Saturday, August 30, 2014

August Site Update

I've archived and cross-linked the previous nine reviews on the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Peculiar (Stefan Bachmann)

The Peculiar
Stefan Bachmann
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Many years ago, after fading to myth, the faeries returned to England in force. In the Smiling War - named for the grinning skulls littering the landscape - thousands of lives were lost, until human artillery and sheer numbers overwhelmed the wild and strange fay forces. Today, the faerie races live in slums and alleys, their magic countered by iron and clockwork and bells. Humans distrust the fay, and fay distrust the humans.
Neither side cares for the changelings - ill-fated halfbreeds, few of whom reach adulthood for the lynch mobs ready to blame them for any ill luck, or simply for daring to exist.
Bartholomew and his kid sister, Hettie, have lived their whole lives in Old Crow Alley. Hidden by their human mother, they can only dream of a normal life, where neighbors coming to call doesn't mean hiding in a locked room and where simply looking out the window isn't risking death. As they say, don't get yourself noticed, and you won't get yourself hanged. But when the strange woman in the plum-colored dress visits a neighbor, Bartholomew is noticed... and, with changeling children vanishing only to turn up in the Thames, hollowed out by unknown forces, merely being hanged might be a dream. Soon, he finds himself entangled in a plot with ties all the way to London, where a dark scheme threatens both humans and fay.

REVIEW: The cover looked intriguing, and it has an interesting premise and setting, but The Peculiar fails in the execution. Bachmann returns to the roots of faerie lore to create a race (or group of races) far more nightmarish and dangerous than many modern, whitewashed depictions acknowledge. Though captive sprites light up streetlamps and nobles tinker with magical toys, these beings are utterly alien in their thoughts and powers, and to meddle in their affairs is to meddle in forces no mortal can hope to comprehend. Between the strange magic and the clockwork bent of an alternate elder-day England, this book establishes a gritty, dark, yet refreshingly different world. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the storyline justify it. Bartholomew is a selfish idiot of a protagonist, who repeatedly does the dumbest possible thing in a given situation; the narrative then spends at least a page, often more, trying to rationalize said decision as anything other than a contrivance to complicate the plot. He also stubbornly doesn't care about anyone but himself and - ostensibly - his sister Hettie, not even when it becomes clear that his problems are part of troubles that could destroy the whole world. As a result, he simply won't listen, which gets him into even more trouble. Working opposite him, but toward a similar goal, is the human politician Arthur Jelliby, another character who sets out to do precisely nothing and only reluctantly realizes that that option isn't advisable when it would allow a great evil to triumph. At least Jelliby steps up to the plate once he realizes he has no choice; even in the last chapter, Bartholomew still doesn't give a dang if the world is torn apart. The bad guys, naturally, only care for themselves and their goals, employing rather gruesome means in pursuit of their nefarious ends. So, in a novel where every single character doesn't want to save anything but their own skins, whom exactly am I supposed to sympathize with, and why should I care if this world might be annihilated? The answers for me, unfortunately, turned out to be "nobody" and "no reason." The storyline meanders from problem to problem and unpleasant encounter to unpleasant encounter, building up to a climax almost in spite of itself. Only at the very ending does it reveal itself to be the first part of a series of unknown length - a betrayal that cost it the extra half-star that its imaginative premise almost earned. On the plus side, the story read fast, but mostly because I just wanted it to end. I still think Bachmann has some nice ideas; unfortunately, that potential is wasted in a story that just plain doesn't want the reader to care.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Faerie Wars (Herbie Brennan) - My Review
Stardust (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter (Rick Sammon)

Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter
Rick Sammon
Wiley Publishing
Nonfiction, Photography
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, no professional photographer would admit to using something so lowly as a simple compact camera. In recent years, however, digital compacts have come up in quality as more and more features become standard. With a little forethought and education, any amateur shutterbug can get excellent results without breaking the bank on a high-end dSLR. Professional photographer Rick Sammon explains some of the features and options available on today's powerful compact cameras, offering tips and tricks on everything from camera selection to the "digital darkroom" of Photoshop Elements.

