Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Reading Year in Review (and December Site Update)

Another year, and in addition to posting the December site update, it's time to reflect on the past twelve months' worth of reviews.

January started light and sweet with Stephanie Burgis's The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. I also delved into Ken Liu's doorstop silkpunk The Grace of Kings, a refreshingly different epic fantasy based on ancient China, and revisted Carl Hiassen for a fun but ultimately disappointing outing in Scat. (And apparently hardcover coloring books are a thing, as I discovered with Jonny Marx's The Book of Beasts - though I suspect the hardcover price is why I found it so cheap on clearance.)

In February, I ranged from a book on illuminated manuscripts (Janice Anderson's aptly-titled Illuminated Manuscripts) through romance (Samantha Chase's This Is our Song) and politics (Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man), and even an illustrated biography by an internet celebrity (Ryan Higa's How to Write Good, by Ryan Higa.) James Islington's epic fantasy The Shadow of What Was Lost and Genevieve Cogman's The Invisible Library failed to engage me, though the main theme of the month turned out to be interplanetary sci-fi: Dennis E. Taylor's second Bobiverse book (For We Are Many), the fourth Expanse installment (Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey), Killing Gravity by Corey J. White, and Jeff Lemire's graphic novel Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 universally impressed.

March wasn't a good month for reading. Of six titles posted, five were graphic novels; the exception was the Expanse novella The Churn, a prequel by James S. A. Corey. Two more Descender titles, Katie O'Neill's cutesy but enjoyable The Tea Dragon Society, Grant Snider's examination of creativity in the cartoons of The Shape of Ideas, and the groundbreaking (yet inevitably dated) The Mercenary, Volume 1 by Vicente Segrelles rounded it out.

April got me back into reading a few more word-based stories, kicking off with Tom Reiss's The Black Count, the biography of mixed-race general Alexandre Dumas, who rose to prominence in Revolutionary France only to be betrayed by Napoleon - later immortalized in the works of his son, Three Musketeers author Alexander Dumas. I was unexpectedly impressed by the young adult romance/sci-fi tale Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowsky, which deftly avoided potential pitfalls of telepathic teenagers and pulled off a rare "first person plural" perspective. Tor's eBook-of-the-month club once again delivered an interesting read as I finally got around to All Systems Red, the award-winning first installment of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. Still, graphic novels and picture books dominated, as I continued with Joshua Williamson's portal fantasy twist Birthright series (volumes 5 and 6) and Brian K. Vaughan's time travel adventure Paper Girls (volume 4), encountered the mysterious shapeshifter at the heart of Noelle Stevenson's Nimona, and took a pleasant trip aboard Dashka Slater's The Antlered Ship.

May started off with a major misfire of a dragon adventure in Stephen Deas's The Adamantine Palace, a throwback fantasy that successfully prevented me from caring about any character, two-legged or otherwise. Further disappointment awaited in the alternate history heist tale River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, in which hippos - imported as a potential food source following a real-world proposal - have overrun the lower Mississippi, and Mechthild Glaser's The Book Jumper, in which a teenager persistently acted like a preteen while exploring a newfound ability to enter stories. I paid homage to nostalgia with an Andre Norton title, Catseye, that couldn't help showing its age despite the imaginative premise. It wasn't all bad news, though. Katherine Applegate's wishtree offered hope in the face of prejudice and fear, Kurt Busiek's first Autumnlands graphic novel explored a post-apocalyptic future dominated by mages and anthropomorphic animals, and Chris Impey's Beyond offered a glimpse of an interplanetary future already in the works today.

In June, I finally threw the proverbial switch with the year-long main site overhaul. In reading, I revisited Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series with her third installment, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and wrapped up Dennis E. Taylor's Bobiverse trilogy with the enjoyable finale All These Worlds. Sebastien de Castell hooked me into his Greatcoats series, a fantasy homage to The Three Musketeers, with Traitor's Blade. The month's low point was the attempted romance/sci-fi mashup The Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair, which stumbled haplessly into every pitfall imaginable and even a few unimaginable ones.

July again had a bit of a sci-fi bent, starting with the fanciful exploration of our neighboring planets in Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich's Vacation Guide to the Solar System and continuing with James S. A. Corey's sixth Expanse book (Nemesis Games) and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, not to mention the graphic novel of astral-projection journeying in Leila del Duca's Afar and Blake Crouch's thriller Pines. Derek Alan Siddoway explored a world of griffin riders in Windsworn, while a wayward dragon cursed into human form sought to rebuild her hoard in the Scales and Scoundrels graphic novels by Sebastian Girner; of the two, Windsworn was the more absorbing, despite the promise of the latter. Political parody met picture book in "Marlon Bundo" and Jill Twiss's A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a fun tale of bunny love and the "stink bug" who stands in its way. The month wrapped up with an unfortunately pointless graphic novel, Elian Black'Mor's In Search of Lost Dragons.

