Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Paper Girls Volume 4 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 4
The Paper Girls series
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, MG? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The four paper girls from the 1980's have returned from the ancient past... only to end up in a nightmare version of January 2000, where the worst fears of Y2K paranoia came true in chaos, looting, and mass power outages. Separated during the journey, Tiffany discovers only she can see the reason: giant robotic fighters from the rival time traveler factions, somehow cloaked from the view of both the locals and her fellow time travelers. Meanwhile, the other three girls - Mackenzie, Erin, and KJ - find themselves in the company of a local woman who knows more than anyone in this time should about the conflict, a cartoonist who has been planting hidden clues in her syndicated strip... but is she friend or foe?

REVIEW: It's been a while since I read the first three volumes, so it took me a little bit to get back up to speed, but this was still a fun, action-filled outing in an intense and well-imagined story. Like Erin before her, Tiffany now faces her own adult self, balancing curiosity with disappointment at how childhood ambitions and dreams (not to mention best friends) seem to have been forgotten in the drudgery of growing up. KJ also finally comes out of the closet, to mixed reactions from her friends, particularly Mac. Balancing the different time threads and enemies can be a bit of a chore, but the tale nevertheless moves at a fair pace, and always forward (at least relatively, if not always temporally), so a fair bit has progressed before the cliffhanger ending. I'll be looking forward to the next volume, whenever it appears on Hoopla.

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Saturday, the Twelfth of October (Norma Fox Mazer) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson and Andre Bressan) - My Review

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Face the Flames (Jo Davis)

Face the Flames
A Sugarland Blue novel, Book 6
Jo Davis
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Clay Montana was one of the last bachelors among the Sugarland firefighters, and had no reason to change his lifestyle... until a devastating wreck stole a year from the paramedic's life. Faced with his own mortality through his long rehabilitation, he starts wondering if maybe it's time to think in the long term and settle down - and the newest cop in town just may be the woman to leash him.
Melissa Ryan may be the new girl on the squad, but she grew up in Sugarland... on the other side of the law. Her uncle Jack runs a moonshine ring out of an armed and barricaded compound in the hills, and numerous federal agents have tried (and failed) to bring down his criminal enterprise. She's come back to town in hopes of doing what no other law enforcement officer has managed: shutting down the Jack Ryan operation once and for all. And nobody - not her uncle's thugs, not her bosses or co-workers, and especially not a hot new boyfriend - is going to stop her.

REVIEW: I've been dealing with a head cold, so I figured I'd read something light. At first, this looked like a typical romance, with the slight twist of the firefighter male lead struggling to regain his independence and job after a massive trauma and having to rely a little more on the lady love interest than in some titles. The formula was a little naked (as were the characters, often), but that needn't be an issue. Unfortunately, it was, and it became more of one the longer I read.
Not a single element of this story does not come straight from the cookie cutter drawer of mass market romance series. Every character is described in terms that have been used, almost verbatim, by countless writers before, playing out forced roles. Lady cop Melissa even has the time and money to run a large spread of property complete with three horses; even allowing for the inheritance factor, just when would a cop with a single-minded mission to bring down an untouchable family crime ring find the time to ride and maintain three horses, and how does a cop's salary stretch that far? Clay and Melissa's interactions are riddled with unnatural dialog that spells everything out; they explain things they already know to each other enough times I half-expected them to nickname each other "Bob" (as in "As you know, Bob..."). The other firefighters and cops are a jumble of names - all of them in various relationships that quite clearly were the subjects of previous Sugarland novels, and all of them tending to be generic support staff for the leads. Clay's injuries cease to become a significant plot factor round about the halfway mark, turning him into just another male romance lead. Nefarious Jack Ryan and his goons are cardboard villains, often doing unnecessarily risky and stupid things just because the plot required them to; their brutality becomes muted as a result, seeming more cartoonish than ghoulish. Plot points stand out like shiny tacks on the string of the storyline, which makes numerous graphic trips to the bedroom... trips that, like the rest of the tale, feel bland and composed of snap-together, generic romance language parts, adding little to the characters or the arc. (Of all the scenes to find boring, especially in a romance title, the sex scenes should not be them, but boring they quickly became.) By the end, I was almost snickering to myself as I played Romance Bingo in my head, ticking off worn-out lines and generic descriptors. That's why it ultimately sank below the flat Okay rating I almost gave it.

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Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review
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Friday, April 13, 2018

The Antlered Ship (Dashka Slater)

The Antlered Ship
Dashka Slater, illustrations by Eric Fan and Terry Fan
Beach Lane Books
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Marco the fox is full of questions, questions none of his fellow foxes can answer... or want to. When the antlered ship arrives, he joins the peculiar crew of animals in search of adventure and new, green lands - but will those lands bring him answers, or more questions?

REVIEW: Another down time read at work, this one grabbed me with the unusual title and imaginative art. Marco and the other animals each have their own reasons for sailing on the antlered ship, and must learn to work together to get where they're going... a destination that may not be a physical place. An enjoyable tale.

