Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Elder Gods, by David & Leigh Eddings

In a land held sacred by the Elder Gods, a bug-like creature called the Vlaugh prepares to take control. The Elder gods are forbidden to kill and have always allowed nature to take its own course, but this time, if they do nothing their sacred land will be overrun. In their desperate attempt to save the land of Dhrall, they wake up the younger gods from their rest, but in a state of infancy resembling mortals. As they wait for the younger gods to grow up, they entice the outlying nations to come to their aid with promises of great riches. The pirate-like people from the land of Maag join along with the Maag's enemies, the Trogite legions, to defeat the Vlaugh.

I thought this book ended really abruptly. It reminded me of a parent that got tired of reading a bedtime story and concluded it by saying... "The bad guy suddenly died of a heart attack and the princess was free." That being said, I really enjoyed the book. The character development made for a great read, despite the weak finish. When the enemy nations came together outside their normal circumstances, they developed many new innovations by working together in friendship. To me, this was a testament to the progress that could be achieved if we banded together in brotherhood instead of hording our technologies.

I have read 3 of the 4 books in The Dreamers series, and so far all of them end in this abrupt way, but as the series progresses, this becomes not only expected, but adds an element of excitement and anticipation for the revelation of why these things happen in future books.

All in all, I'd recomend this as a nice light read in the fantasy genre. A great choice for when you want an adventure without the work of figuring out intricate themes and plotlines.

3 Stars
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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Dark Elf Trilogy, By R.A. Salvatore

The Dark Elf Trilogy is the first three books of Salvatore's Forgotten Realms series. It includes the books Homeland, Exile, and Sojourn. It is in the style of "Dungeons and Dragons," which makes it very familiar as far as the type of abilities, items, and races you might expect to see. Being a huge fan of Fantasy, I really enjoyed this novel. It included everything you would expect from a "Dungeons and Dragons" fantasy book…sword fights, dragons, good and evil, yet it starts in a rather unexpected way.

The main character, Drizzt comes from a rather backwards society. Evil and hatred are the norm in his city of Menzoberranzan. As the third male child of a noble family, his destiny was to be sacrificed upon birth. In the female dominated Dark Elf society, men's lives are of very little worth. A twist of fate changes his course and he is allowed to live.

Drizzt's childhood experiences challenge his thinking. Should he dawn the evil mantle of his society? His father, Zaknafien, teaches Drizzt swordplay and he becomes perhaps the greatest warrior in his city. However, Zaknafien also plants the seeds of doubt in Drizzt's mind about the morality of their culture. As Drizzt struggles with his conscience and the challenges of his society, it comes down to a culminating moment where he must decide between submitting himself to the will of his people or saving a young elf child. He inevitably chooses to save the elf child and his life is turned upside down. He becomes outcast from his people and later hunted. The other races shun and fear him because of the reputation his people have earned. Drizzt's only friend for much of his journeys is Guenhwyvar, a black panther from another plane of existence. Even Guenhwyvar is able to spend little time with Drizzt, needing to return often to its own plane for sustenance. Drizzt struggles to do what he believes to be right while facing searing loneliness and despair.

What I enjoyed most about these books was the look at the great beauty that emerged from such a dark society. It is so easy to blame our actions on our circumstances. Drizzt is a true underdog, yet rose above and allowed his integrity to set his course. Despite the pain it costs him, he never once looks back on his decision with regret... only sorrow. I also enjoyed the amazing picture of the underdark, particularly the city Menzoberranzen. I think perhaps the most beautiful moments in the book were the rare moments when Drizzt felt loved. The only thing I didn’t really like was the overly detailed sword fights. I am not a big fan of strategy and maneuvers so I usually skimmed past these parts, but in spite of that, I found it an excellent book, well worth the read.

4 Stars
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane

I'm waiting for the next book in the Saga of the Twelve Houses to be available at the library. In the meantime I decided to read this.

So You Want to Be a Wizard is the first in the Young Wizards series, which has been called "the first place to go when you run out of Harry Potter." I didn't think it measured up to Harry Potter at all, and I'm not even that big of a Potter fan. Although I don't idolize the almighty Harry, Rowling's books actually have a lot going for them, especially in their use of symbolism and their rich reliance on folklore and traditional beliefs in magic, including a lot of traditions most of us aren't familiar with.

