Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April Site Update

The previous ten reviews have been archived on the main Brightdreamer Books site.

I also finished my maintenance sweep (for now.)


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thieving Forest (Martha Conway)

Thieving Forest
Martha Conway
Noontime Books
Fiction, Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since their parents died, the five Quiner sisters have faced a dilemma: try to make a go of their struggling store in the frontier town of Severne, or sell out and return to family in Philadelphia. The choice is taken from them when Indians come to loot their cabin and steal four of them - Penelope, Beatrice, Naomi, and Aurelia - away into the impenetrable depths of Thieving Forest... somehow missing Susanna, who hid during the raid. She runs to a neighbor for help, but when he proves reluctant to act, she sets out with a guide of her own. Thus begins a journey through the untamed Ohio wilderness for all the Quiner sisters, through fair luck and foul, even to the brink of death.

REVIEW: This title lingered in the Kindle queue long enough that I can't completely remember why I downloaded it, save that I make a conscious effort to read outside my science fiction/fantasy comfort zone now and again. It turns out to be more than the stock Western tale it could've been. The Ohio frontier is not a wilderness begging to be tamed by white hands, but a complex web of cultures, a mesh of wonders and dangers natural and man-made, a proving ground that weeds out those weak in body, mind, and spirit and remakes those who dare its depths. Each Quiner sister faces the challenges before them in their own ways, finding themselves (literally and figuratively) in unexpected places. The people encountered are more than just stock stereotypes, being neither universally good or evil (save a couple exceptions), and the natives come across as distinct people in distinct cultures rather than simple pop culture caricatures. It's a harsh world, often overwhelming, but not without room for love and friendship, beauty and hope. A few elements of the ending were subtly unsatisfying, nearly shaving a half-star off the rating, but overall Thieving Forest is an interesting coming-of-age tale that brings the lost world of America's frontier to life in a fresh way.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson) - My Review
Ghost Hawk (Susan Cooper) - My Review
Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review

Friday, April 26, 2019

A Couch for Llama (Leah Gilbert)

A Couch for Llama
Leah Gilbert
Sterling Children's Books
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After years of love, the Lago family's old couch needs replacing... but, on the way home from the furniture store, the new couch falls off the car and into a llama pasture. As the family searches for their lost sofa, the llama wonders what to make of its strange new companion.

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, so I gave this a read. The silly concept and illustrations had me chuckling, as the llama first tries to befriend, then eat, then ignore the intruder before figuring out how to live with it. A fast and fun book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Crankee Doodle (Tom Angleberger) - My Review
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
This Is Not My Hat (Jon Klassen) - My Review

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Skyfarer (Joseph Brassey)

The Drifting Lands series, Book 1
Joseph Brassey
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: The day she left the Academy of Mystic Sciences and set foot upon the skycraft Elysium was the day Aimee de Laurent's life would truly begin. After a childhood of stifling aristocratic education and years studying magic, she leapt at the apprenticeship offer from her former teacher Harkon Bright, a chance to use her portal magic and to explore the countless floating realms of the Drifting Lands. This is the freedom she's been dreaming of her whole life. But the first portal she opens is almost her last, when a misfiring spell sends them into the middle of a firefight with the notorious knights of the Eternal Order.
The black-clad knight Lord Azrael has plundered, torched, and murdered his way across a broad swath of the Drifting Lands in service to the Eternal Order. Now his master, Lord Roland, has sent him to the small kingdom of Port Providence in search of an ancient artifact: the Axiom Diamond, hidden away for centuries, which - it is said - will reveal truths and treasures to any who possess it. It seemed a simple enough task... but something about this mission has been bothering him, some nagging hint of a deeper destiny, and memories of an impossible past.

