Thursday, June 30, 2016

Terry Jones' Barbarians (Terry Jones and Alan Ereira)

Terry Jones' Barbarians
Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
BBC Books
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The word "barbarian" conjures images of rough-mannered brutes dressed in animal skins, covered in war paint and scars, torching and looting their way through history while barely able to conceptualize double digits, let alone the wonders of the civilizations they harry. Everyone knows how evil barbarian hordes were the bane of the greatest civilization in Western history, ancient Rome. At least, so wrote the Romans... and those afterwards who bought their imperial propaganda. Turns out that many of those people labelled "barbarians" were far from warlike or stupid. Some even had civilizations more advanced than they did. In this volume, the authors dig into the archaeological record to shed some light on the many cultures tarred with Rome's barbarian brush.

REVIEW: I liked Terry Jones' Medieval Lives, so I was intrigued by this title (not to mention the discounted price of the Kindle version when I downloaded it.) It turns out that, once again, our popular notions of history are heavily tainted by the prejudices of previous eras - few more prejudiced than the Romans, who drew clear and often bloody lines between themselves and the rest of the world. Indeed, it could be argued that Rome actually held Western civilization back by centuries with their stagnant thinking and willingness to destroy anything they didn't understand (or see a military advantage in adopting.) Not that every culture Romans encountered in their long and storied rule were pure or intellectual themselves... The information is accessible to armchair researchers, with plenty of footnotes for further reading should one be so inclined. I clipped it a half-star for some formatting issues; misplaced punctuation, particularly quotation marks, sometimes made for confusion, and there are pictorial sections that cut off text mid-sentence, last for several pages, then return as if the reader still remembered what was being discussed. Overall, though, it's an enlightening look at a time in history that's been shrouded by Roman propaganda (coupled with the politics of the early Christian church) for far too long.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (Terry Jones and Alan Ereira) - My Review
Mysterious Places (Jennifer Westwood, editor) - My Review

June Site Update

The main review site has been updated, with June's book reviews now archived and cross-linked. Amazing, how fast the first half of 2016 slipped by, isn't it?

In other news, I'm starting work for a site overhaul. I doubt the look will change drastically - I'm not big on fancy layouts - but the HTML is a sorry, obsolete mess, and it's really bugging me. This will likely take some time, and won't affect anything until I'm ready to publish the new design, but I thought I'd let anyone who actually follows my reviews know what's going on.

Anyway, enjoy!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke)

Bad Unicorn
(The Bad Unicorn trilogy, Book 1)
Platte W. Clarke
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Stubby, tubby middle-schooler Max Spencer is nobody's idea of a hero. He can't even stand up to Ricky "the Kraken" Reynolds, the school bully. His best friend, Dirk, is a gamer geek with only a tenuous connection to reality as others comprehend it, and even he's more likely to save your average world than Max. Indeed, the only thing that might hint at potential is an old book Max has had for as long as he's lived, a peculiar tome called The Codex of Infinite Knowability, which displays random information and zaps most people who try to read it. He only ever brought it to school because he was desperate for a last-minute book report. How was he to know that the weird things it talks about - killer unicorns, other worlds, little edible humanoids named frobbits, and more - were real? And how was he to know that he was being hunted down by the worst unicorn of all, Princess the Destroyer, and her pet wizard, Magar the Tolerated? Now Max is supposed to be the last blood descendant of the greatest magic worker ever known, and he - along with the Codex, Dirk, a gutsy girl named Sarah, an outcast dwarf, and a remarkably unhelpful talking knife - may be the key to saving three worlds... or utterly destroying everything.