August started with yet another return to the Expanse universe (so sue me - I like the series) with the Origins comics omnibus by James S. A. Corey, Hallie Lambert, and others, exploring the histories of the main characters as presented on the SyFy/Amazon Prime television show, with mixed-to-good results. High points of the month included Brandon Sanderson's second installment of his mammoth Stormlight Archives series, Words of Radiance, and Peter Cawdron's sci-fi thriller on Mars, Retrograde. Disappointments ranged from Lynn Viehl's alternate-world fantasy/romance Disenchanted & Co. to Tahereh Mafi's middle-grade fantasy Furthermore, capped off by Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning - impressive from a worldbuilding and Literary-with-a-capital-L standpoint, and undeniably different, but an utter failure insofar as giving me a single character to like or maintaining my interest. Michael Dante DiMartino also dropped the figurative ball in Rebel Genius, which reads like a cartoon that never wanted to be pinned down as writing.

September was a wide-ranging month for reading. From the freeform picture book poetry of Margaret Wild's The Dream of the Thylacine to Dan Rather's autobiographical examination of America's past, present, and future challenges in What Unites Us; from Seanan McGuire's adaptation of the "Phantom Prom Date" urban legend in Sparrow Hill Road to the suspense-filled romance in Rachel Grant's Incriminating Evidence; from escaped experimental military animals in Grant Morrison's graphic novel WE3 to Sarah Beth Durst's tale of stone creations seeking a carver to renew the story-marks keeping them alive in The Stone Girl's Story; even from the incredible true tale of a girl partially raised by wild monkeys in Marina Chapman's The Girl with No Name to an exploration of creativity in Art and Fear (David Bayles and Ted Orlando); I wandered all over the literary map. (And, yes, I checked in with the Expanse universe again with the novella Gods of Risk.)

October opened with an impressive novella from P. Djeli Clark, The Black God's Drums, set in an alternate-world New Orleans steeped in voodoo. I found myself less impressed than I'd hoped to be by Andy Weir's Moon-based heist novel Artemis, Jodi Lynn Anderson's alternate-world middle-grade road trip My Diary From the Edge of the World, and Scott Westerfield's spooky The Secret Hour, though I was far more disappointed by C. J. Darlington's Jupiter Winds as it nosedived into religion and Creationism. Bill Nye explained the "nerd" mindset and offered hope that it might someday save our future in his autobiographical Everything All At Once. Naomi Novik's fairy tale adaptation Spinning Silver entertained me, and I also enjoyed yet another Expanse novella by James S. A. Corey, The Vital Abyss.

I started November with the fun picture book Everyone Loves Bacon by Kelly DiPucchio. The classic one-time-award-winner The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge, unfortunately showed its age (or its author's assumptions about women needing men to complete their lives) badly, though the month's true low point had to be Kirk Kjeldsen's The Depths, a thriller that largely failed to thrill. Surprise "hits" were Fonda Lee's Jade City, which mashed up genres I don't generally enjoy (martial arts and mafia) into an engaging fantasy, and Elle Katharine White's Heartstone, a Pride and Prejudice riff with dragonriders that may not have been a favorite, but was more enjoyable than I'd anticipated. Nnedi Okorafor gave Harry Potter-like hidden magical worlds an African twist in Akata Witch, and old Atari classics found new life in the graphic novel Swordquest: Realworld by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, based on the real Swordquest franchise. Warren Ellis captured the sense of wonder behind the best sci-fi in his graphic novel Ocean/Orbiter Deluxe Edition, and I caught up through Book 6 of The Expanse with Babylon's Ashes. The month wrapped up with another Tor eBook-of-the-month-club offering, Victor Lavalle's tale The Ballad of Black Tom, which gives the bigotry of 1920's New York City a Lovecraftian twist.

December began with Gareth L. Powell's space tale of a self-aware war ship turning its back on combat in Embers of War, which had potential but ultimately felt a little too familiar to stand out. Mary Robinette Kowal explored an alternate history of the space race in The Calculating Stars, as humanity is forced to push interplanetary colonization efforts with Apollo-era tech after an extinction-level event in the 1950's. I revisited a favorite childhood movie with the graphic novel prequel Jim Henson's Labyrinth Coronation: Volume 1, though ultimately I enjoyed the film more. Another movie-inspired read was The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2, by Linda Sunshine.  An anthology by the Western Writers Group, Wanted: A Western Story Collection, failed to break my streak of mixed-bag anthology experiences, and I also found disappointment (despite great potential and glimmering ideas around the edges) in JY Yang's The Black Tides of Heaven. December's high points included Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, an unexpectedly enjoyable mashup of sword and sorcery with rock and roll culture, and yet another Expanse novella, Strange Dogs, which would work better as a standalone than more than one of those Western tales in that anthology.