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The Curious Garden (Peter Brown) - My Review
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Dan Santat) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Thursday, April 12, 2018

All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1
Martha Wells
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It was supposed to be a routine security run - so the SecUnit, the half-organic humanoid machine, figured it would be boring. Not that it minded boring. Better a boring trip supervising planetary surveyors, part of the equipment rented from an interstellar exploration corporation, than another bloodbath like the one that led it to dub itself Murderbot. And since hacking its behavioral governor, freeing it from compulsory obedience to both the Company and the humans who had rented it for the mission, "Murderbot" could use its free will to stream the entertainment feeds for its favorite serials. If it did a half-baked job in the meantime, well, the scientists did opt for the cheap rental package, and humans never paid much attention to its kind anyway, considering them as disposable as any piece of equipment. But these humans aren't like the others who have rented it... and this planetary survey job is about to turn deadly serious, with sabotage and equipment failure and the sudden, suspicious disappearance of another survey team on the same world.

REVIEW: The compelling voice hooked me into this sci-fi adventure tale from the first paragraph of this compulsively readable tale. "Murderbot," a genderless and nameless being, has secured its free will, but doesn't know what to do with it other than watch entertainment shows and observe (often with distaste) the ways of humans. The dangers of the mission, and the unusual nature of its human companions (who hail from a rare non-corporate system, that views even synthetic beings as more than just disposable items), open up opportunities it never dreamed possible... but, to take advantage of them, it has to decide if it can learn how to trust - and, of course, survive. Compelling as the main character and voice were, though, they couldn't quite cover for weaknesses elsewhere; the characters tended to remain names on the page, the setting and interstellar world somewhat sketchy, and the logic behind the plot seemed a trifle wobbly when peered at closely. Still, it's a fun, if light, read.

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What Do You Do With a Problem? (Kobi Yamada)

What Do You Do With a Problem?
Kobi Yamada, illustrations by Mae Besom
Compendium Inc.
Fiction, CH Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: One day, a child finds a little problem following them around. Ignoring it only makes the problem grow bigger, and worrying about it makes it grow bigger still. What can be done before the problem destroys everything?

REVIEW: Like Yamada's What Do You Do With an Idea?, this book personifies an abstract concept with imaginative illustrations. I felt the idea book worked a bit better, but then I'm a little tired of the message of problems always being welcome opportunities that inevitably lead to better things (with the unspoken subtext that failure to see a problem as a welcome opportunity means you're wrong or weak for "not trying hard enough," that "it can't be that bad" - some problems simply must be endured, without promise of opportunity or reward, and forcing that extra burden of having to seek the silver lining just doesn't help.) Still, it's a good book that helps visualize the coping process, and offers hope of better things ahead.

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Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
What Do You Do With an Idea? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review
Teacup (Rebecca Young) - My Review

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing With Power (Peter Elbow)

Writing With Power
Peter Elbow
Oxford University Press
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In learning how to write, many learn the importance of complete sentences and the parts of speech and other mechanical fundamentals, lessons drilled home by English teachers and grammar books and the dreaded red lines and margin notes on an essay. What too often falls through the cracks are concepts like voice and energy and power, the forces that transform a flat string of words into a memorable reading experience, that take a by-the-numbers essay and create a truly persuasive piece, that transform a string of ideas into poetry. Teacher and writer Peter Elbow discusses the writing process, from early drafts through final polish, and how to discover one's own voice.

REVIEW: Reading this book, written by a university professor, I kept thinking of the line in Tad Williams's Tailchaser's Song, where the main character Fritti attempts to capture what irritates him so about the inhabitants of the feline capital city. To paraphrase, he says that they'd happily spend their whole lives talking about water bugs, thinking about water bugs, and discussing water bugs with other water bug enthusiasts, only to one day realize they'd never actually seen one, but by then they wouldn't want to, because it would spoil all their lovely ideas.
Teacher Elbow writes labyrinthine lectures about multiple writing methods, several of which bleed over into each other; he expounds upon multiple methods of editing, which also bleed over and contradict each other; he sets multi-syllabic snares in search of the elusive concepts of voice and power; but I have to wonder, in all those lectures, how much actual writing (outside the classroom) he's actually done, let alone read. He seems to exist in a tower above the land of literature, high in the rarefied academic atmosphere, where only the trained initiates may approach after years of studying writing about writing, a place where one may philosophize, ramble, and chase streams of consciousness for their own sakes, freely doubling back and meandering and drifting upon eddies of edification, without need or worry about practical application. It made me want to claw my eyes out by the third chapter - and that was just when he was discussing early drafting, concepts that still had some connection to us poor, uneducated outsiders actually crafting words in the shadow of his high tower. By the end, he was blatantly contradicting himself (such as when he tells students that, in order to find the best words, one mustn't write until one has a vivid image in one's head of what one is saying... only, not a couple paragraphs later, to tell students that stopping to create mental images might just keep them from writing altogether and to just put words down anyway if they can't), a technique that has academic merit, perhaps, but isn't particularly helpful in a book purporting to teach writing to the general public.
Is it necessarily wrong, to discuss writing on this level? No, nor is all his advice useless beyond the college classroom; there are some decent ideas and tidbits here and there, shiny objects even a plebeian hack like myself could appreciate. But the cover promises "Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process", and a prominent review quote from the Boston Globe further promises that this is a "practical handbook for anyone who needs to write." No, no it is not.
While I can see, more or less (if I squint and step sideways and skim - as I had to do copiously in order to finish), the general shape of the ideas Elbow was trying to convey, the verbose, circular, navel-gazing manner in which he attempted to convey it, refusing to commit to a concept or idea without immediately flipping sides, left me cold. I suppose I'm just too undereducated to appreciate his treatises about the water bugs of writing... or maybe I'm just more interested in catching and observing actual water bugs myself than listening to Elbow and his peers discuss them as philosophical concepts.

