Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December Site Update

The final site update of the year, on the final day of the year. (Personally, I'm counting the minutes until 2013 finally leaves for good...)

The previous 6 reviews have been cross-linked and archived on the main site.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey)

Riders of the Purple Sage
Zane Grey
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Jane Withersteen's father left her a legacy of wealth and respect in 1870's Cottonwoods, a Mormon settlement in the sage-swept deserts of Utah... but now, having befriended the outsider Gentiles and defied church elders by showing affection for the wrong man, she stands on the brink of ruin. The last person she ever thought she'd consider an ally was the legendary Mormon-killer Lassiter, yet when her Gentile friend Bern Venters is threatened by elder Tull, only Lassiter's arrival spares him. As cattle rustlers, church-led conspiracies, and other threats close in on the Withersteen estate, Jane finds herself more and more reliant on the mysterious man, even as she learns the truth behind his violent and vengeful reputation.

REVIEW: This is a book where setting outshines both story and characters by orders of magnitude. The wild deserts and rough canyon country glow on the page, painted bright and bold. Even the tension of the frontier world, with the threat of stampedes and rustlers and religious tensions, takes on a stark and tangible nature. The characters, by comparison, come across as flattened cartoons, their speech and moods melodramatic almost to the point of comedy. The women are universally innocent and soft and in need of masculine protection, while the men are grizzled soldiers in the bloody game of frontier life... even the good guys, who nonetheless crave the salvation of a lady's touch. Even as they wrestled with their own imperfections, they did so in such grandiose manners that it was almost laughable. The worst offender by far was Jane Withersteen, who clings to blind faith long past the point of sympathy or sense simply to prolong her inner angst. Thanks in no small part to her and the rest of the over-the-top cast, the story often stretches credulity, with peculiar meetings and withheld information and impossible coincidences, not to mention a tendency to relay important encounters secondhand to the readers. The whole thing takes on a soap opera sheen at the climax. I enjoyed some of the descriptions, and a few of the action sequences had real tension, but overall I found myself too annoyed by the characters.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Killing Dirty (Peter Clark) - My Review
A Pocket Full of Spells (Ash Stirling) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, December 20, 2013

This Is Not My Hat (Jon Klassen)

This Is Not My Hat
Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A little fish steals a little hat from a fish who was far too big to wear it.

REVIEW: Remind me never to steal a hat from Jon Klassen... As in I Want My Hat Back (reviewed previously), thieves do not fare well in Klassen's world. The illustrations are simple, telling more of the story than the text. It's a very quick read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Catkin (Antonia Barber) - My Review
I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen) - My Review
Fairy Dreams (Carol McLean-Carr) - My Review

Friday, December 13, 2013

Magical Roads (Kia Zi Shiru)

Magical Roads
Kia Zi Shiru
5 Times Chaos
Fiction, YA Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A boy prepares to leave the safety of mother and home, a girl pushes boundaries without understanding the consequences, a young man reflects on his first family hunting trip, a traditional family vacation takes on deeper meaning... the author shares four short stories in this collection. This title also includes a preview chapter from a longer book.

REVIEW: Yes, I'm on a bit of a short story kick. The holidays are busy, and with so many projects competing for attention, they fit my fragmented concentration better than longer works right now. That said, this isn't a bad little collection, though the author seems to be trying a little too hard for "surprise" twist endings - which is odd, given how heavy-handed the teen sex and pregnancy metaphor was in the tale Hatchling. Two of the stories also seemed to end just before the story proper actually started. As for the preview, I confess I didn't finish reading it, so I cannot comment except to say that I didn't feel, from the offered synopsis, that it would be my cup of cocoa. (I also don't like being force-fed a sales pitch.) I've definitely read worse, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Strange Happenings (Avi) - My Review
The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (C. S. Forster) - My Review
Here, There be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dragonfold (Tyrean Martinson)

Tyrean Martinson
Wings of Light
Fiction, YA Collection/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A girl with a strange gift for origami, a one-armed soldier finds a reason to live, a young woman is sold into an interstellar army... these and other tales and poems unfold in this collection.

REVIEW: This might have merited three or three and a half stars, but a few things held it down. First off, many of the stories felt incomplete. Some were actually excerpts from longer works - making this more of a sales pitch than a story collection - but even the stand-alones often left me wishing for closure of some sort, setting up larger arcs or conflicts and simply leaving them hang. The religious bias, even in alternate worlds (which would have no knowledge of the Christian God, let alone Christian songs), grew a little thick now and again, as well. I also found myself nonplussed with many of Martinson's poems. What was here, for the most part, read smoothly, without glaring editing errors or jumbled grammar or other issues. I liked one or two stories, and parts of a few others. I just felt annoyed with the overall lack of resolution, not to mention the excerpt-heavy selection. (If I'd wanted to read incomplete previews, I would've used the "Look Inside!" option on Amazon.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fifty-One Tales (Lord Dunsany) - My Review
Dragon Poems for Smiletrain.org 2011 (M. R. Mathias) - My Review
The Book of Enchantments (Patricia Wrede) - My Review

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Get a Billion Dollar Idea (Robin Sacredfire)

How to Get a Billion Dollar Idea
Robin Sacredfire
Nonfiction, Self-Help
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: You see it all the time: someone comes up with a simple idea, and succeeds beyond their wildest dreams. Yet it never seems to happen for you. How can you be the next success story?

REVIEW: Yes, it was free when I downloaded it. No, I wouldn't pay money for what I read. Baffling grammar and circular writing aside, this is just more of the same positive manifestation stuff that everyone and their brother's already selling. Granted, Sacredfire isn't charging through the nose for seminars or workshops, but that doesn't excuse this book for never actually answering its title question, let alone providing anything like a plan for evaluating ideas and pursuing them. Mostly, it tells readers that they simply aren't dreaming hard enough, and thus they have only themselves to blame if they're not rich already.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Simple But Effective Strategies to Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review

Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2012 Edition (Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors)

Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2012 Edition
Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors
Fiction, Anthology/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A painter of magic renders her embittered mentor's final portrait, an expectant mother uses breakthrough technology to visit her own unhappy childhood, alien bounty hunters seek a human criminal hiding among primitives, Doc Holliday escorts an unusual group to an otherworldly derelict outside of Tombstone... this anthology features these and more stories written by some of Tor's top names.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This freebie download is clearly intended as an enticement to explore the authors' works. Unfortunately, novelists don't always make the best short story authors. Many of these stories ramble on (and on), focusing on unpleasant characters in depressing situations who often do unlikeable things. I liked a few of the ideas, but only one or two of these short stories worked for me. The rest were quickly forgotten.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
The Dragon Book (Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors) - My Review
Flights of Fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, editor) - My Review

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Site Update

The previous seven reviews are now archived and cross-linked at Brightdreamer Books.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (Fred White)

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
Fred White
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: C. S. Lewis envisions a faun carrying packages through the snowy woods, and a classic series is born. Tolkien writes an irreverent sentence about a "hobbit," and begins his journey to Middle Earth. Ideas are all around us, but most pass unnoticed, and many of those we do see never seem to come to much. How does one recognize an idea's potential, and how can it be cultivated into successful articles, essays, or stories? Teacher and author Fred White offers tips and exercises for writers on idea generation and story planning.

REVIEW: I had a mixed reaction as I read this book. On one hand, White offers some good advice on brainstorming and crystallizing even the most nebulous sparks of inspiration. On the other, he seems almost obsessive about preparation work; not a single phase of the process can be accomplished without numerous worksheets and lists and research phases and expert interviews. I suspect that the professor in him shows here, as writing takes on the semblance of a class assignment, with clearly-defined progress points and worksheets for grading. While I understand the value of preparation, at some point the story itself must be written, and there seems little room for that here. There's also a fine line between preparation and organized procrastination; obsessively filling out lists and worksheets and exhaustively researching every little nuance before even writing the first draft can very easily cross that line. He mentions that some authors do fine with a more organic approach, but seems to fear spontaneous creativity himself, though he never quite comes out and says it. Then White goes on to suggest that authors should participate in National Novel Writing Month, possibly the epitome of spontaneous writing, which actively encourages exploring fresh ideas and going with the flow. The two approaches to writing do not seem compatible.
I learned some things here, and several of White's exercises are useful. His methods just seem stifling to me.

