Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth)

Starfire: A Red Peace
(The Starfire trilogy, Book 1)
Spencer Ellsworth
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After years of fighting, the vat-born crossbreed soldiers of the Resistance have thrown down their former masters, the blueblood Imperial humans... but the killing doesn't stop. John Starfire, Resistance leader and possible embodiment of a prophecy tied to the extinct Jorian race, now puts the entire human species in the cross-hairs - but he seems to have a particular obsession with one blueblood and his escaped children.
Jaqi, part-Jorian daughter of escaped crossbreed slaves, had just come into port at a backwater ecosphere when she heard the news of victory. Maybe she can finally settle into a normal life, even learn to read... but it's not more than a few hours before she's on the run again, with a hulking Zarran warrior, spoiled young bluebood fugitives, and a strange black box everyone seems evil bothered about getting their hands, claws, or other appendages on.
Vat-born Araskar became a hero in the Resistance, now honored with a prestigious role as Secondblade in John Starfire's forces, but for all the grafts and synthskin holding his body together, his mind's about to fall apart. Only the bliss of his pink pill stash keeps him going, as victory brings no end to the carnage and the vat-grown lives wasted around him. When he starts to suspect Starfire's motives, he faces a test of loyalty and a decision that could shape the future of the entire fractured galaxy.

REVIEW: Starfire: A Red Peace hits the ground running and rarely slows down, a space opera full of battles large and small. There's a distinct George Lucas flavor to the universe, with the crossbreed (clone?) soldiers and the fall of an empire and and long-hushed talk of a Force-like energy (known as Starfire) that enabled miracles, not to mention a universe full of strange sights and aliens that are more than white humans with bumps on their heads, but Ellsworth makes it his own, giving the reader a pair of flawed, jaded characters to follow. As Jaqi finds herself in over her head, being chased about by Resistance Vanguard soldiers without knowing just why, Araskar comes to question the very nature of the fight he was practically born into; though an adult, he was only pulled from his vat five years ago, a mass-produced soldier who has only ever known combat. The prophecy angle was a slight bit wobbly, and the near-nonstop fighting came close to inducing fatigue, but on the whole it's a fast-paced and very imaginative story with some nice mind's-eye candy along the way. I'll likely be keeping an eye out for the second book.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Emilie and the Hollow World (Martha Wells)

Emilie and the Hollow World
(The Emilie series, Book 1)
Martha Wells
Strange Chemistry
Fiction, YA Adventure/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Sixteen-year-old Emilie only meant to run away from home. She didn't intend to become a stowaway on a voyage through the aetheric currents to the long-rumored center of the hollow world. But a mishap trying to get to a ferry lands her aboard the Sovereign and right in the middle of an adventure wilder than anything she's read about in her books, full of strange sights, lost civilizations, rival philosophers, magic, betrayals, and more. Now, all she has to do is survive long enough to return to the upper world...

REVIEW: Emilie and the Hollow World is a bit of an odd duck as stories go. Emilie's adventure has a throwback feel to it, like something out of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, set in a world where magic is real and science (or something like it) is in the hands of often-wealthy "philosophers." The Hollow World is full of strange sights and wonders and dangers aplenty, straight from an old adventure yarn. And therein lies part of the problem; those older stories, while often brimming with imagination, didn't always have the deepest characters or most compelling plots, both of which modern readers tend to expect - especially most young adult readers. Despite being sixteen (indicating this was written for a young adult audience), Emilie just plain doesn't feel like a teenager. She could just as easily have been thirteen or fourteen, though these days even middle grade audiences tend to expect a little more complexity in their characters and plots. Emilie's world, for all its wonders, feels strangely thin, particularly the surface world (where the only two types of people in existence seem to be pale-haired northerners and "nut-brown" dark-haired southerners, perhaps a deliberate simplicity to make the unique races of the Hollow World seem all the more exotic), and her reasons for leaving home come across as contrived - partly because Emilie is more of a plot construct than a whole character, the plucky adventuress runaway who weasels her way into an outsized adventure among real-live grown-ups and proves herself the heroine every boy and girl reading her secretly wants to be. None of the other characters have much more to them, either, several feeling rather extraneous, and the magic system feels haphazard and oddly convenient to the plot, particularly the properties of the aether. There's at least one more book in the series, but I doubt I'll go out of my way to track it down. While Wells demonstrates admirable imagination in weaving this homage to elder-day adventure tales, I guess I just want a little more than Emilie can deliver.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Charismagic 0 (Vincent Hernandez)

Charismagic #0
(The Charismagic series, Issue 0)
Vincent Hernandez, illustrations by Khary Randolph
Aspen Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, magic has hidden from mortal men - but an ancient enemy is about to break free from the Void, the exile dimension. With his release, nothing will be safe, and nothing will be the same... particularly the life of one Las Vegas stage magician, Hank.

REVIEW: An intriguing concept, I'm not sure why this issue exists. It's like lopping the pre-credit opening scenes of a movie off and marketing it as a separate film, or maybe billing an advertisement as a series opener. It's also a bit hard to read on a Nook tablet screen; zooming in on the text in some of the page spreads made the writing blurry. The extra material means less than nothing, as I don't have an actual story to attach it to. I might read the next volume to see where it goes with its setup, but mostly because it's free on Hoopla.

