Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Year in Review

New Year's Eve, and time for the reading year in review.

January started with the inspirational picture book I Am A Story, by Dan Yaccarino, a timely reminder that dark times can be endured. A little Terry Pratchet livened things up, with Only You Can Save Mankind. A few disappointments, such as Beatrice Vine's animal adventure The Hunt for Elsewhere, but overall January was a good month.

February began with another empowering picture book, Innosanto Nagar's A is for Activist, but took a nosedive with a sadly disappointing return to Tad Williams's Osten Ard in his bridge novel, The Heart of What Was Lost. (Zombies in Osten Ard? Really? I still have not bought The Witchwood Crown, the first in his new Osten Ard trilogy, and don't intend to until I find it in paperback - or even used.) The short month was unexpectedly ill-conducive to reading; I only got four titles in, including the classic science fiction tale Wild Seed by Octavia Butler and John Leland's intriguing (if sometimes wandering and scattered) examination of imported species, Aliens in the Backyard.

March, for once, didn't open with a picture book, but with actor David Duchovny's bovine adventure Holy Cow. I also finally cracked open the first book in James S. A. Corey's Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, having been impressed with the first season of the SyFy TV show. Sara Pennypacker presented a timeless tale of war and friendship between a boy and a fox in Pax, while historical author Amy Stewart's first novel (based on real-life people and events), Girl Waits With Gun, proved immersive and impressive - which is saying something for a person to whom history was traditionally the most boring subject in school. I encountered disappointment with Jeremy Whitley's once-amusing Princess series in Make Yourself, Part 1, but overall I liked what I found in March.

April began with a pocket guide to mythology by Philip Wilkinson, but the real high point was Stephen King's time travel tome 11/22/63 - which I hadn't really expected, given my iffy reaction to the author in the past. Another month with fewer reviews than I would've preferred, but so goes life.

May brought me outside my usual geographic comfort zone with Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese import, which intrigued me even if it wasn't ultimately quite my cup of cocoa. High hopes for Jodi Taylor's humorous time travel series were quickly dashed when Just One Damned Thing After Another failed to deliver. I hit a couple classics with the third collection of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery tales, Swords Against Death, and Terry Pratchett's first Tiffany Aching tale in his expansive Discworld universe, The Wee Free Men. Three picture books - Rebecca Young's Teacup, Sarah L. Thompson and the late Robert Gonsalves's Imagine A World, and Caroline McAlister's story of a young Tolkien, John Ronald's Dragons - impressed both visually and emotionally.

June had more picture books and graphic novels, including a return to Jim Henson's Storyteller tales in Daniel Bayliss's Dragons, but it was a fairly mixed bag of a month. On the one hand, Seanan McGuire's award-winning deconstruction of portal fantasies, Every Heart a Doorway, blew my mental socks off. On the other, much-vaunted author Louis L'Amour's The Haunted Mesa failed to impress, and Tamara Morgan's initially-witty romance Stealing Mr. Right set up a great heroine only to undercut her at every opportunity. The month wrapped up with the hilarious graphic novel spoof of old B-grade sci-fi flicks, Dan Boultwood's It Came. This was also the month when I stopped updating the old site to focus on the new one I'm building from scratch - a process that, due to numerous delays, is still ongoing, and not likely to be finished before the first half of 2018.

July was another mixed bag. Pierce Brown's Golden Son, the second in his Red Rising series set in a dystopian interplanetary future, was among the highlights, if a harrowing read. Rebecca Stead's classic When You Reach Me offered a small-scale tale with big-scale ideas. But other titles failed to live up to their potential, and while none were outright bad, few were outright good.

August kicked off with a disappointing graphic novel, Skottie Young's gory (and largely one-trick) twist on children's fantasy adventures I Hate Fairyland. It was a graphic novel heavy month, with Jim Henson's A Tale of Sand, the fourth in Joshua Williamson's Birthright series, and three volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls. Shawn Lawrence Otto's Fool Me Twice brought some needed perspective (if somewhat depressing perspective) on the ongoing assault on facts and science, and Tim MacWelch's How to Survive Anything offered practical tips for enduring the likely fallout of this assault. For fiction, my favorite would be Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons, set in an alternate world with a Victorian flavor. I wrapped up August with a Puerto Rican-flavored middle grade fantasy, Shadowshaper.

