Sunday, July 15, 2018

Afar (Leila del Luca)

Leila del Duca, illustrations by Kit Seaton
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The girl Boetema and her younger brother, Inotu, struggle to survive in a drought-blasted future, moving from town to town with their artist mother and hack engineer father. After a fall from a tree, Boetema discovers she can astral project into other bodies on other planets in her sleep, experiencing a bizarre array of existences... journeys that carry real consequences, as her interference inadvertently puts one of her hosts and its loved ones in danger. Back home, her life is about to get more complicated, as her parents leave the pair alone for a few months while pursuing job leads as salt shepherds. Her brother runs afoul of a local thug, forcing the children into a dangerous desert crossing alone.

REVIEW: It looked like an interesting and original concept in a unique setting, and for the most part that's what Afar delivers. The artwork and design is very imaginative, almost hallucinatory at times, full of bright colors and unique worlds. Boetema and Inotu make for decent protagonists, occasionally a bit slow on the uptake but always with good hearts and determination behind their actions. At times, the jumps back and forth through worlds can be a bit confusing, and it takes a bit to sort out the Earth side of things - radically altered by an unspecified disaster several generations past - but overall the story moves nicely, even if a few elements felt incomplete by the conclusion. Part of me thinks it could use a sequel, while another would rather leave things as they are; from what I can determine so far, it's meant to be a standalone. Overall, despite a little wavering, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt with a Good rating, for overall originality and imagination.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Autumnlands, Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow (James Tynion IV) - My Review

Friday, July 13, 2018

Pines (Blake Crouch)

The Wayward Pines trilogy, Book 1
Blake Crouch
Thomas and Mercer
Fiction, Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wayward Pines, Idaho - a nice place to visit, but you'll never leave...
After two colleagues disappeared in the small town, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke and his partner were on their way to investigate when a truck crashed into their car. Waking alone, memory scrambled, with no ID and no wallet, he soon realizes there's something very, very strange about Wayward Pines. On the surface, it looks like something out of an old TV show, with its almost car-free Main Street and neighborhoods of classic Victorian houses and friendly folks on every corner... but there are no TVs, no contact with the outside world, and he can't seem to get a straight answer on what happened to his partner or his personal effects, let alone what happened to the missing agents he was sent to locate. Just beneath the surface lies a dark secret, one that someone is going to extreme lengths to protect... one that may well kill Ethan if he digs too deep.

REVIEW: I figured I needed a change of pace, and I don't read a lot of thrillers, so this looked like a decent choice. (I'd also heard a few things about the series, so I was curious.) It starts quickly, building a nice sense of surreal danger in the less-than-idyllic small town. Ethan's past - time as a tortured POW in the Middle East and other personal demons - creates plausible reasons to question whether he is being paranoid or if the whole world really is out to get him. Hints and clues and terrifying incidents ratchet up the tension in a fast-paced plot loaded with creepiness, action, and more than a little gore, with nobody acting overtly stupid (as some authors stoop to in order to facilitate the story or obscure plot holes.) It builds up to a reveal that both explains everything (or at least enough to satisfy the reader) and sets up the next book in the trilogy; I was half-expecting the story to run head-first into a cliffhanger ending, obligating me to read further if I wanted to know what was going on and why. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, and might consider reading onward when I next need a quick-reading change of pace.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Meddling Kids (Edgar Cantero) - My Review
It (Stephen King) - My Review

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scales and Scoundrels: Into the Dragon's Maw (Sebastian Girner)

Scales and Scoundrels Volume 1: Into the Dragon's Maw
The Scales and Scoundrels series, Issues 1 - 5
Sebastian Girner, illustrations by Galaad
Image Comics
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A penniless treasure hunter with a shadowy (and not-quite-human) past, Luvander sets her sights on a legendary dungeon: Dened Lewen, the Dragon's Maw, a place so deep and ancient even the gods are said to be blind to its secret depths. Along the way, she runs into Prince Aki on a royal rite of passage, his loyal and mistrustful bodyguard Koro, and dwarven guide Dorma, who has her own reasons for traveling to the Maw. Driven as much by the promise of treasure as the need to escape a deadly bounty hunter hot on her heels, the ever-reckless Lu plunges headlong - literally - into an adventure straight out of myth and legend, one she can only hope ends in the rumored chamber of untold riches. Or at least a good hot meal...

REVIEW: As promised by the title and cover blurb, this fantasy comic pokes fun at dungeon-crawler games and genre conventions without fully sacrificing its internal story arc or characters. The conflicting personalities each bring something to the table, with nobody being deadweight and everyone - even the stoic Koro - having a significant flaw. The Dragon's Maw is a strange, sometimes terrifying place, brought to life in lively artwork whose simplicity nevertheless conveys a sense of the underlying wonder. I enjoyed it, and will keep an eye peeled for Volume 2 on Hoopla.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass)

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Frederick Douglass
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Autobiography
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Written in 1845, this is a true account of slavery by Frederick Douglass, a half-black man born into bondage on American soil who would go on to become one of the great voices of his generation in the cause of abolition.

REVIEW: This is one of those books I know I should have read as an American, but hadn't gotten around to yet. The preface made me wary; written by a supporter of Douglass, its over-the-top rallying cry hinted at a sledgehammer-subtle writing style, as did a follow-up letter. Fortunately, when Douglass himself takes up the story, his writing is much cleaner and more relatable, almost modern in comparison with its lack of excess or flowery tangents - a simple style that magnifies the stark horrors of his life.
This is an unflinching look at a dark chapter of American history, when a patchwork of state laws allowed some to own other humans, and others to freely capture and sell escaped slaves back to their masters despite slavery ostensibly being illegal within their borders. Frederick Douglass was a slave in northern territories, which were generally considered "good" places to be enslaved compared to the South; this narrative lays bare the rank hypocrisy of ever referring to slavery or slaveholders as "good" in any context. The institution beat down the slave and corrupted the slaveholder, rendering both poorer and meaner in spirit, a process involving both physical and psychological bindings. He himself watched a formerly good woman with no slave-owning history degenerate into a nasty, spiteful wielder of the whip when presented with the opportunity... and saw how religious "salvation" almost invariably led to a worsening of the lot of the saved man's slaves, with whippings bookended by Bible quotes justifying the brutality. (Indeed, in an appendix, Douglass addresses directly how too many American churches had twisted their faith backwards, upside down, and inside out to accommodate the horrific practice until it scarcely resembled its roots or the teachings of the man for whom the church had been named - a warped religion that continues to plague the nation by offering Biblical justification for all manner of evils.)
Taken all together, it's both a frank condemnation of the institution of slavery and a remarkably relevant look at how wrongs do not become right just because they are legal or condoned by religious leaders, not to mention how humans persist in dehumanizing other humans - dehumanizing themselves in the process.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carlson) - My Review
The Black Count (Tom Reiss) - My Review

