Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May SIte Update

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


Monday, May 30, 2016

Ghost Hawk (Susan Cooper)

Ghost Hawk
Susan Cooper
McElderry Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When eleven-year-old Little Hawk set out on his three-month ordeal of manhood, as countless generations of Pokanokets had done before him, he took with him a bow and arrow of his own making, a tomahawk from his father, and a metal knife from the white men. Like all children in the village, he'd heard of the pale-skinned visitors, but never seen them. They were a distant curiosity, another market for cured hides, and nothing more.
Little Hawk never dreamed that, one day, a white man's musket ball would kill him.
As the worlds of Englishman and native mingle and clash, Little Hawk's earthbound spirit follows the fate of his people and of the Puritan-born boy John Wakeley, who witnessed his murder. In life, they had met only briefly, but the bonds of friendship and hope transcend death itself, even as misunderstandings, fear, and anger threaten to destroy everything and everyone they ever loved.

REVIEW: It may seem odd to list a Fantasy as Historical Fiction, but the fantastic elements are largely a method to examine the real-life culture clash of 1600's New England. Intertribal conflicts predate European colonization, but the arrival of the Pilgrims and other colonists bring disease, danger, and the ultimate poison of a mindset so rigid and alien it defied native comprehension. Thus begins a slow-motion disaster that would eventually rob them of their culture, land, and (all too often) life. Little Hawk and John give human faces to history. As the native tribes are not monolithic entities, viewing the future and each other with uniform outlooks, neither are the colonists. John in particular learns the danger of seemingly simple ideas when expressed in the wrong place and time. Who are the bad guys, and what's the right way forward? It's not always so easy to define at the personal level, as history's lessons are lost on each successive generation. The story drifts occasionally, but it generally strikes a decent balance between history lesson and plot development, delivering some wrenching and beautiful moments. It can't help but be depressing at several points, though there are hints of hope. All in all, it's a decent and memorable tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Boston Jane (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Insubordinate Spirit (Missy Wolfe) - My Review

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer)

Jeff Vandermeer
Abrams Image
Nonfiction, Writing
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Writing, particularly speculative fiction writing, is an inherently creative and exploratory venture. So why are so many books about fiction writing full of cookie-cutter ideas? In this, "the world's first fully illustrated creative writing book," author Jeff Vandermeer offers writing guidance, advice, and exercises augmented with numerous illustrations. Also included are essays and remarks from a broad spectrum of notable authors.

REVIEW: This is one of the most unique books on writing I've ever come across. It leans toward the fantastic, pushing into surreal territory (particularly with the pictures), though the advice and exercises can be applied to most creative writing ventures. It also allows a broad variety of working styles and methods, rather than a strict formula that some writing books prefer (likely because it's easier to teach a single point-by-point method.) The numerous pictures, essays, and side-notes sometimes add color and texture, but can intrude on the flow of ideas, becoming more of a distraction than a help. While the core information can be found elsewhere, Vandermeer presents it in an interesting way, with visual aids and metaphors, while attempting to quantify some of the more esoteric and difficult to define aspects of successful (and unsuccessful) fiction. Several exercises throughout the book, plus more games and exercises in the lengthy appendix, reinforce the ideas presented. More material is supposed to be available online, though I haven't explored that aspect yet; I still need time to digest what was just in the written book. While occasionally jumbled and overwhelming, almost demanding a second (or third or more) read to integrate and absorb, Wonderbook never lacks in imagination or inspiration. I expect to be returning to this one quite often as I wrestle with my own monstrous fictional creations.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (Laurie Lamson, editor) - My Review
The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass) - My Review

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Castle (David Macaulay)

David Macaulay
Houghton Mifflin Company
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the year 1283, as part of King Edward I's efforts to dominate the rebellious Welsh, the king grants Lord Kevin le Strange the lands of Aberwyvern, there to build a town and castle to spread English influence. The establishment, construction, and growth of Lord Kevin's foothold on the banks of the river Wyvern are documented here.

