Friday, July 31, 2015

July Site Update

The previous reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.

In other news, I'm experimenting with a new site editing program; my old one was out of date, and it recently developed a glitch I can't seem to fix. So I'm trying CoffeeCup's HTML editor. If I can get the hang of the new editor, I foresee a site overhaul in the future. (So far, aside from being somewhat peeved by misleading info regarding their "free" version, it seems to work.)


Saturday, July 25, 2015

How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters (Andrew Shaffer)

How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters
Andrew Shaffer
Three Rivers Press
Fiction, Humor/Media Reference
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Sharknadoes, arachnoquakes, piranhacondas, beeclipses... unnatural disasters are no longer the stuff of fiction or made-for-TV disaster movies. Whether they're caused by genetic tampering, climate change, environmental damage, or ancient curses hardly matters - surviving is all that counts when it's you staring down a boaricane or outrunning a Mongolian death worm. This book gathers advice from those hardy (or foolhardy) souls who have faced unnatural dangers and lived to tell the tale... or at least died in instructive manners. Shaffer includes advice from renowned sharknado survivors Fin Shephard and April Wexler.

REVIEW: This straight-faced companion to SyFy's slew of original monster movies (actually featured in a cameo during Sharknado 2) offers hilarious survival advice for those of us trapped in a world gone mad. Monsters and disasters are rated based on probability of occurrence, danger level, and a special Fin Shephard "WTF" scale of weirdness, not to mention a handy guide to those most at risk from any given incident. I haven't seen most of these wonders, but I've seen enough B-grade monster flicks to laugh right along. (I can't deny that a small part of me still weeps to see how the former SciFi Channel has fallen from a station dedicated to sense-of-wonder science fiction and fantasy to a schlock film factory and WWE outlet.) For being just what it claimed to be, and for inducing many laugh-out-loud moments, I'm giving this light, fast read a top rating. No, it's not deep, hard science, but it doesn't claim to be. (And, judging from sharktopuses, pteracudas, and robocrocs, all created by scientists meddling in things they couldn't ultimately control, maybe hard science is overrated, anyway...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Field Guide to the Apocalypse (Meghann Marco) - My Review
Time Travel Dinosaur (Matt Youngmark) - My Review
RiffTrax Live: Sharknado - Amazon streaming link

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Just In Time Cowboy (Jillie Rivers)

Just In Time Cowboy
(The Lost Mine series, Book 1)
Jillie Rivers
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 2014, Kelsey Winter came to Mule Stop, Wyoming to help turn around an unproductive mine recently acquired by her employer, Great Northern Mining. Success here will mean her own plant to operate on her next assignment. Unfortunately, the former owner is doing his level best to sabotage her, which is why she found herself there on one fateful summer day trying once again to clean up his mistakes. Then the storm hit - and a bolt of lightning takes Kelsey straight in the heart.
In 1892, Peter Jackson is nearing the end of two years of freedom. All his life, he dreamed of living his own life on the range... but he has a duty to his father, to continue the family banking dynasty by marrying one of the frilly-dressed proper ladies of New York City. If his latest strike turns out to be a mother lode, maybe he can buy a few more months of liberty. He's on his way back to the town of Mule Stop when a rogue storm drops a dust devil straight in his path. When it clears, he finds a beautiful stranger sprawled in the blast zone.
Kelsey cannot believe she's fallen back in time. It must be a dream of some sort, a trauma-induced hallucination. But it all seem so real - especially the too-tempting stranger in the cowboy hat, Pete, who finds her on the open prairie where Great Northern's plant parking lot should be. She just got through a bad break-up with another man when her heart overrode her head, so the last thing she needs is to fall for a man from the wrong century, one who may just be a figment of her imagination anyway. She has to return home... but the only way may be to fulfill a Sioux prophecy about a "Wise One" from the future, a prophecy she just can't believe is about her.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I was in the mood for something light, so a time-travel romance seemed to fit the bill. This one starts out a little clunky, forcing character descriptions and information down my throat as it presents the usual suspects of the genre: a gorgeous green-eyed lady with trust issues, an unreasonably handsome cowboy hiding family secrets, and a contrivance to throw them together with just enough questions to keep them from clawing each other's clothes off at first sight, not to mention a slew of supporting stock characters who help or hinder the would-be lovers. This includes such awkward phrases as "the travel and adventures in which Pete indulged his taste for adventure", which made my inner editor cringe. Slowly, despite a few stereotypes, the tale comes together and builds some momentum, though the lengths to which Rivers goes in order to incite and inflame Kelsey's distrust of Peter (not to mention relapses in her belief about time travel) had me grinding my teeth more than once. When a simple conversation - one Pete refuses to initiate and Kelsey refuses to listen to - would resolve a matter that stretches out for a good percentage of the story, I find it annoying, not to mention an overused tactic, particularly in romances, to delay the inevitable. A subplot with an outlaw gang whose leader has a bone to pick with Pete feels drawn out and occasionally forced, as does one involving a lovelorn town girl convinced that she, not Kelsey, is destined to be the future Mrs. Jackson. Despite that, it eventually builds to a reasonably tense climax and a nice resolution - though, in retrospect and without spoilers, some elements don't quite fit the "rules" established earlier. But for the issues I mentioned, it wound up fairly close to a Good rating, but those problems managed to hold it back.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Time Treasure (Sheila Raye) - My Review

