Saturday, May 31, 2014

May Site Update

The previous 13 reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Newport Tower: Unsettled History (B. Lynn Bryant)

Newport Tower: Unsettled History
B. Lynn Bryant
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In Newport, Rhode Island, stands one of the most enigmatic structures in North America: a two-story stone tower. Many attribute its construction to one Benedict Arnold, grandfather of the infamous Revolutionary War turncoat, who allegedly built it in the late 1600's as a windmill... but there are several holes in this theory. The eight pillars supporting the structure wouldn't have withstood the stresses of being a windmill, and the costs of building it in stone - especially during a lean time, as colonial Newport was experiencing - seem impractical, especially for a man with a thrifty Puritan mindset. The tower has far more in common with medieval structures, including the geographic and astrological alignments of the pillars and irregular windows... meaning that it might predate the English colony by at least two centuries, a relic of a previous generation of explorers who sailed for the New World long before Columbus.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Despite my armchair interest in oddities, I don't recall hearing of the Newport Tower, so when I saw this as a freebie download for my Kindle I decided to educate myself. It is, indeed, an intriguing and enigmatic structure. The politics of the differing viewpoints prove just how human archaeologists and researchers are: it often becomes more about finding evidence to support a dearly-held theory than clinically analyzing the facts. Bryant does not claim to be unprejudiced, but offers this as a rebuttal of the claims of the so-called "Arnoldists," who insist the tower had to be built by the English colonist to be a windmill. The idea of explorers reaching the Americas before Columbus isn't as radical as it seemed many years ago, with some compelling evidence in favor of it found in recent years. (Indeed, I read a book from the early 1900's that took it as a given that there was contact between the New World and the Old, another indication of how pet theories grow and fade over the years; the truth never changes, but the attitudes of the people examining the available evidence have.) Barring further investigation, which (unfortunately) seems unlikely given various limiting factors, there seems to be no "smoking gun" one way or the other, but Bryant makes a convincing argument. I clipped it for repetition, and because, at several points, my eyes started to glaze as Bryant waxed lengthy on minutia that probably meant a lot to those with a horse in the Newport Tower origin race, but didn't particularly interest me as a casual observer.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Abandoned Places (Lesley and Roy Adkins) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places (Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson) - My Review
Leepike Ridge (N. D. Wilson) - My Review

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Blood of Tyrants (Naomi Novik)

Blood of Tyrants
(The Temeraire series, Book 8)
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: En route from South America to China, disaster strikes the British dragon transport Potentate, and Captain Will Laurence is washed away. Waking alone on a foreign shore with no memory of the past eight years, he finds himself marked for torture and death: Japan only allows foreigners at the harbor in Nagasaki, and the Chinese-made sword he carries automatically marks him as an ally of their ancient enemy across the sea. Temeraire desperately wishes to find him, but the British are already losing precious time... and every day lost means another day away from the struggle in Europe. Napoleon's armies have turned toward Russia, one of the last holdouts between France and world domination. If the Chinese cannot be convinced to lend assistance, all may be lost... and a mission this vital cannot be risked for the life of one man, not even Temeraire's beloved captain.

REVIEW: I admit I cringed when I opened the cover to find one of the oldest literary chestnuts in the book - amnesia - greeting me on Page One. Fortunately, the general rush of events carries the story along. Indeed, with seven previous volumes of side-plots and characters and backstories, I started feeling overwhelmed, with too many spare pieces cluttering the chessboard. I still enjoy Temeraire and the dragons, and some of the people, and Novik continues to fill out her fascinating, dragon-influenced world. The story trundles along at a decent pace, wending through trouble and treachery and unexpected reunions, culminating at last on the battlefields of Russia. It all ends on an unsettled note, with one plot development at least that seems to exist solely to create trouble down the line. I sincerely hope that the next volume is the final one; much as I liked visiting Temeraire and Will again, the main story arc feels stretched thin, threatening to collapse under the weight of unresolved subplots. (I also still don't get why Novik felt the need to resort to the amnesia chestnut, save as a padding gimmick to stretch the story, or maybe catch new readers up on the general storyline.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jhereg (Stephen Brust) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Friday, May 23, 2014

Find Your Passion (Derick Van Ness)

