Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Shield of Stars" by Hilari Bell

As always with Hilari Bell, the writing's very good, the characters plan and carry out convoluted plans that are fun to read, and the world-building's engaging.

This isn't my favorite of hers, however.  The plot feels a little contrived.  In order to save his mentor, who has rebelled righteously against the tyrant regent, young Weasel (former pickpocket and hooligan—a lot like Fisk, from the Knight and Rogue Series) decides that the only way he can save his master is to find a Robin Hood type character who might help him.  I thought it was a real long shot, and one a street-smart and clever planner like Weasel might not waste time on, so the whole plot felt a little forced.  Coincidence also played a bigger role than I like.  None of this is a fatal flaw.  It's just not her best work.   

The characters, though interesting, aren't as unique as some of her others.

The middle drags a bit and the end confused me slightly.

I love the setting, however.  It's classed as fantasy, but there's very little fantasy in it.  This is a hard genre to find, and I love it.  The world has swords AND guns and a very modern legal system, but the old gods play a big role.  Very nice world building. 

If you're looking to read a good book, "Shield of Stars" by Hilari Bell is a safe bet.  If you're looking to read a great book, try her "Fall of a Kingdom." 

My rating:  3+

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Want more info on Hilari Bell?  Click here.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Loket, Czech Republic

Loket's a tiny town perched in a tight bend of the Ohře river, like Cesky Krumlov only with a fraction of the tourists.   Like any good Czech town, it's got a castle, a square, and a river, but it also has friendly canoers, summer festivals, nearby hiking trails, a really tall bridge, and bits of old city wall.  By public transportation, it's something of a chore to get to, and perhaps too quiet for some, but Loket is my idea of a perfect Czech travel destination.

Loket, Czech Republic, from across the river

Loket's square

Loket, Czech Republic

The castle in Loket, Czech Republic

Loket castle at night

Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Book Thief," by Markus Zuzak

Liesel steals her first book before she can even read, from the snowy graveyard where they bury her little brother.  Later, when her foster father teaches her lovingly to read, she realizes it's a gravedigger's handbook.  She loves it anyway.  And thus begins the career of the book thief.

It's a story of poverty, fear, love, Nazis, and strange friendships. 

The style is unique, featuring Death as a narrator who makes strange asides like ***A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT***  At first, the odd, fragmented style bothered me, and felt a little gimmicky, but I grew to like—even admire—it.  Such an unusual voice.

The language sometimes struck me as poetically pretentious.  I kept having to stop and reread a phrase, only to think, "that verb makes no sense with that noun," or "my critique group would trash this phrase."  Then I'd think, "I must just be stupid.  Or the author's trying to make me feel stupid."  Then, "No, it's just poetry.  It's not supposed to make sense."  The problem was, during this whole conversation with myself, I was thinking about the words, and that pushed me for precious moments out of the characters' lives.     

In other spots, I stopped just to savor the stunning beauty of Zuzak's language, the masterful descriptions. 

The many unusual friendships were the highlight for me.  Liesel and the Mayor's wife suffered both pain and joy through their tenuous literary bond.  Her gentle, loving foster father understood her better than anyone else in the world.  Her foster mother proved far less brusque than Liesel and I first believed.  But without a doubt, Zuzak's gorgeous depiction of Liesel's friendship with the Jew in the basement is the thing I'll remember longest.      

The story itself wasn't a real page-turner for me until the last hundred pages or so, which I read in bed, huddled under the covers crying at this horrible testimony of war. 

Full of dark wisdom and deep humanity, The Book Thief is a good read.

Visit Markus Zuzak's webpage

Friday, January 6, 2012

"The Lightning Thief," by Rick Riordan

Lately it seems that every book I read goes downhill from the first chapter.  Perhaps, frightened by the "agents turn you down based on the first page" threat, authors are spending all their time there, and neglecting the rest.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan was one of these books for me.  Obviously I'm in the minority, as the series is super successful and seems to be growing ever longer.

I loved the opening:  great tone and style, with an interesting premise and laugh outloud lines. 

Then I discovered that this was a story about a misfit boy, around whom strange magical things happen, who discovers he's actually magical himself.  In fact, he's the powerful chosen one.  He goes to a school where the students are divided into houses, where they learn to fight and use magic.  The boy becomes friends with a smart and nerdy girl and a clumsy but loyal boy.  They discover that there's a prophesy only the boy can fulfill, and that without him, the world may descend again into darkness.  They disobey rules in order to save the day.   Hmmm….

I like stories along the lines of the immortal Harry Potter.  I don't like stories so very, very similar I can't appreciate the story for its own merits.  Rick Riordan, couldn't you have at least made the girl the clumsy one and the boy the smart one?

The plot, once they started on their journey, felt episodic, though parts were quite exciting and creative.  The world building was good, though a few times the mythology stuff bordered on blatantly educational.  I much prefer subtly educational. 

The sub-plot with Percy's mother disturbed me.  Everyone, including Poseidon himself, believed Percy's mother to be wonderful, unlike any other woman, yet she stayed for years in an unhealthy and even abusive relationship.  Though she did it to protect her son, I would think someone as wonderful as her would be able to figure out another way.  She finally got out of the relationship, but I'm not sure I like her method.  It sends all sorts of wrong messages.

The writing's solid, though the kid slang will quickly date the book, I'm afraid.  Lots of clever details.  Quite a few good laughs.  Not, unfortunately, good enough to make me read the next books.

My rating:  3  

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What you do on New Year's...

I once heard that what you're doing on New Year's Day, you'll be doing the rest of the year.  It's just a silly superstition, but I now have a tradition.  On New Year's I try to do a little bit of many things I want to continue that year.  So, today I have:

-gone on a bike ride
-watched Masterpiece Theatre
-played cards
-eaten Nutella (yes, yes, bad for the diet, but good for the tastebuds)
-slept in and stayed up late
-done crunches
-submitted to a literary magazine

And I have NOT dusted.  J