Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Site Update

The previous eight reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Small Gods (Terry Pratchett)

Small Gods
(A Discworld novel)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: For three thousand years, the devotees of the Great God Om have built great temples in His honor and spread the wonder of His word... usually at the end of His swords, ending in the depths of His dungeons, under the merciful ministrations of His holy inquisitors. Seven great prophets, blessed to speak directly to Him, have added their words to the holy texts, and an eighth is due to arrive any day now. To prepare the path for his arrival, the exquisitor Vorbis labors mightily to cleanse the world of heretics - particularly those who worship false gods and speak lies about the shape of the Discworld. Such fools shall soon known the wrath of Om when He returns... assuming there is anything left of them beyond unsightly stains on His dungeon floors.
Novice Brutha has been called an idiot his whole life, and has no reason to doubt that he is, indeed, a fool. Despite an extraordinary memory and unparalleled observational skills, he cannot read or write even after years in Omnia, the great church-city at the heart of the Omnian religion. While tending the melon patches one day, he hears a small voice, claiming to be his god Om. But Om's statues are mighty and awe-inspiring, while this voice belongs to a lumbering one-eyed tortoise. Surely, this is one of the demons he has been warned about, come to tempt him to sin!
Om doesn't know what went wrong. He meant to come to Discworld as a mighty bull... only to wake in a tortoise's body, barely clinging to a vestige of godhood. Brutha's belief drew him like a moth to a flame. This isn't the prophet he would've picked, but it seems he has no choice - because even here, in the very heart of the church founded in his righteous honor, only Brutha truly believes in the great god Om. And a god who runs out of believers is a god on the brink of death.

REVIEW: Pratchett has a singular way of exploring profound topics with the silliest writing. Here, he delves into the thorny realms of religion, belief, gods, and mortality itself, not to mention the difference between factual truths and the "fundamental" truths on which so many institutions - human and divine - are built. The world and characters start out as simple, almost cartoonish sketches, but somehow grow into full-blooded people over the course of the tale. Nobody is infallible, not even a god, and there are plenty of lessons to go around. Between the frequent laughs are some serious examinations, offering no definitive answers. Given my lousy reading streak lately, this was an especially welcome story, one of those rare works that engages the mind on multiple levels. That success, plus several delicious quotes and one-liners, kicked it to the top of the ratings pile.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crimson Gold (Traci Hall)

Crimson Gold
Traci Hall
Kendelle Press
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Romance
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In 1881, Candice Crimson rides into the frontier town of Spokan Falls with her maid, her wardrobe, a hydraulic drill, and the deed granting her part-ownership of a nearby mine - her only worldly possessions. After her father's murder, her cold mother tried to marry Candice off to an elderly lecher for money, then disowned the young woman when she refused to go along with the plan. Now, she means to make her own fortune like the true suffragette that she is, vowing only to marry for love - if then.
Braxton Dimitio struggles to pull a living from the Crimson Gold mine he co-owns with a Boston investor. It's hard going, and he hasn't struck the mother lode yet, but he's invested too much blood, sweat, and tears to give up. His drunken father left his family destitute on a dying California vineyard; he needs to make enough money to see them through before he can even begin to think about his own comfort. Besides, his own dreams of happiness abandoned him at the altar years ago, taking with her any naive notions of romance. What he needs most is better equipment, and what he needs least is a headstrong lady too full of darn-fool notions of equality and adventure to know her place. Unfortunately, the former - a vital hydraulic drill - comes with the latter.
When Candice and Braxton meet in the dirt streets of Spokan Falls, their partnership seems doomed from the start. Soon, they realize that they'll have to work together, not just to make their mine a success, but to survive... because someone will do anything to keep the Crimson Gold Mine from prospering, even if it takes a bullet to stop them.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A pampered yet independent heiress struggling to regain her lost family honor, a jaded yet honorable man struggling to resist his own heart's yearnings, set against the rugged backdrop of the Pacific Northwest frontier... this should've been a decent read, but it failed me on too many levels. Both Candice and Braxton experience the expected hot and cold moments as their unwanted yet inevitable relationship blooms, but to unbelievable degrees. It reached the point where I simply could not believe in the characters as anything other than flimsy contrivances of the plot. Within the space of a couple paragraphs, they go from swearing off each other as a bad cause to wallowing in oceans of self-pitying tears over their hopeless passions. I lost track of how many times they declared their love for each other, only to spurn it mere breaths later... not to mention the number of times I stared at the Kindle screen and decided that neither of these two idiots deserved to find love, ever. But, then, none of the other characters were much more than set pieces, and the plot itself quickly degenerated into weak melodrama as Candice's scheming mother becomes far too involved in the mine's woes. After a series of disasters, romantic and otherwise, the tale wraps up in an eye-rolling anticlimax. There were hints of possibility now and again, but in the end I just couldn't suspend my disbelief here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Native American History and Culture (Christopher Savio)

