Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Site Update

The previous nine book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.

I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations page.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Killing Dirty (Pete Clark)

Killing Dirty
(The Across the Barren Landscape series, Story 1)
Pete Clark
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Western
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Aging gunfighter Jack Hemmingway rides into a forgotten dusthole of a town with a Colt on his hip, money in his pocket, and an invitation to a very special game that will make or break his fortune.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This freebie short story reads fast, with plenty of grit and gunsmoke. It lost a half-mark for the ending, which feels adrift; I know it's the first of a series, but I'd hoped for a little more closure. Still, overall it's not a bad little tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Frontier Earth (Bruce Boxleitner) - My Review
Goblintown Justice (Matt Forbeck) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kasey And His Dragon (E. H. White)

Kasey And His Dragon
E. H. White
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
* (Terrible)

DESCRIPTION: Since Kasey's father disappeared, things have been rough for him and his mother. He works around the neighborhood to earn money, often with his best friend Alicia helping out, but it's never enough. Worse, due to a mix-up with his father's military paperwork, the Army is denying he even worked for them and is refusing benefits. Just when things seem worse than ever, Kasey discovers something strange in a neighbor's pond: a glittering diamond orb, from which a white dragon emerges. Kasey finds himself whisked away to the world of Onadida, seven galaxies away, enrolled in a magical school where children learn to work with animals magical and mundane. It's a wonderful place, made even better when Alicia arrives to find her own special animal friend, but all is not well here. The other children resent an offworlder getting the privilege of a white dragon; they have to study and compete hard for the few available dragons, and white dragons only occur once in a generation. Parts of Onadida also seem to be missing, a whole half of the rainbow, but nobody will tell Kasey or Alicia what happened. The boy soon finds his heart and his skills put to the test as dangers threaten his family, his new friends, and the entire planet of Onadida.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Having just finished Kasey And His Dragon, I have two burning questions: what did I just read, and who thought it was ready to be published? It reads like the ill-advised offspring of Eragon and Pokemon, with a touch of Harry Potter, a dash of Dragonriders of Pern, and a metric ton of New Age energy jargon. Kasey's an empty shell of a protagonist, surrounded by friends and guides... and a host of nameless children who, despite existing on a planet that prides itself on its spiritual enlightenment, and despite having earned the privilege of great powers at this special school, behave like jealous jerks because the white dragon chose an Earthling over them. But, it's no wonder the dragon Halyn decided on him. The whole of the cosmos seems to exist solely to comfort and awe Kasey and teach him lessons on Healing and Enlightenment. Onadida is not so much a world as a Lesson made manifest, with less logic and cohesiveness than a three-year-old's crayon scribblings. Animals shrink and grow at will, depending on whether the author wants to rip off Eragon with a flight scene or Harry Potter with a magical classroom - oops, I suppose animals have to change size, if that pachyderm and the butterfly with the seven-foot wingspan are going to fit indoors. Similarly, miraculous devices materialize whenever the plot decides it's easier to just handwave away something than have the characters deal with it - which is most of the time. Need breakfast? Just wish for it. Want to explain why a teleporting dragon doesn't escape captivity? Um - there's "some sort of device" to prevent it. Don't ask why or how, there just is. (And, yes, the narrative does use the words "some sort of device.") People on Onadida can even materialize and dematerialize at will; I want to believe there's a reason for this, and not that the author just didn't know how to get people to show up or leave a scene otherwise. The story, such as it is, starts out cute, quickly grows threadbare, then just up and leaves the building in a hallucinatory mess of spiritual lessons before arriving at a climax that seems to have come from an entirely different draft, if not another story altogether. And then it ends, in a way that dropped the story to the rock-bottom rating.
I looked on Amazon, trying to determine if E. H. White is a teen or preteen who, while possessing a vivid imagination and admirable ambition, jumped the gun on going public with their work. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, unable to confirm my suspicions, I have to treat this story as I would any other book, by any other author.
(As a closing note, I enjoyed the cover art.)

