Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Last Dragon (Silvana De Mari)

The Last Dragon
Silvana De Mari, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Scholastic (Miramax)
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Lost and alone in a world gone to mud and flood and ruin, the elf pup Yorsh stumbles his way through human lands where his kind is feared and hated. When he falls into the reluctant company of a woman and a man, it seems mere luck - but perhaps it is prophecy. Carved in the lost Runic language beneath the city of Daligar are words that seem to apply directly to Yorsh. They tell of the last elf, who will end the age of suffering when he finds the last dragon. There's also a bit about a marriage, but Yorsh doesn't have much time to linger, with the soldiers of Daligar on their heels and the almighty judge screaming for blood.
There must've been even more Yorsh didn't see in that prophecy. Many years later, he is indeed in the company of the last dragon, in a lost library of ancient knowledge, and the rains have ended... but Daligar is more miserable than ever in the grip of the tyrannical judge. It will take all of Yorsh's untested magic and knowledge, the grit of a girl jaded by a lifetime of abandonment and hardship, and the strength of the dragon to bring the prophecy's promised happy ending to pass, if it can even be done at all.

REVIEW: This is a much odder duck of a story than it appears. At first glance, it looks fairly simple, even silly. Young Yorsh doesn't understand human ways or limitations, his misunderstandings being both a curse (as when they make things much worse for his long-suffering companions) and a boon (as when ignorance allows him to act where others would give up, and to cling to hope in the face of impossible odds.) De Mari manages a tightrope walk between keeping the tale amusing and giving the situation enough weight and depth to engage me, Yorsh's antics (usually) falling just shy of utterly irritating. Mostly, though, it seemed fairly standard for middle-grade fantasy, with largely familiar parts put together in an interesting, if not entirely unexpected, way. Then I turned the page to begin Part 2, and the story really picked up. It was no longer just about following a prophecy's breadcrumb trail to a foregone conclusion of a happy ending, but about how prejudice, hate, and fear create a vicious cycle in which everyone suffers. Nobody is immune, either. Yorsh, despite all his reading, still (and increasingly implausibly, given his extensive time reading the great library, plus his elfish ability to see glimpses of the thoughts of others) doesn't understand humans, letting misunderstanding brew into general dislike. Erbrow the dragon embodies his race's arrogance (and at least one reason they're mostly extinct); anything not magnificent enough to be a dragon is expendable, particularly if they taste good with rosemary. The humans of Daligar still hate elves, who are only memories and fairy tales anymore, but they also hate each other. These twists gave the story renewed life, building at last to a reasonably strong ending. So what held it back from the top rating? At some point, the twists started feeling a little like manipulations. I also wasn't sure I bought Yorsh's persistent naivete and the speed of his subsequent change of heart. The girl Robi also undergoes a suspiciously quick alteration in beliefs, given how long she's been under Daligar's heel and how much she's suffered. The judge never really becomes more than a madman given too much power, with rather minimal direct involvement for being the main antagonist; given how others transformed over the course of the story, I expected more from him, or at least his offspring, who in some ways suffered the worst from his instability. The conclusion also felt a little neat and flat for some reason. Overall, I found it mostly enjoyable, with a unique style. There were just a hair too many hiccups and letdowns for me to quite grant it a full fourth star in the ratings, though I expect others, particularly younger readers, will be too swept up in the adventure and more-than-fairy-tale-deep characters to notice.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Plain Kate (Erin Bow) - My Review
The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde) - My Review
Tuesdays at the Castle (Jessica Day George) - My Review

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)

The Wee Free Men
(A Discworld novel: The Tiffany Aching series, Book 1)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The quaint, backwater downs of the Chalk aren't the sort of place one would associate with high magic or witches or problems greater than the odd lost sheep, yet something peculiar seems to be happening there nonetheless. First, the girl Tiffany Aching sees a couple of strange little blue men fishing in the creek - then a great monster, like something from a fairy tale, tries to grab her little brother Wentworth. This is the kind of problem that probably calls for a wizard or a witch, or at least a clever king or queen. Unfortunately, there are no wizards in these parts, and not only is chalk too soft to grow a proper witch on, but the last old woman the people thought to be a witch met an unfortunate end by fearful locals. As for the king or queen, all they have is a Baron who hardly listens to grown-ups, let alone commoner girls. Armed with a head full of words from the dictionary (because nobody told her she wasn't supposed to read it), a trusty frying pan, a talking toad (who may have been a man once), a gaggle of piskies who fight first and think later (if at all), and memories of her late Granny Aching (who always seemed to know just what to do about whatever went wrong), Tiffany sets out to save her little corner of Discworld. If she can't do it, after all, who will?

REVIEW: This book begins the Tiffany Aching series in Pratchett's greater Discworld universe, starring a bold and clever girl starting out on the path to witchhood, even if nobody will (or can) show her the way. On the surface, there's plenty of humor and fun turns of phrase, with the usual tweaking of fantasy and fairy tale tropes... but Pratchett never stops at the surface. Dig down a level, and it's a fairly solid story about a middle-grade heroine facing down a dangerous, mind-twisting enemy with some unlikely, and not always helpful, companions. Another level down, and it's the story of a girl with "First Sight and Second Thoughts," who must learn to see the world as it really is and think deeply about not just the dangers she faces but everything else: her life, her memories of Granny Aching, and the responsibilities she's shouldering, voluntarily or otherwise. Go deeper still, and you see themes of reality and illusion, individual thoughtfulness versus group assumptions and prejudices, and more. There's almost always more going on in Pratchett's characters and stories, bits and pieces that stick with you after you read them and elevate what could be standard fair or just plain silliness to another, unique level, and Tiffany Aching's debut is no exception. I expect I'll follow this series through at least one more book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White) - My Review

Friday, May 19, 2017

Swords Against Death (Fritz Leiber)

Swords Against Death
(The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Volume 2)
Fritz Leiber
Open Road Media
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In Nehwon, realm of strange magic and dark secrets, countless gods and unnumbered devils, lost secrets and found dangers, two heroes lived a legend that would tower over all others: the tall, brash Northern swordsman and skald Fafhrd, and the slight, cunning thief and magic-dabbler the Gray Mouser. Here, their adventures continue in ten more tales that take them from the great sprawling metropolis of Lankhmar to the unseen Bleak Shores, from the forgotten crypts beneath the Thieves Guild to the tower of a banished god, even as far as the throne room of Death itself.

