Friday, October 23, 2009 | | 1 comments

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant by Darren Shan

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is a novel written several years ago by Darren Shan. It first caught my attention when I saw the commercials for the soon-to-be-released movie. The movie seemed a little hokey, but it was nice to see something about vampires where they didn’t sparkle, so I decided to give the book a shot. It was actually the second book in the series, but it seemed like a quick read, and the first page was a synopsis of the first book, so I wasn’t lost for long.

The book revolves around Darren Shan, a young boy of about 15 or so, newly created half vampire and apprentice to Mr. Crepsley. They work together in a circus with all sorts of strange freaks. Darren befriends a boy who works with a giant snake, but things start to spiral out of control when a boy from town makes friends with Darren and gets too close to the circus and its dangerous creatures.

The plot was simple, straightforward, and very quick. The book read much more like a middle grade book than a young adult book. I sped through this almost as fast as Odd and the Frost Giants though it was over twice the size. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed with this book. It was a page turner, but for an adult of 25 years the plot was terribly easy to figure out, right down to the last detail. Having read enough young adult in my life to spot an easy plot, I can reasonably assume that an intelligent 13 year old could figure out the ending to this book about 2/3 of the way through. I can see the potential in a movie, especially with this series being 12 books long, but I have to imagine that due to the small size of each book they’ll be combining at least the first two or three books into a single movie.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (7/10) is a quick read, and enjoyable, but there are meatier tales out there for fans of vampire novels, and more well-written horror. It’ll almost certainly be better than the movie, but that’s probably not saying much, judging from the previews.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 | | 1 comments

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost Giants comes from Neil Gaiman, who is quickly climbing into my list of all-time favorite authors. I think he's great because it seems like he can write effectively for any audience, and this latest book seems to show that.

Odd is a small boy with a tough life. His father is gone, drowned, and all the vikings in the village he lives with are upset, having been beset with what seems a never-ending winter. Odd runs into a bear, an eagle and a fox, who are much more than they seem. Soon he's off on a quest to help the animals return to their home, the city of Asgard.

Make no mistake, this a very small book for younger children. That said, I loved every page. It's simple, wonderful writing that drew me in and gave me the chuckles at several points. There are a few jokes thrown into the book that are clearly of the Spongebob variety (jokes that seem to be pandering more to the adults in the room than the children watching the program) and I loved them all. The book was incredibly short, and clearly written for a different audience, so I'm having a hard time giving it a really in-depth review. I was surprised by the higher than usual level of vocabulary in the book, but maybe I just assume that little kids can't read at as high a level as they really do. Someone let me know, I'm not a teacher and don't have a child this age, so I'm only guessing.

Gaiman impressed me with The Graveyard Book last year, and has done it again this time, with a much smaller book for an even younger audience. I'm more and more impressed that the guy can write so well for just about any age group, and though I still haven't jumped into American Gods, it's definitely on the list. I hear I should also check out his Sandman graphic novels, so I'll be looking into those sometime next year.

Odd and the Frost Giants (9/10) is a fun and quick adventure for a young audience. I'd guess that ages 8-10 should really enjoy this book, though I'm 25 and had a great time. If you're an adult and have about 45 minutes to kill, pick this one up. Gaiman wrote this book for World Book Day, to promote reading, and has stated that he would perhaps eventually return to the world to write more books about Odd. I'd certainly return to read them.

Saturday, October 17, 2009 | | 0 comments

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia is the third volume in Brandon Sanderson's middlegrade series about a boy who breaks things. In the previous two volumes, Alcatraz has learned that he has special powers, and has done some incredible things with them. He's fought the librarians in a daring invasion of one of their libraries, he's braved the famous Library of Alexandria, and its ghostly curators who want to steal your soul, and much more. This time, he's headed back to Nalhalla, the homeland that he's never seen, having been just recently rescued from the United States, a librarian occupied land. Perhaps the biggest surprise in his trip home is the realization that he's famous. Very famous. People are writing FanFic famous. It's a little much for Alcatraz, who has to battle not only evil librarians set on taking over the Free Kingdoms and enslaving them just like they've done the United States and other places, but also struggle to deal with fame and fortune that he's never had before. Will he let it go to his head? Will he be able to expose the plot of the Librarians and their supposed "peace talks" and show the king who they truly are?

