Sunday, December 28, 2014

December Site Update

I've cross-linked the previous five reviews on the main site. (A few days early, but I expect to be busy until at least the new year.)

Hopefully I'll be getting more reading time again come the new year...


Friday, December 26, 2014

Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon (Daniel Falconer)

Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon
Daniel Falconer
Nonfiction, Media Reference
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since his appearance in 1937, Tolkien's Smaug has been the epitome of the traditional Western dragon: cunning, vain, greedy, terrifying, and nearly invulnerable. Peter Jackson's Hobbit films brought the dragon from page to screen, from the author's ink sketches to larger-than-life CGI. Achieving this took a great fellowship of animators and artists. This book includes a foreword (and occasional additions) by Benedict Cumberbatch, the voice of Smaug.

REVIEW: Though I was not as impressed as I'd hoped to be with Jackson's Hobbit translation, Smaug is indeed an epic achievement in CGI, well worth a special look. From the earliest sketches to the final battle of the second film, this book tracks the inspirations and evolution of a truly monumental wyrm. It also confirmed that Smaug changed between the first and second movies - and that he was, as early promotional material promised, originally a four-legged dragon, as per Tolkien's book and illustrations. (Reading this, I understood why the design was changed. What's not explained is why Weta and Jackson released full-body promotional images before the final design of the dragon was nailed down... but I expect I'm the only one who noticed, as nobody else seems to have seen it.) Some of the industry jargon grows a bit thick, and it could've used a larger format to show off the details, but overall this is an interesting look at how much work goes into bringing a creation like Smaug to life on screen.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of How to Train Your Dragon (Tracy Miller-Zarneke) - My Review
The Lord of the Rings: The Art of the Fellowship of the Ring (Gary Russell) - My Review
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Code of Honor (Andrea Pickens)

Code of Honor
(The Intrepid Heroines series, Book 1)
Andrea Pickens
ePublishing Works!
Fiction, Historic Fiction/Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Among the well-heeled ton of England, Alexandra Chilton's prospects for marriage are slim... and she couldn't care less. She'd rather pursue her interests in botanical illustration, taking after her late, plant-obsessed father. If only her poor brother Justin didn't suffer the family's lack of means as well - a lack that may cost him the hand of his true love in marriage, as the woman's father has higher ambitions - she would be happy as she is. She wouldn't have even come to London for the season if Justin hadn't been determined to make one last, desperate bid for his lady's hand. If she hadn't been drug to another interminable ball, Alex never would've met the Earl of Branford... and she never would've been tempted out of her shell.
With rumors of his war record and affairs swarming thick as flies about him, Sebastian Branford buries himself in liquor and illicit liaisons, sleeping his way through half the manors in London. When another noble declares that even he would never be able to get under the Lady Chilton's skirts, Branford takes the bet - and quickly comes to regret it. For Alexandra Chilton is nothing like the fluttery society ladies he's used to. Clever and outspoken, she proves to be the first woman to see him as the man he is... and the first woman to inadvertently wake his long-dormant heart.
As sparks fly and rumors swirl, danger stalks ever closer to the Chilton line. Someone seems determined to be rid of Justin and Alex, and the reason why may be hidden in their father's last, cryptic note to his children.

REVIEW: I know one shouldn't expect too much originality in a romance novel, but this one hit too many dated cliches for me to overlook. Despite the series title and the initial promise, Alex proves to be yet another helpless, impetuous innocent in need of Branford's more worldly experience and protection. She's also the one to push him away on a misunderstanding, not to mention wandering blindly into danger not once but twice. Branford himself, despite his inner pain and sordid past, is every inch a lord and gentleman, while the brother Justin is an immature (if well-meaning) hothead who enables more than one story-extending misunderstanding. A convoluted plot against the Chiltons ventures into melodrama, as a pair of stock evildoers smirk and scheme, though just why is deliberately (and annoyingly) hidden by the author until the last minute; the revelation prompts less of a gasp than a groan. As for the romance, it's mostly couched in smoldering looks and lonely longing; physical interaction is minimal, save a few kisses and dances. The plot itself moves decently, even if it relies on misunderstandings and conveniences, though the ending feels trite. It's not a terrible tale, but I've read better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
The Fire Rose (Mercedes Lackey) - My Review

Friday, December 12, 2014

Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin)

Your Inner Fish
Neil Shubin
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: At first glance, humans and animals seem worlds apart... especially when you go back to the first life forms in the fossil record. But both DNA and paleontology show just how much we owe to our distant ancestors - and our more recent ones. Bacteria, jellyfish, worms, fish, and more have plenty to teach us about ourselves.

REVIEW: A fascinating, accessible look at evolution in action, Your Inner Fish demonstrates how connected we are to our living and deceased relatives, and why it matters. Not only can our bodies and DNA be traced back in time, but many of our ailments can, too; by denying our place as an evolved species, we risk cutting ourselves off from research avenues and cures to problems that have plagued us for longer than we've walked upright. Shubin discusses the works of many scientists, including stories from his own time in the field - particularly his participation in the discovery of Tikaalik, a transitional fishlike fossil on the cusp of terrestrial expansion. (Sadly, the first Google hits on it are creationist sites crying hoax... as sad a commentary on the state of science education today as I've seen.) The ending felt a bit abrupt, but overall I enjoyed this book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Extreme Science (Phil Clarke) - My Review
A SURVIVAL GUIDE: Living with Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period (Dougal Dixon) - My Review
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs (Dr. David Norman) - My Review

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Dragon King and I (Adrianne Brooks)

The Dragon King and I
(The Fairest Of Them All series, Book 1)
Adrianne Brooks
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Everyone knows the fairy tale: a damsel in distress, a terrible curse, and the knight in shining armor who saves her and carries her off to a Happily Ever After ending. For Alex, the curse is the knight. Since she was young, boys and men have fallen all over themselves to help her even when she didn't need or want it... even stealing her away to keep and protect. Now she lives as a recluse, with only her computer, her friend Rachel, and her cold mother's incessant phone calls (mostly concerning when she'll get married and breed grandchildren) connecting her to the outside world. But she can't go on like this much longer - especially as the curse is growing stronger, strong enough to pull strangers from the street to stalk outside her apartment door.
Strong enough to kill.
With the help of the fairy godmother she didn't know she had - a stripper named Seraphim - Alex sets off on a Quest to gather the magic ingredients needed to break the curse. But damsels can't go on Quests without help... which is where Sam comes in. Strong, handsome, and not quite human, Sam is the first man she's met who is immune to her charms - and the first man who tempts her wounded heart. But Sam has his own reasons for joining her on her Quest, and the secrets he hides may doom any notion of a happy ending.

REVIEW: At first, I was pulled in by the fast pace, the clever voice of the heroine, and the dark fairy tale feel - more like Grimm in the original than the sanitized Disney versions. Unfortunately, the promising sheen hid deeper flaws. Despite her snarky, take-no-guff voice, Alex is anything but a strong woman for most of the story, a helpless damsel in distress who can't do much on her own except get into trouble. The fact that she can think sarcastic pop culture references about her predicaments doesn't hide her general uselessness, save as an object of desire (and near-rape, on more than one occasion - at least one of which would've been averted with the classic knee to the groin, but even that much power is evidently beyond her. But, then, much of the "romance" in this book consists of her being helplessly ogled and pawed at.) Actually, most of her problems could've been cleared up earlier if she hadn't been deliberately kept in the dark about everything from magic to her fairy godmother's existence to the inhuman nature of her own bloodline - a sadly common yet irritating plot device. When Brooks starts dancing not just about this, but about the true nature of Sam, I started grinding my teeth: why name the book after a character, then go to such great lengths to hide the truth from the heroine? Is it really a spoiler if it's printed on the cover? The storyline itself moves decently, but loses the thread of logic during several bizarre sequences that make an acid trip look downright lucid. And the ending... well, the implications aren't exactly a healthy message on female empowerment. I also caught a couple continuity hiccups and several annoying proofreading errors, not to mention twists that, on reflection, defy the tale's own inner logic. While I liked some of the ideas Brooks presented, and her imagery could be compelling, overall I felt let down by the characters and the confusing plot.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tangled Tides (Karen Amanda Hooper) - My Review
Burned (Amber Kallyn) - My Review
Blood for Wolves (Nicole Taft) - My Review

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Untamed (Max Brand)

The Untamed
(The Dan Barry series, Book 1)
Max Brand
Project Gutenberg
Fiction, Fantasy/Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: As a boy, "Whistling" Dan Barry was found wandering wild in the mountain deserts, companion to wolf and mustang. When the rancher Joe Cumberland took him in, only his daughter Kate could keep the child from leaving. While he may seem tame, though, Joe has no delusions about the now-grown Dan's nature: he still has an uncanny way about him, a yellow light in his eyes when riled, and could easily be an enemy worse than any outlaw should his innocence be corrupted with bloodshed.
Jim Silent is the region's most notorious outlaw, but with his hand deep in many a corrupt lawman's pocket, he's yet to be brought to justice. When he first meets Dan, he thinks him a simpleton... but soon Silent recognizes him as the only man who might bring him down, a man motivated not by money but by the raw power of the untamed West. The frontier isn't big enough for the two of them, and not reason nor danger nor the pleadings of Kate Cumberland can turn Dan from his destiny.

