Thursday, December 31, 2015

December Site Update

The final 10 reviews of 2015 have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins)

Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1
(The Fairy Quest series, Outcasts Issue 1)
Paul Jenkins, illustrated by Humberto Ramos
Boom! Studios
Fiction, YA Comics, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the world of Fablewood, all stories live side by side, re-enacting their roles faithfully under the eye of Mister Grimm and his Think Police. Deviants are captured, their minds erased, lest the ordered tales fall into chaos and anarchy. Young Red and Mister Woof only want to be friends, but their story dictates otherwise. They flee into the Dark Woods, pursuing the faint hope of the Mapmaker beneath the mountains, in hopes of finding a new world where they can live and think as they please... but this is one fairy tale that Grimm doesn't mean to end happily ever after.

REVIEW: Starting quickly, with Red and "Mister Woof" (the Big Bad Wolf) already in flight through a fairy tale world that's dying under Grimm's harsh rule, Fairy Quests maintains a good pace throughout. Red can be a bit naive, almost irritatingly so, but such is how she was written, and even as she clings to free will, old habits remain. Woof gets the best lines and the best expressions, though sometimes his more direct method of dealing with problems isn't the best. Meanwhile, Grimm is established as a truly formidable opponent; if he sees how his tight grip on Fablewood is squeezing the life from the stories, he doesn't care, so long as order is maintained. It has touches of whimsy, but with a dark and devious subtext, enhanced by the artwork. I expect I'll read onward for at least another issue or two, to see where Jenkins is going with this intriguing setup.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sisters Grimm: Fairy Tale Detectives (Michael Buckley) - My Review
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Alice in Wonderland (2010) (Amazon DVD link)

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Bad Spell in Yurt (C. Dale Brittain)

A Bad Spell in Yurt
(The Royal Wizard of Yurt series, Book 1)
C. Dale Brittain
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Newly-graduated wizard Daimbert thought he'd found the perfect job when he accepted the role of Royal Wizard of Yurt. It's an insignificant little kingdom, a perfect match for his meager skills. Cast a few weather spells, work a few illusions, keep the king amused and the populace awed - what more could such a place demand of him? But something's not right in Yurt, an evil presence that lurks at the edge of his perception. Someone's been dabbling in black magic, and whatever they've summoned won't leave without a fight, and likely a soul. This will take high-end wizardry, not to mention cunning and deduction to root out the mage and a keen grasp of demonic negotiations. Too bad Daimbert can't even touch his book on demonology without getting the willies...

REVIEW: It looked like a lightweight, fun little fantasy, with whimsy and a dash of detective work around the edges. Unfortunately, it reads very stale and dated, even for having originally been published in 1991, riddled with tired cliches. Daimbert's highly ineffective as a wizard and a character, spending more time making excuses for his lack of knowledge and ability than actually doing anything about... well, anything, from locating the source of the shapeless evil to detecting the source of the black magic to bringing his own skills up to par for the inevitable confrontation. He even fails to win much respect from Yurt's inhabitants, most of whom see through the facade to the fairly flimsy, barely-passing neophyte behind the robes. Most of his time is spent socializing with Yurt's inhabitants (shallow stereotypes, every one of them), none of whom ever come off as credible suspects, and navigating a tempestuous friendship with Joachim, the castle chaplain. Speaking of the church, this is another pothole that kept my suspension of disbelief from getting airborne: Brittain imports Christianity whole-hog into this otherwise independent fantasy world - making it a source of even greater miracles than wizardry can dream of, to the point where one wonders why people even bother learning magic when the church stands just across the road. Indeed, a good portion of the plot is about the concept of damnation and how one's soul is judged. Even leaving out the question of why inhabitants of an imaginary world would follow a real-world religion, I wanted a fantasy, not a treatise on salvation. I also wanted fun, but the humor's as vapid as the story and characters. The plot unfolds slowly, usually in spite of Daimbert rather than due to anything he actually does to advance it, winding up with a climax that I just plain couldn't care about. The wrap-up is far too long, full of explanatory speeches, and it ends on an odd, ill-struck final note that doesn't quite feel like a conclusion, even the conclusion of Book 1 of a series. A Bad Spell in Yurt is, as I expected, a lightweight tale - but more due to lack of substance than whimsy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wiz Biz (Rich Cook) - My Review
Off To Be The Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
The Accidental Sorcerer (K. E. Mills) - My Review

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

The Screaming Staircase
(The Lockwood & Co. series, Book 1)
Jonathan Stroud
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the dawn of history, humans have started at darkness, shadows, and things that go bump in the night. Since the Problems woke spirits across England, those things have become all too real - and the touch of a ghost is just as deadly to grown-ups who barely sense their presence as to more sensitive kids. Iron, silver, salt, and lights help keep the wraiths at bay after sundown, but thus far the most effective ghost-fighters have been gifted children. Armed with silver-tipped rapiers, salt bombs, iron filings, chains, and other gadgets, they prowl the nights dispersing specters and, where possible, identifying and neutralizing the Sources, the item (often mortal remains) to which the spirits are bound.
Lucy Carlyle is one such girl. She had a promising career ahead of her, until a disaster led her to be blamed for the deaths of several fellow agents - a disaster caused by the cowardice of their adult supervisor. She came to London hoping to find a new job, but her record holds her back, until she makes it to the door of Lockwood & Co. Anthony Lockwood's an inscrutable boy, prone to mercurial moods, not to mention a certain eccentric streak. For one, he tolerates George, who's tooth-grindingly annoying on his best days. For another, he runs his agency without adult supervision - a serious risk, and one that puts him at odds with DEPRAC, England's official government department for handling the Problems. Lucy might've passed if she'd had other options, but she needs the job, and Lockwood and George need a new partner. Little does she know what adventures lay ahead... particularly the case of the Screaming Staircase, which begins innocuously enough with a standard suburban haunting, but leads to a forgotten murder, a vengeful spirit, and deep into the blood-soaked halls of one of England's most haunted sites.

REVIEW: Stroud creates another interesting twist on modern-day London with his latest series, creating a haunted world where children - traditionally the victims of formless nocturnal fears - are forced onto the front lines of a supernatural battle. In a country with as long and bloody a history as England, there's no shortage of spirits to haunt the night, and for every one dispatched a dozen more are waiting to take their place. It's not a victimless fight, either; agents (and their adult supervisors, often those who have outgrown most of their Talents) frequently die confronting spirits, sometimes to return as wraiths themselves. Even those who survive are haunted by what they see and experience. This adventure acts as a pilot episode, establishing the characters and the world as the story unfolds. As such, at times it seems a bit slow, backtracking through Lucy's history and other things, but even when it's simply laying groundwork it's interesting enough to keep reading. Lucy's Talent for psychometry (picking up residual memories and emotions off haunted objects) draws her deeper into the world of the ghosts than either of her partners, an empathy that threatens her more than once; even a victim of terrible injustice is deadly to the living. George is the comic relief, chubby and food-obsessed and always ready with a smart line, though his research skills and other talents make him a fully competent team member when it counts. As for Lockwood, he's almost annoyingly inscrutable at times, a junior version of Carnacki with touches of Sherlock Holmes around the edges. The three work fairly well together in their investigation, which tangles paths with the living as much as the (un)dead. All in all, it's a fine, spirited adventure, with some truly chilling moments and a decent mystery at its heart. I expect I'll read on if and when I track down Book 2 at a reasonable price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Glimpse (Steven Whibley) - My Review

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sector 7 (David Wiesner)

Sector 7
David Wiesner
Clarion Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: On a foggy field trip to the Empire State Building, a young artist meets a playful cloud. It carries him to the secret factory high above the world, where clouds are created and dispatched around the globe - but the clouds aren't happy with the plans they've been given. Maybe the boy can help...

