Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ocean/Orbiter Deluxe Edition (Warren Ellis)

Ocean/Orbiter Deluxe Edition
Warren Ellis, illustrations by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran
Fiction, Collection/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A special edition compiles two stories of space travel:
Ocean: United Nations Weapons Inspector Nathan Kane is sent on an urgent, top-secret mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy ocean moon. Here, a discovery has been made that could rewrite human history... or end it.
Orbiter: When the space shuttle Venture disappeared, it spelled the end of manned spaceflight and the world's dreams of exploring the solar system. Ten years later and without warning, the shuttle returns to the ruins of Kennedy Space Center, with peculiar modifications, one catatonic survivor - and, impossibly, Martian dust in the wheel wells.

REVIEW: Another pleasant find on Hoopla, the online lending service associated with many library systems. Ellis incorporates heavy science into his stories, but doesn't forget the sense of wonder that remains at the heart of the best sci-fi.
In the first story, Ocean, Kane and a small team of explorers discover humanoids suspended in sarcophagi under the Europan ice, along with weapons that could turn the Earth to a cinder in seconds... weapons systems targeted by a private exploration team, in an unsubtle dig at corporate ethics (or lack thereof.) It has the feel of a good (if slightly old-school) sci-fi action film, even using variable gravity to great effect.
The second tale, Orbiter, is more psychological, a study of what the space program means to individuals and the world, and why it's so important to keep pushing boundaries even given the risks. According to the afterword, Ellis wrote it as a tribute to the lives lost in the Columbia disaster, and it shows - as does the warning of where we'll end up if we let fear pin us down on Earth when we should be stretching our wings further. This is the good stuff, the sci-fi that uses science to open doors and ask questions and wonder "what if...?", not just brood and come up with new ways to blow up slimy aliens.
Taken together, these stories earn top marks for remembering what the genre can and should aspire to.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke) - My Review
Afar (Leila del Duca) - My Review
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor) - My Review

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Green Ember (S. D. Smith)

The Green Ember
The Green Ember series, Book 1
S. D. Smith
Story Warren Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young rabbits Heather and Picket grew up with stories of kings and warriors, of Whitson Mariner and Captain Blackstar, of battles fought against wolf and hawk and eagle. But one tale Father never told them was the Rise and Fall of King Jupiter, lord of a hundred warrens and protector of the Great Wood. Never, that, is, until the night before the wolves came, and their peaceful childhood ended in flames.
Fleeing for their lives, the siblings fall in with their estranged Uncle Wilfred and his ward Smalls, who take them to a hidden rabbit sanctuary. It looks peaceful, a place to rebuild hope and a future. But all is not as it seems, and the forces that brought down Jupiter and ended his legendary reign - the wolves and birds of prey and even traitors of their own kind - stand poised to snuff out even this small spark of resistance. Worse, Heather and Picket find themselves disliked almost from the start, for reasons nobody will tell them. As they struggle to unravel the mysteries of Cloud Mountain, the danger looms ever closer.
Of all the tales Father told them, the one he wasn't brave enough to tell may be the most important, and most tragic, of all...

REVIEW: Though the characters may be rabbits and the edges may be a bit blunted given the target audience, The Green Ember isn't a cutesy Fluffy Bunny story. This is very much an epic fantasy tale, if one dressed up in fur and whiskers, and if you come to this expecting nothing worse than hurt feelings you'll be in for a shock; the violence isn't graphic, but it is deadly, and grows moreso by the climax. Heather and Picket both have to do a lot of growing up in a short (and tragic) space, and don't always manage it without some wrong turns, though to Smith's credit I fully understood even the backslides; the author builds real, solid characters with sometimes-complicated inner lives and conflicted wants, not just in Heather and Picket but in much of the surrounding cast. Naturally, there's more to the story of King Jupiter's fall and missing heir that bears directly on them and their family, though not in the obvious way one might expect. The plot moves rabbit-quick, but never too fast to keep up with. I considered trimming for the old trope of evil wolves and predators, a subtle but persistent tendency to soften the female characters to stereotype roles of healers and sages, and the needlessly-sanitized illustrations (which, in my opinion, don't honor the tone or the characters, not to mention the young readers who can and will take them every bit as seriously as any Tolkienian creation), but in the end decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. It's a well-told tale suitable for younger readers, and if The Green Ember sparks an interest in the greater field of epic fantasy, so much the better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Watership Down (Richard Adams) - My Review
Redwall (Brian Jacques) - My Review
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (David Petersen) - My Review

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Depths (Kirk Kjeldsen)

The Depths
Kirk Kjeldsen
Grenzland Press
Fiction, Adventure/Thriller
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: After three miscarriages, Marah's marriage to Eden was near a breaking point, but a Malaysian scuba vacation might help them start over. Things take a nasty turn, however, when kidnappers grab them and haul them off to an uncharted island. Marah was always the shy one, the reluctant adventurer, but she's going to have to find her own strength if she's to have any hope of survival.

REVIEW: The Depths is the written equivalent of those off-brand movies you sometimes find on TV on a Saturday afternoon. The characters are flat off-the-shelf plot enablers, the story nothing special, the dialog forgettable, and you honestly can't tell if it's been edited for broadcast or if it really was that bland originally, but it fills an empty house while waiting for something better to come on (and one can hope the checks didn't bounce, so at least someone got paid for making it.) Not much really happens (aside from the initial kidnapping and some generic roughing up), so mostly it's Marah in her own head rehashing her misery, her miscarriages, and her failed marriage. When she finally demonstrates some agency - at about 3/4 of the way through the book - it's so out of the blue it doesn't even seem in character, leading to a "surprise" plot twist that was telegraphed from the start. Then the story ends with a conclusion that dropped it below the Okay I nearly gave it. (No specific spoiler, but to be honest if you read the Description you can probably guess. Talk about a stale, stereotypical chestnut...) On the plus side, it reads fast. On the minus side, I was forgetting it even as I was turning pages. Next time a movie like this is on, I think I'll just pop in a DVD.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review
Phoenix Rising (Cynthia Vespia) - My Review

Monday, November 5, 2018

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil deGrasse Tyson
W. W. Norton and Company
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Relativity theory, the Big Bang, pulsars, galaxy clusters, dark matter... Science news reports on all manner of new theories and discovered wonders in the universe these days, but to the average person, it can be more than a little overwhelming. Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson breaks down the vast field of astrophysics for people who don't know where or how to start.

