Friday, June 30, 2017

June Site Update

I have archived and cross-linked the previous 10 reviews from the blog over on the main site.

This will be the last monthly update for a while. I need to focus more time and energy on the long-overdue site overhaul. In the meantime, this blog will remain active.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

It Came! (Dan Boultwood)

It Came!
(The It Came! series, issues 1 - 4)
Dan Boultwood
Titan Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Humor/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: SEE the giant robotic alien menace from another world! GASP as England trembles in fear! SCREAM with laughter as pipe-smoking Dr. Boy Brett (of the Space University) and his assistant Doris race to protect the Earth with the wonders of Modern Science! And don't forget to BUY candy, liquor, and cigarettes in the lobby before you leave... Director Dan Boultwood presents "IT CAME!" in thrilling Eyeball-o-Rama-vision, now playing at a theater (or bookstore) near you!

REVIEW: For anyone who has watched Mystery Science Theater 3000, Svengoolie, or other homages to the B-grade cinema of yesteryear, It Came! is a brilliant spoof that's sure to please. The pipe-smoking doctor Boy Brett (yes, his first name is "Boy") is the epitome of Britishness, on top of being highly scientific; he wows Doris with facts gleaned from his years in the Space University, such as how there are hundreds of solar systems in space that all revolve around our sun. Doris is the long-suffering companion, often reduced to mere object status by Brett and everyone else. The army exists mostly to provide extra victims for the alien robot, whose evil scheme is as evil as it is schemey - but don't worry, because Brett and a host of pipe-smoking Space University scientists are on the case! Vague (and not so vague) innuendo and the odd spark of self-awareness add to the hilarity. The graphic novel also has parodies of period ads, an intermission break (encouraging guests to grab drinks in the lobby with the promise that the story will make more sense after a few), and a hilarious "preview." I quite enjoyed it, and look forward to future volumes... hoping they appear. (I had thought there were more, but so far it's just a standalone.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book: The Story of the Making of the Film (Mel Brooks with Rebecca Keegan) - My Review

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Saber Tooth (Lou Cadle)

Saber Tooth
(The Dawn of Mammals series, Book 1)
Lou Cadle
Cadle-Sparks Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Park ranger Hannah thought it was going to be an ordinary field trip, leading a group of teenagers into the Badlands to search for fossils with their teacher and a paleontologist. She wouldn't have even been there if her co-worker hadn't tricked her into taking the job. But something unusual happens: a broken ledge reveals a shimmering ripple that pulls Hannah, teacher Bill, paleontologist M.J., and several teens hundreds of thousands of years into the past. Stranded in a world that has never known a human footstep, the group struggles to survive in a world only known from spotty fossil records, a world of strange beasts and strange constellations - and terrible saber-toothed predators.

REVIEW: It was a discount Kindle download that promised action and danger in prehistoric America. That's about what it delivers... but pretty much all it delivers. The characters aren't especially deep or intriguing, most of the teenagers remaining little more than names with only the vaguest of (somewhat stereotypical) traits attached. Then again, the grown-ups aren't much more dynamic, particularly M.J. That leaves the plot to carry the reader forward, which it manages to do, if only just. Much of the book is more about survival than facing down the titular predator. It's not necessarily dull, but it often lacks tension and real interest. The climactic finale plays out in a rush, and the ending feels unresolved as it leads to a cliffhanger, not a conclusion - which felt rather like a cheat, as it was finally picking up to the level of action and danger it promised in the title and blurb. Aside from the vague question of where they go next and what happens now, there's no real plot thread or story arc to compel me to read further. There's no puzzle to solve about the time travel, no greater goal, so without caring much about the fairly flat characters, I have no real incentive to follow this series any further. It's not a terrible read, but it just didn't grab me, nor did I ever feel it was going anywhere I particularly needed to follow.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ancient One (T. A. Barron) - My Review
Saturday, the Twelfth of October (Norma Fox Mazer) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Spilling Ink (Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter)

Spilling Ink
Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter
Square Fish
Nonfiction, YA Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: What does it take to write a book? Words and ideas, obviously, but there's more to it than that. There's plotting and character creation and revision and grammar and all sorts of ways to mess up and give up... but if you don't tell your stories, who will? Popular children's book authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter team up to offer advice and encouragement to would-be writers of any age. All you need to start is an idea, plus a few words.