REVIEW: This wordless picture book was on top of a bin at work during some down time, so I gave it a try. It's an imaginative adventure, from the hat-stealing cloud to the great floating factory of Sector 7, with interesting illustrations. The story is simple but satisfying.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Quest (Aaron Becker) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
Mr. Wuffles! (David Wiesner) - My Review

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Almost Perfect (Julie Ortolon)

Almost Perfect
(The Perfect trilogy, Book 1)
Julie Ortolon
Julie Ortolon, publisher
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In college, roommates Maddy, Christine, Amy, and Jane couldn't have been more different... which may be why they were such perfect friends, balancing each others' shortcomings. Though no longer close, Maddy and the others were happy for Jane's successes, first as a TV anchor and then as a motivational speaker... at least, until they read her best-selling self-help book, How to Have a Perfect Life. All three friends are used (if not named) as sterling examples of what happens when a body lets fear sabotage their life and happiness. As upset as they are, though, they admit Jane has a point. They make a pact on the spot: within the next year, each will face their own greatest fears.
Maddy grew up watching her hard-working mother sacrifice her happiness for the sake of a brutish man. She swore she'd never be that woman, even to the point of rejecting her high-school sweetheart, bad boy Joe Fraser, in order to pursue a career in art. Now she's in her thirties and a widow after cancer took her husband... and she still hasn't done a thing with her art degree or her talent, dabbling on the side and even getting a job in an art gallery without ever trying to submit her own work for display. When she makes that pact, she has an offer to teach arts and crafts at a summer camp in Santa Fe - one of the world's premiere art cities - which would put her in the right place to face her own fear of success: her personal oath to her friends is to get her work into one art gallery. But the job isn't without a few drawbacks. For one, the camp owner is Mama Fraser, foster mother of Joe. For another, Joe himself will be on site, his career as an Army Ranger ended by a bullet to the knee. True, she shattered his heart the day she rejected his proposal, but they were just kids then, barely out of high school. Both Maddy and Joe have had over a decade to mature and change; odds are, that old torch burned out long ago. Or has it?

REVIEW: With a bit of a rough start, as Ortolon establishes the set-up and the characters (all of whom initially look like standard romance fare), I didn't figure I'd be particularly drawn in, but somehow I ended up reading this whole thing in a day. While Maddy continues to wrestle with fear of success, coupled with a certainty that somehow she's responsible for others losing if she wins, Joe must deal with issues of abandonment and love stemming from a childhood spent bouncing from one foster home to another, not to mention a tendency to overcompensate for uncertainty by clinging all the harder to plans. Both stumble frequently as their reunion passes from anger to infatuation to frustration and utter disaster, with miscommunication and assumptions perpetually tripping them up. From the start, there's a physical spark between the two, but even when things cross the line from imagination to reality, the going isn't smooth; indeed, physical intimacy only makes things more complicated, especially when there are still unresolved issues in the closet. Scars from the past never fully heal, but failing to address them, ignoring them and hoping they'll go away, only makes them fester. The story treads close to preaching now and again, particularly towards the end as Maddy and her friends finally dig down to the roots of her fear (the dialog takes on the air of an author lecturing, here), but manages to pull back at the last minute. There are also some genre tropes that I suppose can't be avoided. For instance, women are allowed to be a little plump if they're really gorgeous underneath it, though they must be willing to lose weight (and trade glasses for contacts) if they want to be noticed by guys, while men start and remain Greek gods in the flesh, limited to emotional rather than physical flaws. Otherwise, it proves to be a remarkably balanced relationship that's willing to address the flaws in the characters, not to mention the traditional idea that love alone is all it takes to ensure a happy ending. That, plus its aforementioned power to grab me for a day's reading, land this one solidly in the Good range.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review
Trials of Artemis (Sue London) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film (Jean Shepherd)

A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film
Jean Shepherd
Broadway Books
Fiction, Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Little Ralphie's quest to obtain the perfect Christmas gift - a Red Ryder BB gun - in Depression-era Indiana became a holiday classic in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. Before it was a movie, it was a series of humorous essays by Jean Shepherd, a roughly autobiographical account of a Midwestern childhood during the 1930's. This book, drawn from Shepherd's published collections, gathers the stories that were adapted into the movie, including everything from Ralphie's fateful encounter with a bully to the prolonged torment of being neighbors with the Bumpuses... and, of course, the infamous air rifle.

REVIEW: I've seen and enjoyed the movie a few times (though never to the level of worship or day-long marathons), so I thought this sounded interesting, a look at the stories behind the story. To be honest, I think the movie worked better. The essays have a similar sense of humor (which is to be expected, as Shepherd adapted the screenplay), but tend to ramble and dawdle and draw out events unnecessarily... sometimes ending without making a point. The final essay concerning the Bumpuses in particular seems to go on forever, with too little payoff. Granted, they evoke a vision of the place and era through the tinted lens of childhood, with some authentic moments about growing up that resonate across time, but reminiscing with relatives and friends is a whole different animal than doing so with strangers: the former are fine with tales that go nowhere, because it's about reliving the memory, while the latter eventually start wondering where it's all going. While there were some amusing moments here, and it was interesting to see the roots of the movie, all in all I prefer the more compact tale in the film.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Christmas Story (Full-Screen Edition) - Amazon DVD link

Friday, December 11, 2015

Princeless Volume 1 #1 (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless Volume 1 #1
(The Princeless series)
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by M. Goodwin
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, Comics/Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In a fairy-tale land, Princess Adrienne finds herself locked in a tower guarded by a dragon, just like her sisters. It's a tradition, after all, ensuring that only the worthiest, bravest suitors claim a royal bride. But Adrienne isn't the sort of princess to wait for rescue...
This issue includes the short tale "Mr. Froggy," about the life of a reluctant princeling.

