The Hammer of Thor (Audiobook) by Rick Riordan, Kieran Culkin

The Hammer of ThorThe Hammer of Thor

by Rick Riordan, Kieran Culkin (Narrator)
Series: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 34 mins..
Listening Library, 2016
Read: May 10 – 12, 2016


Thor’s hammer is missing, so not only can he not stream Netflix (I’d forgotten that was a thing in this series) on it, he can’t intimidate the giants into not invading. You can guess which bothers him more. The Valkrie Samira and her pal Magnus have to go find it before things get out of hand.

I didn’t like this one as much as the first book in this series — but I didn’t dislike it. It’s still the same outline that Riordan is following with these books — there’s a quest; the hero and his friends have to go find the whatever to stall doomsday a little longer; to get the X the group has to beat a series of mini-challenges and then they’ll have a shot at the X. Since this is a book 2, they’ll get X, but many other things will go wrong, forcing the series into another book. For the most part, the minor challenges worked better for me than I expected.

I enjoyed Magnus’ friends — Samira in particular; although I’m pretty torn about the new character added to Magnus’ group: Alex Fierro — a child of Loki. I understand what Riordan was trying to do with this character, but I’m not sure he succeeded. I’m not convinced that Alex was a person, and not just a conglomeration of traits. But I have hope. Alex’s presence, I thought, ended up short-changing some of the other characters when it came to action and involvement in the plot, which I wasn’t crazy about.

I really enjoy seeing different authors’ take on the same mythological characters. Comparing/contrasting Kevin Hearne’s and Riordan’s Thors and Lokis would make for a very entertaining piece (I think Riordan’s Thor is more comical, but his Loki just might be more sadistic), and I will admit I got distracted a couple of times listening to this by thinking about the differences.

The best part of this was seeing how the problems Magnus, etc. are dealing with intersect some of what Percy, Annabeth and Apollo are going through in Riordan’s other series, and the strong hint that we’ll see some sort of cross-over soon. We’d understood that the Egyptian gods were threatening the earth about the same time that the Problems with Camps Jupiter and Half-Blood start up, but this was a much more explicit description. I like thinking that the various pantheons are having troubles at the same time, and that Earth could be doom in any number of ways simultaneously.

I bought this in hardcover the week it came out (last October, I think), but haven’t been able to find/make the time to read it. When I saw it as available on my library’s audiobook site, I figured I’d jump — just to get that TBR pile a little smaller. I hadn’t listened to Riordan on audio before, and was curious ow it translated. I was surprised to hear Kieran Culkin’s name (and voice) at the beginning of this — he didn’t strike me as the kind of actor who’d do audiobooks. I’m glad that he did, though. I really enjoyed his work throughout the novel — the narration, the characters — he just nailed it. That’s how Magnus Chase should sound.

It was entertaining enough to keep going, and I trust that Riordan knows what he’s doing, I’m just not convinced that he did all he could to make this book as good as it could be.

—–

3 Stars

Chalk by Paul Cornell

ChalkChalk

by Paul Cornell

Kindle Edition, 206 pg.
Tor.com, 2017

Read: May 5 – 8, 2017

There are kids who went through school experiences like mine who will never watch football, and there are those who end up playing for Arsenal. Okay, who will end up with season tickets. Stockholm syndrome will only take you so far.

Enough about what I am now. That comes later.

Everyone keeps talking about this as a story about bullying — sure, there’s a little bullying here. But mostly, that’s like saying that Hannibal Lecter enjoys an unconventional diet. What happens to Andrew Waggoner is so far beyond bullying — it’s flat out assault (but with a psychological component that matches bullying). After a Halloween dance, Waggoner is forced into the woods by the school bullies and is assaulted. Somehow, his trauma links him to some long-dormant forces who take the opportunity to reassert themselves. One manifestation of the mystical/magical works with (compels? coerces? convinces?) Waggoner to take his revenge against those who permanently scarred him mentally and physically.

And over the next 12 months, that’s just what happens — Waggoner and/or his mystical companion (it’s never clear exactly how much is done by each) exact their revenge — Waggoner vacillates in his commitment to this project, and comes close to stopping on many occasions. In the midst of this, he becomes a writer and makes a friend based on shared interest, rather than just being social pariahs. In short, he starts growing up.

Meanwhile, the ancient forces tied to Waggoner are in open conflict with the dominant, more modern/contemporary, forces/beliefs. The school — and the students’ lives — become the major battleground for them, the final conflict coming on the anniversary of the attack that changed Waggoner’s life forever.

