Thursday, April 28, 2011

Made With 90% Recycled Art (Scott Meyer)

Made With 90% Recycled Art
(A Basic Instructions collection, Volume 2)
Scott Meyer
Dark Horse Books
Fiction, Humor/Comics
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: A brand-new book offers more instructions for life's everyday puzzlers, such as taking a nap, minding your manners, or making non-fans grateful for the sci-fi movies Hollywood makes today. Also included are a special run of one-panel comics produced for a newspaper's annual restaurant review special, and "Rocket Hat," the expanded story of Meyer's Commander Cody knock-off hero.

REVIEW: Another brilliant, insightful, and hilarious collection of comics. The extras were also enjoyable, though I'm just as glad the proposed "Rocket Hat" spinoff didn't go ahead; it works better the way Meyers handles the character, with occasional visits to check in on his continuing crusade against the highly incompetent Moon Men. Filling it out to a full, stand-alone story would just overstretch the premise.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Not to Write a Novel (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman)

How Not to Write a Novel
Howard Mittelmark and Sarah Newman
Nonfiction, Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Plotting, character development, writing style, world building... the shelves are stuffed to bursting with books on how to successfully write and pitch a book. But you didn't go to the trouble of writing a brilliant story just so other people could sully it with their eyetracks. No, there has to be a way to ensure that such a thing never happens. Mittlemark and Newman, both experienced in the publishing industry, offer advice for keeping your story out of the bookstores and in the recycling bin where it belongs.

REVIEW: A fun concept, written by two people who clearly have had it up to the scalp line with unpolished slush, it uses reverse psychology to repeat lessons I've seen in other writing books. Excerpts from made-up manuscripts drive home their lessons with all the subtlety of a supernova, covering everything from pointless plot deviations to sure-to-sink-it submission suggestions. Unfortunately, after a few chapters, the sarcastic humor and over-the-top excerpts start to feel stale, and even downright irritating. It might've been more fun and educational to dissect actual rejected manuscripts, sort of like the hilarious "slush pile" readings that used to be a staple of sci-fi/fantasy cons, though I suppose rights issues would've been a pain in the tail for an actual published work. In the end, I can't say I've learned much that I hadn't already figured out from other sources. There were just enough chuckles to earn it a spare half-star, but not enough to kick it over into solid Good territory.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dragon and Liberator (Timothy Zahn)

Dragon and Liberator
(The Dragonback Adventures, Book 6)
Timothy Zahn
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Time is nearly up. The boy thief Jack Morgan and Draycos, his symbiotic K'da poet-warrior companion, have scoured Orion's arm, scrambling for clues as to who attacked Draycos's ship with a devastating weapon - known only as the Death - that shouldn't even exist in this part of the galaxy... an enemy intent on wiping out the K'da species as soon as the last survivors of their decimated population emerge from hyperspace. The trail has led them to the boardroom of the Braxton Universis megacorporation, through the cold-blooded world of interstellar mercenaries, along a tangle of traitors and dead-ends, and ultimately to the feet of a trio of conspirators willing to endanger the entire population of the Orion's Arm, not just the K'da. Draycos and Jack may know who their enemy is, but they don't know where they will strike, let alone how to stop them. Destroying the Death will take every trick Jack knows, every drop of courage in Draycos's black blood... and, possibly, their own lives.

REVIEW: No book reviews for a month, then two in one day... let's just say I'm trying to make up for lost time..
An action-packed conclusion to a fast-paced series, Zahn brings all the tangled threads together into one grand finale. At times, those threads trip each other up, with enough double- and triple-crosses to make one's head spin, but for the most part the pace clicks along much as it has throughout the Dragonback series. What cost it a half-star in the ratings was the overlong wrap-up, some of which feels more like information dropped out of the sky by an author in a hurry than a genuine plot revelation. I also felt that some of the enemies were left too one-dimensional, even for a Young Adult title. In the end, I was reasonably satisfied.

