Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Top 5 Books I just Can't Get Into Again

I've never been a big re-reader. Most of the time, when I really want to read a book again it's after I no longer have it for some reason: loaned it to a friend or just plain lost it. Since I started this blog, I started looking into re-reading certain books for my Second Glance articles (please read, some of the books I plan on giving Second Glance's to are not mainstream anymore but are exceptional books in their own right.)

The problem I'm finding with re-reading, though, is that some books I read once upon a time, I just can't get into again. It's not exactly that they are bad books, but more along the line that I have just read so many extraordinary books that the ones I want to re-read just aren't as good anymore.

So for your reading pleasure, is a list of the top five books I just can't get into anymore, and a few reasons why.

#5 - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games is one of those books that wasn't bad, but the more I looked at it, the more I disliked the characters and the story in general. I actually included Katniss Everdeen on a paper I did, and how I thought of her as an Anti-Hero. I know from certain points of view it doesn't look that way, but Katniss is kind of a hypocrite in her time period.

She strings two different guys along because she doesn't know how she feels about either of them. She plays on Peeta Melark's feelings for her during the games to get a more popular standing with the sponsors. It might seem kind of a survivalist thing to do, but I guarantee that if Peeta had done the exact thing, women would have been up in arms about him being a typical man, doing what he needs to get by and using this poor girls affections against her.

That kind of takes a side to the other reason I couldn't get into the book again, which is the point-of-view. The story is told completely from Katniss's point of view, but the story itself incorporates so many other characters that had something going on, who's stories you never really get a feel for. You only have Katniss's perspective on the side characters, which makes it really hard to sympathize with them. They kind of got made into red-shirts

#4 - Eragon by Christopher Paolini - I have so many reasons for my distaste of Christopher Paolini: There's the changing of his trilogy into a saga, the introduction of additional titles halfway through the series, the fact that almost all of the characters in the final book take dramatic changes to their personalities (King Orrin, Roran, Nasuada, even Eragon himself), the completely anti-climactic final battle, and the obvious ending that couldn't have gone any other way.

None of this has to do with why I can't get into the first book, which was relatively excellent, again. That reason is because of the fortune teller. Angela the Herbalist is the living manifestation of Deus Ex Machina (or God or Machine). The concept of deus ex machina is simple: did something happen because a divine entity forced it to be that way, or because the writer needed something to happen where it technically couldn't have. Was the battle won because god intervened, or because the writer needed that side to win for it to be a good story? That's the simplest explanation there is.

Angela the Herbalist completely ruins the story because anytime she is involved in the plot, she, through her all-powerful and mysterious ways, is able to shift the balance, or foretell the story. I talked about it in my article on Foreshadowing, but she basically tells you halfway through the first book whats going to happen in all the others. At that point, you don't even have to read the other books.

#3 - Changes by Jim Butcher - I love Jim Butcher's writing. I have all of his Dresden Files books, as well as the Codex Alera. Hes funny and witty without being campy, and that's just so hard to find in literature.

That being said, Changes, book 12 in the Dresden Files series, seriously made me want to throw the hardback copy I had right at him. It's just blatant sadism on print. Throughout the story, Harry Dresden loses everything that was important to him, one after another. Hes battered and bruised and miserable by the end of the book, and no matter what your feelings about him as a character, you just have to feel sorry for him.

And then just at the end, when you get the feeling that somehow things might turn out ok for him, BANG! he gets shot and falls off a boat into icy water. I feel comfortable revealing that much about his story, because the last book that came out was called Ghost Story and is about him solving his own murder.

I get that Jim Butcher wanted Harry to solve his own murder ( he talks about it in an interview I found on But systematically destroying a character is one plot device I could never get into. Intentional harm to a person is considered sadistic, and killing off a character in a story for no other reason than to thrill you at the very end is both cruel to the reader and literary manslaughter (patent pending, no stealing that).

