Saturday, December 31, 2016

December Site Update and Year in Review

Well, the last ten reviews of 2016 have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.

Looking back, it wasn't the greatest of years on many levels (perhaps the understatement of all time). I thought I'd take a look back on my reading year.

The year started off with some decent reads that linger well in the memory. Jess E. Owen's Song of the Summer King, a magical tale of gryphons, still has me wanting to read the sequel. Kennedy Warne's Let Them Eat Shrimp introduced me to yet another global environmental disaster, with some few shreds of hope that people might wake up in time to change things. And I remembered why I loved Katherine Applegate when I read her delightful, deceptively simple The One and Only Ivan.

I went on a Princeless binge this month, enjoying the first two volume collections of Jeremy Whitley's trope-inverting fantasy comic books. Thanks to a discounted eBook, I finally read the first published Discworld novel by the late, great Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic. And I had my greatest reading surprise of the year when a nonfiction book about sports and history became one of my favorites: Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat, about the underdog college rowing team that went all the way to the Berlin Olympics.

This month, I ranged from new publications to classics. Behind the Canvas, Alexander Vance's middle-grade art fantasy, was the first 2016 publication I read in the year. Then I ranged back to the mid-20th century with Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. I also finally explored the world of English rabbits in Richard Adams's Watership Down... little realizing that Adams would be following the Black Rabbit at the end of the year.

April proved a generally disappointing month. High hopes were dashed when I read the first Sharing Knife book by Lois McMaster Bujold, Beguilement; after reading so many positive things about it, my own reaction was profound disappointment.

After a dull April, my reading selections picked up in May. James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small remains a classic worth revisiting. Jeff Vandermeer's peculiar writing advice volume Wonderbook informed and inspired.

This month brought me one of the year's most amusing reads, Platte F. Clarke's Bad Unicorn. It also marked a personal reading milestone as I finally crawled across the finish line on the unabridged Moby Dick, Melville's "experimental" classic... an experience I now never have to repeat.

Not all classics need be tiring slogs though; July introduced me to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which still brings thrills and twists more than 70 years after it was published. I also took a trip down memory lane when I found a half-price copy of Dragon Magic, an Andre Norton fantasy my impatient childhood self never finished. And I discovered how lyrical an autobiography could be in Beryl Markham's West With the Night.

Another month running the gamut from old works (Clifford D. Simak's City) to new (Anthony Ryan's The Waking Fire.) Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road gave new life to Westerns, and Jack Horner's How to Build a Dinosaur explored new and exciting discoveries and possibilities in paleontology. I also finally "met" the noted, popular author Sherman Alexie with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I learned the hard way that nostalgia should sometimes be left alone when I read Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, and found the book less wondrous than my memories of the movie. I also explored the roots of modern fantasy with Fritz Leiber's still-readable first collection of tales about the iconic heroes Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser in Swords and Deviltry. And I got around to George Orwell's Animal Farm, blissfully unaware how prophetic it would prove.

Old-fashioned adventure yarns are alive and well in David D. Levine's throwback-style space fantasy Arabella of Mars.Mac Barnett's picture book How This Book Was Made made for delightful reading. And Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts explored beyond the usual pseudo-European roots of fantasy as it mined Asian and Mongolian myths. Finally, I hit the nostalgia bin once more to reread a childhood favorite, Norma Fox Mazer's Saturday, the Twelfth of October.

A gut-punch of a month, all in all, in which I only managed to read four books, about the lowest monthly total since I've been keeping this blog. Wade Albert White's The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes provided some much-needed levity, as did Joshua Hale Fialkov's King: The Graphic Novel.

The year closed out with another graphic novel binge, this time Joshua Williamson's and Andrei Bressan's Birthright series. Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, struck a little close to home with its alternate-future fantasy world in which knowledge is controlled by a corrupt global force. And Peter Brown, whom I'd only known from picture books, moves to longer-form middle grade work with his imaginative The Wild Robot.

And that wraps up the year in review. The previous summaries glossed over several excellent (and less-than-excellent) titles, naturally, but they're a rough look back at what stands out in my memory after twelve months and numerous reviews.

Onward to 2017!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Wild Robot (Peter Brown)

The Wild Robot
Peter Brown
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A hurricane, a sinking ship, and a cargo crate washed upon the shore of a remote island... thus begins the story of Roz the robot. Activated accidentally by a curious otter, she finds herself alone in the wilderness, surrounded by animals, with no apparent purpose but those she discovers for herself. As she learns the languages of beasts and the ways of nature, Roz becomes more than a mere metal tool - and when she hatches a gosling, she becomes a mother.

REVIEW: This is an odd, fast-reading tale, a science fiction fable of sorts, with more going on beneath the surface than the simple storytelling language indicates. As a robot, Roz was programmed to learn and adapt to help humans - but, without humans and a clear task before her, she becomes much more than her makers intended, even as she teaches the animals to become more than instinct and habit have made them. Around the edges are hints of a global warming devastated future, more fully revealed by the migration of her goose "son" Brightbill. When civilization tries to reclaim its wayward creation, the climax reveals just how much Roz and her friends have changed - a promise, perhaps, of a future beyond humanity. The end is a little bittersweet and a touch inconclusive, and the characters felt a little simple now and again, but overall I liked it enough to give it the benefit of the doubt with a full Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review

Friday, December 23, 2016

Eurekaaargh! (Adam Hart-Davis)

Eurekaaargh!: A Spectacular Collection of Inventions That Nearly Worked
Adam Hart-Davis
Michael O'Mara Books Limited
Nonfiction, Science
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Steam engines, powered flight, flush toilets... all these revolutionary inventions helped create the modern world of wonders we live in. But for every patent that changes civilization, countless more fall into quiet obscurity. Some had admirable ambitions but weak execution. Some were simply ahead of their time, requiring manufacturing capabilities or infrastructure that didn't exist yet. And some were seemingly entirely fanciful from the beginning, ideas that could never work beyond the patent application description. The author examines a range of lost ideas and the people who created them, from the first inflatable tires and "difference engine" computer to impractical swimming devices and flying machines more akin to rocks than eagles.

REVIEW: Everyone loves those old stock footage clips of failed flying devices and other fanciful creations by inventors more skilled in imagination than engineering (or basic practicality). Funny as they are to modern eyes, though, the quest to innovate and explore and push scientific boundaries is what ultimately led to many things we take for granted; it's a given that every step forward involves innumerable sidesteps and missteps. Hart-Davis combed the patent archives and history books for the unusual, the innovative, and otherwise unique. However, this book can't quite seem to find a tone. Early entries, such as umbrella-like hand attachments for swimming (an attempt to improve the power of each forward stroke that might've looked good on paper but failed in practice), are light and amusing as the author points out flaws in the designs and other reasons they faded into obscurity. Other entries, particularly those that were ahead of their times or represented moments when today's technology might easily have skewed in another direction, come closer to history lessons than anything else. Despite the subtitle, several of these inventions did indeed work. They were simply created before sufficient infrastructure (manufacturing ability, access to proper materials, market demand, etc.) allowed them to succeed. A few - such as a failed attempt to create a mathematical model for human thought in the early 1800's - found success later on (modern computers depend on Boolean algebra, the results of those speculations.) I'm not sure they really belonged in the same book as impractical bicycle modifications or attempts at indoor golf games. The book also becomes word-heavy and descriptive for an otherwise light read; I would've preferred more illustrations or diagrams of the inventions described, as it was sometimes hard to visualize what he was talking about, particularly amid webs of names and machinery parts. Some of these inventions the author seems to have tested, while others are simply speculated on based on the patent descriptions. It's not a bad book, but it didn't seem to know quite what it wanted to do with the broad subject it chose to explore, tending to wander.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Extreme Science (Phil Clarke) - My Review
The World's Most Incredible Stories: The Best of the Fortean Times (Adam Sisman, editor) - My Review

Monday, December 19, 2016

You Slay Me (Katie MacAlister)

You Slay Me
(The Aisling Grey, Guardian series, Book 1)
Katie MacAlister
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: If Aisling Grey hadn't been desperate for money, she never would've taken a courier gig with her uncle. so she needs this first job - delivering an antique to a Parisian client - to go off without a hitch. Finding the client dead and having the antique stolen by a mysterious stranger lurking suspiciously at the scene isn't exactly helping... especially when she becomes the number one suspect. Whoever murdered the woman wanted it to look like an occult act, but Aisling refuses to believe there's anything to all that magic and demonology and talk of dragons walking the streets of Paris in human form. Now total strangers insist she's not only a "Guardian", whatever that is, but a born life-mate to a wyvern - as if! As she struggles to unravel the mysteries and dangers, Aisling is plunged into a world of magic she never knew existed, a world of demon lords and immortal beings and the world's sexiest, and least trustworthy, dragon: Drake Vireo, a man (er, wyvern) of many secrets. Who knew Paris in June would be hotter than Hades?