REVIEW: I suppose I could've classified this one as Nonfiction, but the fictional frame story, plus the fact that this is a hypothetical town, technically makes it fiction. In any event, Macaulay's classic book uses stunningly detailed ink illustrations to show the entire construction of one of the most iconic (and often misunderstood) buildings in Western history: the medieval castle. The meticulously-researched tale provides context and overview, telling the "why" not only of castle construction but of various architectural details, while the images show the process of creating a castle and fortified city from the ground (or below ground) up. Though Lord Kevin's keep gets put to the test by Welsh rebels, ultimately it's the town and the peaceable (and profitable) flow of commerce and ideas that does what fortresses and might alone could not: integrate two cultures into one reasonably-harmonious whole. As a kid, I doubt the writing would've held my interest for long, but the pictures would've kept me coming back time and again. As a grown-up, I can appreciate Macaulay's work all the more, finding it useful and inspiring.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Anatomy of the Castle (John Gibson) - My Review
Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (Terry Jones and Alan Ereira) - My Review

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Fantasy Art Techniques of Tim Hildebrandt (Jack E. Norton)

The Fantasy Art Techniques of Tim Hildebrandt
Jack E. Norton
Paper Tiger
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Brothers Hildebrandt became icons in the fantasy and science fiction world with their Lord of the Rings illustrations in the late 1970's. Separately and together, they created countless book covers, calendars, and other art that dominated the genre. This book examines the work and methods of Tim Hildebrandt.

REVIEW: I grew up seeing the Hildebrandts' creations on almost every cover in the bookstore, so this one has a touch of nostalgia on top of the usual draws of fantasy and art. Today, the images may look a little dated (particularly the very white characters, not to mention more than a tinge of sexism), but they're still very successful and imaginative works of art that grab attention and communicate ideas. Most of the pages are devoted to the pictures, which range from full-color panoramas to pen and ink spot illustrations, demonstrating mastery of a wide variety of media. The text isn't always particularly informative, often leaving half a sentence dangling for a few pages while more art is showcased. It's only toward the end that the promised "fantasy art techniques" get real attention, and even then it feels a little rushed without step-by-step demonstrations breaking down the process. But this doesn't claim to be a tutorial guide; one can see the concepts discussed by examining the images, many of which are large enough to allow detailed viewing. The last section, discussing how to become a working illustrator by building a portfolio and creating 35mm transparencies, can't help but feel outdated; in 1991, when this book was published, few could've foreseen the digital revolution that changed the face of the industry and the job-seeking process, even for those working in traditional media. Still, it has much to offer. Indeed, whoever owned this used copy before me spent a lot of time carefully, neatly underlining useful passages and making notes of Hildebrandt's favorite color palettes. (I can't help wondering if they moved on to more advanced work or if they gave up on art altogether when this made its way to Half Price Books.) Whether you're looking for a nostalgic gallery of Tim Hildebrandt's work or some tips and techniques from an undisputed master of the speculative fiction illustration genre, this is a good choice for any fantasy art lover's library.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fantasy Art Workshop (James Howe) - My Review
Drawing from your Imagination (Ron Tiner) - My Review
The Art of Michael Whelan (Michael Whelan) - My Review

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley (Jeff Weigel)

Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley
Jeff Weigel
Andrews McMeel
Fiction, YA Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Orphans Alanna and Hamel do their best to scrape a living from their late father's forge and the bounty of the forest. While foraging for food, the young girl stumbles across a strange little lizard with wings - a dragon, straight out of legend! It leads her to a cave full of eggs, and an adventure she never dreamed of... but, even as she revels in her discovery, the dragon slayer Sir Cedric pays a visit to Hamel, offering promises of knighthood and glory.

REVIEW: I read this when it was released online for free, but the full book includes additional material, notably an appendix describing various dragons, plus a diagram of the flying machine Dragonfly that figures into the story. The images are detailed and delightful, and the story's a nice adventure with some real peril, even if the edges are slightly blunted (this is aimed at kids, after all.) Alanna's a decent protagonist, not above the odd mistake, but brave and good-hearted and quick-thinking when it counts. Her brother isn't always on her side, but what he does, he does out of love and concern for their future. Cedric's fairly one-dimensional, though that's to be expected, I suppose. The dragons range from scaly puppies to threatening brutes of legend, though only when properly provoked. It's fun and well illustrated, and has every hint of future adventures beyond the horizon. Definitely worth a look if you like light, dragon-flavored adventure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Hatching Magic (Ann Downer) - My Review
The Dragonling Collector's Edition, Volume 1 (Jackie French Koller) - My Review
Dragonsong (Anne McCaffrey) - My Review

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black)

The Darkest Part of the Forest
Holly Black
Little, Brown
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a glass coffin deep in the wood sleeps a horned prince. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but it's quite real in the small modern town of Fairfold - like the faeries themselves, tricky and often deadly beings who prey on tourists and the odd careless local. Like generations of children before them, siblings Ben and Hazel told themselves stories of the prince, how they alone must be destined to wake him and how he'd save the town, and themselves, forever and ever. For a time, they even hunted monsters in the woods, playing at heroes... but, as all too often happens, childhood dreams fall behind through the years. Ben turned away from his music, Hazel gave up on delusions of heroism, and life stretched on before them as it had for everyone else growing up in the small, strange town: dull and dark and devoid of hope.
Then the coffin is shattered and the prince disappears... and a dark terror, a monster from the darkest part of the Fairfold woods, stirs. The town needs a hero to save it - but Hazel can't even save herself.

