“Dragon Plus +” Review

5-star rating

Tucson, Arizona, fantasy artist Jessica Feinberg’s little “guide to hybrid creatures” is a visual delight. Each of the over five dozen beings—mostly hybrids of dragons with one or more other life forms—is beautifully and dramatically rendered in vibrant watercolors. OK, maybe the illustrations don’t quite live up to the standards of a John James Audubon, but I doubt that was ever the artist’s intent!

And I don’t care.

Each painting is accompanied by a brief note on the creature’s composition, history, habitat, preferred diet, size, and level of danger to curious humans. Good things to know, should you wish to have one as a pet—or avoid them. The habitat information is especially valuable since, while some live in the usual locations—remote caves, deserts, or forests—and some in deep lakes, rivers, or seas, some hang out in more accessible locations. One is particularly dangerous to readers. The Library Sphinx, lurks in—you guessed it—libraries, although fortunately only in occult and mystical ones. Your favorite public library is probably sphinx-free (but be careful in the rare books section).

Who knew there were so many such hybrids? We can thank Feinberg for revealing them. A must-read for any would-be dragon-rider or -hunter.


“Elements of Critique” Review

4-star rating

(Cover image)

Actual rating: 3.5 stars.

It’s important to understand what David Williamson’s short book is and what it is not. It is not, and readers should not expect it to be, a complete or exhaustive guide to how to effectively critique another writer’s work. It’s clear Williamson never intended it to be that.

Instead, the book is a collection of 26 slightly revised blog posts, plus three additional articles, that provide brief discussions of some critique topics and techniques. Because the original posts—running in alphabetical order from “Appearance” to “Zaftig”—were short, Williamson could only scratch the surface, touching on a few topics each time.

In general, he does a reasonable job with the space he has available. There are a few places where his suggestions miss the mark, however. In his chapter on point of view, he seems to be OK with head-hopping, that is, shifting from one point of view character to another within a scene or chapter without any sort of break, like a scene break. This goes against the general guidance for writers that there should be only one viewpoint character per scene.

In his chapter on verb tenses, he fails to address transitions into and out of flashbacks, where the verb tense must naturally shift.

Finally, in several chapters, Williamson inserts elements of his faith. This is inappropriate in a book that has nothing to do with religion or faith.

These problems pull what would have been a 4-star rating for its target audience down a half star (although most places where this review will be posted don’t allow half-star ratings).

Elements of Critique can serve as a basic introduction to critiquing for a writer who’s just getting started at it, but it is not appropriate for a more experienced critiquer.

“102 Favorite Paintings by Norman Rockwell” Review

4-star rating

For the members of a now-fading generation, Norman Rockwell’s paintings evoke a time and place they remember fondly. For later generations, they give an insight into an era far different from their own. Some “sophisticated” viewers will apply their own standards in order to find reasons to sneer at these works, or deride them for not sharing the viewers’ values and perceptions. This is unfortunate. The paintings should be understood for what they meant at the time they were created and the viewers they were created for.

That sort of over-interpretation will also miss the depth of Rockwell’s skill not only as a technician but as someone who could capture the personalities of the characters he put on his canvases. Their faces, their body language, their dress, and the situations they were placed in all turn them from characters into people the viewer could imagine meeting on the street and wouldn’t mind doing so.

The foregrounds and backgrounds too, not only provide information about the characters but focus the viewer on them. In some paintings, there’s no foreground or background at all, just the characters. Sometimes, like in the 1950 painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” the shop in the foreground is as much a character as the three musicians gathered in the back room.

Rockwell provided this information through the details he added to each image. Each was added thoughtfully, yet each could easily be missed, at least consciously. But in these paintings the whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts. Taken together, the details of the people and the setting combine to tell a story.

To be sure, Rockwell’s paintings captured only a certain part of America. Almost all of the people in the paintings are white and almost all are male, especially boys. It wasn’t until 1959’s “A Family Tree” or 1961’s “The Golden Rule” that non-white faces took a more prominent place. But that reflects the America Rockwell knew. “Should” he have known more, or reflected more? Now we’re applying a standard that simply didn’t exist when the images were painted.

Christopher Finch’s introduction and brief discussion of each featured painting are perhaps a bit more effusive than they need to be, but this book is not a volume of art criticism, and the articles do help the casual viewer see things they might not have noticed otherwise.


