Sunday, July 31, 2016

Claws (Mike and Rachel Grinti)

Claws
Mike and Rachel Grinti
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: When Emma's older sister Helena disappeared, her father and mother threw everything into the search - which is why they've had to move into a run-down trailer park full of "crags," magical beings from the forest that devoured Old Downtown many years ago. Crags are the only step down on the social ladder from the racism Emma experiences for her Vietnamese ancestry; except for the glamorous fairies, they're shunned for their unnatural appearances and dangerous abilities. But now Emma's dad has it in his head that crags can help him where conventional human methods have failed, and it's not like anyone cares what Emma thinks. At least, not until the one-eyed cat starts talking to her.
Cats are the one of the most dangerous of all magical animals, capable of speech and shape-shifting, notoriously disdainful of love and family and anything other than their pride. Her parents don't want her to have anything to do with the scruffy old tom. But, no matter what they say, Jack's the only one who listens to Emma, and he insists he can help her find Helena. All she has to do is trust him. Can Emma rely on such a selfish, secretive being, or is he really using her for his own ends?

REVIEW: This one looked like a cat-themed tail (er, tale) of magic with a little examination of prejudice, but in truth it ventures into horror territory at several points. It's not simply irrational fears that make humans treat crags with suspicion; the neighbor hag reminisces fondly over children of various species she's eaten, while the cry of a harpy can cause serious damage whether she means to do so or not, and the cats themselves have no qualms about killing even their own kind. Also horrific are some of the means by which crags are kept in check, such as the government pulling all of the hag's teeth. But, then, fairy tales were originally much darker than modern versions remember. This alternate-modern world, with both whimsy and danger associated with the re-emergence of old magic, not to mention that magic's frequent disregard for the emotions, wants, and even lives of those it encounters, manages to come together as its own fairy-tale-flavored setting... down to the girl who has to learn to fend for herself against deceit and danger when her parents, in essence if not actual fact, abandon her while caught up in their own problems. Emma's a decent heroine, if occasionally led around overmuch. She struggles to balance her humanity against the influence of Jack and other magical beings, influences that tell her might makes right and the most important consideration in any given situation is oneself... a struggle that grows all the harder when the cat magic Jack obtains for her leads to new abilities, temptations, and obligations. Few of the characters here act out of friendship, and even those who seem friendly often have selfish motivations at their heart. It's a cold and lonely world out there, Emma quickly learns, and the only one she can rely on for a happy ending, or any ending, is herself. The story moves at a fair pace, climbing to a decent finale... but something about the tale feels unresolved at the end, enough loose ends to be subtly unsatisfying even in the main arc. This feeling, plus the occasionally-unlikable cast, narrowly cost Claws a full fourth star. Overall, it's a unique, if dark, story of cats and cunning and fairy tale peril in a distinctive setting.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black) - My Review
Clockwork Kingdom (Leah R. Cutter) - My Review
Fablehaven (Brandon Mull) - My Review

July Site Update

I archived the previous thirteen reviews at the main site. Hopefully, I'll get started on site overhauls in August... Enjoy!

Friday, July 29, 2016

West with the Night (Beryl Markham)

West with the Night
Beryl Markham
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Autobiography
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: Raised in British East Africa in the early twentieth century, Beryl Markham already pushed gender boundaries when she joined native Nandi tribesmen in boar hunts as a child (in which their own girls and women were forbidden), then joined the elite ranks of racehorse trainers as a young woman. Then she heard the call of the skies, becoming one of the first bush pilots of Kenya - and, later, the first solo lady pilot to cross the Atlantic from England nonstop. In this book, she relates tales of her life and the many peculiar characters and incidents that led her to that moment in the international spotlight.