Find Your Passion
Derick Van Ness
Derick Van Ness, publisher
Nonfiction, Self-Help
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: It's easy to get bogged down in life, merely eking out an existence instead of living fully. Some people seem to be able to make a living doing what they love, while the rest of us remain chained to jobs that drain our energy and enthusiasm. It doesn't have to be that way - learn to find and follow your passions.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: As self-help books go, this one hits its marks. It points out how doing what we hate ultimately backfires, and offers to help the reader find ways to escape the dullness and drudgery that made them seek a self-help book to begin with. Some questions and exercises help one start figuring out just one one would rather be doing. The actual process of creating a viable income doing something one enjoys, though, remains largely unexplained here; further research is recommended, or the services of a life coach... which, by a coincidence, the author just happens to be. I can't fault him for self-promotion, nor can I fault the overall message he offers. It's just a lot more work than a single short eBook can hope to cover.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Supplies (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pirate's Passage (William Gilkerson)

Pirate's Passage
William Gilkerson
Fiction, YA General Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 1952 Grey Rocks, a small coastal Canadian town, young Jim's life is full of problems. The powerful Moehner family has it in for him and his mother, targeting their struggling historic inn with a number of petty nuisances. He only has one friend in school, a girl named Jenny who, like him, was bumped up a grade. He's even plagued by a personal demon, the Moehner-owned attack dog Grendel, who only ever strikes when nobody's around. Then a November storm blows a stranger into his life.
Captain Charles Johnson, sole crewman of the rickety old vessel Merry Adventure, claims that failed engines brought him to the dock beneath the Admiral Anson Inn, but right away Jim notices some very strange things about the man. He's English by his accent and passport, but seems very vague on his origins and destination. He also seems to know an awful lot about the harbor and the inn for someone who claims to have come here by accident. And when Jim asks the salty old sea dog if he might be able to help with a school essay on pirates, Johnson proves to be a veritable expert on the matter... moreso than any living man has a right to be.

REVIEW: An eBook reissue of an older title, I grabbed it during a freebie download window. Gilkerson manages a tricky feat: not only does he make real-world history engaging to modern readers, but he weaves it into an engaging tale about a boy growing up and underdogs fighting back. Just who (or what) Captain Johnson is never is explained, though he possesses strangely intimate knowledge of long-lost lore and, as Jim discovers, his stories have a strange way of drawing a body into them. The characters may not be dynamically original, but they become real enough to care about. A strong theme through the story is the matter of piracy, and how blurry the term becomes under close scrutiny. When governments simultaneously condone and condemn pirates, when the law itself becomes enough of a crime that breaking it is the only way to survive, when heroism and villainy are two sides of the same coin, where is the line drawn, and by whom? Piracy isn't whitewashed here, either; while some had codes of morals, others - especially after the Golden Age - were monstrous. In listening to Johnson's tales, all of which are drawn from real-world historical sources, Jim learns lessons that help him in his own life. The story moves at a decent pace, though Jim's a little slow at times. I enjoyed this book more than I expected to, and I even learned some things myself.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - My Review

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Crankee Doodle (Tom Angleberger)

Crankee Doodle
Tom Angleberger, illustrations by Cece Bell
Clarion Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A bored Yankee becomes very cross when his pony suggests a trip to town to relieve the monotony.

REVIEW: Inspired by the patriotic song "Yankee Doodle Dandy", which was likely written to mock rustic revolutionary Americans and comes across as either silly or just plain incomprehensible to modern ears, this absurd little story follows an argument that ranges from shopping to fashion accessories to the merits of various pastas. (Sadly, I've actually had conversations roughly as silly as this.) It made me smile, at any rate, and it killed some slow time at work.

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Old MacDonald Had a Dragon (Ken Baker) - My Review
Shark vs. Train (Chris Barton) - My Review
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter To My Daughters (Barack Obama) - My Review

The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt)

The Day the Crayons Quit
Drew Daywalt, illustrations by Oliver Jeffers
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Duncan opens his crayon box one day to find a bunch of letters, outlining grievances from his favorite (and not-so-favorite) colors.