This first Young Wizards book, on the other hand, doesn't have nearly the depth. I thought the book was kind of boring. The characters were flat and the story not interesting enough to hold my attention. In fact it took me a month to finish it, much longer than a 400-page young adult book should take. The last third of the book picks up the pace significantly, introduces some a-little-too-obvious Christian symbolism, and ends up saving the book. I'm still not convinced this is a series I'll want to stick with, but I'm going to give the second book a shot.

I'm giving this book three stars. It sure seem like I've been giving a lot of three star ratings lately. I'm hoping the next book I read will knock my socks off. And it's probably worth pointing out that this book got a lot of five star ratings on Amazon.

3 Stars

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Thirteenth House, by Sharon Shinn

This is the second book in the Saga of the Twelve Houses; Mystic and Rider is the first (see the review). Personally I don't think this second one is nearly as good a book. First off, it took a few chapters for me to really get into this book. I'm not sure if that's just me or what. I also felt it lacked some of the deeper themes found in the first book. Again, maybe it's just me and I missed some of what this book is all about.

But my main beef is the infuriatingly stupid choices of the main character, Kirra. You know those annoying pre-teen books where the main character predictably gets in trouble because he refuses to do the obvious thing? You know, the kid who could fix things by telling the truth to just about any adult on the planet, but instead tries to fix things by himself to avoid getting grounded, and ends up stuck in a much deeper pot of hot water? "Just tell you dad already, you know you're going to have to eventually!" Those books drive me crazy! Well Kirra drives me crazy in this book, so much so that I don't even like her any more. The author very nearly ruined her character for me. And to make things worse, this is the main story line of the entire book. Ugh!

The political intrigue of the first book continues. There are some significant events that will impact future episodes. In spite of my frustrations with Kirra it is still a good book. I definitely want to keep reading the series, but this one was too frustrating to stand on its own. By itself, this book only merits two stars. As part of the Saga its value gets bumped up a bit.

3 Stars
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Monday, October 09, 2006

Eye Contact, by Cammie McGovern

Adam, a nine-year-old boy with autism, disappears into the woods with a 10-year-old girl from his special ed class. Adam is eventually found alive, but the girl has been murdered. The police try to get Adam to tell them what happened, but he has retreated into himself more than ever as he tries to make sense of what he's just experienced. Occasionally a clue is able to be pulled from the traumatized autistic boy, but to find the truth the entire community must decode clues found in the woods, in the schools, and in their own lives.

I started to relate the plot of this story to one of my co-workers. He stopped me before I got too far. "This isn't exactly an uplifting story, is it?" I hadn't even gotten to some of the more disturbing scenes. So no, this isn't a warm fuzzy, touchy feely kind of book, but it's not nearly as dark as the events of the book could have made it. There is some positive balance from the caring relationship between Adam and his mother, along with several other sets of oddly supportive relationships. One of the main themes of the book is that love and hope persist even through trials, regardless of whether the trials were created by fate or by our own poor choices. Sometimes that love and hope will only survive when we deliberately force it to.

It was an interesting book with some interesting messages. The autistic boy was portrayed very realistically. In spite of those positives, I'm not ecstatic over this one. There were too many loose ends in the plot, too many requests for the reader to suspend disbelief, too few characters without major problems. The writing style also seemed awkward to me. Sometimes you weren't sure if you were supposed to be in a character's head or watching the character from above. The verb tense kept inexplicably switching from past to present tense too.

3 Stars
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Friday, October 06, 2006

Mystic and Rider, by Sharon Shinn

Mystic and Rider is the first in the Saga of the Twelve Houses series. It is set in the land of Gillengaria, a country divided into twelve regions, each of which is ruled by a different noble house. The king has sent a group to investigate the unrest that seems to be growing in Gillengaria. What follows is a tale of political intrigue and religious conflict.

This is the third Sharon Shinn novel I've read. The first was The Safe-Keeper's Secret, which I reviewed earlier. The second was The Truth-Teller's Tale, set in the same world as the first, with much the same feel. Mystic and Rider, on the other hand, has a completely different feel. Where the magic of the other series is subtle, this book has people throwing fireballs and morphing into mountain lions. Pretty in-your-face stuff. And it features the standard cross-country trek found in so many other fantasy novels. In short, this has none of what made the other two books stand out to me.

