Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Site Update

I've archived and cross-linked the previous 7 reviews on the main site. (I actually updated yesterday, but got distracted before I posted.)


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Myths and Mysteries of the World (Parragon Books)

Myths and Mysteries of the World
Parragon Books
Nonfiction, History/Paranormal
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In modern times, we like to believe we understand our world: how it behaves, where we came from, where we might be going. Yet the more we learn, the more mysteries become apparent. Peculiar ruins challenge archaeology and imagination. Inexplicable events and phenomena baffle scientists. This book, and its companion DVD, looks at many oddities.

REVIEW: At first, this looked like an interesting read. The writing starts on a refreshingly clear note, not automatically jumping to sheer skepticism or wild fringe theories, while examining many wonders. This tone, however, slowly shifts as the book progresses, deliberately presenting too little actual information for the reader to form their own opinions while not-so-subtly emphasizing the ideas of Christianity, miracles, and UFO phenomena. Some of the articles are even deliberately misleading, contradicting or ignoring key pieces of information in order to play into the agenda. (The section on mythological animals in particular has some glaring omissions.) The range of topics is intriguing, but I grew tired of the lightweight examination and obfuscation. As for the accompanying DVD, while not a simple rehash of the text, it also fails to do more than tantalize and hint for its 50-odd minute runtime. If you're just starting to look into world mysteries and paranormal phenomena, this might not be a bad introduction, but there are better sources out there.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Strange and Unexplained Phenomena (Jerome Clarke and Nancy Pear) - My Review
Mysteries of the Unexplained (Reader's Digest) - My Review
Mysterious Places (Jennifer Westwood, editor) - My Review

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mr. Wuffles! (David Wiesner)

Mr. Wuffles!
David Wiesner
Clarion Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: A cat ignores the many toys offered by his desperate owner. He's far more interested in a shiny flying object... the one with the little scurrying figures inside. Meanwhile, an alien expedition to a new world goes horribly wrong when a giant black and white beast damages their ship.

REVIEW: A wordless picture book tells the story of the aloof Mr. Wuffles and his alien encounter. As the cat delights in his new toy, the aliens must seek help from native ants and bugs living in the house walls - a cultural exchange that may have lasting implications. Meanwhile, the oblivious human wonders why his friend turns his whiskered nose up at his kitty toys. A fun read with bright pictures.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Catkin (Antonia Barber) - My Review
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
Comet's Nine Lives (Jan Brett) - My Review

Broken Wings (Sylvie Kurtz)

Broken Wings
(A Time-Travel Romance)
Sylvie Kurtz
Leisure Books
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In 1944, war-fueled tensions in the town of Shoenberg, Texas exploded one night. A suspected German spy, newlywed veteran Kurt, was hung by an angry mob while his wife, Liesl, looked on helplessly. As she cut his dying body from the branches, her heart died with him, even as she determined to fulfill Kurt's dream of founding a flying school.
In 1996, the pilot Colin Castle prepares for an air show with an experimental plane, a vintage replica made to modern specifications. His stern father lies in a hospital bed, near death; Colin desperately wants to prove to the old man, and himself, that he hasn't wasted his life in the skies chasing dreams. True, his business partner Jakob seems strange, obsessed with talk of time and physics and some deep guilt buried in his Texas roots, but the man's a first-rate mechanic. All they need is investors to get their dream off the ground, and an air show victory will get them that and more. Maybe, in the process, his own nightmares of failure will end.
During a test run, Colin accidentally triggers a hidden switch in his plane... and finds himself fifty years in the past, facing a cold-hearted woman who's a dead ringer for his long-deceased girlfriend Karen. Before vanishing, Jakob told Colin he would have one week to find and help someone named Kurt - but Kurt's been dead for two years, and his widow, Liesl, couldn't care less what this stranger has to say... even if he looks strangely like her murdered husband.

