Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May Site Update

Just got the May site update posted, so the previous ten reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Imagine a World (Sarah L. Thompson)

Imagine a World
Sarah L. Thompson, illustrations by Rob Gonsalves
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Autumn leaves rise as butterflies... a waterfall dances... waves become snow-capped peaks... books open onto new worlds... More optical illusion art by Rob Gonsalvez meets short verses by Sarah L. Thompson.

REVIEW: Another entry in the ongoing series features yet more amazing, perception-twisting art. It's a book to be lingered over, a treat for the imagination. If you liked the others, or just enjoy good optical illusion artwork, you should enjoy this one
(On an unrelated note, if my records are accurate, this is my 1400th review.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animalia (Graeme Base) - My Review
Imagine a Day (Sarah L. Thompson) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review

Friday, May 26, 2017

Starflight (Melissa Landers)

(The Starflight series, Book 1)
Melissa Landers
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Eighteen-year-old Solara knows she has no future on overcrowded Earth; her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, leaving her with no money or connections for the few available jobs, and the felon tattoos on her knuckles make her prospects even worse. In the outer realms, the frontier of terraformed worlds (conveniently beyond the reach of the Solar League law enforcement), her engineering prowess should make her invaluable - but transportation isn't cheap. She must indenture herself to a wealthy passenger traveling offworld. Unfortunately, the only one willing to take her on as a servant is Doran, spoiled son of the Spaulding interplanetary fuel empire, with whom she's had a personal rivalry ever since she got a scholarship to his elite academy. Doran treats her worse than a dog, making her wait on him and his pink-haired socialite girlfriend hand and foot. When he goes too far, threatening to dump her at a refueling stop (where her only option to afford another flight would likely be in the station bordello), Solara takes matters into her own hands with a personal stunner - but things only get worse as they find themselves aboard the Banshee, a ship of dubious legitimacy, among an eccentric crew full of secrets, not to mention enemies.

REVIEW: I wanted to like this book. (I actually want to like every book I read, but this one in particular had numerous good ratings that had my hopes up.) Parts of it were enjoyable. Ultimately, though, it just doesn't quite come together right. Solara's a tough girl, raised an orphan, used to seeing the worst in people and relying on her own wits and skills - except when she doesn't. Doran, especially early on, is borderline sadistic in his contempt for inferiors, a category that includes everyone in the galaxy save his father and his constantly-rotating current girlfriend - but, really, his life is built on insecurities and trauma. The crew is almost textbook "eccentric co-star" material, particularly the captain, who is more artificial than organic after a century or so of life on the run. There's even a useless-but-cute ship mascot, Acorn the sugar glider (which is inexplicably called a "sugar bear" at least half the time, in what I can only think is a glaring editing error.) Characters often act too immaturely given their age and experiences, and growth rarely feels organic as Solara and Doran lurch through very expected changes in their relationship; it's no spoiler or surprise that their rivalry doesn't last to the end of the book. For that matter, several of the plot twists telegraph themselves, often with an air of plot-required inevitability. One major twist toward the end (which I saw coming several light-years away) almost had me put the book down: was I really expected to swallow that stale old chestnut? The whole space/future milieu failed to convince me, full of strange idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies; the attitudes are far too modern, for instance, as is the majority of the slang. Then there's the wrap-up, the kind of scene where everyone smiles while the screen freezes and closing credits roll. Yes, by then the book had stopped feeling like an adventurous space yarn, or even an exploration of two teens growing up under extreme conditions, and took on the air of a somewhat shaky pilot episode for a TV series. (The Disney-Hyperion publisher makes me wonder if there aren't plans along those lines in the works...) There were some decent bits, and not everything felt contrived or forced, but ultimately I just didn't enjoy it it, and I doubt I'll remember it for long.

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Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Cinder (Marissa Meyer) - My Review
Trading in Danger (Elizabeth Moon) - My Review

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.

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Plain Kate (Erin Bow) - My Review
The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde) - My Review
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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.

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Tell Me A Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review
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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.

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Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
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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:
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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
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Arrival- Amazon DVD link