REVIEW: This is a strange tale, constructed of larger-than-life characters - most more accurately described as caricatures - in a plot that's light on logic but heavy on action, overlaid with a certain magical mystique. Just what Dan is or where he comes from is never described: he's a prototype superhero, as much god as man, an American Pan who could only ever belong in the harsh, stylized mountain deserts that birthed him. He seems to be the embodiment of every preadolescent boy's imagination, the ultimate range rider whose only true companions are his mustang and his wolf-dog - both of whom understand him more than any human, just as he seems a perpetual stranger to the ways of Mankind. The rest of the cast, as mentioned, tends to be fairly one-dimensional, drawn from the Western stock bin: the evil Jim Silent, the generic lady love Kate, the last honest lawman Tex Calder, and so forth. They act out their tale with melodramatic exaggeration, sometimes going out of their way to create complications, as the story marches toward the inevitable showdown between Jim and Dan... followed by a wrap-up that, while unexpected, was in its own way inevitable. Brand apparently wrote at least two (possibly three, according to some internet sources) more tales of Dan Barry; while they're also public domain, I don't expect I'll follow the series any further. Whistling Dan may be an intriguing creation, and parts of Brand's writing had a certain poetic beauty, but the world he inhabits is just too stylized and dated for me to enjoy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review
The Virginian (Owen Wister) - My Review

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Site Update

Almost forgot - I've updated the main site, archiving and cross-linking the previous six reviews.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Writing Accelerated (Ian Stables)

Book Writing Accelerated
Ian Stables
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Writing
* (Terrible)

DESCRIPTION: Learn a simple, fast way to organize book writing, from research to finishing touches.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: It's a bad sign when the first thing you find in a book purporting to be about professional writing is a defensive statement about how grammar rules are only for "college textbooks" and not necessary for the author's style. This is like saying that basic arithmetic is only for rocket scientists. It makes me question whether or not this is a man educated and experienced enough to teach me anything, plus it's a very unprofessional tone to strike - especially when he simply meant to say that his grammar is colloquial, a statement that shouldn't need two and a half pages to defend. (It also makes me more likely to notice grammar errors... and there were many, so many that I wondered if he owned a word processing program with a simple grammar check at all.) Stables then goes on to defend his short books - again, assuming that I had downloaded his title simply to criticize him. His thesis here is that one shouldn't need a long book to learn anything if those other lazy writers just cut the fat and got right to the salient points - a flawed message, especially as Stables himself could've easily trimmed this eBook by a third or more. So, right out of the gate, I have an author with no respect for the basic building blocks of the language and who feels the need to defend his own works while denigrating others. This isn't much of a welcome mat, as I cross the threshold into his book.
So, what does Stables actually teach, in this book he took so much time and effort to defend before I set eyes on it? Very little one can't find elsewhere - and he teaches it in a circular, wandering, dull manner that had my eyes glazing long before he reached his chapter-ending summaries. He also undermines his own credentials, not simply by refusing to acknowledge the value of grammar but by poor editing (more than one sentence is indecipherable, plus there's a memorable bit where he advises authors to ask the six fundamental question prompts - which number seven when he spells them out.) He lauds the value of speaking as one would "to a friend", even using a microphone to record one's speech so one's natural "voice" carries through - but seems entirely oblivious to software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, which would eliminate his next step of transcribing said audio files (or paying someone else to do it via Fiverr.) If you're going to talk out your book anyway, why do extra work, especially in a method that's supposed to be about "Book Writing Accelerated"? And what hole has Stables been living in, that he's unaware of speech-to-text software? He says at the outset that one should learn a subject before attempting to teach it via a book - so why didn't he learn about this? Doesn't he use his own method?
If you've never read any other how-to-write books, I suppose you might pick up a few pointers here. Otherwise, I'd look elsewhere... preferably somewhere with a little more respect for the reader than to automatically assume we're all grammar hawks out to nitpick authors to death.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
Write As Fast As You Think (Angie Dixon) - My Review
Words to Write By (Elaine L. Orr) - My Review

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Invisible Prison (Mary Buckham)

Invisible Prison
(The Invisible Recruits Novellas, Book 1)
Mary Buckham
Cantwell Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Convicted of a grisly murder, Alex Noziak expected to spend the rest of her life in prison. She didn't dare tell the authorities the truth: that she's a half-shaman/half-witch who had summoned a death demon to save her brother from a rogue Were. Normal people still think werewolves, vampires, fairies, and the rest of the non-human world are just the stuff of bedtime stories, or the self-delusions of so-called Wiccans and other New Age freaks... and Alex would rather live out her days in prison than expose her family and her kind. Despite her silence, someone has figured out who she is, and what she can do. A mysterious pair of strangers come calling, offering her a choice: join up with a secret government agency created to keep human and non-human relations as peaceful (and quiet) as possible, earning a full pardon in a year, or rot in a cell. Something smells about the whole deal, and there's plenty the two aren't telling her, but she has little choice - especially when they threaten to expose her shifter family. Thrown in with a pack of other peculiar recruits, none of whom are forthcoming about their origins or abilities, Alex soon realizes that earning a spot in the Invisible Recruits agency may be the least of her worries, compared to simply staying alive.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I read this urban fantasy novella in a single afternoon, carried along by the quick action and snarky voice of the narrator. Alex makes for a tough heroine, yet she has her share of brains and - though she tries to deny it - a weakness for underdogs, not to mention an attitude that tends to get her into trouble that her magic and her fists can't always get her out of. This being mostly a setup for a novel series about Alex and the Invisible Recruits, it plays out like a TV pilot episode, establishing the core idea and world while introducing the cast of characters. If some of those characters felt underdeveloped, and if the ending felt a bit abrupt, well, such is the nature of many origin tales. I almost clipped it a half-star for the somewhat nebulous nature of Buckham's alternate world; there seemed to be almost too many possible non-humans and magic systems running around, and their powers and limitations came across as a little plot convenient at times. Still, I've read far worse - especially recently - so I was willing to cut it a little slack.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey) - My Review

Monday, November 17, 2014

Step Into My Parlor (Jan Hudson)

Step Into My Parlor
(The Women on the Run series, Book 1)
Jan Hudson
Janece O. Hudson, publisher
Fiction, Romance
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Socialite Anne Foxworth Jennings, heiress to the Royal Fox luxury hotel fortune, never thought she'd be stepping into a Houston pawn shop, desperate for cash. But things changed fast when her mother died and her stepbrother Preston tried to get his hands on the family bank account - first by proposing to Anne, then by trying to kill her. When she ran, she grabbed a briefcase full of Preston's files: blackmail material on everyone from senators and judges to the head of the FBI. With that kind of power ranged against her, Anne doesn't know whom she can trust. Her only hope was an old lawyer friend, far enough out of Washington to be beyond Preston's grasp, but Vicki seems to have vanished, leaving Anne stranded in Texas with sixty-three cents in her pocket and no options.
"Spider" Webb, former football star turned pawn shop owner, has made a comfortable life for himself in Texas... comfortable, but lonely. He didn't realize how lonely he'd been until the strange lady turned up in his pawn shop, hocking her watch for enough money to buy a hotel room and a meal. From the fear in her eyes, he knows she's running... and from the faint mark on her ring finger, he knows she's married. And one thing Spider won't do is mess around with a married woman. But he also can't turn his back on a lady who needs help - especially when the mere thought of her tempts him to break his own rule about married women in his bed.