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Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (Terry Brooks) - My Review
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Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott) - My Review

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Nimona (Noelle Stevenson)

Noelle Stevenson
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics has long kept the peace in the kingdom, its champion Ambrosius Goldenloin always ready to cross swords with any monster or villain... particularly his nemesis, Ballister Blackheart. At least, that's what the news channels would have everyone believe. A former Institute student himself, Blackheart's seen the truth behind the golden facade - but he's never been able to convince anyone where the real danger is. Until, that is, he acquires a new and unexpected sidekick.
The girl Nimona comes from nowhere, a shapeshifter with flexible morals who insists on helping Blackheart with his evil plans. With her on his side, Ballister starts making progress exposing the Insititute's true nature... but the Director is willing to go to any lengths - and rack up any body count - to bring the archvillain down.

REVIEW: Similar to the Lumberjanes series (which Stevenson co-writes), Nimona mixes superficial humor and action with unexpected, sometimes dark character development. Blackheart and Goldenloin share a complicated history, long locked in a stalemate as hero and villain under the Institute's control, though the animosity is deeply personal. Nimona's arrival disrupts the equilibrium, her backstory and motivations stranger and darker than anyone's. The setting freely mixes science and magic, swords and guns, a weirdly wild world where just about anything can happen, with an explosive climax. As a minor complaint, the lettering was sometimes a little tough to read on my Nook screen, particularly the white lettering on neutral or light backgrounds. Ultimately, though, it's an excellent, often amusing story of the power of friendship and love, and the devastating damage wrought by betrayals big and small.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters) - My Review

Don't Even Think About It (Sarah Mlynowski)

Don't Even Think About It
The Don't Even Think About It series, Book 1
Sarah Mlynowski
Fiction, YA Humor/Romance/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: They used to be ordinary sophomores in New York City, sharing nothing but homeroom 10B at Bloomberg High School in Tribeca. Many didn't even talk to each other - save Cooper, who couldn't seem to shut up. But after they got their flu vaccines, everything changed...
Now they all know what Mackenzie did during summer break with the hot senior boy in her apartment building, despite being Cooper's girlfriend. Now they know how Olivia's taking after her hypochondriac mother even though she hates it, and how Tess obsesses about weight. Now they know Sadie was the first in the class to lose her virginity, though she wishes her boyfriend would use a breath mint once in a while.
Somehow, the injections gave them telepathic powers. And life - plus Mackenzie's upcoming Sweet Sixteen bash - is going to get a lot more interesting... and a lot more dangerous.

REVIEW: It looked like a lightweight little young adult tale, some high school angst and humor with a sci-fi twist, and I was looking for a quick read. While it did read fast, it turned out to have a lot more heft to it. It's also the first tale I can recall reading written in first person plural; thanks to telepathy, the viewpoint often bleeds between characters, yet with more intimacy than generalized omniscient narration, the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. This made for a more interesting read than I'd anticipated, in a good way. The students find their ordinary lives turned upside-down now that nobody - not their teachers, not their families, not their classmates or even strangers on the street - can keep secrets from them. Reactions range from panic to despair to utter elation, often mingled together as drawbacks and opportunities related to ESP present themselves. There's some teen angst, and hookups and breakups (not always obvious choices), but with the added telepathy element none of it came across as cheesy or contrived; these are well-rounded characters, not gum-popping demographic cardboard cutouts. The ending felt a little rushed, but since there's a sequel I'm giving it the benefit of any doubt. I'll have to track down more works from this author, I expect; anyone who can pull off first person plural is someone I want to read more of. (I also found it a far more interesting tale of involuntary telepathy than Connie Willis's Crosstalk, for all that the latter tale and author are so celebrated; every single sophomore had a more mature reaction to their power than Willis's heroine...)

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Friday, April 6, 2018

Snow White and the Seven Robots (Louise Simonson)

Snow White and the Seven Robots
The Far-Out Fairy Tales series
Louise Simonson, illustrations by Jimena Sanchez S.
Stone Arch Books
Fiction, CH Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time on the distant planet Techworld, the Queen's scientists created an heir to the crown... but the jealous ruler sabotaged the process, creating a hideously pale baby with ugly red lips and dark hair, entirely unfit to take the throne. When young Snow White's intelligence threatens her own, the Queen sends her off to live with a trash collection robot in the filthiest part of Low Town, hoping to break the girl's spirit - but when the girl thrives, the Queen resorts to extreme measures.

REVIEW: Snow White gets an imaginative sci-fi twist in this graphic novel. Instead of beauty, it's brains that fuel the evil Queen's jealousy, but of course Snow also has compassion, kindness, and all the other traits that ultimately make her a better person and gain her needed allies. The girl's a tech whiz, using her prodigious robot repair skills to win friends among the downtrodden humans and robots of Techworld and beyond. The "prince" is an apprentice scientist from Low Town who proves an ally long before the poisoning incident (which isn't solved with a kiss.) I trimmed it a half-point for being a bit too flat, and for a slightly questionable choice to emphasize the white skin of Snow against the green evil Queen (which I expect, or rather hope, wasn't meant to have a racial subtext, but still made me pause.) Younger readers, particularly girls looking for brainy heroines, would doubtless enjoy it more. As Snow White adaptations go, I've seen far worse.

