Wednesday, March 17, 2010

100 Cupboards (N. D. Wilson)

100 Cupboards
(The 100 Cupboards trilogy, Book 1)
N.D. Wilson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)
100 Cupboards: Book 1 (The 100 Cupboards)
DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Henry York lived a sheltered, smothered life in Boston under the eyes of his parents - or, more often, his nanny. Their overprotectiveness seems ironic, as they make their living traveling all over the world... which is how they found themselves kidnapped in Columbia, and why Henry is on his way to Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank's farm in rural Kansas. Their three girls - nosy young Anastasia, bossy Penelope, and bold Henrietta - take for granted the sort of liberties Henry never knew existed. First, Henry's afraid, then he's excited. A town so small that seat belts are optional... an eccentric uncle who buys him his first pocket knife... playing his first-ever game of baseball... it's almost an adventure. When Henry finds mysterious little cupboard-sized doors behind the plaster of his new attic room, doors that lead to strange places far beyond Kansas, he learns that not all adventures are child's play - especially adventures where magic is involved.

REVIEW: This story starts fast, introducing eccentric characters who are rarely as flat or dense as they might seem at first blush. A farmhouse in a postage stamp of a Kansas town may seem an unlikely setting for a world-hopping magical adventure, but it serves as an excellent, if unexpected, locale. Henry and Henrietta, his chief sidekick, only scratch the surface of the cupboards' many worlds, but the little they see only made me more eager to explore further. If anything, the story started moving too fast towards the end, building up the steam that will catapult it through to the second book... and which, despite the very sorry state of my finances, I expect I'll have to obtain sooner rather than later. A fun story that reads fast, and if the ending leaves things a bit up in the air, well, I knew it was a multipart series when I bought it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (James Rollins)

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
(Jake Ransom series, Book 1)
James Rollins
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Adventure
*** (Okay)
Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
DESCRIPTION:  Three years ago, Jacob Ransom's parents disappeared in the jungles of Central America while exploring an archaeological site at the ill-omened Mountain of Bones.  Now, he immerses himself in studies to follow in their footsteps, becoming an archaeologist himself so he can some day continue their work... and, perhaps, finally find some answers.  His older sister Kady, on the other hand, seems bound and determined to forget, immersing herself in cheerleading and shopping... though she, like Jake, still secretly wears the last things their parents sent home: a strange Mayan coin, cut in half, recovered from the dig side.
One day, a strange invitation arrives in the mail, inviting Jake and Kady to the opening of a new museum exhibit in London.  The artifacts came from their parent's final dig on the Mountain of Bones, and having the pair there will give a big boost to the media coverage.  Despite some strange feelings about the corporate sponsors and peculiar timing, the Ransom kids accept the invitation... and find themselves swept away on a wild adventure in a lost land.  In Calypsos, Jake and Kady discover trilobites and dinosaurs, living descendants of many of Earth's lost civilizations, and an enemy that may be as old as time itself.

REVIEW:  I was close to giving this the fourth star of a Good rating, but further thought made me hold back.  Jake is a likable, fairly intelligent hero, and his adventures move at a fair clip.  His sister, on the other hand, plays more like a stereotype than a sibling.  For that matter, the "tribes" of Calypsos feel more like Saturday morning cartoon impressions of civilizations than actual representatives; the Vikings wear horned helmets which, in actuality, are very rarely if ever actually associated with real Vikings, and the gender attitudes seem far more like modern times.  As for the prehistoric life forms the Ransom kids encounter, while the nature of Calypsos explains how so many creatures from so many eras wind up together, it doesn't explain why an author who claims to have done his homework uses the obsolete term "brontosaurus" for giant saurians, unless Jake Ransom's research books are a few decades out of date. (The currently accepted name, Apatosaurus, has been in use since at least the 1980's.) Then there's the old modern-kid-dazzles-rustic-natives-with-modern-devices gimmick.  The natives of Calypsos have some technological (or rather alchemical) knowledge, so they didn't behave quite as stupidly as some "rustic natives" in Young Adult books with this crutch, but it still got tiresome.  At least Jake was taken aback by the unpredictable manner in which modern science and Calypsos alchemy reacted; for once, the modern kid didn't have all the answers, and was forced to admit that maybe people who don't have batteries and iPods just might know a few things he doesn't.  Those flaws aside, the story at least moved fairly fast, and Rollins presented a few nice ideas here and there.  The whole book had a sort of Indiana Jones vibe to it, which made me enjoy the story even when I was chafing from the cliches.  Naturally, the ending sets the Ransom kids up for a sequel... one which will probably involve their new friends from Calypsos.  I don't expect I'll read the next book, but I wasn't entirely disappointed with this one.  It would've been nice if Rollins had tried a little harder for authenticity... or originality.