Wednesday, March 26, 2014

REVIEW: Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

Stormbreaker (Alex Rider, #1)Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2000
Genre(s): Thriller, YA
Series: Alex Rider #1
Awards: None
Format: Audio (digital from Library)
Narrated By: Nathaniel Parker

I recently read one of Anthony Horowitz’s grown-up books (House of Silk) which I really enjoyed. He is/was also a writer on the BBC mini-series Foyle’s War which I also really enjoy. Upon investigation, I discovered that much of his writing has been in juvenile fiction and that his most popular series, focused on 14 year old Alex Rider, is made up of spy thrillers. What the hell. I’m game.

The most succinct summary I can give is James Bond as a 14 year old. This is flippant but it’s also pretty accurate. I do think Horowitz’s intent was to write James Bond novels for young adults, complete with larger than life, eccentric villains who like to kill people in elaborate and generally ridiculous ways.

The circumstances that lead 14 year old Alex into being recruited by MI-6 are as plausible as they possibly could be - suspension of disbelief was stretched but not completely overrun. Unbeknownst to Alex, his uncle and legal guardian is a spy and he has been grooming Alex for this profession since he was a small child. So Alex isn’t your typical 14 year old and when his uncle dies in a way that doesn’t make sense to him, he begins to investigate which brings him to the attention of MI-6. And they just happen to need a teenage operative….

From there on out this is an action packed, James Bond style spy thriller adventure with gadgets and ATV chases and scuba diving through flooded mine shafts. It’s all pretty well done but it never did really suck me in. I don’t know that it’s the fault of the book so much as that I am not its target audience. Alex is never really developed much as a character. He is pretty emotionless and fearless with very few hidden depths beyond some pretty astonishing abilities for a 14 year old. I like the James Bond movies as entertainment but until the most recent incarnations where we start to see James Bond as a man and not just as an uber suave super spy with a penchant for martinis, they weren’t much more than couple hour thrill rides. I probably would not be a big fan of the James Bond novels. As it is, this book passed in and out of my life pretty quickly and without making much of an impression.

However, I did make a point of recommending it to my sister as possible reading for my 14 year old nephew who likes books with lots of action. If you are or know someone who wants that type of fiction – this series would likely be a really good fit.

Final Verdict: Mildly entertaining and would likely be even more so for a younger person who likes action packed books. May pick up the others in the series but not definite.

I think this was a surprise to me that I didn't love it because I think of myself as someone who likes spy thrillers.  But apparently I don't love them.  I love characters and these books are usually focused on the action.  By these books, I mostly mean my only other spy thriller read (that I can remember) which is the first in the Bourne series.  Do you have any spy thrillers that you'd recommend that are character driven?  I know John LeCarre is considered to be really good - if you've read him how would you characterize his books?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

REVIEW: The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl (The Books of Bayern, #1)The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2003
Genre(s): Fantasy, YA
Series: The Books of Bayern #1
Awards: Mythopoeic Award Nominee for Children’s Literature 2010 (whole series), ALA Teen’s Top Ten
Format: Audio
Narrated By: Full cast Audio (so lots of folks)

The Goose Girl is a German folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm. I came to Shannon Hale’s re-telling of it without knowing any of the original tale and I think that enhanced my enjoyment. There is a great interview with the author at the end of the audio version and she explains how this was one of her favorite fairytales as a child except that she was always bothered by how passive the main character was in the face of her tribulations. Fast forward some years and Hale sits down to write and she feels the need to address this story flaw that has been worrying at her all these years. I think this must be how many great fairy tale re-tellings get written - an author needing to explain and expand on a favorite tale in order to satisfy their own discomfort with or dislike of some element of the story. Hale manages to keep all the major components of what is a very short and rather sketchy fairy tale while shifting it into a believable coming of age story.

The character development of Ani was definitely my favorite part of the book. When we meet Ani, she is a Crown Princess with an unusual ability to talk to animals. This ability isn’t quite proper for a princess and she learns quickly to hide it. Her mother, the queen, is remote and demanding and Ani grows up lonely, awkward and biddable. She accepts her duty as crown princess with little enthusiasm but does everything that is asked of her. So when the queen informs Ani that instead of inheriting the throne she is to be sent to marry the prince of the neighboring kingdom of Bayern in order to secure peace, Ani does not understand. She accepts this as she does everything else but rides off resentful and unhappy. I didn’t really like her at this stage of the book. She’s immature and sheltered and self-absorbed – not enough to truly provoke dislike but enough to keep me from loving her.