#2 - The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss - Patrick Rothfuss is one of those excellent writers you have either heard of and love him to pieces, or have never known he exists. I'm of the former. I read his first book, The Name of the Wind, and it was one of the best books I've ever read. It's basically a very mature Harry Potter told from the main characters perspective several years in the future. It's one of the first books I ever intentionally went back and re-read, and I've bought three copies (I'm dumb and keep loaning them out to friends who either lose them or forget they had them.)

The only problem with The Name of the Wind, is that they are so many mystery plot devices never fully explained, and since it's a trilogy, it makes sense because he has two more books to have time to explain them in. I kept a sheet of paper after I read it the second time with all the questions left unanswered for when the second book came out. And if you have read the first and second book, you know it took a really long time, about four years to be exact. I'm not ashamed to say that when I finally saw the book in a local bookstore, I squealed like a little kid and pranced about with it on my way to the register.

I was disappointed. I don't know how I can be any more blunt. The first book was full of suspense and action and wonder. The second book was about sex. Lots of sex. And the parts that were full of action were so drawn out that they were kind of tarnished by the end I finished them. Remember the Karate Kid? Remember how they did little montages of him learning karate, and it was fun, and kind of interesting. If they had gone through the entire month or so it would have taken him to learn even basic karate, it would have been as dull as watching paint dry. That's what The Wise Man's Fear was. Paint drying.

When it wasn't about sex, or paint drying, the book was mostly about filling in those missing plot devices. Each chapter seemed to explain something from the first book, which was good to do, but it just had such a clinical feel to it that it was less "Oh wow, that's what that does!" and more "Eh, so that's what he meant..." I can only hope the third book is better, and more interesting, because it does the first book a disservice

#1 - Wizards First Rule by Terry Goodkind - Terry Goodkind's writing is inaccessible. I can't put it any simpler. The Sword of Truth books were bearable up until Chainfire, and then I just lost interest. Richard, one of the main characters spends so much time in his own head trying to figure things out in the most complicated of manners, that it reminds me of the old Power Ranger's transformation sequences. They spent so much time changing that I kind of wondered why the enemy stayed around and waited and didn't just go off and go blow stuff up. L.A. would have been toast by the time Richard finished thinking about things.

I've read a lot of critical responses to Terry Goodkind's writing, which from reading the books I can understand, but the main thing is that he is an excellent writer, but a terrible storyteller. It really is a wonder that anything gets done in the books

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Second Glance: Magic Time by Mark Scott Zicree

It could be sad to say the one thing I got out of High School Sociology is Magic Time by Mark Scott Zicree. But then, it probably says more about me than I should probably admit. I had just transferred schools, and was going through a rough time. My teacher knew I liked fantasy, so she had her husband loan me the book.

I was a drowning man and Magic Time was a lifeline (or it would probably be more accurate to say that I drowned myself in Magic time.) There are fewer things that get my literary motor running than pure fantasy and post/apocalyptic thrillers, and combining them is the mana to my eyes.

Magic Time is a book about a magical apocalypse, in the simplest of terms. But even that doesn't do it enough credit. And credit is well due. The story is told from the perspective of several different people, ranging from different parts of the country, creating a type of hodge-podge that I would normally frown upon if it didn't mix so well.

Basically, a military/scientific program in the mid-west has been doing SOMETHING, and it all culminates in a disaster that destroys all things scientific, even down to the basic molecular level. Planes fall out of the sky, their technology no longer working. Electricity no longer works. Cars stall on the roads and refuse to turn back on. Even fire loses its potency. And that's the least of it as people begin to change.

Peoples baser instincts begin to change them into otherworldly creatures, magic becomes a very real thing, and heroes are called. It's all the stuff of fantasy coming into the real world, and the disastrous nature of it mixes with the wonder of a real world of dragons and fairies so well.

Now, I know, I normally have a hard line against multiple perspectives, especially when they are in different states, but this is the difference. In Magic Times, the different perspectives (sometimes as brief as maybe two chapters altogether per person) gives a very distinct viewpoint to what is happening in this changing world. They are never given enough time to become sympathetic characters, but are merely there to give a better viewpoint to the main characters.

