Friday, November 30, 2018

November Site Update

The month's reviews have been archived at the main Brightdreamer Books website.

I also made more progress in cross-linking, and fixed various minor issues as I found them.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle)

The Ballad of Black Tom
Victor LaValle
Fiction, Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Horror
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: 1924 New York City isn't a good place to be a Negro, especially outside Harlem. After watching hard, honest work kill his mother in her thirties and leave his father a broken shell by his forties, Charles Thomas Tester decides only a fool or a sucker would even try to be honest. Instead, he uses his guitar and an innate sensitivity to the arcane to earn a living as a street hustler, specializing in cons just to the side of the everyday. He thought he'd found an easy mark in Robert Suydam, a wealthy white man with an unhealthy interest in the occult... but what should be a simple job may well cost Tester in ways he can't comprehend - and cost the world even more.

REVIEW: LaValle starts with the ugly racism of New York City in Prohibition and weaves in a layer of Lovecraftian horror, then places Tester in an ultimately-untenable situation. He starts out with good enough intentions, taking a secret pleasure in subtly sabotaging his errands for unscrupulous sorcerers and less savory clients, but Suydam's talk of elder gods and recreating the world taps into wells of rage in himself he didn't even know existed, and presents options he had never considered. While I understand what LaValle was going for, ultimately horror - particularly Lovecraftian horror, which many readers and writers evidently adore - isn't my cup of cocoa, costing it a half-star for a drawn-out, gruesome climax. I do give it marks for memorable imagery that gives tangible form to prejudices that continue to warp our national psyche and express themselves in horrific ways.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (John Joseph Adams, editor) - My Review
Meddling Kids (Edgar Cantero) - My Review
John Dies at the End (David Wong) - My Review

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Alice: From Dream to Dream (Giulio Macaione)

Alice: From Dream to Dream
Giulio Macaione with Giulia Adragna
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Coming back to her home town of Cincinnati, where her best friend Jamie lives, should've been a happy time for Alice. They're even living in the same house she grew up in. Instead, Alice is barely holding herself together. Not only is she mercilessly bullied by the popular girls - spearheaded by Taisha, who has a crush on Jamie - but they're only here because her dad lost his job in Chicago, which means her parents are too stressed to care about her problems. On top of that, she's stuck rooming with her big brother Louis... which means that, every night, she slips into his nightmares.
Nobody understands it, how she involuntarily experiences the dreams of anyone she sleeps near. Her parents don't believe her; she only tried to tell them once, and it didn't go well. Jamie's the only one who knows, the only one she can confide in. So when he starts acting strange and pushing her away, she has nobody left to turn to. And when he gets hit by a car and falls into a coma, she may be his only chance at survival - if she can figure out what he's hiding in his dreams...

REVIEW: A quick-reading graphic novel, Alice: From Dream to Dream is less an exploration of the title character's peculiar ability and more about the secrets we all hide in our waking lives, the fears and stresses that come out in our sleep, and how one girl must cope with not just her own problems, but the problems of those around her, the ones they sometimes don't even admit they have. Between a distant teenage brother who resents having to share a room with her and ongoing friction between her parents (tied not only into Dad's joblessness and financial issues, but to a ghost from Mom's past who haunts her figuratively even as it haunts Alice literally), Alice really has nowhere to go for help except Jamie and, later, an unexpectedly understanding school counselor (who, by that alone, bears zero resemblance to any counselor I ever met in school... but, I digress.) When he discovers a secret from his father's past, he's so distraught he pushes her away... until he lands in a coma, and Alice risks her own life to reach out to him via her gift. Characters have a little more to them than is initially apparent, and even bullies have their demons; if the edges ultimately feel a little blunt, this appears to be aimed at the younger crowd. The imaginative dream imagery helps make up for some predictability in the overall story arc. In the end, while I wavered a little bit on what felt like unresolved or unexplored elements, I wound up giving it the benefit of the doubt given the target audience.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Afar (Leila del Duca) - My Review
The Girl In Between (Laekan Zea Kemp) - My Review
Free Fall (David Wiesner) - My Review

Drawn Together (Minh Le)

Drawn Together
Minh Le, illustrations by Dan Santat
Fiction, CH Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Sent to spend a day with his grandfather, a boy struggles to connect with the old man. The food is strange, the TV shows are weird, and they barely even speak the same language. Until the boy finds some blank paper and starts to doodle...

