Thursday, June 24, 2010

When Good Books Go Bad

Is there a point when our favorite books go stale? Can our favorite characters or authors lose their sparkle? I think there is. What did you really think about the very last Harry Pottery book? Did it really capture the magic for you like the first four books? For me, I have read all the Harry Potter books up to book seven twice. The last two just weren't the same. I purchased the latest Artemis Fowl book, but have yet to read it. And as for the Warriors, I became too tired of the cats. And let's not even start at how the brilliant Mr. Snicket was really just stretching the plots of his Series of Unfortunate Events by book number 5. Did the last book in that series even make sense to you? It sure didn't to me.

Yes, even the most creative and beloved authors can get stale. I take case in point Georgia Byng and her creating Molly Moon. As my readers (and spammers - for some reason, they love spamming that entry) know, I am actually quite fond of little Molly Moon. But her latest adventure, Molly Moon, Mickey Minus, and the Mind Machine had me scratching my head.

In this adventure, Molly and her friend Rocky go to search for her missing twin brother. To find out who took her brother, they go back in time and follow the culprit who took him. But then, they end up having to follow the kidnapper to the future. Only this is a future ruled by a preciously evil six-year old Princess Fang. Everyone in the kingdom bends to her whims thanks to Molly's brother's powers of hypnotism.

Overall, the book isn't terrible. I still think Ms. Byng to be a fun writer and still find Molly spunky and energetic. But overall, this story was strange. First of all, why does Molly have to acquire a new superpower with every story? Okay, okay, she actually loses her former powers and thus takes on the new power, but still? Why can't she learn to use the powers she already has and expand on them more? Also, I found the humor I loved in the first three stories to be lacking. What I liked was how Molly dealt with her terrible situation at the orphanage with spunk and humor. But she's in a strange new world, that seems to get stranger and stranger as you read on (particularly when you get to the part about the half human-half animal hybrids).

I know there's another Molly Moon book out there. Even though I have not read it yet, I understand Molly's acquired yet another superpower. I think I might give that book a pass for a while and look for something a little fresher out there. Don't get me wrong - I love series. It is always fun to read about further adventures of beloved characters. The problem is when I feel the authors are starting to stretch their stories too thin. Then we readers are left wondering if the authors are still in love with their characters, or know the characters still sell books?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Summary: In this second book of the Conch Bearer, Anand goes to a small village being terrorized by some sort of evil. Going undercover as a village boy, he joins a group of workers who are searching for something among a palace ruins. Anand quickly learns that the man in charge is no man at all but a wicked wizard who uses the worker's souls to feed a terrible demon. In an attempt to get away, Anand discovers a little mirror that takes him into the past - to a time when the palace was a gleaming and lively place. Even more, he discovers that the wizard has also come back in time and plans to take over the throne.

Assessment: This book has one element I absolutely love and one element I do not like. First, I love time travel books and this one is a great one. Divakaruni takes us back to the times when India was ruled by shahzadas (Muslim princes) and describes in beautiful detail the sumptuous finery, jewels, and endless banquets as well as the customs of the court. It makes me wish for more novels set in the Mughal era (possible writing idea there). So what was there not to like? There are about two things I don't like in stories - I don't like novels where the stories take place in dreams, and I don't like stories that re-introduce a beloved character, only to have that character behave differently through the novel because he or she has forgotten his or her identity. In this case, Nisha is also in the past, but cannot remember who she was. Instead, she acts the haughty niece of the grand vizier and has no idea who Anand is, and at first, wants nothing to do with him. For me, this is the writing equivalent of saying, "Forget everything you knew about this person," which isn't fair to the people who have come to really like the character. However, having said that, do not let that detract you from this book. It is richly detailed, exciting, and with a thrilling ending, I actually enjoyed this book even more than the first one.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Synopsis: 12 year old Anand is a poor slum dweller who works in a tea stall in Calcutta (sorry to all purists - it will always be Calcutta to me). Everything changes when he is entrusted with a magical conch and is told by a magical wizard that it is Anand's duty to take the conch to its rightful home in the Himalayas. The only problem is that another powerful and evil wizard wants the the conch and its powers for his own - and he will stop at nothing to take it from Anand.

Assessment: It is exciting to read fantasy that instead of being set in Europe (particularly medieval Europe), is instead set in another country within the context of their traditions. In this case, the story is set in modern-day India, and incorporates traditional Hindu ideas. But you don't need to know one thing about India or Hinduism. All you need to do is pick up the book and expect an exciting page-turning read. Danger and adventure greet Anand and his companion Nisha at every turn, and every reader will find that once hooked, they won't be able to put it down.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Summary: After a murder is brutally murdered, a baby boy crawls into the cemetery across the street, and is adopted by the ghosts who reside there. Nobody Owens (as he is named by the denizens) slowly grows and learns the ways of the cemetery, the boundaries, and special skills that only ghosts can teach him. However, despite the ghosts trying to keep him safe, they know that the man who killed Bod's family is coming for him to finish the job. And at 14, as Bod wants to learn more about the world outside - the world of the living, he meets a girl he had once known as a child. Unfortunately, this friend inadvertently leads him to the man who wants to kill him.