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Nemesis Games (James S. A. Corey)

Nemesis Games
The Expanse series, Book 5
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: After years of service and some exceptionally trying times beyond the ring gates, the Rocinante has returned to Tycho Station for a much-needed overhaul and repair... and her crew uses the time to tie up some loose ends from their old lives. The death of one of Amos's few Earthbound friends sends him back to Baltimore, Alex heads to Mars for closure with his ex-wife, and a dark voice from Naomi's past draws her back into a world she'd almost killed herself to escape in the hardcore fringes of the OPA. If Captain Jim Holden thought he'd be bored, though, he's soon mistaken, as he's drawn into a mystery: something seems to be happening to colony ships passing through the ring gates, even as missing vessels reappear in suspicious active service throughout the system. A new force is about to make itself known with a devastating attack - and, wherever they find themselves, the crew of the Rocinante are once more up to their necks in the thick of the danger.

REVIEW: I admit the extra half-star may be subjective, moreso than my usual review; I started reading this after the finale of the TV show to ease post-season withdrawal symptoms, and it scratched that itch in a most satisfactory manner. Even disregarding that, though, this one feels like it picks up faster than the last book or two in the series, in no small part because it keeps its focus on the core crew and isn't spending time building new characters in new corners of the system. (Not that I minded that necessarily, but there's something to be said for familiar faces.) The Rocinante's crew have all grown older and, in their own ways, wiser through their adventures, even as they grew together as an impromptu family. Those bonds come to the forefront as they make their separate ways toward the same destination, albeit unknowingly. Even apart, they can look to each other for strength and guidance and a sense of purpose in a way they wouldn't have even a book or two ago. Side characters from previous books come back into play, while new players enter the field and the political landscape (er, starscape) shifts dramatically, even catastrophically, in response. The story moves quickly, as I've come to expect from the series, with plenty of action balanced by some nice introspection. Enjoyable, and it makes me eager to read the next book - which is already waiting on the shelf. (I have a few other titles I have to clear first, though... the To Be Read pile's too deep to let one series monopolize my attention. Plus it's going to be a while before Season 4 hits Amazon and Book 8 hits the bookshelves, so I have to pace myself.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor) - My Review

Monday, July 2, 2018

Windsworn (Derek Alan Siddoway)

The Gryphon Riders trilogy, Book 1
Derek Alan Siddoway
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For seventeen years, blacksmith's apprentice Evelyn has lived with her foster father Soot in the city shadowed by the Gyr, great mountainous stronghold of Rhylance's legendary Windsworn gryphon riders. She never thought she'd be among them, until a series of events leads to a stolen red gryphon egg hatching in her hands. Against all odds, the hatchling has bonded with her. Torn from her family and friends, Eva must now live among the other recruits in the Gyr while struggling to manage her unruly gryphon chick. Worse, red gryphons are a once-in-a-generation rarity, marking their riders for greatness - a daunting prospect when the mere thought of flight makes her head spin and stomach heave, and when she's come to training five years late. As much as she longs to return to the forges, though, Eva soon finds herself caught up in unusual events stalking the halls of the Windsworn stronghold, events unexpectedly tied to her own lost family and the very future of the Gyr and the kingdom of Rhylance itself.

REVIEW: If the description seems somewhat familiar from other young adult (or middle-grade) fantasies, it's no coincidence. Windsworn draws clear inspiration from such popular franchises as Harry Potter, Eragon, and others, with gryphons swapped in for the dragons who usually fill the bonded-fantasy-animal-companion role. Eva and her friends (and enemies) fall into readily recognizable roles, only occasionally stretching their wings to become more rounded, though Eva's a relatable heroine for all that. She is no prodigy by any means, struggling to catch up on her training, master her acrophobia, and deal with a gryphon hatchling who, despite genre convention, does not instantly become a perfect companion and friend to his "chosen" human. Eva's failures and frustrations make most of her victories (when she finally achieves them) well earned. I say "most" because, at the climax, there's some backsliding on her intelligence at a key point, a reliance on an external deus ex machina that robs her of some agency in what should've been her great triumph. (Other elements of that climax are also, unfortunately, telegraphed early on once you recognize the literary influences behind Windsworn, robbing the revelation of some of its power if you've read enough.) This, plus the final (long-delayed) revelation about her family, almost cost the book a half-star in the ratings, but ultimately I gave it the benefit of the doubt, on the theory that the target audience may be less critical or jaded than I am. What can I say - I'm in a forgiving mood tonight. That, and I like gryphons enough to encourage their appearance... plus there's some indication that things become more original as the trilogy progresses. (I'm not yet certain whether I'll pursue it or not, but there is promise.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragonsdale (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The Black Gryphon (Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon) - My Review
Eragon (Christopher Paolini) - My Review

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Vacation Guide to the Solar System (Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich)

Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler!
Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich
Penguin Books
Nonfiction, Science
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: With the dawning of the Space Age, humanity has expanded its horizons... and its vacation options. For those bored with the offerings of our home planet, whole new worlds - literally - are available for your entertainment. Explore the lava tubes of the Moon. Sail the skies of Neptune or Venus. Witness the spectacular sunsets of Mars. Visit the rings of Saturn for a destination wedding you and your guests won't soon forget. The Intergalactic Travel Bureau offers highlights and travel tips for the Moon and other planets in the solar system, as well as dwarf planet Pluto and its Kuiper Belt companions.

REVIEW: Using the space tourism gimmick, the authors present space facts and figures in a format palatable for the average armchair stargazer like myself, albeit with some factual blurring around the edges to allow for hypothetical advances in technology (such as underground hotels to survive Mercury's mercurial temperature changes and floating cities for gas giant planets) that would make such trips viable. Naturally, the planets need little enhancement to boggle the mind and dazzle the imagination, even as actual conditions indicate just how difficult mere survival, let alone vacationing, would be beyond Earth's atmosphere. Features and conditions are compared to Earth standards to give us layfolk a sense of scale... not that it's truly possible to fully envision the system's many weird and wondrous phenomena, the extremes in atmospheres and temperature swings and geology, using our uniquely habitable planet as a measuring rod. The odd touch of humor lightens the mood and contributes to the casual presentation, as do vintage-style travel posters of the solar system's highlights (interspersed with actual photographs from various space agencies.) Published in June 2017, the information is pretty up to date, including named features on Pluto and other recent discoveries and developments.
If I'd read this in paperback, I think it would've merited a solid Good rating. Unfortunately, I read it as an eBook through Overdrive... and there are issues with the formatting that directly interfered with my enjoyment. I had to keep re-orienting my tablet, trying to get dark text not to overlap dark sections of photographs - an endeavor that did not always succeed, and grew frustrating, as each turn or adjustment interrupted my reading. Changing font sizes and other display options had no effect, so I lost out on a few stretches of what looked like fascinating information due to my inability to read black on black. Since I read it as an eBook, I must rate it as an eBook, and therefore had to shave a half-star for this annoyance.
Otherwise, aside from occasionally getting a little too clever for its own good, I recommend this one to anyone interested in the solar system's many marvels.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Beyond: Our Future in Space (Chris Impey) - My Review
The Daily Show Presents Earth (The Book) (Jon Stewart et al., editors) - My Review
The Martian (Andy Weir) - My Review

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Site Update

Yes, I know I just posted the Phase I overhaul update last week, but I'm trying to get back on an end-of-month site update schedule.

