Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moving week capsules

Two quick reviews of books that probably deserve longer reviews.

The Rangers Apprentice Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan
by John Flanagan
Puffin Books, 2005
249 pages

This is a newish YA fantasy series my wife has been telling me to check out for a couple of years, so I finally picked it up while I was waiting for my other book to come in at the library.  (I think she's read the first few books of the series three times in the last two years.  So far, we own the first six)  It's a good start to a promising series.  It felt to me like it took a little bit of time to get into it, but then again I know how tough it is trying to get a story started when you're dealing with fantasy, history, mythology, etc.  It's pretty much your standard mentor/protege story with some very cool action sequences.  "The Ruins of Gorlan" was an unfortunate title choice, however, as the ruins aren't even mentioned until the book is practically over, and then they're just the place where the climactic battle happens. 

Then again, I know that titles can be tough, too.  As I've noted before, you don't really need a snappy title if it's a part of a series.  Nobody really refers to this as The Ruins of Gorlan; it's generally just going to be "the first Ranger's Apprentice book."

Mistborn: The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson
Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2006
537 pages

All of my fantasy-reading acquaintances have been raving about Brandon Sanderson and, I've got to admit, up to this point I've been a little disappointed.  I mean, I always enjoy his stories, but I've never really been awed by them.  They're good, but I didn't see why the man was so unanimously anointed the Next Big Thing. 

Now, I've finally read the first in his Mistborn trilogy. Finally, I'm starting to get the picture.

The Final Empire avoids every criticism I've had for the other two books I've read by this author, Elantris and The Way of Kings. It's interesting from the start, and the narrative is clearly focused throughout.  Because there are fewer storylines, they're much tighter, and it's easy to see how they fit into the thrust of the action very early on. The narrative doesn't bother reminding us of individual character traits at every opportunity (earlier books went out of their way to tell us how witty and clever certain characters were or how pious and confident others were rather than letting the characters' words and actions do it for us).  The characters were believable, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.  Really, I don't have anything bad to say about this book except for the very minor critique that it occasionally feels like you're reading a tutorial on Allomancy. (Which is basically what the protagonist is doing in those moments, but it can get just a little tedious. 

Fortunately, Allomancy is really cool.  I want to see this story turned into an Xbox game.   It would be sort of like MegaMan meets Prince of Persia meets a SquareSoft game.  All of the characters are just about perfect.  The plot twists are surprising and effective, the threat is significant, and (with the exception of a couple moments near the end) Sanderson doesn't rely on any deus ex machina-style conventions to bring the story to an electrifying conclusion.  The modern-sounding dialogue may throw some picky fantasy purists, but I liked it for the most part.

I can't wait to revisit this world with the other books in this series. It's a book I'd recommend to anybody interested in fantasy/adventure stories.


Well, October is nearly upon us, and in honor of Halloween I'm going to designate October as Scary Books Month.  I've opened up The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and if I get through that before the month is out (let's hope I can manage that!), I'll flip through the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Other suggestions for good monster stories?

Friday, September 16, 2011

End of Summer. Eventually.

And, the weather is finally marginally cooler.  Now we're only hovering in the mid-to-upper 90's.  Awesome.  

These write-ups will probably be kind of short, partially because there's not much to say about the first two and partially because Isaac's going to wake up soon.

The Sword Thief
by Peter Lerangis
160 pages
Scholastic, 2009
What's the first thing I read after finishing a summer's worth of YA novels?  More YA novels!  Actually, I was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but in the time it took me to finish that I got through a couple of kids books.  Cause, you know, they're short.

This is the third book in the 39 Clues series.  It offered some neat character growth for a few of the many characters in the book and some interesting tidbit about a historical figure I'd never heard of before (these books are great for that, by the way), but the adventure itself was kind of lackluster.  I spent most of the book thinking I'd probably drop this series after this one, but the ending was pretty good and I'll admit I'm still intrigued, so I'll probably pick up the next one at some point.  Oh, and worth noting, this book was worlds better than book #2 was.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw
by Jeff Kinney
224 pages
Amulet Books, 2009
Now this is a series I may be done with.  The first book was hilarious, clever from cover to cover.  Highly recommended. The second suffered from sequel-itis.  The ideas weren't as fresh, many of the jokes weren't as clever, the overall story wasn't as strong. This book definitely suffered from three-quel-itis. Now, obviously, I'm not DOAWK's target audience, and the kids at my church tell me the second and third books are where the series starts to get funny.  Go figure. 

Here's my recommendation: next time you go to the library, pick up this book.  Read until you get to the end of the section about the kid writing his own children's book.  It won't take you too long, and it's incredibly funny.  Then put the book back down on your shelf and take the first Diary home with you. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
505 pages
Harper Perennial (Modern Classics) 2001 (orig. copyright 1943)
Ah, grown-up fiction at last. (And, note, not a fantasy nor an adventure story, either!  Way to branch out, me!)  This book was so good, I kind of don't know what to say about it.  There's a reason a classic is a classic. While the book is about a girl growing into womanhood, it's such a well-written, warm, relateable book that I never felt turned off by the fact that it's basically the origin of ChickLit.  It's a story of a family struggling in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn (where a tree grows, both literally and metaphorically).  What happens?  The usual things that happen.  Birth, death, poverty, first jobs, first kisses, crazy neighbors, outings gone horribly wrong, new schools, holidays.  There's nothing out of the ordinary in the story.  It's just a great story. It's a downer at points, but it's not depressing.  It's about the survival and not the obstacles.  Francie's family sort of takes the underdog role for most of the book, and it's easy to pull for each of them.  I read this book because a good friend mentioned she'd read it something like six times, and I can see how the re-read value would be high.  A high schooler reading this book will get an entirely different story than a college grad, or a new parent, or a grandmother, et cetera.

Now, it took me a while to get through, but not because it was a "tough read."  It was actually a really easy read.  However, the episodic structure of the story meant that most chapters wrapped up nicely.  There weren't many cliffhangers, so I was never itching to get back because I just had to know what happened next.  And with the way my life's been running lately, let's just say things like recreational reading have easily been dropped to the wayside for days at a time.  Nevertheless, phenomenal book.  Pretty highly recommended.