REVIEW: Another quick read during some slow time at work. This largely-wordless story presents bright visuals, mixing the simpler images drawn by the boy and the elaborate, Asian-influenced drawings of his grandfather. It goes without saying (almost literally) that art provides a bridge when words don't work. I actually think the story might've worked at least as well had it been wordless all the way through, but the little writing there is helps wrap things up. There's also a great Asian dragon, worth a half-star on its own. (I am an unabashed dragon-lover, after all...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Imagine! (Raúl Colón) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Monday, November 26, 2018

Jade City (Fonda Lee)

Jade City
The Green Bone Saga, Book 1
Fonda Lee
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The jade of the island nation of Kekon is prized around the world, source of great power - and great danger. It empowers wearers with superhuman abilities, yet can lead to addiction and insanity. Within memory of some, the Kekonese "green bone" warrior clans used their superior tolerance and training to throw off years of foreign rule... but, even as Kekon emerges as a modern country, the clan system that once brought victory may bring about their fall.
In the sprawling capital of Janloon, the Kauls of No Peak clan have been second only to Mountain clan for years. Though some thought Kaul Lan too young to be made Pillar after his grandfather grew too feeble for the job, he's managed to hold the clan together and stave off rivals in these rapidly changing times, as imported technology and ongoing international pressure over jade exports drag Kekon onto the world stage. Troubling news from the underground signals a shift in the long stalemate, as Mountain's ambitious Pillar seeks ultimate supremacy by violating the oldest codes of green bone honor and conduct. With Lan's war-hungry brother Hilo and long-absent sister Shae, the Kauls will face their greatest challenge in the history of No Peak, a challenge that will determine the fate of Janloon and the whole of Kekon.

REVIEW: It's not often one opens an epic fantasy to the requisite map and finds the international airport marked. As more than one praise-heaping quote mentions, Jade City is a strange blend of martial arts, mafia, and modern family saga. Being indifferent to martial arts films and not caring for mob stories, I'll admit I was initially skeptical that it would work, but the world Lee crafts and the characters she fills it with (not to mention the powers and dangers of Kekonese jade) quickly won me over. This is not just a thinly-redressed Earth, but a unique world with distinctive nations and cultures; Kekon clearly draws heavy inspiration from Asiatic nations, but is its own thing. Janloon comes alive as an ancient city thrust into modern times, where usurpers were thrown off only to become valued trade partners and investors and where old codes and family honor threaten to destroy the very prosperity they helped create. Within its streets, ranging from narrow tracks to modern thruways, an ever-shifting hidden network of clan allegiances and rivalries (not to mention the gangs of jadeless criminals) lives and breathes, changes tracked in the color of lanterns hung outside a given business and the quiet passing of tribute envelopes as much as open warfare between jade-wearing clan soldiers. For all that, as I mentioned, I've never been a fan of mob-based stories, I found myself drawn into the Kauls and their struggles, not just to reconcile tradition and modern times but to maintain peace within their own flawed family. The plot advances on numerous levels, from a controversial drug to counter jade addiction (which culiminates in "the Itches," a madness that sees victims mutilate themselves even as they crave jade contact) to clan attack and counterattack, through the boardrooms of power and back alley meetings, all the way down to a jadeless street thug who keeps finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story starts fairly quickly, with chapters that tend to be short but invariably kept me reading. By the end, some matters have been resolved, but much more waits to be dealt with in the sequel. Jade City is a very enjoyable and refreshing change of pace.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu) - My Review
The Dragon and the Stars (Derwin Mak) - My Review
Tiger (Jeff Stone) - My Review

Friday, November 23, 2018

Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor)

Akata Witch
The Akata Witch series, Book 1
Nnedi Okorafor
Fiction, MG Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As an albino born to Nigerian parents, twelve-year-old Sunny has always been an oddity: too white to be black, and too black to be white. She can't even go out in the sun without her sensitive skin burning. But after the family moves from America, where she was born, to Nigeria, she discovers she's even more different than she thought, when a new group of friends inform her that she's a "Leopard person," of magical spirit. She's initiated into a hidden community of mages, where her status as a free agent - born to nonmagical "Lamb" parents - and ignorance about the Leopard world make her even more of an outsider than her albinism ever did. Struggling to catch up with her peers and complete assignments from her new teacher, all while keeping her emerging powers hidden from her family, is hard enough. Then she learns that she and her new friends are supposed to challenge a ritual serial killer who has been mutilating local children - a killer seeking to summon a great evil and bring about the end of the world, and who may have a very personal tie to Sunny.

