Wednesday, September 30, 2020

September Site Update

 I've archived the previous six reviews at the main Brightdreamer Books site.

I also did some light maintenance, including moving another defunct review (a title that appears to have vanished from Amazon) to the Graveyard.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The House in the Cerulean Sea (TJ Klune)

The House in the Cerulean Sea
TJ Klune
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: 40-year-old Linus Baker is everything a good caseworker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth should be: observant, objective, adherent to the 900-plus-page Rules and Regulations volume that outlines what is and is not his concern, and utterly without a personal life, unless his cat Calliope counts. He tells himself he doesn't mind the loneliness, that he hasn't time for a boyfriend anyway - but he also tells himself he's happy in his tiny drab home, sitting at his tiny drab desk, living in a city so dreary the sun hasn't made an appearance in his memory. But at least he helps the magical children in his caseload where he can.
When Linus finds himself summoned to Extremely Upper Management, he's sure he's been sacked, though for what he cannot imagine: nobody writes a more thorough report. Instead, he is sent to inspect an orphanage run by one Arthur Parnassus, a classified place where only the strangest and most dangerous of magical children are sent, from the tentacled sea creature Chauncey to the boy Lucy, the literal Antichrist. For one month, Linus is to live in a guest house on Arthur's island and give his assessment of conditions and of the master himself. He's sure this job will be the death and damnation of him... but what he finds in the house on the cerulean sea is not at all what he expected, and what he learns will shake him and his understanding of the world to the core.

REVIEW: I've read nothing but praise for this book, so I had very high hopes going into it. Those hopes were met more or less across the board in this fairy tale for grown-ups set in an alternate-modern world where magical creatures are segregated and shunned. Linus is the typical bureaucrat, if one who actually cares about his job; he shows great concern for the welfare of the magical children, for all that he still believes in the mission of DICOMY and doesn't think to question why none of the kids in these "orphanages" are ever adopted or what happens to them when they grow up. Indeed, he points out how much better things are now than they used to be, when magical beings were openly hunted down, to near-extinction in some cases. On a personal level, he's sad and lonely and utterly miserable, but he rationalizes away his every nonconformist impulse. Once outside of the city, though, surrounded by the blue of the sea and colors he'd forgotten existed, Linus can't hide from reality or himself so easily, though of course he isn't transformed overnight. A colorful cast of characters comes to life around him, from the emotionally dented children to the mistrustful villagers to Arthur himself, who has a secret that could destroy the orphanage if it comes to light. Linus constantly struggles to regain his old, boxed-in worldview, but the walls keep collapsing as fast as he tries to rebuild them. The whimsical tone is bright and colorful, if with some dark edges and truths swimming in the depths, and the tale has a hopeful tone that change is possible. The ending feels slightly drawn out, but is a near-perfect conclusion. The House in the Cerulean Sea is an optimistic fairy tale, the perfect antidote for a genre that has skewed a little dark in recent years.

You Might Also Enjoy:
My Diary from the Edge of the World (Jodi Lynn Anderson) - My Review
The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill) - My Review
Claws (Mike and Rachel Grinti) - My Review

Monday, September 28, 2020

Die Volume 1 (Kieron Gillen)

Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
The Die series, Issues 1 - 5
Kieron Gillen, illustrations by Stephanie Hans
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: They were just six British teenagers playing a game to celebrate a birthday. Six kids using roleplaying to escape the misery and monotony of their lives. Six... who vanished, only to return two years later as five, scarred and scared and unable to talk about where they went or what they did - or what happened to their friend Solomon.
Now 40, Ash/Dominic has a marriage and a job and is still incapable of uttering a word about what happened, when a mysterious package arrives. It contains the 12-sided die of Solomon, the gamemaster who was left behind when they escaped the fantasy world they'd been sucked into. The party must now reconvene to decide what to do... but before they can make a decision, the die chooses for them.
Now they're back in a world they thought they'd left behind for good. Once again, they are the Dictator whose words remake reality, the Godbinder atheist who bargains and binds gods to her will, the cyberpunk Neo whose artificial parts and powerful skills are fueled by an addiction, the Grief Knight who turns pain into strength, and the Fool whose devil-may-care attitude lets him rush in where others dare not tread. Their enemy, as last time, is the Grandmaster... but the old Grandmaster is dead, and a new one has risen, one even more dangerous: their former friend, their lost companion, Solomon.