REVIEW: I needed something frothy and fun to distract me, so this supernatural romance looked like a good fit. Aisling's not always the brightest heroine, but she's not entirely worthless, having a fair bit of pluck and and often hilarious narrative voice. As for Drake, he's dangerous, domineering, and of course a perfect match to Aisling - much as she tries to deny it. The characters aren't especially deep, but often fun, particularly Aisling's first failed attempt at a demon minion (the talking dog, Jim, whose summoning was a lesson to the fledgling Guardian that cut-rate supplies in magic create cut-rate results.) The mystery relies on information about the "Otherworld," the hidden-in-plain-sight community of magic workers and immortal beings and such, that Aisling often doesn't have until someone helpfully informs her; it's less about solving the murder(s) than about Aisling being thrown into the deep end of destiny and struggling to stay afloat. Things move decently, with almost no dull moments, and the climax wraps up enough for satisfaction. I clipped it a half-star for Aisling being a little too clueless too often; she just plain doesn't know enough about magic in general or her role as Guardian in particular to solve problems without being led by others, which undercut some of her independence and gutsiness. I also felt the romance angle was a little iffy, almost like it was shoehorned in on top of everything else Aisling had to deal with. On the whole, though, I read it looking for fun escapism, and for the most part that's what I got - minor quibbles aside.

You Might Also Enjoy:
An American Werewolf in Hoboken (Dakota Cassidy) - My Review
Hounded (Kevin Hearne) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review

Unbound (Richard L Currier)

Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink
Richard L Currier
Arcade Publishing
Nonfiction, History/Science
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many millions of years ago, our ancestors were indistinguishable from other primates... but something changed us from tree-dwelling creatures to tool-using, upright-walking beings, from opportunists to active manipulators of our surroundings, from dwelling in scattered groups to founders of vast nations. That "something" was closely tied with our ability to adapt and use new tools to feed ourselves, expand our range, and improve our own existence, eventually transforming us from victims of our environs to controllers - and, all too often, destroyers. The author examines eight pivotal developments, from "digging sticks" and simple spears through spoken language and precision engineering, that irrevocably altered the course of our species and the planet we live on... and what those innovations suggest about our future.

REVIEW: Given the backward slide our world seems to be entering, with growing nationalism and denial of science and ever-increasing indications of another global conflict on the horizon, this probably wasn't the best choice of reading material. Still, it's an interesting look at how we humans became what we are, for better or worse. Our abilities to adopt new technologies (the term not limited simply to tools and machines - Currier includes spoken language as a "technology") and remake our social structures has brought us far in a remarkably short time. That speed forms part of the problem - our "traditional" definitions of societal roles, genders, power distribution, and so forth stem from earlier eras, and don't necessarily work or make sense in an increasingly urban, increasingly connected, and undeniably overpopulated world. As for the future, Currier seems fairly optimistic that we ingenious ape-kin will inevitably shift and adapt to preserve ourselves and our only natural habitat, the Earth - indeed, he sees several signs that this shift is not only possible, but ultimately inevitable, if still rough and rocky (as transitions tend to be.) I wish I could share that optimism, though I think he underestimates the drag factor at work against change; for instance, he saw Rome as a good example of a large, blended society, conveniently ignoring the many cultures and potential society-altering innovations Rome destroyed to maintain its own status quo. I also was a little miffed that the book itself ends a little after two-thirds of the way through, the rest being footnotes and acknowledgements. Overall, though, it provides a decent, even hopeful examination of our species's long history of technological innovation and major leaps forward. (Whether we're capable of clearing the hurdles so swiftly approaching is another matter entirely...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely) - My Review
Before Adam (Jack London) - My Review
Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter) - My Review

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Perspective Made Easy (Robbie Lee)

Perspective Made Easy
Robbie Lee
Impact Books
Nonfiction, YA Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Learning perspective is one of the most important keys to creating good art... but also one of the biggest obstacles. Horizon lines, vanishing points, distortion, proportion - who can make sense of it all, and who wants to when there are robots and monsters and more to be drawn? Author and artist Robbie Lee uses numerous diagrams and exercises to break the complex topic of perspective into bite-sized portions, so your next robot-versus-monster battle will be that much better.

REVIEW: I found this title on clearance at a craft store; since perspective is a perennial weakness in my own artistic efforts, and since half price is almost always the right price, I picked it up. Lee's comic book approach appeals to kids as well as us grown-ups who don't always have the patience we should with long blocks of text and complex angle formulas. Via his robotic avatar and many fun drawings, Lee offers clear demonstrations of one-point, two-point, and three-point perspective, including how to properly draw a square and circle in perspective, how to create a "cone of vision" that eliminates unrealistic distortions, and other useful information. He also includes some shorthand tricks and cheats, because not every doodle needs an elaborate set-up and drafting tools. Once in a while, it gets a bit complicated, but such is the nature of perspective, and the many drawings help clarify just what Lee is doing, and why, in each step. For beginner artists (or intermediate artists who still struggle with perspective), especially those inspired by comic books, this has plenty to offer. The rest is down to practice, and with this book at hand there are many useful exercises to try out.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Perspective Drawing Handbook (Joseph D'Amelio) - My Review
How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (Stan Lee and John Buscema) - My Review
Fantastic Realms (V Shane) - My Review

Monday, December 12, 2016

Birthright Volume 3: Allies and Enemies (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators)

Birthright Volume 3: Allies and Enemies
(The Birthright series)
Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Mikey Rhodes continues his quest to hunt down the four remaining fugitive mages, who fled Terranos for Earth and have lived in exile ever since. His brother Brennan now knows of the Nevermind infecting him, but follows anyway - Mikey's his brother, after all, and he can't turn his back on family. Besides, as he's quickly learning, the truth isn't as black and white as many believe; there may well be good reason the mages deserve death. But their current target, a shadowy assassin hiding in Chicago, may best even the hero of Terranos.
Wendy Rhodes, now in the company of the winged girl (and Mikey's friend and lover) Rya, sets out to find her sons - and finds herself up to her neck in magic and forces she can scarcely comprehend. Can Mikey still be saved, or is it too late for him and the world of Terranos... and if Terranos falls, what will Earth's fate be?
Meanwhile, the imprisoned Aaron Rhodes continues to defy the authorities to protect his children - but Agent Kylen promises leniency if he talks Mikey into peaceful surrender. Little does he realize the man's hidden agenda...

REVIEW: This third volume continues the action-filled, often dark tale of Mikey, the lost boy who became a broken hero. Brennan now has his own magical secret, and his awareness of the Nevermind only makes him more determined to stick by and help his formerly-younger brother. Meanwhile, the boys' parents become caught up in their own Terranos-tainted entanglements; this isn't a story that leaves the "grown ups" by the wayside like so many fantasy adventures. More twists arise, and more of Mikey's backstory of his time in Terranos comes to light via flashbacks. A revelation at the very end almost made me waver on the rating, but I'm willing to trust the creators to see where things are going. Hopefully, Volume 4 appears on Hoopla soon...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review
100 Cupboards (N. D. Wilson) - My Review

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Birthright Volume 2: Call to Adventure (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators)

Birthright Volume 2: Call to Adventure
(The Birthright series)
Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Mikey Rhodes was an ordinary boy - or so he thought, until he was abducted into the magical world of Terranos to fulfill a prophecy by slaying the evil god-king Lore, slave of the twisted Nevermind. Many years later (but only one year on Earth), a now-grown Mikey returns home... but not as the victor he told his family. As tool of the Nevermind, he hunts down five escaped mages with the help of his (formerly older) brother Brennan, who remains unaware of the corrupting force poisoning Mikey from within. Meanwhile, Wendy finally believes that the barbarian "madman" found by the FBI was indeed the child she thought her husband had killed - and, with the help of Mikey's Terranos-born friend and lover, sets out to find her fugitive son.

