Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Keeper of Cats (Elizabeth H. Boyer)

Keeper of Cats
Elizabeth H. Boyer
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Jutta knew her young life was over the day her mother deposited her on the doorstep of Bardhol, the run-down ancestral estate of the Hestur clan. Once a thriving matriarchy, back before that newfangled idea of permanent marriage ousted the old ways, the prosperous line has dwindled to five elderly women who faithfully tend the last of the Hestur horses and keep watch on the ancestral barrow mounds. As bad as that sounds to a nineteen-year-old girl accustomed to soft living in town, it's worse when she finds out about the cats. Pushy, grabby, too ready to use their claws and teeth (and incessant voices) at the flick of a whisker, they have the full run of Bardhol. She hates cats, just as she hates being forced into manual labor helping out her grandmothers and listening to their endless jabber about the old days of long-dead suitors and long-lost magic. Her mother insists that the women are hiding some great fortune, instructing the girl to keep an eye open for a potential inheritance, but she sees nothing except ruin and hairballs. Jutta's sure she'll go mad of boredom before the first week is out. But with barrow robbers, a mysterious ley-line tracker, ghostly apparitions, otherworldly barbarians, and a killer on the loose among the ancient graves, not to mention the extraordinary secret of the Hestur cats, boredom quickly becomes the least of her worries.

REVIEW: I thought I was in for a rough ride when I met the selfish, arrogant main character. When Boyer flooded the tale with interchangeable Scandinavian-influenced names, which could apply to people or clans or places or even cats, before I'd found my bearings, my instincts were confirmed. Jutta makes a singularly unlikeable protagonist, so blinded by her own greed and prejudices (not to mention a healthy dose of pigheadedness) that I quickly grew frustrated. She also is remarkably dense, or simply forgetful, "discovering" plot-pertinent information for the second time with the same jaw-dropping astonishment she displayed the first time. She even forgets key parts of her own personality; she hates cats, until she doesn't, just as she's ashamed to be related to such old-fashioned biddies and the eclipsed Hestur clan, unless she's rubbing her noble heritage in someone's face. Then again, this is a girl who can bond with a woman until she feels closer than sisters, then immediately turn her back and treat her like a worthless servant when that woman says something she doesn't like. As a result of my dislike for Jutta, it took me some time to get the feel of her world - a shame, actually, as Boyer created an imaginative setting for this tedious little tale. The story lurches along, tied not to the pursuit of the unnamed killer or to the rediscovery of lost magics but to Jutta's selfish whims and fits; the rest of the subplots unfold despite, rather than because of, her actions. As for the cats, they devour a fair bit of page count simply being cats, though at least they contribute to the resolution of the story once in a while. They, too, had origins that would've been more interesting had I not been saddled with Jutta as my escort through their world. The ultimate culprit behind many of the problems proves obvious to everyone but the main character, and the resolution feels unsatisfactory. Still, I managed to keep turning pages, and I liked some of Boyer's ideas. I just wish I'd been able to enjoy them more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Catfantastic anthologies (Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg, editors) - My Review
Heroes of the Valley (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review
Tailchaser's Song (Tad Williams) - My Review

Sunday, July 29, 2012

July Site Update

I archived and cross-linked the previous 8 reviews at Brightdreamer Books.


Create Your Own Conspiracy Theory

Create Your Own Conspiracy Theory
Charles Senescall
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The government faked the moon landing. Alien overlords walk among us. President Obama's birth certificate isn't real. People will believe all manner of bizarre, illogical conspiracy theories, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary... and some make very, very good money perpetuating these theories in books, movies, and talk show appearances.
Ever wanted a piece of that action?
This short guide explains all you need to know about creating your own conspiracy theory. Before long, hordes of devoted followers will be happily funding your luxurious retirement... until the Illuminati take you away to their secret re-education compounds, of course.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This five-page eBook demonstrates just how (sadly) easy it is to fool some of the people all of the time. It also knows better than to linger on any particular point, unlike some would-be-humorous "guides" I've read. It was mildly amusing, and well worth the cost (free when I downloaded it, a mere 99 cents now.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Duh! A Stupid History of the Human Race (Bob Fenster) - My Review
Welcome to Jesusland! (Formerly the United States of America) ("The Landover Baptist Church") - My Review
The X-Files: The Complete Collector's Edition (Amazon DVD link)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
(A Sherlock Holmes collection, Book 3)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Anthology/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For many years, the world - and Doctor Watson - believed they had seen the last of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Then the widowed Watson finds himself with a peculiar visitor... a man he thought had perished at the hand of his arch-enemy that fateful day at Reichenbach Fall. Many more adventures await the duo, dutifully recorded by the good doctor.