REVIEW: A fast-reading romance with a paranormal flavor, it never quite lives up to the potential of its characters and premise. The attraction between the two lost souls is so overwhelming and immediate that the lengths to which both go denying it grows tiresome. The key to the plot is the idea that Liesl is so perfect and beautiful that three men (four, if you count Kurt and Colin as separate men and not reincarnations of the same soul) will go to any lengths to acquire her. One of them, naturally, is the town's villain, a petty and corrupt man who owns most of Schoenberg and won't rest until he finishes the job. There's a dated, sexist subtext here that didn't sit right with me, especially since Liesl didn't seem quite that special aside from the pedestal everyone insisted on placing her upon. Sideplots deal with the importance of family and how parental love (or lack thereof) hurts even grown children; these helped flesh out the story, adding a little weight and substance. As for the time travel element, it's light enough sci-fi that I almost classified it as Fantasy, especially with the heavy reincarnation angle; once in the past, Colin even starts remembering specific details of Kurt's life, driving home the idea that there's only one "true" soul mate for everyone and the only way to find happiness after losing them is to hope for a miracle - or an obsessed German mechanic. It all builds up to an air race where everyone's dreams are on the line, though most of the tension takes place on the ground. Everything wraps up a little too neatly. There's a nice vintage-plane feel to the setting, and it had some good moments, but overall I didn't care for the dated message.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
The Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) - My Review
Time Treasure (Sheila Raye) - My Review

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Drawing from your Imagination (Ron Tiner)

Drawing from your Imagination
Ron Tiner
David and Charles
Nonfiction, Art
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Robin Hood and his band of thieves, the streets of Victorian London, a mystical soothsayer, a distant planetscape... working artists often have to depict people and places that no longer exist - or never existed outside of the human imagination. Their images must set a mood and tell a story, in addition to matching a specific description. Successful illustrator Ron Tiner discusses how to develop the important artistic skill of imaginative drawing, creating an extensive mental catalog of images and ideas for use in professional and personal artwork, with numerous examples from his own sketchbooks and portfolio.

REVIEW: This isn't so much a how-to-draw book as it is a guidebook for aspiring professional artists and illustrators. You won't find the usual breakdowns of anatomy, shading, perspective, or other basic topics here. Instead, Tiner discusses methods for honing the artistic eye and mind, based largely on life drawing and observation, balanced with playful forays into imagination. It reads more like a lecture series than an art instruction book, discussing several topics while suggesting self-study options. A fair chunk of it reads like a rehash of information Tiner delivered in his previous book, Figure Drawing Without a Model, only here it seems less succinct for some reason. More useful are the sections where Tiner breaks down actual projects, paid and personal, showing the process of development. Sometimes Tiner seems to be rushing his explanations, relying too heavily on the idea that his readers have received (or are receiving) instruction elsewhere. The points of his included sketches, consequently, aren't always as clear as I think he believed. Still, there's plenty of worthwhile information here. While not a standalone book by any means, this should be useful for any artist who wants to grow beyond the fundamentals.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Drawing and Painting Fantasy Figures (Finlay Cowan) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Techniques (John Grant and Ron Tiner) - My Review
Figure Drawing Without a Model (Ron Tiner) - My Review

Sunday, April 20, 2014

How to write the worst Kindle book in the world (A Shamed)

How to write the worst Kindle book in the world
A Shamed
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Humor/Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the old days, draconian gatekeepers called publishers decided who could and could not be an author, based on arbitrary standards like "talent," "content," and "story interest levels greater than watching paint dry." They even insisted on proper spelling and grammar, despite the fact that the average reader likely doesn't know or care about the difference between your and you're, let alone tense consistency or other nitpicky rules. Fortunately, the Amazon Kindle platform has done away with such obstacles. Now anyone can write and publish books - even you! Learn how with this quick and handy guide.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Yes, it was a freebie when I downloaded it. I needed something lightweight and silly after a rough week, and I got a little of that here. The author split this short (only 18 pages) eBook into two parts. The first describes how to take advantage of Amazon and reader stupidity to generate massive sales off pretty much any random collection of words you might choose to publish (without bothering to spellcheck, proofread, or waste time formatting, naturally.) The second part explains that the first part was a parody, written after seeing so many poorly-written self-published Kindle titles... and making some embarrassing mistakes themselves. It then gives a brief, somewhat obvious run-down on how to do it write - er, right. It felt a little condescending, frankly; the title and author pseudonym alone should've been sufficient warning that this was a parody, so there was no need to explain the joke unless they thought I was a moron. I don't like being called a moron (even if it's true), so that drug the rating down a half-star. Aside from that, it wasn't terrible, and all too reminiscent of some titles I've waded through.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (Russell Blake) - My Review
How Not to Write a Novel (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman) - My Review

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Virginian (Owen Wister)

The Virginian
Owen Wister
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Virginian left home at fourteen to escape the stodgy, hemmed-in future embraced by his brothers. His roving ways and skill in the saddle at last brought him to Sunk Creek in Wyoming as a ranch hand. Here, as related by an Easterner acquaintance, the young man unexpectedly loses his heart to a Vermont-born schoolmarm... a courtship complicated by her New England breeding, cattle rustlers, and a personal rivalry that might destroy everything.