I kept seeing the school as the school from Sing Street (except, in the West Country, not Dublin — but roughly the same era), which I know is inaccurate, but I couldn’t stop myself. Pop music plays a large role in the story, and as it’s set in the early 80’s I didn’t have to google most of the songs (there were a couple of tunes that didn’t make it to Idaho that long ago) — which was a plus for me, and probably most readers.

You can tell (well, you can guess) that Cornell and Waggoner had similar experiences in their early lives — the language he uses to describe the bullying speaks to that. But more than that, the way he describes how the bullying shaped him, both then and when Waggoner reflects on those events from the vantage point of adulthood, resonated with me, and will with many readers.

The characters — bullies, victims, other children, or adults — were all wonderfully constructed. I’m not sure that I liked any of them (including Waggoner), but I was drawn into this world, and was very invested in what happened to each of them.

This was intense, gripping, strangely something (I want to say beautiful, but that doesn’t seem right) — there’s a je ne sais quoi about Chalk that inspires and repulses at the same time. I know I haven’t done a good job describing this book — I’m trying hard not to ruin anything for future readers. It was one of the more affecting, compelling books I’ve read this year. Cornell does a masterful job of mixing our reality with his fantasy — as he’s shown in the Shadow Police and Lychford books — this time you add in a layer of childhood horror and wonder to that combination.

This is something special, you won’t read much like it.

—–

4 Stars

The Temptation of Dragons by Chrys Cymri

The Temptation of DragonsThe Temptation of Dragons

by Chrys Cymri
Series: Penny White, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
2016

Read: April 24 – 26, 2017


Penny White, an Anglican priest of a small town who seems to be working on becoming a functional alcoholic, is driving home one night when she feels her car hit something. She stops to investigate and comes across a dragon who claims to be dying and requests last rites. Without thinking, she gives them, gets home without further incident and goes to sleep. By the next morning, she’s convinced herself it didn’t happen.

Until the next day, when her bishop asks her to take a role in ministering to magical creatures like dragons, unicorns, vampires, and more in a parallel reality to ours. Being a pretty big fan of SF/F, she jumps at the chance, and ends up ministering in both worlds. A gryphon named Morey is assigned to live with her and help her navigate between the two worlds (and other reasons). Actually, his name isn’t Morey — it’s something long and fairly unpronounceable because it’s Welsh — in the magic reality, everyone speaks Welsh.

I really dug Penny — I could understand her emotional arc and thought it was dealt with in a pretty solid way (I’m a little worried about the semi-triangle thing set up here, and hope it doesn’t get too overplayed in future books). But a big part of Penny’s character — and what helps her adjust to this new life — is her SF/F fandom. I share most of her tastes (including her love for the Seventh Doctor and Ace). Morey was another strong character, and I appreciated that there was a pretty strong theologically conservative voice sympathetically portrayed in this book — I didn’t expect to find myself agreeing with a gryphon’s theology more than with a human’s (a clause I never thought I’d write) — even if there was a patronizing explanation offered by one character (and seemingly shared by others) for his stances. His emotional arc was just great.

The rest of the characters were almost as engaging as these — human or not, they were people. Many of them need more time to be developed, but given the constraints of this one novel, I didn’t think many of them got short-changed.

I thought the plot was pretty strong, and I did quite enjoy it — particularly Penny’s search for balance between her two callings, Penny and Morey’s bonding, and Penny’s family life. But the books isn’t that much about the plot — this is primarily about the characters and relationships throughout. This was more about setting up the series, introducing the characters, species, and worlds — all of which Cymri did very capably. But the book’s core was in the character moments, the characters themselves and this very interesting world that we’re starting to learn about.

This is a comparison that won’t mean much to most of my readers, I imagine — but for those who get when I’m saying, you’ll understand this book. This book reminded me of reading the early volumes of Christopher Stasheff’s Oathbound Wizard series — I think it’s more than intelligent, articulate fantasy monsters and an Anglican/Roman Catholic approach to faith, the sacraments and the world, but that’s part of it. Mostly, it’s the warmth, confidence and charm in these pages that lured me in and kept me interested.

This is truly a lot of fun, give it a shot.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post — thanks so much for this. Sorry it took so long.