REVIEW: It looked like a quick, fun fantasy adventure, set in a world of skyships and floating islands and wonder. Of that list of possibilities, "quick" is about the only adjective that actually came to pass.
Brassey takes what could have - and should have - been a thrilling setup and overloads it with genre cliches, tiresome characters, clunky worldbuilding, and writing that, frankly, had me grinding my teeth more often than not, with overused descriptors and improbable dialog tags. (How does one nod dialog? Snarling and sneering words is hard enough, but nodding them? And if I'm to the point of nitpicking said-bookisms, I am not properly immersed in the story.) Fresh young mage Aimee is the blonde and blue-eyed Mary Sue, her mentor Harkon is one step (at most) removed from Obi-Wan Kenobi in many respects, the crew of the Elysium is straight out of the stock bin of "eccentric yet reliable ship crew," Lord Azrael is a mashup of anime-inspired angsty villains and Darth Vader, the bad guys are so over-the-top evil they're almost hilarious... and that's not even touching the Highlander-level beheadings. I quickly lost track of how many people, extras and otherwise, who were beheaded or bodily bisected (always effortlessly) by the Eternal Order knights; there are other ways to kill people with a sword, believe it or not, and it quickly lost its shock value to become somewhat boring wallpaper. Not a single element in this book could not be obviously traced to another book, series, or franchise, to the point where I started to wonder if it was intentional homage or if Brassey simply hadn't read enough of the genre to realize how derivative it appeared, how overused the ideas and "twists." The whole comes together like one of those B-grade knock-offs of Star Wars or Final Fantasy, with the serial numbers hardly even scratched off. The action even plays out like it wants to be filmed (or animated), not written, full of flashy shows of power and Jedi-esque maneuvers (sans light sabers, though there is an enchanted sword that's fairly similar.)
Skyfarer reads fast, and now and again it tries to rise above its overbaked elements, but just can't get airborne and winds up plummeting into the abyss.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Dragon Wing (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman) - My Review

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Fated Sky (Mary Robinette Kowal)

The Fated Sky
A Lady Astronaut novel, Book 2
Mary Robinette Kowal
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dr. Elma York broke barriers when she became the first woman to fly to the Moon, the famed "Lady Astronaut" face of the International Aerospace Coalition. Now, she lives there several months out of the year, flying shuttles between the fledgling lunar colony and the orbital station Lunette. It's a dream job - but not the challenge it used to be. Worse, the world still reels from the escalating climate shifts caused by the Meteor. Plagued by Earth First activists and skeptics, many nations are starting to question the need for expensive space colonization programs when they have mounting problems in their own back yards... problems that might derail the first expedition to Mars and humanity's best - and possibly only - hope of interplanetary expansion before total climate collapse.
The IAC needs an infusion of good publicity to keep the ax from falling on an already frayed budget. They need their Lady Astronaut to go to Mars. But it's not as easy as shuffling a few names on a roster, and there are still barriers within the IAC that threaten to hold her and many other astronauts back... problems that will only become magnified once the expedition is underway and fourteen men and women are stuck with each other for the three-year round trip.

REVIEW: Building on the "punchcard-punk" alternate history of Kowal's first Lady Astronaut novel, which posited an accelerated space race triggered by a massive meteor strike in the 1950's, this book raises the tension and the stakes on a manned Mars expedition where the only mechanized computers are buggy vacuum-tube behemoths far slower than the human (mostly women) computers behind the Apollo program and other real-life pioneering space missions. But it's not just about the science and the numbers and the innumerable dangers of deep space, where the slightest miscalculation means the difference between life and death. Elma had already had her eyes forcibly opened to the systemic racism that runs just as deep as, possibly even deeper than, the sexism in the world in general and the IAC in particular, but must come to terms with her own place in that system... and with the fact that this is a problem she can't fix, where her best intentions only make things that much worse. She also must deal with problems that numerous drills could not have prepared her for, not to mention the psychological issues that cold science could not anticipate (such as Mission Control's methods for the hypothetical handling of a deceased astronaut in space, which prove disastrous on multiple levels in practice.) Several of the characters are familiar from the first book, with a few newcomers, but all reveal new aspects during the trip out to Mars, as adversity tests them all in unexpected ways. Human drama mingles with solid science to produce a tale that's relatable even to an an undereducated idiot like myself, proving that one doesn't need hyperdrives or laser cannons to craft good fiction out of space travel. (Also, like the first one, it can't help make me a little sad: we could've been so much further ahead than we are, in so many areas, if we'd kept that fire that drove us to the Moon and turned it outward to the solar system, instead of dithering and budget-cutting and science-denying our way to a possible point of no return.) It's a fast and enjoyable read in a setting that could easily support more installments or spinoffs.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
The Calculating Stars (Mary Robinette Kowal) - My Review
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) - My Review