REVIEW: This title promises a quick, simplified "tour" of the vast (literally and theoretically) field of astrophysics and why it's so important. For the most part, it delivers. Starting with the "Big Bang" at the start of the (known current) universe, it touches on the terms, discoveries, and theories that inform our current understanding of reality as we know it... and how each breakthrough leads to more questions. From the stars at night to the very atoms that make up our bodies, we literally owe everything in existence to events billions of years ago. At the end, Tyson touches on why sciences like astrophysics, which seem to have no tangible short-term benefit, are really the most important of all if we're ever going to mature and survive as a species. (Given recent attitudes toward science by more than one developed country, I sadly suspect H. sapiens has chosen voluntary extinction over embracing the notion that we aren't the center of the universe, but I digress...) The organization can be a bit scattershot, and even in simplified terms some of the concepts are just too big to stuff into my undereducated primate gray matter, but it does live up to its title.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Beyond: Our Future in Space (Chris Impey) - My Review
Vacation Guide to the Solar System (Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich) - My Review
Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe) - My Review

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Heartstone (Elle Katharine White)

The Heartstone series, Book 1
Elle Katharine White
Harper Voyager
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Aliza Bentaine met Alastair Daired, it was hate at first sight. Never mind that Aliza's younger sister had been killed by a horde of gryphons that had roosted near Merybourne Manor, and Alastair - scion of an ancient line of dragon companions - was one of the Riders sent to deal with the infestation. The man's arrogance and casual dismissal of any born lower than himself (most everybody in the realm of Arle, in other words) would try a saint's patience, and it's soon clear that he finds her headstrong ways even more irritating than most of the human race. But fate seems to keep throwing them into each others' paths, as the gryphons prove to be just one part of a much greater danger that will threaten the whole of Arle... one that will take more than dragonfire and Rider steel to defeat.

REVIEW: As one might surmise from the description, Heartstone is a fantasy riff on the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, transplanting the general story structure into an invented realm that vaguely resembles England. Some of the elements don't transfer as well as others; in White's world, women have more options for improving their lot than simply marrying well, so Aliza's mother's obsession with getting a good Rider match for at least one of her eligible daughters seems a little out of place. It also made parts of the tale predictable, such as the general arc of Aliza and Alastair's relationship and those of a few surrounding players. The fantasy trappings, though, made for interesting variety, not to mention more intense action sequences than Austen presented. (Then again, I think most classics would be improved with the addition of dragons, or at least gryphons, which is probably all you need to know about my literary taste - or lack thereof. But, I digress...) I also cared enough for the characters to keep reading; indeed, though the tale was fairly lightweight in many respects, it somehow drug me into a daylong binge. It was this ability to keep me turning pages that made me overlook a few forgotten loose ends and some over-complicated worldbuilding to give it a four-star Good rating. I might even read the second one, if I find it cheap enough (or, better yet, through the library.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review
A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge)

The Snow Queen
The Snow Queen Cycle, Book 1
Joan D. Vinge
Popular Library
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The world of Tiamat is a world of two suns and two peoples. For 150 years, the Winter people and their Queens in white reign from the ageless capital of Carbuncle. Here, they enjoy the wealth of the interstellar Hegemony, who trade their technological wonders for a life-extending elixir made from the blood of a native species. But when the proximity of a rogue star makes the Black Gate unstable and equatorial regions inhospitable, the offworlders take their technology and abandon the world, while the rustic Summer people reclaim Carbuncle for the next century and a half under their Summer Queens. The ancient traditions of the Cycle ensure that the natives of Tiamat never gain enough independence to challenge the Hegemony, or threaten the flow of the "waters of life" to the other worlds... but Arienrhod, Winter Queen, tires of offworlders exploiting her people, not to mention the Change that sees the Winters revert to little more than primitives during the long summer. She and her consort Starbuck, lives extended unnaturally by the waters, have plans for independence - plans that may cost many lives on her world and beyond, and that have already cost her much of her own humanity and soul. Those plans begin with a single child in a distant land...
Summer-born Moon has known two things about her destiny since she was old enough to walk the island beaches of her home: that she would marry her halfblood cousin Sparks Dawntreader, and that she would become a sibyl, speaker for the holy Lady of the Seas. But when she finally hears the Lady's call, it tears her from Sparks's hands, setting her on a path that will lead her far from the islands, far from her homeworld - even as far as the palace in Carbuncle as Winter's reign ends. For the Winter Queen herself awaits the arrival of Moon, her chosen heir... and perfect clone.

REVIEW: The Snow Queen, a sci-fi story loosely inspired by the fairy tale of the same name, was first published in 1980. At the time, it was probably progressive - it makes a point of having women leaders resisting patriarchal societies - but it hasn't aged particularly well. For all the powerful women it tries to present, their motivations almost invariably boil down to a man. Moon's mutual bond with Sparks remains her driving need through the majority of the book, an inherent naivete that flattens her character and makes her come across as a teenager caught in puppy love... and more than a bit of a too-perfect character for whom anyone (particularly males) will do anything. Arienrhod has burned through lovers for her long life, part of her overall personality of using and ruining people for her own ends or mere amusement, but nevertheless becomes obsessed with the same man her clone covets, even as her former favored lover both seethes in hatred and pines for her lost affections. Commander Jerusha, the offworlder police captain who fought Hegemonic misogyny for her post, nonetheless discovers that her life is incomplete without a husband (not a strong subplot, but very much present.) There's even a minor female villain whose main problem is that she needs to be taught to coddle and nurture others ('cause you know a woman is incomplete without being Soft and Motherly.) Even when the characters discuss the unfairness of caste systems and patriarchal prejudices, those "all for a man" undercurrents - probably more glaring today than they were in the 1980's - drag things down.
Beyond that, the story itself has some decent moments, but too often loses itself in writing that tries too hard to be Writerly. Some of the dialog and descriptions, particularly toward the climax, almost had me laughing out loud at the melodrama, and Vinge's offworlder languages and cultures felt stilted. Though it starts at a decent pace, it soon bogs down, not helped by more than one predictable, borderline cliche turn. The final third feels unnaturally drawn out, even while leaving deliberate threads dangling for the next installment. For all that, Vinge presents decent ideas in Tiamat and the Hegemony. I can see how The Snow Queen won its cover-advertised Hugo in its day. Ultimately, though, I don't think time has been kind to this tale, and I doubt I'll pursue the rest of the cycle.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
Dragons in the Stars (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
On Basilisk Station (David Weber) - My Review