REVIEW: With shades of Shrek and Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, this clever comic send-up of fairy tale tropes is hilarious from start to finish. Adrienne's an outspoken, pro-active heroine, a dark-skinned counterpoint to the "fair maiden" stereotype. The story arc gets off to a good start, with shades of trouble on the horizon for the idealistic princess. The short story adds a male perspective, showing that the boys don't have it much easier than the girls when it comes to family expectations in a fairy tale world. I see that there's at least one compilation volume available; I'll have to track it down one of these days. (I read this issue via the library and Hoopla, a digital lending service.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Paper Bag Princess (Robert N. Munsch) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia Wrede) - My Review
Shrek - Amazon DVD Link

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Day the Crayons Came Home (Drew Daywalt)

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

DESCRIPTION: One day, Duncan finds a stack of postcards in his room, sent by lost and lonely crayons around the house and beyond.

REVIEW: An excellent follow-up to Daywalt's chuckle-inducing The Day the Crayons Quit, this book features (mostly) new colors in new difficulties, with some nods to the previous book. Pea Green, tired of being hated (both as a vegetable and the color associated with said vegetable), changes his name to Esteban the Magnificent and sets out to see the world, while Neon Red, abandoned months ago on vacation, sends postcards from its walk home. Other crayons plead for help from the yard, the sofa, the laundry hamper, and even the basement, in a special glow-in-the-dark segment. Even his siblings' art supplies get in on the act, as his toddler brother's purple crayon begs for sanctuary while debating the tyke's dubious artistic skills. The art maintains the child-scribble aesthetic of the first one, with the addition of vintage postcards, all of which have extra touches that invite rereads to catch them all (and which adults may snicker at more than children.) It's funny for grown-ups and kids alike... plus, as mentioned, there's a glow-in-the-dark spread, and that never hurts a book rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
Do Not Open This Book! (Michaela Muntean) - My Review

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unexpected Gifts (Elena Aitken)

Unexpected Gifts
(The Castle Mountain Lodge series, Book 1)
Elena Aitken
Ink Blot Communications
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A year and a lifetime ago, Andi thought she'd be celebrating this Christmas with Blaine and their new child... but a stillborn baby and a bitter break-up destroyed her heart. Worse, her event-planning business, Party Hearty, won't let her simply ignore the season of love, joy, and family - three things she's sure she'll never have again. Her friend and business partner, Eva, tells her she needs to get back out there, even for one good fling, but Andi doesn't do flings. Not even when a last-minute holiday trip to a mountain resort results in unexpectedly sharing a villa with an irresistible single man...
After five years in the Caribbean expanding his home security business, Colin's looking forward to a Canadian Christmas again, with snow on the ground and the scent of pine trees and bonfires. His assistant has booked him a villa at the perfect resort in the Rockies. When Castle Mountain Lodge is overbooked, however, he offers one of his villa's extra bedrooms to a woman in distress - a woman he met once a year or so ago, on the arm of his former best friend Blaine. Though Colin tells himself he doesn't do relationships, not after his own happily-ever-after cheated on him, something about Andi's tempting him to change his mind. But he can't hook up with Blaine's ex, can he?
This title includes the companion short story Unexpected Endings.

REVIEW: I was in the mood for a light story, so this seasonally-appropriate romance caught my eye. It reads quickly, putting the usual genre tropes through their paces in a love story set against the backdrop of a picture-postcard Canadian mountain Christmas. For two characters convinced they can't or won't find True Love, they fall for one another remarkably fast. There's also a subtext about children being the true test, possibly even true purpose, of any love. I understand that losing a baby is highly traumatic, but something about the way children kept popping up over and over again in the story made it less a backdrop and more a bludgeon, until it seems that the fact that she's childless is a greater trauma than the death itself. (Andi even converts the lodge's holiday ball into an all-ages affair... which I'm sure made all the families happy, but I expect it alienated any singles or couples who were looking forward to a nice holiday dance without squealing rugrats on sugar highs running underfoot. But, then, the whole story is rather PG as romances go, with little beyond kisses and brief partial nudity.) Andi and Colin both tend to jump to worst-case-scenario conclusions every other scene (with the intervening scenes lauding how hard they're falling for each other), which began to feel less like gun-shy people learning to trust and more like an author yanking strings. For that matter, the major crisis at the end feels very forced; no spoilers, but did Aitken have to go that far out of the way to dredge up a major obstacle for the would-be lovers to overcome? As for the short story, it simply rehashes and magnifies Andi's insecurities.
On the one hand, it read fast, and had a rather sweet, if light, Christmas flair. On the other, I found it hard to believe the situations and emotions, especially towards the end. Overall, it's a quick holiday treat if that's all you expect from it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wedding Trap (Adrienne Bell) - My Review
Bound to the Bachelor (Sarah Mayberry) - My Review
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sharcano (Jose Prendes)

(The Sharkpocalypse trilogy, Book 1)
Jose Prendes
Curiosity Quills
Fiction, Action/Humor/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the body of a modern-day Megalodon, the monster shark of the dinosaur age, washes up on the shores of Nicaragua, it quickly becomes worldwide news. Little does anyone realize that the shark isn't the real story. All over the world, earthquakes rumble and volcanoes wake, as ocean temperatures rise... though not hot enough to explain the massive fish die-offs, in which sea animals appear to have literally been cooked alive. Popular TV journalist Mick Cathcart, sexy single scientist Dr. Agnes Brach, and numerous other people around the world soon realize that what's happening isn't simply tectonic activity or global warming. It's something far less natural and more sinister, and it may well be the end of the world.

REVIEW: In the vein of Sharknado and other B-movie flicks, this straight-faced monster/disaster film homage doesn't even try for believability or logic or anything remotely cerebral. It just jumps into its ridiculous concept - involving sharks made of living lava - and wallows in it gleefully. The characters come straight out of the genre stock bin: Mick Cathcart's an oversexed alpha male whose family (including a frustrated ex-wife and his humanizing daughter Annie) is falling apart, Agnes is the dedicated scientist whose neglected feminine side responds to Mick's potent combination of masculine presence and vulnerability, Agnes's boss is a cold-hearted tycoon with a tragic past, and so forth. Numerous side characters fill out the story, including the obligatory good-hearted President, a priest who sees signs of diabolical influence behind the disasters, and a pair of backwoods good-ol'-boys who eat way too much page time with their redneck, lowbrow antics. The story is full of action, though it doesn't always move the plot forward, and the writing tends to be clunky and crude (literally, enough that the swear words felt like crutches rather than a deliberate style choice), with overused pet phrases and descriptions, not to mention a few winks to other monster and disaster stories. All in all, I give it credit for delivering just what it promised: a B-movie in a book. I just found the style a little too crude, not to mention the overall plot a little too long and full of side-trips, to justify a Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Field Guide to the Apocalypse (Meghann Marco) - My Review
How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters (Mark Shaffer) - My Review
RiffTrax Live: Sharknado - Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

November Update

Yes, I know it's a day late... it's a busy time of year, so the tail end of November got away from me.

