Saturday, February 28, 2015

February Site Update

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


Friday, February 27, 2015

When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak)

When Lightning Strikes
(The Whiskey Creek series, Book 1)
Brenda Novak
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Gail DeMarco, the small-town girl from Whiskey Creek who made good as a PR agent in Los Angeles, may just have gone bust overnight. Her most lucrative (and most difficult) client, the notoriously out-of-control actor Simon O'Neal, took his business elsewhere... and spread the word that everyone else ought to do the same. Anybody who is anybody - or who ever hopes to be anybody - follows O'Neal's lead in this town. If she can't smooth things over with the man, she'll go bankrupt in a matter of months, and she has too many employees depending on her to give up.
Simon O'Neal may be top dog at the box office, but his life off-screen is crashing and burning. Ever since his disastrous marriage ended, leading to a bitter custody battle in which his ex-wife has pulled every dirty trick in the book (and then some), he's been running from bottle to bed to barroom brawl in a slow-motion disaster - and with paparazzi documenting his every misstep, proving himself a fit parent to his only son is nigh impossible. His depression borders on suicidal, his heart's been shattered beyond repair, and his antics are about to cost him the only thing he has left, his career. Unfortunately, he just parted ways with the only PR agent in town who was willing to tell him when he was crossing the line... even though he knew she was right.
Gail needs to save her PR firm. Simon needs a new image. The answer for both: marriage.
It's all an audacious publicity stunt. Show the world that Simon O'Neal is finally settling down with a straight-laced woman, and not only will he be able to use it in court with his ex, but Gail and her firm will benefit from the publicity. Just two years ought to do the trick. But things go wrong almost from the start... leaving Gail no choice but to up the stakes and remove Simon from the public eye until he can pull himself together. He needs somewhere quiet, somewhere stable, without the temptation of glitz and glamor and the constant glare of flashbulbs in his face. Where better - or worse - than her small home town of Whiskey Creek?

REVIEW: Like most romances, this is largely an escapist fantasy. Gail's the hard-working, no-nonsense "Plain Jane" who has devoted herself so completely to her work and pleasing her authoritarian father that she's neglected her softer, sensual side. Simon is (literally) the movie star, the hot and famous masculine man whose looks and money hide a deeply wounded heart... a heart that, naturally, only one woman can heal. They enter into their little bargain on barely civil terms, though there are hints of sparks behind every clash. It isn't long before their fake marriage is threatened by real feelings, which might destroy more than the paparazzi and corrosive Hollywood atmosphere combined. Gail can't believe a man like Simon could ever love someone like her, while Simon has trouble reconciling his own emotions with his bitterness over love in general. Though things start out a bit stilted, with Gail having to eat crow and apologize to Simon, the two actually find themselves on fairly even footing in their (at first) scripted relationship. Aside from their own issues, other threats of varying degrees, from Gail's distrustful family and her old flame to Simon's manipulative business manager and washed-up actor father (who played a significant role in the breakup of Simon's marriage), emerge along the way. Being a romance, there were several givens about the story, but it played out decently nonetheless, and I came to care about the characters. It read quickly and provided just what it promised: a little romantic escape to a small town where happily-ever-afters are still possible.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wicked Games (Jessica Clare) - My Review
Shelly's Second Chance (L B Gshwandtner) - My Review
Time Treasure (Shelia Raye) - My Review

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow)

The Ghosts of Evolution
Connie Barlow
Basic Books
Nonfiction, Science
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In ages past, the world was a vastly different place. Giant ground sloths and mammoths roamed the Americas. Immense flightless birds roamed New Zealand. These megafauna may have vanished, but their ghosts remain, in plants that still grow mammoth-sized fruits or sprout in moa-deterring thickets, unaware that their partners of millions of years aren't returning. From the long, sugar-rich pods of the honey locust to the peculiar Osage orange, from the devil's claw of the American deserts to the stubborn single remaining species of ginkgo - whose carrion-stench fruits may once have lured dinosaurs - the author examines a host of anachronistic plants around the world, and what they can teach us about our planet's past... not to mention their warnings about our increasingly dire, ecologically devastated future.