REVIEW: This could've been a very stupid book. Its humor walks a tightrope between silliness, pop culture, and satire. How does it succeed? How did it get me to giggle at concepts like a zombie duck and a sapient video game and Glenn, the Legendary Dagger of Motivation? Having read it, I'm still not entirely sure, but I was laughing most of the way through. Part of the key, though, was not overlooking the dark chasms over which that proverbial tightrope crossed. Princess the Destroyer doesn't just poke people or threaten death or scowl and cackle menacingly, like many middle-grade villains - she deals out destruction as easily as blinking. The sapient arcade game isn't just a silly homage to a sci-fi trope, but rises above its humble, two-dimensional origins. Max and his friends make mistakes that aren't just slapstick pratfalls, but that cause real problem and occasionally cost real lives. Real humor needs some dark shadows to make it shine. (That, and some of the jokes and amusing asides are aimed just a little over the heads of the target audience, but not so they'd notice; Clarke's clearly aware that grown-ups sometimes read middle-grade fiction.) Characters tend to start as genre tropes, yet often have a little more to them, all of them growing during the course of the tale. The action moves between multiple worlds, as well as between the present and a post-apocalyptic future, while following different characters, sometimes making for a bit of a tangle as the reader tries to keep track of who is where doing what, and when. But there are some interesting plot developments, and it all builds to a nice finale in which everyone pulls their weight. Overall, I enjoyed it more than I expected - possibly more than it's decent to admit - and I look forward to finding Book 2.
And on an unrelated note, if my records are correct, this is my 1300th review.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
Heroics for Beginners (John Moore) - My Review

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Moby Dick
Herman Melville
Classic Century Works
Fiction, Literary Fiction
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the mid-1800's, the heydey of Nantucket's whaling fleets, itinerant Ishmael heeds a nameless urge to sail the seas. When he signs on to the Pequod, he finds himself under the command of the one-legged Captain Ahab, a man who has bent the whole of his being - and the whole of the crew - to the pursuit of Moby Dick, the whale that crippled him.
NOTE: The edition linked to is not the exact edition reviewed.

REVIEW: I picked this title as part of a reading challenge, Moby Dick being one of many classics I haven't gotten around to yet. But for the challenge, and a promising (if somewhat slow) beginning, I would've thrown in the towel before the halfway mark. Melville, through Ishmael and other characters, waxes poetic and profound on all manner of topics, some only tangentially related to the voyage... then, to be sure the audience understood just how profound he was being, he repeats himself. (If you have to explain the brilliance of your insights, your insights can't have been that brilliant. Either that, or you consider your audience to be exceedingly dim.) Roughly half of the book has nothing at all to do with Ahab or the voyage, being dedicated to the history of whaling, cetacean anatomy, and other subjects. By the time Melville remembers the main storyline, most of the characters he painstakingly described and established are just a heap of forgotten names, the story arc and tension shattered in the wakes of so many leviathan-sized interruptions. It doesn't help that much of that painstaking effort establishing characters falls completely by the wayside as Ishmael and others grow increasingly philosophical and fatalistic; for instance, much effort goes into describing the savage harpooner Queequeg and his bond with Ishmael, but they hardly exchange two words once the Pequod's ill-fated voyage leaves Nantucket. (As for rampant racism and Ishmael/Melville's peculiar notion that whales were immune to extinction, among other oddities, this was written in the 1800's...) After agonizingly slow and wordy fits and starts and circular side-tracks, the final 70-odd pages pick up for a decent, if drawn-out, finale. The whole thing, frankly, reads as if Melville badly needed an editor, or at least one good final read of his draft before publication. While there are some few memorable moments and characters, the blubber-to-meat ratio is far too fatty for my tastes.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex - Illustrated (Owen Chase, et al.) - My Review
Stowaway (Karen Hesse) - My Review
Whale Rider (Witi Ihimaera) - My Review

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Practice Effect (David Brin)

The Practice Effect
David Brin
Fiction, Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the 21st century, the bleeding edge of science is embodied in the zievatron, a device that - in theory - could allow instantaneous travel across space from the comfort of a laboratory. The first working model, however, develops a peculiar glitch: the first robot probes returned with subtle alterations, and now nothing sent through even returns. When physicist Dennis Nuel steps into the zievatron airlock to investigate, he finds himself trapped on an alien world, where technology seems like a haywire mishmash of Neolithic and industrial. As he struggles to figure out what's going on and how to repair the zievatron, he finds himself swept up in a ruthless baron's battle for dominance - and enchanted by the captured princess of a rival tribe.

