Monday, June 30, 2014

June Site Update

The previous nine reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Gem People (Logan Mickel)

The Gem People
Logan Mickel
Echo Deep Books
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A great civilization, on the edge of self-inflicted devastation, races against time to leave one last hope - one last legacy - to the world they destroyed. Binding their own chosen daughters in living rock, they charge these ambassadors to the future with a great task... if only they can remember it.
Like everyone else on the mountain of Flintchip, Cole knows no life other than mining brack for the distant Train Lords. Their rocky ground barely can support tubers, let alone the necessities of civilization that the massive, monstrous trains bring across the Broken Plains. Then, deep in the tunnels, his pick strikes something strange: a relic from the unimaginable past, possibly from the legendary age of the Engineers themselves. It is a vast chamber containing several strange statues: girls crafted entirely of gemstones. Only these aren't just statues - they're alive.
The Gem People bring great wonder to dull Flintchip, but also great temptation... and great danger. None of them remember just why they were created, or what they were meant to do. As the historian and Town Council try to untangle the mystery of their presence (and whether they ought to be exploited for the good of the town), Cole's world is turned upside-down as friends become foes, neighbors become strangers, and echoes of the past threaten to destroy the present.

REVIEW: It's difficult to rate this book. On the one hand, Mickel creates an interesting world, a little different from the usual post-apocalyptic world, and the imagery of the gem-encrusted people makes for decent mind's-eye candy. On the other, most of the characters are frustratingly obtuse; Flintchip largely exists to be a greedy, short-sighted mob, just as the Train Lords exist to be overbearing, arrogant jerks exploiting the workers. The gem people themselves start out interesting, but quickly become useless, simple-minded plot devices, despite how hard the author and main character try to defend them. They spend far too long being naive and utterly useless, too impossibly alien (and conveniently bereft of key memories) to even save their own lives when threatened. These people can move through stone and lift boulders like they weigh nothing... yet they find themselves easily trapped and coerced. In the beginning, the Engineers explain that only one of the future gem people will hold all of their memories: a very flawed system, when even self-preservation is erased by the lithification process, and when the brightest of them is too dim to rescue their own amnesiatic memory-keeper when she needs it. (I want to believe that it's just a coincidence that they're all girls, and that they so often have to be saved by the male main character doing their thinking for them.) The end result is that they're far more things than they are characters. Cole struggles with his changing world and his changing role in it, as one by one he loses most every pillar of his life to date: his faith in his neighbors, his understanding of the world, his best friend, even his family, down to the truth about the very nature of the mountain that he's mined since he was old enough to swing a pick. After several clashes with his own people, the tale builds up to a tense climax... one that goes out of its way to spare lives, and which leaves the door wide open for sequels after an ending straight out of a comic book, or an anime.
Overall, while I found some elements of this story intriguing, I just didn't find it a particularly satisfying read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
Pendragon: The Merchant of Death (D. J. MacHale) - My Review
Dragon Wing (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman) - My Review

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Burned (Amber Kallyn)

(The Dragos series, Book 1)
Amber Kallyn
Dragon Heart Books
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: As a shapeshifting dragon, Calla Dragos is the ideal arson investigator... especially when the cause of a fire is something unnatural, something that magic-blind humans cannot hope to deal with. She arrives in the small mountain town of Jasper after a string of fires with all the earmarks of an old rival: Eric, formerly her brother, now corrupted by dark powers into an agent of evil. If her overprotective brothers knew she was on Eric's trail by herself, they'd set the skies alight in rage, but she has a personal gripe to settle with the man.
Chief firefighter Scott O'Neil knew that an arson investigator was on the way to help - he could certainly use it, with Jasper's incompetent sheriff doing nothing - but he didn't expect Calla. A slight woman with a temper to match her fiery hair, he finds himself drawn to her from the start. But even as sparks fly between them, the arsonist strikes again... and, this time, the flames hit too close to home.