You Might Also Enjoy:
No Plot? No Problem! (Chris Baty) - My Review
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass) - My Review
A Whack on the Side of the Head (Roger Van Oech) - My Review

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew)

The Time Keeper
(The Timeways trilogy, Book 1)
Barbara Bartholomew
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Jeanette and her younger brother, Neil, have been struggling to adapt to a changing life. After their parents divorced, they stayed with their father in Dallas - which wasn't so bad, until he brought home his new wife (who insists Jean should be wearing dresses) and her perfect, pretty daughter (who stole the boy Jean's always had a crush on, and half the other boys at school besides.) Now her best friend Tina's nagging her about the old Lansden House, a derelict hotel slated for demolition. Surely an architect like her father has some pull with the city to save the place! Jean just can't care about old things or old buildings. Nothing can bring back the past, or change it.
Exploring the old hotel, Neil and Jean discover a hidden doorway to a cavern with six strange glowing stones, so well hidden that not even the demolition company knows about it. When Neil runs away from home, Jean follows him there... and watches him step on the stones and vanish into thin air! Jean follows, and finds herself in frontier Texas. Only something's not quite right - the real frontier never had unicorns, nor did it have two moons in an unfamiliar night sky. Somehow, Neil and Jean have fallen into another world - and their efforts to return home only get them more lost, in a future where time travel is the ultimate crime. All the while, the clock ticks down to the demolition of the Lansden House... and the destruction of their only chance to return to when and where they belong.

REVIEW: A Kindle reprint of an older title, The Time Keeper offers adventure, danger, and conflicted characters struggling to figure things out before it's too late. In other words, it's everything a good young adult book should be. Neil gets a little annoying now and again, though since Jean's the hero it's appropriate for the kid brother to be irritating. She makes a decent protagonist, figuring things out fairly well on her own without having to be repeatedly bashed over the head with clues. Despite having two boys with her, Jean's the one who has to get them out of trouble, a refreshing change from some stories (even adult ones.) Actually, most of the characters eventually pulled their own weight, even the minor ones. It starts a little slow, but picks up nicely, clipping along to an ending that offered more conclusion than I expected, while still leading into future books. I lost an entire afternoon to it, meaning to put the Kindle down after just one more chapter. Considering that it was first published in the 1980's, it holds up pretty well. Hopefully, the next two books are also slated for eBook re-release, or I'll have to try my luck with the library.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Found (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review
Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglima) - My Review
The Watchers series (Peter Lerangis) - My Review

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Self Discipline NOW (William Wyatt)

Self Discipline NOW
William Wyatt
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Self-Help
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Most people have dreams or goals, but many fail to achieve them. Developing self-discipline is necessary for success. Learn 10 proven steps that will transform your life in this eBook.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I wasn't expecting much when I downloaded this short title as a freebie, but even then I was disappointed. Most of it restates the obvious, and the rest fails to provide what the description promises. It also was likely outsourced to a non-English speaker; the words are recognizable, but the grammar is often confusing and occasionally downright impenetrable. Even as a freebie, it wasn't worth the cost.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mental FOCUS Training Secrets (Nathan Cadbury) - My Review
Simple But Effective Strategies to Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review
The Motivation Myth (Mattison Grey and Jonathan Manske) - My Review

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dracula (Bram Stoker)

Bram Stoker
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Englishman Jonathan Harker traveled to Transylvania to meet a client, who had recently purchased property in London. It was a prestigious opportunity for a young solicitor like himself, an auspicious sign for his career and his impending marriage to the lovely Mina. But, deep in the Carpathian mountains, he instead discovers a terror beyond any Christian imagination... a terror bound for his own homeland, against which he stands powerless.

REVIEW: Considered the seminal vampire novel, Dracula creates one of the most terrifying and powerful agents of evil in English literature... and almost smothers him it a stifling, plodding plot that can't advance one step without numerous speeches and brooding internal monologues. Not a single character in this book can do anything without weaving a web of words to explain themselves, often repeating information that was just relayed in the previous chapter. Despite being educated and intelligent people (even the women), they take a long time figuring out that evil is afoot... not helped by Professor Van Helsing, the expert, who deliberately withholds information even as he demands assistance in seemingly insane tasks. (When he asks a man to help him desecrate the corpse of a woman he once proposed marriage to, and still won't explain himself, I actually groaned out loud.) Even when everyone's up to speed on vampires, they continue to ignore obvious signs of diabolical influences within their circle. These people are too smart to be this stupid, even to further the plot.
Through the haze of words and repetition, Stoker creates some memorable mental images amid an evocative, gloomy atmosphere. Dracula makes a particularly scary monster, elusive and cunning and resourceful, yet capable of a disarming charisma that lulls victims into his power. I was surprised to find some vampiric traits that I'd taken to be more modern - the sensuality, for instance - already present in this 1897 book. Other abilities and limitations seemed more nebulous, if partially explained by Dracula's own ignorance; one of the more terrifying aspects of the character was how he was still learning and adapting after centuries of undeath. It made him all the more dangerous and unpredictable, even to supposed experts like Van Helsing. If Mina was ultimately more of a symbol of divine perfection than a character, and if the superiority of white Christians grew nauseating by the end, well, I suppose those are just signs of the times in which the story was written.
In the end, I managed to come out with an Okay rating. While Dracula is an iconic monster, the wordy repetition and slow, jerky storyline held it back.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelley Anderson) - My Review
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fifty-One Tales (Lord Dunsany)

Fifty-One Tales
Lord Dunsany
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The call of the Muses haunts a man, a pair of strangers ask the way to Stonehenge, a man entertains an invisible dinner guest, a worker's ghost returns to visit a poet who witnessed his death, the true story of the Tortoise and the Hare... these and more vignettes play out in a collection of short stories by the famed Irish author Lord Dunsany.

REVIEW: With a poetic voice that doesn't strive to alienate (unlike some older works I've read), Dunsany's tales are more like vignettes than short stories, brief glimpses of imagery and emotion that suggest larger tales. Many are only one page long, so even the most confusing story never overstays its welcome. Not all of them made sense, but the dreamlike nature and hints of wit carried these stories along. There are common themes running through many of them, which occasionally grew tedious, but I've read far worse, with far less subtle Messages. After clawing through E. M. Forster's dense prose, I gave Dunsany the benefit of the doubt with a solid Good rating. (At the very least, unlike Forster, I can see myself tackling more of Dunsany's works in the future.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Odds are Good (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Anything Box (Zenna Henderson) - My Review

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dracopedia: The Great Dragons (William O'Connor)

Dracopedia: The Great Dragons
William O'Connor
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since prehistory, the great dragons of the world have inspired fear and awe in humans. Today's populations may be threatened by poaching, pollution, and habitat destruction, but they still endure among us. From the white Icelandic dragons to the critically endangered gray Ligurians of the Mediterranean, from the misty coasts of the Pacific Northwest to the polluted lakes and rivers of mainland China, conservationists struggle to ensure that the world's great dragons will be with us for generations to come. Famed artist William O'Connor and his intrepid assistant, Conseil, set out on a trek around the world to observe and sketch all eight surviving species in their natural habitats.

REVIEW: Much like the first Dracopedia, O'Connor blends a vivid imagination with artistic skills, creating eight wonderfully realized species of dragon while offering artistic instruction. He focuses on digital media, with many tips on using Photoshop and related software for maximum effect - and how to avoid the sterile, "plastic" look of digital art; his final images look like true traditional paintings, demonstrating the versatility and power of modern media in the hands of an experienced artist. The art instruction often takes a back seat to O'Connor's invented dragons, though, and his accompanying art walkthroughs gloss over several steps. This is not a book for rank beginners, in other words, but for artists with some basic knowledge and skill to work with. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Even non-artistic dracophiles should be able to appreciate this book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
Dracopedia (William O'Connor) - My Review
DragonArt (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer) - My Review

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chester (Mélanie Watt)

Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, a little mouse lived in the country - at least, until the author's cat Chester got his paws on the story. It's writer versus pet in the battle for creative control.