REVIEW: Once again, I was fooled by reviews on Amazon. This was supposed to be a clever romance, winner of multiple awards... at least, in the original form. This version, however, has been "updated" and edited for its eBook debut. Perhaps some of that cleverness I was promised was edited out, or perhaps the basic storyline is just too dated for me to enjoy.
Even for a novella, it feels stretched, puffed with prolonged shopping trips and visits from Spider's vast network of friends and the obligatory yearnings of the leads as they simultaneously obsess over and try to deny their passions. The threat of Preston is mostly in Anne's mind; she may have had close calls before reaching Texas, but any trace of him finding her in Houston is the result of an overactive imagination, not to mention blatant bait-and-switches by the author. This makes her less a fearful woman in over her head, struggling to stay alive and do the right thing, than a frail object jumping at shadows who needs a Good Strong Man to protect her from herself. I could feel the author's hand constantly at work, creating complications and smoothing them out, tugging characters this way and that, making the whole story feel like a cheap contrivance rather than a natural unfolding of events between genuinely attracted individuals.
The romance itself feels unbalanced. Anne's the desperate one, the helpless woman who needs saving, the shallow socialite who needs to change her preconceptions about scruffy men in leather jackets and the merits of beer and country music versus wine and symphony orchestras. She's even the one responsible for most of the angst, letting Spider believe she's running from a husband (and therefore not fair game for his affections) rather than coming clean with her single status. Spider, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect as is, a good ol' country boy who hasn't an enemy in the world. His only perceived weaknesses are an overprotective streak (justified, in Anne's case) and an inability to recognize gallery-quality merchandise in his own store (a rather stereotypical hole for a manly man... and one that Anne conveniently fills, when he just happens to have numerous big ticket items in need of salvation by a fugitive art gallery owner.) Despite comments about their economic disparity, Spider comes across as fairly loaded, casually peeling off hundreds from an inexhaustible wad to assist any friend and cater to any real or perceived whim of Anne's. Half of Houston apparently has benefited from his legendary generosity, which he brushes off with a smile and a comment about tax deductible donations. With such flimsy barriers in their way, the ending would be a foregone conclusion even if this weren't billed as a romance.
In the end, I walked out of Spider's pawn shop feeling manipulated and unimpressed.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review
Branded for You (Cheyenne McCray) - My Review

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Photography for Beginners Box Set: 2 in 1 (Thomas Reed)

Photography for Beginners Box Set: 2 in 1
(Photography for Beginners Exposed; Photography Composition Uncovered)
Thomas Reed
Afflatus Publishing
Nonfiction, Photography
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Maybe you have a digital camera, but can't seem to get good results - the pictures always look flat or out of focus, too dark or too light. Or maybe you're in the market for a new camera. The author, a working photographer, offers advice and tips, explaining simple photographic terms and discussing how to make the most out of any shot. This box set contains two books:
Photography for Beginners Exposed: Reed explains the difference between camera types, the pros and cons of different lenses, and the meanings of such mystifying yet essential terms as aperture, f-stop, and ISO settings.
Photography Composition Uncovered: Reed discusses the importance of choosing a subject and paying attention to the background, with more on focal length and other subjects.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: These two titles suffer mostly from oversimplification and a lack of tangible examples to illustrate his points. For photography books, there seem to be very few pictures... save when they're advertising other Afflatus titles. Reed also has some follow-through issues; he spends time talking about manual film cameras (by now, more of a specialty item than a common camera that a beginner photographer might consider purchasing), but doesn't talk about different film types, and his discussions of software (as essential to the process today as a darkroom used to be) are virtually nil - instead, he mentions physical filters, which won't attach to the average beginner camera without an adapter... sometimes, not even then. It makes me doubt that he's as photo-savvy as he claims to be, or wonder if he hasn't updated his skills to include modern tools and techniques. I also found the ads intrusive. If you have no other books on the subject and find it as a free download, as I did, it might be worth a look.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How to Take Great Photographs with Any Camera (Peter Creighton) - My Review
Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter (Rick Sammon) - My Review

Saturday, November 8, 2014

DragonArt Ultimate Gallery (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer)

DragonArt Ultimate Gallery
J. "NeonDragon" Peffer
Impact Books
Nonfiction, YA? Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons and fairies and monsters - oh, my! Noted fantasy artist J. "NeonDragon" Peffer gathers more than 70 works in this volume.

REVIEW: With a few reprints from her previous DragonArt instruction books, most of this is new material, from personal works to commissions. She talks briefly about some of the the subjects, and adds a few quick notes on the work process, but mostly it is just what it says at the outset: a gallery showcasing her manga-influenced fantasy art. This honesty in advertising earned it back a half-star that it nearly lost for its sparse commentary. If you like her stuff, or just like fantasy art, it's worth a look... especially if you find it, as I did, at half price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe (John Howe) - My Review
Dracopedia (William O'Connor) - My Review
DragonArt (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer) - My Review

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hero for Hire (C. B. Pratt)

Hero for Hire
(The Eno the Thracian series, Book 1)
C. B. Pratt
C. B. Pratt, publisher
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: With the ongoing unpleasantness in Troy, even the gods seem to have forgotten that curses, monsters, and other unnatural plagues still trouble Greece. Eno the Thracian, meanwhile, has kept himself busy mopping up these little messes while the other heroes are off at war. Word of a harpy on the small island of Leros brings the chance of a double reward: one nation will gladly pay to be rid of the monster, while another has a standing offer for a live harpy. It seems like a simple enough task for a man of Eno's skills and experience, perhaps finally netting him enough money to retire with the woman who stole his heart. But something much more sinister than a harpy haunts Leros, a dark force powerful enough to bring the known world to its knees... a force more powerful than death itself, to which even the gods seem blind.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Set in mythological Greece, this tale offers action, humor, and a fair bit of local color. Eno may be stronger than the average man, but it's his wits that carry him furthest, making him more than just a second-rate hero. He encounters memorable adversaries and colorful allies, many of whom rise above flat stereotypes. I quite enjoyed the adventure, despite a few anachronisms that nearly threw me out of the story. (Both pumpkins and hummingbirds are strictly New World species; even allowing for the light tone and Eno's modern-sounding voice, Pratt relied on real-world history enough to make those references stand out like Herculean sore thumbs. And those were just the ones I caught, with my notorious undereducation.) The ending, unfortunately, becomes a tangled mess of action that draws itself out too long, dragging the whole thing down a half-star. Aside from that, it's a fun, fast-paced heroic jaunt.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pyramid Scheme (Eric Flint and David Freer) - My Review
The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) - My Review

Friday, October 31, 2014

October Site Update

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


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tarot for Writers (Corrine Kenner)

Tarot for Writers
Corrine Kenner
Llewellyn Publications
Nonfiction, Spirituality/Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since their creation, tarot cards have inspired stories with their imagery. Originally used to tell tales of the future, they can also help craft works of fiction. The author explains the symbolism of the tarot, offering tips and exercises for incorporating the cards into writing.

REVIEW: I have a passing interest in tarot cards (and a more-than-passing interest in writing), so this looked like an intriguing title. Kenner starts by explaining the tarot's history and symbolism, as well as some basic divination and layouts for use in fortune-telling and writing. She then offers suggestions on specific writing goals, from character creation to generating a story based entirely on random draws. The final section looks at each card individually, discussing its meanings and possible prompts. Overall, it's not a bad book, but I found it grew repetitious. I also questioned some of her card interpretations, which ran counter to other books I've read (and my own gut response, which is as much a part of tarot reading as it is writing.) It still prompted plenty of ideas, though, which was rather the point of reading it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Fortune Telling (The Diagram Group) - My Review
A Whack on the Side of the Head (Roger Van Oech) - My Review
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (Fred White) - My Review

Sunday, October 19, 2014

How to Work from Home (Sadie Lankford)

How to Work from Home
Sadie Lankford
Sadie Lankford, publisher
Nonfiction, Business
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Transcriber, virtual assistant, stock photographer, tutor... today, the average person has many opportunities to earn an income without leaving home - or to run their own business from the living room. The author offers over one hundred tips for anyone who wants to earn a little money on the side, or who wants to cut the cord altogether and be their own boss.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: One the one hand, Lankford is honest: as the subtitle states, these are "100ish Random Work at Home Tips, Tricks, and Ideas." On the other, she seems less than familiar with some of her ideas, tossing them out on friend-of-a-friend recommendations or just things she may have stumbled across without bothering to personally research. It weakens her credibility, a problem not helped by her occasionally immature writing style. While some of these ideas may pan out, others sound iffy at best, and some are so mired in scams that any true gold may not be worth the effort of sifting out the dross. In the end, while a few tips may have intrigued me, I just don't think I can trust this person to give me career advice, despite her apparently successful "Slap Dash Mom" site.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Make Money from Home: How to Become a Home-Based Non-Medical Transcriptionist (April Hodson) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review