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The Black Count (Tom Reiss)

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Tom Reiss
Nonfiction, Biography/History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the classic adventure tale The Count of Monte Cristo, author Alexander Dumas relates a harrowing tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned. The model for his hero was none other than his own father, Alexandre Dumas. Born in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, son of an exiled French nobleman and a black slave, Alexandre would rise as one of the great heroes of the French Revolution... only to fall into poverty and obscurity under his one-time colleague and rival, the future emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

REVIEW: I admit to being one of the unlettered masses who hasn't read either The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, mostly familiar with them through cultural osmosis - works that were, in no small part, the younger Dumas's memorials to his unjustly forgotten father, not to mention a thumb in the eye of those who willfully buried his legacy, at least as much for personal reasons (Bonaparte himself grew to hate the man who overshadowed him literally and figuratively on the battlefield) as political (his mixed-race ancestry made him unpopular in an increasingly racist Empire.) Reiss tracks down obscure memos, letters, and news clippings to piece together the story of the real General Alexandre Dumas, a man who in many ways embodied the euphoric rise and catastrophic fall of the French Revolution and its fledgling ideals of true racial equality. Though his noble bloodline afforded him advantages over many other mixed-raced children, only during the Revolution could he rise to the rank of full general... but, even at its height, the sociopolitical experiment seemed destined to fail through its own overzealousness in pushing its ideals across a Europe that was patently unready for them, under successive leadership models ill-equipped for the long-term prospect of practicing what it preached... models that utterly failed to foresee the growing backlash of those disenfranchised by the Revolution, not to mention a politically savvy opportunist like Napoleon co-opting the whole movement for personal profit and power. (One sees unsettling echoes in how modern democracies seem to be backsliding, the gains of decades or even centuries all too easily undone at the cry of a handful of demagogues exploiting loopholes to gain power... but, I digress.) It's a remarkable story, though it lost a half-star for losing some of its steam in the middle, wavering and wandering enough for my attention to slip. There's also an overall larger-than-life sense to how Alexandre Dumas is portrayed, as though the author were channeling the general's devoted son and painting a portrait of a lionized demigod rather than a man - a very remarkable man, but a mortal man nonetheless. Still, it's a story that deserves to be remembered, one that even modern historians seem oddly reluctant to honor (as witnessed by the "results" of modern-day efforts to see Dumas recognized in a France that still holds his son in high esteem, yet has not one single, solitary statue or official memorial to the father who so greatly influenced his work.)

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Monday, March 26, 2018

The Shape of Ideas (Grant Snider)

The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity
Grant Snider
Abrams Comicarts
Nonfiction, Creativity/Comics/Collection
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In this collection, the creator of Incidental Comics presents numerous takes on the creative process, its joys and sorrows, successes and disappointments, and journeys unexpected.

REVIEW: I've seen Snider's works online now and again, and generally relate to them more often than not. Even those I don't connect with, I can appreciate the creativity and message. Walking an alligator, pushing a stubborn tapir up a hill, flocks of dragonflies and crows as ideas made manifest, he gives shape to abstract concepts and passing whims with almost poetic words and pictures. Now and again it bordered on repetitive, but it's still a good source of inspiration and reassurance that, however our own creative endeavors are (or aren't) going, none of us are in it alone.

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What Do You Do With An Idea? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review

The Mercenary, Volume 1: The Cult of the Sacred Fire (Vicente Segrelles)

The Mercenary, Volume 1: The Cult of the Sacred Fire
The Mercenary series
Vicente Segrelles
NBM Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a realm above the clouds, the nameless Mercenary pulls off a daring rescue, only to be betrayed by the woman. Plunging into the world below, he finds a land he never knew existed, and a new mission and mystery.
This anniversary edition includes notes from the author/artist on the creation of this groundbreaking graphic novel series.

REVIEW: As one might guess from the description and cover art, the storyline is a throwback to Conanesque pulp tropes: wildly imaginative settings, stock characters like the stoic and honorable Mercenary and treacherous queen and lecherous sultan, etc. Those aspects of the tale don't age well (particularly how even the most empowered women in the piece are still untrustworthy and defined by their sex appeal), but the artwork - all in oils, apparently one of the first such graphic novels produced, every image as detailed as a cover piece - remains impressive. The appendix sections by the creator explain how his circuitous route to graphic novels, via technical drawing and advertising, ultimately gave him the skills that make The Mercenary a classic work of art... and how the timing of this piece, just as Spain emerged from dictatorship and almost giddily cast off oppressive censorship laws, helped shape a story Segrelles more or less made up on the fly. I don't know if I'll read on - the plot itself is a bit dated for my tastes, plus, being a straight female, the promise of more nude and largely powerless women holds little appeal - but if I do it'll be largely to admire the artwork and undoubtedly keen imagination at work. (Plus, it would have to be free on Hoopla, as I found this one.)

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The Phoenix on the Sword (Robert E. Howard) - My Review
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Castle in the Sky - Amazon DVD link

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill)

The Tea Dragon Society
Katie O'Neill
Oni Press
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Greta, part-goblin daughter of a local healer and blacksmith, never knew what a tea dragon was until she rescued little Jasmine from hungry dogs. The dragon belongs to a reclusive shopkeeper outside of town, one of the last dedicated to keeping the peculiar creatures. As Greta learns more of the tea dragons, who grow memory-infused tea leaves and flowers on their horns, she makes unexpected friends and learns the true value of traditions in a changing world.

