Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Site Update

I just posted the March update for the main Brightdreamer Books site, archiving and cross-linking the month's reviews.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Revenger (Alastair Reynolds)

The Revenger series, Book 1
Alastair Reynolds
Fiction, YA? Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: It started as a youthful lark - or, at least, it did to Fura Ness. Her older sister, Adrana, wanted to sneak away from yet another boring party... off to Neural Alley and its forbidden shopfronts of fortune tellers and limb brokers and other unsavory aspects from across the Congregation of artificial worlds. As usual, Fura just trailed in her wake, getting a little thrill for defying their overprotective father, but fully expecting to be home for breakfast. Then Adrana reveals that she's fleeing to the sunjammer spaceship Monetta's Mourn as a Bone Caster, plugging into a neural link with the network of alien skulls that are far more reliable (if full of more tricks) than the standard squawk communicators, and she's sure Fura will have the talent for bonecasting too. It's just supposed to be for six months, enough to find a few prize baubles (ancient artificial worlds full of hidden loot from extinct aliens and previous Occupations) and rebuild the Ness family finances after Father's recent fumbles, and it's got to be more interesting than sitting around practicing needlework.
Then the Monetta's Mourn runs afoul of the legendary pirate Bosa Senna, who is even more brutal than her reputation. What was a simple bid for adventure and fortune turns deadly serious in a heartbeat.
Alone, left for dead on a derelict, the quiet, bookish Fura must step up to the challenge of surviving, recovering her abducted sister... and exacting revenge.

REVIEW: I was expecting, based on the cover and descriptions, a swashbuckling space adventure in the vein of several recent borderline-fantasy space operas, where larger than life piracy and quests for impossible wonders are transposed into a far-future star system crawling with tech that's more like magic than science in many respects. At times, Revenger delivers that. Unfortunately, it does so through the eyes of a character who starts (and, to a degree, stays) a strangely empty hole. Fura is initially just a tagalong, not just in body but in spirit. She drifts in bold Adrana's wake, and despite some token resistance to running away and some hints of internal thoughts I never got a sense of her as more than a plot-shaped void, especially early on. It was an odd feeling that made her transformation from dutiful daughter to revenge-driven space hunter largely unbelievable, though the compressed timespan of the story doesn't help; I simply could not buy her going from a sheltered girl not knowing a prow from a stern to full-on cold-blooded pirate stalker spitting (very annoying) space slang every other word in a span of months.
Perhaps because of this inability to connect with Fura, the world - crawling with smeerps such as "squawks" that are essentially radios and "flickerboxes" that are basically screens or monitors and "lungstuff" that's just breathable air, juxtaposed with plot-convenient oddities such as "lightvine" (a source of illumination that also provides part of a subplot that doesn't quite pay off) and the various fantastic loot found in baubles - just never gelled for me. There were just too many internal inconsistencies and anachronisms, and I was always too aware that this was a swashbuckling pirate story pushed out the airlock into the void, with only vague lip service to a lack of gravity and other issues. I also got a strange vibe off some of the peripheral characters, particularly the Ness father and the family doctor who were weirdly (creepily) obsessed with infantalizing the girls. Most of the rest of the characters were just vague smears with names.
The story moves reasonably fast, with plenty of action and overall weirdness, and it is imaginative, but I just never managed to immerse in it like I'd hoped to, and the rating suffers as a result.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
Empress of Forever (Max Gladstone) - My Review
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Alex White) - My Review

