Saturday, February 29, 2020

February Site Update

The previous six reviews are now cross-linked and archived at the main Brightdreamer Books website.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder)

A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans
The Dragon's Guide series, Book 1
Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrations by Mary GrandPre
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The dragon Miss Drake has always been fond of pets, and for all the trouble they can get into, humans make interesting (if sadly short-lived) companions. She was still grieving the loss of Fluffy, her latest, when young Winnie finds her. She's dirty, she's rude, and she seems to think that she's the master and Miss Drake is the pet! In short, Winnie the very definition of impossible, but she is Fluffy's relative, so maybe there's potential in the girl. Miss Drake introduces her to the hidden magical community of San Francisco, but an innocent gift turns into lots of trouble for the both of them, trouble that could threaten everyone in the city.

REVIEW: I wanted a quick, light read after over a thousand pages of Cervantes, and I found this in the clearance section at Half Price Books. The story starts quickly, as Miss Drake's mourning of Fluffy (ridiculously known as "Abigail" to humans) is interrupted by the arrival of Winnie and her mother at the mansion where she lives, an inauspicious meeting as the girl barges in, tracks dirt all over the priceless carpet, and declares how disappointed she is that a dragon rests on a couch instead of a pile of treasure. But the two have more in common than it first seems, as both are dealing with recent grief. Throughout the story, Miss Drake must come to terms with the notion of a human as friend rather than pet, just as Winnie has to grow up a little and help fix a problem she inadvertently created; the two make an unexpectedly balanced team. The world is light and whimsical and sure to delight younger readers (and older ones who don't pry too much at edges or try poking logic holes in the story's wings; this is a children's book, after all, having just enough infrastructure for a slightly perilous adventure, brought to life by GrandPre's illustrations.) Once in a while the characters seem to forget things they just learned, the modern elements felt slightly shoehorned in at times, and a couple elements felt forgotten by the end, but this is book one of a series; though the story wraps up neatly here, I expect more comes of those dangling threads in future books. The conclusion is nicely heartwarming as both characters finally find a way to deal with lingering grief. It's a fun story with enjoyable characters and a dragon-sized heart.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Dragon Rider (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Walter Starkie
Signet Classic
Fiction, General Fiction/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Some long time ago, in an otherwise nondescript Spanish village, a local gentleman went uniquely insane. His mind became corrupted by the popular fictions of knights-errant until he became convinced that not only was every word printed in those tales true, but that he himself was destined to revive their lost art. Convincing a local peasant, Sancho Panza, to serve as his faithful squire, he adopted the name Don Quixote, and rode out on his steed Rozinante to right wrongs, slay giants, defy enchanters, and earn the love of his imagined sweetheart, the lady Dulcinea (whom he had never even seen, but no true knight-errant could hope to succeed without pining for the love of an aloof and conveniently absent woman.) Despite their madness, Quixote and Panza would become legends: first in their own minds, then in the very sort of tales that broke the would-be knight's wits in the first place.
Note: The Amazon link, while unabridged, is not the exact version read in this review, which was translated by Walter Starkie for Signet Classics in 1964.

REVIEW: Widely considered the first modern novel (the first part was published in 1605, the second in 1615), Don Quixote parodies the popular trend of outlandish knightly tales, presenting a delusional would-be knight whose "adventures" create far more havoc and sorrow than they generally rectify. It even spawned a spurious unauthorized sequel, which Cervantes skewers in unsubtle terms in the second part.
The story opens with a prologue in which Cervantes laments about his inability to write a proper prologue for lack of sonnets and epigrams and clever references to classical writers, whereby a friend basically tells him he can fudge it with sufficient style and nobody will notice. This self-aware mockery of his peers and genre continues throughout the story, particularly the first part, as Quixote's madness works overtime to reconcile the often-ridiculous contrivances of knight-errantry tales with the real world (and hapless Sancho Panza is drug along in his wake, torn between seeing his master's irrationality and succumbing to bouts of it himself.) The false knight's explanation for discrepancies between his ideas and reality usually boils down to persecution by enchanters, an airtight seal against the outside world which nothing and nobody can breach (and the sort of illogical logic one still sees in the world, especially with the rise of fact denial... but I digress.) The story wanders and rambles across the Spanish countryside and a variety of misadventures, often bogging down or dropping anchor altogether while Cervantes diverts into side stories and commentaries on social norms and other such ramblings - I suspect this is also in keeping with the parody aspect of his tale, though it's also possible it was Cervantes padding page count and enjoying the sound of his own written voice, which I believe has always been and will always be a thing with certain storytellers - which could make for some tedious reading; I admit I skimmed a few excessively tedious descriptions and diversions, particularly where it felt like Cervantes was using characters as mouthpieces for his own commentary. There's also a tendency for plot-convenient coincidences and abrupt endings to "adventures." The second half of the story sees Quixote and Panza gaining some fame after an unknown "historian" published their exploits - which leads to the spurious sequel, openly and repeatedly denounced by Quixote and Panza - and actually sees the madman given some measure of respect: for all that he may be delusional and often destructive, his aims are often more admirable than the people who extract amusement at his unwitting expense, and the idea of a "proper" storybook knight shows undoubted merit even if it cannot exist in reality. The conclusion, though, feels like an anticlimactic letdown.
While some of the contemporary humor and references are undoubtedly lost in translation (not just through language but through time and cultural shift), the general thrust remains fairly clear, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza remain iconic archetypes. It may not be quite my cup of cocoa, but I've read less interesting classics.
As a closing note, this is yet another classic that feels it must start with a lengthy, spoiler-ridden analysis of both the work and the author by a contemporary authority figure. I suppose this further reveals my overall lack of sophistication and general intelligence, but why do publishers and translators feel compelled to do this? Why not start with a smaller, shorter introduction (if need be) to whet the reader's appetite, and save the heavy details for an afterword? Even if I have read the story before, allow me to refresh my memory before digging into the details and trivia and subtexts and whatnot that are evidently so fascinating they require double-digit page counts to explore. (And if I haven't read the story before, the spoilers are even less welcome, and the trivia less relevant.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Princess Bride (William Goldman) - My Review
Heroics for Beginners (John Moore) - My Review
Heroes of the Valley (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sea of Stars Volume 1 (Jason Aaron and Dennis Hallum)