September began and ended with a couple of the strangest novels I've read in some time, starting with David Wong's surreal John Dies at the End and ending with Edgar Cantero's Lovecraftian spoof on Scooby-Doo and other kid mystery series, Meddling Kids. I ventured into classics with Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book and Guy Gavriel Kay's portal fantasy The Summer Tree, and if Andrew Clements's examination of word origins and challenging authority in Frindle doesn't count as a modern children's classic, maybe it should. Spencer Ellsworth brought the old-school Star Wars-inspired space opera back to life in Starfire: A Red Peace.

October kicked off with a great examination of animal intelligence (and human resistance to the idea of animal intelligence) in Frans de Waal's Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. A couple more classics - Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree and Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon - made it into my reading list, along with John William Polidori's The Vampyre. Seanan McGuire returned to the world created in Every Heart a Doorway with a beautiful, bleak prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and Drew Daywalt offered a hilarious backstory for the classic children's hand game in The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors. On a down note, I found myself disappointed by Jeremy "CinemaSins" Scott's fiction debut, The Ables; if it had been a movie, ironically, I think he would've had little trouble picking out flaws. The popular author Connie Willis also disappointed with her telepathy-based Crosstalk.

November brought two Stephen King reviews, the classic horror novel It and his memoir/writing advice book On Writing. I laughed my way through D. C. Pierson's take on portal adventures and adolescent failure in Crap Kingdom, and got several chuckles out of Rachel Hoffman's blunt (but very useful) book on cleaning, Unf*ck Your Habitat. I also finally ventured into E. L. Konigsburg's classic From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, with a mixed-up reaction. Three volumes of James Tynion IV's sci-fi graphic novel series The Woods filled out the month.

December began with yet another graphic novel (blame Hoopla), Marjorie Liu's Monstress, which was visually impressive but a bit jumbled in the telling. Another mixed-bag month, I had high hopes dashed with Robert Repino's Mort(e) and a picture book cash-in - er, tie-in - to the X-Files, Earth Children Are Weird. But I got a great many chuckles out of Pseudonymous Bosch's Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, and enjoyed the throwback feel of Dennis E. Taylor's story of space exploration and artificial intelligence in We Are Legion (We Are Bob).

So, as with most years, it's had its ups and downs, its surprises and disappointments. Here's hoping 2018 brings many more adventures... and maybe, at long last, the debut of the new review site!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor)

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
The Bobiverse series, Volume 1
Dennis E. Taylor
Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: When Robert Johansson's software company hit it big, the first thing he did was secure his own future with a visit to CryoEterna, a cryogenics company... though a man in his thirties surely has plenty of time before worrying about death.
He doesn't make it through the next weekend.
Revived over a hundred years in the future, Bob is now at the mercy of a theocracy that took over America and determined "corpsicles" like himself to be nonhuman; his assets were stripped, his mind uploaded into a computer, and failure to cooperate with his new masters means immediate termination. Nor are they the only threat to his existence, as factions within the theocracy and external saboteurs continually threaten the project he's supposed to be part of: a self-replicating deep-space probe meant to scout for habitable planets. There may even be other AI-manned probes already out there, launched by rival nations, none of which will be friendly to him or his mission. Plus the sheer stress of being reduced to a computer AI has driven more than one revived person insane, not helped by the possibility that his new masters may have manipulated his new "brain" in ways he doesn't know.
For a lifelong science fiction fan and all-around computer nerd, it's both the dream of a lifetime and a nightmare. To survive, Bob will need all his wits about him... or, at the very least, a few more Bobs.

REVIEW: With a throwback feel, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) evokes both a sense of fun and a sense of wonder. Bob's deep-space adventures are grounded in science, but even a lay fan like myself could follow along easily enough. It moves fairly well, even before it splits to follow copy-Bobs (each with a variant personality and new name) through multiple adventures, from dodging rival AI probes to exploring new planets and alien life-forms to salvaging what's left of Earth's population after the seemingly-inevitable planet-killing nuclear war. If I have any complaint, it's that the ending feels a bit incomplete, as though the book was never intended to be its own arc; there are at least two more Bobiverse books out, so that may be the case. Overall, though, it's a well-paced and enjoyable read, particularly for fans of science fiction and space exploration.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Stardragons (Bob Eggleton and John Grant) - My Review
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird (Chris Carter, series creator)

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird
Based on The X-Files series
Chris Carter, series creator, illustrations by Kim Smith
Quirk Books
Fiction, CH Media Tie-in/Picture Book/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Young Dana and her friend Fox are having a camp-out in her back yard when Fox's imagination runs away with him... or are there really aliens out there?

