Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker


Rating: WORTHY!

Erratum:
"The Mapmaker took in and impatient breath." - presumably should be "an impatient breath"

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher and author.

Don't be misled by the resemblance of this middle grade novel's title to The Lightning Thief. I'm not a fan of the Riordan series, but this is as different as you can get, and this author had me at the very first sentence, which is what all we writers should strive for, but few achieve! That first line read, "Honorine realized it was going to be a difficult night when she stepped into the east parlor to do a bit of light dusting and found it on fire." That struck me as hilarious and an awesome start. It's like she knew exactly how to begin this to bring me on board!

The book continued to impress as I read on. It's an easy and fast read which hits the ground running and never stops. It's something of a steam-punk fantasy for kids, and has the interesting premise that the constellations are really mystical animals who have powers, and with whom regular people can interact. There are also rather evil creatures in this story too, so in some ways it's like reading about angels and demons.

Honorine is a young housemaid who works for the wealthy Lord Vidalia who has disappeared. She's also something of an inventor. When odd events get going in the manor that night, starting with the fire and progressing to curious discoveries Honorine makes, and then to visits from two different factions on the same wild night, both of which claim that the other guys are the bad guys, Honorine has to choose who to trust. But she's torn. At first, she sides with the group which has her childhood friend and young lord of the manor, Francis, working with them. She had thought he was away at school. After this she gets to spend some time with the Mordant, which is what these constellations are called.

There are few mordant on their magical 'ship' and the reason is that there's a battle going on between two sides, one of which is trying to capture all the Mordant, and the other of which is trying to prevent that. Maybe both sides were bad! Yes, it was exciting, adventurous, action-packed and confusing, and my hope was that the author had it in her to keep up the pace. It turns out she did. There is never a spare moment, and always something new to find.

Like a seasoned professional, the author keeps on peeling back layers and just as you think you have a good handle on things, another layer strips away and reveals a deeper understanding. Honorine is thrown into the middle of this turmoil, and is constantly trying to determine who is right and who is wrong, what's really going on, and where she fits in. In the end, this strong young female figure takes things into her own capable hands, because she knows, ultimately that she's actually the only one she can trust to do the right thing.

I loved the story, the plot, and the characters, all of them, but especially Honorine, who is a true hero and a great role model. I recommend this book without reservation.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Land Without Color by Benjamin Ellefson


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a middle-grade ebook and it was odd because the first chapter seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the chapters that come after. The first chapter is about four kids named Brandon, Derek, Paul, and Steven playing kick-the-can with some younger kids; then they go fishing. They disappear from the story at that point, and in chapter two and every chapter after that, the story is about a kid named Alvin, who gets this never-pop bubble gum for his birthday, and finds he can blow giant bubbles without the gum popping, one of these bubbles which carries him into a magical land where everything is grey. There are no other colors because they're been stolen by the goblins.

I began wondering if the grandfather who the kids visit in chapter one is the same person as Alvin, and the story is a flashback starting in chapter two. The last chapter confirms that it is. It just seemed like the writer had forgotten what he started writing about! There were one or two other, minor, issues, such as this sentence: "he saw the path before him stop directly into a sheer cliff" which could have been worded a lot better! There was also a disconnect between some of the images and the text, for example where we're told a general is wearing a "camouflage military uniform of red, orange, yellow," but where the illustration shows no camo, only your usual olive drab (or in this case gray drab!). In general, the story was well-written.

I have to question some of the choices here, though. The underlying theme of the story is that good nutrition brings color to your life and health, and I concur that good nutrition is sorely lacking in far too many lives. A third of the US adult population is obese, which adds something like one hundred fifty billion dollars to national healthcare costs, and it also means that the overweight are paying $1,500 dollars a year more for healthcare. That's the real reason behind the health industry trying to get people to lose weight. Don't ever forget that they're not charities, and their motivation has nothing in common with actually caring, rest assured!

Thirteen million children in the USA are obese, but a healthy diet needs to be more than simply eating vegetables. Fruit is mentioned, but it's the overriding obsession with vegetables I don't get. There's no mention of cereals or dairy, or of a balanced diet. A real diet needs to be a whole mind and body affair, including exercise and yes, including some moderated junk food. Remember, your body needs sugar, it just doesn't need as much as you think it does, and the excess goes straight to the fat factory.

The oddest thing about this ebook though, was the images, which are black line drawings on a white background. I typically have my Kindle app set to white text on a black background to save on battery power. I imagined that the images were designed with a white page and black text, so I tried to switch colors to see if it made any appreciable difference to how the images appeared in the text, but the only options the Kindle app on my phone offers for background screens is black, sepia, and pale green! Who ordered that? It's one more reason why I call it a crappy Kindle app. You'd think with all the money Amazon is minting, they could offer a better app than this, but maybe they don't care. Maybe they'd rather have you shell-out for a Kindle reader with the attendant limited functionality. I've been there and done that. I don't want to go back.

The thing with the white image background is that it butts up right against the text, making the text look like it was cut off. The first image I saw, I thought it had been accidentally placed right on top of the text, but I realized after a moment that it wasn't. If the images are at the left of the screen, then there's a gap between them and the text, but when the images are on the right, as almost all of them are for reasons unknown to me, the text butts right up to the white image border and looks truncated. I am not fond of Amazon's Kindle app!

On the iPad, the kindle app does have the option for a white background and the images and text looked fine there, but I still prefer to have white text on back for battery conservation so maybe authors should give some thought to how they design their images. The more wear and tear on the battery, the sooner it's going to die and have to be junked, and a new one purchased, which costs energy and resources to make. Recycling doesn't start at the trash can. It starts when a product is produced.

This image issue is a definitely a peril for writers who try to illustrate their stories. You cannot count on the ebook rendering them as you envisioned them for the print version. The simple solution would be to have the image background transparent, so that it merely shows through whatever background the reader chooses for their Kindle reader, but if your background is black and your line drawings are also black, then the image will disappear into the background if your reader chooses a black background screen, so you can't really win! I like my ebooks, but this is one reason why ebooks fail when compared with print books: the writers and illustrators lose all control over how their work is viewed.

The other issue I had with the images was that the way Alvin was drawn made him look like a grownup! Seriously. He did not look like a middle-grade student; he looked like a midget adult. So for me the images were a fail. They really contributed nothing to the story, and were not particularly well-done. They weren't a disaster by any means; they were okay, and maybe younger children will like them, but for me they didn't work. That said, the story was engaging and descriptive enough that it would have done well without images. It had lots of oddity and weirdness which I tend to like.

Having been carried into colorless land, Alvin tries to find people to ask where he is. On a point of order, gray is a color! If there were literally no color, then the world would be black (and part of this world is), but since we consider black to also be a color as opposed to what it really is (the absence of light and color), then using gray, as most writers do, is fine, I suppose.

The first 'person' Alvin meets is a squirrel which can talk and which becomes his traveling companion. He next meets a mouse which also talks. All the people he meets are gray except in rainbow city, and even there, they are struggling to maintain their color, eating free junk food dispensed by the King, which supplies some color. Some of them are missing their head. The junk food is also part of the underlying theme, and I commend the story for that.

I did have a bit of a problem with this being a 'great white hope' story where the interloper rescues the natives who can't help themselves. In addition to that, it was a case of a knight in shining armor rescuing the helpless princess, which is far too Disney for me, but balancing that, the main character was a black kid, which is far too rare in stories, so it gets kudos for that! What a tight rope the author walked, in trying to get past my filters! LOL!

On this same topic, the author has a short bio note at the end in which he proudly mentions his "four beautiful daughters" and I have to take issue with this as well. Is the only thing a writer can say about women is that they're beautiful? It's degrading. And no, I don't buy that it was meant in a generalized sense either, because then he could have said "four wonderful daughters" or something along those lines. the problem with endless claims of 'beautiful' is that the word becomes completely meaningless. If everyone is beautiful then the word has no value, because it literally means nothing to describe a woman as 'beautiful'.

My problem here though, is that I have to ask: do these daughters have no other qualities? He couldn't have described them as "four smart daughters"? Four industrious daughters? Four accomplished daughters? Four loyal daughters? Four talented daughters? Four loving daughters? The only thing he can think of in relation to a woman is skin deep? It's shameful. It really is; however, this is a different issue the story he tells, so I'm not going to grade his book on his attitude towards women when that misguided attitude isn't expressed in the novel, so he gets a bye on that one!