REVIEW: The story of fallen hero Mikey, his faithful brother-turned-sidekick Brennan, and the shattered Rhodes family continues to be filled with action, magic, twists, and some truly emotional moments. Brennan begins to see what his brother has become, yet cannot bring himself to lose faith in the Mikey he knew. Back with the parents, a new team of agents with an unknown agenda step in to take over the case, just as Wendy and Agent Brooks begin to believe in Mikey's wild tales... helped by the arrival of the winged "gideon" woman Rya, Mikey's former friend from Terranos and mother of his unborn child. I had been afraid that this would be a "boys only" tale, with women relegated to back-burner roles, but Wendy isn't going to be left at home to pine and grieve, and neither is Rya. This volume delivers another interesting and engaging tale, violent at times but toward a purpose, not simply for the sake of it; indeed, Mikey's fall from grace can be tracked to when he finally learned to kill in pursuit of fulfilling the prophecy everyone told him he was destined to fulfill. I look forward to discovering where this story is going.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review
Un Lun Dun (China Mieville) - My Review

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators)

Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming
(The Birthright series)
Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The day young Mikey Rhodes disappeared was the day the family shattered. Many suspected his father, Aaron, of killing the boy and hiding the body... even his wife Wendy. Only Mike's older brother Brennan stuck by the broken man, refusing to give up hope. One year later, the FBI summons the Rhodes to their offices. A strange man, dressed and armed like some bizarre fantasy barbarian, was found by the highway... and, according to fingerprints, that bearded man is the boy Mikey. He claims he was abducted to a fantasy world to fulfill a prophecy by destroying an evil lord, and has returned to Earth to hunt down five mages who might let that evil take root on Earth - but is he telling the truth, or has he been corrupted by the very entity he was prophecized to destroy?

REVIEW: Birthright offers a nice twist on the usual "Earth kid gets whisked away to become a hero in another world" story, showing the devastation left behind as his family struggles to come to terms with his disappearance... and the changes that being forced into a warrior life can wreak on even the nicest boy. Deep within the heart of the battle-hardened and compromised man he has become, Mikey is still a little lost boy at heart who wants nothing more than to go home, and he's not about to let anything get in his way. Meanwhile, Aaron refuses to let this opportunity to reconnect with his son slip away, even if it means becoming a fugitive, and Brennan (once the older brother, now just a kid beside his Conan-like sibling) can't help falling in as an impromptu sidekick, still somehow hoping that his broken family can be mended... though even he begins to wonder if he truly recognizes Mikey anymore. Flashbacks show the young Mikey's journey and its inauspicious start in Terranos, introducing characters that look to come into play in future volumes. It's an interesting story, moving at a fair clip, with great artwork (that leans a little gory at times, as a warning to younger or more sensitive readers.) I'm looking forward to the next volume already - I'll have to see if Hoopla has it available yet.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Everworld: Search for Senna (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Shadowbloom (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan) - My Review

Friday, December 9, 2016

Ink and Bone (Rachel Caine)

Ink and Bone
(The Great Library series, Book 1)
Rachel Caine
New American Library
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: From birth, Jess Brightwell's life has been defined by books - contraband items outside the all-powerful Great Library, which has controlled the flow of information worldwide for centuries. His father's trade in illegal original tomes puts Jess and his family in constant danger, with the Library's well-armed High Garda and cruel, alchemy-powered automata mercilessly hunting down traders. While Jess loves books, he cannot reconcile himself to dealing with the often unsavory clients of the family business... which is why Jess's father has decided that he'd better serve the Brightwells as an insider, joining the ranks of the Library to learn of new treasures and impending threats. Much as Jess has learned to fear the Library, he can't help but be excited: after all, to the average citizen, the Library represents the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, the bright light that guides all of humanity toward a better tomorrow, and just think of the countless books hidden away in the archives! But Jess soon learns that the gilded cover hides a rotten heart, as he's plunged into a world where nobody can be trusted and no secret is safe.

REVIEW: If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does absolute control of knowledge corrupt absolutely? Rachel Caine posits a near-future world where alchemy is real, exploited by master librarians to limit the vital resource of information. Several familiar assumptions (particularly for "Western" readers used to English- or American-centered stories) get tweaked, here; English-born Jess was proud of how intelligent his childhood spent around illegal books has made him, only to realize he's barely average compared to the rest of Europe, who themselves pale in comparison to Middle Eastern nations who have had centuries longer to enjoy access to the Great Library's fruits (it having been founded in Ancient Egypt.) As for America, it's essentially a police state, considered a lowlife hotbed for rebels and Burners, a violent faction espousing the dangerous view that human lives should matter more than books. No institution has clean hands in this world, and no characters here are free from faults or sins. Jess must navigate a maze of traps, not just those set by his stern, borderline-cruel teacher Wolfe - a man who also has a hidden past and his own agenda and who isn't above endangering lives to pursue it. Jess's upbringing among criminals serves him in surprisingly good stead as he finds himself surrounded by untrustworthy peers and questionable superiors, not to mention his own family and their contacts who make periodic demands of him; Jess's twin brother Brendan, who aims to follow in their father's illegal footsteps, proves a strange mix of ally and rival. It's a trial by fire for Jess and the rest of the students he's training with as they compete for a limited number of openings within the Great Library, all for their own reasons. The tale moves at a good clip, with several turns (many of them dark), setting up what looks to be an intense series. Once in a while, Jess seemed a little naive given his background and what he should've already known, but on the whole he made a believable, if flawed, character, as did the rest of the cast. I expect I'll pursue the next volume in the series, at least.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Red Rising (Pierce Brown) - My Review
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Accidental Highwayman (Ben Tripp)

The Accidental Highwayman
(The Kit Bristol series, Book 1)
Ben Tripp
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Orphan Kit Bristol thought his prospects were looking up when he was bought from a circus by Master Rattle, to serve as house boy and errand runner for the nobleman. Little did he suspect, until he found his master dying of a musket wound on the kitchen floor, that Rattle was really Whistling Jack, notorious highwayman of the English countryside. He thought he was doing Rattle a favor by dressing in the highwayman's costume and riding Midnight, his horse, to throw pursuers off the trail. By donning the mask and boots, Kit has not only made himself a target of a ruthless colonel, but has taken up obligations he knows little of, obligations tied to the fairies of England and the schemes of their mad king. Now the fate of a halfblood princess, a former circus colleague, and England's fairies and humans alike rest on this accidental highwayman's young shoulders.

REVIEW: It looked fun and lightweight, an old-school yarn of highwaymen and magic. Early on, that's what it seemed like it would be. Kit's young and naive, but he does his best when confronted with his master's true occupation. Then he faces his first challenge, rescuing the halfblood fairy Princess Morgana from a marriage to England's young king-in-waiting George III, and the story grows shaky as it relies on too many coincidences and last-minute deus ex machina saves while Kit proves inept at basic tasks (though, to be fair, nobody tells him enough about fairy magic for him to anticipate its effects - then they often berate him for not knowing.) Before long, the inexperienced boy finds himself caretaker of not one but two overemotional and helpless women - one of them the self-same fairy princess, whose inexperience in the real world I could buy but whose utter ineptness about her own powers (plus her general uselessness for most of the story) I just couldn't swallow. Yes, this was written in the style of the 1700's, but for a twenty-first century audience... I would've hoped we'd be a little beyond the cliche of the helpless damsel(s) in distress who must rely on a man, even an underaged man, for protection and guidance. There's supposed to be a budding romance between Kit and Princess Morgana, but none of their interactions are anything but stilted, full of stereotypical girlish mood swings and boyish obliviousness and confusion, with not a smidgen of chemistry or genuine affection. There are also a number of fairy folk flitting about, who behave largely as comic relief (particularly in their light-up behinds, which seems like the kind of silly detail a younger target audience would enjoy more but which gets far too much page time in this longer, slightly more grown-up story) but also can pose serious threats, if somewhat watered down by ridiculous appearances. The tale lurches along, veering from plot point to plot point as Kit wavers between clever hero and bumbling idiot, before coming to a drawn-out finale that really drives home how helpless women are and how lucky they should be that they have an English boy to save them. I never did connect with the characters, who too often seemed like flimsy plot constructs, and I only enjoyed their adventures in fits and starts, not helped by the forced faux-period storytelling style. I liked a few of the period details, and now and again the tale gained interest and momentum, but it never lived up to its potential.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Misadventures of Maude March (Audrey Couloumbis) - My Review
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - My Review

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November Site Update

It hasn't been a great month in many ways, but I managed to archive and cross-link the previous five book reviews on the main site.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Last of the Giants (Jeff Campbell)

Last of the Giants: The Rise and Fall of Earth's Most Dominant Species
Jeff Campbell
Zest Books
Nonfiction, YA? Animals
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When people think of megafauna, they usually think of such lost behemoths as woolly mammoths - creatures long gone before the rise of recorded history, save a few enigmatic images left by our earliest ancestors on cave walls. Surely, driving animals to oblivion was something only our short-sighted cave-dwelling ancestors would do. But some have vanished in more recent centuries; the baiji, a river dolphin in China, was just declared extinct in 2011. As we stand on the brink of the "Sixth Extinction", even more species are poised on the edge. The author describes thirteen species - most lost to us, a few barely clinging to survival - and what humans have done to both destroy and save them.

