Friday, July 30, 2010

Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race (Bob Fenster)

Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race
Bob Fenster
Barnes & Noble
Nonfiction, Sociology/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Ah, the great species Homo Sapiens. Whether it evolved over millions of years or was placed here intentionally for reasons unknown, the human race has dominated and devastated the planet as no other creature has. We have gone from scrounging up grubs and living in caves to nuking nachos and building skyscrapers, from chipping stones to splitting the atom... but are we really all that bright? Evidently not, to judge by innumerable examples historic and modern. The author uses many stories to show just how smart we aren't, followed by a discussion of our persistent lack of intelligence as a race and some hints on how to make oneself slightly less stupid than one's neighbors.

REVIEW: In the vein of Hey Idiot!: Chronicles of Human Stupidity (by Leland Gregory) and The Darwin Awards (by Wendy Northcut), Fenster reminds people that we have a long, long way to go if we really want to call ourselves the best brains on planet Earth. His many examples make the point abundantly clear, though their brevity sometimes takes them out of context, and more than one almost sounds like an urban legend with so little information given for corroboration. His discussion of why we're a dumb race and how intelligence is apparently not a great survival tactic starts to feel like a comedian hitting the same jokes on the same note over and over again, expecting the same laughs every time. The last section, offering suggestions for breaking oneself out of the rut of laziness and associated stupidity that many of us fall into in the day-to-day course of life, has a little more going for it, and earned it the half-star to put it marginally above merely Okay.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tongues of Serpents (Naomi Novik)

Tongues of Serpents
(The Temeraire series, Book 6)
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Will Laurence, former captain of the English Navy, and Temeraire, the Chinese Celestial dragon whose hatching whisked Laurence from the seas to the skies as an aviator, were once the pride and talk of England, heroes in the ongoing war against Napoleon. After a journey to China opened their eyes to what a nation can become when it befriends instead of enslaves its dragons, and after Will helped Temeraire stop England's planned genocide of the French dragons, the two were deemed agitators and branded traitors. Now shipped off to the New South Wales prison colony of Australia, on the pretense of helping start a dragon covert in the lawless land with three surplus eggs as foundation stock, it is hoped that they will avoid causing further trouble.
Trouble, unfortunately, finds them even before they arrive in the harbor. The colony governor Bligh - late of the HMS Bounty - has been deposed by his own army, and demands justice, or rather retribution. Since Laurence is no longer technically a captain, the Aerial Corps has sent a commissioned officer to take one of the hatchlings as the official commander of the fledgling covert: none other than Captain Rankin, an abusive aristocrat who already let one dragon die through gross negligence. There's also talk of smugglers using the colony as an outlet for goods circumventing the British monopoly on Oriental trade. Then one of the precious dragon eggs, on the verge of hatching, is stolen.
Temeraire and Will find themselves embarking on a new, dangerous adventure, one that will take them through the heart of an unexplored continent, along the razor's edge between honor and patriotism, and into dangers both political and corporeal.

REVIEW: Once again, Novik serves up an alternate-history adventure filled with action, intrigue, and insights into the complicated social, political, and moral fabric of society during the Napoleonic War era. Removed from England and all contact with their old covert-mates and friends (save for letters, for the most part), Temeraire gets to explore the bizarre and deadly world of colonial Australia, a land that hardly needs fantastication to boggle the imagination. It seems a world apart from the European conflict... but, of course, even in Australia, global troubles cannot be escaped forever, as Laurence and Temeraire discover to their dismay. My main complaint is that, at under 300 pages in length, the story felt short. Removing them from the immediate conflicts reshaping Europe (and Africa, and the Americas as we learn) makes for a marked change of pace, but it also makes the story seem more like a sidetrack or interlude than a tangible progression of the first five novels. Some of the characters and situations felt like setups that never quite panned out, and at times I had the vague impression that Novik was filling pages rather than plot. I know there's at least one, possibly two more Temeraire books planned, but I still thought a little more could've been done here. On the whole, though, I enjoyed this book, and fully intend to keep reading so long as Novik wants to keep writing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

The previous seven reviews are now archived on the Brightdreamer Books website.  I also rotated the website's Random Recommendations (which I'm trying to do every couple of months), and I'm almost done with my cross-linking project.

In other pointless news, I'm considering switching to a new rating system, introducing a half-star of some sort or changing over to a ten-point rating system or something like that.  On the plus side, I could give a more accurate rating, and might be less prone to err on the cautious side.  On the negative side, that would mean retrofitting 680-odd existing reviews.  As soon as I'm done cross-linking existing book reviews, I'll put some serious thought towards it.

