Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June Site Update

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

I also updated the Amazon links site-wide, in keeping with recent changes to their affiliate system. (I expect I may have missed a few...)


The Once and Future King (T. H. White)

The Once and Future King
T. H. White
Fiction, YA? Fantasy

DESCRIPTION: Raised by Sir Ector in a castle in lawless England's Forest Sauvage, the bastard child known as Wart never dreamed he'd amount to more than a squire. Then the strange old wizard Merlyn arrives to be his tutor, using ancient and unreliable magicks. When Wart pulls a peculiar blade from an anvil set before a church, his origins as the son of the late King Uther Pendragon are revealed. Young Arthur devotes himself to civilizing England, quelling the petty feuds and brutal lords that plague the land and championing the forgotten codes of chivalry... but best intentions cannot overcome secret shames, nor can justice alone tame the monsters within the hearts of men.

REVIEW: To tell the truth, I'm not quite sure how to review this book, long considered a classic work of Arthurian lore. It is not so much a retelling of the King Arthur tragedy as it is a companion piece, often referring the readers to Thomas Malory's famous epic Le Morte d'Arthur for further elaboration. Not having read it, I'm sure I missed some important details, though cultural osmosis filled in a few blank spaces. The narrative is often annoyingly modern (or modern for 1939, when it was released), referencing famous cricket players and other anachronisms. For that matter, White's vision of Arthur's England is riddled with anachronisms such as full plate armor - which would not have appeared until long after Arthur's age - that transform the whole into an imagined fairy tale age that never was. (But, then, there were also griffins and dragons and the famed Questing Beast, so even the original tale might be better considered alternate history.) There's also an odd mix of sexism (which is to be expected) and racism, with the peculiar stance that prejudice against dark-skinned people and Jews falls under the Evil heading, yet casual belittling of Native Americans (by the narrator) is acceptable. But such was the era in which White wrote. Many of the situations and characters, especially in the early parts, come across as silly caricatures, particularly young Wart's experiences in animal form under Merlyn's enchantments. As the story goes on, things grow more nuanced and complex with some memorable imagery, which tends to bog down the story but paints some nice mental pictures. The ending feels a little unfinished, largely because White once again seems to be writing a companion piece to Malory rather than a stand-alone work; it is more a footnote than a conclusion, a little aside as the curtain closes before the final days of Arthur's reign.
Taken all together, it made for an interesting take on the Arthurian cycle. In reading it, I can see its influence on many of today's fantasy tales. Ultimately, though, I found myself too annoyed by the long-winded narrative and its refusal to stand on its own without constantly referring me to Malory's work to give it a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Lost Years of Merlin (T. A. Barron) - My Review
The Dragonbone Chair (Tad Williams) - My Review

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift)

Gulliver's Travels
Jonathan Swift
Project Gutenberg
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: 18th-century Englishman Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon by trade, succumbs to wanderlust in numerous voyages around the world. By various mishaps, he finds himself in unexplored lands amid the most peculiar inhabitants, from the minuscule Lilliputians to the titanic Brobdingnagians, the scientists of the floating island of Laputa to the immortals of Luggnagg, and the land of the noble equine Houyhnhnms and foul manlike Yahoos.

REVIEW: Predating the American Revolution by decades, this book's satirical faux-travelogue skewering of politics, government, and human folly in general remains quite relevant today... a sadly sobering testimony to the unchanging nature of Homo Sapiens. Gulliver himself is a largely transparent character, the everyday English patriot, mainly existing to relate his experiences to the reader (and unwittingly deliver Swift's cutting insights), though he grows visibly jaded toward his own country and species throughout his years of travel and abandonment. It bogs down occasionally, most notably round about Laputa and Gulliver's journeys through the lands (literally) under its reign, and - like many older works - can get a little talky for its own sake. Having mostly been familiar with the story through cultural osmosis and watered-down kiddie cartoon versions of the story, I was a little surprised at how adult and occasionally crude the original text could be, but it all goes toward Swift's criticism of humanity's flawed notion of itself as the divine pinnacle of creation. All in all, it's well worth reading.
Incidentally, some sources consider Gulliver's Travels a form of sci-fi. Given the alterations in physics between lands and other improbabilities, along with the fact that Swift himself doubtless had no intention of conjecturing actual science behind any of his satirical creations, I call it Fantasy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
The Daily Show with John Stewart Presents Earth: The Book (John Stewart et al.) - My Review