Friday, November 2, 2018

Everyone Loves Bacon (Kelly DiPucchio)

Everyone Loves Bacon
Kelly DiPucchio, illustrations by Eric Wight
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Bacon becomes the star of the diner breakfast menu, the fame goes to his head.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slow stretch at work, this is an amusing cautionary tale about an unchecked Eggo- sorry, ego. Though Bacon starts out nice enough, he soon forgets his old friends, growing a mustache (everyone loves mustaches!) and appearing on all manner of merchandising... but fate and fame are equally fickle things. Some fun little side jokes in the illustrations add to the enjoyment.

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The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
Carnivores (Aaron Reynolds) - My Review
Secret Pizza Party (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

October Site Update

A day early again, but I updated the main Brightdreamer Books site, archiving the month's reviews. I'm also making more progress on my cross-linking efforts.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Secret Hour (Scott Westerfield)

The Secret Hour
The Midnighters trilogy, Book 1
Scott Westerfield
Fiction, YA Chiller/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: After growing up in Chicago, the Oklahoma town of Bixby looks like the definition of nowhere to Jessica Day - if a nowhere with an aeronautics firm where Mom landed a design job. But there's something funny about this place, and not just the odd-tasting water. Every night, at midnight, time freezes... and monsters emerge. As a Midnighter, someone born at the exact right time, Jessica is one of the few teens in Bixby who experiences this secret hour - an hour that appears to exist only in and around the town - but none of the others provoke such a strong reaction from the darklings who lurk there. Is it just because she's new, or is there something special about her, something that may end the eons-old struggle between humanity and darkling once and for all?

REVIEW: The Secret Hour isn't bad, establishing a creepy premise and decent cast. Westerfield creates some nice monsters with the darklings and the lesser slithers, shapeshifting beings that embody humanity's oldest nightmares. The teens each develop distinct personalities, generally with a little more to them than is first apparent, and each with a particular talent that comes alive in the secret hour. The exception here is Jessica Day, the nominal lead. She comes across as the quintessential Teen Heroine, half a step (if that) removed from Mary Sue status, whose initial helplessness and naivete only ensures that she'll somehow be Extra Important later on (no specific spoiler, but come on - I think most readers know the earmarks by now.) There are hints of relationship potential, and some typical high school drama (plus the obligatory family drama and parental issues)... the usual trappings of the age category and genre. Even if the elements hit their marks competently, they're still laid out on a rather well-worn story path that I'm a little tired of treading.
Westerfield's imagery and concepts are fine, and the majority of the cast is intriguing. It just felt a little too familiar, with Jessica being a cookie cutter Special New Girl, for the fourth star in the ratings... especially as I felt no interest in pursuing the series, which appears to be a problem for the first book in a trilogy. (Not that I need another series to follow, but it seems that a first book that fails to sell the second isn't doing something quite right, at least for this reader.)

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15 Minutes (Jill Cooper) - My Review
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Friday, October 26, 2018

Everything All At Once (Bill Nye)

Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem
Bill Nye
Rodale Books
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: To be a nerd is to notice things - to ask questions and determine how to answer them, to see problems and decide how to fix them. Today, with our very future on Earth likely hinging on our ingenuity in facing major human-incited challenges that could change our planet irrevocably and unrecognizably in as little as two decades, we need our nerds more than ever, but too many people are turning their back on the very expertise we need the most. But quitting is not an option. CEO of The Planetary Society, host of popular educational shows, occasional comedy performer, and proud lifelong nerd Bill Nye explains the mindset that allows scientists to tackle problems from car safety to climate change, and how to harness that power yourself to create a better future.

REVIEW: Nye combines an autobiography with an examination of the scientific process and nerd mindset, which he explains isn't just for computer geeks or slide rule-toting men in lab coats: it's an ability everyone can develop, an ability everyone probably needs to develop if we're going to survive, let alone thrive, in the coming decades. He traces his own nerd roots back to his childhood, from his tinkerer father to years in the Boy Scouts and later in science classes, where he caught the "bug" after a massive pendulum experiment allowed him to see with his own eyes mathematics in action. He also discusses how he came to merge the art of comedy and entertainment with his love of science. (I remember him from his days on the local Seattle comedy show Almost Live!, so it was interesting to see how he came to be part of that, and how it helped him transition to the national stage.) From transportation to GMOs to power grids to the link between space exploration and improvement of quality of life here on Earth, even to improving our own sense of responsibility and civic pride, Nye turns his "everything all at once" mind to possible solutions. Naturally, our climate challenges form a central theme, a problem he still sees as surmountable if we start as soon as possible. With events just prior to and after this book's publication in 2017, and the rapidly-increasing rate with which science is being shut out of the conversation altogether in certain world powers, I fear he may be a trifle too optimistic in his claims that a dedicated "nerd" can use reason and logic to convince any regime to set aside tribalism and short-term gains in favor of the longer view... Still, his optimism gives me some (small) hope, and his explanation of how to be a nerd even outside of a science lab hopefully reaches ears who need to hear it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Unbound (Richard Currier) - My Review
Undeniable (Bill Nye) - My Review
Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto) - My Review

Monday, October 22, 2018

Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws (Paul Jenkins)

Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws
The Fairy Quest series, Issues 1 - 2
Paul Jenkins, illustrated by Humberto Ramos
Boom! Studios
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time...
Every fairy tale ever told lives on in Fablewood, where characters play out their stories again and again, daily, for all time. Failure to re-enact one's tale properly results in punishment or mind erasure by Fablewood's foul ruler, Grimm, and his horde of think police. But little Red defies her story by befriending gruff Mister Woof. When they're discovered, they flee in search of the legendary Realworld, where nobody's stories are written for them and Red and Woof can be free at last - but it's far, far away if it exists at all, and every friend could just as easily betray them to the think police as help them.