Native American History and Culture
Christopher Savio
Nonfiction, History
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: From the Bering land bridge migrations through Christopher Columbus's "discovery", from Pocahontas to Hollywood stereotypes in teepees, the average American learns very little about the indigenous cultures of North America, and what they do learn is riddled with prejudice and errors. The author attempts to set the record straight, starting with misconceptions on how humans first arrived on the continent, through the often-tragic tale of European rediscovery and exploitation, and up to present-day issues facing Native American populations.

REVIEW: My memories of history classes in school are of dull lists of names, events, and dates; so long as one could draw the requisite timeline and pass the test, there was no incentive to learn anything more, or even to remember what one had already learned. Being aware that this is a serious deficit in my education (admittedly one of many), I thought I'd try patching at least one of my knowledge holes with this book, which promised a look at a side of history rarely mentioned in schools. At first, I found it interesting, as the author debunks the old tidy explanation of a single migration across the vanished Bering land bridge. It then touches on the vast array of cultures in the so-called New World, including the often-overlooked Mound Builders. But then this book degenerated into the sort of lifeless, scattershot lessons I remembered so well from history class, interspersed with rants about how schools don't teach real Native American history. I think the problem lies in trying to cover too much - too many cultures and too much history - in one book. In the process, Savio glosses over huge stretches of material, ironically doing what he accuses the modern education system of doing: oversimplifying Native American culture and history. A lack of proofreading doesn't help, as homophones and sound-alike errors abound in the text. It wraps up on a vague note, mentioning how mistreatment has persisted into our presumably more enlightened modern times, and how some tribes are using gambling to rebuild revenue and power over their own destiny (while conveniently omitting the troubles that casinos often bring to communities, and the tribal infighting they can trigger.)
I learned a few things here and there, while reading this, but overall I was disappointed.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends (Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Americas (Jim Green, Fiona Macdonald, Philip Steele, and Michael Stotter) - My Review

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles)

Wicked Games
(A Games novel, Book 1)
Jessica Clare and Jill Myles
Jill Myles, publisher
Fiction, Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Abby's boss tells her that her next assignment is to be a plant on the reality show Endurance Island, she wants to refuse. Abby writes book reviews for MediaWeek, not an outdoor survival column. But the show and the magazine belong to the same parent company, so she can hardly turn it down without risking her job; besides, there's a potentially lucrative book deal to go along with the offer. Six weeks on a tropical island, playing silly games while researching an expose... Abby could think of worse vacations. But she didn't count on running into Dean.
It's hate at first sight, as he literally steps over her in the first challenge. Only the cruelest gods would have stuck the two of them together as teammates, and it's quickly clear that the feeling is mutual. Yet, despite the friction and her own better judgement, a spark catches in Abby's heart. Could she possibly have found love in the unlikeliest place on Earth, or is this just another game in the race to win two million dollars?

