today, anyone with a computer and a word processor can list a dozen off the top of their head - Times New Roman, Arial, Comic Sans and more - and can drop them into any given document or web page without knowing the first thing about how they were designed, or by whom, or what message they're conveying to the world with their choice of font. Simon Garfield discusses the past, present, and future of fonts, a journey of over five centuries that winds through cultural upheavals, political minefields, designer eccentricities, and more.

REVIEW: As my bulging Windows Fonts folder attests, I have an armchair interest in fonts. This book, naturally, seemed to appeal to that interest. Garfield presents some interesting information on typefaces, both their use and impact and the people who create them. Like many graphic artists, font designers don't often get the recognition that their work deserves; they still struggle to get any sort of copy protection to prevent or even discourage outright piracy of their efforts. Unfortunately, he threw me a few times by wading too deep into "shop talk," leaning on industry terminology that I, as a layperson, didn't understand. (He offers a brief introduction to the history of movable type, describing a few terms, but not all of them.) Chronologically, the chapters wander all over the 500-odd-year-history of printing, often with little cause-and-effect in sequencing. Still, he offers some interesting and amusing anecdotes, discussing the peculiar paradox of font design: the "best" fonts are invisible, conveying the information they contain without delay or confusion, yet within that invisibility lurk a thousand and more ways to express (or repress) creativity. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at my pull-down Font menu in Word the same way again...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Lost World
(The Professor Challenger series, Book 1)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Adventure/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Malone, a hapless reporter, has been - yet again - spurned by his love Gladys, who yearns for a hero to hitch her wagon to, that she may bask in his reflected glory. For the sake of her hand, he heads to his editor and requests the most dangerous, most challenging assignment on the books... little realizing how his life is about to change.
Professor Challenger, recently returned from South America, shocked England with his claims of finding prehistoric monsters on a remote plateau in the Amazon Basin. Without sufficient proof, he is quickly labeled a liar and a braggart - slanderous allegations that lead the hot-blooded man to blows with his detractors, not to mention the few reporters brave enough to approach him. Into the lion's den Malone marches. Unexpectedly, he comes away convinced of the professor's claims... and, when a return expedition is proposed, to prove or disprove Challenger's tale once and for all, Malone finds himself volunteering.
Hostile natives, poisonous snakes, uncharted swamps, impassable cliffs... all before even reaching the plateau, where even greater dangers await the expedition. The love of Gladys may well be the death of him.

REVIEW: One of the landmark "lost world" adventure tales, Doyle's story weathers the years well. Surrounded by singular characters and moving at a brisk pace, The Lost World takes readers into the heart of the Amazon, to a world that, even today, remains a scientific enigma... if a significantly more threatened enigma than it was in the author's day. Naturally, the rumors of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties prove only too true - and, like many such relics, they're all too eager to snack on these new, pale-skinned little treats that so obligingly wander into their domain. By today's standards, of course, Doyle's dinosaurs seem dated, but they nonetheless retain a certain sense-of-wonder fascination, as does his "lost world." I also wouldn't vouch for the scientific accuracy or plausibility of Malone's adventures, but this is an adventure yarn, not a science journal; it's no coincidence that the story is viewed through the eyes of the layman Malone rather than Challenger or the other members of the expedition. Touches of humor underlay the action, with the larger-than-life characters clashing even amid mortal danger. It earned an extra half-star by hooking me into staying up late to finish reading it. (I also just finished reading an exceptionally disappointing book, which I admit may skew my perceptions slightly.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria (Rahma Krambo)

Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria
Rahma Krambo
Reflected Light Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: The housecat Marco loved snuggling with his owner, Lucy, while she told him wonderful stories... but, until he watched the light of the full moon fall upon the strangely-marked sheets of paper, he never realized where those stories came from. After dark, when Lucy and her grandmother sleep, Marco delights in using his new-found gift of reading, becoming the hero of a thousand adventures. Then came the terrible night of the screaming red lights, when the men with the squeaky-wheeled bed took away Grandmother and Lucy, leaving Marco alone in an empty house. Screwing up his courage, he steps out into the world... and into his own story.
His paws lead him to the Angel Springs library, where more books than he could ever have imagined existed wait on the shelves for his perusal. But Cicero, the aging library cat, thinks Marco may be up to a greater challenge. For, deep within the library, a singular Book lies hidden, a Book that once resided in the lost library of Alexandria. Since those days, Guardian cats have kept close watch, lest its unimaginable power fall into the wrong hands. Little do either of them realize that, even as Cicero begins Marco's training, a terrible enemy aided by dark forces plots to steal the mystical Book.
For all the books he's read, Marco never realized that being a hero could get you killed...

