Monday, March 31, 2014

March Site Update

The previous 10 reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dragon Art (Graeme Aymer)

Dragon Art
Graeme Aymer
Flame Tree Publishing
Nonfiction, Art
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Be they primordial embodiments of chaos or peaceful guardians of nature, world-encompassing serpents or fluttering fairy beasts, dragons have been around since before the dawn of history, and are likely to endure to the end of human existence. This book celebrates the ubiquitous dragon in fantasy art, including many illustrations by artists from around the world, plus a foreword by noted fantasy artist John Howe.

REVIEW: This one came close to a full Good rating, but its ambition overshot its execution. It includes an admirable array of images, depicting all manner of dragons rendered in various media by artists young and old, newcomers and established masters of the field. However, aside from an early section on famous dragon artists (including John Howe, Michael Whelan, and other big names), the images rarely coincide with the text near which they appear; the arrangement seems entirely random, not helped by the odd two- or four-page spreads depicting works in progress. The artwork itself is mostly modern, dating back perhaps to the 1980's or late 1970's at the earliest. Its quality varies, but Aymer at least selected artists with different styles and approaches. I would've liked some examples of the old-school masters whose works influenced many of today's fantasy art masters. Though he mentions names like Frederick Leighton and Joseph Turner, I had to visit the internet to see their works. The text covers a broad range of dragon-related subjects, from historical roots to the digital-versus-traditional media debate, with varying degrees of depth. The movie selection in particular feels stilted, especially when Aymer tries to include Jurassic Park's dinosaurs and the monsters from the Alien franchise under the dragon umbrella. He also skips some definitive literary dragons and dragon-related works.
In the end, even if the writing could've been more informative, Dragon Art is a visual treat for dragon artists and aficionados. If you find it discounted - as I did, at a secondhand book store - it's worth picking up for your collection.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Forging Dragons (John Howe) - My Review
Fantasy Art Masters (Dick Jude) - My Review
The Art of the Dragon (J. David Spurlock and Patrick Wilshire) - My Review

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stop Procrastination (John Welker)

Stop Procrastination
John Welker
First Choice Publishing
Nonfiction, Self-Help
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Procrastination is more than just a character quirk or a habit. It negatively impacts all aspects of one's life, not to mention the drain it puts on others. Learn the costs and causes of procrastination, and strategies to overcome it.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Another quick-reading freebie Kindle download, it's about what one might expect based on the title... if one doesn't expect too much. Welker tends to downplay the impact of others on creating procrastination habits, especially in the workplace: few things drive a body to feel that effort isn't worthwhile like a poorly-run business and toxic co-workers. He also mentions depression as a cause while glossing over the potential seriousness of the disorder. The "strategies" section seems a little anemic, as well; most of the book deals with types of procrastinators, reasons people procrastinate, and the costs of the habit. Though Welker is American, the writing was clearly outsourced, with many subtle grammar issues that trip up the reader. Overall, it's not a bad overview of procrastination, but it's unlikely to change any lives.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mental FOCUS Training Secrets (Nathan Cadbury) - My Review
The Art of Procrastination (Isle Doitlayter) - My Review
Hocus Pocus, You're Focused! (Arthur Laud) - My Review

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Daughter of Mythos (Melissa Drake)

Daughter of Mythos
(The Daughter of Mythos series, Book 1)
Melissa Drake
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Standing among the wreckage of her foster mother's living room, fifteen-year-old Nora knew what was coming: yet another family, the eighth in three years, would give her up as a lost cause. Nobody believes that the damage is caused by some invisible force, that she never lays a finger on the shattered china or smashed furniture, that she can only watch helplessly as the destruction reigns. She wishes she knew why it kept happening - and how to stop it.
In her next foster home, she starts to get her answers... and they scare her. At her new school, Nora sees things nobody else sees. A strange little blue man pops up in her bedroom. And her new foster parents know far more than they should. Suddenly, Nora's life is turned upside down as she learns about Earth's magical mirror world, Mythos, a realm of demons, imps, fairies, and wizards. Legend tells of a Daughter of Mythos, who will save this world (and all others) from the Archdemon mage Sinistrel... and everyone seems to think that that heroine is Nora.