REVIEW: I've read and enjoyed Brin's work previously (Kiln People), so I figured I might enjoy this older title, even if it clearly had a pulp-inspired theme. The cover promised "rich characterization" and emphasized Brin's credentials as a real live scientist writing real live science fiction. While I can't speak for the theories (at least, theories as of the 1984 publication), I can speak for the rest of the story, which was anything but "rich." Dennis may be a genius, but he's also a world-class (or interworld-class) moron, prone to fits of absolute stupidity whenever the plot demands it. The story tries to brush off this habit as "tunnel vision" induced by his excessive intelligence and "stress," but it conveniently doesn't kick in under far more stressful situations than when it does occur. If this is "rich characterization," I must not understand the term. Everyone else comes straight out of the stock bin: the petty lab rival Brady, the greedy warlord Kremer, the scrawny comic-relief thief Arth, the glamorous (and utterly helpless, not to mention prone to swooning and oddly immune to human failings like stinking of sweat after several days' hard travel away from baths,) Princess Linnora, and so forth. Gender roles, even in Dennis's "future" Earth, come straight out of the Stone Age; the only lady scientist in the zievatron program exists for her fellow scientists to lust over, and seems to enjoy pitting would-be suitors against each other despite risk of compromising the program itself and her fellows - which it does. Indeed, in reading this, I began to suspect that the entire subgenre of Earth-man-going-to-strange-primitive-worlds specfic was (or is, as some of these still appear) entirely about guys, particularly nerdy guys, getting laid by conveniently defanged and objectified women... a theme particularly blatant here. (I found it especially hilarious/aggravating when Dennis keeps referring to the natives as simple, unsophisticated "cavemen" even when he - Mr. Evolved Modern Man - can't stop drooling over the pretty girl whom he'd only glimpsed at a distance... and I don't believe it was intended to be a humorous juxtaposition.) The story hits more than its share of subgenre cliches as Dennis is mistaken for a wizard and ordinary Earth ideas fill the natives with superstitious wonder and awe... even to the point of cowering in terror from a wheeled cart. No, it's not the old gunpowder trick that strikes terror into the naive locals, but the wheel. (Well, the wheel and almost everything else the guy does - which goes back to my hypothesis of why this subgenre exist, as the nerd scientist finds himself celebrated as a demigod simply for existing among a populace of morons... possibly how more than one scientist actually views themselves, but I digress.) I honestly started wondering if Brin was writing a parody - and, if so, why I was cringing instead of laughing. Though there were some intriguing uses of the main gimmick of this other world's peculiar physics, by the time it finished - with a lengthy explanation that didn't really explain much - I was just glad it was over. While I'd considered reading other works by Brin, particularly his much-vaunted Uplift series, I'm significantly more gunshy if this is an indication of the writing I'll find there. If I do read more by him, I think I'll stick to later works.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wiz Biz (Rich Cook) - My Review
Pyramid Scheme (Eric Flint and David Freer) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo)

Griffin's Castle
Jenny Nimmo
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In a world that rushes headlong toward the future, eleven-year-old Dinah looks only to the past - a far more interesting and stable place than her chaotic life, dragged by her drifting mother Rosalie from house to hovel, shelter to back room, across the UK. She's used to the loneliness by now, but she longs for a place to call home for more than a few months. When she arrives at their latest dwelling, a run-down old house loaned by Rosalie's latest boyfriend (and now employer) Gomer, Dinah is determined to stay. She even names the place: Griffin's Castle, after the crumbling stone griffin she finds in the front garden. But Gomer has other plans for the house and for Rosalie - plans that don't include Dinah. Then she finds a stone lioness from a castle wall following her home - and realizes she may have a way to defend herself and her newfound home, especially when more stone beasts come to the garden of Griffin's Castle. But are her shadowy stone companions protectors, or something more sinister?

REVIEW: I classified this as Fantasy, but in truth it edges closer to Horror. Dinah's a misfit who always seems to be in the wrong place or say the wrong thing, an inquisitive girl born to a mother who can't reliably remember to sign her up for school or buy groceries. It's not childish imagination or simple play that makes her imagine the past and future glories of Griffin's Castle so fiercely, but an unspoken rage and deep longing to belong somewhere, even if that somewhere's in another time. How is she able to summon the spirits of stone animals to life? Even she doesn't know, balanced as she is on that knife-edge between childhood and adulthood, between the power of magical thinking and cold reality. Having managed the feat, she learns that these beasts, much like her own building resentment and anger, aren't quite so easy to control as she first thought. Two boys from her new school, scrawny bookish Barry and oddball giant Jason, try in their own ways to help, each wrestling with their own flawed lives, but Dinah's so used to being on her own that she can't or won't understand that she doesn't have to go it alone... a blindness with potentially dire consequences. The tale has some interesting layers to it, with nobody being quite so flat and simple as they seem at first. With chilling overtones, the tale of Dinah's unraveling life and increasing reliance on, and imprisonment by, her shadowy stone companions unfolds in a struggle between past and present, isolation and companionship, even despair and hope. The ending's a little sudden and neat, but it ultimately fits the story. Considering that I found it for a buck at a clearance sale, I'm more than satisfied.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Tiger Rising (Kate DiCamillo) - My Review
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Red Rising (Pierce Brown)