REVIEW: This is a book of contradictions and cliches. Marco, a cat who can follow the elder-day English of The Three Musketeers and - it is implied - has read his way through a good portion of the library, nevertheless is confused by basic human concepts such as ambulances. He's even startled to learn that humans cannot see in the dark... despite the fact that, in all his reading, it seems inconceivable that he's never encountered a scene where a human hero found themselves in danger in a dark place because their eyesight failed them. But, then, Marco seems blissfully unaware that he is a human, in all but the fur on his face; the cats in this book don't behave at all like cats, but rather simplified cartoon sketches of people in cat skins. (To be fair, the people also didn't behave like real people, but rather cardboard-thin caricatures that happened to be person-shaped.)
During his adventures, Marco meets other cats who can read, all of whom can be summed up in the simplest of terms (the vain one, the mother cat, the one-eyed fighter, etc.) They mostly exist so Marco has a "posse" to call on for help when the library is threatened. No, wait - the "Dead Cats Society" (I'm sure Krambo thought she was being extra-kitty-clever with that name) mainly deals with an annoying subplot about a gang of raccoons. We readers know they're bad because they're illiterate, they talk like lower-class street toughs out of a bad movie, and they're raccoons... because, you know, in a world where some cats are good and some are bad, obviously all raccoons are incapable of learning and beyond redemption. There's also a friendly, supposedly funny ferret named (wait for it) Polo, who is no more a ferret than Marco is a cat; not only is it implied that Polo is a free-roaming ferret, when domestic ferrets have a notoriously difficult time surviving on their own, but his only defensive maneuver seems to be giving up and/or fainting - even though I know, from personal experience, that a hacked-off ferret is more than capable of leaving a mark that even an illiterate raccoon would feel.
But this book is about more than the characters. It's about Magic, about the grand legacy of the Guardian cats. That should be interesting, shouldn't it? No, sadly it isn't. Cicero takes after the Majicou of Gabriel King's The Wild Road, an aging feline guardian of Great Powers who recruits a (block-headed) young apprentice and subsequently teaches them next to nothing about the actual powers and responsibilities of the job before foisting the whole thing onto their green shoulders. What is learned... it just doesn't click. The powers of the mystical Book are too broad, with no real cost to the caster or the Universe. (The Book's origins - presumably dropped from Heaven itself into Man's world, even though Man is so incompetent and greedy that it falls to cats to keep it safe from their clutches - just had me rolling my eyes.) Meanwhile, a glaring Message writes itself across the pages in 10-story neon letters, about how literacy is Good, censorship and book-burning are Bad, and with the power of reading comes the responsibility of properly cultivating the ideas sparked by books. Its light almost - but not quite - blinded me to other errors in plotting and consistency. I even discovered what had to be an author's note about what was supposed to happen in the next scene, a clear indication that this book never received the editing or proofreading it needed before being presented to the general public.
I like cats. I like reading. I like magic. But this book... this book, I did not like.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In all of England, no man is as cold-hearted and miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge. Cynical, friendless, abusive of his good-hearted clerk, he broods on his fortunes like a latter-day dragon. Not even the bells of Christmas can soften his heart of ice... until the night he receives an unwelcome visit from an old business partner - a man who died seven years ago. Bob Marley was cut of the same selfish, greedy cloth as Scrooge - and, it seems, the latter may share the former's eternal torment in the afterlife. Ebenezer's only chance at salvation lies with three ghostly visitors, who seek to teach him the errors of his ways and the true meaning of Christmas.

REVIEW: Not a holiday season passes without half a hundred remakes, homages, and other blatant knock-offs of Dickens's original tale, so I figured I ought to try reading the original. Though somewhat wordy (as one might expect of an author for whom verbosity was money), it holds up reasonably well today. No real reason is given for Scrooge's youthful turn from generosity to selfishness - and, given how many decades of his life he has dedicated to cultivating such miserly tendencies, he reverts to a feeling and caring human being a little too easily. Since it's basically a dressed-up fable, though, I don't suppose I ought to be too critical. (Fable or not, Tiny Tim makes a tooth-rottingly saccharine plot device.) While a little sappy for my personal tastes, I can certainly see why this tale remains a holiday classic.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Second Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling)

The Second Jungle Book
(Sequel to The Jungle Book)
Rudyard Kipling
Public Domain Books
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/General Fiction
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: After Mowgli defeated the tiger Shere-Khan and fled the cruel and superstitious Man-village, he thought he could return to his old life, as a child of the Seeonee wolf pack, hunt-brother of the panther Bagheera, and pupil of the bear Baloo. But the mark of Man is upon him, a poison in his blood, and even as he rises to Master of the Jungle, his birthright calls to him. Mowgli's further adventures are interspersed with tales of Jungle lore and other short stories.

REVIEW: To be honest, a good half a star was lost to the Public Domain version I found online; inexplicably, it cut out some of Kipling's work, most notably the songs and Jungle law, with unhelpful bracketed summaries of the prose I'd hoped to read left in their stead. Unfortunately, the other two stars were lost honestly. While lush with intricate descriptions and imaginative lore, the stories themselves drag and meander, mostly so Kipling could cram in yet more descriptions and lore. I also found Mowgli to be a clueless, selfish little twerp more often than not; why Bagheera, Kaa, and the rest put up with him for so long without gutting him, I cannot fathom. Once again, Kipling's works display a strange duality of nature, being both a literate love song for the wonders of the wilderness and a not-so-subtle praise of the English domination and destruction of said wilderness. In his time, perhaps, the two somehow melded into a unified vision, but from my 21st-century American standpoint I can't see how. In any event, this sequel hardly seems necessary.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

A Study in Scarlet
(A Sherlock Holmes novel, Book 1)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Mystery
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the late 1800's, the war veteran Dr. Watson returns from service in Afghanistan, weak from illness and injury in the field of battle. To stretch his limited pension enough to remain in London, he must find a roommate... but his friends are few and far between in this city. Via an old acquaintance, he meets up with a stranger who faces a similar monetary problem. Sherlock Holmes is the most confounding puzzle of a man Watson has ever encountered. A keen student of criminal sciences, he nevertheless confesses ignorance (or rather apathy) about such simple subjects as basic astronomy and popular literature. Moody, reclusive, with odd acquaintances who call at odd hours, Holmes baffles the doctor more with every passing day, never even confessing how it is he makes his modest living. Soon enough, Watson finds out that Holmes fancies himself a "consulting detective," as he is drawn on the great man's coat-tails into the investigation of a most remarkable murder.

REVIEW: The debut of one of history's most famous characters, and certainly its most famous detective, starts off strong, if often wordy in the way of most 19th-century fiction (at least, in my experience.) Holmes is an enigmatic genius, whose thought processes can only be relayed through the more approachable, more human mind of Dr. Watson, who is less a sidekick than a fawning stenographer to record the man's exploits and praise his analytical brilliance. This sort of lopsided relationship may have been typical for the era, when subservience to ones betters (by rank, prosperity, or intellect) was standard social practice, but grates subtly on modern sensibilities; I fully understand, and personally prefer, the more even relationship between Holmes and Watson in more recent interpretations. The mystery itself is practically resolved in the detective's mind from the moment he walks into the crime scene; the rest of us must wait patiently through a long flashback to the early days of Mormon settlement in Utah before we begin to figure out the characters and the motives behind the murders. I nearly trimmed it a half-star for deliberately drawing things out, and a few leaps of Holmsian logic that seemed just a bit too wide for even his intellect to clear. All in all, given that I've had spotty luck with the classics, I was pleasantly surprised, if not fully enamored, with this story.