REVIEW: I've previously read the Outcasts issues of the Fairy Quest series; evidently, this is where the story starts. (There may even be another volume between this and Outcasts, but for some reason Hoopla doesn't seem to have them, and even lists these ones out of order. But, I digress...) In any event, while I picked up enough to follow the story in Outcasts, it was nice to see how things started for Red and Mister Woof. Grimm slowly squeezes the life (and the memories) out of the very stories he claims to protect with his draconian rule; there is no telling who is friend and who is foe, as centuries of retellings have warped the minds of (nominal) heroes and villains alike, leading to a furtive underground movement of rebels of all stripes and species. The mood can be grim (pun intended), though the art is lively and the story moves briskly. Enjoyable, though it's not strictly necessary to read these issues first.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wizard's Tale (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile Volume 1 (Bill Williamson) - My Review

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jupiter Winds (C. J. Darlington)

Jupiter Winds
The Jupiter Winds series, Book 1
C. J. Darlington
Mountainview Books, LLC
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Grey Alexander and her kid sister Rin have been scraping a living from the wilds of a land that used to be called America, ever since their parents disappeared on a hunting trip. They get by through selling contraband salvage - such as books printed before the conquest - on the black market... and their luck may have just run out. When Grey gets captured, she is brought before Commander Yurkutz, who demands to know the whereabouts of her mother and father. It turns out the elder Alexanders are not only alive, but fugitives on the planet Jupiter - which, despite official word, is perfectly habitable. Grey and Rin both find themselves involved in an interplanetary struggle for control of the cloud-shrouded world, a fight between the forces of Good and Evil itself.

REVIEW: This got many good reviews on Amazon, and it was on sale, so I picked it up. It started decently enough, with Grey and Rin as competent survivors in a future dystopia. I could even almost convince myself to swallow a habitable Jupiter for the sake of a decent story; I've read more extreme conceits, such as plays on the old idea of "aether" in space. Indeed, it can be fun to play with the impossible, if one has a story that supports it and knows it's playing - if the internal logic holds up, in other words. Unfortunately, that internal logic suddenly jumped down a massive black hole when the book revealed itself to be a fundamentalist Christian story with strong Creationist leanings. None of the reviews I read mentioned this. Suddenly, it wasn't just a storytelling conceit that Jupiter had land - one really was not supposed to know, let alone think about, the impossibility of a gas giant being basically a big Earth, complete with one G of gravity and breathable air. One wasn't supposed to question the secret plan of the society to which Grey's parents belonged, a sort of latter-day Noah cult... where Earth species are supposed to just slip right into an alien ecosystem (that looks suspiciously like Earth's, 'cause God was in a rut when creating the solar system I guess.) One was especially not supposed to question the idea that the good guys wanted to start fresh on Jupiter without interference from Mazdaar (suspiciously from the Middle East...wasn't the evil anti-Christian Middle Eastern civilization getting old hat in C. S. Lewis's day?) - yet Mazdaar has already gained a major foothold while the good guys are sitting around twiddling their thumbs with unlaunched ships until pushed by a crisis. What's the holdup, guys? It's a little late when the enemy has armed bases up and running and regular flights to the planet. Don't think, don't question, don't even look at the internal logic inconsistencies: this is a Lesson about Faith, not really a science fiction story.
Setting aside those issues, Grey and Rin aren't terrible characters, even if they do tend to be led around a little overmuch, and only really achieve successes when they give up and pray to the same god that let the Mazdaar overtake Earth until it's considered too evil for goodly folk to inhabit. (Then He graciously gives them a new world to repeat the same technological mistakes that are currently leading to our climate collapse... but that's another one of those internal logic things I suppose I wasn't supposed to question, 'cause God again.) It also made for a certain predictability in the storyline; I knew the main characters were blessedly protected, and I could peg the good guys and the traitors at first glance based on their faith or lack thereof, draining a lot of the tension. The experience was frustrating more than anything, because Gray and Rin and the initial setup could've carried a decent story without constantly having to drop to their knees in praise.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)

Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Miryam's grandfather is one of the wealthiest moneylenders in the land, but her own father is too softhearted to pursue his accounts... until Miryam tires of living on scraps while those who claim no coin to repay them feast grandly and parade new clothes in the market. As she sets out to turn the family business around, an idle boast that she can spin silver into gold draws the attention of the Staryk, dark fairies of ice whose hunters plunder at will and whose winters linger longer every year. The Staryk king himself demands she change his silver into gold - or pay with her own life. When she is pulled into his world, her life entangles with the lives of Ilena, plain-faced daughter of an ambitious duke who would see her crowned tsarina, and Wanda, whose debtor father only sees her as a thing to be traded... and also with a dreadful demon who wears the skin of a tsar, and whose endless hunger may destroy the worlds of man and fairy alike.

REVIEW: Technically, this is a companion novel to Novik's Uprooted, another fairy tale retelling with Polish roots, though the only tangible connection I found is hints of Baba Yaga around the edges; the two read fine as standalone works. Once again, Novik spins a complex tale onto the bones of an older story, introducing shades of gray into the black-and-white world of fairy tales. The prices paid for power, the lingering ugliness of antisemitism, the bonds of family, and the need to honor one's debts and strike fair bargains give the story plenty of body, and the setting is rich with Eastern European details and magical flourishes. The Staryk echo older visions of the Fae, powerful inhuman beings who view mortals as little more than ephemeral playthings at best (or prey at worst), with their own morality and codes of honor; if one must deal with them, one must deal quite carefully, and even then they may well strip your soul and your life before they're through. Characters, however, sometimes feel jumbled; Novik jumps between many different first-person viewpoints, which could make for occasional times of confusion as I tried to work out who I was "visiting" and where they were, and by the end I wasn't sure they all fully justified their inclusion. Once in a while the reading felt a bit like a slog, in part because of the many character storylines I was supposed to be keeping straight. It ultimately builds to a good climax, proving that everyone - even the haughty Staryk - has things to learn from one another once they take the time to listen and bargain in good faith. The conclusion mostly satisfies, even if - as with Uprooted - some few notes late in the tale, particularly related to the romantic relationships, felt a trifle forced. I enjoyed it for the most part, even if it muddled itself a little too much to rise above a still-respectable Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Unhandsome Prince (John Moore) - My Review
Uprooted (Naomi Novik) - My Review
Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) - My Review

