Monday, February 29, 2016

February Site Update

February's 10 reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown)

The Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown
Nonfiction, History/Sports
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: 1930's America was a far cry from the bustling, prosperous country it was a mere decade before. Between the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, millions had lost their livelihoods and their homes. To succeed took an extra helping of grit. Joe Rantz was no stranger to hardship and abandonment when he came to Seattle's University of Washington, barely scraping the money together for the education he hoped would lift him from poverty and allow him to marry his sweetheart. Earning a seat on the university's lauded eight-oar rowing crew might be his only way to stay in school. But grit alone doesn't win races. It takes something more, something he long ago gave up on: trust in his fellow man, in the other boys in the boat. Little did he know that the journey beginning in the waters of Lake Washington would eventually lead him halfway around the world, to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a race no sports fan would ever forget.

REVIEW: The closest I normally come to sports is firing up my Wii; in reality, I'm about as athletically literate as a sea slug, which also is an apt simile for my athletic aptitude. Had this book not been a gift, I likely wouldn't have picked it up, despite the local interest. I soon found myself utterly absorbed. Brown deftly establishes the setting, painting a detailed picture of the 1930's Northwest and the greater world of rowing - both of which were equally alien to me. With Joe Rantz as the primary focus, the story takes on a personal aspect, demonstrating how sports in general and rowing in particular are about much more than raw strength or physical skill but the personalities and mindsets of the athletes. Other people, of course, play a large part in the almost unbelievable story of nine working-class West Coast boys rising to international stardom, each with their own tales to tell and hardships to overcome. The perfect crew isn't so much assembled as evolved, a learned synthesis that rises above individuality. Races unfold in grueling real-time, with triumphs often almost immediately upset by greater failures and obstacles. Meanwhile, the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany seizes the opportunity to present a false, friendly face to the world at large, to pacify the international stage and discount tales of oppression and murder and a re-awakening military. One sees uneasy parallels between the propaganda and spin-doctors beguiling the populace, local and foreign, in the 1930's and modern times. The whole book works as a biography, a historic narrative, and a gripping story in its own right. I'm trying to think of a downside to it, a nit to pick, but - aside from some occasional name confusion among the many peripheral players - I can't think of one. Any sports-based book that's interesting enough for someone like me to stay up late on work nights reading it earns its five stars.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand) - My Review
Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 (R. A. Scotti) - My Review

The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone)

The Habit Fix
Eileen Rose Giadone
Nonfiction, Self-Help
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: We all have bad habits, and we all mean to fix them... but somehow it doesn't happen. That vow to give up junk food or start a diet becomes one more broken promise. A determination to improve one's life falters when it's not clear where or how to begin. Author Eileen Rose Giadone has been there and done that; her failures and successes in changing habits, the countless books and articles she read and methods she tried, are distilled in this book.

REVIEW: Much of the advice Giadone offers can be found elsewhere; indeed, she cites sources and provides links to where she herself learned it all herself. What she does that others don't is sift through the mountains of self-help information out there and offer the nuggets that helped her. Instead of a full book or book series dedicated to meditation, for instance, she distills the general idea in one chapter, then offers links and suggestions for further reading. Interestingly, she starts with a chapter on the value of one's own word, how paying close attention to the promises we make is a good "keystone habit" from which others will flow. The more times we make claims and promises we can't follow through on, the more we train ourselves that our own vows mean nothing, leading not only to more self-doubt but to an automatic out for any genuine attempts at changing our lives. Overall, it's a decent little primer to self-help, a quick-reading introduction to positive changes that most people can start using right away.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Simple But Effective Strategies To Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review
10% Happier (Dan Harris) - My Review
Stop Procrastination (John Welker) - My Review

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe)

Thing Explainer
Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Nonfiction, Reference/Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The world is a complicated place, often made moreso by the complicated words used to explain it. In this illustrated guide, author Randall Munroe, creator of the popular webcomic xkcd, describes a wide variety of stuff using one thousand (or "ten hundred") of the English language's most common, simple words.