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Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152
(The Mouse Guard series, Book 1)
David Petersen
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, the elite Mouse Guards have defended the territories from danger and scouted safe paths between hidden cities... so who would betray them? A routine search for a missing grain merchant exposes evidence of a plot against Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard headquarters - and it may already be too late to stop the attack.

REVIEW: Petersen's illustrated tale of a mouse society reads like Brian Jacques's Redwall, only without the blatant sexism and tedium. Like the best anthropomorphic animal tales, it treats its concept, characters, and audience with full respect, giving the mice the bravery and gravity of any human. It moves quickly, with action and intrigue and a decent battle at the climax, with excellent artwork. (As for the target age, I had to guess, based on where I usually see Redwall books in bookstores; the story may be a trifle violent and complex for young kids.) An enjoyable break from a mediocre reading streak, and a series I expect I'll pursue, especially as they become available on Hoopla (a free online lending service available through many libraries.)

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)

The Summer Tree
(The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, Book 1)
Guy Gavriel Kay
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: University of Toronto students Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave just wanted to hear Lorenzo Marcus's lecture, a rare public appearance for the reclusive Celtic history expert. They had no idea that Lorenzo was actually Loren Silvercloak, a mage from the world of Fionavar, or that he'd come seeking "volunteers" to bring back home as part of a royal celebration, nor could they have foreseen what they would encounter when they arrived. For the realm of Fionavar was the first world crafted by the eternal Weaver, a world of gods and magic... and an ancient evil about to slip its bonds and resume its war against all of Creation. In the coming conflict, all will have a role to play - even five outsiders from another world.

REVIEW: Kay's trilogy is considered a classic, a Celtic-flavored epic with shades of Tolkien. At several turns, this works against immersion by modern readers. The world and characters are archetypes, the university students no exceptions. It's difficult to relate to archetypes, as they are, by definition, larger than life, infused with exaggerated purposes and a sort of innate brooding intensity that precludes indecision or other relatable emotions. Fionavar itself is a world of expected tropes - the generic pseudo-medieval kingdom, the hidden dwarves, the secretive faerielike races (Light and Dark, the former indescribably beautiful and the latter twisted and ugly), the proud riders of the open plains, etc. It, too, felt too archetypal to connect with through most of the book. While the descriptions were vivid, they were grandiose, creating more of a stylized tapestry than a realistic painting, constantly interwoven with histories and names and battles and more that were difficult to keep straight. The whole lacked a certain sense of wonder. Five people who didn't even know other worlds or magic existed are taken for (what seems at first to be) a holiday in a castle straight out of a fairy tale - and the denizens of the castle celebrate the fiftieth year of their king's reign with five otherworldly visitors - but only vague lip service is given to the sense of awe and disbelief and amazement this should invoke on all sides. (Even though they ostensibly know of other worlds in Fionavar, actual visitors from those realms are exceptionally rare, as the powers to do so are hardly common.) Everyone's rather casual about it, often seeming to forget that these students aren't from this world; one of the first things the prince heir does is involve two of these untrained outsiders in a highly risky venture, where their failure could well mean his own death. I get that this was all supposed to be part of overarching Fate and Greater Things and the unpredictable yet inevitable weaving of their threads through the tapestry of existence and whatnot, but it created a barrier to my immersion. Still, I managed to find enough to intrigue me to keep going, and I was getting to enjoy it on its own terms... until I came to the final chapters. And here I risk a vague potential spoiler, but a necessary one to explain my rating. Skip the following paragraph if you wish to avoid it.
I suppose I should've seen it coming (everyone had found their role except one woman, so there's pretty much only one reason for a pretty girl to exist in a world like this one, with a great and horrific evil stalking the land), but it still sent bristles down my spine and pain through my jaw as I ground my teeth at seeing yet another trope played out with rather gratuitous depravity. Yes, such treatment of females was (and, sadly, all too often remains) a staple of the stories Kay was deliberately emulating, and much that was considered acceptable in the 1980's when this book was published gets more scrutiny nowadays, but still... but still...
After the above, adding to the sour taste left in my mouth, the book itself ends with an abruptness that suggests not so much an intentional cliffhanger but a cleaver dropped in the middle of the manuscript. These issues managed to shave off any extra star or half-star that The Summer Tree almost earned earlier. I will admit I'm just curious enough about the overall story (and how Kay will justify those last incidents, if indeed he does at all) to consider picking up the second book - but it would have to be exceptionally cheap. It will also have to be paperback; in case it drops any further into aggravation, regardless of whether it's "authentic" to the style, I don't want to damage my wall plaster.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Treasures of the Forgotten City (Danny McAleese and David Kristoph)

Treasures of the Forgotten City
(The Ultimate Ending series, Book 1)
Danny McAleese and David Kristoph
Ultimate Ending Books
Fiction, CH Adventure/Gamebook
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As treasure-hunter Donovan, you're on the trail of the legendary lost city of Atraharsis; the treasures rumored to be hidden there may be the key to saving your great-uncle's legacy and making your own name and fortune. Using the hundred-year-old journal of the only man who ever claimed to see the place and live to tell the tale, you plunge into the unknown. Can you survive the city's dangers and solve its riddles, or will you be another victim of Atraharsis's many traps?