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Write, Writing, Written (Jay Anthony)

Write, Writing, Written
Jay Anthony
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A quick guide to writing and editing.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Yes, that's a brief description, but this title didn't feel much longer. It also felt like information I've read elsewhere - information that occasionally seemed to contradict itself, making me wonder how much of this writing advice Anthony actually practices and how much was just copy-and-pasted in from other sources. I also found it hard to take a writing guide with several subtle yet annoying grammar errors and outright wrong words seriously, especially when it tries to tell me the importance of stringent editing and reviewing to avoid grammar errors and outright wrong words. But it was free to download, and if you've never read any writing advice elsewhere it may help. It got the extra half-star because, while I couldn't recommend it enough for even a flat Okay rating, I didn't sense the outright intent to deceive and shortcut the writing process for profit that I've noted in a few other so-called "writing guides" on Kindle.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathy Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins) - My Review

Friday, June 19, 2015

AVIATRIX: First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest (Mary Bush Shipko)

AVIATRIX: First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest
Mary Bush Shipko
Nonfiction, Autobiography
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Growing up among the surplussed war planes in Miami's "Corrosion Corner," Mary Bush took to flying from an early age. She fought prejudice and sexism to become an accomplished pilot out of Florida, but set her sights even higher: a coveted job as a commercial airline pilot, still very much a men's-only profession despite equal opportunity laws. She finally got her chance with Hughes Airwest - but the Good Ol' Boy network had no intention of letting the upstart little lady succeed.

REVIEW: I downloaded this not only because it looked interesting on its own, but because my late grandfather worked for Airwest (not as a pilot.) Reading this book reminded me of listening to stories, from him and other relatives, about airplanes and pilots... though, being men, they never faced the sort of problems Shipko encountered, problems that eventually led to physical symptoms. Though occasionally disorganized, this is an interesting look at one woman's life on wings - and how dreams can be crushed by living nightmares, especially in the days before the law even acknowledged sexual harassment as a real thing. (Given her experiences, I have to wonder about the possible hidden meaning of Hughes Airwest's ads, which I dimly recall from childhood, touting themselves as "the Top Banana in the West.") Pioneers like Shipko helped clear the path for future generations, even if it remains rough today. By turns amusing, inspiring, and depressing, I found it an overall interesting read - though I admit that part of my enjoyment likely stemmed from nostalgia.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Broken Wings (Sylvie Kurtz) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review
Insubordinate Spirit (Missy Wolfe) - My Review

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Paper Magician (Charlie N. Holmberg)

The Paper Magician
(The Paper Magician series, Book 1)
Charlie N. Holmberg
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Ceony Twill, top graduate of London's prestigious Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, dreamed of becoming a Smelter - a magician bonded to worked metals and jewelry. Unfortunately, a shortage of Folders forces her to take apprenticeship with a paper magician... and, once bonded to one material, a mage can never work magic in another area. Paper's the weakest of man-made materials, good for little more than simple illusions and trinkets. Ceony's invested too much time to turn her back on magic completely, but it looks like her future won't be nearly so exciting or glamorous as she'd hoped.
Working with Mg. Emery Thane soon changes her views on Folding, as the eccentric man's masterful creations confound and amaze Ceony. It doesn't hurt that he's far more handsome than she anticipated, with green eyes that sparkle with hidden humor. But Emery hides many secrets from his apprentice, disappearing for days at a time and receiving odd telegrams at odd hours. When an Excisioner - a practitioner of forbidden blood magic - strikes and tears Emery's beating heart from his chest, barely-trained Ceony must push her courage beyond the breaking point to save her master's life.

