Monday, November 13, 2017

Crap Kingdom (D. C. Pierson)

Crap Kingdom
D. C. Pierson
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Tenth-grader Tom Parking always dreamed of being whisked away to a magical world, the Chosen One fulfilling some ancient prophecy or another, maybe even earning a kiss from the requisite beautiful princess, but he figures the closest he'll ever get to leaving Earth is if his drama club stages The Wizard of Oz. He's just too ordinary for that kind of thing to ever happen to him.
Or so he thinks, until the wizard Gark turns up.
Now that he's been whisked away and named the Chosen One, Tom should be ecstatic, but the hard truth is that the kingdom he's supposed to save... really stinks. Literally, more often than not. It's a junk heap filled with cast-offs from Earth, entered through a portal in a donation bin behind the local K-Mart. The people are perpetually depressed. The king, who doesn't believe in prophecies or the treacherous hope they bring, hates him. The wizard's more likely to light himself on fire than cast a useful spell. And the beautiful princess is kind of a jerk. Plus this whole thing about traveling back and forth to another world has got to wreak havoc with his grades, and Mom's already threatening to make him drop drama class if he can't improve his report card. When the king offers him a job cleaning snot out of rat noses, Tom figures this whole "Chosen One" thing's more trouble than it's worth. He walks.
When his best friend Kyle is summoned to replace him, Tom slowly realizes that he's made a mistake... but is he really Chosen One material, or will trying to go back only make things that much worse in a kingdom already stuffed to the gills with misery?

REVIEW: Crap Kingdom takes several fantasy tropes - the Chosen One, prophecies, and portal adventures, among others - and gives them a hard, often hilarious twist. Tom's a typical awkward teenager, stewing in uncertainty-spawned pessimism; when he takes one look at the kingdom he's supposed to save (a place that doesn't even have a proper name, just a generic mumble-sound, because even the people have given up hoping things'll get good enough to bother with a name), part of him figures that it's just his typical luck that even a magical adventure out of his favorite stories turns to crud around him. His feelings only get more mixed when Kyle becomes the new hero; the two have been best friends since forever, yet Tom finds himself chewed up by envy and, yes, even a touch of peevish hate to see Kyle showered with success and accolades - and even given magical powers! - where Tom only found filth and rejection. His inner monologue is both amusing and accurate in its depiction of a conflicted teen who can't seem to get the hang of growing up or even his own emotions.
But there's a lot more to Crap Kingdom (as Tom dubs it) than just a bunch of sad-sack villagers and a half-baked wizard. Beyond the kingdom's magical Wall awaits a civilization that has all the trappings Tom or most anyone would think of in a magical kingdom, crystalline towers and magic armor and gleaming cities - but is in truth something far more terrifying. It's a challenge even a "proper" hero like Kyle can't tackle alone... though Tom's efforts hurt more than they help at several points, as he trips himself up. It's a credit to Pierson's writing skills that I found his trip-ups believable and occasionally touching rather than aggravating; Tom is, when all is said and done, still a teen, still trying to be Mature and become a Man without any real idea as to what those words mean in general, let alone what they mean specifically to him.
The story moves fairly quickly, with many fun lines and characters plus the odd touch of mind's-eye candy, but it's not all surface fluff; there's a nice, solid structure under the humor, with sometimes-dark themes of growing up and taking responsibility lending weight to Tom's tale. He pays for his flippant dismissal of Destiny many times over, in blood even, but even he remarks that he apparently only learns his lessons the very, very hard way. I read it in a single day, and only shaved a half-point for the final wrap-up, which wrapped up a couple loose ends but also felt a bit like a baited hook for a sequel that doesn't need to happen. Overall, though, I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly for anyone who loves fantasy - or anyone who has ever been an awkward teen themselves, simultaneously dreaming of storybook glory while being secretly certain they'd foul it up even if it did happen to them.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold! (Terry Brooks) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
Un Lun Dun (China Mieville) - My Review

Unf*ck Your Habitat (Rachel Hoffman)

Unf*ck Your Habitat
Rachel Hoffman
St. Martin's Griffin
Nonfiction, Organization
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Being disorganized can make you feel like a failure as an adult. In a world that constantly bombards us with Martha Stewart images of perfection, it's worse - especially when so many "solutions" cost too much money or take time and energy not all of us have. It's enough to make you want to give up and make peace with the filth... but it doesn't have to be like that. Whether you've always been messy or have become overwhelmed by life, there are ways to master the mess. Author and blogger Rachel Hoffman offers encouragement and advice on how to tidy up that don't require a third income or a time machine.