REVIEW: The "adults revisit childhood fantasy" subgenre is booming lately, as a generation raised on Dungeons and Dragons and the first video games tips over the hill and starts looking backward with a mixture of nostalgia and new, often darker perspective. (Though, of course, this isn't a new theme to explore; Stephen King's horror classic It has definite shades of these ideas, as do earlier tales.) Die is a fairly solid entry, a bleak fantasy for grown-ups whose youth wasn't all fun and games.
Unlike some stories, where what seemed a light and whimsical world is revealed, on reflection or return, to be twisted and dystopian, the world of Die was dark even when the party was young, reflecting the dark inner worlds of the players. It's only gotten worse in the intervening years under Solomon's rule, though the world itself is implied to be no simple creation of one British teenager. It's far older than that, stitching in pieces of classic fantasies from Narnia to Middle-Earth to Glass Town and more. Each player was indelibly marked by their first venture into Die, marks that shaped and often warped their fates, and on return are not the same people they used to be, viewing the world with a mixture of jaded criticism and fatality. Even as Ash the Dictator tries to convince herself it's all fantasy, all ultimately a role-playing game populated with non-player characters and contrived puzzles and obstacles and enemies, she can't make herself believe the pain she sees isn't real, that deaths don't matter.
Sometimes, Die can be a little jumbled and confusing, especially as it's establishing itself. The pitch-black story mood can also be wearing; I'm getting a little tired of fantasies without the teeniest glimmer of light or hope (though there is a nice sense-of-wonder moment... one that turns to ash as it's literally killed and burned a few pages later, but it's nice while it lasts.) But it has an interesting concept and fairly solid cast, plus some nice (and needed) nonbinary representation. I just don't know if I want to venture further into an adventure that's only going to get darker and darker.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Swordquest: Realworld (Chad Bowers and Chris Sims) - My Review
It (Stephen King) - My Review
Caverns of Socrates (Dennis L. McKiernan) - My Review

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Their Fractured Light (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner)

Their Fractured Light
The Starbound trilogy, Book 3
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Romance/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, the infamous Avon Broadcast broke the news that galactic megacorporation LaRoux Industries was conducting monstrous, inhumane experiments through the enslavement of hyperspace alien entities known as the "whispers", not just on the backwater planet Avon but everywhere. With them, Roderick LaRoux can turn any human into a mindless slave, making average people into cold-blooded mass murderers. Yet nobody listens - well, almost nobody...
Sophia grew up on Avon, one of the oppressed colonist natives who witness firsthand the horrors of LaRoux's meddling: in the blink of an eye, it turned her loving father into a mindless suicide bomber. Thus began a single-minded pursuit, through a series of petty cons and stolen identities, all to make the man responsible, tycoon Roderick LaRoux, pay. She might have succeeded by now had she not somehow picked up a shadow, the notorious hacker known as the Knave of Hearts, who seems to have made it a personal project to chase her out of every haven she finds.
Gideon has his own bone to pick with the LaRoux family: his brother, Simon, was a childhood playmate of Roderick's pampered daughter Lilac - only to be sent off on a suicide mission when he developed feelings for her. He developed his online persona, the Knave of Hearts, to uncover the truth behind LaRoux Industries and expose Roderick and Lilac for the heartless monsters they are. When the Avon Broadcast went out, he listened - and now, he's hunting down a rogue commander who enabled Roderick's atrocities on that world.
When Sofia and Gideon meet at a LaRoux gala, they find themselves thrown together when their covers are about to be blown... and witness a horror beyond either of their reckoning. For Roderick LaRoux is on the verge of literal galactic conquest - and only one con girl and one hacker stand in his way.

