Friday, February 28, 2014

February Site Update

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


How to Write a Novel (Brian Richards)

How to Write a Novel
Brian Richards
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: From idea generation to publishing, learn how to write a novel in this short guide.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Some subjects simply cannot be adequately discussed in 32 pages, such as writing a novel. Nevertheless, Richards attempts it... and, unfortunately, falls short of the mark. He seems unaware that there are, in fact, many ways to successfully write a novel: his strict adherence to one method, in a my-way-or-the-highway approach, is neither as helpful nor as sure-fire as he advertizes. He also glosses over traditional publishing options and finding an agent, perhaps considering them obsolete gatekeepers. Ultimately, there's nothing here that one can't find in other, better writing guides.

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Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
Writers Write (William Meikle) - My Review
What's Your Book? (Brooke Warner) - My Review

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Carnivores (Aaron Reynolds)

Aaron Reynolds, illustrations by Dan Santat
Chronicle Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Tired of being picked on for their lifestyle, a lion, a shark, and a wolf form a support group for carnivores.

REVIEW: With so many children's books and cartoons preaching that the only good carnivore is a converted vegetarian (or, in the classic sidestep, a piscivore), this is a book whose time has come. Carnivorous animals aren't any more inherently evil than any other animal... though it's probably a good idea to give them a wide berth at mealtimes. With clever writing and hilarious illustrations,it teaches a good lesson while being thoroughly entertaining for all ages.

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Shark vs. Train (Chris Barton) - My Review
All My Friends are Dead (Avery Monsen and Jory John) - My Review
Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

LUC (Kimball Lee)

(The In the Age of Copies series, Book 1)
Kimball Lee
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In a polluted future where clones, cyborgs, and Copies outnumber Original humans, Dr. Henley Carr has pinned her career on the LUC program. Designed to be genetically superior and capable of independent thought, integrating both organic and computer mental abilities, he was supposed to be the next generation of soldier, a true warrior instead of a mindless killing machine. But word has come down to pull the plug - just when Henley realizes that she's succeeded beyond her own expectations, producing a truly sapient Copy. Worse, LUC's newfound emotions have found a wholly inappropriate, irresistible target: his creator, Dr. Henley Carr.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This short story disappointed me on a few levels. First off, it's not even a proper story, but an overlong introduction, ending in the middle of nowhere. I also couldn't connect with the characters, who seemed more like stock caricatures than individuals. LUC is too perfect and naive, Henley is too career-obsessed and oblivious, and her opponents are greedy and evil simply to be greedy and evil - I honestly was surprised they didn't have moustaches simply to twirl them, though one does puff on the obligatory illegal cigar as he practically cackles about his nefarious scheme. This emotional disconnect wasn't helped by the writing, which head-hops terribly and jumps scenes mid-paragraph. Though billed as a romance, I found little emotional engagement; LUC tries more than once to convince Henley of his devotion, but she's too hung up on seeing him as a creation to begin to reciprocate. The woman hardly seems capable of love, to be perfectly honest; she has a boyfriend of sorts, but admits to being happier in the lab than in the bedroom. It's more of a one-sided attempted seduction, bordering on erotica, than a romance. The story also tends to ramble, shoehorning in stretches of backstory and infodumping. Beyond this static are hints of a potentially interesting world. Unfortunately, I just couldn't engage with it.

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Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
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Monday, February 24, 2014

Tangled Tides (Karen Amanda Hooper)

Tangled Tides
(The Sea Monster Memoirs series, Book 1)
Karen Amanda Hooper
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: On Yara's eighteenth birthday, the strange boy Treygan turns her into a mermaid... and her life only gets more complicated from there, when she learns that her boyfriend, Rownan, is a selkie, half-seal rivals to merfolk. Yara wants nothing more than to return to her human life, caring for her beloved Uncle Lloyd, but the sea monsters refuse to let her go. Long ago, the gorgons who created them sealed the gateway between their native world and Earth, dooming selkies and merfolk alike to a long, slow death in exile. The girl Yara may be the key to their salvation... assuming she isn't destroyed.

