Thursday, September 30, 2021

September Site Update

The month's reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Friday, September 24, 2021

Sparkers (Eleanor Glewwe)

Eleanor Glewwe
Viking Books for Young Readers
Fiction, MG Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the city-state of Ashara, to be without magic is to be a second-class citizen, as Marah Levi knows too well. Her kind - derisively called "sparkers" for the spark of magic they'll never have - are expected to stick to menial tasks and hard labor, while the magicians run the government and do more important things. Though others chafe at increasingly strict laws that always come down harder on nonmagical backs, it's not really so bad; she has her family and her violin and her books, and looks forward to a decent, if nondescript, future like her sparker peers.
Then the plague of the dark eyes descends upon the city, and things rapidly go from bad to worse.
A chance encounter with the daughter of a well-ranked magical family leads Marah into the labyrinth of Asharan council politics and forbidden books. As the plague strikes magical and nonmagical households indiscriminately, turning victims' eyes dark before slowly killing them, the Council's measures grow more ever more draconian - and when Marah and her new friend, the girl's brother Azariah, discover the truth, it's more terrible than anything they could imagine. But what can children hope to do against an entire city-state founded on the deepest of lies and injustices?

REVIEW: It can be difficult for any book to handle racial and cultural injustice, inequalities and privilege, and the rationalizations that entrench and enable such things without dropping into caricature, but Sparkers handles the concepts better than some adult books I've read. Marah, Azariah, and the rest of the cast are always people first, but their cultures and classes are also inherent parts of who they are, and even if and when they learn to see past that, those parts of them never go away. Not only is there growing tension between the ruling mage culture and the underclass of nonmagical citizens, but recent influxes of refugees add a third prong. The city is a powder keg long before the dark eyes plague arrives, already being steered toward intolerance by a Council with a dark ulterior motive, manipulating education and history to suit their chosen vision. The roots of the darkness run centuries deep, so even the chief instigators of the modern disaster are simply filling in roles cast for them by their ancestors. Marah sometimes stumbles as she navigates the city, first solely as a second-class nonmagical citizen, then as a somewhat awkward friend of a magical family, and later as agitator and seditionist when she and Azariah can no longer be silent about what they know, but she never acts in outright stupidity, and her trials bring genuine pain and conflict that go far beyond her own life. Likewise, Azariah and his family, though among the more liberal-minded of their kind, cannot help but be blind to the true plight of Marah and her people and their own part in perpetuating the greater injustices on which Ashara was founded. By the end, there is hope, but no simple magic bullet to fix everything that has gone wrong. The story moves fairly well, if not necessarily at breakneck speed, crafting characters, a city, and world that feel solid enough to support future stories. I may be mildly generous with the extra half-star, but it wound up pulling me in more than I'd anticipated, crafting a surprisingly emotional and nuanced tale of cultural clashes without easy or obvious answers.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Cinder (Marissa Meyer) - My Review
Briar's Book (Tamora Pierce) - My Review

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Last Human (Zack Jordan)

The Last Human
Zack Jordan
Del Rey
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Sarya's whole life aboard the backwater ice mining station Water Tower has been a lie. Her mother, the eight-bladed death machine Shenya the Widow, is not her mother. Her intelligence tier, a mere 1.8, is not her true tested intelligence. And the species listed on her official registration is not her true birth species. If she were to list that, she'd be dead, because her true species is the most hated and feared in the whole Networked galaxy, the only species to attempt genocidal conquest, the only species in eons sentenced to utter extermination: the species known as Human.
As Sarya faces a future of dull, unassuming jobs that keep too much scrutiny from falling on her, she can't help chafing. She can't even get a Network implant like everyone else, lest the surgeon recognize what she is, making do with clunky prosthetics and a buggy old AI helper program obsessed with telling stories. Then a class visit to the station's restricted observation deck leads to a fateful encounter: two members of a rare non-Networked group intelligence known as Observer seem to recognize who, and what, Sarya is, and hint that they know where she came from... a story that Shenya the Widow has never revealed, claiming not to remember the circumstances of her discovery. The girl can't help but be curious - but it turns into a trap, one that destroys her home and family and thrusts her into an adventure she never prepared for, one that could lead her at long last to her own kind, or to the doom of the Networked galaxy itself.

