Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Review - Frostborn (Thrones & Bones book 1)

I've always been a fan of boardgames ranging from very thematic and involved games to the more abstract strategy games like Chess. I've also always enjoyed the Norse mythology and viking adventures. So naturally I was intrigued by Frostborn (Thrones & Bones). The quick summary tells of a young boy named Karn who would "rather be playing the board game Thrones and Bones" and of a half frost giantess named Thianna. While the story is set in its own fantasy world, it's based on concepts, ideas and creatures from the Norse mythos. The author invented the board game "Thrones and Bones" for the book but based it on the old Viking game Hnefatafl. The only risk I saw in reading this book was that it was rumored to be the start of a series and I sometimes have a hard time keeping up with a series.

This is a middle grader novel so the prose is simple and the plot is fast paced. This doesn't prevent the author from weaving a rather complex history and creating an elaborate world. The characters, races, mythology and environments are rich and vibrant. The writing is enjoyable and engaging and sure to appeal to young readers while also maintaining enough depth to hold the interest of adult readers.

The book begins with a prologue adventure. The prologue takes place numerous years before the primary plot of the book but the author leaves the reader in the dark as to how the prologue ties in for the first many chapters. I was able to guess at some of the connections but most of the intrigue and mystery is unraveled with just the right balance of clues and revelations to keep the plot surprising and yet teetering on the edge of allowing the reader to guess at the secrets.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Books Read in 2014

For the past few years (20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal has been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them.  In 2013, I was significantly below my goal.  Oh well.

This year (2014) I plan to improve on my downturn in 2013.  If I hit 50, great, but at the very least, I hope to reach 40 books read in 2014.  I will also try to share all of my reviews here so you can get a feel for what I liked or didn't like.  That said, I generally only pick up a book to read it if I feel like it "speaks to me" in some way, so chances are, most of my reviews will be fairly positive.  Even then, I'm sure I'll come across some stinkers.  :)

If you have any suggestions for books to read or ways I can make my reading goal more exciting, please let me know.

And now, without further ado, here's the list of books I've read so far in 2014:
(I will be updating this post each time a new book is read/reviewed)
  1. The Martian
  2. The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy Book 1)
  3. At First Light
  4. The Orphanage of Miracles
  5. The High Druid's Blade
  6. The Conjuring Glass (The Phoenix Girls Book 1)
  7. The Bluest Eye
  8. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones book 1)
  9. Death in Venice and other tales
  10. Around the World in Eighty Days
  11. Finn
And for additional reference, here's a link to my "to be read" list over at Goodreads. This list includes purchased books on my bookshelves (but not read) as well as tons of books that have been recommended to me over the years. As you can see, the list is huge...and never really shrinks since there are always new recommendations coming in. So tell me...what good books have you read lately that I should add to my list? Any that I "MUST" get to ~immediately? :-)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review - The Bluest Eye

Someone recommended The Bluest Eye to me shortly after it was released and it somehow fell off my radar. I read Beloved by Toni Morrison about 5 years ago and while I was impressed by the artistic elements of the novel, I wasn't as "moved" but it as I was "supposed to be" and as such I never bothered to seek out more by Morrison. I stumbled on Bluest Eye again recently and decided to give a try. Apparently The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel and frankly I enjoyed it more than Beloved.

From a form and method standpoint, Bluest Eye uses alternating narrative styles. It transitions back and forth from the first person narration of a girl named Claudia living through the experiences of the novel and her same voice as an adult with a third person omniscience.. I really enjoyed Claudia's child voice and the way Morrison presented her narrative. As a child narrator, Claudia's youthful view of the world was an interesting contrast to the omniscient adult narrator. The third person served as a good balance for the unreliable narrative from the first person child while the first person narrative helped provide the human and emotional element to the story.

The story also played with the idea of known knowledge and hidden knowledge. In early chapters, Claudia makes reference to elements that happen later in the narrative and have significant impact. She drops these references very matter-of-factly as though we already know all about the events and have already come to our own conclusions. This makes for an intersting suspense to the reader as we try to read between the lines and make sense of the little snippets provided to us. Knowing a little bit of the intended tone and plot of the story, I was able to make some logical inferrences. Not only does Claudia's narration tease the reader with elements but the narrative also plays with time a bit and meanders through the timeline of the story dropping fragments of scenes out of order.

The plot takes place in the ~1930s and revolves around a yound black girl named Pecola who has been taken in as a temporary foster child by Claudia's family. We learn that there was a fire that burned down Pecola's home but it is evident through hints and allusions that there was more to the tragedy than a simple home fire. As the novel progresses, we learn that Pecola's home life was an abusive one both verbally and physically. Her parents constantly fight and Pecola is constantly told that she is absolutely ugly.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review - The Conjuring Glass (Phoenix Girls Book 1)

I was intrigued by The Conjuring Glass as a potential good “middle reader” book for my 10 year old daughter. It sounded like something she might enjoy. It focuses on a 13 year old girl, an orphan named Penny, who is moved to a new little town and discovers a secret magic that she is able to use. At the same time, evidence of some scary mystery starts to unravel around her and Penny needs to muster her courage and what little magic skills she’s learned to try and stop whatever is happening. Even though there is the risk that this could be a Harry Potter clone, it fortunately makes some conscious choices to differentiate itself while still potentially being appealing to Harry Potter readers.

