Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

I know that it's been a while since I've posted. It's been crazy trying to get everything on my Christmas list done before the fam flies in for a visit. I actually finished my last book a couple days ago. Finally got some time to write about it...

Title: The Blue Sword

Author: Robin McKinley

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Review: In The Blue Sword, young Harry Crewe is living with her new guardians in an outpost palace at the edge of the land of the Hillmen. Her life as an Outlander in this desert initially bores her, but a visit by the Hill-King and his Riders results in Harry being thrust into the Hillmen's world, where she not only adjusts, but thrives.

I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble getting through this book. It's not an easy page-turner, a la The Alchemyst or The Warrior Heir. The writing style is much less compelling. It's almost "quaint" in its execution, very pleasant, but also reserved. Even at points of the story as intense as fighting for one's life, the author does not veer from her matter-of-fact recounting of the events. That's not to say that she writes with no emotion; it's just subdued, as if McKinley is holding herself to some standard of propriety.

But although emotion is more of a background element in this book, it is the engrossing, detailed world that takes center stage. McKinley's description of Harry's surroundings, Hillmen traditions and legends are immersive. Both the Outlander and Hillmen worlds and cultures are familiar, as the author borrows from colonial and desert nomadic material to help build her realm. This backdrop serves to more easily introduce the reader to the very original characters, exotic creatures, and stories McKinley creates.

Overall, I can understand why this book has become a classic in the young adult fantasy realm. For me, it's a matter of personal taste in writing style, and The Blue Sword just happens to be of a writing voice that I don't particularly fancy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What makes a good review?

Perspective is a funny thing. This week has felt “warm,” despite the fact that high temperatures haven’t crept past the 30s. Part of that is because the sun is out these days, and part is because highs were in the teens last week. Anyway, the sunshine and “warm” weather has inspired me, and you get to be the lucky victims of this inspiration…

Still only about 3/4 finished with my latest read, but I thought I’d start some ancillary posts to fill in the gaps between book reviews. This post marks my first attempt in that direction.

Admittedly, the whole review/rating process is pretty subjective. People have individual tastes that are impossible to ignore completely when opining on, well, pretty much anything. And because of those individual preferences, multiple reviews on the same product or service tend to vary widely (particularly in the case of “average Joe” reviews.)

Take movie reviews, for example. Yahoo! Movies is good at showing rating averages as well as individual scores and reviews, from both critics and regular viewers. The average is just that: an average. Delve a bit deeper to see the individual ratings, and you’ll see that those scores (letter grades, for Yahoo!) usually span the gamut for any movie. Even movies widely lauded will still nab a few F’s from individual viewers. (Critics tend to be more consistent, but only slightly so.) For books, you can find a similar phenomenon over at Goodreads.

Does this mean that reviews and their scores are worthless? Not exactly. Actually, not at all. If they were, people wouldn’t be making a living off of reviewing movies/books/video games/etc. So the idea of reviewing a product or service and sharing your experience with the world must have merit. Isn’t that why we have Ebert & Roper, IGN, and even this blog? :)

So then, it comes down to the quality of the review. To me, this equates to three key aspects:

1.) Defined criteria. The reviewer needs to be clear on the specific standards upon which the final score/verdict is based. That doesn’t mean that we should expect a bulleted list at the top of every review, but in reading through it, those criteria should be explained.

2.) Substantial detail. The review needs to achieve that balance of providing examples to back up its score without becoming too cumbersome with detail or crossing over into Spoilerland.

3.) “Relative” impartiality. Any set of criteria that is too skewed or specific to one’s particular tastes risks alienating a wider audience. I promise to not say a book is bad because it didn’t have bunnies in it. I do acknowledge that demonstration of good writing skills is a standard that may not be as important to a lot of you. Sorry, that’s one I can’t back down on. :) (It’s one of the reasons why I will probably never read through Stephanie Meyer’s books. Again, apologies. Just my flavor.)

So there you have it. My standards when deciding whether to listen to a review or chuck it out the window. I’ll probably post my informal set of criteria for opining on the books I read at some point. What constitutes a high-quality review for you?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Still here (and struggling a bit)

Since I can’t finish a book in a day just yet (my speedreading kit is on layaway), I’m gonna have to figure out some other things to put on this blog. I know you adoring fans await updates with great anticipation.