REVIEW: Why are there so many Fluffy Bunny books aimed at teenagers? The magical world of Mythos is full of happy, friendly people and downright improbable magic that solves problems big and small. Brightly-colored potions do everything from brushing teeth to saving lives. "Omniberries" taste like whatever you want, and provide complete nutrition for days at a time (except when they don't.) Clothes fit, mend, and clean themselves. Disease is apparently unknown. The magically pure waters extend life and grant other miracles, including instant language translation - a feature Nora doesn't even question until almost the end of the book, when someone finally points out to her that it's impossible for the whole of Mythos to speak English. Even their bravest warriors, the Portal Guards, don't actually kill their demon enemies; their swords just disperse them for a century or two. One can almost hear the sappy, harp-heavy soundtrack in the background as Nora wanders in awe through this wondrous world... a world threatened by evil demons. The point is repeatedly made that one can't judge people by their species, that "good" and "evil" are far more often than not simply varying shades of gray - and yet it's pretty easy to tell at a glance who is on Nora's side and who is against her, and those divisions line up nicely along lines of good and evil. Those few bad people who aren't demons are almost invariably possessed by demons that make them evil.
All of this would go down great in a world aimed at younger, more sensitive children... but Nora is almost sixteen. Must her tale be so heavily bubble-wrapped?
As a result of the blunted corners, the characters come across as flat, plot-shaped cutouts. Nora's smart, except when she isn't, wrestling with constant insecurity despite succeeding at most everything she tries beyond everyone's expectations. Her love interest, Zane, starts out broody and downright rude, mostly because he secretly likes her but has been hurt by the usual Painful Past. Other staple characters - the Best Friend, the Mysterious Stranger, the Trainer, the Innocent Child Whose Admiration Gives Her Hope, and so forth - materialize as needed; Nora never lacks for guidance at any point in her journey, and indeed often has an overabundance of protectors. Despite bursts of action, the story meanders for long stretches, following a fairly predictable path to a foregone conclusion of a finale... a finale that conveniently leaves the door cracked open just wide enough for a sequel or ten.
I know I've read worse stories. I know I'm not the target audience. I just found myself rolling my eyes too often to enjoy this one.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Storybound (Marissa Burt) - My Review
Diadem: Book of Names (John Peel) - My Review
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Friday, March 21, 2014

Short Tales (Volume One) (Steve R. Yeager)

Short Tales (Volume One)
Steve R. Yeager
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: An impatient wizard's apprentice turns to unorthodox means of speeding his education... a pair of pink ponies face a terrible ogre in the woods... a man struggles to survive in a world destroyed by reanimated dinosaurs... the author Steve R. Yeager collects six stories and a poem.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Aside from being a little long-winded, the stories themselves aren't too terrible, if obvious. What dropped this rating a half-star is the presentation. Yeager prefaces them with self-depreciating introductions, mentioning how they're early works and flawed, yet he didn't fix them up before publishing them here. As a reader, I wasn't sure how to react. Was I supposed to reassure him that these were perfectly fine, or figure that I wasn't worth his best effort, since this was "just" a cheap Kindle collection? Either way, it set me up to be disappointed. Or disgruntled. And then he goes on to pitch his book series, based on the post-dinosaur-apocalypse story. If he can't be bothered to put the best, most polished face on his short stories before showing them to me, am I really supposed to be excited about his book-length works? No, thank you.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragonfold (Tyrean Martinson) - My Review
Flower of Scotland 1 (William Meikle) - My Review
The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed (Steff Metal) - My Review

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Surface Tension (Christine Kling)

Surface Tension
(The Seychelle Sullivan Suspense series, Book 1)
Christine Kling
Ballantine Books
Fiction, Mystery/Suspense
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Seychelle Sullivan grew up on the waterways of South Florida. Now nearly thirty, she runs a salvage operation with her late father's custom boat, struggling to keep her dream and her independence alive. When the distress call came from the luxury yacht, the Top Ten, Seychelle was just thinking of the salvage fee... and, yes, the fact that her ex-boyfriend Neal was the skipper, but she'd been over him for months. Then she finds the drifting yacht... and the body.
With a young woman dead and Neal vanished, save a pool of his blood, the cops focus on Seychelle. But how can she have killed a man who may not be dead? Even as she struggles to deal with being a prime suspect, her world takes another blow when her brother suddenly wants out of his part of the family business, demanding she sell the boat or buy him out with money he knows she doesn't have. Now she needs that salvage fee more than ever. But the Top Ten's owners seem every bit as elusive as her possibly-deceased ex-boyfriend. The more she investigates, the more trouble she finds - for herself and everyone around her.