REVIEW: This charming little graphic novel tells a warm-hearted tale with shades of unexpected depth and meaning. As an apprentice blacksmith, Greta finds herself forging swords that are almost never used anymore, making her wonder at the value of a fading art - a value she only truly appreciates as she learns from tea master Hesekeil, his wheelchair-bound friend Erik, and the strangely flighty faun-girl Minette... not to mention the little tea dragons themselves and their special brews. The illustrations are simple yet endearing, and if the story's a little soft and limited in conflict, well, it is essentially a picture book in graphic novel form. It edges close to my too-cutesy line, but my tolerance admittedly increases in the presence of dragons. An appendix offers more information on the tea dragons, sure to be a plus for young dragon-lovers - and older dragon-lovers who retain a soft spot for the cutesier draconic specimens.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

The Churn (James S. A. Corey)

The Churn
An Expanse novella
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a Baltimore half-submerged by rising seas, jobs are hard to come by, and hope nearly extinct. Those who cannot find legitimate work must subsist on basic income... but many are denied even that much, scraping life from the dark corners and crumbling alleys as the desperate always have since the beginning of civilization, trading in drugs or sex or contraband. Born into this harsh and loveless world, the unregistered boy Timmy seemed destined to be just another street thug, a role he seems well-suited for with his complete detachment from his own emotions and penchant for violent solutions to everyday problems. But a citywide crackdown creates a churn of changing fortunes, and those who survive may find themselves on trajectories they'd never imagined...
This novella takes place in the same universe as the Expanse series, by the same authors.

REVIEW: The Churn presents the backstory of one of the more enigmatic characters in the Expanse series, the possibly-sociopathic Amos Burton. Even without knowing the fate of one of the central characters, there's a certain predictability about the story arc, a few almost-too-obvious Chekhov's Guns prominently displayed in the early parts that must inevitably fire by the end. There's also an odd feel overall to the story, much of which is told in a distant overview/omniscient "telling" style; it almost feels like this was a rough draft that could've been fleshed out into a longer work, but was rushed out as-is to feed the franchise market. That's not to say it's poorly written, though - it creates a decent sense of atmosphere, an overpopulated, exhausted Earth where optimism and freedom are only visible in the vanishing boosters of spacebound rockets, a world of complicated and largely unhealthy relationships where only the harshest, most desperate hope or love can take root, and then more as weeds than flowers. The wrap-up felt a trifle forced, with a minor skip in logic that I can't elaborate on without spoilers. Overall, it's a decent addition to the Expanse canon, even if it may not stand up well on its own.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Descender Volume 5: Rise of the Robots (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 5: Rise of the Robots
The Descender series, Issues 22 - 26
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The ocean planet Mata has long been disregarded, a world without significant land mass or intelligent life - yet it is here that every path seems to lead. It is here where the last surviving ancient robot and Guon's former teacher have found sanctuary... and here where the mystery of the Harvesters might be solved.
It is also here that the forces of Hardwire, the UGC battle fleet, and Andy's ragtag crew will confront each other, even as Hardwire unleashes their fleet of battle robots and wakens sleeper agents across the Megacosm.
At the heart of the conflict remains the childlike companion robot Tim-21, who may be the key to galactic salvation - or destruction.

REVIEW: I get a feeling that the next volume will probably be the last. Appropriately, this one raises the stakes to galaxy-shaking levels, moving all the pieces into place for the upcoming climax and (presumed) grand finale. Many questions remain, but I'm confident that answers will be forthcoming... and can hardly wait for Volume 6 to arrive on Hoopla.

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The Iron Giant (Special Edition)- Amazon DVD link

Descender Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics
The Descender series, Issues 17 - 21
Jeff Lemire, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: After being captured by the terrorist robot group Hardwire, Tim-21, his inventor Guon, and UGC operative Telsa manage to escape - or so they believe. Psius, the Hardwire leader, and his "son" Tim-22 have a nasty surprise in store for them as they track down the origins of Guon's inventions, the ancient robot race whose tech he stole.
Meanwhile, ruthless scrapper Andy and his former lover, the half-cyborg Effie, use the robot dog Bandit to track Tim-21 down... only to find themselves in more trouble than they anticipated, complicated when Driller makes a confession about his past and sets out on his own journey of redemption.

REVIEW: The series maintains a fast pace, though I admit I was a little spoiled by the previous deluxe volume; this one seems short by comparison, ending on another cliffhanger with even higher stakes. I'm still enjoying the characters, who are growing in their own directions and all have extra dimensions.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

The Shadow of What Was Lost (James Islington)

The Shadow of What Was Lost
The Licanius Trilogy, Book 1
James Islington
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Twenty years ago, the great Augurs - gifted with foresight and other marvelous abilities - fell from power when their prophecies failed. They were slain by the new king and his Loyalist forces, and their Gifted assistants bound by the Four Tenets of the Treaty. Today, all who wield Essence are marked and taken to the Tols... and those who do not or cannot abide by the strict rules are transformed into Shadows, stripped of power, the lowest of the low. Though it was within the lifetime of many, already the public chooses to forget the days when Augurs and Gifted were honored - and forget, too, the dangers they were meant to guard against, the Boundary to the north they were meant to reinforce.
Davian, Wirr, and Asha were all students at the same Tol, and thought they'd share a similar future... except maybe for Davian. His Essence woke after a brutal attack that left permanent scars - but he hasn't been able to reach it since, despite the lingering mark of the Gifted on his arm. With their trials coming soon, he's sure he'll fail and become another lowly Shadow, but he's too stubborn and honorable to try fleeing. The night before the trials, however, something attacks the school, leaving only the three alive, each set upon a different path to greater destinies than they'd ever dreamed... and greater dangers than they'd ever imagined.