Anyway, the previous seven reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Sky So Big (Ransom Wilcox and Kurt Beckstrand)

A Sky So Big
Ransom Wilcox and Karl Beckstrand
Premio Publishing
Fiction, Western/Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Patricia Laughlin came to Nevada to oversee the family holdings and locate two missing relatives: her father and her uncle. Instead, she meets Bridger Calhoun, her father's partner in the K-Bar ranch - a man whose charming smile hides many secrets. It isn't long before she hears the name Wade Forrester, a notorious rogue not above putting lead in a man's back, who seems to have it in for the Laughlins and Calhoun. She herself witnesses the man's cowardice, when he refuses to draw in a fair fight with Bridger. With a snake like that lurking in the hills, trouble is sure to come to the K-Bar, and Patricia.
Wade Forrester left his father on less-than-civil terms when his wanderlust got the better of his youthful spirit... but he returned as fast as he could when he heard that the old man had vanished. Worse, his sister Julia was utterly insensible - after signing over the deed to the family's K-Bar ranch to her swindling husband, the lady-charmer Bridger Calhoun. Now Calhoun's buying up all the land in the area, with gold or lead, all in the name of his unseen master Pat Laughlin. For what they've done to his family, they've both earned a bullet from his gun... if he can survive the gauntlet of hired goons swarming the Nevada wilderness after his hide.
When Wade meets Patricia, it's hate at first site - especially when he abducts her from her hotel room as insurance. But it won't be long before they discover that they have more in common than they realize... including an enemy ready to crush the land beneath his heel.
This title also includes Ransom Wilcox's short story "A Barn Full O' Proud", about a ranch boy's first love on four hooves.

REVIEW: This wasn't easy to rate, not helped by misbilling; this is not a "romance" in the modern sense of the word at all, being mostly a straight-up Western tale. It also has an unusual pedigree. Ransom Wilcox was a writer born in the tail end of the Western era, a world of gunslinging outlaws and rival landowners carving up the last bits of unclaimed frontier, while Karl Beckstrand is a modern author who "inherited" this unfinished manuscript. So, while the story itself reads somewhat dated, populated with characters pushing dangerously close to genre cliches (especially the supporting cast), I can't fairly judge it by modern standards. Wade's the standard wronged rogue, half-Mexican to boot, who gets a bad reputation despite only slinging lead when he's threatened, while Bridger Calhoun's a vicious villain who hides behind Laughlin's name and a charming demeanor - one that completely fools Patricia for a while, until the rage breaks the surface. As for Patricia, once she stops buying everything Calhoun and his smile sell her, she demonstrates more grit and guts than many Western heroines, and isn't nearly the deadweight that she could've been. There are some sparks between her and Wade, but for the most part they're both too busy dodging bullets to navigate the thorny brush of lies and skewed truths that stretch between them. When Wade and Patricia aren't trying to survive treks over the Sierra Nevada mountains, they're dodging lead and losing horses; I lost track of how many animals were run to death or caught in the crossfire, so horse-lovers be warned. For that matter, the human body count's deep into the double digits, which is to be expected with the frequent gunfights and ambushes. Despite its flaws and plausibility issues with some action sequences, not to mention a wandering omniscient narration and a few eye-rollingly over-the-top speeches and descriptions, it kept me reading for quite a stretch, so it must've done something right. Though it nearly lost a half-star for the style, which tended to summarize (often in grandiose terms) what characters felt or decided, not to mention a little speech just before the end by one of Wade's Native American friends that reeked of a morality Message, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. (It didn't hurt that I enjoyed the short story.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Untamed (Max Brand) - My Review
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
The Virginian (Owen Wister) - My Review

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede)

Thirteenth Child
(The Frontier Magic series, Book 1)
Patricia C. Wrede
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Eff's twin brother, Lan, is a seventh son of a seventh son - and everyone knows how lucky and powerful he'll become when he grows into his magic. But Eff has older sisters, too... making her the thirteenth-born child. According to Uncle Earn and most everyone outside her immediate family, she should've been drowned at birth for all the evil she'll undoubtedly unleash upon the world. When Papa accepts a position teaching magic in Mill City, on the very edge of civilized lands, it's both a boon and a danger. Here, away from Earn and other relatives, nobody will know whether she or Lan was born first. But Mill City is right on the shore of the mighty Mammoth river, within sight of the great barrier spell that keeps the monsters of the untamed West - from magical creatures like steam dragons and swarm weasels to mundane-yet-deadly beasts like mammoths, saber cats, and dire wolves - at bay. Many of the young magicians Papa trains will be going to frontier settlements, protecting homesteaders as they push the boundaries of Columbia into the wilderness beyond the river. Eff and her family should be safe enough, with the river and the barrier... but Eff is still a thirteenth child, a curse no magic can thwart, so danger is bound to find her.

REVIEW: Wrede establishes an interesting alternate history of American westward expansion in a world where magic is commonplace, used for everything from the great barrier spells protecting settlements to housewives hastening the drying of laundry. The only ones who don't use magic are those like the Progressive Rationalists, who consider it a corrupting crutch. Wrede doesn't stop at America/Columbia's borders, either, with three established magical systems from around the world... each holding pieces of truth, but none able to encompass or explain the whole, mysterious force of magic, for all its near-omnipresence in daily modern life. Within this setup, though, there isn't much of a main, driving story arc. Mostly, it's about Eff growing up with the stigma of being a thirteenth child, struggling to become her own person and experiencing life on the edge of the frontier. Along the way, she meets enemies and allies, a host of names that were occasionally difficult to keep straight (particularly Eff's large family and extended family). Several of these people turn out to be other than they seemed; one of the main themes of the book is that there are many ways to view any person, thing, or event, so nobody answers to one static description (save a few bit players). Even the Progressive Rationalists don't become bogeymen; they have clearly-stated reasons for their beliefs, and some of their ideas - that a reliance on magic can make for laziness, and ultimately works created by mundane effort last longer - have merit... even though some Rationalists take their beliefs to the point of prejudice. Sometimes, I found the lack of a greater arc or focus a little trying, especially when the name tangle bogged me down. Overall, though, I liked the characters and the world, and the voice kept me reading. I'll have to see if I can track down the next book sometime - I'm especially eager to see what other wonders and dangers lie beyond the Mammoth River, aside from the tantalizing glimpses given here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition (Charles Darwin)

On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition
Charles Darwin
Project Gutenberg
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As far back as ancient Greece, some had observed the seeming relation of Earth's many species, but the idea of divine creation of Life - each species created spontaneously and individually, separated by divine mandate from others - held popular sway for centuries. By the mid-1800's, some had begun to question this idea. In this landmark book. naturalist Charles Darwin outlines the theory of evolution by natural selection... a theory counter to the then-accepted "fact" of spontaneous creation.