REVIEW: A quick-reading romance, Wicked Games delivers most of what it promises: a sizzling love-hate affair set against the backdrop of "reality" television. Abby doesn't go to the island searching for love, and neither does Dean. The relationship that develops between them catches them both by surprise, if not the reader. It's a fairly even match, with both characters flawed enough to be believable. Naturally, it's not a simple walk into the sunset, as complications on- and off-camera threaten them. The reality show aspects, especially the behind-the-scenes manipulations that are alluded to, feel a little underplayed, and the story goes out of its way to make Abby believe all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons - annoyances that narrowly cost the book a full fourth star. Overall, though, I got what I expected with this title. That shouldn't be a surprise, but lately it seems to be.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Chomp (Carl Hiaasen) - My Review
Shelly's Second Chance (L. B. Swan and Hope Chandler) - My Review

Monday, September 15, 2014

Throne of Glass (Sarah J. Maas)

Throne of Glass
(The Throne of Glass series, Book 1)
Sarah J. Maas
Bloomsbury USA
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: She was known as Ardalan's Assassin, the most notorious killer in a tyrannical kingdom... yet Celaena was only seventeen when she was betrayed, captured, and condemned to the prison mines of Endovier. Now, the Crown Prince himself summons her with an offer: come to the castle of Rifthold, become the King's Champion, and earn her freedom in four years. Serve the man whose forces slaughtered her nation and burned their sacred libraries, or die in the frozen mountains of Endovier? At least, if she lives, she might eventually strike back at the king, so she agrees.
At the glass castle in Rifthold, Celaena quickly learns that she's in for more than she anticipated. The other candidates for the role of King's Champion are cutthroats and monsters. Courtly rivalries between sponsors complicate things further. A foreign princess from a newly-conquered land might be an ally or an enemy. And, despite magic having disappeared from the kingdom when Celaena was a young girl, something very unnatural walks the halls of Rifthold... something deadly. But the worst danger might come not from her many enemies, but from within, as both the Crown Prince and his loyal Captain of the Guard find themselves drawn to the battered, wounded soul within the notorious assassin.

REVIEW: This story starts with plenty of promise, in a decently-drawn fantasy world. Initially, Celaena makes a strong, if jaded, heroine, torn between loyalty to her vanished nation and her need to survive, not to mention her growing attraction to the son of the man whose forces butchered her own parents in bed. Crown Prince Dorian, despite being (presumably) sired by an evil warrior king, is almost impossibly good, not to mention naive about his station in life. At first, his friend, Captain Chaol, had a more level head on his shoulders, but he, too, becomes distinctly less believable as the tale goes on and his attraction to Celaena becomes stronger. When he first meets the girl in a prison whose population rarely survives a few months, let alone the year she managed, he fully believes she deserved everything she got simply for being a filthy assassin - yet, not much later, he is horrified to learn that she was brutally whipped and permanently scarred by the guards without provocation. (He is actually more aghast about that than when he hears that those same guards raped and killed a woman who helped Celaena survive her wounds. So... what, being a woman is sufficient provocation to be raped and murdered, but lay a whip across the back of Ardalan's Assassin and suddenly a line of decency's been crossed? I knew love was blind; I didn't know it caused amnesia.)
This kind of loss of brain cells lies at the heart of much of my dissatisfaction with this title. Two men are found murdered, their insides and their brains sucked out, and people are honestly expected to believe it was just drunken brawling; even more amazingly, they seem fine with that explanation. Celaena spent years under the tutelage of the most notorious master assassin in the kingdom, yet she's perpetually snuck up on, and at one point she gleefully devours a bag of candy with unknown origins... knowing that someone's picking off the King's Champion competitors and having just narrowly passed a test about identifying poisons. She's also incredibly oblivious to two men lusting over her. All of this largely exists to complicate matters between the characters, and to shoehorn in a secondary antagonist, an ambitious court lady with her eyes on the Crown Prince. The often-eye-rolling cutesy antics and misunderstandings surrounding the love polygon eat far too much page count and far too many IQ points of the characters.
Then there's the matter of magic in this kingdom. We readers are told at the outset that there is no more magic in Ardalan. It vanished years ago, and has never returned. All magic books are burned, and anyone - even a rank charlatan - who so much as whispers of magic is executed by king's orders. Yet, without spoilers, forces that are essentially magic are very much in play at Rifthold. I'm reminded of the fight between Merlin and Madame Mim in Disney's The Sword in the Stone, where the two agree to no imaginary monsters like pink dragons... only to have Mim turn into a purple beast, pointing out that she never said anything about purple dragons. No, there's no pink magic in Ardalan - but there's plenty of purple magic, and maybe a dollop of gold and green and royal blue. This, too, eats many pages. And then there's some stuff about Celaena's possibly-magical past (which Maas deliberately, and annoyingly, refuses to let the reader in on), a foreign princess from a conquered land who knows far more than she lets on, ghostly visitations from one of Ardalan's forgotten heroines, and more, even a mix-breed mutt, piling onto the back of an already-overburdened plot.
But what, you may ask, of the King's Champion challenge, the competition through which the main character means to earn her freedom? What, indeed. The contest that, I had thought, would form a good chunk of the story gets shunted mostly to the side, save for one evil competitor and his leash-holder. It mostly serves an an excuse for an epic fight at the climax... a fight that goes on far too long, as too many subplots collide in the battle ring. Afterwards, the story lingers, painstakingly setting up sequels for several chapters. At the very end, the author mentions prequel novellas online - which may explain why she was so cagy about Celaena's origins and so free with the often-confusing tangle of names, as she likely assumed that any reader had already read the prerequisite introductions. Unfortunately, no, I hadn't.
As I find myself saying far too often, I have read worse books. Far worse. But this story started out with so much promise - enough promise to convince me to pay good money for it - only to collapse under its own weight, not to mention a writing style that tended to drift between perspectives and from omniscient to close points of view. That disappointment dropped it a half-star in the ratings.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Graceling (Kristin Cashore) - My Review
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review