Meanwhile, back at the story, Alvin has to battle sinking land which, when he illegally picks flowers, delivers him to the underground prison for goblins. He has to deal with the idiot Crimson Guard, the idiot King, and a two-headed dragon. He has to visit the goblins who strike terror into everyone, and he has to figure out the real reason for the color drain, in which he gets a lot of help from the mouse who seems to know everything.

All in all, and criticisms aside, this was a fun story and will offer young minds a lot to think about. It has a lot in common with Gary Ross's movie Pleasantville which has a similar basic theme, but which is a different story intended for an adult audience. It also has some things in common with Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey (which has nothing to do with the "fifty shades" trilogy. I recommend this novel for middle-graders, but I wouldn't want to read a sequel to it.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Princesses Don't Become Engineers by Aya Ling


Rating: WARTY!

I'd hoped to have something better to offer you on Bessie Coleman day. I had been hoping I could review a refreshing novel with a strong female character, but unfortunately, I cannot. Yes, it was going to be this novel, but no, this novel which so promisingly started out, started doubt and then went so far downhill so fast that I almost got whiplash from it.

I'm not a fan of series and this novel is part of a somewhat disconnected trilogy, in that the stories are about different people in the same world, but there's a lot of crossover. The other two are Princesses Don't Get Fat and Princesses Don't Fight in Skirts, neither of which I've read. I'm unable to rate this one positively because of some serious issues I have with it, and while I confess I was initially interested in reading the '...Fat' novel purely out of curiosity since it's not a topic you usually find in books such as these, I changed my mind after learning more about it, and being increasingly disappointed in this one to the point where I DNF'd it at around 75%.

That said, the reason I chose to read this one is that it sounded like it might take a different path from your usual princess story, but in the end it didn't, so why would the '...Fat' novel be any different? I don't know, and I certainly have no faith that it would be. The engineering and steam-punk elements were quite obviously nothing more than sugary frosting adorning a doomed attempt to disguise on the usual stodgy "beautiful girlie princess meets strong, handsome, manly man and falls in love" cake. Those tales are not for me and are the very reason why I wrote Femarine. I had hoped that this one would be in the same vein as Femarine and was very disappointed when I discovered it would not be so.

This novel appears to take place late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but there are anachronistic problems. Note that this is an alternate reality novel, which has huge similarities to our own reality, but which is also set in a fantasy world. No dates are given, so it's hard to place it on any kind of intelligent timeline as compared with our own. Roller skates were invented (to our knowledge) in the mid-eighteenth century, but were not widely known until early nineteenth, so would skates have been part of the vernacular? Probably not. The wheelchair was in use by the late eighteenth century, yet this story has Princess Elaine inventing it. The same applies to the parachute, which she invents.

She also invents the wristwatch, which didn't show up until the mid-nineteenth century in our timeline, but the real problem with this is that the premise for it failed. According to the story, Princess Elaine was inspired to think of a watch for the wrist because a guy who had been overwhelmed by her beauty (more on that shortly) had dropped his pocket watch and it broke. The problem is that pocket watches routinely have chains attached, so it's hardly likely, no matter how startled by her 'stunning beauty' he was, that it would have ended up on the floor.

None of this would be an issue had Elaine been frequently shown tinkering and inventing from the beginning, but she was not. She was shown only with a penchant for escaping out of her window, which was amusing, but hardly inventive. The stream of inventions which are ascribed to her was becoming ridiculous by about sixty-percent through the book. Not a one of them was original in the sense that it had never arisen in our timeline.

All of this inventiveness consisted of simply ascribing something to her which already exists on our world, and most of it was very simple - so simple that it did not take a genius to invent it. In fact, it was actually derivative, not inventive: all she did was add wheels to a chair, add a strap to a watch, and so on. Straps and wheels, chairs and watches already existed, she just proposed a "novel" use for them.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, yet she invents this, too! And exactly how she does it is rather conveniently glossed over. She's supposed to copy out a text twenty times as a punishment, and handwriting is specifically mentioned, yet she thinks she can get away with inventing a printing press and printing twenty copies. The fact that she would have had to typeset the entire work beforehand (or represent the text in some other way) is completely ignored, as is the fact that if she did it by typesetting, she would have had to create the individual characters, too! In only three days! So her inventiveness and her inventions felt amateurish at best and cynical at worst.

Either way they were very klutzy, and we're never shown anything in the way of how she develops her thought processes or where the ideas originate. They just suddenly spring up magically, already completely formed and bubbling out of her head, like Aphrodite ejaculating from the foam of Uranus's sinking genitals.

The printing machine ("You asked the carpenter to make an automatic printing machine that you designed yourself?") was an oddity not only because it was not automatic, but because one of the princess's goals was to present an invention at the quadrennial engineering exhibition, and her printing press should have qualified easily, yet no one ever mentions it even as a potential candidate for exhibition. Instead, she obsesses on building a flying machine for the next exhibition, four years on. It seems that this was done solely to allow her to mature those four years, but it leaves a huge hole in her story. Meanwhile the printing press has spread like wildfire and made books available to the masses. It made no sense at all that she had no recognition of any sort for this.

Another anachronism was that, given how advanced some of these discoveries were (steam-power, for example was in wide use), why there would be would-be knights still training with lances and swords? Where were the firearms? Again it felt like the story had been thrown together without any real idea of what kind of world this was, and it made it seem amateur, piecemeal, and disorganized.

One example of poor planning was when Princess Elaine learns of Titanium, and decides it's exactly what she needs for lightweight tanks for her flying machine. Aluminum, which is also known in her world, is far lighter than titanium, far easier to work, and just as suited to making tanks as is titanium. It's in wide use in our world for SCUBA tanks. If Elaine had been anything of an engineer, she would have known these things, and not had to have discovered Titanium by accident from seeing it used as armor by the tournament competitors.

So the story itself was bad in many parts, but worse, there was a shockingly poor use of English. I don't mind the occasional author gaff - we all make them. I find them in my reviews on occasion when I have cause to revisit one, but there was a lot of them here, and many of them could have been caught with a spell-checker and some careful reading of the final copy before it was published. There really is little excuse for this.

Here are some examples:

  • "...the right course of action is to take it up to the king, not resolving to pranks." - should be 'not resorting to pranks'.
  • "...why are we supposed to learn those vocabulary when no one knows about them?" - should be 'that vocabulary'.
  • "She's in the kitchens noe" - should be 'in the kitchens now'.
  • "Francis Wesley, who would and probably already had, delight in reporting every single of her failure" - the mixed verb tense could have been easily fixed by re-wording.
  • "Elaine pulled apart the curtains of her window and stared outside. Outside, Valeria was taking Baby Charles for a walk." Repetitive 'outside' could have been avoided.
  • "Hasn't Samuel taught you that you must show, not tell?" Author, heal thyself! There's far too much tell about Elaine's engineering desires, and no show to speak of!
  • "Elaine sailed into the Dome as though she were on roller skates" One doesn't sail on roller skates, one glides!
  • "There was a pot of oil burning by the door. She lighted a fire in the pot" - if it was already burning, no lighting was needed!

  • "...plus three inches taller. Add the bun on top of her head and she was five inches taller than her usual height. No wonder the servants seemed to have shrunk." This doesn't work! Wearing three inch heels would make the servants appear subjectively three inches shorter, but the two inch bun of hair on top of her head would add no further height to her eye-level, and three inches is hardly sufficient to make the servants all seem to have shrunk.

  • "Own tried to elbow Alfred out of the way." Should be character name 'Owen', not 'own'

  • "...her dodging skills remained as sharp as evet" - should be 'ever'!

  • "...the cylinder was promptly finished..." and "Elaine carried it off...," - note the singular references here, but later we have "two titanium cylinders..." Where did the second one come from?!

The biggest sin, for me, was the nauseating obsession with beauty in this novel. The novel is supposed to be setting out to show that Princess Elaine was more than your usual ridiculous Disney princess, or a pretty royal façade, but the author constantly tripped herself up in this regard by repeatedly drawing our attention to the shallow and the skin-deep. I don't mind a character being described as beautiful as long as she has other qualities, but to obsess on it in the narrative (which is not the same as having a character mention it - although that can be overdone, too) is just stupid and abusive to women everywhere.