REVIEW: From the periodic table ("the pieces everything is made of") and cellular structure ("tiny bags of water you're made of") to jet engines ("sky boat pushers") and padlocks ("shape checkers"), Munroe covers a broad range of subjects of all shapes and sizes. The illustrations often have humorous little touches, adding to the fun of the overall concept. Occasionally, the simplification obscures the meaning, but it gets the general point across, and can be interesting. One flaw in the design, however, is the fold-out pages, which can be damaged by rereads and simply opening and closing the book. The fold-out diagram of a skyscraper ("sky toucher") at at the end is particularly vulnerable, for having the edges pointed in towards the spine. I'm very careful with my books, and I still have unwanted dog-ear creases here after reading it, as a simple matter of paper shifting as the book is read. (I can only imagine what library copies will endure...) All in all, it's an interesting and amusing concept, whether you're a kid just getting interested in science or a grown-up looking to understand the world a little better, but without access to an unabridged dictionary at all times.

You Might Also Enjoy:
What's That? The Oxford Visual Dictionary of Nearly Everything (John A. Pheby) - My Review
Science Made Stupid - Amazon book link

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tuesdays at the Castle (Jessica Day George)

Tuesdays at the Castle
(The Castle Glower series, Book 1)
Jessica Day George
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Castle Glower has many peculiarities. Rooms and halls rearrange themselves, though the throne room can always be found (eventually) by heading east. People have been known to be physically ejected if unpleasant enough. And on Tuesdays, the castle likes to create new rooms. Many find it confusing, but eleven-year-old Princess Celie has always considered Castle Glower a friend. She's even making an atlas of the sprawling, shifting grounds, an undertaking never before attempted in its ageless history. On this Tuesday, the castle produces a new tower, seemingly just for her - perhaps to comfort her. Celie's parents are leaving to bring her brother Bran home from the College of Wizardry, and they're leaving her behind. Sure, her elder brother Rolf and sister Delilah are still here, as is their friend Pogue the blacksmith's son, but it's not the same; they're on their way to becoming grown-ups, and she's still the baby of the family. Then something goes terribly wrong: her parents and Bran are ambushed and possibly killed, leaving fourteen-year-old Rolf next in line for the throne, a collection of greedy advisors ready to turn the crown into a puppet of their interests, and peculiar foreign princes on the doorstep who might be more than just concerned neighbors. As much as Celie needs the help of Castle Glower in these dark times, it might need her help even more.

REVIEW: The concept looked fun, and the Kindle edition was discounted, so I figured I'd give it a try. It starts out light, pushing towards silly. Celie's relationship with the castle seems almost as childlike as her character. But it soon becomes clear that there's a little more to her, and to Castle Glower, than initially meets the eye, strengths that come out under pressure as her parents are attacked and the children are left to their own devices, forced to cope with a complex, adult situation. The three inherently trust each other, a refreshing change of pace from many stories, so they don't have to waste time convincing other people to listen to them, nor are they forced to act alone. As the story progresses, the castle itself becomes a character; it does indeed seem to reciprocate Celie's friendship, but it alone can't help her or her family against their many enemies. In general, peripheral characters line up pretty much as one might expect from early impressions - but, then, this is aimed at a younger audience. It still manages some tense moments as the siblings struggle, first to simply endure and then to try to best their opponents. Needless to say, Celie doesn't remain immature for long; all the Glower children do a lot of growing up, Celie most of all. The ending feels a bit quick, but wraps up the major plot points. I enjoyed it, and will likely read the next book one of these days.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Princess Academy (Shannon Hale) - My Review
The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Secret Pizza Party (Adam Rubin)

Secret Pizza Party
Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Pizzas are beautiful. Pizzas are tasty. Pizzas are all a little raccoon dreams about. But nasty humans always hoard pizzas for themselves. How can he achieve his heart's desire without being thwacked on the head with a broom? Why, by throwing a secret pizza party, of course!