Minor Update: I'm going to try a half-star modifier to see how it works out; this may involve adjusting existing ratings. I'm also going to slightly modify how the stars show up on the blog; it's a bit hard to read them at Normal size.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Animal-Speak (Ted Andrews)

Ted Andrews
Llewellyn Publications
Nonfiction, Spirituality/Magic
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Around the world, since the dawn of humanity, people have looked to animals to learn new behaviors and to understand themselves. Tribes and individuals adopted totemic leaders, aspiring to emulate the perceived qualities of a particular bird or beast. Even today, there are those who believe the animal kingdom can give us important messages about our lives. This book compiles numerous ancient beliefs with modern facts to outline what animals can mean on a spiritual level. It also describes various methods of divination and rituals to summon animal energies.

REVIEW: This is probably the best book on the market for describing the concept of power animals and animal spirit guides. Andrews uses a holistic approach, advocating book studies as well as gut intuition to interpret significant animal sightings or choose an animal energy to help one through a difficult patch. His descriptions are extensive, showing how not only the animal itself but its environment, predators, and prey factor into understanding its spiritual aspects. The list of animals included ranges around the world, from aardvarks to zebras and ants to elephants. Books like this not only provide interesting food for spiritual thought, but help immensely with my fantasy writing efforts; books this clearly written make magic systems much easier to understand, and spark great possibilities.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dragon and Slave (Timothy Zahn)

Dragon and Slave
(The Dragonback Adventures, Book 3)
Timothy Zahn
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Fourteen-year-old Jack Morgan was raised by master thief Uncle Virgil, one of the best con artists in the Orion's Arm section of the galaxy. Alone and on the run for a crime he didn't commit, with only his ship's AI computer "Uncle Virge" (programmed by the late man himself before his untimely demise), Jack got used to being on his own... until a chance meeting gave him a very unusual companion.
Draycos is a K'da poet-warrior, a dragonlike alien who requires a symbiotic host, after six hours as a three-dimensional independent being, the K'da must "rest" against another living creature as a two-dimensional living tattoo. His people and the Shontine have been allies and companions as symbiotes for centuries, but a dark enemy with an unstoppable weapon has been decimating them. The last surviving refugees are on their way to Orion's Arm. Draycos was with the advance scout party - a party which was attacked by traitors the moment they dropped out of hyperspace. Lone survivor of the space battle and shipwreck, he made a desperate gamble for life by taking Jack Morgan as his new host. Draycos offered the reluctant boy a deal: in return for helping clear his name, the poet-warrior wants to find out who tipped off his race's enemies to their plans... and stop them before the rest of the K'da/Shontine ships arrive.
It has been a few months now since that fateful meeting. Draycos paid off his end of the debt early on. Jack and he infiltrated a group of interstellar mercenaries searching for information on the traitors, but got out with little more than their own skins. Now, with the K'da/Shontine arrival looming, Jack has come up with a desperate plan. They know the traitors were using Brummga mercenaries and slaves, so the only place he can think to search next is the source. He'll sell himself into slavery for a day, hack into the computer system of the Brummga slavemasters, and break himself out. Easy as apple pie for a boy raised as Uncle Virgil's apprentice. But the plan falls apart almost from the beginning. Soon, Jack and Draycos find themselves in much deeper than they expected, learning firsthand the hopelessness and horrors of slavery. The question now isn't whether Jack will unearth any information on the traitors. It's whether he and Draycos can escape a lifetime in shackles.

REVIEW: I read the first two Dragonback Adventure books (reviewed on my book review website here), and found the third installment at a decent price. Like the first books, Jack's adventure moves at a steady clip, not bogging down in too much technobabble or setup. Still, there's time for some character growth and reflection. Under Draycos's honorable influence, Jack's own conscience - something the late Uncle Virgil and the virtual Uncle Virge have done their best to stymie - shows signs of life. Seeing slavery up close and personal suddenly makes it seem less like a cultural quirk (as he'd justified its existence previously) and more like a travesty that should be beneath even the brutish Brummga. Draycos, too, finds himself changed by the outlook and attitude of his host, learning the value of trickery and even developing a taste for vengeance. He undergoes a few other, less predictable changes as well, after being with a human host for several weeks, changes that indicate that a K'da's relationship with its host species isn't just skin deep as he'd always been taught. The other characters Jack encounters aren't especially original or deep, but they carry the action along decently; since it's mostly an action series, that's all I could really ask. The story wraps up with a fireworks-riddled climax (as I've come to expect from the series), and with sufficient plot advancement to carry Jack and company into the fourth book. I expect I'll track down that fourth book, and the two after it, when I open up a little room in my reading backlog.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Collinsfort Village (Joe Ekaitis)