If your novel is about runway models or actors, then I can see how looks might play a part, but to make this one of the major focuses of the novel is appalling, especially when the novel is supposed to be about her other traits and skills as evidenced by the choice of title. The only thing you're achieving by doing this, is to instruct your readers that you are a shallow author who values beauty and nothing else in a woman, and by extension, that if your reader isn't beautiful, then she'd better get with the program otherwise she'll be worthless for the sole reason that there's no other trait a woman can have which can compare with beauty. Seriously? I'm not going to reward appallingly abusive behavior like that with a positive review, and female authors who routinely write like this ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, as should this author.

It's not so bad in the early stages, where the princess is only twelve, but as the story goes on, the constant references to how beautiful she is are truly stomach-churning. And hypocritical. Here's what the author says, just over half-way through the novel: "...most people still hadn't seen past her face. They valued her beauty more than her work." Well who is to blame for this? The Princess's admirers, so-called, or the fact that it's the author who has repeatedly bitch-slapped the reader with the princess's sheer beauty - not her smarts or her engineering skills, or any other trait, but her beauty? The overriding importance of beauty not just in the princess but in all young women of nobility is pounded into us from the start of the novel.

Here are some examples:

  • It was unquestionable that the Linderall princess was the most beautiful woman in the Academy
  • Despite a lack of regard for her appearance, [the princess] was still remarkably beautiful.
  • "Your Highness is the most beautiful girl throughout the kingdom."
  • "While her beauty certainly didn't measure up to Elaine's..."

Here's a particularly shameful one:

Elaine grimaced. Part of her was flattered, but since she was used to have people fawn over her beauty, she still genuinely regarded the attention a nuisance. She liked to be admired, but not by strangers. "Well, Her Highness is sixteen already! And she's the most beautiful girl in the world!"
That's not only a grammatical issue, wherein it should read 'used to having', not 'used to have', but also makes her main character look like a female Narcissus. She liked to be admired? How does this even fit the character who has shut herself away in a laboratory for months? The same sad shallowness applies to male characters, too. The phrase "how tall and strong he was" put in an ugly appearance in one form or another more than once. It was as though, if a guy isn't tall and strong, then he's a piece of shit. I'm sorry, but I don't subscribe to that blinkered garbage for men any more than I buy beauty as the sole measure of a woman, especially in a novel which purports to offer a princess with something more about her.

Princess Elaine wasn't always the nicest of people, either. For example, at one point she's approaching André, her unrequited love interest, to congratulate him on his inevitable win at the tournament, when a redheaded girl rushes past her and congratulates him, kissing him on the cheek. Elaine dismisses her with this thought: "that redheaded chit' which seemed especially mean.

Elaine has no idea who this girl is. It could be his best friend, his sister or cousin, or a colleague at the academy, yet she has these inappropriately hostile thoughts right from the off. She didn't seem like a nice person at that point, but perhaps her sour attitude came from the fact that even at sixteen, her servants and her family still conspired to infantilize her, with her brother calling her 'Pumpkin,' and her maid referring to her as 'Little Princess'. It's abusive and annoying. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a young adult novel and not a middle-grade one because it sure seemed like middle-grade even after the princess grew up.

The princess's schooling at the university bore no relation to what university was like in the nineteenth century. It seemed to be based on a twenty-first century high-school model which made it sound ridiculously juvenile. There was too much of this amateur approach, which detracted from the parts of the story I did like - such as the princess's rebelliousness.

The oddest thing about the school was that not a single person showed any deference to Elaine. Don't get me wrong here. I feel that this is how it ought to be! I have no tolerance for upper class privilege, but this story was about that very thing, so in the milieu of the story, while she was a princess royal, people were not only talking to her like she was a commoner, they were treating her like one. Even the teachers had no respect! They called her by her name instead of addressing her as 'Your Highness'. Again, I'm all for that, but in the context of this story, it felt ridiculous and amateur. The story felt more like fan-fiction than ever it did a professional novel.

In addition to that, Elaine is repeatedly shown as spoiled, inconsiderate, lazy, and privileged without a thought for people less well off than herself. This is startling because André is not privileged. If she cared for him so much, then why would she not spare a thought for others like him? Again, she's not a nice girl.

This whole affair with André felt odd. Usually the problem in these YA princess romps is that the love isn't love, it's what I call instadore, and it fails because it's not real and doesn't even feel like it might be real. In the case of André it was slightly different: there was a long time for them to get to know each other - four years to be precise, but this entire period is skipped over by the author, so we experience nothing of their interaction with each other apart from two brief, too brief interactions very early on. What this means is that this "love" felt just as bad as if it had been instadore, because it had no history for us to follow and it made Elaine look immature and stupid.

Based on this observations, and despite liking this novel in the beginning, I cannot recommend it as a worthy read. In the end, it would seem the engineering idea was really no more than a flimsy veneer on top of a story that does nothing to buck tradition. The very reason I gave up on this in disgust at 75% was that the author started channeling Austen and not in a good way - it was Austen at her most maudlin worst.

In an exact parallel to the portion of Sense and Sensibility where Willoughby happens upon Marianne after her injury and speeds her home on his horse in the pouring rain, Elaine gets injured in the pouring rain and is carried by André who was evidently stalking her. She immediately starts sneezing, like rain gives people cold viruses and the virus peaks instantly!

I would have had no objection if someone had ignorantly remarked "You'll catch your death of cold" because there are stupid people. What I don't have time for is stupid authors. For an author to actually subscribe to the brain-dead notion that getting soaked in a rain shower gives you instaflu is monumental horseshit and a disgrace for a writer to buy into. This kind of moronic writing is par for the course in the majority of asinine YA "romance" novels though, I have to admit.

Elaine's dash into the deadly 'flurain' was to collect her flying machine invention, which she;d left up on the roof, and which consists of two titanium cylinders for compressed air, a leather harness to strap it on, and an engine. What? An engine. That's what I thought you said. Excuse me, but what does the engine do? I have no idea, and apparently neither does the author. It doesn't compress air, because she had to land when the air tanks run low. There was no mention of propellers, so it;s not that. How the thing worked is a mystery. Why it needed an engine is a mystery. Where she got the compressed air is a mystery, but there it is: yet another cockeyed invention from someone we're told is a genius but who we;re shown is a rip-off artist at best, and a clueless time-waster at worst.

I don't buy it, and you shouldn't either. Spend your money on someone else's novel! This one is trashy and derivative, clueless and cheap, and I actively dis-recommend it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Witch Hunt by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

This is yet another in a series of short stories by Annie Bellet that I've been reviewing lately. These stories are available for free on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords, although I have to say Apple and Kobo seem much more interested in getting in your face than in getting you to your reads.

You can get a sneak preview of most books before you buy them these days, but all you get is the beginning, and while this does clue you in to how the author is going to approach a story (and happily allows you to reject stories which are first person voice as I habitually do!), this gives you no sense of how an author can carry a whole story, or bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, so it seems to me to be a valid approach for an author to put out short stories for free. Karin Slaughter, I'm looking at you!

It's better yet if those stories are somehow tied to an author's main works, so you also get a sense of the entire world in which the main story takes place and might well be more willing to buy one of the other books in that world. I'm not a huge fan of short stories in general. I've written one or two myself (contained in my Poem y Granite collection), and I've read and reviewed a few that were worth the time, but that's it.

I have none that lead into my main novels, and although several of my novels take place in the same world, rest assured I shall never write a series unless it be a young children's series, which I consider more of a theme than a series per se. I have better things to do with my valuable and always dwindling time than to waste it on a repetitive and derivative series, so I have no 'worlds' I've created in terms of fantasy, or sci-fi. In the unlikely event that I decided to take time out from other writing projects, and create short stories set in the same world as existing, full-length novels, I don't think you're going to see this approach from me, vlaid and useful as it is!

This novel I nearly didn't read. I do not like first person novels, of which this was one, although in this case, the author carried it pretty well, so it wasn't nauseating. it did not, however, make any sense since the person narrating the story neither spoke nor wrote, which begs the question as to how the story got told in the first place! But I let that slide! Strike one avoided.

