Monday, February 28, 2011

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

Karen Russell
Fiction, YA? General Fiction
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the swampy Ten Thousand Islands region of Florida, no tourist's journey is complete without a visit to Swamplandia! Three generations of Bigtree "Indians" (as authentically Native American as their Ohio-born progenitor) have lived and worked on their own private island, wrestling alligators and driving tram tours and hawking merchandise to gawking mainlanders. Every night, the world-famous female gator wrestler Hilola Bigtree performs her trademark swim through a tank swarming with nearly a hundred monstrous reptiles.  It's a death-defying spectacle - fun for the whole family!
Ava Bigtree, youngest daughter and most promising prodigy of the alligator wrestling line, grew up in this world apart from the World, her family's swampy island kingdom. Like the alligators themselves, Swamplandia! seemed immune to the passage of time... but time catches up to everyone, and everything. After Hilola lost a brief and bitter fight with cancer, Ava watches her family and her island fall apart. When a competing park, the Hell-themed World of Darkness, opens up on the mainland, the lifeline of tourists dries up. Her father, "Chief" Bigtree, comes up with one impractical plan after another to save Swamplandia! Her sister Osceola buries herself in occult attempts to conjure up spirits. Kiwi, her booksmart brother, abandons the island for the mainland in his own efforts to save the family business. Meanwhile, Ava throws herself into her wrestling practice, determined to replace her mother. All the while, the greatest threat to the Bigtrees gnaws at them from within, the jaws of grief - and not even a third-generation alligator wrestler like Ava knows how to defeat that terrible monster.

REVIEW: Some books you stay up late reading because you cannot wait to see how they end. Other books you stay up late reading because the thought of ever having to pick them up again is even more dreadful than the words printed on the pages.
Swamplandia! falls into the latter category.
Ava's story reads like a trip through the swamps, overgrown with tangles of colorful detail and murky metaphors, with only the barest hint of clear water ahead at any given time. While Russell weaves a poetic and no doubt accurate description of the Florida swamplands and a bygone world lingering long past its own extinction, she does so at the expense of a compelling storyline. By my estimation, she averages about ten pages of plot progress per hundred pages of text. For all that the book stars an alligator-wrestling dynasty whose star character hopes to use her own skills to save the family's alligator wrestling show, less than a page - at most - out of the entire book actively involves anyone actually wrestling an alligator. Subplots about Osceola's increasing obsession with her posthumous "boyfriends" and Kiwi's educational journey through the bowels of employment at the World of Darkness, not unlike Ava's main tale and the fate of Swamplandia! itself, end with resounding whimpers. Some of Russell's ideas glimmered brightly through the greater murk, but in the end the murk won out.
There is a school of thought, among many readers, that a book need not be interesting to be good. If the author uses complex turns of phrase to build a story full of resounding metaphors, if they pepper the prose with literary references, if they do nothing else for pages on end but delve into the dreary depths of history in order to reflect more fully upon the now, that alone, such people would sniff as they squint over their bifocals in their dimly-lit reading chairs, elevates a story into the realms of proper Literature. They would happily spend months - nay, years - of their lives communing with their fellow high-brow readers, dissecting the minutae of Swamplandia! and exposing the most obscure of wonders before their erudite eyes. I, on the other hand, whose simple little mind merely asks that a story interest and entertain me on some level, can only walk away disappointed that a book starring alligator wrestlers managed to bore me nearly to tears.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star (Brandon Mull)

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star
(The Fablehaven series, Book 2)
Brandon Mull
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

Rise of the Evening Star (Fablehaven)
DESCRIPTION: Last summer, Kendra and her kid brother Seth went to visit their grandparents out in the country, and stumbled into an adventure filled with fairies, imps, monsters and more. To save the magical sanctuary of Fablehaven from a terrible threat, Kendra turned in desperation to the Fairy Queen for help, and was marked forevermore. Normally, her fairy gifts don't bother her much in the ordinary world... but, in the last week of school, a new student joins her in the eighth grade. Everyone else thinks he's the cutest boy on campus, but Kendra's fairy-gifted sight sees through to the hobgoblin within. Worse, he seems to know that she's aware of his true nature. Kendra knows this can't be a good sign.
The Society of the Evening Star, a dark group which seeks the exploitation of magical beasts and subjugation of mankind, is on the move, and has targeted Fablehaven. Somewhere on the grounds, a powerful magical artifact lies hidden, one of five keys to a demonic prison. With the help of the enigmatic Sphinx, Grandma and Grandpa have brought in three new allies to find and retrieve the artifact for relocation to a new, more secure sanctuary - but from the start, trouble and betrayals dog their efforts. A traitor is in their midst, and time is running out.