REVIEW: I'll admit that many of the details were beyond my undereducated brain (and beyond my Nook dictionary's capacity), and some of Darwin's specific conclusions have been altered by new evidence in the hundred-odd years since this book first appeared, but the overall idea of evolution is explained repeatedly and clearly. Here was a man whose observations did not coincide with the common rationale at the time (spontaneous creation of species, alongside the idea of a relatively young planet), and who undertook extensive studies and personal experiments to arrive at a theory that, while initially unpopular, better explained many things about the natural world, past and present. To support his findings, Darwin delves into the well-documented lineages of domestic pigeons, the geologic record of fossils and glacial action, embryonic development, the variable fertility of hybrids, and more, a very broad base of research touching on many fields and all appearing to point to the same conclusions.  Darwin's observations in the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, which spurred this search, actually occupy surprisingly little space. This sixth edition addresses many challenges raised to his theory, giving his own explanations and defenses. This was not an armchair theory, in other words, but the work of a dedicated man unafraid of asking questions that "everyone" already knew the answers to... and unafraid to present his own findings, even when they differed from the status quo among many (but not all) learned men of his day. This is what the scientific process is supposed to be about - sadly, a method that seems threatened in today's world, when the same country that first put a man on the moon now shies from teaching science in its own classrooms when it might threaten the faith of a vocal minority. He was not seeking to prove or disprove the existence of a Creator with the theory of evolution, but to understand the relationships of life on Earth. In 1872, Darwin wrote: "Great is the power of steady misrepresentation: but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure." If only... Overall, though this was a long and, at times, tedious read, with some outdated hypotheses, it is nevertheless still an important book, well worth the time and effort. (It might have gone a little easier had my e-book edition not inexplicably cut the diagrams and illustrations referred to in the text...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Best of Damon Knight (Damon Knight)

The Best of Damon Knight
Damon Knight
Fiction, Collection/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Aliens bring the gift of world peace, but with an unexpected price... a misfit steps outside of time... a temporal hiccup gives a con man an extraordinary machine... a lone miner on a planetoid makes a terrible discovery... these and more stories by science fiction master Damon Knight are collected here.

REVIEW: Damon Knight's short "To Serve Man" was the basis of one of the most memorable episodes of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. That tale and several others appear in this collection. The ideas are often intriguing, but I couldn't help finding the presentation and characters occasionally dated. One story in particular, "A Likely Story," loses a lot of relevance over the years: it features many then-popular science fiction writers in thin disguise, and primarily seems like an inside joke that was never meant to be read by an outsider over half a century later. (I picked out a few names, but the rest eluded me.) All in all, I liked several of Knight's concepts, and the writing itself is fairly decent. Unfortunately, it just can't help reflecting the bygone era in which Knight wrote, even in a forward-looking genre like sci-fi.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Cats in Space and Other Places (Brian Fawcett, editor) - My Review
Some of the Best from 2012 Edition (Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors) - My Review

Sunday, November 8, 2015

10% Happier (Dan Harris)

10% Happier
Dan Harris
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Self-Help
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: "The price of security is insecurity." So Dan Harris's father told him when he was a young boy, and so he believed. Pursuing a career in journalism, he constantly pushed himself to be better, to dig deeper, to get more airtime. It seemed to be paying off: first a jump to the big leagues of national TV in his 20's, then attracting the attention of the demigod of televised journalism Peter Jennings, leading to numerous high-profile stories around the world and in the middle of active war zones. Throughout his success, though, his personal life was in shambles, insecurities and instabilities eating him alive inside. It came to a head when he experienced a major panic attack - on live TV, in front of millions of of American viewers. Clearly, something wasn't working. Thus began Harris's search for peace of mind, a search leading through the fringes of evangelism, to the books and workshops of modern New Age gurus such as Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, even to the modern-day laboratories of scientists studying the measurable, practical benefits of ancient meditation practices. Here, he reveals his own experiences with meditation, and how he learned to be "10% happier" and more mindful without losing himself in mysticism.

REVIEW: I don't watch much TV these days, and even less televised news (I soured on it a few elections ago), but the name rung a vague bell, and the premise looked intriguing - particularly his promise to explain meditation and mindfulness without the often-circular talk so often attached to it. The book starts on a somewhat Americentric note, saying that meditation has a serious PR problem with so much New Age and mystic baggage, and that more people would be likely to try it but for that stuff... a statement that ignores the fact that, outside of white America, many people and cultures have long embraced meditation as part of daily life. Still, with self-appointed gurus raking in remarkable incomes off their meditation retreats, books, lectures, and refrigerator magnets, I understood what he was going for: to those of us not exposed to meditation outside of such images, it can be off-putting, especially when our first attempts at meditation are anything but the transcendental experience we're conditioned to expect. Here, Harris shares his personal story - which includes several down points and detours and U-turns, including a stint of drug abuse and moments of disillusionment - as he moves from meditation skeptic to believer, learning that mindfulness doesn't mean sacrificing one's competitive edge. Harris isn't alone in discovering (or, rather, re-discovering) the benefits of mindfulness; the trend is sweeping the corporate and scientific worlds, and even being used by the military to help soldiers deal with the stresses and unpredictability of the battlefield. Yet this popularity is bringing its own jargon and clutter to meditation, turning it into another fad full of catchphrases... threatening to create a new kind of backlash, setting up new levels of insecurity as people fail to meet those catchphrase promises and therefore reject the whole notion altogether. Coming from a more-or-less average guy, not a guru or a scientist or other lofty figure, the information seems more practical and common sense, without some of the high-level technicalities or mystic obscurity. Meditation isn't a cure-all for neuroses or depression, nor is it a gateway to the divine realms, but it helps one cope with life's stresses and the often-unhelpful impulses, the nagging little voices and negative scenarios and draining thought patterns that waste too much of our time and energy. By pairing his meditation experiences with his own story, Harris bypasses those catchphrases and promises, creating a more accessible path. Overall, I found it an interesting book, both as an autobiography and an introduction to meditation.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mental FOCUS Training Secrets (Nathan Cadbury) - My Review
Simple But Effective Strategies To Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson)

The Rithmatist
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the United Isles of America, only Rithmatists stand between human civilization and the destruction wrought by wild chalklings, two-diminsional creatures capable of rending living flesh. Blessed by the Maker Himself with the ability to infuse chalk lines with power, these elite warriors are apart from and above the common folk... and, more than anything, Joel longs to be one. But Rithmatists are chosen at age eight, and at sixteen he's too old to ever be more than a powerless theorist - little better than his late father, a chalkmaker, whose obsession with Rithmatics plunged the family deep into debt. Living at the Armedius Academy in New Brittania, rubbing shoulders daily with those who hardly seem to care how they've been gifted with an opportunity he'd do anything for, doesn't help. Instead of focusing on his own studies, he finagles ways to sit in on Rithmatics lessons with old Professor Fitch... so Joel is there the day the new Professor Nalizar, a young man fresh from the Nebrask battle lines, comes to challenge Fitch for his red coat of tenure. With Nalizar come dark days at Armedius. Rithmatist students begin disappearing, leaving nothing but a few drops of blood and fragmented chalk lines that look for all the world like wild chalkling attacks. But those beasts are confined to the isle of Nebrask, nowhere near New Britannia... or are they? As Joel digs deeper, he unearths a mystery with roots deep in the origins of Rithmatics - and a danger older than the United Isles themselves.