REVIEW: My family has ties with the world of aviation, through my grandfather and my father, so I grew up listening to tales of airplanes and pilots - hence, me giving this title a try when I saw the eBook version at a discount. It does indeed concern a lady pilot, but at least half of the book isn't about airplanes, instead talking about early twentieth-century East Africa and Beryl's unconventional life there. Was I disappointed? Not in the least. Her tale has a poetic, philosophical overtone, describing the unknowable mysteries of ever-changing Africa and the numerous instances that shaped her life and destiny with an almost lyrical style and reverence for the land, the people, the animals, the planes, and Fate itself. Hers is (or was, as Markham passed in 1986) a life that, in retrospect, hails from another era, or at least a mindset that seems increasingly rare, a life lived not for the thrill of adventure or greed for fame but one arising naturally out of embracing the necessity of constant motion, of letting go what needs to be released and embracing whatever new star beckons. Almost as remarkable as what she includes is what she chooses to omit: unlike some works, particularly more recent stories, she skips over scandalous tales of marriages and affairs and other low-brow fodder that even in the 1940's, when the book was first released, would've likely boosted sales in a voyeuristic market, omissions that perhaps speak to more class than many modern autobiographies can claim. She also doesn't dwell overlong on colonial inequalities, racism, or other such issues, though these are very much part of the tapestry of the world she lives in; she remarks upon them, but sees them as things that may be unhappy but simply are a part of life and beyond her power to justify or correct. It's an interesting little gem, even if it once again reminds me how small and sheltered a life I've lived myself.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Broken Wings (Sylvie Kurtz) - My Review
AVIATRIX: First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest (Mary Bush Shipko) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

HTML5 and CSS3 for Dummies (David Karlins)

HTML5 and CSS3 for Dummies
(The Dummies series)
David Karlins
John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Nonfiction, Computers
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The face of the internet has changed immensely since its debut, and continues to evolve rapidly. For web designers, this means a near-constant need to update one's skills or be left behind with obsolete websites that fail to function properly in new browsers or new media such as tablets or smartphones. In this book. expert David Karlins explains the newest innovations in HTML5 and CSS3, which are more flexible and powerful than ever, and how to design sites that are both attractive and functional in a wide range of environments.

REVIEW: I've had good luck with the Dummies series, finding them - in general - better written and more accessible than other name-brand instruction books. I even used HTML 4 for Dummies when I was learning how to update my book review website some years back. Well, it's high time I overhauled and updated things again, so I once again turned to the Dummies series for help. Did I get it? Yes and no.
Karlins explains many new aspects of HTML5 and CSS3, and how they've changed the underlying structure of web pages to emphasize "semantics" (labeling each part and ranking content in a hierarchy of importance) over simple aesthetics, and why these changes are important. He also explains how many special tricks that used to require Javascript and such can now be done strictly with HTML5 and CSS3, including gradients and simple animations. But it all assumes a basic general idea of HTML (and even CSS), one that true, green newcomers to the field of web design may not have. It also tends to foist off further explanations with the oft-repeated phrase that this or that concept is "beyond the scope of this book." Karlins likes to show off fancy tricks, at the expense of more basic layout designs and discussions - which, considering the differences in how various devices view websites, could've used more discussion in a book ostensibly aimed at us "dummy" beginners. I, for one, would've found that more useful than several pages on how to make a navigation button warp and animate with CSS3. Fancy tricks are optional; cross-platform web site functionality is essential. The final "Part of Tens", a feature of most Dummies books, seemed a little scattershot, too, though it did contain some interesting resource links.
Did it help me, in the end? Yes, it did, but I know I'm going to need to look elsewhere for further instruction before I know enough to actually begin revamping my web presence - a feeling I don't recall having after reading previous Dummies books. I suppose the whole subject of web design has evolved to the point that no one book can really cover the topic, even the basics, though part of me thinks that this one could've been a little more comprehensive if it sacrificed some of the more advanced stuff.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Newbies Guide to Nook HD and Nook HD+ (Minute Help Guides) - My Review
So You Want an Author Platform? (Louise Wise) - My Review

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

League of Dragons (Naomi Novik)

League of Dragons
(The Temeraire series, Book 9)
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: With Napoleon's eye blackened by the rout in Russia, when a plan to unchain the abused Russian covert dragons backfired, the tide in the years-long war may be turning... but victory is far from certain. The exiled Chinese Celestial dragon Lien has applied her country's prodigious knowledge of dragon husbandry to the Emperor's breeding program, in addition to convincing Napoleon to begin treating the country's dragons as citizens, not mere beasts. Now, word is spreading that Napoleon will carve up the whole world between dragons should they come to his banner - even in defiance of their countries and keepers: a powerful incentive to those who have been harried, abused, and even hunted in their native lands. Once again, former naval captain Will Laurence and his dragon companion Temeraire find themselves entangled in knots of intrigue and politics as they approach the final showdown with Napoleon, one that will decide the future of Europe - and the fate of its many dragons.