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I am not a fan of series unless they're especially good and for me, fantasy rarely falls into that category, but sicne this wasn;t the series but a glimpse into it, that was strike two avoided! Strike three was what brought this down in terms of my having any desire to go on and read further. I flatly refuse to read any novel which has any of the following words in the novel or series title: 'chronicle', 'cycle', 'saga'. There are probably other trigger words, too, but these are the ones which first come to mind. This one was of The Gryphonpike Chronicles, so that kills it right there!

It began with the usual trope characters - elves, pixies, goblins, ogres, humans and so on, a tired cliché which typically makes me laugh. Annie Bellet writes well though, so I'm willing to grant her more leeway than I would many other authors. Except at one point she writes one character saying, "Makha and I consulted maps. We have solution" and I had to wonder about the juxtaposition of the correct grammar in employing 'Makha and I', followed by the pigeon English! It really jumped out at me and reminded me that I was reading a story. This was a minor issue lost in the large problem I have with fantasy, so I let that one get a free pass.

The story revolves around a group of misfits who are trying to earn a living by solving people's problems as roving trouble-shooters, but they've dilly-dallied too long on their journey, and now need to get to a guild city soon to pay their dues or they'll be in trouble. What that's about went unexplained, but they end-up going to a small city which evidently has a witch problem - as Sherlock Holmes might describe it, it was in fact a three-witch problem.

The band battles the witches, wins, and is heavily worn out and wounded but none of them die. That's it! Like I said, this kind of thing is just a bit too silly for me to want to read a full-length novel (let alone a whole 'chronicle' about it, but in terms of carrying a story, and in terms of laying out a glimpse of a world that others might want to pursue, I consider this a decent job and a worthy read.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Winter's Bite by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

Winter's Bite is a beautifully titled, good old story. It's short and bittersweet, and it has an ending that really isn't an ending, but this worked well, as it happened. This is another free short story by Annie Bellet available through book outlets and one that presumably introduces us to another one of her fictional worlds. I've had consistently goods results with this author.

Ysabon is a retired warrior woman, living on the outskirts of a village in a fantasy land, running a forge and helping raise two girls and a boy with her brother. She's hardly antiquated, and is still physically active, but she feels the weight of her years and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from her adventuring days, and old wounds. When a party skis by (the story takes place in in dead winter), heading off to the nearby garrison, to report the forays of a pack of Widowhulks, which are some sort of intelligent, hairy hexapod with a thirst for blood, they ask Ysabon, who is known for her military past, to accompany them, but she refuses, saying she's too old.

Instead, her nephew volunteers to go. She resents it, but can't stop him since he's a grown lad. It's not long before he comes back, reporting that their party was set upon by the widowhulks and he can't be sure anyone got through to the garrison. Ysabon now realizes that it's up to her, because if no one goes, then the widowhulks will simply keep on laying waste to the villagers until no one is left. She cleans her old sword and sets out with her nephew, and along the way they encounter a wounded survivor of the previous party. The story ends with her nephew heading off across the river to the safety of the garrison while Ysabon and the survivor turn to face-down the widowhulks, and hold them off at least long enough for her nephew to report the village's predicament.

I liked this story and the ending, but I had some issues with it from a writing perspective. The major one was the widowhulks. Authors often make a mistake when writing about predatory animals, making them endlessly hungry and bloodthirsty. It's rarely realistic. Predators rarely prey. When they do, they prey only on what they need to eat, and then they back off and idle their time away until they're hungry again. To portray them as endlessly bloodthirsty and dedicatedly hunting down humans is ridiculous on the face of it.

Yes, they do sometimes hunt humans, and sick animals sometimes go off the reservation, but we're not the natural prey of any animal, and it's rare for them to attack humans, especially just for the hell of it rather than for a needed meal. That said, these are not your usual predators that we're familiar with from Earth. Maybe they are more human than animal, in which case they may well have a legitimate agenda in harassing the human population. There isn't enough in this story to determine what's going on, so I was willing to let it go, but it would have been nice if the author had addressed this, however briefly or in passing.

The only other complaint would be the incomprehensible sentence I found on page five. Ysabon is advising the initial ski party on how to avoid this dangerous pack of widowhulks and she says: "Your best hope is speed. Safety might come with numbers, but with that many widowhulks out there, the only chance to reach the garrison before the hunting group finds you." The sentence looks like it needed to end with two more word: is speed. Either that or that last clause ought to have begun "speed is the only chance" or "it's the only chance," but I can forgive a mangled sentence here and there. We all do it. It's harder to forgive if there are many such mangles in one short story, but this author has not proven herself prone to that kind of sloppiness.

In short I liked this and the world where it was set sounded interesting.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Flashover by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

This is another short story by Annie Bellet set in one of her many worlds. I liked the first two I read, so I decided to see what else she has out there, and she has several short stories tied to one or other of the worlds she's created, each one serving as a peek inside, each free as of this writing.

As I mentioned in other reviews, I think this is a good idea. It lets you get your feet wet without being soaked with price tags for books you don't like! Karin Slaughter could take a leaf out of Annie Bellet's book! I liked the previous two I read and this one, a fantasy, began in a likable manner, too, despite being first person - a voice I really don't enjoy, particularly in YA fiction. This isn’t YA, though and the voice fortunately wasn't nauseating.

This world is that of Remy Pigeon, who is a psychometrist. One morning he's visited by a fire elemental which has taken over a young woman's body for the purpose of attracting his attention. It works. I have to say at this point that I didn't like Remy. I think this first person approach taken here is to set-up the story like the old-style private dick novels where the PI tells the story in a male chauvinistic and hard-bitten style. For me that doesn’t work because I've never been attracted to that style of story-telling. It makes me laugh at how pretentious and self-important it is, which tends to spoil the drama of the story!

So the fire elemental's problem is that someone is making it burn down buildings. I've never bought into this idea that names hold power and if someone knows your true name the have power over you! It's nonsensical, but this is the trope employed here: someone knows the elemental's true name and can therefore control it, and are making it do their dirty work. The elemental resents this, naturally. It's up to Remy to use his power of touch to see if he can find out what these fire victims have in common and who the elemental's name has been told to. Only one of the victims actually knew the name, and she's dead, so Remy can’t just ask her. Thus we have a PI story featuring a psychometrist who does no psychometry, and a serial arsonist who sets no fires!

There was one minor writing issue other than first person (which for me is frankly a major writing issue), and that's when the Remy tells us about his drive across town: "I nursed a complaining Renault, my beater Toyota, across town..." It looks like the author had one vehicle in mind and then changed it, without deleting the old reference! No biggie. We've all made goof-ups like that one! I don’t care about screw-ups like this quite frankly (it's a Renault BTW), if the author is telling me a decent story (or even an indecent one). I do care if the story is larded with them, but I readily forgive minor gaffs for a good story. Yes, my name is Ian and I'm a book slut! Welcome Ian!

The story felt like ti was a bit too short and too easy, but other than that, I liked the story for what it was. It's not something which would lure me in, because I'm not typically a series fan and I didn't like Remy who seems a bit obnoxious when it comes to women (no wonder he gets no dates!) and a bit ineffectual in what he does, but the story itself was a worthy read.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Delivering Yaehala by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of two short stories by Annie Bellet that I will review today. Both get a worthy rating. They're also both available (at least as of this review) for free on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords, although I have to say Apple and Kobo seem much more interested in getting in your face than in getting you to your reads. This author has quite the oeuvre, and some of her other materials are free, too.

This short-story-for-free idea seems to me to be a good one. Yes, you can get a sneak preview of most books before you buy them these days, but all you get is the beginning, and while this does clue you in to how the author is going to approach a story (and happily allows you to reject stories which are first person voice as I habitually do!), this gives you no sense of how an author can carry a whole story, or bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, so it seems to me to be a valid approach for an author to put out short stories for free.

It's better yet if those stories are somehow tied to her main works, so you also get a sense of the entire world in which the main story takes place and might well be more willing to buy one of the other books in that world. I'm not a huge fan of short stories in general, but I've written one or two myself (contained in my Poem y Granite collection), and I've read and reviewed a few that were worth the time. These two are definitely worthy. I found it interesting that both of the stories told a similar tale: a young woman scavenging for a living, scarred, outcast, in danger, who ends up rescuing someone. Despite the underlying theme being the same, both stories were well-told and happily different.