REVIEW: It's been a while since I devoured a book like I did The Rithmatist. Sanderson sets up a great world, a fragmented "gearpunk" alternate history that re-imagines not only North America but the whole early 20th century, as well as an interesting magic system that's as much about mathematics as it is power, even as it sets up political, religious, and cultural tensions. Joel makes for a clever, driven protagonist, but he's not without his blind spots and flaws. As a sidekick, he picks up Melody, a girl who represents many things Joel wants - particularly wealth and the Rithmatic ability - alongside a melodramatic streak. The two hardly hit it off as quickly as many young adult heroes, but they make a decently balanced team. A host of other characters turn up, many of them adults, but none of them deliberately obtuse or as foolish as grown-ups can be in novels with underage main characters. Joel doesn't get things right all the time, and he makes some serious missteps in his pursuit of the abductor's identity and ultimate plot. Along the way, naturally, he does some much-needed growing up. The story ticks along like a well-wound clock, building to a tense climax with an interesting, unexpected twist. There's every indication of at least one more book in the series, and some of the ideas almost needed more exploration, though most of the tale is resolved here. Given how it pulled me in to a day-long reading binge (even keeping me up late on a work night), and the overall imagination level, I give it top marks.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
The Paper Magician (Charlie N. Holmberg) - My Review
The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Animal Wise (Virginia Morell)

Animal Wise
Virginia Morell
Broadway Books
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The family dog that seems to know when its "people" are upset, the dolphin that appears to act to save a drowning human, the elephants that visit the bones of their dead... people throughout the centuries have wondered about animal minds, reporting observations hinting at surprising abilities and perceptions. For many years, modern science dismissed the notion that any species beyond Homo Sapiens experienced thoughts or emotions, or even processed sensations like pleasure or pain, viewing them as organic machines hardwired by instinct and genetics. Since the early twenty-first century, many scientific breakthroughs have challenged this notion, with new evidence that humans are not the only thinking, feeling creatures on this planet. The author visits scientists in the field and in laboratories around the world as they explore the intellectual and emotional worlds of all manner of animals, from fish and ants to dolphins and chimpanzees.

REVIEW: I often see articles praising the purity of the modern scientific process, how purely objective and free of prejudice these highly-trained professionals are in pursuit of truth and knowledge... articles that conveniently omit the very human blind spots such as the ones revealed here, where even the mere whisper of the idea that animals might think or feel would be met with harsh professional criticism and dismissal until fairly recently, prejudices carried over from nonscientific cultural ideas and popular philosophies, not to mention the very species-centric idea that, since animals cannot speak human languages to explain their worlds, it's pointless to even ask questions about their perceptions. Even so prominent and respected a researcher as Jane Goodall faced opposition when speaking of chimpanzees as individuals and not subjects. (The idea of animal minds and intelligence wasn't necessarily helped by some enthusiastic researchers such as John C. Lilly, who in the 1960's declared that dolphins spoke a distinct language and carried oral histories dating back millions of years... "evidence" possibly influenced by the LSD he occasionally dosed his subjects with. These claims, unfortunately, overshadowed other, legitimate research and discoveries, tainting the subject matter for decades to come.) New thinking and experiments, not to mention brain-scanning techniques and other technological advances, have allowed us to finally begin asking those questions, and the results are little short of astonishing. From ants little larger than a printed hyphen who appear capable of teaching to the surprisingly complex social lives of wild dolphins, from the remarkable long-term memories of elephant matriarchs to the genetic roots of joy as demonstrated by lab rats, even to the mental and behavioral changes that transformed the wary wolf into today's dogs, Morell explores all manner of unexpected discoveries, as well as offering insights into the people stepping up to ask the questions so long ignored by the scientific world. Each one raises more questions about our own place in the natural world: for instance, with new evidence of how fish experience stress and pain, perhaps new methods of fish farming are called for, to benefit both the animal and the humans who rely on them for food.
There are, predictably, still those who resist the idea of animals as anything more than self-replicating automatons - that humans alone have been blessed with self-awareness and emotions. The more that is revealed about the wonders of the animal minds, the more proud we humans should be to consider ourselves their kin... and the more seriously we should take our responsibilities, as the species whose actions seem to have the greatest planetary impact.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Bill Nye) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review
Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter) - My Review

Friday, October 30, 2015

October Site Update

The previous three reviews have been archived and cross-linked at the main site.

Hopefully, I'll get more reading time in November...


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass)

The Fire in Fiction
Donald Maass
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: What is it that lifts some stories above others, both in the bestseller lists and the slush piles? How can a thriller fail to thrill while the tale of an average housewife keep us riveted? Theme, structure, story arcs... those technical tools make for a competent manuscript, but something else is needed to make it more than the sum of its parts, to make agents or readers sit up and take notice. That something is you, the fire you bring to your stories - a fire that's too often missing. In this book, noted agent Donald Maass explains how to turn flat prose into something dynamic, and possibly turn the next form-letter rejection into an acceptance.

REVIEW: As the title and description indicate, this book is aimed at intermediate writers, those who know the basics of storytelling and plot structure but need some help polishing their prose, adding the sizzle to attract agents and/or readers. From how to create interesting characters to developing dynamic worlds, from fixing the often-flabby "muddle in the middle" to the secrets of truly amusing humor, Maass offers examples from many genres, ending each chapter with exercises for the reader to try with their own stories. Since my current monstrosity-in-editing is a short story, I couldn't quite find an exercise that fit (likely a failing on my part), but they looked interesting and potentially helpful. On the whole, it's a good read, even if it made me terribly mindful of just how far I am from producing anything like a salable story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Writing Tools (Roy Peter Clark) - My Review
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass) - My Review
Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) - My Review

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm)

Boston Jane: An Adventure
(The Boston Jane series, Book 1)
Jennifer L. Holm
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Miss Jane Peck's life in mid-1800's Philadelphia was a carefree one, playing with the boys in the streets and sometimes helping her doctor papa with his patients... at least, until Sally Biddle's nasty comments made her realize how little like a proper lady she was, how unlikely she was to find happiness. When her father takes on a new apprentice, handsome young William, she feels her inadequacies all the more acutely. It takes a few years of hard studies, but Jane finally seems to be getting the hang of etiquette, the importance of knowing how to serve a proper cup of tea, and the horrors of showing one's ankles in public or committing the Great Mistake of allowing a young man a kiss without a wedding ring involved. Surely, despite Sally's ongoing barbs, she's a worthy bride for a young doctor like William! Only William's decided to pursue a fortune in timber, traveling to the remote Washington Territory. Still, she has his promise in writing.
At Shoalwater Bay, after a horrific voyage full of fleas and terror and tragedy, Jane disembarks to find... nothing. No city or town, save one filthy trading post. No Society, unless a gaggle of barefoot, immodest savages and unwashed traders count. And no William - who, for some reason, has been sent by the territorial governor on an unknown assignment deeper into the wilderness. A settlement like this has no place for a lady whose chief accomplishment was winning an embroidery contest at a finishing school. What is she to do, until her would-be husband comes back? And what if he doesn't come for her at all?