REVIEW: As a child of the 1980's, I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I still have a weakness for multi-ending tales. The good ones create entirely new stories every time you read them, while the poor ones merely plod along a fairly linear track with random dead-ends. This book isn't one of the bad ones, but it's not quite one of the good ones. "You" are a fairly shallow character, far more interested in riches than in actual exploration; seen through this lens, the lost city is a fairly bland jumble of sandswept ruins and random passageways whose descriptions become repetitive. ("You" and your sidekick are also both boys - don't girls ever get to explore lost cities, here, or is it assumed girls won't read these books?) The book includes riddles and some math puzzles to work out, though on the Kindle edition the latter are rather redundant (not to mention impossible, as the screen shrinks the number tables it asks one to use to illegible size), as one just clicks on through the answer link; at least the word riddles, one has a chance of making a wrong choice. Dice or some other random number generator are also suggested, though I'll admit I just picked a random choice. I'll also admit that I didn't follow every branch or reach every ending; though there are dangerous, even fatal endings, several just looped back if you made a "bad" choice, and for some reason the adventure never really felt adventurous enough to lure me in for enough tries to reach all the endings. The target age would probably find it entertaining, but I've been spoiled by nostalgia.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Blue Fairy Book (Andrew Lang)

The Blue Fairy Book
(The Andrew Lang's Fairy Book series, Book 1)
Andrew Lang
Open Road Media
Fiction, CH? Anthology/Fantasy/Folklore
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: From Red Riding Hood's fateful encounter with the wolf to Beauty's imprisonment with the Beast, from the magic lamp and ring of Aladdin to a prince's encounter with a talking white cat, Andrew Lang collects many traditional stories.

REVIEW: Fairy tales and folk stories embody traditions of storytelling older than civilization, and Lang's Fairy books are classic collections of classic tales. Many, however, read rather stiff and stilted to modern sensibilities, having been filtered and retold through countless tellers and countless cultures before being written down and (often) sanitized with a Christian slant for Lang's audience. One can see fragments of much older stories in recurring themes and seemingly incongruous plot twists and elements, lost bits of symbolism and cultural touchstones. Some are tangibly based on similar roots; "The Bronze Ring" has clear elements of Aladdin's tale, and another story is a thin reconstruction of the tale of Perseus and Andromeda. After a while, the grandiose descriptions started running together (there are only so many jewel-encrusted palaces and silken brocades and hosts of hundreds or thousands of courtiers and soldiers in gleaming armor one can differentiate), and several stories felt overlong or too short, again reflecting fragments of larger, likely lost oral traditions. They can't help dating, with virtue invariably linked to beauty and royalty and wickedness with darkness and, usually, non-Christian roots. Lang also inexplicably includes chapters from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the journey to Lilliput. Most of the other stories were recorded folk tales, composed in ages past, while Swift's work was comparatively recent, written by a known hand, and intended for a clear satiric purpose. It just didn't fit. On the whole, while the stories in The Blue Fairy Book reflect important roots of modern storytelling and fantasy tales, inspiring writers and artists even today, I just couldn't really get into them.

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

John Dies at the End (David Wong)

John Dies at the End
(The John Dies at the End series, Book 1)
David Wong
St. Martin's Griffin
Fiction, Horror/Humor

***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: David Wong (not his real name) used to be an ordinary twenty-something Midwestern loser, stuck in a dead-end video store in "Undisclosed" (not a real city) and hanging out with other stuck losers like his best friend John (not a real name - or a real friend, in some ways, given what he gets David into.) That was before they took their first hit of soy sauce (not a real sauce), a mysterious drug that wakes them to the invisible forces around them that are often written off as hallucinations or supernatural nonsense. Suddenly, Undisclosed looks a lot less boring than is used to, with shadow people (not really just shadows) and impossible monsters lurking around every corner, many of which have an irritating way of trying to maim, terrorize, or simply kill the boys. David just wants to walk away and return to his ordinary, boring life (not a real life), but John won't stop investigating - and before they know it, they're both in way over their heads, facing an imminent invasion by a force that makes the Devil himself look quaint.

REVIEW: The title promises a fun, somewhat dark story, and that's more or less what it delivers. David's a deeply flawed protagonist, saddled with one of those friends who keeps making his life miserable, yet who is still somehow the most devoted companion a man could ask for, so he can't just walk away no matter how insane or outright annoying John can get. Their adventures are by turns absurd, surreal, grotesque, and horrific, overlaid with an almost desperate (by narrator David) sheen of existential levity in the face of seemingly certain doom and (literal) damnation. Descriptions could be crude, but vividly evoked the sense of twisted unreality David and John have been plunged into. It's certainly an original story, though I found myself growing irritated as it unwound; David goes out of his way to avoid engaging or advancing the main plot, deliberately veering off into tangents that didn't always pay off, and there was a bait-and-switch feel to the way several events played out. As a result, the book feels overlong, with an ending that feels like a flat letdown. (There's also an unsubtle sexism underlying the characterizations, another issue that grated on me the longer I read.) There are some great ideas and fun moments, particularly when it tweaks genre tropes, and it's definitely one of the most memorable stories I've read in some time, but this just isn't my cup of cocoa.

