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

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)

The Way of Kings
(The Stormlight Archive, Book 1)
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In ages past, the storm-swept world of Roshar trembled as great battles raged across its many lands, consumed by wave after wave of chaos known as Desolations. The Knights Radiant were humanity's greatest champions in these wars... until the day they betrayed the very people they served, walking away from their oaths and leaving behind their Shardplate armor and weapons. Today, stories of the Desolation and the foul Voidbringers are little more than myths and bedside tales, the Knights Radiant cursed. The people have fragmented into warring races and kingdoms, forgetting the old Codes. But danger still waits, and soon the Final Desolation will fall upon an unprepared world. A hero must come, to throw back to darkness, but who? And from where?
Shallan left the family estate on a mission to save her family. Her late father left them drowning in debt - if his death were known, the creditors would strip her family to the bone. Her plan is dangerous, but she's desperate... as she must be, to contemplate stealing from one of the most powerful women in the kingdom. But even as she works to gain the trust of the eccentric heretic Jasnah, she discovers more temptations and dangers than she bargained for.
Son of a surgeon, Kalidan once dreamed of becoming a soldier, of finding true honor on the battlefield instead of the corruption and pettiness if the lighteye lords his father served. He learned the hard way that battle brings no glory and little honor, especially for a lowly darkeyes like himself. Now a branded slave, his bitterness knows no bounds. People all around him seem to die, no matter what he does. Why can't he die with them?
Dalinar is a highprince, brother of the slain King Gavilar and uncle to the current regent. He, alone of all his fellow highprinces, still follows the ancient Codes that the late king embraced, codes that ask a ruler to display honor, integrity, and concern for his underlings. His ways make him an outcast among his peers... and, in the political maneuverings of the Alethki courts, that makes him vulnerable. Worse, he is plagued by recurrent visions of a world in chaos, warned by a voice to unite his peers. Is this a message from the Almighty Stormfather, or are his sons right that he's simply going mad?
Szeth-son-son-Vallano was cast out from his people as Truthless, a slave to a succession of brutal masters. It was his hand that killed King Gavilar, triggering a massive war that rages to this day across the Shattered Plains... a murder he hated committing, like every other time he was forced to use his deadly gifts. Some dark game is being played, a game whose shape terrifies him. But he is Truthless. If he cannot change his own worthless fate, how can he possibly change that of Roshar?

REVIEW: Fantasy, especially epic fantasy, has a way of feeling familiar, even in the hands of the best authors; characters may stand out, and there may be a few twists on the genre conventions, but there's usually a familiar world beneath it. Sanderson manages to create something entirely new, an alien world full of strange magic and stranger races, all bound up in a tale so large that "epic" is truly the only word for it. Having invented a unique world and several distinct populations, he goes on to stock it with a host of fascinating characters. Their paths rarely cross, save toward the end, but each of them has a unique and important perspective on events as they unfold. It's rare that I find both the setting and the characters equally fascinating. I was constantly torn between wanting to know what happens next and wanting to linger over the pages, extending my stay in Roshar. My only complaint is that it's Book 1 of a series, and I've yet to see a sign of Book 2. I haven't had a chance to hand out a five-star rating in a while, but this book deserves no less.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Rhapsody (Elizabeth Haydon) - My Review
Mistborn: The Final Empire (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) - My Review

Thursday, July 4, 2013

BEAT to a PULP: A Rip Through Time (Garnett Elliot, Chad Eagleton, Chris F. Holm, Charles A. Gramlich, authors; David Cranmer, editor)

BEAT to a PULP: A Rip Through Time
(The Rip Through Time series, Book 1)
Garnett Elliot, Chad Eagleton, Chris F. Holm, Charles A. Gramlich, authors; David Cranmer, editor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: It should have been Mankind's greatest achievement since it first crawled from the primordial ooze: the Baryon Core. In theory, it can allow one to peer into any moment of any time, laying bare the secrets of the Universe. Then the core's inventor, Doctor Berlin, goes rogue, smashing his way into the Company's labs and stealing his own device before disappearing into the timestream. Simon Rip, the Company's top time agent, and the seductive Doctor Serena Ludwig set out after him, but Berlin may not be the madman everyone thinks he is. The more Rip uncovers, the less certain he becomes... and the more danger he discovers, not just to himself but to the whole of human existence.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Written as an homage to old-school pulp sci-fi adventures, A Rip Through Time succeeds in capturing the flavor of a bygone fictional era... not always for the best. The action comes thick and fast, almost managing to obscure the fact that the plot makes no sense whatsoever. Paradoxes, aliens, treachery, sapient computers, steampunk Aztecs, Ernest Hemingway, King Arthur... all these and more are thrown into the blender and spattered across the pages. Simon Rip excels at beating people up and being beaten up - and, of course, ogling Doctor Ludwig's ample curves. (I'd like to believe this was a deliberate wink at the sexism of older sci-fi, but unfortunately I can't be certain.) His associates quickly diverge into Good and Evil camps, and stay there for most of the story. The final chapter tries to set up tension for future installments, but makes such a change in mood and style that it threw me long before the hook was set. Then the last ten-odd percent of the book talks about time travel in popular fiction, with a peculiar emphasis on the production values of various movies. Why? I don't know, and by that point I no longer cared.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Timeline (Michael Crichton) - My Review

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbit)

The Book of Dragons
Edith Nesbit
Public Domain Books
Fiction, YA Collection/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Small as a gnat or as large as a mountain, dwelling at the ends of the Earth or within the pages of a magical book, dragons always bring trouble no matter where or when they turn up. In this collection, the author Edith Nesbit recounts tales of many remarkable dragons and the people who must deal with them.

REVIEW: With vivid imagination and clever turns of phrase, Nesbit spins a number of charming fairy tales. The characters tend to be flat stereotypes, especially the girls - which is strange, given that Nesbit herself seemed to be anything but the helpless damsel in distress. For fairy tales, however, they work just fine; they didn't have a chance to outstay their welcome, unlike those in her longer works. Also, for all the imagination on display here, the author clearly writes for a very specific audience, that being white English schoolchildren of some wealth. (That was the world she knew, though. I don't suppose it occurred to her that anyone else would be reading these stories, let alone grown-ups in another country more than a century in the future... reading them on an electronic device that would've seemed nearly as fantastic to her as the storybook that births live monsters. But I digress.) Wild adventures are had, and if nobody ever really came to harm, even after being eaten by a dragon, well, these were written for schoolchildren... and parents, who would've objected to unhappy endings for their blessed little darlings. All things considered, I gave it the benefit of the doubt with a Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Dragonslayers (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Book of Enchantments (Patricia Wrede) - My Review
Here, There be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review