Monday, September 29, 2008

Mistborn: The Final Empire

A note from Caren to non-fantasy readers wondering about Mistborn:
Since I'm not a hard-core fantasy fan, I was hesitant about trying a new fantasy author (and the cover art did nothing to reassure me -- yikes!). So I was surprised and delighted to be so engaged by this book. Part of it's appeal was an Ocean's 11 type of plot with some fantastic twists and a great ending, but it was the depth of the characters and the nuances of their relationships that really carried the story. And there was enough nitty-gritty reality to prevent the fantasy from getting carried away, which also gave it broader appeal. If you are willing to give fantasy a chance -- e.g. if you've ever read J.K. Rowling or Orson Scott Card -- by all means take a chance on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. You won't be disappointed!

Jenny: I know we are barely getting this review done for September, but keep your shirt on, it's here! Beware of massive spoilers and the giving away of most of the plot. If you're thinking to yourself, "Whatever, I'm never going to read this book," then re-read Caren's comments above and give it a good hard think before you go on.

What's funny is that we are reviewing the first of a trilogy, yet the third book will be coming out any second now. Why are we so behind? Well, I was totally enthralled by Brandon Sanderson's first novel, Elantris, and then I got to meet him and pick his brain, so it seemed perfect to review the first novel of his Mistborn trilogy and get all of you lovely readers hooked too. And since I love to hear what Caren has to say about books, we decided to do a co-review. So excuse me while I burn some tin to help me see things clearly and burn some copper to keep you non-fantasy readers from reading the spoilers that abound.

There's a whole heapin' load of characters in these books, but we'll just cover a few. The book takes place in a land where ash falls constantly from the sky, coating everything it touches and where the ruler of the land is considered a god, since he, like, doesn't die and stuff. The Lord Ruler has been around for 1,000 years and manipulates the aristocracy while beating down the "skaa", a serf-like people. The aristocracy is identified by money, power and the ability to practice some form of allomancy, the consumption and burning of certain metals to exhibit supernatural abilities. Yep, they drink flakes of metals and get magical powers. It's cool. The ultimate of these people are the Mistborn, who can manipulate all of the allomantic metals, not just one. They are above law and feared by all.

Our two main characters are Kelsier, charismatic leader of the thieves and rebels of the city and survivor of the Lord Ruler's most horrific prison, and Vin, a teenage girl to whom Kelsier teaches how to use her allomantic powers. Both are Mistborn and have great powers. Kelsier has plans to overthrow the government and the Lord Ruler and doesn't mind if all the aristocracy dies in the process. Vin becomes an undercover agent amidst the aristocracy and manages to fall for the one of the enemies, a prince and philosopher. Kelsier has his band of cronies (kind of like the A-Team) who all have allomantic powers in some shape or form, and are all united in the purpose of bringing the Great Houses down a notch.

Jenny: Hands down, my favorite passages are when Vin is amongst the aristocracy, becoming a lady and using her wiles to get information out of them. She starts out so pathetic and miserable, trying to stay out of sight and mixed up with some seriously bad people, then Kelsier turns her whole world upside down and she realizes how much power she possesses and what she could do with that. I love Kelsier too, but his kind of scary non-discriminatory butchering of the aristocracy wasn't my favorite. He can drum up a crowd and git 'er done, but yikes, he's got some anger issues going on. I guess if I was imprisoned, watched my spouse be killed and then beaten cruelly until I snapped, I might have some psychological issues as well.

Another thing I love is a good villain. The Steel Inquisitors with the metal spikes through their eyes? Serious cool factor there. And the few times the Lord Ruler showed up gave me the jeebs. That counts for a lot with me, that the villains are just as much fun to read about as the heroes.

Caren: I loved the ball sequences too! It was fun to have such a girly thing to get excited about in the midst of all the special ops kind of stuff going on! And the special ops stuff was fun, don't get me wrong. But so was the budding romance and watching Vin undergo her rags-to-riches type of transformation.