Collinsfort Village
Joe Ekaitis
WindRiver Publishing
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: The small suburb of Collinsfort Village is about as normal an American town as you can get. On any given weekend, boys play basketball at the park, girls play hopscotch on the sidewalk... and, once a month, a griffin reads storybooks at the local library.
Unbeknownst to the people of Collinsfort Village, Errington Felzworth Griffin, better known as Griff, not only reads books, but writes them under a pseudonym - one that has spent more than its fair share of time on national bestseller lists. He lives in a modernly-appointed cave outside of town with Bear, a friendly grizzly who restores old cars for a living. The two are an accepted staple of town life, even if they draw a few stares from outsiders, and Griff is just as happy to avoid the rabid fans and packs of journalists who would descend on him if anyone learned he was the author of the nation's most popular fantasy books.
When a young friend, Dennis, stumbles onto a key to Griff's secret identity, the proud creature has to decide whether to fess up or find a way to keep the boy quiet. His decision sets in motion a chain of events leading from Colorado to California, through mishap and misunderstanding, to the doorstep of a dragon and the unearthing of a long-buried secret.

REVIEW: I have never struggled so hard to come up with an unbiased, remotely informative Description in my reviews. Why? The same reason this book only earned one and a half out of five stars in the ratings: nothing happens. Oh, the characters are pleasant enough, in a Fluffy Bunny story* kind of way. The fact that one of those characters is a grizzly and another a griffin hardly seems to matter (which is a shame, as it might've been interesting to explore a modern world that had to adapt to talking animals and mythical beings... a notion that, aside from Griff's trouble shopping for groceries, is pretty much ignored.) They wander around having vaguely heartwarming moments and obvious mishaps and unnatural, stilted conversations that were probably meant to be clever - the kind of benign encounters where one can't help but imagine dippy made-for-TV-movie music in the background. A dragon turns up about halfway through, bringing with him the only semblance of a plot I managed to find in the book (and a fragment of racial backstory that would've made a much more interesting tale), but the matter resolves easily enough, save some unnecessary theatrics and drawing-out by the people who resolve it. Otherwise, aside from a brief moment of tension concerning whether or not Griff would remember to flip the morning pancakes in time, there was no plot. No plot means I was at a loss to understand just why these characters existed, what the point of their aimless (non)adventures around town was, or why this book was written at all. (It would be wrong of me to suspect that the main reason the book was written was for vicarious fulfillment on the part of the author.) Maybe the plot fell out during shipping, or the fact that I read a used copy meant that someone else had already worn it out.
Bottom line: I read books to be entertained. This book did not entertain me. End of story, and end of review.

* Fluffy Bunny story - A story where every good character is equally nice, villains are obvious to everyone but the protagonists, plotlines are painfully transparent, morals are taught with glaring clarity, and anything resembling tension, conflict, or danger is strictly forbidden lest it traumatize oversensitive children (or rather their overprotective parents.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Artist's Photo Reference: Wildlife (Bart Rulon)

Artist's Photo Reference: Wildlife
Bart Rulon
North Light Books
Nonfiction, Art Reference
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Photographer Bart Rulon gathers reference images for many different animals, from squirrels and deer and bobcats to tigers and orcas and elephants. Also included are five painting demonstrations, showing how to use these images when composing original works, as well as quick tips for taking professional-quality reference pictures on your own.

I found this book in the clearance section at a local wild bird store, unbelievably. For the price, I can't say I'm too disappointed. Several of Rulon's photos are disappointingly dark, the form of the animal partially obscured or even cropped altogether. Still, it's interesting just how many different animals he manages to cover in this book. The painting demos, while interesting, are way beyond my meager expertise, so I can't comment on their usefulness yet. In the end, while I'd hoped for a little more, this one manages to retain a place on my admittedly-overcrowded art reference bookshelf.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Oddest of All (Bruce Coville)

Oddest of All
Bruce Coville
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Anthology
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Bruce Coville, prolific author and editor, compiles nine of his original short stories in this anthology.

