Saturday, December 31, 2011

December Site Update, Reviews Archived

So long, 2011!

I've archived and cross-linked the previous nine reviews at the main Brightdreamer Books website. I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations again.

Enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Dragon Book (Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors)

The Dragon Book
Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors
Fiction, Anthology/Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Fierce, proud, magical, majestic... Few fantastic creatures have infiltrated the human imagination like the dragon. This short story collection contains 19 tales from some of the top names in fantasy and science fiction literature today.

REVIEW: After finishing this book, I started wondering if, perhaps, my problem with anthologies isn't with the stories, but with me. Maybe I don't understand what a short story is. I always thought that a short story was a condensed tale, either taking place in a very short time or simply distilled into its purest form, without the subplots or scenery or false starts or deadweight characters that populate longer works. After reading this collection, each one written by a best-selling author who presumably knows more about writing and stories than I could begin to comprehend, I've been forced to conclude that I was mistaken. Apparently, most short stories are about unlikable characters doing unlikable and uninteresting things which only rarely advance whatever passes for a plot, only to end with either a non-event or an out-of-the-blue twist that feels like it was spliced in from another work of fiction. "Short" also apparently can be expanded to cover forty or more pages worth of this aforementioned meandering prose.
Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I have notoriously bad luck with short stories; Bruce Coville, who seems to rely more on story integrity than celebrity name-dropping, seems to be the only safe bet, in my experience. But I've read and enjoyed books by several authors included here, such as Naomi "Temeraire" Novik, Jonathan "Bartimaeus" Stroud, and Tad "Shadowmarch" Williams. (It was also at Half Price Books for a very good price.) So, I figured I'd make an exception to my standard No-Anthologies-Edited-By-Anyone-But-Bruce-Coville rule. Sadly, the stories by two of my favorite authors, had I read them alone, would've turned me off of their larger, better books completely: Williams gets too clever for his own good with malapropisms and other English language maulings in "A Stark and Wormy Knight," while Novik's "Vici" - about the beginning of the dragon-human bonding that forms the heart of her alternate-universe series - lacks the character depth and sense of historic realism that I so love about the Temeraire books. Out of the whole book, I only enjoyed maybe three or four of the stories (including the one submitted by Bruce Coville.) The rest varied between pointless and boring, lacking sympathetic characters or situations I gave a rat's tail about, and often relegating the titular dragons to bit parts. Once again, this seems to be a case of editors (or, I suppose, publishers) collecting Big Names to drop rather than good stories. Lesson learned the hard way... again...

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

The Art of War
Sun Tzu
Pax Librorum
Nonfiction, History/War
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since before the dawn of history, war has been an integral part of mankind. A wise general, however, does not simply rely on tribal chaos or pure chance to dictate the outcome of a battle. Based on the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles, this edition of the classic Chinese text offers timeless advice on the subject of war.
(NOTE: The Amazon link is not the exact version reviewed.)

REVIEW: Though the identity - and even the existence - of Sun Tzu is a matter of scholarly debate, the book attributed to him offers basic, sound advice on the matter of warfare and troop movements for rulers, generals, or would-be writers of fictional rulers and generals. While the weaponry and technology of warfare have advanced considerably since this was penned, the basic logistics and strategy remain much as they were when Sun Tzu lived (if he, indeed, lived at all.) I might have hoped for a little more depth, but on the whole I can't complain... especially as it was a free, public domain download for my Kindle.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: Embers (Abigail Hilton)