REVIEW: With childlike illustrations, this is a lighthearted, silly little read. Each crayon has its own problem: Blue has been so overworked it's barely a stub, Pink never gets used unless Duncan's sister is coloring a princess picture, Black only ever gets to be an outline, and poor Peach was left naked after the boy peeled its label off, and is now too embarrassed to leave the box. Only Green seems happy, save the ongoing bickering between Orange and Yellow over which one is the true color of the sun (each citing a different drawing or coloring book as proof.) The wrap-up feels a little anticlimactic, but overall it's fun.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett) - My Review
Author Vs. Character (Lazette Gifford) - My Review
E-mergency! (Tom Lichtenheld) - My Review

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mystics #1: The Seventh Sense (Kim Richardson)

Mystics #1: The Seventh Sense
(The Mystics series, Book 1)
Kim Richardson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Zoey St. John has seen monsters all her life; the only reason she's not in a mental hospital is that she learned to keep her mouth shut... and, with some help from the library and the Internet, she learned how to deal with them. As a foster child, currently in her 28th home, she has enough problems without being labeled a freak. For fourteen years, she's taken care of herself, but lately the monsters have been growing bolder. After an evil parasite takes out her foster mother, she finds herself facing a beast unlike any she's met before - one that's immune to the salt that usually dissolves them. That's when she first meets the monster-hunting agents, and realizes she's not alone in the world.
The Agency is a hidden collective of Sevenths: people who, like her, have the "seventh sense" to see monsters, or "mystics" as they prefer to be known. Working with friendly mystics, the agents help protect oblivious "Mutes" (the general, monster-blind population) from hostile entities. Zoey is thrilled to finally be among people who understand her... but they seem less than thrilled to find her. For one thing, she's a Drifter: a rogue, an unknown quantity in a close-knit community that's used to distrusting outsiders. For another, she quickly falls afoul of a bully named Stuart and his cronies, all part of an upstart group who call themselves Originals, true-blood descendants of the first humans gifted with the seventh sense. Even as she struggles to find her place in this new, strange world, a greater threat looms over the Agency - a threat that Zoey alone might be able to stop.

REVIEW: This story starts with plenty of promise. Zoey is a self-sufficient heroine who, on realizing she had a peculiar ability, chose to educate herself rather than be a victim. Then she runs into the agents, and the originality peters out as the tale can't decide if it's Men in Black or Harry Potter. It leans heavily on the story structure of the latter: an orphan who comes late into the world that is her birthright, a bully enemy with ties to a cult that considers purity of blood paramount, a nemesis that only she and her pals are ever in a position to overhear (let alone stop), kids thrown into dangerous situations and forced to act on their own when grown-ups prove too stubborn to listen to them... I was honestly surprised the Agency's training program didn't divide the kids into Houses and teach broomstick-flying in class. The characters fell so readily into familiar roles that I found myself visualizing actors from the Harry Potter movies playing them, though even at his worst Ron Weasley was nowhere near as irritating as the comic-relief sidekick Simon (who even pulls his annoying antics when the trio are trying to sneak past deadly adversaries.) Zoey even shares Harry's obsession with the fate of her parents, especially after a conveniently-overheard deathbed comment clues her in to the fact that her mother was known by the Agency. (Indeed, her resemblance to her mother is emphasized to the point that it seems ridiculous when none of the long-term agents and teachers she meets once does a double-take; they continue to label her a Drifter of unknown parentage.) The plot moves at a fair pace, though it relies a little too heavily on Plot-Extending Stupidity and amazing coincidences, not to mention villains who can't shut up about their nefarious plans when they think they're alone. There's a strangely unsettled feel to the overall tone; some of the monsters seem downright absurd, though the high body count makes them anything but silly. It was as if Richardson had mashed together all the Harry Potter books in this story, with the whimsy of the first book pressed cheek-to-jowl with the darkness of the seventh. (And I realize I've mentioned Harry Potter multiple times in this review; that franchise's influence here was impossible to ignore, and downright distracting.)
For a story that started on such a strong, original note, I couldn't help feeling disappointed by the end, when it couldn't trust itself to stand on its own two feet and fell back on overused, Rowling-inspired crutches.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Supernaturalist (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling) - My Review

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Island in the Sea of Time (S. M. Stirling)

Island in the Sea of Time
(The Nantucket series, Book 1)
S. M. Stirling
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: On an ordinary day in March 1998, life changes forever for the people of Nantucket. A fiery dome appears around the island and the nearby Coast Guard ship, the Eagle. When it vanishes, the world has changed. Vast forests stand where cities should be. Nearly-extinct whales swarm in huge pods offshore. The stars themselves are misaligned. The people of Nantucket have somehow been transported back to the Bronze Age. Now, they must figure out how to survive in a hostile world without the conveniences of modern times, among people who see them as forces akin to gods... or demons.