Here's hoping 2019 brings pleasant surprises, both on and off the bookshelf.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Realm Volume 1 (Seth Peck)

The Realm Volume 1
The Realm series, Issues 1 - 5
Seth Peck, illustrations by Jeremy Haun
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Fifteen years ago, civilization came to a sudden end when monsters out of legend emerged around the world. In the desolate wastelands that used to be America, pockets of humanity struggle to rebuild, but so far nobody has figured out just what the beasts want, or how to send them back where they came from... and there seem to be more of them every day.
Will Nolan makes a living escorting people through the monster-filled countryside, doing the odd rescue mission on the side, though the people he deals with hardly seem more civilized than the orcs and goblins and other beasts he dispatches along the way. His latest gig - escorting a small group, including a pair of scientists, to what used to be the American heartland - looks like just another job, but he and his sometimes-partner Rook soon find themselves up against forces unlike any they've yet seen. A would-be sorcerer king, a mysterious lone monster hunter, and a strange boy who seems unable to die will make this the most dangerous journey Nolan has undertaken, one with consequences that could save the world - or destroy what's left of it.

REVIEW: There's a line between revealing too much information - drowning the reader in facts and backstories and subplots and such that don't really matter - and withholding too much, leading to detachment and confusion. The Realm falls on the latter side of that line. The story introduces several characters and subplots, but isn't always clear on how they relate or how they matter in the main story, certainly not clear enough to lift any of them above "been there, read that" genre tropes to become something compelling. Nolan's a typical post-apocalyptic mercenary with a Dark Secret (which, thanks to the subplot clutter, is little more than a pointless footnote in this volume), the sorcerer Eldrich could come from any given vaguely-Lovecraftian story, the monster-hunter Ben stalks beasts and broods and reveals nothing of his motives or goals... I just found nothing here to interest me, nothing to differentiate it from countless other post-demonic-apocalypse tales. While I'm sure more will be revealed in future installments, my reaction to reaching the end was more of an indifferent shrug than anything else - certainly nothing like a desire to revisit these characters or the setting.

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King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger (Stephen King) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Black Tides of Heaven (JY Yang)

The Black Tides of Heaven
The Tensorate series, Book 1
JY Yang
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From the moment of their conception, the twins Mokoya and Akeha were meant to be pawns in the games of their iron-fisted mother, all-powerful Protector of the realm. They are raised in a monastery, studying discipline and the five veins of slackcraft that power their world, and from the start vow that, whatever their mother intends, they will live and die for each other alone. But vows made as children rarely last into adulthood, and when Mokoya's strange dreams prove to be prophetic, the start of a wedge grows between them. Driven into different lives with differing loyalties by the black tides of the heavens, the twins must reconcile or see their mother's blood-slicked grip on the land become absolute.

REVIEW: One of the reasons I so enjoy fantasy and science fiction stories is the chance to explore new and unusual worlds, to immerse in the wild and the grand and occasionally bizarre. Unfortunately, this can also lead to a serious disconnect between me and the story, when for whatever reason I find myself shut out of the wonders at hand. This can happen for a variety of reasons - characters I don't like or can't believe, plots that bore or confuse, or simple failure to connect to the author's style. I cannot say for certain which was the culprit here, but through the entire tale, despite tantalizing hints and promise of Yang's imaginative Tensorate, I never once managed to truly visualize and immerse in it. Characters tend to be stiff or overly dramatic, though this may have been a result of me never understanding the world enough to recognize the stakes or what compelled them to take (or not take) action. The plot proves a dense web of rebellion and politics and love triangles that I couldn't care about for lack of connection. As for the world, it seems like an intriguingly unique land: the sun apparently cycles several times in each day or night cycle, there are five powers in the "slack" corresponding roughly to Asian elemental magic, tamed raptor packs serve as trackers, a budding industrial revolution threatens the absolute powers of the Tensors (magic-wielders) and majority race... but I felt shut out of most of these wonders, peering in through inadequate slats in the fence boards and never quite finding that sense of immersive understanding that would let me truly experience what Yang was writing. It's not a terrible story for all that, but ultimately not one I could care about, and not one I care to pursue through the remainder of the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - My Review
Jade City (Fonda Lee) - My Review
The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu) - My Review

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Paper Girls Volume 5 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 5
The Paper Girls series, Issues 21 - 25
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Image Comics
Fiction, MG? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The four paper delivery girls Tiffany, KJ, Mac, and Erin from 1988 have come a long way, through space and time, from the night when they stumbled across temporal invaders in their small suburb outside Cleveland. Now, after visiting a Y2K-devastated year 2000 and picking up an adult Tiffany as traveling companion, they find themselves a few hundred years in the future, almost under the nose of their chief pursuer "Grandfather" Wari. While Mac pursues a thin hope that she might be cured of the leukemia slated to kill her, Erin tries to find a way back to their home time - but can they trust anything, or anyone, in the compromised timestream, or are they already destined to fail?