The High King (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The High KingThe High King

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #5
Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs, 24 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 29 – 30, 2017


Arawn-Death-Lord has managed to get his hands on Dyrnwyn, Gwydion’s sword, which has emboldened him to move his forces to launch an all-out assault on the Kingdom of Prydain. Gwydion and his allies move quickly to assemble the forces necessary to stand against him — basically, it’s an Armageddon-type situation, and all hands are needed.

Taran is sent to the Free Commots, where he spent so much time recently to gather their support — and he does so, almost without trying to, becomes the leader of the assembled forces (such as they are) of the rather libertarian people. Before you know it, Taran’s leading his band into battle at the side of Gwydion and the other warleaders. It’s a stretch to believe, but at this point, you go with it. The forces marshaled against the High King are strong enough to make this an uphill battle, but when treason rears its ugly head and the forces of Prydain are divided against themselves, it really seems that all hope is lost. Eventually, Gwydion and his forces head off on a last-ditch effort to stop the Death Lord, while Taran, his companions, allies, followers and Glew take on a vital, but smaller task that will allow Gwydion’s hail Mary to work.

And frankly, that whole treason storyline bugs me — not just because it’s evil, but because it’s futile, stupid, and pointless. I think this was Alexander’s biggest error in the series. It serves no real purpose but to stack the odds against the armies of Prydain.

Finally, we get final battles — The Death Lord and his forces are defeated (spoiler, children’s fantasy written in the 60’s features good guys winning); the future of Prydain is settled; other Tolkien-esque things take place as is fitting in the conclusion to a fantasy series (actually, Tolkien was probably following the same older rules and tropes as Alexander, but we now associate them with Tolkien, not his predecessors).

Taran finally grows up into what Alexander’s been holdig out for him all along — it takes the whole novel, but it happens. Gwydion is probably the least interesting he’s ever been here, which is a shame. Eilonwy? Oh, Eilonwy — she’s just so perfect (as a character, probably annoying in real life — still, someone you want in your corner). I loved everything about her in this book. I wish Gurgi had a little more to do, and that Glew had far, far less. Fflewddur Fflam remains the unsung hero of this series — the sacrifices he makes, the efforts he makes, his wisdom, etc., are all overshadowed by his comedic use. What he goes through moved me more this time through than any of the deaths. As an aside, the first time I saw a picture of Lloyd Alexander, I shouted — Fflewddur! I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I just had a strange imagination, but he looks exactly like a Fflam.

Oh, and there are many, many deaths — mostly nameless soldiers on both sides, but there are quite a few named people, too. Some get great heroic moments, others are just named in a list of the fallen. I remember the first time I read this book being very upset by just one of them — it was quite possibly the first time in my young life that anyone other than a dog, an ailing elderly person or a villain had died in a book I read. I still get sad when I read that particular one, but it doesn’t get to me as much.

James Langton’s performance here is consistent with what he’s done for the last few books. If you liked him before, you’ll like him now. If not . . .

I remember liking this more than I did, even just a few years ago when I read this with my kids. Still, a great way to wrap up this series — Alexander ties up everything that needs tiring up, he rewards all the surviving characters in a fitting way and sends our heroes off on new adventures. There’s still a bit of fun, a little adventure, and character growth throughout, with all things ending up just where they need to satisfy readers. It’s really easy for adult-me to see where kid-me fell in love with the genre thanks to this series. Still, a fitting conclusion to this series — which I still recommend for young and old (primarily the young).

—–

4 Stars

Taran Wanderer (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

Taran WandererTaran Wanderer

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #4
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs, 22 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 28, 2017


The one question that’s plagued Taran all his life is just who is he? Who is his family? Is there any chance at all that his family is some sort of nobility? This last question has taken on a new level of importance to him as he has realized that he’s in love with a princess and can’t do anything about it without that nobility.

Dallben can’t answer the question for him — but he allows Taran leave to go try to find the answer himself. I’ve never understood just how Taran can pull this off — there’s practically no birth records in Prydain (I can’t imagine), it’s not like he can get blood tests done — and he doesn’t really interview anyone, just meanders around.

Still, he visits various corners of the kingdom — visiting friends old and new, dipping his toe in all sorts of trades and vocations. He renders aid, and gets aid. Fflewddur Fflam shows up and spends a good portion of the novel traveling with him (Gurgi remains a constant companion). There’s a confrontation with a wizard, a regional armed conflict to try to settle, a mercenary band to deal with — as well as other woes.