REVIEW: A reasonably fast read, this book demonstrates the power and versatility of today's smaller cameras. Sammon compacts plenty of information in a fairly small amount of text... perhaps too small. Or maybe he simply assumed that most of his readers would be pros, or at least more experienced amateurs than I am (being closer to the clumsy hack end of the skill scale.) He also focuses exclusively on Photoshop and related plug-ins; I understand that that platform is the industry standard, but there are plenty of powerful (and cheaper) alternatives for those on a tighter budget, and it might've been nice to acknowledge some of them in a book touting the wonders of thrifty photography options. Overall, though, Simmons presents some interesting hints alongside his inspiring work; I think I just need to read it a few more times before the information can truly sink in.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How to Take Great Photographs with Any Camera (Peter Creighton) - My Review

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Keeper and the Rune Stone (Paige W. Pendleton)

The Keeper and the Rune Stone
(The Black Ledge series, Book 1)
Paige W. Pendleton
Pig Wing Press
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: After their father made a fortune off his new anti-viral medicine, the Driscoll children - Rob, Eleanor, Jake, and little Flora - find themselves in a new home, a giant old mansion on the Maine coast. It comes with everything a kid could hope for: private bedrooms, a thousand nooks and crannies to explore, a horse stable, a private beach, access to the vast state park... and a gateway to the Realm, the magical world of Elves, Dwarves, and other Beings from myth and legend. "Wakened" to this magical world by the Keeper, Camedon, the children find all new wonders to explore - and all new dangers awaiting them. The coming Summer Solstice marks the renewal of an ancient pact between the beings of Light and the Night Elves, who include among their numbers the rebellious and utterly corrupted Noctivagi - better known to Humans as vampires. But the Rune Stone, the key to the pact, has gone missing... and if the Solstice dawns without it, dire consequences await the Realm and the Human world alike.

REVIEW: This story tries so hard to emulate old-school children's books, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales or Edith Nesbit's adventures, that it falls into an inescapable trap. There's a certain innocence required for those stories to work, a naiveté that hearkens back to simpler days and simpler ways... a mindset that is very, very hard to reconcile with kids who use laptops and surf the net. Authors like Brandon "Fablehaven" Mull pull it off by making their characters a little more sophisticated or skeptical at the outset, but the Driscolls are so wide-eyed and innocent that it's difficult to believe they live in the modern world at all. Hard as Pendleton tries to roll back the clock, with the elves and the old house and the horesback riding and the talk of Olde Magyk, even limiting the kids to just one internet search in the entire book, it doesn't quite work.
Meanwhile, the story hoards its action like a miserly ogre. For every paragraph in which something actually happens, at least ten pages are spent either dithering aimlessly or talking around events in repetitive circles. It also throws names out like party confetti. Not only are there the four kids (who each boil down to a one-word description: Smart Rob, Brave Eleanor, Funny Jake, and Innocent Flora), but there's the Driscoll parents, the Keeper Camedon, a goblin (who presumably has a bigger role in future books), a barn cat and her kittens (likewise), six horses (yes, they have horses, because most modern kids can relate to children with more money than God), two crows, the different races of Beings, a slew of Light Elves, a handful of other Keepers, the town librarian who also knows about the Realm, a groundskeeper... If you found that exhausting, try reading a book that expects you to keep track of these various names, mostly because people keep yammering about them. Magic exists as a convenience, an unknowable Thing that behaves as the plot requires (and gives the characters something else to babble about at length - even the animals, because naturally animals know all about the intricacies of the Realm's politics and rituals and are perfectly willing to chit-chat about it in lieu of actually doing anything.) Towards the end, there's a brief burst of action that tries to be scary, but the story thus far had been wrapped in so many protective layers of chatter that it was hard to feel much danger. And then it ends, with hints that even the author was losing focus amid the chatter as the narrative inexplicably drifts between Eleanor's viewpoint and another character's.
I'd like to say that The Keeper and the Rune Stone at least managed to evoke an occasional sense of magical wonder, which it was clearly striving for (and is what one usually remembers most about those old-school classics), but frankly my main memory of this book is endless, repetitive yammering.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper) - My Review
The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - My Review
Fablehaven (Brandon Mull) - My Review

Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris)

Tell Me a Dragon
Jackie Morris
Frances Lincoln Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Big or small, fierce or friendly, red or green or blue or brown, everyone has a dragon. What kind is yours?