The previous three reviews have been added to the main site archives, plus I dealt with various other Things I'd found. (I expect that'll be an ongoing project, finding the little errors and such...)


Friday, June 29, 2018

Dragons Love Tacos 2 (Adam Rubin)

Dragons Love Tacos 2: The Sequel
The Dragons Love Tacos series, Book 2
Adam Rubin, illustrations by Daniel Salmieri
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: All the taco-loving dragons are crying. What's wrong? Tacos are officially extinct! Fortunately, you keep a time machine in the garage for just such an emergency. All you have to do is go back, grab a few taco seeds, and plant trees for the future. But time travel's never that easy, not even in picture books...

REVIEW: Another down-time read at work... For all that the first book didn't really need a sequel, this one's fun enough, even if it lacks a little of the voice that made the first volume chuckleworthy. Naturally, "your" time travel efforts create more problems than they solve. Amusing, though marginally less so than the original.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Old MacDonald Had a Dragon (Ken Baker) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review
Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Monday, June 25, 2018

Dirigible Dreams (C. Michael Hiam)

Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship
C. Michael Hiam
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From our earliest days, humans have dreamed of flight, but only in the late nineteenth century did powered, controlled flight become a possibility. Innovations soon transformed primitive balloons into semi-rigid and rigid dirigibles, used for everything from war to luxury global cruises to polar exploration. For a brief, shining moment, it seemed these lighter-than-air ships might conquer the skies... until the tragic wreck of the Hindenburg spelled the end of commercial dirigible dreams. Or did it? Author Hiam explores the rise, heyday, and fall of these popular airships.

REVIEW: Dirigibles are more often found in steampunk tales than the skies these days, but at one time they were the bleeding edge of aeronautical technology, combining powered flight with lighter-than-air transport. Hiam's book looks back at the earliest pioneers of this inherently dangerous mode of travel, examining the often-eccentric people who popularized the dirigible airship, often through audacious stunts that were at least as likely to be disasters as successes. The ships themselves almost take on personalities as described here, each with their assets and liabilities, prone to spectacular failure. When they worked, they worked well - but they often seemed plagued by technology issues, capricious weather, or just plain bad luck. Hiam bookends his account with the legendary Hindenburg inferno of May 1937, which encapsulated in the public mind all that was to be feared about dirigible travel and pretty much put the nail in the coffin of widespread commercial investment in rigid airships... but they are not dead yet, and many still are convinced that the drawbacks to the mode of transportation can be overcome with advances in technology and sheer human ingenuity, convinced they can still answer many needs of today and tomorrow.
As someone who reads the odd steampunk tale and is somewhat curious, I consider this not a bad account of the airship's real-world history, though it runs a little dry at times, with names tending to jumble. That, plus a lack of information on the possible future of airships (merely hinted at in the closing lines), cost it a solid Good rating, though it's still worth a read if you're interested in the history of airships... or interested in writing about them.

You Might Also Enjoy:
With the Night Mail (Rudyard Kipling) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Traitor's Blade (Sebastien de Castell)

Traitor's Blade
The Greatcoats series, Book 1
Sebastian de Castell
Jo Fletcher
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When Falcio val Mond became First Cantor of the king's Greatcoats, traveling administrators of the King's Law and defenders of the common folk, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream... a dream that became a nightmare the day the power-hungry Dukes struck down King Paelis and disbanded the Greatcoats. Now called Trattari, tattercloaks, traitors and cowards, they have been scattered to the four winds as the Dukes and Duchesses crush their people beneath heavy heels. But, before his execution, Paelis swore each Greatcoat to a personal quest, and Falcio means to complete it. Even when that quest marks him and his two remaining Greatcoat companions as assassins. Even when they are drawn into royal machinations in the most corrupt city of the realm. Even when the Gods and Saints themselves seem to have abandoned him. To give up on his quest is to abandon the last shreds of his honor - and his last shreds of hope that, someday, the Greatcoats might rise again.

REVIEW: Many reviews consider this a fantastical tip of the hat to Dumas's classic The Three Musketeers. Even knowing the tale mostly through cultural osmosis, that's about the closest description I can think of, a swashbuckling adventure of swordplay and camaraderie and seeking justice in an unjust world, riddled with larger-than-life characters (villains and heroes) who nonetheless feel real and rounded - at least real and rounded for their inherently larger-than-life world of both gods and magic. Falcio struggles to keep his much-battered notion of idealism alive in the face of twisted terrors and power-mad royalty and a world gone to rot at its very core. For all the glib lightness of Falcio's narrative voice, the story ventures into some dark territory at times, and many sacrifices are necessary. Some plot points border on tired tropes, but play out well enough I mostly forgave the odd low-hanging fruit. The tale moves at a fair gallop, with many twists and turns along the way to a satisfactory conclusion that sets up the rest of the series - a series I'll have to add to my bookstore shopping list now. (Like I needed another one to follow... but this is one of those problems a reader loves to have.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
King's Dragon (Kate Elliot) - My Review
Sword-Dancer (Jennifer Roberson) - My Review

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Site Update In Progress - Completed!

At long, long (, long) last, I am about to update the book review archive site.

Links to the archive site (the "You Might Also Enjoy" stuff - not counting direct Amazon links for DVDs and such) will inaccessible while that happens, and will not be back up again until I hand-edit - starting with recent reviews and going back as time allows. This was an unavoidable result of the updating process, as I changed how I organized my reviews. (Each author now gets their own page, instead of all similar last names having to share one page.)

Things will be coming down in about half an hour (by 9:30 AM Pacific time.) I will post updates here when the new site is running... fingers crossed that it is running. (There's always that one thing or ten you don't see...)