Hale does such a good job of then developing Ani slowly and believably into a compassionate leader who truly embraces her responsibilities rather than just accepting them. All that happens to Ani, even some truly heartbreaking events, are essential to giving her strength and wisdom. It’s all done amidst a highly enjoyable story with great characters, adventure, and romance. I was listening to this in the car and I found myself wishing for places to drive so I could continue with the story. I could barely make myself get out of the car when the book reached its climax.

There were a few things I wish had been developed a bit more like Ani’s relationship with her mother. I also would have liked to know a bit more about the society of Bayern and about Gerick but that would have been difficult without revealing one of the big twists of the story (though I saw it coming from miles away anyway). These are small niggles however! Even with a few disappointments, this was easily one of the best Fairy Tale re-tellings I’ve read! In particular, Hale does such a good job taking a lot of the sketchier bits of the fairy tale and fleshing them out into a fully developed magic system.

The audio version I was listening to was recorded by Full Cast Audio, meaning that various actors read the dialogue of the different characters. I didn’t love this for some reason – it was perhaps a little choppy – but I got used to it pretty quickly. It didn’t end up affecting my enjoyment of the book.

Final Verdict: A hugely satisfying fairy tale re-telling! Can’t wait to read more by Shannon Hale!

I've been on a bit of a fairy tale re-telling kick lately between this and The Lunar Chronicles.  They both take very different approaches to adapting the stories they are based on but are both really enjoyable.  What's your very favorite fairy tale? Have you read a re-telling of it that you particularly loved?  My favorite is probably The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson but it is just so damn sad.  I've not read a re-telling of it though I think one might be interesting.  I do like the Disney movie which changed the story substantially:)  Cinderella would probably come in second  - the original story isn't a total favorite but I like the trope of humble girl makes good and there are a lot of adaptations of it that I love.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Adventures in Prairie Chickens

I have been a little absent this week and am so far behind on reviews it is not even funny.  Work is CRAZY right now and it's only going to get crazier over the next couple weeks.  It is all because of this bird (not this one in particular, just in general):

That would be a Greater Prairie Chicken and no, they do not normally do their characteristic mating dance on top of a truck under a tree.  This particular individual has been making a name for himself in our small prairie chicken range for acting like a lunatic.  He's been strutting his stuff in the oddest places and has aggressively attacked people and ...well...trucks.  Around this time of year the male chickens get flooded with testosterone and basically become insanely stupid and foolhardy.  Biologically they have to, if they want to catch a lady.  Prairie Chicken's mating system require the males to gather on the highest spot in a grassland landscape where the vegetation is thinnest.  They want to be as visible as possible to any lady chickens that might visit which also means they are highly visible to any predators in the area. These gathering areas are called Leks and they are very similar to a singles bar.

And they don't just stand there.  They dance (as the one above is half-heartedly doing) which consists of head lowered and rapidly stamping their feet.  And they make all kinds of unusual sounds.  They inflate the two large air sacs on either side of their neck and "boom" (sounds like blowing air across the top of an empty soda bottle).  They cackle like hyenas and have a whoop that would put Michael Jackson to shame.  Don't believe me?  Check it out for yourself.  Being in a blind at sunrise in the middle of one of their lek sites as they begin this ritual is something I will never forget.  My favorite thing about the chickens:

Their orange eyebrows which you can just see peaking out in the above picture.  Just kidding!  While I do love their orange eyebrows, my favorite thing about the prairie chickens is that they capture folks interest and in turn highlight the importance of large prairie grassland landscapes.  Viva la Chicken!

Anyway, we are currently involved in an extensive project with these birds so I'll be spending much of my time doing early morning surveys out in the middle of nowhere where there is no internet access (horrors!).  I think it will be worth it though. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Top Ten Books I'd Like To Read This Spring

A weekly Meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish
Spring?  What's that?  I'll just assume this means the books we wish to read at sometime in the coming months whenever spring decides to...well... spring.

These types of posts are always a little challenging to put together because I don't do a lot of pre-planning at least where reading is concerned.  However I do find putting the lists together useful in focusing my thoughts on my TBR pile.