Red Rising
(The Red Rising trilogy, Book 1)
Pierce Brown
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In a future where humanity has spread throughout the Solar System, a new social order based on genetically-modified races holds sway. The Golds reign supreme, with their godlike bodies and altered brains, while Pinks provide pleasure, Greens deal with technology, Coppers man the sprawling bureaucracy, and more... all Colors ranking above the lowly Reds, toiling at the bottom of the empire. Sixteen-year-old Darrow, like most of his fellow Reds in the mines of Mars, believes that his sweat and blood and abbreviated lifespan will buy a better future as the helium-3 he risks life and limb to extract terraforms the hostile surface. His wife Eo feels differently, but Darrow refuses to listen. His father, after all, hung for such beliefs. But then the Golds cheat his clan from their earnings and take Eo's life, leaving Darrow with nothing but pain and rage. It is then that he's contacted by the notorious Sons of Ares, a group painted as cold-blooded terrorists by Gold-sponsored propaganda. Mars, it turns out, was terraformed generations ago; the Reds toil in ignorance for the profit of others, and everyone Darrow ever loved will die for the same lie if nothing is done. The Sons offer Darrow a chance at revenge, not just against the people who hung his wife but against Golds across the system. To do it, he has to shed his Red skin at the hands of a rogue surgeon, joining the enemy ranks to learn their ways and destroy their empire from the inside. But life as a Gold is about more than arrogance and privilege, as Darrow finds himself enrolled at the prestigious Martian Institute and learns just how complicated war, loyalty, and even love truly are beyond the mines of Mars.

REVIEW: In the vein of The Hunger Games, with a touch of Metropolis and Lord of the Flies, this tale deftly transports the by-now familiar formula of an underdog taking on the corrupt Establishment into a future based on the Roman Empire. Darrow doesn't start out to be a hero, fully convinced that the system isn't rigged and that the reason he and his Lambda clan haven't prospered is entirely their own fault for not striving as hard as the Gammas, who somehow perpetually win the Laurel bonuses of motivation in their monthly contests. His wife Eo (though only sixteen, short lives lead to lower marrying ages among Reds) seems more a symbol than a person, a born martyr designed to give Darrow the final push towards revolution. He quickly learns that, despite innate cleverness and an all-consuming determination to destroy the murderers of his wife, he's far from ready to take on the complicated above-ground world, let alone his enemies. Even with intensive training, he makes several costly mistakes as he struggles to keep his wife's dream of freedom for Reds alive while maintaining his cover (and saving his own skin) in the crucible of the Institute. Other characters add depth and complication to what could've been a fairly flat, Color-stratified world. He finds loyalty and treachery, beauty and ugliness, and more in many unexpected places. The crucible of the Institute pits him against other Gold-born youths seeking advancement in the highly competitive ranks of the elite, in vicious games watched over by graduates like idle gods, gods who are not averse to tipping the scales now and again in a supposedly impartial test of student capabilities. Here, he must learn to see Golds as more than a monolithic entity to be hated, even as he learns how they turn their own kind into tools of ambition. By the end, Darrow has become someone he almost doesn't recognize, finding new and unexpected reasons to fight a system so thoroughly corrupt that even Golds live in fear of their own kind. The story starts quickly and maintains a good pace throughout, permeated with action and wonder and cold-blooded calculation. A tendency to use brutality to women for shock value cost it a full fifth star, but overall I found it an exhilarating and interesting read, if an often dark one. I'll be looking for Book 2 soon.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) - My Review
Cinder (Marissa Meyer) - My Review
Mistborn (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Animist (Eve Forward)