REVIEW: This sounded like a great concept, and it got excellent reviews. Stirling has done extensive research, filling this time-travel adventure with all manner of authentic details (or, at least, as authentic as then-current archaeology could extrapolate.) This, unfortunately, is part of the problem. It's not so much about the characters adapting to impossible circumstances as it is an excuse to trudge through prehistory, primarily to show off how superior - morally, culturally, technologically, and often intellectually - modern Americans are compared to our ancestors.
Tribes and peoples easily fall into good and evil categories, for the most part; only the Americans are allowed to have a mixed bag, and even they separate out fairly readily. Indeed, anyone who disagrees with the core "good" characters' decisions, policies, and philosophies is portrayed as a greedy sociopath (in the case of Walker, a power-hungry American who sets out to become a Bronze Age king) or an impossibly naive nutcase (as exemplified by a group of idiotic idealists who take it into their heads to "save" the Mesoamericans from modern corruption, with results so nauseating I darned near quit reading.) One might expect some infighting as the Nantucket Islanders struggle to rebuild civilization, but the only real problem between them seems to focus on gay rights, which is kept mostly in the background. Really? No political or ideological schisms threatening their unity? No deep-rooted religious issues? No questioning of resource usage or policies? The only real point of contention between all of these unwilling Bronze Age colonists is whether sexual preference is a basic human right? Meanwhile, the "bad" natives butcher and rape with abandon, few worse than the bad-apple American Walker and his downright sadistic girlfriend. I had to skim their parts of the narrative, so disgusted was I by what they were up to. I was honestly surprised nobody had deep-fried a live baby by the end... though maybe Stirling saves that for the sequel, when he runs out of ways for his bad guys to humiliate and degrade women. (Yes, I understand historical accuracy and all that, but evidence also points to men being raped, especially on the battlefield where women were scarce... not a whisper of which was mentioned here, for all the other gory details I was treated to at length.) Among all this, a molasses-slow plot oozes along, as the Americans relearn self-sufficiency and find themselves entangled in an ongoing struggle between tribes in what will be England - a struggle exacerbated by an opportunistic Mediterranean trader and Walker.
Some of the details of prehistoric life and the Nantucketers' adaptations proved interesting, and I liked parts of some of the characters, but overall I was mostly bored. Bored and disgusted.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ancient One (T. A. Barron) - My Review
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The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review

Friday, May 9, 2014

Love to Write? Turn $6 Into $1,000s Doing What You Love! (Barb Asselin)

Love to Write? Turn $6 Into $1,000s Doing What You Love!
Barb Asselin
Barb Asselin, publisher
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Recipes, poems, memoirs, stories... you've always loved to write. Now, thanks to Amazon's Kindle platform, you can turn your hobby into a nice income. Learn how to write, format, publish, and promote your work.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A quick read, it does just what it sets out to do... more or less. After an inspirational opening, it rushes through the writing part, advising future authors to skim the bestsellers and decide what to write based on sales figures. Asselin includes a long section on Word formatting, which includes many screen shots - few of which looked very good on my monochrome eInk Kindle screen. (This is ironic, as Asselin mentions the importance of color choice.) The cost mentioned in the title stems mostly from cover design; she recommends outsourcing this on the cheap, with little mention of how to select a good artist or what makes for selling cover art. Her sections on uploading and promoting via Amazon's KDP services omit potentially important details, which she advises potential authors to study on the site itself. If I'm going to have to go elsewhere to learn those details anyway, there are plenty of other places to learn pretty much everything in this short eBook. As for generating thousands of dollars in income... well, there are no guarantees, in life and especially not in eBooks, despite how easy authors like this make it all sound. If you're brand new to the idea of e-publishing and are intimidated by it, this might be a decent introduction, but I'm just as glad I grabbed it during a freebie window.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Moonlighter's Guide to Online Writing for Immediate Income (Connie Brentford) - My Review
Write your novel in 7 days or less: the shortcut to writing fast and good (Mark Quadmire) - My Review
How I Published My Book And Sold Thousands of Copies (Kenneth Tingle) - My Review

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan)

Monsters Eat Whiny Children
Bruce Eric Kaplan
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Henry and Eve go through a whiny phase, their dad warns them that monsters eat whiny children. They don't listen... until a monster grabs them and carries them away. Will they end up in a salad or a sandwich - or can they escape becoming a monster meal?