REVIEW: As a former X-phile, I was curious about this title, and finally cornered it during some down time at work. Unfortunately, I just don't think it quite works on a number of levels.
First off, there's the title, which is not only a spoiler, but irrelevant for most of the story. (It's such a disconnect that one is basically just tapping one's fingers waiting for the title to make sense... and when it does, it's not so much an "aha" moment as a vague sigh.) Secondly, there's the concept of retconning Mulder and Scully into childhood pals. This could've been a fun homage, with numerous opportunities for nods to the original series, but nothing much stood out. Plus, young Dana and Fox are reading X-Files stories in their tent, which really warps a concept that already retcons characters. Either this was a very subtle nod to the show (which once had characters watching Chris Carter's Millennium series before doing a crossover), or this thing wasn't even trying to be anything but a quick cash-in on the reboot (or re-reboot, given that a second "special" season is airing soon.) Then there's the matter of using an early-reader picture book to tie into a series that was definitely not for the picture book audience. (What next, a pop-up book with a pull tab for the Flukeman to tear out a victim's liver? A See-and-Say toy for monsters?) I know there are people who happily let their toddlers and kindergartners watch Outlander and Game of Thrones, but it still feels like brand confusion to me, especially as there doesn't seem to be much here for the adult X-phile reading this to their kids. But even setting all that aside... something about the storyline, simple as it is, just doesn't quite play out right to me - a feeling definitely not helped by a title that tips its hand before the reader even picks it up.
In the end, what could've been an amusing little outing for 'philes of all ages ends up feeling flat and forced. But I suppose all's fair if it earns more money for the franchise owners...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The X-Files: Fight the Future (Chris Carter, adapted by Elizabeth Hand) - My Review
This Book Is Not About Dragons (Shelley Moore Thomas) - My Review
The X-Files: Season 1- Amazon DVD link

Monday, December 11, 2017

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery (Pseudonymous Bosch)

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery
The Secret series, Book 6
Pseudonymous Bosch
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, MG Mystery/Writing
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: Writing books is hard work, even when a talking rabbit does your typing. After five volumes of his popular Secret series, author Pseudonymous Bosch is tapped out. So he's going to let you, the reader, take the reins on this one. He'll give you a basic setup and some pointers, plus a few genre options, but this book's going to be all yours.
Are you ready?
No?
Too bad - the story's already started...

REVIEW: When I downloaded this book on Overdrive, I was unaware that it was technically the last book on Bosch's humorous middle-grade Secret series, which I've seen at the library but haven't yet read; a few elements here constitute spoilers. However, it works fairly well as a standalone title.
Write This Book is a nice twist on writing books, somewhere between an ongoing exercise, a commentary on the process, and a story in its own right, all infused with a strong sense of humor. For the most part, the balance works; he starts by giving the reader/writer a few characters and a mystery (with notes on how to start a story), then guides the reader through the process of crafting the plot and finishing, emphasizing that things can (and will) be refined in future rewrites and the important thing is to keep writing. For genres, he offers a choice between noir mystery, fantasy, and gothic horror, a unique demonstration on how genre may color the story, but it generally does not dictate it: the same basic idea can work in many settings and genres. Bosch's style lies somewhere between improvisation ("pantsing," or writing by the seat of one's pants) and organization (outlining), leaning towards the former; he likens it to cooking, where one gathers one's ingredients (ideas and inspirations and references) before one starts but isn't strictly bound by a recipe. It's a nice method, loose enough to make readers feel excited about exploring a story, and not like they're trudging through yet another graded assignment - plus it shows that, despite what English teachers like to say, there are many published authors who aren't strict outliners or bound by other "rules" (three-act structure, snowflake method, etc.)
Bosch and his typist bunny, Quiche, frequently appear in the pages via doodles and cartoons, an ongoing rivalry with an unexpected climax. He offers many procrastination break ideas that will probably amuse experienced writers at least as much as, if not more than, newcomers. (One of these advises one to reread one's manuscript, decide it's crud and rip it up, then realize it's not so bad and painstakingly tape it back together, then make sure nobody knows how crazy you are.) The clever voice walks a fine line between amusing and annoying, mostly staying on the former side.
All in all, despite being unfamiliar with the Secret series, I found this an entertaining read, especially for writers. It earned an extra half-mark for evoking a few laugh-out-loud moments.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett) - My Review
Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Spilling Ink (Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter) - My Review

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bad Kitty (Nick Bruel)

Bad Kitty
The Bad Kitty series, Book 1
Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Kitty didn't mean to be bad. She's usually quite good. But then the family runs out of her favorite food. An alphabetic diet of asparagus through zucchinis leads to alphabetic revenge, as Kitty takes misbehavior to a whole new level...