REVIEW: As one might expect from a suspense title, the story starts quickly. Seychelle may not always be the brightest investigator, but she's dogged in her pursuit of the truth, even as she worries about how she seems to be endangering her friends. She does most of her investigating on her own; her friends provide mostly moral support and off-screen research. Along the way, her own character flaws come to light, revealed by the stress of the situation as matters quickly spiral out of her control. South Florida comes alive almost as a character itself, a patchwork, changing world of everglades and canals, old kitch and new money. The whole thing builds to a tense climax with a decent payoff. I came close to shaving it a half-star for some wavering on Seychelle's part - knowing there's danger about and nobody can be trusted, she nevertheless lets her libido cloud her judgement - but overall I was satisfied with the story. I don't know if I'll follow Seychelle's further adventures, but this was a decent, fairly fast read on its own.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Seeing Eye (Jack Ellis) - My Review
Chomp (Carl Hiaasen) - My Review
Time Treasure (Sheila Raye) - My Review

Dracopedia: The Bestiary (William O'Connor)

Dracopedia: The Bestiary
William O'Connor
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: From the draconic alphyn to the wolfish zburator, from the popular pegasus to the elusive enfield, artist William O'Connor reinterprets twenty-six mythical monsters.

REVIEW: From dragons, O'Connor turns his attention to other fantastic creatures lurking in heraldry, mythology, and folklore in this A to Z book. He includes common creatures such as unicorns and griffins, plus several more obscure animals like shedu (winged lions) and the peculiar "questing beast" from King Arthur's tales. Each gets an original spin, though by now O'Connor has developed a somewhat repetitious pattern, glossing over much of the conceptualization and actual construction phases. The line between actual folklore and his own contributions is also blurred. Despite those flaws, it's still an inspiring book for artists and lovers of fantastic beasts.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
Imaginative Realism (James Gurney) - My Review
Dracopedia (William O'Connor) - My Review

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Evolution of the Dragon (G. Elliot Smith)

The Evolution of the Dragon
G. Elliot Smith
Public Domain Books
Nonfiction, Mythology
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons appear to be a universal phenomenon. Though their physical characteristics vary widely, they share many core features that point to a common root. But where did they come from, and how did they spread around the world? In this illustrated 1919 book, drawn from class lectures, Professor G. Elliot Smith discusses the origins of the global dragon myth, a tale bound up in the murky prehistoric roots of science, religion, and the quest for eternal life itself.
(NOTE - The link above is to a slightly different version than the one reviewed.)

REVIEW: I downloaded this as a freebie eBook as part of research for a writing project, not knowing precisely what I was getting into. This volume does indeed discuss the possible roots of dragon mythos... and the origins of the Great Mother goddess archetype, early burial rituals as primitive efforts to restore or sustain vitality, the confusion and proliferation of life-protecting symbolism from the cowry to the octopus, and many other topics. In the preface, Smith alludes to this "disjointed process of composition" as an unfortunate but inevitable result of the nature of not only his research, but the subject matter and, perhaps, even his own time constraints in crafting a single written volume from what had originally been a series of class lectures. Also, being a scholarly piece intended for scholarly consumers, he freely tosses about references to obscure deities and cultures, not to mention several untranslated tracts from others' writings. To be perfectly honest, my undereducated little brain felt overwhelmed at several points, struggling to grasp a slender thread of understanding as the prose meandered about through geography, time, and belief systems seemingly at random. Nevertheless, I managed to glean some measure of meaning from Smith's work, though naturally I have no idea how much of it is still considered viable by modern scholars. (His extensive notes on the origin of the swastika - to him, simply a popular luck charm dating from antiquity - have a certain bittersweet flavor to modern readers, to whom the symbol has taken on far more sinister associations than its creators, or Smith, could possibly have imagined. Then again, one of the core features of the dragon myth is its dual nature as both guardian and destroyer, good and evil, so I suppose there's something fitting in that.) This is information I haven't read anywhere else, so, despite the struggle, I'm still glad I gave it a try. I do wish it had been a little more focused on the stated topic, however.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Here be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne) - My Review
The Book of Fabulous Beasts (Joseph Nigg) - My Review
Dragons: A Natural History (Dr. Karl Shuker) - My Review