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Monday, August 21, 2017

Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older)

(The Shadowshaper Cypher series, Book 1)
Daniel Jose Older
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: It started the day Sierra saw a tear fall from the eye of a faded mural, her first hint of a hidden heritage. She always felt close to her Puerto Rican roots and family, but she had no idea of the hidden depths in her Brooklyn neighborhood, the fading community of shadowshapers, able to infuse art and song with ancestral spirits... a community once led by her stroke-ridden grandfather and a mysterious figure known as Lucera. Now the shadowshapers are under assault as an outside force hunts them down - a force that believes Sierra knows how to find the missing Lucera. Facing reanimated corpses and twisted shadow beasts, Sierra must race to solve a riddle and harness her own shadowshaping gifts before her family and her community are forever destroyed.

REVIEW: This book was a deep plunge into a culture and community I'd never experienced before, New York City's Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Themes of cultural identity, generation gaps, racism, sexism, and gentrification run through the tale. They find embodiment in the antagonist, the white anthropologist John Wick, whose research into spiritual traditions around the world twisted his good intentions into a conviction that he alone was capable of safeguarding the future of someone else's heritage - a heritage he twists, abuses, and defiles in his efforts to preserve it. Once in a while, the themes could get a bit heavy-handed, but such issues are very much a part of Sierra's world, and need addressing. As for the main plot, it often moves at breakneck speed... almost too fast, as it piles on names and relationships even as I struggled to find my bearings. Shadowshaping itself is relegated to background texture for a good chunk of the story, particularly as Sierra reflects on what it means to be a Puerto Rican teen in modern Brooklyn (and deals with her first serious boyfriend - a Haitian, to the horror of her aunt Rosa), but eventually steps into the forefront. Once in a while it grew tiresome how most everyone know about the neighborhood secret but Sierra, holding out even when it's clear she's in direct danger. Something about the way things played out, alongside the character clutter, made me just unsatisfied enough to hold it back from a four-star rating, but overall it's a nicely different urban fantasy adventure, a refreshing dose of diversity.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

The City Beyond the Sands (Michael K. Rose)

The City Beyond the Sands
(The Strange Lands Saga, Book 1)
Michael K. Rose
Fiction, Adventure/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Will doesn't know what happened. One moment, he was watering his tomato plants, and the next he was in the middle of a vast forest, facing down a strange beast the size of a rhinoceros. Finding his way to civilization, such as it is, he learns that he's in a world known as Dushara, a rough approximation of Earth with some key differences... such as prehistoric animals, strange plants, and humans pulled seemingly at random from time. Daniel, his first friend and ersatz guide, came from the 1970's himself; he tells Will that he'd do well to forget his home on Earth and build a new life here. But Will has a son, and will do anything to get back home - even it it means crossing wilderness that even the wide-ranging Arab traders haven't dared enter, in search of a legendary city that may not even exist.

REVIEW: It was discounted, and it looked like a fairly quick adventure tale. In its favor, that's about what it is. The story is clearly inspired by old-school pulp novels, the sort of yarns H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others wrote. Indeed, Daniel makes his living as a writer, his adventure tales (inspired as much by a youthful love of pulp novels as the peculiar wonders of Dushara) making him a minor celebrity in a world with minimal widespread literary traditions. The world itself has potential, a mish-mash of misplaced cultures founded by temporal refugees, facing dangers from ancient Earth (and possibly elsewhere, as some things seem to have followed a different evolutionary path.) Unfortunately, it also was apparently inspired by the flaws in those old pulp novels, the ones that sometimes make them feel dated. Will and Daniel are the Great White American Hopes of Dushara; one character even explicitly tells them that their unique mindsets are crucial to preserving the "soul" of the people of the land, who too often lapse into barbarism and savagery. (Because, of course, no other culture could rise above superstition or rudimentary scientific principles...) Despite coming from a modern world and having no real training in self defense, Will quickly proves himself a fighting prodigy, and his convenient lifelong fascination with history marks him as equal (and often superior) to local intellectuals. Sidekick natives exist mostly to further Will's quest to find a way back home - even the one black character in the book, a spear-wielding native of 1902 Africa. (There is also one, and only one, woman character - naturally gorgeous, naturally talented, and naturally existing for one of the characters to fall in love with... because that's about the only reason women appear in these stories.) The cultures encountered are quick-sketch caricatures, with little sense of depth; the Arabs are the caravan traders, the Greeks live in fishing villages, the Mongols raid on horseback... all resembling popular culture impressions, which don't tend to hold up when one does deeper research. As for the journey, it's mostly setups for attacks, followed by the expected attacks, the expected survival of key characters, and then wandering on to the next plot point destination. For instance, shortly after Will turns up, signs are found of local barbarian raiders - preceding an attack on the town where he takes refuge. Later, they're warned of "ape men" in the mountains. They travel into the mountains - and the ape-men can't wait to attack. Another leg warns of Mongols... You probably get the pattern by now. At some point, it started feeling like a game, a map loaded with beasts and beings whose sole purpose for existing is attacking the heroes - but never in overwhelming enough numbers to do more than allow them to gain experience points and level up in combat. As for the titular "city beyond the sands"... well, without spoilers, I can only say I was rather underwhelmed by it, especially given the hype. Then the ending offers little conclusion, setting up the next novel in the series.
If you're a fan of old-school adventure novels, and don't mind the formula of such tales, I expect you'll enjoy this story. As for me, I'm afraid it's just not my cup of cocoa. Despite the promise and some moments of imagination, I just never felt it lived up to its potential, or pushed itself beyond its pulp roots.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Paper Girls Volume 3 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 3
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The four paper girls from 1988 Stony Stream have finally reunited... but just where, or when, they have no idea. A primeval forest full of beasts surrounds them - but is it the future, or the past? The discovery of a primitive girl and a futuristic scientist further complicate matters, as the polluted timestream once more threatens the lives of everyone and everything.