REVIEW: One of the classic episodes of the show Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured a dubbed movie called Prince of Space, where a large portion of the dialog consisted of someone saying something and other people reacting in confusion and disbelief until someone repeated what was said again. At one point, as the onscreen characters once more express bafflement at being told they're supposed to enter a space capsule, riffing robot Tom Servo snaps and starts yelling the line at the screen,"EACH OF YOU WILL ENTER A SPACE CAPSULE!" I found myself thinking of that moment and that line many, many times as I listened to The Last Human, to date the first audiobook that prompted me to boost the playback speed in the hopes that maybe, that way, the story would get past its dithering and the repetitious denial or confusion of the main character and actually enter the proverbial space capsule.
It didn't start that way. In fact, it starts out with lots of potential and some decent humor, as the predatory spider-like Widow alien demonstrates the universality of motherly love toward her sullen teenage "daughter" Sarya, the relationship with by far the most heart - and one of the most heartbreaking - in the book. But cracks start to show early on, as when Sarya barely avoids abduction with the help of a rebellious AI habitation suit that tells her to run for it; when she stands around, staring at it in rather stupid disbelief at how it let her go, it amends its message to "I said run, idiot"... and it was a bad sign when I found myself nodding along with the sentiment. (Enter the space capsule, Sarya...) Eventually, she winds up in the company of the requisite band of vaguely legal misfits, plunged into a plot that drags her into the heart of the galaxy-spanning intelligence known as the Network and its ongoing rivalry with the myriad-bodied Observer intelligence, but I didn't really feel her connect with the newer characters with anything like the bond she had with Shenya the Widow, as they're all just out for themselves and she doesn't do much more than use them thoughtlessly when the opportunity arises, only to later inexplicably consider them close friends. Did I miss a few chapters? When were they ever anything but acquaintances of circumstance - especially Sandy, the tier-3 intelligence who also considers everyone else in the galaxy mere tools for her plans and whims? Then the story falls - at speeds rivaled by plate tectonics - into metaphysical musings about what makes a species, what rights an intelligence has innately versus what responsibilities it has to its fellow entities, whether any individual or even species even matters set against intergalactic scales of intelligences to whom all else are mere cells of the greater body... And all the while, Sarya continuously and persistently stands around, expresses disbelief, and has to have things repeated to her, and even then generally has to be pushed and shoved and manipulated to actually do anything. The ending leaves the airlock wide open for a sequel, on top of it, so it doesn't even end with a solid conclusion (though it does pretty much say that life in the galaxy is no story, so there is no ending or no real point from the perspective of a mere individual, so maybe this lack of closure was intentional).
There were some decent ideas here or there, and moments that clicked on their own. I wanted to like it. But at some point, I just found myself there with Tom Servo in my mind, shouting at someone to please, for the love of the "Goddess" Sarya repetitiously swore to, get in the danged space capsule...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
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Chilling Effect (Valerie Valdes) - My Review

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown (Seanan McGuire)

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown
The Ghost Roads series, Book 2
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Rose Marshall died when she was sixteen, killed by the monstrous Bobby Cross on Sparrow Hill Road, but she's far from gone. For sixty years, she has wandered the ghost roads of North America, the legendary "Phantom Prom Queen" of truck stops and roadside diners. She's gathered her share of allies among the shades and mages, living and dead and other - but also her share of enemies, none worse than Bobby Cross himself. His crossroad bargain for immortality demands a steady supply of ghosts to fuel his demonic muscle car, and Rose Marshall still vexes him as the one who got away... but now, he may have finally cornered the wandering hitcher. Through a series of betrayals, Rose Marshall finds herself separated from the twilight roads and her friends, and imprisoned once more in a living body, leaving her vulnerable when Bobby Cross comes gunning for her again. Her only way out will involve trusting a woman who once vowed to destroy her, and a journey from which almost none - living or dead - have returned.