REVIEW: With the long gap between reading previous volumes and the increasingly-entwined and -compromised timelines, I'll admit it took me a bit to reorient myself, and even then I'm sure I've forgotten a few important details. Despite that, this maintains the quick pacing of the series, adding new pieces to a puzzle that is still far from complete, but is nonetheless compelling. Issues of fate versus free will become very personal, not only as Mac struggles with the possibility of knowing her own death but as Tiffany deals with traveling with an older version of herself. Skirting spoilers, by the end a few questions have been answered but more raised, and the girls find themselves in greater danger than ever. Another good installment in an interesting series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew) - My Review
When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) - My Review
Paper Girls Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan) - My Review

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Strange Dogs (James S. A. Corey)

Strange Dogs
An Expanse novella
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Though she was not born on Laconia, the alien world is all Cara has known. Earth, Mars, and the old solar system are just places she sees in picture books or hears about in school, places Mom and Dad talk about in worried tones now that no more news comes through the ring gates. She spends more time outdoors in the native woodlands than her scientist parents, and probably knows more about the wildlife than anyone - but even she is surprised when she discovers the pack of odd, doglike animals. Then, quite by accident, she discovers what they can do... a discovery that could change the very nature of the colony, unless the grown-ups ruin everything.
This novella, part of the Expanse universe, occurs chronologically between Book 6, Babylon's Ashes, and Book 7, Persepolis Rising.

REVIEW: This side adventure, with strong foreshadowing of things to come in the next volume, almost works as a standalone, having only passing involvement of a character from the greater series. Cara struggles to deal with being a first-generation colonist on alien soil, tied culturally and genetically (and metabolically - humans cannot process native food sources, and vice versa) to a planet of which she has no memory and to which she has no personal connection, yet she faces seemingly-insurmountable obstacles to truly embracing Laconia as a homeworld as she desperately desires. The "dogs" she encounters are not what they first appear to be, offering choices whose consequences she may not fully grasp, yet which seem to her better than any alternatives. The ending is a bit dark, especially given its implications for the next Expanse novel. Overall, I enjoyed it, though I almost clipped it a half-star for deceptive length; only sixty-odd percent of the file is Strange Dogs, the rest being two long excerpts from other Orbit books that aren't even related to Corey (and which I admit to skipping.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Catseye (Andre Norton) - My Review
Dragon and Thief (Timothy Zahn) - My Review

Monday, December 17, 2018

Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames)

Kings of the Wyld
The Band series, Book 1
Nicholas Eames
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: "We were giants, once..."
Many years ago, Clay Cooper was part of Saga, perhaps the greatest band of mercenaries ever to walk the realm of Grandual. With the wizard Moog, the knife-wielding rogue Matrick, the deadly warrior Ganelon, and their leader and frontman "Golden" Gabriel (not to mention their booker and an endless stream of ill-fated bards), they carved a swath through the monster-filled Heartwyld forests and a legend that persists to this day. But time marches on, and even legends dim and age. In the years since Saga dissolved, Clay has settled down in a quiet hamlet, building a peaceful life with the woman he loves, content to let his fame fade.
Then Gabriel turns up on his doorstep, and his plans for peaceful retirement end.
It turns out that Gabriel's daughter Rose has been bitten by the mercenary bug - which is how she wound up across the mountains in Castia, a fortress currently besieged by a monstrous horde the likes of which the world has never seen. Most people believe the inhabitants as good as dead already, but Gabriel refuses to give up hope. He plans to get the band back together for one last glorious ride - or one last glorious death.
Clay wants to tell him no. He wants to tell him their fighting days are over, that they're all old men now. But Clay has a daughter of his own, and if it were his girl, he'd face down every demon in hell and every god in the heavens to save her - so how could he refuse when his one-time best friend needs his help to do the same?

REVIEW: To be honest, I almost didn't buy this book. I'm not a huge fan of gore or grimdark, and it looked like this would have both in spades. But I was intrigued by the cover blurb for the sequel, and I never read a series out of order if I can at all help it... and there this title was, in paperback, daring me to give it a try. And so I did - and was immediately pulled in for a wyld (er, wild) ride.
With violence, humor, and shades of both sword and sorcery and rock and roll (the mercenary "band" culture has many trappings of the entertainment world), Clay's tale starts quickly and never lets go. Worldbuilding and character integrity are never sacrificed for the sake of a cheap laugh, and yet laughs there are, and plenty of them - often a grim, gallows humor, but still laughs. It's not just a road trip or eccentric buddy comedy in a fantastic realm, though; there are some truly touching moments and sacrifices along the way, and the bonds of friendship are tested to their limits. The story leans a bit testosterone heavy (understandable, given the genres it's not-so-subtly poking fun at), but in the end I was thoroughly and unexpectedly entertained, enough to grant it the full fifth star of a Great rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jhereg (Stephen Brust) - My Review
Traitor's Blade (Sebastien de Castell) - My Review
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Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Wild Book (Juan Villoro)