REVIEW: I'm not exactly the neatest or most organized person, as anyone who knows me can readily attest. I'm also not a wealthy person, so closet organizers or hired help or complete home makeovers (or just moving away from the mess in the dead of night) aren't viable options. Hoffman offers advice for "the rest of us": people who live with family or roommates who aren't always on board with cleaning, people with physical limitations or issues like depression that make it difficult to keep on top of things, people with limited budgets and/or limited living space, people who have fallen behind (or who never learned how to keep ahead of the dirt to begin with) who want help but never find it in those fancy magazines or slick talk show segments. In other words, unless you're already a nationally-syndicated home show host, this book is likely to be useful to you on some level. She discourages the marathon clean that so many of us do in our moments of desperation, preferring shorter bursts of activity that are more sustainable in the long run. Hoffman also offers advice for the "emergency" clean (when a landlord or service person needs access) and seeking help from friends or family - and what to do (or not do) if someone asks you to help them out. At the end is a useful section on how often to clean things, how to clean different rooms, frequently overlooked areas, and some extra resources for those dealing with issues like hoarding. With no judgment (but with some well-placed cursing and humor), Unf*ck Your Habitat offers practical advice for those of us who live in the real world, a world that's often messier than seen on TV but which can be managed with a little effort and some new habits.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
Clutter Antidote (Caitlin Kaur) - My Review

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Woods Volume 3: New London (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 3: New London
The Woods series, Issues 9 - 12
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: On the deadly alien moon where they've been inexplicably transported, the staff and students of Bay View Preparatory High School continue their struggle to survive. As student president Maria steps into the void left by the deceased principal, pioneering new food gathering methods, the six students who followed the arrow-stone into the woods have been taken to New London, a city founded two hundred years ago by a previous wave of human abductees. What looks like a sanctuary, however, turns out to be a trap. Even now, soldiers from New London, led by the traitor Coach Clay, head back to the school to "incorporate" the Americans into what amounts to slavery. Meanwhile, Adrian has given himself completely to the powers in the artifact stones - but has he lost all trace of his humanity?

REVIEW: The third installment adds some nice twists to the plot and characters, while introducing new allies and enemies. The alien energies behind the artifacts and the malevolent woods still threaten, but the more immediate human threat takes (temporary) precedence, as friendships are tested and old antagonists resurface. I look forward to seeing where the tale goes from here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Abarat (Clive Barker) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review
Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (James Rollins) - My Review

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E. L. Konigsburg)

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
E. L. Konigsburg
Atheneum Books
Fiction, CH General Fiction/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When young Claudia Kincaid grew tired of being taken for granted by her family, she resolved to run away - but not alone, and not just to anywhere. She's too good a planner for that. Of her brothers, she selected Jamie, who is as good with money as she is poor with it, and as adventurous as she is cautious, as her companion. For her destination, she chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; not for her the dirt and grit of the outdoors or the streets. She even mailed a letter to her parents telling them not to worry, that she and James would be back soon - when Claudia would be appreciated. But once the excitement wears off, running away turns out to be less exciting than she'd thought... until she sees Angel, a marble statue that may be an undiscovered work by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo. Though the truth has baffled the public and the experts, Claudia is determined to solve the mystery herself.

REVIEW: Konigsburg's award-winning classic reveals a love of both museums and childhood, with a smattering of secrets and growing up on the side. The idea of running away to live in a museum is sure to spark young imaginations, and the characters are authentically children, not just crouching grown-ups as some writers present, if children inhabiting a now-lost world where two unaccompanied kids raise few eyebrows (and security cameras aren't yet a thing.) The plot is a bit thin and shaky, though; it takes some time before they even "meet" Angel, and most of the book before they encounter the titular former owner of the statue, the eccentric Mrs. Frankweiler - who, in an odd literary conceit, is dictating the story as a letter to her lawyer Saxonburg. The meeting itself sometimes feels like an author explaining the tale to the characters for some reason, not necessarily a natural encounter. The story isn't so much about Claudia running away as Claudia looking for something, not quite knowing what it is, and being unable to go home until she finds it. Jamie's along for the ride, though he makes a fun and valuable companion; both kids pull their weight on this adventure, and both do a little bit of growing up, if Claudia does the bulk of it. It lost a half-point for some of the wandering, and an ending that felt off for reasons I can't quite identify, but had something to do with the tonal shift once the kids left the museum, a shift that had barely started before the book ended rather abruptly. Still, it remains a readable classic, especially for younger audiences, and Konigsburg crafts very distinct characters readers will probably love.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
Behind the Canvas (Alexander Vance) - My Review

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Woods Volume 2: The Swarm (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 2: The Swarm
(The Woods series, Issues 5 - 8)
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi

**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Deep in the deadly alien woods, six students from the displaced Wisconsin high school have encountered wonders and terrors, weighted toward the latter. Computer geek Adrian continues following the alien call from the arrow-stone, regardless of the cost to his companions Karen and Calder, while Sanami, Isaac, and big Ben Stone find themselves captured by strange humans. Just where have they come, and why have they been brought here - and will any of them survive, or is Adrian right that the only way to succeed is to stop thinking of others altogether?

REVIEW: Intercut with flashbacks to a school play one year ago, this issue creates more character depth even as it raises the overall stakes. The school itself is largely left behind, save for the flashbacks, as the wayward teens become the driving stars - or possibly villains, in the case of Adrian, who has all the amoral earmarks of a sociopath. More strange sights and dangers await the explorers, with odd touches of humor even as the violence continues to escalate; the series earned an M rating. So far, it remains interesting and intense enough to keep me reading. (Plus, at least the next volume is available via Hoopla - free's usually a good price.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - My Review
Mirror World (Tad Williamks) - My Review

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow
(The Woods series, Issues 1 - 4)
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi

**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It started out a typical day at Bay Point Preparatory School outside Milwaukee. Students wrestled with college applications and figuring out the rest of their lives, while peers dealt with rejection and dismissal (or just streaked the halls, in the case of the attention-seeking jock), and faculty tried their best to keep over four hundred teens more or less behaving.
Then came the rumble, and the flash... and suddenly, losing out on a spot in the school play becomes the least of concerns.
The entire school has been suddenly and inexplicably transported elsewhere. Where, nobody knows, but a ringed gas giant planet looms like a malevolent crimson moon, and a primordial forest full of nightmarish beasts surrounds the building. Only a single strange artifact, an arrow-like construct, gives any hint at civilization. While the school body struggles to cope, a handful of students ventures into the woods, following the pointing stone in hopes of finding answers - if they can survive, that is.