REVIEW:I've been enjoying Novik's alternate world through eight books, a world that has come to outshine its somewhat-stretched storyline and bloated cast of characters. This finale embodied my mixed feelings over the series as a whole. On the plus side, I enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite characters, and the continuing development of Temeraire's ambitions to improve the lot of his own species in England and beyond to a level on par with his native China. Some of the twists encountered were intriguing, and more Napoleonic battles unfold amidst plotting and scheming. On the other hand, Novik's story had sprawled so far, with so many side characters and subplots, that she couldn't hope to touch bases with, let alone wrap up, all of them. So I couldn't help feeling a little cheated on some accounts. (I also would've liked to visit North America; once again, intriguing hints were dropped of the Native Americans' unusual relationship with their dragons, yet hints are all that we readers were given... a serious oversight after Novik went out of her way to visit every other inhabited continent.) The main arc itself took some twists and turns, finally wrapping up - but it did so in a manner that miffed me the more I considered it, in addition to avoiding a final confrontation that most of the series had been building to (which I can't specify without potential spoilers, but which seemed to me quite integral to the main story thread.) While some major events tie up, it ends with enough unsatisfying loose ends dangling to make me wonder if Novik intentionally left the door cracked for future novels in this world, at the expense of full closure for the characters and arcs she already had in play. While I enjoyed the majority of the Temeraire series, and I found her many dragon-altered world cultures very interesting and imaginative, ultimately I walked away wondering if it needed to be quite so long, or end in quite so manipulated a manner. (That's not to say I wouldn't read on if more books appear... though I believe I'll wait for paperback editions, or perhaps the library, next time around.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
The Thousand Names (Django Wexler) - My Review

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dragon Magic (Andre Norton)

Dragon Magic
(The Magic Sequence)
Andre Norton
Ace
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: It's a new year and a new school for middle-grade boys Sig, George, Artie, and Kim... and they couldn't be more miserable. Sig fears he'll never be able to keep up with his classes. George, swept up in his elder brother's Black Power fervor, demands to be called Ras (Swahili for "Prince"), contributing to growing family tensions. Small Artie just wants to be part of the in-crowd, though no matter how hard he tries he can't seem to get the attention of the cool football boys. And lonely Kim hides behind books, sick of being the only Asian kid on the bus. Then Sig gets it into his head to sneak into the abandoned old house near the bus stop, the one due to be demolished soon, to see if the eccentric old man who lived there left any secret treasures behind. It's there that he finds the strange dragon puzzle with its jewel-like pieces, pieces that seem to come alive. As each boy finds the box, each assembles one of the four dragons - and each is swept up in fantastic tales of ancient and magical times, back when dragons and mystery still walked the earth.