1. Wild Comfort: the Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore

Spring is a time to reconnect with nature after huddling inside for the last few months and I think this book will be the perfect accompaniment to re-establishing the physical connection.  I've had it on my TBR for a long time and finally purchased a copy this winter.  It is also on my 100 Books Project list.

2. The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy

In the same spirit as above.  This book doesn't come out until July but I've luckily been allowed to have a peak at an ARC.  I love to garden and am a Wildlife Biologist by profession so I'm always looking for ways to twine the two things together.  Doug Tallamy came to my notice a couple years ago when he made a splash with some research he had done on the benefits of using native plants in the garden.

 3. A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey

Okay enough with all the non-fiction naturey nonsense! Time for some good old fashioned paranormal YA.  Ever since reading and loving the Drake Chronicles last year I'm kind of hooked on Alyxandra Harvey.  This came out in January and it's about time I curled up with it.

4. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King

I've had this on my radar for a zillion and one years.  It's about a female apprentice to Sherlock Holmes and who wouldn't want to read that?!  I've also heard really good things about it.

5. Faerylands Forlorn (A Man of His Word #2)

I read the first in this series last year and liked it.  If I don't read book #2 soon I will have forgotten everything from book 1.

6. The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

With the Lunar chronicles and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale all whipping me into a tizzy of book love, I am in a serious fairy tale re-telling obsession.  There are a lot out there and I wasn't sure where to turn to but I have this book on my kindle and Ella Enchanted was pretty great.  Would love to hear about some of your favorite retellings, though.  There were a couple of great lists from last week's Top Ten Tuesday that I didn't bookmark and now may be lost forever:(

7. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

If I'm going to make progress on my 100 books project, then I'll actually need to do some reading from that list. That is my understanding of how it works ;-). I'm feeling the pull of this one quite a bit.

8 and 9. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Both of these are also on my 100 Books Project list and I just discovered they are available at my local library after having not been for many years!  Goodreads says these books:
"...satirize British aristocracy in the twenties and thirties through the amorous adventures of the Radletts, an exuberantly unconventional family..."

10.  Sabriel by Garth Nix

This was on my winter reading list and is on my 100 Books Project list and I do really want to read it!  I think my obstacle has been that I actually own it and it is sitting on my bedside table and I would much prefer to shop for "new" books at the library.  What the hell is wrong with me???  I will get to this one this spring.

Well with all those good intentions, the chance of me sticking to this reading plan are probably fifty-fifty.  Or perhaps lower.Out of the ten books I had on my winter reading list, I read exactly 2.  For the fall list I actually read 4 out of the ten.  I'm averaging 30% off these lists:-)  Not a passing grade! Maybe I should at least shoot for a D this spring...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

REVIEW: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: The Final Empire #1
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated By: Michael Kramer

This book is on my 100 Books Project list and this is my fourth in 2014!  Progress is tracked here.

As may be apparent, my reading is driven by a lot of blindly wandering around and grabbing random books in a genre I happen to be in the mood for at a particular time. I’ve gotten a little bit better at making educated choices of my reading material, but I do still love to just browse in the library, clueless, waiting for something to strike my fancy. So it’s no surprise that I had never heard of Brandon Sanderson until he was named to finish Robert Jordan’s infamous Wheel of Time Series. I’m not actually a fan of this series (I lost interest somewhere around book 3 or 4) but obviously Sanderson was an author of note in the epic fantasy genre to be chosen for this daunting task. I did some investigating and focused in on The Final Empire series as his work of the most acclaim and note. I love a good epic fantasy so was excited to dive in.

I would normally leave this until the end of the review but because I think it may have had some bearing on my experience with this book I feel I should first of all say that I listened to the book (from Audible) and I did not like the narrator. He has a nice voice but his reading was rather uninspired and didn’t bring a lot of life to the story. It was flat and this won’t be the last time you see that word which is why I thought I should mention this before delving into the book proper.

Here is goodreads very succinct but nicely accurate synopsis of the book:

“A thousand years ago evil came to the land. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk labor as slaves in volcanic ash fields. A troublemaker arrives. A rumored revolt depends on an untrustworthy criminal and a young girl who must master Allomancy, metal magic.”