REVIEW: Anyone who has ever tried to do anything around a pushy pet can relate to this story. It's even worse when that pet has a red marker and an ego the size of an unabridged encyclopedia set. Fun, though for some reason I found the sequel (Chester's Back!) a little more amusing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch For You (Lee Harris) - My Review
The Devious Book for Cats (Fluffy and Bonkers) - My Review
Chester's Back! (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October Site Update

I've archived and cross-linked the previous eight reviews at Brightdreamer Books.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Nick of Time (Ted Bell)

Nick of Time
(The Nick McIver Time Adventures series, Book 1)
Ted Bell
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Adventure/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Young Nick McIver may be the best sailor on Greybeard Island; who else, after all, has successfully mapped the deadly reefs off Gravestone Rock? Sailing runs in his blood, as McIvers have served in the British Navy since before the days of Lord Nelson. Living in the lighthouse with his family, sailing the rough seas, exploring the many nooks and crannies of the shoreline... his life couldn't get any better! But it may just take a turn for the worse.
It's 1939, and though the Prime Minister assures the public that the brewing troubles in Europe are none of their concern, Nick's father and other patriots keep a sharp eye on the waters. Despite wartime treaties, the Nazis are developing new, powerful submarines, many of which have a suspicious obsession with the English channel. It all sounds very exciting to Nick, a chance to try his hand at becoming a hero like the men and boys in history books. But Nazis aren't the only trouble stalking the island. When Nick and his kid sister Katie discover a strange sea chest - one with his own name on it! - washed up in a hidden cove, a forbidding stranger soon appears. Billy Blood is a ruthless pirate, a traitor to his country and a merciless kidnapper. With a stolen time machine, he steals children throughout history, holding them for exorbitant ransoms aboard his blood-red ship. Even the reclusive Lord Hawke, the island's most unusual resident, has fallen victim to the monster. When Blood steals Nick's beloved dog, the boy sets out to find him - a journey that will take him into the heart of two wars, over a century apart.

REVIEW: Time travel, pirates, Nazis... this had all the makings of a great, rollicking adventure. Nick starts out as a resourceful, if impetuous, protagonist, and if his family and friends tended to fall neatly into genre stereotypes (the stoic but loving father, the worried mother, the precocious kid sister), well, that's not entirely unexpected in an old-school adventure yarn. But it takes nearly a third of the book to reach the time travel element promised by the cover, a delay involving lots of needless babbling and obvious Lesson-Inducing Blunders on the part of Nick. An awful lot of adults crowd the pages for a children's adventure, talking and explaining and generally eating page count, while the kids linger in the background waiting for their chance at heroism. There's a reason grown-ups usually have back seats in these stories; it becomes harder to suspend disbelief, that a kid will save the day, when too many competent adults are in on the action. Indeed, Nick and Katie's contributions stand out like sore thumbs, especially Katie, who - though not even seven years old - fools trained Nazi Gestapo agents with nary a misstep. Bell wrote a previous series about Hawke, which may explain why he and his right-hand man dominate so much of the story, but they crowded Nick out of his own adventure. The book also can't seem to decide on a definitive tone. One minute, it's trotting out silly stereotypes and eye-rolling efforts at jokes, the next it's callously and gruesomely picking off extras. It all snowballs into a jumbled mess by the end. It also seems to forget that a key element of the plot is a time machine - capable of targeting any time, and any place. Several tense situations could've been resolved with that little golden device.
Despite some good moments and a few memorable scenes - Nick's meeting with a longtime hero leaves him nearly speechless for more than one reason - the whole story felt too long and too unfocused to make for a satisfying read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Ghost Ship (Dietlof Reiche) - My Review
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - My Review

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (E. M. Forster)

The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories
E. M. Forster
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A boy discovers an omnibus into a world of poetic wonders, a man caught up in the race of life makes a startling discovery, an English boy on vacation abroad is touched by the pagan god of the wilderness... these and more tales await in this collection of short stories by the noted author E. M. Forster.

REVIEW: Once again, my general lack of education is showing. These stories, aimed quite clearly and directly at the upper-class English reader of yesteryear, raised on a classical education and steeped in generations of social constraints, by and large deride the human folly of those very social constraints and attempts to separate oneself from the wonders of the world by thinking true enlightenment can come from bookish education. Yet the literary backflips Forster employs, the obscure allusions and assumptions about the reader's body of knowledge, can only be fully appreciated by one raised in the traditional upper-class English manner. From my undereducated viewpoint, I found many of the stories lacking a point, aside from the sledgehammer-subtle Metaphors and admittedly poetic imagery. Like much higher literature, the story itself appears to be an afterthought, far less important than the play of words and interweaving of Themes. While I enjoyed a couple of the tales in this collection, overall I found them dull and repetitive.
On an unrelated note, looking at the past few reviews, I've come to the conclusion that I have no literary taste whatsoever, if these three books appear on the same reading list, on the same day.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbit) - My Review
The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) - My Review

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Kevin O'Malley)

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude
Kevin O'Malley, illustrations by Kevin O'Malley, Carol Heyer, and Scott Goto
Walker Childrens
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, a beautiful princess's beautiful ponies were being kidnapped by an evil meanie giant. Then a cool dude on a motorcycle showed up to save the day - or did he? When a brother and sister attempt to write a fairy tale together, things quickly get out of hand.

REVIEW: Another quick read during downtime at work, this has a fun concept. The girl's story starts out sickeningly sappy, the boy's tale counters with swords and volcanoes, but they manage to find common ground somewhere in the middle, learning that cooperation is more fun than competition. It wasn't bad, but the wrap-up lacked punch.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Knight and the Dragon (Tomie DePaola) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review

Chester's Back (Mélanie Watt)

Chester's Back!
Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: An author wants to write a story, but Chester the cat wants to call the shots. He's a star, after all, and demands to be treated as such. The author has other ideas, however...

REVIEW: It was a slow work week, and I found this on top of a bin. This fun little tale gleefully breaks the fourth wall, as Chester's demands (after his first book, Chester, which I've seen but not yet cornered to read) get more ostentatious - as do the author's rebuttals. It got a few chuckles out of me, and kept me entertained while waiting for things to pick up again.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett) - My Review
There Are Cats In This Book (Viviane Schwartz) - My Review
You're Finally Here! (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

Friday, October 11, 2013

Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer)

Off to Be the Wizard
Scott Meyer
Rocket Hat Industries
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When twenty-something computer geek Martin stumbles across a data file that controls reality, he decides he'll play it smart, and just change a few things here and there in his life. Nothing fancy. Still, he figures he might as well have an escape plan, an emergency exit route to a time and place where his new, near-magical abilities won't get him prosecuted or burned at the stake. There's a nice, stable slice of time in medieval England that seems perfect, where a modern man could make a nice little life for himself if need be. But surely he won't need it. It's just his own life he's tweaking, after all. Nobody will ever notice.
He arrives in medieval England with little but his smartphone and the clothes on his back, escaping a pair of U.S. Treasury agents and a slew of cops. Martin figures he'll dazzle the natives and play wizard until things cool off at home... but he's not the first geek to have found reality's programming and fled into history, and they don't take kindly to newcomers blundering into their territory. He'll have to learn the ropes fast, because in a world of hacker wizards, revenge can be deadly.