REVIEW: By its very nature, this is a depressing book on many levels. For all the compassion we preach (if so rarely practice) in our religions and philosophies, for all the reverence we bestow upon animals, even for all the scientific progress we've made, we just can't seem to grasp how to live without destroying most every species and ecosystem we encounter - or how such destruction ultimately lessens our own chances of long-term survival. Campbell covers a wide range of animals, from the giant moa of New Zealand to the Steller's sea cow of the Arctic, the aurochs of primeval Europe to the passenger pigeon of the Americas. (Why include a relatively small bird? They existed in such massive numbers - over a million to a flock - and had such a large impact on the environment that Campbell fully justifies their inclusion with other earth-shaping megafauna like rhinos and giant tortoises.) This book is geared for the casual reader, suitable for older school-age children, so the articles aren't necessarily deep, but they are reasonably thorough, and an extensive bibliography offers further reading for those interested. For all the doom and gloom, some glimmers of potential hope remain; not all species in this book are gone, and one can only hope that humanity eventually matures enough, morally and scientifically, to take better care of our world and ourselves.
While the book itself was reasonably interesting, what cost it a solid star in the ratings was the terrible formatting of the eBook copy. In order to preserve the printed book's appearance, with several insets and asides, the text was rendered so small I could barely read it on my Kindle eReader; normally, enlarging the font size helps, but here I had to manually scroll around the page in order to read, which was highly inconvenient. Trying it on the Kindle app of my Nook (with its larger screen) was only marginally better; the book's font was eye-straining to read and couldn't be changed. The insets often broke between pages, and I couldn't just glance ahead to finish like in a printed book. An eBook just plain isn't going to look the same as the print version, and this forced attempt to make them identical hurt my reading experience. Otherwise, this is a good introduction to and exploration of (relatively) recent extinctions and the concept of the Anthropocene age. Just do yourself a favor and get the paperback.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White)

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes
(The Adventurer's Guide series, Book 1)
Wade Albert White
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After a life spent toiling in Saint Lupin's Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children, orphan Anne is finally on the brink of freedom. Like all orphans who turn thirteen, she's to be sent off on the supply ship after its annual visit, and even though her unknown parentage has kept her out of any of the academies or quests the other kids can look forward to, she'll at least be away from the horrible Matron and the coal mines - plus, she'll have her exuberant best friend Penelope with her. But a series of uncontrollable events lead to her getting a quest gauntlet stuck to her arm... a gauntlet that activates itself with a rare and powerful quest medallion. This has to violate any number of rules with the Wizards Council, but quests have their own rules, and Anne and her friends (plus a magical book of marginal usefulness) are stuck right in the thick of one. On the plus side, maybe she'll finally figure out where she came from before she was dumped at Saint Lupin's. On the minus side, there's a very high chance that she and the rest of the world will be utterly obliterated.

REVIEW: I needed a fun pick-me-up, and this fast-reading middle grade fantasy adventure fit the bill. Anne's world - composed of floating tiers of land around a gravitational nexus of raw magic - is a fantasy homage/send-up along the lines of Diana Wynne Jones's Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, or the more recent Bad Unicorn by Platte F. Clarke, but with some technological twists along the way, not to mention hilarious asides from various in-world writings on everything from questing to dragons. Anne's a good-hearted heroine who works through problems with some help from Penelope (who becomes the Fighter of her Rightful Heir quest) and Hiro (the designated Wizard, whose spells have catastrophic side-effects), plus a few other allies she encounters along the way. It's also worth noting that Anne is black, which shouldn't be surprising in this day and age but which is still something of a rarity in fantasy. The story moves at a good clip, though now and again it felt rushed and jumbled even for a middle grade title, and several threads are left unresolved at the end as White teases future installments in this series of undetermined length. That was just enough irritation to knock off a half-star this book almost earned with some laugh-out-loud moments that approached Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett in their hilarity. I had fun reading this one, and expect I'll explore future books if and when they appear.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Seas of Ernathe (Jeffrey A. Carver)

Seas of Ernathe
(The Star Rigger series)
Jeffrey A. Carver
Laser Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Star pilot Seth Perland arrives at the colony world of Ernathe as part of a two-pronged mission. The native Nale'nids, or "sea people", used to leave the colonists and their plankton harvesting ships in peace, but lately they've been interfering in strange, potentially deadly ways - and nobody can figure out how to communicate with them. The disruption has far wider consequences; Ernathe's plankton may hold the key to rediscovering the trick of star-rigging, using a pilot's own mind to navigate the Flux of hyperspace for faster, more reliable interplanetary travel... and with interstellar war on the horizon, rigging could well mean the difference between survival and extermination for humanity. What Seth finds is not at all what he expects, but this is a mission he cannot afford to fail.

REVIEW: This was the first novel Carver wrote, though chronologically it occurs centuries after his other Star Rigger novels - he himself notes that this will wreak havoc with any attempts to organize and number the series in any meaningful manner. Being a first, and written so long ago (in 1976), it unfortunately shows its age. We have the stock characters of the star pilot outsider coming to a somewhat skeptical and insular colony, the "primitive" natives growing restless, a cast of characters that, despite lip service and occasional token nods being given to women having important jobs, is overwhelmingly male, and the beautiful Nale'nid who bonds with Seth and only just stops shy of the cliche line of "show me more of this strange Earth thing called kissing" during their inevitable affair. Having read other Star Rigger books, I guessed at some of the secrets behind the Nale'nids far before the characters clued in, which made for some frustration. Carver excels at creating detailed scenes and worlds, and his concept of star rigging and the Flux make for some nice twists. Unfortunately, his characterization suffers somewhat, as does the plot, which feels a little stretched. It's worth reading if you enjoy Carver's Star Rigger universe, though I'm not sure it holds up on its own otherwise in this day and age.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Rigger's Way (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review

Saturday, November 5, 2016

King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov, author; Bernard Chang and Marcelo Miaolo, illustrators)

King: The Graphic Novel
Joshua Hale Fialkov, author; illustrated by Bernard Chang and Marcelo Maiolo
Jet City Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Generations after the apocalypse devastated the planet, birthed monsters, unleashed magical entities, and drove humanity to essential extinction... the Los Angeles commute still sucks. King, the last human male alive, fights his way through squid-possessed gods and hybrid beast biker gangs to his job at the local police precinct, or what passes for the police in this insane new world. His assignment: seek the Life Seed, the legendary force that will supposedly heal Earth. King doesn't even know if such a thing exists - this isn't the first reported "life seed" he's been sent to fetch - but a job's a job, and beer doesn't buy itself even in the post-apocalyptic future. This time, he may have found the real deal... though whether he or the Life Seed will survive a deadly gauntlet of fanatical robots, elder-god-possessed coworkers, sapient plants, and King's own sister remains to be seen. This is going to be the worst Monday of his life.