/sarcasm off

Anyway, for now, just thought I’d pop in and say that I am still plugging away at reading my latest book. It’s a bit of a challenge. The story is slow for a good while, but now that I am about halfway through, it’s picked up the pace somewhat. The language is a bit… dry, as well. It’s very good, very descriptive, but the writer definitely takes her time and throws in quirky details here and there. It does add to the unique charm to the book, but sometimes, I get a bit frustrated. Oh well, I promise not to ditch this one!

Oh also, apparently I need to stop reading altogether until after Christmas. I seem to be ruining someone’s Christmas gifts to me when I speculate on what book to tackle next. Soh-lee Peeg!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

New Book: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Well, I had hoped to pick out a book sooner, but grocery shopping + Christmas shopping + bad traffic + driving in the snow + loads of laundry = not getting much reading done. I have settled on Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, another recommendation by the sister. It's gotten high praise in plenty of other places as well, so hopefully, I won't be as disappointed as I was with another book.

Hopefully, I'll be done in a few days!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rejected: The Door Within by Wayne Thomas Batson

Ugh, Weather.com says it's 10 degrees F outside, and feels like -1. Maybe winter's onset is chilling my heart and numbing my patience. I make this excuse because I'm about to rip on a book. Those of you who know me personally (and all three of you are following this blog do) are aware that I can be critical at times. I suppose it's no surprise, then, that some of my posts will be less than positive. This morning, you'll get a first taste. Hope you like the flavor.

So there's your warning. Nice people, avert your eyes. Now, on with the show...

Disclaimer: I am writing this "rejection" (not a review, since I didn't even come close to finishing the book) from the perspective of an adult. I am fully aware that this book is aimed at a younger audience (Amazon cites ages 9-12), and so kids that age are much less likely to be irked by the problems I noticed. However, really good YA fiction has appeal to readers of all ages. And if you're gonna write a Christian allegory, you had better believe you'll be getting older readers.

I wanted to like Wayne Thomas Batson's The Door Within. I really did. Even when it felt a bit off and confusing during the prologue, I cut the book some slack. It was, after all, a dream sequence. Authors describe dreams in myriad ways, and in real life, dreams are almost always esoteric and vague. So it's possible Batson meant for the reader to feel disoriented. (I know, it's a stretch.  See?  I started out nice.)

But after reading three-and-a-half chapters more, I couldn't continue. Too many inconsistencies, too little character and background detail, annoying writing quirks. It all adds up to a book that reads awkwardly and frustrates, rather than compels, the reader.

In the first few pages, we meet Aidan, who has just moved unwillingly with his parents out to his grandfather's house in Colorado. Grampin (as he is so oddly named) is getting too old and weak to care for himself. One day, Aidan decides to explore the basement he has feared all these years, and by some twist(er) of sparkly blue magic, chances upon a collection of old scrolls chronicling the history of the kingdom of Alleble. Aidan rushes to his room and hungrily pours over its contents. He becomes enraptured by the detail and realism that he finds within this tale of a fantasy land...

... and that's as far as I got, before I became too jaded to turn the page again.

The book is riddled with inconsistencies. Aidan is in high school (16, I believe), and yet, the tantrum he throws at his father and the way he talks to his medieval figurines makes him sound like he might have cleared the sixth grade. Also, Aidan's an obvious nerd, given that he holds conversations with pewter fantasy figurines. And yet, we learn that at his old school, the most popular guy there chose to become Aidan's best friend. There is no plausible explanation why. No "they grew up together as neighbors" or "they went to the same church" or "they shared a love of fantasy books or Renaissance festivals." It had just happened. C'mon, this is high school, people! Unless some magic spell or serious blackmail is being employed here, a friendship like that would never exist.

Part of that inconsistency seems to stem from lack of detail and background of Batson's suite of core characters. Now I'm not saying that the author should have interrupted his plot with long, expository passages about a character's personal history (as was done in another book I read). But I found Watson to be too miserly in his disclosure of character detail. Aidan is the star of the book, even from the prologue, and yet, after reading almost four chapters, I still don't have a clue as to basic physical features, like height, eye color, hair color, etc. The only thing I recall from those pages is that he is overweight, and that wasn't even revealed until well into chapter two! As for the rest of the cast, I know little about their history and nothing about how they look. Well, I know that Grampin is in a wheelchair. That's it.