REVIEW: This fun little outing, written by the creator of one of my favorite comic strips (Basic Instructions), reads like Douglas Adams Lite. It never takes itself too seriously, yet manages to craft an interesting, occasionally nuanced tale of hackers running amok through the programming of time, space, and reality. While some of the humor is geared for the computer geek crowd, it's plenty amusing for those of us with only passing familiarity with programming culture. I gave this book an extra half-mark for honoring the late, great Commodore, the best computer system nobody remembers, and for overall whimsy. Despite a few shaky bits, it's a delightful little romp from start to finish.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Help is On the Way: A Basic Instructions Collection (Scott Meyer) - My Review

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglima)

Surcease of Sorrow
Matt Inglima
Matt Inglima, publisher
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the early days of the Civil War, a man appears in the nation's capital. Nathan uses time travel to ease President Lincoln's sorrow by saving his son William from the disease that will soon claim his life. Averting the man's assassination would cause too many ripples in the space-time continuum, but surely this small act of mercy won't have greater consequences; before he left, Nathan ran the numbers many times. But in time, as in life, one can never know the outcome of even the smallest action, as Nathan is soon to discover.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I had a very mixed reaction to this short story. While the writing itself is decent, telling a time-travel tale that hasn't been done to death, I was irked by Nathan's obsessive stupidity. This is a man who is a scientist in his own era, one privileged to work on a high-level project like time travel... yet, for all his research and presumed intelligence, he makes two dumb mistakes in his first hour in the past, and the crisis at the end could've easily been averted with a little forethought. I didn't care for the ending, but it has a certain measure of justification. It's not a bad little story, all in all.
(As a closing note, I hope the author redesigns the cover image; as it is, it's very hard to read.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Timeline (Michael Crichton) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Tower (J. S. Frankel)

The Tower
J. S. Frankel
Untreed Reads
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Most thirteen-year-old boys don't think much about death, but Bill Lampkin has no choice; Death has been stalking him since he was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, the disease that took his mother when he was six. With his father hiding in a bottle, he spends his days surrounded by doctors and other sick children, with little but superhero comic books to ease his loneliness. At last, after a brief remission, Bill reaches the end... and makes his escape, determined to die on his own terms and not in a hospital bed. Instead of death, he finds a strange green door, and beyond - something impossible.
Bill wakes in another world, surrounded by superheroes straight from the pages of his comic books, albeit with slightly different costumes and names. This alternate Earth, while outwardly much like his own, has greatly advanced technology and even magic, not to mention the unexplained powers of the heroic Ultras. They even managed to knock out his leukemia, at least for the time being, though the process aged him several years. For a boy facing a lonely death, it's a dream come true, especially when the hot girl hero Oriana takes a liking to him. But all is not as it seems on the Tower, the orbital home base of the superhero Association. Even as Bill settles into his new life, he can't help wondering what's really going on. What does the Ultra leader, Avenger, really do all day? Why can't he find any information on their origins? And what happened to all the supervillians?
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This starts on a good note, with an atypical protagonist. Bill isn't the usual world-hopping hero, the Joe Average kid who stumbles into an adventure, but a dying and desperate boy. He isn't even a huge fan of superheroes; he only reads comics because they were all he had on hand, gifts from a less fortunate roommate. Suddenly faced with a future, one populated with impossible heroes no less, he struggles to adapt... and here the story bogs down, lingering far too long on Bill's efforts to find a place among the grunt-worker "normal" humans despite his unusually close relations with the Ultras, who usually keep to themselves. The novelty of the behind-the-scenes look at superhero life, the dynamics of the support crew and other extras glossed over in the comics and movies, wears thin quickly, especially with the tired plot mechanism of a dumb bully and his cronies who must be defeated before Bill can truly call the Tower home. By the time he finally starts getting back to his initial skepticism, questioning the too-perfect Ultras and trying to find answers, I'd grown more than a little antsy. The answers he uncovers, after plenty of wheel-spinning and brick-wall-hitting and second-guessing (Bill's relationship with the Ultra Oriana is threatened more than once by his obsession), stretch credulity nearly to the breaking point. A last-minute antagonist pops up to stretch out the climax, followed by another plot twist (which I'd guessed by the halfway point) and a drawn-out wrap-up that tries too hard to be profound... during which Bill sits down and explains to the reader how his adventures made him grow and change as a human being. I was there, Bill, remember?
I liked some of the ideas here, and there was a decent story at the heart of it. It just seemed overlong to me. The Kindle edition also could've used sharper proofreading; several quotation marks were missing or misplaced, as were paragraph breaks.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Forbidden Mind (Kimberly Kinrade) - My Review
Heroine Addiction (Jennifer Matarese) - My Review

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed (Steff Metal)

The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed
Steff Metal
Grymm and Epic
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A mishap leads to a peculiar haunting... Antarctic researchers find something strange amid the penguin population... a man with a millennia-old bone to pick seeks Jesus with a handgun... a very unusual retiree moves into a small apartment... bad weather wakes more than the tourists at a remote New Zealand campground... Five bizarre tales await in this collection by Steff Metal, including an excerpt from the author's upcoming novel, At War With Satan.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A fun little collection of twisted tales, it reads fast and, for the most part, satisfying. Once in a while the New Zealand slang grew a bit thick for my North American palate, but all in all I enjoyed it. I admit to skimming the novel excerpt - I'm not a fan of sales pitches - but what I read made it look like it could be fun, if not quite my cup of cocoa.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Odds are Good (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Anything Box (Zenna Henderson) - My Review
Flower of Scotland 3 (William Meikle) - My Review

Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Site Update

The previous nine book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.

I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations page.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Killing Dirty (Pete Clark)

Killing Dirty
(The Across the Barren Landscape series, Story 1)
Pete Clark
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Western
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Aging gunfighter Jack Hemmingway rides into a forgotten dusthole of a town with a Colt on his hip, money in his pocket, and an invitation to a very special game that will make or break his fortune.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This freebie short story reads fast, with plenty of grit and gunsmoke. It lost a half-mark for the ending, which feels adrift; I know it's the first of a series, but I'd hoped for a little more closure. Still, overall it's not a bad little tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Frontier Earth (Bruce Boxleitner) - My Review
Goblintown Justice (Matt Forbeck) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kasey And His Dragon (E. H. White)

Kasey And His Dragon
E. H. White
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
* (Terrible)

DESCRIPTION: Since Kasey's father disappeared, things have been rough for him and his mother. He works around the neighborhood to earn money, often with his best friend Alicia helping out, but it's never enough. Worse, due to a mix-up with his father's military paperwork, the Army is denying he even worked for them and is refusing benefits. Just when things seem worse than ever, Kasey discovers something strange in a neighbor's pond: a glittering diamond orb, from which a white dragon emerges. Kasey finds himself whisked away to the world of Onadida, seven galaxies away, enrolled in a magical school where children learn to work with animals magical and mundane. It's a wonderful place, made even better when Alicia arrives to find her own special animal friend, but all is not well here. The other children resent an offworlder getting the privilege of a white dragon; they have to study and compete hard for the few available dragons, and white dragons only occur once in a generation. Parts of Onadida also seem to be missing, a whole half of the rainbow, but nobody will tell Kasey or Alicia what happened. The boy soon finds his heart and his skills put to the test as dangers threaten his family, his new friends, and the entire planet of Onadida.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Having just finished Kasey And His Dragon, I have two burning questions: what did I just read, and who thought it was ready to be published? It reads like the ill-advised offspring of Eragon and Pokemon, with a touch of Harry Potter, a dash of Dragonriders of Pern, and a metric ton of New Age energy jargon. Kasey's an empty shell of a protagonist, surrounded by friends and guides... and a host of nameless children who, despite existing on a planet that prides itself on its spiritual enlightenment, and despite having earned the privilege of great powers at this special school, behave like jealous jerks because the white dragon chose an Earthling over them. But, it's no wonder the dragon Halyn decided on him. The whole of the cosmos seems to exist solely to comfort and awe Kasey and teach him lessons on Healing and Enlightenment. Onadida is not so much a world as a Lesson made manifest, with less logic and cohesiveness than a three-year-old's crayon scribblings. Animals shrink and grow at will, depending on whether the author wants to rip off Eragon with a flight scene or Harry Potter with a magical classroom - oops, I suppose animals have to change size, if that pachyderm and the butterfly with the seven-foot wingspan are going to fit indoors. Similarly, miraculous devices materialize whenever the plot decides it's easier to just handwave away something than have the characters deal with it - which is most of the time. Need breakfast? Just wish for it. Want to explain why a teleporting dragon doesn't escape captivity? Um - there's "some sort of device" to prevent it. Don't ask why or how, there just is. (And, yes, the narrative does use the words "some sort of device.") People on Onadida can even materialize and dematerialize at will; I want to believe there's a reason for this, and not that the author just didn't know how to get people to show up or leave a scene otherwise. The story, such as it is, starts out cute, quickly grows threadbare, then just up and leaves the building in a hallucinatory mess of spiritual lessons before arriving at a climax that seems to have come from an entirely different draft, if not another story altogether. And then it ends, in a way that dropped the story to the rock-bottom rating.
I looked on Amazon, trying to determine if E. H. White is a teen or preteen who, while possessing a vivid imagination and admirable ambition, jumped the gun on going public with their work. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, unable to confirm my suspicions, I have to treat this story as I would any other book, by any other author.
(As a closing note, I enjoyed the cover art.)