REVIEW: These stories, like those in the first volume, are the stuff classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy is made of: swordfights, thefts, lost treasures, strange and cunning traps, and the obligatory wine and women at the Silver Eel tavern on the side. They're not particularly socially progressive, particularly with regards to women, but such were the times these stories were written in, and the state of the genre they represented. The tales are still entertaining for what they are, grand adventures brimming with imagination and some sly tongue-in-cheek pokes at the genre's grandiose nature. Fafhrd and the Mouser remain larger-than-life archetypes who are nevertheless more human (and thus more interesting to spend one's time with) than some classic fantasy characters. This volume introduces the recurring figures of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble the Seven-Eyed, archmages to whom the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd are compelled to swear fealty to respectively, who sometimes pit the two heroes against each other in their ongoing magical rivalry. A few of the stories seemed a little short, but none of them stand out as particularly weak. Indeed, overall, I found them a little stronger than the origin stories in the first volume. They remain decent examples of classic sword and sorcery, worth reading today by anyone interested in fantasy's roots or just looking for some old-school Conanesque adventure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Phoenix on the Sword (Robert E. Howard) - My Review
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review
Hero for Hire (E. B. Pratt) - My Review

John Ronald's Dragons (Caroline McAlister)

John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien
Caroline McAlister, illustrations by Eliza Wheeler
Roaring Book Press
Nonfiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since childhood, John loved dragons, even if his world was devoid of them... until he grew up and discovered a dragon of his very own, in a story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

REVIEW: This picture book explores the life and influences of famed author J. R. R. Tolkien, who would create one of literature's great wyrms with Smaug. Bright illustrations hint at magic and wonder even in mundane settings; in the muddy trenches of war, for instance, tanks can be seen spouting flames like dragons. At the end of the book is a brief section of bonus material, discussing Tolkien's life and his influences, plus some notes from the artist; many details in the images have extra meaning. It's an enjoyable and informative read about an iconic author.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tell Me A Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Teacup (Rebecca Young)

Rebecca Young, illustrations by Matt Ottley
Dial Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A lone boy sets out on a voyage across a wide sea, with little more than a teacup full of earth from his lost home.

REVIEW: This book is simply beautiful. The brief prose evokes a sense of wonder and of loss. Ottley's gorgeous paintings create a vast and strange world, a voyage through fear and hope and imagination, as a boy faces the unknown future after an unnamed tragedy tore him from everything he knew. It's a book that speaks to anyone of any age who has experienced loss and turmoil, who has ever been alone with memories and fear of what lies ahead.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
Imagine a Night (Sarah Thompson) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Just Good Friends (Rosalind James)

Just Good Friends
(The Escape to New Zealand series, Book 2)
Rosalind James
Rosalind James, publisher
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: California girl Kate Lamonica didn't used to take risks, but stalker Paul forced her out of her comfort zone. Now she's in New Zealand, half a world away from her old friends and old life; it's the only way to stay off Paul's radar until he gives up. It's not all bad. Her new job, accountant for a rugby team, is challenging, and the country is gorgeous and friendly. If only she could say the same for the people - or, rather, one man in particular...
Koti James dislikes the American Kate the moment he lays eyes on her - and she rejects his usual lady-melting smile. She's not his type, anyway; he usually goes for the long-legged blondes, not the short, dark ones, plus she's clearly got a chip as big as the country on her shoulder. As a star athlete with supermodel looks, he's never short on female companionship, and he certainly doesn't need a proper relationship... so why is she such a persistent thorn in his side?
Their mutual dislike comes to a head with an argument that leads to a bet: for six weeks they'll play at being friends, and nothing more. Given their animosity, they both figure the bet's as good as won - it'll be the other one who breaks and makes a pass, or walks away altogether. But irritation soon gives way to something much stronger, and more dangerous.

REVIEW: It was on sale, and I needed a palate-cleanser after a disappointing read. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be something of a letdown, as well. Neither Koti nor Kate (or any of the rest of the cast) ever come alive as people beyond the page. They spend much of the book immersed in long, wordy conversations that spell things out unnaturally. At several points, I almost saw the author standing right behind the characters, making them talk out their relationship rather than experience it. There are even multiple conversations that seem intended to let me, as a reader, know that the characters all understand the difference between stalking-level possessiveness and the normal urge to protect a loved one in a healthy relationship, not to mention the difference between a dangerous control freak and consensual dominance/submission in the bedroom. I'm a big enough girl to figure that out, and I prefer doing so from context, not with characters deliberately leading me along like a child. The plot itself feels thin, with too little going on in either characters' lives (or, at least, too little going on that makes it into the book; comments are made, particularly about Koti re-dedicating himself to rugby practice to earn a coveted national slot, but the reader doesn't see any of that, so it's just more talk), and the little we do see of them sets up elements that never come into play. Things unfold about as one might expect from the blurb, with the odd sidetrack into Maori culture, New Zealand history, and more than one steamy moment. The telegraphed climax offers no surprises, either. While it was nice "seeing" New Zealand, because it's a culture I don't see or read a lot about, I wish I'd had more interesting tour guides than these two, not to mention an itinerary with a few more twists and turns.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles) - My Review
Whale Rider (Witi Ihimaera) - My Review
Bidding on Brooks (Katy Regnery) - My Review

Just One Damned Thing After Another (Jodi Taylor)

Just One Damned Thing After Another
(The Chronicles of St. Mary's, Book 1)
Jodi Taylor
Accent Press
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Short spitfire historian Madeline Maxwell lands the job of a lifetime at St. Mary's, an ostensibly ordinary historical research team performing ostensibly ordinary historical research... only St. Mary's has a secret edge over the competition. They use time travel to observe events and answer questions about the past - and, of course, get themselves into trouble, because History can be a bit of a bugger when a historian pokes his or her nose into the wrong corner. As Maxwell settles into her new life among the eccentric staff, she finds herself tangled up in something bigger. Because St. Mary's isn't the only one traveling through time - only the other guys are turning history into a cash cow, and anyone who stands between them and profit will end up "history" themselves.