Fortunately, Mystic is special in its own right. The conflict of choice versus destiny is emphasized throughout the book, as are the themes of tolerance and loyalty. I enjoyed how skillfully they were woven into the story without taking over. Also, the plot seems to be interesting enough to hold up through an entire series, with plenty of opportunities for unexpected twists and turns.

Because this is the first book in a series, a lot of questions were left unanswered. Those unanswered questions lend an air of mystery to the story, but they also leave you hanging at the end. I guess that's OK, but don't expect this book to satisfy you on its own. Unless you hate this first book, you will want to read the next in the series to find out how things are resolved.

4 Stars
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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Safe-Keeper's Secret, by Sharon Shinn

If you're looking for a book that doesn't stray too far from the conventions most fantasy books seem to follow, yet isn't a clone of every other fantasy novel out there, this would be a good choice.

The world of The Safe-Keeper's Secret is only a step away from what could be reality. Magic is an inherent part of people's lives, but it is subtle. In fact most magic could be chalked up to chance or even differences in personality. For example, there are truth-tellers who always speak the truth. Nothing overly magical about that, except that they occasionally reveal the truth about things they could not possibly have known. The complement of the truth-teller is the safe-keeper, who listens to secrets of all kinds and keeps them secret for as long as they need to be kept.

Damiana, the safe-keeper of Tambleham village, has a doozie of a secret to keep – the identity of the baby dropped off in the middle of the night to be raised as her own child. You don't learn the truth until the very end of the book.

Overall the plot was reasonably good, but what really stood out for me was the setting. I enjoyed reading a fantasy book based on family dynamics rather than on epic travels through far away lands. In fact most of the story takes place in or near Damiana's cottage. You won't find any battles with dragons in this book's pages, but you will find a compelling coming of age story with an emphasis on people and relationships.

4 Stars
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Friday, September 29, 2006

Clay, by Colby Rodowski

This is a book about kids in crisis. Elsie and her younger brother, Tommy, are abducted by their non-custodial parent. Elsie is pulled in so many directions as she balances her love and loyalty to each of her parents, responsibility for her brother, the desire to be a normal kid, and the battle to find her own identity.

Without a doubt, this book is written for kids - the writing style and the predictability of the plot fall right in line with most fifth grade readers. But the subject matter, the realistic circumstances, and the raw emotion of the book are far from standard pre-teen fare, so much so that I could only recommend it to a ten year old if she's got the disposition and the opportunity to talk about the story with an appropriate adult. It just seems odd to me to find a book written for an audience too young to understand the inner turmoil churning inside the main character.

The younger brother in the book is autistic. As you might have guessed, that's what led me to the book in the first place. The book doesn't really address autism though, except as a plot device.

I ought to give this book high marks. After all, I cried at least three times while I was reading, and I'm definitely glad I read it. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, I don't feel like I can rate the book better than three stars. I think it's because by the time you are old enough to grasp the full weight of Elsie's struggles you're too old for the predictable plot.

3 Stars
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Making Peace with Autism, by Susan Senator

The full title of this excellent book is Making Peace with Autism: One Family's Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts. The author, Susan Senator, relates the experiences of her family, which includes herself, her husband, and their three sons. The oldest of these three sons, Nat, has autism. Ms. Senator gives us an authentic, honest view of her family as they learn to cope with – and love – their autistic son and brother.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it neither sugar coats nor sensationalizes the difficulties they have faced. I'm also glad that Ms. Senator gives equal emphasis to the happiness they have experienced. She shares feelings of depression and self-doubt (which must be difficult to do as openly as she does), but also shares feelings of hope and even triumph as she, Nat, and the rest of their family reach milestones and move past them. By faithfully describing both the joy and the pain, she has avoided writing a flat history. Instead, she has created a credible, emotional memoir with substance and depth, one that feels real.

Yet another great aspect of this book is that, despite the atypical struggles autism has forced upon them, Ms. Senator and her family seem very normal (although I wonder how she'd react to hearing her family described as normal - as a compliment, I suspect). The author isn't on a crusade for any particular miracle cure, doesn't preach any specific treatment, doesn't impose shame on the reader for not following a particular autism dogma. After so many books with an agenda, it's refreshing to read something not written by an extremist.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what it feels like to parent a child with exceptional needs. For those who already know how it feels, you'll see yourself in this book's pages again and again.

An enthusiastic 5 stars
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