My favorite was the psychiatrist of the main antagonist who was so greedy and self-serving in the beginning, treating him while he contemplates a trip with his family, and later gets a view of his client after he begins to change.

I could talk about Magic Time forever, because the copy I have is yellow with age and worn with use, I read it so often. What could be more exciting than finding out that the world has changed and you are better for it? Or watching a man change into a draconian figure, complete with wings, right before your eyes.

I will go on a negative rant of my least favorite things in trilogies, because technically, that's what Magic Time is. I hate the formula most people have for a trilogy: The first one ends where it should, the second one pics up where the first one could have ended and ends with a blatant cliffhanger, and the third one ends with the possibility of a new one at some point. Magic Time does exactly that. It gets old, and writers aren't as clever as they might think they are for doing it that way.

Review: Live and Let Drood by Simon R. Green

I said it once before, and I feel it is worthy of mention again, "Simon R. Green is one of three authors I could never live without". The other two are Mark Scott Zicree and Jim Butcher, and while I feel a bit sexist that I didn't include a female in there, but I feel redeemed by the fact that female authors write better story lines than any two of the above mentioned combined.

I started out with The Nightside series by Green quite a few years back, because lets be honest, I'm an Urban Fantasy junkie and fitting it into a noir/fantasy/sci-fi detective setting is just icing on the cake. I got into the secret histories novels shortly after, during a lull in the Nightside books, and found them just as irreverent and brutally hilarious as the others.

I tried the Deathstalkers series, but to be honest, Sci-fi has never been my thing. Fantasy and Sci-fi are just too different.

The one thing I love about Greens writing style is that he seems to have learned one basic life lesson early on: If it isn't broke, don't fix it. And if it is, the hit it with a very large stick until it can fake it.

For those that don't know, Live and Let Drood is part of The Secret Histories books that started with the Man with the Golden Torc. The Books are very loosely (hanging on by a thread in fact) based off James Bond titles, with the main character of Edwin "Eddie" Drood, or Shaman Bond as he is referred to in his cover identity. There is a clever armourer, Jack Drood, who is a very urban fantasy "Q" and a matriarch who runs everything. You can see now where I got the James Bond part, not to mention that every Secret Histories novel is named after a 007 film.

There's very little that I can reveal about the book without entirely spoiling the last one, but suffice to say Eddie is once again out on his own, without the aid of his family, with only Molly Metcalf, the Wild Witch to help him. The story involves a few new characters, none of which were mentioned in the earlier books, which is about par for Green, as well as some very intriguing plot twists that help fill in some points that were made in earlier books.

I loved this book. The humor is dark and violent and all over the place and Green has proved positive that the old adage, "Actions speak louder than words" is not always true. The descriptions and imagery are excellent, but where Green really shines is in the way his characters interact with each other. Clever turns of phrase and references to literature used in new/distrubing ways make normal conversations in times too funny for words to describe.

This being a British author, some of the phrasings were a bit rough, but Green's books are all like that. I felt my British-to-American translator in my head blow a gasket, unfortunately, when the phrase "cock a snoot" came up, and am still not sure if I should find it funny or just roll my eyes and turn the page.

That being said there was only one thing that irritated me about Live and Let Drood, and it was just something that got my literary mind to halt and look back on it with a withering gaze. Green's Secret Histories novels have always been told from a certain point of view. His Nightside books are all detective novels, so you can imagine them being told to you after the case is closed, but the Secret Histories books aren't like that at all. Everything is told as it is happening and is very present.

There were two points in the book where Eddie talks about how he would find that particularly prevalent after something happened in the future. It was so out of place, and unnecessary that it just kind of blew me away that it made it all the way to print. I say unnecessary, because unless it happens in the next novel (god willing there is a next one), it had nothing to do with anything that happened in the plot.

Also, be prepared with a lot of phrases like "there are books, and then there are books!" just as an example. It seems to be the catchphrase in Live and Let Drood, and became decidedly less funny every time it was used.

