Saturday, April 30, 2016

April Site Update

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

It's been a busy month - hopefully, I have more reading time in May.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

15 Minutes (Jill Cooper)

15 Minutes
(The Rewind Agency series, Book 1)
Jill Cooper
Jill Cooper, publisher
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi/Suspense
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Teenager Lara Crane would give anything to change one thing in her life: the day her mother, Miranda, was killed. The Rewind agency offers anyone the chance to revisit moments in their past for 15 minutes at a time, but only as a hologram, unable to touch or change anything... or so they claim. But Lara discovers she's different - and, against the advice of her boyfriend Rick, she heads back to take the bullet meant for her mom.
That's when everything goes wrong.
One moment, she's dying. The next, she's back in high school, and everything's different - even her. Instead of growing up in a run-down brownstone with her father John and neighbor Rick, she's living with her mother in a fancy home across town, along with two younger half-siblings and Mom's new husband, Jax. This isn't the life she bargained on, and it only gets worse when she finds out she's dating rich boy Donovan instead of Rick, and that John Crane's been convicted in the attempted murder of his own wife. When she learns what Miranda does for a living, illegal research in memory alteration at Rewind, and that she's somehow tied up with a powerful senator intent on changing the laws governing time travel, things go from merely bad to dangerous. The longer Lara lives this new life, the more her memories of the old one fade... and the slimmer her chances of stopping a threat not only to herself and her family, but to the whole world.

REVIEW: This starts with a nice concept and a compelling situation: a girl risking everything, even her own life, to save a loved one and get a chance at the family she always dreamed of, only to discover that she's lost more than she gained. Living a different life, she finds she's not the same person she was before the jump; her personality, her fashion tastes, even her emotions are all different. How can she call another man "Dad" when her real father is stuck in prison for a crime he didn't commit? How can the love she once felt for Rick be replaced by equally powerful feelings for Donovan, a boy she always considered a rich snob in her old life? Her admittedly selfish motivations didn't even net her a close bond with her workaholic mother, whom the alternate Lara came to resent and ultimately distrust... a mother who isn't as perfect as Lara imagined, even without her illegal research. This alone could've made for a compelling story - but then things go full-on suspense with the revelation of ties to the corrupt senator (Donovan's mother, no less), dangerous mobsters, and abuse of time travel and memory-revision technology, in a conspiracy that only Lara, with her peculiar talent for time travel, can bust open. For a while, the teen angst and time travel thriller plotlines fight each other, with Lara doing some rather careless things as she struggles to understand just what she's up against and whom she can trust. Most characters aren't as obvious as they first appear, though the ultimate baddies are cackling, hand-rubbing cliches. There's even an evil twin trope. The story feels crowded at this point, and the further things go, the more convoluted and hard to swallow the plot becomes. At some point, it just collapses under its own weight, especially as time travel and false memories come further into play. At the end, instead of a conclusion, I found a (telegraphed) "twist" that was supposed to lure me into the next book. Despite the early promise and some interesting examination of how much of our core selves depend on our memories and experiences, I just plain lost interest through all the forced twists; to have it all invalidated by a non-ending only reaffirmed my decision not to follow this series further.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Found (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review
Forbidden Mind (Karpov Kinrade) - My Review

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Beguilement (Lois McMaster Bujold)

(The Sharing Knife series, Book 1)
Lois McMaster Bujold
Harper Voyager
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: All her life, diminutive Fawn Bluefield has been picked on and belittled. When an ill-advised tryst with a betrothed neighbor leaves her carrying a bastard child, she runs away from home before she can be told, yet again, how stupid and childish she is. In Glassforge, she aims to build a new life for herself... but plans change abruptly when she's snatched from the road by an inhuman captor, then rescued by a mysterious stranger.
Dag was stalking a dangerous malice, a demonlike creature that twists beasts and men while sucking the very life from the ground, when he rescues a farmer girl. He means to leave her somewhere safe while he continues his hunt, but events conspire to draw her into the very thick of things... where Fawn winds up saving his life. In the process, she becomes tangled up in the deep Lakewalker magic of their malice-killing sharing knives. This has never happened in the history of his people - farmers like her don't even have "groundsense," the extrasensory skills to detect life around them - and it's beyond his ability to unravel. Meanwhile, she's stuck under his protection.
Regular folk and Lakewalkers don't often mingle, and when they do, it rarely ends well. People consider Lakewalkers to be sorcerers and cannibals, while Lakewalkers sneer at the ignorant, land-bound life of "farmers", as they disparagingly call those tied to fields or towns. But something more than mere obligation binds Fawn and Dag, a force more powerful than magic and prejudice.