Those so inclined, please wish me luck. It may not look like it when it's done, but it was a major undertaking by my standards.

Off for some last-minute checks.

UPDATE: As of 10:27 AM, the site has officially been updated. Links seem to be checking out. I will attempt to start fixing broken "You Might Also Enjoy" links ASAP.

Thank you for your patience

UPDATE 2: I am going over the site slowly checking for broken links - not many, but any broken link is one too many for me. With about 1000 pages, it's going to take at least the rest of the weekend. But the majority of the site is functional, and I've fixed blog links from current posts back to the tail end of April. (Will be fixing those as time allows; it's not a priority at the moment.)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Down Home Zombie Blues (Linnea Sinclair)

The Down Home Zombie Blues
Linnea Sinclair
Linnea Sinclair, publisher
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Guardian agent Jorie has hunted more than her share of zombies - rogue artificial lifeforms that seek and destroy warm-blooded bodies - in her career. Tackling the herd recently discovered on a backwards dirtball of a planet should be no different... even if this herd is unusually large, theoretically too large for a single C-prime alpha to control. Get in, get out, and the xenophobic, planetbound "nil" locals will be none the wiser. At least, that was the plan - until she and her team arrive to discover their scout agent already dead, his residence swarming with local security officials.
Bahia Vista police sergeant Theo didn't know what to think when he saw the corpse: sucked dry, instant mummification, except for the eerily intact eyeballs staring out of its withered face. The tech discovered in the man's home didn't help, either, crawling with unintelligible symbols. But he has a job to do (even if he's technically supposed to be on Christmas vacation), and at least working will help keep his mind off picking the wounds left by his (now ex-)wife's betrayal. His partner Zeke still teases him about moping around the house playing blues guitar, but the happily-married man doesn't know what it's like to have his heart sucked dry like the body in front of them.
When Jorie encounters Theo, sparks fly - and monsters attack. Suddenly, a Florida cop finds himself in way over his head on a case - and a battle-scarred Guardian finds herself in way over her head with an off-limits nil man...

REVIEW: This should've been a decent book. Jorie should have been - and, occasionally, was - an independent, strong leading lady. But the story never misses a chance to undercut that independence and strength, subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) emphasizing the power and dominance of the exceptionally male-heavy cast. Even in the "enlightened" space society Sinclair constructs, women are apparently viewed mostly as potential bedmates by men, judging them by their lovers (or lack thereof) and playing territorial "dibs" games, even to the point of ignoring a woman's rank and authority. Jorie 's sole woman companion Guardian, rookie Tammy, even gets tortured to the point of catatonia (by a male enemy)... then shunted off to a friend of Theo's, who helps her by giving her a kitten to play with. This is progress? (Later, Theo even takes Jorie clothes shopping - not just for maintaining cover, but figuring that women enjoy clothes shopping and it'll help cheer her up. I wish I were kidding...) And it's not just the male aliens who dominate, here. Theo, a man who didn't even know aliens existed, let alone the monstrous zombies (I'll get back to them momentarily), before Jorie drops into his life, does his best to take over the planetside mission almost from the moment he becomes involved, and falls awfully fast for a man whose heart was ripped out of his chest by his shrewish, cheating ex... not the only stereotype in a book stuffed to the exophere with them, from the nosy Jewish neighbor lady to the overbearing Greek aunt constantly playing matchmaker. As for the blues angle... I don't even know why it was in the book, to be honest.
Now, on to the sci-fi portion of this romance/sci-fi split. There was, as I mentioned, potential here... but it was largely lost in a wash of technobabble and stilted alien narrative, particularly the overuse of certain words in a culture that apparently never developed a rich vocabulary. (If I ever read the word "bliss" - the phrase invariably used to denote any happiness or things going well - again, I might scream.) Once again, we have interstellar aliens who apparently have no comprehension of the concept of fiction or storytelling, and even though they conveniently speak a language that's almost English, their ability to comprehend basic colloquialisms is almost nil. The zombies themselves were genetically engineered entities whose original purpose had been corrupted... but why would one make such a deadly thing to begin with? There is no other possibility but for them to be killing machines. They're huge, they're equipped with massive extendable claws, and they're designed to seek out and suck fluids from any warm-blooded creature they detect - originally (in theory) to scan for potential infectious pathogens and contamination at hyperdrive gates (essentially), but really... did they need fifteen-foot-tall killing machines to do that when something smaller and less potentially lethal could've done the job? There's also the matter of the Tresh, the enemy aliens who once tortured Jorie over the course of years (creating yet another vulnerability that she needs men to help her through - silly woman, thinking she could be independent) and who are essentially vampires with their intolerance to bright like and genetically engineered "beauty" (a concept that varies significantly from culture to culture, let alone planet to planet, but which seems very Hollywoodized as described here), particularly the one male (of course) Tresh who tormented Jorie personally and - like half the rest of the cast - seems to have a personal thing... oh, but why go on?
The plot lurches in fits and starts, often bogging down to repeat stuff it's already told me or wade through more lakes of testosterone (and estrogen, as Jorie gets weak-kneed about Theo or debates her own poor luck with men or listens to Tammy tell her who she should or should not be with - because even girls define themselves by bedmates, apparently), often relying on out-of-the-blue occurrences to spur things forward or tangle things up as required. It ends eventually, as one would expect it to end, with every indication of sequels that apparently haven't appeared yet.
As I was reaching the end of this book, I took a break to watch an episode of the sci-fi show The Expanse. I found myself looking up at the screen and back to my Nook. Up at a screen filled to bursting with dynamic, truly independent women characters who were not defined solely by whom they chose to sleep with (and were not judged that way by others), and back to my Nook, where a highly-trained zombie hunter agent was squealing over a kitten while another moaned in "bliss" over the concept of peanut butter, even as the two men - human and alien - were almost to the point of whipping out and measuring over who could or could not have her. And when the episode was over and the credits rolled and it was time to pick up my Nook again and finish reading, I almost wept...

You Might Also Enjoy:
An American Werewolf in Hoboken (Dakota Cassidy) - My Review
You Slay Me (Katie MacAlister) - My Review
ExtraNormal (Suze Reese) - My Review

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Wizard's Tale (Kurt Busiek)

The Wizard's Tale
Kurt Busiek, illustrations by David T. Wenzel
Image Comics
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For eons, the Rumplewhiskers have been among the greatest of Lune's evil wizards, each generation more devious than the last... until Bafflerog. Somehow, his magical alchemite helpers emerge as cute critters instead of demonic manifestations, and his frightful storms turn into gentle showers - sometimes with rainbows! He even befriended the Rumplewhiskers' old enemy and prisoner, Grumpwort, a former light wizard turned into a toad by his great-grandfather. To uphold his family name (and avoid the deadly wrath of Lord Grimthorne and the council of evil wizards), he is charged with recovering the lost Book of Worse, a spellbook containing every evil incantation of ancient times - with which the council will finally extinguish the last rays of hope and joy in Lune. But Bafflerog has second thoughts as he and Grumpwort set out on their quest...