Of course, for me, what bothered me most were some of Watson's writing "ticks" that made me stumble through certain pages and paragraphs. I will preface this point of criticism by admitting that there are some sparks of great imagery peppered throughout those pages I read (likening an evil knight's cloak to a gray wing was probably my favorite).

But there were a couple of quirks that I couldn't get over. One was the excessive use of referring to Aidan as "Aidan." It popped up far too often, even in passages where Aidan was the only subject as far as the eye could see. I would've at least expected "he" or "him" to be thrown in more often; seeing "Aidan" so many times was a bit jarring. The other tick that made me laugh/cry/puke was Watson's archaic use of the word "for" as a substitute for "because." "For she was not home," "For he had never," and on and on. He used "for" in that way three times in two paragraphs. Totally bugged. Shouldn't be used that way. For it looks awkward in modern prose. See what I mean?

Anyway, I've ranted far too long on this. Apologies to any Watson fans out there. I'm sure many of you would argue that I haven't read enough to really appreciate the story. It's a somewhat valid argument, but at the same time, if a book doesn't engross me from the beginning, I'm inclined to skip it. For there are plenty of other books out there that do accomplish that feat.

The upside in all of this? I'm now down to just three books to read in 27 days. :)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Book: The Door Within by Wayne Thomas Batson

I lied. Well, not lied so much as changed my mind. Humor me a moment while I explain...

So I just got back from the library. While scanning the YA shelves for Cinda Williams Chima's The Wizard Heir (follow-up to the book I just read), I noticed the display for the concluding book for Wayne Thomas Batson's The Door Within trilogy, called The Final Storm. Now, mind you, I had never seen Batson's books on the shelf at BN or Borders, but the cover art looked kinda fun (two knight armies in combat with a big ol' dragon and some lightning looming overhead). Plus, the fact that it was set aside on its own display stand made me think that it might be worth reading. Tricksy librarian hobbits!

Anyway, long story short? I went to the library looking for one book and came back with six: the other two books in The Heir trilogy, Chima's brand new novel The Demon King, and all three of Batson's books.

Now, I fully admit that it's unlikely I will finish all six of these books before my allotted 28 days is up, although the advent of my holiday vacation (6 more workdays, w00t!) does give me a fighting chance. I also know that I said I really wanted to read The Wizard Heir next, and I still do! But since I found out that I ruined my sister's plan of giving me Chima's first book for Christmas, I have a feeling that I might be getting one or more other Chima novels instead (hint hint, if you're reading this, Pig!).

To that end, I think I will at least give Batson a spin, see if Part I of his trilogy will make me want to read more. At 333 pages, it is considerably leaner than the last book I read. Not that I don't like it meaty. It just means that I will hopefully be able to decide rather quickly whether I want to continue the series. (Incidentally, I did read the 426-page monster in 4 days. Not too shabby!)

So stay tuned! I hope to finish this one before the weekend's over.

Review: The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

So I'm condensing my lunch break to write this review.  I actually finished the book last night, but was too tired to blog.  I'm always fresher during daylight hours; good luck getting me to be productive at night!

Title: The Warrior Heir

Author: Cinda Williams Chima

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: A good story is typically not an issue with published books. Getting printed means an editor liked it enough to back it with his/her publishing company's name and reputation. Captivating plotlines abound in our bookstores and libraries (both public and personal).

To some discerning readers, however, there is an added enthusiasm and respect for command over the written word. Writing is a craft, an art, something that we all learn, but so few of us master. Cinda Williams Chima, however, is a veritable savant.

In The Warrior Heir, Chima introduces us to Jack, a boy on the cusp of manhood, who is content with just making the soccer team. When on the day of tryouts Jack forgets to take the medicine he had ingested daily all his life, he finds himself more aware, more alive, more likely to get an opposing player killed (twice!). Soon after, his small-town existence collides into an age-old realm of Wizards, Enchanters, and others who control magic, thrusting Jack and those he holds most dear into a deadly game of intrigue and incantations, traditions and talismans. Jack is just a pawn to some of the characters we meet, but by the end of the book, everyone recognizes him for the star player that he is.