REVIEW: The first Ghost Roads story was a collection of short tales that built to a larger narrative about Rose Marshall and the "truth" behind the urban legend of the Phantom Prom Queen, the teen girl in the green silk dress forever hitching rides across the country. This book is a single arc, starting not long after the first book ended and the changes it wrought in Rose's situation. She remains a stubborn, gutsy heroine, seasoned traveler of the ghost roads, but finds herself wrenched out of her element and poured back into living flesh - a horrifying prison to one who has literally been dead far longer than she ever was alive, and one that may threaten to separate her forever from her friends and her home in the twilight America should she die in the wrong way... especially if she dies under the wheels of Bobby Cross's ever-hungry demonic car. Even as she rebels against the limitations of physical existence, with its revolting natural needs and processes, some small part of her wonders what it might be like to no longer be forever sixteen, to live a life she never had a chance at, for all the impracticalities and betrayals to loved ones that would entail. She fights against herself at least as much as against Bobby Cross, who remains a devious and relentless enemy who will stop at nothing, violate any sacred oath or hallowed ground or honored tradition of the twilight Americas, in pursuit of Rose Marshall... but she is no fainting damsel in need of protection or rescue, and is as relentless as he is when it comes to saving her friends and getting what she wants. Like the first book, this is a fast paced and haunting tale of magic and mortality and the unseen phantoms of history that endure beneath the mundane surface of the world. I enjoyed the ride, and look forward to the third book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Ghost Talkers (Mary Robinette Kowal) - My Review
Sparrow Hill Road (Seanan McGuire) - My Review

Friday, September 17, 2021

A Dignity of Dragons (Jacqueline Ogburn)

A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts
Jacqueline Ogburn, illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli
HMH Books for Young Readers
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Herds, flocks, and troops may be fine names for groups of mundane animals, but fantastical beasts require fantastical terms.

REVIEW: We had a little down time at work again, so I read this while waiting for things to pick up again. As the title promises, it's an imaginative take on descriptive collective nouns, positing such terms as a "dignity" of dragons, an "amazement" of minotaurs, a "chord" of sirens, and a "resurrection" of phoenix. The whimsical illustrations add a nice touch, with plenty of magical creatures from various cultures on each page, with sparse text to invite lingering over the images. At the end, a glossary adds brief notes about each beast in the book. It makes for a nice, easy introduction to many fantastic creatures and the notion of collective nouns, which are always a fun part of the language. (I will admit, though, that I'm old school enough to consider the definitive term for a group of dragons to be a "flight"...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Step Inside Dragons (Gaby Goldsack) - My Review
Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review

Friday, September 10, 2021

Adrift (Paul Griffin)

Paul Griffin
Fiction, YA Thriller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Matt and John have been best friends since forever, a bond that only grew stronger after the terrible night that left John's father dead and Matt scarred for life. They were working a summer job in Montauk at the beach with an eye toward their futures - Matt's considering Yale and a degree in forestry, to get away from the city and people, while John's aiming for trade school as an electrician - when a chance encounter with a trio of rich teens alters the trajectory of their lives... this time, in a possibly deadly direction. When their new friend Stef decides to go windsurfing at night after a house party, her cousin Driana, boyfriend JoJo, and Matt and Jeff "borrow" a neighbor's boat to rescue her - only to end up lost at sea with a dead motor, a possibly dying friend, and no way to call for help.