REVIEW: Another quick read during some down time at work... It's an inherently silly tale, but a fun one. The raccoon schemes and plans, while pizza continually torments him and brooms continually threaten him. It made me chuckle.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Meet the Dullards (Sara Pennypacker) - My Review
Carnivores (Aaron Reynolds) - My Review
Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Princeless: Get Over Yourself (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Get Over Yourself
(The Princeless series, issues #5-#8)
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Emily Martin
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Adrienne, her loyal guardian dragon Sparky, and their new sidekick, the half-dwarf smith girl Bedelia, set out on their first official rescue mission. Adrienne's sister Angelica is their first stop. Always the most beautiful in the family, surely she'll be grateful for Adrienne's intervention. But the plucky princess finds a few surprises on the way to the tower that she never imagined.
Meanwhile, Adrienne's father Ashe is determined to destroy the "dragon knight" whom he believes killed his daughter. He summons the seven bravest, boldest, and most eligible bachelor knights in the land: whoever succeeds will get the hand of the princess of their choosing. But King Ashe soon has a fresh problem on his hands, and a possible betrayal from his oldest and most trusted friend.

REVIEW: The story of Adrienne, the princess who rescued herself, continues, with new subplots sprouting as more people become affected by her decisions. In this, her first true test of heroism and her first taste of the real world beyond her castle home and tower exile, she finds that reality doesn't always fit her expectations. Not everyone appreciates her efforts - least of all Angelica, who has turned her good looks into a cottage industry. Is she selling out to beauty standards and sexism, or is she using her gifts to empower herself... and does she really need rescuing, or will Adrienne's efforts destroy everything? The would-be heroine has a lot of growing up to do, as sheer indignation and a quick sword aren't always the best answer to every situation. Meanwhile, the knights promise future complications, as do the actions of Adrienne's mother and father.
On a technical level, a new artist takes over in these issues, doing a decent job maintaining the feel of the characters. The layout, though, sometimes gets confusing, as it cuts back and forth between various storylines a little too often. On the whole, it's still very enjoyable, and I still look forward to Volume 3.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
The Paper Bag Princess (Robert N. Munsch) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex - Illustrated (Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, Ken Rossignol, authors; Huggins Point editors, editors)

Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex - Illustrated - NARRATIVE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY AND DISTRESSING SHIPWRECK OF THE WHALE-SHIP ESSEX: Original News Stories of Whale Attacks and Cannibals
Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, Ken Rossignol (authors); Huggins Point editors (editors)
Huggins Point Publishing Co.
Nonfiction, History
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Moby Dick, Herman Melville's classic novel of obsession and the American whaling industry, was inspired by actual events, chiefly the wreck of the Nantucket whaler Essex. On a voyage to the Pacific in search of prey, the vessel encountered a singularly aggressive sperm whale, leaving the survivors adrift in three lightweight, leaky boats hundreds of miles from land. First mate Owen Chase and crewman Thomas Nickerson relate their tales of hardship, despair, and even cannibalism as they struggle to endure the merciless seas. Also included in this volume are period news stories about the whaling industry, other attacks, notorious "named" whales, and even the much-maligned cannibal tribes of the Pacific.

REVIEW: I'm gearing up to attempt Herman Melville's work as part of a 2016 reading challenge, so this title seemed like a good primer on 19th-century whaling. (The Kindle edition was also offered at a discount, always a plus.) The story of the attack and aftermath itself is reasonably intense; that whale knew exactly what it was doing, and why, and little other than outright blinding rage can explain its deliberate actions in striking not once, but three times - all the while avoiding the smaller, harpoon-bearing boats in favor of the main ship. (Other stories included here also show that many, if not all, whales knew what whalers were and how they operated, and were not dumb beasts waiting to be taken.) In addition to the raw grit of the survival story, it offers a window into another world and a mindset that still unfortunately persists in much of the world. No concept of sustainability or humane hunting even enters their minds; knowing that there's only fifty years worth of profit to be made off a resource is enough to justify exploiting it to the brink of total destruction. It reminded me of Kennedy Warne's Let Them Eat Shrimp, where immediate profit potential and interests half a world away create irreparable damage to an ecosystem that could, properly managed, give so much more value than a quick buck. But one cannot judge the past by modern standards. Beyond that, one sees a hardy, determined, occasionally desperate breed of man pitting himself against Nature's most hostile environment for Homo sapiens, the uncharted oceans and their mysterious denizens. For this, it might have earned three and a half stars in the ratings, even if some of the news articles felt pointless. Unfortunately, the formatting, particularly of the latter section, is atrocious, with misused homophones and punctuation errors and misplaced paragraph breaks and indents, to the point where the news articles were often almost unreadable. A lack of chapter breaks in the Kindle file made for difficult navigation when looking for specific articles again. The illustrations were small and looked poor on my Kindle screen. Overall, while it makes a decent primer on the world of whaling, it was just too much of a chore to read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Stowaway (Karen Hesse) - My Review
Captains Courageous (Rudyard Kipling) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cinder (Marissa Meyer)