REVIEW: This graphic novel kicks off a dark and strange new series. After a quick glimpse at the star players, adult and teen alike, the tale launches straight into survival mode on an alien world (or moon, rather, as it seems to be orbiting another planet.) While the school descends into dystopian chaos as the principal, the head coach, and the student council president vie for control amid food shortages and animal attacks (with brutal, even deadly consequences), six students set out into the woods, led by a computer nerd who may or may not be under alien influence. Disaster quickly brings out the best and the worst in the cast, while the new world targets its latest prey indiscriminately. It's a violent, paranoia-riddled tale, and things only look to get more intense as the series continues.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Saber Tooth (Lou Cadle) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson and Andre Bressan) - My Review

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Fix Up (Tawna Fenske)

The Fix Up
(The First Impressions series, Book 1)
Tawna Fenske
Entangled Publishing LLC
Fiction, Humor/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The day Holly opened her PR firm, First Impressions, was the day her dreams came true... and the day her marriage ended, her ambitious (now ex-} husband Chase unable to accept a successful, professional wife. Unfortunately, his name is still on the lease of the building she bought; she either needs to sell out and give up, or land the most lucrative contract in her life.
Ben may be the latest in a long line of business tycoons, but he's far more comfortable in a lab room than a boardroom. He doesn't even like looking people in the eye. Now, his father Lyle has made him CEO of the company, insisting he step up to the plate... but if that means acting like the workaholic and incurable woman chaser who perpetually sacrificed family for greed, Ben wants no part of it.
When Holly sees Ben in a furniture store, being bowled over by a saleswoman, she steps in to help - and discovers a brand new angle for her PR firm. Instead of a corporate makeover, Ben needs a personal one... and he's willing to pay triple her usual fee. There's just one catch with this plan: she can hardly keep her hands off her hot new client - and that's bad news, because, luscious as he looks, she's learned the hard way that ambitious businessmen and professional women can't mix. Or is Ben really destined to end up just like his womanizing father?

REVIEW: The Fix Up promises fun, light romance, and it actually delivers. Ben isn't quite as socially inept as he thinks he is, a nerd who (in romance tradition) is also a hottie, but he lives in fear of becoming like his father, a man he both hates and admires; he was, after all, the one who lived with the pain inflicted by Lyle's old-school style of leadership, where family was just a prop for success and skirts were to be chased, regardless of marital status. Holly's a driven professional who has built a successful firm from the ground up, but the voice of her ex still haunts her, telling her she can't have love if she dares to pursue dreams outside the home. There's an underlying theme of dealing with long-entrenched sexism in the workplace, though - this being a romance - it's not really about the theme, but about two lonely people coming together, figuratively and literally. Sparks, of course, fly from the first meeting, with some amusing dialog and innuendo-riddled situations as they dance around their mutual attraction. The climax felt just a trifle contrived, but overall this title is an enjoyable, fast-reading, and somewhat steamy escape.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Some Like It Perfect (Megan Bryce) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review
Feel the Heat (Kathryn Shay) - My Review

Monday, November 6, 2017

How to Draw a Dragon (Douglas Florian)

How to Draw a Dragon
Douglas Florian
Beach Lane Books
Fiction, CH Art/Poetry/Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons are big, but drawing them's easy when you take it in small steps - and when you have a cooperative model. In this rhyming picture book, learn the best way to draw a dragon.

REVIEW: With simple, childlike drawings, this book caters to the young dragon-loving artist who wants to have fun while creating art, without all that bogging down in anatomy or perspective. Each page focuses on a particular part of dragons or their personalities, incorporating both European "Western" and Asian "Eastern" traditions. At the end is a cheat sheet summary. You won't end up with a Picasso or a Whelan, but you will have fun doodling the various dragons for your "art gallery." It's a nice place to start, even if the art was a little simplistic.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How to Draw Your Own Story: The Dragon, The Knight, and the Princess (Don Bolognese) - My Review
Ed Emberley's Big Green Drawing Book (Ed Emberley) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review

Thursday, November 2, 2017

It (Stephen King)

Stephen King
Signet Books
Fiction, Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the summer floods of 1958, Bill Denbrough's kid brother, George, went out to play with a paper boat... and was found dead, mutilated in the streets of Derry, Maine. Thus began another season of killing, a cycle of supernaturally vicious crimes that had played out, generation after generation, in the former logging town for centuries - only, this year, Bill and six other children stood in its way.
In 1985, the former "Losers' Club" has grown up and drifted away... all save Mike, now the town librarian. When the killings begin again, he calls on his old friends in the name of a blood-oath they swore, an oath they no longer remember - just as they no longer remember each other, or the thing they discovered lurking under the streets of Derry. They bested it once, in the forgotten summer of 1958, and only they can beat it for good, but that means returning to their haunted home town to confront once again the murderous face of all fears made manifest, the ageless entity known sometimes as Pennywise the clown, sometimes as Robert Gray, but truly known only as It.