REVIEW: As with the best survival stories, Adrift takes a collection of outwardly mismatched characters and throws them into a desperate situation that not only forces them to take extreme measures to stay alive, but examine pains and problems in their lives that they've been avoiding. Matt's innate compassion and urge to help others can be a blessing, but also a liability, as when he impulsively volunteers to help with ill-advised midnight rescue missions on the water despite having next to no knowledge of seamanship. John's unemotional practicality has earned him the nickname "Iceman", making him no friends (and tending to lose what few he does make), but which has dark roots that are unearthed through extreme danger and trauma. Stef, JoJo, and Driana come from the opposite side of the tracks as the two boys, with inherently different outlooks, also having unexpected and not always pleasant aspects of themselves laid bare after days without water and without hope. Over the whole story hangs an air of foreboding darkness and an almost predatory mortality, even from the first seemingly playful interactions between Matt and Driana. Not everyone survives to the end, and those who do emerge as different people, or perhaps as the people they always were beneath layers of self-deception that the survival experience strips away. There is both beauty and pain in the teens' journey, a journey that - even by the end - is clearly not complete, and possibly never will be, but which sees the survivors grow and change... often in ways they don't like. Some things, once said and done, can never be unsaid or undone. The whole makes for a solid, emotionally compelling and harrowing tale of survival at sea.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Canyon's Edge (Dusti Bowling) - My Review
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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Lagoon (Nnedi Okorafor)

Nnedi Okorafor
Saga Press
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the aliens arrived, they landed not in London or New York City or Tokyo, but in the oil-stained waters outside Lagos, Nigeria... with effects that will either remake or destroy the city and its people. Three strangers - the marine biologist Adaora, the soldier Agu, and the Ghanian rapper Anthony - found themeselves on the beach when the ship landed and the waves came. They were taken beneath the changed waters, and returned with the shapeshifting ambassador Ayodele. Their actions will determine the fate of Lagos, and possibly that of Earth itself.

REVIEW: A first contact story with a strong African flavor, Lagoon weaves elements of old folk tales and magical traditions with alien strangeness and the modern contradictions of the city of Lagos. Superstition, corruption, and mistrust clash with hope, courage, and strength as the initial landing and ongoing transformative effects of the aliens touch numerous lives (human and otherwise) throughout the city. At times, the nominal leads get lost in the shuffle, and some of the tangents don't quite seem to go anywhere, veering into surreal territory and often ending in tragedy. It didn't help that the glut of "A" names scanned similarly, so it took a bit to reorient myself to the main cast after prolonged cutaways to side stories. The whole makes for a nicely different cultural take on first contact and facing the terrors and possibilities of the future while coping with the traumas and hang-ups of the past. Still, for some reason I kept finding myself setting the story aside and not picking it up again for days or even weeks at a time; between that and a vague sense that the story wasn't quite finished by the end, it lost a star in the ratings, though it still ranks Good.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Afar (Leila del Duca) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
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Friday, September 3, 2021

Cold Cereal (Adam Rex)

Cold Cereal
The Cold Cereal Saga, Book 1
Adam Rex
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Scott's life started off on the wrong foot when his struggling actor father vowed to name his soon-to-be-born son after the next job he got... thus his full name, Scottish Play Doe. (Though to be fair, his kid sister, Polly Ester, named after the fake plant in the hospital waiting room, didn't get off much easier.) Then his dad's career took off; the rest of his family only sees him on screens big or small anymore. Now his scientist mother has landed a job with Goodco, the cereal megacorporation whose sugary products start countless children's mornings, which requires the family to move to the company town of Goodborough and the kids to start all over at yet another school.
When he sees a bunny-headed man on the way to classes, Scott just knows his first day will be even worse than expected.
He's seen odd things all his life, usually precursors to migraines. Only in Goodborough, the hallucinations seem awfully persistent... and disturbingly real. Then he crosses paths with the leprechaun who calls himself Mick, a fugitive from Goodco's factories, and things get even weirder - and more dangerous. It turns out that the company slogan - "There's a little magic in every box!" - isn't just ad hype. Goodco has been capturing fantastical beasts and beings and stripping their magic for its products. Now Scott and his new friends, the siblings Erno and Emily, may be the only ones who can stop a diabolical plot from coming to fruition.