(The Lunar Chronicles, Book 1)
Marissa Meyer
Fiewel and Friends
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Over a hundred years after World War IV, Earth's nations seem to have finally learned not to let hatred escalate to violence. That does not, however, mean that it's extinct. Cinder knows this all too well. As a cyborg, she's considered subhuman, despite her unsurpassed skills as a mechanic and the enhancements her brain interface and other additives give her. Only the Lunars - humans changed by generations living on the moon, gifted with mind-altering abilities akin to magic - are more hated and distrusted. The fact that Cinder never asked to become a cyborg after a terrible accident doesn't change how her stepmother and others feel about her kind, despite her superior mechanical talents being the only thing keeping a roof over the family's heads.
When Crown Prince Kai himself - object of countless crushes throughout New Beijing - walks into her shop with a malfunctioning android, she hopes her luck will finally improve... but things only get worse, as her sister Peony falls ill with the plague that's sweeping like wildfire through cities around the world. Suddenly, Cinder finds herself drawn into the heart of palace intrigue, where doctors race to find a cure and Kai struggles with the diplomatic demands of the Lunar queen Levana, demands that might save the Eastern Commonwealth or doom it to the mind control-induced slavery of the Lunar regime. Can one cyborg girl change the course of history?

REVIEW: Though technically sci-fi, this Cinderella-inspired tale almost feels more like a fantasy; the inhabitants of New Beijing even refer to the Lunars' abilities as "magic," despite there being a technobabble explanation for their powers. Meyer presents a future with hope and despair, weighted somewhat toward the latter from Cinder's perspective, as she finds herself targeted by humanity's seemingly innate need to find someone or something to hate. Indeed, the disdain heaped upon cyborgs is so great that one wonders why anyone bothers with the procedure at all - yes, mechanical body parts save lives, but only for a future as something more contemptible and disposable than an android. Cinder struggles to keep from giving into hopelessness as things go from bad to worse, pinning her dreams of escape on a junkyard find. The fact that Crown Prince Kai takes a shine to her from their first meeting, without realizing she's a hated cyborg, only makes things more complicated. That relationship felt a little convenient and somewhat one-sided, with Kai doggedly pursuing a girl who is, at the very least, several rungs below his station in a society still class-conscious enough to revere its royalty. The other aspects of his personality are better balanced, as he finds himself thrust onto the throne long before he feels ready, facing a diplomatic adversary who can quite literally alter his thoughts. Some of the plot twists and revelations are telegraphed fairly early on, particularly those concerning Cinder's origins, and some of Cinder's outbursts start to feel less like justified rage at the unfairness of her lot in life and more like a teenager slamming the door while complaining how they never asked to be born, but overall the story maintains a decent momentum. It ended on an odd note, almost as though it was intended to go on longer but was cropped for the purposes of generating sequels. That misstep almost cost it a half-star, but overall I enjoyed Meyer's world, the story, and (for the most part) the characters enough to overlook that.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
Fairest (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett)

