Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Review: Kaia and the Sea


Review of Kaia and the Sea

        Kaia and the Sea is a wordless picture book by Jestenia Southerland. Kaia wakes up with a pod of seals. She dons a witch hat and a cape, and spends the day exploring under the sea. Her cape is an extremely well-designed imitation of a fish. When Kaia swims slowly, it billows behind her, but when she needs speed, it wraps close, giving the impression of a mermaid.

        It’s cute. The entire book sticks to the colors of a beach. Each fish is unique, even when a school is swimming across the page. The fish and other sea life are drawn accurately, in a realistic, gentle cartooning style that favors pastel colors and soft lines. Ms. Sutherland has used beautiful digital painting to create this delightful array of sea life. It’s adorable and engaging. The lack of words facilitates the story-telling, as there is a clear presentation of the narrative, and lots of detail to captivate the reader. There is even a bit of drama when a school of marlins race past, disrupting Kaia’s excursion.

Five stars! This means it is excellent and worth rereading.

        This book has 32 pages. The print version is a perfect-bound paperback. Probably most appealing for ages three through eight, or anyone who enjoys art and large aquariums.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Review: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Review of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

        An English family, who have recently moved into a bungalow in India, adopt a waterlogged mongoose. Rikki is very pleased to become a house mongoose, and quickly adapts to his new life. When his new family is threatened by highly venomous snakes, including a family of King Cobras, Rikki heroically leaps to the rescue.

        Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a short story in The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling. The entire Jungle Book is well worth reading, but this story in particular was a childhood favorite of mine. Rikki is the perfect pet. He is brave, loyal, kind, friendly and generally happy with life. Rikki protects his family, especially his boy, even at risk of death. He stays with his boy until he falls asleep, then is off to patrol the house. Kipling also depicts a number of anthropomorphic garden creatures, including Darzee the tailorbird, who can be rather flighty, but is a very good composer. He has a nice song at the end of the book. Five stars!
                                                                   
John Lockwood Kipling, 1895
                                                                
        The original was illustrated by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, and W.H. Drake. These are lovely, detailed sketches, and included in many of the public domain versions. 

W.H. Drake, 1895

        Rikki-Tikki-Tavi has since been re-illustrated again and again, both with the rest of The Jungle Book, and as a standalone children’s book. For a full color version, I recommend the 1997 edition illustrated by Jerry Pinkney in watercolor. His art is gorgeous, with crisp lines and soft colors. Very realistic, too. (A nice collection of Pinkney’s art is currently displayed on digital tour via the Norman Rockwell Museum). 


Monday, May 18, 2020

Review: Darby O'Gill and the Good People

Review of Darby O'Gill and the Good People

        Darby O’Gill and the Good People is a series of Irish stories about Darby’s adventures with the fairy folk of Ireland. After Darby’s cow is stolen by the fairies, he sets out to retrieve her. In the process, he becomes stuck inside the mountain Sleive-na-mon for six months with the fairies. In this time he forms a friendship with the King of the Fairies, Brian Conners. This cements Darby’s reputation of being knowledgeable about supernatural goings on. This is really useful, as Darby encounters different supernatural beings at regular intervals. With all the fairies, the leprechaun, the banshee, and the headless coachman, Darby O’Gill is a very good introduction to Irish lore.

        Herminie Templeton Kavanagh wrote a lot of words phonetically, and includes Irish words here and there. The advantage of this method is a very real Irish accent and speaking style. It’s a very charming, down-to-earth style of story telling that stays true to its cultural roots. While some of the stories are a bit scary, Darby isn’t in mortal danger, and Bridget and the children are always kept safe and provided for, no matter how long it takes Darby to complete his escapade.

        This is the sort of book that will set a room laughing. It’s a down to earth telling of the unearthly. My favorite story is The Banshee’s Comb, in which poor Darby is sent, on “All Sowls' night” (“whin the spirits of the dayparted dead visit once again their homes”), in the rain, to deliver tea to a banshee-visited house. My mom read this to me and my siblings when I was young, and I went back and reread it multiple times. It’s a good book. There are six fairy tales, and they build on each other, but each would make sense if read alone.

Five stars!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: First Cycle


First Cycle

Review of First Cycle

First Cycle, by H. Beam Piper and Michael Kurland, is entirely a world-building book. It follows the evolution of twin planets, and the societies that eventually thrive on them. The first few chapters follow planetary collision and evolution. However, as soon as intelligent life appears, the recorded passage of time slows down, becoming a series of short stories covering interesting characters at significant points in history.