Friday, July 17, 2015

Winged Fantasy (Brenda Lyons)

Winged Fantasy
Brenda Lyons
Nonfiction, Art
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons, gryphons, phoenixes, pegasi... since antiquity, fabulous creatures have flown across the skies of our imagination. Here, artist Brenda Lyons offers tips on creating your own magical winged beasts and bringing them to life with watercolor paints.

REVIEW: I've seen Lyons's work online for some time, and have long been a fan of her gryphons, so I was thrilled to finally find her work in an art book. She excels at describing different wing structures, particularly the lay of feathers (always tricky), and her examples offer detailed painting instructions. It is, however, more of a painting book than a drawing book; her exercises start with detailed line drawings already on the paper, often with little hint as to how to replicate them for the artist trying to follow along. Lyons also skimps on anatomy, particularly bone structure (save the wings) and musculature (vaguely mentioned, but never discussed in detail or diagrammed.) These are pretty big gaps for a book trying to teach the art of constructing convincing fabulous beasts. Indeed, some of her critters looked a bit cartoonish, particularly around the faces, due to iffy underlying anatomy. What dropped this one to a flat Okay rating, though, was the "extras" - at several points, Lyons instructs me to go to a page on the Impact Books website for "additional information." This information, however, is only available if you enter your e-mail address. Do I really need more spam just for a little elaboration on her lessons? It's disappointing to see art books going the way of computer games and so much else in the world, where paying for content mostly only buys you the opportunity to pay for more content, even if the "payment" is just in more advertising being slung at you. Overall, this isn't a bad introduction to the subject, but I've seen more detailed books on fantasy creatures - including ones with more thorough instructions - on the shelves. (I still love her gryphons, though...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book (Gary A. Lippincott) - My Review
DragonArt (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer) - My Review

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West (Chris Enss)

Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West
Chris Enss
Nonfiction, History
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In 19th century America, many a starry-eyed man headed westward in search of gold, land, or simply a new start. Women headed west, too - not all of them prim and proper wives. Among the few opportunities for ladies were the card tables and the brothel... and, here, some managed to parlay poor circumstances into remarkable fortunes and legendary reputations. This book gathers tales of many "wicked" women of the Old West, from familiar names like Calamity Jane and Belle Starr to more obscure figures.

REVIEW: This looked like an interesting read, not to mention good story-sparking fodder. As promised, Enss offers profiles of many ladies of ill-repute. However, the quality of the articles varies wildly; some are fairly coherent histories, while others are merely thin sketches, with so little actual information on the woman in question that one wonders why Enss included them at all. He also tries a little too hard in places, most notably when he tries to set the scene at the start of each article - his strong suit is research, not prose. The stories often bleed together, though some few tales are unique enough to stand out in the memory. Overall, it's a decent look at a part of American history (and women's history) that classrooms often overlook, but little more than that.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West (Candy Moulton) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review
Insubordinate Spirit (Missy Wolfe) - My Review

Monday, July 13, 2015

Bound to the Bachelor (Sarah Mayberry)