This particular one is a fantasy tale set on a different world where unicorns and other exotic animals exist. Set iIn a land delightfully evocative of the Middle-East, a young woman named Alila, who is an outcast from her own people, is harvesting frankincense from trees which dangerously overhanging a precipitous drop. She spies a rider on a horse.

At first suspicious and fearful, Alila discovers that the rider is a princess royal, and a pregnant one at that, and in dire straits at that! She is apparently with a male child and this is why she is on the run. She's part of a harem, and the oldest member of the harem fears the younger woman's ascendancy if she provides the male heir which the older woman could not. Killing the pregnant Yaehala seems like the best solution. It feels like a twisted take on Henry the Eighth!

Against her better judgment, Alila takes it upon herself to escort the princess to the coast, where Yaehala's own people will take care of her until the child is born. At that point the threat to her life will transfer to the child, and she will be safe! The two bond as they ride together, pursued by the ruthless minions of the older, vindictive princess. I liked this story for how evocative it was of the world, and for the realism of the adventure even as the story was imbued with imaginative fantasy elements. Alila was never portrayed as Supergirl, but she was strong and resourceful and Yaehala's story was authentic.

I'm not a fan of stories that have a woman's name in the title. They pretty much uniformly tend to be a waste of my reading time, but I do have a fondness for stories which sport a name on the cover which is not the name of the main character because I did this same thing with my "best seller" Femarine. I call it a best seller not because it actually is, but because it generated more interest than anything else I've written, and I am still trying to work-out why! But that's just me. This story, Yaehala, was a really enjoyable one, and has attracted my attention to this author. I will be pursuing the perusing of more stories from Annie Bellet!


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lydia's Golden Drum by Neale Osborne


Rating: WORTHY!

Disclosure: After I positively reviewed (yes, I'm positive I reviewed it!) Neale's Lydia's Enchanted Toffee back in November 2015, he and I became email friends, so I am definitely biased here, but I loved this book! The writing is so rich that you feel like you've eaten a tin of toffee by the time you're done reading. You might even get an empathic if not emphatic tooth-ache!

If I had a complaint it would be that the book felt a little bit long, which was fine with me since I was very much into it, but which might not appeal to some readers. I also felt the print version might have been kinder to trees in being a little more compact (the lines were widely spaced), but I have that complaint about a lot of print books, including my own, which is why I refurbished them all last year.

That said, this book is poetic and rich, it's endlessly inventive to an amazing and humbling degree, and it was a joy to read. Lydia is once again called into action with her toffee tin drum and magically empowering toffee, which gives her control over metal (probably including metal dental fillings!). The Jampyrs are evidently on the move and someone has to stop them. Lydia's journey involves meeting up with friends and traveling her Candi world to collect the tools they will need to defeat the horrific jampyr menace and save their planet. Can she succeed? Can she suck toffee? I think you know the answer to that! I recommend this one. It's a sweet read....


Messenger by Lois Lowry


Rating: WARTY!

This is the third in Lois Lowry's "The Giver" quadrilogy. I negatively reviewed the first, The Giver back in April 2016, and now I'm certainly not planning on reading the other two in the group: Gathering Blue, and Son. This one can at least be read as a standalone, but like in The Giver, the world-building here sucks! And monumentally so.

Main character Matty was far too much of a Mary Sue in this novel, and while it started out decently well, it went on too long (despite being a short novel!), and it dwelt so long in the horrific gore of the forest that it was sickening. The end was so predictable that it was even more sickening. Even the puppy lived!

Matty is the adopted son of 'Seer'. Every adult in the village has a really dumb-ass "true name" given to them by "Leader" who is head of the village. Let me just interject at this point that I'm not a fan of this "names have power" bullshit or of the "true name" fallacy. I laugh at stories that follow those tropes. Names do have meaning but that's not the same as saying they have, much less give, power.

Matty wants to be named Messenger, but doesn't get his wish. Instead he gets a predictable and different name. Read pretty decently by actor David Morse, the story's material and plot let it down badly. They were drab and lifeless, and ultimately boring. The village was sad-ass, but we're told - not shown - that it was a happy and comfortable place. As the story takes off, we're being hit over the head with the regularity of a metronome by how much it is changing for the worse. It's as if Donald Trump got elected and the entire country began rejecting huddled masses and becoming very insular and closed-off. Oh wait, that really happened!

Despite all these people having gifts, they're hobbled in a trope way by not really being able to use the gifts to any great advantage. Some of the gifts make no sense. One guy is called Trademaster and is in charge of the villagers trading their personal goods with each other. I'm sorry, but what? What the hell that's all about is a mystery, and I found it laughable. So anyway, Seer doesn't see a whole heck of a lot especially since he's predictably blind. Leader, who is also a seer, can't see very far into the future. Why the author called one of them Seer but gave the power of seeing to a different character is a great mystery!

The village, which is called Village, is surrounded by a dense and increasingly hostile forest which is called Forest. Seriously? Donald Trump clearly took his manifesto from this novel because the villagers have decided to build a wall around the village and not let anyone else in. Why anyone would even want to try and get in, given the nightmarish and brutal forest and the asinine way village life goes on is an unexplained mystery as is everything else in this story. It suggests that the rest of the world is in even more dire straits than is the village, yet when we see another part of this world, there is no problem with it! It's just like Village minus the psychoses and psycho forest.

The villagers have tools and fire. There's no reason they couldn't burn down the whole forest and sow salt on it, but they never think of it. They simply accept it. No explanation is given for this, either.

Maybe some of these things are explained in the previous two volumes, but they sure aren't here. The only thing of any interest at all in this story is Matty's last minute desperate dash through the forest to bring Kira, Seer's daughter, back from outside into the village so he can see her again. How selfish is that? She left the village and though she said she would return, in several years she's made no effort to do so, and now Seer essentially wants her dragged back through a dangerous forest with no warning, for his own selfish ends? What a jerk!

Matty, who has always been able to pass through the forest unharmed, now finds that it's attacking him. Why there is this change is unexplained, Why the forest is alive and hostile is unexplained. This portion of the novel just went on and on with increasingly obnoxious descriptions of pain and torn flesh, and suffering that I could barely stand to listen to it. It contributed nothing to the story, and it was all washed away and undone by Matty's magical power which we'd been told about right from the start, so no surprises there.

If this novel had been a first-time novel by a new writer, it would never have got published. I'm just sorry it ever did.


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Miss Kane's Christmas by Caroline Mickelson


Rating: WORTHY!

Closing out the year on a nice positive note, This is a typical Christmas "need to change your outlook" kind of a story as exemplified in books such as A Christmas Carol, and in movies such as It's a Wonderful Life which I took delight in parodying last year, and Miracle on 34th Street, of which I think the original was better than the remake. It involves a couple falling in love in only two or three days, and a very pushy woman winning over a determinedly anti-Christmas single dad. So why did I like this one, and reject the other one I'm reviewing today? It's a matter of perspective. The other one put a completely unrealistic plot into a real life situation, and this one put a perfectly plausible plot (in the story context) into a fantasy. The latter works. The former never will unless you're writing an absurdist comedy and not a romance.

It's the very fact that this is a ridiculous fantasy that means you don't take it too seriously, which is why I don't get some of the negative comments I've read about this. It's like complaining that Cinderella would have been far too uncomfortable in glass slippers (when they were, in the original story, fur anyway!), or that wolves can't even talk, much less huff and puff, and blow down a house. You can't judge it seriously, and like a children's story, you need to accept it within its own frame of reference, not in some adult reality frame of your own invention. It feels rather like these critics are trying to argue that you can't change a young suicidal person's mind, so leave 'em alone and let 'em get on with it!

No, you don't let an otherwise perfectly healthy young suicidal person get on with it even if they really want to, and in a world where Santa is not only real, but has a family, you can't let a guy rob his kids of the fun of Christmas. You have to hold an intervention! This is why I can like this story and reject the other one, because within its fantasy world, this story was plausible and fun. Yes, Santa's daughter was pushy, but she didn't want to be there in the first place, and was focused solely on getting this task done and moving on. She never expected to be won over by this single dad's love for his kids or his level of patience with her. It wasn't great literature. It wasn't authentic reality. It was a fairy tale, and it was cute and fun and funny, and I liked it. That's all there is to it.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Zathura The Movie Deluxe Storybook by David Seidman


Rating: WORTHY!