The story presents a compelling, balanced juxtaposition of personal discovery and epic events, mixing modern and medieval, mundane and mystic in a way that makes us wonder if perhaps Chima's world of Wizardry just might be true. And like visual art that provokes thought and evokes emotion through judicious employment of color and lines, Chima achieves those same goals through thoughtful word choice and eloquent phrasing. She spins a magical tale from her writing just as Lee spins fire out of the air in the first few enchanting pages of the prologue.

I had considered moving to a book from another author/series, but I can't wait to finish this trilogy. So more than likely, my next review will be for The Wizard Heir, Chima's follow-up to this story.

Oh, and a bit of an anti-spoiler (i.e., this will help you avoid spoilers): don't read anything about the other books in the series if you want to be truly in suspense when you finish the first book. You'll understand once you've read this one and moved onto the next.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

New Book: The Warrior Heir (by Cinda Williams Chima)

I picked up a new book on Friday, this time from the library. The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima. My sister has read the entire Heir series, and she said she thoroughly enjoyed it. I've only read a couple chapters so far, but from what little I've read, I think it's very well-written. Good story, believable characters, eloquent writing. You'll get the full review in a few days, hopefully.

Oh, incidentally, I finally got a library card to check out this book.  Been here for 3+ years, and I'm just now getting a library card.  I'm not sure if that's an accomplishment or a tragedy. :)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Still here, need book

Sorry for not posting the last couple of days. Work has been intense. Normally, we are slowing down about this time, but we have had so many projects pile up on us that we are scrambling to get everything done in time for the holidays.

I’m not sure about my next book just yet. I just found out that only the first three books for the Nicholas Flamel series have been published, with the fourth coming in April. Given the cliffhanger ending (i.e., lack of resolution) from the first book, I’m not as eager to jump into the other books until I know there is a definitive end to the storyline.

I’m considering The Heir series by Cindy Williams Chima. My sister has read them. I leafed through the first few pages and I was impressed by the author’s writing. I’m one of those people who feels that a good story has to be backed by good writing. Call me a writing snob, I don’t care!

I’ll make my choice tomorrow. Should have time to go to the bookstore or library and pick something out before I decorate my tree for Christmas!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Title: The Alchemyst

Author: Michael Scott

Number of Pages: 369

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Review: The Alchemyst is the first book in the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series. The book introduces the story of a pair of fraternal twins (Sophie and Josh) who find themselves thrust into an epic and perilous struggle for ownership of a magic book of world-changing secrets, recipes, and prophecies. Nicholas Flamel, an alchemist (yes, I'm using the modern "American" spelling of the term), has lived for several centuries, protecting the book and using its recipe for the elixir of life to live forever. Now, Dr. John Dee seeks to usurp the book and its secrets for darker purposes.

The main plotline is fast-paced and fairly direct. Occasionally, with fantasy literature you come across books with complex, multi-threaded plots with so many characters, places, and events that the story becomes cumbersome and difficult to follow. In The Alchemyst, Scott keeps the story uncomplicated, and even when the book darts between multiple locations and character perspectives, these diverging threads are still strongly linked to the central plot involving this "Book of the Mage."

The author employs a writing style that is easy-to-read, but also contains flashes of sophistication in word choice and imagery. It's a style that actually seems to parallel the juxtoposition of modern and magic in the story. One of my only complaints is that some of the "flashback" passages, where the author describes a character's history to provide insight into his/her thoughts or emotions, seem to be inserted rather clumsily into the story. Many of these nods to a character's past are just interjected abruptly in the middle of the main story's progression. I would have liked to see more thought and organization put into their presentation.

My other real beef with the book is that the ending is too much of a cliffhanger. There is very little closure for the reader, and I don't really think the book can stand alone as its own story. With all of the loose ends left after reading the final page, it's basically mandatory that you read the next book to see what happens next. I suspect this is a theme that continues until the final book.

History buffs will either love or hate the many references to historical figures, ancient mythology, and legends. The author puts his own twist on all of the references he incorporates into his book. Even main characters, such as Nicholas Flamel and Dr. John Dee, were real people in history. I personally thought that the references were fun, if a bit hokey at times. I will say that the author's knowledge of all of these people, philosophies, customs, and locations mentioned in his book is rather impressive.

Overall, I found the book compelling with lots of fun twists on historical references. I will definitely continue to read Michael Scott's other books to see how Nicholas Flamel's story pans out.