Friday, December 31, 2010

The Great Book Safari Contest!

I figured it was about time for Mr. X to host a contest. I wanted to make it something fun and unique, something that tied into what I am doing right now. Then it dawned on me. @PoseySessions and I are taking a trip to Las Vegas on a great book safari. We plan to hit up as many of the local used book stores as we can in search of some great books. I had first thought about making it a little contest among ourselves, then as I thought more about it I wanted to extend that opportunity to the followers of this blog.

So what is the deal?

Easy! There is two ways to win. First just follow this blog, on February 1st a winner will be selected from all the followers and they will receive a $30 gift certificate to better World Books. Another, more fun, way to win will be to contribute to the hunt. Below I am going to post a short list of items that PoseySessions and I consider the feather in the cap of our upcoming hunt. You can contribute to this list in the comments of this post, if your contributions sparks interest and is sufficiently uncommon we will add it to the list and you have just been entered to win a $10 Better World Books gift certificate. Here comes the good part, if we find your book on our safari you win! You can have up to 3 books on the target list, meaning if we find all of them you will also win $30 towards you own virtual book safari.

A short explanation of what we are looking for on our list. One of my items is The Man Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. My grandpa owns a first edition of this book and I have been searching used book stores across the country for it. I came close to a copy in Connecticut but it had disappeared from the shelf shortly before I arrived asking about it. I could easily order a copy online but part of the fun is the hunt. The genres we enjoy most are scifi, fantasy, nonfiction (historical, philosophy, political thought). So what are some gems you think should be on our list?


1. The Man Eaters of Kumaon - Jim Corbett
2. The Glass Bees - Ernst Junger
3. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

The rest of the list is waiting to be populated by you, so participate for a chance to win your own virtual book safari!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes - Brandon Mull

I have become a Brandon Mull fan with blazing speed, meeting him on October 31st, and finishing all of his books by Christmas. Mull is a great story teller, and without that I would have not rushed through everything he had to offer so quickly. One thing I am happy I got to read was the first book of his new series Beyonders. I was lucky enough to get it in ebook format from Simon and Schuster's Galley Grab of about a month back. A World Without Heroes officially releases march 15th of 2011, but I have chosen to wrap up Brandon Mull month with an early review of the book.

I have said it many times, but it bears repeating if you are going to dig into A World Without Heroes: Mull is a slow starter, plain and simple. I realized it while reading the Candy Shop War, and when I tuned into a local talk radio station last week I caught them right in the middle of discussing Fablehaven, before long the speaker stated "the first book starts out kinda slow" a sentiment I share. The good thing about Mull is once he gets over the initial drudgery of setting up his tale they usually take off on a rip roaring pace and finish strong.

I do not like to follow the old "talk about all the bad stuff first then give a good review" line that I see so often (but yes I do it), however, I am definitely going to do that with this post. Why? because the book starts bad. There was a moment around a third of the way through that I almost decided to put it down and forget about it. The writing is solid as always with Mull but the narrative for the first 200 pages borders on boring. It takes him a long time to get to the meat of the story, and even then it takes more pages to get into something that feels like a fantasy adventure.

The first part of the book jumps from chapter to chapter each named after some inconsequential character that the protags meet on their quest. A lot of the early stage of the novel feels phoned in, or a mad libbed version of a fantasy book. They meet _________ on the road, he is a _______ and has the power to _________. Then that character fades away as they continue the journey down the road to meat another similar character. The early part of the story is extremely linear, I felt like I was reading a choose your own adventure that only had one choice. I got frustrated many times with the lack of any narrative twist or sense of real threat or danger. Mull employs a trope early in the book that drove me nuts for many pages. An all powerful antagonist who can crush the protags any time he chooses, but lets them continue their quest just for his own amusement, oh yeah and their quest is to destroy him. I groaned every time I heard another excuse why these little nobodies were not being ground to dust under the boot of the evil emperor. BUT, Mull proves his ability later in the book. He turns a groan inducing plot device into a really interesting and unique aspect to the book. It is the twist ending that Mull does so well, it was set up perfectly early on to give the reader a facepalm moment, but still reading through it initially was a bummer.

Almost directly in the middle of the book A World Without Heroes gets good, no great. It takes Mull's introduction of political intrigue and scheming, the imminent threat of death and a spectacular invitation to a wondrous place to make the story come to life. That along with the introduction of some truly awesome supporting characters and finally a sense that the protags have a mind of their own and we begin to see where this story will grow. There is more payoff later in the book as some of the toss away characters return in different capacities. Mull employs some great techniques to paint a dark world covered with a flimsy facade of whimsy. While the protags are on the move it seems like the world is of little consequence, lacking richness or depth, once they stop somewhere Mull takes the time to detail the setting of each of the episodes that take place within the book. It left me feeling like I was looking at a tiny world filled with blandness but peppered with a few points of great interest.