Saturday, April 20, 2019

For a Muse of Fire (Heidi Heilig)

For a Muse of Fire
Heidi Heilig
Greenwillow Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In Chakrana, a land squeezed between occupying Aquitan foreigners and violent rebels, Jetta would have more than enough to contend with. But she is doubly plagued by her malheur - wild swings between near-suicidal catatonia and uncontrollable mania - and a forbidden secret: she can see the spirits of the dead, and bind them into physical objects with her blood. Though her mother instructed her never to reveal this secret, only her spirit-infused shadow puppet fantouches keep the family's fortunes from complete ruin... and offer hope of escape in the distant capital. But when their path crosses that of Leo, half-foreign bastard son of famed and feared General Legarde, Jetta becomes pulled into yet more secrets and plots - plots that could bring her the cure she has longed for, or see her family and the world she knows go up in flames.

REVIEW: If that description sounds a bit jumbled, that's because it is. The story starts in a tangle of ideas and people and names and, to a certain extent, remains that way through most of its length. It doesn't help that Jetta starts (and generally remains) a little clueless and a lot boneheaded, traits that exist independently of her mental illness (though she sometimes tries to blame it for them.) She can invariably be counted on to do the stupidest thing in any given situation; when sneaking up on armed guards, she blurts out exclamations to ruin cover, and later she decides she wants something so she violently pushes it away - just 'cause, I guess. I can't care about a character I don't like, and if I don't like the character, I'm less inclined to like the world she inhabits. Perhaps this is why I never quite bought Chakrana; Heilig admittedly mashes up several Earth regions (and inventions) in creating the landscape, but something about it felt less like a deliberate conceit and more like slapdash worldbuilding, as lemurs rub metaphoric shoulders with hummingbirds and water buffaloes. The rest of the setting, unfortunately, is often all too vivid: a land awash in violence, sadism, and a sea of gore lit by the firefly spirits of the dead... a land that was already ailing under the reign of a mad necromancer monk long before the pale-skinned Aquitans came to turn rice paddies into sugar plantations. I know that unrest and rebellion bring out the worst in many people, but at some point it went beyond color to numbing revulsion... and just kept going. As for the plot, as mentioned earlier, it starts out tangled, proceeds a bit roughly (not helped by Jetta or other characters, who tend to withhold vital information until it's too late and also are not immune to boneheaded moments), and ends on an uncertain note that practically demands a sequel, though there is no other indication that this is a multi-part story. Intercuts present other points of view in scriptlike notation, letter and telegram excerpts, and occasional snatches of song, a conceit that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Heilig presents some interesting ideas and a world with potential, but at some point I realized I just could not care about it or the people who lived there.
(As a closing note, I will say that the cover art is one of the coolest things I've seen in a while.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review
Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older) - My Review

Friday, April 19, 2019

Swords in the Mist (Fritz Leiber)

Swords in the Mist
The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Book 3
Fritz Leiber
Open Road Media
Fiction, Adventure/Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: From a malevolent mist prowling the streets of Lankhmar to a mysterious rendezvous on the floor of the wild sea, from the mythic lands of Nehwon to ancient classical Earth, northern swordsman Fafhrd and his little thief companion the Gray Mouser write new chapters in their ongoing legend.

REVIEW: Like previous installments, Leiber weaves tales of wild imagination and grand adventure, the stuff on which sword and sorcery fantasy was built, all overlaid with more than a little humor, both between the characters and in an overall sense of winking at the grandiose nature of the subgenre. (It also, like a lot of classic sword and sorcery, has broad swathes of sexism and some racism worked into its DNA, which do not age particularly well.) Unlike the last two collections, though, these - with one exception - aren't really standalones, but become a somewhat drawn out single tale that meanders here and there and everywhere, even bringing the heroes to a fantastical version of Earth's own ancient history as the characters (despite themselves) take further steps on the road from ordinary adventurers to immortalized archetypes of song and story. It really doesn't help when this particular tale grinds in the sexism and objectification of women. There's still a sense of fun, particularly in their ill-fated adventure on Lankhmar's fiercely competitive Street of the Gods, but the characters are just plain more enjoyable in shorter adventurers (and smaller doses) than in longer works - especially longer works with as thin a backbone as the one they clamber along in this outing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review
The Mercenary Volume 1: The Cult of the Sacred Fire (Vicente Segrelles) - My Review
The Copper Promise (Jen Williams) - My Review

