Saturday, October 28, 2017

The War of Art (Steven Pressfield)

The War of Art
Steven Pressfield
Black Irish Entertainment LLC
Nonfiction, Creativity
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: We all have our callings, but so often we deny ourselves - denying the world what we could give, in favor of what we think we should give. Screenwriter and author Steven Pressfield offers thoughts on creativity, the forces of the Muse and Resistance, and how to overcome obstacles to discovering and following our passions.

REVIEW: As usual for these books, it looks easy on paper... Pressfield draws on sources from classical literature to various religions to Hollywood hits, for advice that generally boils down to "the only way to be an artist is to sit down and make art." The rest is fear and peer pressure, which Pressfield classifies as Resistance, a force opposed by the "Muse" of the higher self. He starts drifting (or outright careening) toward spirituality and a God-ordered universe as the book goes on, sometimes repeating himself (in spirit if not direct words), with an unspoken implication that atheists and agnostics are lying to themselves about their own creativity or sources of inspiration. It got heavy handed enough to nearly cost the book a half-star, but overall it's a decent kick in the tail to those of us who keep letting Resistance (and the accompanying misery) win the battle.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton) - My Review

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury)

The Halloween Tree
Ray Bradbury, illustrations by Gris Grimly
Fiction, CH Chiller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a small Midwestern town on Halloween, Tom Skelton and his friends can hardly wait to race into the autumn night, full of costumes and candy and spooks and shadows... but their best friend, Pipkin, hasn't joined them, asking instead that they meet him at the old house in the ravine past town. Here, the eight boys find a great, towering tree full of lit pumpkins: a real Halloween tree. And with it, they find the mysterious black-robed figure Mr. Moundshroud, who takes them on a wind-wild flight through history, down to the roots of all the fears and rituals that have become today's Halloween - all the while chasing a phantom of Pipkin, a soul dreadfully close to its final departure from Earth...

REVIEW: With Bradbury's signature poetic prose and Grimly's borderline-surreal grayscale illustrations, The Halloween Tree is a holiday classic, an ode to the timeless spirit of boyhood as much as a celebration of Halloween. It's a story of wonder and of terror, stretching from ancient caves and Egyptian tombs to modern Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. The story isn't so much a coherent arc with driving characters as it is a series of events they experience, a gauntlet of time and fear building up to a choice on which Pipkin's life ultimately depends, a choice to either cower from the ageless fear of Death or confront it. Some kids would likely be put off by Bradbury's prose, which can get a bit convoluted even to grown-ups, and others might find the subject matter unsettling, but it contains some great imagery. It's much truer to the spirit of the holiday than so many modern interpretations, those bubble-wrapped cutesy commercial "specials" that file down the fangs of what is supposed to be a subtly unsettling night. Though the driftings of the boys almost grew tedious at times, and I could almost swear Bradbury was recycling a few turns of phrase and images from previous works (writer's prerogative, of course), I still give it a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Vampyre (John William Polidori)

The Vampyre: A Tale
John William Polidori
Open Road Media
Fiction, Horror
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Lord Ruthven's arrival in England's society scene caused quite a stir, the man's peculiar mannerisms and aloof behavior attracting men and women, young and old, alike. When young, naive Aubrey decides Ruthven would be an ideal role model and travel partner, he enters into a relationship that will doom not only himself, but those whom he loves the most - for Ruthven proves to something quite other than the ordinary, if eccentric, figure he appears to be...
This edition also includes an account of Lord Byron's residence in the Greek isles, as visited by the author during his absence.

REVIEW: This short story, from 1819, relates Aubrey's encounter and subsequent haunting by the monster Ruthven in the manner most prevalent at the time - namely, thick, wordy, and distant as a glance across a crowded ballroom. It's hardly a spoiler that Ruthven's an inhuman fiend, a fairly typical vampiric specimen of the type elaborated on in (to greater terrific effect) in le Fanu's Carmilla and Stoker's Dracula. The only unique trait, one that ultimately never comes to much fruition, is how Ruthven actively enables vice, even as his gifts always seem to bring recipients to grief. Aubrey's fascination eventually gives way to revulsion, then fear when he realizes just what he has befriended, though it all seems a bit muted to modern readers who have come to expect less telling and more showing in narratives. The ending's predictable and a tad pointless.
As for the excerpt about Byron, I have no clue what it was doing with this story, save both involve Greece as experienced by the English elite.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Carmilla (Joseph Sheridan le Fanu) - My Review
Dracula (Bram Stoker) - My Review

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Drew Daywalt)

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors
Drew Daywalt, illustrations by Adam Rex
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In ages past, three undefeated warriors roamed the land in search of worthy opponents. All fell before them... until they finally faced each other in one epic battle.