The Wild Book
Juan Villoro, translated by Lawrence Schimel
Restless Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: It was supposed to be another summer vacation spent playing with his best friends, but when his parents separate, plans change. His kid sister is sent to live with friends and Juan is packed off to the home of Uncle Tito, a man he barely knows. A lifelong recluse with the manners of an animal and almost no people skills, Tito has turned his house into a labyrinthine library - and, somehow, he's convinced that Juan himself has an inborn affinity for books. Indeed, he's certain the boy will help him find an elusive title hiding in his collection, The Wild Book, which has never let itself be read by anyone. At first, he thinks the man's just gone crazy after years with nobody but a part-time housekeeper for company... but soon Juan discovers that books have lives of their own - and some of them are quite dangerous, indeed.

REVIEW: I'm not sure if it's the translation or the basic story, but I couldn't connect with this one despite the promising subject. It seems to be trying too hard to cram Life Lessons down the reader's throat to remember that I need to care about the characters and be interested in unfolding events. Yes, the books move when nobody's looking, and there's a predatory Pirate Book lurking around the edges, but instead of feeling like I was immersed in a grand adventure in an amazing library, mostly I felt like I was, like Juan, stumbling around in cluttered rooms not doing much of anything, hoping that the elusive "wild book" would turn up by chance. Tito's overbearing and more than a little repelling, with a personality more like an oversized grade-schooler than a grown man; Juan comes across as the mature and reasonable one, except when he doesn't. (Character consistency wavers across the board, as the author tends to spell things out rather than let them act and react naturally.) There's a girl across the street who becomes a love interest, but again I wasn't really feeling the relationship, and his observations of her venture into creepy territory. For that matter, there are... I suppose I should say cultural overtones that don't translate particularly well and left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. (Speaking of translation, part of me wonders how much of my reaction was due to the translator's efforts and not the author's; at one point, it refers to spiders as insects, which has to be a translation error unless Villoro thinks middle grade readers don't know spiders are arachnids and not insects, which is information found in basic picture books.) On the plus side, it reads fairly fast, but I've read other, better books about books and the magic of reading.

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Storybound (Marissa Burt) - My Review
Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
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Friday, December 14, 2018

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Linda Sunshine)

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2
Linda Sunshine
Dey Street Books
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The 2014 animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 brought viewers back to the Viking village of Berk, where former misfit boy Hiccup and his dragon friend Toothless have ended the generations-long conflict between their people... but trouble is on the horizon, as a new threat to dragon and human alike arises. In this book, explore the Viking world and its dragons with behind-the-scenes concept art and production notes.

REVIEW: This movie managed the remarkable feat of taking the high bar set by 2010's How to Train Your Dragon and raising it in most every way, from storyline to animation. (I will concede that I preferred the first film's soundtrack.) With new software and an ambitious vision, the Dreamworks team created a bigger, bolder, more detailed world with even wilder dragons. The text offers notes on story and design decisions that shaped the final movie, including some major last-minute shifts and reworkings that ultimately made for a better film. If you enjoyed the movie, you'll enjoy this collection of art and design images and the smattering of trivia and production insight.

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The Art of Kubo and the Two Strings (Emily Haynes) - My Review
The Art of How to Train Your Dragon (Tracy Miller-Zarneke) - My Review
How to Train Your Dragon / How to Train Your Dragon 2- Amazon DVD link

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Reason for Dragons (Chris Northrop)

The Reason for Dragons
Chris Northrop, illustrations by Jeff Stokely
Boom Entertainment
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: High school outcast Wendell just can't seem to get the hang of his life, especially since his father died. He can't connect with his mechanic stepdad, his mom's working most the time, and he doesn't last a day without messing something up or being shoved around by bullies... which he figures he probably deserves for being such a loser. On a dare, he goes out the the old, abandoned fairgrounds in the woods - and meets a man claiming to be the last knight of the king's realm. He swears that the fire that destroyed the place years ago wasn't arson, but a dragon that still stalks the forests. Clearly the guy is insane... but if he's crazy, why is Wendell also hearing the strange roars and growls in the deep woods?

REVIEW: The Reason for Dragons is a decent, if not entirely unexpected, coming of age story about a misfit boy finding his courage. Wendell starts out, frankly, as a bit of a whiny jerk, though he naturally has his reasons; everything he tries to do goes wrong, so he not only stops trying, but starts actively resenting anyone who does. His stepdad tries to connect with him via shopwork, but Wendell's all thumbs around tools. The self-styled knight Sir Habersham manages to reach the boy in a way nobody else in his life can, and his quest against the dragon gives Wendell a purpose. It goes without saying that there's more to the story than Habersham being nuts (this is a Fantasy title, after all), though it all feels a trifle too rushed for the impact it was going for. The short stories following the main tale add a little ambiance, though they aren't strictly necessary and feel like padding. Not quite my cup of cocoa, but not a bad story in the end.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Wanted: A Western Story Collection (The Western Writers Group)

Wanted: A Western Story Collection
The Western Writers Group
Solstice Publishing
Fiction, Anthology/Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A boy is trapped after encountering an enraged grizzly... a bounty hunter intervenes when a crooked cattleman bullies a family of sheepherders... a retired Pinkerton agent and his daughter run into trouble while buying horses... a pair of ex-outlaws find trouble on the trail while trying to go straight... These and other stories of the Wild West are compiled in this anthology.