REVIEW: Some descriptions hail Akata Witch as the "Nigerian Harry Potter." There are definite similarities, particularly in the hidden magical world, but anyone expecting the whimsical overtones of Rowling's magic and (more or less) structured safety of Hogwarts is in for some some surprises here. Drawing on African magical traditions, comparisons to Rowling's European-flavored tale can't help feeling inadequate. The Leopard people deal with dangerous materials and entities on a daily basis; one healing powder causes cancer if held too long, and even minor spells risk serious consequences if they fail. Nor are students protected from those consequences the way they often are in middle-grade settings; Sunny and her friends are often sent on tasks that have the potential to maim or kill if they don't think on their feet. The Leopard rationale is that the world is dangerous, magic even moreso, with no quarter offered on account of ignorance and no one person - not even a "chosen" hero - being too important to fail or die; better to learn as early as possible, and lessons learned through hard knocks are more likely to stick. Accordingly, the magical community is less a charming, sheltered world where Sunny finds acceptance (as Harry did) than a constant series of tests that may build her into something great or leave her irreparably broken. There are occasional hints of humor and lightness, but always with the shadows lurking in the corners.
As for the characters, they all have darker sides, and their friendship can be rocky. Sunny is no perfect heroine, struggling and occasionally failing to balance her complicated world and growth from ignorant initiate to true Leopard student. Studious boy Orlu is perhaps the closest she has to a true friend among her covenmates - including troublemaker Sasha and mischievous Chichi - but even he can be impatient with her as her ignorance of Leopard culture constantly shows through. Peripheral characters tend to be stern, but not without reason and not entirely lacking heart; they just know they can't protect the children from life or magic. Punishments aren't just verbal, either; breaking Leopard laws can lead to caning or worse, necessarily strict rules that will very likely shock anyone expecting Hogwarts-style leniency. (This, of course, is nothing compared to the mutilations of the child killer Sunny and her friends are destined to confront. The squeamish are advised to find another book.) The kids also curse a fair bit - again, understandable given their circumstances - and deal with prejudice, sexism, racism, and other unpleasant topics that many children's books like to pretend don't exist, or if they do are easily dealt with.
The story itself moves fairly quickly, though I admit that it took me a while to find my footing as a reader, especially being used to more Eurocentric hidden magical worlds. During Sunny's initiation period, it can get a bit frustrating as characters tend to withhold information. The climax feels a trifle rushed; Sunny still hasn't really gotten the hang of the Leopard world and many of her powers before she and her friends are expected to fulfill their destiny. On the whole, though, it's an enjoyable tale,  definitely something a little different from the norm, and if I felt uncertain about a few of the characters even by the end, I didn't dislike them enough to stop reading.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling) - My Review

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Babylon's Ashes (James S. A. Corey)

Babylon's Ashes
The Expanse series, Book 6
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The unthinkable has happened: the power of the inner planets of the solar system has been broken. Earth is dying, crippled by Belt-born Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, while Martian defector Duartes - now holed up on a colony world beyond the ring gates - left Mars in shambles and missing many of its fighter ships. Even Medina Station in the hub of the ring gates is under Free Navy control, choking off supply lines and any chance Earthers might have of fleeing their devastated world. But while Marco promised freedom for the Belt, he instead delivers instability and chaos... problems complicated by his ongoing obsession with his former lover Naomi Nagata and her new boyfriend, Earthborn James Holden. As Chrisjen Avasalara, OPA leader Fred Johnson, and others scramble to survive and respond to the Free Navy threat, the crew of the Rocinante are once again thrust into the heart of the danger, culminating in a mission where their legendary luck may finally run out.

REVIEW: After a fifth installment that focused more on the core Rocinante crew, if punctuated by the attack on Earth and the rise of Marco Inaros, the series again broadens its scope to deal with the system-wide chaos created by the Free Navy. Too many people learn too late that destruction, while easy and temporarily cathartic, is not a viable solution; the killing of Earth may be the death knell for a species that still depends on our only native habitat. The story brings in characters from previous books and a few new ones, fighting battles in space, in meetings, and in their own hearts as they struggle to find a way forward. It's a well-paced, action-filled tale with many nice human moments, as I've come to expect. (And if there are a few oddly Earth-centric ideas and idioms floating around in the depths of the Belt countered by equally-odd gaps in knowledge, and the occasional rare clunk in description and dialog, well, those are easy enough to overlook.) Another good series installment that sets up a major shift in the inner planet/Belter/colonist dynamic, one that will make things very interesting going forward.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Foundation (Isaac Asimov) - My Review
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Trading in Danger (Elizabeth Moon) - My Review