REVIEW: Aimed at a middle-grade audience, Spilling Ink doesn't delve into deep outlining or grammar technicalities or the often-daunting statistics on finding an agent or getting published. It's more about the overall process, not to mention the joy of crafting stories, a joy that's all too often squashed by teachers more interested in grading papers than nurturing talent or parents convinced all writers are depressed alcoholics working out of hovels. The journey from a story idea or simple urge to write to a finished manuscript isn't one that can be definitively mapped, so the authors here don't try. Instead, they offer signposts, a few cautions, the odd detour, and more than one friendly rest stop where the weary or discouraged traveler can rest and recharge. Along the way are "dares" challenging the reader/would-be writer with various exercises, such as test driving different writing styles or rewriting a moment from their lives with a different ending. If you're looking for seven-point plot arcs or a rigid outlining method or a compendium of grammar rules, you'll have to do further research. This one's all (or mostly) about the joys and frustrations of storytelling, told in a way most any writer, no matter their age, can relate to.

You Might Also Enjoy:
No Plot? No Problem! (Chris Baty) - My Review
Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer) - My Review

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Haunted Mesa (Louis L'Amour)

The Haunted Mesa
Louis L'Amour
Fiction, Sci-Fi/Western
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Mike Raglan has made a life traveling the world, seeking lost legends and "haunted" places, but he came to the American Southwest desert on a personal matter. An eccentric acquaintance, Eric, wrote him a cryptic letter, requesting help - but he seems to have vanished without a trace. His notebook tells of strange experiences on a desert mesa, such as the uncovering of a buried kiva, or Native American worshipping place, and odd visitors. The more Mike investigates, the more he suspects he may have at last run up against a mystery even he can't debunk, mysteries tied to the legendary "Third World" spoken of in native legends… a world their ancestors reportedly abandoned due to an unnamed evil, and one that may be reaching out again.

REVIEW: I was looking for a Western title for a reading challenge, and the author looked to be one of the prominent names in the genre, so I gave this book - with its promise of an otherworldly twist - a try. It starts with some decent potential, even if the characters aren't especially original or memorable, but that potential's soon wasted.
Mike's a fairly generic hero, a self-made adventurer who can take care of himself, but who has resisted settling down and building bonds. He encounters various stock figures, including the local sheriff, a handful of shady thugs, a beautiful Native American woman (who pushes into stereotype territory, with her stilted English and limited knowledge of the white man's ways - but, then, there's a certain white male slant to the whole story, so I suppose that's to be expected), and so forth. But things become wobbly as the possibility of other worlds comes into play. Mike spends an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the same core set of ideas: what is known of the Anasazi culture (rather little), whether other worlds are real or if it's all an exceptionally elaborate kidnapping hoax, and a smattering of personal history and speculation on the nature of reality around the sides. This wouldn't be much of an issue if some manner of progress was made during these speculations, or if new information prompted them, but the vast majority of this thought process just eats pages while repeating itself, sometimes almost verbatim, and with little to no external prompt for the speculation or subject shift. He'll be driving down a highway, then suddenly thinking about how the Anasazi built in cliffs despite the energy required to haul in water and food, followed by disbelief (or belief, sometimes in the same scene and with no notable reason for the flip-flop) about the "third world" portals. Even an encounter with clearly otherworldly creatures leaves him with doubts, and yet more circular speculation. At some point, I wanted to smack him to get him to do something other than drive around and speculate, already. (Well, to be fair, he also experiences plenty of eerie feelings, more than half of which turn out to be nothing.) Around and around and around Mike goes, in the desert and in his head, only rarely making tangible progress. The climax feels a little rushed and flat as a result of all this wasted time, and the conclusion too neat.
The sense that I wasted so much time on what amounted to plot filibuster, plus an overall feel that the story didn't live up to its potential, ultimately dropped it a half-star below the bland Okay rating. Something about that waste just plain irritated me more than usual, possibly exacerbated by a sense that L'Amour, likely unintentionally, was white mansplaining native mythos.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flight (Sherman Alexie) - My Review
The Untamed (Max Brand) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Jim Henson's Storyteller: Dragons (Daniel Bayliss)

Jim Henson's Storyteller: Dragons
(The Jim Henson's Storyteller series)
Daniel Bayliss, et al.
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: An old storyteller relates four tales, inspired by legends and folklore from around the world, all featuring dragons.
Son of the Serpent: A Native American boy and his father have a fateful encounter with a horned sea serpent and its enemies, the thunderbirds.
The Worm of Lambton: The spoiled son of an English lord unleashes an evil upon the land, which he must confront many years later.
Albina: In Medieval Eastern Europe, a warrior woman and her reluctant companion confront a shape-shifting beast.
Samurai's Sacrifice: The daughter of an exiled samurai seeks vengeance, only to find a monstrous foe and a terrible truth.