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Descender Volume 6: The Machine War (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 6: The Machine War
The Descender series, Issues 27 - 32
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by David Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The United Galactic Council, the rogue robot faction Hardwire, and the fanatically anti-machine Gnishian fleet bear down on the ocean world Mata, where time to prevent a galaxy-wide catastrophe is fast running out. As the childlike robot Tim-21 discovers the secret of his origins, he might hold the only key to peace... if anyone will listen to him.

REVIEW: This is a bit of a dip in the ratings, though it is still a pretty good story. A lengthy flashback reveals the original Descenders, the artificial species behind the massive Harvester robots and the root inspiration for all modern robotics in the UGC... but they are not necessarily the benevolent race they present themselves as. Meanwhile, the grown boy Andy must come to terms with his own conflicted feelings, whether he sees Tim-21 as the brother he used to be or as a lifeless hunk of metal, as he's treated so many scrapped robots over the years. Telsa must also reconcile doing what is right with following orders (and pleasing her remote father), even as the inventor Guon must face what he inadvertently set in motion by stealing Tim-21's template from his mentor in the first place. Driller even makes a brief appearance, captive of the Gnishians. The story maintained much of the same pace and tone as the previous Descender volumes, but I found parts of it stretched. When I reached the ending and realized it was largely a setup for the next series, Ascender, I couldn't help feeling a little miffed, having been deprived of a truly satisfying wrap-up; some storylines were cut off abruptly to facilitate this. Still, I expect I'll read on when the new series appears next year, if it comes to Hoopla. For all the minor things that I feel went wrong with this one, there's still a lot more Descender does right.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wild Robot (Peter Brown) - My Review
Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Armored Saint (Myke Cole)

The Armored Saint
The Sacred Throne series, Book 1
Myke Cole
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Heloise was with her father when she first saw Brother Tone and the Pilgrims of the Order. The fanatical followers of the Sacred Throne wield the holy Writ's text as they wield their iron flails, scouring the land in pursuit of demonic wizardry and other heresies against the Emperor - and Tone sees heresy everywhere. On the brink of womanhood, she begins to chafe at the Writ-forged bonds on her future, as somewhere deep within sparks a burning certainty that their ways are not the right ways. When she acts on her rebellious feelings, she inadvertently endangers her family and her entire village, but what is started is not so easily stopped - especially not when the dangers of wizardry appear on her very doorstep.

REVIEW: This was an impulse buy during a recent bookstore binge, admittedly purchased because the sequel looked intriguing and I hate reading out of sequence when I can help it. (This paperback novella was also cheaper than the hardcover sequel at the time - so sue me, I'm on a budget.) Heloise isn't the by-now-standard tomboy heroine one might expect, and even if she can't imagine herself becoming a meek wife like her mother, constricted by the whims of a husband, she doesn't set out to upend her life or anyone else's. Seeing atrocities committed in the name of her god, seeing the fear and doubt in her steadfast father's eyes, not to mention feeling the pull of her own heart leading her against the Writ's basic tenets, ultimately make her incapable of tolerating the hypocrisies around her, but even then she must struggle to find the courage to face what she helped start. Her grim and brutal world, crushed under the heel of religion, finds many echoes in history; the people obey not so much out of piety as out of fear and survival instinct, enforced by repetition of religious propaganda (and, failing that, the utterly random strikes of the Order's minions, more plunderers than priests.) Beneath that corrupted crust, though, the heart of the religion hides secrets that even the Order has likely forgotten, making for a bit of a twist on the corrupted church trope. Another twist comes with the "tinker engines," traces of steampunk robots and mecha suits filtered through a gritty fantasy lens. These, plus Heloise's realistic struggles over following her heart versus doing what's expected, helped lift it over a few rough spots to a solid Good rating, even if it ultimately felt more like a prequel than a complete tale on its own.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Traitor's Blade (Sebastian de Castell) - My Review
Sheepfarmer's Daughter (Elizabeth Moon) - My Review
Quintessence (David Walton) - My Review

Monday, October 8, 2018

My Diary from the Edge of the World (Jodi Lynn Anderson)

My Diary from the Edge of the World
Jodi Lynn Anderson
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Gracie Lockwood's an ordinary - if boisterous - girl living an ordinary American life, going to school and annoying her siblings and tuning out lessons on math and science and the sasquatches that helped end the American Civil War. Then the Dark Cloud appears... and it soon becomes clear that the death omen has come for someone in her family: her sickly kid brother Sam. Nothing can stop a Cloud once it's come, but Dad has a plan. He, like a scant handful of mostly-crackpot believers, is convinced that another world, the Extraordinary World, lies beyond the icebound southern edge of the flat Earth. It'll be a one-way trip, but if he's right, the Cloud couldn't possibly follow them that far. Soon Gracie, Mom, Dad, Sam, teen sister Millie, and orphaned neighbor boy Oliver (who tags along at the last minute, for his own reasons) are piled into an old Winnebago, on the road trip of a lifetime... but can anyone ever outrun Death itself?