November Site Update, Reviews Archived

I've archived and cross-linked the previous 22 books at Brightdreamer Books, and rotated the site's Random Recommendations page.

(With Project Animorph finally completed, future updates won't be nearly so immense...)


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Beginning (K. A. Applegate)

The Beginning
(The Animorphs series, Book 54)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Once, they were five human children and one Andalite warrior-cadet, hidden warriors fighting to save Earth from an invisible, parasitic threat. Fighting the foul Abomination, the sole Andalite-Controller in the galaxy. Fighting the animal minds of their own morphed bodies. Fighting their own inexperience, their own doubts and fears.
Three years later, the secrecy is gone. The Yeerk war is over.
And, in the final, terrible battle, six became five.
Now, after years of fighting, of fear, of making soul-scarring decisions no sentient, feeling being should be forced to make, the surviving Animorphs find themselves thrust into the international - and interplanetary - spotlight. Hailed as heroes, mobbed by fans, courted by politicians, and targeted by terrorists, Jake and his companions face their greatest challenge ever: the beginning of the rest of their lives. It should be a time of relief, of joy, of hope. But the old scars linger, as do the old warrior instincts. For not all of the Yeerks surrendered at the end of the war... and so long as the rebel Blade ship remains free, interplanetary peace may be just a temporary illusion.

REVIEW: I remember the hammer-blow to the gut I felt the first time I read The Beginning. Realistically, Applegate could've ended the story of the Animorphs with one or two more chapters at the end of Book 53. Most authors would have. Instead, she chose a more challenging, more honest route, giving readers a look at the lives faced by war veterans and other survivors. Jake and his friends each became nothlits in their own ways, morphed into soldiers by the necessities of war only to find - at the end - that they had overstayed the limit, and could no longer demorph into the innocent children they used to be. It takes the concept of the series to a whole different level, and provides a more realistic portrayal of after-the-victory life than most books dare. The ending... well, Applegate caught a lot of flak from fans. I admit, I wasn't too keen on it the first time, myself. But, in rereading the books, I don't think she could've done justice to the characters or the series had she let things lie where most people would have, in the happy honeymoon glow of war's end. Jake and his friends had been too deeply changed, too deeply wounded in heart and mind, for such a happy-taffy send-off. (Even the little page-corner morphs - a feature of the books, where you flip the pages to see them morph - give the Animorphs a proper send-off, with the profiles of the characters fading to nothing.)
In the afterword, Applegate explains why she ended it how she did. She explains that it was time to walk away from the Animorphs world. There's enough meat left on the bones, enough lingering loose strings, that she could easily revisit the universe in the future... but I don't expect she ever will. She told the story she wanted to tell. And, on the whole, she did it brilliantly.
In the end, I was left with a few regrets. I regret the unnecessary extensions and filler books, not to mention the uneven quality of the ghostwriters, that kept the story from advancing as smoothly as it should have. I regret not being able to spend more time getting to know the newer Animorphs and other allies from the final phase of the war. I regret never knowing the answers to some of the nagging stray threads left over from earlier adventures. But mostly I regret that I'll probably never read its like again... not even from K. A. Applegate (whose Everworld series ended on a strong note, but whose Remnants series petered out disappointingly.) For five years, the Animorphs series provided me (and my father and mother, both of whom swiped my books as soon as I finished) with a monthly fix of action, adventure, and the occasional burst of humor. I always knew they were treasures, but not until I reread them did I realize just what rare jewels they truly were.
So, Applegate, if you're reading this, I offer a belated and heart-felt "thank you." (And a profound wish that you are, somehow, overseeing the "updates"... it would be a shame if the magic was lost for future generations.)

The Answer (K. A. Applegate)

The Answer
(The Animorphs series, Book 53)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Three years.
Three years, since Jake and his friends took the shortcut through the old construction site. Three years since the dying Prince Elfangor told them of the secret Yeerk invasion. Three years since five human children and one Andalite warrior-cadet joined forces to defend the world, using all the power of the animal kingdom.
Now, the secrecy is over. The Yeerk pool under the city lies in ruins, but Visser One has only stepped up his campaign of open warfare. To feed his people with vital Kandrona rays, he has landed the massive Pool ship. This is it: the heart of the invasion force. A battleship to dwarf the strength of the Visser's own Blade ship.
It's a target too big, too tempting, for Jake and his companions to resist... but impossible for them to take.
Or so they thought.
While disrupting construction of a new Earth-based Yeerk pool, Jake discovers a secret group of rebels within the Yeerk ranks, in the most unlikely of places. The Taxxons, giant cannibalistic centipedes, want out of their lopsided alliance with the Yeerks. If the Animorphs will help them, the Taxxons claim they can deliver the keys to the Pool ship.
Jake has a target. He has a plan - a ruthless, terrible plan, a plan that the old Jake, that thirteen-year-old boy standing in the construction site, could never have believed himself capable of devising, let alone executing. It might end up with one or more of his friends dead. It might get every resistance fighter on Earth - the newest Animorphs, the free Hork-Bajir, the parents of his friends, the last of the Yeerk-free military, everyone - killed.
But it's the last - the only - chance for victory. And Jake isn't about to let it slip through his fingers.
No matter what the cost...

