Thursday, February 28, 2019

February Site Update

The main Brightdreamer Books site has been updated, archiving the previous six reviews. (The month wasn't conducive to reading, unfortunately...)

In other news, I finally wrapped up my Phase II revisions. Each review now is cross-linked to a few related titles.


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Tropic of Serpents (Marie Brennan)

The Tropic of Serpents
The Lady Trent Memoirs series, Book 2
Marie Brennan
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young widow Isabella cut her teeth as a naturalist studying the rock-wyrms of mountainous Vystrana - making a remarkable discovery that could revolutionize both the study of dragons and the world itself, a method to preserve the remarkably light yet strong substance of dragonbones beyond their death. Though some would use this discovery to exploit and exterminate the beasts, Isabella hopes to fund the creation of a substitute, but first she needs to study more species of dragons. To this end, she finally wrangles a visa to the colonial port of Nsebu on the continent of Eriga, half a world away. She and her companions - steadfast Tom and young Natalie - had hoped to avoid the tumultuous politics roiling the region, but politics and science are often inextricably linked. Isabella's pursuit of dragons entangles her with a brewing conflict over control of the colony, its resources, and the impenetrable, dragon-infested jungle known locally as the "Green Hell."

REVIEW: Like the first installment of the Lady Trent series, The Tropic of Serpents evokes a mild throwback style, evocative of elder-day travel journals such as Darwin's accounts. Brennan continues to expand her invented world, which is roughly analogous to our own (Isabelle's native Scirland is roughly similar to England at the height of its globe-spanning imperial days, with Eriga serving as an Africa equivalent that, too, suffers under colonization and exploitation by outsiders), but is not a precise replica, and not simply from the presence of draconic species and their kin. Sometimes the ethnicities and cultures and countries grow overwhelming, but they're easy enough to skim, and one gets the gist of their relations even if one can't always keep them straight. Isabelle herself remains a product of her nation and age and social strata; while she pushes against barriers created by her gender and societal expectations, in other ways she retains cultural prejudices and expectations which she herself admits she cannot completely transcend. These flaws help humanize her character, though as in the previous book there's still a certain larger than life air about her adventures. Other characters are helped and hindered by their own stations, many with less freedom to challenge their limits than wealthy Isabelle; her companion Tom's gender may open a few doors closed to her, but his low birth forever shadows his ambitions even in a supposedly intellectual field. The cast grows a little sprawling at times, with some characters coming to less than I'd expected given how much time went into establishing them (details would constitute spoilers), and the tale consequently takes a little time to pick up steam. Once it gets moving, and particularly once Isabella and her companions gain entry to the jungle, it clips along at a decent pace. And, of course, there are dragons, with some nice takes on the beasts and their place in the local ecology. The wrap-up left a few threads dangling, not all of which I expect to be wrapped up in future volumes, but mostly satisifed. All in all, I'm enjoying Lady Trent's adventures, and expect I'll be pursuing the rest of the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
The Waking Fire (Anthony Ryan) - My Review

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Jacqueline Kelly)

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
The Calpurnia Tate series, Book 1
Jacqueline Kelly
Square Fish
Fiction, MG Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The summer of 1899 is a hot one in Texas, where Calpurnia Tate lives with a gaggle of brothers on acres of cotton fields, pecan trees, and wilderness. Though half-grown, she's never given much thought to the future or her place in it, content to linger in the seemingly-endless days of carefree childhood, until a question about grasshoppers sends her to Granddaddy. He's a strange and reclusive figure, just shy of an outright embarrassment for his interest in science and naturalism, but he opens doorways Calpurnia had never known existed, teaching her about all manner of subjects they never covered in her one-room school: physics, chemistry, and those controversial ideas espoused in Darwin's forbidden book - ideas she can see with her own eyes right in the back yard. Suddenly, the life laid out before her by her mother and countless generations of Tradition no longer looks appealing... but girls, especially girls from rural Texas, just can't grow up to be whatever they want. Can they?