REVIEW: Ages ago, I started - but ultimately abandoned - this book; as an impatient child, the lack of actual dragons for good stretches bored me. But I remembered what I'd read of it, and it lurked and nagged at me for over twenty years. When I found a copy for two bucks (one, with a half-off coupon), I decided to give it another try, now that I'm undeniably older, theoretically wiser, and marginally more patient. I'm glad I did, though I can still see why my younger self tired of it.
Andre Norton wrote middle grade and young adult adventures and genre fiction long before they were separate categories in a bookstore. They're full of imagination and action, but also full of dated stereotypes and a somewhat stiff, formal writing style. (They also tend to be boy-oriented, likely because high adventure with boys was much more marketable.) Norton's multicultural cast has a few unfortunate stereotypes here and there, particularly with George/"Ras" and the whole Black Power movement that was in such high fervor in the 1970's when this tale was published (not to mention Asian Kim's dutiful studiousness.) Beyond that, though, it's actually a decent tale of adventure, with some life lessons thrown in for good measure. The boys each become part of ancient myths and tales from four corners of the world, living through Sigurd's encounter with Fafnir in Norse Germany, the tale of Daniel and the dragon of Babylon, the final days of the "real" King Artos Pendragon of Britain, and the ancient chaos of war-torn Han (China) and a principled hero known as the Slumbering Dragon. If Norton's depictions of ancient times and cultures look a little stilted by today's standards, well, this wasn't meant to be a scholarly work but an entertaining story, plus she was deliberately mimicking the stylized version of reality often presented in epics. It's a story that would likely still entertain readers today, if they can get past some of the dated elements to rediscover it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Do-It-Yourself Magic (Ruth Chew) - My Review
Knight's Castle (Edward Eager) - My Review
The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - My Review

Saturday, July 16, 2016

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)

And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie
HarperCollins
Fiction, Suspense
***** (Great)


DESCRIPTION: Mysterious invitations summon ten strangers to the mansion on Soldier Island, just off the Devon coast of England. Each were promised something different - a job, a vacation, a reunion with old friends - but what they find instead is a devious trap rigged by a madman, a trap intended to render long-overdue justice. Can they unite long enough to outwit their tormentor, or is the murderous mastermind among them from the start?

REVIEW: Agatha Christie is considered one of the all-time great writers of mystery and suspense, but I haven't tried reading her works until now. I'm used to classics being somewhat disappointing after the hype. Here, I was pleasantly surprised. Christie manages the tricky feat of establishing ten distinctive characters. They start out as name soup, but become their own people remarkably early on, each with their own burdens of guilt and their own way of handling the situation and the stress. Inner demons come out to play as impossible murders stack up, keeping the reader (well, me, at least) guessing the whole way through. It holds up very well today despite being 70-odd years old, and it reads fast. This story may not be the first of its kind (I haven't researched, and am not a huge mystery/suspense fan to know such things), but it set a very high standard for all subsequent tales of secretive strangers gathered in a remote location to be picked off. I found it quite enjoyable, and expect I'll be catching up on more of Christie's classics.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review
Murder By Death- Amazon DVD link

Friday, July 15, 2016

Fools Like Us (Charlie Crane)

Fools Like Us
Charlie Crane
Torrid Books
Fiction, Romance
** (Bad)


DESCRIPTION: Working with an LA law office, Chris often sees people at their worst, but he's learned not to judge. After all, his own life is hardly a rose garden: when his marriage collapsed, his ex Mel took their daughter Trish across country to live with her new husband Charles, a stern man with more money than Chris will see in a lifetime. When he meets Billie, victim of an abusive husband, sparks fly - and, after half a joint and a couple drinks, so do caution and clothes. But there's more to this budding relationship than mere sex... or so he thinks. When concerns arise over how Trish is being treated by her stepfather, who lives awfully well for his apparent means, Chris and Billie head to New York City to find out what's going on - a trip that may teach them both more than they wanted to know about their new love, and themselves.

