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
Feel the Heat (Kathryn Shay) - My Review

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.

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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.

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