REVIEW: Though I lean strongly toward science fiction and fantasy (as is obvious), a fair bit of my reading selection goes by gut reaction, and I got a good "vibe" off this one when I saw it at work. Callie's a strong-willed, if still immature, girl who doesn't yet know what she doesn't know, yet is too clever and ornery to let ignorance lie once she discovers it, even if pursuing knowledge goes against every social grain in her community. Her grandfather provides a window into new worlds, but cannot answer every question or solve every problem, especially as much of what she encounters is unique to her life: he was never raised to think he shouldn't ask questions or aspire to an education or even live a life defined by herself and not a spouse, as Calpurina has been (though she doesn't realize it until she knows to look.) Her family isn't a monolithic stumbling block - her brothers can be helps or hindrances - but still are part of the maze she must navigate as she finds herself drawn toward new dreams, dreams that fly in the face of what's expected of a girl with good "prospects." Several colorful characters fill the pages, some more rounded and intriguing than others, as various episodes slowly draw Calpurnia toward womanhood and a potentially doomed future hemmed in by Tradition. A few of these read like filler, if generally amusing filler, and Calpurnia's scientific pursuits tend to get crowded off the page during these tangents. I'd expected a bit more conclusive of an ending, a more complete arc (particularly regarding her family), but this turns out to be just the first installment of a longer series. It's a fun book told in a great voice, fun enough I might eventually track down the next volume. Calpurnia Tate may not be a perfect heroine, but she's definitely one to root for.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Secret School (Avi) - My Review
On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition (Charles Darwin) - My Review
The Invention of Nature (Andrea Wulf) - My Review

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Fur Magic (Andre Norton)

Fur Magic
The Magic Sequence, Book 3
Andre Norton
Open Road Media
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Cory's dad is sent to Vietnam, he is sent to live with foster uncle Jasper, a Nez Perce Indian living on a working Appaloosa ranch out West. Cory thought it would be a great adventure, like something out of a book - but, since the moment he arrived, he's been nothing but afraid. Every shadow might hide a cougar or a wolf. He couldn't stay seated on a horse, and lacked the courage to try again. Even Jasper seems to have given up on him, leaving him behind at the ranch house to wait for the elderly medicine man Black Elk, due down from the hills any day now. Then Cory accidentally breaks the man's "medicine bag," a terrible desecration that he demands the boy fix... and the next thing Cory knows, he's in the body of the beaver scout Yellow Shell, in a lost world from native tales when the animals walked and lived as men. The Changer Coyote's minions are on the warpath, and the peaceful tribes of the land fear he means to turn the world over as has been prophesied, with the Old People falling to little more than slaves before a new master species. Yellow Shell and Cory must find courage they never knew they had to survive a journey straight out of legend, one to save his people and the other to return home.

REVIEW: I read this long ago, but reread it as part of an online book challenge. It has not aged particularly well, unfortunately. Though Norton likely intended this to be an homage to Native American culture, it comes across as stiff and stereotyped when read today; apparently, Indians - or animals standing in for Indians - are entirely without humor or joy, concerned solely with coup-counting and medicine energy and the bare basics of tribal survival... but, then, white boy Cory's not much more rounded himself. (Norton also refers to the animal-tribe women as "squaws," which as I understand it is an offensive term, especially these days when we white people should know better. Yes, we should've known better then, too...) Cory often disappears into the mind of Yellow Shell, resurfacing only at key moments; as a passenger, he learns what it means to be brave, to study the land, to rely on himself, and to bring honor to one's family and peers. Often, though, he's muddling through medicine that's way over the heads of both beaver and boy; the climax in particular sees him reduced to almost observer status through much of it, and the rules at play are unclear save as the odd gut instinct. The wrap-up seems abrupt (which is all I can say without spoilers.) The tale has plenty of adventure and some nice descriptions - I was surprised how much I remembered, actually, so those parts clearly made an impression - but in this day and age it induces enough cringes to temper enjoyment somewhat. (I also couldn't help wondering how the concept would play out in the hands of a Native American writer in modern times.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon Magic (Andre Norton) - My Review
Coyote's Daughter (Corie Weaver) - My Review
The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - My Review

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Copper Promise (Jen Williams)

The Copper Promise
The Copper Cat series, Book 1
Jen Williams
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: There are many tales in the land of Ede, but perhaps no place inspires more tales than the legendary Citadel, where it is said the mages of old trapped the five gods away... along with their secrets, their powers, and their untold treasures. Even the most hardened adventurers hesitate to enter the forbidden edifice - and those who do are never seen again.
A clever thief like Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, should've known better... but she and her adventuring partner, disgraced knight Sebastian, needed the money.
Hired by the crippled Lord Aaron Frith of Blackwood, who seeks the means for vengeance against the usurpers of his throne, they set out into the Citadel's depths, but the mission goes wrong from the start. When they unwittingly unleash the dragon goddess Y'Ruen, her flames and brood army begin a march of unimaginable destruction across Ede, a land that has long since forgotten how to deal with gods, let alone stop them... unless the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and her companions can rediscover secrets that died with the mages of the Citadel.