REVIEW: Another impulse read from Amazon's Prime Reading, King is a quirky, sometimes surreal graphic novel, full of action, explosions, and twisted humor. King's a jaded protagonist just trying to get by in a world that's constantly trying to kill him; even his own sister has become an enemy, despite them being the last two pure humans on the planet. His Monday turns out to be even worse than usual, with everyone even more determined to do him in. The tale moves quickly, and the art was mostly easy to follow, with a colorful cast and several moments that nearly had me laughing out loud, even with the dark streak and frequent violence. It made a nice change of pace. I'd likely read more adventures in this world if they appear, though so far it's not a series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
Time Travel Dinosaur (Matt Youngmark) - My Review

Monday, October 31, 2016

Saturday, the Twelfth of October (Norma Fox Mazer)

Saturday, the Twelfth of October
Norma Fox Mazer
Lizzie Skurnick Books
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Fourteen-year-old Alexandra "Zan" Ford lives in a crowded apartment with her mother, father, brothers, aunt, and cousins, but she feels alone. Nobody really notices anyone in the city, not even family. They're all too busy to talk to her about the many questions she has about life, about growing up, about all sorts of things. Her only outlet is her diary - so when her brother steals it to read aloud to his friends, Zan snaps. She runs out of the house to her favorite place, the boulder in Mechanix Park... and somehow slips thousands of years back in time. Primeval forests spread across the land. Strange creatures like giant ground sloths roam about. Then she meets the nearly-naked girl and boy, and she learns just how far from home she's come.
Burrum and her friend Sonte went to the meadow to see if the honey blossoms were in bloom - but found instead an impossible girl, a stranger who speaks in odd sounds and covers her whole body as though weak or ashamed. Burrum is certain this stranger, Meezzan, was sent by the spirits to be her new friend, and leads her home to the caves of the People. But Diwera, the "Wai Wai" or wise woman, has doubts. In the past, strangers always meant trouble, and the peculiar items Meezzan carries have powers beyond her own. If nobody else will heed her warnings, she may just have to take matters into her own hands.

REVIEW: I first read this book many, many years ago, and it left a strong enough impression on me that I figured it deserved a re-read when I saw it available via my library's Overdrive service. Mazer constructs an elaborate primitive society, one about as different from Zan's modern world as night from day. Everyone knows everyone else, and they're always talking or touching or sharing, with a deep-rooted emotional awareness and little to no concept of privacy, plus a culture that binds them almost on an intuitive level - one that Zan, hard as she tries, can never fully tune into. Some parts may read stilted today, but the People still come across as individuals, if individuals functioning on often-alien wavelengths. Their culture ties into the theme of Zan's journey, about what it means to be human in general and a young woman in particular (there's a moderately strong subplot about puberty and menstruation), and how she's not crazy for feeling lost in a society that's abandoned some of its most important aspects in its rush to embrace progress. This theme is even more relevant in today's society, with electronic communication too often ousting personal connection, than it was when Mazer wrote this in 1975. Though Zan means no malice or harm, her presence creates ripples through the close-knit society that herald changes to come, an unwitting snake in the garden from which tragedy must inevitably result. This isn't a story of modern humans bringing wisdom and enlightenment to primitive natives, but of civilization as a slow, inevitable rot that has cost us in ways we've forgotten to count. Misunderstandings compound, distrust breeds, but there is some sliver of hope that what was lost may be relearned. It's not a neat and perfect ending, for Zan or anyone else, but an authentic one, enough to warrant a Good rating despite some wandering now and again (and the occasionally forced feel of the primitive dialog, as Mazer attempts to convey the alien mindset of the People.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ancient One (T. A. Barron) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Steel (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review

October Site Update

The previous twelve book reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Unwanted: Dead or Alive (Gene Shelton)

Unwanted: Dead or Alive
(The Buck and Dobie series, Book 1)
Gene Shelton
Pecos Press
Fiction, Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Cowboys Buck Hawkins and Dobie Garrett may not be famous or wealthy or even particularly intelligent, good-looking, or ambitious, but they do all right for themselves. At least they have a good job with an honest boss in the Texas Panhandle, roping strays and tending livestock for the modest Singletree ranch... or they used to. Just when the region's being hammered with the hardest winter in memory, an overstuffed pig of a banker turns up to foreclose on the property, and that's just the start of their troubles. A fight with a drunkard leaves the other man dead, and false accusations of horse theft and cattle rustling put a price on their head. It was hard enough finding a job in a changing frontier - now they can't show their heads in town without someone trying to shoot it off. While Buck wonders how long it'll take to be hung, Dobie comes up with the perfect solution. If the world's forced them to ride the "owlhoot trail" anyway, he reckons, why not turn outlaw for real? It has to pay more than a cowboy makes these days - and maybe they can even get that banker pig back and help their old boss with the cash. There's just one problem with Dobie's plan: neither one of them could steal an egg from a chicken, let alone money from a bank.

REVIEW: This lighthearted Western takes a little while to find its stride, but once it does it's an amusing romp, full of spirited horses and fast getaways and colorful cowboy jargon in a trope-riddled Wild West. Buck and Dobie are close friends, and where Dobie leads Buck always follows, but they just plain aren't suited to the outlaw life; Buck's too nervous and kindhearted, and Dobie, despite his tough talk and more worldly experience, is better at (cow) pie-in-the-sky ideas than actually planning, let alone executing, a crime. They also have the worst luck a pair of cowpokes ever had. Nevertheless, they persevere, in part because Dobie insists they'll learn the trade eventually and in part because they really have no choice. About halfway through their efforts, they encounter Marylou, a sharp city girl looking for some excitement and adventure on the range. She becomes key to their minimal successes, a fun and unladylike addition to the duo's dynamics. It all builds up to their great moment of revenge - which, naturally, goes completely haywire when real outlaws become involved. There's nothing hugely deep or original or startling here, but it makes for a fun, quick read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
A Sky So Big (Ransom Wilcox and Karl Beckstrand) - My Review

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Some Like It Perfect (Megan Bryce)

Some Like It Perfect
(A Temporary Engagement series, Book 3)
Megan Bryce
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In her mid-thirties, Delia still embodies the stereotypical college dropout, perpetually broke and more interested in her painting than in savings or making long-term plans... but, even though her friend Justine lets her crash on her couch for nothing, the romance of suffering for one's art eventually wears thin, even for a girl raised on a hippie commune. So, when Justine brings her an offer to paint a high-powered CEO's office ceiling, Delia swallows her pride and steps up to the job, even if it means climbing a hated scaffold and working around the arrogant embodiment of every capitalist ideal she's spent her whole life rejecting. But the moment she first lays eyes on Jack Cabot, sparks fly.
Jack didn't even want his office redecorated, but when his mother insists, he can't bring himself to turn her down. She's had more than her share of tragedy, after all, having buried two husbands and turned into a virtual recluse out of grief. Chaotic Delia brings everything into his office that he's spent his forty years denying: spontaneity, a rejection of material wealth as the measure of a life, and a refusal to submit to authority. So why can't he stop thinking about her? And why, after seeing what love cost his mother, is he now wondering what he's been missing by refusing to let love into his life?

REVIEW: Romances can make nice palate-cleansers between heavier works. They're usually fairly quick reads (as this one was - I read it in half a day, breaks included), with no great surprises so far as the general thrust of the plot goes. Here, however, I found some sour notes in the usual, familiar harmony, enough to disrupt my overall enjoyment. Delia and Jack aren't particularly deep as characters go, spending more time denying their star-crossed attraction than is strictly necessary... until Delia, the ultimate hippie-raised girl who proudly rejects society's standards and authority figures, lets one shrewish comment almost completely destroy her. (No spoilers, but the threat made zero sense, as there'd been no indication of anything resembling truth behind it... nor did it make sense that Delia latched onto it so readily and stupidly.) For large parts of the story, Jack and Delia are shunted to the side by other characters. Jack's teenaged half-sister, Augustus, sticks her growing pains squarely in the middle of the romance - and is inexplicably welcomed into their oddly cozy group, her anticlimactic issues mostly serving to distract the would-be-lovebirds from each other. Delia's roomie Justine is going through a midlife crisis with regards to her planned dream of family life and her lukewarm feelings toward her long-term boyfriend Paul, who doesn't seem interested in even spending weekends together, let alone marriage and fatherhood. Justine decides to take matters into her own hands by skipping her birth control - and here is where the book really falls flat and hard on its face. Justine and Paul's storyline falls back on every sexist stereotype in the book: all women want to be mothers and will become pregnant by any means necessary, while all men are grunting cavemen who only ever settle down because "their" woman tells them to, and because they're allowed to get out of really messy parts of parenthood because they're guys. Oh, and "oopsing" a man into marriage works, because he'll just get plastered and decide, yeah, he really does want to be a father enough to forgive the betrayal even though he'd been having second thoughts about the relationship beforehand. Yes, this was indeed written in the 21st century. I'm aware that this is a "thing" in some subgenres of romance, that some people find this relationship idea attractive, but I'm not one of them. The optimist in me wants to believe we've come farther than that, that maybe communication ought to be attempted before sabotaged contraception, while the pessimist just thanks her lucky stars she's never been that desperate to fulfill a picket-fence dream, if that's what it takes to get it. A manufactured crisis or two occurs between the leads and the secondary characters, and finally the story ends without me ever really caring about any of them. All around, it's not a terrible story, but mostly bland, with too much competition from side characters that muddle the tale - not to mention some very irritating and backwards messages on love.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review
Almost Perfect (Julie Ortolon) - My Review
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear)