Chris van Allsburg is the author of many interesting books, not least of which are Jumanji from 1981 (about to be remade into what looks like a disaster of a movie for 2017), and The Polar Express from 1985. Lesser known is his Zathura which was published in 2003. It had many similarities to Jumanji, and like the other two, it was also made into a film. It had nowhere near the success of the other two, but it featured a disturbingly youthful Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart before they took each off in different trilogies.

Zathura is a board game that comes alive when its played, and the only way to escape its clutches is to finish the game, just as in Jumanji, but this is a different movie with its own peculiar twists and traps. This book isn't the original, but one taken from the movie, featuring movie stills and following the movie plot rather than the original author's illustrations and plot. I liked it!

On a point of order for the Polar Express movie, I have to say that Eddie Deezen's annoying little character was totally wrong about the engine. It wasn't a Baldwin, it was a Lima, although the wheel arrangement, 2-8-4 was correct. Baldwin merged with Lima, but this was after Lima's steam-engine building days were over. The train which inspired Chris van Allsburg was owned by the Pere Marchette railroad and was designated as number 1225, which is also the date of Christmas! Now you know the idea for a great story can quite literally come from anywhere if you keep yourself open to it!


Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Mighty Zodiac Starfall by J Torres, Corin Howell, Maarta Laiho


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher!

In the fantasy world of Gaya, where animals are human (and in a refreshing change, the rabbits are evil!), the great dragon guardian of the sky - which curiously looks just like a constellation! - dies before the replacement is ready, and the rabbits, which had been banished to the moon, are free to come down to Earth. The fall of the dragon was literally a star-fall, hence the subtitle of the graphic novel. Six stars came down, and if the rabbits can destroy them all, then chaos will reign.

The only thing standing in the way is the once Mighty Zodiac. Refreshingly based on the Asian zodiac (Dog, Dragon, Goat, Horse, Monkey, Ox, Pig, Rabbit, Rat, Rooster, Snake, Tiger) instead of the western one, that's about as far as the story delves into Eastern beliefs. The Asian zodiac is tied to the twelve-year orbit of Jupiter, and the animals are associated with "elements" such as water, metal, wood, fire, etc), but none of this impacts this story.

The eleven non-evil warriors are dispatched to recover the stars, to keep them safe from the machinations of the "rabbit army" which sounds scary and looks scarier! The eleven don't necessarily get along, and there's friction and politics, but in the end they pull together. The story continues in other volumes. This was well-illustrated by Corin Howell, beautifully colored by Maarta Laiho, and nicely written by Joseph Torres. I recommend it as a worthy read!


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trolled by DK Bussell


Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
p21 "as it the job was formerly known." an 'it' too many?
p32 "bicep" should be 'biceps'
p49 "Begging your counsel, my Queen," sounded very odd. Begging your forgiveness, maybe? Begging your consent?

Note that this is an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher. I like this publisher, and when I was asked if I would review this, I thought it was by the same author of a previous novel I'd read and liked, but this one isn't. It's apparently by a relative, and the story did not impress me for a variety of reasons. I am not a huge fan of fantasy, but this one at least sounded like it might be different, which is the reason I decided to read it. Unfortunately it wasn't different at all, and was heavily invested in your usual trope and cliché common to fantasies.

The twist here was supposed to be that modern young adults who were into Live-Action Role Playing (LARP) fantasy games passed through a magic portal into a real fantasy world, but this was not impressive, and was a fail for me. Plus it felt like the "white savior" story wherein a white person (usually a guy, but in this case a girl) offers salvation to a native population. I'm not impressed by such stories. There was one character in a wheelchair, which was commendable on the face of it, but the idea of maneuvering a wheelchair through a wild forest made the idea rather ridiculous. It would have been better had the character been on crutches or something like that.

In order to bring the fantasy, the author used the occasional odd phrase, such as: "The mighty buck's hooves pounded steady against the earth, his mane flowing like warm streaks of honey" which sounded strange, but whatever. The weirdest one was "As she watched the scorpion strafe from side-to-side her mind went back to Epping Forest." Unless the scorpion is shooting a machine gun or dropping bombs, then it's not strafing! One does not strafe from side to side!

Other parts of the story simply took me right out of suspension of disbelief, such as when I read: "He held up a fist and the signal echoed back through the ranks, bringing the remaining army of three-hundred trolls to a halt." My question here is why would trolls in a fantasy world use the same hand-gestures that modern military use (at least according to popular TV and film)? It made no sense to me, and it wasn't the only thing I had issues with. Another example was, "The scorpion returned the favour by slashing Terry across the head with his pincer, landing a cut just above his hairline." The issue here is why would the giant scorpion do that rather than simply take his head off? It's obviously because the author can't kill off this character, but it once again took me out of suspension of disbelief. There are ways to write scenes like this and give your essential character an escape from almost certain death, but it needs to be more realistic than this to work for me.

A similar case arose with the magical "home tree" - another trope, having elves live in trees. The tree was called Elderwood, and I read of it: "Elderwood had enough magic left in him to aid his allies' escape. As soon as they were at a safe distance he cast a spell through his roots that turned the soil beneath the enemy into quicksand, swallowing the trolls and dragging them into the suffocating mire." This was after the troll attack. My question here is, if Elderwood had this power, why didn't it get used as soon as the trolls attacked and have them taken out? Obviously, it was because there has to be some trope sword-fighting and blood-spilling here, but again, it jumped right out at me and interfered with my enjoyment of the story.

The idea of a strong female character always appeals to me, but to have some girl who has no interest in fantasy suddenly become the champion of the fantasy world makes no sense. No doubt at some point in this 'saga' she will turn out to have elf blood in her (how this cross-species fertilization is supposed to work is another mystery!), but even if she did, this is no guarantee she would be a great warrior!

As I indicated, this is intended to be a series, which to me is just another reason for me to avoid it! I'm not a fan of series. Although sometimes one comes along that is worthy of reading, in general, they tend to be derivative, repetitive, and uninventive. In short, they're boring and a lazy way to write. And because this is part of a series, it ended rather abruptly, the assumption being that the reader will continue on with volume two. I don't have the enthusiasm to do that, and for the reasons I've indicated, I can't recommend this as a worthy read, but I wish the author well with it. Maybe others will find it more entertaining than did I.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan, John Parke Davis


Rating: WARTY!

Like the other library print book I looked at recently, I can't really review this one because I made it through only the first four chapters before giving up. They story switched back and forth (or even froth as I originally typed it! LOL!) between the two main characters and it wasn't making a whole lot of sense, much less as it drawing me in. One character, the guy, was named Fin, which turned me right off. 'Fin' is almost as bad as 'Jack' for an adventuring character name and the lack of originality in choosing either of those names frankly nauseates me. I flatly refuse to read any novel where the main character is called Jack on principle, no matter how tempting it sounds. The girl is named Marrill, which is almost equally obnoxious.

This is supposedly a middle-grade book, but the page count is well over four hundred - much too long for a middle-grade book unless the book is exceptional and really has something to offer, and this one didn't feel that way to me. It's also odd that it's so long, because it's not a one book story! It's part of a series, and I sure don't do series unless they're exceptional, so this one loses on that score, too. This authors need to seriously redact their work! OTOH, maybe this is what happens when you try to co-author a novel: it bloats!

As if that's not bad enough, Fin is an orphan who is in search of his mom, and there's a bumbling wizard. Yuk! It sounds vaguely reminiscent of the Terry Gilliam Movie Time Bandits, but it's not Gilliam and it shows. So, based on what little I looked at, I can't recommend it. But also based on what little I looked at, this review may be useless to you and if so I apologize, but I could not get into this book at all, and life is too short to spend pursing things that don't instantly delight you as a reader!


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale


Rating: WORTHY!

I’m a captive audience in my car with a commute that’s not overly long, but which isn’t short either, so I listen to audio books and I tend to take more risks and experiment more with this format than any other. Consequently I have more fails with this format than any other, but it’s worth it to find the occasional gem, and one such book was this one. If there’s one thing I detest in writers it’s a sheep mentality. Instead of coming up with something original (or a refreshing take on an older theme as, say, The Hunger Games trilogy or the Harry Potter heptalogy represented), most authors, particularly in YA, jump right on someone else’s band wagon and turn out sorry clones of existing work. barf. I prefer the author who tosses out cliché and trope and takes the road less traveled, as I tried to do in Femarine, and as this author does here, which is yet another variation on the same theme I varied.