One of the things I loved about Kelsier's character was that the good/bad line was sometimes blurred. He had so many virtues but almost just as many flaws, and some of them were really serious -- like his vanity and the way that he fed the skaa's admiration of him to the point of reverence. I really liked him, especially how completely he trusted other people. But I was also so nervous about what was going on beneath the surface that I just really wanted to see him succeed and become the hero he was trying to be. So even though I didn't want him to die, I loved that he deliberately sacrificed himself because that act cemented Kelsier firmly on the side of the heroic good!

And speaking of the Steel awesome was the ending with Marsh?! Even though we didn't know him very well, I was so disturbed by his death. So to see him emerge at the very end as a Steel Inquisitor helping in the final defeat of the Lord, that was cool!

Jenny: Ooh, yes! I loved Marsh's transformation into a Steel Inquisitor and killing off the other ones. That was very cool. The Steel Inquisitors are very cool in a very bad way and I can't wait to see more of them show up in the other books. They give me the shivers and I like it.

Blurry. That is a perfect way of putting Kelsier's role in the book. I think he knew that he liked the worshipful attention a little too much, but figured it was the only way to succeed. He stepped into his role as savior to the skaa and bought into it himself. I'm glad he made a real difference in the end, but think of what Vin is even more capable of. I think that's what makes Vin a better hero (heroine?) because she is strong where Kelsier was weak. She can see the aristocracy as real people yet feels more a part of the skaa, so she can cross those lines and be comfortable on either side. She is humble and aware of her weaknesses, not full of herself and her abilities. I loved that she was surprised at herself for enjoying her role as spy and party girl, since she was so used to being tough and staying in the shadows. I think this is what will make her the gal for the job.

Something I thought was interesting is that Elend and his cronies didn't even see the skaa as being thinking people. It reminds me of the way people use blanket statements for ethnicities or cultures. Enough people say the same thing and then it becomes truth, making it nearly impossible for someone to break out of a mold and when they do, it's to general surprise. Is that getting too deep for this book?

How creepy were the mistwraiths and the Kandra?

Caren: Yeah, WAY creepy! And they are another good example of how Kelsier strayed into questionable territory. I loved the dichotomy of Kelsier as savior considering how shifty some of his alliances and motivations seemed to be. Along the same lines, I was really intrigued by the role religion played in this book. At first it seemed pretty negative; the evil Lord Ruler is worshipped as a god, but the people fear and hate him and his horrible Steel Inquisitors. Then you add a Christ-figure who is a vain, proud thief whose methods and motives are sometimes questionable. But all of that was balanced by Sazed whose great respect for religion and faith served as a nice counterpoint to the corruption of the reigning theocracy. The story easily could have worked without the religious threads, but I'm glad he included them.

I'm really curious as to why Vin's potential seems to be so much greater than anyone else's. Why did her abilities come so easily to her? Why did she learn so quickly and sense things that even Kelsier was oblivious to? I'm glad he didn't reveal everything in this first book, because I look forward to seeing how her character develops in the next one.

So, did you suspect the Lord Ruler's true identity? I sure didn't! Sanderson did a nice bit of sleight of hand with that one!

Jenny: No, the secret of the Lord Ruler's identity totally caught me by surprise. I love surprises, so that just tickled me. It totally explained how the Terrismen has been treated over the history of the Lord Ruler's reign. Speaking of Sazed, I loved his addition to the rebel entourage. He was so even-keel, so full of faith and knowledge. He was a very soothing presence in the book.

If you compare Kelsier to Rand from the Wheel of Time series, you can definitely see some parallels, which would make sense since Sanderson was so heavily influenced by Jordan's books. Rand is the Christ-figure of those books and he is anything but perfect. Kind of a womanizer, full of self-doubt, violent and mentally unstable, yet he's the only hope of the world. Kelsier was set up as the savior of the first book, so does that mean Vin is for the other books?