Range of Ghosts
(The Eternal Sky series, Book 1)
Elizabeth Bear
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the wake of the Great Khan's death, warring brothers destroy the vast Qersnyk empire he built until the steppe grasses turn red with blood and the sky black with vultures, as the moons that mark the Khan's heirs vanish from the night skies. When Temur, son of the rightful heir, wakes alone on a battlefield, he turns his back on war and power struggles, hoping for a simpler life as he joins refugees fleeing the embattled realm... but after ghostly attacks steal his new lover, Temur must brave sorcery and hardship to rescue her - and may be riding straight into a trap.
Samarkar-la was once a princess, but her marriage ended in humiliation and disaster. Rather than be another pawn in her brother's quest for power, she instead goes to the Citadel to undertake training as a wizard. Even if she never finds her power, the training process leaves her barren, never to bear a child who might be used to threaten the Ragan crown. It's a better life than she might have hoped to live - but not without dangers, as she discovers when she is sent to investigate the fate of a fallen city and discovers instead a sorcerous taint and an unspeakable atrocity.
As Temur and Samarkar soon discover, dark forces lurk behind the unrest spreading across the land, forces bound to an ancient enemy known as the Sorcerer-Prince or Carrion-King, who rose from the mortal plane to challenge the very gods in the heavens in a conflict that nearly destroyed the world.

REVIEW: I've been meaning to try Elizabeth Bear's work, so when this title came up in Tor's eBook-of-the-month club, I figured I'd give it a try. She bases this world on Asian mythology, centered around steppelands and a nomadic race of conquerors in the vein of Genghis Khan and his Mongols. It lends the work a nicely exotic flavor, albeit one that took a while for my American mind to adapt to, with some interesting mind's-eye-candy. The skies of a realm change depending on whose culture (and gods) are ascendant, while exotic creatures like the giant rukh bird, living stone talus beasts, and humanoid tigerlike Cho-tse populate the land. Bear takes her time establishing this new world and its quirks, positioning her characters slowly and carefully before finally bringing them together and getting the main plot going, a slow-burn opening that might've frustrated me more if there hadn't been so many neat things to learn and see along the way, and decently-drawn characters to experience them with. Some few plot elements felt a little weak, and I admit I couldn't keep track of all the various realms and some of the peripheral players, but overall I found it a refreshing change of pace from the many pseudo-European fantasies I've read. I expect I'll track down the second volume soon, even if it's not a free download.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley) - My Review

Thursday, October 20, 2016

No Such Thing As Dragons (Philip Reeve)

No Such Thing as Dragons
Philip Reeve
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Ansel has been mute since the death of his mother - and his innkeeper father doubts he'll ever be rid of such a small and useless child, until the knight turns up in search of a cheap servant. Brock touts himself as a dragon hunter, bearing a wicked scar and exotic claw as proof, and he needs a boy to tend his armor and horses and perform other menial tasks below a hero's dignity. Ansel's terrified, but he has no choice. Then Brock, knowing the mute boy can't spill any secrets, tells him the truth: there's no such thing as a dragon, but superstitious fools pay him well to chase off phantoms of their own hysteria, and the tales of his exploits earn him free board (and often free bedmates) at any inn in medieval Europe.
When Brock and Ansel arrive at the Drachenberg, however, the stories flow dark and thick of the monster haunting the icy slopes. Maybe these alpine villagers are more easily spooked than most, or less devoted to the light of God. Or maybe Brock is wrong, and there's still at least one dragon left in the world...

REVIEW: I freely admit I bought this almost solely on the title and cover, plus the discounted price at the thrift store. At first, it looked like a fairly predictable tale, one in which the "dragon" would be easily explained away... a feeling reinforced when the characters' Christian faith comes up often. However, I was pleasantly surprised. There's a little more going on than meets the eye, and faith in God isn't an automatic golden ticket to victory. Ansel tries his best to be loyal, even though he has mixed feelings about serving a charlatan, but ultimately must become his own master to endure what proves to be a very real encounter (not a spoiler - the fact that the dragon exists isn't the main twist). Brock himself never set out to be a fraud, but has rationalized his choices... only to find himself tested to the utmost when he faces the very thing he never believed possible, yet which he built his entire false reputation upon. Along the way, they encounter an outcast village girl whom villagers used to bait the beast, who is anything but a princess or a helpless damsel. Even the dragon has a bit of an unexpected story, for all that it's a beast. The story plays out on the high, remote slopes of the Drachenburg, a fierce and forbidding landscape from another age, where upstart humans and their notions of truth and logic and what may or may not exist have little place. It's a fairly fast-paced tale, with some startling encounters and lessons learned, coming to a reasonably satisfying conclusion, especially given my usual luck with Christian-themed fantasy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Dragonslayers (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Hero and the Crown (Robin McKinley) - My Review

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Julie Andrews Edwards
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Potter children - Ben, Tom, and Lindy - didn't even want to go to the zoo, not until their parents pushed them out the door that October day. If they'd never gone, they'd never have met Professor Savant, an eccentric old man who tells them about the elusive Whangdoodle, an animal stranger and more wonderful than any beast at any zoo. Long ago, Whangdoodles and other peculiar animals like dragons and unicorns lived alongside people, but over time humans forgot about them; those who didn't pine away in sorrow found sanctuary in a world created by the last and greatest and wisest of all the Whangdoodles. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Potter think it's all make-believe, but Savant's a Nobel-winning professor of genetics: surely, if he believes in the Whangdoodle, it's likely such a beast exists - and if it does, the three kids want nothing more in the whole world than to meet it. Under the professor's tutelage, the Potter children learn to stretch their minds and open their imagination, all in hopes of reaching Whangdoodleland and seeing its wonders... but the Prock, prime minister in charge of the last Whangdoodle's safety, mistrusts humans and will do anything to keep them away.

REVIEW: Considered a classic by many, this book is a fun old-school children's adventure tale hearkening back to a more innocent time, along the lines of Edith Nesbit or L. Frank Baum. The kids are simple enough characters, but worth rooting for, as is Professor Savant, whose struggle to reconnect to Whangdoodleland and its long-forgotten inhabitants is partially tied to his work in genetics. With humans on the verge of creating life, he reasons, we need our imaginations as well as our intellects on full alert lest our power run away from us, which means remembering all of what we've forgotten through the centuries (and even through our own lifespans; the differences between childhood imagination and adult intellect come into play at key moments in the journey) - a bit of a simplistic message, maybe, but not everything has to be deep and brooding. Whangdoodleland is the sort of place one can't help imagining in Technicolor animation around the live-action children, full of such contrivances as the Jolly Boat (which runs on joke power) and beasts like the helpful Whiffle Bird and deceptive High-Behind Splintercat, and while it's not without its hazards, nobody acts out of evil or malice. Even the Prock just wants what's best for his master. Younger readers will encounter wonders and peril and frequent fun, while grown-ups will find a glimmer of hope that long-lost days of imagination may not be completely lost. It's not quite my cup of cocoa, running silly for my tastes, and it can't help reading a little dated (I wonder how many children today even know what a Soda Fountain is, outside the fantastical Whangdoodleland version that serves up any ice cream treat one can imagine), but I can see and appreciate the charm.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - My Review
The Enchanted Castle (E. Nesbit) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Friday, October 14, 2016

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide (Charles Foster)

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
Charles Foster
Metropolitan Books
Nonfiction, Nature
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Through the ages, many people have speculated on the minds and lives of beasts, using them to teach lessons or tell stories. In more recent years, science has begun examining how animals experience their worlds through sensory arrays that often differ wildly from our own. But all those fables, children's stories, and dry reports can't answer the question many of us have wondered: what is it really like to actually be an animal? Author Charles Foster turns a lifetime of fascination into a series of attempts to cross the species divide by living, as best he can, as a badger, an otter, a London city fox, a red deer, and a swift. He digs a burrow and feeds on live earthworms. He learns to "see" in the darkness of a Scottish riverbed. He trains his nose to sift scents on multiple layers. He follows one of the world's great migrations, from Oxford to the Congo, while learning the eddies and drifts of air "rivers". Along the way, he discovers just how limited human lives and minds have become - and just what our potential is when we choose to reconnect and learn from our elders in furred and feathered coats.