REVIEW: A beautiful, poetic little book, this celebration of the imagination is great for dragon-lovers of all ages. Morris's illustrations bring to life a wide variety of dragons, while inviting the reader to imagine their own. It reads fast, though the images invite lingering... even when you're technically supposed to be working. (I really have to be more careful about reading during down time at work.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review

Friday, August 15, 2014

Branded For You (Cheyenne McCray)

Branded For You
(The Riding Tall series, Book 1)
Cheyenne McCray
Pink Zebra Publishing
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Months after her divorce from a verbally abusive man, Megan Wilder moves to Prescott, Arizona, to be with her family... and quickly remembers why she was so eager to get away. Though her older sister, Tess, has always been supportive, her father once more tries to take over her life and her mother's constant criticism opens old wounds. Maybe Bart and her parents are right; maybe she really is an overweight screw-up who doesn't know how to run her own life. Then she runs into Ryan McBride. Tall, handsome, and endlessly kind, the Arizona cowboy makes Megan believe she's beautiful. But with the family restaurant in trouble and her parents' disapproval, can she hope to find a happy ending?

REVIEW: I wanted to give this one an Okay. I really tried to look past the problems. But, by the end, I just couldn't do it. Megan starts out an insecure, flawed, and hurt woman, but she only apparently has to do one thing to fix everything wrong with her and her family: trust a man like Ryan McBride to take care of everything. Ryan, on the other hand, is impossibly perfect. He's rich, he's handsome, he's the perfect boyfriend and lover, and he knows just how to solve everyone's problems. How he learned is a mystery, as he apparently has no problems of his own. (Some lip service is given to a little family tension, but it's nothing compared to the impending ruin facing Megan's clan.) Within a week of meeting each other, they're already thinking marriage. The only possibly fly in the ointment of their happiness is a simple misunderstanding - shoehorned in because this kind of story needs a crisis - that's cleared up within a chapter of its introduction. Silly Megan, thinking her man might have had a flaw! She should've known better! But, then, she is just a woman. Men are the only ones who can really do anything. The plot, like the generic cover art, is a thinly redressed retread of the quintessential (bordering on stereotypical) romance. I was almost laughing by the end as one ridiculous cliche after another played out. The writing does the job, but I have to admit my inner editor cringed at several pointless stretches and phrases. ("He pressed the accelerator and the truck sped up." What else is supposed to happen when the accelerator is pressed? And why interrupt the dialog to tell me this when I already know he's driving on a highway, where speed is required? And why was I so bored that this kind of thing really started getting on my nerves?) I suppose I just expect more out of a story, even a romance, than I found here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
Scoundrel For Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
The Virginian (Owen Wister) - My Review

Sunday, August 10, 2014

OMG (Oh My God) (Bob Kat)

OMG (Oh My God)
(The CUL8R Time Travel Mystery series, Book 1)
Bob Kat
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: 15-year-old Kelly never expected to move from Texas to Florida, from a small town where she was homeschooled to a public school and her lawyer aunt's home. But a drunk driver taking out both of her parents in one terrible wreck changed everything. Maybe it won't be so bad. The neighbor boy, Scott, is nice enough and smarter than Google, and his best friend Austin is the hunky captain of the football team. Aside from Zoey, a cheerleader with her sights set on Austin, her future at Fort Meyers Beach looks promising.
While helping her aunt clean out the garage, Kelly finds a strange old device that may have been built by Thomas Edison: a telephone created to speak with the dead. With a little tinkering, Scott gets it working... and a girl's voice pleads with them to help her. Wendy died in 1966, and the newspapers claimed it was suicide. To investigate, Scott unveils a secret project of his, a cell phone app that should allow them to travel through time. Before they go, he warns his friends not to change anything - but how can they leave an innocent girl to die, especially when it looks less and less likely that she took her own life?