REVIEW: And so, at last, it comes to end-game. Though there is one more book in the series, the actual final battle begins - and mostly plays out - in these pages. The levity of the earlier Animorphs books has almost entirely dissipated; these are no longer kids, but war-weary soldiers who finally see the end in sight. Jake has transformed from a reluctant leader beset by inner doubts to a ruthless general capable of issuing orders that are tantamount to suicide... orders that may twist in his gut, but which he issues nonetheless. By this point, he knows his allies and his enemies inside and out, placing them with all the care and deliberation of a chess master setting his opponent up for the ultimate checkmate. It is the sort of character transformation one rarely sees even in grown-up fiction, let alone middle-grade series. The month-long wait for the conclusion in Book 54 was excruciating... a wait, fortunately, I don't have to replicate now.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Sacrifice (K. A. Applegate)

The Sacrifice
(The Animorphs series, Book 52)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, younger brother of the hero Prince Elfangor, has lived and fought with the Animorphs since they rescued him from the wreckage of the Andalite Dome ship. He has come to respect humans, even - occasionally - admire them. He has stood beside "Prince Jake," against every law and custom of the Andalite people, who hold themselves above and apart from even their allies. Like Elfangor before him, Ax thought he might live and die for Earth, his human comrades-in-arms at his side.
But, as the face of the war has changed, his friends have changed with it... in ways that confuse and frighten him.
Once a unified group, now the pressures of the Yeerk war turn them against each other. Even Jake can't seem to hold the Earth resistance together. In desperation, Ax has taken to covertly contacting his Andalite superiors. They have a strong leadership, and a firm plan for Earth... a plan that essentially uses humans as bait to lure Yeerks to their doom, when the fleet annihilates every living thing from the planet's surface. The sacrifice of one backwards, divided, antagonistic species to save the galaxy from the Yeerk threat.
Now, Jake and his friends have learned that the Yeerks have tapped into the city's subway system, mass-infesting hordes of new hosts every day. They mean to destroy the new tunnels... and the Yeerk pool. A devastating attack that could break Visser One's stranglehold on the planet - and doom the Andalite High Command's plans.
Stand with his prince, or obey his people? Help the Animorphs destroy untold numbers of Yeerks, or sabotage their efforts and doom Earth? Wherever he looks, Ax finds only bad choices, and no answers.

REVIEW: Once more, Aximili must look himself in the eye and decide where he stands... only this time, the stakes are higher and the choices nowhere near as clear-cut as they used to be. His friends are not the same people he once swore to stand beside, and the war is no longer a covert cat-and-mouse game in the shadows. Learning of Cassie's terrible choice in The Ultimate (Book 50), the choice that gave Andalite morphing technology to the Yeerks, only makes things that much harder... especially when he hears her reasons, reasons that are either childishly naive or bravely forward-thinking. The Animorphs begin pulling themselves back together for the final two books, with a fatalistic sense of impending resolution. One way or another, this war will end soon, and in these final books the Animorphs are, in their own ways, making peace with who they are and what they've become.
On an unrelated note, the editing on some of these later books is downright sloppy, with thought-speech brackets and spoken-speech quotation marks terribly intermixed. I hope they take the time to clear that up when they finally get around to "updating" them... which, at the rate Scholastic is going, should coincide with the completion of the first manned trip to Mars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Librarian: Little Boy Lost (Eric Hobbs)

Librarian: Little Boy Lost
(The Librarian series, Book 1)
Eric Hobbs
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The school trip to the historic Astoria library - a building so ancient that nobody knew just when it had been built - started on a bad note for Wesley when Randy, the class bully, stole his extra-credit essay... the one he was going to enter in the contest hosted by the old librarian. All his life, Wesley's been picked on and bullied by Randy and his cronies, only finding escape in books. Worse, he knows that the town has reversed the building's historical status, preparing to raze the block. Just to rub salt in the wounds of the day, Randy wins the essay contest... with Wesley's stolen paper. Everything's going wrong - with the city, with his life.
Why can't he just disappear into a storybook... forever?
Inside this old building, that wish isn't as outlandish as it sounds. Wesley and his best friend Taylor discover a strange boy hiding in the aisles... a boy who claims he stepped out of Neverland. Many secrets hide in the Astoria library, many worlds waiting to be explored. But every world, for all its wonders, contains great dangers - dangers that pull Wesley and Taylor into an adventure worthy of a storybook, fleeing a man so evil only the real world could have created him.
(A Kindle exclusive title.)

REVIEW: I wanted to like this book. Built on a decent - if not entirely original - premise, I can't say nothing happened. Unfortunately, it leans on stock characters and simplified situations, with an awkward writing style that kept throwing me out of the story. ("Little did they suspect..." and "If only they'd seen..." paragraphs, as chapter enders, read like amateur attempts to build tension.) Several moments had me rolling my eyes, with people acting stupidly or deliberately ignoring things because the author needed them to at the time. Eventually, Wesley learns a lesson, delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to his skull... but not before setting in motion events that lead to the book's cliffhanger, to be resolved (presumably) in Book 2. In the end, there just isn't much originality here, in the characters or the plot execution, despite occasional glimmers of promise. I've definitely read worse, and it was a free download for Kindle, so I probably shouldn't be too picky.
(I also have to say that I lost a little respect for the author when I read, on his Amazon page, how he backed down and redacted some mild cursing after a few complaints. They're middle-schoolers. Middle-schoolers are known to swear... especially in situations as traumatic as those experienced by Wesley and his companions. Do kids this age still need their world bubble-wrapped and whitewashed? But I digress...)

The Absolute (K. A. Applegate)

The Absolute
(The Animorphs series, Book 51)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

Absolute (Animorphs)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Marco and Tobias were monitoring suspicious troop movements near town, a possible indication of Yeerks manipulating the National Guard, when they ran into trouble: a squadron of peregrine falcons and golden eagles.
Their worst fears realized.
Since Jake's brother Tom escaped with Prince Elfangor's blue cube, the Animorphs are no longer the only morph-capable fighters in this war. Worse, with Visser One's operatives controlling some, if not all, of the guard units, he has military-grade Earth-based firepower and combat-trained human-Controllers at his beck and call. The invasion's about to go public.
Which means the Animorphs have to do the same.
While Jake and the others distract the Yeerk-controlled National Guard, Marco, Tobias, and Ax head to the state capitol. Their plan? Warn the governor about the Yeerks before they can slip a slug into her brain. Only she has the authority to call in more guards, or send for help from the Pentagon... too far away from the Yeerk pool for Visser One to have reached. If nothing else, it's time the general public knew what was going on - before the Dracon beams of Yeerk Bug fighters start carving up the city streets in broad daylight. Of course, they have to dodge Controllers - in morph and out of it - to reach her, but with only three members, they should have no problem with stealth.
The operative word, unfortunately, being "should"...