You know, I have the second book at home. I should get off my lazy bum and read it already, quit asking all these questions. Save 'em up for after the I read the second book.

I just read on Sanderson's blog that he has no intention of writing a prequel for the Mistborn books. I thought that was hilarious. What is it about fantasy readers that they want every single iota of detail out of a fictional world? Maybe we want enough information to fully envelop ourselves into it? I say "we" because I love the fantasy genre, but I'm not really one to beg for prequels. I must be a quasi-fantasy reader.

Caren: Ah, thanks for making the parallel with Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I haven't read any of his books, so I wouldn't have noticed his influence on Sanderson's writings. In fact, reading Mistborn has made me examine my feelings towards the genre and I've decided that I'm a casual fantasy reader. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but the novels were a bit overkill. I own all the Harry Potter series, but I have no desire to read any Robert Jordan. See what I'm saying?

One of the things I really enjoyed about Mistborn was that the fantasy wasn't so heavy-handed that you could barely navigate the story. I think part of the problem with the fantasy/sci-fi genre is that many writers think if they just load it up with imaginative settings and weird creatures and made up languages that it's enough to carry the story. They focus so much on their fantasy/sci-fi ideas that the meat of the story is neglected. But if you strip the amulets and elves and cloaks away, you're just left with shallow characters acting out a dead plot. So I loved that the story of Mistborn could have lived and breathed on its own independent of the fantasy elements. Allomancy was cool, but the depth of the characters wouldn't have suffered without it.

Jenny: I agree whole-heartedly about the constant regurgitation of plots and characters in the fantasy genre. It gets sooo old to read about magical swords and a perilous journey, and blah blah blah. Please. I think I'm probably a small step up from your status as casual fantasy reader, but I have no patience for repetition and I hate having to practically learn a new vocabulary to enjoy a book, which is unfortunately one of the defining features of the genre. What makes Sanderson's books so interesting to me is that it's completely different from any other fantasy novel I've read before. It makes you sit up and pay attention. At first I thought it was because he doesn't write like a typical fantasy writer and creates ideas and situations that are unique, but I think, like you said, it's because he writes these amazing characters that you get wrapped up in. Those are the kind of stories that stick.

How fun was this to review a book that we both liked? It made for a shorter review, which I think our readers will like. Thanks for playing, Caren!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Linda Ashman and her picture books that delight me

How is it that I haven't heard of Linda Ashman before now? She's been publishing books since 2001 and people have been raving about her all over the internet, but I heard of her first from a blog a few weeks ago and decided she was worth reading. What an understatement! She is amazing! Linda Ashman writes children's books that are such great fun that I read them to my kids and to myself over and over again. I checked out four of her books, out of several that she's written.

The first book we read was Stella, Unleashed: Notes from the Doghouse, illustrated by Paul Meisel. This is a collection of poems from the viewpoint of Stella, the dog. Ashman obviously knows dogs well because you felt like you really were seeing the world the same way Stella must see it. There were some seriously funny ones in there, like when Stella meets the pretentious prize poodle, and some sweet ones, like how Stella feels about the little boy who loves her. I loved that Stella didn't think the parents were all that smart because they didn't understand her obvious communications. This book almost made me wish we had a dog. Then I snapped out of it.

The second was The Essential Worldwide Monster Guide, which is illustrated by David Small. It's full of poems about different creatures and monsters from around the world. I only recognized a handful of them, and that's saying a lot. I had an obsession with all things creepy when I was in elementary school, but I never came across some of the ones in this book. I worried that it was a bit too scary for my kindergartner and preschooler, but they reassured me that it wasn't that scary. And really, Ashman's poetry makes it lighter than what the illustrations depict. I loved this book and I know my seven-year-old will love it (also obsessed with monsters and such), but I'd stay away if you have kiddos who aren't as fascinated and would be frightened by it.