REVIEW: The paper girls are in entirely foreign territory, quite literally, through this volume, stuck in the distant past with a young woman who may be pivotal to the future of the human race - but even the past has been corrupted by the "foldings," the temporal rifts that have caused so much havoc everywhere and everywhen the girls end up. They have hopes for answers from Doctor Quanta, the time traveler from a future not too far from their own, only to find more questions and more problems. The characters continue to develop nicely, and the story remains interesting. The ending leaves me eager for the next installment, whenever it appears on Hoopla.

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Paper Girls Volume 2 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 2
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Paper girls Mac, Tiffany, and Erin just escaped the strange nightmare enveloping 1988 Cleveland - only to land in 2016, right in front of a car driven by a grown-up Erin. As younger Erin and older Erin struggle to deal with each other, the question of what happened to KJ remains... and it's not long before time-traveling pursuers turn up, along with more terrible monsters. What's going on? Who can be trusted? And why are the four girls seemingly at the heart of it all?

REVIEW: This second volume sees the paper girls split up; KJ is missing, while the other three contend with the wonders and dangers of the future, not to mention the ongoing threat from the time-travelers. They each react differently. Erin is disappointed to see that she never got out of Stony Stream, while Tiffany can't help being fascinated by 2016, and tomboy Mac faces a devastating revelation about her own family and probable future. Meanwhile, older Erin confronts her past self and the dreams she lost on the way to growing up. The extra levels of character development underlay the main plot threads, which continue to race along at a brisk pace. It remains intriguing enough to keep me reading through the third volume.

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Paper Girls Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 1
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the wee morning hours after Halloween in 1988, paper girl Erin runs afoul of a trio of teenage bullies - only to be saved by three other paper girls. Tiffany, KJ, and Mac invite her to join their group, saying there's safety in numbers. Usually, they're just up against the odd thief or rowdy. This morning, however, they find themselves up against something stranger - and much more dangerous. Suddenly, most of the people in the neighborhood have disappeared and the skies fill with pteranodon-like beasts. What is going on... and why does Erin feel it's somehow familiar, like the nightmares that have been plaguing her?

REVIEW: This award-winning graphic novel begins the journey of four young teen girls from a small Cleveland suburb, thrusting them into a bizarre and dangerous adventure. Distrust of grown-ups takes on a whole new meaning when visitors from the future begin decimating the past... and, somehow, the four girls are caught right in the middle, pivotal players in a temporal nightmare. It's a fast-paced adventure with interesting, distinctive characters.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
(The Lady Trent Memoirs series, Book 1)
Marie Brennan
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Lady Trent, widely recognized today as one of the leading dragon researchers in the world, at long last presents her personal memoirs, which tell a rather different story than her official papers. As a young girl in Scirland, Isabella was always drawn to the world of science in general and dragons in particular, interests that amused her father but horrified her proper mother. Try as she might, though, she cannot become a properly tame young lady, culminating in her joining her husband Jacob in an expedition to the mountains of Vystrana to study rock-wyrms in their native habitat. She was supposed to keep herself out of trouble, but problems with the locals - and with the dragons - soon land them all in danger.

REVIEW: Pseudo-historic fantasies with dragons aren't uncommon on the bookshelves these days, but Brennan offers a world that is both less familiar and more detailed than many. Her "Scirland" and other nations resemble Victorian-era Earth only in the broadest strokes, and her dragons become real creatures full of intriguing puzzles for a young natural scientist like Isabella to explore. She herself is a rebel against society only insofar as her passion for dragons and unladylike research; in other aspects, she's well entrenched in her class and culture. She even attempts to set aside her desires for the sake of her family and her future, but there's only so far she can make herself bend to society's will - and, fortunately, she finds allies to help her. The tale takes some interesting twists as the pursuit of rock-wyrms entangles with smugglers, thorny international politics, and other dangers in a foreign and increasingly hostile land. While the tangle of geographic names and relations grows a bit thick and the end has a couple twists that felt a little too convenient and subtly unsatisfying, overall I found it an intriguing start to a series I'll probably pursue through at least the next book.