REVIEW: I'm on a middling-to-bad reading streak lately. Having heard excellent things about this author and series from multiple sources, I figured it would be a good bet to break that streak.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Despite being set in a fantasy world and presenting some interesting fantasy concepts (such as the malices and the Lakewalker sharing knives), it's actually more of a romance at heart. The characters almost read as caricatures of romance novel extremes, though, making it difficult to take the core relationship seriously. He's dark, handsome, and tall - invariably the tallest one in any scene - bearing many scars from a life of pain and loss. She's so small she's mistaken for a child at more than one point, with large doe-like eyes and a tendency to need rescuing, not to mention an innocence (particularly in physical matters) that stretches credulity beyond the breaking point, even given that she's less than half Dag's age with scarcely a sliver of his life experience. In one scene, Dag and Fawn are riding double while the subject of marital relations comes up, and Dag must spend a few pages explaining concepts of manual stimulation to the clueless girl... who doesn't recognize the reaction this is prompting in the Lakewalker, even when her hand comes into contact with evidence of that reaction. I can (almost) buy a girl raised in a conservative, backwoods lifestyle not knowing certain aspects of physical pleasure, but Fawn was pregnant when the story started, and being raped (an incident with almost zero lasting impact on the character, once again reducing the violation of a female to a cheap plot device) when Dag found her. Clearly, she's seen the equipment in action, so to speak. And she still can't recognize a hard-on when she feels it, nor does she understand why Dag has such a peculiar look in his eye afterward? I honestly thumped my head on the Kindle cover at this point. Was this supposed to be a parody? The romance between these two opposites creates a lot of trouble for both of them; neither culture respects the other, even aside from the issue of Lakewalker "groundsense" and other matters that make cross-breeding inadvisable. Love, however, keeps its own counsel, and it can be downright selfish at times, apparently. As the relationship heats up, the matter of Fawn the farmer being tied up in Lakewalker magic via an unintended effect of the sharing knives is pretty much swept off the page as the story focuses on the more important matters of convincing Dag's companion Lakewalkers and, later on, Fawn's kinfolk to accept their May-December (more like February-December, given the vast, borderline creepy age difference - the creepiness factor upped by her childlike physical appearance) relationship. Some of the problems, particularly in Fawn's hometown, are so contrived I couldn't even begin to take them seriously... again, pointing to the possibility that this was written in parody, especially when literally nobody else in the novel seems to recognize how perfect Fawn is, not even her own family, save Dag.
There are some nice points to the tale. I liked the world, what I could see of it, particularly the concept of the sharing knives. Fawn could demonstrate some intelligence, especially later on in the story (once some of the wool of innocence has been sheared from her eyes), and Dag had his moments. But I didn't like the world nearly enough to slog through the next book in the vague hope of learning more about it, given the likelihood of being drowned in more relationship drama. Given my high hopes for this story, I'm especially disappointed in how it played out.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Firefly Hollow (T. L. Haddix)

Firefly Hollow
(The Firefly Hollow series, Book 1)
T. L. Haddix
Streetlight Graphics Publishing
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In 1960's rural Kentucky, the old Appalachian ways slowly yield to the new, but the hills still hide some ancient secrets, such as the magic running through the blood of the older families. Owen Campbell never asked to be a shifter, able to take on the form of a deer or a wolf, and his gift brings him little peace. It already cost him his relationships with his father and brother; now, after his mother's passing, he lives as a recluse, believing that if he never forms another human attachment, he'll never lose anything else. But he didn't count on fate, or on neighbor girl Sarah.
Since she was a teenager, Sarah Browning has been sneaking across the border from her family's land in Firefly Hollow to the Campbell property, visiting a secluded pool that has become an oasis in times of trouble. She thought she'd never see it, or home, again when she left for school - but her father's failing health brings her back to help with the family. When she finally crosses paths with the elusive Owen Campbell, she finds him handsome, but less than welcoming. Still, there's something about the man that won't let her forget him - and it isn't long before she realizes the feeling is mutual. If only she knew why he kept himself hidden away... and why he's so reluctant to share his heart.