REVIEW: Black draws off elder lore to create this modern-day fairy tale, one where the heroine carries a cell phone and a changeling attends high school alongside the human boy he was intended to replace, where the rest of the world scoffs at magic even as tourists come to snap selfies with the sleeping prince (whose grove is also a popular drinking spot for bored small-town teens.) Her faeries, are capricious beings, not necessarily amoral (well, not all of them), but operating on a very different sense of right and wrong and reality itself, as doubtless they would given their immortality and deep ties to the mysterious forces that manifest as magic. I found it a rather intriguing mixture, most of the time. The characters, though, particularly the nominal heroine Hazel, grew rather irritating, especially when she can't even help herself and often actively works against her own best interest, let alone those of her friends and the town. Some of this can be explained by a rather rough upbringing and sacrifices made on behalf of others - sacrifices that, in the manner of most such things when the Fair Folk are involved, went sour. (Indeed, everyone in the book has been touched by fae magic at some point... and even the most well-intentioned gift often becomes a curse.) At some point, though, it crossed the line, making Hazel less an intriguingly flawed character and more an annoyance to be tolerated for the sake of the story. She also takes far too long to work out vital clues because she's too busy beating herself up. It didn't help that the plot often felt jumbled, jumping around in time and to other characters without warning, with events not always connected in a particularly logical or sensible manner. There's fairy tale logic, and there's just plain confusion... Hazel and her companions trip and frequently stumble along a twisted forest path of a storyline, traveling through strange and dark and occasionally surreal terrain, eventually arriving at a conclusion that didn't feel entirely earned. It was satisfying enough to (somewhat) ameliorate my earlier frustrations, but I couldn't quite justify a full Good rating. It just isn't my cup of cocoa, I'm afraid.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Faerie Wars (Herbie Brennan) - My Review
Stardust (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Darth Vader and Son (Jeffrey Brown)

Darth Vader and Son
Jeffrey Brown
Chronicle Books
Fiction, YA? Comics/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Darth Vader: disciple of the evil Emperor Palpatine, lord of the Sith, master of the Dark Side of the Force... and single parent to a four-year-old boy named Luke. Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown imagines the life Luke could've led, and the father Vader could've been.

REVIEW: This fun little collection is clearly the work of a dedicated fan, riddled with references to the first six films and the pre-Disney franchise as a whole. (At one point, Vader offers his picky-eater son C-3P0's breakfast cereal, a real tie-in product.) Vader does his best, though he faces some awkward moments as Luke does what kids do best: irritate his elders. It's enjoyable, and short enough not to overstay its welcome.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: A Brewster Rockit, Space Guy! Collection (Tim Rickard) - My Review

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke)

Childhood's End
Arthur C. Clarke
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the 1980's, the Cold War between East and West is abruptly halted by the arrival of visitors from beyond, great silver ships arriving over Earth. Mankind's many squabbling nations find themselves abruptly and unarguably under new management as the Overlords initiate a new era, one that could see the species flower - or see its extinction.

REVIEW: Like many older sci-fi classics, this book presents some interesting ideas that are inevitably (and likely unconsciously) tainted by the era in which it was written. Here, the Western world and its science (not to mention distinctly Christian symbols) are the great gifts to the rest of the savage world, even as the story relies on metaphysical ideas that seem more in line with ancient Eastern tradition... and, naturally, it all comes down to Homo sapiens and our brilliant minds being such divinely blessed and potentially powerful things that our future is a magnet for interstellar oversight and/or meddling. On the smaller scale, men are the doers and darers, while women are just there to warm beds, be somewhat soft in the head, and ultimately find more fulfillment cooking and washing laundry than pursuing science or art. The general flatness of most of his characters, particularly the humans, doesn't help on this front. But, glaring as these issues are now, it's not precisely fair to fault Clarke for them sixty years after this tale was written... and doubtless modern works will have their own generational and cultural hallmarks that will make future readers roll their eyes at our flawed 21st-century worldview. His ideas and imagery are still somewhat interesting, as Clarke follows what turns out to be (for better or worse) the final century or so of humanity's planetary existence. It's not a bad book, and I'm glad I finally read it, but it ultimately isn't quite my cup of cocoa.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Foundation (Isaac Asimov) - My Review
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review

Thursday, May 12, 2016

All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot)

All Creatures Great and Small
James Herriot
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Animals/Autobiography
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the late 1930's, an eager young vet leaves school with a new degree and a dream of practicing small animal medicine in some nice city or town... only to end up treating farm animals in Yorkshire. Here, he recounts his first two years of practice alongside senior vet Siegfried Farnon, Siegfried's slacker brother Tristan, and the many peculiar characters (two- and four-legged) of the countryside.