“The Crucible of Time” Review

Give John Brunner credit for trying to do something hard: tell the story of an alien species living on a hostile world as they evolve from near-primitives to space travelers. To do that, Brunner had to create the aliens, their world, its solar and stellar environments, and then put all that into a story spanning thousands of years. In less than 400 pages.

No easy feat. I wish he’d succeeded.

His solution to the span-of-years problem was clever enough: write seven 10-chapter novellas, each focusing on the creatures at some point in their scientific and cultural development. Then hit them with a catastrophe of some sort to wrap up that novella and jump ahead hundreds or thousands of years to when the species had mostly recovered. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, those catastrophes became more and more strained, as if Brunner was struggling to come up with the kinds of challenges that would move the story and the species forward.

The Crucible of Time has so many other flaws that this problem became almost insignificant. For starters, we never got a complete description of what these creatures looked like or what they called themselves. We learned they had a single eye, claws instead of hands, mandibles instead of lips, a mantle of some kind, and a number of legs that wasn’t defined until near the end of the book. In addition, they walked around using some kind of internal hydraulic system in “tubules” instead of muscles. Infants “budded” off of their mother, rather than gestating some other way. They used scents to communicate emotions. And for some, never-explained reason, they used a base-20 counting system. Alien, all right, but hard to picture.

Please click here to read the rest of the review.

‘The World of M. C. Escher’ Review

5-star rating

I’ve been fascinated by the work of 20th Century Dutch artist M. C. Escher since I first encountered it in college. His impossible constructions and transformation tilings in particular drew my eye and brain as I tried to figure out how he was able to create them. Somewhere along the way I picked up this book but have only now, years later, gotten around to reading it.

The essays at the front include one by Escher himself, but the first one, by museum curator J. L. Locher is the most enlightening. It describes how the artist used mathematical principles (without getting deep into the math itself) to structure many of his works, and how he used ambiguous shades of gray to smoothly turn a floor into a wall or a ceiling in a work like “Relativity” or create the closed loop staircase in “Ascending and Descending.”

If the book falls short anywhere, it’s in the limited attention it gives to Escher’s work in color. Many of his tilings, where he experimented with ways to divide up a flat surface with interlocking figures, were done in watercolor, for example. The book, however, shows only eight works in color, perhaps for cost reasons.

And while the book reproduces over 250 of his prints, a quick tour through the Escher Foundation web site’s gallery reveals many more.

The thing about Escher’s art in the latter half of his career is that while it’s mind-bending in so many ways, it’s still approachable. Viewers don’t need seven degrees in art appreciation to be enthralled by the work. While revealing how he did what he did, The World of M. C. Escher only increases that enchantment. Highly recommended.

“The Six” Review

3-star rating

This is actually a 3.5-star review but I don’t have an image for it.

Contrary to author Mark Alpert’s claim in his note at the end of the book, The Six is most definitely science fiction. Its essential premise and technologies are based on the states of science and technology in the mid-2010s, and it relies heavily on projections of the science and tech into the future, making it “hard” SF.

There are two core story-lines: the ability of doctors to map all of the synaptic connections in a human brain—the “connectome,” although Alpert never uses the term—and artificial intelligence. In this story, technology has advanced enough that it is not only possible to map a person’s connectome, it’s possible to copy it into a vast array of “neuromorphic” computer circuits which, like the brain, can rearrange themselves at will as the computer (or computerized person) learns and experiences new things. That technology is now ready for trial. Unfortunately, the test will kill the person whose brain is scanned and mapped. To get around that major ethical problem, six volunteer teenagers, all suffering from terminal illnesses—mainly cancer or Duchenne muscular dystrophy—are chosen to be the “Pioneers.” If successful, their minds will be recreated inside hulking, 600 pound robots whose shells protect the computer/brain inside.

At the same time, the father of protagonist Adam Armstrong (no symbolism in that name, is there?) has developed a fully-conscious artificial intelligence. He’s not alone: the Russians are doing it too. Unfortunately (of course), the AI, called “Sigma,” escapes its lab and goes on a rampage against all of humanity, whom it views as its competition. The Pioneers are (of course) the only ones who can defeat Sigma.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.

“In the Palm of Your Hand” Review

4-star rating

I dabble in writing poetry, so years ago a now-deceased poet-acquaintance recommended I pick up a copy of Steve Kowit’s book. At the time, I couldn’t get more than a few chapters into Palm because I wasn’t ready for it. It went back on the shelf.