REVIEW: A high-action thrill ride, this book creates an interesting dynamic by splitting the core group. Without Jake to lead them, Marco and the others can't turn to anyone else to make decisions for them. Fortunately, they're veterans in this war by now; the Animorphs of even twenty books ago wouldn't have been able to function as smoothly on their own. In the governor, the Animorphs may at last have found a grown-up who can handle the news of alien invaders - if they can keep her alive and uninfested long enough to do them any good. With only three books left in the series, both Animorphs and Yeerks prepare themselves for the upcoming final showdown, the ultimate battle for the fate of the Earth.
Incidentally, it's long been apparent, but these later books' titles really must be the result of some sort of random word generator... there's no reason for this one, of all the books, to be called the "absolute" anything.
And on another note, I cannot believe how high the prices are for these later Animorphs installments... check your local library for a much more economical option, unless you're planning to collect them all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Ultimate (K. A. Applegate)

The Ultimate
(The Animorphs series, Book 50)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Life in the Hork-Bajir refugee camp is stressful enough. Add in too-close quarters, parents who still cannot accept the real and imminent danger of the Yeerks, the knowledge that, however much they drill and practice, they simply cannot survive a direct assault, and the fact that Jake's family - mother, father, and brother - are all Controllers... well, it's hardly a wonder that the Animorphs are falling apart. Cassie watches helplessly as Jake's fire dwindles to a cold, empty pit of apathy. She no longer knows him, this boy she used to consider more than a friend. He needs help.
He needs more troops. More Animorphs. Because, even though the experiment with David turned out to be a disaster, the original six can no longer fight this war alone.
The trouble is finding people who will, unlike their parents (or most adults, in their experience), accept the dangers and the responsibilities of morphing... and who are guaranteed not to already have an alien slug in their brains. Cassie knows just where to recruit, from a population that the Yeerks - and the humans - dismiss without a second thought. The hospital beds of sick and disabled children.
But, even as she tells Jake and the others her plan, she has to wonder: is Jake the only one losing touch with their humanity, or has her soul become just as calloused and empty as his?

REVIEW: This is just the sort of plot development that should've come earlier in the series. But, then, these last books feel like a wind sprint through all the stuff Applegate meant to do, but kept putting off to crank out filler plots. Jake comes closer to cracking than ever before, the loss of his whole family driven home by day after day of watching Marco, Cassie, Rachel, and even the orphaned Tobias with their safe-and-sound parents. Cassie wants to believe she's still the same person she used to be before the war, but watching her parents react to her new self drives home her own transformation into someone she doesn't particularly like, but cannot seem to break away from. In the end, Cassie risks everything once she held dear for redemption... even, possibly, her love for Jake. Returning to the internal conflicts and moral dilemmas that were always the strength of the series, The Ultimate demonstrates that the spark is still alive, even fifty-odd books later.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Sparkling Misfortune (Laura Lond and Alla Alekseyeva)

My Sparkling Misfortune
(The Lakeland Knight series, Volume 1)
Laura Lond and Alla Alekseyeva
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: No man would ever accuse Lord Arkus of heroism - at least, none who live to tell the tale. Clever, devious, greedy, and ruthless, Arkus has made a reputation as one of the leading villains in the land, bane of prince and knight and goodly folk of all stripes. But even among villains exists a certain code of honor - which is why, when Prince Kellemar (normally the heroic type) proposed a temporary pooling of resources to deal with a shared threat, Arkus took him at his word. Unfortunately, while villains may have honor, heroic princes evidently do not. The deal was a trap, one that nearly cost Arkus his life. Barely escaping, losing his castle and his most trusted minions, he schemes vengeance in exile... but he cannot do evil alone. He needs a supernatural servant. And he knows just where - and how - to ensare one. But Arkus makes a vital mistake: the spirit he traps isn't evil. It's a sparkling, notorious companion of heroes and do-gooders. And it seems to suffer from the delusion that a hero's heart hides beneath his villainous skin.
It's going to be a long and painful road to vengeance. Or redemption. Whichever Arkus reaches first... assuming the sparkling hasn't driven him crazy before he gets there.

REVIEW: As one might expect, this is a lighthearted tale, a fun play on fantasy convention. The world isn't especially deep or distinctive, and the characters aren't startlingly original, but both do their job and held my interest for the length of the book. It reads fast and has some fun moments; but for the ending, which turns into a cliffhanger, it would've rated four stars. Unfortunately, I felt a bit cheated by the lack of resolution. This isn't so much an independent volume, as advertised, but the first half of a larger book. I also felt parts of the story were a little thin; I never really got a sense of Arkus as a villain, so his gradual transformation wasn't as unexpected as I thought the authors intended it to be. Overall, though, it's not a bad story, and I wouldn't rule out reading the second Lakeland Knight book. (Especially if it ever becomes available for free...)

The Diversion (K. A. Applegate)

The Diversion
(The Animorphs series, Book 49)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Since becoming Animorphs, joining the fight against the unseen Yeerk enemy, Tobias and his friends fought not only for the Earth, but for the safety of their families. Even Jake, whose older brother Tom is a high-ranked human-Controller, would do anything to protect them. For a long time, it was merely a hypothetical threat; Visser One remained convinced that the "bandits" harrying the invasion were trained Andalite warriors.
Now, he's figured out the truth.
As the Animorphs scramble to figure out how much the Yeerks know, and how to save their families (if it's not already too late), Tobias makes a startling discovery: his mother, who abandoned him when he was little more than a baby, is still alive. She lives just a few blocks from where the human boy Tobias cried himself to sleep at night in his uncaring uncle's house, inventing story after story about why she'd left, and when she'd come back for him.
How much will Tobias risk to meet her? How much is her life - the life of a woman who was barely a mother to him, who never even bothered walking down the block to see him - worth? And why can't Tobias seem to leave her behind as easily as she left him?