REVIEW: I didn't expect to enjoy the first book in the series, but it won me over. Likewise, the second book, while composed of some rather familiar parts (and set in a future that still felt a little too contemporary in many ways), was decent. So I came to this volume with high hopes - hopes, unfortunately, that were dashed by the end.
At first, Their Fractured Light starts off on the right note. Taking up about a year after the end of the previous volume, it doesn't spend too much time rehashing as it plunges into the story. Being a romance, of course, there are sparks from the start, and the only real question is when, not if, they recognize their mutual attraction. (Being a young adult romance, there's also an extra dollop of angst surrounding their feelings, exacerbated by both being so enmeshed in their own lies that true feelings hardly stand a chance of taking root.) There's action, there's tension, there's back-and-forth banter, there's betrayal, while over it all looms the specter of Roderick LaRoux as the untouchable supervillain. So far, so good. But then the story brings back the couples from the previous books, and Gideon and Sofia's tale gets overwhelmed. Tarver and Lilac in particular come to dominate the story, especially when Lilac's previous encounters with the whispers makes her central to the unfolding plot - a plot which may have gone beyond even Roderick's ability to control. And here is where the book really starts nose-diving, as it becomes a jumble of too many characters and too much action, in which the ostensible stars are just two more game pieces on the board. The angst ramps up to 11, and the plot goes from interesting to contrived. (I can't get into specifics without spoilers, but I'll just say that the retroactive revelation that some "choices" weren't conscious choices at all... it really robbed the story and the characters.) Then the final stretch decides to turn the entire arc into a Lesson about faith.
Yes, faith.
The whole Starbound trilogy, the galaxy-spanning struggle of six young adults against the machinations of one monstrous man, the astonishing revelation that humanity is not alone... all of it was just a framework for a lesson about faith. I honestly just stared at the pages when I realized this, completely kicked out of the story as my jaw dropped. And then it ends, in a way that feels especially contrived and (skirting spoilers) pulled its punch when it came to one of the key elements driving the entire plot. It also somehow avoided directly confronting how so much of this misery was created by one man's determination that he owned his little girl, like a doll to be played with and kept on the shelf.
Ultimately, what had been an unexpectedly intersting melding of young adult romance, science fiction, and action utterly disintegrates by the final chapters, drowned in a treacle-soaked Lesson.

You Might Also Enjoy:
These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner) - My Review
Starflight (Melissa Landers) - My Review
ExtraNormal (Suze Reese) - My Review

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Growing Gills (Jessica Abel)

Growing Gills: How to Find Your Creative Focus When You're Drowning in Your Daily Life
Jessica Abel
Independently published
Nonfiction, Creativity/Self-Help

DESCRIPTION: Many people have creative goals: becoming a published author, showing paintings in an art gallery, producing a screenplay, even just making a little extra time for that woodworking hobby. But real life always gets in the way; unless you live in a hut in the desert with a donkey, there's always someone demanding your time, or a job that sucks all your energy, or other complications. Maybe you'll get to it next month, or two years from now, or after the kids get out of high school, or when your wife retires... yet it doesn't happen, and it's making you miserable. Creativity is a vital part of living, but too many people push it aside for other concerns that always seem more pressing. Like every working creator, Jessica Abel knows all too well how easy it is to fall into the traps set by life, and by ourselves. In this book, she explains why we so often give up on our creative goals and what we can do about it - all without having to buy a donkey.