There's really only one negative thing I can say about these books, and it's more of a warning than an actual knock against them. If you're not a fan of a very heavy narrative voice, these are probably not up your alley. They're in first person, written as though Alcatraz were chronicling his story, and he isn't afraid to step in and chat about random things in the middle of his story. It's all done well, and very effectively from a comedy standpoint, but it's very over the top. Now, these books are written for a twelve year old, so I might not be the best critic available, but my son's only five months old, so I'll have to do (If you'd like to wait until he's 12 and can tell me what he thought, email me, and I'll get back to you in 2022). That said, the very heavy feel of the narrator isn't for everyone. One example that I found particularly amusing was a point where Alcatraz reminds you of a scene he described from a previous book, and lets you know that it's coming, but not until book 6. This breaking down of that fourth wall might be a little too much for some, so reader be ware.

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia (8.5/10) is a lighthearted, hilarious adventure from an author that I love. If you're a fan of other Sanderson works, like Mistborn or Elantris, it's worth checking out these younger audience books just to get a glimpse into Sanderson's mind. These books reveal a lot about his personality, and I enjoy the brief time I get to spend with each one (adults can blaze through each book in about an hour, maybe a little bit more with a potty break and dinner).

Friday, October 9, 2009 | | 1 comments

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

Servant of a Dark God is a new novel by up and coming author John Brown. I received an advance copy of this a little over a month ago (You're Welcome, FTC), and devoured it in just a few days. Now, time to put the fanboy attitude aside and do some honest reviewing.

This book struck me as falling into the mold of classic fantasy somewhat, while at the same time doing everything just different enough to be seen as original. Sure, there's a young boy with a destiny of sorts, but his interaction with his family and their involvement in that destiny are very different than other fantasy offerings. Yes, there's an evil power seeking dominion over the entire world, but it's basically already got it, and we're looking at the beginning of a rebellion. This, too, has been done, but I think it was just different enough with the political intrigue and terrible power of the evil forces to keep things fresh and new.

The story revolves around The Order, a group of people who want to give the power to the people. The magic power, that is. The Divines rule the land with an almost godlike status, hiding the reality that magic is for everyone in order to hold onto their power over the people. The story mainly revolves around two families who are caught up in the trouble brewing between the Order and the Divines.

I really enjoyed the emotional attachment that I developed to the characters, particularly to their interaction with one another. From the outset I was drawn in as Talen embarked upon the noble quest of finding his pants. It was a fun way to start a book, and a good way to see the humor in the characters before the try/fail cycles of the novel kicked in and we got to see the deeper side of each character. For me, the interaction in the emotional scene between Argoth and his son Nettle was particularly heart-wrenching, and signaled strong writing on the part of Mr. Brown. I also enjoyed the inner demons of Sugar, having to deal with the terrible things that she saw, particularly her reaction to them. Hunger was an excellent sort of anti-villain, someone you felt terrible for and routed against almost at the same time. In short, characters make a book, and this one is full of quality characters.

Rather than start with the young boy who gathers friends along the way for the great quest, this book begins with a well organized group, and that was refreshing in a way. Readers who aren't as experienced in the genre might struggle a little bit to understand everything that's going on, since Brown doesn't just hand it out to everyone. However, it's not nearly as difficult as, say, Gardens of the Moon by Erikson, where as a teenager I remember reading the entire first book and still asking myself, "What's going on here?" In fact, I now enjoy this approach, where the author doesn't explain every single detail of the world or the magic system. It should, in my opinion, come in parts, just like everything we learn in life comes in chunks that build together to become total knowledge. Think about it, when was the last time you went to Pep Boys for an oil change and the mechanic talked with you for nine hours about exactly how the car runs?

The book did have a couple of slow spots, where I felt like my emotions, fears and trust in the characters  should have been building a little more dramatically rather than just maintaining, but I can't point them out specifically without a re-read, so that means they're not glaring enough to hinder anyone's reading of the tale.

The best compliment that I can give John Brown is this: Servant of a Dark God does not feel like it's his first published novel. It's more mature, and far more well-written than some of the first offerings of other authors I've come across. I would compare Servant of a Dark God to Brandon Sanderson's first offering, Elantris. Now, I didn't stay up all night reading Servant of a Dark God like I did Elantris but I'm also not 17 anymore, and have a 5 month old baby, so I can no longer base the quality of a work on how late it keeps me up at night. Also, let's remember that Sanderson wrote something like 12 books before he got Elantris published, so I'd say Brown's writing is definitely up to snuff. I'm eagerly awaiting the second book, and John, if you need an alpha reader, I'm right here baby!