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Dragonsdale (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The First Dragoneer (M. R. Mathias) - My Review
The Dragon Slayer with a Heavy Heart (Marcia Powers) - My Review

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stormsinger (Stephanie A. Cain)

Stephanie A. Cain
Stephanie Cain, publisher
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The kingdom's best and most famous privateer, Captain Arama Dzornaea usually spends her days hunting enemy ships to bring glory (and treasure) to her liege. A quick jaunt to a neighboring kingdom with the crown prince, to deliver him to his betrothed, should scarcely test her mettle... not even with a stormwitch aboard to ensure a favorable breeze. But something extraordinary lurks in the depths, a force that quickly turns a routine sail into something far more dangerous.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: On the whole, this has some intriguing parts. Arama promises a colorful history, not just because of her storied relationship with the prince's general. The world itself, with sea monsters and strange magics and rival kingdoms, has potential. But in a story this short, that potential can scarcely be touched, let alone realized. I couldn't quite work out if this was a short story with too much baggage or a novel that ran out of steam, as Stormsinger seems adrift between the two possibilities. It earns an extra half-mark for having been apparently written in eight hours - given that time frame, it's remarkably polished - but I'm not sure it should've been published as it is; had Cain sat on it until she had a novel-length story to go with the novel-length ideas, she might've had something special on her hands.

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Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
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The Art of Procrastination (Isle Doitlayter)

The Art of Procrastination
Isle Doitlayter
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Procrastination is more than simply avoiding doing a task. At its highest levels, it becomes an art form, a carefully choreographed series of actions drawing out the avoidance for minutes, hours, days, or weeks. Learn some of the many ways to procrastinate in this handy guide... or simply read it to avoid doing whatever you were supposed to be doing in the first place.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A quick read, it delivers just what it promises: a tongue-in-cheek guide for the would-be procrastinator covering everything from bathroom breaks and laundry to housework and cleaning out the oven. The topics rarely last longer than a couple of pages each, long enough to make their point. I docked it a half-mark for some repetition and uneven editing, plus some clunky prose. On the whole, though, it's not a bad little time-killer for the price.

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Things To Do While Avoiding Things To Do (Mark J. Asher) - My Review
How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Ruin Your Life Now (Dicklaus Pansy) - My Review

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rex Rising (Chrystalla Thoma)

Rex Rising
(The Elei's Chronicles series, Book 1)
Chrystalla Thoma
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, the World of the Seven Islands has suffered beneath the Gultur regime. Created by a parasite, one of many infesting the Seven Islands, the all-female Gulturs are strong, smart, and half-mad... and now, they're slowly moving to exterminate the "lesser" humans. The resistance group known as the Undercurrent fights them, but so long as the parasite Regina that created the Gultur remains undefeatable, their efforts are doomed to failure. Legend tells of a "sleeping king," a parasite capable of matching or even overwhelming Regina, but those few brave enough to seek it die by Gultur force.
Elei was found in a garbage heap as a boy, dying from one of the many deadly, mutating parasites of the Seven Islands. His life saved by another parasite, he eventually found his way off of the streets and into a job as driver for Pelia, a scientist secretly working for the Undercurrent. But she was betrayed, gunned down by her own people. Wounded and alone, clinging to a name and address Pelia gave him in her final moments, Elei becomes a hunted boy. Pelia was working on a cure for Regina, and was rumored to have actually found the legendary Rex parasite - and both the Gultur and the Undercurrent will do anything to discover where she hid it.

REVIEW: I hate books about unpleasant people in unpleasant places doing unlikeable things. Unfortunately, I was sucked in by the promising premise: parasites capable of remaking humans into specialized races to propagate themselves. Thus, I found myself picking my way through a filthy world, following a main character who spent more than half the book incapacitated by injury or illness or his own relentless pessimism (not to mention basic stupidity), helpfully lugged around by other characters who inexplicably didn't write him off as deadweight. I lost track of how many neon-bright clues Elei repeatedly ignored, too mired in his own selfish misery to pay attention to the world around him... though that world was so thoroughly unpleasant a place to be that I couldn't entirely blame him for not caring about its fate. Nobody trusts anyone, here, a pall of paranoia echoing the atmosphere of moral decay and hopeless oppression (not to mention some backhanded sexism - the evil, corrupt all-woman race exterminating men as unnecessary, which needs a masculine force to overwhelm it lest it do more damage to the world) that lays thick over the entire world. Speaking of the World of the Seven Islands, Thoma makes up many words, many of which seem little more than "smeerps" (invented words for otherwise mundane things just to sound otherworldly), then goes on to have characters wear polo shirts and jeans in a world that appears to have neither polo nor cotton. Was this supposed to be a post-apocolyptic Earth, then, or just another world that invented sports-based fashion while lacking the sport that inspired it? Being Book 1 of a series, naturally large portions of the mytharc were left up in the air. By the end, I still didn't care about anyone or anything in the book; I just wanted it to be over.

