Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Tad Williams and Deborah Beale)

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm
Tad Williams and Deborah Beale
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)
The Dragons of Ordinary Farm
DESCRIPTION: Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins just know they're in for a bad summer when their mother announces she's going on a singles cruise and sending them to stay with relatives. When a strange invitation arrives from Great-Uncle Gideon, a man they never knew existed, to visit his farm in California's Standard Valley, they know it's going to be even worse. Lucinda is used to things being bad and turning worse, ever since their parents divorced. Tyler just wants to hide behind his GameBoss blasting monsters so he doesn't have to deal with his life or his family.  Unfortunately, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere isn't likely to have indoor plumbing, let alone cable TV or internet access. Two months feeding chickens and taking hayrides? Talk about bo-ring.
As soon as they arrive at Uncle Gideon's place, things start going weird. Soon, they discover that Ordinary Farm doesn't raise cows or chickens or horses: it raises more exotic creatures, like unicorns, griffins, and dragons. Even the farmhands and kitchen girls have very unusual origins to go with their peculiar accents. The more the kids poke around, the more dangers they discover. The secret behind the wonders of Ordinary Farm is one that Uncle Gideon will die to defend... and which some people seem willing to kill for.

REVIEW: So, two modern kids from a broken home visit an obscure relative and discover magical wonders and powerful enemies. I knew this wasn't a particularly original story when I bought it, but I had reasonably high hopes. After all, Tad Williams wrote one of my favorite fantasy epics (the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy), and even when he misses he usually has a few nice ideas rolling around somewhere. What, then, went wrong here? Where to begin...
Even the most overdone, trite storyline can be made good (or at least tolerable) with a likable character to follow around. Try as I might - and I did indeed try - I couldn't find a single one here. Lucinda and Tyler are not only self-centered and annoying but remarkably dense, and remain so even as clue after clue drops onto their heads like the leavings of a flying monkey. Children this stupid should not be allowed to have magical adventures. If these two short-sighted, undereducated twits are what the American public school system is churning out these days, then this country is in even bigger trouble than Ordinary Farm is. They talk and think with forced slang and pop culture references that feel more like a grown-up trying to talk "cool" than something a real modern kid would come up with. The other characters feel like stereotyped cardboard cutouts, whose secrets were pretty easy to guess from early on (for the reader, if not our dimwitted starring duo.) The farm girls all hide in the kitchen while the men do all the real work... and, yes, last I checked, this is the 21st century; even if their origins explain some of the sexism, it felt unduly irritating that the only remotely strong lady on Ordinary Farm was essentially a wicked witch. The farm proves a far less fascinating place to explore than other hidden wonderlands, and its "secret" - the only part of the entire book with any shred of interest or originality - is only glimpsed once or twice, and then through the exceedingly dim and clouded lenses of Tyler's and Lucinda's eyes. The rest of the story wanders beyond the point of tedium through the Jenkins kids' explorations of the farm, introductions with farmhands and animals, and other entirely pointless meanderings which only rarely advance the plot.  Oh, and the titular dragons?  They aren't in it nearly enough to justify being part of the title.
The ending really killed it. Major plot arcs are left up in the air because Williams and Beale intend to write a sequel, or more likely a series. Well, if they do - and, unless Williams' name alone is magic enough to make it happen, I have serious doubts about whether this turkey of a tale generated sufficient sales to justify sequels - they'll have one less reader to worry about. All I could think about, as I read this book, was how Brandon Mull's Fablehaven did the same thing, only better... and how I really should've spent my money on the second Fablehaven book instead of this one.  Dang it...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Silvertongue (Charlie Fletcher)

(The Stoneheart trilogy, Book 3)
Charlie Fletcher
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)
The Stoneheart Trilogy, Book Three: Silvertongue
DESCRIPTION: The thirteenth hour has struck, and all across London the people vanish as time without time takes hold. Only the spits - living statues on the side of good - and the taints - grotesques and gargoyles working with darkness - and the cursed immortals remain... aside from George and Edie. When their enemy, the Walker, escaped through twin mirrors into the outer darkness, an evil entity was displaced into London. The Ice Devil wastes no time in allying itself with the restless force trapped in the London Stone at the heart of the city; together, they might be victorious, but first they must crush the upstart young maker George and his glint companion, Edie.
As spit and taint prepare for the final battle, George awaits the final of the three duels he must fight. Edie, returned from Death itself, has her own quest to follow: during her entrapment by the Walker, she found her mother's heart stone, and the dim glimmer of light within tells her that perhaps her mom is still alive.

REVIEW: This book starts fast... so fast, in fact, that I strongly suspect that it was never intended to be its own book, but an extension of the previous installment (Ironhand.) Fletcher doesn't slow down for recaps or refreshers, plunging straight ahead as though there hadn't been a year-odd gap since the previous book's release. It took me some time to catch up on the fly, but I finally got my bearings. George and Edie both learn important lessons on their separate quests, and come together for a great, tense, and action-filled finale. There's just a teaser of potential for sequels at the end. On the whole, I enjoyed Fletcher's trilogy, and wouldn't mind reading more from the same author, with or without George and Edie.

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Yes, again.  I want to get Operation Title Cross Reference done and posted as soon as I can.  The previous two reviews have been archived at Brightdreamer Books.  I also cross-linked more titles; A - G and T - Z are done. (I find it easier to tackle tedious jobs from both ends...)  More Amazon links are up, too.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Jack M. Bickham)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)
Jack M. Bickham
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
*****  (Excellent)
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
DESCRIPTION: Writing words is as easy as picking up a pencil or sitting down at a keyboard. Writing sentences gets a little harder. And writing stories... stories publishers will want to buy, and other people will want to read... it's downright impossible, isn't it? Only if you think it is. The author, a published writer and teacher, offers a shorthand list of common mistakes made by amateur (and a few professional) writers, and how to stop making them.