Friday, October 17, 2014

Justice for all Time (Kit Cole)

Justice for all Time
Kit Cole
Kit Cole Books
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: FBI agent Cassandra Becker wakes in a dark cave with no badge, no gun, and no memory of where she is or how she got there. Crawling outside, she finds herself in a scene straight out of a Western, watching a stagecoach being attacked by Native American warriors. Somehow, she's fallen through time from 2013 to 1853, traveling from Washington,DC to Sacramento, California. This isn't a time or a place for an independent woman law enforcement officer, but somehow she has to survive long enough to figure out what happened, and if she can get home.
Sheriff Brendan Taylor knows there's something not quite right about the petite brunette from the moment he sets eyes on her - deftly demonstrating unladylike marksmanship while saving his kid brother deputy from an Indian. She has to be a criminal, to handle a gun like that... and how is it that, of all the people on that stage, only she walked away alive? Mostly, though, he'd like her to stay out of his way, yet somehow she keeps turning up in the heart of trouble. If Cassie weren't such a confounding annoyance, he could almost come to like her. It's just as well that she'll probably be leaving as soon as she regains her memory, because the last thing either of them needs is an unwanted romance. Unfortunately, time and fate seem to have other plans...
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Sometimes, when I'm exploring an idea or killing time practicing writing, I'll come up with a story-starter and a character and just run with it, letting random events crop up as I feel my way around. Once in a while, they take on lives of their own, but even then, the end result is never a cohesive story worth sharing with the world, full of inconsistencies and randomness and often lacking a binding plot - the sort of problems that only serious, focused revisions and rewrites could fix. Justice for all Time reminds me of those spitballing practice sessions in the raw. I constantly felt as though the author was half a chapter ahead of me, hastily scribbling in scenery I was about to arrive at, discovering the story only moments before I got there. Characters lack consistency, save supporting-cast stereotypes, and the settings never rise beyond flat backdrops. The storyline wanders with only a weak main arc binding events together, and even that ends by the halfway point, leaving the rest to sputter along to the end on fresh problems seemingly invented solely to extend the page count. Though billed as a romance, I got very little sense of chemistry between anyone. The narrative drifts between characters and locations, as though Cole randomly decided to switch points of view as an experiment rather than for a specific purpose. Errors glare, particularly mistaken words ("prostate" is not remotely the same thing as "prostrate," and at one point a group of soldiers help townsfolk repair "damns" in wet weather) and a mid-1800's law enforcement officer being familiar with the term "serial killer," which dates from the 1930's at the absolute earliest (1970's in America.) The logic of time travel in Cole's universe is vague, but even those rules are violated by the ending, which implies a potential series. The whole thing just feels unpolished, like a rough draft that was prematurely published. Very disappointing, even as a freebie title.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew) - My Review
Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) - My Review
Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglima) - My Review

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Quest (Aaron Becker)

(Sequel to Journey)
Aaron Becker
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: A girl and a boy, waiting out a storm under a bridge, are startled by the arrival of a strange man, who hands them a map before being carried away by gray guards. With their magic pens, they follow him into the gray world beyond the door, searching for the lost colors that will restore the realm.

REVIEW: A direct sequel to Becker's Journey, this continues the imaginative, wordless adventure of the girl with the red pen, joined by her friend and his purple bird. Small touches recall her previous visit to the magic realm, as the pair travel to deeper and stranger places in pursuit of the missing colors. Just as good as the first book, with the same sense of grand imagination.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
Imagine a Night (Sarah L. Thompson) - My Review

Monday, October 6, 2014

Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel)

Evidence of Trust
(The Colorado Trust series, Book 1)
Stacey Joy Netzel
Stacey Joy Netzel, publisher
Fiction, Romance/Suspense
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Brittany Lucas came back to the Highlands ranch in Colorado to clear her head and heal her heart. She thought she'd finish her degree and join her father's Chicago firm with Daniel by her side... until Daniel cheated on her, and her father decided he'd rather keep a promising protege than side with his own heartbroken flesh and blood. She feels more at ease in the mountains, working summers as a ranch hand and even discovering a flair for training horses, but it seems she's doomed to return to city life and city stresses after the season's over, to make good on that degree. For now, though, she means to enjoy this last summer... at least, that was the plan, before a suspicious stranger turns up, making her question everything she thought she knew about her life, her friends, and what she truly wants.
Ranger Joel Morgan rarely sleeps in the same bed for more than a few months at a time, traveling from wilderness to wilderness attempting to uphold the law beyond the reach of civilization. It's not so bad; burned first by his mother and, later, by the love of his life, it's not like he's looking to set down roots, and the few relationships he does indulge in have a built-in escape clause with his job. A poacher stalking the Rocky Mountain National Park brings him to Colorado - and right to the camp of the most stubborn, irritating, and beautiful woman he's met. If he didn't know better than to trust anyone, a girl like Brittany could steal his heart.
As Brittany and Joel fight a powerful attraction, the poacher grows more brazen, moving beyond trophies to pure thrill kills. Such a monster is only a heartbeat away from setting their sights on two-legged prey... and they may have a very personal connection to the Highlands ranch.

REVIEW: This story hits all the right notes for a romantic suspense title: two scarred characters, an unwelcome instant attraction that challenges their personal barriers, and an ongoing threat just strong enough to propel the story forward between bouts of friction. Brittany's almost exasperatingly stubborn at times, but she has a decent excuse, and she doesn't spend her time pining over how she can't commit or how much danger she might be in. Joel suspects everyone he doesn't know, which presents a problem when he's perpetually the stranger in any given town, but he eventually (and inevitably) warms up when his heart simply cannot be ignored any longer. The core relationship takes its time to build despite the requisite lust-at-first-sight sparks, each encounter ending in ambiguity or outright disaster as their insecurities trip them up. They seem fairly evenly matched in their flaws and strengths, not to mention their ability to deny themselves happiness. Meanwhile, the poacher stalks the periphery of the plot, one of a group of side characters who were mostly a tangle of names to me; there seemed to be too many ranch hands and rangers, with too few distinct personality traits or roles to keep them straight in my head. But, then, this book is primarily a romance with a side of suspense, not the other way around, making side characters intrinsically less important. Sometimes the teasing and the self-flagellation of the leads grows thick, but overall Evidence of Trust delivers on its promises.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review
Burned (Amber Kallyn) - My Review
Surface Tension (Christine Kling) - My Review

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Hollow World: Down the Rabbit Hole (R. G. Beckwith)

A Hollow World: Down the Rabbit Hole
(The Hollow World series, Book 1)
R. G. Beckwith
Beckwith Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When global warming opens up a mysterious hole in Greenland, a government team led by Rick Taylor bravely descends into the abyss... and vanishes. Five years later, his daughter Elena, fresh out of college, prepares to follow in his footsteps. She knows her father is probably dead, but she has to know for herself what happened - and, like Rick, Elena cannot resist the mystery of the unknown. Besides, she has to do something to keep herself distracted from the dreams of a strange man, calling to her for help from a forgotten place. Little does she know what she's about to find, a place where the impossible is real and dreams are reality.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This is billed as the first tale of a series, but in truth it's more of a prolonged teaser. The characters are simple constructs to serve a basic plot, which never quite builds up much interest in anything before being distracted by something else. (No prizes for guessing whether or not the "dream" is indeed a real person calling for help... though just why he reached out to Elena of all people is never established. But, then, there were several other logic holes I had trouble leaping, such as why this was set about thirty years in our future or just what any government could hope to gain by throwing scientists down a hole without even trying robotic probes first - not once, but at least twice.) For all the running around that's done and strange things witnessed, I found it hard to care about anyone, even the supposed protagonist. Things happen, sometimes violently, and the requisite number of extras are picked off on the way to a cliffhanger ending that fails to properly establish the stakes of the series. I also found the writing a bit clunky at times. Yes, I've read worse, and this was just a quick freebie when I downloaded it, but I still hoped for more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
City of the Beasts (Isabel Allende) - My Review
Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (James Rollins) - My Review
A Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne) - My Review

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Site Update

The previous eight reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Small Gods (Terry Pratchett)

Small Gods
(A Discworld novel)
Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: For three thousand years, the devotees of the Great God Om have built great temples in His honor and spread the wonder of His word... usually at the end of His swords, ending in the depths of His dungeons, under the merciful ministrations of His holy inquisitors. Seven great prophets, blessed to speak directly to Him, have added their words to the holy texts, and an eighth is due to arrive any day now. To prepare the path for his arrival, the exquisitor Vorbis labors mightily to cleanse the world of heretics - particularly those who worship false gods and speak lies about the shape of the Discworld. Such fools shall soon known the wrath of Om when He returns... assuming there is anything left of them beyond unsightly stains on His dungeon floors.
Novice Brutha has been called an idiot his whole life, and has no reason to doubt that he is, indeed, a fool. Despite an extraordinary memory and unparalleled observational skills, he cannot read or write even after years in Omnia, the great church-city at the heart of the Omnian religion. While tending the melon patches one day, he hears a small voice, claiming to be his god Om. But Om's statues are mighty and awe-inspiring, while this voice belongs to a lumbering one-eyed tortoise. Surely, this is one of the demons he has been warned about, come to tempt him to sin!
Om doesn't know what went wrong. He meant to come to Discworld as a mighty bull... only to wake in a tortoise's body, barely clinging to a vestige of godhood. Brutha's belief drew him like a moth to a flame. This isn't the prophet he would've picked, but it seems he has no choice - because even here, in the very heart of the church founded in his righteous honor, only Brutha truly believes in the great god Om. And a god who runs out of believers is a god on the brink of death.