The third and probably my favorite was M is for Mischief: and A to Z of Naughty Children, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Ashman writes a poem describing a naughty child for each letter of the alphabet and instead of coming across as preachy, it was hilarious. I've seen kids like this and my own children have had their own Picky Penelope, Eavesdropping Eva, Zany Zelda, and Doodling Daphne moments. My kids read this book with me with wide eyes and I thought the poems and descriptions weren't so over the top that they couldn't be real. Another aspect that makes this my favorite was Carpenter's illustrations. She brilliantly combines photos and drawings and makes these naughty children pop out from the pages.

The only book I checked out that wasn't all poems was Desmond and the Naughty Bugs, illustrated by Anik McGrory. I couldn't find a picture of the cover online, so you'll have to use your imagination. Still more fun, still very entertaining to see what kind of bugs would cause poor Desmond to change from a very obedient boy to one that squirms and whines, dawdles and complains, but I think I prefer the poems. Ashman just has a way with metered rhyme that dances across my brainpan and puts a skip in my step.

In addition to her brilliant writing, Ashman has great taste in illustrators. Do authors get to pick? If so, kudos to her. David Small is one of my favorites, Nancy Carpenter is a new favorite, Anik McGrory was delightful, and even though Paul Meisel didn't thrill me to death, my children loved it. Just now, I quizzed my five and three-year-olds on which of the four was their favorite and they both agreed that Stella, Unleashed was the best. It could be my children's collective obsession with getting a dog, but the poems were absolutely wonderful too. The books I would buy. Not a dog. Have I mentioned I don't want a dog?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Last Lecture

Many of you probably already know the story behind Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. Pausch was an innovative computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave his Last Lecture (both honorary and literal) in Sept. 2007 after learning that his pancreatic cancer was terminal. The lecture was recorded and has gained popularity by circulating around the Internet, leading him to publish this book with Jeffrey Zaslow.

The Last Lecture book contains basically the same material as his live lecture, but gives additional insights into the content and backstory. Pausch's exhuberant personality comes out in the text as well as it does in the video version, and it's easy to feel like you really know him by the time you're done. The title of his lecture was "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," but that was just the background to sharing important life lessons that he wanted to pass on to his kids after his death. Some of the lessons are cliche, and some don't have the universal application that he implies. But overall it was interesting and if you haven't seen the online video, it's worth a couple of hours to read the book.

I didn't agree with everything he said, especially his heavy emphasis on childhood dreams. Good for him for having such specific ones and being able to fulfill most of them. But really, the value is mostly anecdotal. Those dreams didn't define who he was or determine whether he was successful or not. They were just little tidbits that made for interesting stories. Most people I've talked to don't remember their childhood dreams, or care whether or not they've achieved them. And I think that's okay. There are lots of ways to determine success, and that one is especially narrow. But I do think there is always value in taking a step back and looking at your life and saying, "What do I really want out of life? Am I moving in the direction I really want to go? If not, what do I do about it now?" Pausch doesn't ask these exact questions, but they are natural extensions of his thoughts.

It was interesting to see things from the perspective of a computer geek, and the unique way that he viewed the world. I wasn't keen on his arrogance, and there were times that I thought, "Boy, if I knew you I don't think I would like you very much." It made me wonder if most computer geeks are like that (my friend who's married to one says "yes"), and I felt sorry for his wife sometimes! But it was clear that he loved her and at the same time I felt irritated with him, I also felt very sad knowing that he had left a great void with his death. If nothing else, it's a poignant reminder that life is short and we need to make the most of it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Generation Dead, Gifts, and The Adoration of Jenna Fox

I tend to go through book phases where I read the same genre of book over and over again. It's like I get an itch that needs scratching and the only thing that will do is to overdose on it. Sometimes I'll go through murder mystery phases that will last for years, but thanks to this blog, I have more motivation to pull out of my zone and try something different. For a little while there, it was sci-fi/fantasy geared towards teenagers. What's sad is that I'm such a slacker about reading these days is that I read the following books weeks and even months ago and I'm just getting around to writing about them. Also because I haven't cracked a book open in a month. A month! My brain is atrophying! Lest I forget even more plot details, I better get writing.