All in all I really liked Live and Let Drood by Simon Green. All of the irreverent wackiness and violence was there, and it was very much like coming home to an old friend. I would have loved to talk more about the story in general, but as I said, the plot was so tied in to the ending to the novel before it, that I would hate to ruin it, which makes it hard for the new book to stand on its own, as all books should be able to do.

For any who have never read the Secret Histories books, start with The Man with the Golden Torc. It really is a fun, fast paced, guilty pleasure. And for those that are already fans, don't worry, it's an excellent addition. I give it 9 out of 10 altogether, and trust me, that score is hard won.

The Man with the Golden Torc -

Live and Let Drood -

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Writing - Foreshadowing: The Great Cheat Sheet

There's nothing worse than guessing the end of the book. You might be looking around going, "Hey! I'm pretty clever to have figured out that before I got to the end" or, "Me and this author are on the same page if I figured that out so quickly". But the fact is, if you figured it out without having to resort to cheating, then more than likely, foreshadowing was involved.

Foreshadowing, for those that don't know, is when an author uses words or phrases to hint that something is going to happen that involves that. The most famous, and the clearest, form of foreshadowing that I can give, is in Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find". I had to read this book in a Study of Literature class in my second semester of college.

Everybody in the class agreed: the ending to the book was terribly unexpected, but if you actually read the text, the author gives a very clear hint about what is to happen later. There was no other way that the book possibly could have taken after that simple hint was given, otherwise the story would have been plot-less.

Another form of blatant foreshadowing was in Christopher Paolini's first book, Eragon. Halfway through the book, the title character goes to see an herbalist, Angela, who tells his future. It is given in great detail, and the fortune telling is done using magic, so it's revealed that it has to be true.

Despite my rather vulgar feelings about Christopher Paolini due to his last two books, (because we all oh so believed that relationship was genuine, and trilogy my butt!) this was a clear example of a cheat sheet, and a bad one at that. You don't even have to read the books that came after to figure out what they would be about if you are clever enough; he spells it out in that one chapter.

I understand that it could have been used as a way of ensuring that there would be later books, "Hey, I said there's going to be some pretty cool stuff going on later, so make sure you let me sell them." But to me it just seemed like he needed a guide for his book to go along, and writing has always been about fluidity to me. If you have your book on a rail without any room to deviate, it just seems rigid. That's why the relationship between Eragon and Arya always seemed less like an epic romance and more like the kid who gets a valentine for the first time and then thinks they're dating.

Well what is good foreshadowing, Jacob? You might ask me sitting there, reading my rather inept explanation as to why foreshadowing is bad. Well there is such a thing as foreshadowing. The color red come up several times, before a man is killed and lying in a pool of his blood, is decent foreshadowing. Having a woman wake up and not be able to hear any kind of noise prior to an actual world ending event where the entire world is silent, that’s good foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is always best when you have to go, “Oh wow, I should have seen that coming.”

Foreshadowing should never be used as a cheat sheet. A good story should be able to stand on its own merit, as an individual tale that does not need a crutch to hold itself up

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Second Glance - The Magicians by Lev Grossman

What is the youngest age a person should be able to learn magic? I asked a friend this, and he told me that 17 would be a reasonable age. I disagree of course. Not just because it's so much fun to argue with him, but because the age I came up with was 12.

Not a big difference, but in the case of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, it's a pretty large gap.

I first read The Magicians back when it first came out in 2009. I've always been a geek when it comes to fantasy, and magic has always been a big part of my creative process. I read the book in three days, like just about every book I've ever read in the last decade or so. I liked it, in its own fashion, but it wasn't a book I would re-read. I even used the book on a paper I wrote in my first semester about sadism in literature.

But recently I decided to go back and take a second glance at the book, to give it a more clinical, college viewpoint to it, and the first thing I have to say is this: there is a certain age that people should no longer be able to learn they can do magic.

It's cute having kids run around waving twigs, casting magic spells at their friends and pets. To imagine that they can actually do magic, to make their wildest dreams come true. Well, that's the thing that makes imaginative fantasies about wizards so much fun. Watching a bunch of chronically depressed 17 year olds do the same, well it's a little creepy, and quite possibly deranged.