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His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto)

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto
Rodale Books
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since its inception, America has been a paradox. The Declaration of Independence was written on foundations of reason and science and personal education, a deliberate break from the faith-based authoritarian nations of Europe - yet, from the outset, Americans seemed to value personal opinion over objective fact and practicality over the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Science and anti-science have been in conflict from the start, and lately the latter has gained a worrisome upper hand, backed by powerful interests that play on the most divisive aspects of human nature and religion (and the worst mistakes of science's own history) in a way that actively endangers the future of our country, not to mention our world. The author discusses the history of science, the disasters that historically accompany its rejection in favor of misguided and selfish ideals, and what might be done to correct course before it's too late.

REVIEW: Written in 2011, Fool Me Twice sounded an alarm over the increasing hold on political power that those with anti-science, authoritarian agendas have gained over the past decades - an alarm that, given recent developments, fell on deaf ears. Even reasonably progressive leaders like Barack Obama proved reluctant to openly debate science or campaign on a pro-science platform, recognizing how many Americans have been led to view it with skepticism. What we're seeing, Otto convincingly argues, is the end result of at least a generation of effort by those with vested interests in a less educated, less questioning populace. How we got to this point is a long (and sometimes long-winded) tale, the creation and fomenting of divisions playing out age-old schisms, not to mention the exploitation of flaws in both the political system (which has always valued rhetorical debate over scientific exploration of ideas) and the human mind. One could blame Big Money and the weaponizing of  fundamentalism (a force that didn't used to conflict with science; indeed, many great scientists, past and present, find no conflict between faith and logic), but Otto points out that scientists aren't entirely blameless; not only did science perpetuate some serious problems, but it failed to engage with the public even as the anti-science forces became adept in media manipulation. It failed itself by not recognizing that science, like all human endeavors, is inherently political - particularly in modern times, when science is essential to sustaining civilization. Now, scientists scramble to play catch-up - but, in a country where elected officials openly mock the scientific process, where facts take a back seat to provably invalid opinions on reality, where the public has limited access to (let alone understanding or appreciation of) science, they're fighting uphill against an entrenched opponent, one with very deep roots, deeper pockets, and far more experience on the battlefield.
Otto sometimes uses a heavier (and more verbose) hammer than is necessary; his condemnation of the equal rights and feminism movement, while valid insofar as condemning the extreme ideas that arose from it, ignores the human biases and inequalities that necessitated the movements to begin with, biases and inequalities that certainly affected scientists (being human, and products of the same society as the rest of us flawed humans), if not so much the process of science itself, which has always striven for objectivity. Acknowledging and addressing those biases would seem to increase the likelihood of achieving objectivity. Unfortunately, in university settings and public opinion, the movement didn't end there, according to Otto, giving rise to the "postmodern" idea of mutable reality that he ties directly to modern American notions that facts themselves are matters of opinion based on personal experience.
The book can be a slog at times. but it's ultimately worth the effort, with a few glimmers of light in the darkness. At the end, Otto asks directly what kind of future we want, what country we will choose to be: the one that continues to embrace outdated economic myths and outright lies in the name of immediate short-term gains for the powerful few, creating more schisms and isolating itself further from a world that is (for the most part) marching ahead, or the one that confronts the challenges ahead armed with the best known tool, that of science. He predicted a hard and long road, but a potentially navigable one, for science as of 2011. After 2016, I fear it's become exponentially harder and longer...and quite possibly impassable, at least in my lifetime.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Unbound (Richard L. Currier) - My Review
How to Build a Dinosaur (Jack Horner and James Gorman) - My Review
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Bill Nye) - My Review

Monday, August 7, 2017

Birthright Volume 4: Family History (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan)

Birthright Volume 4: Family History
(The Birthright series)
Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wounded and possibly dying, Mikey Rhodes has found unlikely sanctuary with one of the mages he was sworn to kill: Sameal, his estranged grandfather. The foul Nevermind's grip on him is stronger than ever, but Mikey's family refuses to give up on him, even if it means defying powers the likes of which Earth has never seen. Besides, Mikey and Sameal aren't the only Rhodes men to have special powers: young Brennan finds magic waking in his own veins.
Meanwhile, Mikey's mother Wendy and his winged lover Rya remain captives of the sorceress Mastema, who reveals more about Terranos and the prophecy that ensnared Mikey than either want to hear...

REVIEW: The tale continues at a fast pace in this fourth volume of the Birthright saga. With Mikey sidelined for much of the tale, father Aaron and brother Brennan must step forward, even as fractures in family unity threaten them all. Aaron cannot quite forgive Sameal for abandoning him as a boy, and for not coming forward when Mikey went missing... but he must also come to terms with his own spotty parenting record, and his lack of faith in Brennan. Meanwhile, the surviving wizards pull out even more stops in their relentless pursuit of Mikey; they sacrificed Terranos to stop the Nevermind's spread, and aren't about to see Earth fall to the same evil, no matter the human cost. The women could use a little more dynamic roles at this point, mostly relegated to sitting around as captives talking to Mastema, but otherwise it's a fairly active story. I do hope there's a conclusion pending in another volume or two, though, as this pace can't be sustained indefinitely.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan) - My Review

Friday, August 4, 2017

Scarlet and the Keepers of Light (Brandon Charles West)

Scarlet and the Keepers of Light
(The Scarlet Hopewell series, Volume 1)
Brandon Charles West
Manor Minor Press
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As long as she could remember, Scarlet Hopewell has dreamed of a magical world, a city of light beneath a giant oak, where she and her family are welcomed and honored... but they're just dreams. At least, that's what she always thought. Then, one night, a trio of shadow-wrapped strangers arrive at the Hopewell house - and Dakota, her faithful dog, starts speaking, telling the family to run. Suddenly, somehow, Scarlet's dreams are coming true. She and her family are in a fairy world. But there's a shadow her dreams didn't reveal, a threat that everyone expects her to face - one that endangers not just the magical realm, but her own.