REVIEW: The Wizard's Tale is a simple, whimsical story of good and evil, starring a lovably bumbling failure of a dark wizard. The plot arc is fairly obvious, especially for older readers, but the illustrations are full of fun little details, and it has a certain charm. If you don't expect profound things, it's a nice, fast-reading fairy tale.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

All These Worlds (Dennis E. Taylor)

All These Worlds
The Bobiverse series, Book 3
Dennis E. Taylor
Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Bob has come a long way from his old life in the twenty-first century... in most every way imaginable. As the AI of a self-replicating space probe, he and his "descendants" have lived their wildest science fiction nerd dreams of exploring new worlds across the stars - and experienced the nightmares of planetary apocalypse and the seemingly-unstoppable alien threat of the locustlike Others. The Bobs have successfully spread human colonies to several habitable worlds, but new troubles - from native life forms developing a taste for human blood to the ever-present danger of people being people in the worst ways possible - keep them busy... and more than a little exhausted. It doesn't help that the passing years remind them more and more of their immortality, as friends age and die. Meanwhile, the Others' threat to reach Sol and wipe out Earth has not been forgotten, and now they've seen firsthand what the aliens can do, having witnessed their merciless stripping of the Pavs' homeworld. Bob was never a military man, with no taste for war, but he'll have to learn fast if if the human species is to survive - not to mention the self-replicating Bob species, whoever or whatever it has become.

REVIEW: Like the previous installment of this probable trilogy (I've learned never to say never when talking about these things), All These Worlds starts fast, as if there had been no gap between the books at all. Given the proliferation of Bobs, it took a little while to regain my footing, but soon enough I was reoriented and enjoying the ride. The old-school sense of wonder about science, the cosmos, and the potential of alien worlds continues unabated, remaining a welcome break in a genre that sometimes gets a little too broody and gritty these days. That's not to say there's no darkness here, of course. The Others remain a threat, building to a grand confrontation that decides the fate of Sol, humanity, and possibly the entire galaxy. At least as interesting is the continued evolution of Bob and his clones (and his clones-of-clones). While the original Bob "goes native" on Eden among the Deltans, others are forced to confront the fact that they are no longer human beings, that they are something new, something other... something, perhaps, that could or should have greater goals than serving the "ephemerals" who built them for the rest of their existence. Still, the Bobs retain their inherent sense of self and humor, with plenty of nuggets for sci-fi fans and general science geeks to enjoy. It all wraps up in a grand finale that came close to earning it another half-star. A few flaws here and there (such as a tendency for women characters to be a little stereotypical around the edges) only barely held it back. Overall, though, I still highly recommend this trilogy(?) to anyone who enjoys hard, science-based space tales and who misses the days when the genre was about exploring new worlds and wonders, and not just brooding over dystopias or beating up a bigger, badder bad guy each time out.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

William and the Lost Spirit (Gwen De Bonneval)

William and the Lost Spirit
Gwen De Bonneval, illustrations by Matthieu Bonhomme
Graphic Universe
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When William's father died, his mother sought a better future for her children than widowhood, accepting the hand of a seneschal of dubious character. While William grieves, his sister Heliene insists she has spoken to their dad's spirit, and he can still be rescued from the far-off lands where he wanders. Such talk flies in the face of their pious mother's faith, but when Heliene disappears, William alone knows where she went and what she means to do - which means following in the footsteps of his heretic father, exploring powers he scarcely understands on a quest that takes him beyond the known world and to the very brink of death.

REVIEW: The premise had potential, and the artwork is bright and often imaginative, but the characters and plot just don't stand up. People sort out pretty obviously based on first impressions, and William's one of those obtuse heroes who has to be led to most everything (even conveniently forgetting prior warnings.) Some elements feel a little confusing, almost like parts of the story had been trimmed, though there were some nice ideas; William visits a version of the fabled Prester John's kingdom, which is not the paradise that traveler's tales make out, and his encounters recall traditional stories of exotic lands and monsters. The ending, though, is what really sank it in my opinion, a flat non-event that invalidates most of the siblings' journeys and brings no real justice.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Seanan McGuire)

Beneath the Sugar Sky
The Wayward Children series, Book 3
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school for kids and teens who had been to magical worlds and returned to Earth, is rarely a dull place - how could it be, with students who had once saved fairy kingdoms or swum with mermaids or conversed with skeletons? Even by their standards, though, Rini's splashdown in the turtle pond counts as strange. Far stranger is that Rini claims to be the teenaged daughter of Sumi, a girl who had been to the Nonsense realm of Confection and murdered before she could find her way back to marry and conceive Rini to begin with. With Sumi's untimely death, time in Confection is unraveling, and the wicked Queen of Cakes - vanquished by Sumi - has risen again. Even as Rini insists on finding her mother, she begins to disappear, a finger at a time. Thus begins a quest across various worlds, a race against time... but, even in the impossible realms beyond the invisible doors, is it possible to ever cheat Death?

REVIEW: Unlike the previous book in the series (the prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones), this tale returns the action to Eleanor West's school and the displaced teens living there. Returning characters join with new cast members in a worlds-spanning journey that tests them all in various ways, perhaps none more than newcomer Cora. Once a heroine in a mermaid realm, she's been struggling to fit in on dry land again, where her weight has always defined her; her struggles with herself grow all the more desperate when they wind up in Confection, a realm made of candy and just the kind of place cruel peers would've thought she'd been most at home. Again, what could've been a shallow and simple story becomes much, much more in the hands of McGuire, with great characters and memorable turns of phrase and beautiful candy for the mind's eye (literally, in the case of Confection's vistas.) Oh, to make words dance like that upon a page... I am loving this series, and eagerly await the next installment.

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Everworld: Search for Senna (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Warrior Within (Angus McIntyre)

The Warrior Within
Angus McIntyre
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Though Karsman is nominally the mayor of his small town on the Road, the great planet-encircling ring dotted with relics of the long-forgotten Builders, he prefers not getting entangled in troubles. He doesn't even wield much actual authority; the Muljaddy in the Temple is the true power, and nobody has any reason to question them. But when three offworlder soldiers come, they bring trouble with them. Karsman finds himself and the artificially-implanted personas in his head tested to the limits as he struggles to find out what they want, and why... and if he can discover answers before they kill anyone he cares about, such as himself.