The first thing I noticed as I read this book is that the writing is very simplistic and definitely geared towards younger readers. I’ve seen this categorized as “Young Adult” but the prose is certainly accessible to Middle Graders and the overall tone and depth of the story is more likely to be appreciated by those pre- and early-teens than older readers. Some of the content may be what pushes for the characterization as a “Young Adult” novel. While there was nothing that would be deemed as “mature themes”, there are some ‘intense’ scenes later in the book that could be a little frightening for younger readers. Thus I suspect this is the reason that some groups choose to “shelve” the book as a “Young Adult” novel, knowing that “Middle Grader” could potentially get readers as young as 7 or 8.

Assuming the role of a younger reader, I found myself intrigued by the story and by the character of Penny. She’s a bit of an outsider, not necessarily by choice but willing to adapt to that role. When she does finally make a friend in town, the hesitance and apprehension felt realistic and appropriate. As the girls discover the magic around them it is fun to see their excitement grow and I enjoyed the fun and playful way the girls just enjoyed being themselves and exploring the world around them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review - The High Druid's Blade

As many friends and regular readers know, I've been a fan of Terry Brooks since I was introduced to Sword, Wishsong and Elfstones books in Junior High School. I devoured them and found a taste for his style of fantasy adventure. For many years after that I regularly read each of his books as they were released and eagerly looked forward to the next volume. In recent years, I haven't been as diligent at keeping on top of his yearly (sometimes twice yearly) releases but I still have a fair amount of nostalgia towards Brook and Shannara and I am indebted to his books for helping to respark a love of reading that threatened to wane a little through middle school.

In his latest book, The High Druid's Blade, we're introduced to new characters and new plot but it does have a large sense of familiarity. The book is set within the Federation reign and druid rebirth sometime after the High Druid and Dark Legacy series. The book is listed as part of the Defenders of Shannara series but I've read that the intent is to have 3 stand alone novels in the series rather than a serial story. So, as you might expect, this novel wraps things up with moderate tidiness.

As is common in other Shannara stories, the central characters in this book are descendants of a powerful family. This time, it's the Leah family. Even though the Leah's have been involved in the novels since the first Shannara book, I believe this is the first time a Leah was the central character rather than a supporting actor helping out the Ohmsfords or others.

We are introduced to teenage brother and sister Paxton and Chrysallin Leah. Paxon spends his days managing the family air shipping business while Chrys apparently spends her days trying to get into trouble by being a flirty little teenage troublemaker. For those unfamiliar with the family heritage, Brooks gives us a little background and points readers to the heirloom sword of Leah which, many years ago, held mystical powers and helped slay demons and turn the courses of numerous battles. Today it hangs as a reminder of days gone by.

Once we're adequately appraised of the mundane lifestyle of the Leah's things are thrown into upheaval. Chrys's friend rushes over to Paxon to reveal that Chyrs has just made a stupid bet in a dice game and gambled away her freedom to a stranger. Paxon races to the pub to get details and help pay the debt but instead finds Arcannen, the man who won Chrys. He shows Paxon, from a distance, that Chrys is very willingly boarding his airship bound for the big city where she'll serve in his house of ill repute. Paxon tries to fight the situation but cannot. Instead, he rushes home, grabs some supplies and the sword of Leah and sets of to free his sister.

As you might expect, Arcannen is not your ordinary businessman looking to add another harlot to his bordello. Rather, he hoped Paxon would come for his sister and bring the sword. And yet, in spite of an elaborate scheme, Paxon somehow manages to free his sister and return home. While there was some fun action in the escape scene and there was magic involved, the whole thing felt way too lucky to be believable.

Setting believability aside, Paxon returns home and is approached by the druids who want him to come and wield the sword of Leah in a sort of bodyguard position. Since he was disatisfied with the airship business anyway, he agrees and leaves his home and family, exacting a promise from Chrys that she'll stay safe and not make any stupid decisions. He spends the next many months training and learning how to use a sword properly and how to hone the innate magic of the family heriloom. Naturally Chrys is not safe and Arcannen makes an appearance again causing Paxon to set off on a quest, this time with the help of the druids though still largely on his own. There are a few moderate twists and turns in the plot though even those had a twinge of familiarity as I think back to earlier Shannara books.

The plot was relatively quick and fluid with solid adventure elements and fair character building. In my experience, I've generally found the psychological interactions between the characters to be stronger than some of the story arcs in Brooks' books. This time, they felt pretty balanced at the detriment of the character building. Sadly they felt a little watered down and static. I definitely enjoyed the book for the nostalgia and for the fun adventure that always permeates the Shannara story. But I missed some of the depth and meat that's been present in Brooks' work of the past. Compared with some of his more epic stories (such as the Genesis or Heritage series) or his more contemporary Knight & Void stories, this book felt a little more flat or maybe more "bubble-gum"-y. A night light adventure but not much more too it. That said, it did accomplish its goal. It entertained me and I had fun reading it. Even when believability was stretched I was still drawn in enough to enjoy the story and accept the little hiccups. So not the best Brooks out there, but still an adventure worthy of the Shannara title.

3 out of 5 stars

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