Assessment: I'll be honest - I am no fan of Neil Gaiman. Many people are, but after reading Stardust, I was decidedly not. I also wasn't crazy about Coraline (which was why I never reviewed it here). But after winning Newberry, I thought perhaps I should give the book a chance. The idea behind it was certainly intriguing, and I always love a good ghost story, so I did. And I am glad I did. I actually did enjoy this story. Now, this is no Eva Ibbotson - it isn't what I like to call cute scary - it can be just plain scary, so I do not recommend it for younger or more squeamish readers. But I think bolder readers (and especially boys) will greatly enjoy it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu

Summary: Strange things start happening to Charlotte Mielswetzski the day a cute little kitten appears and demands to be taken home. Not long after that, her cousin Zee shows up from London telling her a terrible tale about the kids in his school that had all mysterious coma-like sickness. Then, the kids at Charlotte's school start showing the same symptoms and strange white-faced men in tuxedos start following Charlotte around. Soon, Charlotte and Zee learn that that a demon named Philonecron is stealing shadows to create an army to overthrow Hades, the king of the underworld.

Assessment: First, let me say that at first, I found this book quite fast-paced and action-filled. And then I read Percy Jackson. Okay, it doesn't stand up to Percy in that regard. It is not filled with swordfights and demons trying to kill Charlotte and Zee at every turn. One reader on the Barnes and Noble website said it was boring. So I do not recommend this book to the reluctant reader, and it might be more suitable for girls. But having said that, it still is a very enjoyable book. I enjoyed seeing Charlotte uses her wits to get out of some very frightening scenarios including escaping flesh-eating rhyming harpies and facing down Philonecron's zombie army of the dead. Finally, I liked the withdrawn and a tad sarcastic third person narration. The mix of adventure and humor is well mixed making this a slightly slower, but no less enjoyable romp into Greek mythology. And I cannot end this review without mentioning how satisfying it is to learn the true origin of Charlotte's kitten, but I won't say what it is. You'll have to find out for yourself.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ye gods!

I just finished Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief which I really enjoyed. I would write about it here, but as we all know from the constant ads, the movie is coming out very soon. Because the goal of this blog is to highlight lesser-known books, I suppose it wouldn't be fair to post about that book since by the time a movie is made of the book, it no longer qualifies as lesser-known.

So, in the same vein, I plan to highlight two other books I read and enjoyed that deal with the Greek gods. I will introduce one this week and one next week.

Juliet Dove Queen of Love by Bruce Coville

Summary: Shy Juliet Dove wishes just once she could get a little attention once in a while. But after she gets a strange amulet from an even stranger shop, she suddenly discovers that all the boys have all developed major crushes on her. Far from nice, the attention is annoying! But when she tries to take off the amulet, she discovers that it won't come off! With the help of two mice acting as cupids, Juliet discovers that she's become the new Helen of Troy (not Venus as the title suggests) and she must learn to use her strengths to get her out of this situation - if she can only figure out what those are.

Assessment: This is a part of the Magicshop series which (shame on me!) I hadn't read until I got my hands on this book. I plan to read more of those books since this one was so much fun. Don't worry, there's no mushiness here (or kissy-kissy parts as a student of mine once called it). Instead, Ju
liet discovers the old "be careful what you wish for" adage and doesn't want all the attention. What you get is a fast-paced story, memorable characters, and good humor.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Witch Week By Diana Wynne Jones

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Book 4.

A note starts all the trouble. The note reads, "Someone in this class is a witch." In any other classroom setting, the teach would have crumpled it up and continued with his lessons. But in this world, one very similar to our own, being accused of witchcraft is a very serious crime - one in which the accused can be burned at the stake. Not long after their teacher discovers the note, Charles Morgan and Nan Underwood, both unpopular students at the dreaded Larwood House, a dreary boarding school, realize that they can do magic. Little by little they test their newfound abilities with a secret glee - that is, until when they learn that the Inquisitors are coming to the school to find the accused witch! Only Chrstomanci can help save them from the terrible fate that happens to witches in their world.

Assessment: I liked this story even better than The Magicians of Caprona, to which this story was bundled in my book. One can easily sympathize with the plight of poor picked-on Charles and unpopular Nan. Who hasn't wished for magical abilities to play tricks on our tormentors (my dream in middle school!) without magical abilities? But along with that, there are hints that they aren't the only ones with magical abilities - there's also the Indian student Nirupam and Brian. Jones skillfully switches between the four students' point of view helping us learn more about the terrible school and world they live in - and how each one has been personally touched in some way or another by the draconian laws of the land. Furthermore, she sprinkles the story with good humor like brooms that demand to be ridden and mops and hoes that act more like stubborn mules when ridden. While Larwood House is the opposite of Harry Potter's beloved Hogwarts, this story puts every bit as much fun as any Potter story.