Sunday, October 19, 2008

River Secrets by Shannon Hale

River Secrets

River Secrets
by Shannon Hale

Trade Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
First Released: 2006

Source: Bought from Books-A-Million

Back Cover Blurb:
Razo has never been anything but ordinary. He's not very fast or tall or strong, so when he's invited to join an elite mission escorting the ambassador into Tira, Bayern's great enemy, he's sure it's only out of pity. But as Razo finds potential allies among the Tiran, including the beautiful Lady Dasha, he realizes it may be up to him to stop a murderer and get the Bayern army safely home again.

This book is a "heroic fantasy" book and is the sequel to "The Goose Girl" and "Enna Burning." The book is more light-hearted than Shannon Hale's the previous books, but that's because this book's main character is a bit of a scamp.

The pacing and world-building were very good. The characters were engaging and changed realistically throughout the book. The romance in the story develops slowly. There was no sex, and I don't recall any cussing. Overall, I'd recommend this as "a good, clean fun" novel.

Except: Chapter One
Razo hopped up and down, but he could see only backs of heads. Soldiers and courtiers lined the grand hall, craned their necks, stood on toes. And everyone was taller than him.

"That's just perfect," Razo muttered.

Rumors had been buzzing all week that something weighty would be announced today, and now here he was without a hope of a decent view. If only he were in the Forest and could just climb a tree.

He looked up. Then again...

Razo squeezed to the outer wall of the chamber and leaped at a tapestry, just catching the lower fringe. A brief sound of tearing, quick as the squeak of a mouse in a trap, and he found himself dangling above a hundred heads, waiting for a terrifying rip to send him down. The tapestry shivered, then held, so Razo crossed his eyes once for luck and climbed up.

He pushed his feet against the wall and sprang onto the decorative shelving. At last he had an agreeable view of his friends Isi and Geric, Bayern's queen and king, seated on a dais three steps below their thrones. Beside them were the white-robed emissaries from Tira and a handful of Tiran soldiers who, Razo imagined, had been handpicked for looking brutish and menacing.

The yellow-haired Tiran woman was speaking. "...years of animosity cannot be quickly forgotten, yet we see the benefit of forming an acquaintance with Bayern as we have not for many hundreds of years."

"That is our wish as well," said Geric, "and so we propose an exchange of ambassadors. This spring, we'll send one of our own south to live among the Tiran people in the capital city of Ingridan."

"By the authority of the people of Tira, our assembly, and our prince," said the Tiran woman, "we accept Bayern's invitation and likewise will send our ambassador to live in your capital."

The crowd creaked with astonished silence. One lean soldier glared at Geric and thumbed the hilt of his sword.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

Auralia's Colors

Auralia's Colors
by Jeffrey Overstreet

Trade Paperback: 334 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
First Released: 2007

Source: Bought from Amazon

Back Cover:
The back cover doesn't do a good job describing the story, so here's my description of the book's plot:

By royal proclamation, only royalty and those who earn their favor can wear bright colors. The lowly wear dull browns and grays. Criminals are forced to live outside of the protection of the city walls and gather food for the city.

Auralia is a mysterious orphan raised outside the walls. She can see the vivid colors in nature and weave them into brilliant clothing that, by law, only the king and queen may wear. She gives her colors as gifts to criminals and children.

She is summoned before the king and brings her most stunning creation: a cloak containing all the colors of the land. It shines with a light that allows people to see again and remember who they are instead of who they're pretending to be to earn royal favor.

The king and his advisers are furious at her defiance of the law, but the prince and others are inspired to return colors to everyone. But will they be in time to save Auralia from the king?

This story is a fantasy, but it is local in scale and the main characters aren't fighters. I suppose it might be called a magic fantasy, but Auralia's gift for colors isn't really magic. She doesn't make the colors shine or heal.

My main problem with the book is the first 77 pages. First, we jump all over in time with numerous flashbacks. Second, the point-of-view is constantly sliding from one person to the next in a very distracting way, but also rarely going very deeply into any one person's head. There is very little dialogue and what little action occurs is often repetitious: we're told in a distant viewpoint what happens, then we jump back and replay the scene with dialogue and various point-of-view characters. I couldn't bond with any character because there were so many of them being introduced (with few of them reappearing during the first 50 pages), and Auralia wasn't even one of the point-of-view characters.

