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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Journey (K. A. Applegate)

The Journey
(The Animorphs series, Book 42)
K. A. Applegate
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

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

DESCRIPTION: Another mission, another victory... but, as Rachel and her friends demorph after the battle, something goes wrong. They're spotted - and photographed. Yeerk or innocent bystander, it doesn't matter. They need that film, before Visser Three finds out that the "Andalite bandits" are just human kids. But their plans to snatch the camera are disrupted by the return of an old enemy.
The Helmacrons, pint-sized problems with gargantuan egos, agreed never to return to Earth if they were allowed to recharge their ship on the "morphing energy" from Elfangor's blue cube. Unfortunately, bargains made with lesser species mean nothing to them. They've returned - and this time, they've taken a hostage. Before anyone can stop them, a team of Helmacrons has marched up Marco's nose. Once inside him, they pose a serious problem: their Dracon beams could do some real damage, especially if they get as far as his heart. The Animorphs put their camera mission on hold to free their friend, using the shrink ray of the Helmacron ship... only something goes wrong. The shrink ray works too well, reducing them to cellular size. The Helmacrons sabotaged their own technology, knowing the Animorphs would use it to follow them. Now they're too small to harm even the tiny Helmacrons, and the clock is ticking both on the missing camera and on Marco's life.
But the Helmacrons made one mistake: they made Rachel mad.

REVIEW: I believe this represents the nadir of the Animorphs series. The Helmacrons, irritating in their first adventure, are even more annoying in their return. The whole concept feels pitched at a lower level than the rest of the books, with its focus on snot and phlegm and Magic School Bus-like tour of the body. With a plot this shallow and villains this silly, there's no room for depth, let alone interest. The writing style doesn't even read like Applegate. Like the first Helmacron encounter (in Book 24, The Suspicion), this adventure wraps up with a quick non-conclusion. A clear case of series padding, or author burnout.

Rip Haywire and the Curse of Tangaroa! (Dan Thompson)

Rip Haywire and the Curse of Tangaroa!
(A Rip Haywire graphic novel)
Dan Thompson
IDW Publishing
Fiction, YA? Graphic Novel/Humor

***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Rip Haywire spent his childhood like most kids, or so he thought. After all, what did the other boys do all day if they weren't helping their mother take out bad guys and infiltrate top-secret bases? But, even for him, one youthful mission stood out from the rest: a journey to a lost temple to recover a mysterious artifact known as a "ghost compass." The evil Longbeard escaped, but Rip never forgot the compass.
Now grown, Rip is a soldier of fortune, laughing in the face of death and feasting on fortified danger around the world. Once more, he finds himself on the trail of the ghost compass, which is tied to an ancient pirate curse... and an unimaginable trove of lost wealth. With his cowardly canine compatriot TNT, and his double-agent bombshell girlfriend Cobra, Rip sets out to save the day, save his mother, and dish out extra helpings of two-fisted justice, Haywire style.

REVIEW: Rip Haywire, a hilarious parody of classic action/adventure heroics, makes his graphic novel debut in a story that's bigger, longer, and - if possible - even funnier than the daily strips. Hardly a page went by that didn't almost have me laughing out loud. The timeline appears to be independent of the main comic strip, but that's to be expected. The characters are still just as funny, with occasional side-trip stories that added to the overall hilarity. The humor, much like that of the daily strips, skews a little toward the grown-up end of the spectrum, not crude but certainly requiring a taste for parody. I keep hoping Dan Thompson will put out a comic collection, but in the meantime this makes a more-than-acceptable substitute. I only hope more graphic novels are in the works. After a long stretch of unimpressive reads, I needed a laugh like this...

Back to Before (K. A. Applegate)

Back to Before
(The Animorphs series, Megamorphs 4)
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: Another battle done. Another night over. Jake crawls away from devastation, from pain, from blood - the enemy's blood and his own. At home, he tries to forget, but can't. How did this burden fall upon his shoulders? How can he go on like this? If only he'd never walked home through the construction site... had never met Prince Elfangor in his dying moments... had never heard of morphing or the Yeerks.
Thanks to the Drode, meddling assistant to the evil Crayak, and a bargain with the (sometimes) benevolent Ellimist, Jake's wish is granted. He and his friends took the long way home from the mall. But that doesn't mean that their lives are safe. After all, just because you don't know you have enemies doesn't mean they aren't out get you...

REVIEW: This book answers the question that fans (and fanfic writers) were asking themselves since the start of the series: could Jake and his friends have resisted the Yeerks even if they'd missed their fateful meeting with Elfangor, and never acquired the power to morph? The characters drift off in their own directions, but somehow keep finding themselves coming to the same conclusion: something very, very strange is going on in their hometown. Jake grows suspicious of the Sharing after his brother Tom pushes him too hard to join. Tobias, on the other hand, becomes their perfect victim, a troubled and bullied boy who finally thinks he's found a place where he belongs. Marco and Rachel spot Marco's dead mother, while Cassie fights a persistent feeling that something is terribly wrong with time itself. Perhaps the most profound difference is Ax; forced to escape the wreckage of the Dome ship alone, he attempts to expose and destroy the Yeerks entirely on his own, a lost alien on a primitive, hostile world. With action, paranoia, and a grim sense of fatality, this might've earned a solid Great rating, but for two things. First off, it is, ultimately, a redundant timeline, a classic sci-fi cop-out. Secondly, it strikes a very similar note to The Familiar (where Jake experiences a simulated future Earth under Yeerk rule), which was released at the same time. Ordinarily, two negatives like that would've dropped it a full star in the ratings, but, as I've mentioned before, I've been on a mediocre-to-bad reading streak lately. It was also nice to see the series pick back up after some less-impressive installments. Overall it's perhaps the darkest and most powerful of the four Megamorphs titles.