REVIEW: I was attracted by the interesting alternate world (though it pushes the logic line, even for a middle-grade title, for a world so different from ours that poltergeists shut down World War I before it could even begin to have the same named celebrities and other identical cultural features), and admittedly by the fact that the dragon silhouetted against the moon on the cover reminded me of Toothless. The story, though, doesn't quite pull together like it seems it should. Gracie starts out immature, impatient, and more than a touch selfish (as one might expect for her age), and while her experiences teach her much about the importance of family and appreciating the wonders, ordinary and extraordinary, all around us, she never contributes much more to the book than recording events in her diary. Most everyone else steps up at some point, but Gracie's one tangible contribution is, literally, a tantrum. I don't know why this started bugging me, but it did, especially given how much growth other characters underwent - not to mention how it ended (no specific spoilers, sorry, but suffice it to say it seemed like an awful long way to go given where they wound up.)
Gracie's world is an interesting place to visit, with wonders and terrors and moments of whimsy, but I don't miss it now that I've left. I should not be thinking that about a world where dragon migrations drive the population underground for weeks at a time, but I do, and that's another part of how this book lost its full fourth star in the ratings. That, and the letdown of an ending...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards) - My Review
Claws (Mike and Rachel Grinti) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Vital Abyss (James S. A. Corey)

The Vital Abyss
An Expanse novella
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a boy on an overpopulated Earth, Paolo Cortazar could only watch helplessly as his mother withered and died of an incurable disease. The experience drove him to push past the limits of the masses subsisting on basic income in search of answers medicine had yet to discover. Somewhere along the way, he stopped being that boy and became the man currently imprisoned deep in space, a man who sacrificed more than he ever intended, but who stands on the forefront of humanity's greatest discovery... a man who will stop at nothing to continue his work.
Part of the Expanse series, these events occur chronologically between Book 3, Abaddon's Gate, and Book 4, Cibola Burn. (Note: some would place it between Book 5, Nemesis Games, and Book 6, Babylon's Ashes.)

REVIEW: Shuffling of characters in the TV series adaptation of The Expanse introduced me to Cortazar before I got around to reading this novella, so I had some inkling of what he had gone through. Still, this standalone tale functions as a glimpse into one of the many lives forever altered by the discovery of the alien protomolecule at the heart of the series, not to mention the lengths some went to in order to understand and exploit it. Not as action-oriented as other tales in the series, it's more of a psychological study of how far a boy's grief and desperation take him and how one wrong turn tragically invalidates much of what drove him, the core of his own humanity - a sacrifice he is too dazzled to truly appreciate even when the full cost becomes clear. It made for an enjoyable read, filling in background information and teasing developments to come.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Dragon (Mike Brotherton) - My Review
The Churn (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson)

The Flaw in All Magic
The Magebreakers series, Book 1
Ben S. Dobson
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Fantasy/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The human Tane Carver is a university-trained expert on all things magical, yet hasn't a single drop of magic in his blood. His graduation thesis - that non-magical people should be allowed to study the forces that power so much of their modern world, as proven by his own ability to sneak through classes by outsmarting detection spells and teachers alike - got him expelled and disgraced. So it was a surprise when a dean called him back to campus to help with a problem that has baffled the mages and guards on staff: an impossible murder.
An old friend of Tane's was working on an experimental magical airship when she was attacked. That airship is only days away from its grand debut, part of the Lady Protector's plans to promote peace with neighboring nations who distrust magic. Nothing, not even murder, must delay its maiden voyage, putting a tight deadline on the investigation. With help from a persistent half-orc woman and an old elven lover, now a constable, Tane sets off on the trail of a killer. But this case may best even his talents, endangering the airship, the city, and the lives of himself and the few friends Tane has left.

REVIEW: This fantasy/mystery hybrid (with a hint of steampunk around the edges, with the airship) has many elements that would make for an interesting tale, but doesn't quite click together like it should. The characters are decent enough, if somewhat expected for the genre; Tane is the somewhat-cocky lead detective working outside the system and driven by a tragic past, Kadka the half-orc is the loyal sidekick contributing her brawn to balance his brains, the elven constable Indree is the inside contact with the law (who still clearly harbors feelings for her human ex-lover despite a bad breakup years ago), and so forth. The culprit is also somewhat obvious, not to mention prone to explaining their evil plot like a cheap Bond villain at the climax, but I could've overlooked this. The real drag on the rating is Dobson's tendency to overexplain his world, its history, its many races, and its magic. Even when it's one character explaining things to another (Kadka comes from a part of the world without much magic, a convenient set of ears for Tane to fill with worldbuilding details for the sake of the eavesdropping reader), it interrupts the flow of the story. It also ventures into overkill territory, particularly when dealing with other nations that were only ever involved as mere names. Some of the scenes also feel overlong, fluffed by the aforementioned tendency to wander into infodumps. I frankly started skimming those parts of the tale, which ultimately had little to do with the mystery itself. While not a bad fantasy/mystery hybrid, set in a decently constructed (if overexplained) world, I just didn't enjoy it enough in the end for a solid fourth star in the ratings, and don't expect I'll read on.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scriber (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
Fanuilh (Daniel Hood) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review

Thursday, October 4, 2018

She Persisted Around the World (Chelsea Clinton)

She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History
Chelsea Clinton, illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
Philomel Books
Nonfiction, CH Biography/History/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Throughout history and around the world, societies have placed limits on girls... but some persisted against the odds. Thirteen profiles in courage and determination show what women can do.

REVIEW: Given recent national events (and their less-than-subtle message to my gender, that we are to shut up and not make waves because we will not be believed even when we cry out in rage and pain), this is both a timely and timeless reminder that obstructions can be overcome and barriers broken down. Here, Clinton offers an international selection of brave girls and women, along with inspiring quotes. It's both absurd and depressing that the message must be repeated over and over again about women being human beings capable of the same levels of greatness as men, but apparently it must be, because those in power (and the powerless masses) seem to forget at the earliest convenient opportunity. I can only hope that, for all the efforts to repress (even here in the "Land of Opportunity"), strong women persist in breaking through.