As the narrative picks up in the second half A World Without Heroes becomes a strong and enjoyable fantasy novel. Along with being a slow starter Mull has a thing for one dimensional main characters. In every one of his books I have found the supporting cast to be more interesting, more detailed and more fleshed out than his main characters. The same goes for this book The female protag, at times, seems like she merely represents an outlet for the male character to vent his frustrations. However, from the ending it seems like this may change in the second book. It should also be said this is definitely a story from a boys perspective, whereas I felt Fablehaven was more balanced, but leaning toward a girls point of view, A World Without Heroes is told more through the eyes of a male protag. While Fablehaven made a point to complete each book with its own conclusion, A World Without Heroes does not have a solid ending point, and the story is left unresolved to be picked up with the next book.

readers should rejoice, though you will have to slog through a couple hundred pages of mediocre narrative you will dive into the deep end of a fantastic fantasy adventure, and in the style of Mull's previous series, the action should not die down in the beginning of each subsequent book, it feels like he has shaken out the cobwebs, laid the cards on the table and with the first book in the Beyonders series has prepared the reader for two more books stacked with fast paced fantasy adventure. We can only hope!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary

This summer I was lucky enough to have one the of best experiences of my life. I took a cross country road trip with PoseySessions. We drove from San Diego to Connecticut and visited NYC, Washington DC and a bunch of other awesome places. One of the best things about the trip was the fact that I could stop at several places along the way and visit friends and family who are spread out all across the country. One side trip took us to Philadelphia where we planned to stay a few days with my cousin Desi. Without anything really planned Desi decided to show us around her home city. We feasted at several great ethnic restaurants, saw the famous Rocky statue and played in a few fountains. Now if you know PoseySessions you know that she is sort of a bibliophile. Desi recommended a neat little used bookstore near a place she used to work. So we went, and found a great parking spot, which was surprising! But what was even more surprising is what was directly across the street from our destination. While I drove along the cramped streets of Philly I did not even notice the hulking stone mass (hey I am a small town boy, I had enough on my plate just understanding if I was going the right way down any of the one way streets). We stepped out of the car and then I saw it, well I saw a huge block wall stretching high into the air. It did not fit, here we were in the middle of a major metropolitan area and there was a castle across the street from a coffee shop, a Greek restaurant, and a used bookstore. I wondered out loud what that could be. It is Eastern State Penitentiary my cousin responded, and then my heart skipped a beat, I immediately thought of this.

Those (few) of you who follow the blog may have noticed that I am slightly interested in the paranormal. That being so I have been a fan of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters since its first episode. I don’t claim to believe everything that happens on the show, but I do get a fun little tingle by tagging along into creepy places in the middle of the night. F you have seen the show then you might know that Eastern State was one of the locations that TAPS investigated early in the series. They came out with some spooky (if controversial) evidence. Later in the series they returned for a live event. The TAPS crew announced Eastern State was officially haunted. So there I was, standing, staring (gawking) at this mass of stone and mortar. It cast a pall over the neighborhood, its mere presence making the cloudy day even gloomier. We have to go, I announced. And so we did.

Eastern State is a fantastic place. While the self guided tour seemed a bit lacking, the experience of being able to roam on your own through the dark crumbling halls was better than I could have ever imagined. The stories told by inmates and guards alike are enough to put even a person without knowledge of the supposed haunting on edge. It was the country's first penitentiary. Penitence being the root word. The prisoners were kept in silence, devoid of human contact. Guards wore special socks over their shoes as to make no noise when walking the halls to alert the inmates to the presence of another human being. A reverent pall settled on me as I entered into the first cell block, men actually lived years of their lives in this place, it was a sobering thought. The halls were crumbling and the rusted, warped doors led into dark voids filled with damp, cracked walls. As we walked through the oppressive atmosphere I could not help but feel a rush, this was a legitimately spooky place, this is how they are supposed to feel. if a ghost lives anywhere in the world, I bet there is one at Eastern State.

As we concluded our tour feeling suitably humbled and slightly creeped out we walked out into the courtyard and the threatening storm broke loose on us. Lightning flashed briefly brightening the day darkened by black clouds. Thundered boomed across the prison and rain spattered down. It was the perfect ending to the amazing experience.