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Raven Boys (Maggie Stiefvater)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Cycle, Book 1
Maggie Stiefvater
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: If you kiss your true love, you will kill him.
All her young life, Blue Sargent has been told this by her mother and other relatives, and she knows better than to doubt them. Unlike many modern charlatans, the Sargent women are the real deal, their predictions good as gold, for all that they usually couch their answers in vague terms for the paying customers. Of course, Blue herself doesn't have that gift; her ability, such as it is, merely magnifies the skills of others. She can't even see the ghosts when her mother makes the annual visit to the nearby churchyard on St. Mark's Eve, when the souls who will die within the next year pass through. But this year, Blue sees one of the spirits: a young man with an indistinct face, in the raven-marked school uniform of nearby elite Aglionby Academy. According to her aunt Neeve, there are only two reasons she would see that ghost and no other. Either the young man is her true love, or she kills him. But Blue has spent her life avoiding boys, and even if she didn't she'd know better than to mingle with the entitled snobs of Aglionby. So how could one of them be her true love?
For years, Gansey has been obsessed with the hunt for the legendary Welsh king Glendower... a search that led him to the small Virginia town of Henrietta and the Aglionby Academy, or rather to the nearby ley lines. Along with the anger-consumed Ronan, the quiet boy Noah, and the trailer park boy Adam struggling to turn a partial scholarship at Aglionby into a ticket out of an abusive home, he's scoured the countryside in search of clues to the king's whereabouts. Legend says that whoever finds him and wakes him will be granted a favor and special powers... but Gansey isn't the only one searching. When his path crosses that of a local psychic and her daughter, he may be on the verge of the breakthrough he's been dreaming of - or a danger he can't comprehend.

REVIEW: In the interest of full disclosure, I picked this up mostly because I was interested in Stiefvater's follow-up, Call Down the Hawk, and I hate coming into series (or worlds established by series) out of order if I can at all help it. Having read this, though, I'm wondering if I need to pursue the rest of the original Raven cycle.
Stiefvater's writing paints vivid images of a timeless Virginia countryside steeped in ancient powers and legends with Old World roots, filling her tale with characters that feel more like larger-than-life sketches, figures from a painting or epic poem, than true flesh-and-blood humans. The whole story feels dictated by prophecy and ley line magic and even a sort of mystic time travel and predestination, which robs the cast of some of their agency; they're basically swept up in greater events rather than charting their own course, and even when they think they're acting independently, it seems the forces of the universe are still a step ahead, twitching the strings. It made me feel a little manipulated, to be honest, and at parts the story feels forced as a result. (To further be honest, for all that it's one of the book's main selling points, the love angle and its associated angst struck me as one of the most manipulative aspects of all, but I can see where it would appeal to readers who like "impossible" loves and tense triangles involving broody, and more than occasionally emotionally oblivious, teens. It just went a bit over the top for my tastes.)
That said, there are some great descriptions, and the characters, for all that they're never quite human, are memorably evocative and emotional. I'm just not sure if it's worth my while to follow three more books where the outcome is already dictated. (Though I still am very interested in Call Down the Hawk...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper) - My Review
The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay) - My Review
Storm (Brigid Kemmerer) - My Review

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Shadows (Jacqueline West)

The Shadows
The Books of Elsewhere series, Volume 1
Jacqueline West
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Olive's parents moved into the old stone house on Linden Street, she hoped she'd finally found a home after spending years bouncing from one interchangeable apartment (and school) to another, even if it was a strange and spooky place. It was full of what a real estate agent would call "character": mismatched windows, long halls that ended in shadows, strange low ceilings that bumped you on the head, and a collection of old paintings that seemed glued to the walls by age... or by something else. Olive discovers that, by wearing a pair of spectacles she found in an empty room, that the paintings come to life - and that she can pass through the frame and into the painted world. But she learns that it's not a simple game when she finds a boy who has been trapped in the paintings for years. Dark magic went into their creation, permeating the entire property... a dark magic that wants to take its home back, and isn't about to let one little girl stop it.

REVIEW: Just as the cover and blurb promise, The Shadows delivers a spooky adventure with a somewhat brave (but not infallible) girl squaring off against centuries-old magic. She's used to being the invisible kid who never makes a mark, the one teachers have to make the other kids play with; the fact that her parents are mathematical geniuses and she can't count to one hundred without forgetting the eighties doesn't help her feel like she belongs, even at home. By discovering the paintings and the house's other secrets, such as the talking cats who skulk about the property, she finally has something of her own and a way to stand out, even if her parents and peers never know about it - but, of course, it's no easy thing to face down magic. She makes a few mistakes, and now and again the story pushes her one way or the other for plot reasons, but it still makes for an exciting (and somewhat scary) tale. I enjoyed it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review
Behind the Canvas (Alexander Vance) - My Review
Nightbooks (J. A. White) - My Review

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Birthright Volume 8: Live by the Sword (Joshua Williamson)

Birthright Volume 8: Live by the Sword
The Birthright series, Book 8
Joshua Williamson, illustrations by Andrei Bressan and Adriano Lucas
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Rhodes family has been through a lot - but worse is to come. Now a covert government group wants answers about the strange incidents that are threatening global security, a group that has known about magic since the 1940's. The barrier between Earth and Terranos has become unstable, turning magic on both worlds toxic. Unless the boundaries are rebuilt or removed completely, both planets will die... but one of the last living mages seems determined for that to happen. Three generations of Rhodes men must stand up to the most dangerous enemy, worse than even the Nevermind or the God-King Lore.