REVIEW: As a disclaimer, I was asked to review this book, though I purchased my own copy. I read romances occasionally, and this one was supposed to have a touch of suspense on the side, so it looked potentially interesting. It turned out to be more of an erotica novel than a romance, though, and the suspense by and large failed to materialize.
Chris starts out as a deeply flawed, wounded soul, whose desire for intimacy led him to a string of infidelities and ultimately cost him his family... yet he hasn't learned his lesson, and never really does, jumping in the sack with Billie while the ashes of their shared joint are barely cool. He bangs her everywhere, in most every way, even when she's half asleep. (I guess love means never having to ask for consent - despite Billie coming from an abusive relationship. So... what, her husband treating her body as his own personal plaything was wrong, but with Chris it's right? Or is it from every man it's right, as Chris isn't the only man to take liberties? I understand this is a "thing" for some people, but taking the consent factor out altogether just gives off an icky vibe in this day and age.) Billie is supposed to be just as lost as he is in life and love, having hooked up with a loser who only got worse through financial and personal failures, yet she also fails to learn much from her past, and some of what was set up as abuse... without giving away spoilers, let's just say there's a distinct shift in tone about the incidents and her level of consent as the story progresses. Both seem incapable of separating true intimacy from sex, despite long - pages long, in some instances - discourses on how special and wonderful this new thing between them is. Some of it adds some character depth, but it grows repetitious quickly. It got to the point where I was skimming the sex scenes, because they were so frequent and often did so little to advance the plot or characters. (When sex scenes are skimmed in erotica, something's wrong...)
Speaking of the plot, it felt rather stretched, puffed out by the sex, the aforementioned discourses on the relationship, and other meandering details. As one example: at one point, Chris sets out to meet a PI whom he intends to use to dig up dirt on the evil stepfather Charles. Not counting the initial phone call where they arrange their first meeting (at a dive bar), Chris spends ten pages waiting fruitlessly in said dive bar for the PI to show (while an overaged waitress alternates between flirting with him and yelling at the barkeeper), then four pages go into a cab ride where the PI reveals himself, and roughly ten more pages cover a prolonged and circular conversation outside the cab before Chris and the PI finally agree to work together - and not a single page or line in that time frame refers to the details of the case (and the plot) itself! Simply establishing the PI character should not have taken nearly that long, and the whole bit in the dive bar never once comes back into play... yet this sort of pattern plays out again and again (and again) throughout the book: seemingly simple things occur, eating large amounts of page count and sometimes leading to sexual encounters, at the end of which the story has barely advanced. Things become mildly more tense when the relationship between Billie and Chris is threatened by a phone call from Billie's husband - a call which, despite Chris knowing what type of man he is, and despite the many pages devoted to his seemingly innate trust of his new lover, immediately throws a monkey wrench into his happiness. (Suddenly the drunkard wife-beater is a more trustworthy source than the woman he's come to love despite, even because of, her flaws?) But it doesn't seem to matter, ultimately, as the climax finally saunters into the final pages, almost out of the blue. Then it ends... in a way that literally had me staring at my Kindle, wondering what the point of the whole thing was (aside from the sex), and if it really was supposed to imply that one man swooped in to save (or attempt to save) the women in his life from their own poor choices without having to deal with his own flaws in any meaningful fashion.
Ultimately, this was less the romance it promised to be, and more of a steamy, prolonged roll in the hay, with a little distracting side-story thrown in.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) - My Review
Step Into My Parlor (Jan Hudson) - My Review

Monday, July 11, 2016

Endymion Spring (Matthew Skelton)

Endymion Spring
Matthew Skelton
Delacorte Press
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Oxford is full of libraries and books, a centuries-old repository of learning and a veritable magnet for scholars of all stripes and ages. Blake Winters wants no part of it... especially not when his father's back home in America while his mother pursues her career with her typical single-minded zeal. His kid sister Duck (so nicknamed for the raincoat she always wears), a genius who makes his academic record look even poorer than it is, only makes his situation more miserable. He figures his stay in Oxford will be nothing but dreary days and loneliness... until he finds the strange book in the library, an old leather-bound volume whose blank pages show words only he can see. Suddenly, the unscholarly Blake is swept up in the tale of a magical book with a long, dark history of corruption and blood, a book that has ruined countless lives, and for which someone in modern-day Oxford is willing to kill.