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tiamat's Wrath (James S. A. Corey)

Tiamat's Wrath
The Expanse series, Book 8
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The unthinkable has become reality: the Sol system, birthplace of humanity, now kneels at the boots of Laconian High Consul Duarte, whose protomolecule-derived warships cut through the combined fleets of Earth, Mars, and the formerly-Belter Transport Union like a hot knife through butter. With their stranglehold on ring gate traffic secure, they set about building their empire virtually unopposed. While James Holden endures Duarte's hospitality as Laconia's highest-ranked political prisoner, Naomi Nagata and the rest of the former Rocinante crew struggle to organize an effective resistance before Laconian propaganda erases the last memories of freedom. But even as humanity is distracted by age-old power games and politics, the entities, seemingly unbound by physical space, that once wiped out the protomolecule's creators seem to finally be aware of the upstart primates using their former enemies' lost toys... and they are not pleased.

REVIEW: On my budget, it takes a fair bit of convincing for me to pre-order a book, especially a hardcover, but The Expanse has risen to that level. This volume did not let me down. As one might expect from the penultimate installment of an interplanetary epic, stakes start high and keep ratcheting up, yet the core of the story remains very much at the human level, as the bonds of family forged on the former Martian warship Rocinante only grow stronger through separation and adversity; as in previous volumes, even when they aren't physically together, they each draw on memories of each other to help them navigate the seemingly impossible world they've been thrust into. As they have aged, they have each been tested and honed, acquiring the strength and flexibility required to face the greatest threats and most unimaginable wonders humanity has encountered, and even as some reach the ends of their arcs, the payoffs for their journeys continue to echo forward.
As for the rest of the plot, it maintains the pace and feel of previous titles. New mysteries are added to the protomolecule and the unknown, unnamed enemy, which becomes more active after High Consul Duarte's ill-conceived plan to force a response from them. Events from the novella "Strange Dogs" come into play, tied into Duarte's transformations from "tamed" protomolecule and the scientist Cortazar's ambitions to apply those lessons elsewhere, no matter the human cost... not to mention Duarte's teenaged daughter Teresa, whose carefully choreographed reality is shattered as she learns more about her father's empire and plans. Some of the new characters took a bit to grow on me, but every one of them pulled their weight in the plot, and - some expected immaturity from Teresa aside - none behaved with any outright stupidity, even if their choices are colored and restricted by their roles in (or out) of Laconian society. One can't help seeing shades of current struggles against rising authoritarianism in the power conflicts ranging across the stars. By the end, there are tears both happy and sad; though the losses are grim and the stakes never higher, there's nevertheless a sense of hope going forward. As I predicted after the seventh volume, it's going to be a long wait for the final ninth volume, in addition to the long wait for the fourth season of the show on Amazon Prime. (That's a lot of cumulative waiting... but it's a good wait.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review

Saturday, April 13, 2019

One Trick Pony (Nathan Hale)

One Trick Pony
Nathan Hale
Harry N. Abrams
Fiction, CH Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the Pipers came to Earth, devouring metals and technology, civilization effectively ended overnight. Most humans have reverted to Stone Age existences, but a few - such as the caravan where young Strata and her family live - struggle to find and protect what remains. She, her older brother Augur, and their friend Inby were searching old ruins when they found the hidden chamber with Kleidi, the robot pony which only responds to the girl's commands. Can Kleidi help stop the Pipers, or will Strata's devotion to the metal toy doom her family, the caravan, and humanity's last hope?