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The Supernaturalist (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Libriomancer (Jim C. Hines)

(The Magic Ex Libris series, Book 1)
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Isaac Vainio loves books... perhaps too much for his own good. As a libriomancer, he can reach into stories and pull out any item that can fit through the pages, from ray guns to magic swords to his pet fire-spider, Smudge. He used to be a field operative with the Porters, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg himself (still alive thanks to a conjured Holy Grail), helping protect the world from supernatural beings and less ethical magic workers, until a botched assignment led him to lose control. Pulled from active duty, he now lives in a quiet Michigan town as a librarian, cataloging new books for the Porter databases and trying to forget the power and temptation of his now-forbidden gifts.
When he's attacked at work by vampires, Isaac is forced back into libriomancy - first to save his life, then to save the world. Someone's been inflaming tensions between supernatural beings and the Porters, unleashing powers neither side has seen before. With the help of the dryad Lena and the ever-faithful (if often-incendiary) Smudge, Isaac sets out to find the culprit - and finds himself up against an enemy so powerful that even Gutenberg himself is helpless against it.

REVIEW: This is a case of a great concept with a good story. Libriomancy would be a dream come true for anyone (like me) who has ever loved a story to life in their minds. It comes with limitations and costs - living beings often go mad if extracted into the real world, and libriomancers risk insanity and other complications if they overuse their gifts - to keep it in check, but it's still one of the coolest ideas I've read in a while. The dark side of this power is seen in the proliferation of vampires, werewolves, and other popular fictional beasts; untrained libriomancers can infect themselves by reaching into a book and being bitten, and as authors create stronger and more resilient monsters, without the traditional weaknesses, the Porters' job of keeping them concealed becomes all the more difficult. A magic system like this raises all sorts of questions, questions which Isaac himself often longs to answer, but it feels solid enough to support a story... even a story as frenetic and occasionally confusing as this one. It moves fast, occasionally too fast, throwing plenty of names and lots of action at the reader in a near-constant volley. There's relatively little down time to absorb it all. It builds to a great climax, then ends on an iffy note, as it's the first book of a series of unknown length. A good story on its own, the extra half-mark comes entirely from my adoration of the concept of libriomancy. Overall, it's a fun, often witty romp of a tale. (I also enjoyed revisiting Smudge, from Hines's Jig the Dragonslayer series.)

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Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Monday, September 9, 2013

Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne).

Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary
Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne
Princeton University Press
Nonfiction, Mythology
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since its earliest days, Mankind has never been content to simply observe the world's wonders. Dreams and nightmares, joys and fears, even simple whimsey gave birth to all manner of bizarre creations which found their way into art and story. Such beasts reached their heyday in medieval Europe, as the Christian church attempted to harness them to provide moral instructions to the masses in tomes known as bestiaries. Even in today's enlightened world, animal such as dragons and griffins evoke powerful, sometimes primal emotions. In this book, the authors examine the origins of fantastic beasts, various attempts to classify and moralize them, and their persistence into modern times.

REVIEW: Originally published in France, this book includes many images - from Asian tapestries to Pacific Northwest masks - that I haven't seen elsewhere. The broad variety and sheer volume of art alone would've easily merited a Good rating, maybe close to a Great. The text, however, grows dense at times, with a strong Christian European flavor that colors the authors' conclusions, not to mention a few outdated beliefs stated as certainties. Overall, it makes for an interesting, if occasionally overwhelming, examination of fantastic animals and their cultural significance through the ages.

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The Book of Fabulous Beasts (Joseph Nigg) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Michael Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review

Monday, September 2, 2013

Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker)

