Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Firelight by Sophie Jordan

I can't stress enough how fabulous the beginning of this book was.  Particularly, the first chapter.  Sophie introduces an original mythos and embarks on some fabulous world buidling.  Firelight is decidely paranormal / urban fantasy, but unlike anything else I have read in the genre so far.  To me, that alone was impressive, but the world that Sophie begins to construct in Firelight, has such amazing potential that I actually became angry when she let the story slide back into the ordinary.

Rather than read the obligatory synopsis, have a look at this!

From a technical standpoint, I found Sophie's writing style exceptional.  I love the way her text flows.  She's descriptive without becoming flowery, and I quickly lost myself in the story she was telling, even when the story was frustrating me.  When I no longer see the words and it's just the story unfolding, the writer is doing it right.  Sophie excels at atmosphere, mythos creation, and world building.  Her characters could use a little work tho.  I often found them behaving in ways that seemed counter to their apparent natures (mostly, I noticed this with Mom, but to a lesser degree with both Tamra and Jacinda too). 

When I was about a quarter of the way thru, and still adoring this book, a GR friend posted that she had become frustrated with Jacinda's whining.  At that point in the book, I honestly didn't see it.  Having finished the book, I, now, not only understand her frustration, but share it.  The thing is, I didn't become frustrated because of Jacinda's whining or her angst.  No, it was her indecision that did me in.  Sadly, Sophie portrayed it in such a way that made Jacinda appear to be an angsty teenager when she really wasn't. 

Teenage angst is a bit of a sore spot with me, but probably not for the reasons you're thinking.  You see, in my opinion too many people cry "angst" when it really isn't there.  When a kid whines about how no one understands them... "woe is me"... "no one has ever loved as I do"... "no one could possibly know the depth of my feelings"... then they are "angsting".  These expressions of hopelessness are rooted in youthful self pity and the inexperienced belief that no one else experiences love, loss, or feelings in general, the way the youth does.  The thing is, we ALL go thru this growing up.  As we get older, we recognize that tho individualized to each person, these feelings are universal.

Now, when teenage girl loses vampire boy and pines for him for months on end, it's easy to cry "angst"... but in my opinion it's not.  What she is experiencing is wholly unique and definitely NOT a shared experience that she is bound to get over.  When she cries, "you just don't understand," she's right, unless the reader has also experienced a paranormal loss.  Vamps are NOT merely charismatic people, my friend.  They are other worldly and utterly rare... she has peaked behind the veil of the every day world and glimpsed something beyond, something she is unlikely to get another shot at, but will ALWAYS long to encounter again.  What mere mortal can possibly measure up?  Not to mention (to borrow from the Fangs for the Fantasy crew), the possible "woo woo" that may have been established.  Could it be that something metaphysical prevents her from simply moving on?  He WAS a friggin vampire afterall <sigh> I digress.

My point is this, often in the genre of PnR and Urban Fantasy our protagonist will begin to bemoan her (occasionally, his) lot in life.  When this happens, people seem to want to gloss over the fact that the doubts, fear, anxiety, resentment (fill in your own negative emotion here), are WELL FOUNDED and not based on the errant belief that no one else has ever felt this way before and thus cannot begin to understand.  They are NOT expressing angst, and in my opinion they often aren't even being whiney.  But since this genre generally focuses on teens as the protagonist it feels natural to characterize them that way.

Angst and whininess is NOT what we see in Firelight, if you haven't read the book and you care about spoilers, you'll just have to trust me.  For the rest of you, click the link below:

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

Now that I've mounted my vociferous defense of why Jacinda was not an angsty teenager.  Let me proceed to trash her, regardless.  The girl dwells on her problems and can't, for the life of her, make a decision and stick to it.  Her constant vacillation made me sea sick.  You might consider taking some dramamine while reading this book.

Firelight moves away from its strengths, an original mythos with built in conflict and brilliant world buiding, and gets bogged down in the mundane (Oh no! the new kid in school's having a hard time fitting in!).  Our protagonist is the epitome of "it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind".  Look, there's a difference between changing your mind, and not having one, and the way this girl bounces back and forth between the SAME two choices nearly made me lose mine. 