REVIEW: Growing up in an animal-loving household, it's amazing that I missed reading these books myself before now, but a recent e-book reissue of the first three titles allowed me to correct this oversight. Herriot's tale remains a classic, doubtless launching countless careers (or attempted careers - veterinary medicine's not the easiest path) even as it captures a fleeting time precariously balanced between the old ways and the new, in medicine and the world at large. James starts out a wet-eared city boy who never intended to stay in the countryside, up to his armpit in the wrong end of a cow in the wee hours or dealing with stubborn Yorkshire farmers clinging to old lore (such as the oft-repeated rumor of a "worm in the tail" that's to blame for all manner of cattle ailments.) Had jobs not been notoriously scarce for new graduates, he never would've even made the drive out to Siegfried Farnon's practice. Through the course of the book, the countryside's charms, not to mention the unexpected challenges and rewards of the job, slowly work their magic, a fascination that shines clearly in Herriot's writing even in the most frustrating cases. No small part of those frustrations stem from Siegfried, a competent and cheerful fellow with oddly convenient memory lapses, and Tristan, who dedicates himself to a playboy bachelor lifestyle with almost maddening single-mindedness, not to mention other characters. Despite hints that the "omnibus" American edition has been trimmed (disappointing, if true), I enjoyed this, and will undoubtedly be reading more of Herriot's work soon.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
The Cat Who Couldn't See in the Dark (Howard Padwee, D.V.M. and Valerie Moolman) - My Review

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Falconer (Elizabeth May)

The Falconer
(The Falconer trilogy, Book 1)
Elizabeth May
Chronicle Books
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since the day young Aileana Kameron was found kneeling by her mother's gored body, mute and covered in blood, Edinburgh's rumor mill ran wild with speculation that the unnatural child had done the deed. But the truth is far more dangerous, and more unbelievable: the culprit was a faerie woman. In 19th century Scotland, with science and mechanical wonders on the rise, few believe in the fae anymore, and even fewer can see them - making for a banquet of perfect, ignorant victims. Aileana has devoted herself to revenge, using her engineering talents to devise a range of clockwork weaponry and training with the traitor faerie Kiaran. It isn't until one of her victims calls her by a strange name - Falconer - that she learns of her lost heritage... and a terrible fate for the whole mortal world should she fail to embrace her destiny.

REVIEW: May creates an interesting setting, mixing steampunk technology with old Scottish faerie lore, for this story of vengeance and fate and the pain of loss. Aileana's a decent heroine, if somewhat exaggerated: I lost track of the number of times she rehashed her Great Pain about the lost innocence of her youth and the life she might have led (personified by her best friend, the proper, sweet society girl Catherine), not to mention struggles over her thirst for vengeance and addiction to the rush of power that comes with killing faeries. At some point, it stopped adding depth and simply became numb repetition. Naturally, despite numerous mentions of how she should never trust the fae and how the death of her mother scoured away all soft emotions such as affection from her being, she develops feelings for her mentor Kiaran - which I rather expected from the moment the character first appeared, not so much out of true chemistry but because the story has a distinctly familiar, trope-based structure that requires Forbidden Passion and Star-Crossed Love. He even has the requisite Dark Secrets that complicate things. Numerous fight sequences liven things up, but even these grow tiresome after a while. Still, I enjoyed the imagination and the fast paced plot (when it didn't bog down in angst)... until the very ending. Now, I knew it was Book 1 of a series when I started it. That does not excuse a cliffhanger ending quite literally dead in the middle of battle, a brick wall I hit so fast I'm surprised I didn't bloody my nose. It felt less like a legitimate ending point and more like a deliberate, last-minute twist designed to drag me into another book. It hacked me off enough I nearly dropped it a full star, and only on further consideration raised the rating to a flat Okay. There's some nice imagery and interesting ideas, but ultimately I just didn't care for the excessive angst and that cheap trick of a final line. I've read too many disappointing stories lately to easily forgive that.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scattered Magic (S. A. Archer and S. Ravynheart) - My Review
Invisible Prison (Mary Buckham) - My Review
Clockwork Fairy Kingdom (Leah Cutter) - My Review