You Might Also Enjoy:
She Persisted (Chelsea Clinton) - My Review
Meet the Dullards (Sara Pennypacker) - My Review
I Am a Story (Dan Yaccarino) - My Review

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Artemis (Andy Weir)

Andy Weir
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: To tourists from Earth, Artemis is the pinnacle of science, humanity's first permanent colony on the moon, but to Jazz it's just home - the only one she's known, having left Saudi Arabia with her father when she was just six. Despite the exotic location, it's not so different from small towns everywhere, not even big enough to warrant a full police force. As a porter running a smuggling business on the side, this suits Jazz just fine. She's never done much more illegal than importing the odd box of cigars for wealthy clients - but when one of those clients approaches her about a major caper, with a proportionately major fee, she decides to stretch her skill set a bit.
Big mistake.
What looked like a fairly simple, if risky, task soon has her on the run from a hired killer, part of a tangled scheme that reaches into the highest echelons of power. If she's going to get out of this alive, she has to figure out just what she's stumbled into before it endangers all of Artemis. If they thought she'd disappear quietly, though, they picked the wrong smuggler; Jazz may have burned many bridges in her life, even with her own father, but one thing she won't do is turn her back on her home.

REVIEW: Like Weir's debut novel, The Martian, this tale is riddled with deep science. Much of the story depends on it, from the chemical process of smelting aluminum to the trick of welding in a vacuum. Unlike The Martian, however, I didn't enjoy spending my time with the novel's main character. Jazz is admittedly a screw-up and a slacker who has brought many of her problems down on her own head through sheer petty stubbornness, but I'm never given much of a reason to understand her or sympathize with her; she's just a largely unpleasant human who annoys and uses the people who think to call her friend, deliberately wasting her life because nobody's going to tell her what to do. Her main motivation is greed, pure and simple; I didn't get much sense of humanity underneath her tough exterior, despite some later lip service to learning a lesson about taking people for granted. For that matter, the other characters tend to come across as fairly flat, if generally more relatable; this may be a side effect of being forced to view things through Jazz's frankly bratty point of view. The smart aleck attitude that worked for Mark Watney is less successful here; that may be because Mark was largely talking to himself, while Jazz unloads several of her barbs on other people, so what was a somewhat-endearing reaction to extreme stress in one event comes across as deliberately hurtful in the other.
Anyway, this story has been described as a lunar heist novel. That's generally the gist of the plot, though it's interrupted frequently with science lessons. These are generally too short to qualify as infodumps, though the cumulative effect is similar (especially when, as noted, I wasn't that fond of the main character/narrator.) An excess of side characters, pulled into the unfolding fiasco to various degrees, tangle the plot at times. Jazz messes up, more often than not through a failure to account for the human factor of the equation (not surprising, given her evident inability to form a normal relationship), eventually having to assemble a team of misfits (a genre prerequisite) to strike back. It moves decently, though once in a while the tale clunks on certain plot points - there's a tendency to monologuing by more than one player in this game - and the team doesn't mesh quite as well as a good heist team ought to. (This isn't helped by Jazz, who keeps picking on the scabs of old wounds with the people who are risking their necks to help her.)
Ultimately, it's not a bad story. Fans of hard science fiction will enjoy the many little details of lunar living and the capers involved, and there are some nice, intense moments of lunar peril. It's the human side where this one fell down (as I lack the general intelligence for deep science to be interesting on its own.) Had Jazz been a little less snarky (or had given me a reason to really understand how she became that way, other than having been a teenager at some point in her life - it really is like she got mentally and emotionally stuck at sixteen), I think I would've enjoyed it more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
The Android's Dream (John Scalzi) - My Review
The Martian (Andy Weir) - My Review

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark)

The Black God's Drums
P. Djeli Clark
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Thirteen-year-old Creeper was born in the middle of a New Orleans storm; perhaps that was why the Afrikan goddess of the winds, Oya, took such a shine to her. For all the girl's life, Oya has been with her, though only a fool would consider such a powerful force a true friend. She has her own mind, Oya, and sometimes the visions she sends are too powerful for Creeper to handle - but goddesses will not be ignored.
While prowling the airship landings for pockets to pick and purses to snatch, Creeper comes across a group of Confederate soldiers looking to buy a devastating weapon from a Haitian scientist: the Black God's Drums, the force that destroyed Napoleon's forces and won Haiti's freedom, at the cost of hundred of Haitian lives when the unnaturally powerful storm it unleashed turned back on the land. Even today, echoes of it haunt the Gulf regions, black storms that threaten even as far away as New Orleans. With a weapon like this, the South could end its long stalemate with the North, and would likely reclaim the neutral city of New Orleans while it's at it. Creeper planned to bargain with this information for passage aboard an airship out of the city - but fate has other plans for her, as do the old Afrikan deities.

REVIEW: The Black God's Drums has roots running deep into the multicultural history of New Orleans, through local magic and religions, clear back to Africa. Clark creates a colorful setting in an alternate Earth where the Civil War ended in a stalemate (the South now drugging its slaves to prevent escape), the Caribbean Islands won freedom via weaponry tinged with old magic, and New Orleans broke bonds with the rest of the nation, not to mention where airships rule the skies and old gods walk the land in unusual guises. Creeper's a clever and gutsy main character, narrating the tale in colloquial dialect that only occasionally tripped me up. Her reluctant companion and protector, the Free Isles airship captain Anne-Marie, has her own goddess (Oshun of the waters, sister goddess to Oya), though she's spent her life pushing the force away instead of accepting it as Creeper has. As for Oya, she's never quite human, nor does she speak in words, but she is nevertheless a very present character and shaper of events, as much a force of nature as anything else. It's a nicely original milieu, featuring a diverse and unique cast, though it seems a little short in some ways; I'm not necessarily sure it needs a sequel, for all that I'd read more in this world, but something feels like it wants to lead into a longer work. In any event, I enjoyed this visit to a New Orleans that never was.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
River of Teeth (Sarah Gailey) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Saturday, September 29, 2018

September Site Update

A day early, I know, but I'm going to be busy tomorrow. In any event, the month's reviews have been archived at the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Friday, September 28, 2018

The Stone Girl's Story (Sarah Beth Durst)

The Stone Girl's Story
Sarah Beth Durst
Clarion Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Long ago, a stonemason left the great city of Skye and carved a new family high on the tallest mountain of the land: birds and fish and rabbits and others, and one stone girl named Mayka. He brought them to life with stories chiseled onto their bodies, tales of love and adventure and bravery and more... but, in the years since their beloved Father passed in the way of all flesh-and-blood beings, their story marks have faded. When they are gone, the stone animals will become ordinary rock, as the plodding old Turtle has already done. To save her family and herself, Mayka sets out for Skye, to find a new stonemason to refresh their marks - but real adventures aren't like the stories Father used to tell them, and the city is bigger and more dangerous than she could've imagined, especially when she makes a discovery that could change the relationship between humans and stone creations forever.