REVIEW: Yes, I suppose I'm a bit late to the party on this one. (The reading backlog's pushing triple digits, counting digital files...) In any event, the 2017 movie remake release prompted me to finally get around to trying it. Well, that, and numerous recommendations, not to mention having been unexpectedly impressed by King's 11/22/63, which made me suspect I might enjoy other longer books of his. And this thing is, indeed, a long book, a doorstop volume north of 1100 pages. It takes a lot of story to fill that many pages, a tale of epic proportions - and Stephen King delivers.
Cutting back and forth between 1958 and 1985, between childhood and adulthood, with the odd trip even further back in time to previous outbreaks of It, King builds remarkably complete characters in a town with a complex, haunted history stretching back hundreds of years. It takes some time to build momentum, not to mention time to sort out the cast, but King masterfully weaves the mundane with the supernatural, the ordinary with the extraordinary, to keep the reader (at least, me) interested while creating a growing sense of horror, not to mention a sense that nobody, not even the main crew, is guaranteed safe passage, let alone a happy ending. His 1958 child's-eye view of Derry brilliantly depicts a lost age, not just in years but in maturity: childhood here doesn't have the blinding golden glow of nostalgia that some authors create, and can frankly suck even without supernatural entities stalking the streets, but it has its good points, too. The era comes alive again as a child experienced it, with favorite TV shows and double feature monster films and whole days spent wandering and playing in a way few children get to experience in this overwired, overscheduled, and (in some ways, at least) overprotective age. As adults, returning memories slowly remind the characters how they became who they are, in good ways and bad; there's no Hollywood moment where everything becomes magically fixed by a Moment of Truth or power montage, but there are answers and some sense of closure. Meanwhile, they must remember the power of their former friendship, even as they try to evade the gruesome traps It sets to stop them. In many ways, the tale is as much about the struggle of childhood, the repeating cycles of life, and the rites of passage (and necessary sacrifices) as one grows up and changes, even into adulthood, a struggle made manifest in the fear-feeding entity of It.
The whole comes together in a brilliantly powerful conclusion, both past and present, followed by a bittersweet yet inevitable ending. It fully deserves its status as a classic, not just in the horror genre but in overall epic fiction - and this is, indeed, an epic tale, even if it takes place mostly in one haunted New England town. I only shaved a half-point for a little bit of excessive wandering, particularly in the interlude flashbacks beyond the main scope of the characters' tales.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
The Ghosts of Belfast (Stuart Neville) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The War of Art (Steven Pressfield)

The War of Art
Steven Pressfield
Black Irish Entertainment LLC
Nonfiction, Creativity
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: We all have our callings, but so often we deny ourselves - denying the world what we could give, in favor of what we think we should give. Screenwriter and author Steven Pressfield offers thoughts on creativity, the forces of the Muse and Resistance, and how to overcome obstacles to discovering and following our passions.

REVIEW: As usual for these books, it looks easy on paper... Pressfield draws on sources from classical literature to various religions to Hollywood hits, for advice that generally boils down to "the only way to be an artist is to sit down and make art." The rest is fear and peer pressure, which Pressfield classifies as Resistance, a force opposed by the "Muse" of the higher self. He starts drifting (or outright careening) toward spirituality and a God-ordered universe as the book goes on, sometimes repeating himself (in spirit if not direct words), with an unspoken implication that atheists and agnostics are lying to themselves about their own creativity or sources of inspiration. It got heavy handed enough to nearly cost the book a half-star, but overall it's a decent kick in the tail to those of us who keep letting Resistance (and the accompanying misery) win the battle.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton) - My Review

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury)

The Halloween Tree
Ray Bradbury, illustrations by Gris Grimly
Fiction, CH Chiller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a small Midwestern town on Halloween, Tom Skelton and his friends can hardly wait to race into the autumn night, full of costumes and candy and spooks and shadows... but their best friend, Pipkin, hasn't joined them, asking instead that they meet him at the old house in the ravine past town. Here, the eight boys find a great, towering tree full of lit pumpkins: a real Halloween tree. And with it, they find the mysterious black-robed figure Mr. Moundshroud, who takes them on a wind-wild flight through history, down to the roots of all the fears and rituals that have become today's Halloween - all the while chasing a phantom of Pipkin, a soul dreadfully close to its final departure from Earth...

REVIEW: With Bradbury's signature poetic prose and Grimly's borderline-surreal grayscale illustrations, The Halloween Tree is a holiday classic, an ode to the timeless spirit of boyhood as much as a celebration of Halloween. It's a story of wonder and of terror, stretching from ancient caves and Egyptian tombs to modern Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. The story isn't so much a coherent arc with driving characters as it is a series of events they experience, a gauntlet of time and fear building up to a choice on which Pipkin's life ultimately depends, a choice to either cower from the ageless fear of Death or confront it. Some kids would likely be put off by Bradbury's prose, which can get a bit convoluted even to grown-ups, and others might find the subject matter unsettling, but it contains some great imagery. It's much truer to the spirit of the holiday than so many modern interpretations, those bubble-wrapped cutesy commercial "specials" that file down the fangs of what is supposed to be a subtly unsettling night. Though the driftings of the boys almost grew tedious at times, and I could almost swear Bradbury was recycling a few turns of phrase and images from previous works (writer's prerogative, of course), I still give it a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review
The Nightmare Before Christmas- Amazon DVD Link

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Vampyre (John William Polidori)

The Vampyre: A Tale
John William Polidori
Open Road Media
Fiction, Horror
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Lord Ruthven's arrival in England's society scene caused quite a stir, the man's peculiar mannerisms and aloof behavior attracting men and women, young and old, alike. When young, naive Aubrey decides Ruthven would be an ideal role model and travel partner, he enters into a relationship that will doom not only himself, but those whom he loves the most - for Ruthven proves to something quite other than the ordinary, if eccentric, figure he appears to be...
This edition also includes an account of Lord Byron's residence in the Greek isles, as visited by the author during his absence.