REVIEW: The reviews looked good, and I've been feeling an epic fantasy itch lately, so this seemed like a decent choice. Unfortunately, when the cover reviewers rave how it's perfect for fans of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, I think they were being too accurate on the former and nowhere near the mark on the latter. This reads very much like the now-dated first book in Jordan's series and other older epic fantasy, with rather generic characters, a male- and white-heavy cast, and the concept of "sprawling epic" kicked over the line into "sprawling mess," not to mention Random Capitalizations of Various People or Things and the return of the wearisome "aesthetic apostrophe," or apostrophes stuck into names and terms to make them look exotic without actually serving a purpose. Add that to an overall sense that I'd read most of it before elsewhere, and I soon realized I was in for one heck of a slog.
Now, I'm not new to the epic fantasy genre. I've read Tolkien, Williams, Martin, and Sanderson, among others. I know such books often take some time to establish a feel, and for names to sort themselves out; that's part of the attraction, the immersion into a full and wonder-filled world. Here, even by the end, I had only mentally sorted about half of the many names, places, eras, entities, and terms Islington threw at me and evidently expected me to keep straight. Too many were brought up with minimal relevance to the plot or the characters, and too many had a similar feel, meaning I had to constantly hold myself up trying to remember if a particular name was someone new or someone I should remember, or even whether they were a person or a place or a city - and even then it wasn't always clear. The capital city has about three different terms to describe various parts of it, all of which tended to be adrift in mental white space for lack of orientation. It was all very distancing, especially as Islington works hard to clutter the plot with glimpses of new tidbits and yet another race or character or ability or twists that were meant to be intriguing. Oh, and there's an unsubtle religion insertion that kicks in roughly halfway through. And the titular "Licanius"? It barely even appears in the storyline, and though it's evidently important enough to name the trilogy after, I still couldn't tell you its significance beyond an overhyped, underused Macguffin. This is what ultimately cost it a half-star; I should not have been that lost that far into the story. (Well, that and too many said-bookisms and other style irritants that just got under my skin after a while... and if that kind of thing's bugging me, something's clearly gone wrong with my suspension of disbelief.)
That said, there are a few nice ideas and scenes glimmering here and there, and some potentially intriguing characters. There are, unfortunately, many more ideas, scenes, and characters that feel stripped from other fantasy works with the serial runes barely filed down. While many people evidently liked it, and I suspect things pick up in future volumes, this simply failed to provide the immersive epic fantasy experience I'd been looking for, and my reading pile's too deep (not to mention my interest level too low, and confusion level too high) to pursue this trilogy.

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The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks) - My Review
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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire)

Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1
The Descender series, Issues 1 - 16
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The United Galactic Council used to bring order - or a reasonable cross-species facsimile thereof - to the Megacosm of inhabited worlds... until the day the Harvesters arrived. The massive robots appeared above the nine core UGC worlds mysteriously, and brought untold destruction. Afterwards, most sentients turned on the robots in their midst, giving rise to scrapper bounty hunters and anti-robot cults. Even the most benign of machines found themselves hunted, sent into death arenas or hurled, still active, into melting pits. Meanwhile, the UGC still reels and crumbles, while the violently luddite Gnishian empire grows bolder.
Tim-21 was built as a companion for the boy Andy on a remote mining world. When the Harvesters struck, he was "asleep" - powered down - and left behind. He "wakes" a decade later, alone among corpses... save for Bandit, a robot "dog", and Driller, a relic mining machine with no love for the living. His attempts to find out what happened to Andy alert scrappers to his existence - and alert the UGC to his survival. They've become very interested in the Tim line of robots, ever since their mechanical "fingerprints" were matched to the Harvesters. Did they bring the death machines to the Megacosm... and will a Tim unit bring them back to finish the devastation they started?
This deluxe edition includes issues 1 - 16 of the Descender series, plus bonus cover art.

REVIEW: The exploration of artificial life has been fertile soil for storytellers since before Mary Shelly unleashed Frankenstein's creature on the literary world. These explorations vary in depth and success. Descender counts as a strong success.
Tim-21 straddles a line between machine and human; he is aware of his own artificial nature and programming, aware that much of what he does and says is the result of his inventor, yet his adaptations and exposure to people (good and bad) make him something more, if not quite human then no longer quite machine. Other machines attempt to cope with their nature in their own ways, all disrupted by the Harvesters and subsequent hunting and reacting in different ways. None of them truly aspire to humanity, yet they view their own lives as worthy of preservation, even if they disagree on the worth and best use of that life.
On the living side of the cast are Doctor Guon, once hailed a genius for his work on robotics (particularly the breakthrough Tim line) before being reviled by association, and Telsa, the half-human daughter of the human head of the UGC who has her own reasons for wanting to track down Tim-21, among a host of others. Living or mechanical (or somewhere between), all have deeper characterizations and motivations driving their actions, all scarred to certain degrees... often long before the Harvesters turned the whole galaxy upside down.
With excellent artwork and a fast-paced plot, Descender starts what looks to be an excellent, gritty space opera in a galaxy closer to Mos Eisley than the United Federation of Planets (if I may mix my sci-fi universes.) I look forward to seeing where the tale goes from here... especially if other volumes are also available via Hoopla.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ryan Higa's How To Write Good (Ryan Higa)

Ryan Higa's How To Write Good
Ryan Higa
Little, Brown Books
Nonfiction, YA? Humor/Media Tie-In/Memoir/Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Popular YouTuber Ryan Higa may be the winner of the world's first Nobel Prize for internet videos (not true), but once upon a time he was a bullied preteen misfit struggling to find a reason to live (true.) Here, he presents the story of of his formative years, how he learned to cope with an inherently unfair world and push himself to excellence in unexpected ways, such as sports, comedy, and learning to write good. Or well. Whichever the proofreaders and his ghostwriter companion approve...

