Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January Site Update

The previous eight reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.

Read while it's still legal, and enjoy!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Power Up (Kate Leth)

Power Up
Kate Leth, illustrations by Matt Cummings
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Comics
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In ancient times, a prophecy foretold a day when four individuals would receive great powers, with which to combat evil forces across the stars. But they got the math a little wrong...
Amie's just trying to get by on a retail wage, working in a small pet shop, when a flash of light gives strange powers to her and a nearby goldfish, Silas - just in time to be attacked by a shadowy being. Soon, she meets the construction worker Mike, formerly a pro athlete, and suburban mom Sandy, both of whom were also touched by the light (and who got their own powers, plus cool costumes, out of the deal.) None of them know why they were chosen or how their powers work, but they don't have much time to figure it out, as denizens from a thousand worlds converge on Earth to find them.
This volume contains episodes 1 - 6.

REVIEW: This title reads fast and has many fun moments (such as the goldfish Silas, who turns into a miniature whale with laser beams when using his power), but it felt a bit thin. The characters are decent, but not especially deep, and the story never quite goes as far as it felt it wanted to, wrapping up too flat and neat. It's not bad, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
You Slay Me (Katie MacAlister) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters) - My Review

Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book: The Story of the Making of the Film (Mel Brooks)

Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book: The Story of the Making of the Film
Mel Brooks with Rebecca Keegan
Black Dog and Leventhal
Nonfiction, Media Reference
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: While filming the soon-to-be-hit Western comedy Blazing Saddles, director Mel Brooks and star Gene Wilder began collaboration on a quirky idea of Gene's, the tale of a descendant of the infamous Victor Frankenstein who finds himself following in the man's foosteps by building his own monster. Young Frankenstein would achieve classic status, making its stars into household names almost overnight. Here, Brooks relates tales of the cast and crew and the making of his favorite movie.

REVIEW: Young Frankenstein is, indeed, a classic movie. One doesn't even have to be intimately familiar with the old black-and-white movies it honored and parodied in order to understand it, though the more one knows, the more one sees. It's a perfect blend of comedy and story, craft and kismet. This collection of memories and photos explores behind the scenes, from first inception to the premiere, via Brooks's recollections and clips from articles and interviews. It reads fast and is reasonably interesting, though not especially deep. I clipped it a half-star for the formatting of the e-book version, which tries too hard to replicate a printed book; the end result has lots of empty white space, poor and sometimes incomplete or cropped photo captions, and other issues that grew irritating even for a short title like this one. If you're a fan of the movie, though, it's worth a read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Extreme Science (Phil Clarke) - My Review
Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly) - My Review
Young Frankenstein (Special Edition) - Amazon DVD link

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Hunt for Elsewhere (Beatrice Vine)

The Hunt for Elsewhere
Beatrice Vine
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: As a kit, the fox Saxton's father told him the rules of his kind, the Lonely Thief: don't talk to strangers, never stray too far from your territory, answer to no one, and everyone lives or dies alone in this unkind world. But when he becomes separated from the family, Saxton is befriended by the old crow Quill, who teaches him of compassion and curiosity and other lessons. Thus begins his journey through the world, across much of North America, a journey in which he finds many dangers and unusual friends - not the least of which is Dante, the one-eyed, one-eared wolf who tried to kill him. Together, they learn that family is where you find it - and true friendship knows no bounds.

REVIEW: The reviews made this book look interesting. Unfortunately, I found it uneven, not to mention heavy-handed in its life lessons (not to mention rather preachy.) The animal characters seem too human to believe, especially for wild animals, though their knowledge of human concepts varies wildly and often illogically. They just plain don't think like animals most of the time, using logic that's just a little too human to be believed, even in story context. They weren't badly drawn, but as the story goes on they become somewhat forced tools of a plot that's more about teaching the often-harsh, sometimes-sweet ways of the wide world than anything else. Other characters feel rather thin, especially the females. Some incidents are interesting, but many are stilted and some are gory and violent - more than once simply for the sake of showing Saxton how gory and violent the world can be. The ending felt a little neat, not to mention something of a letdown. Some formatting and grammar issues, particularly typos and dropped letters, further irritated me, though I was already discontented to let them bug me. Likewise, the writing itself felt uneven, drifting between viewpoints. Disappointing, though I suspect I'm not the target audience; despite the lack of God or outright Christianity (notwithstanding a few allusions to religion among various animals), this seems more like an inspirational fable than the animal adventure what I was looking for when I bought it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Watership Down (Richard Adams) - My Review
Warriors: Into the Wild (Erin Hunter) - My Review
Tailchaser's Song (Tad Williams) - My Review