REVIEW: This was supposed to be a fun, rollicking time travel story, a crazy seat-of-the-pants adventure. Unfortunately, I found it rarely rose above the vaguely-amusing humor line. The main problem is the narrator, Madeline Maxwell. She thinks she's spunky and clever and eternally amusing, but then she also thinks she's smart - only she's impossibly easy to distract, even from her own story, wandering off on distracting tangents that aren't nearly as funny as she seems to think. Because she's dancing and capering and winking in my face most of the time, often with hefty smatterings of English slang and crudity, it becomes very hard to notice the story or peripheral characters around her. What I did see leaned heavily on genre expectations, consistently reaching for the low-hanging-fruit options and ideas. For instance, there's the obligatory (and illogical, given that diseases are already an issue with time travel in human times, let alone beyond recorded history, but I digress) trip to the Cretaceous. Every single animal they see is one of the standards, readily identified from a fossil record that paints a spotty, at best, picture of life in that era. No insects, no mammals, no unexpected wonders that skipped fossilization: nothing but the "money shot" dinos like Tyrannosaurus Rex and giant sauropods and hadrosaurs and such. The descriptions were nice, but what a missed opportunity. Much of the book felt like that, actually: missed opportunities for character depth (Maxwell's been traumatized by a past including sexual abuse - the ultimate low-hanging-fruit for creating a woman with a "troubled" past), missed opportunities for historical secrets, missed opportunities for playing with the time travel gimmick and technology... The author was too in love with Maxwell's voice and general silliness to even try reaching deeper, despite some peripheral hints that her England is either an alternate reality or a not-so-distant future, possibly both. Pretty much everyone is either a stereotype or just a random name that gets mentioned now and again, the two qualities not being mutually exclusive: lots of character names are chucked at the reader, only rarely appearing often enough or with enough of a hook for the reader to remember, let alone care about, them. The baddies are obvious (because they're presented as questionable or outright bad, but Maxwell then gets distracted and I, as the reader, was apparently supposed to forget all that and be shocked when said characters turned out to be just what they appeared.) As for the story... things happen, I grant that, and as I mentioned some of the descriptions could be nice, but I couldn't care about much of it because I got so very tired of Maxwell mugging for the narrative camera. Then the ending drops some random and downright pointless, out-of-the-blue twists that are supposed to induce me to follow along in Book 2. The hook failed to find purchase, so this reader swims away, disappointed that the shiny lure didn't have a juicier treat attached.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure- Amazon DVD Link

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu)

The Three-Body Problem
(The Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, Book 1)
Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: During the bloody height of China's Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie watched her professor father beaten to death by a fanatical mob. His crime: teaching physics connected to Western thinkers, physics that opposed the "right" ideology of the revolution. As she witnesses more of humanity's hateful, unthinking, destructive behavior during "rehabilitation" labor, she reaches the conclusion that people will only destroy the planet and themselves, a flaw in their very nature for which she sees no cure. Then she is tapped to become part of a secret government project... and everything changes.
Decades later, as a rash of tragedies and suicides sweeps through Earth's scientific elite, nanotechnologist Wang Miao is recruited to help infiltrate their exclusive association to uncover the culprit, if indeed there is one. The infiltration connects Wang to a peculiar VR game called Three-Body, about a distant planet plagued by instability and a civilization seeking a less chaotic homeworld... and also connects him with an aging professor: Ye Wenjie.

REVIEW: This award-winning book, first in a trilogy, is a Chinese best-seller, recently translated for American audiences. The storytelling style bears a certain foreign flavor, not simply with the setting. Mostly, though, this is an Idea book. The characters tend to fade in and out of focus, often existing to talk through or experience high-level physics concepts: the unpredictability of three bodies orbiting each other (well, four, if you count the unfortunate planet caught between three suns, though its comparative mass makes it mostly an insignificant victim), the potential size and power of a single proton if considered as an eleven-dimensional structure, quantum states, and so forth. My eyes glazed during long paragraphs of such talk. I found it somewhat more interesting when dealing with the consequences of those concepts, and the characters, though even the latter could sometimes endure long, dull stretches of minimal plot progression. A few of the themes, particularly the flaw in the common notion that technological development accompanies moral development (not to mention the notion that an outside culture/species will have nothing but Answers to the Problems plaguing a given populace), came across as a little heavy-handed, particularly as the characters once again tended to be constructs to serve those messages. Still, I found myself intrigued, and the Ideas, though far over my head, were shiny to look at. The ending falls somewhere between chilling and grimly hopeful, setting up a trilogy that I doubt I'll follow. All in all, while the style and story aren't my cup of cocoa, The Three-Body Problem should please any reader who likes their science fiction with an extra dose of hard science.
(Personally, the parts I found most interesting were about the Revolution; from the outside, it's easy to see other cultures as monolithic, their histories relatively straightforward, but here the many inner conflicts and schisms come to light. I also couldn't help seeing disturbing parallels between attacks on scientists by political extremists and recent efforts to undermine science and logic by my own Earth-based government... but I digress.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Dragon (Mike Brotherton) - My Review
Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke) - My Review
Arrival- Amazon DVD link

Sunday, April 30, 2017

April Site Update

The previous five book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Abaddon's Gate (James S. A. Corey)

Abaddon's Gate
(The Expanse series, Book 3)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After nearly destroying Earth and taking over Venus, the alien protomolecue seemed to have completed its "program" when it sent a mysterious, self-assembling Ring out to the orbit of Uranus. Surrounded by curious scientists, the vast artifact hung inert, and may have stayed that way until an errant thrill-seeker's ship plunged into its depths - and vanished. Now the race is on to explore the unknown, starless void beyond the Ring, a race of science and power that once more raises tensions between Earth, Mars, and the recently-legitimized Outer Planets Alliance... and, once more, Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves in the thick of things. Further complicating matters are a new OPA warship whose crew are already at each others' throats before they leave Tycho Station, a ship full of artists and politicians and priests of various denominations whose original goal - publicity and a show of power - becomes dangerously complicated, a woman with a single-minded agenda who might endanger everyone... and visions that haunt Holden, the image of the deceased Detective Miller as co-opted by the protomolecule, who seems to be trying to tell him something important about the Ring and the unknown race who built it. As these forces collide, humanity may stand on the threshold of its greatest discovery - or on the edge of its extinction.