REVIEW: As a romance, this is mislabeled. It's much more a flat-out erotica tale, with a little romance squeezed in around the frequent, graphic sex. The characters are nothing new, but decent enough to serve the story: Calla's the typical stubborn redhead who doesn't believe she'll fall in love (until she does), Scott's the Perfect Man, and Eric's just an evil specter without a single justification for his heinous acts. There's also the local old-timer who knows much more than he lets on, about Scott and dragons and magic... but who has inexplicably not said a single thing to the very people who most needed to know about it, leaving them to bumble along in ignorance and possibly endanger lives discovering things on their own. I expected more to come of him, just as I expected more to come of Eric's seemingly out-of-the-blue betrayal of everyone and everything he once held dear. But, then, I also saw the ending coming a dragonsflight away, despite the way the characters kept moaning and pining about their ill-fated relationship. There was an irksome sexist subtext to the tale, where it stated that women were useless without men or babies, and that Calla really was silly for trying to be independent because females need masculine protection at all times. Apparently, only young adult fiction can get away with a female character who can find love with a man, yet not require constant shadowing or the validation of breeding to make her complete (Kristin Cashore's Graceling.) Well, young adult fiction and many people in real life. But, then, I suppose I shouldn't expect too much progressiveness or originality (or depth) from an erotica novelette, even one with dragons in it. For what it is, though, it's not terrible. I had just hoped for a little more actual romance, and maybe some character depth.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons Wild (Robert Asprin) - My Review
The Last Dragonlord (Joanne Bertin) - My Review
Blood for Wolves (Nicole Taft) - My Review

Sunday, June 22, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon (Cressida Cowell)

How to Train Your Dragon
(The How to Train Your Dragon series, Book 1)
Cressida Cowell
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Bards - what bards still exist - remember Hiccup Horrendus Haddock the Third as one of the last great Heroes, from the days when the Vikings of Berk still caught and trained dragons to do their bidding. They manage to conveniently forget that Hiccup, despite being the son of the great Stoick the Vast of the Hairy Hooligan Tribe, was once a scrawny, overlooked runt of a boy... a boy who, when sent to collect a young dragon to train as part of his tribal initiation rites, grabbed the smallest and most stubborn little beast anyone had ever set eyes on. But the path to Heroism isn't always about bashing in brains or shouting the loudest. Here, recorded by Hiccup himself, is the story of one boy taking the Hard Way to Heroism, interspersed with notes on dragons and Hiccup's sketches.

REVIEW: This series forms the basis of one of my favorite movies of all time... and, had I read this book first, I might not have watched it. Geared toward a much younger audience, Hiccup's tale revels in references to snot and poo and other bodily emissions, not to mention dragonloads of anachronistic references and a slapstick-heavy sense of humor. Toothless, Hiccup's unprepossessing Common or Garden Dragon, is a selfish jerk, but then all dragons prove to be amoral, cruel, and self-interested beasts. Buried deep beneath the crudity, I found glimmers of depth and interest... glimmers that seem strangely out of place paired with so much goofy shallowness. The vast green sea dragon that threatens the island is a particularly nasty creation, a riddling and philosophical monster in the vein of Tolkien's Smaug. The scribbled sketches and notes interrupt the flow of the narrative - and, at one point, directly contradict the text - but children might find them fun. On its own level, for younger readers especially, it's not a bad story of underdogs making good and the power of kindness over brute force. Personally, I much prefer what DreamWorks has done with the movies.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Dragonsdale (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The Dragonling Collector's Edition, Volume 1 (Jackie French Koller) - My Review

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Emperor's Edge (Lindsay Buroker)

The Emperor's Edge
(The Emperor's Edge series, Book 1)
Lindsay Buroker
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the steam-powered empire, Amaranthe Lokdon is an anomoly. Unlike most women, who are content to marry well or run businesses, she became an enforcer, struggling to build a name and a career in a society dominated by seven centuries of warrior-culture male chauvinism. Having been passed over for a well-earned promotion, Amaranthe figures nobody notices her hard work - until she receives a summons from Hollowcrest, commander of young Emperor Sespian's armies and the acknowledged power behind the throne. Sicarius, perhaps the most dangerous assassin in the known world, has been spotted in the capital city, just weeks before the emperor's birthday celebration. While male enforcers and spies have died by the dozen trying to bring him in, perhaps a woman might fare better. This may be the break Amaranthe has been waiting for since she joined the enforcers... or it may be a trap with ties to a treasonous, magic-tinged plot that could destroy the whole empire.

REVIEW: This story reads like a peculiar cross between steampunk, a heist movie, and one of those old-school TV series with the team of outcasts fighting impossible odds - and even their own government - for the cause of justice. It starts fast, establishing a decently-realized steampunk world and interesting characters, none of whom are quite what they seem to be. Amaranthe never thought she'd end up where she does, as partner to a killer and leader of an unpromising collection of society's cast-offs attempting to avert a national disaster in the making, forced to rely on both quick thinking and raw luck as she struggles to survive. But, then, her team members never thought they'd be pitting themselves against the empire, and worse, either; but for Amaranthe's determination, the whole effort would dissolve. Even the young Emperor Sespian finds himself pushed into becoming something more than he thought he could be, as he realizes the true nature of his so-called trusted advisers. The plot offers plenty of action and tension, balanced by humor that sometimes ranges toward slapstick but never quite crosses the line into outright goofiness. Without spoilers, it wraps up most of the storyline in one volume, while establishing the premise for the series to come... not unlike a TV pilot episode, which it rather resembled at several points. All in all, it made for a fun and fairly satisfying read. I might track down the next books in the series someday, time and budget willing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jhereg (Stephen Brust) - My Review
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Cold Magic (Kate Elliot) - My Review

Friday, June 20, 2014

This Is a Moose (Richard T. Morris)

This Is a Moose
Richard T. Morris, illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A director wants to make a nature documentary about a moose, but the animals are very uncooperative.