REVIEW: After Marco revealed his secret to his father in The Revelation (Book 45), this story - the endangerment of the Animorphs' families, the decision whether or not to sacrifice their own flesh and blood to the Yeerks - was inevitable. Tobias would normally be an outsider in such a decision; even when he was human, his "family" was little more than a roof over his head and (sometimes) a meal on the table at night. Bringing his long-lost mother Loren, last seen as a kid in The Andalite Chronicles, felt a bit like a stretch in the logic department, but it gave Tobias (and the readers) a sense of closure on her story. The reunion is bittersweet, as Tobias finally learns just why she walked out on him, but if he thought he'd have a TV-movie reconciliation that erased all the scars of his past, he's sadly mistaken... especially when the Yeerks are still gunning for him and his friends, and are no longer afraid of the consequences of public displays of force. The tension continues to ratchet up on the way to the finale.
On a side note, the original cover's morph shows a serious misunderstanding of how a hawk would morph into a dog... a further sign that the series is nearing the end of its active shelf life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Return (K. A. Applegate)

The Return
(The Animorphs series, Book 48)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: For weeks now, Rachel has been plagued by nightmares. Anyone in her shoes - given the ability to morph animals, thrown onto the front lines of a war against parasitic alien invaders, constantly in fear of discovery by her enemies - would be insane not to have bad dreams, but Rachel's are worse than normal. In them, her dark side, the bloodthirsty beast in her own heart, takes over, threatening her friends and comrades even as she thrills in its amoral power. But they're just dreams... or are they?
Rachel finds herself trapped in a multi-layered nightmare, too real to be a dream yet too impossible to be reality. At the center of it lurks the evil red eye of Crakak... and a white rat named David. The seventh Animorph whom they trapped in rat morph when he went rogue. Crayak offers Rachel's dark side a chance to emerge, to flourish. It has the strength to destroy Visser One. It has the power to save Earth. And all it will cost is one life: the life of Jake, the leader of the Animorphs.
If Rachel accepts the Crayak's gift, she will become the most powerful being in this sector of the galaxy. If she rejects it, she'll end up with David: trapped as a rat. Forever.

REVIEW: This book, following through on Crayak's earlier attempt to seduce Rachel to his side of the conflict, stumbles by trying too hard. It wants to be Rachel's equivalent of Tobias's torture at the hands of the mad Yeerk Taylor in The Illusion (Book 33), crossed with a follow-through on the fate of David and some temptation-of-evil for good measure. Any one of those, alone, might have made a stronger story, but mashed together it just becomes too surreal. The whole book has a nightmarish overtone, as Crayak bends and warps reality on a whim to ensare Rachel in his plans. Given the series finale, there's more than a little character foreshadowing here, as she confronts the reality of her near-addiction to the danger of warfare; even if the Yeerks left tomorrow, she'll never be able to pretend she's an ordinary girl again, that she'll be happy just shopping at The Gap or chilling in front of the TV. It's been a theme with her character since the beginning, and the degree to which it's come to dominate her life shows just how severely the war has affected her. David, in his return, does less than I might have expected - and, frankly, of all the characters the Animorphs have encountered, all the tantalizing loose threads from previous adventures, I wouldn't have picked him as the one to revisit. Still, given that it reads more like a head-trip than an active progression of the mytharc, the book does its job.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The First Dragoneer (M. R. Mathias)

The First Dragoneer
(Prequel to The Dragoneers Saga)
M. R. Mathias
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The mountains of the Teeth, on the edge of civilized human lands, teem with dangers... but, in pastoral Prominence Valley, life marches to the slow, monotonous beat of the seasons. As a farmer's third son, seventeen-year-old March must go forth into the world to make his own fortune. His best friend Bren, sole male child of his horse-breeder family, can only look forward to a long, dull life in the valley of his ancestors. But the day of their parting is weeks away. For now, they can enjoy one last hunting trip together. And, as it's their last, they want it to be a hunt to remember!
Little do the boys know just how memorable their hunt will be. What starts as a boyish dare - to venture beyond the ridge of the Teeth, beyond the kingdom's boundaries and patrols - will end in tragedy... with one life hanging in the balance, and one changed in ways no Prominence Valley boy could imagine.
(A Kindle exclusive title.)

REVIEW: O, the siren call of freebie downloads... This novella, a prequel to a series, tempted me with decent reviews and the promise of dragons. Sadly, it's not so much a stand-alone novel as an extended teaser, an incomplete enticement to the saga of the dragoneers. The clunky narrative, rolling back and forth between the boys without warning, would have benefited from the attentions of a good editor... or at least a halfway decent proofreader. After heel-dragging and meandering, it finally picks up a little momentum... only to end with an illogical, out-of-the-blue leap onto the back of the series premise, without even trying to resolve the threads of its own story. A good half of the download proved to be a preview of the first full-length Dragoneers book. Having been disappointed by the story (and characters, and writing style) of The First Dragoneer, I didn't even bother trying.

Write Good or Die (Scott Nicholson, editor)

Write Good or Die
Scott Nicholson, editor
Haunted Computer Books
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A prolific published author, Scott Nicholson compiles articles from several writers, discussing everything from finishing a manuscript through proper submission etiquette, self-promotion myths, today's rapidly-changing publishing world, and more.
(A Kindle exclusive title.)