REVIEW: The third installment of the Expanse series just barely pulled off its four-star rating. It seemed to take a little longer to get moving, with new characters who were occasionally hard to care about (particularly Clarissa/Melba, the overlooked daughter of the disgraced and imprisoned magnate Mao, who has bent her entire life on exacting vengeance for the downfall of her father's empire.) Once the book finds its footing, though, it's once again off and running in a fine spacefaring romp full of new wonders, escalating danger, and the complicated nature of the human animal as it reaches beyond its native habitat to grasp at new toys. I'm a little concerned at the increased religious presence and tone in this book; I hope it isn't going to turn into "inspirational" fiction, because that's really not my cup of cocoa and it would rather spoil the series for me to shoehorn God, particularly a human vision of God, into this space opera. Between that and Clarissa, whom I really didn't care for, it came very close to losing marks, but a sufficiently enjoyable finale managed to keep it afloat in the ratings. I hope things improve a little for the fourth book, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Deathstalker (Simon R. Green) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review

The Curious Garden (Peter Brown)

The Curious Garden
Peter Brown
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a dreary, dark city, curious Liam discovers a weedy tangle of a garden... and a curious garden discovers the city.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slow stretch at work - a sadly ironic one, given recent actions intended to reverse protections for the environment and national lands, but I digress. Inspired by a real-life reclamation effort on an abandoned stretch of elevated train tracks in New York City, this is a story of one boy helping nature, and nature helping the boy - and, in turn the whole city. It's a quick, inspiring read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Trouble with Dragons (Debi Gliori) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review
What Do You Do With an Idea? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review

Monday, April 17, 2017

Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton)

Finishing School
Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton
Tarcher Perigee
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many people have unfinished stories in their drawers, attics, or computer hard drives. The mystery novel started in college, the memoir of a family tragedy, the articles on your hometown history, the short story stubs you meant to follow through on... even professional writers often have those projects that never seem to get done. Simple logic tells you that, if you don't write your stories, nobody else ever will - but simple logic doesn't make it any easier to pick up a dusty manuscript, or clear time in a too-hectic schedule, or overcome the obstacles like fear and shame that grow like thorns around unfinished projects over time. To help, authors Tennis and Morton present a method that has helped them, and countless others, organize their time and get the motivation they needed to put the final period on that long-neglected project.

REVIEW: As a writer myself, I know my proverbial trunk is packed far too full of novels, story stubs, and free-range ideas, so when I saw this title I figured it could help. The concept of "Finishing School" involves committing to smaller steps and holding oneself accountable via a group and the "buddy system" - not to critique or judge, as many writing groups do, but simply to have that outside person to answer to for doing (or not doing) what you need to do. It needn't even be active writing; just committing time to get back to an old or thorny project and look it over, to decide what the next step is, is invaluable. The idea gels with other material I've been reading lately on time management and thinking of projects in terms of just "the next step." Both authors came at the subject with different backgrounds and approaches to writing, each adding a different voice in favor of the Finishing School method. They start with a section on the reasons people commonly abandon projects (many of which ring true, though a few felt like they struck just to the side of the bullseye from my experiences), followed by a description of the process and its results for themselves and others. It's an interesting idea, one I intend to try - though I may have to hybridize it, as I have notoriously poor luck with group activities.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins) - My Review

Monday, April 10, 2017

11/22/63 (Stephen King)

Stephen King
Pocket Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In 2011 Maine, schoolteacher Jake Epping never dreamed time travel was possible - until his friend Al Templeton, dying of cancer, lets him in on a secret. In the back of Al's diner is a portal to 1958, always the same moment - and no matter how long one stays in the past, one always returns just two minutes later in the present. For years, Al just used the local market and 1950's prices as a cheap source of meat for his burgers, but then he realized he could do more... much more, such as prevent the national tragedy due in November 1963: the assassination of President Kennedy. Al tested his theory by preventing smaller tragedies, then meticulously stalked killer Lee Harvey Oswald, but his ill health caught up to him before he could act. Now he passes the secret and his notes to Jake. But time travel is tricky, and time acts to protect itself from even the best-intentioned meddlers...

REVIEW: I've read a couple books and the odd short story by Stephen King, and while they weren't bad, I never got the huge hype surrounding him. Still, the subject of this one intrigued me (and I had a coupon to burn off at the bookstore that day), so I picked it up... and was very impressed. This is the writing that I hadn't encountered before, the stuff that elevated King to his near-cult status.
Jake isn't a perfect hero, struggling to do what he thinks is right against increasing resistance from various sources. His exploration of the past reveals the good and the bad of history, a world often viewed through the glow of nostalgia but which was every bit as contradictory as modern times, where attitudes may be (slightly) different but humans remain human, for better or worse. Time itself becomes a character, a stalking force that feints and strikes and tempts Jake off his course. His ultimate goal may be to stop assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but even as he pursues that goal he must live his own life in the past, a life where even the best plans and truest loves are seemingly doomed for being built on lies. The story is a bit of a slow burn, but interesting enough to keep me reading, building at last to a tense climax - but what comes after the climax is even more powerful. King's extensive research makes both the "Land of Ago" and the characters come to life, turning the cast into much more than names in a history book or conspiracy theory essay. Reading this book in 2017 is a very different experience than it would've been just a few years ago; much of the ugliness of the past that Jake saw, the ugliness so many of us thought was slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, has come back to threaten our future, casting a bit of a pall over the ending. Nevertheless, I found it an eminently satisfying read, riddled with interesting details and recurring themes and moments that kicked it up a half star in the ratings.
(As a closing note, I still say the best-ever explanation for the JFK assassination was the one posited in the British sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, in the episode "Tikka to Ride".)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglimia) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide (Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip)

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide
Phillip Wilkinson and Neil Philip
Dorling Kindersley
Nonfiction, YA Mythology
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A quick-reference guide to myths and gods from around the world.