Friday, September 12, 2014

Steel (Carrie Vaughn)

Carrie Vaughn
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A fraction of a second. That's all it took for Jill to lose a shot at the Junior World Fencing Championships. Though her parents are supportive and her coach still thinks she's Olympic material, she can't stop thinking about that match, and how she should've won. Even in the Bahamas, where the family has come for a vacation, Jill broods. Then she finds the rusted piece of metal on the beach: the tip of a rapier, possibly centuries old. And everything changes.
Falling overboard during a sightseeing tour, Jill wakes to find herself hauled out of the water - not onto a fiberglass motorboat, but a wooden schooner straight out of a pirate movie, complete with ragged, unwashed extras brandishing blades and muskets. This is the Diana, run by the pirate queen Majorie Cooper. That rusted old blade tip came from a cursed sword brandished by Captain Cooper's sworn enemy, Edmund Blane. In order to survive long enough to figure out how it pulled Jill back in time, she has to stay alive in a lawless, unforgiving world.
Being too slow by a fraction of a second cost her a match. That same mistake here could cost her her life.

REVIEW: A young adult tale of pirates, fencing, obsession, and just a light touch of romance and magic, Steel starts fairly fast and rarely slackens. Jill obsesses over fencing: it's more than just a sport, it's her life, and that lost match is a festering open sore. Naturally, during her adventure, she learns some important lessons that make fretting over a mere tournament seem childish, but Vaughn manages to make Jill sympathetic even when she's a brooding teen... no mean feat for a writer. The world of piracy is no Errol Flynn movie (or even Johnny Depp), shown as a savage place in a time when humans are commodities, yet at least among the pirates there exists a hint of democracy - among themselves, at any rate. Jill meets a variety of characters, most of whom are more than mere wayposts on her journey of growth and self-discovery, though ultimately she must stand alone against both the foul Blane and the magic that brought her here. That magic, frankly, almost could've been cut from the story without affecting it overmuch; it really is something of an afterthought on Vaughn's part, a white rabbit to drop her down the rabbit hole of time. As a fantasy fan, I would've liked to see a little more of it, as its presence and powers seemed more like conveniences of the plot than a mystical, if nebulous, force. Overall, though, I can't really complain. Given my iffy reading luck lately, I forgave it a few minor irritations and went with a Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Avi) - My Review
Pirate's Passage (William Gilkerson) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review