REVIEW: From the title, I was expecting a shallow, snarky teen time travel adventure, possibly involving modern kids introducing square cats in the 1960's to the wonders of hip-hop and twerking. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Kelly struggles to process her rapidly-changing life, including making new friends and learning to get along with her aunt, who isn't the maternal type but tries her best. She also wrestles with body issues... a subplot that I expected to get more page time, especially when dealing with potential causes for teen suicide. Her friends also have their strengths and their weaknesses and their inner struggles, which are revealed by a narrative that annoyingly head-hops mid-paragraph. Unfortunately, the potential peters out as the author resorts to unnatural explanatory dialog, making sure the reader understands the story and the Issues being discussed. It reads like a grown-up talking out "teen issues" using characters as mouthpieces rather than natural conversations between kids. Though billed as a mystery, there really isn't much investigation going on, as the potential causes and suspects are fairly straightforward. (It's also billed as a romance, which doesn't quite fit the narrative either; Kelly feels some fledgling hints of attraction for both Austin and Scott, and Zoey pursues Austin like a terrier after a rat, but there isn't any real romance or love to speak of.) The kids travel back to the 1960's, discovering that teens face pretty much the same struggles no matter the decade... a journey in which their Prime Directive ideals of non-interference quickly go out the window. The book ends without telling the reader (or the characters) the consequences of their trip; the eBook I read had a preview of Book 2, which answered a couple questions but left many annoying loose ends. (I confess I was bored into skimming, though - too much page time went to rehashing Book 1, as well as meandering through neice-aunt bonding time.) In the end, it's not a terrible adventure, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it could've been better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew) - My Review
Serpent of Time (Eugene Woodbury) - My Review
Back to the Future - Amazon DVD Link

Thursday, August 7, 2014

In Search of the Fun-Forever Job (Ellis Chase)

In Search of the Fun-Forever Job
Ellis Chase
Nonfiction, Business
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many years ago, the average worker hired into a company after school, stuck it out for a few decades, then retired with a cake, a gold watch, and a nice pension. Those days are long gone. Changing jobs and careers, by choice or otherwise, is the new normal, but that doesn't mean job hunting is any easier than it used to be. An experienced consultant offers advice for your next employment transition.

REVIEW: Despite the title, this isn't about finding a job you enjoy, but about transitioning careers, ideally moving toward something one likes more than whatever one is currently doing (or was just fired from.) Like most job search guides, Chase emphasizes the need to network and look beyond the usual want ads in order to reach the people who matter, in addition to creating a "brand" and polishing a sales pitch to market oneself. His advice is better suited to trained professionals, college graduates, and experienced white-collar workers than undereducated bookslingers (like me), but it seems sound enough. I just found it a little long-winded and repetitious, making my eyes glaze over at several points.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Find Your Passion (Derick Van Ness) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The Eyes of the Dragon
Stephen King
Signet Books
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Delain, there lived a king known as Roland the Good... a man who may have been no more good or evil than most, but who had at his shoulder a sinister demon of a Court Magician, Flagg. Perhaps it was Flagg's influence, or perhaps it was Roland's own weakness, but the king's son Thomas grew up feeling so insecure and unloved and inadequate that he would be the perfect pawn to finish off the magician's centuries-long Plan: destroying the long line of Delain's royalty and unleashing generations of chaos and bloodshed. Unfortunately, Thomas's beloved older brother, Peter, stands to inherit the crown. But when Roland is poisoned and Peter convicted of regicide, nothing stands in the path of Flagg's victory... nothing, perhaps, except the bonds of loyalty, memories of love, and the slender threads of hope rooted in a long-lost gift.

REVIEW: Despite a certain fairy-tale charm, if one with dark undertones, this book ultimately feels like a short story - or, at best, a novella - fluffed and stretched out to paperback length. It tells itself in endless circles, with the omniscient storyteller narrator telegraphing major developments only to annoyingly dance and delay and backtrack, while deliberately omitting key elements just to shock (or, in my case, irritate) the reader. The world of Delain is a generalized sketch, a hazy watercolor backdrop with hints of magic but only a vague sense of cohesiveness. Likewise, the characters tend to be exaggerated figures straight out of a storybook - which, I suppose, is entirely appropriate given the tone of the tale. King creates some interesting imagery now and again, but I found myself too restless from the deliberate meandering pace to truly immerse in this story. I've read worse, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Book of Three (Lloyd Alexander) - My Review
The Phoenix on the Sword (Robert E. Howard) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review