REVIEW: This starts out with a nice premise and the promise of a different sort of shifter romance, a quiet, old-fashioned backwoods courtship rather than the modern trend of violent urban heat. At first, that's more or less what it is. The tale builds slowly, laying the groundwork of the characters and their lives while the relationship burns low like a banked fire. Unfortunately, it never really gains much momentum, mired in long, lazy strolls through the town and the thoughts of the characters, often repeating sentiments in thought and words and thought again, with crises tending to appear in sudden, unexpected bursts from nowhere like a firefly flash in the hollow. Some of the conversations feel forced, full of direct "on the nose" observations - almost like they knew modern readers were looking over their shoulders, and they were dictating things specifically to those observers. At times, the long conversations and slow action create a decent atmosphere, evoking small-town mid-century American life, but as the tale goes on the storytelling style becomes more annoying than charming, particularly when Owen's the one with all the secrets and Sarah's the only naive fool who hasn't a clue that the old hill tales of shifters are real, let alone that Owen himself is one. Indeed, the magic here is so laid-back that it barely impacts the plot, save as one more secret for Owen to hide and fret over. One almost wonders why Haddix included it at all, save as a tribute to the fast-vanishing old ways of rural Kentucky. It all wends along slowly, almost stagnant at times, before a sudden collision of (somewhat contrived) problems precipitates a foregone conclusion of an ending.
I liked some of what I read here. I appreciated the different setting and the rural American take on magic. Overall, though, it felt far too long, repetitious, and slow to hold my interest, and the old Appalachian magic felt ill-utilized.

You Might Also Enjoy:
City of the Beasts (Isabel Allende) - My Review
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough) - My Review

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How to Draw Dragons Made Easy (Beren Neale, editor)

How to Draw Dragons Made Easy
(The Made Easy art series)
Beren Neale, editor
Flame Tree
Nonfiction, Art
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: One of the most ancient and ubiquitous beasts ever conjured by the human imagination, the dragon has made itself quite at home in modern art media. This collection of step-by-step tutorials explores a wide variety of dragons by different artists, using everything from pencils and oils to digital tablets and Photoshop.

REVIEW: I'm feeling a bit of an art itch lately, and this one was discounted at the used book store, so it looked like a good bet. The back cover claims that these tutorials cover "basic drawing skills to in-depth advanced projects," but in truth they skip the early stages and skills; most of the projects provide one or two brief glimpses of reference sketches and thumbnail explorations before cutting to the main working drawing. Artists thinking to follow along from a blank page, in other words, will have to do some heavy-duty catching up, and had better hope their own skills on anatomy, proportion, composition, textures, shading, color theory, and so forth are up to par. They would also do well to develop a solid working familiarity with digital art terms, Photoshop tools, and their usage. The progressive pictures don't always make it clear what was changed, or why a certain tool was used over others, or what each step was supposed to accomplish, a problem not helped by the relatively small size of the images.
While it's not the greatest as a step-by-step art instruction tool (especially for beginners), this book does present a very wide array of dragons and styles, along with some intriguing glimpses of the creative process and the minds of working artists. Beasts range from realistic to stylized and brutish to benevolent, inhabiting all manner of stories and environments. It also includes websites and further contact information for each artist.
Ultimately, despite what it claims in the title and on the back cover, it's more of a book by professional artists for professional (or serious hobbyist) artists, not intended for newcomers to the field or those still learning the basics. While I found the cover misleading and its promises less than fulfilled, I did enjoy the different approaches to dragon creation and the wide variety of beasts presented.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon (Daniel Falconer) - My Review
Forging Dragons (John Howe) - My Review
Dracopedia: A Guide to Drawing the Dragons of the World (William O'Connor) - My Review

Monday, April 11, 2016

Dragon Rose (Christine Pope)

Dragon Rose
(The Tales of the Latter Kingdoms series, Book 2)
Christine Pope
Dark Valentine Press
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: To the rest of the world, magic is a fading memory relegated to fairy tales and scholars' tomes. To the people of Lirinsholme, living under the curse of the Dragon Lord, it's all too real. The immortal beast never shows his face, but every several years he demands a bride be sent to his high castle... girls who are never seen again, their fate a dark mystery. Defiance brings fierce reprisals, as the charred stones of the old town square remind the people daily. Thus it has been for five hundred years.
The day the red banner flew over the castle, the call for a new bride, Rhianne never expected to answer that call - but when her best friend's name is drawn, she steps forward in the terrified girl's place. It only makes sense. Rhianne's unladylike pursuit of painting has cost the family reputation dearly, and her friend's engaged while Rhianne remains unattached, never having even a beau to consider. And it's not like people know the other girls are dead. What Rhianne finds at the Dragon Lord's castle is not at all what she expects, but just as she almost starts to feel at home with the castle and her reclusive husband, the curse threatens to destroy everything.
Though part of the Tales of the Latter Kingdoms series, each book is a stand-alone story.