Eve Forward
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since his parents sold him into slavery, the human boy Alex has belonged to others. Even though he was bought by the prestigious College of Animists, to be trained in the art of bonding to nonsapient creatures - an opportunity many students across the Archipelago of sapient Trading species work hard to earn, and a far better lot than most slaves get - he still feels the chains of bondage. At sixteen, he's ready to set out on his spirit quest to find his first Anim, a bonded animal partner... but he won't truly be free until he pays the College back the price of his purchase and training, a seemingly impossible task that will require a powerful bonding.
Alex never meant to bond with the little rat Mote. Nor did he intend to wind up on the island of Mariposa, where a ruthless king seeks conquest and encourages genocide against the Rodeni, a Trader race that's all too often treated like the rats they resemble. As the fates of two cities rest on Alex's talents in the face of deep-rooted prejudice and a malevolent magical force, buying his own freedom quickly becomes the least of his concerns.

REVIEW: It looked like a fun fantasy in a different world, one populated by various sapient races like the Lemyri (descended from lemurs), Delphini (bright dolphin-like beings), and even a representative of the rare feathered reptile Theropi (inspired by velociraptors), with a decent - if sometimes sketchy - magic system involving conflicting practitioners and disciplines, all drawing on the astral "Oether" plane. In this world, where Animists are considered the least of all magic workers and of little value without an impressive Anim companion, the slave boy Alex struggles to find his way... and so, unfortunately, does the reader. The narrative often drifts between viewpoints, even backing out for omniscient summaries that don't always matter to the plot; for some reason, this style put me in mind of older fantasies, maybe from the 1980's or earlier, yet this was first published in 2000. Also contributing to the throwback feel was the treatment of racism (well, speciesism) - I sincerely hope I was reading too much into the ratlike, tunnel-dwelling Rodeni who ultimately need a fair-skinned human to be their voice for fair treatment and equality, and even then might be biologically incapable of maintaining it. For the few dark-skinned Humani characters, it also relies on go-to descriptions like "chocolate" and "ebony", which these days tend to be frowned on for negative slave trade associations. I smelled a fair whiff of sexism, too, in the way women with power come across as entirely unworthy of that power, when they aren't mere objects for Alex to ogle. Speaking of Alex, though he's supposed to be sixteen, he seems more like a young man in his early twenties. Other characters tend to treat him as an adult, if a somewhat naive adult, and he just plain doesn't act or think like a teenager most of the time. As for his partner Mote, she's a fun little ratling, thinking in sensations and emotions rather than sapient thoughts or complex ideas - easily my favorite character in the book. Other characters tend to drift around the edges as little more than names, for the most part, with fairly shallow characterizations and motivations, though the villain is decently nasty. The story, loosely inspired by the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, doesn't quite seem to know where it's going half the time. Early developments and hints are entirely forgotten by the end of the book, the various magical systems remain vague throughout despite their pivotal roles in the plot, and the finale feels like a jumble of sudden twists and revelations designed to pique interest in future tales of the Archipelago. (The gambit thus far has failed to produce a published sequel.) Ultimately, despite some nice descriptions here and there and decent ideas, Animist fails to live up to its potential.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Furies of Calderon (Jim Butcher) - My Review
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
A Plague of Sorcerers (Mary Frances Zambreno) - My Review

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mastering Fantasy Art (John Stanko)

Mastering Fantasy Art
John Stanko
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wizards, warriors, elves, dwarves, unicorns, dragons... the best fantasy art makes us believe in the impossible. To do this, an artist has to render the unreal as realistically as possible - a task that requires a marriage of imagination and real-life reference. Artist John Stanko demonstrates how to effectively use reference material to render a variety of subjects.