Grossman's magicians in his tales have all learned to do magic at that special age right before the birdies have been kicked out of the nest. 17 is the age where people start, or are in the middle of, finding out that they are going to have to be grown-ups full-time in a year or so. They start applying to colleges, they have jobs to help support their families, some are even in relationships planning on marriage.

Magic is supposed to be that special loophole that lets kids be kids for just a little longer. When you introduce magic to people getting ready to be adults, you are just making them regress back to children, stunting their emotional and moral growth.

This is extremely telling in The Magicians. The back cover clearly states it "Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable". It pretty much covers the entire book. You start with a character who is flawed as being almost an adult, and you give him magic, where he can solve all of his problems without having to grow up, and he never grows up at all.

The Magicians is brilliant in that it is so telling about people who refuse to grow up. The book has a part halfway through that explains that wizards are aimless because when you can do anything, you end up not wanting to do anything for it.

That being said, the worst part about the book is the aimless feeling that it has. I didn't recognize it the first time I read through it, but there really is no plot. The back cover talks about the main characters obsession with the magical land of Fillory (a knock off of Narnia, if a bit darker, if I've ever seen one), but this doesn't actually come up until the back half of the book. The part about magic school is more interesting, but in the five years that Quentin is actually there, only about two years worth of schooling is actually described. The last two years he's there they don't even talk about the classes, they just go over Quentin's love life and time with his friends. Even when they do get to Fillory, the time they spend there is more like a corridor someone walks down to get to another corridor.

The book's back cover talks a lot about different aspects of the book, but in the end, there was really no plot. Even the antagonist is so random in the end that you would imagine that he ran out of ideas at the last minute. It all had the feeling that there was a plot from another side, one not explained, involved in the writing that the main character (and indeed, even the reader) wasn't privy to.

All in all, the book was a wonderful example from a psychological viewpoint of age regression in early adulthood, but as far as an adventure fantasy/urban fantasy, The Magicians was definitely worth a second glance, but probably not worth a third. Now The Magician King...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: The Spirit War by Rachel Aaron

I first came across Rachel Aaron while storming the local Hastings for something to read at work. The title had caught my eye several times before, but it was such a small book I was worried I would finish it too quick. Despite my reservations, I ended up getting the first book, The Spirit Thief, and I’ve never regretted it.

The characters in Aaron's books are clever and detailed without being campy, like a lot of authors end up with. The plot lines are simple, but not mind-numbingly so, and the characters come together in such unique ways that you can almost believe it was fate. The settings are unique, and the landscapes are imaginative. And let’s face it, who doesn't love walking into a world where the world can talk back when you do something stupid.

Despite all of this, I was somewhat disappointed with the third book, The Spirit Eater. Don't get me wrong, everything I loved about the story was still there, but there was a bump in the story development of certain characters and not in others. The story is written through the viewpoint of several different main characters throughout the series: Eli Monpress, the clever spirit talking thief; Josef Lichten, the taciturn warrior with the most powerful magic sword created; and Nico, a child-like girl with a demon's seed in her chest. All of these characters are interesting in their own way, but of all of them, Eli gets the least amount of story development in the series.

This isn't to say he doesn't get any story-line; you get to learn little things about him throughout the other books. It's just that Josef and Nico have been more of a focus point over the last several books, starting with The Spirit Rebellion. The Spirit Eater was almost entirely about Nico and her past and how they affect her current struggles. The Spirit War was no different - the storyline was, for the most part, told from the perspective of Josef, with little nuggets of Eli thrown in from time to time.

Now, this could be a way of highlighting the fact that Eli is going to be the real focus on the, next, and final book. But it just seems silly to have a series called "The Legend of Eli Monpress" and not have him as a focal character. In my opinion that is the problem with having a story told from multiple perspectives. When you go from person to person every other chapter, it makes it hard to sympathize with any specific one.

Anyway, let’s get to the heart of the matter: The Spirit War.