REVIEW: This self-help book blends elements of Julia Cameron's creative advice books with concepts of scheduling and time management to create a realistic, practical, and ultimately flexible method for reclaiming one's time and one's life. She speaks as one who has "been there, done that" on being artistically stuck and confused. Key elements involve paying attention to what one is actually doing with one's time (to see where creativity could fit into one's schedule; most of us have filler habits, like mindless social media scrolling, that could be greatly condensed or even eliminated to free up space) and focusing on one goal at a time - clear goals, with definable finish lines, not nebulous notes to "write more" or "do something arty." The book includes access to a free digital workbook to download and print out; I'll confess I did not finish that, in part because my printer is being obnoxious about working with my new computer (and also admittedly in part because of a bad procrastination habit.) Overall, though, Abel's approach and advice are sound and easily customizable to most living situations.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Artist's Way Starter Kit (Julia Cameron) - My Review
The Myth of Multitasking (Dave Crenshaw) - My Review
Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton) - My Review

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Pulp (Ed Brubaker)

Ed Brubaker, illustrations by Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips
Image Comics
Fiction, Action/Graphic Novel/Historical Fiction/Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 1930's New York City, aging Max Winters scrapes a living by churning out pulp western adventures - adventures loosely inspired by his own youth as a wild and wanted man. But time moves on, and even that meager source of income dries up, just as his heart starts to give out. On the verge of a desperate act, he runs into another relic from the past, a retired Pinkerton agent with an audacious plan. Does Max still have a little gunslinger left in him, or are those days well and truly dead?

REVIEW: This is a dark little story, a noir-tinged look at a man taking one last desperate grab at balancing the scales and leaving a worthwhile legacy in a world where the bad guys all too often win. Setting the tale in 1930's New York City, as too many Americans think of Hitler's rise as just a problem "over there" while Nazis proudly march in city streets and spread regime propaganda, has eerie resonance today. There's really only one way a story like this can end, but Max at least makes the most of it. A decent, if sad, graphic novel.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Blacksad Volume 1: Somewhere Within the Shadows (Juan Diaz Canales) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
A Sky So Big (Ransom Wilcox and Karl Beckstrand) - My Review

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Discovery of Dragons (Graeme Base)

The Discovery of Dragons: New Research Revealed
Graeme Base (a.k.a Rowland W. Greasebeam, B.Sc.)
Harry N. Abrams
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In this eleventh-anniversary edition (because only sad, money-grubbing fools push a tenth-anniversary edition), noted and dubious Professor Greasebeam presents the written accounts of four (yes, four) pioneers of serpentology, whose often-accidental discoveries contributed so much to the field. From the Viking sailor Bjorn of Bromme to failed conquistador Francisco de Nuevo, from remote Asia to the Canadian woods, travel the world and witness the wonders of dragons.

REVIEW: I was doing some shelf-tidying and realized I had never gotten around to reviewing this book, so I'm rectifying that oversight now. From the first page, Base establishes a firmly tongue-in-cheek overtone, a tone reinforced not only by the whimsical main illustrations, but by running illustrated journals at the bottom of each page, following the (mis)adventures of the entirely fictitious explorers. One might be tempted to see this as a knockoff of the wildly popular Dragonology books (by "Dr. Ernest Drake", or rather Dugald A. Steer), but those were actually released in 2006, ten years after the original edition of The Discovery of Dragons; this version, with an added section on New World dragons, was released in 2007. In truth, they're a bit apples-and-oranges. The Dragonology books draw on real-world mythology and have an overall more serious, if still child-friendly, tone, while Base has no such pretensions; even his fictitious persona Greasebeam is basically admitting the whole thing is a joke, with very little resemblance to actual dragon lore in the dubious written accounts. There are some unfortunate stereotypes repeated, if intentionally exaggerated for humorous effect, but overall it's clearly meant to be taken lightly. It makes a fun counterpoint to the mythical field guide genre that has become so popular and which can sometimes take itself a bit too seriously.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dr. Ernest Drake's Dragonology ("Dr. Ernest Drake") - My Review
Dragons: Truth, Myth and Legend (David Passes) - My Review
How to Raise and Keep a Dragon ("John Topsell") - My Review