Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Site Update

And now the year's officially 1/4 over... where did it all go?

I've archived and cross-linked the previous five reviews on the main site.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (William Hope Hodgson)

Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder
William Hope Hodgson
Project Gutenberg
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the early days of the 20th century, Carnacki investigates all manner of peculiar events commonly referred to as hauntings. From the terror of an over-protective family relic to a malevolent whistling room, he relates six of his adventures here.

REVIEW: Reading like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and The X-Files, Hodgson's investigator Carnacki tackles several chilling cases here. (There is another version which includes three more tales; the public domain title on Project Gutenberg, however, only has the original six.) He walks into each investigation with "open-minded skepticism," striving to rule out natural or human causes yet never neglecting the possibility of occult forces. To the latter end, he has his own arsenal of knowledge (much of it merely alluded to, in references to obscure treatises and terminology), not to mention his Electric Pentagram - a modern update of an ancient defense that saves his life at least once. Some of his cases turn out to be mundane, others diabolical, and a few mix both. Even Carnacki cannot definitively say what he witnesses, save that it extends beyond the bounds of the mundane into the murky, shadowy realms beyond. It almost lost half a point for the contrivance (somewhat common in early 20th century tales) of Carnacki relating events after the fact, this time to a group of four friends who seem to have little relationship with him other than as willing ears for his stories... which is especially irritating when he deliberately obscures information in the retelling to artificially increase the punch of the reveal at the end. Some of the conclusions also felt slightly unsatisfying in their vagueness, and his references to other cases (particularly the infamous Black Veil) made me wish Hodgson had lived to write more titles in the series. His peculiar situations and spine-tingling descriptions of the various hauntings, be they man-made or otherwise, just managed to keep this one at four stars. I'll have to see if I can track down the rest of Carnacki's adventures. (Incidentally, some digging on Amazon reveals that the longer collection is available; I linked to the six-story version, though, as that's the one I read.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God (Guy Adams) - My Review

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fantasy Creatures in Clay (Emily Coleman)

Fantasy Creatures in Clay
Emily Coleman
Nonfiction, Sculpting
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Fur, scales, wings, claws... creating fantastic animals requires mastering a variety of techniques and textures, integrating them into a single believable, interesting design. From armature to finishing touches, self-taught sculptor Emily Coleman demonstrates a variety of techniques for sculpting fantasy creatures in polymer Sculpey or oil-based Monster Clay.

REVIEW: An inspiring read, this also is not for pure beginners to polymer clays, sculpting, or art in general. Coleman doesn't offer step-by-step sculpting projects as many artist/authors do; instead, she demonstrates particular aspects of sculpting creatures, such as armatures or wing construction, that the reader/student can then apply to their own projects. A basic knowledge of form, sketching, anatomy, color theory and other general artistic concepts is assumed. With Google and other resources, such information is fairly easy to obtain (on an academic level, if not a practical one), but this book could've used a quick Recommended Reading section to help would-be fantasy sculptors who find themselves in over their head trying to follow her techniques. That issue aside, her works are quite imaginative, and she covers a wide array of topics useful for most any animal sculptor. It makes a good addition to the art bookcase, even if it's not the only clay sculpting book one will ever need.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairies, Gnomes and Trolls (Maureen Carlson) - My Review
Making and Using Working Drawings for Realistic Model Animals (Basil F. Fordham) - My Review

Monday, March 16, 2015

Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson)

Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: BioChroma, the power of Breath, can work amazing wonders or great terrors, feeding on colors - from dyed cloth to blood - to animate unliving objects. Infuse a rope with Breath, and it will pull you up a wall. Infuse a dead body, and it becomes Lifeless, an unthinking soldier that knows no pain and needs no food. Everyone is born with one Breath, and the more one gathers, the more power one has... if one ignores the cost to those who give up their one Breath to live as dull Drabs. In the jungle domain of Hallandren, on the shores of the vast Inland Sea, both color and Breath are worshipped, A court of gods - those who have spontaneously Returned from death, bereft of memories but gifted with powerful Breath - rules in the capital of T'Telir, beneath a God-King whose power and Breaths are beyond counting.
Now, old treaties demand a bride for the Hallandren God-King, the only Returned capable of siring an heir.. and that bride must come from the mountain kingdom of Idris, where bartering Breath is considered akin to dealing in souls.
All her life, Princess Vivenna was raised to fulfill the treaty, studying the ways of the sinfully ostentatious Hallandren people and their Returned-worshipping cult. But then her father sent her young sister, the irresponsible and utterly untutored Siri, in her stead. Not only will the naive girl be eaten alive in the Court of the Gods, but she's liable to get herself killed; tensions between Hallandren and Idris have always run high, but lately they're nearly at a boil, and any Idrian royalty in T'Telir is bound to be a useful hostage at best or a target at worst. As Siri struggles to adapt to life in court - surrounded by hordes of suspicious priests and indolent, scheming Returned "gods" - Vivenna slips away to rescue her... and finds herself caught up in a web of lies and danger in the streets of a city more overwhelming and complicated than any of her tutors could have prepared her for.
Lightsong the Bold is considered a god of bravery, but he doesn't feel particularly brave, or divine. Ever since the day he Returned, he has devoted himself to debunking his own divinity, deliberately doing as little as possible to fulfill his minimal duties at court and cultivating a reputation for glib flippancy. But when the new Vessel, the Idrian princess destined to bear the God-King Susebron's child, arrives, he is drawn, against his will, into the machinations of his fellows, driven by dreams of war and death consuming T'Telir.
Danger is coming to Hallandren and Idris, the threat of a conflict more deadly and more riddled with Breath-infused atrocities than even the great, world-shaking Manywar. And it seems that nobody, not royalty nor the gods Themselves, can stop it.

