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