REVIEW: Hale presents a visually interesting graphic novel with a nice story setup, yet fills it with characters and situations that feel a little flat even for a children's title. Strata's a decent enough heroine, and Kleidi the pony can be fun, but much of the rest of the cast are too simple or sketchy to add much to the story, making them feel like clutter. (Inby in particular is annoying long past any comic relief could be had from his cluelessness.) Things go from bad to worse as the technology stash that held Kleidi whips the Pipers into a fresh frenzy, yet Strata persists in protecting the pony even when being so near the robot endangers everyone and everything - a bond that ultimately comes into play at the climax as she discovers the purpose behind the alien invasion. At some point, people threatening to smash Kleidi while Strata protests, and Strata riding off recklessly alone to lure away Pipers, becomes borderline repetitive (more than borderline for the smashing threats.) Beyond that, it's a decent story, though the ending feels abrupt. I expect younger readers would enjoy it more.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wild Robot (Peter Brown) - My Review
Snow White and the Seven Robots (Louise Simonson) - My Review
Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith)

The Cuckoo's Calling
A Cormoran Strike novel, Book 1
Robert Galbraith
Mulholland Books
Fiction, Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When supermodel Lula Landry plunged to her death from her London balcony one snowy night, it capped a life of hardship and tragedy. The police quickly ruled it a suicide, the press got their exclusive tell-all stories from family and friends and associates, and her final photo shoot for a popular fashion designer made a lucrative end to her all-too-brief career, then the world moved on... for most people.
Veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike can't seem to catch a break these days, culminating in his fiancee throwing him out of their shared home. He can't even afford a proper secretary, forced to use temps like the fresh-faced girl Robin. The arrival of lawyer John Bristow, willing to pay an exorbitant fee to investigate the death of his adopted sister Lula Landry, brings a needed infusion of cash to his failing business, even if it's unlikely to turn up anything the detectives and the reporters haven't already discovered. But the more he digs, the more the pieces don't quite seem to fit. Before long, Cormoran begins to share his client's belief that Lula Landry didn't jump to her death, but was pushed - and that the killer won't stop at just one murder.

REVIEW: The first in the popular Cormoran Strike series reads like a pilot episode, establishing the core cast (rough-edged detective Strike, his secretary-turned-sidekick Robin, the obligatory police detective ally, and so forth) while the story builds almost as an afterthought for a fair stretch of the book. "Galbraith" (famously outed as a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling) creates distinctive characters in a London that incongruously contains both the broken and downtrodden poverty of Landry's birth and Strike's childhood and the paparazzi-plagued elite world of the supermodel's final days, the latter being a fiercer, more predatory jungle than the meanest streets. There are, however, just a few too many characters to keep straight as the investigation wends through various spheres: Landry's world of temperamental celebrity relationships, the moneyed realm of Bristow, and the grungy connections of the supermodel's lost birth mother and her stints in rehab before being discovered (and chewed up) by fame, not to mention Strike's own broad web of connections from his fiancee's world through his military service (where he lost part of a leg) and back to a drifting childhood as the illegitimate son of a groupie and a pop star father. It doesn't help that several of these people, like the (many) details of the case itself, are first encountered via monologues and the reading of reports, not by personal interaction. This was a lot to mentally juggle, especially before it became clear how to organize these details and what to focus on; Galbraith's tendency to shift points of view without warning didn't help, here. Ultimately, slowly, it all comes together, though the earlier sprawl and a lingering sense of meandering (bordering on dithering) kept it down a half-star. I freely admit that written mysteries aren't my usual genre, so perhaps I just don't have the brain muscles to properly assess it; part of me thinks I'd have had an easier time if I'd seen the televised version.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Belfast (Stuart Neville) - My Review
Girl Waits With Gun (Amy Stewart) - My Review

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dragon Night (J. R. Krause)

Dragon Night
J. R. Krause
G. P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Night is a scary time for young Georgie, when any shadow could hide a monster. Then a frightened dragon escapes from its storybook into his room. The two run away to find a place where neither will have anything to fear.

REVIEW: Work was a bit slow, so I read this one during a lull. The tale is simple but enjoyable, as Georgie and the dragon find ways to cope with their respective fears during a night's flight over the city. The pictures are nice, too, crisp and clean with nice contrasts. A decent little story for what it is.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Knight and the Dragon (Tomie dePaola) - My Review
John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien (Caroline McAlister) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review