Another interesting aspect to Eastern State were the numerous artistic installations. While I found some of them to be a bit out of palce for my taste (the ode to Abu Ghraib in particular) several of them only served to enhance the experience. One was a set of televisions located in different parts of the prison playing scenes from famous prison movies. In the bathroom was an endless loop of bathroom scenes, in the hallway were scenes that take place in prison halls, and so on for cells and other parts of the penitentiary. Another that served to capture a moment of Eastern State and freeze it in time was the addition of several white plaster cats placed among the crumbling ruins. They were crafted in homage to the pack of stray cats who made a home in the prison walls, and to the man who took care of them. The story of the cats was almost as sad as that of the penitentiary itself. Animal control spayed and neutered all the animals and the clan eventually faded away, like their statues which are crumbling and disappearing from the grounds of Eastern State.

In the end I cannot say if Eastern State is haunted, but I can say it is a wonderful place to visit. PoseySessions was the photographer for this excursion as she is for most of them.. She got some shots that captured the creepiness of the place.

This might not be a ghost in this picture, in fact I doubt it is, but I like to pretend we caught something paranormal during our time at Eastern State. Below: extremely creepy barber chair in one of the cells.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fablehaven–Brandon Mull


Prior to attending Teen Book Fest in Provo I had read eleven pages of Fablehaven, closed the book and mostly forgot about it. After meeting Brandon Mull I decided to give this one another go. What turned me off was the familiar opening and the realization that this was another urban fantasy. I picked the book up and began to read. It was several pages before my interest was piqued. It seems to me that Mull is a slow starter, which is not really a bad thing, but with so many books out there dying to be read I often give up a little too early. In the end I am very happy I picked this book back up.

It takes a while to get into the meat of the story, but when Mull begins to unravel mysteries and secrets the roller coaster ride never ends. There is so much packed into this book that it is hard to decide where to begin. The world of Fablehaven is our own world, usually this is not very interesting to me, however, Mull pulls it off like none other (ok, ok, maybe one other) I loved the idea of a world that used to be filled with magical creatures with human eyes slowly being closed to their existence over time. I loved the setting. Connecticut. Having just visited the state for the first time this summer I was entranced by the natural beauty. It was fresh in my mind and with Mull’s descriptions I was easily able to pictures the forests and streams of Fablehaven.

Mull intrigued me with the hints of sinister and evil creatures, his depictions of terrible monsters, and warnings to not peek out the windows on midsummer’s eve. At times the story can be dark, creepy, and bordering on scary. There were moments surrounding midsummer’s eve that I found my self tensely flipping pages to catch the next development. I was reading the book in a way a person watches a horror movie through the gaps in the fingers covering their eyes. Yes, it was that awesome.

Mull weaves in a cast of characters that are unique and interesting, if at times a bit flat or one dimensional.The main characters, the kids, were at once fun to read about, and a bit off putting. Seth can at times be very hard to like, and Kendra is a bit of a blank slate early in the series. These things do change in time, but they are very noticeable in the first book. I would have loved to know more about Grandpa Sorenson and Dale. But, the number of characters and their personalities definitely improves through the series. Especially with my favorite character, Hugo. Saying that might be a bit of a spoiler, but not much, you still have to figure it out. I especially liked Muriel and her jangling limberjack, it was an excellent way to tie the story together and bring it into the larger scope of the entire series.

The best part of this great story was definitely the ending. I have noticed that many fantasy stories aimed at young readers lack that epic feel. Even Harry Potter left something to be desired in the way of grandiose actions scenes that typify the genre. Fablehaven does not. The final battle, while small in scope, feels like a raging fight to save the world. I reveled in the good on evil action and the series of twists that made the story pay off.

Fablehaven is an amazing fantasy story, it has everything one could hope for in a roaring good tale. A little bit of horror, a lot of action, magic, demons and witches and a pressing sense of danger.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Candy Shop War–Brandon Mull

n256748Prior to Provo City Library’s Teen Book Fest I only knew Brandon Mull as the author of the Fablehaven series. I was taken a bit off guard when I saw hordes of youngsters carrying a different book by him. Little arms absent of Fablehaven book instead clutched copies of The Candy Shop War. I noticed it, but thought very little of it, as to me it seemed this was a novel for much younger kids. then I read Fablehaven and was convinced of Mull’s status as a great storyteller. I had seen it on the shelf of a local bookstore one week, went back a few days alter and they were sold out. I went to another store and snagged their last remaining copy. I cracked open the book with very few expectations.