REVIEW: With a neat premise and a fast start, I was sure I'd enjoy this one, even if I wasn't too keen on the characters. Yara is stubborn and a bit whiny, while the stoic Treygan struggles to cope with her and Rownan tries to pull her over to the selkie side of the seafolk rivalry. Hooper gives each race distinctive powers and liabilities... some of which, especially on the merfolk side, start to feel a bit cheesy, more reminiscent of a children's cartoon than a young adult novel with occasionally dark overtones. While selkies drink blood and half-avian sirens suck out memories, the merfolk swim around in bright rainbow colors and throw parties. (There are also some serious inconsistencies. Yara's human memories were largely destroyed by the transformation, she is told, yet she recognizes the Superman logo and refers to the Fifth Amendment. Likewise, Treygan claims ignorance of above-water culture, yet at one point refers to someone as acting like a robot.) The story relies heavily on Yara refusing to listen or pay attention, and on people hiding things from her - and from the reader - only to be conveniently interrupted when they finally decide to talk. It grows tiresome and annoying, especially when characters keep mentioning these omissions, pointing at the Big Secret while madly dancing to avoid it. Throw in a willfully oblivious heroine and several gallons of Forbidden Love spiced heavily with Teen Angst, and the whole mixture grows harder and harder to swallow, especially when it becomes clear that the whole world, above and below the waves (in two worlds... three, if you count the afterlife), revolves around Yara in some form or another. Some shimmers of true beauty and pain become lost in the overall tide of melodrama, capped off by an ending that's just too neat. Ultimately, while it had moments of promise, Tangled Tides turned into a disappointing slog.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Aftershock (S. A. Archer and S. Ravynheart) - My Review
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) - My Review

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflections (Diana Wynne Jones)

Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow Books
Nonfiction, Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 2011, the prolific fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones passed away. She left behind three children, more than forty books, and countless fans of all ages. In this collection of essays, speeches, and various writings, Jones speaks to her audience one last time, discussing her peculiar (and sometimes unbelievable) life, her writing, and thoughts on storytelling.

REVIEW: Though I've always had a mixed reaction to Jones's works myself, it's hard to deny her influence on writing. These essays offer an inside view of her writing process and influences, heavily related to her strange and often unpleasant childhood. She also discusses her own career, plagued by Rules that had dominated the world of children's literature, and other obstacles, not to mention a few incidental anecdotes and commentaries. Some of it made for interesting reading, but occasionally the articles feel repetitious and downright tedious, especially when they assume an encyclopedic knowledge of her books (and several classical poems and epics besides.) Though I can't say I always cared for the personality I glimpsed behind the words, I learned a few things here, and there's no doubt that Diana Wynne Jones forged a singular and memorable legacy with her works.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) - My Review
Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Boy's Best Book of Magic (David Castlewitz)

A Boy's Best Book of Magic
David Castlewitz
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Joey didn't mean to buy anything at the neighbor's garage sale; he was just enjoying a day with his Grandpa Carl, away from his stern mother and angry father and a house full of shouts and rules and awful silences. But when he found the book on magic tricks, he just knew he had to have it, even if it cost him every penny of his allowance. Inside, it tells all about card tricks and making coins disappear and other sleight-of-hand staples... but there's also a strange handwritten insert full of odd symbols and foreign words. Joey reads them aloud - and suddenly everything is different. His mother no longer cries or scolds. His father no longer shouts. Joey starts to remember bits and pieces of a strange journey into the past, where he and his mother (somehow aged back to twelve years old) visited his grandfather as a boy back in the city, a trip that changed everyone's lives in unexpected ways.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I really should listen to my gut the next time it says to bail out of a story early... This short tale reads like a dream, and not in a good way. Realities, pasts and presents meld together mid-paragraph, adhering to an impenetrable, sometimes contradictory internal logic. At its heart, it's a story about how one abusive man can ruin lives even generations after he struck his final blow... meaning that most of the story is about miserable people enduring miserable lives and being unable to do much about it except curl up in the corner, stuff their ears, and hope the next fist isn't aimed in their direction. If it hadn't been on Kindle, I might have thrown it across the room when this character ups the ante from simply beating his children to something worse, and again at the end. I still do not understand how the ending changed anything except ensuring even more misery (I can't get specific without spoilers), unless it's another part of what Joey forgot; his recollection of the trip is spotty at best, which made it rather frustrating to follow the convoluted tale through him. What, really, was the point of all this, except to show Joey and his mom that their lives could've been much worse?