REVIEW: This book is mostly a guide to taking and using reference photos of models (and some props, including costumes and clay sculptures) for fantasy art. Stanko discusses lighting and equipment for photo shoots, also touching on copyright issues, (very briefly) digital programs, and related topics. Oddly enough, after finishing a lengthy explanation for why the memory can't be trusted and reference is absolutely essential even for the most seasoned artist, he then, at several points, encourages improvisation and elaboration, exhorting artists not to be a slave to reality... then not offering much help in deviating from reality. I know both are essential to art, especially speculative art, but it still seems like a paradox, and may well confuse some. But, I digress...
Stanko demonstrates the use of reference photos in art creation with several step-by-step projects; artists trying to follow along may want to scan and reprint his reference photos, which may not be easy with the book's stiff spine. though the pictures themselves tend to be on the outer edges of the pages. Perspective, anatomy, and so forth are not covered in any depth here, this being geared more for intermediate artists than raw beginners. The cover mentions "creatures," but only two (a unicorn and dragon) are actually included, and those restricted to mere portraits. As for scenery, only one demonstration covers that, a wizard's tower based on a clay sculpture. To be honest, I think Stanko should've devoted this one fully to humans and humanoids, maybe using the extra space for costuming and other considerations, and reserved creatures and scenery for another book. Overall, it's a decent exploration of the subject, even if some of what was promised on the cover was not well discussed inside.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Drawing and Painting Fantasy Figures (Finlay Cowan) - My Review
Anatomy for Fantasy Artists (Glenn Fabry) - My Review
Figure Drawing Without a Model (Ron Tiner) - My Review

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Frightful's Mountain (Jean Craighead George)

Frightful's Mountain
(The My Side of the Mountain trilogy, Book 3)
Jean Craighead George
Fiction, YA Adventure
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When she was ten days old, Frightful the peregrine falcon was taken from her nest by a boy and raised as companion and hunter. He meant well, and loved her as dearly as she loves him, but Sam didn't understand what he'd done: not only was it illegal, but Frightful imprinted on humans, and her highly endangered species can't risk the loss of a breeding female. Reluctantly, Sam let her go... but Frightful can't forget her human or her home in the hemlock tree, even as her instincts wake with the freedom of open skies and the call of of her own kind.

REVIEW: The third in George's My Side of the Mountain trilogy strikes a different tone, putting the reader alongside - but not inside the mind of - Frightful the falcon. By not putting human thoughts into her head, the author preserves a degree of mystery and wildness in the nonhuman star. Frightful struggles to adapt to her Sam-less existence, often caught in a tug-of-war between memory and instinct. Along the way, she intersects the lives of numerous humans, some old acquaintances and some new allies (or enemies), as well as other animals and falcons. The story sometimes meanders between adventures, even as it discusses the plight of raptors, the many threats facing wildlife, and the frustration of conservation efforts thwarted and fouled by bureaucratic red tape. Not all the birds have happy endings, here, and not all problems have easy solutions. Along the way, we see enough of Sam and Alice to watch their final phase of growth, as they, too, shed their fledgling feathers and take flight in their own lives. I came close to clipping the tale for some soft spots and wandering, but ultimately granted it a full four stars. Like all of George's books in this trilogy, it's a love letter to the marvels of nature and a wake-up call to the humans on whom the wilderness now depends for survival.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flights of Fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, editor) - My Review
Brian's Winter (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

On the Far Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George)

On the Far Side of the Mountain
(The My Side of the Mountain trilogy, Book 2)
Jean Craighead George
Fiction, YA Adventure
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Two years ago, young Sam Gribley ran away from his New York City apartment to live in the wilderness. One year ago, his family came to live with him... but only his sister Alice remained, as his father and mother learned why their ancestors had abandoned the family farm. Alice challenges Sam with new ideas and projects, from a tree house home to a sawmill, but she's better company than he expected. Between her and his faithful falcon Frightful, not to mention visitors like the English professor Bando and his wife, he's happy with his life on the mountain, and never lonely.
Then, on the same day, both Alice and Frightful vanish, one disappearing and the other taken by a wildlife conservation officer. Peregrines are an endangered species, and owning one without a falconer's license is technically a felony. In following Alice from his familiar terrain, tracking her by woodcraft and clues she's left behind, Sam tries to forget about Frightful... until he discovers that that "officer" may not have been who he claimed, and his sister may be in far more danger than she understands.

REVIEW: This is a worthy sequel to George's classic My Side of the Mountain, with the same love of the Adirondack wilderness shining in every page and the same use of ink illustrations. Sam builds on experience and woodcraft gained in his first adventure, moving slowly (if somewhat reluctantly) away from the boyish fantasy of living alone in a tree to a somewhat more sophisticated and civilized experience - a necessary growth, as he realizes that utter loneliness is as unpleasant as it is impossible in modern times. In doing so, he tries to strike a balance between comfort (and companionship) and a connection with nature. Alice gives him motivation to change, not just in her many projects but in literally pulling him from his comfort zone in her cross-country trek... though, for all her woodcraft, she comes across as somewhat immature. Sam thought he'd learned all he needed to know about himself and the wilderness in the first book, but this volume teaches him more. It also touches on issues of conservation, endangered species protection, and the illegal animal trade. If the first volume was about Sam proving that he could survive, this is the story of Sam truly growing up and learning to see the larger world. It almost earned an extra half-star, though some of the later bits feel a little forced. It's still quite enjoyable, and holds up rather well.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ancient One (T. A. Barron) - My Review
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The Forgotten Arts and Crafts (John Seymour) - My Review