Sea of Stars Volume 1: Lost in the Wild Heavens
The Sea of Stars series, Issues 1 - 5
Jason Aaron and Dennis Hallum, illustrations by Stephen Green and Rico Renzi
Image Comics
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Being a long-haul driver means spending a lot of holidays and birthdays on the road - or in space, when the "big rig" is a spaceship. Gil always thought he'd have time to make it up to his family someday... until his wife died, leaving him the sole caretaker of nine-year-old Kadyn. He has little choice but to take the boy along on his next run, but it shouldn't be a problem; usually, space is pretty boring, and maybe he can get to know his kid on the way.
This run, everything goes wrong.
Attacked by a giant space monster that destroys their ship, Gil and Kadyn are torn apart. While Gil struggles to survive and locate his boy, Kadyn discovers strange abilities and new friends - and someone who very much wants to claim those powers for themselves...

REVIEW: It looked like an intriguing mix of ideas, and I wanted a quick read, so I gave this title a try. In some respects, it's two different stories with two completely different moods (and potentially two different audiences.) Space trucker Gil is the failed father struggling to connect with an angry son he doesn't know as well as he should, who must literally tear survival from unforgiving space with his teeth more than once, a bleak and blood-soaked crawl through monsters and derelicts and hostile encounters. Kadyn, on the other hand, feels like he tumbled out of a light middle-grade space fantasy; he joyously swims through space with his newfound powers, picking up a couple of friendly sidekicks and even teaching a deadly quarkshark how to play tag. Unfortunately, I don't think the two moods quite came together like they should have before the abrupt cliffhanger ending. I also found some of the action a little hard to follow, particularly on Gil's side of things, plus I'm not sure there's another volume worth of story given what was presented here. It earns an extra half-mark for imagination and having a little more depth to it than it might have had (even if that characterization leans on tropes), but I doubt I'll be pursuing Sea of Stars further.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Afar (Leila del Duca) - My Review
Dragon Pearl (Yoon Ha Lee) - My Review
Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Saturday, February 15, 2020

I Am Still Alive (Kate Alice Marshall)

I Am Still Alive
Kate Alice Marshall
Penguin Books
Fiction, YA Mystery/Suspense
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: After the car accident that killed her mother, sixteen-year-old Jess Cooper struggled to recover, physically and mentally. Now she's being sent to the Alaskan wilderness to live with a father she barely remembers. She can hardly manage a paved sidewalk without her damaged leg giving out on her: how is she supposed to manage living in the deep woods, let alone get along with a man who hasn't bothered to send so much as a postcard for a decade? Despite his insistence that she'll grow to love the life as much as he does, she's determined to leave as soon as possible.
Then the men in the red plane come - and everything falls apart in gunfire and flames.
With her father dead, their cabin burned to the ground, and nobody even aware of where she is, Jess finds herself facing near-certain death. But she's grown used to pain and desperation... and she's not about to die when there's even a sliver of a chance to exact revenge.