Final Verdict: 8.5/10. A fresh new voice in fantasy is always welcome, and Mr. Brown's epic will undoubtedly claim its place on my shelves, right next to those other people I like enough to buy. A solid mix of humor and heart-wrenching sadness combine with plenty of well-done action to produce a novel that new readers as well as experienced hands will enjoy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 | | 0 comments

Interview with new author John Brown

0.      Ah, the ever-unappreciated question zero. This isn't really a question, more a place where you get to describe yourself, and give a brief "how I got published" story. For the record, fans, John has a fantastic "how I got published" in technicolor at his blog. Also for the record, this is a family friendly blog, but I'm allowing John one swear and one fake swear.

I swear by the Six! That’s a real swear in my novel and a fake one in Logan, Utah. So that should please everybody. I’m a city boy living up in the hinterlands of Bear Lake. As for breaking in, I won a first prize in the monster Writers of the Future contest in 1997. That was my first publication, which they paid me a total of $2,000 for. Not a bad opening. But then I failed to finish anything for many years. There was life, kids, a new career, and making the big beginner mistake of not putting in the hours. My mind is like big old boiler. You have to get it hot before it starts to work well. But I wasn’t putting in the time I needed to keep it hot. I’d write a few hours one week, none the next three. Or I’d pump out 20,000 words and then put the writing aside for four months. That just doesn’t work. It makes it impossible to finish. So after I figured out that dumb and obvious problem, I began to produce. That was in 2002. I soon sold a few shorts, finished two novels. I queried a bunch of agents on both of the novels. On the second, I snagged Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson who is a fabulous agent. The rest is history.

1.      As a new author, what was your greatest difficulty in moving from brainstorming to actual publication?

Time. TIME! As I stated before. I have to put in hours. But that’s the same with anything, playing piano, flying airplanes, running criminal organizations. I also had to learn how to deal with writer’s block and rejection. Writer’s block is actually a gift. But that’s another topic.

2. Did you learn anything new about the publishing industry from this process?

One thing I learned was that in my case the relationships some agents have with editors can make a big difference. Caitlin, for example, used to be an editor with Avon. She knows a number of people personally. And they trust her opinion. I knew such relationships were important, but didn’t realize how important until we went through the sales process.

2.      Was it difficult to get an agent, get a deal, etc? 

In my case it was fairly straight-forward. Write a book, submit, write another book, submit. The difficulty really was in making time to finish and then making sure I didn’t let distorted thinking run away with me. For example, I sometimes read a favorite author and then think: “holy crap, how can I compete with that? I should just throw in the towel.” Or I see that another author started much later than I did and got a deal more quickly. And I’d think, “maybe I just don’t have what it takes; I must have the wrong brain DNA.” But those and similar thoughts are distortions of the truth. In some cases, I had to consciously highlight the distortions and the actual truth of the matter to be able to move forward without too much anxiety or doubt. I plan on writing a series of blogs on my site dealing with these distortions because I’ve found they’re so very common among writers. And none of us should let them hinder us.

3. Who were the authors that you read growing up and even into adulthood that made you want to get out there and write the next great fantasy epic?

I actually never considered writing fantasy until very late. As a teen, the Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials thrilled me (Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph, etc.). I wanted to become an animator to tell such tales. But those weren’t epic fantasies. And that dream was soon laid aside. So since my teens I had an urge to develop and tell stories because I enjoyed them so much. But I really never thought it was possible to do it for real. So even when I took creative writing classes, it wasn’t with an eye towards publication. However, about the time I was finishing up my English degree at BYU I attended a workshop put on by Dave Wolverton who was the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future contest. It was transformational. I began to think I could write for publication. Real publication. Of course, ever since I was a wee lad I’d loved fantasy. The Hobbit was what got me on the road to literacy. Until I read that book in sixth grade, I don’t think I’d read more than two dozen books total. I just wasn’t a reader. But Tolkien turned that all around. So because I loved fantasy, it was only normal I follow that genre when I began to write, hoping to entertain.