REVIEW: The author of this book was a recipient of a 2016 Ig Nobel award, the strange-science counterpart to the more famous Nobels, designed to recognize scientific studies that, to paraphrase their official statement, first make you laugh and then make you think. The idea of stripping naked and crawling around in the woods (with his son, no less - Foster's children accompany him on more than one experiment, in ways that make me suspect England has far fewer overbearing child protection laws than America) trying to be a badger, or nosing through rubbish in the city like a fox, seems patently ridiculous on the surface. But by doing what most scientists wouldn't consider, actually putting himself in an animal's world (or as close as he could manage), Foster gains insights that elude the most imaginative writer or intensive lab study. He often finds existing English inadequate to describe what he experiences, trying his best to translate the way smells or touch or air patterns can create a world more immediate and relevant than mere vision. However, Foster can't help injecting himself into his own experiments, and more than once he prattles on about himself more than the animal he's trying to "be" - the human unwilling, or simply unable, to cede dominance to another species. He acknowledges this flaw, more than once, but admitting pretentiousness doesn't negate pretentiousness, and his philosophical speculations only served to weaken his actual, tangible experiences. I sometimes found myself skimming, trying to get back to the interesting parts and beyond the self-absorbed babble. Foster's success in drawing me into animal lives, or his experiences of animal lives, varies considerably. His attempts at "being" a red deer, in a chapter that's more about hunting red deer and how humans are programmed to be more wolflike (here, Foster's own anthropomorphic ideas of animals show loud and clear, despite his efforts to expunge such symbolic projection elsewhere) than the deer themselves, is the weakest. The final chapter on the swift is the strongest, likely because he admits a certain level of intrinsic defeat by this point; it's more of an attempt to be kin to the birds, rather than "be" the birds themselves, which isn't so prone to stumbling over his own preconceptions and attempts at sensory free-form poetry in making human language dance to the rhythm of an animal's drum. Taken all together, Foster's work is an admirable, if not always successful, attempt to step beyond the limits of our species - particularly the limits we've chosen to create for ourselves, rather than those created by biology.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowatt) - My Review

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Dragon Round (Stephen S. Power)

The Dragon Round
Stephen S. Power
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Captain Jeryon's everything a Hanoshi man should be: punctual, unsentimental, driven by profit and loyalty to his company. The fact that his latest voyage carries life-saving medicine only makes it more important that he follow the rules... even when a dragon is sighted, and his crew salivates at the chance to earn a bounty for its corpse at the expense of a few hours off their schedule - a few hours in which many might die. A mutiny sees Jeryon and the Ayeshi apothecary, Everlyn, given the "captain's chance": stranded in a dinghy with no oar, sail, or supplies, left to the waves to decide their fate. As his ship disappears over the horizon, Jeryon vows to see justice done and the mutineers repaid for their treachery. When the boat ends up wrecked on an uninhabited island, the discovery of a hatchling dragon gives him a unique chance to fulfill his vow - if he can do the unthinkable and tame the beast.

REVIEW: This was another impulse buy, based on an intriguing cover blurb and a different writing style than I usually read: omniscient present tense, sparse on details, with only brief, random glimpses into thoughts or motives. It was a little tough getting into the world, especially when it was difficult to parse character motivations, but for a while I found it intriguing, and I eventually got a bit of a feel for the style. Then... things started disintegrating. The sparseness began to work against my suspension of disbelief, when everyone comes across as a stereotype (particularly females) and I'm only told - rather than shown - seemingly important developments.By the halfway point, any sympathy I had for Jeryon's situation vanished as he proves at least as ruthless as his enemies, killing off bystanders with nary a flinch and for little apparent gain. Then the action jumps from him to his hometown of Hanosh, a place so thoroughly corrupted by the evils of corporate greed (a point driven home countless times in countless ways) that I would've happily seen it burn to the ground. Several bit players get names and minor roles in an increasingly confusing web of allies and rivals, an impenetrable maze by the end that I gave up on keeping straight. By then, it was clear that nobody had an ounce of concern for anything or anyone but themselves... save possibly Everlyn, who degenerates into a helpless damsel/object. At least the dragon, Gray, had an excuse for being an amoral predator. The ending (I'll keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but it's a key part of my dissatisfaction so I must mention it) sees nothing resembling justice or resolution, even though there's no indication that this is part of a series; apparently, the cycle of greed and vengeance and selfish power-grabs, not to mention a total disregard for the many poor and/or innocent souls paying in pain and blood, just keeps on going until there's nobody left to cheat or backstab or eviscerate alive. (Did I mention the frequent, increasingly gratuitous gore? When dealing with revenge and dragons, some bloodshed's unavoidable, but it passed far beyond effectiveness into vaguely repulsive numb territory.) I don't often toss books down in disgust when I finish, but this one got a hard thumping. While there were elements of interest here and there, and it was intriguing to read a book written in a different style than I usually encounter, I just can't care about this nebulous world full of unlikable stereotypes, where it doesn't matter who wins or loses - or even who profits from the win or loss.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb) - My Review
The Waking Fire (Anthony Ryan) - My Review
Dragon's Bait (Vivian Van Velde) - My Review

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Vader's Little Princess (Jeffrey Brown)

Vader's Little Princess
Jeffrey Brown
Chronicle Books
Fiction, Comics/Media Reference/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: It's tough enough being a single dad. It's worse when you're a Sith lord trying to juggle galactic domination and obedience to the Emperor with a Jedi daughter and her twin brother. Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown imagines more fatherly mishaps as Darth Vader takes on a rebellious young Leia.

REVIEW: More fun from Jeffrey Brown. Unlike his previous book (Darth Vader and Son), this one tackles teen issues in addition to childhood tea parties. What's a father to do when confronted with a scruffy-looking scoundrel of a boyfriend or a daughter's inappropriate evening wear? (One of my favorites features a perplexed Vader trying to comfort a distraught Leia about her latest love life drama - what is "I know" really supposed to mean, anyway?) A fun diversion for fans of the franchise (particularly the pre-Disney franchise.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Darth Vader and Son (Jeffrey Brown) - My Review
Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: A Brewster Rockit Collection (Tim Rickard) - My Review

Friday, October 7, 2016

How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett)

How This Book Was Made
Mac Barnett, illustrations by Adam Rex
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: From the spark of an idea (which occurs while arm-wrestling a tiger) through the drafting process, editing, and publication, author Mac Barnett describes how this book came into existence, with a little help from illustrator Adam Rex.

REVIEW: In the spirit of this delightful book, I'd like to present How This Book Review Was Written:
I love reading books, and have for as long as I can reliably remember. Most of what I read, I review, because I like sharing books that I've enjoyed (and even books I haven't enjoyed.) I also work around books, helping library items move from one place to another in a large warehouse... which is where I was when I saw this title. As a reader who also dreams of writing my own book someday, the title and subject matter grabbed my attention.
I wanted to read it.
Unfortunately, at work, work must come first. (Bosses get testy, otherwise. If they get too testy, I'd have to look for another job, where I'd be less likely to be surrounded by books.)
So I waited.
And I waited.
A few days later, this book returned - and, this time, things were slow enough I could pick it up. So I started reading it.
I read it as I worked, which required a little multitasking, but it was the tail end of the day so things were slow anyway. (At least, the bosses didn't get too testy about it.) The story was a fun look at the process of writing and publication (and tiger arm-wrestling), quite enjoyable for readers and would-be writers of all ages who retain a sense of whimsy. I particularly liked the notes on how useful multiple drafts can be, as well as tips on negotiating with an editor. Rex's images add to the narrative, with a nice old-school look.
And so, having finished the reading, it was time write my review... though, first, I had to finish work, then shop for groceries, and come home to where my computer and internet connection waited. And thus this review was written and shared with anyone who happens to find it - such as you.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett) - My Review
Little Red Writing (Joan Holub) - My Review
What Do You Do With An Idea? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

This Book Is Not About Dragons (Shelley Moore Thomas)

This Book Is Not About Dragons
Shelley Moore Thomas, illustrations by Fred Koehler
Boyds Mill Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: If you're looking for dragons, look elsewhere. As the mouse narrator points out, there are no dragons here - not in the woods, not behind the cabin, not behind the scorched... um... oh, my...