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Dragonsdale (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The First Dragoneer (M. R. Mathias) - My Review
The Dragon Slayer with a Heavy Heart (Marcia Powers) - My Review

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stormsinger (Stephanie A. Cain)

Stephanie A. Cain
Stephanie Cain, publisher
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The kingdom's best and most famous privateer, Captain Arama Dzornaea usually spends her days hunting enemy ships to bring glory (and treasure) to her liege. A quick jaunt to a neighboring kingdom with the crown prince, to deliver him to his betrothed, should scarcely test her mettle... not even with a stormwitch aboard to ensure a favorable breeze. But something extraordinary lurks in the depths, a force that quickly turns a routine sail into something far more dangerous.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: On the whole, this has some intriguing parts. Arama promises a colorful history, not just because of her storied relationship with the prince's general. The world itself, with sea monsters and strange magics and rival kingdoms, has potential. But in a story this short, that potential can scarcely be touched, let alone realized. I couldn't quite work out if this was a short story with too much baggage or a novel that ran out of steam, as Stormsinger seems adrift between the two possibilities. It earns an extra half-mark for having been apparently written in eight hours - given that time frame, it's remarkably polished - but I'm not sure it should've been published as it is; had Cain sat on it until she had a novel-length story to go with the novel-length ideas, she might've had something special on her hands.

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Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
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The Art of Procrastination (Isle Doitlayter)

The Art of Procrastination
Isle Doitlayter
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Procrastination is more than simply avoiding doing a task. At its highest levels, it becomes an art form, a carefully choreographed series of actions drawing out the avoidance for minutes, hours, days, or weeks. Learn some of the many ways to procrastinate in this handy guide... or simply read it to avoid doing whatever you were supposed to be doing in the first place.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A quick read, it delivers just what it promises: a tongue-in-cheek guide for the would-be procrastinator covering everything from bathroom breaks and laundry to housework and cleaning out the oven. The topics rarely last longer than a couple of pages each, long enough to make their point. I docked it a half-mark for some repetition and uneven editing, plus some clunky prose. On the whole, though, it's not a bad little time-killer for the price.

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Things To Do While Avoiding Things To Do (Mark J. Asher) - My Review
How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Ruin Your Life Now (Dicklaus Pansy) - My Review

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rex Rising (Chrystalla Thoma)

Rex Rising
(The Elei's Chronicles series, Book 1)
Chrystalla Thoma
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, the World of the Seven Islands has suffered beneath the Gultur regime. Created by a parasite, one of many infesting the Seven Islands, the all-female Gulturs are strong, smart, and half-mad... and now, they're slowly moving to exterminate the "lesser" humans. The resistance group known as the Undercurrent fights them, but so long as the parasite Regina that created the Gultur remains undefeatable, their efforts are doomed to failure. Legend tells of a "sleeping king," a parasite capable of matching or even overwhelming Regina, but those few brave enough to seek it die by Gultur force.
Elei was found in a garbage heap as a boy, dying from one of the many deadly, mutating parasites of the Seven Islands. His life saved by another parasite, he eventually found his way off of the streets and into a job as driver for Pelia, a scientist secretly working for the Undercurrent. But she was betrayed, gunned down by her own people. Wounded and alone, clinging to a name and address Pelia gave him in her final moments, Elei becomes a hunted boy. Pelia was working on a cure for Regina, and was rumored to have actually found the legendary Rex parasite - and both the Gultur and the Undercurrent will do anything to discover where she hid it.

REVIEW: I hate books about unpleasant people in unpleasant places doing unlikeable things. Unfortunately, I was sucked in by the promising premise: parasites capable of remaking humans into specialized races to propagate themselves. Thus, I found myself picking my way through a filthy world, following a main character who spent more than half the book incapacitated by injury or illness or his own relentless pessimism (not to mention basic stupidity), helpfully lugged around by other characters who inexplicably didn't write him off as deadweight. I lost track of how many neon-bright clues Elei repeatedly ignored, too mired in his own selfish misery to pay attention to the world around him... though that world was so thoroughly unpleasant a place to be that I couldn't entirely blame him for not caring about its fate. Nobody trusts anyone, here, a pall of paranoia echoing the atmosphere of moral decay and hopeless oppression (not to mention some backhanded sexism - the evil, corrupt all-woman race exterminating men as unnecessary, which needs a masculine force to overwhelm it lest it do more damage to the world) that lays thick over the entire world. Speaking of the World of the Seven Islands, Thoma makes up many words, many of which seem little more than "smeerps" (invented words for otherwise mundane things just to sound otherworldly), then goes on to have characters wear polo shirts and jeans in a world that appears to have neither polo nor cotton. Was this supposed to be a post-apocolyptic Earth, then, or just another world that invented sports-based fashion while lacking the sport that inspired it? Being Book 1 of a series, naturally large portions of the mytharc were left up in the air. By the end, I still didn't care about anyone or anything in the book; I just wanted it to be over.

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The Supernaturalist (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Libriomancer (Jim C. Hines)

(The Magic Ex Libris series, Book 1)
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Isaac Vainio loves books... perhaps too much for his own good. As a libriomancer, he can reach into stories and pull out any item that can fit through the pages, from ray guns to magic swords to his pet fire-spider, Smudge. He used to be a field operative with the Porters, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg himself (still alive thanks to a conjured Holy Grail), helping protect the world from supernatural beings and less ethical magic workers, until a botched assignment led him to lose control. Pulled from active duty, he now lives in a quiet Michigan town as a librarian, cataloging new books for the Porter databases and trying to forget the power and temptation of his now-forbidden gifts.
When he's attacked at work by vampires, Isaac is forced back into libriomancy - first to save his life, then to save the world. Someone's been inflaming tensions between supernatural beings and the Porters, unleashing powers neither side has seen before. With the help of the dryad Lena and the ever-faithful (if often-incendiary) Smudge, Isaac sets out to find the culprit - and finds himself up against an enemy so powerful that even Gutenberg himself is helpless against it.

REVIEW: This is a case of a great concept with a good story. Libriomancy would be a dream come true for anyone (like me) who has ever loved a story to life in their minds. It comes with limitations and costs - living beings often go mad if extracted into the real world, and libriomancers risk insanity and other complications if they overuse their gifts - to keep it in check, but it's still one of the coolest ideas I've read in a while. The dark side of this power is seen in the proliferation of vampires, werewolves, and other popular fictional beasts; untrained libriomancers can infect themselves by reaching into a book and being bitten, and as authors create stronger and more resilient monsters, without the traditional weaknesses, the Porters' job of keeping them concealed becomes all the more difficult. A magic system like this raises all sorts of questions, questions which Isaac himself often longs to answer, but it feels solid enough to support a story... even a story as frenetic and occasionally confusing as this one. It moves fast, occasionally too fast, throwing plenty of names and lots of action at the reader in a near-constant volley. There's relatively little down time to absorb it all. It builds to a great climax, then ends on an iffy note, as it's the first book of a series of unknown length. A good story on its own, the extra half-mark comes entirely from my adoration of the concept of libriomancy. Overall, it's a fun, often witty romp of a tale. (I also enjoyed revisiting Smudge, from Hines's Jig the Dragonslayer series.)

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Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Monday, September 9, 2013

Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne).

Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary
Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne
Princeton University Press
Nonfiction, Mythology
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since its earliest days, Mankind has never been content to simply observe the world's wonders. Dreams and nightmares, joys and fears, even simple whimsey gave birth to all manner of bizarre creations which found their way into art and story. Such beasts reached their heyday in medieval Europe, as the Christian church attempted to harness them to provide moral instructions to the masses in tomes known as bestiaries. Even in today's enlightened world, animal such as dragons and griffins evoke powerful, sometimes primal emotions. In this book, the authors examine the origins of fantastic beasts, various attempts to classify and moralize them, and their persistence into modern times.