REVIEW: The concept looked interesting (not to mention the price at the warehouse sale), so I figured it was worth a shot. Skelton clearly loves Oxford and books, sparing few words as he waxes poetic about both. At some point, it passes from intriguing detail to dull background noise. Blake isn't a particularly dynamic character, for all that we're stuck following him for half the book. Most of the time he does nothing, or does the exact wrong thing; the only times things go right are when events walk up to him prepackaged with a bow. But, then, this book has a strong religious subtext, with heavy doses of Destiny and Divine Will. The mysterious book everyone is willing to kill for apparently came from the skin of a dragon as old as the earth, containing all wisdom of all time, and generic sin is an acceptable reason most people can't open it, let alone read it. So what makes Blake special? It's just a matter of being "chosen", by the book or by divine powers... in which case, there's not much suspense, since the book - having access to all wisdom as it does - would be unlikely to choose someone who wouldn't win in the end, even if they have to be led around by the nose, drug by the arm, and pushed from behind towards the final confrontation. Enemies are flat, evil cutouts, with no motivations beyond simple selfish greed (which is typical for religious-themed young adult fiction, in my limited reading experience.) Sections of Endymion Spring flash back to 1400's Germany, where the mute Endymion Spring, apprentice to the famed Gutenberg, first encounters the dragon-skin and the schemes of the diabolical Fust, who invests in Gutenberg's new printing press for nefarious reasons. These flashbacks feel drawn out and often listless, not unlike Blake's part of the story. Add in a number of other minor irritations (Blake referring to his parents by their first and last names, drifting point of view at several spots, a tangle of overwhelmingly-male peripheral characters who ultimately turn into red herrings, and so forth), and the end result is an unfortunately bland read. If you're already an enthusiast of book history and scholarly mysteries and the allure of Oxford, you'll likely enjoy this book. If not, this tome is unlikely to spark that interest.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
Libriomancer (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup) - My Review

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Fate Worse Than Dragons (John Moore)

A Fate Worse Than Dragons
John Moore
Ace
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: One of the universal laws of life is that money and rank trump romance... but, at least in the Twenty Kingdoms, True Love and heroism trump money and rank. So, when Princess Gloria and Sir Terry fall in love, all they have to do in order to secure a happily-ever-after is for Terry to earn her hand through heroism - say, by slaying a dragon. But things go wrong when rezoning puts the dragon he killed in the neighboring kingdom... and while that's being straightened out, Gloria's parents sign engagement contracts with the prosperous Westfield family, owners of the wildly popular (if controversial) sliced bread patent. But this is the Twenty Kingdoms: heroics can beat even contract law. The princess simply arranges to kidnap herself, and her knight in shining armor will ride to her rescue. At least, that was the plan. Another universal law of life is that even the best-laid plans invariably go haywire...

REVIEW: John Moore's fantasy parodies are lightweight, fast reads, taking fairy tale tropes and stereotypes and turning them on their ear. I'm not sure he covered much new ground here, though. The characters are fun for what they are, but retain enough cliche traits (particularly sexist traits) to be subtly irritating up to the end. The story moves decently, at least, with some nice plays on the genre and a few sudden turns. Moore's humor not only tweaks old-fashioned fantasy tropes, but gender roles, politics, sex, and even GMOs, as people ponder the long-term safety and lack of labeling on the new-fangled pre-sliced bread. As with all humor, it can be a little hit-and-miss, and some of the running jokes felt a bit stale by the end. For the most part, it was a fun read, short enough not to overstay its welcome, but it also felt a bit familiar from other Moore titles. It was this feeling of been-there-done-that that ultimately (barely) cost it a full fourth star, though I'd still recommend this if you're looking for a quick, humorous fairy tale send-up.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
Heroics for Beginners (John Moore) - My Review
The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett) - My Review

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t (Steven Pressfield)

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
Steven Pressfield
Black Irish Entertainment LLC
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Be they screenwriters or novelists, poets or essayists, every writer loves their words and ideas and can't wait to share them with the world. All too often, the world couldn't care less. How can you make them care? A veteran writer offers advice in this collection of lessons culled from years in advertising, screenwriting, and more.