REVIEW: The story that started with an innocent boy who failed under the impossible burdens of heroism enters its eighth volume feeling a little stretched, but still moving forward. Mikey still has anger issues to deal with, and his grandfather must face his responsibility in helping create the current disaster (and in neglecting Mickey's father; the failure of parents to understand or bond with their children has done lots of damage to many people in the story.) Meanwhile, Mikey's brother Brennan is still recovering from his addiction to magic and the trauma of being abducted and temporarily turned against his own family. Mastema, the last surviving mage aside from Sameal Rhodes, reveals her ultimate goal, a goal that, like so many things in the story, has been warped by childhood pain that never healed. It starts with plenty of action and bloodshed and ramps up from there to an explosive conclusion, then a cliffhanger. Yes, there's at least one more story in the Birthright arc, though I'm really hoping the next volume wraps it then; as mentioned, the story's feeling a little stretched by now. (I'm also seeing the women, particularly Mikey's mother, and to a degree his lover Rya, getting shunted to the side as Williamson focuses on fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelly Anderson) - My Review
A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson) - My Review

Monday, March 16, 2020

Every Tool's a Hammer (Adam Savage)

Every Tool's A Hammer: Life Is What You Make It
Adam Savage
Atria Books
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Creativity
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Adam Savage became a household name with the hit Discovery Channel show Mythbusters: with co-host Jamie Hyneman and a crew of assistants, they used years of experience in the FX industry to recreate and test various urban legends and Hollywood myths. But long before that, Savage was making things with whatever he had on hand, starting with cardboard and working up to a career that included a stint at Industrial Light and Magic. In this book, he traces his own creative roots and influences through numerous successes and failures, with advice for makers of all kinds.

REVIEW: I always enjoyed watching Savage on Mythbusters; he's one of those people who was doing something he was born to do, something he was so passionate about even on bad builds, that it was a joy to watch in action. With this book, it's clear that wasn't just a persona created for the cameras. He was, and is, enthusiastic about the maker mindset, which to him encompasses everything from model building and set construction through painting or writing or even computer coding: anything creative. The book is broken down roughly by lessons for the current (or aspiring) maker, offering advice and personal anecdotes about topics ranging from general artistic perseverance to shop organization and tool selection. He's a great advocate of sharing and building communities (unlike some who jealously hoard their hard-earned knowledge in the belief that other makers are competition, not collaborators), and freely offers what he's learned over decades of making for fun an profit, with several photographs. It's a fast and enjoyable read, full of inspiration and practical tips. (And it's even formatted well for e-reading; I've read enough poorly formatted e-books to appreciate that.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sometimes the Magic Works (Terry Brooks) - My Review
How To Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Everything All At Once (Bill Nye) - My Review

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Cards of Grief (Jane Yolen)

Cards of Grief
Jane Yolen
Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: To the people of the stars, the world was called Henderson's IV, but to the seven tribes it was L'Lal'Lor, the Planet of the Grievers. Decimated by an ancient cataclysm, the surviving natives built a matriarchal culture around grief, elevating the concept to the highest of art forms... until the offworld visitors inadvertently altered their trajectory in a tale of miscommunication, betrayal, envy, and something the locals had no word for: love.