REVIEW: I read this during some down time at work. A fun little premise with simple, imaginative illustrations, it also acts as a reminder to fact-check your sources, even seemingly reliable narrators in picture books, and perhaps a poke at the futility of denial in the face of facts. Or, at least, the face of dragons.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Boy Who Cried Ninja (Alex Latimer) - My Review
Do Not Open This Book (Michaela Muntean) - My Review
There Are No Cats In This Book (Viviane Schwarz) - My Review

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire (Peter Stark)

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
Peter Stark
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Two sister nations of self-rule and democracy, one on the East Coast and one on the West - this was a vision of President Thomas Jefferson after the return of his explorers Lewis and Clark from their historic expedition. Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor, who rose from lowly immigrant selling cakes on the streets of New York City to prominent businessman, had his own dreams for a continent-spanning empire of fur posts, capitalizing on the enormous profits to be had in a Chinese market hungry for pelts (and a fledgling America hungry for Chinese trade goods). While Jefferson, tied to the needs of the young nation, couldn't commit the money or manpower to this dream, Astor could... and did. In 1810, he sent two parties west, one by land and one by sea, to rendezvous at the mouth of the newly-reported Columbia River, there to lay the cornerstone of this grand new vision.
Astor went into the enterprise with his usual care and attention to detail. He selected the best men he knew. He sent clear orders. He kept his eye on rivals, such as the British-owned North West Company, and strove to outmaneuver them. But he forgot to account for the sheer size of the challenge: unexplored wilderness, culture clashes with natives, international friction, personality conflicts, and how his hand-chosen emissaries would react to the stresses of carving an empire out of the vast, wild Pacific Northwest coast.

REVIEW: The now-nearly-forgotten story of Astoria - today mostly a city along the Columbia River that one drives through on the interstate between Seattle and Portland - represents one of those moments in history where, with a little different timing and luck, our current world might be vastly different. In the early 1800's, the West - even as far as the Rockies, let alone the Pacific Coast - was barely even an abstraction to what was then America, and the concept of "manifest destiny" that would eventually drive countless citizens across the continent was almost unimaginable. Communication and travel was slow and often unreliable, moreso the further one went into the wilds. To have the sort of vision (or raw, material greed) to even conceive of a cross-continental venture such as the proposed Astoria was as mind-boggling to the average citizen then as current visions of interplanetary colonization are today. In some ways, both Jefferson and Astor were ahead of their times in even considering it... and both their visions were ultimately doomed by that very fact, among other problems. Without reliable communications with the people actually doing the work to found his fur empire, Astor was unable to apply his own business acumen to the many unforeseen problems that arose, each problem chipping away at chances of success. Astor also may have been a decent judge of individual men, but failed to understand how his people would work (or, as was often the case, fail to work) together, particularly under stress. At one point, Captain Thorne of the Tonquin, carrying the Seagoing party of future Astorians, nearly abandoned several of Astor's men to die on an island over personality conflicts, while the Overland party leader's lack of experience led to costly, even deadly delays and other debacles.
Stark draws on historical documents and narratives to present as much of the whole story as can be told. It's a story full of adventure and cultural friction, victories and defeats, near-death and amazing breakthroughs, and the very spirit of a young, bold country trying itself against the wider world. I should've been riveted to my seat. Unfortunately, Stark tends to jump around, sometimes repeating himself (almost verbatim), and most of the players became murky name soup as I struggled to remember who was where and doing what when I was suddenly yanked from one place and time to another. I also was a little miffed by how much of the book was "extra matter": the Epilogue ends at 71% of the way through the book, the rest being footnotes and "also by the same author" material. On Kindle, the maps were difficult to read, as well. (If there's a strong Eurocentric lean to how this tale was told, relegating natives to side roles on what was, after all, their land originally, well, it is a tale driven more by "white man" greed, arrogance and overreaching than the impact on locals.)
Ultimately, I was intrigued (once again) to learn another part of history that I'd never learned - or learned and utterly forgot about - in school, even if the presentation wasn't as clear or engaging as it might have been.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sword and the Cross (Fergus Fleming) - My Review
Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Monday, October 3, 2016

Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine)

Arabella of Mars
(The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, Book 1)
David D. Levine
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since Captain William Kidd piloted the first sailing vessel to Mars in the late 1600's, the solar system has opened up to trade and colonization. Ships ply the spaceways on solar winds as wealthy Europeans establish colonies on distant planets. Thus it is that Arabella Ashby, though a human of English parentage, was born and raised on the family's Martian lumber plantation, learning of her race's homeworld through dry books while experiencing Mars under the tutelage of her native nanny and tutor, Khema... until her homesick mother, fed up with her "unladylike" ways, drags her and her sisters back to England. Her father, who shared her love of clockwork automatons, stays behind to teach her brother the family business.
Arabella would never see her father alive again.
Miserable on Earth and made moreso with her beloved father's death, Arabella finds herself shunted off to her cousin Simon's home - a relative who always resented how her family, not his, benefited from the entailed Ashby estate. When Simon finally snaps, determined to finish off Arabella's brother (the only remaining male heir standing between him and the family fortune), the seventeen-year-old girl rushes off to stop him... and ends up plunging headlong into an interplanetary adventure.

REVIEW: I purchased this on impulse, drawn by a cover that promised a Jules Verne-flavored, old-school adventure yarn in a fanciful interplanetary Regency era. That's almost exactly what the book turned out to be. Levine creates a spacefaring world that wouldn't be out of place in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with Venusian jungles and a canal-riddled Mars, only with (thankfully) updated attitudes on gender, race, and colonialism, though the characters themselves are still, by and large, firmly residents of their (alternate-history) era. (I also suspect an influence from the classic Doctor Who series, which featured a similar concept... a couple of incidental references to a man with a "long knitted scarf" point strongly in that direction.) Arabella makes for a plucky, clever heroine, somewhat impulsive but always striving her best. Her skill with Martian culture and automatons - lifelike clockwork "robots" based on actual creations of the 1800's, whose abilities and intricacies astound even today - carry her far, and while she does (as one might predict) have to hide her gender for a good portion of the tale as she works her way back home aboard a Martian trading ship, she ultimately must learn to stand on her own two feet without deception. Other characters aren't necessarily deep, particularly the bad guys, but this is really more of an adventure story reveling in its wondrous retro concept. The plot moves fast, sucking me into a full day's reading binge, and while occasionally predictable, it was always entertaining. Some elements of the ending felt rushed and a little weaker than they might have been, but I rather enjoyed it, and look forward to Arabella's future adventures.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Friday, September 30, 2016

September Site Update

The September update for the main site has been posted, archiving and cross-linking the previous twelve reviews.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Art of Kubo and the Two Strings (Emily Haynes)

The Art of Kubo and the Two Strings
Emily Haynes
Chronicle Books
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: LAIKA's 2016 animated masterpiece Kubo and the Two Strings, the story of a boy in mythical ancient Japan who must find a lost set of armor to save himself and avenge his family, featured cutting-edge stop-motion and CGI blended seamlessly with traditional influences and techniques. This book explores the artwork and designs used in the film, with some notes on the production and storytelling process.

REVIEW: I saw this movie twice on the big screen (so far), and - like all great animated movies - found it fascinating on both a technical and a storytelling level. This book, as promised, offers a closer look at the characters, settings, and other elements of the film. Some "art of" books delve further into the storytelling process, script alterations during production, and character development - features this title mostly lacked, save some mention of the tale's roots in the foreword by director/producer/animator/studio founder Travis Knight and a note on how Kubo was aged up as the story became darker and more complex - but overall it's an interesting look at how LAIKA put the pieces together. This stuff fascinates me, making me wish (once again) I had the money, time, ambition, and talent to do stuff like this, creating impossible wonders and breathing them to life.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of Anastasia (Henry Deneroff) - My Review
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