REVIEW: A hilarious "backstory" for the ubiquitous hand game places a mythic spin on the adventures of crushing Rock, covering Paper, and slicing Scissors. Each one meets and defeats several challengers (as when Rock takes out a tangerine, Paper jams the arrogant Printer, and Scissors confronts the dreaded horde of Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets) before the final fight. The silly dialog and illustrations made me laugh.

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Shark vs. Train (Chris Barton) - My Review
The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
This Is a Moose (Richard T. Morris) - My Review

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Ables (Jeremy Scott)

The Ables
Jeremy Scott
Clovercroft Publishing
Fiction, MG Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay

DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Phillip Sallinger always loved superhero comics, but never dreamed he came from a family of them - or that he himself had powers. Blind since birth, he never considered he could be a hero himself. But that was before his mom and dad moved him to the town of Freepoint, and before Dad explained that they come from a long line of "custodians," as people with powers are known. According to DNA tests at birth, both Phillip and his kid brother Patrick will be developing powers, soon, too - which is why they moved to Freepoint, a custodian town. Now that Phillip's of age and showing his telekinesis, he needs to be around others of their own kind.
Ordinarily, going to a new school just for superheroes would be the most exciting thing Phillip could think of... but, due to his blindness, he's sent to the Special Education room with other disabled custodian kids, deprived of opportunities to test his budding powers in citywide "SuperSim" games like the other students. As Phillip and his new friends chafe under restraints, determined to prove themselves the equal of any other kids, a new danger arises - a rumor about the return of a long-fallen custodian, one more powerful than any living today... one whose return would herald a new era, and one which some custodians are willing to go to extreme measures to enable.

REVIEW: The author, Jeremy Scott, runs the popular movie-mocking CinemaSins channel on YouTube (among others.) Given his familiarity with movies, and his willingness to call them out on overused cliches and stereotypes and other symptoms of flabby writing, I looked forward to seeing what he would do with his own tale. Unfortunately, The Ables soon degenerates into a series of overused cliches and stereotypes, with several stretches of padding - not to mention moments that jerk the reader around. Phillip isn't the most dynamic of protagonists, the usual "everyman" young hero-to-be, aside from his blindness. He finds friends and enemies at school, who tend to be other shallow, familiar tropes... almost all of whom are males. Despite there being a few girls in Phillip's Special Education classes (who also might've enjoyed proving themselves to other superpowered students, or just having friends), they're gone almost as soon as they're introduced. The only females with notable roles at all are the Supportive Teacher and the Concerned Mom. (As for the latter, risking a minor spoiler, I'd honestly expected better of a cinema buff like Scott than to stoop to "fridging" as character motivation.) The story runs a little long, as Phillip and his friends push against the limits of their disabilities, get pushed back, and ultimately have to face a threat that's paralyzed the grown-up population... against a villain whose "secret identity" was pretty easy to guess, between clues in the book and general story tropes. A fair bit of padding and banter, not all of it particularly interesting, fills out page count. The ending dropped things a half-star for not only drawing itself out too long but being far to predictable in how it played out. I found myself disgruntled enough to dip the rating below the bland Okay it almost merited.

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Power Up (Kate Leth) - My Review
Steelheart (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Free Fall (David Wiesner)

Free Fall
David Wiesner
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION:When a boy falls asleep while reading a book, his dreams take him to all manner of bizarre lands teeming with adventures.

REVIEW:Wiesner's picture books have yet to disappoint me. This one incorporates an Escheresque metamorphosis through the pages, evoking a dreamlike fluidity and impermanence as perspectives shift and adventures blend into each other. The images invite revisiting and lingering, even for grown-ups.

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Imagine a Night (Rob Gonsalves) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Lumberjanes Vol. 5: Band Together (Noelle Stevenson)

Lumberjanes Vol. 5: Band Together
(The Lumberjanes series, issues 13 and 18 - 20)
Noelle Stevenson, illustrations by Brooke A. Allen
Fiction, MG? Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After dealing with strange beasts, vengeful ex-campers, possible time paradoxes, and other problems, the girls of Roanoke cabin take some down time by the lake... only to hook another adventure. April, lifelong mermaid fan, can't help getting involved when they inadvertently witness a tiff between a group of merpeople - even if doing so makes the other girls miss the dance they were looking forward to.
This volume also includes issue 13, about the girls' first day at Lumberjanes camp.

REVIEW: Another light, fun adventure at an unusual summer camp, it focuses on April, the impetuous and highly competitive little redhead who is often overshadowed by other characters. She means well, but has to learn that camp isn't just about her, and her actions can have negative consequences on those she loves the most. Naturally, it's no spoiler to mention it all works out in the end. As for the origin issue, it feels oddly incomplete, just offering a quick glimpse at the girls arriving at camp and meeting each other. It made for an amusing read.