REVIEW: Pratchett has a singular way of exploring profound topics with the silliest writing. Here, he delves into the thorny realms of religion, belief, gods, and mortality itself, not to mention the difference between factual truths and the "fundamental" truths on which so many institutions - human and divine - are built. The world and characters start out as simple, almost cartoonish sketches, but somehow grow into full-blooded people over the course of the tale. Nobody is infallible, not even a god, and there are plenty of lessons to go around. Between the frequent laughs are some serious examinations, offering no definitive answers. Given my lousy reading streak lately, this was an especially welcome story, one of those rare works that engages the mind on multiple levels. That success, plus several delicious quotes and one-liners, kicked it to the top of the ratings pile.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett) - My Review
The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crimson Gold (Traci Hall)

Crimson Gold
Traci Hall
Kendelle Press
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Romance
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In 1881, Candice Crimson rides into the frontier town of Spokan Falls with her maid, her wardrobe, a hydraulic drill, and the deed granting her part-ownership of a nearby mine - her only worldly possessions. After her father's murder, her cold mother tried to marry Candice off to an elderly lecher for money, then disowned the young woman when she refused to go along with the plan. Now, she means to make her own fortune like the true suffragette that she is, vowing only to marry for love - if then.
Braxton Dimitio struggles to pull a living from the Crimson Gold mine he co-owns with a Boston investor. It's hard going, and he hasn't struck the mother lode yet, but he's invested too much blood, sweat, and tears to give up. His drunken father left his family destitute on a dying California vineyard; he needs to make enough money to see them through before he can even begin to think about his own comfort. Besides, his own dreams of happiness abandoned him at the altar years ago, taking with her any naive notions of romance. What he needs most is better equipment, and what he needs least is a headstrong lady too full of darn-fool notions of equality and adventure to know her place. Unfortunately, the former - a vital hydraulic drill - comes with the latter.
When Candice and Braxton meet in the dirt streets of Spokan Falls, their partnership seems doomed from the start. Soon, they realize that they'll have to work together, not just to make their mine a success, but to survive... because someone will do anything to keep the Crimson Gold Mine from prospering, even if it takes a bullet to stop them.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A pampered yet independent heiress struggling to regain her lost family honor, a jaded yet honorable man struggling to resist his own heart's yearnings, set against the rugged backdrop of the Pacific Northwest frontier... this should've been a decent read, but it failed me on too many levels. Both Candice and Braxton experience the expected hot and cold moments as their unwanted yet inevitable relationship blooms, but to unbelievable degrees. It reached the point where I simply could not believe in the characters as anything other than flimsy contrivances of the plot. Within the space of a couple paragraphs, they go from swearing off each other as a bad cause to wallowing in oceans of self-pitying tears over their hopeless passions. I lost track of how many times they declared their love for each other, only to spurn it mere breaths later... not to mention the number of times I stared at the Kindle screen and decided that neither of these two idiots deserved to find love, ever. But, then, none of the other characters were much more than set pieces, and the plot itself quickly degenerated into weak melodrama as Candice's scheming mother becomes far too involved in the mine's woes. After a series of disasters, romantic and otherwise, the tale wraps up in an eye-rolling anticlimax. There were hints of possibility now and again, but in the end I just couldn't suspend my disbelief here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Native American History and Culture (Christopher Savio)

Native American History and Culture
Christopher Savio
Nonfiction, History
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: From the Bering land bridge migrations through Christopher Columbus's "discovery", from Pocahontas to Hollywood stereotypes in teepees, the average American learns very little about the indigenous cultures of North America, and what they do learn is riddled with prejudice and errors. The author attempts to set the record straight, starting with misconceptions on how humans first arrived on the continent, through the often-tragic tale of European rediscovery and exploitation, and up to present-day issues facing Native American populations.

REVIEW: My memories of history classes in school are of dull lists of names, events, and dates; so long as one could draw the requisite timeline and pass the test, there was no incentive to learn anything more, or even to remember what one had already learned. Being aware that this is a serious deficit in my education (admittedly one of many), I thought I'd try patching at least one of my knowledge holes with this book, which promised a look at a side of history rarely mentioned in schools. At first, I found it interesting, as the author debunks the old tidy explanation of a single migration across the vanished Bering land bridge. It then touches on the vast array of cultures in the so-called New World, including the often-overlooked Mound Builders. But then this book degenerated into the sort of lifeless, scattershot lessons I remembered so well from history class, interspersed with rants about how schools don't teach real Native American history. I think the problem lies in trying to cover too much - too many cultures and too much history - in one book. In the process, Savio glosses over huge stretches of material, ironically doing what he accuses the modern education system of doing: oversimplifying Native American culture and history. A lack of proofreading doesn't help, as homophones and sound-alike errors abound in the text. It wraps up on a vague note, mentioning how mistreatment has persisted into our presumably more enlightened modern times, and how some tribes are using gambling to rebuild revenue and power over their own destiny (while conveniently omitting the troubles that casinos often bring to communities, and the tribal infighting they can trigger.)
I learned a few things here and there, while reading this, but overall I was disappointed.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends (Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Americas (Jim Green, Fiona Macdonald, Philip Steele, and Michael Stotter) - My Review

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles)

Wicked Games
(A Games novel, Book 1)
Jessica Clare and Jill Myles
Jill Myles, publisher
Fiction, Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Abby's boss tells her that her next assignment is to be a plant on the reality show Endurance Island, she wants to refuse. Abby writes book reviews for MediaWeek, not an outdoor survival column. But the show and the magazine belong to the same parent company, so she can hardly turn it down without risking her job; besides, there's a potentially lucrative book deal to go along with the offer. Six weeks on a tropical island, playing silly games while researching an expose... Abby could think of worse vacations. But she didn't count on running into Dean.
It's hate at first sight, as he literally steps over her in the first challenge. Only the cruelest gods would have stuck the two of them together as teammates, and it's quickly clear that the feeling is mutual. Yet, despite the friction and her own better judgement, a spark catches in Abby's heart. Could she possibly have found love in the unlikeliest place on Earth, or is this just another game in the race to win two million dollars?

REVIEW: A quick-reading romance, Wicked Games delivers most of what it promises: a sizzling love-hate affair set against the backdrop of "reality" television. Abby doesn't go to the island searching for love, and neither does Dean. The relationship that develops between them catches them both by surprise, if not the reader. It's a fairly even match, with both characters flawed enough to be believable. Naturally, it's not a simple walk into the sunset, as complications on- and off-camera threaten them. The reality show aspects, especially the behind-the-scenes manipulations that are alluded to, feel a little underplayed, and the story goes out of its way to make Abby believe all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons - annoyances that narrowly cost the book a full fourth star. Overall, though, I got what I expected with this title. That shouldn't be a surprise, but lately it seems to be.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Chomp (Carl Hiaasen) - My Review
Shelly's Second Chance (L. B. Swan and Hope Chandler) - My Review

Monday, September 15, 2014

Throne of Glass (Sarah J. Maas)

Throne of Glass
(The Throne of Glass series, Book 1)
Sarah J. Maas
Bloomsbury USA
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: She was known as Ardalan's Assassin, the most notorious killer in a tyrannical kingdom... yet Celaena was only seventeen when she was betrayed, captured, and condemned to the prison mines of Endovier. Now, the Crown Prince himself summons her with an offer: come to the castle of Rifthold, become the King's Champion, and earn her freedom in four years. Serve the man whose forces slaughtered her nation and burned their sacred libraries, or die in the frozen mountains of Endovier? At least, if she lives, she might eventually strike back at the king, so she agrees.
At the glass castle in Rifthold, Celaena quickly learns that she's in for more than she anticipated. The other candidates for the role of King's Champion are cutthroats and monsters. Courtly rivalries between sponsors complicate things further. A foreign princess from a newly-conquered land might be an ally or an enemy. And, despite magic having disappeared from the kingdom when Celaena was a young girl, something very unnatural walks the halls of Rifthold... something deadly. But the worst danger might come not from her many enemies, but from within, as both the Crown Prince and his loyal Captain of the Guard find themselves drawn to the battered, wounded soul within the notorious assassin.