REVIEW: This portable overview of global myths and deities earns marks for covering a wide array of cultures, from the oft-retold Greek and Roman tales to less common myths from Africa and Oceania. It divides itself by region, then includes a quick-reference at the back grouping gods by basic roles (war, love, and so forth.) However, it also glosses over major chunks of mythology (such as chopping off often-tragic endings to Greek hero myths), and its summaries sometimes feel frustratingly incomplete. This is, naturally, one of the trade-offs required to keep this visual reference guide from becoming a multi-volume oversized encyclopedia set, but I still wondered if more could've been done to preserve some cultural touchstones or relevance; many of these stories lose a lot simply by being translated, with connections that seem obvious to the original tellers lost to those of us reading it in a different language and culture. Like most DK titles, there are numerous illustrations from various sources. In the end, I went with a Good rating, considering it as a simple introduction to world mythology.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends (Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Micheal Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review
Eyewitness Books: Mythology (Neil Philip) - My Review

Friday, March 31, 2017

March Site Update

Finally got the March update for the main site posted, archiving and cross-linking the previous ten reviews. (I've been having internet issues all day...)


Monday, March 27, 2017

Caliban's War (James S. A. Corey)

Caliban's War
(The Expanse series, Book 2)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, a team of scientists discovered humans were not alone in the universe - and attempted to exploit the protomolecule, the virus-like creation of an unknown species, for profit, an effort that nearly led to the obliteration of life on Earth. Now, it has taken over uninhabited Venus, running through its inscrutable "program" while baffled humans observe. With the outfit behind the outbreak dismantled and every known sample beyond Venus destroyed, everyone thought that the threat was as good as contained... but everyone thought wrong.
Martian space marine Roberta "Bobbie" Draper was stationed on Ganymede, the "breadbasket" of the outer colonies, when an impossible monster attacks, leaving her the only surviving witness to a strike with all the earmarks of the protomolecule. She becomes a pawn in a political game played by her Martian superiors and the United Nations of Earth and Luna, but what she really wants is to avenge her fallen friends, no matter the cost.
Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede, thought the greatest tragedy of the attacks was the loss of his experimental crops - until he learns that his young daughter Mei was abducted by her doctor, along with several other children, mere hours before the trouble began. His desperate search leads him to a most unlikely knight: Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante, who are either thieves, heroes, terrorists, or traitors, depending upon whom one asks. All Prax knows, or cares, is that when he needed help, they were there... but the search for Mei becomes part of a much greater conspiracy.
Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala has been a vital cog in the government machine, not to mention a shrewd player in the game, for decades, but never in her career has she faced anything like this. As the fallout of the Ganymede incident again tilts the delicate balance of power toward open interplanetary war, alliances crumble and enemies turn up in the most unexpected places. For the first time. Avasalara may have been outmaneuvered - and if she loses the game, countless people may lose their lives.

REVIEW: Like the first book, Caliban's War presents a well-paced tale of space travel, political intrigue, grit, and wonder, not to mention a good deal of explosions and gunfights. The characters aren't always the deepest, but they do grow and change. Holden has been scarred by his experiences in the first book, and must work to rediscover himself even as he finds himself once more plunged into danger. (If the other crewmembers of the Rocinante are somewhat less scarred, they didn't personally experience what Holden did - plus, they're more of a supporting cast than stars, even if their personalities and backgrounds expand here.) The new characters each bring strengths and weaknesses to the table, not without some personality and agenda clashes. They also, like the first book, represent a nice swath of diversity in a genre that sometimes still leans a little white and male. It's not a deep or profound read, with some of the writing still clunking a bit now and again, but it nevertheless entertains. This book also ends on a hook (not a true cliffhanger) that makes me glad I have Book 3 already on hand, even if it might have to wait a bit before I pick it up. So far, I'm enjoying this series.

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Star Rigger's Way (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
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Friday, March 24, 2017

Romancing Miss Right (Lizzie Shane)

Romancing Miss Right
(The Reality Romance series, Book 2)
Lizzie Shane
CreateSpace/Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Romance
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Romance novelist Marcy Hendrickson may write happily-ever-afters, but has never had the courage to pursue one herself; being rejected by the lead man on the reality show Marrying Mister Perfect last season was more a relief than a disappointment (and would've been even if she hadn't seen the man was already in love with someone else before the cameras rolled.) But the stint has been good for book sales, and being the star of this season's Romancing Miss Right should boost her even more. Marcy holds no delusions about actually finding love on reality TV, not even with thirty gorgeous bachelors (each hand-picked by a team of experts) vying for her hand, but she'd be a fool to turn down the opportunity.
Radio personality Craig Callow's bad boy persona makes him a hot property, but the big money's in television, and the exposure from a show like Romancing Miss Right will go a long way toward getting him out from behind a microphone and in front of the cameras full-time. Those shows love a villain to stir things up and boost ratings, and playing the heart-breaker is second nature. He doesn't even need to go the distance to the final round - which is just as well, as his beloved mother has made no secret of what she thinks of this year's bachelorette, the "Ice Princess" Marcy. Craig will turn on the charm, create a little chaos, then walk away. Nothing to it.
Neither Marcy nor Craig actually expect to find love - but their hearts have their own scripts...