  Thalassa, the world with great oceans, evolves six-fingered green people, who quickly assemble into a basic patriarchal feudal system. The Thalassans are a war-like people; technological advances and trade are generally intertwined into the endless onslaught of war.

Hetaira, the world with land and scattered lakes, takes longer to evolve, but by and large skips the prolonged war campaigns of its twin. The red-furred people of Hetaira live in family “gangs,” and are constantly sharing information and improvements. Although gangs occasionally combine, each is effectively its own nation. Interestingly, the females are nearly the same size as the males, and thus Hetaira is generally gender-equitable.

It’s a wonderful book for world-building. The chapters mostly alternate between Thalassa and Hetaira. First Cycle is written entirely in the third person. Instead of following one or two characters, each era centers on a group of Hetairans making advancements, or the current geopolitical and military campaigns of the Thalassans. Piper and Kurland have used a lot of altered Earth history to put the two groups together, but each group has altered the themes to make them their own. As the book goes on, we stay with each group longer. Once the planets begin their space age, there are recurring characters as the pace of advance becomes faster and faster.

The main author, H. Beam Piper, died in 1964. First Cycle was finished by Micheal Kurland, and published in 1982. I’m giving it four out of five stars because I enjoyed it enough to try other books by these authors. I liked it because the ideas and writing style are different, which is especially important for keeping science fiction fresh. If you’re looking for a character-driven story, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something different, or an inspiration to beat writer's block, this is a good book to read. First Cycle teaches a lot about worldbuilding, and there is enough information in most of the glimpses into each century to develop characters for a longer novel. 

While First Cycle is still under copyright, many of H. Beam Piper’s other works have fallen into the public domain (at least in the States).




Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Review: Star Clans: A Troll Hunt


        Star Clans: A Troll Hunt, by H.A. Austin and Peter Austin, follows the epic adventure of a young Viking Captain in space. He sets out on a complicated foray against the Trolls, who have captured his blood-brother. On the way, he is forced to deal with a new race of telepaths, the Amazons. It’s a good book to hand to a twelve-year-old. Clean language and  no improprieties. Violence (Viking and Troll battles), but minimal gore.

Sailing Ship, not Star Ship

       The lore is alarmingly thorough. There is a clear understanding of Greek and Roman mythology, which constructs the basis of Viking and Amazon cultures. The Viking command structure follows traditional Norse military positions. Their loot division contracts are what one would expect of a sailing privateer. A particularly hilarious race of fairies hails straight from Shakespearean comedy.

If you enjoy Rick Riordan or John Flanagan, you will like this book.

       The weapons and ships are so detailed and well-described that it would be very possible to sketch in a CAD program and/or make 3D models. The female warriors are realistic, and tend to rely on strategy and skill rather than brute force. The Amazons are really interesting in this regard, as they have pushed their remote battlefield technologies to favor stealth and drone-based lethality. The Vikings’ primary occupation seems to be battle-craft, with an emphasis on Troll hunting. The Trolls themselves are extremely well-defended giants who travel in massive bands of hundreds and tens of thousands, and build massively fortified battlements.

appear in book
Valkyrie by Peter Nicolai Arbo

       The space battles (to my limited understanding of military tactics) appear to be plausibly accurate. The crafts take advantage of all three dimensions, not just the traditional two used in land-based fighting. The ships’ technologies and use of their surroundings are grounded in scientific thought. It’s clear the authors did a lot of research.

viking shields
The Drakkar shields by Noveau Larousse IlustrĂ©

       For a first book, this is excellent. It needs a proofreader to fix the typos, but first-time authors can be reluctant to relinquish control of their art. However, that is a minor concern in relation to the sheer quantity of science, mythology, and history packed into this volume. There is no shortage of plot, and clearly enough material here for a long series. My rating scale gives four stars if this book would cause me to read more by this author, and five if the book is worth rereading. Star Clans: A Troll Hunt is an action-packed adventure full of humor and camaraderie, and worth rereading, which would make it a five. The absence of proofreading is annoying enough to deduct half a point. I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

4.5 stars


The publisher's website features several short stories by the author.

*The pictures are public domain art from the mid 1800s.
**This is a free review, and reflects my own personal opinion. I am related to the authors.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review: Rocket Raccoon and Groot Steal the Galaxy!


rocket and groot

Review of Guardians of the Galaxy: 

Rocket Raccoon and Groot Steal the Galaxy! 