REVIEW: This book is a conscious tribute to Gary Paulsen's classic survival tale Hatchet, with an older female protagonist and a vengeance angle. Jess starts out with both emotional and physical baggage; not only is she still scarred and damaged from the car crash, but she carries vast reserves of anger and abandonment issues. Her father is not a perfect man, and the fate that befalls him is at least partly due to his own poor judgement and decisions. Still, Jess is able to pull herself together, relying (like Brian in Hatchet) on scraps of memories, the world around her, and a growing gut-level intuition to claw survival from an unforgiving wilderness. Her education isn't without some mistakes, compounded by persistent complications from her bad leg and back; she is not miraculously cured by getting back to nature, nor do her mental scars vanish overnight. She also learns more about the father she hardly knew, and - by extension - aspects of her late beloved mother. Her parents loved her, but they were people in the end, ultimately as fallible as Jess herself. Numerous crises and setbacks arise, all with the ever-present threat of the return of the men who murdered her dad (and the question of what she'll do when given the chance at revenge), making for a fast-reading and intense tale. A few stumbles at the climax held the story back from a solid fourth star in the ratings. I can't get into specifics without spoilers, but one element in particular came close to dropping the story another half-star. Those issues aside, I Am Still Alive lives up to its promise of suspense and wilderness survival and a heroine who, though knocked down numerous times, somehow keeps finding the grit to climb back up.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Call of the Wild and White Fang (Jack London) - My Review
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey) - My Review

Friday, February 14, 2020

Soonish (Kelly and Zach Weinersmith)

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything
Kelly and Zach Weinersmith
Penguin Press
Nonfiction, Humorous Nonfiction/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since the earliest days of civilization (and likely earlier than that), people have speculated what the future would bring, what marvels and dangers awaited just beyond tomorrow: would we be zipping around a utopia in flying cars, or toiling in Martian mines under the whips of robotic overlords? Most predictions have turned out to be dead wrong (for better or worse), and yet time and again our world has been transformed, and will continue to be transformed, by new ideas and discoveries. The authors examine ten bleeding-edge fields, some of which are already making waves and others which may be destined for the dust-heap of predictions with those flying cars.

REVIEW: Zach Weinersmith is the creator of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, one of my personal favorite online comics (if one that admittedly is aimed at a higher academic and intellectual level than my paltry high school diploma qualifies me to appreciate), which frequently tackles the occasional absurdities and potential pitfalls of scientific breakthroughs. This book explores several real-world technologies that may not be quite ready for proverbial prime time, but which have the potential to remake society... sometimes in ways we may not like (or simply not be ready to handle, though that could be said of most any seismic technological shift.) The Weinersmiths spell out what the technology is, where it currently stands, what it could do for us (or to us), and the problems holding it back at the moment, from practical and economic issues to ethical concerns. From the problems with offworld expansion to the possibilities of neurological upgrades, from custom-grown organs to augmented reality, they present a fascinating array of technologies in an intelligent, accessible, and often humorous fashion. A closing chapter sums up some technologies that didn't make the final cut, while an extensive list of acknowledgements and citations point the way to further reading on every subject covered. The potential futures that could be opened by any of these technologies becoming mainstream are dazzling, dizzying, and occasionally disturbing, yet the idea that few might ever come to pass in my lifetime - especially with a seemingly-increasing societal momentum away from science as a goal or even a concept - is also vaguely depressing. It's a very enjoyable book even for undereducated readers like myself who are curious about such things.
As a minor nitpick, though, the ebook has a few formatting issues with text occasionally running over illustrations (not the first title I've read on Overdrive to have this problem, unfortunately.) This is not new technology; is it that hard to get them to display properly?

You Might Also Enjoy:
Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Us to the Brink (Richard L. Currier) - My Review
Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe) - My Review
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Webcomic by Zach Weinersmith (some NSFW humor)

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Princeless: Love Yourself (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Love Yourself
The Princeless series, Volume 9
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Emil Martin, Christine Hipp, Ainhoa Aramayo, Brett Grunig, and Kaitlin Jann
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Enemy armies are closing in, and time is running out. As her mother and sisters prepare for the coming battle, Princess Adrienne must rescue her last sister, Appalonia... but the Minotaur that holds her imprisoned is not like the other guardians. They were merely doing their jobs; this Minotaur is an agent of evil. And before she can face the beast, Adrienne must confront one last challenge: her father, King Ashe.
Meanwhile, Prince Devin and his companions come at last to the kingdom of the elves, seeking help for the exiled princess Kira - but some on the Elven high council would just as soon not see the royals returned to power.

REVIEW: The penultimate volume (from what I gather) gets the story back on track and ratcheting up nicely. Adrienne finally gets back to rescuing, and also has a long-delayed confrontation with her father - a fight where she proves just how much she's learned over her adventures. For some reason, I expected more of a conflict here; the resolution to this subplot seems a bit neat and easy, considering that Ashe has spent his entire life minimizing women and reducing his daughters to prizes for young princes to win. Appalonia has embraced the role of fairy tale princess in all of its cliches, and - like her other sisters - seems a little unsure of what to do with a sister who rejects that role and interferes with her "happily ever after" story. On Devin's end, Kira turns out to have one more secret to reveal, even as she and the others face down assassins and other obstacles among the elves. By the end, the last pieces are falling into place before the (presumed) finale. It's an enjoyable outing, with a return to some of the humor, though the series as a whole is more than ready to wrap at this point.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Robots vs Princesses Volume 1 (Todd Matthy) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review