Flash Gold
(The Flash Gold Chronicles, Book 1)
Lindsay Buroker
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kali McAllister may only be eighteen, but she already has a reputation. Her mother was a mad native medicine woman, her father a famed inventor pursuing a powerful substance known as flash gold. Around Moose Hollow in the wild Yukon frontier, she's considered a witch, albeit a useful one; there isn't a weapon she can't modify for the right price. Still, people whisper and mutter about her late father's experiments and her mother's madness. Did he learn the secret of flash gold before he died? Does Kali know it, too?
To get out of the backwater town of Moose Hollow, Kali needs money. To that end, she built a steam-powered "dogless sled," to enter a local race and take the thousand dollars in prize money. The last thing she needs is a partner holding her down. Then Cedar turns up. Tall, rugged, and mysterious, he offers his services as a bodyguard for a share of the prize... services she doesn't think she needs, until a band of thugs attacks her in her own workshop. Her father's reputation has spread far from the Yukon, attracting a host of unsavory attention. Just winning the race in an untested invention is no longer the problem - it's staying alive to reach the finish line.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A fast-reading tale of daring, adventure, steampunk, and a hint of magic, this novella sets up some wonderful ideas and - for the most part - lives up to them. Kali makes a strong but not flawless heroine, a clever engineer who doesn't want to admit that she may be in over her head. Cedar isn't exactly a knight in shining armor, himself, especially when his true motivations for joining up with Kali come to light. Nevertheless, the two make a well-balanced team, squaring off against surly Moose Hollow locals and ruthless out-of-town killers intent on dragging the secrets of flash gold from Kali by any means necessary. Out on the frontier, the usual staples of steampunk (the dark factories, the cities, and so forth) rarely come into play; aside from Kali's gadgetry and the obligatory airship, the technology level's mostly rooted in the late 1800's. Magic is teased, but stays mostly on the sidelines. It ultimately reads like a pilot for a series, bringing its story to a reasonable conclusion while leaving enough potential for future installments. I enjoyed it, and might even be convinced to track down the second book, assuming it's priced right.

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Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review
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Sunday, September 1, 2013

After London or, Wild England (Richard Jeffries)

After London or, Wild England
Richard Jeffries
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Centuries ago, the ancients ruled the Earth by land, sea, and sky. Their buildings reached to the clouds. Their science cured disease. Countless miracles and wonders were the stuff of everyday life. Then, at the very apex of their civilization, came the fall. Few relics survive of those times, and fewer records.
In the years since, the wilderness that they had tamed rose up to reclaim the lands. People slowly began rebuilding their lives, falling back into the brutal ways of constant warfare and slavery, with only those of high birth permitted to learn the art of reading. In this world, true thinkers and explorers are few and far between, their talents ridiculed by a populace that considers brute force or clever alliance the only worthwhile measures of a man.
Felix Aquila, son of an eclipsed Baron, knows he's different. He never took much interest in the martial arts, like his brother, nor does he care for the games of courtly intrigues that elevate his peers in the eyes of the Prince. His lack of prospects makes his love of Aurora, daughter of a nearby noble, all the more hopeless; she may profess her love of him, but her father's political ambitions will never condone a marriage to a young man of so little influence. But Felix's studies of the ancients have given him a keen and curious mind. To seek his fortune and make his mark, he sets forth to explore the vast, uncharted Lake that covers much of southern England since the fall of the ancients.

REVIEW: I had high hopes for this book. The first third or so, explaining the world that arose from the ashes of our fallen civilization, drug now and then, but was overall fascinating, a speculation (if a somewhat dated one) of what animals might survive, what cultures might arise, and how the very landscape would react to the devastation of its primary distorter, modern humans. It would've made for a great basis for an RPG, actually, setting up the geographical and political landscape a player would have to navigate. Then the story abruptly shifts from an overview to a narrative... one that repeats much of what the overview already told the reader, only filtered through a dull omniscient point of view. The earlier part, therefore, becomes a spoiler for the latter, as the chronicles were written well after Felix's adventures on the Lake. Felix himself makes an uninteresting main character. Moody and judgmental and repeatedly oblivious to obvious problems, he mopes and trudges dully through an adventure that theoretically became nearly legendary in his world. Aurora, like many females in elder-day books (and a depressing number of modern ones), is nothing but a stained glass image of a woman, a lovely work of art to gaze upon, full of holy light, but ultimately thin and transparent and hardly even human in her seeming perfection. More than once, the story stops dead in its tracks for pages on end while the narrative natters on about this irrelevant detail or that unrelated point of interest. And then it ends, leaving both Felix and the reader in the middle of nowhere.
I tried to make allowances for the age of the book (this being a public domain work, originally published in 1885.) Given its age, it read remarkably like a more modern work; I didn't have to struggle as much as I have with some classics. It also had some interesting speculations, at least at first, about a post-apocalyptic world. But those speculations were wasted twice over, in a book that not only told its story twice, but actively sabotaged itself.

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Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
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