Since then, my poems have been well received, even sweeping the poetry awards at a local writers’ conference last year. So a few months ago, I decided it was time to give the book another try. Four chapters in, I stalled out again, but after a few weeks away from it, I decided to keep going. I’m glad I did.

The book’s two subtitles, “The poet’s portable workshop,” and “A lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet” turned out to be accurate. Chapters 2 to 27 (of 30) end with exercises to encourage the reader to practice the topics discussed, and it was the exercises in chapters 2-4 that caused me to put the book down. Kowit was asking me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, dredging up old, perhaps unhappy memories. While this sort of material can certainly produce powerful poetry, this demand this early in the book is one of my few major complaints. Perhaps for the “practicing poet,” this kind of work is less challenging, but for the novice, particularly someone uninterested in revisiting those times, this can be intimidating enough to cause him or her to stop reading and stop trying. It would have been better, for this reader anyway, if these chapters had been placed later in the book.

To read the rest of this review, please click here.

“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs. As a result, most of the essays are directed at other college writing teachers, particularly those teaching undergraduates. This reduces the book’s value for the working writer.

Second, while all of the authors are published, many are award winners or New York Times best-sellers, and a few are big names in literary fiction (John Barth, Alberto Ríos, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley), because of their literary backgrounds, they pay scant attention to the genres besides “literary.” Further, the essayists assume that readers will be familiar with the predominantly literary stories and novels they refer to. Academics likely are, but writers in other-than-literary genres may not be, which makes the references less valuable.

To read the rest of this review, please click here.

The Lady of the Lake Review

3-star rating

“The Lady of the Lake” is Sir Walter Scott’s epic poetic tale of two, or possibly three, men who seek the hand of Ellen Douglas, the beautiful daughter of a Scottish nobleman (?). She lives with her father and retainers on a remote island on Loch Katrine, a lake in southwestern Scotland. One of the men, Malcolm Graeme, has been wooing her for a while; the second, James Fitz-James, is presented as a hunter who discovers Ellen and the isle after getting lost while chasing a deer; and the possible third suitor, Roderick Dhu, is the chief of a rebellious Scottish clan.

Conflict ensues between the men, of course, while at the same time Dhu is making trouble for the English king at Stirling Castle, not far away. The end of the tale is more or less happy (depending on your point of view), with the rebellious clan defeated, the hunter’s true identity revealed, and the long-time suitor winning the fair maiden’s hand.

I’m not used to reading long-form poetry. The combination of the sing-songy iambic quadrameter of the rhyming paired couplets that make up most of the poem, the turns of phrase needed to make the words fit into the lines, and the archaic and foreign terms, made the story hard for me to follow. For that reason, it’s hard for me to give a fair or complete evaluation of the poem, which is one of Scott’s most popular.

On top of that, my copy is a 1915 book for students. (That explains the odd cover image above.) The pages are fragile, the binding failing, and many pages at the end, containing explanatory notes and instructions for those students, are missing. I’m not even sure which side of my family originally owned the book. There’s no student name written inside it—although whoever had it certainly scribbled all over many of the pages—and it was printed the year my late mother was born. Perhaps if I’d had a more complete edition that was in better shape, I would have been able to concentrate more on the story.

“The Lady of the Lake” is considered a classic, so if long-form poetry written in the 1800s is your thing, I suppose this is one you have to check out.

“Seven Arrows” Review

4-star rating

Hyemeyohsts Storm’s 1972 book Seven Arrows is a very unusual work, a cross between historical fiction and an exegesis of the religious beliefs of the Native American people we now think of as being the tribes of the northern high plains of the United States, specifically the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow. Storm takes pains at the beginning to provide the names these tribes used for themselves: the Painted Arrow, the Brother People, and the Little Black Eagle. (These names may not be in the same order as the first list.) The only book in my experience that similarly combines a historical record with religious philosophy is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Seven Arrows weaves the two together, while the Bible’s historical parts are largely in the Old Testament.

Seven Arrows begins with a series of short pieces which introduce the reader to essential religious concepts: the Medicine Wheel, the Circle, and the Seven Arrows. “Medicine,” in the usage of the Native peoples, means far more than the limited way it’s used among whitepeople, as Storm calls those of European descent. I admit I have not even begun to really grasp the full depth and meaning of the term.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.