REVIEW: Originally published in France, this book includes many images - from Asian tapestries to Pacific Northwest masks - that I haven't seen elsewhere. The broad variety and sheer volume of art alone would've easily merited a Good rating, maybe close to a Great. The text, however, grows dense at times, with a strong Christian European flavor that colors the authors' conclusions, not to mention a few outdated beliefs stated as certainties. Overall, it makes for an interesting, if occasionally overwhelming, examination of fantastic animals and their cultural significance through the ages.

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The Book of Fabulous Beasts (Joseph Nigg) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Michael Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review

Monday, September 2, 2013

Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker)

Flash Gold
(The Flash Gold Chronicles, Book 1)
Lindsay Buroker
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kali McAllister may only be eighteen, but she already has a reputation. Her mother was a mad native medicine woman, her father a famed inventor pursuing a powerful substance known as flash gold. Around Moose Hollow in the wild Yukon frontier, she's considered a witch, albeit a useful one; there isn't a weapon she can't modify for the right price. Still, people whisper and mutter about her late father's experiments and her mother's madness. Did he learn the secret of flash gold before he died? Does Kali know it, too?
To get out of the backwater town of Moose Hollow, Kali needs money. To that end, she built a steam-powered "dogless sled," to enter a local race and take the thousand dollars in prize money. The last thing she needs is a partner holding her down. Then Cedar turns up. Tall, rugged, and mysterious, he offers his services as a bodyguard for a share of the prize... services she doesn't think she needs, until a band of thugs attacks her in her own workshop. Her father's reputation has spread far from the Yukon, attracting a host of unsavory attention. Just winning the race in an untested invention is no longer the problem - it's staying alive to reach the finish line.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A fast-reading tale of daring, adventure, steampunk, and a hint of magic, this novella sets up some wonderful ideas and - for the most part - lives up to them. Kali makes a strong but not flawless heroine, a clever engineer who doesn't want to admit that she may be in over her head. Cedar isn't exactly a knight in shining armor, himself, especially when his true motivations for joining up with Kali come to light. Nevertheless, the two make a well-balanced team, squaring off against surly Moose Hollow locals and ruthless out-of-town killers intent on dragging the secrets of flash gold from Kali by any means necessary. Out on the frontier, the usual staples of steampunk (the dark factories, the cities, and so forth) rarely come into play; aside from Kali's gadgetry and the obligatory airship, the technology level's mostly rooted in the late 1800's. Magic is teased, but stays mostly on the sidelines. It ultimately reads like a pilot for a series, bringing its story to a reasonable conclusion while leaving enough potential for future installments. I enjoyed it, and might even be convinced to track down the second book, assuming it's priced right.

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

After London or, Wild England (Richard Jeffries)

After London or, Wild England
Richard Jeffries
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Centuries ago, the ancients ruled the Earth by land, sea, and sky. Their buildings reached to the clouds. Their science cured disease. Countless miracles and wonders were the stuff of everyday life. Then, at the very apex of their civilization, came the fall. Few relics survive of those times, and fewer records.
In the years since, the wilderness that they had tamed rose up to reclaim the lands. People slowly began rebuilding their lives, falling back into the brutal ways of constant warfare and slavery, with only those of high birth permitted to learn the art of reading. In this world, true thinkers and explorers are few and far between, their talents ridiculed by a populace that considers brute force or clever alliance the only worthwhile measures of a man.
Felix Aquila, son of an eclipsed Baron, knows he's different. He never took much interest in the martial arts, like his brother, nor does he care for the games of courtly intrigues that elevate his peers in the eyes of the Prince. His lack of prospects makes his love of Aurora, daughter of a nearby noble, all the more hopeless; she may profess her love of him, but her father's political ambitions will never condone a marriage to a young man of so little influence. But Felix's studies of the ancients have given him a keen and curious mind. To seek his fortune and make his mark, he sets forth to explore the vast, uncharted Lake that covers much of southern England since the fall of the ancients.

REVIEW: I had high hopes for this book. The first third or so, explaining the world that arose from the ashes of our fallen civilization, drug now and then, but was overall fascinating, a speculation (if a somewhat dated one) of what animals might survive, what cultures might arise, and how the very landscape would react to the devastation of its primary distorter, modern humans. It would've made for a great basis for an RPG, actually, setting up the geographical and political landscape a player would have to navigate. Then the story abruptly shifts from an overview to a narrative... one that repeats much of what the overview already told the reader, only filtered through a dull omniscient point of view. The earlier part, therefore, becomes a spoiler for the latter, as the chronicles were written well after Felix's adventures on the Lake. Felix himself makes an uninteresting main character. Moody and judgmental and repeatedly oblivious to obvious problems, he mopes and trudges dully through an adventure that theoretically became nearly legendary in his world. Aurora, like many females in elder-day books (and a depressing number of modern ones), is nothing but a stained glass image of a woman, a lovely work of art to gaze upon, full of holy light, but ultimately thin and transparent and hardly even human in her seeming perfection. More than once, the story stops dead in its tracks for pages on end while the narrative natters on about this irrelevant detail or that unrelated point of interest. And then it ends, leaving both Felix and the reader in the middle of nowhere.
I tried to make allowances for the age of the book (this being a public domain work, originally published in 1885.) Given its age, it read remarkably like a more modern work; I didn't have to struggle as much as I have with some classics. It also had some interesting speculations, at least at first, about a post-apocalyptic world. But those speculations were wasted twice over, in a book that not only told its story twice, but actively sabotaged itself.

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Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Saturday, August 31, 2013

August Site Update

The previous 6 book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Glimpse (Stephen Whibley)

The Dean Curse Chronicles, Book 1)
Steven Whibley
Steven Whibley Publishing
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dean Curse wasn't always cursed, unless his kid sister Becky counted. He used to be a pretty normal kid. Then, a few days before his fourteenth birthday, he stumbles across a man being beat up in an alley. Afterwards, strange things start to happen - visions out of nowhere, of people screaming in deathly fear. At first, Dean thinks it's just post-traumatic stress, as his psychologist father diagnoses. Then he sees those same faces on the obituary page. As Dean struggles to understand what's happened to him, he sees more faces... very familiar faces. Can Dean really change the future, or are people he loves truly marked for death?

REVIEW: This wasn't a bad story, but it felt oddly schizophrenic. On the one hand, there's Dean faced with horrific visions of death - not simple heart attacks or old age, but violent deaths, sometimes right in front of his eyes. On the other, there's the lighthearted, almost slaphappy feel to the rest of the book. Dean's mom is a faint-hearted cliche, his dad an ignorant overanalyzer, and his sister's a snot-nosed little brat. His best friends Colin and Lisa could easily be renamed Ron and Hermione; Colin's the comic relief, and Lily's the worried thinker of the trio. There's even a school bully named Drac- er, Eric, though he only has one goon follower. I suppose this was a deliberate attempt to counter the horrors of squaring off against Fate and death, but it went a little far. Dean and his pals seem to accept the matter a little too easily; his father may be portrayed as an overthinker, but he really has a point when he worries about his son's mental state, given the traumas he's endured. (Even the Animorphs experienced psychological fallout...) It also took too long to figure out the nature of Dean's curse; he has three horrific visions before he (or the reader) begins to even have a clue what the screaming ghosts mean. While it read quickly and relatively smoothly, I ultimately couldn't bring myself to care enough about Dean or his curse to continue this series.