REVIEW: It was cheap, and I need to explore outside my usual reading comfort zones/genres every so often, so I gave it a try. Like most anthologies in my experience, the results are mixed. Most of the tales here are part of larger series; the degree to which these adventures stand alone varies greatly by author. Likewise, my reaction - from interested page-turning to eye-rolls and barely-suppressed groans at hackneyed stereotypes - varied greatly by author. Though these are written by modern Western writers, a few felt so stale I'd have pegged them as relics from half a century ago. (I suppose this may be one of the attractions of the genre, but not for me.) I enjoyed two or three of these, actively disliked a couple, and the rest fell into a bland middle that already fades in my memory. It makes a decent sampler if one is looking for a new Western author to follow, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Killing Dirty (Pete Clark) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
Unwanted: Dead or Alive (Gene Shelton) - My Review

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Calculating Stars (Mary Robinette Kowal)

The Calculating Stars
The Lady Astronaut series, Book 1
Mary Robinette Kowal
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The meteorite struck the east coast of America in 1952, taking with it huge swaths of land, uncounted lives... and, in a matter of years, the future habitability of Earth. With survival on the line, the fledgling NACA space program becomes an international effort, a push to colonize space before a runaway greenhouse effect leads to mass extinctions.
Computer Elma York and her husband, rocket engineer Nathaniel, become key parts of the new push for space. As a WASP pilot who had to outfox enemy planes without even being allowed ammunition, Elma hopes to become an astronaut herself... but it soon becomes clear that white men only need apply. But why? She wrote several of the equations that make orbital flight possible, and she's a better pilot than some of the men selected, plus if the goal really is to colonize space women will have to go up at some point. Despite stubborn politicians and condescending superiors, Elma is determined to get into space, no matter what it takes.

REVIEW: Kowal takes a few minor liberties, but this alternate-history space story relies entirely on real-world physics and possibilities, positing a hastened space program that must prioritize interplanetary colonization over developments like Martian rovers, the space shuttle, or microcomputers. The extinction-level strike moves up the global warming timeline and urgency; even in Kowal's world, there are many who deny the impending cataclysm, even as the climate irrevocably shifts and prediction after prediction plays out true. As the space program fights budget cuts and skeptical politicians and even anti-space terrorists (with justifications ranging from religious fervency to conspiracy theories about corporations and governments inventing a climate crisis), Elma must fight the misogyny of the 1950's and her own crippling anxiety (not to mention anxiety about anxiety; even with doctorates under her belt and a fully supportive husband, she still hears her late mother whispering "What will people think?" whenever she defies gender expectations), a fight that extends to include racial bigotry as she realizes that gender isn't the only basis for discrimination among her colleagues. Surrounding her are friends and allies and enemies, not always clear distinctions, as she inadvertently becomes the face for the movement to create a "lady astronaut" program. Even her worst enemy, the arrogant pilot/astronaut Stetson Parker, becomes more than just a plot enabler. It starts fairly quickly and moves at a decent pace, establishing a strong sense of time and place in both the altered 1950's world and the Apollo-era space program, with the main flaw being that it's clearly just part of a larger story that will (theoretically) conclude with the second novel, The Fated Stars... which I suppose I'll have to add to my holiday wish list at this point. Dang it.
(This book also reminded me that I really need to see and/or read Hidden Figures sooner rather than later; Kowal includes that book in her bibliography at the end, and claims the movie as partial incitement to finish this story, which touches on similar themes, if in a fictional timeline.)

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The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
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AVIATRIX: First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest (Mary Bush Shipko) - My Review

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Jim Henson's Labyrinth Coronation: Volume 1 (Simon Spurrier and Jim Henson)

Jim Henson's Labyrinth Coronation: Volume 1
The Labyrinth Coronation series, Issues 1 - 4
Simon Spurrier and Jim Henson (creator), illustrations by Daniel Bayliss
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Media Tie-In
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When young Sarah regrets wishing that the goblins would take her baby brother Toby away, Jareth the Goblin King gives her thirteen hours to retrieve him from the castle at the center of his vast, shifting Labyrinth - otherwise, the child will become a goblin. But this is not the first time a stolen baby has been sought by a loved one. Jareth himself was once a human boy not unlike young Toby, and it was his mother Maria who braved the Labyrinth in search of him, defying the wicked Owl King and the child's noble father, Lord Tyton.