REVIEW: I confess I'm not a YouTube connoisseur, more of a light viewer than a binge-watcher or hardcore channel fan. But I saw this book go through the library at work, and it looked fun in the few moments I had to skim it - and, if I'm not much of a YouTube watcher, I am (something of) a writer. So I suppose I'm coming at this one a little backwards. Nevertheless, I've always been of the belief that a media tie-in book ought to stand alone, or it's not a well written book. Thus, despite my lack of familiarity with Higa's work*, I gave it a try.
With humor and frankness, not to mention several illustrated interludes, Higa relates a harrowing tale of childhood alienation and bullying. As someone who went through both and still bears certain mental tics from those days, I could readily relate despite the generational gap. It's not much of a spoiler to say that things did get better - if they hadn't, he probably wouldn't be around to have written this book - though Higa's quite honest about just how useful that "it gets better" advice is to someone going through their own personal hell (read: statistically indistinguishable from zilch.) His illustrated conversations with his ghostwriter and publisher add needed levity, with some surreal details. As for the writing angle, while it's primarily a memoir, there is indeed some talk about how to write a story. On the whole, it's a decent and fast read with some nice humor and a message about hard-won hope. My main complaint is the eBook formatting, which insisted on a locked-in scale and landscape view, not to mention a color screen. Half the benefit of an eBook is the ability to customize font text and choose viewing preferences... but, I digress.
(* - In retrospect, I believe I've seen him in a few older Smosh videos, though I don't watch them much, if at all, anymore. Changing tastes, changing world, and all that...)

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin Young Readers
Fiction, MG Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For countless generations, the people of the Protectorate have lived under a fog of sorrow, between a deadly forest and the endless Bog. Only the elders and the Sisters of the Star defend them from the evil Witch - and only the life of a child, the youngest in the village on the annual Day of the Sacrifice, can keep the wicked woman at bay. Or so the stories say... but stories are that most peculiar of things that can tell both a lie and a truth.
Xan doesn't know why the people keep abandoning babies in the woods every year, but she makes sure to reach them before any of the forest animals can, feeding them starlight to make them strong and bringing them to the Free Cities beyond the woods - which are not cursed, but troubled by an ill-sleeping volcano whose last eruption destroyed the wizards' enclave and all but one of the world's dragons. The last Witch, she lives in a small hut by the bog with her chickens and goats, not to mention the pocket-sized dragon Fyrian (who is convinced he is Simply Enormous) and the giant swamp being Glerk (who may be slightly older than the world itself.) She never thought to keep a child for herself, until she found the baby girl with the crescent moon birthmark on her forehead... and until she accidentally fed the girl moonlight instead of starlight. The moon is pure magic, as everyone knows, and a girl with that much magic in her can't be raised by just anyone. But there are consequences to every action, even acts taken out of love... just as there are wounds that can linger for centuries before threatening the whole of the known world.

REVIEW: The Girl Who Drank the Moon is part fantasy, part fairy tale, and part cautionary tale about the dangers of both love and sorrow. Though a middle-grade title, the story turns out to be not so much about Luna as it is about Xan, the origins of the Protectorate, and the true source of the sorrow that fogs the skies and hearts of the town, not to mention the dangers and hopes of growing up and growing old and the slippery nature of memory. Stories told in interim chapters contain bits of truths and bits of fabrication; the more one reads, the more one can see the roots of the tales, often twisted around by time and forgetting. Barnhill creates some great characters and imagery, from Fyrian the self-delusional dragon to the nameless madwoman and her paper birds to the well-meaning young man Antain... many colorful threads coming together for a climax that is both expected and unexpected. I came close to trimming a half-star for the ending, bits of which felt a trifle scattered and inconclusive, plus a late veering toward the borders of religious territory. On the whole, though, it's an imaginative fairy tale with some nice tooth under the initial simplicity.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Killing Gravity (Corey J. White)

Killing Gravity
The Voidwitch Saga, Book 1
Corey J. White
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When she was a child, the evil Briggs and the technicians of MEPHISTO transformed Marian Xi from an ordinary girl into a weapon capable of destroying whole fleets with a flick of her hand - until she escaped across the galaxy. For years, bounty hunters and agents have pursued her, but none have survived to bring her "home." Chance or poor luck land her with the crew of the battered crusher ship Nova: the cyborg-armed woman Trix, the AWOL soldier Mookie, and the gender-neutral captain Squid. Aside from her pet Seven, another experimental life-form rescued from MEPHISTO's labs, Marian isn't used to having companions, but their fates become entwined as the shadow agency's troops catch up with her - just as Marian discovers that someone she'd thought long-dead may still be alive, and may in fact have been the one who sold her out to Briggs.