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The Supernaturalist (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Ghost Ship (Dietlof Reiche) - My Review

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kingdom of the Serpent's Eye (Malla Duncan)

Kingdom of the Serpent's Eye
(A Barry Philpot book)
Malla Duncan
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Adventure/Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Barry Philpot's no stranger to adventure. Still, when the gorgeous Laney sashays into his office and demands his help finding her father, lost in the Amazon, even he hesitates. She claims he was simply seeking specimens of the rare Diamond-Toed frog, but rumors of a lost city and unknown natives abound. Despite himself, Barry and his loyal associate, Finch, accompany Laney into the jungle... and into the heart of a legend older than civilization.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A freebie download, it looked like a fun little read, an adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, it plays out like a cheap, direct-to-DVD knockoff. Barry and his associates never become more than cardboard cutouts: he's the generic hero, Finch is his educated (and occasionally comic) sidekick, and Laney's a bothersome yet beautiful woman who creates far more trouble than she solves, deliberately endangering the entire expedition by holding back vital secrets until they're in the thick of danger. The book tries to bill itself as a romance, but, aside from Barry ogling Laney's oft-described curves at every opportunity, there isn't so much as an atom of chemistry. It goes through the motions of a wild adventure, what with superstitious natives and jungle secrets and the obligatory legend or two, but with little genuine suspense and no real heart. It ends much as it begins, with a tired cliche. On the plus side, at least it read fast, and it was free.

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Leepike Ridge (N. D. Wilson) - My Review

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Clockwork Kingdom (Leah R. Cutter)

Clockwork Kingdom
Leah R. Cutter
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Twins Nora and Dale were too old to believe in fairies. With a domineering father and a sickly mother, who risked her life and health the day she grabbed the kids and fled to the Oregon coast, their life is anything but a fairy tale. Then Dale found his way to a dilapidated house full of strange and marvelous clockwork devices. Despite Nora's warnings, he took one home, his mechanic's mind unable to resist the challenge of deciphering its purpose. Little do either of them suspect that the device was created by fairies - and the cruel Queen Adele has been searching for a human with Tinker abilities to finish the last, greatest machine of her late husband, a machine that will destroy humanity's hold on the world and allow her people to rise up again. If Nora can't stop her own family from disintegrating before her eyes, what chance does she have of saving her twin brother from the clutches of the fairy queen?

REVIEW: At first glance, this looked like half a hundred other young adult fantasies on the market: twins from a broken home, a remote setting, a hidden fairy kingdom, and so forth. However, this proves to be anything but another Fluffy Bunny book. The stakes aren't just bruised elbows and hurt feelings: they are literally life and death. Queen Adele comes from the warrior class of fairies - explaining some of her ruthlessness, not to mention her struggles to hold onto her crown now that her royal-born husband is dead - but even the royals would happily kill a human child if it suited their ambitions. The dwarf Kostya, their enemy, only helps so long as it hurts the fairies: he, too, would be perfectly willing to slit the twins' throats if it thwarted Adele. Then there's the all-too-human threat of the children's father, a control-freak twisted by a terrible childhood, bound and determined to rescue his son from his "weak" wife and other corrupting influences that are destroying his family and the country. Even the twins find their bonds tested to the utmost, conflicting personalities pushed to the breaking point by the many threats around them. The story reads quickly, with blessedly few instances of characters behaving stupidly just to further the plot; they all must learn fast, if sometimes the hard way, and figure out how to solve their own problems. The ending wraps up many of the story threads, while leaving enough open for possible sequels... though the Epilogue hints that such sequels might be very grim, indeed. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. I might have to track down more of Cutter's books, time and budget willing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Faerie Wars (Herbie Brennan) - My Review
Shadowbloom (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Sons Will Eat Today (Debra Borchert)

My Sons Will Eat Today
Debra Borchert
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Historical Fiction
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In late-1700's France, revolution has swept the country like a wildfire, devouring lives and leaving chaos in its wake. Struggling to feed her sons in a city without so much as a loaf of bread - bakers having been scared out of town after one was executed for serving the hated aristocrats - a carpenter's widow finds herself caught up in an ill-advised march to the palace in Versailles.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This short story manages the tricky feat of evoking a historic setting without browbeating the reader with infodumps or Messages. Francoise's stark reality would not be out of place in a post-apocalyptic horror tale. Raw anger and frustration may have been enough to topple the existing regime in France, but it seems that nobody had a viable alternative to replace it, leaving many worse off - and even angrier and more frustrated - than they were suffering under the arrogant aristocrats. One starts to wonder if the repeated waves of peasant assaults were intended to institute a better government or simply ensure a quicker death than starvation and exposure. Still, children must eat, and if the so-called revolutionaries have forgotten that in their bloodlust, mothers like Francoise must remember. It reads fast, if dark, painting a grim portrait of lives in turmoil. Given my uneven luck with short stories, I kicked it up an extra half-star.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Beyond the Western Sea (Avi) - My Review
The Glasswright's Apprentice (Mindy L. Klasky) - My Review

What's Your Book? (Brooke Warner)

What's Your Book?
Brooke Warner
She Writes Press
Nonfiction, Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A thriller, a romantic comedy, a memoir... you have a book in you that you'd love to publish, but you don't know how. Maybe you have a manuscript but don't know how to tell if it's any good, or maybe you keep finding ways to stop yourself from starting. Let an experienced author lead you through the process, from getting out of your own way to building a multimedia platform to promote yourself and your book.

REVIEW: Another how-to-write/how-to-publish guide, it covers similar information to other such books I've read, enough that I found myself skimming now and again. The author's experience in the publishing world offers more insight to how that world is changing, and what the savvy writer needs to know to keep ahead of those changes and maximize their chances of success. She emphasizes the need to build a visible platform, generating a reading audience even before submitting to agents or editors, in order to be noticed in the slush pile; I'm not certain that's 100% accurate, from my own research, but if you're a social person I don't think it can hurt. The eBook edition I read offers links at the end for helpful resources, a nice bonus. All in all, this isn't a bad guide. I just found myself skimming a little too often for a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Writers Write (William Meikle) - My Review
Write your novel in 7 days or less: the shortcut to writing fast and good (Mark Quadmire) - My Review
So You Want an Author Platform? (Louise Wise) - My Review

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Art of the Dragon (J. David Spurlock and Patrick Wilshire)

The Art of the Dragon
J. David Spurlock and Patrick Wilshire
Vanguard Productions
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Few images are as ubiquitous as the dragon. With variations found in most every culture dating back to prehistoric times, dragons have been a part of humanity since its inception, and continue to accompany us to this very day. This book collects images from some modern masters of dragon art, along with interviews of some top fantasy artists including Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Julie Bell, and others.

REVIEW: It's no secret than I'm a dragon nut. This collection offers a decent variety of dragons, with excellent reproductions. The interviews reveal how each artist approaches the subject of dragons, even dragons drawn for commission rather than personal pleasure. (Indeed, many of these images come from the venerated Dungeons & Dragons franchise, as the role-playing game was instrumental in creating the modern image of the beasts.) I'm still not a huge fan of Boris Vallejo, but at least I now understand some of where he's coming from. It could've used more full-page spreads to showcase the artwork, but other than that I have few complaints. An excellent book for lovers of fantasy art and dragons!

You Might Also Enjoy:
Forging Dragons (John Howe) - My Review
Fantasy Art Masters (Dick Jude) - My Review
The Art of Michael Whelan (Michael Whelan) - My Review

Sunday, July 28, 2013

July Site Update

The previous 9 reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.

I also changed out the Random Recommendations.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

There Are No Cats in this Book (Viviane Schwartz)

There Are No Cats in this Book
Viviane Schwartz
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Three storybook cats want to take a vacation in the real world. Can you help them out?

REVIEW: Much like the first book (reviewed previously), this is a fast and simple read, with some basic pop-ups and page-flipping interactivity to enhance the story. Just as fun as the first book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Cat Hiss-tory: A Feline Tour Through the Ages (Bill Bell) - My Review
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch For You (Lee Harris) - My Review
You're Finally Here! (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

There Are Cats in this Book (Viviane Schwartz)

There Are Cats in this Book
Viviane Schwartz
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Help three fun-loving cats play with boxes, yarn, and more!