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Teller (Chris Howard) - My Review
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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (Catherine Louisa Pirkis)

The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Catherine Louisa Pirkis
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Collection/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Loveday Brooke, one of the greatest detectives in 1890's England, hides her keenly inquisitive mind behind a nondescript appearance. Employed by a prominent London detective agency, she tackles a number of baffling cases, from burglaries to disappearances and even murder.

REVIEW: Written around the same time as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (and a number of other serialized detective tales), Loveday Brooke may not be the most personable or dynamic sleuth, but she gets the job done. She tends to keep her deductions to herself, and hides a few pieces of key evidence from the audience, but she's hardly unique for these faults. Like Doyle, Pirkis brings to life a bygone England, though she rarely sketches in characters as singular and memorable as those encountered by Holmes or Watson. The stories themselves sometimes wandered, and I was grateful to my Nook's dictionary feature for defining several archaic words. Overall, though, it's not a bad collection of mysteries, adding a feminine perspective to the male-dominated nineteenth-century detective scene.

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - My Review
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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith) - My Review

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Six-shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham)

Six-shooter Tales
I. J. Parnham
Culbin Press
Fiction, Collection/Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The trail of vengeance leads to a jail cell, consulting a Native American medicine man leads to a mixed-up fortune, an amnesiac finds himself drawn into a robbery gone wrong, a hired gun's two potential clients want each other killed, the search for the best deputy pits dirt-street wits against bookish education, an aging gunfighter relives his one triumph in increasingly-exaggerated Wild West shows... six tales of the Old West are gathered in this collection.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: As short stories go, these aren't bad. Some of the "twists" were obvious, and a few conclusions failed to satisfy, but on the whole I've read far worse. They all evoke the spirit of the era, with grizzled gunfighters and casual violence and dusty trails from nowhere to nowhere; this success tipped the balance toward a solid Good rating, even though westerns aren't quite my usual cup of cocoa. (I admit I rated it with my usual iffy anthology luck in mind.) If you're looking for a quick-reading dose of the wild West, this would be a decent choice.

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Frontier Earth (Bruce Boxleitner) - My Review
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Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wretched of Muirwood (Jeff Wheeler)

The Wretched of Muirwood
(The Legends of Muirwood series, Book 1)
Jeff Wheeler
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Lia has been a wretched since shortly after birth, abandoned on the doorstep of the ancient Muirwood Abbey. Without a Family, she can never hope to be much more than she is, a humble kitchen servant, though all around her are learners studying the mysteries of writing and the power known as the Medium. Lia burns with the need to learn letters herself, to understand the invisible yet potent magic in the carved Leering stones, but the Aldermaston has specifically forbidden her education. When a wounded squire is dropped at the kitchen door under suspicious circumstances, Lia sees her chance at last: in exchange for hiding and helping the nameless young man, he will teach her to read. But the squire's arrival heralds troubled times, for the abbey and beyond. Lia is soon swept up in a great and terrible adventure, one on which the future of the kingdom itself may depend.

REVIEW: This story starts fast, establishing an interesting magic system in a world that's both comfortingly familiar and a little different from the average fantasy tale. Lia shows pluck and determination, and isn't above the odd petty theft or lie to further her own goals. Colvin the squire, on the other hand, proves largely unlikeable, stubborn and exasperating beyond the point of sympathy. Other characters fall into stereotype traps, as well; Lia's friend Sowe, for instance, has little purpose except as deadweight holding her back. The bad guys tend to be painted with a broad, evil brush - there is no ambiguity, no rationalization or justification, as they knowingly corrupt themselves with evil spirits to attain their selfish ends. Still, I enjoyed the first part of the adventure, and wanted Lia to win.
Somewhere beyond the halfway point, though, little red flags started waving. At first, I thought it was because of minor yet irritating writing annoyances: Wheeler tends to redundancies, such as "she thought in her mind" or repeating in two sentences (or whole scenes) what was perfectly clear in one. Soon, I realized it was the story itself that bothered me. In short, and without spoilers, it stopped being about an underdog struggling to succeed, becoming the tale of a sheltered Chosen One who was not being opposed so much as tested. This pulls the teeth from the tension, rearranging the whole world into a lesson planned by the Medium for Lia's benefit. Some of the religious overtones, mingled with shades of manifestation, grow a bit thick by the end, as well. The conclusion reeks of sap, but by then I was no longer invested in the story, let alone in Lia's future adventures. Considering the promise at the start, I couldn't help walking away disappointed.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bright Shadow (Avi) - My Review
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