Another audio book to review - this time positively. My problem with princess stories - the kind where a prince is essentially holding a lottery for a bride - is several-fold, not least of which is what it says about the prince: he's so vacuous and shallow that he thinks he can get a suitable lifelong partner in such a critical role through this haphazard means? The other side of that coin is what it says about the princess-to-be in that she's so shallow or so desperate that she's willing to sell out for this guy she never met and will be expected to marry before she even knows him. It's truly pathetic.

That doesn't even begin to cover trope and cliché either. These stories tend to be larded with them: that the most humble, plain, and simple girl gets to win, or alternatively that the girl who least cares about or least expects to win gets to win because she's a special snowflake, and the only one who truly understands the prince.

There's also a really pretty girl who everyone expects to win, but who doesn't because it turns out that the plain-jane is prettier somehow! There's the really dumb girl who is the only one who thinks she will win, and there's a really bitchy girl who we all know will never win. There's also the truly sweet girl who becomes the main character's bestie, and who dreams of marrying the prince, but who doesn't honestly believe she will win. She ends up marrying the captain of the guard or the king's younger brother or something like that. It's tedious. It's been done to death, and any author who continues to churn out this kind of story with no variation and no twist and nothing new to offer is the really dumb girl. Any author who thinks he or she can make a trilogy out of this trash is beyond dumb.

So what I look for on the very rare occasion when I read a story like this, is what I tried to provide in Femarine: something significantly different. This audio book was such a story. It impressed me and continued to impress me because it continued to inject new ideas into this trope and thereby stirred it up significantly. There were some bits that were a touch too rambling and boring, but these were few. Most of the time it kept adding the twists to make it entertaining and engrossing.

What I liked about it was that Miri, the main character, was smart, but not particularly special except in that she learned. The value of books was am important part of the story. They actually played a role in the story and in Miri's growth, and were not just lazy short-hand used by the author to say "Hey, look how smart my character is!" Miri was always learning, and this is what made her stand out from far too many spastic princesses in other stories I've read or read about, and who show zero growth or real smarts.

I liked that the girls weren't the usual suspects in these stories, but the daughters of quarriers (and some of the girls were quarry workers themselves) in a pit which produced a special high quality stones used for important buildings in the cities down the mountain. I didn't like the 'us versus them' mentality (mountain people against lowlanders, where the mountain people were considered primitive and dumb and the lowlanders urbane and cultured), but I did like that the girls were not in fixed groups or fixed mentalities. Relationships changes and morphed, and the bitchy girl wasn't always the bitchy girl. The ending was very different from what you might expect and really turned the story again from the course you might expect.

The thing was though, that while I always feared that this story would go straight to hell in a hand-basket, I always had the feeling that it could completely capture me, and this is what it did in the end, so I recommend this for those of you who, like me, are tired of trope and ready to quit with cliché. Yes, it did have some examples still of that kind of mentality - that the girl must end up with the boy for example, but overall it was different enough and enjoyable enough, and above all unpredictable enough that I consider it a very worthy read. Or listen - Laura Credidio does a decent job of rendering the characters, although her voice was a bit annoying at times.

Lastly, one thing I don't get about this is that it's part of a series. Why? This was a great story and it was told well, and it came to a satisfying conclusion. Why did the author feel the need to ruin all that by dragging it unnaturally, kicking and screaming, into a series? Is she so lacking in imagination that she can't think of a new idea to write about? Let it be known that I have no intention of following the series. As far as I'm concerned, this book stops here!


Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri


Rating: WARTY!

If I'd known that Kirkus rated this one as "highly imaginative" I would never have picked it off the library shelf! I don't think Kirkus ever met a book they didn't like which means their reviews are utterly useless. If I'd also known it was the first of a series I would have thought twice about it and definitely would have no interest in a series after listening to a small portion of this.

Bianca Amato has a charming voice and would be a delight to have a conversation with, but in telling a story like this, she sounded ponderous and slow, and the story itself moved at a glacial pace. I couldn't stand to listen to it, but had I the print or e-version, I still wouldn't have been able to stomach it, so I guess this author is not for me, and I am not for her! The only review I can give is this much: that I gave up on it at about 10% in (or slightly less).

One problem with audiobooks is that you can never tell where the prologue ends, so I ended up listening to much of it, and this served once again only to remind me why I so dedicatedly skip all such prefaces, forewords, intros, prologues and whatever. They're tedious and contribute NOTHING to a story. Enough with them already, you authors! Get on with the damned story!

This one was far too tedious to stay with. Life is short and books like this are too long and too common! Move along! This is not the adventure you're looking for!


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Wandering Koala Rides the Phantom Coach by Jeff Thomason


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a weird and wonderful comic book done in reds, blacks, grays, and white, with fairly minimal text. The artwork is engaging, and the coloring really attracts. It begins with a way overly dominant guy leading his girl out of the movie theater before the ending because he knows how it ends and he doesn't care that his girl wanted to watch it to the end.

He tries to play up the delight of finding an early bus which is largely empty as opposed to the crowded one they would have had to ride had they stayed in the theater, but the girl isn't convinced at all. The thing is that this bus is rather unusual, as they discover when the driver, who now looks like cross between Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Scarecrow from the Batman comics and movies, will not let them off the bus. Before long, ghosts start to materialize on the bus, and this normal couple now looks to be trapped in a nightmare that seems like it will hold them prisoner until Christmas, if not longer.

I enjoyed this because of the art and the weird plot. The only complaint I had was that the images did not occupy the full screen of the tablet in my Nook app. The page occupied only about three-quarters of the screen, and if you tried to enlarge it, it became a static image which you then had to close before you could swipe to the next page. Not ideal at all, and Nook app is usually a lot better than this. It's certainly a generation ahead of the crappy Amazon Kindle app, but this makes two comics now that I've had this annoying issue with. I recommend the comic, though.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Light by Rob Cham


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a magnificent work of art. Rob Cham is inventive and talented and has produced a visual feast of a comic which needs no words. The story is of a young character who is fearless and adventurous, and who goes out into his literal black and white world looking for something new. Deep in a cave world he discovers it in the shape of five hard-won crystals, each a different color. Along the way he makes enemies and friends, but when he returns and unleashes his treasure, his whole world changes.

The drawings are very detailed, and superbly drawn and shaded, even when black and white. The world is imaginative and the characters, all of them non-human, are fantastical in nature and fascinating. The comic is a hundred pages or so, but seems too short. It flies by too fast even as you take your time reading it. I recommend this comic book highly.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Shalilly by Elizabeth Gracen, Luca di Napoli


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this review is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the author and publisher.

I was so impressed with this novel that I began to think that the author had been through all of my reviews, made notes of the things which tick me off in YA novels, and then strove to avoid all of them in her writing. It was, frankly, a bit creepy! Obviously she didn't actually do that, but I have to say this was a remarkable read, and hit all the high notes for me (that's an inside joke - you'll have to read the novel to discover what it means!

Elizabeth Gracen has had an interesting history in film and print, and this is her debut novel. It's very good and refreshingly different - playful, inventive, humorous, original, and a truly engaging read. Illustrated with welcome insight by means of a few (too few for me!) delightful images from talented artist Luca di Napoli, this is written in an easy-going, quick-moving style if, I have to add, a little stilted on occasion in the conversations. It tells the story of young Filipina, heir not-so-apparent to the oracle Theano, and of Fippa's young friend Ision, a soldier.

It has a prologue which I skipped as I do all prologues (and I never miss them!). Chapter one launches us right into the middle of things, which is where I love to begin a story, with Ision being cast into another realm and Fippa electing to go after him in an effort to prevent the evil Timeus from succeeding in his plans, which rely on keeping them apart. The first thing Fippa does is to get drunk! How many times have you read that in a fairy-tale?! I was hooked.

Technically, Fippa isn't a fairy, but one of the butterfly girls known as Shalilly, and she really didn't intend to get passed-out drunk on the nectar. It was just so good! I mean come on. Tell me you've never drunk so much nectar you haven't passed out. I knew it! This episode does educate her and strengthen her resolve, however. It was honestly refreshing to encounter a young, leading character who quickly learns from her mistakes, and it soon becomes clear that Fippa is dedicated to her mission, and constantly re-evaluating strategies to achieve her aim. She has a lot going on upstairs and it was so nice to read of a female character written by a female author who had more on her mind than how studly her beau was (not that she didn't have that on her mind, too!). See, YA writers? It can be done! Elizabeth Gracen shows you how!