REVIEW: While I admit I've never read any books by Nicholson (or the other contributors), I still recognized the ring of truth and experience in their words. With many short articles on many subjects, it lent itself well to my current schedule. (Between National Novel Writing Month writing blitzes and holiday projects, I don't have the time to sit down to a long story.) A good chunk of articles devote themselves to aftercare, tackling problems of getting a publisher's (or agent's) attention, suggestions for finding a reviewer, how e-books are changing the face of the industry (for the better, on the whole), and how to promote yourself without compromising writing time or the bottom line. After the "about the authors" afterword are several teasers for contributors' novels, more than one of which intrigued me. (It also acted as an object lesson highlighting points made in the book itself, about the benefits of cross-promotion.) A few minor formatting issues aside, it's a good and inspiring collection for any modern writer (or would-be writer.)
It was also a free Kindle download. Free always helps... though, in this case, the content was good enough that I wouldn't have minded paying.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Resistance (K. A. Applegate)

The Resistance
(The Animorphs series, Book 47)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

NOTE: In honor of the recent re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Everything's falling apart. Visser Three is now Visser One. The secret invasion moves toward open warfare. The Andalite relief ships aren't coming, now or - most likely - ever. Already Marco and his family are officially "dead," hiding with the free Hork-Bajir in the mountains beyond the national forest. How much longer before Rachel has to join them? Or Cassie? Jake, leader of the Animorphs, doesn't know how much more he can stand, how much longer he can hold out against impossible odds.
While cleaning out the basement for his mother, Jake finds an old family heirloom: the uniform and diary of Lieutenant Isaiah Fitzhenry, Civil War soldier. The tale of Fitzhenry's battle, a battle with too few troops and unreliable orders and an undefeated Rebel general whose forces vastly outnumber and outgun his own, eerily mimics Jake's fight... especially when Cassie calls with grim news. One of the free Hork-Bajir has been captured and re-infested. With a guide to lead them, the Yeerk troops are heading straight toward the hidden valley sanctuary. It's a death trap, with no way out - but the Hork-Bajir refuse to flee. And Jake has no choice but to lead them in a fight that cannot be won.

REVIEW: Drawn in shades of blood red, hopeless white, and black smears of despair and foreshadowing, The Resistance brings the battle to the sheltered Hork-Bajir. Like the previous book, innocent bystanders find themselves in the line of fire, forced by cruel circumstance to take up arms against an enemy they didn't know existed and fight - or die - in a war they do not understand. The alternate-chapter cuts to Isaiah Fitzhenry's diary, describing his doomed efforts to protect a town from Rebel soldiers, drove home parallels about racism (or speciesism), freedom, and the dark reality of war with concussive force. Further hints are dropped that, during the "holding pattern" stories, plenty has been happening that the readers were left unaware of - for instance, Jake and his friends finally learned how to morph clothing other than Spandex. It makes me wish that the publishing schedule hadn't been so brutal, so Applegate herself could've had more time to develop those stories (or at least more time to properly oversee the efforts of the ghostwriters.)

The Deception (K. A. Applegate)

The Deception
(The Animorphs series, Book 46)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Since coming to Earth on board the doomed Andalite Dome ship with his war-hero brother, Aximili has changed in many ways. Once an untested aristh, a warrior-cadet, he has now fought more Yeerks than many Andalite adults. Once convinced of the moral and technological superiority of his species, he has been humbled - and disappointed - many times. But, still, he clung to the hope that the Andalites would come to liberate Earth from the Yeerk threat, that he and his friends were merely fighting to delay Visser Three's forces.
Now he knows better.
Almost overnight, the tone of the invasion has shifted. What once was a stealth mission moves toward all-out war, now that Visser Three has been officially promoted to the rank of Visser One. His first act is brilliant, ruthless, and bold: trigger a third World War, and let humans exhaust their weapons and resources exterminating each other until no possible resistance can be mounted.
The Animorphs, of course, hurry to thwart the Visser's plans... but they're used to guerrilla warfare and infiltration, quick strikes against the enemy, melting into the shadows before the violence and death toll rises too high. Ax and his companions thought they were blooded warriors already - but, now, they're about to get their first taste of real, open, no-holds-barred war. And they'll learn that, when it comes to war, they have a lot to learn: about the enemy, and about themselves.

REVIEW: This book, which picks up literally where the last one left off, danged near lost itself a half-star. The change in tone, the higher body count and blood cost, has been so abrupt that it almost reads like an entirely different series. It didn't help that a fair chunk of this book relied on in-depth knowledge of the armaments and infrastructure of a modern Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which Jake and his friends spew out in long strings of technobabble. If nothing else, the character evolution is thrown into sharp relief at the Animorphs' first taste of all-out war - at least, their first taste on Earth, in their own timeline, in a battle that they cannot sidestep or back away from because it's not their fight. Ax especially learns just how far he's willing to go to save humans and defeat the Yeerk scheme; like Elfangor before him, Ax has been seduced by the primitive, contradictory natives of Earth (though not in so literal a sense as his big brother,) but even he is surprised at just what he'll sacrifice in the name of victory. Bloody, violent, fast-paced, and dark, The Deception continues what Book 45 started, a mad race to the ultimate confrontation between Animorph and Yeerk.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Revelation (K. A. Applegate)

The Revelation
(The Animorphs series, Book 45)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: From the first, the Animorphs have struggled to keep their families - most of them probably innocent, at least one a human-Controller - from learning of their abilities, let alone the fight against the Yeerks. To do so would put all of them in danger. If need be, they know they'll probably have to sacrifice loved ones for the sake of the cause. Marco, of all the Animorphs, should know this: his mother, long thought drowned, lives as the enslaved host of Visser One. Even when his father fell in love again and remarried, he kept his mouth shut, kept living the lie that his real mother was dead. The greater good prevailed.
But then his father came home from work one evening, babbling about a revolutionary breakthrough at the engineering firm where he works: the discovery of a brand-new layer of existence. Zero-space.
The nondimension where extruded mass goes during small morphs... and where alien spaceships travel interstellar distances in days rather than centuries. Marco and his friends know more about Zero-space than any other free humans... until now.
So far, the Yeerks have maintained their cloak of secrecy, lacking the strength and firepower to take on human military forces in the open. But if a human blundered onto their Zero-space transmissions, the hiding would be over. The only way to stop Earth from learning of their invasion is to infiltrate the project. Make Controllers out of the engineers involved.
Including Marco's father.
He's already lost his mother to Visser One. Can he stand by, like a good soldier, and let Dad be taken by the enemy? Or will he do something very brave, very stupid, and very, very dangerous, for him and the rest of his friends... like finally reveal his secret identity to the only family he has left?