REVIEW: I grabbed this for my Kindle during a freebie promotional window, having only vaguely heard of the author and his works before. He doesn't mince words here, bluntly delivering facts that all writers in all media simply have to accept before they can begin grappling with them. After giving the bad news (nobody out there is watching the clock, waiting with bated breath for the moment your shining words appear in their lives), Pressfield offers solutions that address many of the major problems standing between the would-be writer (or speaker, or playwright, etc.) and the general public. Coming from an advertising and Hollywood background, he tends to be direct, without any college literature class puffery; when he talks about concept and theme, he's not talking about how to dissect Melville or Austen, but about how to make your message relatable and attractive to the customer, i.e. the buying public. Most of it's information that can be found elsewhere, but Pressfield offers it in a memorable, streamlined format, with short, clear chapters. I found it useful, especially considering the price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
Slow Your Prose (James W. Lewis) - My Review
Writers Write (William Meikle) - My Review

Steelheart (Brandon Sanderson)

Steelheart
(The Reckoners trilogy, Book 1)
Brandon Sanderson
Ember
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: David was a boy when the red star Calamity appeared in the sky... and when the Epics first emerged, ordinary humans developing bizarre, physics-defying powers. Instead of becoming saviors of justice, like in the comic books, these men and women turned evil, destroying nations as they squabbled to carve up the world between them. Some, like David's father, believed heroes would arise among the Epics - a belief he died for, murdered by the Epic Steelheart who had come to claim Chicago. That was ten years ago...
David's life revolves around Epics, specifically the Epics in charge of what has become Newcago: a town turned half to metal by Steelheart's formidable skills, kept shrouded in perpetual darkness by Nightwielder, terrorized by the incandescent Firefight, and powered by the mysterious Conflux. He's determined to find Steelheart's vulnerability and have his vengeance, but he can't do it alone. He needs the help of the Reckoners, a terrorist group composed of ordinary humans, the only active resistance to the reign of Epics in the Fractured States of what used to be America. When he finally makes contact with them, things don't go as planned, but David's nothing if not persistent. How far is he willing to go to avenge his father - and what price is too high for justice?

REVIEW: Superheroes aren't normally my thing, but I enjoy Sanderson's works and had heard good things about this trilogy. Here, though, I was less impressed than I'd hoped to be. The world here feels like something from a comic book, which is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, there's a nice aesthetic that would look great on screen or in a graphic novel, a supervillain-riddled dystopia with subterranean catacombs carved through solid steel, full of impossible weaponry and larger-than-life action sequences. On the minus side, the logic stretches thin in many places. Sanderson's known for "hard fantasy", where powers have distinct rules and restrictions; he pretty much abandons that idea here, with all sorts of random skills that grow or shrink depending on the plot and with vulnerabilities that just don't make sense. As for the characers, they felt flat. David's a determined boy, bent entirely on vengeance to the point of tunnel vision, but he's just plain not that smart at times. Being forced to see the world through his brain, especially when it's so often clouded by adolescent lust for his brooding Reckoner teammate Megan, just wasn't fun - particularly when he's too dense to see some rather obvious complications and plot twists. The other Reckoners fall into recognizable stock character bins, with a few dabs of paint to make them look original but which don't hide the factory mold they're cast from. Similarly, the Epic villains are evil bogeymen, amoral monsters for the sake of being amoral monsters, with scarcely a trace of humanity left in them. (On a writing level, I was ready to punch Sanderson for overusing the word "softly." Was the Q broken on his keyboard, that he couldn't shake it up with a "quietly" once in a while, or outright admit that the characters "whispered"? Here are these hardened freedom fighters going up against supervillains in major gunfights, with explosions and bullets and debris and Epic powers flying, and they keep talking "softly" to each other - after a while, it was like a fluffy pillow thrown into a firefight, so out-of-place and irritating the phrase became... but I digress.) The story ratchets up to a decent climax, but for a good stretch it feels like it's consciously dithering as it chases clearly-false leads and otherwise kills time (while setting up aforementioned plot twists that David densely ignores). A pyrotechnic ending almost brought it up to a full four stars... but another "twist", plus a wrap-up that diluted some of the power of the final confrontation (not to mention an epilogue that made me worried about where the trilogy as a whole is going, and robbed me of any remaining inclination to pick up Book 2), dropped it back down. It's not a bad book, and it has some good stuff, but it just isn't my thing.