4. In your opinion, who are some of the great authors putting out works right now that we need to be reading?

I’m dismayed at the number of novels that come out every year. There is NO WAY for most people to keep up with it. Now you have your Harriet Klausners who read one to three books each day, and they can keep up with a small genre like SF/Fantasy. But they’re forces of nature. I can’t do that. So I can’t say that I’ve surveyed the field and know you should watch Bob, Bill, and Pedro. Nor can I say that my taste is predictive of what’s going to redefine literature. All I can do is highlight books I’ve read that I’ve loved, which I do on my site. Recently, I read the following and enjoyed them very much: Bernard Cornwell’s AGINCOURT, Dan Well’s I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, Brandon Sanderson’s THE HERO OF AGES, and Jonathon Stroud’s BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY. I also enjoyed BROTHER ODD by Dean Koontz. There are more, of course. But I do have to say that I find I’m reading a lot of non-fiction these days as well. One of the most interesting books of late that I read was WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE by William Stolzenburg. As for what people NEED to read, I’d say just read. Anything. Old, new, weird, popular. If it draws you in, read it.

5. Given the scope of Servant of a Dark God it's easy to see that we're definitely in for an epic tale. Was the story always this big, or did it increase in size and scope as the pen hit the page (or fingers hit the keyboard, as it were)?

I knew it was going to be a few books from the get go and when I took it to market I did so with a synopsis that outlined three books. But all my plans change. It’s still three books. I am not going to extend it beyond that although I may write something else in this world. But ideas I started off with morphed into something else. Characters appeared. So there’s a lot of growth and discovery that comes through the writing process.

6. For the folks from other countries around the world: Any news on foreign rights?

Nope, none yet. I understand that in most cases foreign publishers like to wait and see how a book does with its initial release. I know my agent has included my book in their catalogue for publishers overseas. But I don’t expect to hear anything for a few months.

7. My favorite character to read from your novel was probably Hunger. The question is, who is your favorite character to write, and why?

I loved them all for different reasons. In fact, I can’t really write a scene unless I’m plugged into the people and situation. But I did like Hunger quite a bit as well. I knew I needed a henchman for my main villain. I’d written a short story set in this world that wasn’t quite ready for publication. But it did give me an idea for him. His voice and character came to me surprisingly easily. The image of him awakening in the spruce glen was so strong. It was delicious to write.

8. Fans of the wonderful podcast Writing Excuses know that you're very active in the comments section, as well as making several guest appearances. You've also got an active blogThrough the interwebs, meaning blogging, social networks and microblogs like Twitter, it has become easier than ever to, follow new authors. How do you feel these relatively new means of communication are affecting the publishing industry and the authors that use them?

How do you know it’s not me stalking you? Mwuhahaha.

The two big effects I see are ways social networks affect word-of-mouth and the whole e-book revolution that’s coming. Social networks and blogs will become more and more important as newspapers and other media decline. Some will have more readership than others, but what the growth of that media does is allow a much more organic reading industry to evolve. And with ebooks the barriers to entry will diminish as will the constraints on book sizes.

It won’t be a free-for-all. Publishers and other sources of recommendation right now perform an important function—they remove unlimited choice from the consumer and point to “quality” works. In study after study it’s been proven that consumers just don’t want unlimited choice. They want unlimited availability. They want to find a few sources of recommendation that get it right for them. Nobody has the time to review all the choices. They’ll want someone to say, here, make a choice between these fifty or hundred books. We’ve narrowed it down. Isn’t that what happens with Oprah now? Of all the hundreds of thousands of books, she chooses just a handful. And it works for her viewers. We’ll continue to have mega platforms like that. But we won’t be limited to them. That function will spread out among the many blogger, sites, tweeters, etc.

9. Last, but certainly not least, here's a section for you to shamelessly plug anything related to you, the new book, the short stories, the current economic crisis, the local zoo, wombats, great places to eat, or just whatever.

Wow. Since it’s wide open, I’m going to plug the Kamin restaurant in Logan, Utah and Thai Evergreen in Orem, Utah. My wife and I both lived for a few years in the Netherlands as missionaries. We learned to love the Indonesian food there. But there aren’t many Indonesian restaurants in the US. However, there are quite a few Thai ones, and that was close enough for us. We used to live in the Bay Area in California and bemoaned our loss of Thai cuisine when we moved to Ohio. It took us two years to find a place out there. We were so happy to find these two places when we moved to Utah.