REVIEW: After a couple of breakneck middle-grade fantasy titles, I figured I could use a lightweight escape, and romances are usually a decent choice for that. You generally know what you're getting with them. This one delivered on multiple levels, with well-drawn characters that balance each other nicely and a decent plot to make it more than just an overlong and unnecessarily convoluted seduction (as some romance titles I've read became.) Marcy and Craig may seem like opposites, but both have problems coping with their own emotions; Marcy earned the nickname Ice Princess during her previous reality show stint for her refusal to break into emotional hysterics (which audiences and reality show producers prefer), while Craig has cultivated his bad-boy persona after watching man after man break his single mother's heart. Their relationship comes across as earned and balanced, both complicated and strengthened by their respective flaws and the obstacles they face. A subplot involves executive producer Miranda, whose struggle to balance her high-intensity career with a personal life drives many decisions related to the show, her own attitudes about the feasibility of love coming into play at key points as the show unfolds; unlike many side characters (not just in romances), she, too, is a well-drawn character, not just a plot-shaped cog snapped in to facilitate events. The end result may hit familiar notes, but does so in a way that feels authentic, driven by the characters and their choices, not genre expectations. That sense of authenticity, plus its ability to keep drawing me back for "one more chapter" until close to midnight, earned it an extra half-star in the ratings.
As a closing note, I have no idea why Book 2 of this series was offered for a discount rather than Book 1 - not that it matters so much in romances, where series titles tend to be loosely-linked standalones, but still...

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Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles) - My Review
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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Witchvine (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan)

(The Rhyme of the Willow series, Book 3)
Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since coming to the Garden, Axton and Aniva Rhyme have changed in ways they couldn't have imagined. Both have become Wilds, humans altered by the strange and dangerous plants of this world... and both have been part of the turmoil sweeping the Lighthavens, where untainted humans live fearing and hating Wilds. After the disaster in Fire Grove that left much of the council dead, Axton and Aniva have been separated. Axton, tainted by the Green Witch and her "gift" of Witchvines, heads back to Linnea, his first friend and guardian in the Garden. Aniva, meanwhile, returns to the Crows, who are planning a fresh assault on the humans and their Lighthavens; as both a Crow and a Blood Demon, she's become a valuable weapon, but every mindless killing frenzy makes her feel more like a monster. Meanwhile, the Green Witch is up to something, teasing Axton with glimpses of Ivan Rhyme, the siblings' long-lost father. Everything is heading for a cataclysmic event, one that may shake the Garden to its roots. Will the Rhymes survive, or is it already too late?

REVIEW: The final installment of the imaginative Rhyme of the Willow trilogy starts as if it weren't a separate book... and this is a bit of a problem. There's no chance to catch up or even let the reader catch their breath as it plunges ahead into the growing chaos and tension sweeping the Garden. This wouldn't be an issue if there had been no gap between reading the previous two installments and this one - but there was, and I never shook the feeling that I was just reading a part of a larger story, that I was missing significant connections that had dimmed with the passage of time. The breakneck pace and many characters worked against me, here.
That said, it does move decently, finally bringing the Rhyme parents into the picture. Aniva and Axton have both changed, not simply physically, during their adventures. It builds up to a tense finale... but then things start falling apart, with some side-stepping, a bit of an eye-rolling revelation, and a solution that, given the trauma and bloodshed and death endured during the trilogy, felt far too clean and quick, not to mention a trifle forced. This feeling, plus the sense that the trilogy itself was unnaturally presented (it really felt like one story roughly cropped into three installments), ultimately lost it the fourth star in the ratings.
All in all, the Rhyme of the Willow trilogy gets points for imagination and intensity, worth exploring if you want a portal fantasy with some threat and substance, if one with a bit of an abrupt end.

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The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
Shadowbloom (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan) - My Review
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Red Pyramid (Rick Riordan)

The Red Pyramid
(The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)
Rick Riordan
Disney-Hyperion Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Carter Kane has a life many middle-schoolers would envy, traveling around the world with his famed archaeologist father Julius. In reality, it's tough living out of a suitcase, never staying anywhere long enough to make friends... and only visiting his sister Sadie in England a couple times a year, if that. Sure, she's a pain in the neck, but she's still family. Sadie, meanwhile, does everything she can to rebel against her stodgy grandparents, jealous of how Carter gets to spend all his time with their father, to whom she seems little more than an afterthought at best or a painful reminder of her dead mother at worst. When Julius turns up in London for a Christmas Eve visit, neither kid is surprised (or particularly excited) when his big holiday surprise is a visit to the British Museum... but this night will change their lives forever. Julius starts meddling with the Rosetta Stone - and chaos literally erupts, as long-imprisoned gods are released. Now Carter and Sadie are on the run, learning things about the Kane lineage neither parent ever told them, such as their connection to the ancient pharaohs and the magic in their veins... not to mention their ties to the long-exiled gods. With the god Set quickly building an army of demons to retake the world and a secret society of magicians ready to execute the kids as a danger to creation, the Kane children must master their untested powers fast if they want to survive.

REVIEW: Riordan's Percy Jackson series took ancient Greek myths and made them fresh and relevant for modern young audiences. Here, he does something similar with Egyptian tales, exploring the roots and ongoing influence of one of history's most powerful civilizations. At first, I wasn't quite sure if he was pulling it off. The pace is relentless, with very little down time to process events, making me a bit numb and overwhelmed and making the parts look a little pre-packaged (the estranged siblings, the parents hiding Big Secrets from kids, the dead mother, the secret society of magicians, etc.) As the story unfolds, though, it comes into its own. Carter Kane deals with a peculiar upbringing and, more than once, with being a black kid in a white-skewed world - and with having a lighter-skinned sister who doesn't understand why he has to be much more careful with his appearance and demeanor. Sadie grows during the tale, too, with her own demons and troubles. Being a middle-grade title, there's an occasional dip into silliness, though nothing crass. Like the Percy Jackson series, Riordan doesn't stick with the pop-culture veneer of Egyptian mythos, but delves deeper into more obscure layers, even offering an explanation for how relationships between gods seem to shift through different stories while repeating the same patterns. Overall, it's a decent story of magic and adventure and sacrifice, and if it's a little breakneck, well, it is written for a younger, generally more impatient audience.