I don't know about you but I love a good zombie story. "Generation Dead" by Dan Waters takes the idea that for no apparent reason, teenagers all over the country are coming back from the dead. It's only teenagers and it's always within a few hours of death. Some of these "living impaired" kids are almost as functional as when they were alive while others just shuffle around and moan. But none appear to have the need to eat human brains (darn) or other scary stuff from the movies. There are theories about why it's happening. Maybe all the preservatives in food? Chemicals in the water? The story follows Phoebe, a Goth girl who is fascinated by the zombies and in particular, a boy named Tommy. Her friends Margi and Adam (who also has a secret crush on Phoebe), are baffled by her interest, but get involved with Phoebe in a club that promotes understanding and awareness for the undead.

What I found interesting was the parallels between this situation and the civil rights movement in the 60s. The zombies are hated, reviled, abused, set on fire, beaten with baseball bats, and feared by the general public. Very few people want to give them any rights and oftentimes, their families will have nothing to do with them after they come back from the dead. The zombies stick together and while some of them want progress to be made peacefully, there are others who think they need to resort to violence. The age group this book is geared towards is a generation who has never really experienced such potent prejudice. Heck, neither have I! It's no longer socially acceptable to hate and shun. Well, openly at least. This is a pretty good allegory to situations that have existed and raise questions that maybe a 15-year-old today have never had to think about. My only beef was the ending and after grumbling for a few days, I read somewhere that it was setting things up for a sequel. That made more sense, but now I have to wait around for Waters to write a second one, which just makes me grumpy.

With "Gifts" by Ursula K. LeGuin, I was having major deja-biblio-vu. You know, where you have the sneaking suspicion that you've read a book before, that you might already know the ending, but you don't want to skip ahead and check in case you haven't? Well, yeah, I had read this one before, but it was worth a second read. This book is more in the 10-12 year-old range of readers, with lighter ideas and a bit easier language. This is pure fantasy, a story of a race of people who live in the mountains and have terrible gifts, like being able to call animals from the wild in order to be slaughtered, or twisting people's limbs with a thought, or erasing memories, or destroying with a word. Orrec is a young man who refuses to use his gift of "unmaking" and upsets the basic tenets of their society. His friend, Gry, is a gentler spirit as well and joins him in refusing to use her gift for killing animals. Because they are disturbing the balance, conflicts arise and Orrec has to find a way to protect his clan. Riveting good stuff and a very satisfying ending.

"The Adoration of Jenna Fox" by Mary Pearson is my favorite book of late and I probably could have done a whole post on it alone. I like good science fiction and this was very good indeed. Jenna Fox wakes up from a coma after two years and finds out that she had an accident and also can't seem to remember anything that happened before waking up. Also, she doesn't have any pictures of herself or anybody else and not even so much as a get well card. Oh, and by the way, they moved across the country while she was in a coma. Huh? That's what she thinks too. And she has these strange compelling needs to do certain things. And her parents are kind of fuzzy on details. And have I mentioned that her grandmother hates her and won't stay in the same room as her? Sounds like an episode of "Lost", I know. It was an awesome book. Made me wonder, as a parent, what I would do to save my child. Hmm, insert thoughtful nod of my head here.

Did you notice that all three books have very cool covers? I showed the whole cover for "Generation Dead" because I think it looks rad. Ahh, feels good to have that post out of the way. Now, if I could just find something to read.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Love Walked In

This novel by first-timer Marisa de los Santos was recommended to me a few weeks ago, and I was already a couple chapters into it before I saw the "Romance" sticker on the spine (complete with two snuggling hearts for emphasis). I was mortified, but by then I was already hooked by the very thing that led to the recommendation in the first place: The author's mastery of language and imagery is so delightful you want to re-read passages outloud to whatever warm body is nearby. (Don't worry, I resisted.)