Almost the entire book serves as nothing but filler between a brilliant beginning and a poorly executed ending to buff the page count while we await the inevitable.  By the middle of the book, I started to nit pick... it's not good when a book causes me to do that.

As I have already indicated, I found the ending lackluster, but at least the plot started moving again. For more detail, you know what to do!

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

This series has tremendous potential.  It was squandered in Firelight, but I'm holding out for better things when Vanish publishes in a couple weeks.  Despite my complaints, I'm giving Firelight three stars, mostly because it got me worked up enough to care.  I hate to see an original concept like this go to waste, so I hope that Sophie gets back to her strengths.  If the following interview is any indication, that MIGHT happen.  I'm eager to find out.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

This is the second book in what is purported to be a three book series.  As such, it's in a bit of a rough place. Often the middle book feels like filler caught between the exposition of the first and the climax of the third.  To some degree, Linger, suffers from its position.  On the whole tho, I think this one is a little stronger than Shiver (Wolves of Mercy Falls #1).

It's stronger because Maggie does a pretty good job of improving on some of the faults in the first book. 

As I mentioned in my review of Shiver, I think Maggie is a technically proficient writer. I think she does a fine job of walking the line between colorful discription and purple prose.  I find her writing mature (which is often difficult in the young adult genre) without crossing the line into pompous.  Moreover, I like her character development

Like Shiver, Maggie uses split narrative to tell her story, but this time she uses four POV's rather than two.  Personally, I think this is a dangerous way to tell a story when you're using the first person narrative. I've read a number of books that have tried it but have felt very few of them were stronger for it (please, don't get me started on Jacob's tour of the first person narrative in Breaking Dawn).  For me the problem is that I bond differently with each character.  Obviously, I don't like each character equally so when the narrative switches I may or may not be happy about it, but whether I like the character or not, some degree of disruption in the narrative flow occurs.

I think Shiver would have been a stronger book without the alternating narrative, but Maggie did a good enough job with it that it didn't hurt the book, I just don't feel like it enhanced it in any way.  Again, in Linger, I would prefer that she hadn't used split narrative, but surprisingly I enjoyed it more here than I did there.  For me the major reason for the improvement was the use of Cole.  As I stated in my review of Shiver, I thought Maggie did a bad job with the male POV.  She did a MUCH better job (although, not a perfect one) in Linger, particularly with Cole.  Consequently, for me, the split POV did add SOMETHING because it showed that Maggie could write a more convincing male character.

As I said in my review of Shiver, I love Maggie's spin on the werewolf mechanics but the volatility of the catalyst made me dubious about some of the scenes.  As it turns out, I was right to be dubious.  In Linger, Maggie confronts this problem and while we still don't have a clear answer, an apparent defect in Shiver, has been cured to some extent.

My biggest problem with Linger was the middle book syndrome I mentioned above. But it isn't as bad as it could have been.  Maggie creates a clear problem particular to this book and works thru it, so this book has purpose on it's own, but the book moves slower than it needs to primarily thru the inclusion of interesting but unnecesary interpersonal obstacles.

This was a solid second book and a minor improvement on the first.  At the time of this writing, Forever, the third and final entry in the series has recently published.  I'll be picking it up sooner rather than later.


Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

A little over a month ago, I joined Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy Fanatics!, a group on GoodReads (I've met alot of great people over there).  This book was heavily pushed from the second I joined.  After reading the first book, I can see why.

Darkfever introduces us to Mackayla Lane, a twenty-two year old southern belle, who travels to Ireland in the hopes of forcing the Garda (Irish Police) to reopen the unsolved murder of her sister, Alina.  Alina had traveled to Ireland to attend college before meeting a charismatic stranger and her nefarious end.  Beautiful, pampered, and unfocused, Mac is not prepared for what she discovers lurking the the streets of Dublin and will have to grow up in a hurry if she hopes to survive, let alone find her sister's killer.