REVIEW: Nostalgia's a hot commodity these days; I see graphic novel series revisiting The Dark Crystal and other favorites from childhood, plus there is a manga tale about an older Toby returning to the labyrinth world (which I have not read, but seen at the library.) Given that, a Labyrinth graphic novel revival was almost a given. This is not so much a retelling or a sequel as a prequel about Jareth, memorably played (and sung) by the late David Bowie in Henson's movie. Since I have a fair bit of nostalgia tied up here (I still own and listen to the soundtrack - I am a child of the 80's, after all), it was with some trepidation that I approached this title... and with some inevitable disappointment that I finish.
The framing story here supposedly occurs while Jareth watches Sarah make her way through the Labyrinth; between him and the goblin Beetleglum, the tale of Jareth's own childhood unfolds. There's an immediate issue here, as the graphic novel keeps reminding me of the movie source material, a comparison by which it can't help falling short. It's also obvious that something went horribly wrong with Maria's journey, or Jareth wouldn't be the Goblin King in Sarah's time; at some point, I couldn't help feeling toyed with on this account, especially as this is just Volume 1 of a longer arc and doesn't resolve anything. The Labyrinth itself is a remarkable and imaginative place where nothing is as it seems, though the version encountered by Maria is different than the one Sarah found in the movie; there's some implication that the place's aspect is at least partly in the eye of the beholder. Maria is not the impetuous, immature girl Sarah was at the start of her journey, but a determined and desperate mother willing to move heaven and earth to find her son. Unfortunately, knowing that she fails can't help robbing the story of some tension. The artwork is imaginative, but not quite up to the standard set by Jim Henson and Brian Froud in the film, though the characters definitely feel like they belong in the Labyrinth I grew up knowing and loving. Between (too-frequent) cutaways to Jareth and Beetleglum, the story takes a while to get going, and seems to just be hitting a decent stride by the time it ends, leaving me with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I admit I'm a little curious about how Maria fails. On the other, if future installments are this riddled with interruptions (and keep reminding me, again, of a movie so deeply rooted in my childhood that it can't help coloring my perception of tie-in material), I'm not sure how far out of my way I'll go to find answers.

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Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
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Labyrinth (30th Anniversary Edition) - Amazon DVD link

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Magic Misfits (Neil Patrick Harris)

The Magic Misfits
The Magic Misfits series, Book 1
Neil Patrick Harris
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, MG Adventure/General Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Carter never wanted to be part of his uncle's cons, but when a boy's magician parents vanish into thin air, he doesn't have much choice. He doesn't mind doing card tricks or sleight-of-hand illusions, but he vows he will never personally steal, no matter how hard he's pushed - a vow that sees him run out on the old thief and hop a train one night with nothing but empty pockets and his small satchel.
The train takes him to the small town of Mineral Wells. It looks like a picture postcard, the kind a place a boy would love to grow up... but he's hardly off the train before he finds trouble at Mr. Bosso's traveling carnival, a place where the games are rigged, the attractions are fake, and the clowns are burglars. He also meets magician Mr. Vernon and a collection of misfit local kids who, like him, are interested in illusion. Carter's gotten by his whole life by not taking on other people's problems and keeping to himself, but making friends has a way of changing a boy's mind... especially when they learn Mr. Bosso's true caper.

REVIEW: Celebrity-authored books can be hit or miss, but this proves to be a fun middle-grade debut. Carter's a clever boy with a good heart but a hard life; it takes him a while to learn to trust his new friends and realize he has something to contribute to their lives and their town. As with many middle grade titles, there's a certain exaggeration to the characters, especially the bad guys, and the setting; it takes place in a nebulous small-town yesteryear, the sort one usually encounters in old books or classic TV shows. The plot is a little exaggerated as well, but it does the job. Bonus chapters offer lessons in simple magic tricks, and there are hidden messages for those inclined to hunt for them. As for the writing, it's light and lively, and while not quite as sharp or laugh-out-loud hilarious as a few middle-grade writers I've read, Harris certainly entertains without trailing off on excessive tangents (usually.) It's fun and reads quickly (an afternoon for me), and younger readers - especially those interested in stage magic - will eat it up. (I do have to admit that, as a kid, I would've been disappointed at a lack of real, fantasy-caliber magic, though; the tricks here, though not all explained, are stage illusions, which are their own brand of fantasy.)