Bound to the Bachelor
(The Bachelor Auction series, Book 1)
Sarah Mayberry
Tule Publishing
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since Lily arrived in Marietta, Montana, she's fought rumors about her checkered past as a stripper and a mutual dislike with ex-Marine Beau. Despite him being the brother of her best friend and former across-the-hall neighbor Andie, she'd just as soon never be in the same room with the cocky security expert. But she needs one more man for her bachelor auction, a fundraiser for her recently-crippled godson, and a man with Beau's good looks ought to rake in some serious dough even in conservative Marietta.
Beau wanted to say no when Lily turned up at his office. Sure, the woman helped Andie through a rough period and helped her find the love of her life, but something about Lily just makes him uncomfortable. Lily's nothing if not persistent, and she has a way of hitting his buttons. Though he's sworn off the idea of a serious relationship, focusing on his growing private security business, one silly little date won't hurt him. It's for a good cause, after all. And it's not like Lily herself would bid on him.
When Lily receives an inheritance from her late abusive stepfather the day of the auction, she wants nothing to do with his money. On an impulse, she throws it away on a bachelor... on Beau. It wasn't supposed to be a for-real date; she just wanted to give the money to her godson and his mother, and she knew they wouldn't take the ten grand if she handed it to them directly. But Beau insists on following through on his end of the bargain. It isn't long before they realize that their mutual dislike isn't hate at all, but something much more dangerous...

REVIEW: I needed a palate-cleanser after the last book I read, so a nice straightforward romance fit the bill. This one ticks off the standard genre checklist: an ex-stripper with a heart of gold and traumatic past, a hunky lone wolf bachelor who never lost his heart before, sizzling sexual tension from the first page, and a crisis to bind them together. Lily makes a spunky heroine who finds a good match in Beau, whose protective instincts come in handy more than once... though he ultimately does more to empower her than physically protect her. As with most romances I've read, there's some sexist luggage lurking in the story: Lily's basically a secretary, after all, and Beau's past and job are about as alpha male as one can get without actually being a wolf. Despite that, the story moves nicely and the writing's smooth, with a decent heat level and some lively, zinger-filled dialog. If the overall story arc's a bit predictable, well, it is a romance, after all. In a lousier mood, I might have clipped a half star for the sexism and a little predictability, but I wanted a straightforward book that delivered on its promises, and Bound to the Bachelor does that.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wedding Trap (Adrienne Bell) - My Review
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Alchemyst (Michael Scott)

The Alchemyst
(The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series, Book 1)
Michael Scott
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Fifteen-year-old twins Josh and Sophie never expected their summer jobs to change their lives forever. But when a strange man and his unnatural brutes destroy the bookshop where Josh works - right across the road from Sophie's coffee shop gig - their whole world turns upside-down. The bookshop owner isn't just an eccentric middle-aged man, but Nicholas Flamel, a medieval French alchemist kept alive by a secret elixir in a long-lost Codex. The attacker was none other than Dr. Dee, famed astrologist and magician to Elizabeth I, whose Dark Elder masters have long sought Flamel's Codex for their own purposes. During the strike, Dee snatches the Codex... but Josh manages to hold on to two important pages. Now he and Sophie are on the run from Dee's allies and minions, accompanied by Flamel and the warrior vampire Scathach. Along the way, they learn more than they ever wanted to know about magic, Elders, and more - not to mention their own grim place in a prophecy at least as old as humanity itself.

REVIEW: I've read recommendations for this series from many sources, so I finally decided to give it a try. The story starts out with potential and very little lag time before events pick up... a breakneck momentum that carries throughout much the story almost to the point of numbness. However, there are breaks now and again - including entire chapters that seem to exist merely to relate backstory infodumps. Scott tends to repeat himself, sometimes within a few paragraphs, as though not trusting the reader to learn things the first time around. Perhaps by extension, Sophie and Josh prove singularly dense about their changed circumstances. Over halfway through the book, having seen and touched and even smelled magic in many undeniable forms (including a face-to-face encounter with the Elder Hecate, inspiration for the goddess cult, and her home in a great tree grown from the seed of the Norse world-tree Yggdrasil), and having been in enough danger to know that they're in way over their heads and need protection... still the twins are looking for the "hidden cameras" and decide their best option is to run away - in a move that does little but highlight their own stupidity. At this point, I honestly almost put the book down. Between Scott cramming just about every myth, magical tradition, and urban legend into the narrative and these two dimwits, not to mention having half a hundred new creatures and powers and Elders and such thrown at me ever ten pages or so, I was just about burned out - not just on this book, but on contemporary young adult fantasies as a whole. Nevertheless, I pressed on, only to find that my guesses about the direction the plot was headed mostly played out as I expected. (There's also a subtle sexist vibe here, despite Scathach, with Josh doing all the driving and being the brawn rather than the brains, and Sophie needing special protection, not to mention Flamel's immortal wife Perenelle being captured early on and remaining largely helpless through the book.) I finished with a sense of exhaustion rather than anticipation over future installments; that burnt-out feeling, brought on by the writing style and obtuseness of certain characters, is what dropped this one a half-star below a flat Okay rating. Some elements were imaginative, but the whole just became too numbing, trying to throw too much at the reader too fast (often with little reward, as a good deal simply got overwhelmed in the general rush), then repeating itself for good measure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Everworld: Search for Senna (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) - My Review