REVIEW: This story starts with plenty of promise, in a decently-drawn fantasy world. Initially, Celaena makes a strong, if jaded, heroine, torn between loyalty to her vanished nation and her need to survive, not to mention her growing attraction to the son of the man whose forces butchered her own parents in bed. Crown Prince Dorian, despite being (presumably) sired by an evil warrior king, is almost impossibly good, not to mention naive about his station in life. At first, his friend, Captain Chaol, had a more level head on his shoulders, but he, too, becomes distinctly less believable as the tale goes on and his attraction to Celaena becomes stronger. When he first meets the girl in a prison whose population rarely survives a few months, let alone the year she managed, he fully believes she deserved everything she got simply for being a filthy assassin - yet, not much later, he is horrified to learn that she was brutally whipped and permanently scarred by the guards without provocation. (He is actually more aghast about that than when he hears that those same guards raped and killed a woman who helped Celaena survive her wounds. So... what, being a woman is sufficient provocation to be raped and murdered, but lay a whip across the back of Ardalan's Assassin and suddenly a line of decency's been crossed? I knew love was blind; I didn't know it caused amnesia.)
This kind of loss of brain cells lies at the heart of much of my dissatisfaction with this title. Two men are found murdered, their insides and their brains sucked out, and people are honestly expected to believe it was just drunken brawling; even more amazingly, they seem fine with that explanation. Celaena spent years under the tutelage of the most notorious master assassin in the kingdom, yet she's perpetually snuck up on, and at one point she gleefully devours a bag of candy with unknown origins... knowing that someone's picking off the King's Champion competitors and having just narrowly passed a test about identifying poisons. She's also incredibly oblivious to two men lusting over her. All of this largely exists to complicate matters between the characters, and to shoehorn in a secondary antagonist, an ambitious court lady with her eyes on the Crown Prince. The often-eye-rolling cutesy antics and misunderstandings surrounding the love polygon eat far too much page count and far too many IQ points of the characters.
Then there's the matter of magic in this kingdom. We readers are told at the outset that there is no more magic in Ardalan. It vanished years ago, and has never returned. All magic books are burned, and anyone - even a rank charlatan - who so much as whispers of magic is executed by king's orders. Yet, without spoilers, forces that are essentially magic are very much in play at Rifthold. I'm reminded of the fight between Merlin and Madame Mim in Disney's The Sword in the Stone, where the two agree to no imaginary monsters like pink dragons... only to have Mim turn into a purple beast, pointing out that she never said anything about purple dragons. No, there's no pink magic in Ardalan - but there's plenty of purple magic, and maybe a dollop of gold and green and royal blue. This, too, eats many pages. And then there's some stuff about Celaena's possibly-magical past (which Maas deliberately, and annoyingly, refuses to let the reader in on), a foreign princess from a conquered land who knows far more than she lets on, ghostly visitations from one of Ardalan's forgotten heroines, and more, even a mix-breed mutt, piling onto the back of an already-overburdened plot.
But what, you may ask, of the King's Champion challenge, the competition through which the main character means to earn her freedom? What, indeed. The contest that, I had thought, would form a good chunk of the story gets shunted mostly to the side, save for one evil competitor and his leash-holder. It mostly serves an an excuse for an epic fight at the climax... a fight that goes on far too long, as too many subplots collide in the battle ring. Afterwards, the story lingers, painstakingly setting up sequels for several chapters. At the very end, the author mentions prequel novellas online - which may explain why she was so cagy about Celaena's origins and so free with the often-confusing tangle of names, as she likely assumed that any reader had already read the prerequisite introductions. Unfortunately, no, I hadn't.
As I find myself saying far too often, I have read worse books. Far worse. But this story started out with so much promise - enough promise to convince me to pay good money for it - only to collapse under its own weight, not to mention a writing style that tended to drift between perspectives and from omniscient to close points of view. That disappointment dropped it a half-star in the ratings.

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Graceling (Kristin Cashore) - My Review
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Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review

Friday, September 12, 2014

Steel (Carrie Vaughn)

Carrie Vaughn
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A fraction of a second. That's all it took for Jill to lose a shot at the Junior World Fencing Championships. Though her parents are supportive and her coach still thinks she's Olympic material, she can't stop thinking about that match, and how she should've won. Even in the Bahamas, where the family has come for a vacation, Jill broods. Then she finds the rusted piece of metal on the beach: the tip of a rapier, possibly centuries old. And everything changes.
Falling overboard during a sightseeing tour, Jill wakes to find herself hauled out of the water - not onto a fiberglass motorboat, but a wooden schooner straight out of a pirate movie, complete with ragged, unwashed extras brandishing blades and muskets. This is the Diana, run by the pirate queen Majorie Cooper. That rusted old blade tip came from a cursed sword brandished by Captain Cooper's sworn enemy, Edmund Blane. In order to survive long enough to figure out how it pulled Jill back in time, she has to stay alive in a lawless, unforgiving world.
Being too slow by a fraction of a second cost her a match. That same mistake here could cost her her life.

REVIEW: A young adult tale of pirates, fencing, obsession, and just a light touch of romance and magic, Steel starts fairly fast and rarely slackens. Jill obsesses over fencing: it's more than just a sport, it's her life, and that lost match is a festering open sore. Naturally, during her adventure, she learns some important lessons that make fretting over a mere tournament seem childish, but Vaughn manages to make Jill sympathetic even when she's a brooding teen... no mean feat for a writer. The world of piracy is no Errol Flynn movie (or even Johnny Depp), shown as a savage place in a time when humans are commodities, yet at least among the pirates there exists a hint of democracy - among themselves, at any rate. Jill meets a variety of characters, most of whom are more than mere wayposts on her journey of growth and self-discovery, though ultimately she must stand alone against both the foul Blane and the magic that brought her here. That magic, frankly, almost could've been cut from the story without affecting it overmuch; it really is something of an afterthought on Vaughn's part, a white rabbit to drop her down the rabbit hole of time. As a fantasy fan, I would've liked to see a little more of it, as its presence and powers seemed more like conveniences of the plot than a mystical, if nebulous, force. Overall, though, I can't really complain. Given my iffy reading luck lately, I forgave it a few minor irritations and went with a Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Avi) - My Review
Pirate's Passage (William Gilkerson) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review

Monday, September 8, 2014

Death Warmed Over (Kevin J. Anderson)

Death Warmed Over
(The Dan Shambles, Zombie PI series, Book 1)
Kevin J. Anderson
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Ever since the Big Uneasy woke ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and more, the life of New Orleans private investigator Dan Chambeaux has been a little more interesting... as has his death. First his girlfriend Sheyenne was poisoned, then Dan woke six feet under after a bullet to the head. But cases don't solve themselves, and the first thing Dan did - after crawling out of his own grave - was report back to work. With Robin, a lawyer specializing in nonhuman rights cases, and Sheyenne, the firm's ghostly new receptionist, Dan investigates cases ranging from exploited Egyptian mummies to harassed vampires... all the while hoping to catch a lead in the greatest murder of his career: his own.

REVIEW: Death Warmed Over's tongue-in-fang tone starts out on a fun note, but with some bite. New Orleans's unnatural citizens are just as messed up as any human, making for a colorful cast of characters. Unfortunately, that cast sprawls all over the city, tangled in numerous cases large and small that seem to exist primarily to distract Dan from his investigations into his own demise. The characters also lean heavily on classic PI stereotypes, sometimes with a slight supernatural twist. Once in a while, Dan proves rather dense for a private investigator, and the name of one of the characters gives away what I expect was supposed to be a major plot twist. That obvious case of telegraphing, plus an eye-rollingly blatant setup for sequels at the end, cost it the extra half-mark that the (initially) light tone almost earned it. On the whole, I've read far worse stories, but this just felt too unfocused, telling its own joke a few times too often to keep me amused to the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelley Anderson) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts (John Seymour)

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts
John Seymour
Dorling Kindersley
Nonfiction, History
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: These days, most people in industrialized nations take running water, packaged foods, ready-made clothing, heat, disposable packaging, and more for granted. It's all just a turn of a faucet, a flip of a switch, or a quick jaunt to the store (or the internet) away, isn't it? Not so long ago, however, daily life relied on the skills of trained craftspeople and knowledgeable housewives, men and women who transformed raw materials into the necessities of civilized life. Many of these skill are endangered, some having gone entirely extinct, but the recent trend toward self-sufficient living is inspiring a revival. Author John Seymour draws upon his childhood, his travels to remote corners of the world, and his own curiosity about pre-industrial living to offer a glimpse into such lost and fading arts as barrel-making, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, thatching, and more.