Love Walked In starts out as two parallel stories. The first involves a 30-something woman named Cornelia who is smart and sassy with a passion for old movies, but has yet to find direction in real life. Her story begins with a handsome, charming man coming into her life and sweeping her off her feet, making her feel like all her Cary Grant dreams are coming true.

The second story is much less idyllic. 11-year-old Clare appears to have everything she could ever want, but her rich and beautiful mother is spiralling into severe mental illness and on the verge of a serious breakdown. The novel goes back and forth between the two stories, until events bring Cornelia and Clare together. As their lives merge, the story takes a new direction and together they are able to find the different forms of love that each is missing.

The story itself was cute, but the more it progressed the more it started to feel like a weary soap opera. Well, no, it wasn't nearly melodramatic enough to be a soap opera. But when some very serious events happen, they are portrayed so shallowly that it's hard for the reader to care. For instance, one character is killed in a car accident. But it happens at a time when things with this particular character are getting sticky and complicated, so the car accident serves as a very convenient and tidy way of writing this person out of the script. This is just one example of several that occurred with increasing frequency the more the story progressed. Unexpected plot twists are great, but not when they feel awkward and amateurish.

This is Marisa de los Santos's first novel, so maybe she'll improve. But while the story itself was a disappointment, the writing kept me coming back for more. (How strange, it's usually the other way around!) She is beautifully poetic at times and bitingly down-to-earth at other times, and all without losing consistency in her narrative voice.

Here are some examples:

It was an ordinary day -- palpably ordinary, if that makes any sense, like it was asserting its smooth usualness. A Saturday, loud, smoke already piling up and hovering like weather over me and the customers in Cafe Dora.....

Except that...a minute before the cafe door opened one more time, the ordinary day turned itself up a notch, in preparation.

The light falling through the high, arched windows went from mellow to brilliant, turning the old copper of the espresso machine to pure gold. And the music -- Sarah Vaughan, whom I worship, singing George and Ira, whom I worship -- was suddenly floating and dipping like some kind of bird in the clear space above the cigarette smoke and chitchat. The coffee smelled sublime, the flowers I'd bought that morning pierced the air with their blueness, the coffee cups lost their chips and glowed eggshell-thin, and standing in my red sweater and vintage suede skirt, my boots solidly on the floor, I felt almost tall.

And another one:

There's a kind of tenderness that's only possible in the predawn hours, a blue-gray, lonely tenderness that comes from dim lights and sleepiness and immense quiet. A kind of tenderness and a kind of hope.

Link those passages with this:

If you've ever considered having a conversation about your sex life in a South Philadelphia cheese shop, stop that thought in its tracks right now and wring its scrawny, little neck.


I'll tell you why, you know I will.

And this:

Before you get your political hackles up -- and I like those hackles; they're fine hackles, I have a set myself -- I should clarify that I'm not talking about choice as we ordinarily use the word.

See what I mean? And that's why I've had a hard time deciding how I feel about the book. Even though the serious topics of mental illness and death and unrequited love are treated with about as much depth as a sitcom script, when it's packaged in such delightful writing, how can it not win some affection?

For those of you wondering about the "Romance" classification -- it was not the kind of romance you might expect from those tell-tale snuggling hearts. There was only one love scene, and it was treated in very general PG terms with less graphic content than, say, your standard spy novel. There really wasn't enough of that kind of content for it to have earned that classification. In fact, as far as objectionable material is concerned, I was more bothered by the language. There wasn't much, but when it did make an appearance it was with way more f-words than were really necessary. (Of course, in my opinion, even one is "way more than necessary.")

So there you have it. I enjoyed her writing enough that I might be willing to try another novel of hers. I felt like this one teetered between great writing / lame story, so I'm curious to see which of those camps she really belongs in. But if her future books continue to get the snuggling hearts stamp, I might have to pass!