REVIEW: I wavered on the rating for a while. The story starts quickly, and if the setup's a bit familiar, it still managed to draw me in, with an interesting world and intriguing characters. I liked the light magic and other descriptions, and not everything is quite as it seems, lending some refreshing depth to the adventure. But some little issues started nagging at me as I read on. Scarlet's whole family makes the trip with her, but they start to feel thin and, especially in the case of her mother, useless and a touch cliche, with little to do for much of the story (though her firefighter father hovers over her, the sort of protector figure that heroines in middle-grade fantasies generally shouldn't need.) Several elements that started out intriguing became relegated to clutter by the end, actually. For instance, the "dog" Dakota (formerly the Lord of Wolves) manages to teach the family pet Cricket to talk, recruiting him as an ally in defending the Hopewells from the forces of darkness... but very little comes of this lesson, as Cricket becomes a mostly-forgotten footnote. The writing has a way of drifting between characters mid-scene, a subtly distracting irritation. Still, it hooked me into the story, and kept me reading... until it came to an ending that felt like a forced twist for the sake of a cliffhanger, enough so that I'm debating whether I want to continue with the series or leave it hanging on that somewhat unsatisfying note.
When Scarlet and the Keepers of Light works, it works well... but there are just enough odd bumps and loose parts, magnified by the abrupt and unresolved ending, to barely hold it back from a solid four-star Good rating. Younger readers will likely enjoy it more, though they, too, might wish a little more had come from the talking dogs and other hooks.

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How to Survive Anything (Tim MacWelch)

How to Survive Anything: From Animal Attacks to the End of the World (And Everything In Between)
Tim MacWelch
Weldon Owen
Nonfiction, Survival
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Compared to past centuries, the world is a relatively safe place thanks to the wonders of modern civilization, but no safety can be taken for granted. Natural disasters, earthquakes or storms or wildfires, can still bring devastation. Civil unrest can erupt into riots or worse. New diseases can crop up. Author Tim MacWelch and the editors of Outdoor Life magazine have compiled this collection of tips and tricks to help you and your family plan ahead, survive, and endure numerous scenarios.

REVIEW: While not terribly in-depth, this book gets marks for covering a very broad variety of disasters, offering (mostly) practical advice without venturing into fringe survivalist territory, debunking some common myths and misconceptions on the way. (No, drinking urine in the desert isn't an ideal hydration option, nor is a car sufficient insulation from a lightning strike.) The disasters are ranked from relatively minor and likely issues, like floods or getting lost in the wilderness, to less likely, longer-term disasters, such as a downed power grid, major meteor strike, or pandemic, ending with the obligatory "zombie apocalypse" chapter. As I mentioned earlier, what it lacks in depth and detail, it makes up for in overall range, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Tale of Sand (Jim Henson)

A Tale of Sand
Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, authors; Stephen Christy, editor; illustrations by Ramon K. Perez and Ian Herring
Boom Entertainment
Fiction, Action/Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed screenplay by the late Jim Henson, a man finds himself caught in a strange and desperate race through the desert to the dubious sanctuary of Eagle Mountain.

REVIEW: Though perhaps most remembered for his achievements in puppetry, Jim Henson was a storyteller at heart, with numerous screenplays to his name. This project never made it to film, despite Henson and co-creators tinkering with it for years. It's a surreal journey, with moments of danger and humor playing out with minimal dialog. The hero, Mac, is caught up in a deadly chase, threatened and saved by the strangest turns of fate. (Being pursued by a bloodthirsty Arab, a quarterback tackles the man out of nowhere - only for both to turn on Mac.) A patch-eyed figure serves as the main antagonist, though his motives are as unknowable as the rules of the race. It would've been interesting to see it brought to life in film, but this graphic novel adaptation does a decent job. It's intriguing for what it is, but not my cup of cocoa; my tolerance for surreality for surreality's sake is a little too low to fully appreciate it, unfortunately. Fans of Henson's more obscure work, and of surreal cinema or storytelling, will likely enjoy it more than I did.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Dragons (Daniel Bayliss, et al.) - My Review
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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Hate Fairyland Volume 1 (Skottie Young)

I Hate Fairyland Volume 1: Madly Ever After
(The I Hate Fairyland series, Issues 1 - 5)
Skottie Young
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/
Graphic Novel/Humor
 *** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When six-year-old Gertrude wished to visit a magical world, she never expected it to come true! Here, after a rather rough landing, she's promised a magical adventure as she searches for the key that will let her return home.
That was almost thirty years ago.
The jaded, cynical, increasingly unstable Gert may still look like a cute, curly-haired little girl on the outside, but inside she's aged every day. She and her corrupted bug-man guide still search for the lost key, relying far more on axes and curses than riddles and rainbows. As she cuts a bloody swath through Fairyland, the Queen searches for a way to stop her - even if she is forbidden to directly harm a hair on Gert's head.