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Lynne Truss
Gotham Books
Nonfiction, Grammar
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As most any modern grammarian will tell you, our language is in a state of distress, particularly regarding its punctuation. We see signs admonishing No Dog's, without telling us what quality or possession of the dog is forbidden. A simple lack of a comma creates cannibalism - "Let's eat Grandpa!" - instead of inclusion - "Let's eat, Grandpa!". Admitted grammar nitpicker Lynne Truss uses humor and numerous examples to explain the origins, history, and sometimes-conflicting rules of punctuation, and why they're still necessary for clear communication.

REVIEW: There are those today - too many - who regard grammar as obsolete, and who would relegate most punctuation to history's trash bin. Historically, authors have either overused or utterly eschewed various marks, from common commas to spurious semicolons. Further, English itself has become divided by the Atlantic, with different conventions evolving in Britain and America, further confused by cross-contamination enabled by the internet. And then there's just plain sloppy education that assumes, as with general grammar, that cultural osmosis will take care of the pesky "learning" part of language. What's a conscientious writer to do, when even grammar experts can't agree whether punctuation is coming or going or if was ever needed at all? What it all boils down to is clear and effective communication, which cannot happen without some manner of agreed-upon rules, let alone without punctuation. It might seem fairly straightforward, but as Truss digs deeper she finds (part of) the roots of punctuation confusion reaching back to the marks' origins. She does her best to cut through the confusion as she presents rules, or at least strong suggestions, for their use. Though British, she notes (when possible) how American conventions differ, doing her best to point out the logic (or lack thereof) behind the rules. Once in a while, she drifts off on tangents and gets a little to clever for her own good. Overall, though, it's a decent, eminently readable guide for those who want to do better by our oft-maligned language's most useful annotations.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Just My Type (Simon Garfield) - My Review
Who's... (Oops) Whose Grammar Book is This, Anyway? (C. Edward Good) - My Review
The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White) - My Review

Sunday, January 15, 2017

All Things Bright and Beautiful (James Herriot)

All Things Bright and Beautiful
James Herriot
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Animals/Autobiography
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Yorkshire country veterinarian James Herriot collects more tales of his life and practice. Now a newlywed and a full partner, his life is still filled with eccentric farmers, peculiar cases, and other adventures.

REVIEW: Like Herriot's first volume, All Creatures Great and Small, this collection captures a lost time and place, a world on the cusp of great change and revolution that would eventually remake even small farm towns like "Darrowby," the author's somewhat-fictionalized recrafting of the small Yorkshire communities where he practiced. (Other details are altered as well.) He himself would soon depart to serve in World War II's Royal Air Force. More stories, some charming and some sad, unfold, including a few more flashbacks to his often-disastrous courtship of Helen. Brothers Siegfried and Tristan are less prominent here, as Herriot proved himself in the first volume and is now more a colleague than a wet-eared student. The harshness and beauty of the Yorkshire landscape and the farming life come through clearly in every story, as do the changes slowly remaking not only his practice (such as his first experiences with antibiotics) but the rest of the community (the waning of the draft horse, among other things.) It's an enjoyable collection of memories.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Being a Beast (Charles Foster) - My Review
All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot) - My Review
The Cat Who Couldn't See In The Dark (Howard Padwee, D.V.M., and Valerie Moolman) - My Review

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Monster on the Hill (Rob Harrell)

Monster on the Hill
Rob Harrell
Top Shelf Productions
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In mid-1800's England, monsters are all the rage. Every worthwhile town has its own beast, and regular raids mean a thriving tourist industry. But Stoker-on-Avon's monster, Rayburn, does nothing but mope and groan all day, an embarrassment that hasn't sold a single action figure or trading card. A discredited inventor and a street urchin take up the task of getting Rayburn into proper monstrous form - but their efforts may not be enough when a real threat comes to town.