REVIEW: This is a quick-reading tale of adventure and hardship and finding oneself even in the most difficult circumstances. Jane starts out terribly impressionable and obtuse, letting Sally's barbs and William's vague encouragements override her beloved father's influence and her own nature in pursuit of proper ladyship. She clings to the promise offered by her finishing school handbook, that a woman's purpose is to find happiness by making others happy, like a life raft as one catastrophe after another upends her dreams. Indeed, it takes several proverbial mule-kicks to the skull to get anything through her head, though to be fair teen girls can be exceptionally stubborn. It still was a little trying to read, though. Holm's research lends a sheen of authenticity to the challenges of frontier life, particularly her interactions with the local Chinook tribe. The story starts fairly quickly and maintains a fair degree of momentum throughout, though the ending felt a little abrupt. It only lost a half-star due to Jane's occasionally-irritating stubbornness, both at the beginning (as she resolutely ignores her Papa and vital clues related to him) and the end. I might consider reading more in the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Beyond the Western Sea: Escape from Home (Avi) - My Review
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Doon (Laurie Langdon and Carey Corp)

(A Doon novel, Book 1)
Laurie Langdon and Carey Corp
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When Veronica's boyfriend cheats on her with her school rival, she almost expects it. After all, everyone else in her life leaves her or betrays her; first her dad disappeared after succumbing to drug addiction, then her mother latches onto a creep and ignores her. Vee's only constant is Mackenna, her BFF since forever. Ken's been begging her to join her at the family cottage in Scotland for the summer - a change of scenery that Vee desperately needs. Especially since she's started hallucinating in broad daylight, visions of a blonde, kilt-clad demigod of a man beckoning her.
Mackenna's life is going just the way she wants, with an theater internship in Chicago waiting this fall. The cottage in Alloway has always been her sanctuary, home of her beloved aunt Gracie, so hopefully it'll help her best friend Vee. Unfortunately, Gracie was something of a dreamer and a storyteller, not helped by Alloway being the home of the famed Brig o' Doon, a bridge made famous in Robert Burns's poetry and the musical Brigadoon as a gateway to a magical Scottish kingdom suspended in time. With Vee on the edge of a possible mental breakdown, this may not have been the best place for a vacation... especially when she claims to find "proof" of her hallucinations in Gracie's old journals.
When the two best friends don a pair of magic rings - legacy of Gracie - and step onto the bridge, they find themselves pulled into the kingdom of Doon, a realm that only rarely touches on the real world. Here, Vee finds herself face-to-face with her Scottish vision - but he hardly welcomes her with open arms. Indeed, the girls' arrival creates little but unrest, tied to disturbing signs that Doon's ancient enemy, a coven of witches, is once more threatening their paradise.

REVIEW: This one looked to be headed for a Good rating fairly early on. Vee and Ken are believable best friends, balancing each other's moods and practically reading each other's minds after so many years together. Vee's the tortured one, with little money and a loveless home life, expecting rejection and disappointment around every corner, though Ken's not impervious to trouble and doubts herself. Likewise, the royal brothers Jamie (Vee's vision) and Duncan (who takes to Ken) have enough flaws to keep from being cardboard cutout Scottish hotties. Responsibilities and conflicting dreams, not to mention some personality conflicts that no visions could have adequately alleviated, place extra strain on the budding relationships. There's sufficient angst over these, pushing close to my personal limit but not quite crossing the line to outright tedium. Though there is common acknowledgment of "Callings" of True Love, this story actually allows for free will; being Called is not the all-powerful trump card, and sometimes things just can't work, even between "soul mates."
Doon isn't the village from the musical, but a full-blown kingdom that is not immune to the outside world so much as highly selective about what it adopts during each "Centennial" opening of the bridge (occurring once every hundred years of Earth time, but twenty-odd years apart in Doon.) With outsiders "called" to the bridge by the kingdom's Divine Protector (more on this in a bit), the end result is a more inclusive magic kingdom, with indoor plumbing and printing presses, as well as African watercolor artists and international cuisine. This, thankfully, alleviates some of the common portal-fantasy cliches, such as locals completely misunderstanding modern slang (or considering them "wizards" for knowing about electricity and gunpowder) or modern visitors looking down on the locals for not having modern conveniences. It also puts the characters on more even footing... but then there's the whole threat of the evil witches and the demands of the Divine Protector.
And here is where the story lost its fourth star, as it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not a young adult fantasy/romance revisit to Brigadoon, but a work of Christian fiction that tries to hide itself by only belatedly using the word "God." The witch is an evil hag who only exists to be evil - and, naturally, perpetuate the whole wicked witch stereotype. She's an enemy who, in a tradition that extends far beyond Christian fiction to many genres, apparently has the power to squash all the good guys like so many bugs, but would rather monologue and engage in theatrics than doing The Thing they've warped their entire existences to do. The Divine Protector seems capable of doing everything but actually defeating the evil threatening the kingdom - indeed, if It's so powerful, how the heck is Doon ever threatened by the minor, petty failings of Its two-legged tools? And the more the story goes on, especially as the climax closes in, the more the plot boils down to the power of blind faith - in other words, if evil's winning, you're just not praying hard enough, so failure's your fault for not believing. (There's also a not-so-subtle subtext that a woman can only fulfill God's will and find True Love if they're willing to give up their own dreams, and failure to do so will result in lifelong regrets.)
I liked the character interplays, and the descriptions of Doon were lovely, evoking a fairy-tale world for young adults. But the message of Faith and God grew nauseatingly blatant by the end. While I'm somewhat curious about the sequel, I don't know if I can take another story that boils down to "pray like there's no tomorrow, if you flinch you lose, but, hey, supposedly God loves you or you wouldn't be suffering to begin with."