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: Embers
(The Guild of the Cowry Catchers series, Book 1)
Abigail Hilton
Abigail Hilton Books
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The myriad islands of Wefrivain, populated by all manner of beasts, talking animals, and animal-human hybrid shelts, have long been under the sway of the Priestess of the wyvern gods. Grishnards, half-griffin shelts, dominate their lesser kindred in her name, even exercising their blood right to enslave and consume hoofed fauns. Between the Temple Sea Watch on the waters and the Police on land, the Priestess intimidates and controls all within her domain... but, keen as the eyes and ears of the wyverns may be, sharp and deadly as their fangs, they cannot quash all whispers of rebellion.
Gerard was once in line for the throne of the Wefrivain kingdom of Holovarus, until he defied the temple and his father by taking to wife the low-born but gifted court minstrel. He finds himself in the Temple Sea Watch, where he catches the eye of the Priestess herself with his heroism. She promotes him to captain of her dreaded Police... a promotion that might prove to be a death sentence. Most captains don't last out a year, and the Police are in a sorry state, picked off by the Rebellion faster than they can be replaced, let alone trained. Gerard grimly sets himself on the trail of Gwain, the near-legendary leader of the Rebellion... only to find that trail leading him right back to the Temple Sea Watch and the domain of Admiral Silveo. A rare foxling in the grishnard ranks, the thoroughly unpleasant little shelt hasn't made himself any friends in his vicious climb up the ranks. Gerard himself has crossed paths with Silveo before, and nearly lost his life. Silveo harbors no love for grishnards and even less for the former princeling Gerard. The thought of having to work with each other knots both their tails no end. But, as the Priestess demands, they must obey.
Assuming one of them doesn't wind up dead along the way...

REVIEW: Some time ago, I saw a humorous little graphic on the Internet, a graph showing how the likelihood of a book being good dropped in increasing proportion to the number of words invented by the author. Hilton's story falls on the wrong side of that line. Don't get me wrong - she has obviously taken her time to craft her complex world, with three moons and numerous sapient species and shifting alliances and rivalries and all. She even starts her chapters with information about said world, purportedly written by the leader of the Rebellion - an amateur trick, but one that provided clues to the world's make-up that the biased viewpoints of the protagonists couldn't provide. I cannot fault her for stinting on the world-building, here. But the story she attaches to that world suffers, albeit not solely because of the many made-up words that the reader must learn to keep up. The cult of the Priestess and the pseudo-god wyverns, the cruel dominion of the grishnards over every other sapient species, sets up an Establishment so corrupt and so thoroughly unredeemable that I couldn't sympathize much with any character, protagonist or otherwise, who in any way supported its continued existence. Yet, somehow, out of this stew of injustice comes Gerard, an almost laughably naive hero who inexplicably has a heart of gold, even rejecting the common practice of slavery despite having obviously been raised to consider it normal and, indeed, a privilege of his race. His wife Thessalyn, the blind singer whose gifts border on magical, is another anachronism in this mean-spirited world, so lovely and so innocent (yet so capable of melting even the hardest and most wounded of hearts with her voice) that she's downright ridiculous. As Gerard squirms his way through his unpleasant job of torturing innocents and oppressing the masses, he finds himself surrounded by characters who revel in their power and their sadism. The Rebellion itself remains a nebulous concept throughout the book, only briefly gaining a human (or rather a shelt) face that quickly dissolves into the unreal again... a shame, as I fully sympathized with their plight, while I barely could stand the so-called protagonists' point of view. This e-book edition features several illustrations, which had the unfortunate effect of making the shelts look like cartoons rather than characters. Their boots inexplicably lace up to their true ankles, making them look like they're walking around on tiptoe in clown shoes, and the one illustration of Gerard's companion griffin shows a significant lack of knowledge of feline or avian anatomy. (Combine the sub-par artwork with misused words - "compliment" instead of "complement," "censor" instead of "censer" - and the whole thing took on an amateur sheen.) Then, after all the unpleasantness, it ends on something just shy of a cliffhanger, but equally unsatisfying.
Much as I could appreciate the painstaking lengths Hilton went to in constructing the world of Wefrivian, I just could not enjoy my visit to her world. I blame the company I was forced to keep during my journey... and an itinerary that never took me where I most wanted to go.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Just My Type (Simon Garfield)

Just My Type
Simon Garfield
Gotham Books
Nonfiction, Art/Typography
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century, letters took on a new form, one that relied not on a scribe's quill but on a tooled stamp. These new alphabets, these fonts, soon broke away from their hand-written progenitors, veering off in directions both simplistic and complex, understated and overpowering. Today, anyone with a computer and a word processor can list a dozen off the top of their head - Times New Roman, Arial, Comic Sans and more - and can drop them into any given document or web page without knowing the first thing about how they were designed, or by whom, or what message they're conveying to the world with their choice of font. Simon Garfield discusses the past, present, and future of fonts, a journey of over five centuries that winds through cultural upheavals, political minefields, designer eccentricities, and more.