Darkfever is the first book in a five book series by Karen Marie Moning (The Fever series).  I have to say that I read alot of "series" books these days.  It's pretty rare to find a book that isn't part of a series in the Paranormal Romance (PnR) / Urban Fantasy genres. What I've discovered is that the initial book in most series tends to be weaker than other books in the respective series.  I generally credit this to all the establishing material the writers have to introduce in order to build their foundation for what is to come.

Personally, I think Karen has done a fantastic job with this particular establishing book, but once again I think I'm in the minority (as I usually am).  Many of my GR friends warned that the early books aren't as good but that I REALLY needed to stick with them because the series as a whole, particularly from Faefever (Fever #3) on is phenomenal.  This kind of recommendation tends to make me a little trepidatious.  Afterall, the implication is that if I don't know how much better the series gets,  I might stop reading it. Not what I would call a resounding endorsement of the initial installment.  Whether this series gets better or not I can't really say, but it doesn't need to for me to recommend it. 

The major complaint I tend to see about this book is with regard to Mac. It seems there are a bunch of people out there that find her annoying, whiney, and immature.  While I agree that at times she was all of these things, I not only liked her, but I get why she was written this way.  Mac has not been training her entire life to become the savior of our planet.  Before the murder of her sister, she had no axe to grind.  She's grown up privileged, loved, and sheltered by her family and friends.  Like many of us at her age, her world view is rather short cited and ego centric.  Having wanted for nothing, she lacks direction and drive.  Her annoying, whiney, and immature moments in Darkfever are perfectly normal responses to the dangerous and foreign world she is thrust into upon arriving in Dublin.  She is the quintessential reluctant hero.

People forget or don't realize that Darkfever is only the first act of a five act story.  The characters need room to become what they are meant to be.  It's always wierd to talk about realism in realms of fantasy, but it is this kind of detail that makes the fantsy in this book believable.  A person coming from Mac's background is unlikely to simply accept and deal with the horrific environment she finds herself thrust into. Essentially, Mac is a work in progress.  It's a credit to Karen's writing that she's willing to take the long road and show the evolution of the character.  Sadly, this kind of character development is not as appreciated in today's world of immediate gratification.  No offense to Anita Blake or Kate Daniels, both of whom I adore, but Mac is more a REAL person in my mind than either.  With respect to this realism I do have one gripe, but it requires a spoiler to discuss.

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

For the most part, I like the way Karen writes.  The text is descriptive without bogging down in overly ornate language, and it flows well.  Her imagery is crisp and she's great with atmosphere.  On the down side, she occasionally shifts gears too quickly for my likeing (she's trying to control pacing, I think, but it felt disjointed in places to me), please note that I think this is a matter of taste more than anything else tho. For clarity's sake, here's an example of what I'm talking about. Once again, it requires a spoiler.

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

A final caution about Darkfever (I've touched on this already, but it bears repeating).  This is part one of five.  Karen doesn't make much of an effort to give this book a distinct plotline of its own.  Precious few things have been resolved by the time we reach the end (at least not in a traditional sense).  There are clearly many players behind the scenes that have not been introduced or have barely been touched on.  Interpersonal relationships are still in their infancy and characters are still being defined.  I can see how some people might find this unsatisfying, but I was very much okay with it.  Patience is a virtue after all ;)


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

Pittacus who?! Don't worry, it's one of those Lemmony Snikett things. 

I'd never heard of this book before the movie came out (which I did not go and see) and even then I didn't realize it was a book until I started hanging out on GoodReads.  I never saw a commercial or preview for the movie prior to reading the book and when it came out in the theater I remember thinking, "huh, I wonder what that's about."  I couldn't have been all that curious tho, since I never took the time to find out.

So how'd I end up reading it? Well, I needed to come up with something to listen to on my commute quickly because I hadn't planned on finishing Ghost Story so fast.  It was on several of my GoodRead friends' to-be-read list and it showed up on my library's new audiobook arrival list (via Overdrive). So I downloaded it.

I Am Number Four is the story of a boy and his mentor who escaped their home planet (with eight others and their mentors) after it is invaded (and apparently stripped of all its resources) by a hostile race of beings known as the Mogadorians.  The exiles have been hiding on Earth awaiting the development of their powers so they can return to retake their home world, but the Mogadorians have followed them and are hunting them down one at a time.  Due to a charm placed on the nine by a Loric elder, the children can only be killed in numeric order.  As the book kicks off the first three have been tracked down and killed.  "John Smith" is number four.