REVIEW: Once again, Sanderson delivers a unique, interesting magic system, building a world around the power of color and populating it with a cast of intriguing, if not always likeable, characters. The storyline grows a little convoluted, though I suspect that part of my occasional confusion was due to unintended breaks in reading the book; I wound up having to set it aside for days at a time, and it took a while after picking it up again to immerse in the world once more. My main complaint is that the ending felt too abrupt and neat, given the many threads that came together in the finale - especially as it edged into theological territory. Part of me suspects that this was intended to be a longer book, possibly a series, but that it was unnaturally cropped for unknown reasons, the rough edges given a quick polish. I also wasn't sure I totally bought one of the character's transformations by the end. Still, I enjoyed the story on the whole, and I loved the concept of BioChroma.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
Mistborn: The Final Empire (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Cinder Edna (Ellen Jackson)

Cinder Edna
Ellen Jackson, illustrations by Kevin O'Malley
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Neighbors Cinderella and Cinder Edna both have cruel stepmothers and stepsisters who make them do all the chores. While beautiful Cinderella kneels in the ashes all night and bemoans her terrible life, plain Edna refuses to give up. Then Prince Randolph announces a grand ball at the palace, inviting all the girls in the land. Can Cinder Edna make her own happily-ever-after without a fairy godmother?

REVIEW: Another slow day at work... This is a fun, timely tweaking of the Cinderella story, with a resourceful and pro-active heroine who doesn't rely on talking mice or fairy godmothers to make her life better. Instead of being helpless, Edna teaches herself new recipes and does odd jobs on the side, making up for a lack of storybook looks with an educated mind and a sharp sense of humor, not to mention a basic practicality that Cinderella lacks: penny loafers are far better dance shoes than glass slippers. I wound up clipping it a half-star for forcing the message a little hard, implying that all people in bad situations have to do is keep their chins up and it'll be golden in the end. No, whining in the ashes doesn't help, but Edna almost seems to have it too easy, brushing off hardships with a smile and a whistle. And, once again, marriage is evidently the key to a woman's validation and fulfillment. (No spoilers, as it's pretty obvious how the story ends, though Edna's future husband isn't quite who one might expect from the outset... and I loved his assessment of the plan to find a mystery woman based on a lost shoe.)
Overall, it's a nice enough story, especially for girls (and their parents) who want a little more out of a heroine than the old-fashioned helpless damsel in distress.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Paper Bag Princess (Robert N. Munsch) - My Review
Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Kevin O'Malley) - My Review
Ever After - A Cinderella Story (Amazon DVD link)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Animals Real and Imagined (Terryl Whitlatch)

Animals Real and Imagined
Terryl Whitlatch
Designstudio Press
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Lemurs, housecats, dinosaurs, unicorns... these and more creatures appear in this collection of art and sketches by noted artist Terryl Whitlatch.

REVIEW: Demonstrating a remarkable eye for reality and a vivid imagination, Terryl Whitlatch showcases a wide variety of beasts in many styles. Unlike some artists, who lock in on one "look" for their creations, she proves highly versatile, creating whimsical cartoons and surreal monsters on the same page. She talks a little about her process of creation, and several of her sketches - from her workshops and courses on creature design - have notes, but this isn't really a how-to-draw book so much as it is a gallery of her work. (Her more famous creations, though, fail to appear... likely due to copyright issues, as she's worked with Disney, George Lucas, and other prominent entertainment entities with uncompromising legal departments.) I only clipped it a half-point for feeling a little random, and many of the sketch notes were difficult to read for being too small and faint. Despite those very minor issues, it's a beautiful collection from a talented artist.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing and Painting Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
Imaginative Realism (James Gurney) - My Review
DragonArt Ultimate Gallery (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer) - My Review