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat)

Never Cry Wolf
Farley Mowat
Back Bay Books
Nonfiction, Nature
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the middle of the 20th century, the Canadian wilderness faced a dire threat: wolves, numbering in the hundred thousands at least, murdering countless caribou and other valuable game animals. Even bounties failed to curb the vicious beasts from their bloodthirsty ways. To study the problem, young biologist Farley Mowat was sent into the wilderness... but what he found was a far cry from what he'd expected.

REVIEW: I wavered over how to categorize this book for a while. At the time this was published, it was among the first modern books speaking to the public on behalf of the long-maligned wolf, a creature that - like most every animal - humanity has loaded down with its own expectations, myths, and fears with little regard to facts. In pursuit of his points, Mowat evidently tweaked reality, though everything was ultimately based on his true-life observations, and the expedition it chronicles is a matter of record. The essence, though, is truthful, as is the overall theme of people condemning an entire species out of superstition, error, fear, and flat-out greed... a PR problem that continues to plague wolves and other animals as humanity places increasing pressure on our planet's last bastions of wilderness. In a political climate where the outcome was determined long before Mowat boarded a plane for the barrens, the unvarnished truth stood little chance of being heard. The result is an interesting, often amusing and at times surprising chronicle of a young man's struggle toward a truth that society at large had programmed him to resist: the primary problem facing game animals is not predation, but people. Along the way, he makes "friends" with a small wolf pack and a few locals. It's the interactions with the humans that show the most exaggeration - not surprising, as his original intent had been to write about the absurd bureaucracy and other headaches he encountered in his tenure as a government-employed biologist. Today, it reads a little dated (largely due to the somewhat comical embellishments), though it's thanks to writers like him that the notion of a less-than-savage wolf isn't so radical a notion anymore. The ending is particularly potent, and managed to lift the book back to a solid four stars.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Call of the Wild and White Fang (Jack London) - My Review
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
Guts (Gary Paulsen) - My Review

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Plain Kate (Erin Bow)

Plain Kate
Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Daughter of a woodcarver, Kate held a knife before she could hold a spoon. By the time she was eleven, she was the equal of any master, though not old enough to be a proper apprentice. But then her father fell ill and died with the fever that ravaged the land... and the villagers, seeking a witch to blame, began looking askance at Plain Kate with her too-long nose and mismatched eyes and uncannily clever carvings. For some time, she scraped by, until then a fresh danger reawakened the old rumor. Kate becomes desperate to escape - desperate enough to sell her shadow to the strange, pale man who haunts the market square. But the bargain isn't what she thought it would be, as she's driven from town with her only friend, the gray tom Taggle. When she learns what the witch man Linay plans to do with her shadow, she realizes she must do anything to get it back before the whole countryside perishes under a terrible curse.

REVIEW: Plain Kate has the flavor of an old fairy tale, set in a world reminiscent of Eastern Europe where magic is real, songs become spells, and blood and shadows have great powers. Kate herself makes a decent heroine, not infallible but doing her best to survive and fix the mistakes she inadvertently makes. Taggle, granted speech by Linay's magic, makes a fun and clever sidekick who never quite loses his feline nature. As for Linay, he's that most dangerous and devious sort of antagonist, driven not by greed or pride but by a wounded heart. The tale takes some dark turns, bound up in themes of fear and superstition and the lengths one will go to in order to find peace after tragedy. It moves fairly fast, coming at last to an ending that feels a little drawn out and slightly off-kilter for some reason; that, and a few other minor quibbles, almost cost it half a star, but the overall originality - especially when everyone and their brother seems to be rewriting the old standards of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and so forth - managed to earn it back. If you're looking for a fast read in an original-yet-familiar world that has an old-school storytelling feel, this is a good place to start.

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