REVIEW: This book is a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, it explores just what went into the daily existence of yesteryear, how many people and how much stored knowledge was required for even the smallest village to thrive. From building a house with local materials to holiday decorations, from labor-intensive works meant to last a lifetime to the nitty-gritty of everyday cleaning and personal sanitation, a broad and diverse range of topics are discussed. On the other hand, Seymour does little but glimpse at most of his subjects, often coloring his descriptions with heavy doses of nostalgia that alienate more modern readers. No, Mr. Seymour, I have no recollection of visiting the village smithy as a child, so your charming explanation hardly helps me decipher the process you're describing. The illustrations are little more helpful, often showing tools without explaining their use or cluttered workshop scenes that only confuse rather than enlighten. In discussing the lifestyles of our ancestors, the author's rose-colored glasses are so thick they're practically a blindfold; yes, there were (and are) many admirable things about simpler living, but there were also many drawbacks and limitations, and it's a little hypocritical to praise the centuries or millennia of innovations that led to, say, the spinning wheel and loom while universally condemning innovations beyond an arbitrary "back-in-my-day" cutoff point. Several of the articles also feel thin, barely mentioning or explaining a particular craft before dwindling to a close.
The Forgotten Arts and Crafts succeeds at showing just how complex village life was (and remains, in many parts of the world), offering a look at the many skills and talents that eventually paved the way for our modern world... many of which deserve to be preserved against a future that cannot support our current wasteful, short-sighted lifestyle. I was just hoping for a little more depth.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Saturday, August 30, 2014

August Site Update

I've archived and cross-linked the previous nine reviews on the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Peculiar (Stefan Bachmann)

The Peculiar
Stefan Bachmann
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Many years ago, after fading to myth, the faeries returned to England in force. In the Smiling War - named for the grinning skulls littering the landscape - thousands of lives were lost, until human artillery and sheer numbers overwhelmed the wild and strange fay forces. Today, the faerie races live in slums and alleys, their magic countered by iron and clockwork and bells. Humans distrust the fay, and fay distrust the humans.
Neither side cares for the changelings - ill-fated halfbreeds, few of whom reach adulthood for the lynch mobs ready to blame them for any ill luck, or simply for daring to exist.
Bartholomew and his kid sister, Hettie, have lived their whole lives in Old Crow Alley. Hidden by their human mother, they can only dream of a normal life, where neighbors coming to call doesn't mean hiding in a locked room and where simply looking out the window isn't risking death. As they say, don't get yourself noticed, and you won't get yourself hanged. But when the strange woman in the plum-colored dress visits a neighbor, Bartholomew is noticed... and, with changeling children vanishing only to turn up in the Thames, hollowed out by unknown forces, merely being hanged might be a dream. Soon, he finds himself entangled in a plot with ties all the way to London, where a dark scheme threatens both humans and fay.

REVIEW: The cover looked intriguing, and it has an interesting premise and setting, but The Peculiar fails in the execution. Bachmann returns to the roots of faerie lore to create a race (or group of races) far more nightmarish and dangerous than many modern, whitewashed depictions acknowledge. Though captive sprites light up streetlamps and nobles tinker with magical toys, these beings are utterly alien in their thoughts and powers, and to meddle in their affairs is to meddle in forces no mortal can hope to comprehend. Between the strange magic and the clockwork bent of an alternate elder-day England, this book establishes a gritty, dark, yet refreshingly different world. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the storyline justify it. Bartholomew is a selfish idiot of a protagonist, who repeatedly does the dumbest possible thing in a given situation; the narrative then spends at least a page, often more, trying to rationalize said decision as anything other than a contrivance to complicate the plot. He also stubbornly doesn't care about anyone but himself and - ostensibly - his sister Hettie, not even when it becomes clear that his problems are part of troubles that could destroy the whole world. As a result, he simply won't listen, which gets him into even more trouble. Working opposite him, but toward a similar goal, is the human politician Arthur Jelliby, another character who sets out to do precisely nothing and only reluctantly realizes that that option isn't advisable when it would allow a great evil to triumph. At least Jelliby steps up to the plate once he realizes he has no choice; even in the last chapter, Bartholomew still doesn't give a dang if the world is torn apart. The bad guys, naturally, only care for themselves and their goals, employing rather gruesome means in pursuit of their nefarious ends. So, in a novel where every single character doesn't want to save anything but their own skins, whom exactly am I supposed to sympathize with, and why should I care if this world might be annihilated? The answers for me, unfortunately, turned out to be "nobody" and "no reason." The storyline meanders from problem to problem and unpleasant encounter to unpleasant encounter, building up to a climax almost in spite of itself. Only at the very ending does it reveal itself to be the first part of a series of unknown length - a betrayal that cost it the extra half-star that its imaginative premise almost earned. On the plus side, the story read fast, but mostly because I just wanted it to end. I still think Bachmann has some nice ideas; unfortunately, that potential is wasted in a story that just plain doesn't want the reader to care.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Faerie Wars (Herbie Brennan) - My Review
Stardust (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter (Rick Sammon)

Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter
Rick Sammon
Wiley Publishing
Nonfiction, Photography
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, no professional photographer would admit to using something so lowly as a simple compact camera. In recent years, however, digital compacts have come up in quality as more and more features become standard. With a little forethought and education, any amateur shutterbug can get excellent results without breaking the bank on a high-end dSLR. Professional photographer Rick Sammon explains some of the features and options available on today's powerful compact cameras, offering tips and tricks on everything from camera selection to the "digital darkroom" of Photoshop Elements.

REVIEW: A reasonably fast read, this book demonstrates the power and versatility of today's smaller cameras. Sammon compacts plenty of information in a fairly small amount of text... perhaps too small. Or maybe he simply assumed that most of his readers would be pros, or at least more experienced amateurs than I am (being closer to the clumsy hack end of the skill scale.) He also focuses exclusively on Photoshop and related plug-ins; I understand that that platform is the industry standard, but there are plenty of powerful (and cheaper) alternatives for those on a tighter budget, and it might've been nice to acknowledge some of them in a book touting the wonders of thrifty photography options. Overall, though, Simmons presents some interesting hints alongside his inspiring work; I think I just need to read it a few more times before the information can truly sink in.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How to Take Great Photographs with Any Camera (Peter Creighton) - My Review

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Keeper and the Rune Stone (Paige W. Pendleton)

The Keeper and the Rune Stone
(The Black Ledge series, Book 1)
Paige W. Pendleton
Pig Wing Press
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: After their father made a fortune off his new anti-viral medicine, the Driscoll children - Rob, Eleanor, Jake, and little Flora - find themselves in a new home, a giant old mansion on the Maine coast. It comes with everything a kid could hope for: private bedrooms, a thousand nooks and crannies to explore, a horse stable, a private beach, access to the vast state park... and a gateway to the Realm, the magical world of Elves, Dwarves, and other Beings from myth and legend. "Wakened" to this magical world by the Keeper, Camedon, the children find all new wonders to explore - and all new dangers awaiting them. The coming Summer Solstice marks the renewal of an ancient pact between the beings of Light and the Night Elves, who include among their numbers the rebellious and utterly corrupted Noctivagi - better known to Humans as vampires. But the Rune Stone, the key to the pact, has gone missing... and if the Solstice dawns without it, dire consequences await the Realm and the Human world alike.