REVIEW: This short story, from 1819, relates Aubrey's encounter and subsequent haunting by the monster Ruthven in the manner most prevalent at the time - namely, thick, wordy, and distant as a glance across a crowded ballroom. It's hardly a spoiler that Ruthven's an inhuman fiend, a fairly typical vampiric specimen of the type elaborated on in (to greater terrific effect) in le Fanu's Carmilla and Stoker's Dracula. The only unique trait, one that ultimately never comes to much fruition, is how Ruthven actively enables vice, even as his gifts always seem to bring recipients to grief. Aubrey's fascination eventually gives way to revulsion, then fear when he realizes just what he has befriended, though it all seems a bit muted to modern readers who have come to expect less telling and more showing in narratives. The ending's predictable and a tad pointless.
As for the excerpt about Byron, I have no clue what it was doing with this story, save both involve Greece as experienced by the English elite.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Carmilla (Joseph Sheridan le Fanu) - My Review
Dracula (Bram Stoker) - My Review

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Drew Daywalt)

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors
Drew Daywalt, illustrations by Adam Rex
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In ages past, three undefeated warriors roamed the land in search of worthy opponents. All fell before them... until they finally faced each other in one epic battle.

REVIEW: A hilarious "backstory" for the ubiquitous hand game places a mythic spin on the adventures of crushing Rock, covering Paper, and slicing Scissors. Each one meets and defeats several challengers (as when Rock takes out a tangerine, Paper jams the arrogant Printer, and Scissors confronts the dreaded horde of Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets) before the final fight. The silly dialog and illustrations made me laugh.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Shark vs. Train (Chris Barton) - My Review
The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
This Is a Moose (Richard T. Morris) - My Review

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Ables (Jeremy Scott)

The Ables
Jeremy Scott
Clovercroft Publishing
Fiction, MG Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay

DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Phillip Sallinger always loved superhero comics, but never dreamed he came from a family of them - or that he himself had powers. Blind since birth, he never considered he could be a hero himself. But that was before his mom and dad moved him to the town of Freepoint, and before Dad explained that they come from a long line of "custodians," as people with powers are known. According to DNA tests at birth, both Phillip and his kid brother Patrick will be developing powers, soon, too - which is why they moved to Freepoint, a custodian town. Now that Phillip's of age and showing his telekinesis, he needs to be around others of their own kind.
Ordinarily, going to a new school just for superheroes would be the most exciting thing Phillip could think of... but, due to his blindness, he's sent to the Special Education room with other disabled custodian kids, deprived of opportunities to test his budding powers in citywide "SuperSim" games like the other students. As Phillip and his new friends chafe under restraints, determined to prove themselves the equal of any other kids, a new danger arises - a rumor about the return of a long-fallen custodian, one more powerful than any living today... one whose return would herald a new era, and one which some custodians are willing to go to extreme measures to enable.

REVIEW: The author, Jeremy Scott, runs the popular movie-mocking CinemaSins channel on YouTube (among others.) Given his familiarity with movies, and his willingness to call them out on overused cliches and stereotypes and other symptoms of flabby writing, I looked forward to seeing what he would do with his own tale. Unfortunately, The Ables soon degenerates into a series of overused cliches and stereotypes, with several stretches of padding - not to mention moments that jerk the reader around. Phillip isn't the most dynamic of protagonists, the usual "everyman" young hero-to-be, aside from his blindness. He finds friends and enemies at school, who tend to be other shallow, familiar tropes... almost all of whom are males. Despite there being a few girls in Phillip's Special Education classes (who also might've enjoyed proving themselves to other superpowered students, or just having friends), they're gone almost as soon as they're introduced. The only females with notable roles at all are the Supportive Teacher and the Concerned Mom. (As for the latter, risking a minor spoiler, I'd honestly expected better of a cinema buff like Scott than to stoop to "fridging" as character motivation.) The story runs a little long, as Phillip and his friends push against the limits of their disabilities, get pushed back, and ultimately have to face a threat that's paralyzed the grown-up population... against a villain whose "secret identity" was pretty easy to guess, between clues in the book and general story tropes. A fair bit of padding and banter, not all of it particularly interesting, fills out page count. The ending dropped things a half-star for not only drawing itself out too long but being far to predictable in how it played out. I found myself disgruntled enough to dip the rating below the bland Okay it almost merited.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Tower (J. S. Frankel) - My Review
Steelheart (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
The Incredibles (Widescreen Two-Disc Collector's Edition)- Amazon DVD link

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Free Fall (David Wiesner)

Free Fall
David Wiesner
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION:When a boy falls asleep while reading a book, his dreams take him to all manner of bizarre lands teeming with adventures.