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Boy Who Cried Ninja (Alex Latimer)

The Boy Who Cried Ninja
Alex Latimer
Peachtree Publishers
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When a ninja steals the last slice of cake, Tim tells his mother, but she doesn't believe him. He gets sent to the yard to rake leaves and think about what he's done - but all he's done is tell the truth! The next time something strange happens - the sunburned alligator parachuting onto the roof and snapping the TV antenna - Tim lies and says he did it himself, but that just gets him in even more trouble. How can he convince anyone to believe him?

REVIEW: We had more down time at work, so I read this one while waiting for things to pick up again. It's a silly little story about truth and lies and proving you're right even when everyone else thinks you're wrong. (I could almost imagine a young Fox Mulder in Tim's place.) The pictures are bright and fun. It's a nice, light read that made me smile.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Night of the Gargoyles (Eve Bunting) - My Review
The Skull of Truth (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Dan Santat) - My Review

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Meet the Dullards (Sara Pennypacker)

Meet the Dullards
Sara Pennypacker, illustrations by Daniel Salmieri
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Mr. and Mrs. Dullard have gone out of their way to raise their three children in the safest, most boring manner possible... but then they discover the kids reading exciting books about the circus - and even, horror of horrors, wanting to play outside and go to school! Fearing the neighborhood has become too exciting, they move to a newer, even duller town - but can they protect Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud?

REVIEW: Another quick read during down time at work. This is a fun jab at overprotective parenting; the Dullards give their children blank paper to read instead of books, demand the paint store mix an even duller color than gray or beige, and realize the neighborhood's become too hectic when they see a snail crossing the driveway. No matter how hard they try, though, it seems the kids find ways to rebel. One can only wish all children of such parents could find the escape that the little Dullards eventually discover...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children Make Terrible Pets (Peter Brown) - My Review
Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan) - My Review
Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct (Mo Willems) - My Review

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt)

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt
Fiction, Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Eli and Charlie Sisters have built a decent reputation as despicable men. Employed by the Commodore out of Oregon City, they travel the rough Western frontier dealing with various problems on the man's behalf - usually with bullets. When they're sent to San Francisco to eliminate an eccentric prospector, it seems like any other job - but Eli's getting tired of this life he never asked for. He starts to question his lawless existence... and a gunman who starts asking questions is a gunman digging his own grave.

REVIEW: This isn't so much a straight Western as it is a somewhat surreal examination of crushed dreams and hopeless dreamers, violent lives and inevitable deaths, and the bonds of love and hate. Black humor and red gore drip from nearly every page. The frontier of the Sisters brothers isn't the promising dream of a new life or the jarring clash of cultures that often appears in other Westerns, but a corrupt and hopeless folly riddled with the corpses of fools, a place that rewards both failure and success with impersonal torment and death, a trap from which only the lucky or the morally bankrupt few escape. Many peculiar characters, often doomed, cross Eli's path, each in their own way acting as guideposts as he navigates the unfamiliar trail toward redemption after many years of simply riding in his brother's wake. As repulsive as some of the episodes could be, and as meandering as the narrative often grew, there was something oddly compelling about it, moments of profound truth and beauty that kept me reading and wanting Eli to succeed, even when it seemed impossible. One review compared it to the Coen brothers film Fargo, and that honestly is about the best comparison I can come up with: a somewhat quirky, often darkly comic examination of good and evil, where violence doesn't need a reason and good people can be caught up in terrible events by a simple turn of indifferent fate. Ultimately, it just squeaked over the line to four stars.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Belfast (Stuart Neville) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I.J. Parnham) - My Review
Fargo: Special Edition - Amazon DVD link