REVIEW: Thirteen more adventures with the intrepid, nearly-infallible Holmes mark Doyle's return to his iconic character, one he evidently resisted for some time before popular demand (and the comparative failure of other endeavors) forced him back to Baker Street. The quality seems on par with previous installments, with singular characters often outshining the plot and occasionally dizzying leaps of logic. By modern standards, they seem prone to telling more than showing how the mystery unfolds, with long stretches of explanatory dialog taking the place of active investigation, but they still managed to hold my interest.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - My Review
The House of Silk (Anthony Horowitz) - My Review
Sherlock: Season Two (Amazon DVD link)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ten Things to Remember When: Committing Murder (Michelle Lord)

Ten Things to Remember When: Committing Murder
(The Ten Things to Remember series, Book 1)
Michelle Lord
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Crime/Humor
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: So, you've decided to kill someone. Be it an unfaithful and heavily-insured husband, the neighbor who won't turn down her stereo, or just that weirdo who looked at you funny, murder brings with it a host of complications that tend to trip up the amateur. A little common sense can go a long way toward keeping you out of jail.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Another vaguely amusing premise that fails in the execution, this little handbook at least knows better than to overstay its welcome, being well under 50 pages long. Lord offers advice gleaned from years of crime TV, both dramatized and true-life accounts, with an overall tongue-in-cheek flair. Though clearly a satire, she goes out of her way to restate that it's only a joke... more than once. She also inexplicably plans to write other Ten Things titles that are serious, as well as more humorous entries. This seems like brand confusion waiting to happen, another sign that Lord doesn't quite seem to know where she wants to go. The humor wavers between flat and almost amusing, often overwritten and just plain inconsistent. There were also numerous small yet annoying editing errors, adding to the amateur feel. Had it been any longer, it would've lost another half-star in the ratings. As it was, being a freebie download and a fast read kept it hovering at the two-star level.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Detective Guide Book (Albert John Peebles) - My Review
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete First Season (Amazon DVD Link)
Throw Momma From the Train (Amazon DVD Link)

Friday, July 20, 2012

ExtraNormal (Suze Reese)

(A Paranormal Romance, Book 1)
Suze Reese
Valarian Press
Fiction, YA Romance/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Mira Jones came a very long way to enroll at Los Robles High School in California... through a wormhole from her home planet Nreim. Since discovering Earth, her people have been fascinated as much by its similarities - third planet from a yellow star, genetically similar dominant species - as its differences - a complete inability to understand, let alone manipulate, personal electromagnetic fields, which the locals derisively refer to as psychic nonsense. But some nafarians have gone rogue, doing far more than just observing the curiously backwards humans, manipulating and exploiting them. A linkmated pair of scientists, the Stones, gained global fame for their studies of Earth, but the Nreim council has long suspected them of rogue activities. They just started teaching at Los Robles, for unknown but likely suspicious reasons. Until someone can gather actual evidence of wrongdoing, the council takes the unusual step of sending a teenager to keep an eye on them. She won't be alone - her mother, a government agent, will be with her - but it's still dangerous... and not just because the Stones might figure out she's not a native. Mira underwent stringent training, with a list of forbidden activities nearly as long as the distance from Nreim to Earth; this is, after all, a government mission, not a vacation, and her teenage mind must be protected from distractions. No eating unapproved Earth food. No getting too close with the locals. And absolutely no mingling with males.
Before her first day of school is out, Mira violates the top two commands... and before long, the strangely attractive loner Jesse tempts her to violate the third. But then the handsome new boy Everett appears, and Mira's covert mission becomes more dangerous than she could ever have imagined.

REVIEW: This being a romance, albeit with sci-fi trappings, there are certain givens in the plot. There will be a Handsome Stranger, whom the heroine is destined to love. There will be a Dangerous Rival. And there will be all sorts of complications, real and imagined, standing between the leads and True Love. ExtraNormal faithfully adheres to this formula. Mira spends a fair amount of time pining and fretting and otherwise working herself up over her star-crossed lover, but she manages to not be entirely useless. Jesse's blind devotion from first sight grew a little tiresome, his love always pure and unflagging even as Mira doubts herself, but he was simply playing out his role as the Handsome Stranger. Likewise, Everett plays his role as the villain to the hilt, a serviceable (if not entirely original) baddie whose sole purpose in life seems to be making Mira and Jesse miserable. The story of the rogue aliens, the Stones, often takes a back seat to the angst and romance, but Mira checks in on the subplot often enough to keep them in play, adding a little intrigue and the occasional burst of action. The sci-fi elements of the tale play like soft background music, just loud enough to set the mood (and provide a few more obstacles for Mira to navigate as she sorts her heart.) Anyone looking for hard, or even plausible, sci-fi will walk away disappointed. For what it was, though, ExtraNormal proves decent enough, hitting its marks with confidence, if not stunning originality.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Quozl (Alan Dean Foster) - My Review
Roswell High: The Outsiders (Melinda Metz) - My Review
Sweep 1: Book of Shadows (Cate Tiernan) - My Review