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The Mummy (Widescreen Collector's Edition)- Amazon DVD link

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pax (Sara Pennypacker)

Sara Pennypacker
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, YA General Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Peter and Pax, the fox he raised from an orphaned kit, are inseparable... until Peter's dad leaves to fight in the war, and forces the boy to abandon the fox on a remote roadside. But Peter can't stop thinking about his friend. Certain the fox will die without him, he runs away from home.
Pax can't understand what happened; one moment, he was playing with his human Peter, and the next the boy disappeared. Surely he'll be back soon... but, in the meantime, the fox must figure out how to survive. He never even learned to hunt or seek water on his own, and meeting other foxes - who resent the stink of human on his fur - only makes him feel more a stranger... but something about the wild calls to him.
Meanwhile, the war creeps ever closer, a faceless force that may destroy the boy, the fox, and their innocent world forever...
With illustrations by Jon Klassen.

REVIEW: Set in a nebulous yesteryear in the shadow of an unspecified war, Pax has the feel of a classic children's novel, a seemingly-simple tale full of heart, pain, truth, and depth. Peter struggles with memories of a violent, painful past, worried about how much of his sometimes-abusive father he already sees in himself, and the things - like abandoning Pax - that he's already done. Pax, meanwhile, must learn what it means to be a fox and an animal, even as he reconciles his love for Peter with the cruelty all humans, even his beloved boy, are capable of rendering. The anthropomorphism is kept to a minimum; animals "talk" not so much in words but postures, scents, and shared "images" of memories. Both boy and fox must do their own growing up, figuring out their own places in a world that's often fickle and cruel, but in which they each have more power than they realize to make their own lives. Pennypacker never tries too hard to make her points, letting the story make them for her. I can certainly see this book becoming a classic, one well remembered by children of today that they will happily share with the children of tomorrow.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Girl Waits With Gun (Amy Stewart)

Girl Waits With Gun
(A Kopp Sisters novel, Book 1)
Amy Stewart
Mariner Books
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Mystery
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The three Kopp sisters - eldest Constance, dour Norma, and energetic young Fleurette - live by themselves on a small New Jersey farm, a status that worries their married brother Francis no end; don't girls need a man to mind their affairs and protect them? But the Kopps are no ordinary girls, raised by an immigrant mother to be self-reliant, almost to the point of paranoia, and never trust anyone... especially not the police. But one evening in 1914, their isolation is shattered when a motor car crashes into their horse buggy. All Constance wanted from the man was the fifty dollars needed for repairs, but Mr. Kaufman and his goons aren't used to being held accountable for their actions, especially by women. What began as a simple accident escalates to threats and violence. Fleurette finds the whole affair terribly exciting, like something from a serial. Norma warns that they should just walk away and mind their own business, and maybe Kaufman will leave them alone. But Constance finds herself drawn deeper, especially as Kaufman's other crimes remind her of an incident in her family's own past.

REVIEW: Author Amy Stewart mostly writes nonfiction titles, and based this book off real people and actual events, if with some creative liberties taken in details and personalities. The early 1900's were moving toward modern times, but with many relics of the past hanging on; labor rights were nonexistent, with factory owners running personal kingdoms and keeping employees in conditions just shy of outright slavery, while women's rights were spotty at best. The idea of a lady acting as her own master, let alone becoming a detective (as Constance essentially does to see that justice is done), was virtually unheard of in America, particularly when she's a woman of modest means and her opponent belongs to a family of wealthy factory magnates. Constance doesn't set out to challenge society's norms, save so far as staying on the farm with her sisters despite being an unmarried mid-thirties "spinster," but her sense of justice leads her far outside her comfort zone to find a place where she unexpectedly belongs. She and the other characters come to life in many little details. The story moves decently, with only a few lulls now and again and an ending that feels just slightly overlong. If it reads like the pilot episode to a period mystery series... well, in some ways, that's what it is. I found it entertaining, and expect I'll read the next volume in the adventures of the Kopp sisters.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Princeless: Make Yourself, Part 1 (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Make Yourself, Part 1
(The Princeless series, Volume 5, part 1)
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Emily Martin, Brett Grunig, and Alex Smith
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, YA Comics/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Adrienne's quest to rescue the rest of her sisters takes her to the frozen mountains of the dwarves... an awkward homecoming for her sidekick, the half-dwarf girl Belinda. As Adrienne prepares for another fight, this time for the twins (locked up in twin towers in the mountains), she still struggles to find her own freedom, old attitudes and insecurities gnawing at her. Meanwhile, Belinda learns that her human mother, who ran out on the family after one too many drunken blows from her father, has not only visited the dwarves, but taken a job with the nearby monster farm - where Sparky the dragon was raised and trained.
Elsewhere in the land, young Prince Devin and his reluctant wolf-girl companion Kira have a fateful run-in with the escaped Prince Wilcome and his elven sort-of-friend/fellow escapee Tempest. While hereditary enemies Kira and Tempest spar, the foursome join forces to track down the missing queen - but something very much wants to keep them from succeeding...

REVIEW: This volume lost a half-star on two counts - one for stretching, another for advertisements. The latter I can't blame on the story itself, though I found it very distracting to have multiple full-page ads tripping me up between segments. (Eleven ads, in one grueling stretch. I appreciate that advertising is necessary, and the comic/graphic novel industry is no exception, but really - eleven in a row? They couldn't have been broken up a bit?) The former issue of stretching, however, definitely infringed on my enjoyment. Some introspection by Adrienne is inevitable, as her journey helps her grow up, but at some point her tangents and conversations on the matter cross a line from relevant and intriguing to plot filler and outright stalling. Likewise, Belinda's subplot - dealing with anger over her runaway mother - clutters the pages... as do her many dwarven relatives, who were often hard to tell apart. Sparky's quest to find her roots inches forward, but all the padding knocks a reunion and revelation into Part 2... like Adrienne's rescue mission. (Cut a few of the ads, and maybe it wouldn't have needed a second volume to finish... but I digress.)
As for Prince Devin's story, I wasn't fond of Prince Wilcome in his last adventure (part of the Princeless short story compilation volume, reviewed previously), and I'm not much more interested in him now that he's been added as a regular; he comes across as too shallow and one-dimensional compared to the rest of the cast. I'm also not sure about Tempest. The whole quest to rescue the queen itself feels like plot stretching; any reader paying any bit of attention knows what happened, if not details of why, and the longer it drags out, the more tedious it grows.
The cast and storylines feel bloated, dragging out for the sake of dragging out, or maybe for ad sales given the concentration. (Eleven in a row... still can't get over that. I counted twice to be sure.) I expect I'll read the second part for some closure, but if the tale keeps distracting itself and meandering into tangents of minimal progression, I might call it a wrap on this series. It's still fun, but not as fun as it used to be.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey)