REVIEW: The Storyteller was an interesting series, a showcase of Henson's groundbreaking puppetry and effects, though the stories told sometimes felt a little thin or incomplete, bearing fragments of cultures and mythologies that didn't quite translate. This compilation, part of a graphic novel tribute to the show, seeks to emulate the style of the original in new stories. It succeeds, with some great artwork in culturally-influenced styles, though it also retains some of that sense of incompleteness, of bits and pieces that haven't quite translated or don't quite make sense without the cultural touchstones of the original. My favorite, for art and storyline, is the first tale, with its stunning horned serpent and thunderbirds created in the Northwest Coast style, followed by The Worm of Lambton. Albina changes the genders of the heroes, but seems to be missing something. The Japanese story, feels jumbled and a touch confusing, as though it didn't start quite in the right place; there's an awful lot of backstory that must be crammed in via confused flashbacks, and the wrap-up felt a touch too neat and forced. Overall, I found it interesting, with some great artwork and intriguing world myths given new life. It certainly succeeded in capturing a mythic sense of wonder - and dragons rarely hurt a rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tales of Great Dragons (J. K. Anderson) - My Review
Dragons: Truth, Myth, and Legend (David Passes) - My Review
Jim Henson's The Storyteller ~ The Complete Collection - Amazon DVD link

Thursday, June 8, 2017

You Don't Want a Unicorn! (Ame Dyckman)

You Don't Want a Unicorn!
Ame Dyckmkan, illustrations by Liz Climo
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: You might be tempted to toss a penny into the fountain and wish yourself a unicorn friend, but don't do it. They're far more trouble than you think, as one unicorn-loving boy discovers the hard way.

REVIEW: This fun little book examines the down sides to an exotic pet. Sure, it's fun to ride on rainbows, but that horn really does a number on furniture and drywall, not to mention the shedding and housebreaking issues. It reads quickly and generates laughs, with bright and whimsical images.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children Make Terrible Pets (Peter Brown) - My Review
Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review
Fairy Foals (Suzanah) - My Review

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire)

Every Heart a Doorway
(The Wayward Children series, Book 1)
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, a girl (or a boy) discovered a doorway to a magical world. Here, they had many adventures and learned many things - but, one day, they found themselves returned to the land of their birth. It was a harsh land, a strange land, and it was no longer home, as they were no longer the children they used to be. Some went insane. Some swallowed their memories until they convinced themselves it had all been a dream. But some found their way to a special boarding school, where the headmistress helped them process their adventures and learn to cope with the knowledge that, try as they might, they probably will never find their way back to the kingdoms of fairies or the moors of vampires. Because the headmistress, Eleanor West, was once a girl who found a doorway, herself.
Nancy arrives at Eleanor West's school with hair bleached white from the touch of the Lord of Death and a suitcase packed with offensively colorful clothes by parents who just want their lost "rainbow" girl back. Rooming with Sumi, whose adventures in a Nonsense realm left an indelible mark on her personality, she struggles to adapt, even as she refuses to give up hope of returning to the Halls of the Dead. Soon after her arrival, students start dying, gruesomely mutilated - and almost everybody suspects the new girl who once danced with the Lord of Death.
This novella includes sample chapters from Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the next volume in the Wayward Children series.

REVIEW: Every Heart a Doorway, a 2016 Nebula award winner, examines the psychological impact of portal adventures, the one many authors tend to gloss over or leave out. If you really had been to another world, if you really had been apprenticed to a mad scientist or courted by the Skeleton Girl or learned to run on rainbows, how could you ever return to our mundane Earth, with its immutable physics and linear time? McGuire creates an unexpected cast of decently-rounded characters, hinting at all manner of worlds from all over the map, a map whose compass includes such cardinal directions as Nonsense and Logic and Virtuous and Wicked. It's harsh and bleak and beautiful all at once, with hope being both a cruelty and a comfort. I quite enjoyed it, and will likely read more titles in this series as they appear.
As a closing note, I suppose this could be classified as a Teen title, given the age of the main characters, but the subject matter and overall tone bleed over into the adult end of the spectrum, and it's as much about mourning the loss of childhood as it is about magical worlds. So I gave it a split age rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Everworld: Search for Senna (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson and Andre Bressan) - My Review

Friday, June 2, 2017

Stealing Mr. Right (Tamara Morgan)

Stealing Mr. Right
(The Penelope Blue series, Book 1)
Tamara Morgan
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: After her thief father disappeared when she was fifteen, Penelope Blue managed to scrape together a meager yet dishonest life using the skills he taught her, not to mention the help of fellow accomplices Jordan, Oz, and Riker. Together, they become the family she never had. When a persistent and disturbingly handsome FBI agent, Grant Emerson, started sniffing around their operation, costing them more than one score, Penelope decided he needed watching... extra-close watching.
Which is how she wound up married to Grant.
He knows she's a thief, and a talented one at that. She knows he has access to federal records on her father, and possibly a line on the missing millions the man was reputed to have stashed away before he vanished. It's a tense game of cat and mouse - and now, with her sights set on a very special diamond necklace, it may finally be coming to an end. Because only a fool could ever believe that a jewel thief and a federal agent could find true love in the middle of such a web of lies, and whatever else Penelope Blue may be, she's nobody's fool.