Let me first say that I loved the book. For the most part, the story is about furthering the storyline about Josef, the warrior turned thief's-aid who travels with Eli because he wants to find a challenge. He carries the Heart of War, the most powerful awakened sword ever created. What are awakened swords? Well they are weapons that have wills and souls of their own and tend to have special abilities that make them more powerful than others. In the story, Josef gets called back to his homeland, Osera, by a bounty poster that has a higher pay-out than Eli's, which irritates Eli to no end, and he and Nico decide to tag along.

The storyline, without getting into too many spoilers, is simple: The Immortal Empress (a character who has been mentioned in passing throughout the series, but never really explained) is returning for a second war from across the ocean, Josef's mother wants him to do him a favor, and the Council of Thrones (not to be confused with Game of Thrones, another story entirely) is trying to get the Spirit Court to help them in the battle to come. Needless to say there is a lot of drama, some witty repartee from Eli, and a character who just wants to destroy things in the most Hulk-like fashion imaginable. (Cause let’s face it, Sted was the most interesting thing in the last two books)

The story is told in segments from different characters, some new, but most recognizable from the past books: Eli, Josef, Nico, and Miranda Lyonette, the Spirit Courts representative chasing Eli, without much success. I have to say that the story from Josef’s perspective was interesting in certain ways because he is so quiet that it makes it hard for him to be a very likeable character. He is also so taciturn that for almost every paragraph you could just have him grunting something to someone and it would have carried the same meaning. But, that was Josef’s past, this book paints him in a much better light. The chapters involving Eli’s perspective are more revealing, but also cast him in a very poor light. Without going into too much detail, don’t expect Eli to play the hero until much later in the storyline.

My biggest problem with sharing perspectives in stories is that most times you have a problem caring about any of them. Brent Weeks Night Angel Series was like that. The story changed to so many different people that it made it hard to really connect with any of them. Rachel Aaron's stories are much better in that they spend a little more time with each character in turn, and she's spent so much time developing them that each character comes off on its own without needing the main character there to give them a leg up.

The setting takes place between three different locations: Osera where the defense location is being prepared, the city of Zarin, where the Council and Court are located, and across the ocean on the other continent, where the armada is being prepared for invasion. I had a hard time with the settings on this particular book, just because the scenes for the new island, Osera, were so dull that even Eli comments on them. But I have to say that the image of the armada being launched made up for it in spades. Let’s just say that the term “Palace Ships” aren’t just there for fun.

The story is exceptionally written, and a lot of plot holes are filled up from the previous books. My main problem with The Spirit War's story telling style is that there are no flashback points. There are people and events referred to in the book, but they are never given details about them other than "he remembered seeing that person", or "that happened back in the woods" type of details. If you have spent a hiatus waiting for The Spirit War to come out and didn't read the previous book, The Spirit Eater, then you might want to re-read it before you start. The reason is that there are a lot of details in Eater that come up in War.

The ending was, for the most part, anti-climactic, but don't let that be a deterrent. The Spirit War was the turning point for The Spirit End, which is the next book in the series. In my humble opinion, the previous books have all led up to this moment. If The Spirit Rebellion was to highlight Miranda, The Spirit Eater was to highlight Nico, and The Spirit War was for Josef, then Eli’s time to shine should be coming up in the next book, and I sure can’t wait for that.

Some of Eli's past has been hinted at and explained, but the biggest plot hole has always been about Eli's connection to the mysterious Shepherdess, who all the spirits pay tribute, and whenever Eli has had encounters with her, he has always been antagonistic to her. The next book looks to be a lot about this missing period, and the end to The Spirit War leads up to this spectacularly.

All in all, I would say that The Spirit War was an excellent book as far as the series goes, but as a standalone book, as all books should inspire to be, it was only lacking in a brief sense. Hopefully, the next book will be different, seeing as it is coming out in November, but we will have to see. I would give The Spirit War an 8 out of 10.

Below will be an Amazon link to the book, always remember, a review is just one persons opinion. This book was amazing, and I would suggest it to anyone who has been reading the series as well as suggest the first book, The Spirit Thief to anyone interested in getting into it for the first time.

The Spirit War -

The Spirit Thief -