REVIEW: Set in an alternate Edwardianesque London, The Paper Magician establishes an interesting magical concept, but doesn't quite seem to know what to do with it. Instead of exploring paper magic (or glass magic, or the new-minted plastic arts, an offshoot of rubber magic), it soon becomes the story of Emery Thane's soul-scarring past and Ceony's growing (yet unrequited) feelings for her master, with more than a few shades of Howl's Moving Castle as she finds herself lost in Thane's memories via his disembodied heart while fighting the woman who tore it out (both figuratively and literally.) This makes it less an original tale and more an inevitable replay of too many puppy-love young adult novels. Ceony's trip through Thane's heart-memories seems a little long, crafted more to let her witness her master's wounded soul than to further the here-and-now plot of her escaping an Excisioner's clutches. Ceony makes a reasonably strong-willed protagonist, and I liked what I saw of the world's magic system, but for some reason I found this book subtly unsatisfying. Still, I'd consider reading the second book if I found it cheap enough (or free, through the library.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
The Fire Rose (Mercedes Lackey) - My Review
A School for Sorcery (E. Rose Sabin) - My Review

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Summoned (Rainy Kaye)

(The Summoned series, Book 1)
Rainy Kaye
TeZLA Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Being a genie is no Disney movie. Just ask Dimitri, a twentysomething jinn bound to the cruel Walker clan as his father was before him. He doesn't even get any magic out of the deal, just terrible pain for failing a task or even contemplating disobedience. Under Kurt's wish orders, Dim has stolen, attacked, kidnapped, and killed - and there's no end in sight, for him or for any heir he'll likely be forced to breed someday.
That doesn't mean he has to like it. And Sylvia, Kurt's daughter, looks to be an even more sadistic master than the man himself. But it's not worth dreaming of a freedom he'll never have, is it?
When Dimitri meets Syd, a feisty one-night stand who refuses to leave, he begins to question his jaded existence... just as Kurt becomes more demanding and evasive than ever, a sure hint something big and foul is in the works. Now that he finally has the incentive to investigate the roots and limitations of his genie curse, it may be too late - for him, and for the woman he may love.

REVIEW: This starts a bit slow, but Dimitri's voice carries things along, and I liked this dark, interesting twist on genie mythology. He tries to be jaded and tough, but his misery shines through his snark, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for him even when I wanted to smack him for missing obvious clues. Syd's a bit of a stereotype, a cocky and contradictory provider of sex and drugs and plot points, though she's one of the more redeemable characters in the cast. As for Kurt and Sylvia, they embody the concept of absolute power corrupting absolutely down through the generations. Despite violence and sex (both tending to be drawn-out affairs), the plot takes some time to build momentum, and even when it does it tends to slow down and wallow in Dimitri's helpless torment. The ending pulls a few too many curves, though at least it didn't go where I half-feared it might (no spoilers, sorry, save that, no, the genie curse isn't just all in Dimitri's head; it's a very real thing, despite some hints to the contrary.) I also felt there was a little more explanation needed on the jinn in this world... though I suspect the sequel deals with that. On the whole, it's not a bad book, if a little dark and somewhat overlong.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
Forbidden Mind (Karpov Kinrade) - My Review
Testament of the Dragon (Margaret Weis with David Baldwin) - My Review

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dragons (Peter Hogarth with Val Clery)

Peter Hogarth with Val Clery
Nonfiction, Folklore/Mythology
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From the epic struggle of Tiamat and Marduk in early Mesopotamia, through the mythic roots of China, even in pre-Columbian America and distant New Zealand, all the way up to modern times, dragons have coiled, slithered, and flown through the worlds of human myth and legend. This book explores the dragon as it appears in numerous stories and guises in nearly all cultures.

REVIEW: Published in 1979, this isn't a bad coffee-table exploration of dragon lore. Hogarth delves into numerous cultures with varying degrees of depth, sometimes spending several pages on one tale or location and other times glossing over huge chunks of time and culture with a passing sentence or two. His sources aren't always clear, though; as he sometimes gets too clever for his own good with the writing, it can be hard to tell where fact and historical resources leave off and personal commentary or opinion begin. This book does, however, have a strong visual appeal, with numerous dragon images (and a few other beasties, particularly griffins) from a broad variety of sources decorating every page. Unfortunately, these images sometimes interrupt the flow of the narrative, and the captions aren't always useful or informative. Overall, it's not a bad exploration of global dragon lore that just barely lost out on a four-star rating. (I admit I almost gave it an extra half-star just for the end papers alone: in the hardcover edition, they feature a dragon-themed illuminated alphabet that I'd love to get as a downloadable font, though sadly this book predates such concepts.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tales of Great Dragons (J. K. Anderson) - My Review
Dragons - Truth, Myth and Legend (David Passes) - My Review
Dragons: A Natural History (Dr. Karl Shuker) - My Review