REVIEW: This novella establishes some interesting ideas via a reasonably well-paced tale and decent characters. Though set in a galaxy rife with post-human and artificial Powers akin to gods, much of the action stays at the human level, keeping the high concepts relatable for much of the story's length. Karsman makes for a good protagonist, a man long ago infused with specialized personas such as the mechanically adept Artificer, the pragmatic Strategist, and the difficult-to-restrain Warrior, all of which help (and occasionally hinder) his task. Peripheral characters are a trifle thin, but this is a novella, and ultimately more about the concepts than most of the people involved. Things move fairly well, with some nice images and ideas playing out in unexpected ways. Enjoyable.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

The Book Jumper (Mechthild Glaser)

The Book Jumper
Mechthild Glaser
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Fantasy

DESCRIPTION: Seventeen-year-old Amy Lennox is used to her mother's erratic, free-spirited ways; she even insists on being called Alexis, not Mom. A hard break-up, coupled with a personal disaster in Amy's own life, leads to an impulsive trip back to the Lennox ancestral home, a place Alexis ran away from when she was little more than her daughter's age - and a place with a very special secret that she hasn't even told Amy about. The Lennoxes and the Macalisters of the Scottish isle of Stormsay have in their blood the ability to jump into books and enter any story, though only before their twenty-fifth birthday; after that, they take on lifelong duties to protect the realms of literature.
Amy is thrilled to discover she's inherited this skill... but, just as she comes to Stormsay, things start going very wrong. Someone is meddling in timeless tales, stealing key ideas and leaving permanent alterations in the written word. As Amy investigates, she soon learns that there's more to book jumping than she anticipated, and just because it's all a story doesn't mean it can't hurt - or even kill.

REVIEW: As someone who usually finds the worlds of imagination more attractive than the one I'm stuck inhabiting, I was immediately drawn to the concept of The Book Jumper. I wanted this to be good. I wanted it to be immersive. (In all honesty, and despite one may think from a few of my reviews, I never pick up a book wanting it to be bad. Still, some concepts I hold higher hopes for than others, and this was one of them.) So it was that I ignored some early warning signs - such as Amy being a collection of teen heroine cliches whose reactions are more in line with a preteen, plus the tired trope of an Important Family Secret she's been deliberately and rather pointlessly shielded from - and pushed ahead. Then I reached Amy's first jump into a book... and the first pangs of real disappointment pricked my brain.
Her first jump is into The Jungle Book... not a bad choice (public domain and all), and though Amy claims to be a voracious reader, she admits she hasn't read it yet, which is plausible enough. But her reaction to entering the story is to immediately wonder if they'll break into song like in the Disney cartoon. My suspension of disbelief hit a major air pocket right there. Even not having read the book, by seventeen, simple cultural osmosis should've told her that it was highly unlikely that Kipling's classic was an animated musical (or that popular movies necessarily reflect with any accuracy the book source material), especially if she reads as much as she claims to have read. I could buy this from a younger person whose main exposure to canon is DVDs, but a teenager who has taken on Austen, Goethe, and other works?
Shortly thereafter, Amy meets and speaks to her first in-book character, the tiger Shere Khan, followed soon by a trip to the "Margin" where story characters mix and mingle when not actively retelling their tales, and I had to check the cover to be sure this was a Teen title and not a middle-grade novel that had been misshelved. The book worlds and many of the characters encountered therein just felt too shallow, too simplistic, especially for a book aimed at a slightly older and (presumably) more sophisticated audience. Couple that with Amy's ongoing clumsiness and general obtuseness, and it made for some rough going, despite a few okay mind's-eye-candy moments.
Then there's the whole concept of book jumping and the notion of "protecting" stories. Protect them from what? It's established early on that nobody outside the two clans can enter books to interfere directly with the stories, and that they lose the ability before they reach thirty. No other plausible threat is presented from which the stories need protecting, nor are the protective duties of older Lennoxes and Macalisters made in any way clear. What is there to protect stories from when the protectors themselves are the only ones from which the stories might need protecting, and then only for a decade or two of their existence? (If their duties are to protect literature from shoddy media interpretations, I'd say both clans have a lot of explaining to do, but I digress...) This also limits the suspects in story interference to the populace of Stormsay, which barely cracks double digits - a population of characters little deeper than heroine Amy. (Hands up, those surprised that the blonde teen Macalister girl is a Grade A snob... 'cause blonde, and all.) She misses some obvious clues, and has to be led to others, rarely able to achieve much on her own without help - more often than not from males. The finale, despite itself, builds some real tension and terror, with a decently emotional (if telegraphed) conclusion, barely managing to pull the rating back up to three stars.
There are some nice ideas at play here, lots of potential, and a few good moments that speak to a love of reading and the power of stories. Even during some gooey-eyed makeout sessions, though, I never fully shook the feeling that The Book Jumper, at heart, wanted to be a story for a younger audience, and suffered from being aged up.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Invention of Nature (Andrea Wulf)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf
Nonfiction, Biography/Nature
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once a household name, Alexander von Humboldt is all but forgotten in many countries, but his life and works continue to influence how we view the world. From the late 1700s to the mid-1800's, he traveled much of the world, viewing nature not as a collection of individual parts but as an interconnected web - and raising an alarm about the disruptive and short-sighted activities of humans and their long-range consequences as strands of the natural web are thoughtlessly snapped. Author Andrea Wulf explores the life and legacy of the first modern environmentalist and the many people he influenced.

REVIEW: It's both chilling and depressing to read of Humboldt even as my nation takes active, borderline malicious steps to eradicate ecological progress, though that makes the topic all the more timely. Like many Americans, I don't recall ever hearing the name Alexander von Humboldt - an eradication partially attributed to anti-German sentiments following World War I, but that's hardly a valid excuse given the man's massive influence that resonates even today. His ability to marry emotion with science, to turn a topic prone to dry numbers and figures into riveting narratives and poetic imagery to capture the greater public's imagination and attention, helped make him one of the greatest naturalists of his age, with books published in dozens of languages around the world. He was not without his flaws, of course, but he was a singular individual who managed to exist at the perfect time and place to create a new vision of the world, possessed of boundless energy and a keen intelligence. As enthusiastic as he was about his many areas of study, he never hesitated to call out our species on its mismanagement of our only native habitat, seeing with his own eyes how deforestation destroyed soil and waterways and poor farming practices exacerbated poverty... calls that, by and large, went unheeded by those with the power to act on them, as witness the state of too much of the world today. Indeed, by the end of his life he had become very jaded on matters of politics. Wulf includes several illustrations from Humboldt's work and others, particularly those who rose in his wake: Thoreau, Darwin, and John Muir, among others who read and fairly worshiped the man's books.
In parts it could be a bit dry, but the message of the man's work is so timely I gave this one an extra half star. I'm seeing it again and again in my reading, how the compartmentalization and isolation of scientific subjects weakens the whole, how the emotions and imagination need to be engaged alongside the intellect if we're going to have any hope of surviving our own tenure on this planet, let alone having any hope of reaching others. Why do we keep forgetting this, and will the lesson ever stick beyond a generation? Where is our Humboldt, with the vision and the drive and the words to teach us again in the face of ignorance and greed so active they seem like viral pandemics poised to wipe us out? I wish I had answers, but I'm just another uneducated reader...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Beyond (Chris Impey)