REVIEW: In its time, this book, with Yolen's usual lyrical (if occasionally stiff) style, was an award-winner, a poetic glimpse of forbidden love and a dying culture transformed by human contact. Unfortunately, I didn't read this book in its time. I read it in 2020, and there's plenty here that just plain does not age well.
I could start with the way the "swarthy" common tribes are inherently and unquestionably inferior to the tall, pale, and slender "Royal" line of Grievers, who only mingle with their lessers because population decline has led to serious inbreeding and fertility issues. Even the humans, who are theoretically more advanced and have been exposed to numerous alien cultures on numerous worlds, refer to the non-Royal locals as "trogs" (for troglodytes) and "monkeys" on multiple occasions. There's a somewhat twisted and unpleasant undertone to sex and breeding throughout, not helped by characters tending to be flat archetypes/stereotypes, to the point where I'm not even sure there's a point discussing the individuals themselves: a prodigal Master Griever with whom everyone is enchanted at first sight, a scheming and shrewish Queen, an ambitious prince, and a human anthropologist who loses all perspective when he delves too deep into the local culture. Even the offworld humans are rather flat... not to mention stupid on one major point. Their goal is always to avoid cultural contamination, relying first on hidden recorders to observe and learn the local ways before first contact - but what, precisely, do they expect to happen when they literally land a rocket ship outside a city in a pre-industrial culture and come traipsing out in their silver suits for a meet-and-greet with the leader? How is a culture not going to be contaminated on some level... and what is the point of open contact at all? There are distinct parallels to how white colonists tended to overwhelm local cultures, with an iffy takeaway at the ending that tends to reinforce the idea of the human way generally being the better and more productive/progressive way, despite some lip service to how the native viewpoint deeply moved the contact crew. (This isn't really a spoiler, given that this is generally how first contact stories go, especially when the book was written.)
Those issues aside, Yolen's prose is, as mentioned, well crafted, and the culture of the Grievers is interesting (once one gets past the racism and sexism and flatness of the characters involved, who aren't always likable but could be interesting.) Unfortunately, Cards of Grief is a victim of its age. I'm not even sure I could recommend it as a first contact story these days without so many caveats as to end up not being a recommendation at all, which is why I ultimately shaved off the half-star its style almost earned it back.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Way Station (Clifford D. Simak) - My Review
Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind (Jackson Ford)

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind
The Frost Files series, Book 1
Jackson Ford
Fiction, Action/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The young woman known as Teagan Frost wants what many women her age want: a few good friends, a nice man, maybe her own restaurant. But what she has is psychokinetic abilities, courtesy of parents who just couldn't stop meddling with genomes, even in their own offspring. Turns out the government isn't too keen on that kind of thing, especially when all the testing they could throw at her gives them no clue how to do it themselves. So now she lives in Los Angeles, ostensibly a free citizen but on the leash of Moira Tanner, who could yank her back to a black site dissection table in Waco before she could blink if she steps out of line. In the meantime, Teagan has to work with a group of misfit operatives on covert missions. It's not a bad life, as living in an invisible cage goes... at least, not until a body turns up at their latest job, murdered in a way that points to psychokinesis. But Teagan Frost is the only psychokinetic in the world - or is she?

REVIEW: Like the title, The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind is a bold, brash, down-to-earth story bursting with action and attitude and some well-placed cursing. Teagan's had a rough life, but does her best not to let anger and the past rule her - until she finds herself in over her head, accused of murder and staring down the possibility that she may not have been the only "gifted" child her late parents created. Her colleagues aren't exactly drinking buddies, all of them only working together because of Tanner's not-technically-blackmail; they may not have the threat of government ghosting and dissection waiting for them, but they all have a lot to lose and little reason to trust each other. Nevertheless, often despite themselves, they must find a way to work together or they'll all suffer. The story starts with a plunge from a skyscraper and the action hardly lets up, veering from fights to car chases to the looming threat of a wildfire about to consume the fringes of Los Angeles (which bears a particular horror for Teagan, whose parents died in a fire.) Minor breakthroughs are often balanced by major setbacks, and it's a true race against the clock as Teagan struggles to find the killer, forced to push her abilities beyond what she ever believed was possible. What dropped the book a half-star in the ratings is the tail end revelations after the main wrap-up, the hooks that are meant to lead me into the next installment in the series. Just one too many eye-rolling cliches out of the blue, enough that I don't expect I'll continue. What came before that was pretty decent, though, recommended for anyone who likes strong heroines, intense thrillers, and stuff flying through the air.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jumper (Steven Gould) - My Review
Bitter Seeds (Ian Tregillis) - My Review
Killing Gravity (Corey J. White) - My Review