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, and I found this book and its sequel in the bin. With simple illustrations and easy interactivity - flipping partial pages - it's ideal for younger children, while being silly enough for all ages to enjoy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Comet's Nine Lives (Jan Brett) - My Review
Snow Leopard (Jackie Morris) - My Review

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hot Chocolate for the Unicorn (Mary E. Lowd)

Hot Chocolate for the Unicorn
Mary E. Lowd
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A woman prepares for a visit with two very special childhood friends.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This short story celebrates the persistence of imagination into adulthood; keeping the dreams alive may be an effort, but it's certainly worthwhile. It reads fast and makes its point without lingering. Given my iffy luck with short stories, I kicked it up to a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dream a Little Dream (Piers Anthony and Julie Brady) - My Review
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
Rampant (Diana Peterfreund) - My Review

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)

The Time Machine
H. G. Wells
Atria Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In late-nineteenth-century London, one man makes a startling claim: he has built a machine capable of traveling through time. His guests scoff at the notion, but the Time Traveler produces an impressive demonstration with a model, and insists his full-scale machine is nearly complete. At his next dinner party, he arrives late and curiously disheveled, though he does not seem to have left his own laboratory. He relates the tale of his journey forward in time, to the twilight of Mankind and the ending of life on Earth. Is it the mere figment of an overactive imagination, or has the Time Traveler succeeded in mastering the fourth dimension?
This edition includes preview chapters for a contemporary book, The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma, inspired by this story.
(NOTE: The Amazon link is not for this special edition.)

REVIEW: Another classic I've been meaning to read for some time, I found it reasonably engaging. The Time Traveler - who is never named - finds his assumptions about humanity's future shaken to their core at what the species has become. The futuristic world he visits is suitably alien to be interesting, with many puzzles he never has a chance to solve. It might have gained another half-star had the story not decided to hang around after his main adventure with post-humans, taking the Time Traveler to an even less hospitable future at the very end of life's existence on planet Earth (where he still, somehow, manages to find a breathable atmosphere.) Overall, however, I found it reasonably enjoyable, and much easier to read than Wells's The Invisible Man.
As for the sample chapters from A Map of Time, I confess that I didn't finish reading them; I gave up when the narrator started intruding on the story. I wouldn't rule out reading the book in the future, but nothing I read here made me particularly need to do so.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
The Ancient One (T. A. Barron) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
(The Fairyland series, Book 1)
Catherynne M. Valente
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old September - born in May - doesn't think twice when the Green Wind comes to the kitchen window and offers to take her for an Adventure. She's young enough to still be Somewhat Heartless, and though her mother loves her very much (as does her father, though he's off being a soldier for the Government), washing dishes in Omaha hardly compares to riding the Leopard of Light Breezes between the worlds to Fairyland. Of course, any little girl knows that there's more to Fairyland than sightseeing - it wouldn't be much of an Adventure, after all, without a little danger. But all those boys and girls in the storybooks come home safe and sound in the end of it all, and so should September. Sure enough, she's hardly in Fairyland for half a day before she's met witches and befriended a Wyverary, a great red beast who claims to have been sired by a Library and who is an expert on anything, so long as it begins with the letters A through L. There's some talk of a lost Queen and a wicked Marquess, and it's a bit strange that she has yet to see an actual Fairy, but on the whole her Adventure is off to a grand start!
Storybooks, it turns out, never tell the whole tale. It's the narrators and novelists who are to blame: everyone knows they're prone to lies and mischief, and thus only half-truths about Fairyland ever reach the human world. September soon finds herself in the middle of an Adventure far more dangerous than anything she's read... one that may not have room for happy endings, or even going home.

REVIEW: Stories like this must tread a very fine line. On the one side, there's Wonderland, or Fairyland, or wherever the young human protagonist finds themselves visiting, by choice or luck: a world full of whimsical impossibilities and metaphors given flesh. On the other, there are the needs of the plot, developing characters and creating a story arc. Quite often, authors fall on the former side of that line, leaving the story to fend for itself while they revel in spinning candy-fluff while dancing about with clever turns of phrase (or at least turns of phrase that must have seemed clever at the time.) This book is a rare example of finding that very fine line and sticking to it. Valente spins her candy-fluff and dances with her words, while somehow managing to create reasonably intricate characters in a story with real dangers that - remarkably, given the wild and illogical nature of Fairyland - actually makes sense. September makes a bold but not infallible heroine, and her native companions can't always protect her from the dangers of the journey, though they do try. She quickly becomes more than a simply proxy for the reader, with a history and personality that directly affect the story. Taking after her mother, a plant worker during World War II who taught her that all broken things may be fixed with enough effort, September takes an active part in her Adventure and Fairyland's problems, rather than drifting along like a wayward tourist while other people do all the work around her. The Marquess makes a terribly devious foe, alternately sweet and ruthless. Though this is the first of a (stated) five-part series, it wraps itself up fairly neatly, if not quite cleanly: September suffers significant setbacks and lingering losses, and it's no mere click of the silver slippers to return home. The writing itself also deserves a mention, playing with the reader and the narrative in a manner evocative of the best of Lewis Carroll, yet never losing sight of the story. This is a book that practically begs to be read again as soon as you finish, not simply because of the lovely turns of phrase but to see how it all ties together.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - My Review
The Best of Lewis Carroll (Lewis Carroll) - My Review
Un Lun Dun (China Miéville) - My Review

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Guardians Inc.: the Cypher (Julian Rosado-Machain)

Guardians Inc.: the Cypher
(The Guardians Inc. series, Book 1)
Julian Rosado-Machain
Fiction, YA Fantasy

DESCRIPTION: Since Thomas Byrne's parents vanished, he's been living in California with his grandfather, Morgan. They love each other, but nothing truly takes the place of a boy's mother and father. Morgan also never anticipated having to raise a fifteen-year-old boy on his limited income. Since becoming the boy's legal guardian, money has become tight, and few people want to hire a seventy-odd-year-old man with arthritis and diabetes. That is, not until Thomas discovers an odd ad in the local paper, printed in a bizarre language that seems to translate itself before his eyes - an ad for an assistant librarian at a place neither of them have ever heard of, though it's barely two blocks away.
The strange old mansion on Pervagus Avenue belongs to Guardians Inc., an international corporation so vast it might as well control the whole of humanity... or the world. They are actually an ancient organization, an alliance between men and magical beings, dedicated to promoting responsible technology and holding a primordial evil at bay. Every five hundred years, a new chapter is written in the Book of the Concord, another chance for the world to tip between technology and magic, order and chaos. Thomas and Morgan prove to be Cyphers, capable of reading and understanding any written language, which makes them perhaps the only humans on Earth capable of reading the newest pages... which are being written even now by the Oracle, in a location hinted at by a variety of cryptic clues. If Guardians Inc. finds the Oracle and the book first, the world will survive as it is. If the shadowy Warmaster and his Azure Guard find it, they will unleash long-dormant magics to purge humanity from Earth and bring about untold destruction.
The newspaper ad said nothing about saving the world...

REVIEW: I wanted to enjoy this book. It had some nice ideas going for it, avoiding a few common traps of the normal-boy-finds-magic-and-learns-of-his-destiny formula. A few of his enemies are hard to spot at first, and others who made me suspicious prove to be true allies. Unfortunately, for every trap it avoided, this book falls into two or three more. The author tries too hard to cram too many ideas into the mytharc; everything from elves to hyperfuturistic technology to Nostradamus to Lovecraft and more are squeezed into one convoluted backstory and shoved into the narrative. Thomas also remains naive for far too long, with too many privileges being granted rather than earned. I have a hard time believing that Guardians Inc. could've lasted as long as it has if all of its employees are as inadequately trained for their jobs as poor Thomas and his grandfather were. One brief orientation session, and suddenly Thomas is supposed to be dealing with potentially dangerous customers and even more dangerous books? And this is before he's aware of the full scope and depth of the company... as if looking up books that he knows should not exist wouldn't be a tip-off that something very, very strange is going on. He's not the only Guardian employee without adequate access to information. Even his gargoyle bodyguard Henri turns out to need extra combat training - which I would think would be a prerequisite of the bodyguard job. This stumbling and bumbling accounts for a good part of the book, as the setting and characters are laboriously established. Despite this lag, the story finally picks up to a decent pace, only to be cut off hard by an abrupt cliffhanger. I knew it was Book 1 of a series, but I was still caught off-guard.
Guardians Inc.: the Cypher reads fast, and presents some decent ideas. Ultimately, I just couldn't muster much interest in it, let alone in the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Storybound (Marissa Burt) - My Review
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling) - My Review
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review