REVIEW:Wiesner's picture books have yet to disappoint me. This one incorporates an Escheresque metamorphosis through the pages, evoking a dreamlike fluidity and impermanence as perspectives shift and adventures blend into each other. The images invite revisiting and lingering, even for grown-ups.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Imagine a Night (Sarah L. Thompson and Rob Gonsalves) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Lumberjanes Vol. 5: Band Together (Noelle Stevenson)

Lumberjanes Vol. 5: Band Together
(The Lumberjanes series, issues 13 and 18 - 20)
Noelle Stevenson, illustrations by Brooke A. Allen
Fiction, MG? Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After dealing with strange beasts, vengeful ex-campers, possible time paradoxes, and other problems, the girls of Roanoke cabin take some down time by the lake... only to hook another adventure. April, lifelong mermaid fan, can't help getting involved when they inadvertently witness a tiff between a group of merpeople - even if doing so makes the other girls miss the dance they were looking forward to.
This volume also includes issue 13, about the girls' first day at Lumberjanes camp.

REVIEW: Another light, fun adventure at an unusual summer camp, it focuses on April, the impetuous and highly competitive little redhead who is often overshadowed by other characters. She means well, but has to learn that camp isn't just about her, and her actions can have negative consequences on those she loves the most. Naturally, it's no spoiler to mention it all works out in the end. As for the origin issue, it feels oddly incomplete, just offering a quick glimpse at the girls arriving at camp and meeting each other. It made for an amusing read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Metal Thunder (JL Bryan) - My Review
Tangled Tides (Karen Amanda Hooper) - My Review
Lumberjanes Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max (Noelle Stevenson) - My Review

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Lumberjanes to the Max Volume 2 (Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Shannon Waters)

Lumberjanes to the Max Volume 2
(The Lumberjanes series, issues 9 - 12 and 14 - 17)
Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Shannon Waters, writers, illustrations by Brooke A. Allen and Caroyln Nowak
Fiction, MG? Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After solving the riddles and defeating a pair of rogue godlings, the girls of Roanoke cabin thought they'd settle down to a somewhat normal summer camp experience... only to find even more unusual adventures waiting for them (and occasionally stalking them, or outright attacking them.) From an adventure in a lost world to a scary story contest to the mystery of a former camper living in the woods, the Lumberjanes are at it again.
This special deluxe volume includes special notes and behind-the-scenes sketches.

REVIEW: I really don't know what's going on with the volume numbering on this series. Technically, this should be the third collection, but it's listed as the second. Apparently, it's a compilation of Volumes 3 and 4 (with issue 13 withheld, for reasons I don't know), though I see no sign of an independent Volume 3 on Hoopla. In any event, these episodes build on the previous series to create more magic, more mayhem, and more mirth. It's still sometimes a bit tough to tell a few of the characters apart, an issue not helped by changing art styles. Still, it's fun, and mostly maintains the spirit and quick pacing of the previous Lumberjanes adventures.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson) - My Review
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White) - My Review

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Seanan McGuire)

Down Among the Sticks and Bones
(The Wayward Children series, Book 2)
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian were born to a man and woman who perhaps never should have been parents. They created boxes to place the girls in - Jill designated the tomboy to appease a man who wanted a son, Jack placed in ribbons and lace for a mother who saw a daughter as a vanity doll - and did not care how much it hurt them to be squeezed into shape... or how it might threaten what little bond there was between them.
One day, when they were twelve and already growing into the shapes prescribed for them, they found a strange staircase in the bottom of a trunk in the attic. Had they been raised in a family where fairy tales were told and books read, they might have known to be more cautious about exploring strange passageways - but no fairy tale could've prepared them for the Moors. Here, in a bleak land under a ruby-red moon, where monsters walk and swim and prey upon the humans who manage to survive (as often as not under the fickle protection of a predator), the girls may finally learn who they really are, and what it means to choose their own path: Jack becomes apprentice to a mad scientist, Jill the protege to the vampire overlord of the local town, and the passing years see them grow further apart. But they are still twins, of the same blood and bone, which means their fates will always be bound - if not as friends, then as enemies.

REVIEW: The second book of the Wayward Children series follows the backstory of Jack and Jill, two girls from Eleanor West's boarding school for children who had been to magical worlds and returned to Earth. Like the first book, an almost lyrical narrative creates the feel of a fable or fairy tale, if a rather dark one. From before their conception, the twins were destined to lead harsh lives, largely bereft of love and understanding, even between each other. That twisted upbringing comes to morbid life in the world of the Moors. Without knowing the events in the first book of the series (Every Heart a Doorway), the ending would be extra-bleak... and even then, it's a bitter story of the harm ultimately wrought by parents who see their children as mere extensions of their own ambitions, not people who may need guidance, but ultimately have their own lives to live and lessons to learn. There's a certain bleak, compelling beauty to this story, which can be read as a stand-alone but has extra weight if you've read the first book in the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelly Anderson) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review

Friday, October 6, 2017

Crosstalk (Connie Willis)

Connie Willis
Del Rey
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Briddey Flannigan, like most people in the modern age, is always connected: texts from work, phone calls from her always-needy sisters and meddling Aunt Oona, Facebook and Twitter on her phone, and more. But soon she'll have one more connection with her boyfriend Trent. They're scheduled for EED implants, a cutting-edge procedure that's all the rage among the rich and famous. While not offering true telepathy - there's no such thing, after all - the device allows a couple to communicate emotions directly to each other, strengthening bonds (not to mention apparently making for mind-blowing sex.) It's supposed to take at least twenty-four hours to kick in, but right after she wakes up she hears a voice - not Trent, but a co-worker, C.B. Schwartz. As unintended consequences go, this is just the beginning, as Briddey finds herself plunged into a telepathic nightmare that might endanger not only her relationship and her job, but her very sanity.