REVIEW: As my bulging Windows Fonts folder attests, I have an armchair interest in fonts. This book, naturally, seemed to appeal to that interest. Garfield presents some interesting information on typefaces, both their use and impact and the people who create them. Like many graphic artists, font designers don't often get the recognition that their work deserves; they still struggle to get any sort of copy protection to prevent or even discourage outright piracy of their efforts. Unfortunately, he threw me a few times by wading too deep into "shop talk," leaning on industry terminology that I, as a layperson, didn't understand. (He offers a brief introduction to the history of movable type, describing a few terms, but not all of them.) Chronologically, the chapters wander all over the 500-odd-year-history of printing, often with little cause-and-effect in sequencing. Still, he offers some interesting and amusing anecdotes, discussing the peculiar paradox of font design: the "best" fonts are invisible, conveying the information they contain without delay or confusion, yet within that invisibility lurk a thousand and more ways to express (or repress) creativity. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at my pull-down Font menu in Word the same way again...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Lost World
(The Professor Challenger series, Book 1)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Adventure/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Malone, a hapless reporter, has been - yet again - spurned by his love Gladys, who yearns for a hero to hitch her wagon to, that she may bask in his reflected glory. For the sake of her hand, he heads to his editor and requests the most dangerous, most challenging assignment on the books... little realizing how his life is about to change.
Professor Challenger, recently returned from South America, shocked England with his claims of finding prehistoric monsters on a remote plateau in the Amazon Basin. Without sufficient proof, he is quickly labeled a liar and a braggart - slanderous allegations that lead the hot-blooded man to blows with his detractors, not to mention the few reporters brave enough to approach him. Into the lion's den Malone marches. Unexpectedly, he comes away convinced of the professor's claims... and, when a return expedition is proposed, to prove or disprove Challenger's tale once and for all, Malone finds himself volunteering.
Hostile natives, poisonous snakes, uncharted swamps, impassable cliffs... all before even reaching the plateau, where even greater dangers await the expedition. The love of Gladys may well be the death of him.

REVIEW: One of the landmark "lost world" adventure tales, Doyle's story weathers the years well. Surrounded by singular characters and moving at a brisk pace, The Lost World takes readers into the heart of the Amazon, to a world that, even today, remains a scientific enigma... if a significantly more threatened enigma than it was in the author's day. Naturally, the rumors of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties prove only too true - and, like many such relics, they're all too eager to snack on these new, pale-skinned little treats that so obligingly wander into their domain. By today's standards, of course, Doyle's dinosaurs seem dated, but they nonetheless retain a certain sense-of-wonder fascination, as does his "lost world." I also wouldn't vouch for the scientific accuracy or plausibility of Malone's adventures, but this is an adventure yarn, not a science journal; it's no coincidence that the story is viewed through the eyes of the layman Malone rather than Challenger or the other members of the expedition. Touches of humor underlay the action, with the larger-than-life characters clashing even amid mortal danger. It earned an extra half-star by hooking me into staying up late to finish reading it. (I also just finished reading an exceptionally disappointing book, which I admit may skew my perceptions slightly.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria (Rahma Krambo)

Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria
Rahma Krambo
Reflected Light Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: The housecat Marco loved snuggling with his owner, Lucy, while she told him wonderful stories... but, until he watched the light of the full moon fall upon the strangely-marked sheets of paper, he never realized where those stories came from. After dark, when Lucy and her grandmother sleep, Marco delights in using his new-found gift of reading, becoming the hero of a thousand adventures. Then came the terrible night of the screaming red lights, when the men with the squeaky-wheeled bed took away Grandmother and Lucy, leaving Marco alone in an empty house. Screwing up his courage, he steps out into the world... and into his own story.
His paws lead him to the Angel Springs library, where more books than he could ever have imagined existed wait on the shelves for his perusal. But Cicero, the aging library cat, thinks Marco may be up to a greater challenge. For, deep within the library, a singular Book lies hidden, a Book that once resided in the lost library of Alexandria. Since those days, Guardian cats have kept close watch, lest its unimaginable power fall into the wrong hands. Little do either of them realize that, even as Cicero begins Marco's training, a terrible enemy aided by dark forces plots to steal the mystical Book.
For all the books he's read, Marco never realized that being a hero could get you killed...