REVIEW: This book grabbed me with an interesting concept and readily-observed examples of anachronisms: plants which are overbuilt for current conditions, whose fruits fail and rot far more often than today's ill-suited animal distribution system can spread them, who spend large amounts of energy defending against browsers which no longer are in evidence. The author even mentioned my home town when talking about honey locusts, who have persisted and spread mostly through human intervention: their resistance to pollution makes them ideal urban trees. It's easy to forget that more than just animal life has changed in the course of Earth's history; plants, too, have been emerging, evolving, and passing into extinction, if often with far less fanfare. Thirteen thousand years is less than a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms, far too little time for the Osage orange to re-evaluate a fruit that is too big for extant native gullets in its habitat or the Kentucky coffee tree to consider courting modern seed distributors. Barlow's vision of extinct megafauna serving those purposes is compelling and convincing - as is the warning of what will happen to our wildlands in the future, with increasing rates of animal extinction directly affecting the plants and habitats where they lived. The book, however, tends to meander, wading through many scientific names (not to mention many names of scientists) and competing research papers that failed to interest me as an armchair observer. The section on different animal digestive processes - foregut versus hindgut, and what it means in terms of diet and seed distribution - glazed my eyes terribly. It builds to talk of plans to "rewild" the planet, more specifically the American continents, which suffered perhaps the worst ecological devastation after the last ice age with the loss of native horses and camels (who both evolved here before spreading to their current homes), not to mention the mammoths - which some would suggest "replacing" with elephants. Even if humans could be convinced to sacrifice so much land for such a long-term experiment of minimal personal profit, I do have to wonder if modern species of megafauna, particularly elephants, are sufficient proxies for lost mammoths and mastodons to "restore" the New World to "original" conditions. (This also presupposes that there is a magic "original" condition to be returned to; humans may be today's most significant and detrimental factor in environmental diversity, but other factors were, and are, at work, constantly reshaping the land. Just fencing off a given area and throwing nonnative species that seem "close enough" to what used to live there tens of thousands of years ago - especially when the West has enough trouble re-establishing recently extinct species like wolves and condors - and expecting things to return to "normal" seems more like a fanciful dream than a realistic goal... but I digress.) Ultimately, while this is a thought-provoking book, I wound up clipping it a half-star for the scientific name overload and a sense of repetition in the middle bits.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A SURVIVAL GUIDE: Living with Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period (Dougal Dixon) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Carico Trails (Nan C. Ballard)

Carico Trails
(A Beyonders novel, Volume 1)
Nan C. Ballard
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Generations after humanity spread across the stars, the spirit of Earth's Old West survives on the remote colony world of Carico. Here, Seth Reilly lives the cowboy life, training horses and herding native tarbh across the arid alien landscape. Called back to the family homestead, Seth only intended to stick around long enough to help out while his sister pursued an education in the distant city of Portside... but then he met Anni. An offworlder city girl fresh to the frontier town of Outer Rim, she immediately and unexpectedly ropes his wandering heart - but there couldn't be a worse time for Seth to fall in love. Jerdix, an ex-con that Seth's marshal father helped pursue two decades ago, has come back looking for vengeance, and Anni's involved up to her captivating brown-gold eyes. Even with offworld law scrutinizing Jerdix's every move, nobody can anticipate the depths of the man's depravity and hatred, nor the lengths to which he'll go to destroy the Reillys and the town of Outer Rim... lengths that could shatter Seth Reilly's heart and mind forever.

REVIEW: Ballard sets up a promising story with a clever cross-genre concept. The sci-fi elements influence the tale, making this more than just a Western with a futuristic paint job. Carico feels both comfortably familiar and intriguingly alien, with ranchers and horses mingling with strange creatures and peculiar plant life, and even in the frontier town of Outer Rim hints of high tech linger in the colonists' daily lives. Unfortunately, Ballard sabotages herself in two ways. First off, the Amazon blurb gives away plot elements that don't turn up until halfway (or, in one case, roughly two-thirds of the way) through the story. Partly as a consequence of this, but also on its own merit, the story feels unnecessarily slow, taking its own sweet time setting things up and introducing a host of peripheral characters before tearing them apart, only to slowly wade through the aftermath as it drives home the trauma in exhaustive, tedious detail. The second problem comes from grafting one-dimensional stock Western characters into a story that wants to be a deeper psychological exploration of severe post-traumatic stress... at least for Seth. (Anni, despite enduring multiple rapes, gets off fairly light on the psychological fallout for most of the tale - turning her violations into cheap plot devices compared to the struggles faced by Seth.) Jerdix in particular is more evil than humanly possible, a man so focused on inflicting pain and terror that it's hard to imagine him being the interplanetary criminal mastermind that he's supposed to be. While I liked parts of what I read here, I got tired of the characters and the stretched-out feeling of the plot.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review
A Partner in Crime (Bonnie Watson) - My Review