REVIEW: Monster on the Hill is a bit of a riff on the old Reluctant Dragon idea, a monster who has little experience or interest in being a monster. Doctor Wilkie and young Tim, plus an old schoolmate (and highly successful monster), Tentaculor (also known as Noodles), help lure him out of his funk, though naturally at some point Rayburn must stand on his own two talons. It's a fun read, if rather lightweight and a trifle predictable... enough to almost, but not quite, cost it a half-star.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett)

Only You Can Save Mankind
(The Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Book 1)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Johnny Maxwell didn't play computer games like some of his friends did, to dissect their secrets or beat top scores. He just wanted help escaping the Trying Times he's going through, with his parents stomping and yelling and the news full of desert maps and missiles... and his buddy, Wobbler, always gives him pirated copies of the top-rated games for free. But when Johnny boots up the latest alien-shooter craze, Only You Can Save Mankind, something strange happens. Instead of trying to destroy him, the ScreeWee fleet surrenders. Now they want Johnny to give them safe passage to their homeworld, defending them from other gamers. Maybe Wobbler hacked the game for a joke, or the manufacturer included an Easter egg that the manual didn't talk about... or maybe all these games he and his friends play connect to something stranger and deeper, something with consequences beyond a high-score screen.

REVIEW: Written during Operation Desert Storm, this book attempts to deconstruct humanity's paradoxical relationship with war and games, and the disconnect with reality that both engender. Being a middle-grade title, it can be a trifle heavy-handed with its messages, but it never talks down to its audience or oversimplifies matters. Johnny is an average kid, part of a group of average, differently-talented and -challenged English schoolboys who are each, in their own ways, trying to figure out their lives and their complicated world. The desert war starts out as a backdrop, something to be ignored unless it preempts their favorite TV shows, but as Johnny becomes drawn deeper into the ScreeWee conflict (via increasingly-realistic dreams, plus waking-world developments in the game), he starts making connections that elude many grown-ups, seeing the "games" that make up life and realizing that the only way they'll ever change is if people stop being slaves to the perceived rules and start working to change them. As usual for Pratchett, he gets in some good side-digs at other issues, particularly sexism and racism and the ways people deny, downplay, and justify their treatment of others. The story moves decently and has some real bite, looking war and death straight in the eye and not allowing the characters or the reader to flinch. The games may seem a little dated to modern young readers, but Pratchett does a decent job capturing the culture (at least as it existed back then), and the general tone of computer games has stayed remarkably constant even with upgrades in processing power and plots: it still often boils down to "kill the Other and win," be they 8-bit pixel ships or 3D, AI-driven hordes. A few minor threads didn't quite come together, though this is the first of a trilogy, even if the ScreeWee storyline appears to wrap up here. All in all, it's a good read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
God Game (Andrew M. Greeley) - My Review
Caverns of Socrates (Dennis L. McKiernan) - My Review
The Last Starfighter 25th Anniversary Edition - Amazon DVD link

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I Am A Story (Dan Yaccarino)

I Am A Story
Dan Yaccarino
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: From the earliest fireside gatherings to the digital age, stories have accompanied humans around the world. Follow a story's journey through time.

REVIEW: I saw this at work, and decided it needed to be my first review of 2017, given the challenges facing my country and the world this year. Author and artist Yaccarino tells a simple story of a profound concept, one that challenges and comforts, threatens and reassures, but ultimately is a deeply intrinsic part of our humanity. Even when people try to kill them, stories find a way to endure and thrive. A quick read, with bright illustrations and an ultimately uplifting message... one that even grown-ups need to hear sometimes, when we're at work surrounded by stories and ideas that others likely find threatening and will do their level best to silence as they gain the power.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett) - My Review
The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup) - My Review
What Do You Do With an Idea? (Kobi Yamata) - My Review