REVIEW: This story tries so hard to emulate old-school children's books, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales or Edith Nesbit's adventures, that it falls into an inescapable trap. There's a certain innocence required for those stories to work, a naiveté that hearkens back to simpler days and simpler ways... a mindset that is very, very hard to reconcile with kids who use laptops and surf the net. Authors like Brandon "Fablehaven" Mull pull it off by making their characters a little more sophisticated or skeptical at the outset, but the Driscolls are so wide-eyed and innocent that it's difficult to believe they live in the modern world at all. Hard as Pendleton tries to roll back the clock, with the elves and the old house and the horesback riding and the talk of Olde Magyk, even limiting the kids to just one internet search in the entire book, it doesn't quite work.
Meanwhile, the story hoards its action like a miserly ogre. For every paragraph in which something actually happens, at least ten pages are spent either dithering aimlessly or talking around events in repetitive circles. It also throws names out like party confetti. Not only are there the four kids (who each boil down to a one-word description: Smart Rob, Brave Eleanor, Funny Jake, and Innocent Flora), but there's the Driscoll parents, the Keeper Camedon, a goblin (who presumably has a bigger role in future books), a barn cat and her kittens (likewise), six horses (yes, they have horses, because most modern kids can relate to children with more money than God), two crows, the different races of Beings, a slew of Light Elves, a handful of other Keepers, the town librarian who also knows about the Realm, a groundskeeper... If you found that exhausting, try reading a book that expects you to keep track of these various names, mostly because people keep yammering about them. Magic exists as a convenience, an unknowable Thing that behaves as the plot requires (and gives the characters something else to babble about at length - even the animals, because naturally animals know all about the intricacies of the Realm's politics and rituals and are perfectly willing to chit-chat about it in lieu of actually doing anything.) Towards the end, there's a brief burst of action that tries to be scary, but the story thus far had been wrapped in so many protective layers of chatter that it was hard to feel much danger. And then it ends, with hints that even the author was losing focus amid the chatter as the narrative inexplicably drifts between Eleanor's viewpoint and another character's.
I'd like to say that The Keeper and the Rune Stone at least managed to evoke an occasional sense of magical wonder, which it was clearly striving for (and is what one usually remembers most about those old-school classics), but frankly my main memory of this book is endless, repetitive yammering.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper) - My Review
The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - My Review
Fablehaven (Brandon Mull) - My Review

Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris)

Tell Me a Dragon
Jackie Morris
Frances Lincoln Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Big or small, fierce or friendly, red or green or blue or brown, everyone has a dragon. What kind is yours?

REVIEW: A beautiful, poetic little book, this celebration of the imagination is great for dragon-lovers of all ages. Morris's illustrations bring to life a wide variety of dragons, while inviting the reader to imagine their own. It reads fast, though the images invite lingering... even when you're technically supposed to be working. (I really have to be more careful about reading during down time at work.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review

Friday, August 15, 2014

Branded For You (Cheyenne McCray)

Branded For You
(The Riding Tall series, Book 1)
Cheyenne McCray
Pink Zebra Publishing
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Months after her divorce from a verbally abusive man, Megan Wilder moves to Prescott, Arizona, to be with her family... and quickly remembers why she was so eager to get away. Though her older sister, Tess, has always been supportive, her father once more tries to take over her life and her mother's constant criticism opens old wounds. Maybe Bart and her parents are right; maybe she really is an overweight screw-up who doesn't know how to run her own life. Then she runs into Ryan McBride. Tall, handsome, and endlessly kind, the Arizona cowboy makes Megan believe she's beautiful. But with the family restaurant in trouble and her parents' disapproval, can she hope to find a happy ending?

REVIEW: I wanted to give this one an Okay. I really tried to look past the problems. But, by the end, I just couldn't do it. Megan starts out an insecure, flawed, and hurt woman, but she only apparently has to do one thing to fix everything wrong with her and her family: trust a man like Ryan McBride to take care of everything. Ryan, on the other hand, is impossibly perfect. He's rich, he's handsome, he's the perfect boyfriend and lover, and he knows just how to solve everyone's problems. How he learned is a mystery, as he apparently has no problems of his own. (Some lip service is given to a little family tension, but it's nothing compared to the impending ruin facing Megan's clan.) Within a week of meeting each other, they're already thinking marriage. The only possibly fly in the ointment of their happiness is a simple misunderstanding - shoehorned in because this kind of story needs a crisis - that's cleared up within a chapter of its introduction. Silly Megan, thinking her man might have had a flaw! She should've known better! But, then, she is just a woman. Men are the only ones who can really do anything. The plot, like the generic cover art, is a thinly redressed retread of the quintessential (bordering on stereotypical) romance. I was almost laughing by the end as one ridiculous cliche after another played out. The writing does the job, but I have to admit my inner editor cringed at several pointless stretches and phrases. ("He pressed the accelerator and the truck sped up." What else is supposed to happen when the accelerator is pressed? And why interrupt the dialog to tell me this when I already know he's driving on a highway, where speed is required? And why was I so bored that this kind of thing really started getting on my nerves?) I suppose I just expect more out of a story, even a romance, than I found here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
Scoundrel For Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
The Virginian (Owen Wister) - My Review

Sunday, August 10, 2014

OMG (Oh My God) (Bob Kat)

OMG (Oh My God)
(The CUL8R Time Travel Mystery series, Book 1)
Bob Kat
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: 15-year-old Kelly never expected to move from Texas to Florida, from a small town where she was homeschooled to a public school and her lawyer aunt's home. But a drunk driver taking out both of her parents in one terrible wreck changed everything. Maybe it won't be so bad. The neighbor boy, Scott, is nice enough and smarter than Google, and his best friend Austin is the hunky captain of the football team. Aside from Zoey, a cheerleader with her sights set on Austin, her future at Fort Meyers Beach looks promising.
While helping her aunt clean out the garage, Kelly finds a strange old device that may have been built by Thomas Edison: a telephone created to speak with the dead. With a little tinkering, Scott gets it working... and a girl's voice pleads with them to help her. Wendy died in 1966, and the newspapers claimed it was suicide. To investigate, Scott unveils a secret project of his, a cell phone app that should allow them to travel through time. Before they go, he warns his friends not to change anything - but how can they leave an innocent girl to die, especially when it looks less and less likely that she took her own life?

REVIEW: From the title, I was expecting a shallow, snarky teen time travel adventure, possibly involving modern kids introducing square cats in the 1960's to the wonders of hip-hop and twerking. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Kelly struggles to process her rapidly-changing life, including making new friends and learning to get along with her aunt, who isn't the maternal type but tries her best. She also wrestles with body issues... a subplot that I expected to get more page time, especially when dealing with potential causes for teen suicide. Her friends also have their strengths and their weaknesses and their inner struggles, which are revealed by a narrative that annoyingly head-hops mid-paragraph. Unfortunately, the potential peters out as the author resorts to unnatural explanatory dialog, making sure the reader understands the story and the Issues being discussed. It reads like a grown-up talking out "teen issues" using characters as mouthpieces rather than natural conversations between kids. Though billed as a mystery, there really isn't much investigation going on, as the potential causes and suspects are fairly straightforward. (It's also billed as a romance, which doesn't quite fit the narrative either; Kelly feels some fledgling hints of attraction for both Austin and Scott, and Zoey pursues Austin like a terrier after a rat, but there isn't any real romance or love to speak of.) The kids travel back to the 1960's, discovering that teens face pretty much the same struggles no matter the decade... a journey in which their Prime Directive ideals of non-interference quickly go out the window. The book ends without telling the reader (or the characters) the consequences of their trip; the eBook I read had a preview of Book 2, which answered a couple questions but left many annoying loose ends. (I confess I was bored into skimming, though - too much page time went to rehashing Book 1, as well as meandering through neice-aunt bonding time.) In the end, it's not a terrible adventure, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it could've been better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew) - My Review
Serpent of Time (Eugene Woodbury) - My Review

Thursday, August 7, 2014

In Search of the Fun-Forever Job (Ellis Chase)

In Search of the Fun-Forever Job
Ellis Chase
Nonfiction, Business
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many years ago, the average worker hired into a company after school, stuck it out for a few decades, then retired with a cake, a gold watch, and a nice pension. Those days are long gone. Changing jobs and careers, by choice or otherwise, is the new normal, but that doesn't mean job hunting is any easier than it used to be. An experienced consultant offers advice for your next employment transition.

REVIEW: Despite the title, this isn't about finding a job you enjoy, but about transitioning careers, ideally moving toward something one likes more than whatever one is currently doing (or was just fired from.) Like most job search guides, Chase emphasizes the need to network and look beyond the usual want ads in order to reach the people who matter, in addition to creating a "brand" and polishing a sales pitch to market oneself. His advice is better suited to trained professionals, college graduates, and experienced white-collar workers than undereducated bookslingers (like me), but it seems sound enough. I just found it a little long-winded and repetitious, making my eyes glaze over at several points.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Find Your Passion (Derick Van Ness) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review