The Color of Magic
(A Discworld novel)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a backwater universe concocted by a Creator with far more imagination than mechanical aptitude exists the Discworld, a magical land resting atop four colossal elephants standing upon the shell of the spacefaring turtle A'Tuin. As the great astrozoologists and philosophers of the city of Krull, perched on the very Rim, speculate on A'Tuin's size and nature and destination (and gender - quite an important detail for residents of the Discworld, if it's migrating to some distant cosmic mating ground as some believe), others have more pressing concerns... such as the fire consuming the great city of Ankh-Morpork. Two men in particular have a personal stake in that disaster - in no small part because they caused it.
Rincewind likes to think himself a wizard of sorts, but in truth he can't cast spells... or, rather, he can only cast one Spell, so great and potentially world-ending that it blocks all others from his mind. Expelled from the Unseen University, he makes his way through the Discworld on luck (often poor) and a certain gift for linguistics - a gift that comes in handy when he meets Twoflower. The little man has traveled all the way from the legendary isolated Agatean Empire to see the wonders of the Discworld: the heroic barbarians of the Hublands, the quaint local taverns of Ankh-Morpork, perhaps even a dragon if one can be found to exist. Rincewind cannot fathom why someone would want to do such an insane, potentially suicidal thing, but his gold is solid even if his head is soft. Besides, the wizard soon has greater incentive to protect Twoflower when the Patriarch of the city insists that Rincewind act as the man's protector for diplomatic reasons... with a personal invitation to a prolonged and painful death as penalty for failure.
Thus begins the adventure of Discworld's first tourist and his reluctant guide, an adventure that will take them from the streets of Ankh-Morpork to the very Rim of the world, one which will upset nations, anger gods, irritate dragons, and lead to a personal grudge with Death Itself.

REVIEW: Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel takes a little while to find its footing, but holds all of the absurdity, humor, imagination, and insight the series would become known for. The Discworld itself is a patently and admittedly impossible creation, with any and all inconsistencies swept under the vast and lumpy rug of extra dimensions, divine intervention, and/or the world's prevalent magical field (manifesting in the unique eighth color of its rainbows, the indescribable color octarine), yet somehow it all works, at least enough to carry the weight of the story. Twoflower is somewhat annoyingly obtuse at the start, oblivious to the dangers staring him in the face, somehow convinced that being a tourist makes him a mere immune observer, yet he does eventually come into his own - all without losing his inherent optimism and sense of wonder at the Discworld's countless surprises. Rincewind, on the other hand, never met a silver lining that didn't hide a stormcloud; he struggles to understand what Twoflower sees in this world that has gone out of its way to personally torment him. Twoflower's Luggage, a mobile box of "sapient pearwood" with many peculiar properties that even its owner fails to understand, becomes a character in its own right. Pratchett concocts some remarkable mind's eye candy in this book alongside laugh-out-loud humor and some true emotion and peril; it doesn't quite strike that perfect balance of some of his later work, but it's still here, especially towards the end. That occasional unevenness, plus a few stumbles at the start and loose threads and a (literal) cliffhanger ending, narrowly cost The Color of Magic an extra half-star. I still enjoyed it, and will have to keep an eye out for the next chronological Discworld tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
Small Gods (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift) - My Review

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Save Yourself
(The Princeless series, issues #1-#4)
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by M. Goodwin
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, Comics/Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Adrienne's parents have a bad habit of locking their daughters in monster-guarded towers, to ensure that only a heroic man ever will inherit the king's crown... but, to date, none have been rescued. That doesn't stop them from trying again with her - but she's not a typical princess, to wait for her Prince Charming. Not when she finds a sword in her tower and decides to become the hero she and her sisters need.
This collection includes the first four issues of the Princeless comics, following Adrienne's escape and first attempts at heroism.

REVIEW: I read (and reviewed) Issue #1 online a while ago, so I decided to buy the complete Volume 1. To be honest, I'd hoped for more than just four issues; it's a fun and fast tale, yet it still feels like it's just getting started, as Adrienne picks up her first allies and enemies - not to mention her first official suit of armor (that hasn't been scavenged from corpses outside her tower, that is.) Numerous tropes get poked at, from fairy tales to fantasy to video games and more, yet the story and characters still maintain their integrity. The illustrations are bright and fun and lively, a perfect complement to the tale. I suppose I'll have to read the next issues, or spring for Volume 2, now - I can't leave things hanging as they are.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
Heroics for Beginners (John Moore) - My Review
Dragon's Bait (Vivian Vande Velde) - My Review