REVIEW: A fantasy retelling of the oft-repeated Beauty and the Beast, it starts out decently enough, if somewhat light. Rhianne does her best to honor her family, even using her taboo art to keep her father's pottery business afloat, though she has enough backbone to refuse her mother's wishes that she marry an unpleasant older man - a marriage as much about improving the family's lot as removing Rhianne from the bride lottery. But the story starts meandering even before her friend's name is drawn, and once it gets to the castle it grows even more pointless and repetitive. The problem, in addition to Rhianne taking on distinctly Mary Sue-ish traits (beautiful, talented, humble, her only flaw being that she doesn't understand just how beautiful and talented she really is), is that too much is withheld, giving Rhianne literally nothing to do for most of the story. Her husband Theran refuses to trust her with any intimacy, the staff refuse to inform her about the previous brides, and the entire nature of the curse and the riddle of its unraveling is evidently taboo... plus Rhianne isn't exactly pushing for answers. Instead, she begins a slow, plodding dance with Theran, winning a scrap of affection only to fumble it away, while she fills narrative space with pointless thoughts and repetitious speculations and yearnings. Since Rhianne's so perfect, it's a given she'll be the object of affection from any man, particularly the main love interest, but Theran is such a remote and broody figure I had trouble buying her affection for him as anything other than a requirement of the formula. Any actual plot progression, minimal as it is, comes in the form of prophetic dreams - many of which Rhianne forgets after having them (which makes the many pages devoted to them wasted space, as she only belatedly acts on them), and which she herself denies the importance of despite having been told that her dreams have prophetic meaning. By the final quarter of the book, the author must rush to cram in a crisis and a resolution, but by then I'd long since given up on caring. Also, as a minor nitpick, from pages 119-120 of the eBook version: "Portraits were serious matters, after all, a way of immortalizing oneself, and, I thought, giving one's ancestors some idea as to what their forbears looked like." Not only is this kind of rambling, comma-choked sentence typical of the narrative, but clearly Pope meant descendants when she wrote ancestors, unless the inhabitants of Lirinsholme are caught in a temporal Moebius strip. As I mentioned, it's a minor issue, but it points to overall carelessness, particularly when the sentence is just more word-fluff to boost page count. The fact that I was bored enough for it to get on my nerves so much is an indication of overall lack of engagement with the story itself, which is why it didn't even rate a mere Okay rating; I get cranky when I'm bored into nitpicking. It only earned the extra half-star for decent formatting, which I've read enough poorly-done eBooks to appreciate.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonlord (Joanne Bertin) - My Review
The Fire Rose (Mercedes Lackey) - My Review
Uprooted (Naomi Novik) - My Review

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Painted Word (Phil Cousineau)

The Painted Word
Phil Cousineau
Viva Editions
Nonfiction, Language/Reference
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The English language offers a vast palette of colors for speakers and writers, yet most only use a scant handful of tired, drab hues. Even ordinary words often have extraordinary origins, making them more than mere gray smears on the literary canvas. Logophile Phil Cousineau shares many of his favorites here, with notes on origins and quotes demonstrating usage, along with paintings by Gregg Chadwick.

REVIEW: I've been known to lose myself in dictionaries, distracted by oddball terms and words, so this looked like an enjoyable read. As promised, Cousineau presents many obscure and interesting words... and several not-so-obscure and not-so-interesting words. It often feels like he's more interested in clever alliteration and wordplay than providing the promised information about each entry. Several of the quotes fail to utilize the mentioned word or term (the entry on "galore" quotes an actress mentioning the James Bond character Pussy Galore), and I question his knowledge of pop culture. If the author messes up information that a quick Google search can provide, how am I to trust him on more esoteric topics, such as the often-twisted trail of words through the English language's long history? As the book wore on, I found myself reading simply to reach the end, not for the joy of discovering new words. Many entries also include paintings by Gregg Chadwick, but these add little to the experience, never quite capturing the essence of the word they claimed to accompany. (They also looked dull on my Kindle's eInk screen... and no better on my Nook color tablet running the Kindle app, which showed them in grayscale despite the artist waxing poetic on the cinnabar reds and lapis blues he employed in their creation. Maybe the paintings shouldn't have been included in the eBook edition at all, if color wasn't an option.) While I always enjoy being introduced to new (or old, as the case may be) words, I found myself too distracted and annoyed by the presentation and uneven quality of the entries, an annoyance that cost it the half-star it almost earned for some of the truly beautiful gems it brought to light.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (Josefa Heifetz Byrne) - My Review
Word Watch: A Writer's Guide to the Slippery, Sneaky and Otherwise Tricky (Patricia McLinn) - My Review - Amazon link