REVIEW: This book sucked me in with a fast pace, intriguing premise, and clever heroine voice, starting in the middle of a jewelry heist that quickly goes awry. Cutting back and forth between the present robbery (and subsequent complications) and the past, from Penelope's first encounter with Grant through their courtship and marriage, it keeps up a decent pace while introducing the cast of quirky characters, who tend toward tropes but are nonetheless engagingly written. Early on, Penelope and Grant are fairly evenly matched, both engaged in a complicated, teasing dance in which neither openly admits knowing the deceptions their relationship is based upon, while both have been overcome by genuine feelings neither anticipated. As the tale winds on, though, the wheels begin to wobble. Penelope slowly ceases to be a clever thief and becomes a generally naive woman who never quite grew up, who is surrounded by masculine protectors that she resents, but which she clearly needs to survive. Because a girl growing up on the streets, living by theft, is never going to be able to take care of herself without a big, strong man to do the hard stuff... As the climax unfolds, several (frequently telegraphed) revelations come out that essentially undercut much of Penelope's remaining agency and independence, in addition to just plain not making sense if you think about them much. (No details, as they constitute spoilers, but they induced several eye-rolls and incredulous groans, plus more than one head-thump against the Kindle cover in disappointment.) On top of that, a large portion of the Kindle title was simply advertising for the next installment, meaning the book itself was shorter than it appeared. I was so dissatisfied that I almost dropped the rating another half-star, but the decent character voice of Penelope Blue, not to mention some snappy interplay between the characters (before the flop of an ending), kept it afloat (if barely) at a flat three-star Okay.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne DeWolfe) - My Review
Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review

Thursday, June 1, 2017

This Side of Wild (Gary Paulsen)

This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs
Gary Paulsen
Simon and Schuster
Nonfiction, YA Animals
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Popular author Gary Paulsen reflects on animal encounters through his life, from the dog Gretchen (who would hold long "conversations" over cups of bitter-dark coffee) to the toy poodle Corky (who proved unexpectedly brave against Alaskan grizzlies), not to mention his ongoing, frequently contentious relationship with ravens.

REVIEW: This is an interesting, if sometimes meandering, collection of stories demonstrating the intelligence, playfulness, and occasional spite of all manner of animals. In his observations, he comes to agree with a conclusion reached by an animal trainer friend of his: we do not train animals, but animals train us, having far more awareness and agency than humans like to credit to them. Paulsen sees how even wild animals learn to manipulate humans, in memorable encounters at a highway rest stop and on a desert horseback ride. He also offers glimpses into his long and colorful life, not to mention a brief detour into the true horrors of nuclear warfare, as part of his military training introduced him to facts that were deliberately withheld from the general population on warhead lethality. (It's Gretchen, the dog who appeared to have figured out a way to hold wordless talks with her people, who helps him deal with this troubling knowledge.) As usual, I enjoyed Paulsen's writing style, though the chapters sometimes wavered and wandered in their focus. Overall, though, it's an interesting collection of animal encounters, mostly domestic but a few wild, that can be enjoyed by somewhat older children and adults alike. (Some of the material is a little graphic for very young or sensitive readers.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot) - My Review
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
Guts (Gary Paulsen) - My Review

Me and My Dragon (David Biedrzycky)

Me and My Dragon
David Biedrzycki
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A boy wants a special pet - not a dog, not a goldfish, but a fire-breathing dragon.

REVIEW: Another quick read during some down time at work, Me and My Dragon is a simple, fun exploration of pet ownership with a draconic twist. The boy talks about the best size for a pet dragon (not too big, so it can fit in the house) and other points of care, not to mention the benefits of a fire-breathing pet... particularly when one has to deal with bullies. The illustrations are simple but amusing and bright. As someone who would've loved a pet dragon growing up, I can recommend this book to any kid who dreams of a special pet, or any grown-up who used to be that kid.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Egg (M. P. Robertson) - My Review
How to Raise and Keep a Dragon (John Topsell) - My Review