However, after page 77, the time- and head-jumping halts, Auralia becomes the main point-of-view character, and the reader is allowed more fully into the point-of-view characters' heads. The pacing became more balanced at this point, and book was pretty enjoyable.

Another problem I had, though, was that Auralia was at least 15 years old and was probably 16. However, she's repeatedly described like a young child (e.g. she has tiny arms and hands). People keep saying, "But she's just a child!" and reacting to her like she was about 8 years old. In fact, she often acts like a 8 to 12-year-old (depending on the scene).

The world-building in the book was good, but the author frequently invented names for things with little to no concrete description attached. It was often difficult for me to visualize what a new thing or creature was like. The characters were interesting and varied, but only one character really changed much during the book.

There was no sex or cussing. Overall, I'd recommend this as "a good, clean fun" novel.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Auralia lay still as death, like a discarded doll, in a burgundy tangle of rushes and spineweed on the bank of a bend in the River Throanscall, when she was discovered by an old man who did not know her name.

She bore no scars, no broken bones, just the stain of inkblack soil. Contentedly, she cooed, whispered, and babbled, learning the river's language, and focused her gaze on the stormy dance of evening sky--roiling purple clouds edged with blood red. The old man surmised she was waiting and listening for whoever, or whatever, had forsaken her there.

Those fevered moments of his discovery burnt into the old man's memory. In the years that followed, he would hold and turn them in his mind the way an explorer ponders relics he has found in the midst of ruin. But the mystery remained stubbornly opaque. No matter how often he exaggerated the story to impress his fireside listeners--"I dove into that ragin' river and caught her by the toe!" "I fought off that hungry river wyrm with my picker-staff just in time!"--he found no clue to her origins, no answers to questions of why and how.

The Gatherers, House Abascar, the Expanse--the whole world might have been different had he left her there with riverwater running from her hair. "The River Girl"--that was what the Gatherers came to call her until she grew old enough to set them straight. Without the River Girl, the four houses of the Expanse might have perished in their troubles. But then again, some say that without the River Girl those troubles might never have come at all.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon

Moment of Truth in Iraq

Moment of Truth in Iraq
by Michael Yon

Hardback: 3227 pages
Publisher: Richard Vigilante Books
First Released: 2008

Source: Bought from Amazon

Back Cover Blurb:
Never underestimate the American soldier.

That’s the moral of former Green Beret Michael Yon’s brilliant battle-by-battle, block-by-block tale of how America’s new ‘greatest generation’ is turning defeat and disaster into victory and hope in Iraq

The American soldier is the reason General David Petraeus’s brilliant strategy of moving our soldiers off isolated bases and out among the Iraqi people is working. Working to find and kill terrorists, reclaim neighborhoods, and help lead Iraq to democracy.

Iraqis respect strength. They saw that American soldiers are “great-hearted warriors” who rejoice in killing the Al Qaeda terror gangs that took over whole cities, “raped too many women and boys, cut off too many heads, brought drugs into too many neighborhoods.”

But Iraqis also discovered that these great warriors are even happier helping rebuild a clinic or a school or a neighborhood. They learned from the American soldier that the most dangerous man in the world, could be the best man too.

Moment of Truth in Iraq is packed with Yon’s trademark exciting and often heart-rending tales from the battlefield:

-The American commander fed up with phony Al Qaeda ‘documentaries’ that showed terrorists shooting at bombed out American vehicles as if they had beaten us in open battle. The commander and his men staged the “bombing” of a broken down truck. The when the terrorists came to put on their act Navy SEAL snipers killed every one.

-Follow to the exploits of the great “Deuce Four” battalion that became the center of a “warrior cult” dreaded by terrorists and revered by Iraqis.

-Think Iraqi soldiers can’t fight? Read the story of an elite Iraqi SWAT team taking down a terror cell for the murder of four American soldiers and a brave Iraqi guide.

-Think Americans are occupiers, not liberators, of Iraq? Tell that to the wounded Iraqi interpreter, who, convinced he was about to die, begged his U.S. commander to have his heart cut out and buried in America.