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Rebel of the Sands (Alwyn Hamilton)

Rebel of the Sands
The Rebel of the Sands series, Book 1
Alwyn Hamilton
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Amani's been an outsider in the small desert town of Dustwalk since she was born, her blue eyes betraying outsider parentage. When her mother was hanged for killing an abusive husband, she became even more taboo. Now her cruel uncle is talking about making her another wife, or maybe selling her to some other brute, so now is the time for Amani to escape.
Mother always talked about the capital city where her sister lives as a grand, adventurous place, so she sets her sights on distant Imzan, home of the Sultan. But her plans go awry when she runs into Jin, a stranger with a hidden agenda. Before she knows it, she's accused of treason and on the run, dodging foreign soldiers and the Sultan's forces as she finds herself in the company of rebels, not to mention halfblood children of legendary Djinni and powers that could destroy her desert home, and maybe the world itself.

REVIEW: Rebel of the Sands draws on Middle Eastern traditions with a bit of Wild West thrown into the mix, creating a unique world of sand and fire and elder powers at war with new technology, where tradition and innovation struggle for the future and innocent lives are too often crushed in the middle. Amani's a strong heroine, a sharpshooter with a sharp tongue, fighting cultural and personal oppression in a country where women are less valued than animals; her mixed ancestry places her even lower on the totem pole, as does her refusal to accept the lot in life she's been given. Even her best friend in Dustwalk, also looked down on for his limp, can't understand why she doesn't just become a man's property and find solace in prayer. Jin, whom she meets while disguised as a boy at an illegal shooting contest, is the spark that sends her life and plans up in flames in a relationship that's contentious from the start, both using each other even as they become dependent on one another for survival in a desert crawling with enemies. Fireside stories of First Beings and their descendants - the fading lines of immortal Djinni and Buraqi horses, the monstrous Skinwalkers and Nightmares that prowl the darkness and fear only the touch of iron that makes them mortal - have always been at the fringes of her life (though it's been years since even a stray ghoul wandered into her town, now a factory for the Sultan's firearms), but become central to the story as she ranges further from Dustwalk. Stakes are fairly high for Amani from the start, and only grow higher as she becomes part of a world larger than her small home town; more than once, she's responsible for suffering and even death as events move beyond her control. At times, especially past the halfway mark, the cast feels a little overloaded and events move a little too fast to keep up with, but it wraps up fairly well, even if it obviously leaves enough threads dangling for the second installment of the series. It's an enjoyable, quick read, starting a series I could see myself following (once I've pruned the reading backlog a little more, at least; seriously, the pile is threatening to crush me in my sleep.)

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Saturday, December 1, 2018

Embers of War (Gareth L. Powell)

Embers of War
The Embers of War trilogy, Book 1
Gareth L. Powell
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The decimation of the sentient forests of Pelapatarn ended the Archipelago War between the Outward and the Conglomeration factions of humanity - but at an inconceivably steep cost that still reverberates though not just the human Generality, but the Multiplicity of alien races. Nobody who was there, soldier or medic or sapient ship, emerged the same. In the aftermath, the war ship Trouble Dog renounced her commission and joined the House of Reclamation, a neutral organization dedicated to interstellar search and rescue. Her captain, Sal Konstanz, still has nightmares about what she saw as a medic on Pelapatarn, and the officer Alva Clay etched her own memories into her skin as tattoos. All hope that saving lives instead of taking them will give them some measure of healing or atonement - but the stars are a dangerous place, and humans still seem determined to make it even more dangerous. The Trouble Dog's latest mission, reaching a downed civilian space liner on the edge of disputed territory, will test them all ways they never dreamed... and lead to discoveries that no one could ever have imagined. In the midst of it all, both ship and crew will learn the hard way that in order to preserve lives, sometimes it's necessary to remember how to kill.

REVIEW: A sapient war ship rejecting war? It sounded like a great concept, and it is... to a point. Unfortunately, Embers of War never quite dives as deep into its situations as I might've hoped, with a tendency to repetition as the characters - including the ship - rehash the same internal arguments and dilemmas, sometimes in the space of the same paragraph. What should be deep, troubled people end up feeling like fairly superficial entities, pushing into caricature more than once (particularly in the case of the new ship medic Preston, who is so green and incapable of coping with life I expected him to actually piss himself, or at least wet the bed, at some point in the book. For that matter, the only other males in the cast lean heavily on masculine stereotype bordering on parody, making me wonder if a Statement was being made or if this was a deliberate hamstringing to make the women look stronger, an unnecessary move that only weakened the characterizations further. But, I digress...) Even the alien mechanic Nod, an almost plantlike entity, seems a little too familiar under the surface, the sort of detached presence I've read and seen a few too many times to find truly, well, alien. The story itself has some nice images and ideas and action sequences - I was particularly intrigued by how the organic brains of the war ships were based not just on human genetics but canine as well, to give them loyalty and tenacity - but once the sheen wears off there's a certain... flatness, for lack of a better word, to those, too.
I liked the Trouble Dog, and it's a passable, fast-reading space opera, but the more I read the less I found myself buying into the story as a whole. By the end, instead of feeling I'd just consumed a satisfying meal, I was pushing scraps around my mental plate and wondering how to politely decline any offers of dessert.

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