The world is a fantasy dystopian one where most people (Skaa) are slaves and an evil tyrant rules with a powerful magic and a heavily empowered aristocracy. All the color has quite literally been leached from the world along with much of the happiness and light. Ash rains from the sky almost constantly and the night is filled with thick swirling mists. The magic system of the world is intricate and based on metals (called Allomancy) and the ability to wield this ‘magic’, which rests almost solely in the hands of the aristocracy, is the primary mechanism for keeping the Skaa downtrodden. Basically things really suck for 99.9% of the population. The one spot of hope is that occasionally some aristocratic blood finds its way into the peasant population creating a class of Skaa who can wield Allomancy. The most powerful of these wielders are called Mistborn and they can control or ‘burn’ all the metals. They are extremely rare. Most allomancers can only control one metal and are called Mistings.

One of these Skaa Mistborn, Kelsier, is mad in all senses of the word. He used to run the most successful thieving crew in the Capital city of Luthadel but after a stint in the prison mines, he comes back with the intent to destroy The Final Empire. Following him are a crew of Mistings, a mysterious factotum called a Terraceman and a teenage girl who has just discovered she is a Mistborn.

If I was to compare this book to others I would say it felt like a combination of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, Joe Abercrombie/George RR Martin’s gritty realistic fantasy with a splash of Tolkien. That sounds like it should be fantastic and it definitely is an impressive work of fiction but unfortunately it just didn’t entirely work for me. It wasn’t clever or sparkling enough to entertain and dazzle like Scott Lynch’s books, or gritty enough to suck you in like Martin and Abercrombie. And while it has the flavor of and epic fantasy quest, it wasn’t epic or adventurous enough to draw me along on the journey. Basically it struck me as a pastel version of all these styles, particularly where characterization was concerned.

As is obvious from above, there is much going on and the world is complex and detailed in its imagining. The plot is pretty standard,-feisty band of misfits overthrows powerful overlord - but it has a number of satisfying twists and turns that keep it from feeling clichéd. When Kelsier’s master plan is finally revealed, it was a ‘whoa’ sort of moment. I also really liked the introduction of early journal entries by the evil tyrant, before he embraced “evil” which brings into question who he actually is and draws a lot of worrying parallels with Kelsier himself. When all is revealed it’s pretty stunning and impressively orchestrated by Sanderson.

So what could possibly be wrong with the book? Why didn’t I love it? Well first of all while I enjoy a unique magic system and world as the next person, I usually prefer that they are simple and are easily submersed in the plot. If it’s complicated enough that the author has to spend pages explaining, telling not showing, how things work, it takes away from what I am truly interested in, namely the characters, their relationships and the story. This book felt VERY heavy on the detailed descriptions of the world, its cultures, and the magic system which for me meant that the stuff I really care about, suffered.

Namely, the characters which felt really flat to me. Kelsier is meant to be charming and charismatic but I found him rather boring and didn’t really understand why everyone was so drawn to him except by his abilities as a Mistborn. The other main character in the ensemble cast, is Vin who is a young woman Mistborn with a hard upbringing. Regardless of her upbringing, she’s a prodigy and she represents the humble young peasant with amazing powers they never dreamed they had. This is a character trope I usually respond to well but Vin just irritated me. Much was made about her lack of ability to trust anyone but herself while she then proceeds to trust a whole bunch of people really quickly and easily. She actually seems overall very trusting and gullible except in certain situations when her inability to believe or listen to anyone else just lands her and anyone with her in life-threatening danger. She’s an idiot and immature even though we are told repeatedly how clever and mature she is for her age. Don’t tell me one thing about a character and have her act completely differently - it guarantees that I will find that character seriously annoying and not terribly believable. In the end I didn’t believe in her at all and at times downright disliked her which was especially a shame as she is the only female character in the book. Her love interest and the token aristocrat in the book, Elend, starts off as possibly interesting but ended being earnest, naïve and just simple.

With the characters really failing for me, I needed the plot to move in and kick some ass and dazzle and while it had its moments it frequently felt buried under the conversations about alomancy and the history of the Final Empire. Actually, it makes me curious about the further installments in the series; if perhaps with all the explanations of the setting and magic system out of the way they might be a little more appealing to me? Because when it comes down to it my overall meh-ness towards this book is really about my personal preferences as a reader and not with any deep flaws with the book. And then there is also the influence of the audio book narrator.

Final Verdict: I would have preferred a less setting driven book but in the end the story that unfolded was pretty satisfying. I may pick up book two but will avoid the audio version.

If you are a fan of the series and after reading my personal objections above, do you think continuing with the series would be worthwhile?