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter)

Last Ape Standing
Chip Walter
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In many respects - our upright stature, our prolonged childhood, our capacity for symbolic thought and language - humans seem to be alone among animals on Earth, but the fossil record tells us it wasn't always so. In addition to our direct ancestors, a veritable explosion of upright-walking hominins once roamed the world. What were they like? What was different about us? How did we outlast them? Author Chip Walter explores our evolution and prehistory, and offers a glimpse into our potential future as Earth's most successful and self-destructive species ever.

REVIEW: Like most people, I've heard of Lucy and Neanderthals and the New Zealand "hobbits", but knew little about them or how they fit in with our own story as a species. Walter explores what is known and speculated about Homo Sapiens and our lost relatives, a fascinating journey through stray fossils, artifacts, DNA, and even parasites. How much of what makes us unique, physically and psychologically, will never fully be known (barring the discovery of viable time travel), but it's amazing what can be deduced from the fragments left behind. Along the way, he debunks several popular myths, such as the grunting, stooped brute "caveman": our ancestors and relatives were all exceptionally well adapted to their environments, and Neanderthals actually had somewhat larger brains than we do. As for our future, though it looks grim, Walter implies that it's still possible for this upright-walking ape to pull off another evolutionary miracle and survive what we're doing to our world and ourselves. (If nothing else, the story of evolution is one of life overcoming immense obstacles and not only surviving, but thriving... even if we aren't around to see it.) I found it interesting and fairly accessible, even if the scientific names grew a bit thick now and again.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely) - My Review
Before Adam (Jack London) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Very Best of Charles de Lint (Charles de Lint)

The Very Best of Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint
Tachyon Publishing
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From ancient stone circles to the modern-day city streets of Newford, from mischievous bodachs to predatory vampires, the noted fantasy author Charles de Lint collects several of his best-loved stories in this volume.

REVIEW: I've heard of de Lint's work for quite some time, but never got around to reading his stuff until I found this as a free Kindle download. At first, I found it a refreshing change of pace. He draws off older ideas of myth and magic, going back to fantasy's roots in faerie lore and fireside tales long before the forces they described were relegated to childish fancies. Even in his invented city of Newford and the internet-dwelling Wordwood, elder-day forces persist in the shadows, glimpsed only by those who know how to look - or are unlucky enough to cross their paths. Many of his characters return in multiple tales, crossing paths and weaving webs of friends and adventures that bind almost every tale in this collection to the same universe. And here, unfortunately, is where I found my initial excitement waning. Story after story, it becomes less like finding a new adventure and more like realizing I've wandered into a party where everyone knows each other except me. They trade tales about mutual acquaintances and shared experiences, laughing and sighing and reminiscing, while I can only stand awkwardly at the edge of the group and wonder why I came. de Lint also locks in on certain character types and themes that, after the fourth or fifth retelling (or revisit with the same character), grow numbing. Pretty much every woman in the book has been horrifically abused, and many are or have been homeless, usually while dealing with depression and/or mental illness - but it's not so bad, because that way they can connect with Old Magicks and be Real Artists, unlike the rest of us blind pretenders. (No, this isn't quite how it's put in the stories, but there's a strong undercurrent in most of his works that sure comes across this way.) The stories themselves are well written, even if some don't quite seem to conclude and they inexplicably drift between viewpoints mid-scene, and they could evoke a certain mythic grandeur that's been sadly lacking from many of my recent reading choices. In the end, though, I just got too tired of the repeating themes and the sense of being an outsider looking in.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fifty-One Tales (Lord Dunsany) - My Review
The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (E. M. Forster) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review