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The Tower (J. S. Frankel) - My Review
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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)

Crenshaw
Katherine Applegate
Feiwel and Friends
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: As a fifth-grader, Jackson should be too old for imaginary friends. He prefers facts to imagination, anyway; facts are solid and stable, unlike his home life, with a pest of a kid sister and two musician parents struggling to make ends meet. Though Mom and Dad won't admit it, they may end up losing their apartment and living out of a minivan again. That was the first time Jackson met the talking cat Crenshaw... but that was three years ago. He was just a little kid then. But now that he's returned, the giant talking cat refuses to leave. Little as he wants to admit it, Jackson could use a good friend right now - even one whose existence defies every fact in the book.

REVIEW: Like Applegate's award-winning The One and Only Ivan (reviewed previously on this blog), this outwardly-simple story hides some complicated realities and thorny emotional moments. Jackson clings to facts so hard that he can't allow for magic and wonderment, though his best efforts fail to prevent lies and uncertainties from perpetually creeping into his life. Crenshaw defies his ideal, ordered world - and he finds it very hard to dismiss the cat as a mere hallucination, not when the family dog Aretha reacts to his presence and Crenshaw seems to know more than the boy who ostensibly created him. The cat is a fun character, both a whimsical friend for a child in need and his own entity, a guardian angel in tuxedo-cat fur. There's more to the whole imaginary-friend business than a logical boy like Jackson can fathom, and there's more to life than the facts he clings to so hard. Themes of homelessness and pride and flawed families run through the background as boy and cat struggle with burdens no child should face in an ideal world... but, then, the world isn't an ideal place, and learning to cope with that is the first big step towards growing up. It may not end with the happily-ever-after some children's books would insist upon, but the conclusion nevertheless satisfies.

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The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
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Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Princess Bride (William Goldman)

The Princess Bride
William Goldman
Harcourt
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: As a boy, William's life was changed the day his father read him an old adventure story, The Princess Bride, by the all-but-forgotten Florinese writer S. Morgenstern. The tale of the beautiful girl Buttercup, her devoted farm boy Westley, the fearful giant Fezzik and master swordsman Inigo, acts of bravery and cowardice and True Love, opened his mind and his eyes, leading him to become the successful novelist and screenwriter he is today. Only when he tried to share the story with his own estranged son did William realize the truth: his father had significantly abridged the original text, which was less an adventure and more a satire of the ruling class. Thus William set pen to paper (or finger to typewriter key) and revised the story. Here, he presents the annotated "good parts" of Morgenstern's tale.
This edition includes a foreword and a postscript about the aborted sequel, Buttercup's Baby.

REVIEW: Like most people, I've seen (and grew to love) the modern classic 1987 movie, The Princess Bride, based on this book. Some elements date it, particularly hints of sexism (Buttercup's not the brightest bloom in the garden, not to mention how the fictitious version of Goldman views his eventual-ex-wife and other females he encounters) and fat-shaming, and other elements skew modern for a supposedly-old fairy tale. Overall, though, it holds up rather well, a light-hearted and amusing romp that nonetheless has a few thorns lurking here and there. The conceit of Morgenstern and the travails of adapting an old book for modern readers, specifically his own son, grow rather stale, though, with Goldman frequently intruding on the narrative to remind the reader of the framing device. It particularly grows old in the extra material, as Goldman tries to convince us that not only was Morgenstern real, but that the events in The Princess Bride were based on real Florinese history. (He also tries to make Florin and Guilder, the countries in the tale, real... as well as Morgenstern's lawyered-up estate that interferes with, and ultimately kills, Goldman's "revision" of Morgenstern's sequel, Buttercup's Baby.) It just plain doesn't work after a while, with too many breaks in logic. (Fairy tales, even humorous fairy tales, have internal logic, which doesn't mesh well with real-world logic.) These extras read less like an author augmenting a story and more like a guy who loves the sound of his own voice so much he won't shut up, even in print. As for the fragment of the "sequel," I'm not entirely sure what the point of it was, if Goldman has no intention of finishing it. It also feels forced, particularly the Edgar Cayce reference, without the smooth flow of the main body of The Princess Bride. Taken altogether, despite some hiccups and bumps from the overplayed "Morgenstern was real" angle, this is a rather good yarn of adventure, danger, and - of course - True Love.

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The Princess Bride- Amazon DVD Link