REVIEW: I really enjoyed Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, and found myself again in need of an audiobook to keep work somewhat tolerable (an increasingly tall order), so I decided to try this one. Like Smekday, Cold Cereal strikes a brilliant, tricky balance between silly and serious, with characters and situations that have a little more to them than one might expect, weaving in elements of faerie lore, the King Arthur myth cycle, and secret societies, plus a dash of corporate corruption. There's plenty of humor, but also a strong dark element running under parts of the tale, as fairy tale creatures are hunted down (and not just in the "catch and cage" sense; Scott's visit to a trophy room, while bloodless in text, implies a whole mess of death and violence under the surface, not to mention what it says about the sociopathic Goodco employees and executives whom he crosses paths with). This weight adds some nice depth to a story that could've easily been superficial candy fluff; kids' lives and relationships can be complicated, even without megalomaniac magic-stealing cereal companies plotting global domination, and Rex's story respects his audience by acknowledging that complexity. Everyone's authentically flawed, even the grown-ups, who aren't completely shut out of the story (as they sometimes are in middle-grade titles - Scott and his friends obviously take the lead, but adults are part of the process, too, and not just clueless lunkheads who mess everything up because Too Old), which takes a little bit of time to build momentum but moves pretty fast once it gets going. The ending, naturally, sets up the next installment, which I will have to track down sooner rather than later. My main complaint is that the audiobook narrator wasn't the best I've heard, particularly his tendency to drop his voice to mumbles or whispers or raise it high and squeaky; as I've mentioned, I usually listen to audiobooks at work, which is a large, loud warehouse environment not conducive to hearing mumbles or whispers or high, squeaky dialog. (I really, really preferred the woman who read The True Meaning of Smekday...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex) - My Review

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Hard Reboot (Django Wexler)

Hard Reboot
Django Wexler
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a descendant of Third Wave migrants to the stars, Kas has had to fight for every drop of status she's ever had. Even the scholars of Sentinel, ostensibly more concerned with the pursuit of knowledge than social standing, find ways of reminding her that she's something less than those whose ancestors left Earth with the First and Second Waves. She bent over backwards to get in on the week-long sojourn to Old Earth, but is certain that she can finally make a name for herself if she can unearth something for her research amid the countless layers of detritus left from the countless empires to rise and fall on the junk heap that once birthed her species. But it's only her first night there when, watching one of the mech battles staged for the benefit of tourists, she impulsively makes a bet with money she doesn't have - and gets pulled into a dangerous power struggle between a corrupt betting house and a rebellious underdog pilot.
Mech pilot Zhi doesn't want to become a slave to the House that controls the battles (and most every other aspect of life around the arenas), but getting away will require a lot of money or a miracle, or possibly both. But she has a plan, albeit a risky one: if she can convince some rich offworld sucker to put a big enough bet on her, she can use her winnings to finish repairs on a secret prize she's unearthed far beneath the inhabited layers of the city, an ancient mech from the near-legendary Third Empire that could mop the floor with anything in the arenas today. But when Zhi loses, she finds herself on the run from a House that wants its money as well as its newest enslaved pilot... and a persistent offworld scholar who may be her only ticket out of the hole she finds herself in, assuming they don't both end up dead first.

REVIEW: A quick story, Hard Reboot delivers what the cover promises: giant robots fighting to the "death" in a gritty future world. What it doesn't deliver is much more than that. I suppose I shouldn't expect much character depth in a story that is unabashedly honest about being little more than an excuse for flashy mechs to pound each other to scrap like metal gladiators, but I still found myself expecting more than I got. The baddies in particular are bland in their badness, evil and mean for the sake of being evil and mean, whether they're scholars who think nothing of exploiting Kas's research efforts to benefit more "worthy" (read: wealthy and connected) students or the House that torments and tortures and kills the desperate people of the city just because they can. The world is nicely gritty and desperate, at least, and the robots are sufficiently awesome, and if the story doesn't deliver any huge twists, at least it moves decently, though the ending feels a bit too clean and... I don't want to say "easy", but given the dystopian Old Earth setting and the utter depravity of their enemies I expected there to be a bit more of a price or a few more strings on the main characters' finale (I write vaguely to skirt spoilers), especially given that there seemed to be some leftover potential in earlier developments. If you're just looking for steel-crunching, monocrete-cracking, rocking and socking robot action, Hard Reboot does indeed offer that - just not a lot more.

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War Girls (Tochi Onyebuchi) - My Review
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