REVIEW: This is a fun cautionary tale, with a subject that parents might enjoy more than (potentially whiny) children. Adults in particular can relate to how hard it is to coordinate meal plans when everyone has to have their say. The illustrations are simple, but get the point across, and the story's amusing. It helped kill some down time at work, which was why I picked it up.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children Make Terrible Pets (Peter Brown) - My Review
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch For You (Lee Harris) - My Review
Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Book of Three (Lloyd Alexander)

The Book of Three
(The Chronicles of Prydain, Book 1)
Lloyd Alexander
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Taran has lived his whole life in rustic Caer Dallben. He dreams of swords and adventures... yet is only allowed to weed the vegetable garden and forge horseshoes. The only interesting thing about the place is the white pig Hen Wen, but her oracular powers are sporadic, and only an enchanter like old Dallben could understand her anyway. Then, one day, Hen Wen panics and flees into the forest - and, having been jokingly anointed Assistant Pig-Keeper by the blacksmith Coll, Taran sets out after her. Soon, he finds himself caught up in an adventure more perilous than anything he could imagine, facing an enemy from beyond the gates of Death who would bring the whole realm of Prydain to ruin.

REVIEW: This is considered a classic fantasy, the start of an award-winning series. Drawing on similar inspirations as Tolkien, Alexander crafts a mythical land based loosely on ancient Wales, where Fair Folk lurk in an underground kingdom, magical artifacts lie scattered across the landscape, and heroic princes on noble steeds battle evil forces straight out of Hell. Unfortunately, to the modern eye, it reads a little predictably, not to mention dated. Taran has been taught almost no useful life skills by his guardians, not helped by his thick-headed attitude - only an Epic Adventure can teach him some semblance of smarts, though he does a fair share of blundering along the way. He and his companions all fall into neatly-worn genre molds which will be quite familiar to fans of Middle Earth, role-playing games, and other epic fantasies: the pretty young enchantress-in-training, the regal prince whose very bloodline elevates him above the strength and wits of ordinary men, the comic-relief demihuman sidekick, the wise elders who deliberately withhold vital information for Important Mystical Reasons, and so forth. Females are seriously underrepresented, an unfortunate failing that, even today, is a common genre issue. Still, despite its flaws, it moves quickly, and the characters, while often exaggerated stereotypes, are usually worth rooting for. Its short chapters fly by; I read the whole thing in under a day. Younger readers less familiar with the tropes of epic fantasy, perhaps those too young for The Hobbit, would probably enjoy it. As for me, I suppose I'm just too old and jaded for this kind of old-school fantasy... though I might be willing to read another book or two into the series. (I confess that I am confused why the book was named after the Book of Three; aside from cameos at the beginning and end, that particular magical item had very little to do with the story.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Merlin's Mistake (Robert Newman) - My Review
Heroes of the Valley (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Be a Writer (Barbara Baig)

How to Be a Writer
Barbara Baig
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Many of us learn writing in school... exactly the wrong place to develop a skill that relies as much on imagination as intellect. It becomes a lesson, something to be judged, instead of an expression of individuality. Writing instructor Barbara Baig offers advice and exercises to relearn the skill - and the joy - that is writing.

REVIEW: With a focus on developing skills rather than crafting a marketable story, this book is a little different from others I've read. The beginning interested me, offering many ideas and practice plans. Unfortunately, round about the halfway point, it started to bog down as Baig begins repeating herself. When she gets to the section on mandatory writing - for work or school - she repeats herself even more, even in the space of a single paragraph. By the end, I was skimming. While not a bad book, I was just too bored by the repetition to get as much out of it as I probably should have.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write As Fast As You Think (Angie Dixon) - My Review
Slow Your Prose (James W. Lewis) - My Review
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (Fred White) - My Review

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Animalia (Graeme Base)

Graeme Base
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: From armored armadillos to zany zebras, noted artist Graeme Base takes a tour through the alphabet.

REVIEW: With his imaginative and detailed paintings, Base provides a visual treat for readers young and old. Every image contains numerous hidden items relating to the letter at hand, some references being more obscure than others. The author also hides himself. Some of his pictures get short-changed, partially plowed over by adjacent letters; they each deserved a full-page spread. It's still a fun alphabet book... even for those of us just collecting it for the pictures.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Heart of a Tiger (Marsha Diane Arnold) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
The Great Alphabet Race - Amazon Link