    This dramatic graphic audio follows the adventures of Rocket, a genetically modified, cheerfully trigger-happy raccoonoid, and his walking tree sidekick, the mighty Groot. This is a really fun audio book. The dramatic recording is complete with an excellent voice cast, music, and sound effects. The recorder is lovable and while he is rather helpless in a firefight, his skill is his vast database, which continually provides useful information. There is a lot of action, and a lot of plot in every chapter. Dan Abnett wrote this as a comic book in prose form, recorded by very good voice actors. I really enjoyed listening to this, it non-stop action, and the story really drew me in.

Their adventure is narrated by Rigelian Recorder 127. Recorder 127 contains a vital piece of information needed to create a device to control the multiverse. Unfortunately, he has no idea what this information is, and he has very large memory banks. Fortunately, Recorder 127 has fallen into the company of Rocket and Groot, who are on an independent trading excursion from the other Guardians of the Galaxy. Multiple galactic powers are in pursuit of them, including the Kree, the Nova Core, and a Black Knight with a Teleportation Plot Device. There is no shortage of action, danger, jeopardy, and shooting. A lot of shooting. Mostly by a raccooniod with “freakishly human-like hands.”

Rocket Raccoon and Groot Steal the Galaxy is also available in book form. The graphic audio has been abridged to about six hours, which was perfect for listening to at home over the course of a week. It’s a hoot. They are all literally running around, running out of danger, and inexplicably attracting danger in absurdly silly ways.  Five of five stars. Definitely a good book for a repeat listen. If you like action/adventure comics or Marvel, you will like this audio-book.

For those following the Marvel Cinematic Universe,  this story is on a slightly different timeline. The team is alive on hiatus, and Groot is an adult.  You don’t need the movies to understand the story. If you have seen the movies, don’t worry, this is a whole new plot.

Contains comic violence and tight clothes. Objectionable words have been replaced by “flark.” It’s probably at the higher end of PG and the lower end of PG-13.



Monday, March 9, 2020

Review: The Light Princess


the light princess

The Light Princess

          The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale. In fact, it purposefully and comically includes every traditional fairy tale element, down to the king in his counting house, counting out his money. The plot starts out with a common issue: The king forgets to invite his sister (who also happens to be a vengeful witch) to his daughter's christening. The witch shows up anyway and curses the baby princess to be light of spirit and body. From there, the story takes a unique and hilarious turn: The lighthearted princess has no gravity, and laughs at everything. The story follows the implications of growing up without gravity. Written in the pre-space age of 1864, the book does a very good job detailing the princess's plight. The servants can gently toss her back and forth like a ball, but if she isn't caught, she drifts to the ceiling, and they may need a ladder to bring her down again. It's a fun, relaxing book full of puns and delightfully hilarious scenes.

          The king's philosopher's devise many plans to return to her gravity, though none are safe enough to implement.  By accident the princess discovers her gravity returns in the water, so she spends her days in her beloved lake. The king’s philosopher’s finally decide she will be cured if she cries, but the princess cannot cry because she is lighthearted and only laughs. My mom read this to my siblings and me repeatedly as we were growing up, and it always provoked a lot of discussion. What would happen if someone put a string on the princess, and floated her about like a balloon, for instance? What if she drifted out a window? How far up would she float? The version we had when I was little was beautifully illustrated with sketches by Maurcie Sendak.

          The Light Princess is a short book. It can be read aloud in under two hours. It is slightly verbose in places, which can be helpful for expanding children’s vocabularies. Five of five stars. Definitely a good book to read again and again.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Review: The Invisible Man

invisible man

Review of The Invisible Man

          The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells. Basically, a mad scientist develops superpowers, and makes himself invisible before he knows how to reverse the condition.

          A brilliant, self-absorbed researcher discovers the secret to creating a machine that will turn things and people invisible. After three years, Griffin succeeds, just when he has reached the end of his resources and is facing eviction. Fearful that someone will discover his secretive work, he turns himself invisible. Unfortunately, being invisible comes with unforeseen problems. Griffin finds himself running around barefoot and without clothes in the middle of winter. He’s an invisible stumbling block, and people keep bumping into him.

          The story is from the perspectives of the people the invisible man encounters. The third person is a nice change from first person books, because it shows how actions cause ripple through the community. The reader is not asked to empathize with any one person, as each side gets the chance to voice their own viewpoint, but each side tells a different part of the story, so it does not repeat itself.