REVIEW: Brimming with imagination and adventure and more than a little wit, The Copper Promise pays homage to classic sword and sorcery, but with more diversity and stronger women. Sebastian and Wydrin take after Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, one the towering northern swordmaster cast out of his home and the other the trickster thief with a penchant for knives and clever remarks, though the characters stand well on their own and aren't simple rehashes. Lord Frith starts off as a third wheel, so focused on revenge that he nearly gets his companions and the whole world killed, but he manages to come around. Meanwhile, Wydrin and Sebastian see their partnership tested to the utmost over whether to face what they've helped unleash (and face almost certain death) or slink away like smart adventurers (and face a later, but still almost certain death.) The three develop a nice, if not always harmonious, working chemistry. They roam a world straight out of a dungeon-crawler, full of legends and secrets and demon cults and hidden treasures and adventurers looking to make a name for themselves amidst it all (not to mention the requisite townsfolk just trying to survive amidst it all, and often failing), colorful and larger than life. Even amid several gory scenes and times of danger and darkness, it maintains its air of adventure and heroism, avoiding grimdark brooding. The plot has an almost episodic feel to it, a series of distinct encounters and incidents as it builds to a breakneck climax. Once in a while the episodes almost feel like padding, drawing away from the main arc for page count, but they were entertaining enough I didn't mind, at least not enough to shave anything off a top rating. It's been a bit since I enjoyed nearly every page of a story as I did here. I'm looking forward to future adventures with the Copper Cat.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames) - My Review
The Phoenix on the Sword (Robert E. Howard) - My Review
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Book Love (Debbie Tung)

Book Love
Debbie Tung
Andrews McMeel
Nonfiction, Collection/Comics/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: It starts with the cover that catches your eye from across the bookshop, and ends with a hard-crash return to reality as the last page is turned. This collection of comics celebrates the love of books, from the smell of a brand-new volume to the multitude of worlds contained in the pages, from holing up in a blanket fort with a mug of tea and a stack of paperbacks to accosting strangers on the street trying to share a favorite story.

REVIEW: As one might expect, I could relate to the subject matter (mostly - I have never developed a taste for tea, and human acquaintances with which to share books tend to be as fictional as the characters I read about, current reader of this review notwithstanding.) Tung's simple drawings and text extol the virtues of reading on many levels, from the tales that transport us to other worlds to the physical feel of a nice, solid book in one's hand; like many bibliophiles, she seems to have an aversion to eBooks, though I personally find them just as absorbing as any printed book and much less likely to get dog-eared when carried in one's purse all day. Minor differences of opinion aside, though, the love of books comes through loud and clear, with several delightful entries that any reader can understand. I clipped it a half-star for repetition; several of her cartoons hit the same notes in very similar ways, which probably wouldn't have been as noticeable had I read them individually, but in a single volume it stands out enough to distract. Taken all together, Tung does a decent job exploring the wonders of books and reading.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Frequently Asked Questions: An Unshelved Collection (Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes) - My Review
The Shape of Ideas (Grant Snider) - My Review
I Am A Story (Dan Yaccarino) - My Review

Friday, February 1, 2019

Fast Focus (Damon Zahariades)

Fast Focus: A Quick-Start Guide To Mastering Your Attention, Ignoring Distractions, And Getting More Done In Less Time!
Damon Zahariades
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Organization
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: You know how it goes: you have a hundred things to do, but somehow they never get done... and by the next day you have a hundred more to add to the list. You try multitasking to get more accomplished with the little time you have, but only end up making more mistakes and taking even longer to fix them. Then you finally do get into the zone, but a phone call interrupts you, or the doorbell rings, or that chatty co-worker swings by your desk. Author and productivity expert Damon Zahariades examines the common pitfalls that keep us distracted and disorganized, and offers tactics to counter them.

REVIEW: Like many people, I often have productivity issues, in that I'm not productive at all; indeed, I'm often sufficiently counterproductive to undo whatever progress I manage to make, and then some. As the title promises, this is a quick-reading book, offering tips and tricks that can be adapted to most situations. Some are similar to those I learned in an online Lynda course, but some are new to me, and Zahariades delivers the information in short chapters, easy language, and simple steps that one can start even as one reads. (Not literally, though; like other productivity gurus, he debunks the notion that multitasking is a thing, or at least an effective thing, as the human brain - despite what it likes to think - can't really do two tasks at once and do both well.) It closes out with a bonus section on keeping one's focus when working in public places, like a coffee shop. I learned a few tips here, though whether I have the self-discipline required to break bad productivity habits and replace them with healthier ones remains to be seen; as usual, it looks easy when other people write about doing it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mental FOCUS Training Secrets (Nathan Cadbury) - My Review
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
Hocus Pocus, You're Focused! (Arthur Laud) - My Review