He learns a lot, he matures a lot, and maybe even gets a dose of wisdom. It’s not your traditional fantasy novel by any sense, but it’s a good one.

As for the audiobook? Everything I’ve said about the other books in the series — Alexander’s introduction and Langton’s performance — holds true for this one.

The most emotionally rich of the books, the most thoughtful — particularly for those of the target age. Good, good stuff.

—–

4 Stars

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine ComplexHeroine Complex

by Sarah Kuhn
Series: Heroine Complex, #1

Paperback, 375 pg.
DAW, 2016

Read: April 6 – 8, 2017


A few years back, the city of San Francisco was visited by trans-dimensional demons — they were unable to stay long before being driven back, but in their wake certain individuals were left with superpowers. Some powers were impressive, others were . . . well, let’s just say less-so. Most didn’t use their powers much, but some heeded the call of Ben Parker and used their abilities to serve the common good. Chief among them was Aveda Jupiter — who spends her days defending SF from further demon incursions as well as more mundane menaces.

Aveda is helped in her quest for justice (and good PR) by a fighting coach, a scientist studying demons and a PA. Her PA, Evie Tanaka, is her childhood best-friend and the only one who can weather her mood swings, demands for affirmation and schedule with good humor and grace (at least externally).

Events transpire, and Evie has to pose as Aveda at an event — and things go awry in a pretty significant way. Demons attack (while displaying some new characteristics that require a new long-term strategy for battling them) and Evie demonstrates a super-power of her own. In the next few weeks, Evie has to continue the ruse while learning how to use (and hopefully lose) her own power and learning how to adjust to a newfound confidence, level of esteem, a change in her friendship with Aveda, and even a love life — while trying to beat back the invasion force once and for all.

I’ll be honest — the plot was okay, but almost entirely predictable by page 50 or so. But name the super-hero story that’s not, right? Especially origin stories. What matters is how Kuhn told the story — with heart, charm, and wit. So that you aren’t getting to various story beats saying, “Yup, right on time,” (or whatever unintentionally pompous thing you say to yourself when you get to a point in a book like this), rather you’re saying, “Oh, I like how she did that,” or “that’s a great take on X.”

The characters and the relationships between them are the key to this — none of them act their best, none of them are really hero-material, all of them ring true. These could be your friends (not my friends, mind you — there’s not enough book talk, and a whole lot of things that happen outside of a house), or at least the friends of someone you know. If, you know, your friends are known for dressing in leather, beating up inanimate objects inhabited by pan-dimensional beings, and fending off the prying and gossiping eyes of a fashion/lifestyle blogger.

I don’t think I’ve done the best sales job on this, but I’m not sure what else to say. Heroine Complex is light, breezy and fun — a quick and enjoyable read with characters you want to spend time with. A great way to kill a couple of hours — I’m looking forward to Book 2.

—–

3 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

The Castle of Llyr (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Castle of LlyrThe Castle of Llyr

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #3
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs, 36 min.
Listening Library, 2004

Read: March 20, 2017


Taran is tasked with escorting Princess Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona, where she’ll be taken in by distant relatives — the king and queen, who will help her learn how to be a proper young lady (an idea she finds ridiculous). They sail there on a ship “captained” by the island’s Prince Rhun.

Once they reach the island, Taran runs into Fflewddur Fflam, who’s enjoying barding again — even if the castle’s steward, Magg, has an intense dislike of his music. Shortly after that, Taran discovers there’s a threat to Eilonwy in the castle and tries to save her from it without letting her know she’s in danger. That goes poorly and he joins the rescue effort instead (also led by Rhun — or at least Rhun thinks so).

The companions also meet the world’s littlest giant (why does that sound like it belongs more in The Phantom Tollbooth than here?) and a mountain cat that we’ll get to spend a lot of time with. There’s a lot of links to the first book as well as the last book in the series here.

The introduction by Alexander was great — I wish I could hear more of his own takes on the books. Langton was solid. Again, I think he could talk a little faster — but that’s minor. His Prince Rhun’s “Hullo”s are just what I’ve heard in my head all these decades.

This is probably the most entertaining of the lot — there’s some really good comedy here. Taran grows up a lot more here than he does in other books, I think, which adds something more than just entertainment to this book. It’s possible that this is the one in the series I read the most as a kid. The story isn’t as rich as I remember, but factoring in the growth in characters and the entertainment factor, the experience as a whole was pretty satisfying — and I’ll take that.

—–

3.5 Stars