Leviathan Wakes
(The Expanse series, Book 1)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Humanity's spread through the solar system may ride on ingenuity and persistence, but brings with it other human traits, such as greed, selfishness, and tribalism. Mars bickers with Earth, while both worlds view the Belters - people of the asteroid belt and beyond, changed by generations of low gravity and artificial atmospheres - as something subtly less than human. Various factions, particularly the vocal (and occasionally violent) Outer Planets Alliance, rally for rights and independence, but so far mutual need keeps the guns (mostly) silent on all sides.
The balance is about to change...
When the worn-out ice freighter Canterbury picks up a distress call, Jim Holden is among the small shuttle crew sent to seek survivors - or salvage. Instead, he finds a trap set by a new foe, one with advanced technology and an unknown agenda. He and his crewmates struggle to survive, dodging lies and gunfire, as they try to navigate forces beyond their control.
On Ceres station in the Belt, Detective Miller's barely-functional career as a Star Helix law enforcement officer gets a minor boost when his boss selects him for an off-the-books investigation, tracking down the wayward daughter of an Earth business magnate. The deeper Miller digs into the life and disappearance of Julie Mao, the more he realizes he's onto something much bigger than a runaway case.
Both Holden and Miller have become part of a system-shaking conspiracy with ties to a mysterious discovery from deep space, one that might lift humans to the stars - or exterminate them utterly.

REVIEW: I came at this book a little backwards, having watched Season 1 of SyFy's series based on this book. The story arc's mostly the same, though several elements were tweaked for television... often, I must say, for the better. The book's still rather good, though, a space opera set in the early days of interplanetary expansion. It's a lived-in world, with dirt in the corners and grease under the fingernails, where the gap between poverty and privilege is enhanced by the vacuum of space; air and water, the latter mined from comets and places like the rings of Saturn, become more precious than gold, and failure to make ends meet takes on a new dimension when it's not just clothing and shelter at stake, but the very technology that enables one to breathe. Religion also follows us beyond the atmosphere; a subplot involves the Mormons contracting the first generational ship to leave the solar system. The characters could be a little flat at times, and the dialog occasionally clunked, but the action's mostly brisk enough to overlook such flaws, and it culminates in a fine finale. It kept drawing me back to read just a chapter or two more, which definitely means it did something right. I look forward to Book 2... not to mention watching the second season of the TV show when it comes to Amazon Prime.

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (John Joseph Adams, editor)

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
John Joseph Adams, editor
Night Shade Books
Fiction, Anthology/Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A family's curse takes the form of a white fox... an inventor's experiments with gravity lead to his suspicious demise... a famous author witnesses lights in the sky... Literature's most popular detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful chronicler and sidekick John Watson return in new tales penned by prominent authors, several of which blur the boundaries between improbable and impossible.

REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes is one of the most invoked names in fiction, for good or ill. For the most part, the authors collected here do well by the name, though the stories themselves are a mixed bag; once again, novelists don't always make the best short story authors. Some tales wandered, but only a few seemed ultimately pointless, with two reading more like fanfic exercises and one an outright clunker so out of character (and out of sync with the other entries) that it seems like an insult than an homage. As for the "improbable" label, I found it misleading. While some stories did indeed incorporate supernatural or sci-fi elements, most had perfectly mundane explanations, which my improbable-loving self found a trifle disappointing. On the whole, it's not a bad collection, adding some interesting new adventures to the great detective's archives.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Holy Cow (David Duchovny)

Holy Cow
David Duchovny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Fiction, General Fiction/Humor
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Elsie Bovary is fairly content on the small dairy farm where she lives... and might have stayed that way had she not snuck out of the stable one night and seen the Box God, the talking screen the humans worship, and its horrific scenes of something called a "slaughterhouse." Suddenly, she knows what happened to the mother who disappeared one day - and what will eventually happen to her friends, and to her. But even as it shows her visions of damnation, the Box God offers salvation when it tells her of a land where cattle are treated like gods: India. Along with the pig Jerry (a recent convert to Judaism, who prefers to be called Shalom) and turkey Tom (who is looking for a way to permanently avoid the Thanksgiving cull, and who is remarkably adept at using a cell phone), Elsie sets out on the journey of a lifetime.

REVIEW: Holy Cow has a fun, original concept and distinctive, if often overexaggerated and flat, characters but seems a little unsure of what it wants to do with itself. In the meantime, it dithers around with amusing (more or less) tangents and asides from the narrator Elsie, whose worldview is remarkably human most of the time; she even drops hints about which actress she'd want to play her should the book become a movie. Even a silly story - and this is indeed a silly, often slapstick story, despite the odd attempt at depth and profundity - requires some suspension of disbelief to enjoy, but it kept tripping me up, if not with Elsie's too-human voice than with other characters also being too human to be animals, or with plain physical improbabilities, like Elsie being a milking cow despite not having been bred or given birth. An afterword by the author tries to paper over these issues, but two problems mar this effort. First, by the time I reach the afterword, I've already read the book. Second, if technicalities are preventing me from enjoying an otherwise lighthearted, clearly unrealistic tale, then something else must be wrong. I regularly suspend disbelief for far more improbable things, such as sound traveling through space or giant winged reptiles breathing fire (or vast alien conspiracies behind the  government.) But I just couldn't maintain that suspension here. The book was just too much puff and style with too little substance and action, not helped by the ending (no spoilers, though it seemed to render much of the journey moot... or, should I say, mooo-t.) I laughed here and there, but overall it felt like it was trying too hard, and thus wound up accomplishing too little of what it set out to do.

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