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Fairy Metal Thunder (JL Bryan) - My Review
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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Lumberjanes to the Max Volume 2 (Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Shannon Waters)

Lumberjanes to the Max Volume 2
(The Lumberjanes series, issues 9 - 12 and 14 - 17)
Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Shannon Waters, writers, illustrations by Brooke A. Allen and Caroyln Nowak
Fiction, MG? Comics/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After solving the riddles and defeating a pair of rogue godlings, the girls of Roanoke cabin thought they'd settle down to a somewhat normal summer camp experience... only to find even more unusual adventures waiting for them (and occasionally stalking them, or outright attacking them.) From an adventure in a lost world to a scary story contest to the mystery of a former camper living in the woods, the Lumberjanes are at it again.
This special deluxe volume includes special notes and behind-the-scenes sketches.

REVIEW: I really don't know what's going on with the volume numbering on this series. Technically, this should be the third collection, but it's listed as the second. Apparently, it's a compilation of Volumes 3 and 4 (with issue 13 withheld, for reasons I don't know), though I see no sign of an independent Volume 3 on Hoopla. In any event, these episodes build on the previous series to create more magic, more mayhem, and more mirth. It's still sometimes a bit tough to tell a few of the characters apart, an issue not helped by changing art styles. Still, it's fun, and mostly maintains the spirit and quick pacing of the previous Lumberjanes adventures.

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Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson) - My Review
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (Wade Albert White) - My Review

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Seanan McGuire)

Down Among the Sticks and Bones
(The Wayward Children series, Book 2)
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian were born to a man and woman who perhaps never should have been parents. They created boxes to place the girls in - Jill designated the tomboy to appease a man who wanted a son, Jack placed in ribbons and lace for a mother who saw a daughter as a vanity doll - and did not care how much it hurt them to be squeezed into shape... or how it might threaten what little bond there was between them.
One day, when they were twelve and already growing into the shapes prescribed for them, they found a strange staircase in the bottom of a trunk in the attic. Had they been raised in a family where fairy tales were told and books read, they might have known to be more cautious about exploring strange passageways - but no fairy tale could've prepared them for the Moors. Here, in a bleak land under a ruby-red moon, where monsters walk and swim and prey upon the humans who manage to survive (as often as not under the fickle protection of a predator), the girls may finally learn who they really are, and what it means to choose their own path: Jack becomes apprentice to a mad scientist, Jill the protege to the vampire overlord of the local town, and the passing years see them grow further apart. But they are still twins, of the same blood and bone, which means their fates will always be bound - if not as friends, then as enemies.

REVIEW: The second book of the Wayward Children series follows the backstory of Jack and Jill, two girls from Eleanor West's boarding school for children who had been to magical worlds and returned to Earth. Like the first book, an almost lyrical narrative creates the feel of a fable or fairy tale, if a rather dark one. From before their conception, the twins were destined to lead harsh lives, largely bereft of love and understanding, even between each other. That twisted upbringing comes to morbid life in the world of the Moors. Without knowing the events in the first book of the series (Every Heart a Doorway), the ending would be extra-bleak... and even then, it's a bitter story of the harm ultimately wrought by parents who see their children as mere extensions of their own ambitions, not people who may need guidance, but ultimately have their own lives to live and lessons to learn. There's a certain bleak, compelling beauty to this story, which can be read as a stand-alone but has extra weight if you've read the first book in the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelly Anderson) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review

Friday, October 6, 2017

Crosstalk (Connie Willis)

Connie Willis
Del Rey
Fiction, Romance/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Briddey Flannigan, like most people in the modern age, is always connected: texts from work, phone calls from her always-needy sisters and meddling Aunt Oona, Facebook and Twitter on her phone, and more. But soon she'll have one more connection with her boyfriend Trent. They're scheduled for EED implants, a cutting-edge procedure that's all the rage among the rich and famous. While not offering true telepathy - there's no such thing, after all - the device allows a couple to communicate emotions directly to each other, strengthening bonds (not to mention apparently making for mind-blowing sex.) It's supposed to take at least twenty-four hours to kick in, but right after she wakes up she hears a voice - not Trent, but a co-worker, C.B. Schwartz. As unintended consequences go, this is just the beginning, as Briddey finds herself plunged into a telepathic nightmare that might endanger not only her relationship and her job, but her very sanity.