-Learn why so many Iraqi boys dream of becoming American soldiers.

-Why our greatest ally in this war is “a citizen with a cell phone who believes the future belongs to the people killing the terrorists.”

Brutalized by Saddam for decades, Iraqis hungered for strength entwined with justice and tempered by mercy. The American soldier delivered.

We are winning the war in Iraq, not primarily with our overwhelming technology, not with shock and awe destruction, but with the even more powerful force of American values-with the courage and leadership, strength and compassion of soldiers who know both how to kill the bad guy and comfort the child.

Here is the true, untold story of the American soldier and the courage and values that are bringing victory for America-and Iraq.

I don't normally review non-fiction books, but this is such an important book that I felt like I needed to get the word out about it. Don't let the price of the book stop you, either! (The cheapest place I've seen it so far is from the publisher.)

Michael Yon has been covering the fighting in Iraq for years and has been all over that country. He has a solid and unique overview of what has and has not worked in Iraq.

Michael Yon doesn't pander to sides but searches for the truth. He's the first to say we screwed up in some major ways when he was first over there, but now he reveals what we're doing now that's really working and why it's working. Yes, we really are winning now, and he's a bit baffled as to why people in America don't believe it (which is probably why he wrote a book about it).

The thing is, he also made it clear that if we drop the ball now on our winning strategy, we could lose all the progress we've made and things could become worse off than before. So, you want to prevent our soldiers from dying needlessly? Then read this book.

The book is vividly written. It's interesting to read and easy to follow. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Baqubah, Iraq, June 19, 2007

Thoughts flow on the eve of a great battle. By the time you read these words, we will be in combat. Few ears have heard even rumors of this battle, and fewer still are the eyes that will see its full scope. Even now--for the battle has already begun for some--little news of it reaches home. I have known of the plans for a month, but have kept silent.

This campaign, a series of carefully orchestrated battalion- and brigade-sized operations, is collectively the largest battle since "major hostilities" ended more than four years ago. Even the media here on the ground do not seem to have sensed its scale.

Al Qaeda and associates had little or no presence in Iraq before the current war. But we made huge mistakes early on and now we pump blood and gold into the desert to pay for those blunders. We failed to secure the streets and we sowed doubt and mistrust. We disbanded the government and the army and we created a vacuum. We tolerated corruption and ineptitude and mostly local talent filled the ranks of an insurgency. But when we flattened parts of Fallujah not once but twice in response to the murders of four of our people, we helped create a spectacle of injustice and chaos. Al Qaeda took entree while militias and insurgency groups began to thrive. The magnitude of true injustices was magnified line by line, hair by hair, by a frenzied media. But it wasn't the media's fault; the media did not flatten Fallujah or rape and torture prisoners. We did that all by ourselves.

We walked into a dry, cracked land, along the two arteries of Mesopotamia that have long pulsed water and blood into the sea. In a place where everything that is not desert is tinder; sparks make fire.

When we devastated Fallujah, al Qaeda grew like a tumor. Before al Qaeda we faced a bewildering complex of insurgent groups with conflicting ideologies and goals, along with opportunistic thugs. The amalgam of men (and women) with guns was so diverse and the affiliations so dynamic that it was hard to track who was responsible for what atrocity. Each attack spawned reprisals that demanded yet another round of revenge. Al Qaeda had been trying to ignite a civil war here for several years; chaos and brutality would become its fuel.

Today al Qaeda is strong, but their welcome grows cold. The Coalition was not alone in failing to keep its promises. Iraqis love to say "America put a man on the moon but cannot turn on our lights," and the implication was we really didn't care. In so many ways we lost the moral high ground.

But then al Qaeda raped too many women and boys, cut off too many heads, and brought drugs into too many neighborhoods. And they haven't even tried to get the power going, or keep the markets open, or build schools, or playground, or clinics for the children. Instead, as we ineptly tried to rebuild, they destroyed. They destroyed and murdered Iraqis who dared to work in such places or patronize them. And not only schools and clinics: they brought murder to mosques and churches too.

Finally, those few who were paying close attention could feel it. A barely perceptible change in the atmosphere that signals big change could come. But to make the change we had to change. Remarkably we did. But that story is for later.