          H.G. Wells makes an interesting case for responsible use of power, by showing the difficulties that result from misusing power over others. This is a classic, and with good reason. There’s a lot of plot here, and a lot of thought went into the mechanics of invisibility; for instance, it wouldn’t work in the rain or if the person gets muddy. Griffin himself is an interesting case from a mental standpoint. He is completely alone in the world. No friends, no relations, and extremely secretive. I would expect a normal person on the point of eviction to acquire some investors for his working invention, not turn invisible and take to the streets. The thought of an invisible madman running loose, to do what he likes without consequences, is frightening.

Five out of five stars.


          I listened to the audio-book read by Alex Foster, who has a nice voice and an English accent. He did a good job. He did voices for some of the characters, so it is very easy to follow conversations. Alex Foster kindly made his recording free via Librivox.







Saturday, February 1, 2020

Review: Jurassic Park


Jurassic Park

A review of Jurassic Park  

           The field of genetic technologies booms. Cutting edge genetic scientists are whisked away to build an ambitious dinosaur theme park. Problems soon arise: The story opens on the adjacent mainland, where the reader is given the distinct impression that some of the dinosaurs may have already escaped. To allay investor concerns, John Hammond, the park owner assembles a team of experts for a tour. Unfortunately, an attempt at industrial espionage shuts off the fences, stranding the experts (and two children) in the middle of Jurassic park.

            This is a good read, even if you have already seen the movie. The plot is much more complicated and involved then the film adaption, and the characters are more developed. Dr. Grant loves children, especially dinosaur-obsessed children. Their adventure together is much longer and more exciting then the film version. There is an overabundance of detail in every scene. The dinosaur behaviors are extremely comprehensive and consistent. Modern bird and reptile hunting styles have been considered and used to enhance the details of the dinosaur’s hunts.

            The first third sets up the premise in a series of scenes, which include technical explanations for everything from genetic sequencing to paleontology to investors speculating on potential profits. Also, an interesting investigation of dinosaur attacks helps keep up the pace.

            The final two-thirds is just straight-up action-packed adventure. The elaborate security measures are down! Dinosaurs have escaped! Lovable characters are being hunted! Annoying characters are being eaten! The only gun on the island capable of stopping a tyrannosaurus rex is missing! Amidst all the confusion, Dr. Grant and his two new wards must embark on an arduous trek through some of the most dangerous paddocks on the island. Only time is running out, because they possess information that may be vital to the survival of untold others!


Five stars


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Review: A Man Called Ove



Review: A Man Called Ove

            A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is a sad, humorous, drama of grief, life and death. Ove is a stubborn, difficult, and rather taciturn man, who is grieving the loss of the love of his life. Since his wife died, Ove, (who was never very outgoing to begin with), has withdrawn from the world, barely talking to others. His grief is very real and poignant, and it isolates him. 

            Ove's grief comes to a crisis point when he is suddenly retired from the job he held for three decades. Ove struggles with the new lack of defined purpose. His sees retirement as becoming superfluous. In his view, retiring means “wandering about, a burden on society, what sort of man would want that?” Ove can choose to die, or process his grief, and learn to interact with life instead of withdrawing from it. Now, just when Ove has decided to join his wife, his new neighbors back their trailer into his mailbox. His new neighbor is Parvannah, a kind pregnant woman who sees through Ove's gruffness, and befriends him.

            The contrast between how Ove views the world and how everyone else does is humorous. Ove has not adapted to modern life. His phone has a line, his car has a manual transmission, and he only has a bank card because his wife left one without spending all the money on it. He doesn't know how to deal with his new neighbors, especially when Parvannah takes charge.

            Ove’s character is developed in a series of flashbacks detailing defining moments in Ove’s life. His character maintains remarkable consistency, while still showing growth over time. His memories show why Ove became this way, and how early experiences and grief create lasting impressions over multiple generations. His struggles are real and relatable. The way the characters interact is genuine. Ove’s obstinance to lives by his own set of rules is consistent throughout. He will argue with salesclerks and boycott shops over pocket change, and at the same time making serious efforts to help the “incompetent” people around him. As grumpy, argumentative, and difficult as he is to talk to, he shows up when people need him. He can be kind, thoughtful, and useful. He can be vulnerable and sweet. Ove is a redeemable character, which evokes reader sympathy. We want Ove to thrive, even when he has decided otherwise.

Four of five stars.