REVIEW: I've heard good things about the author, so I figured I'd give her a try. Unfortunately, if this is a typical example of her work, I won't be trying her again anytime soon. The core ideas aren't terrible, with some decent descriptions, but the plot is fouled up by Briddey, a character I could barely stand to be around, let alone care for. She's the kind of woman who, told that a room is on fire, would first ignore the warning because she's thinking of something else, then get resentful at someone telling her what to do, then walk into the room and sit down for a while while ignoring a growing sense that something wasn't right, then bar the door against those nasty, pushy firefighters who keep yelling at her to let them in, then - upon belatedly realizing that the room is, in fact, on fire - run in circles in a panic, jump out a window, and later need to be rescued from the middle of the interstate, where she's curled up in the express lanes with her hands over her ears, wailing about how the horns won't stop. She's so willfully obtuse and distracted that she fails to pick up on numerous blatant clues, meaning I had the basics of the story worked out long before she got on board. Briddey's family is little better, a dysfunctional gaggle of emotionally needy people, though perhaps the most annoying is her niece Maeve, who becomes far too pushy in a way that I suspect I was supposed to find endearing. (I didn't.) By the time the story really picks up, I'd already given up on caring about such a dense, helpless character, who perpetually needs rescuing (by a man, of course) and needs numerous metaphorical blows with a two-by-four to drive anything through her thick skull... and even then it might not take. Given that I was so far ahead of her, I wasn't particularly surprised (or interested) in how things unfolded, or in how Briddey managed to delay events or misinterpret them or otherwise blunder through her story. The ending relies on several accumulated plot conveniences/sudden revelations that were less shocking than eyeroll-inducing. Despite the hype about the award-winning author, I've read better tales of telepathy, and of romance.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Forbidden Mind (Kimberley Kinrade) - My Review
ExtraNormal (Suze Reese) - My Review
Vibes - Amazon Movie DVD Link

Thursday, October 5, 2017

My Father's Dragon (Ruth Stiles Gannett)

My Father's Dragon
(The My Father's Dragon series, Book 1)
Ruth Stiles Gannett
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When young Elmer Elevator helps an old stray cat, she rewards him by telling him of Wild Island, where a young dragon is held captive by the local animals. He sets out to rescue it with a bag full of surprises, but can he outwit the beasts?

REVIEW: This award-winning classic children's story has the feel of a fairy tale. Elmer encounters several memorable characters, coming up with clever solutions to a number of problems on his way to free the dragon. The illustrations are whimsical, adding to the fun, and if the ending's a bit abrupt, well, it is a story meant for young kids, so once the main problem is resolved there's little reason to linger. Though a bit lightweight for my personal tastes, I can see this book becoming a beloved read-along memory for children, and Elmer's a resourceful young hero for them to look up to.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbit) - My Review
Sir Toby Jingle's Beastly Journey (Wallace Tripp) - My Review

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Frans de Waal)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Frans de Waal
Nonfiction, Animals/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, despite anecdotal evidence and the work of a few often-belittled pioneers, the idea that nonhuman animals might possess active cognition, or be more than simple stimulus-response machines, was scoffed at by layman and scholar alike. Over the years, under the weight of increasing evidence, the study of animal cognition has bloomed, leading to surprising revelations about the minds of everything from wasps and fish to elephants and apes. Tool use, social politics, self recognition, delayed gratification, theory of mind, and more have been found across the animal kingdom. From his own studies with primates and others in the field, de Waal presents findings that challenge humanity's traditional seat atop the imaginary ladder of evolution and enlightenment.

REVIEW: If there's one thing humans excel at, it's storytelling - particularly, telling ourselves stories of our own superiority and uniqueness, stories that have colored our perceptions of the world around us for generations. Even as evolution has moved from radical notion to accepted fact (or at least the theory that best fits all available evidence), it's amazing, and a little depressing, how even highly educated people still cling to those stories that grant humans a place apart from other species. The author delves into the history of evolutionary cognition, from before Darwin through the strict behaviorist models to more recent revelations, and some speculation on what discoveries might be coming as techniques improve and exploration continues. It's fascinating, even watered down for us uneducated laypeople. The studies of de Waal and other scientists increasingly show how cognition - yes, even human cognition - couldn't evolve in a vacuum. It's a tool evident, to some degree, across many branches of the tree of life, even if it doesn't always manifest in easily recognized ways. And why should it? Human cognition fits human lifestyles; other animals' cognition would, by necessity, best suit their own lifestyle, their anatomy and environment and challenges. As human scientists relinquish the idea of humans as the defining pinnacle of intelligence and awareness, learning to see each animal on its own terms, they make some amazing discoveries. Yet for each discovery, "slayers" move the goalposts, changing the stories they tell themselves, determined to preserve their idea of human superiority. (de Waal differentiates these from skeptics, which are a necessary part of any scientific field, challengers that drive new experimentation and ensure self-checking on results and methodology, rather than outright dismissing anything not fitting preconceived ideas.) At the end, de Waal expresses hope that the "slayers" of the field appear to be a dying breed, comments I couldn't help reading with a slight twinge of sorrow; with a disproportionate number of "slayers" elevated to positions of outsized power, my own country seems bound and determined to roll the clock backward on all manner of science, particularly science that challenges their stories. For the sake of science and the future of the world, I sincerely hope de Waal is right...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Being a Beast (Charles Foster) - My Review
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter) - My Review