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel)

Quantum Mechanics
Jeff Weigel
Lion Forge
Fiction, CH? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Rox has lived her whole life at her father's spaceship repair yard, working on junkers with her orphan best friend Zam. They dream of building a racer from spare parts, maybe seeing the galaxy, but nowhere seems further from anywhere than their out-of-the-way asteroid home. Then the Quasar Torrent touches down... and Rox and Zam end up on the adventure of their lives, when the Torrent turns out to be a pirate ship and the gifted girl mechanics are "borrowed" by the crew in their quest of vengeance against the all-powerful Quarkcorp. Mysterious saboteurs, a mistrustful captain, and the ruthless Quarkcorp ship Neutron Storm make this a trip the girls will never forget - if they survive.

REVIEW: This is a lighthearted, imaginative space adventure for the younger sci-fi fan that doesn't sacrifice all of the grease under the fingernails. Rox and Zam are both talented but untested in the wider world (or galaxy, rather), and find their excitement at working on a real spaceship and earning respect from (most of) the crew at odds with their desire to return home... a conflict that becomes more personal for Zam as she discovers the cause of the multiple shipboard malfunctions. With the exception of the captain Red Myk, none of the pirates are particularly mean or scary; they're all people who have been hurt by Quarkcorp's stranglehold on galactic travel. Yes, character motivations can be a bit shallow and the adults tend to get outsmarted by the kids, but this is targeted at kids, and even when they're being outsmarted none of the grown-ups come across as complete idiots; they just weren't raised in an interstellar junkyard, and don't think like the girls do. (And, seriously, what kid reader doesn't dream of showing up the grown-ups in their lives and proving themselves like Rox and Zam?) An afterword at the end briefly describes the author/artist's creative process. Quantum Mechanics blends girl power and technobabble with a certain sense of wonder to create a story that may have blunted teeth but possesses a good heart.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng) - My Review
The Most Magnificent Thing (Ashley Spires) - My Review
Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Swordquest: Realworld (Chad Bowers and Chris Sims)

Swordquest: Realworld
The Swordquest series, Issues 0 - 5
Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, illustrations by X Ghostwriter
Dynamite Entertainment
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When 45-year-old Peter Case is diagnosed with degenerative lung disease and given six months to live on the same day his apartment burns down, he finds himself back in his mother's home in his old bedroom... where he discovers a relic from his past, and possibly a final goal. As a child, he and his best friends Amy and Alvin were obsessed with Atari's popular Swordquest franchise, a hybrid of comic books and games about a world of elemental powers, a tyrant usurper, an evil sorcerer, and a magical sword. They even entered the contest to win the actual sword itself, until the console industry's collapse ended the contest before a winner was named. Peter has nothing left to lose: why not steal the sword, even for just a few minutes? But the arrival of stranger Terry hints that Peter's newfound obsession isn't coincidence... and the game may be closer to reality than he or his friends ever suspected.

REVIEW: I was a Commodore kid, so I never played console games like Swordquest (the real game on which this was based.) But I do remember the power of the 80's video games - and, in retrospect, the power of the marketing behind them. I also remember how companies and franchises had a way of appearing and disappearing like the blip of a cursor; the cancelled final installment and never-finished contest were real events. For many of us in our 40's for whom life hasn't quite come together the way we might have hoped, there's a definite pull of nostalgia for the days when one could lose oneself for hours, days, even weeks or months at a time in picking apart puzzles and outfoxing boss monsters and generally immersing in a level of heart and imagination that sometimes seems lacking in today's game industry. Swordquest: Realworld is an homage to those days, a chance to return to worlds that seemed, for a time, more real and rewarding than reality. Peter must confront some ghosts from his past, reconnecting with estranged friends Amy and Alvin as he rediscovers the passions that once drove him. They find a nemesis in game developer Konrad Juros, who may have deeper ties to the unfinished Swordquest franchise - and a vested interest in keeping the sword out of Peter's hands. The art has clever callbacks to console-style graphics, adding to the feel (and the nostalgia for us 80's kids; though this is apparently considered a Teen/Young Adult title, I think the real target audience is us "obsolete teens.") The story goes about as one might expect, but is reasonably satisfying nonetheless.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Caverns of Socrates (Dennis L. McKiernan) - My Review
Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson) - My Reviews

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.

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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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