REVIEW: Another entry in the growing field of fairyland adventure twists, I Hate Fairyland has some fun (if crude) moments and lines, but never rises above its basic premise to become much more. Gert's understandably jaded, but her violence borders on psychopathic, and I really couldn't care about her... or about anyone else. The fairy queen isn't much better; it's been clear for years that something went wrong with the quest, or with the girl, yet she evidently didn't bother to interfere long before things reached their current state - and seems to blame Gert for her own corruption. The gore quickly becomes mere background dressing, losing its shock value within a few pages. It's not terrible, but it comes across rather flat, with not much more to it than the initial gimmick and no promise of anything changing enough to bother delving into Volume 2.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Riding the Rails (Errol Lincoln Uys)

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression
Errol Lincoln Uys
T. E. Winter and Sons
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: During the 1930's, hundreds of thousands of American boys and girls criss-crossed the country aboard trains. Some sought adventure. Some sought jobs. Some merely sought a way to survive another day in the middle of a country devastated by the Great Depression and the crop-destroying Dust Bowl. These are the stories of just a few survivors of those days, a time that brought despair and hope, shame and pride - and, for most, an enduring connection to the country and its people.

REVIEW: When most modern people think of hoboes, they think of the old cartoon caricature of the scraggly-bearded drunkard with the handkerchief bundle on a stick, a lazy ne'er-do-well vagrant and beggar. In truth, most hoboes were anything but lazy, fighting daily struggles for survival against starvation and law enforcement as they traveled in search of jobs that were as likely to be mirages (or, worse, traps) as real opportunities. Their motivations for riding the rails were as diverse as the people they encountered. This book switches between first-person narratives by those who lived as hoboes and chapters that establish their existence in the greater context of history: the figures and facts that led to this mass migration of underage Americans, what they were leaving and what they found, and how the programs of Roosevelt's New Deal (particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps) helped pull them, and the nation, back together. It lost a half-star for the presentation, which seemed haphazard and failed to present its material as effectively as it could have. Still, these are stories that deserve to be told. On the whole, it's a decent portrait of a bygone age, with moments and lessons and truths that are still relevant in today's world.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Eridahn (Robert F. Young)

Robert F. Young
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Jim Carpenter may time travel for a living, but he's ultimately a glorified truck driver, navigating a camouflaged reptivehicle around in the Age of Dinosaurs while recording holopictures. The discovery of a fossilized modern human in the Cretaceous sends him back to ancient North America to investigate - where he stumbles across something impossible. Two human children, a boy and a girl, have been treed by a dinosaur. Skip and Deirdre claim to be the prince and princess of Mars, victims of a terrorist kidnapping. (Well, at least Skip claims that; Deirdre, as future queen, does not speak to anyone but royalty.) Whether he believes them or not, Jim can't leave them alone in the past - especially not when the terrorists come hunting for their escaped hostages.

REVIEW: An older title, it looked like a quick adventure. That's about what it is. The characters aren't especially deep, and the storytelling's rather clunky at times, with long, unnatural stretches of exposition as Jim tells tales of modern Earth and the children relate information about ancient Mars. Though not pitched at kids - nothing explicit, but there is a disturbing rape attempt as a terrorist lusts after the eleven-year-old princess - it has the kind of imagery that would linger in a young imagination: camping out and roasting marshmallows under a Cretaceous starscape, the remote-controlled robotic vehicle "Sam" (which is essentially a sidekick in everything but self-awareness), the lost Martian colony on Earth and descriptions of a "desentimentalized" Martian culture, and more. But then there's that rape thing, part of an overall sexist subtext, not to mention a rather disturbing vibe that develops between thirty-odd-year-old Jim and young Deirdre, beginning when he addresses the princess of a major planetary royal house (if not of his planet) by the over-affectionate (not to mention subtly dismissive) moniker "Pumpkin" throughout the tale. (Avoiding spoilers, that vibe takes a downright unsettling twist toward the end.) I also rolled my eyes a bit at the rather extraneous inclusion of a mysterious master alien race, the Ku, whose existence was both a plot device to explain modern humans on Mars and a way to separate us from natural evolution. (I'd say anyone who reads science fiction should be able to cope with evolution, and not require an "intelligent design" rationalization for humanity, but unfortunately I know better these days. While I don't know for sure that's why the Ku were wedged into this story, I wouldn't bet against it... but, I digress.) Those flaws aside, it reads fast and has a fair degree of action. It's not a standout title, but a passable little adventure that delivers just what it promises, if nothing more.

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A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
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The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma (Diane Fox)

The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma
Diane Fox, illustrations by Christyan Fox
Scholastic Press
Fiction, CH Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As Cat tries to read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Dog insists it must be a superhero tale.

REVIEW: This book offers some fun tweaks on the fairy tale. Cat struggles to get through the story while Dog interrupts with questions about Red's "superpowers" and nitpicks the Wolf's villainous scheme. While somewhat amusing, I felt it could've done a little more with the gimmick, and there seemed to be a lot of white space on the pages, making the tale feel thinner than it was. Not a bad read, though.

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