I wanted to like this book more than I do, which is not to say that it's awful or anything.  To me it's pretty average.  That is, I mostly enjoyed the read, but there's nothing spectatular here.  The characters are fairly run of the mill and therefore not all that memorable.  The plot is pretty generic and somewhat predictable. The writing is unremarkable unless you take into account that it was written by an alien, presumably, whose native language is not English, in which case Pittacus is remarkably fluent (you can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes here).

The story suffers from some pretty egregious logic errors that are difficult to ignore. For a brief, spoiler filled example of a couple of these, click on the following link:

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

If you can put these errors behind you and just go with it, the story is not horrible, but if you're like me, you may struggle with the ending as well.  I found it to be pretty contrived which adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

I Am Number Four was good enough so that I will likely read The Power of Six but I won't be rushing to get to it and I have an awful lot on my to-read-list.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

OMG, I am soooooo behind.  I actually started this review on August 3, 2011 then got wrapped up in other things.  I've finished another four books since that date and will likely finish yet another tonight or tomorrow.  I have GOT to get caught up.  So here we go:

At long last, the wait is over.  I'm not sure I have ever wanted to kill a writer quite so much as I wanted to kill Jim at the end of Changes (Dresden #12).  I mean there are cliff hangers and then there are cliff hangers.  Jim had us clinging to the back of an SR-71Blackbird... you know... the jet that goes Mach 3+ at 80,000 feet?... for MORE THAN A YEAR!  I don't know about you, fellow Dresdenites, but my hands were getting pretty tired by the time Ghost Story (Dresden #13) published.

Despite that tiny little exageration there, I will say that I was okay when I discovered the release date had been pushed back.  My thinking was that if Jim needed more time to polish Ghost Story, then I wanted him to have it cuz, frankly, Changes was positively superb and I just didn't see how he was going to be able to write a second consecutive book of that caliber without a significant expenditure of time and effort.  So did he pull it off?  Well that depends on who you ask.  Since you're reading my review the answer is... no... but it was a valiant attempt.  Ghost Story IS a great book, but it's not without flaws. Changes set the bar pretty high, and for me, at least, Ghost Story just doesn't clear it.

This is a great and highly necessary book given the final pages of Changes, but even so, at the end I couldn't help but feel that I had just read a whole lot of filler.  Don't take that the wrong way because it was very enjoyable filler.  It's just that this book does little to move the greater story arc forward.  We have a cataclysmic event at the end of Changes that must be resolved before Dresden's story can proceed.  Unfortunately, Ghost Story's ending somewhat manages to make the ending in Changes pointless.  For those of you that have read this book (and are devout fans of Jim), I can already see your rationalizations forming.  For those of you who haven't read it, give us just a sec okay (and don't click on the spoiler text, unless you want to read SPOILERS)?

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

Back... thanks for your patience.  From a technical stand point, not much has changed.  Jim's prose is the same as it's always been, his pacing remains breakneck, and the book has as much humor and witt as you would hope for out of a Dresden book.  Obviously, this is book 13 in a series, so I wouldn't recommend starting here if you've never read a Dresden book.

I flew through this book, so it's possible that I just needed to slow down some, but there are spots near the end that get to be a little sticky and confusing although not too bad.  There was a point where I missed a fine distinction that made me think Jim was breaking a law of magic he had just set out in the book.  I discussed it with some friends on the a GoodReads discussion board (you can see it here, but again this involves spoilers), and there were others that noticed and thought it might be a discrepancy as well, but we eventually got it sorted (I want to stress that the confusion was MY mistake and although others made it as well, as near as I can tell, Ghost Story IS internally consistent).

Jim leaves open plot threads in this one so don't expect it to finish with everything neat and tidy, BUT we were mercifully spared any major cliff hangers.