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, so I read this while waiting for things to pick up again. Kitty really is pushed over the edge, given the nauseatingly healthy (and meatless) options she's presented with. (I was also impressed that Bruel found a fruit for X.) Her revenge is hilarious... as is the family's attempts to make amends with more appealing food (including such options as a whole buffalo burrito, elephant eggs, and a donkey named Dave.) Appeased, Kitty then repeats the alphabet repairing the damage. An amusing read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch for You (Lee Harris) - My Review
Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan) - My Review
Dragon Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mort(e) (Robert Repino)

Mort(e)
The War with No Name series, Book 1
Robert Repino
Soho
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**(Bad)


DESCRIPTION: Sebastian used to want nothing more than his patch of sun on the carpet, a bowl of food, and his neighbor dog-friend Sheba. But he was an ordinary cat in extraordinary times. After millennia of patient plotting, the ant queen Hymenoptera Unus has begun the war to eradicate humanity as an invasive species. First, she bred tank-sized Alpha ants. Then, she initiated the Change, a combination of airborne hormones and ultrasonic signals that transformed many of the birds and the beasts into upright-walking sapient soldiers in her global army... everything from wolves and bobcats to rats and pets.
And thus, one day, Sebastian found himself aiming a shotgun at his former "master."
Shedding his "slave" name and becoming Mort(e), he became a hero in the elite Red Sphinx under the ruthless Changed bobcat Culdesac... but always, in the back of his mind, he remembers that patch of sun and the canine friend he shared it with, a friend he hadn't seen since his former master shot at her moments before his own Change. And nothing - not time, not war, not the dreaded human bioweapon EMSAH, not even the ant queen herself - can stop him from his search.

REVIEW: The cover hype frequently invokes Orwell's classic allegory Animal Farm, the tale of the pig-led revolution in the barnyard that led a barn of deluded animals into a dark future of oppression and betrayal. That is about the closest comparison I can think of, one reinforced by numerous nods in the narrative. (There's even a Changed lieutenant pig who took the name Bonaparte, because Napoleon had been taken "many times over.") Unfortunately, while Orwell kept his allegory focused on his message, Repino tries to build a broader world - one that devolves into a commentary on the merits of Abrahamic religions in a Message at least as heavy-handed (or heavy-pawed, or -hooved) as Orwell's, often moreso. Sebastian-turned-Mort(e) becomes an empty mouthpiece of this message, as do the other characters, intriguing as they may have started.  The internal logic of the piece falls apart under its weight, the suspension of disbelief cracking under animals that seemed far too human and self-aware in some ways and too naive and easily bamboozled in others. For instance, it's painfully obvious what the real source of the bioweapon EMSAH is almost from the moment it appears, but the thought doesn't even occur to otherwise-intelligent beings. By the end, I was almost literally grinding my teeth as the "inspirational" Message grew increasingly incandescent, throwing even more holes and flaws into sharper relief - holes I would've flown over happily had my belief remained suspended, but which crashed and burned long before the finale. What's left without that suspension? A collection of half-developed characters and often-gory images, trampled under their own Message.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animal Farm (George Orwell) - My Review
Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift) - My Review
The Hunt for Elsewhere (Beatrice Vine) - My Review

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson)

Walk the Earth a Stranger
The Gold Seer trilogy, Book 1
Rae Carson
Greenwillow Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Historical Fiction
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Leah Westfall has worked her whole life helping her parents on their Georgia land claim, her ability to sense gold helping them scrape a living even as the local mines run dry. Word of a strike in California has many in town buzzing, but Leah has no plans to follow... until her parents are murdered, their stash stolen, and a greedy uncle takes over the land. He knows her secret, and has "plans" for her - plans she wants no part of, especially not when she realizes he pulled the trigger. Dressing as a boy, she heads out after a friend who set off for the Californian gold fields. It's a harrowing journey by land and river... and, though she'll be crossing the whole continent, she may not be running far enough to escape Uncle Hiram's reach.