REVIEW: I've heard good things about the author, so I figured I'd give her a try. Unfortunately, if this is a typical example of her work, I won't be trying her again anytime soon. The core ideas aren't terrible, with some decent descriptions, but the plot is fouled up by Briddey, a character I could barely stand to be around, let alone care for. She's the kind of woman who, told that a room is on fire, would first ignore the warning because she's thinking of something else, then get resentful at someone telling her what to do, then walk into the room and sit down for a while while ignoring a growing sense that something wasn't right, then bar the door against those nasty, pushy firefighters who keep yelling at her to let them in, then - upon belatedly realizing that the room is, in fact, on fire - run in circles in a panic, jump out a window, and later need to be rescued from the middle of the interstate, where she's curled up in the express lanes with her hands over her ears, wailing about how the horns won't stop. She's so willfully obtuse and distracted that she fails to pick up on numerous blatant clues, meaning I had the basics of the story worked out long before she got on board. Briddey's family is little better, a dysfunctional gaggle of emotionally needy people, though perhaps the most annoying is her niece Maeve, who becomes far too pushy in a way that I suspect I was supposed to find endearing. (I didn't.) By the time the story really picks up, I'd already given up on caring about such a dense, helpless character, who perpetually needs rescuing (by a man, of course) and needs numerous metaphorical blows with a two-by-four to drive anything through her thick skull... and even then it might not take. Given that I was so far ahead of her, I wasn't particularly surprised (or interested) in how things unfolded, or in how Briddey managed to delay events or misinterpret them or otherwise blunder through her story. The ending relies on several accumulated plot conveniences/sudden revelations that were less shocking than eyeroll-inducing. Despite the hype about the award-winning author, I've read better tales of telepathy, and of romance.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

My Father's Dragon (Ruth Stiles Gannett)

My Father's Dragon
(The My Father's Dragon series, Book 1)
Ruth Stiles Gannett
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When young Elmer Elevator helps an old stray cat, she rewards him by telling him of Wild Island, where a young dragon is held captive by the local animals. He sets out to rescue it with a bag full of surprises, but can he outwit the beasts?

REVIEW: This award-winning classic children's story has the feel of a fairy tale. Elmer encounters several memorable characters, coming up with clever solutions to a number of problems on his way to free the dragon. The illustrations are whimsical, adding to the fun, and if the ending's a bit abrupt, well, it is a story meant for young kids, so once the main problem is resolved there's little reason to linger. Though a bit lightweight for my personal tastes, I can see this book becoming a beloved read-along memory for children, and Elmer's a resourceful young hero for them to look up to.

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Frans de Waal)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Frans de Waal
Nonfiction, Animals/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, despite anecdotal evidence and the work of a few often-belittled pioneers, the idea that nonhuman animals might possess active cognition, or be more than simple stimulus-response machines, was scoffed at by layman and scholar alike. Over the years, under the weight of increasing evidence, the study of animal cognition has bloomed, leading to surprising revelations about the minds of everything from wasps and fish to elephants and apes. Tool use, social politics, self recognition, delayed gratification, theory of mind, and more have been found across the animal kingdom. From his own studies with primates and others in the field, de Waal presents findings that challenge humanity's traditional seat atop the imaginary ladder of evolution and enlightenment.

REVIEW: If there's one thing humans excel at, it's storytelling - particularly, telling ourselves stories of our own superiority and uniqueness, stories that have colored our perceptions of the world around us for generations. Even as evolution has moved from radical notion to accepted fact (or at least the theory that best fits all available evidence), it's amazing, and a little depressing, how even highly educated people still cling to those stories that grant humans a place apart from other species. The author delves into the history of evolutionary cognition, from before Darwin through the strict behaviorist models to more recent revelations, and some speculation on what discoveries might be coming as techniques improve and exploration continues. It's fascinating, even watered down for us uneducated laypeople. The studies of de Waal and other scientists increasingly show how cognition - yes, even human cognition - couldn't evolve in a vacuum. It's a tool evident, to some degree, across many branches of the tree of life, even if it doesn't always manifest in easily recognized ways. And why should it? Human cognition fits human lifestyles; other animals' cognition would, by necessity, best suit their own lifestyle, their anatomy and environment and challenges. As human scientists relinquish the idea of humans as the defining pinnacle of intelligence and awareness, learning to see each animal on its own terms, they make some amazing discoveries. Yet for each discovery, "slayers" move the goalposts, changing the stories they tell themselves, determined to preserve their idea of human superiority. (de Waal differentiates these from skeptics, which are a necessary part of any scientific field, challengers that drive new experimentation and ensure self-checking on results and methodology, rather than outright dismissing anything not fitting preconceived ideas.) At the end, de Waal expresses hope that the "slayers" of the field appear to be a dying breed, comments I couldn't help reading with a slight twinge of sorrow; with a disproportionate number of "slayers" elevated to positions of outsized power, my own country seems bound and determined to roll the clock backward on all manner of science, particularly science that challenges their stories. For the sake of science and the future of the world, I sincerely hope de Waal is right...

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Being a Beast (Charles Foster) - My Review
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