Overall this was an excellent book and while I'm not giving it a five, it's definitely a strong four.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Remember when I took umbrage with the USA Today blurb on the cover of If I Stay that read, "Will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight" (if not you can check it out here)?  Well, THIS is the book it actually belongs on.  The parallels between Shiver and Twilight are pretty numerous, sooooooo, if you are a fan of Twilight you're going to like Shiver.  If you aren't a fan, there is still a chance that you will like this book, but that chance is probably pretty small.

Personally, I ENJOYED Twilight more, BUT I think Maggie is a better writer than Stephenie.  I always feel a bit strange when I make comments like that, and although misleading, I think it's also true.  There is a difference between technical proficiency and feelings conveyed by the text, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Let me try this another way.  Have you ever seen the movie Mr. Holland's Opus?  If not, you should.  What a fantastic and uplifting movie.  There is a scene in it where Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) explains to a student (Alicia Witt), who has decided to give up the clarinet, the difference between "the notes on the page" and emotion in music.  To help illustrate his point, he plays her Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch this clip.  I tear up everytime I see it.

In this respect, I don't believe writing is any different than music.  I think alot of writers get caught up in writing the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph, the perfect page and forget that they're telling a story.  I'm not trying to suggest that this is what happened to Maggie.  Her "writing" isn't THAT good, I just feel like it's a little more mature... maybe more sophisticated than Stephenie's, and in the end doesn't stir my emotions as effectively as Stephenie did it.

I've seen some reviewers complain about Maggie's purple prose which is somewhat related to what I'm talking about.  Dictionary.com defines purple prose as "writing that calls attention to itself because of its obvious use of certain effects, as exaggerated sentiment or pathos, especially in an attempt to enlist or manipulate the reader's sympathies."  Below this, it cites American Heritages' Cultural Dictionary definition as, "Writing full of ornate or flowery language. Ornate, flowery speech can also be referred to as purple prose."  Corey at GoodReads cited this passage as purple prose (There is NOTHING spoilerish in this passage, but I understand if you feel the need to skip it, it does come directly from the book):

Cool air bit my cheeks and pinched at the tops of my ears, reminding me that summer was officially over. My stocking cap was stuffed in the pocket of my coat, but I knew my wolf didn’t always recognize me when I was wearing it, so I left it off. I squinted at the edge of the yard and stepped off the deck, trying to look nonchalant as I did. The piece of beef in my hand felt cold and slick.

I crunched out across the brittle, colorless grass into the middle of the yard and stopped, momentarily dazzled by the violent pink of the sunset through the fluttering black leaves of the trees. This stark landscape was a world away from the small, warm kitchen with its comforting smells of easy survival. Where I was supposed to belong. Where I should’ve wanted to be. But the trees called to me, urging me to abandon what I knew and vanish into the oncoming night. It was a desire that had been tugging me with disconcerting frequency these days.
What Corey sees as purple prose, I see as a good use of adjectives.  I don't find it distracting in the least and it helps to convey the setting nicely.  For me purple prose, generally, requires extensive (occasionally indecipherable) metaphor, similie, and/or waxing philosopical about the topic at hand.  Blah... I'm rambling here and ultimately it's probably just a matter of taste (I'm sure there are a number of Twilight haters out there that don't think I have any).

For the most part Maggie creates solid characters here that are easy to care about.  I was very sympathetic to their plight, and eager to see how they would deal with the obstacles. 

Her spin on werewolves was entirely original to me and very interesting.  While overall, I feel it is a strength in the book, it does require more suspension of disbelief than the traditional mythos as the catalyst for change seems so volatile.  I won't get into this because of the spoiler factor, but it made me feel somewhat dubious about some of the scenes in the book.

For me the biggest problem with the book is that Maggie has chosen to split the narrative between Grace and Sam.  This would be fine except that Maggie doesn't do a good job of writing the male perspective.  Don't get me wrong, I like the sensitive man as a character, but Sam is not so much an idealized male (ala Edward), as he is a girl in a boy's body.   Of the two leads, Grace comes across more male than Sam does (which I suppose is not surprising- according to an interview with Maggie, Sam is modeled after her whereas Grace is more like her husband) and I don't think you'll be in any danger of mistaking her for a man.

Despite these problems, I'm giving Shiver four stars although it's probably more of a really strong three.