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Meddling Kids (Edgar Cantero)

Meddling Kids
Edgar Cantero
Blumhouse Books/Doubleday
Fiction, Horror/Humor/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 1977, a series of monster sightings in the small Oregon town of Blyton Hills ended with the capture of a costumed criminal exploiting old tales of a lake monster to cover a search for hidden treasure... and he would've gotten away with it, if not for four meddling kids and their dog, Sean! No strangers to solving mysteries and unmasking villains, the incident at Sleepy Lake was their biggest case, making the front page of the local paper - and it was also to be their last.
Thirteen years later, the surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club have grown apart, but all are still haunted by that final case - memories of monsters and mutilated corpses and ancient grimoires far too realistic to have been thrown together by one half-baked crook in a cheap salamander costume. Brainy Kerri tries to drink away her problems, while scrawny Nate spends most of his time in sanitariums, haunted by the ghost of their former leader, Peter, who overdosed at the peak of a Hollywood career. It takes wandering tomboy Andy to round the gang up (along with Tim, a descendant of the original Sean) to finally confront their memories in Blyton Hills - only, this time, they find themselves meddling in something much bigger than a bad guy in a rubber mask, something much more deadly, much more ancient... and much further beyond the abilities of even the famed Blyton Summer Detective Club.

REVIEW: An homage to and deconstruction of old teen mystery series like Scooby-Doo and the Hardy Boys, Meddling Kids explores what happens when young detectives grow up... and when their "hauntings" turn out to be all too real, in a story with Lovecraftian overtones. Cantero creates an almost hallucinatory atmosphere, steeped in late 20th century Americana, in a story that veers between campy nods to the source inspirations (the town is in the Zoinx River valley), pulp horror references, and fourth-wall-breaking narration that acknowledges line breaks and chapter endings, sometimes breaking down dialog into script-like notation and references to camera angles and close-ups. The characters are rather caricature-like, exaggerations built on two-dimensional genre archetypes (the Scooby gang was hardly a literary study of human nature, after all), but well suited to the not-quite-reality they inhabit. It all gets woven together in a plot that moves fast, if with some intentional logic leaps and coincidences (again, this isn't quite supposed to be Earth as we know it, but a sort of gritty overlay on the kind of world in which kid detectives like the Hardy Boys exist, a cartoon sketch inspired by reality but not bound strictly to it.) For the most part, it works for what it is, and I generally enjoyed it. Ultimately, some elements didn't quite come together, and the finale felt a bit flat and forced, costing it a half-star. A very unique reading experience, and if it wasn't quite the flavor of cocoa I prefer, I don't regret the purchase.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Ghost Ship (Dietlof Reiche) - My Review
The Crimson-Eyed Dragon (D. M. Trink) - My Review

Friday, September 29, 2017

Frindle (Andrew Clements)

Andrew Clements
Fiction, CH General Fiction
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Nick Allen doesn't mean to be a troublemaker; he just gets big ideas and has to try them out. One time, he turned his classroom into a tropical island... which was great fun until the janitor complained about the sand in the hallway. Then there was the year he learned about the blackbirds and the hawks, how they made a high warning noise the hawk couldn't pin down - a noise teachers, apparently, also couldn't pin down. But in fifth grade, Nick's supposed to be growing up and getting ready for middle school.
Then he meets Mrs. Granger, a language arts teacher with a will as strong as his own, and Nick comes up with his greatest idea ever. An assignment to understand the origins of words leads Nick to invent his own word: "frindle," instead of "pen." He even recruits a few friends to help spread his word. It started as a way to tweak Mrs. Granger. But the game quickly becomes much larger than Nick anticipated, involving not just him and his teacher but the whole class, the whole school... maybe the whole nation.

REVIEW: How do words become words - and how do new words appear? This quick-reading story tracks the growth of a new word, as Nick pits the contradictory ideas he's been given - that the dictionary holds all the words in the English language, and that words only have meaning because everyone agrees they have meaning - against each other, and against the one teacher who has outsmarted his tricks. Nick really isn't a troublemaker, at least not a malicious one, but one of those clever kids who finds school boring, one who learned early on how to manipulate teachers because it was more challenging than the lessons, one bold enough to turn classes into real-world laboratories for his big ideas. He's the kind of kid who can do great things if he's not stomped down by conformist authorities, as they try to stomp Nick down here... the way they too often are stomped down in real life. It becomes not so much about the word itself but about a battle of wills between student and teacher, between innovation and tradition. Both end up growing and learning, in a story that's simple on the outside but has some interesting ideas and themes lurking beneath the surface.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (Josefa Heifetz Byrne) - My Review
Things Not Seen (Andrew Clements) - My Review
The Monster's Ring (Bruce Coville) - My Review

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.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Deathstalker (Simon R. Green) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review