Monday, September 8, 2014

Death Warmed Over (Kevin J. Anderson)

Death Warmed Over
(The Dan Shambles, Zombie PI series, Book 1)
Kevin J. Anderson
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Ever since the Big Uneasy woke ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and more, the life of New Orleans private investigator Dan Chambeaux has been a little more interesting... as has his death. First his girlfriend Sheyenne was poisoned, then Dan woke six feet under after a bullet to the head. But cases don't solve themselves, and the first thing Dan did - after crawling out of his own grave - was report back to work. With Robin, a lawyer specializing in nonhuman rights cases, and Sheyenne, the firm's ghostly new receptionist, Dan investigates cases ranging from exploited Egyptian mummies to harassed vampires... all the while hoping to catch a lead in the greatest murder of his career: his own.

REVIEW: Death Warmed Over's tongue-in-fang tone starts out on a fun note, but with some bite. New Orleans's unnatural citizens are just as messed up as any human, making for a colorful cast of characters. Unfortunately, that cast sprawls all over the city, tangled in numerous cases large and small that seem to exist primarily to distract Dan from his investigations into his own demise. The characters also lean heavily on classic PI stereotypes, sometimes with a slight supernatural twist. Once in a while, Dan proves rather dense for a private investigator, and the name of one of the characters gives away what I expect was supposed to be a major plot twist. That obvious case of telegraphing, plus an eye-rollingly blatant setup for sequels at the end, cost it the extra half-mark that the (initially) light tone almost earned it. On the whole, I've read far worse stories, but this just felt too unfocused, telling its own joke a few times too often to keep me amused to the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelley Anderson) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts (John Seymour)

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts
John Seymour
Dorling Kindersley
Nonfiction, History
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: These days, most people in industrialized nations take running water, packaged foods, ready-made clothing, heat, disposable packaging, and more for granted. It's all just a turn of a faucet, a flip of a switch, or a quick jaunt to the store (or the internet) away, isn't it? Not so long ago, however, daily life relied on the skills of trained craftspeople and knowledgeable housewives, men and women who transformed raw materials into the necessities of civilized life. Many of these skill are endangered, some having gone entirely extinct, but the recent trend toward self-sufficient living is inspiring a revival. Author John Seymour draws upon his childhood, his travels to remote corners of the world, and his own curiosity about pre-industrial living to offer a glimpse into such lost and fading arts as barrel-making, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, thatching, and more.

REVIEW: This book is a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, it explores just what went into the daily existence of yesteryear, how many people and how much stored knowledge was required for even the smallest village to thrive. From building a house with local materials to holiday decorations, from labor-intensive works meant to last a lifetime to the nitty-gritty of everyday cleaning and personal sanitation, a broad and diverse range of topics are discussed. On the other hand, Seymour does little but glimpse at most of his subjects, often coloring his descriptions with heavy doses of nostalgia that alienate more modern readers. No, Mr. Seymour, I have no recollection of visiting the village smithy as a child, so your charming explanation hardly helps me decipher the process you're describing. The illustrations are little more helpful, often showing tools without explaining their use or cluttered workshop scenes that only confuse rather than enlighten. In discussing the lifestyles of our ancestors, the author's rose-colored glasses are so thick they're practically a blindfold; yes, there were (and are) many admirable things about simpler living, but there were also many drawbacks and limitations, and it's a little hypocritical to praise the centuries or millennia of innovations that led to, say, the spinning wheel and loom while universally condemning innovations beyond an arbitrary "back-in-my-day" cutoff point. Several of the articles also feel thin, barely mentioning or explaining a particular craft before dwindling to a close.
The Forgotten Arts and Crafts succeeds at showing just how complex village life was (and remains, in many parts of the world), offering a look at the many skills and talents that eventually paved the way for our modern world... many of which deserve to be preserved against a future that cannot support our current wasteful, short-sighted lifestyle. I was just hoping for a little more depth.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review
Alone in the Wilderness - Amazon DVD Link