REVIEW: Much of this advice is covered in other books on writing that I own, but rarely in the succinct manner Bickham uses. He doesn't wander into "when I wrote my first story" this or "in the history of the English language" that. Not that I mind such anecdotes in writing books, of course, but it was still nice to cut to the chase, or rather the advice, without so much dancing. Naturally, I recognized my own writing efforts more than once. I found this a very helpful book, which will probably be paged through more than once as I pound away at my keyboard stringing words together.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Forever After (Roger Zelazny, creator)

Forever After
Roger Zelazny, creator
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

Forever After
DESCRIPTION: The war is over. Evil Lord Kalaran has fallen to Prince Rango's forces of light, aided by four powerful magical artifacts obtained in mind-bendingly dangerous quests from the four corners of the world. In the days before Rango's wedding to the beautiful (not to mention brave and deadly) Princess Rissa, the land heaves a sigh of relief as peace soothes the scars of war... or not. Things have been downright strange around the capital city of Caltus lately. Sourceless music booms through the night sky. Great sinkholes devour lakes, and mountains sink and rise overnight. Impossible animals roam the countryside. And three comets of ill omen shine in the night skies.
Clearly, something isn't right.
The problem, sages seem to agree, is the very four artifacts that saved the land. Having that many magically potent items so close together warps and wears on the very fabric of reality. Unless they want the world to drown in a sea of chaos, the artifacts need to be scattered... returned from whence they came, or stashed in some other suitably out-of-the-way place until there is need to quest for them again. So, Prince Rango gathers the four heroic companions who found the artifacts and sends them forth once more. But there is some dispute about the true cause of the reality disruptions, and the questors each start to wonder the same thing: will getting rid of the artifacts save the land, or doom it?

REVIEW: There's a certain irony in the fact that the last book the late Roger Zelazny worked on before his untimely demise is the first book of his that I happen to read. In truth, this is more of an anthology: he came up with the idea, the quests' plotlines, and the between-quest chapters that tied them all together, but the four tales themselves were each written by a different author. Since it's all the same story in the end, though, I just called this one Fantasy.
Technicalities aside...
As light fantasies go, Forever After proves hit and miss. It pokes fun at the conventions of epic fantasy without being cruel or belittling, but much of the humor depends on references to our world as bits of it - modern and historical - dribble into their land through the reality distortions. It gets tiresome, being expected to laugh at the sweet, brown fizzy drink that replaces all the castle wine stocks again and again and again. One of the stories also leans too heavily on crude humor, even granting one of the magical artifacts the gift of flatulence. The strongest two stories find their own humor in their own world, and build to a good finale. There's also a problem with coming in on a story after the epic battle rather than before it. Names and places are tossed about with reckless abandon while I was still getting acquainted with the book. I knew I was reading the "after the battle" story, but I wasn't sure getting smacked between the eyes with such heavy info dumps about what happened before Kalaran's fall so early on was necessary.
Once I passed the halfway point, I started enjoying the story. Unfortunately, the earlier deadweight and the name tangle drag it down to three stars in the ratings.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Site Updated and Enhanced, Reviews Archived

I transferred the three preceding reviews to the Brightdreamer Books website and cleaned up more little errors. 

I also started cross-referencing book reviews and adding more Amazon links.  This is a work in progress; so far, I've done A - C and the new reviews.  I'm still fine-tuning the system as I go along, so bear with me...

There's also a new special under Random Recommendations, featuring dragons (in honor of the recent, long-awaited DVD release of The Flight of Dragons.)


(Oh - I also finally got my Amazon links synched with Blogger.  If nothing else, the cover images are pretty to look at.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dandelion Fire (N. D. Wilson)

Dandelion Fire
(The 100 Cupboards trilogy, Book 2)
N. D. Wilson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)
Dandelion Fire: Book 2 of the 100 Cupboards
DESCRIPTION: In the short time he's lived with his aunt and uncle in rural Kansas, Henry York has changed in more ways than he could possibly have imagined, and learned secrets that perhaps should have been left unlearned. Thanks to the magical cupboards in his attic room and his late grandfather's diaries, Henry and his cousin Henrietta have walked on other worlds... and unwittingly released the undead witch Nimiane from her exile in Endor. He also discovered that he is not who he always thought he was. Like his uncle Frank before him, Henry was born in another place - but, with his parents (or the people he always called his parents) home from South America, he's due to be shipped back to Boston, where he'll be smothered by nannies and boarding schools again. He can't go back to being the sheltered boy he used to be, and he can't let go of the lure of the cupboards and the mystery of his origins, but his decision to search for his home world may lead to dire consequences. For Nimiane's power is returning, and she remembers well who bound her in the tomb of Endor... just as she recognizes that man's son, and the untapped power waiting to be awakened in him.

REVIEW: Just like the first book, Dandelion Fire moves fast and builds to a breakneck climax. Henry's powers, wakened by the titular weed, add a new dimension to his character, especially since magic in Wilson's universe doesn't come as easily as it does to some young mages. Its waking can be lethal, and learning to use it is a painful, slow process, known to drive some would-be mages mad. A few characters don't seem to have purposes yet, most notably the boy Richard (who followed Henry home from one of his first cupboard explorations, and has been little more than a tagalong since), but there's one more book to go, so maybe they'll come into their own then.  I don't know if I'll be able to wait for the paperback edition to find out how the story ends.