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - My Review
Brigadoon - Amazon DVD Link

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Site Update

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


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Thousand Names (Django Wexler)

The Thousand Names
(The Shadow Campaigns series, Book 1)
Django Wexler
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Khandar, a land of scrub and desert and rustic gray-skinned natives beyond the Demon Sea, was a sleepy, out-of-the-way colony under the banner of the Vordanai, a place soldiers only went when they messed up their careers - or when they wanted to hide. Captain Marcus d'Ivoire had nothing left in his homeland save painful memories when he joined up with the Colonials. It was a quiet place, aside from the odd raider strike... until the flames of the Redeemer swept the Khandarai people into a nationalist fervor, rising up to drive out the pale-skinned invaders. Gone soft from years of lax discipline, it was all the soldiers could do to flee the capital and protect the worthless prince when the Vermillion Throne was overrun. Fortunately, reinforcements have finally arrived - but Colonel Janus and his boatload of green recruits might bring more trouble than relief.
Winter was just a nameless soldier in the ranks - and she was just as happy to stay in the background, hiding not only her gender but a past that haunts her nightmares. Tormented by a cruel sergeant and his cronies, she learned long ago to keep her mouth shut and her head down... so it didn't help when she found herself unexpectedly promoted to fill a void when the Colonial outpost was flooded with new soldiers from the homeland. Despite her reluctance, she has no choice but to step up to her new responsibilities if she means to keep herself and her new charges in one piece against the Redeemers.
With the eccentric, inscrutable Janus at their head, the once-undisciplined Old Colonials and the untested new recruits find themselves on the march to reclaim the Vermilion Throne... but the colonel has a hidden agenda in his relentless, borderline reckless plan to reach the Khandarai capital - a plan that draws Marcus and Winter and the whole Vordanai army into heretical powers straight out of legend, powers that could tip the balance in not only the war for Khandar, but the entire world.

REVIEW: This was an impulse purchase during a recent bookstore run, based mostly on a favorable impression of the author at a con I attended some months ago. Though billed as a flintlock fantasy, there's little magic in the story (save the prologue) for quite some time. It's more about the characters and the military campaign as seen by different viewpoints, from rank soldier to captain to rebel. Battle tactics become more personal when seen from the ground, so to speak, where unpredictable enemies and flaws within one's comrades (or oneself) can affect the outcome. Wexler's research into historical warfare shows in the details lavished on these scenes, from the effectiveness of battle formations to the sounds of artillery striking stone walls - or flesh. While this was well written enough to hold my interest, I grew a little itchy for the promised fantasy portion of the tale to kick in. It finally makes an appearance round about the halfway point; from there, it builds as a background glow until it finally dominates the climax of the tale. This world's magic is no simple or lightweight thing; it's a deep, mysterious force, dangerous enough to the public (and the caster) that one can easily see why some churches of the world branded it demon-worship. The characters were decently drawn, though I admit the secondary ones sometimes faded into a swirling sea of names. As for the world, I found it reasonably intriguing, though the idea of rustic religious fanatics of a desert region rising up under an extremist banner against the pale-skinned outsiders nudged a little close to a Line, given world events. Overall, though, I enjoyed it enough to consider reading Book 2 - enough of a success that, despite some prolonged battle sequences and a touch more testosterone than I usually care to wade through, it earns a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) - My Review
The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley) - My Review
Sword-Dancer (Jennifer Roberson) - My Review

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hounded (Kevin Hearne)

(The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book 1)
Kevin Hearne
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: To his neighbors in the college town of Tempe, Arizona, Atticus looks like a typical student, a mild-mannered young man with an Irish Wolfhound and a New Age bookshop. In truth, he's the last living Druid, using his earthbound powers and extensive knowledge (not to mention a large smattering of the luck of the Irish) to endure through the ages. In a life that long, one's bound to pick up a few enemies... and one of those enemies, the Irish god Aenghus Og, has picked up his trail. Centuries ago, Atticus "happened upon" a powerful sword that Aenghus covets - a sword he now wants back. Witches, goddesses, giant Fir Bolg assassins in the streets of Tempe... has this Druid's luck finally run out?

REVIEW: This promised to be a light, fast read with a little wit and a lot of magic. Unfortunately, it felt a little too lightweight. I never really got into Atticus as a hero, nor did I buy the voice of his Irish Wolfhound sidekick Oberon; the dog thought and talked too much like a shaggy-coated human. For that matter, I didn't care for most of the characters, even the bit players, but I guess I wasn't really supposed to. Hearne's magic users, Fae, and gods and goddesses are not the modern, sanitized versions many are familiar with. They are powerful beings with strange moralities, when they display a recognizable moral compass at all. Even Atticus, having become something of a power himself, feels superior to the short-lived mortals and their laws. The story has plenty of magic and fighting and intrigue, but my dislike of the characters kept me largely detached from the action. As for the humor, it felt a little threadbare, material many people have milked in urban fantasies many times. In the end, while it wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't my kind of story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Death Warmed Over (Kevin J. Anderson) - My Review
The Very Best of Charles de Lint (Charles de Lint) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review

Monday, September 21, 2015

Trials of Artemis (Sue London)

Trials of Artemis
(The Haberdashers series, Book 1)
Sue London
Graythorn Publishing
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: At the end of the eighteenth century, three English girls form their own secret society: the Haberdashers, a "boys club" where they can pursue such unfeminine interests as fencing, racing, and archery. Grown to women in the Regency era, they must now navigate a world of balls and prospective husbands... but a Haberdasher girl will never be an ordinary fainting flower of a society girl, and woe to the suitor who expects them to become one.
Jacqueline, or Jack to her friends, has no interest in marriage. A bride is property, with no say in her own welfare, no money or recourse on her own. She would much rather slip off to the library to read Greek plays than dance and flirt - which is how she inadvertently met Gideon, the Earl of Harrington. And how she found herself suddenly affianced to a man she doesn't even know.
Gideon Wolfe meant to meet a mistress for a rendezvous in the library... but the girl he snuck up on, and was caught in a compromising position with, was a total stranger, daughter of a lesser family. As they were seen, the best way to save face was to claim engagement. Gideon never meant to marry at all, least of all to a headstrong bluestocking, but there seems to be no graceful way out. Maybe it won't be so bad - he can ship her off to one of his distant estates, perhaps, and carry on as he has been.
From sham courtship to face-saving marriage, the two can hardly look at each other without starting a fight. But there's more than friction to the sparks that fly between them...

REVIEW: A fast-reading period romance, Trials of Artemis introduces an unconventional Regency heroine, but doesn't always quite seem to know what to do with her. Sparks fly fast and frequently between Jack and her fiance-of-convenience Gideon, who displays a rather unattractive jealous streak from quite early on, but their fate would seem clear even if this weren't a romance title. The plot often has to go out of its way to push them apart with doubts and revelations, some of which seem to be dropped in out of the blue simply to create tension. A back-burner mention of smugglers eventually comes to the forefront at a critical time, but otherwise there's not much of a story outside the slow surrender of two stubborn hearts to the power of love, and the struggle of Jack and Gideon to adapt to their new, unlooked-for partnership. Of course, being a romance, I suppose a strong plot isn't necessary so long as there's sufficient sexual tension and steam, which this tale has in fair supply. It's not a bad story, and it killed an evening, but it felt a little long as London strings their relationship out, and some of the twists seemed a little contrived. I don't know that I'll read further in the series (though the little I saw of the heroine of Book 2 definitely has me considering it.)

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