REVIEW: Another quick read during down time at work, I found it amusing. The moose would much rather go to space as an astronaut than stand around in ponds eating plants like he's supposed to... and that's just the start of the trouble. It has a little bit about film making on the side, with a quick glossary at the end, though mostly it's a story of shrugging off stereotypes. (I'll admit that part of my enjoyment stemmed from memories of the Rifftrax-enhanced short nature film The Tale of Moose Baby, free on Hulu.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children Make Terrible Pets (Peter Brown) - My Review
The Knight and the Dragon (Tomie DePaola) - My Review
Carnivores (Aaron Reynolds) - My Review

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Graceling (Kristin Cashore)

(The Graceling series, Book 1)
Kristin Cashore
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since developing odd eyes - one green and one blue - Katsa was known to be a Graceling, touched by a rare magic with some unique gift. It wasn't until she killed a man at age eight that her Grace was revealed: she cannot be beaten in battle, nor does she feel pain as other people do. Her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, uses her as his personal enforcer, sending her to punish or even kill criminals, rivals, or anyone who manages to displease him. The very whisper of her name is enough to strike fear into hearts across the Seven Kingdoms.
Katsa hates it.
She finds subtle ways to subvert Randa - creating a secret Council to soften the cruelty of his rule, twisting his orders so she might shed as little blood as possible - but cannot break free of his control of her life. Worse, her uncle expects her to marry at some point, for his own advantage naturally. As little as she can imagine being free of his collar, she can't begin to contemplate being with a man, even in an arranged union. At least, not until the night she sets out to rescue a kidnapped Lienid king and runs into Prince Po. Another Graceling, nearly her equal in combat, he makes her question everything she thought she knew about Randa, her Grace, and the whole of the Seven Kingdoms - not to mention the dark and terrifying places within her own frozen heart.

REVIEW: With a powerful yet fallible heroine and an interesting world, Graceling starts strong and rarely slackens its pace. Katsa's growth from unfeeling slave to empowered protector flows naturally with the story, with minimal whining or bouts of self-pity. Gracelings and the magic of the Graces are never fully explained, yet they work well in this world, creating people who are both feared and exploited for gifts they have no control over... or feared and outcast should their Grace prove useless. Worse, there is no way to hide the fact that one has a Grace, with such obvious markings as odd-colored eyes. The plot moves at a good clip, balancing action with introspection (with a slight bias toward the former) along the way to an intense climax. The ending feels slightly protracted, wrapping up the external conflict well before it resolves the internal ones. On the whole, I found it very enjoyable.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley) - My Review
Alanna: The First Adventure (Tamora Pierce) - My Review

Saturday, June 14, 2014

You Are Not So Smart (David McRaney)

You Are Not So Smart
David McRaney
Nonfiction, Human Psychology
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: You're not like those other people - the ones who are swayed by advertising and political posturing, who jump to conclusions, who are willfully blind to their own weaknesses, who are capable of acts of unthinkable callousness or cruelty. You know what's going on. You are in control of your life and your future. Sure, you make a few mistakes, but you learn from them, and will never repeat them.
If you think all that, you are not so smart. But don't worry. Nobody else is that smart, either.
McRaney outlines 48 common intrinsic faults in human thinking that skew our perceptions, handicap our growth, and hinder logical thought processes, most of them hardwired into our brains... yes, even yours.

REVIEW: This is an interesting - if often depressing - look at how little control we have over our mental processes and behaviors. No, we're not mindless automata enslaved by our ancestral subconscious brains, but we still have a lot of unacknowledged clutter in the attic... much of which we cannot eliminate. The articles are short, rarely longer than three pages, and make their points without too much psychological jargon. It makes for interesting food for thought... well, insomuch as my useless brain is capable of thought.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely) - My Review
Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race (Bob Fenster) - My Review
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race (Jon Stewart et al.) - My Review

Monday, June 9, 2014

Quintessence (David Walton)