I was for the most part correct about the target audience of the book which seems in the 8-10 year old range. The story begins with a very familiar middle grade trope: new kid just moving into a new town. Scores of these books begin either in a car travelling to an unfamiliar new hometown, on the first day at a new school, or standing in a bedroom surrounded by boxes waiting to be unpacked. PoseySessions refutes this statement, but I stand firmly by my assessment. The new kid in town is the old fallback opening for many of these types of stories. Not saying that it does not work, but I had hoped for something more original from Mull. There was very little in the way of adapting to a new environment. The fact that the main character instantly made friends and assimilated into his new environment made the fact that he was a new kid in town almost pointless. He confronts the realities of the story as they begin, he did not move into a weird town and begin to discover its oddities, he moved in right as the strangeness begins. Nate could have been any kid who lived in Colson for years, that used and abused new kid in town formula served very little purpose and did nothing but set this novel from the beginning in the “standard middle grade fare” territory.

Standard fare is where the novel muddled for several chapters. The idea of magic candy and the way Mull sets it apart is very well conceptualized. I like the way he created his magical system, a world where magicians have to exploit children with candy in order to achieve their goals. There is something sinister about Mull’s magic from the beginning. It speaks back to the mantra hammered into the minds of every child: “don’t take candy from strangers". The sinister tone that underlies the book serves from the start to make narrative fairly predictable. There were no boundaries smashed in The Candy Shop War, at least in the middle chapters of the book. I did however enjoy the fact that Mull created a dangerous world, a world where you can be killed and nobody is really safe. The introduction of John Dart in the prologue makes it very clear that things are dangerous, and when he reemerges later in the story it is where the book picks up and starts to get better.

One thing that I really liked about The candy Shop war was the unfamiliar triumvirate of opposing forces. The bad guy, the not so bad guy who is still not too trustworthy, and the good guy who is still pretty dark. When John Dart enters the narrative the story changes from something standard to something much more interesting. I wont say if he is a good buy or bad guy (no spoilers) but he is a very neat character who pushes the story in a much better direction. by the end Mull has cultivated a sense of hopelessness and loss. And when the story comes to a climax the reader is turned upside down and inside out and left with their jaw dropped as they contemplate an “I see what you did there” moment.

While The Candy Shop War may be slow and predictable for the first three quarters of the book the final chapters make it more than worthwhile to push through them. in the end I went from disappointed with the book to having enjoyed it enough that I eagerly await the sequel. It is a good read with a solid message for readers of all ages.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Brandon Mull Month

mullBrandon Mull is the author of middle grade fantasy series Fablehaven along with standalone novel The Candy Shop War and children’s picture book Pingo. I chose to dedicate a month on the blog to the works of Brandon because after meeting him at Provo City Library’s Teen Book Fest I was convinced that he was a genuinely nice guy. The next day I picked up a copy of Fablehaven and was convinced, shortly thereafter, that he is one heck of a writer. Despite signings by other very popular authors (Brandon Sanderson, Scott Westerfeld) Brandon’s line at Teen Book Fest was by far the longest, eclipsing Sanderson who was seated next to him by about double.

I was the last person in Brandon’s line, as I had yet to read any of his books. I was collecting signatures on the back of my nook and decided, seeing the line had almost petered out, to visit Brandon to add his sig to my collection. When I approached him he was at the tail end of a 3 hour signing session, he spent the first hour of the event in a panel on fantasy writing, and the next 3 in an uncomfortable seat facing down a line of admirers. Yet as I approached he seemed genuinely friendly and happy to talk to me. I asked him to sign my nook and he was happy to oblige, then he asked “So tell me about yourself, what is your situation” A moment of “omg” hit me, was this bestselling author really interested in what I had to say? He certainly made me feel like he did. We chatted about his books for a few moments, I even told him I had not read one yet. He assured me when I finished the fblhvnfirst Fablehaven book, if I liked it I would be hooked.

With that promise in my back pocket I quickly obtained a copy for my nook and set about reading. I was pleasantly surprised. In less than 30 days I read the entire 5 book series and Pingo, I will finish The Candyshop War tonight. As we spoke Brandon mentioned his newest series, Beyonders, the first book which debuts in March. I was sold on the synopsis he gave me and was itching to read it. I was super excited to find out that it was part of Simon and Schuster’s recent galley beyondergrab. Luckily I got an advanced copy sitting on my nook and will be reading it very soon.

Brandon Mull Month will be a part of a longer series about Utah fantasy Authors. Specifically the three on the fantasy panel at Teen Book Fest: Mull, Sanderson and J. Scott Savage whose Far World series is currently sitting on my entertainment center waiting to be read. They had some great things to say about writing fantasy and I cannot wait to delve more into their ideas. Especially a follow up on my epic fantasy post of a month or so back, AND a review of the single best fantasy novel I have ever read.

So stay tuned for reviews of the Fablehaven Books, The Candyshop War, Pingo and finally a look forward to Beyonders.

page image stolen from Aykanozener @ Deviant Art show some love, check it out.