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

The Hunger Games
(The Hunger Games trilogy, Book 1)
Suzanne Collins
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Panem rose from the ashes of a devastated world, a totalitarian nation built on the bones of North America. Twelve districts kneel to the might of the Capitol, the smoking ruins of the thirteenth sufficient deterrent against rebellion. To flaunt their power over the people's lives, every year the Capitol takes two children from each district as tributes, entering them in the live, televised bloodsport called the Hunger Games. The last tribute standing brings great wealth and prestige to their district... while twenty-three young bodies drive home the Capitol's complete control.
In the coal mining community of District 12, young Katniss Everdeen struggles to support her mother and younger sister. Not only does she turn to poaching to put food on the table, but she barters her own survival, trading multiple entries of her name in the Hunger Games drawings for extra rations. It's a desperate way to live, but in District 12, desperation is the only life she knows. Even so, she never thought her name would be drawn... and it isn't. But when her younger, innocent sister Primrose's name is called at the reaping, Katniss steps forward as a volunteer to take her place. Prim is a healer, not a killer - and, if nothing else, years of poaching have taught Katniss what it means to kill to survive.
Torn from her poor home and thrown into the spotlight, handed over to the care of trainers and stylists and image consultants, all for the "honor" of killing - and likely dying - on national TV, Katniss finds her hard-earned survival skills put to the ultimate test... a test made even more difficult by her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta the baker's son. A seemingly-sweet boy, the lone familiar face in a sea of strangers, he will soon, like every other tribute, be nothing more than a potential killer once the Games begin.

REVIEW: A fast-paced story, The Hunger Games deftly sketches out its grim future without sacrificing action or characters. Katniss starts out a jaded survivor, with no room in her mind or her life for softer emotions or intrigues. Faced with the almost-incomprehensible world of the decadent Capitol and the manufactured drama of reality TV, not to mention the cold reality of turning her bow on a human instead of a rabbit or deer, she finds she has a lot to learn, and little time to learn it. She proves a little clueless at times, but never about her own survival: rather, it's her blindness to emotions, hers and those of others, that keeps tripping her up. Primrose seems far too angelic to live in the same world that produced Katniss, and Peeta comes across a little too obviously, but other characters tend to reveal hidden facets under the pressure of the Games, in and out of the deadly arena. The story itself is every bit as brutal and grim as one might expect of a world where children kill children for the entertainment (and education) of the masses. Even for the first book of a trilogy, though, I thought it ended on an awkward note; I half-suspect that Collins never intended it to be broken into three books, and that the break was an arbitrary decision on the part of the publisher.
Overall, I enjoyed The Hunger Games. It roped me into a solid day's worth of reading. I expect I'll follow the rest of the trilogy, time and budget willing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Among the Hidden (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review
Forbidden Mind (Kimberley Kinrade) - My Review

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Full Guide to Becoming a Real Wizard, Witch or Necromancer (Osari the Wise)

Full Guide to Becoming a Real Wizard, Witch or Necromancer
Osari the Wise; Abraham Atias, translator
Library Tales Publishing
Nonfiction, Spirituality
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Despite centuries of political, social, and religious persecution, the world's ancient magical traditions not only survive, but thrive in the modern world. With the New Age movement and the Wiccan revival, more and more people are discovering the true power behind some of Mankind's oldest, most misunderstood beliefs. But what is real magic? How does one actually go about becoming a true magic-worker? Based on the works of Osari the Wise, this book seeks to answer questions that newcomers, and the just plain curious, may have about real wizardry and other forms of magic.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Downloaded during a freebie window, this looked like just the sort of thing to inspire and inform my efforts at crafting fictional fantasy worlds. After all, why completely reinvent the wheel when Earth has so many magical systems from which to draw literary inspiration? Unfortunately, this book proved anything but inspiring.
It started on a shaky note, going out of its way to connect true magic to God, and - despite its assertion at equal time for all magic systems - skewing heavily toward Jewish Kabalah traditions. It then wandered, with mind-numbing tediosity, through all manner of historical and prehistorical minutiae of minimal relevance to the subject. (With its repeated emphasis on the fact that a true wizard is a well-read wizard, it seemed that a fair chunk of these dry dissertations could've been condensed with a simple "Further Recommended Reading" list; this eBook was, after all, supposed to be merely an introduction to the subject, not an all-inclusive volume.) Osari also contradicted himself over the course of his book. At the outset, he claimed that the notions of "black" and "white" magic were mostly misunderstandings imposed by outsiders, that all magic flowed from the same, ultimately godly sources and it was only humans who insisted on attaching such connotations; even necromancy, he declares, can be as benevolent or malicious as a body chooses to make it. He then goes on to outline the dark, dangerous, and downright demonic practices of those who would harness dark spirits and dare to coerce the dead from their rightful resting place. Aside from such contradictions, the text walks itself and the reader in circles more often than not, as though trying to pass off sheer dizziness as enlightenment. Poor editing, which butchered several passages and repeated many others, didn't help make this any more readable.
Between the preaching, the tangents, the confusing presentation, and overall tedium, I barely managed to make myself finish. I learned a little from Osari, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped to learn, leaving me decidedly uninspired.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Learned Art of Witches and Wizards (Anton and Mina Adams) - My Review
The Way of Wizards (Tom Cross) - My Review
Eyewitness Books: Witches and Magic Makers (Douglas Hill) - My Review