REVIEW: After maintaining a holding pattern for longer than was strictly necessary, the series kicks into gear again in the countdown to the finale, a mere nine books out. Compressing events that could've unfolded more naturally over two or three books into one makes for a bit of a rushed story, unfortunately. There isn't time for the full emotional impact of the mytharc-changing events to be properly established or explored. As the title implies (and the preview blurbs explicitly reveal), Marco's father becomes the first of the Animorphs' relatives to learn of their secret identities - a revelation he takes remarkably well, all things considered. That alone could've made up the core of a good book, but Applegate shoehorns in three or four more major alterations. By the end, the final ultimatum has been sounded, the final deadline placed before the Yeerks take the invasion out of the shadows. It should've been a far more profound moment, but instead it was lost in the general rush. A little disappointing, but not enough to put me off reading on - then or now.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Few gentlemen in 19th-century London are as decent and upright as Dr. Henry Jekyll... which is why his lawyer friend, Mr. Utterson, is perplexed by the man's associated with an unsavory fellow known as Hyde. He's even named the despicable, ill-reputed beast as an heir in his will! Convinced Jekyll is a victim of blackmail, Utterson digs deeper - only to uncover a truth so terrible he can scarcely believe it.

REVIEW: Like many older books, some allowances need to be made for an archaic writing style. Unfortunately, as a modern reader, I find that such allowances don't do much to excuse the general tedium of stories like this. A long, slow build to a foregone conclusion runs headlong into a long, slow reflection by the doomed Dr. Jekyll as he recounts the thought processes and experiments behind his greatest triumph and failure... a recounting full of gaps and self-pitying sidetracks. Compared to some other classic sci-fi/fantasy tales, though, this story positively flies along. Stevenson also has some nice descriptive passages and a few characters that, while sketchily drawn, nonetheless stand out distinctly in the memory. (Not all of them, unfortunately...) I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, but I doubt I'll bother reading it again.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Unexpected (K. A. Applegate)

The Unexpected
(The Animorphs series, Book 44)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: When Cassie and her friends got wind of alien wreckage discovered by the government, they knew they had to act fast. The Yeerks would do anything to keep any evidence of their technology from ending up in official hands, which means that the Animorphs must ensure that it does just that. Powerful as the invasion has grown, it's still not strong enough to withstand the forces of national defenses should the feds be alerted. During the mission, Cassie becomes separated from the others. One firefight later, and she finds herself in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet... with Yeerk Bug fighters hot on her trail.
By the skin of her teeth and the speed of her morph, she manages to escape, to find herself in the middle of a vast red desert: the Australian Outback. It's not the kind of place the Yeerks would be interested in - unless, of course, they thought an Andalite was hiding there. All alone, in a strange land, Cassie fights for her survival on the slim hope of returning home.

REVIEW: This might've squeaked by with an Okay rating, but it was just too unoriginal to pull it off. The story feels like a "field trip" filler episode of a sagging TV show, when they move the cast and crew to an exotic location in a misguided attempt to boost ratings. Being seen by a native boy who helps her fight back comes straight out of The Extreme (Book 25), when a Native American helps the team find a polar bear to morph. Also like that book, the natives take people turning into animals in stride due to their cultural heritage, mostly because the book doesn't want to have to deal with the ramifications of outsiders learning about the Animorphs. Aside from meeting an Aboriginal boy and visiting Oz, this book serves no purpose in the mytharc. Cassie's character doesn't grow, the Yeerks are neither helped nor hindered by the sidetrack, and the whole adventure amounts to a delaying tactic before the next book, which begins the build-up to the series finale in Book 54. It's not a bad story, per se, but Applegate is capable of so much better... and gratuitous padding like this just cheapens the series. (The book also missed a bet: Australia is home to animals with some of the deadliest poisons on Earth, a worthy addition to the morphing arsenal. The only native Australian Cassie does morph is a red kangaroo, which she could've found at the zoo back home.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Test (K. A. Applegate)

The Test
(The Animorphs series, Book 43)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Of all the Animorphs, Tobias has made the most sacrifices. On their first mission to the Yeerk pool, he gave up his humanity when he became a nothlit, trapped in hawk morph. Regaining his morphing ability through the interference of the Ellimist, Tobias had a chance to return to human - to stay a human forever, to be with Rachel as a normal boy - but chose to remain in the fight as an Animorph. When they needed someone to destroy the Yeerks' Anti-Morphing Ray, Tobias volunteered to be the test subject... and endured unimaginable torture at the hands of Taylor, the sadistically insane sub-visser in charge of the project. That was when he nearly gave up his own sanity, and the horror, the weakness of being entirely in Taylor's control, still haunts him.
Tobias had thought Taylor dead; she displeased Visser Three, after all, and few who fail him once last long enough to do so again. But then, after being injured by an eagle attack and sent to an animal hospital, there she was. His captor. His torturer. His bane. Instead of killing him, however, she lets him go - after telling him that she wants the help of his friends. Many Yeerks, she claims, are unhappy with how the Vissers and the Council have botched their empire's expansion. She wants to destroy Visser Three and spark a revolution that will resonate across the galaxy. Taylor has a plan that is every bit as heartless as she is, devastatingly simple. A victory in one blow.
Tobias is torn. On the one hand, the chance to cause trouble for the invasion is too good to pass up, even if it means partnering with such an unsavory, unstable person. On the other, he alone knows just how evil Taylor truly is at heart... and how hard it is to break free of her clutches.

REVIEW: How many middle-grade books explore the ramifications of torture and post-traumatic stress? Not many. Applegate writes a brilliant follow-up to Tobias's darkest adventure, pitting the tortured against the torturer on an ever-shifting playing field. He struggles to reconcile his lingering sense of helplessness and weakness, his shame at having been broken, with the the greater needs of the war and his friends - and, by overcompensating, nearly destroys everything he's ever fought for. The Animorphs find their ethics tested and twisted to the utmost, as they weigh the costs of victory at any price against their own humanity. The war has changed them all, leaving scars that will never heal. They aren't children anymore, but soldiers in the truest sense of the word. A fine return to form after the inane meanderings of Book 42.