The Rover (Mel Odom)

The Rover
Mel Odom
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The halfling Edgewick Lamplighter was proud of himself when, despite his father's objections to leaving the family trade, he was accepted at the Vault of All Known Knowledge as a librarian... but, years later, he's only advanced to Third Librarian. It's his insistence on reading meaningless nonsense and imaginary drivel, the Grandmagister insists, rather than devoting himself fully to histories and other tangible study paths, that holds him back. But Wick can't give up the excitement of those tales, thrills he never finds in his own sedate and cowardly life. At age seventy, nearly full-grown for a halfling, he should've matured beyond such childish impulses - and if he hasn't done so by now, he probably never will be First Librarian material.
Sent by the Grandmagister to deliver a letter, Wick's curiosity nearly gets him killed, as monsters unseen since the earth-shaking Cataclysm suddenly attack the peaceful, secluded land of Greydawn Moors. Before he knows it, he's living an adventure wilder than anything he's ever read... and facing dangers that threaten to destroy the Moors and the Vaults, dangers hearkening back to the terrible days of the Cataclysm itself.

REVIEW: So, a sheltered halfling finds himself reluctantly traveling far away from his peaceful home town, falling into the company of dwarves and humans, fighting goblins and plundering crypts and even venturing into an abandoned dwarven fastness wherein an evil dragon dwells... yes, there's more than a hint of Tolkien's works here. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other books I've read that were this clearly "inspired" by Middle Earth. The frequent, plot-stopping trips into the world's history speak of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the overall presentation and simpler story lean strongly toward The Hobbit - so much so that I suspect young adults (especially those who haven't read much fantasy) would enjoy it more than full-grown fantasy fans, despite how the book was packaged and marketed. They also would be less likely to wonder why a fantasy world (which, if it is related to Earth, has been so devastated by ancient magical wars as to render its countries and peoples unrecognizable) employs Earth-centric terms like "shanghaied" and "welshed," when there is no Shanghai or Wales for the terms to have originated from.
Like many pseudo-Bilbo protagonists, Wick starts out an insecure coward until his travels and worldly experience transform him into a proper hero, a journey not without its plot-convenient jumps forward and backwards. His companions as he moves through the phases of his adventure tend to blend together as loose sketches of characters, a few even having annoyingly similar names... not unlike Bilbo's dwarf companions on his way to Smaug's lair in The Hobbit. Wick's only unique trait, so far as Bilbo knock-offs go, is his devotion to reading and the Vaults; the rest of the world beyond the Moors, he quickly learns, has entirely forgotten the value of books, viewing reading and writing as the tools of untrustworthy wizards. This trait actually shines through at several spots, providing him with a purpose, though elsewhere it serves mainly to bog down the plot as Wick fills in unnecessarily in-depth histories of the various people, places, and things he encounters... or is reminded of, or otherwise decides to fill page count by pondering at length. The ending leaves Wick's adventures wide open for a sequel - meaning that several of the major story arcs thrown out during the book are left hanging at the end, limp loose ends that wind up feeling like red herrings. For all of its flaws, though, I still managed to keep turning pages. Things kept happening - at least, between history lessons - and I almost found myself enjoying the blatant Tolkienesque "inspirations" Odom employed. I might have given the thing another half-star (having paid only a buck for the book to begin with, my expectations weren't exactly sky-high) but Odom's writing style bugged me too much; the man seriously needed a sharper-eyed editor, or at least a competent proofreader, to sort out overused phrases, misplaced italics, and other subtle yet irritating problems that had me beating back my inner editor with a baseball bat. (The Vault of All Known Knowledge is just one example of the continual redundancies that plague the narrative.)
Ultimately, if you're a fan of The Hobbit and "halflings" (hobbit stand-ins), and if you aren't looking for a highly original story, you'll probably enjoy The Rover.  If you're looking for something more unique or sophisticated, I'd suggest that you look elsewhere.