REVIEW: This imaginative tale explores the power of stories - not just the kind people tell to children or to pass time, but the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we might become, not to mention how we often let other people decide our stories for us. Mayka's story started her life, but she has grown to become more, as have the animals in her "family" on the mountain. Down in the valley and the city, she discovers that not everyone values stories, or stone creations. Her search for a stonemason leads to the heart of Skye and into the story of why Father left the city so long ago, a history that ties into the lives of the people (living and stone, human and animal) she encounters along the way. Her sidekicks - the stone birds Jacklo and Risa from the mountain, and later the carved dragon Si-Si and others - all pull their weight even as they add elements of fun. The whole makes for a wonderful tale, full of charming details and memorable characters, with a timeless feel and a satisfying conclusion. It was just the escape I needed.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill) - My Review
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Imagine! (Raul Colon)

Raul Colon
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, CH Picture Book/Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: A boy visits a modern art museum and takes the paintings on a tour of the city.

REVIEW: This wordless tale explores the power of art and imagination, and how it can change the world in ways small and big. The images are colorful and bold, turning the urban landscape into a work of art on its own. A quick and fun read that encourages engagement with art.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
Imagine a World (Rob Gonsalvez) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

She Persisted (Chelsea Clinton)

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World
Chelsea Clinton, illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
Philomel Books
Nonfiction, CH Biography/History/Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A dancer, a senator, a doctor, a judge... thirteen profiles in courage show how strong women can be.

REVIEW: A direct challenge to recent efforts to roll back women's rights and diversity, She Persisted showcases women who refused to let the status quo hold them back. Each entry has a brief description of how they took charge of their lives and changed the world, along with a quote. One can only hope the girls who grow up reading this are strong enough to step up to the obstacles that current events seem determined to place before them...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Cinder Edna (Ellen Jackson) - My Review
The Paper Bag Princess (Robert N. Munsch) - My Review
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter To My Daughters (Barack Obama) - My Review

What Unites Us (Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner)

What Unites Us
Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner
Algonquin Books
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Essays/Politics
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since its founding, America has been a land of many faiths and ideas, of diverse people and diverse viewpoints, of conflicts and cooperation. In recent years, our nation has been tested in ways it rarely, if ever, has encountered - ways that could permanently alter, perhaps end, the great American experiment. Noted reporter Dan Rather reflects on eight decades of life and six decades of journalism in a series of essays exploring the country he loves and how it has dealt with its own shifting self-image, not to mention how it arrived at the current murky crossroads where it now stands.

REVIEW: Like many Americans, I've spent the last few years struggling to understand what is happening to my country, how things could veer so rapidly off course because of the whims of the few and the apathy of the many. Rather, too, seems to be struggling, though his reflections offer some thin hope for the future as he discusses conflicts the country has weathered before. He draws from the experiences of his long life and notable career to explore many aspects of patriotism as it used to be, as it should be - aspects that stand in sharp contrast to the toxic brand of nationalism being bandied about in the name of "patriotism" today. From a childhood in Houston to the halls of power in Washington, from years of war and scandal to years of peace and prosperity, from personal failures to personal triumphs, Rather paints a picture of troubling trends with long roots in our often-whitewashed (in many ways) past, yet with glimmers of hope around the edges. I do hope his ultimate optimism proves prophetic, though I can't help look at the overall trend and seemingly-deliberate sabotage of key aspects of our historical resiliency - our crumbling educational system, the increasing and overwhelming voice of money over people in government, the assault on science and the very existence of facts, demonization of diversity, and more - and wonder if this appeal to our better selves is ultimately too little, too late.
(Incidentally, for those none of you keeping track, by my calculations this is my 1500th "live" review. Technically, I've written more, but I was set back when I culled reviews of no-longer-available books.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
10% Happier (Dan Harris) - My Review
Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Shawn Lawrence Otto) - My Review
The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine) - My Review

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Ghost Talkers (Mary Robinette Kowal)

Ghost Talkers
Mary Robinette Kowal
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As the Great War wages in Europe, England employs a secret weapon: the Spirit Corps, mediums trained to take reports from soldiers killed in action, making for near-real-time intelligence on enemy troop movements. American-born Ginger is one of the mediums working at Le Havre, where most soldiers think she and her mostly-female colleagues are no more than hospitality workers, while her British fiance Ben works in espionage.
For all the death and danger that surrounds her daily, Ginger still wasn't ready when Ben reported to her as a ghost - not killed in battle, but murdered by traitors in their own ranks.
Unlike most ghosts, who depart beyond the veil, Ben lingers, tethered to Ginger by unfinished business on Earth. With evidence that the Germans are figuring out the existence of the Spirit Corps, the danger is rising daily. Finding Ben's murderer may be the only way to stop a looming disaster - but a ghost's memories fragment the longer they remain on the mortal plane, and Mary was never trained for spywork. Nevertheless, she's his only hope of finding peace, and the only hope of saving the Corps.

REVIEW: Kowal's alternate-history story brings a fresh horror to the face of war, where soldiers are expected to not only give their lives but part of their afterlives to the cause that killed them. As a medium, Ginger experiences more death than most, receiving reports and last messages from dead soldiers and even reliving some of their final memories countless times in a day. Still, the murder of Ben hits her hard, as does watching his lingering ghost slowly disintegrate into base emotions. Hindered by the sexism of the day (with racism also present, even if, as a white woman, she only sees it when confronted with it), she nevertheless steps up to the task of finding Ben's killer and unearthing the network of traitors in their midst. One of the culprits is a bit obvious, but overall Kowal does a good job raising questions and ratcheting up tension over whom to suspect; even the ability to read emotions in auras doesn't help when one can't read the thoughts behind the emotions. It's a well-paced story of the horrors of war and the power of love.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Ghosts of Belfast (Stuart Neville) - My Review
The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review