Beyond: Our Future in Space
Chris Impey
W. W. Norton and Company
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Countless generations ago, an upright-walking primate left the plains of its origins, eventually to reach and colonize nearly every extreme on planet Earth, from icy tundra to lush jungle, from low river valley to thin-aired mountain. Not so long ago, the ape turned its eye to the last frontier it could see, sending explorers into space and even, briefly, as far as the moon. Some believe space travel to be a momentary blip on the radar, a brief but ultimately unprofitable fad. Others, looking back on ancestors who took unimaginable journeys, aren't so sure our wandering days are over. In this book, author Chris Impey explores the past, present, and possible future of space travel, from earliest imaginings to bleeding-edge hypotheses that could take us to the edge of the solar system and beyond.

REVIEW: Watching the squabblings and backsliding of so much of the world today, it's difficult to imagine an interplanetary future as anything but fantasy, but it's closer and more plausible than one might think. Impey points to a seeming genetic imperative that drives H. sapiens to explore seemingly-inhospitable environments and make them livable as evidence that we not only can overcome vast obstacles, but - given time, ingenuity, and a little luck - we will. Of course, making a Mars colony or interstellar vessel work is exponentially more difficult than anything our species has attempted, but the theories are there, and the science is moving forward... science with practical applications here on Earth as we deal with a changing climate and accumulated damage from centuries of planetary mismanagement. The science can get a little thick, but Impey does a decent job breaking it down for those of us whose last major exposure was in high school, with several charts and illustrations. He covers a broad range of topics, touching on the people who broke ground on keystone concepts of space travel and the ones still digging at the problems, and ventures into the possibility of ever encountering (or even recognizing) intelligent alien species. He even acknowledges the works of science fiction pioneers in exploring the technology and the psychology of space exploration and colonization. A frame story attempts to provide context, the tale of a future colonist and humanity's first interstellar voyages - a story that feels incomplete, and isn't really necessary. All in all, for armchair explorers like myself, Beyond offers a decent overview of space travel for those curious about the concept beyond the pages of science fiction.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek)

The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw
The Autumnlands series, Issues 1 - 6
Kurt Busiek, illustrations by Jordie Bellaire and Benjamin Dewey
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The young dog-wizard Dusty, born among the floating cities, looks forward to starting his official apprenticeship with his father, sailing a trading airship to many exotic lands. Perhaps the only more exciting thing is the coming conference of wizards... but this is not a normal gathering. Magic is fading, and nobody seems to know what to do about. Nobody, perhaps, except one rebellious warthog sorceress, Gharta, who proposes a risky spell: reaching back in time to find the Great Champion, the unknown hero who first opened the gates of magic centuries ago. But their efforts go terribly wrong... and, in the aftermath, what they've grabbed is something none of the animal-wizards expected, something they cannot even comprehend. This bare-skinned beast is not even a wizard - but he is a devastatingly effective warrior, and Dusty soon realizes that a warrior is just what his people need if they're going to survive.

REVIEW: The concept for The Autumnlands - a post-apocalyptic, magic-infused future of anthropomorphic beasts - could've very easily fallen flat on its face. Here, by creating distinctive characters and cultures in a richly-detailed setting, it succeeds brilliantly. Shades of old human concepts linger into the animal world, as Dusty starts each morning praying to gods of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and Wildlife and Fisheries, among others. Further shades of humanity, or perhaps the simple cost of sentience, are visible in the social stratification and prejudices of this new society. Nobody is simple or stupid, making for an interesting plot and intriguing conflicts. Like the other animals, Dusty isn't sure what to think of the human Learoyd, his hero worship of the legendary Champion clashing with the reactions of his elders and his own observations of the man's often-brutal methods. I'm looking forward to seeing where this one is going.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng)

Sun Dragon's Song #1
The Sun Dragon's Song series, Issue 1
Joyce Chng, illustrations by Kim Miranda
Rosarium Publishing
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Ho Yi dreams of becoming a Sun Dragon rider like his parents, soaring above the land on his own beast, but everyone tells him his crutches will keep him an earthbound nobody. Despite the bullying, despite his own fears that he'll never fly, he works hard while his parents are away at war, fetching the crystals the dragons feed upon. But will his hard work ever be enough?

REVIEW: It's a little tough to rate this one fairly; it is, as stated, just Issue 1 of a longer work. As such, it's rather short and ends inconclusively. Even for such a short glimpse, though, the edges of the tale feel watered down. Ho Yi and his world are intriguing, though not much deeper than the paper (or Nook screen) on which they appear. Naturally, I liked what I saw of the sun dragons. The art, like the story, tends to simple lines, but they do the job. I will probably read onward, though I am pushing the limit of my monthly Hoopla checkout allowance so it may have to wait.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

River of Teeth (Sarah Gailey)

River of Teeth
The River of Teeth series, Book 1
Sarah Gailey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the mid-1800's, to combat a nationwide meat shortage, the American Congress passed the Hippo Act, importing hippopotamuses to the southern bayous. The lower Mississippi was dammed to create marshland for hippo ranches, which would provide meat and leather and jobs.
It seemed like a good idea at the time...
Winslow Remington Houndstooth, an English immigrant "hopper" (the hippo equivalent of a cowboy) whose ranch was destroyed years ago, takes a government contract to clean deadly feral hippos out  of the Harriet, the stretch of marshland between the dam and the gate preventing the hippos' escape into the Gulf of Mexico. To help him, he assembles a crew of rogues and miscreants, all the best in their fields and not a one worth trusting. While the government had intended to give him a year to round up the ferals, Winslow has a much faster plan, one with the side-bonus of exacting vengeance for his own destroyed dreams - but the caper goes wrong from the start, endangering his crew, himself, and everyone in or near the Harriet.