Monday, March 10, 2014

E-mergency! (Tom Lichtenheld)

Tom Lichtenheld
Chronicle Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: All the letters of the alphabet live together in a big house. When E falls down the stairs, another letter has to take over until she recovers.

REVIEW: A silly little picture book, it's riddled with spoken and visual puns for kids and adults alike. For instance, the letters D and C spend their time in the attic reading old comics, while P takes an extraordinary number of restroom breaks and Y can't stop asking questions. E being the most used letter in the English language, her absence and substitution causes no end of trouble. It's lightweight fun for readers new and old.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Shark vs. Train (Chris Barton) - My Review
Chester (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Partner in Crime (Bonnie Watson)

A Partner in Crime
(A Weapons Casters story)
Bonnie Watson
Foreseer Productions
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Former outlaw Azri didn't expect to find an old friend riding into the ramshackle town of Peony; his job was to hunt for fugitives on the dusty desert trails. It's not a glamorous life, but it keeps him on good terms with the Weapons Casters Guild, allowing him to legally work his arts and benefit from the Guild's powerful gifts. Sam used to be Azri's partner, but finally settled down to a ranch with a nice woman... until she was stolen and his ranch destroyed. Though it's not strictly part of his Guild contract, Azri can hardly refuse to help a friend in need - especially when that friend arrives with an old, mutual enemy.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A fast-reading short story, it offers most everything one could want of a Western, but with a fantastic twist. Unfortunately, the rules of this world are only dimly sketched in, as it's more of a prequel than a complete tale in its own right. Several minor yet irritating errors plague the writing - misspellings, mostly, but in a story this short they stand out all the more. For what it is, it's not bad. I'd just hoped for more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Killing Dirty (Pete Clark) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Serpents of Sky: Nine stories of dragons (Heidi C. Vlach)

Serpents of Sky: Nine stories of dragons
Heidi C. Vlach
Heidi C. Vlach, publisher
Fiction, YA? Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: An old woman encounters unexpected magic in the rose garden, a desperate scientist draws inspiration from a fantasy tale, two dragons argue over the fate of a fledgling planet... in nine stories, the many facets of dragonhood are explored.

REVIEW: Like many collections, this one is a mixed bag... so much that I wonder how far apart these stories were written. The first seven tales vary in tone and depth, from lighthearted to dark and whimsical to poetic, yet all held my interest. The final two, however, a legend and an adventure, had an oddly amateur feel to them. Set in an invented world called Aligare, basis for other novels by the same author, they introduce three nonhuman races in a setting that can't seem to decide if it's wholly alien or based on Earth; anthros and smeerps tangle with ordinary horses and other mundanities. The amateur feeling isn't helped by the author sketches of the races; she paints better pictures with her words, unfortunately, and the sudden insertion of art into an otherwise non-illustrated book hints that she wasn't willing to trust her skills. The writing tries too hard at times to drive home the otherland feel, coming across as clumsy rather than clever, and the story is half a step away from Fluffy Bunny territory: everyone's pleasant and helpful, nothing goes wrong that can't be fixed, and the only darker twist is telegraphed early on. Still, I enjoyed the variety of the earlier tales enough to justify three and a half stars in the ratings.
(As a side note, it appears that there is also a paperback edition of this title; for some reason, however, it doesn't show up with the Kindle version. Since I read the eBook, that's what I linked to above.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons Composed (James Ferris, editor) - My Review
The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbit) - My Review
Here, There be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review