David Walton
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: For years, the Spanish Inquisition has swept Europe, with whole towns being tortured and burned for heresies real and imagined. Thus far, Protestant England has been spared the torch... but, with young King Edward on the brink of death and the exiled Catholic Mary prepared to fight to inherit his crown, trouble is coming. Stephen Parris, a physician to the king, already presses his luck by daring to dissect dead bodies - a sure sign of sorcery, even in relatively enlightened England, and a secret that would cost him his job and his fortune should his liege discover it. Should the Papists come to power, mere imprisonment would seem a mercy - and, with a Catholic-sympathizer wife and an innocent daughter on the brink of womanhood to protect, he can't risk discovery. Nevertheless, one night the infamous alchemist Christopher Sinclair comes calling with a threat and an offer. Sinclair, like Parris, seeks knowledge that the rest of the world deems heretical: mastery over Death itself, a direct challenge to God. Unlike Parris, Sinclair believes the answer lies in the mysterious alchemical fifth element known as quintessence... and he believes it can only be found on a legendary island at the very edge of the earth, where the western ocean pours into the void and the sun itself sinks to die every night. Parris and his inquisitive daughter, Catherine, soon find themselves caught up in Sinclair's voyage, a journey fraught with both miracles and peril.

REVIEW: Walton establishes an excellent, imaginative alternate world, where the earth is flat and alchemy is real... then burdens it with stiff characters and Christian subtexts until the whole story flounders under the extra weight. It starts slow, but with enough intriguing hints of otherness to keep things interesting. Over time, it manages to pick up some steam, especially once they finally get clear of England and on their voyage of discovery. The peculiar flora and fauna of the lost land of Horizon (and the surrounding waters), riddled with quintessence, make for interesting mind's-eye candy. Ultimately, though, many of these interesting ideas fall flat. The manticores - sapient inhabitants of Horizon with a superficial resemblance to the legendary beast - rarely come into their own as more than plot devices, despite some tantalizing hints of their utterly alien, quintessence-based physiology and culture. The characters never quite live up to their potential, either, save in a few forced leaps of growth toward the very end. It all builds to a climax that hinges on the limits of humanity's powers over life and death, and where the line between Man's dominion over the world and God's dominion over eternity lies. I read this book because the premise looked neat, not because I wanted to be preached at by Walton's characters. Despite its undeniably imaginative setting, ultimately this book winds up feeling as flat as the world it creates.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Peter and the Starcatchers (Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)

(The Hunger Games trilogy, Book 3)
Suzanne Collins
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Two years ago, Katniss Everdeen was just another girl, daughter of a healer and a coal miner in Panem's poorest district. Now, survivor of two Hunger Games and inadvertent inciter of rebellion, she is the Mockingjay... or, at least, that's how the rebels in District 13, and the anti-rebellion propaganda aired by President Snow of the Capitol, portray her. Inside, she's falling apart, plagued by memories of death and killing, the guilt of so many lives lost. Her former Games companion, Peeta Mellark, is being tortured by Snow, and her one-time love, Gale, has been consumed by the rebellion to the point where she hardly knows him anymore. But, then, she hardly knows herself after what she's had to do in the name of survival. In truth, the tactics of District 13's President Coin and the Capitol blur together into a seething sea of blood red and gunpowder black. The old Gamesmaster, Plutarch, has even converted to the rebel cause. It's as if the Games never ended - and the last thing any victor ever wants is to return to the arena, even if that arena comprises the whole of Panem. But she has no choice anymore. She must become the Mockingjay, the face of the rebellion, or once again the Capitol wins and countless people will have died for nothing. So long as President Snow dies by her arrow, Katniss tells herself any sacrifice is worthwhile... even her own life.

REVIEW: A fast-paced and violent conclusion to the hit trilogy, Mockingjay starts with Katniss a shattered shell of her former self... a state she often reverts to during the course of the tale. The atrocities she's witnessed and committed, the stress of being used as propaganda (knowingly and unknowningly), have crashed down upon her in the worst way. She manages to pull herself together when it counts - usually - but still spends an inordinate amount of time confined to a hospital bed, drugged up for her own good. It's probably a more realistic portrayal of post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt than often gets shown in books, especially young adult books, and dealing with her trauma becomes an ongoing subplot, a challenge Katniss never quite bests but can only wrestle into submission when it rears its head. She isn't the only one who has been changed for the worse by the rebellion and the Hunger Games. Her fellow victors all bear their own scars in their own ways, and even those who never set foot inside the arena have been hardened by the Capitol's cruelties and the harsh realities of rebellion. The story itself ticks along decently, with plenty of twists and turns and an exceptionally high body count (higher, if one counts offscreen deaths and torture.) The conclusion is somewhat unexpected, though the ultimate payoff feels a little drawn out and shaky. Overall, though, it lives up to the promise of the earlier books.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Invasion (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Among the Hidden (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review