REVIEW: As alternate histories go, this is one of the weirder takes I've yet encountered. Apparently, the "Hippo Act" was a proposal that almost happened... clearly proposed by people unaware of hippos as anything but large sources of potential meat. Hippos are, in fact, about the deadliest land animal known, responsible for numerous deaths annually. In a South overrun with ferals, the swamps become deadlier than any mere alligators could make them, even as the domesticated strains of riding hippos prove every bit as clever and loyal as a horse. It makes for an interesting "Wild South" milieu.
What drug this one down in the ratings was the characters. While each had distinctive personalities, I didn't like any of them, and had trouble believing several of their interactions given what little I knew of them. One in particular seemed to have no reason at all to be part of the caper in any official capacity, and ends up contributing next to nothing, a subplot that would've meant a lot more had the tangled threads of character backstory not been so deliberately hidden from me. As a result, I couldn't care overmuch about the plot, which felt both stretched and rushed. I couldn't quite tell if this was a short story made too long or a full-length novel made too short, but something felt off-kilter by the end, leaving me unsatisfied with the conclusion.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Girl In Between (Laekan Zea Kemp)

The Girl In Between
The Girl In Between series, Book 1
Laekan Zea Kemp
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Afflicted with Kleine-Levin syndrome, teenager Bryn sometimes feels like a stranger in her own life. Uncontrolled episodes of prolonged sleep steal days, even weeks from her life, interrupting school and severing friendships and even leading to her parents' breakup. While many sufferers outgrow their symptoms, her case has defied the norm from the start. Other KLS patients simply fall into darkness, while she has always visited the "dream state," a surreal and ever-shifting place stitched together from memories. She's always been alone here - which is why it's so startling when the boy arrives. He's a stranger, not a memory, and he seems to persist in her dream state even when she wakes back up to reality. His arrival coincides with a disturbing shift in her condition, the appearance of a predatory shadow that follows her into the waking world. Is the boy another delusion, a sign that her condition is deteriorating, or something else - perhaps a sign that her dream state and the shadows are much, much more than a simple quirk of her own mind?

REVIEW: I came close to shaving a half-star off the rating for the abrupt ending, clearly leading into the second book in what appears to be a four part series, but the rest of the story was solid enough I decided to give it a pass. Bryn is a damaged teen from a damaged home, surrounded by other wounded people all struggling to make the best of imperfect lives, coping with burdens and demons they never asked for, yet often find more comforting than the unknown possibilities of letting their unhealthy habits go. It borders on angsty, but manages to stay just this side of the line. It's not a spoiler to say that Bryn's stranger is more than a simple hallucination (this is a fantasy title, after all), though he's no white knight, being at least as flawed and broken as she is. The ending, as I mentioned, feels rather abrupt, and I'm on the fence about continuing (I do have a sizeable backlog already), but overall I found it an enjoyable, sometimes harrowing and gut-wrenching read.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

wishtree (Katherine Applegate)

Katherine Applegate
Feiwel and Friends
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For over two hundred rings, Red has watched over its neighborhood as the resident wishtree: every May 1, people come to tie wishes to its branches, on paper or ribbons or even socks and undergarments. Not that Red has any real power as an oak tree. Normally, trees don't even speak, at least not to humans. But it has its friends, the animals who live in its branches and hollows, and people... well, while Red is an incurable optimist, even it has to admit that people can be tricky and hard to understand. When a new family one from a far-off land moves into the blue house, the people become very hard to understand indeed. These aren't the first immigrants to move into Red's neighborhood, but this is the first time anyone defaced its trunk with a message: LEAVE. Red can't figure out why; the girl Samar seems like any other girl, if perhaps more quiet, and her wish is simply for a friend in this new place. With the neighborhood growing more hostile and the landlady grumbling about the tree having outgrown its place, this may be Red's last chance to ever make a wish come true - if a tree can make any difference in the world.

REVIEW: Like Applegate's other recent books, this is a deceptively simple fable, tackling a tricky subject with heart and nuance without talking down to kids or lecturing. Here, with the unusual narrator Red, she offers a tree's-eye-view of prejudice, fear, and history. This is not the first time Red's neighborhood has had trouble accepting newcomers, though the ugly overtones of modern hate unsettle even the tree. Indeed, even amongst the animals, neighborhoods are often fraught with squabbles and misunderstandings and petty feuds. That doesn't mean happy endings are impossible, just that they're more complicated than most storybooks like to tell us. Red's efforts to make one wish come true, with help from its animal friends, are vaguely reminiscent of the gorilla Ivan's struggles in Applegate's The One and Only Ivan; both face challenges because of who (or what) they are, and must find unique ways to communicate with a species that, for all its tendency to talk incessantly, has a very difficult time actually listening. By turns silly, serious, and even sad, wishtree is an excellent tale for our troubled times, a reminder that we've been here before - but that history is no guarantee of a happy ending in the here and now if nobody will stand up for what is right.

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Catseye (Andre Norton)

Andre Norton
Fiction, YA? Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a boy on Norden, Troy Horan had dreams of becoming a Range Master like his father before him, hunting with bright fussel hawks and tracking vast herds of tupan... but, even across interstellar distances, war always comes to destroy dreams. Like many others across the galaxy displaced by skirmishes, Troy winds up on Konwar, where he must scrounge for day labor jobs with other noncitizen refugees outside the great city of Tikil. It seems a stroke of luck when he finds work in Kyger's pet shop: Troy's childhood taught him skills in handling animals, and Kyger imports all manner of exotic creatures catering to the whims and vanities of Tikil's moneyed elite. Kyger even has a fussel hawk, a painful reminder of home. But it's the man's latest imports that truly captivate Troy: Terran animals, peculiar creatures like cats and foxes and the clever kinkajou... animals with whom Troy develops an unexpected telepathic bond. All, however, is not as it seems at Kyger's shop. Soon, Troy finds himself caught up in a dangerous web of clashing powers and interworld intrigues, where his animal bond might save his life - or endanger it.

REVIEW: First published in 1961, it's hard not to see the age in Norton's "tell"-heavy style. Traces of racism tinge the plot, particularly in the untrustworthy "yellow" shop assistant Zul, and it's hard to imagine a modern kid or teen reading the Tikil honorific "Gentle Homo" - the local term for "gentleman" - with anything but a snigger. Norton's characters read a bit flat compared to many of today's offerings. It also reads rather juvenile, despite the main character being (nominally) an adult; had it been written today, it probably would've featured an aged-down Troy and been aimed at the middle grade market, but such categories weren't options at the time. Beyond those issues, though, are some interesting ideas and settings... too many to really explore properly, but which present some nice mind's-eye candy. The story reads fast, like much of Norton's work, and if there are some convenient coincidences that stretch credulity now and again, it still generally entertains.

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