REVIEW: First published in 1902, this is considered the first "true" Western. Even as it was being written, the world it described - a world of cowboys and tenderfoots and settlers carving new lives from seemingly endless tracts of unspoiled wilderness - was already fading into memory. Within the book itself, the characters often acknowledge the coming end to a way of life that, in some ways, seemed to still be in the act of being created. Wister captures an era in his words, a country that somehow is both civilized and rough, where a man could literally ride into nothing and create an empire - or start with everything and lose it all. There's a certain larger than life quality to life on the frontier, as he describes it; I don't know if nostalgia was already coloring the era, but it makes for interesting reading. He also creates the epitome of the gentleman cowboy in the never-named Virginian, a soft-spoken Southerner with a keen mind, a quick wit, and a firm code of ethics that's tested nearly to the breaking point more than once. He almost seems too good to be true, especially as viewed by the sometimes-narrator, the endlessly naive Easterner tenderfoot who is also never named (and who never witnesses long stretches of the story.) To be honest, I'm not sure what purpose the narrator truly served, except to give readers a window into the alien world of the Western frontier of the 1880's... and to give the Virginian someone to talk to on occasion. The love interest, Molly, starts out so mired in her East Coast ideals of propriety and proper breeding that it was hard to rationalize her decision to move to the lawless West, let alone the Virginian's instant and unshakable attraction to her. Her moment of truth shocks her as much as it does him, not to mention the reader. The storyline often meanders like a lowland creek, pausing at the occasional eddy or pool before slowly trickling onward, with the occasional burst of whitewater now and again. It slowly builds to a tense climax... then meanders about some more before finally reaching an ending that's almost too neat.
In the end, while the wandering plot cost it a star in the ratings, Wister's distinctive characters and deft portrayal of a vanished world kept it at four stars.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
Six-shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Divide (Elizabeth Kay)

The Divide
(The Divide trilogy, Book 1)
Elizabeth Kay
Chicken House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Felix has known he was dying all his life, victim of an incurable heart disease, but he never expected to die in Costa Rica, straddling the Divide. Here, the waters split between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans... and reality itself grows thin enough for a boy to pass between worlds. He wakes in a strange place, where mythical animals and magic are real and humans and science are imaginary. After meeting a strangely math-obsessed griffin and escaping a doglike monster that kills with laughter, he finds himself with the elf girl Betony, in the company of "brittlehorns" (known on Earth as unicorns.) Though he may not be able to return back home, he discovers an unexpected hope: it's just possible that magic might succeed where medical science has failed, curing Felix's ailing heart.
Meanwhile, Betony's siblings, Tansy and Ramson, have traveled to the city of Tiratattle, trying to sell a new healing spell to Global Panaceas. But there's something not quite right about the japegrin-run outfit or the remedies they're churning out. Many of the potions seem to do more harm than good, and the owner, Snakeweed, seems every bit as elusive and devious as his name suggests.
Felix, Betony, Tansy, and Ramson soon find themselves in the heart of a conspiracy that threatens the whole magical world... one that might spill over into Earth.

REVIEW: On the surface, this story is loaded with superficial, Fluffy Bunny-type trappings. Dragons train as living aircraft, healer elves accidentally turn themselves to stone, students routinely transform inanimate objects into animals if their spelling tests go wrong, and so forth. But just beneath that silly surface lies a much darker layer. For instance, the doglike worrit, which tells jokes and performs pratfalls for its victims, quite literally can kill through laughter; even doubled over in mirth, characters feel the raw terror of their helplessness. Pharmaceutical malpractice and environmental destruction lie at the heart of the tale, which racks up a higher body count than many adult books I've read... and death in the magical world is just as final as death on Earth, with no crossed-fingers or convenient outs. No race or species comes across as entirely good or entirely evil; they all have many shades of morality, even the demonic sinistroms, and no character is so perfect that they have nothing to learn. It moves at a fair pace, starting fast and rarely letting up until the ending - which, naturally, sets up plenty of tension for Book 2. Once in a while the messages felt a trifle heavy-handed, but overall I enjoyed this story, and look forward to tracking down the rest of the trilogy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
The Accidental Sorcerer (K. E. Mills) - My Review