I’ll be doing a book tour with David Farland (Runelords) and Larry Correia (Monster Hunters International). You can see the schedule on my website. We’ll hit four spots in Utah. I invite folks to come out. Your readers might also want to know that X96 radio will be doing book giveaways all week long starting Monday October 19th. So tune in on the radio or internet.

Other than that I’ll just say it was great to do this interview. Thanks, Bryce.

NOTE: John will be signing books in Logan UT, for any of you other Utards that live around here, on October 22nd at 6 pm.

Monday, October 5, 2009 | | 2 comments

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins ***Small Spoilers, Clearly Marked***

NOTE: To get my overall opinion of the book, spoiler free, just skip the clearly marked spoiler section. If you can't see it, please go back to bed grandma, you know the little text just isn't your thing. I'll print it out for you in the morning. Sheesh.

As a reviewer of new fantasy and sci-fi books, I am a glutton for punishment. I almost never think about whether or not a series is complete before I start reading. In fact, since the blog attempts, albeit weakly, to stay on the cutting edge of what's out there, that's usually the last thing on my mind.

This brings me to Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in the incredibly popular Hunger Games Trilogy. You can read my review of the first book here. In short, I loved it in that "can't get enough" way that had me clamoring for more.

***************************here there be spoilers****************************

This second book in The Hunger Games didn't disappoint. Katniss realizes, on a somewhat smaller scale, that she's the face of a rebellion starting to take place throughout the districts. President Snow, in an attempt to quell the rebellion before it can spread to all the districts, uses the Quarter Quell, an event that takes place every 25 years, to kill the poster child of the rebellion by placing Katniss and Peeta in the games yet again, this time against the victors from previous years.

**************************here be the end of them***************************

Hopefully that paragraph isn't too spoilerific for you. If so, sorry. It's my review, and I did mention that there were slight spoilers, so you had it coming.

The inherent weakness in a second book comes, I feel, from expectations ingrained in us from birth as readers. We want a happy ending, and a second book simply cannot deliver that. So, I fully expect there to be much gnashing of teeth and bemoaning the fact that we'll have to wait another year, perhaps more, to see the grand finale of what happens to our heroes. That's to be expected, and I'll try not to let that cloud my judgement in reviewing the book.

Something that was somewhat unexpected was the seeming drop in intelligence of our hero, Katniss. I expected her to be a little more on the ball, considering what she'd been through in the last book. I was left wanting somewhat in that regard. Don't read too much into this, she's still a great character. I was just looking for her to brighten up a bit, and I suppose she did, just not as much as I wanted.

Another minor beef I had with this book was the entirely-too-convenient plot twists. It's almost like Collins couldn't think of anything more dramatic than the original Hunger Games as a story, and so she just moved the characters back into that environment. I'm not complaining too much, since it's always good to see Katniss at her best, killing and surviving, but I was hoping for a little more character growth. This section of the overarching plot almost seemed more like a middle grade book rather than a young adult, in that Katniss spent entirely too much time reacting to things, and not enough time acting. All the clever defiances of the capitol were set up for her, and the big reveal of what's really going on at the end (a staple of almost any second book) was completely given to her, rather than puzzled out. She did make a couple of discoveries, so I guess I might just be grasping at straws, I'm not. This was a weakness in the book, and that's that. For a character as strong as Katniss is, she was weaker in the thinking department in this second book.

On the plus side of things, I felt that the writing was top notch, again. The love scenes and the romance of Katniss and Gale, and Katniss and Peeta was well done, and thankfully much briefer than I expected given the first act of the book and what Katniss and Peeta were trying to accomplish. Also, the contrived plot that I mentioned above could be forgiven for being thought up by the antagonist rather than the author trying to write her way back into her comfort zone.

Despite my complaints above, I give this book a 8.5/10. It's a must read for fans of the series, and fans of post-apocalyptic sci-fi in general, especially if they happen to be between the ages of 14 and 18. My hats off to Collins, for delivering an excellent second book. I'm sure that the second book is the hardest to write, and although she didn't break any ground here as far as how to write it, it was still well done. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go back to surfing the web, looking for a convenient way to get an ARC of the third book and avoid the pain of waiting a whole year.