That's not to say Fippa is perfect though. She has a temper and a jealous streak on which she has to strive to keep a tight rein, and these are traits which do not help her circumstances. Fippa's experiences in Paradigm, the fairy-tale world which she volunteered to visit in order to save Ision are very entertaining, but she quickly becomes disempowered, and a prisoner - and a despised one at that. Now her job is all the more difficult, and she has only her wits to save the day, but she proves equal to the task.

In a page (or two!) taken from One Thousand and One Nights , she tells Ision, who is now ignorant of their critical past, a story in the hopes of educating him as gently as she can. I'm not a fan of flashbacks at all, but this was one way of doing this, and which didn't feel false. It didn't even feel like it was interrupting the story because it was an integral part of it. Nicely done! Some might find this section a bit long, and I confess I missed the Shalilly version of Fippa quite honestly, but never was there any point where I wanted to skip this part.

The humor was a delight, yet the story was also serious. I did find some unintentional humor, but more than likely it's just me being weird. One example I remember was at the beginning, where I read, "Ision felt the horse slow its pace as Fippa placed her hand on his." Now it's obvious what is meant here, but the way it's written, if you're as warped about writing as I am, it can be deemed that Pippa put her hand on the horse's hand. Hey, it's a fantasy - it could happen! And we know the horse was maybe fifteen or sixteen hands, so that's a lot of hands to go around! LOL!

Not that I'm going to downgrade a story for that kind of thing, but as a writer, it's worth keeping in mind that it's not only what you write, but also the way you write it. As it was, this novel was warm enough and such a joy to read that I could overlook more serious problems than this (not that there were any here), and that counts too: your readers will forgive you a lot more if you give them good reasons to!

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I always find something to carp about, but it was really hard to find anything wrong here. Yes, there was the cliché of the heroic dude with the "gold-flecked green eyes" - gold flecks are way over done in YA literature - but it seemed like every time I experienced a growing fear that this story was going down to tropeville, the author took it in another direction and saved it. Hence my feeling that she'd been reading my reviews!

Sometimes the language seemed a bit overly modern for ancient Greece, such as when Ision says, "...chuck it all...", and other times there were questionable turns of phrase, such as when Fippa says, "What if they could care less if I am returned?" What she meant was "What if they couldn't care less..." Normally this wouldn't bother me because people really do speak like that in real life, but this was not modern life where that phrase has entered common use - it was ancient Greece (or a very near approximation to it), so it felt like this ought to have been more accurate.

The last thing I'd mention is that "I am a girl who has barely stepped foot..." is a pet peeve of mine. I don't like 'stepped foot' because to me it sounds odd and clunky. I know authors write this routinely, but in this particular case, I'd like to argue that the more traditional "set foot" would have been a better choice of words for a charming story like this. It's worth thinking about as a writer, but as a reader, none of this was worth down-grading a novel over, by any means, because it would be mean!

I've been to Greece more than once and I've actually been to the Delphi area. It was beautiful, and the writing really brings out the essence of the country and the scenery without going into excessive detail. The author writes it beautifully, and she depicts the ancient Delphi oracle to perfection in my opinion.

Talking of essence, this novel made me wish I could bottle the essence of how she wrote it so I could unleash it on my own writing! The novel is so good that it almost makes a fellow writer wish for its author to fall on her face in her next outing just so he can feel better about his own efforts! But since I fell in love with the Shalilly (shamelessly and inappropriately so, I confess) I'm going to be bigger than that, and instead congratulate Elizabeth Gracen on a really good novel, and wish her all the best. Grace-n is the perfect name for this author! I recommend this novel highly, and I now I must endure the agonizing (<-Greek roots word!) wait for her next novel! O the Phates! (<-Greek joke word!)


Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Wishing World by Todd Fahnestock


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this was an advance review copy from Net Galley, for which I thank the publisher.

This is an amazingly good middle-grade fantasy novel about eleven-year-old Lorelei (or is she really Loremaster?), a young girl who lost her brother and parents, all of whom she loved very much - yes, even her brother - and not only did no one believe her story of what happened, no one was able to find her family. She was considered delusional for merely telling the truth about what happened, and was referred to a rather sinister psychiatrist.

This explains why, as we begin the story, she's climbing up onto the roof of her old home to try to get inside to find the 'comet stone' which she believes will deliver answers. Instead, she discovers that she's somehow called a griffon out of the peculiar world of Veloran, and he refers to her as Doolivanti. Before long, she's inside the fantasy land, and searching for a princess who can help her defeat the Ink King and return her family to her!

I loved how fast those story moved. It was perfect in that regard, but it wasn't all plain sailing. Pip, the toucan was annoying because he insisted upon duplicating every sentence he spoke! Other than that I had no problem with, and took every joy in the writing until the princess showed up. The attempt to make her speak in a pseudo medieval language didn't work. Maybe middle-graders won't notice or be bothered by this, but it felt fake to me, especially when she said "Prithee, to whence have I come?"!

Whence is a 'from' word, and it incorporates 'from', so you can't use it with 'to'. It's used in the form: "Whence this bounty?" if you should happen across an unexpected pile of gold for example, or a table laden with food. "Whence do you hail?" might be used to ask where someone came from. It's one of those antique words like 'wherefore', which doesn't mean 'where'. It means 'why?' When Juliet says, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?", she's asking why is he a Montague - the family so at odds with her own Capulet family? If he went by any other name, they would not be enemies. But what's in a name? As I said, the rest of the novel was so good that these things became minor considerations.

Kindle isn't known for being a solid app, and often Amazon's process for converting a novel to Kindle format merely mangles it instead. This one wasn't awful, but the Kindle formatting resulted in random lines being truncated half way across the screen, only to resume on the next line down. Also, and quite frequently, the Kindle version took the last line of a page and encased it in a number one at the beginning and a zero at the end, like this:--1 King in the dark. -0. I think perhaps the Kindle conversion process got confused with what was a page number and what was the last line on the page. Hopefully that will be resolved when the final release is published. On my iPad, in Bluefire Reader, the book looked perfect.

Kindle also loves to mangle images, and it did so with gay abandon in this case. The images are at the start of each chapter, and in the Adobe Digital Editions reader on my desktop, the entire book was formatted perfectly. On my phone though, Amazon sliced and diced, and even Julienned the images. I've seen this in many ebooks, and it was the reason I abandoned all hope of migrating images and special text formatting from my book Poem y Granite. I stripped all of the images out and formatted all of the text with the same font for the Kindle version.

One thing I found my imagination running away with in this novel was how Christmas carols seemed to be woven into the story. I'm reasonably sure the author never planned it that way and this is just my over-active imagination at work, but this is the kind of story, like Neale Osbourne's Lydia's Enchanted Toffee which I praised back in November 2015, that stimulates imagination and is the major reason why I'm rating this one a worthy read.

Humans (and many animals, are predisposed to see patterns in things. It's what keeps us alive if we're paying attention, and is part of what law enforcement and the military call "situational awareness." The downside is that it's the kind of thing which also fuels conspiracy theories and inane beliefs in UFOs, the Loch Ness "monster" and sasquatch. On the other side of that coincidence, if people didn't hold such beliefs, I'd never have been able to get away with Saurus, so I can't complain!

But I digress. I was impressed by the mysterious Silent Knight in this novel, and this got me on the Christmas carol track. Silent Knight? So, were the three characters Lorelei first meets, the three ships that came sailing in, or the three kings of orient (it's always three, isn't it?!). When I started thinking of Lorelei and Ripple, the aqueous-addicted princess of the antique language, as the Holly and the Ivy, I realized my imagination was indeed running away! You can warp anything to fit your "conspiracy" if you're willing to shed rationale and logic and let your imagination run riot!

So, before I let my imagination run away any more, let me say that I loved this novel, despite a minor issue here and there, and I recommend it highly. It's fun, it's fast-paced, it's inventive, it's amusing, and it's well worth reading even if you're not middle-grade! I look forward to Todd Fahnestock's next work with warm anticipation!