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

At Road's End (Zoe Saadia)

At Road's End
(The Pre-Aztec series, Book 1)
Zoe Saadia
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Historical Fiction
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Tecpatl was born a warrior, one of the elite class of fighters defending his great city, capturing vanquished foes to sacrifice for the honor of Quetzalcoatl. He never wished to mingle with peasants and traders... but, after a disastrous raid on a Mayan village, his uncle sent him off as an escort to traders traveling among the northern desert savages. They treat him as a dog, daring to order him, to ignore his advice. Every day he spends on this ignoble mission is another day his name remains sullied - and another day that the upstart, bloodthirsty Aztec tribes might strike at his home, while he languishes in this uncivilized place. And what is he to defend the traders from, in these wastelands?
When they come upon the massacred cliffside dwelling, they think all have fallen... until one young woman emerges from hiding. She speaks some of their tongue, and tells them not only of the terrible raid, but that a great city, Great Houses, lies scarcely a day's walk away. Tecpatl considers women lower than peasants, but something about this foreigner catches his eye. She is nothing but a savage, her people worshipping silly gods who live underground, without even proper castes to define one's place in their bizarre cities. He should be happy to be rid of her. But when darkness threatens the people of Great Houses, a threat that the city elders refuse to acknowledge, Tecpatl finds himself unaccountably torn. He should not care if these unworthy foreigners are too foolish to defend themselves. Besides, the last time he tried to lead warriors, he failed miserably. So why does he find it so difficult to walk away?
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: The rich world of the ancient Americas is still a relatively untapped wellspring for fiction, so I thought this might be a different read. The setting, in the days of the Aztecs' rise and the looming collapse of both Anasazi and Mayan cultures, sounded intriguing. Sadly, my vision of this chaotic and pivotal historical era was blocked by Tecpatl, a character so bigoted and full of anger that I just couldn't begin to sympathize with him or his world. The author uses him and his lady love interest (which, in itself, defied the character's logic, as he considers women mere spoils of war for a good portion of the story) to force-feed the reader lessons on the history and cultures of the ancient Americas. I also came to suspect that English was not Saadia's first language; either that, or she needed a third-party editor to clean up her grammar and syntax. Some sentences, while composed of English words, made absolutely no sense whatsoever. These problems, along with a slow and predictable plot, sank what could have been a bland Okay book a half-star in the ratings.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Jaguar Princess (Clare Bell) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Americas (Jim Green, Fiona Macdonald, Philip Steele, and Michael Stotter) - My Review
The Maya: Life, Myth and Art (Timothy Laughton) - My Review

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins)

You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One)
Jeff Goins
Jeff Goins, publisher
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wannabe... going to be... would like to be... Enough. You either are or are not a writer. The only way to actually be a writer is to write - not to hide behind safety words and other qualifiers. Those are just delaying tactics, the voice of fear. And you can't be afraid if you want to write.
The author knows this from first-hand experience. He, too, has been there and done that... only he broke through. Learn how he did it, how he went from being a struggling "wannabe" to an actual paid and published writer with a large (and growing) readership.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A worthy addition to my ever-growing library of writing instruction books, this mixes the tried-and-true "just write already" advice with more modern and specific methods for actually building a writing career. Goins advocates the use of networking and social media to build a platform to present one's work, outlining how he successfully used such methods to go from being a beggar to a chooser in the publishing world. Some of his advice seems tailored more for nonfiction and article writers, but overall it seems sound enough, backed up by his personal triumphs (and occasional failures.) A good, inspiring read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
Write a F*$%ing Book Already (Jim Kukral) - My Review
Words to Write By (Elaine L. Orr) - My Review