REVIEW: Walk the Earth a Stranger, start of a trilogy, establishes a strong yet imperfect heroine in an era of both promise and despair, the decade before the Civil War; though her family doesn't keep slaves, she's surrounded by those who think nothing of owning a human being, reinforcing an underlying theme about personal freedoms and how far one must go to secure them. Carson brings the long journey to life with many details, some of them unpleasant, yet part of the pioneer experience. Leah (who travels as "Lee" for much of the book) faces all manner of challenges, but persists, even as she struggles to keep her gold sense hidden. It's a minor enough quirk that it almost could've been written out of the book with little change, though her abilities do come into play at a few key points. Through the whole journey, Leah learns how to trust, finding family and friends where she least expects them. It's a decent tale, occasionally unpredictable, and the characters are real enough to care about, if not always particularly deep. The ending feels a little flat and rushed, though; part of me wonders if this wasn't originally intended to be a standalone, and the conclusion had to be rewritten to accommodate sequels. Even if it's not a 24-karat story, Walk the Earth a Stranger has a nice glitter about it, making for a good read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman) - My Review
Boston Jane (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinor Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Friday, December 1, 2017

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu)

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening
The Monstress series, Issues 1 - 6
Marjorie Liu, illustrations by Sana Takeda
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Maika Halfwolf lost her arm and her most important memories as a child, bearing only a strange, eye-like scar and a terrifying, hungry something inside her skin to remind her of what she doesn't know. Her search for answers takes her into the human-held city of Zamora: a dangerous journey for an arcanic like herself, as the powerful matriarchal Cumaean witches derive lilium, source of power, magic, and miracles, from the rendered bodies of her kind. But she must know what was done to her, what the strange entity in her wants - and how to get control of her life back, before the thing's hunger costs the lives of the handful of people she cares about. Little does she suspect that her quest for answers may well trigger another war between humans and arcanics, and may even reanimate the long-dead gods whose shadows still stalk the evening skies.

REVIEW: I had a mixed reaction to this graphic novel. On the one hand, it's undeniably imaginative, set in an alternate steampunk version of Earth where a matriarchal society rules in what we would call Asia. On one side of the Great Wall are the humans, and on the other all manner of strange, semihuman beings out of legend, from winged people to fox-girls to multi-tailed talking cats, while vast echoes of supposedly dead gods periodically appear. The style evokes an art deco aesthetic with heavy influence from magna. It's a complex, many-layered world, often grim and grotesque but not without the odd touch of levity. On the other hand, it's a little too complex, especially at first, throwing the reader into the deep end with characters that can be hard to keep straight and are often harder to care about. By the end, I still felt like I was missing large chunks of information, though at least I'd come to find the story interesting, even if the characters often struggled to evoke sympathy. Maika herself is often dark and broody to the point of repulsion, prone to kicking would-be friends in the teeth (figuratively, usually.)
It's definitely a different tale, I'll grant it that, and something about it intrigues me enough I might read the second volume. Ultimately, it's just not quite up my alley.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Testament of the Dragon (Margaret Weis) - My Review
Princess Mononoke- Amazon DVD link

Friday, November 24, 2017

On Writing (Stephen King)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
Pocket Books
Nonfiction, Memoir/Writing
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Prolific author Stephen King discusses writing - not just how to write, but what writing has meant in his own life.

REVIEW: I know, I know... I really should spend more time actually writing than reading books on writing, especially having actually landed one (albeit minor) sale. But I've seen this one recommended by sources I trust (and it was half price), so I read it anyway.
Having read enough how-to-write books, I've become familiar with the general format - a format generally eschewed here. On the cover, this is billed as "a memoir of the craft," and that's what King presents, starting with a brief rundown of his life and how he became a writer... not to mention why he remains a writer, as brought into sharp relief with his recounting of the 1999 accident that nearly ended both his career and his life. It's an interesting glimpse at the development of a best-selling novelist (and short story writer, and noveletteer), offering a human perspective of an exceptional career. King follows with his advice on writing, from the nuts-and-bolts "toolbox" every writer needs to suggestions on editing and submissions. Some of this is the same basic material one can find in most writing books, though put in King's own, occasionally blunt words. (Published in 2000, it was just ahead of the e-submission revolution, with advice geared toward physical manuscript presentation.) He closes with a list of suggested reads - not "how to write" books, but novels and such that he cites as good examples of the craft, positive influences, or just good stories.
On the whole, it's a good book, a little different than the usual writing advice tome.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
Write Good or Die! (Scott Nicholson, editor) - My Review
Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) - My Review

Monday, November 13, 2017

Crap Kingdom (D. C. Pierson)

Crap Kingdom
D. C. Pierson
Speak
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 Williams) - 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.

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Some Like It Perfect (Megan Bryce) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review
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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)

It
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.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
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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
Yearling
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.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Free Fall (David Wiesner)

Free Fall
David Wiesner
HarperCollins
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.

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Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review