REVIEW: Usually, I find Coville a fairly safe bet when it comes to anthologies. His previous collections (Oddly Enough and Odder than Ever) had a nice range of tales, from silly to scary to downright bizarre. Comparatively, this collection feels flat. The stories all read fairly fast, but only a handful linger in the memory for any length of time. More than one feels like an unfinished start to a book that never happened. Though not a terrible anthology by any means, I suppose I just expected a little more from Coville.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dragon Keeper (Robin Hobb)

Dragon Keeper
(The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Book 1)
Robin Hobb
Eos (HarperCollins)

Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The war between the Traders of Bingtown and the Chalcedean raiders is over, won in no small part through the Traders' pact with the dragon Tintaglia. In exchange for keeping the Chalcedean ships away from their shores and the Rain Wilds River - home of the buried Elderling cities and the secretive Rain Wilds Trader families who extract their treasures - the humans agreed to help Tintaglia usher in the next generation of dragons. The sea serpents (in truth larval dragons) finally fulfilled their ancestral urges, swimming up the acidic Rain Wilds River to build their cases on the banks and complete the metamorphosis into full-fledged dragons.
At last, the much-anticipated day of their emergence has come... but something has gone horribly wrong. What crawls from the cases are not, as Tintaglia was, adult dragons ready to fly and hunt. These hatchlings are deformed, deficient in body, ancestral memory, and - in some cases - mind. None are flightworthy, and many don't even survive long past emerging. Tintaglia herself seems to have given up hope, abandoning the hatchlings and the Rain Wilds River when she finds a new mate. Bound by their contract, the Traders continue feeding the dragonlings, but the costs are mounting and rewards minimal... and there are rumors of a very handsome prize from the ailing Chalcedean lord, seeking dragon flesh for its miraculous curative properties...
Incomplete ancestral memories tell the dragonlings of a great Elderling city which once lay further up the Rain Wilds River, in the days before the massive cataclysm that destroyed the Elderlings and turned the waters acidic. If there is to be any hope of them surviving, surely it is to be found among the remains of the civilization where dragons and humanlike Elderlings once lived in peaceable coexistence. But, malformed and unable to hunt, they cannot make the journey alone. They will need humans to travel with them, on what will likely be a one-way journey into a land so wild and dangerous not even the hardiest of Rain Wilds Traders have ever braved its depths and lived to tell the tale.

REVIEW: I loved Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, and am thrilled to see her continue to explore this part of her greater Farseer universe. (I wasn't as impressed with her Farseer Saga, and haven't read the follow-up Tawny Man trilogy; some reference is made here to events in those books, summing up enough so casual readers shouldn't be thrown.) Her dragons are wonderfully unique, even if they are often remarkably arrogant around puny little humans, and I enjoy her world of the mysterious Rain Wilds and the liveships. Unfortunately, this feels more like a piece of a book than a whole book in and of itself. It ends on a strangely incomplete note, as if it were randomly cropped from a much larger work. (This may well be what happened; the second book, Dragon Haven, is already out, a suspiciously fast turnaround time unless the two were written as one.) Roughly half of the book is merely a setup to the journey, establishing characters and rivalries and motivations, which seemed a little much given the size of the book itself; the journey was barely underway when I ran into the back cover. As I've come to expect, Hobb creates nicely-drawn characters, each one with strengths and flaws, and while I found one in particular irritatingly selfish, I'm reserving full judgment until the end of the series; one of the most irritating people in her Liveship books become one of the most powerful and intriguing by the end, after all, so something similar may be in the works here. On the whole, I liked what I read, but thus far I prefer the Liveship books.
(When I finished, I strongly considered ordering the second volume, but I have to keep my reading slate relatively clean for the impending arrival of the sixth Temeraire book.  Sorry, Hobb, but right now Novik's producing more consistent work...)

Forging Dragons (John Howe)

Forging Dragons
John Howe
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons have been an integral part of the human psyche and global myth cycles since the dawn of civilization. Even today, writers and artists seek to explore and understand the great beasts, the very embodiment of archetypical forces beyond reckoning. John Howe, a popular fantasy artist and illustrator, describes several dragon projects.

REVIEW: Much like his Fantasy Art Workshop, Howe doesn't use a step-by-step approach to recreate his paintings. Rather, he shows some of his initial sketches and the finished product, with notes on how certain designs evolved and certain effects were achieved. (He even points out flaws in his own work and things he felt could have been handled better.) He also talks about dragon legends from around the world, revealing a genuine interest in and appreciation of them beyond a mere paycheck. I still think he could use a little more variety in his dragon styles - they almost invariably have the same slick-scale sheen and dentition - but I can still appreciate how he does what he does with them.