REVIEW: I read Fablehaven some time ago, and while I enjoyed it, I never foresaw myself following the series further. After reading the abyssmal The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Tad Williams and Deborah Beale, reviewed here), however, I found a renewed appreciation for what Mull did with the generic "modern-kids-find-magical-world" formula, and vowed to read the second Fablehaven book if I ever found it cheap enough. So, when I saw this book for sale at a thrift store for under a buck, I grabbed it.
Unlike some series authors, Mull doesn't spend much time on recaps, plunging right into Kendra and Seth's new adventures; new readers will likely be disoriented at times. The children were both changed to some degree by their first visit to Fablehaven, but still have more growing up to do. Bookish Kendra is more willing to take risks and bend rules, and even Seth's seemingly self-destructive adventurous streak is tempered, if slightly, by past experiences. The action picks up quickly. Mull always has at least one ball in the air, but manages to juggle them adroitly, making for a fast read with few, if any, lulls. While some elements of the plot proved predictable, other parts are pleasantly original. Fablehaven remains, as it was in the first book, a domain of both wonders and dangers, where even the most beautiful and innocent-seeming magical creatures almost invariably have a deadly side. Once in a while the dialog feels awkward, and the humor leans toward the low-brow. On the whole, it's a worthy and entertaining sequel to the first volume. I expect I'll track down the next book eventually, to see how things go from here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jumper (Steven Gould)

Steven Gould
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

Jumper: A Novel
DESCRIPTION: One night, facing his drunken father's belt buckle for failing to mow the lawn, David Rice suddenly finds himself standing in the Stanwood library building. A short time later, he escapes another terrible situation, instantly and inexplicably. Are these traumatic blackouts, or something more?
David's new-found ability to "jump" to anywhere he has ever been, anywhere he can visualize clearly, helps him escape his abusive father. It even helps him get money to start over again in New York City, no easy task for an underage kid with no GED, social security card, or even a copy of his birth certificate. But it can't help him put the pieces of his shattered life together again, nor can it help him answer the questions that haunt him: What really happened to his abused mother? Can anyone else in his family do what he does? And how is a freak of nature ever supposed to find happiness?

REVIEW: This book starts fairly fast. David's life is one of violence, abuse, and lies, and even when he flees his father the darkness follows him, tainting his choices. His jumping ability is both a gift and a curse, a temptation to crime and vengeance. It has limits, but no apparent cost, save to his own psyche. Round about the midpoint, the book starts to lose its way, much like David. I had the vague impression that Gould, having come up with David's exceptional skill, wasn't quite sure what to do with it or the boy burdened by it. The final third or so sees the plot pretty much disintegrate, as he runs afoul of national security forces and starts a one-man war to avenge his mother. It all leads up to an ending that fails to live up to the earlier potential. Jumper is at its best when it's exploring the life of a scared young man dealing with a power he cannot understand, trying to rebuild himself with nothing but broken pieces. Unfortunately, it doesn't trust that strength enough to stay there for the whole book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

The previous six reviews are now archived at Brightdreamer Books, with cross-links to related titles.


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)

The Last Olympian
(Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, Book 5)
Rick Riordan
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book Five: Last Olympian
DESCRIPTION: Four years ago, Percy Jackson didn't know who his real father was. He didn't know why strange, monstrous things seemed to keep turning up in his life, or that there were other children just like him all across the country. He didn't know that the gods of Greece still reigned from Mount Olympus, now centered over New York City.  He'd never heard of the Great Prophecy, from the lips of the Oracle of Delphi, which foretold the end of Western civilization. He'd never even fought with a sword.
Things have changed since then.
A son of the Greek god Poseidon, Percy inherited powers over water and a telepathic link to horses - and, like all half-blood children of the Olympic gods, an unusual attraction to monsters out of Greek mythos. With his friends Annabeth (daughter of Athena, godess of wisdom) and Grover (a satyr), he's fought all manner of impossible foes, visited the kingdom of Hades, and even challenged Titans. But worse is to come. Kronos, Titan lord of time, has regained material existence. Even now, he marches on Olympus with an army of monsters, fellow Titans, and half-bloods who turned on their own absentee parents. The Great Prophecy foretold that a heroic half-blood would decide the fate of the known world in the climactic battle to come... but it also predicted that hero's death. To save his friends and his family, Percy must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice - and even that might not be enough to stop Kronos from succeeding.

REVIEW: Percy's adventures are a fun hybrid of modern humor with classical Greek myths, fast-paced and easily accessible even to those of us who weren't obsessively reading Homer through our formative years. Riordan concludes the series with an appropriately cataclysmic confrontation between god and Titan, monster and hero, and even father and son. Some of the plot twists were obvious, but not all of them. Not everyone makes it through to the ending, and those who do find that their roles in the finale aren't at all what they expected. The book feels overlong at times, with some sequences running a few pages past the point of impact. Overall, I found the series very entertaining, well worth reading.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell)

The Art of War for Writers
James Scott Bell
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
***** (Great)

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises
DESCRIPTION: It looks easy enough. Grab that story idea flitting around in your head, pin it down on paper, ship it off to an editor, and presto! Kick back to enjoy a carefree life as a famous author! Right?
As anyone who has tried writing knows, it's not as easy as that. Writing is more like a battle than a walk in the park, and any general worth their salt will tell you that battles cannot be won without a plan. James Scott Bell, a published novelist, adapts the classic treatise on war by Sun Tzu for writers.

REVIEW: I bought this book because the title leaped out at me. I've had writing ambitions for longer than I can reliably remember, but seem to have trouble getting from ambition to action. (I have a couple finished rough drafts, many more unfinished fragments, and that's about it.) This looked like a good kick-in-the-pants book to... well, kick me in the pants. Bell doesn't play games, pull punches, or take flowery side trips down Anecdote Avenue. He offers direct, practical advice in short, manageable chapters, covering everything from idea generation to agent queries. In between, he emphasises the practical, honest truth: a writer who doesn't take their writing as seriously as their day job is guaranteed to never be more than a daydreamer at a keyboard.
For being exactly what it claimed to be, and for delivering new information in a memorable way, I give it top marks.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a nightly writing quota to meet.