REVIEW: This fast-reading space adventure may not be deep or unique, but it certainly moves well and provides plenty of adventure. White creates a setting with most of the usual space opera trappings: a form of faster-than-light travel to enable casual star system travel (wormhole-based, in this universe), space stations and planets ranging from upper-class to scummy back-corridor dive bars, cybernetic implants and digital brain enhancements and commonplace DNA altering, and so forth. The characters are more or less who one would expect to meet in such a milieu, though they all pull their own weight and are decently drawn. Cocky heroine Marian borders on overpowered, her "voidwitch" abilities capable of crumpling starships like tinfoil, though the very ease with which she destroys exacts its own price: she hates being a weapon, even as she finds herself doing just what MEPHISTO remade her to do, if for her own sake and not theirs. Briggs is the typical villain with a Nefarious Plan, willing to throw countless troops and starships at the one weaponized woman who got away. Still, for being composed of such familiar parts, Killing Gravity makes for an enjoyable tale, with some nice, intense battles and the odd touch of whimsy. If it feels more like the pilot episode to a miniseries than a complete story arc, well, I knew it was the first book of a "saga" when I read it. If I can find the next book cheap (or free, as I got this one through a free eBook offer from Tor.com), I'd be willing to read ahead.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

This Is Our Song (Samantha Chase)

This Is Our Song
The Shaughnessy Brothers series, Book 4
Samantha Chase
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Rock star Riley took a hiatus from his popular band to pursue a solo career... but the music just won't come through. It doesn't help that he's still smarting from a media snub, or that his bandmates are doing great on their solo projects, not to mention how his other brothers all seem to be finding their own happily-ever-afters. Even his long-widowed father has found a girlfriend. Now his agent's saddling him with a journalist for a publicity interview and a three-month deadline on his solo album. The last thing he wants is someone nosing around in his private life and blabbing to the world how he's a sad-sack lonely loser who has lost his touch, how maybe he never even deserved his fame in the first place. But this interview is nothing like he expected.
Savannah's one of the best journalists working the entertainment beat, known for finding angles and insights nobody else can and for presenting her subjects fairly... not that she doesn't have opinions on the people or bands she encounters. That band Shaughnessy, for instance, had to be one of the more overrated pop group in recent years. So when her boss tells her she's to spend a month tailing lead singer Riley as he finishes his debut album, she almost walks off the job. It doesn't help that their first encounter, over a plate of fries at a beachside restaurant, is awkward at least and aggravating at best. But Savannah's not about to go back to hairdressing; she's a journalist, dang it, and one obnoxious rock star's not going to intimidate her, even with his unfairly-good looks and smoldering gaze.
What started as a simple article soon becomes something much deeper, something potentially life-changing... and potentially devastating to two hearts who aren't ready to handle an unexpected love.

REVIEW: Romances make nice palate-cleansers, in my experience, plus they can develop nice characters and dialog, even if the stories can seem a little formulatic. (Another bonus to the romance genre is that it often isn't necessary to track down Book 1 of a series; they tend to be stand-alones with some character crossover, not long arcs building on each other.) This Is Our Song ticks many of the usual boxes, but creates well-balanced characters and some great chemistry, not to mention sizzling (yet non-explicit) romance. Knowing the formula, one can see certain issues coming well ahead of time, but the story plays out decently nonetheless, even if the climax plays out a bit forced; I wasn't sure I quite bought the great Moment of Doubt that threatened to destroy the pairing. I also felt like there were a few plot elements that should've come into play by the end, but were left dangling. On the whole, though, it was a fun, fast read, and if the itinerary of this road trip was a little familiar, at least the scenery was pleasant and the company decent.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Invisible LIbrary (Genevieve Cogman)

The Invisible Library
The Invisible Library series, Book 1
Genevieve Cogman
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The Library spans countless alternate worlds, a repository of unique volumes kept apart from time and staffed with essentially-immortal Librarians. While many people love books, to serve the Library one must be willing to die for them... though some few are more than willing to kill.
Daughter of Librarians herself, Irene has always known what her future would be, helping secure volumes for the Library and earning tenure toward her own promotion and research dreams... always with a good detective novel waiting for her at the end of the day. But her latest mission sees her saddled with a trainee, the roguish Kai, whose smoldering eyes and enigmatic past hint at strange secrets. If she's expected to train up new blood, she figures it can't be that challenging of an assignment, and on the surface it looks simple: secure a book of fairy tales from a steampunk variant of London. She soon learns that this world is infested with werewolves and vampires and dangerous Fae... and an even deadlier foe awaits, the long-rumored traitor Librarian who turned his back on his calling and now serves the forces of chaos that seek to destroy all worlds, and the Library along with them.

REVIEW: A vast, all-encompassing library, a love of books, a side character with ties to dragonkind... I should've been immersed in this book from page one and eagerly scrambling to grab the sequel. Instead, I felt like I was being left out in the cold, looking in on a book that didn't care to bring me along as a reader. The characters came across as plot-shaped cardboard constructs, always keeping me at arms' length; I honestly couldn't tell if this was a deliberate conceit by an author determined to pay homages to literary traditions where character depth was often a forgotten afterthought, or if they really were just half-developed entities created to enable a plot cobbled together from tired tropes. The story was convoluted and often unbelievable, full of weird in-world quirks and characters with conflicting goals and tangential tangles and out-of-the-blue conflicts and resolutions that never really made sense, and after a while I just plain stopped caring to try. Some of the imagery was intriguing, a rare few scenes were briefly almost amusing, and now and again the story tried to take off, but too many sandbags kept my suspension of disbelief earthbound. The whole thing just came across as bland and tired, posturing at adventure and drama and sense of wonder without actually achieving those things. Maybe I'm just too illiterate or poorly cultured to appreciate what other reviewers apparently laud as a witty genre homage. Or maybe these tea leaves have been rebrewed one too many times for a flavorful cup.

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