REVIEW: This is a book of contradictions and cliches. Marco, a cat who can follow the elder-day English of The Three Musketeers and - it is implied - has read his way through a good portion of the library, nevertheless is confused by basic human concepts such as ambulances. He's even startled to learn that humans cannot see in the dark... despite the fact that, in all his reading, it seems inconceivable that he's never encountered a scene where a human hero found themselves in danger in a dark place because their eyesight failed them. But, then, Marco seems blissfully unaware that he is a human, in all but the fur on his face; the cats in this book don't behave at all like cats, but rather simplified cartoon sketches of people in cat skins. (To be fair, the people also didn't behave like real people, but rather cardboard-thin caricatures that happened to be person-shaped.)
During his adventures, Marco meets other cats who can read, all of whom can be summed up in the simplest of terms (the vain one, the mother cat, the one-eyed fighter, etc.) They mostly exist so Marco has a "posse" to call on for help when the library is threatened. No, wait - the "Dead Cats Society" (I'm sure Krambo thought she was being extra-kitty-clever with that name) mainly deals with an annoying subplot about a gang of raccoons. We readers know they're bad because they're illiterate, they talk like lower-class street toughs out of a bad movie, and they're raccoons... because, you know, in a world where some cats are good and some are bad, obviously all raccoons are incapable of learning and beyond redemption. There's also a friendly, supposedly funny ferret named (wait for it) Polo, who is no more a ferret than Marco is a cat; not only is it implied that Polo is a free-roaming ferret, when domestic ferrets have a notoriously difficult time surviving on their own, but his only defensive maneuver seems to be giving up and/or fainting - even though I know, from personal experience, that a hacked-off ferret is more than capable of leaving a mark that even an illiterate raccoon would feel.
But this book is about more than the characters. It's about Magic, about the grand legacy of the Guardian cats. That should be interesting, shouldn't it? No, sadly it isn't. Cicero takes after the Majicou of Gabriel King's The Wild Road, an aging feline guardian of Great Powers who recruits a (block-headed) young apprentice and subsequently teaches them next to nothing about the actual powers and responsibilities of the job before foisting the whole thing onto their green shoulders. What is learned... it just doesn't click. The powers of the mystical Book are too broad, with no real cost to the caster or the Universe. (The Book's origins - presumably dropped from Heaven itself into Man's world, even though Man is so incompetent and greedy that it falls to cats to keep it safe from their clutches - just had me rolling my eyes.) Meanwhile, a glaring Message writes itself across the pages in 10-story neon letters, about how literacy is Good, censorship and book-burning are Bad, and with the power of reading comes the responsibility of properly cultivating the ideas sparked by books. Its light almost - but not quite - blinded me to other errors in plotting and consistency. I even discovered what had to be an author's note about what was supposed to happen in the next scene, a clear indication that this book never received the editing or proofreading it needed before being presented to the general public.
I like cats. I like reading. I like magic. But this book... this book, I did not like.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In all of England, no man is as cold-hearted and miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge. Cynical, friendless, abusive of his good-hearted clerk, he broods on his fortunes like a latter-day dragon. Not even the bells of Christmas can soften his heart of ice... until the night he receives an unwelcome visit from an old business partner - a man who died seven years ago. Bob Marley was cut of the same selfish, greedy cloth as Scrooge - and, it seems, the latter may share the former's eternal torment in the afterlife. Ebenezer's only chance at salvation lies with three ghostly visitors, who seek to teach him the errors of his ways and the true meaning of Christmas.

REVIEW: Not a holiday season passes without half a hundred remakes, homages, and other blatant knock-offs of Dickens's original tale, so I figured I ought to try reading the original. Though somewhat wordy (as one might expect of an author for whom verbosity was money), it holds up reasonably well today. No real reason is given for Scrooge's youthful turn from generosity to selfishness - and, given how many decades of his life he has dedicated to cultivating such miserly tendencies, he reverts to a feeling and caring human being a little too easily. Since it's basically a dressed-up fable, though, I don't suppose I ought to be too critical. (Fable or not, Tiny Tim makes a tooth-rottingly saccharine plot device.) While a little sappy for my personal tastes, I can certainly see why this tale remains a holiday classic.