Saturday, August 11, 2018

From This Moment on by Shania Twain

Rating: WARTY!

Shania Twain was born neither Shania nor Twain. She was Eilleen Edwards. The Shania was an invention (and not an Ojibwa word) and the Twain came from her stepdad. This audiobook is her autobiography. Why she doesn't read it herself, I do not know. She reads the introduction, which I skipped as usual, and the concluding chapter, but the rest is read by Sherie Rene Scott, and she doesn't read it too well for my ears. The book starts with Twain's childhood, but I skipped all of that until it got to the point where the author is starting to get into music, which was the only bit that really interested me.

I have to say up front that I'm not a big country music fan, or even a little one. Once in a while there's a country song that I like, but it's a rarity. However, this singer released a crossover album in 1997 titled Come On Over and has spread her wings a bit since the early days. She came to my attention with That Don't Impress Me Much and ever since that one, I'd had an interest in her, which is how I came to pick up this audiobook.

My interest waned as soon as I heard she said she would have voted for Trump had she been resident in the US. Obviously she's out of touch with reality. She lives in Switzerland. Not that those latter two things are necessarily connected.

She appears to be the clichéd country singer: growing up in a large impoverished family, which seems to be a rite of passage, at least for old school female country stars, but her mother was always indulging her interest in music. This one incident she related was disturbing though. She was eleven and was traveling alone on an overnight train to Toronto, to compete in a talent show. On the train, the conductor looked at her ticket and told her she was on the wrong train heading in the wrong direction!

After she asserted that she simply had to get to Toronto, the conductor said he would make a call. He came back later and said they would stop the train, and she could get off, and a train going in the opposite direction would stop and pick her up. They dropped off this eleven year old girl, her suitcase and her guitar by the side of the track - not at a station, but out in the middle of nowhere (Twain calls it the 'bush'), and after an hour, a train coming in the opposite direction did indeed stop and pick her up! Wow!

The oddest thing about this story though, is that after all that, she said not a word about how she did at the competition! The reader is left only to assume she fared poorly. But to have such a dramatic build-up, true or not, and then say not a word about the result is just wrong.

I honestly don't know whether to believe that story; maybe that kind of thing happens in Canada, maybe it doesn't, but I had a tough time listening to some of this story regardless of its veracity because it was simply ordinary everyday living which contributed nothing to my education! For someone who is big in music, there really wasn't a whole heck of a lot about it. Yes, she referred to it and sometimes told a story about it - such as the train story - but for the most part it really felt like it was tangential to her life instead of central to it.

I gave up on listening to the Shania Twain book after she reached the point where her parents died in a car crash. This is sad, I know, but she'd spent a good part of the story rather dissing her stepdad for not being supportive and for abusing her mother, and then went into weeping mode when they died. It felt a bit disingenuous. I could see how losing her mother, who had been so supportive, would be devastating, but a mean stepfather?

That wasn't what actually turned me off the story. What did that was her rambling on about how her mother had previously been to a fortune teller who had told her that her husband would die prematurely, but who had then refused to tell her anything more, and made her mother leave.

So Twain is going on about how the fortune teller must have foreseen her mother's death. I'm like, check please, I'm outta here. It was just too much. It's a pity that the fortune teller wasn't charged with manslaughter by irresponsibly failing to warn this woman that she was going to die! Not that I believe in any of that crap.

I got this autobiography in the first place because I thought it would be interesting, and I thought I could learn something about how she approached her music, but it was less about that than it was about everyday life, which wasn't that interesting to me.

I can appreciate that she had a rough life and pulled herself out of poverty to become a success, but she didn't really have a very engaging way of telling her story and given that her success was in music, there was really very little about the actual music. Admittedly, she hadn't achieved stardom at the point when I quit listening, and maybe there would have been more about it later, but I didn't have enough faith in the story to stay with it. I should have got Faith Hill's biography instead - that would have offered more faith, right? LOL! Based on what I heard, I can't commend this one. It don't impress me much.

Internet Security by Nel Yorntov

Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled “From Concept to Consumer” this officious-sounding title is actually aimed at children. This is in a simialr vein to the book I just reviewed, but it was written by someone who understands the actual meaning of 'pithy'.

According to the book, job opportunities in Internet security are rife, and kids would do well to consider this as a career opportunity. If that’s the case, then this book is well-written to interest children in the Internet, in security, and in what hackers get up to, and what opportunities to make a difference a young person has available.

Illustrated with lots of photographs and color, and replete with small digestible text sections, this book will give a good overview of things without weighing down young readers with copious technical stuff. It discusses the history and rise of the Internet, and how vulnerabilities which were never an issue in the very early days, have come now to be seen as sources of mischief, profit, and retaliation.

In this era of trillions of web pages and billions of individual Internet forays into a bewildering variety of areas and topics from surfers all over the world, a person could easily get lost or entranced, or deceived, so this book helps map things out and also serves as an important warning to young users as to how they can become used if they’re not careful.

I commend this as a worthy read.

Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter

Rating: WARTY!

I came to this book via a TV documentary from Nova: Cyberwar Threat that I saw on Netflix. The author was one of those interviewed during the show and my library happened to have her book. I was pleased to be able to read it, but the author insisted on larding it up with excessive detail that wasn't necessary and got int eh way of the real story.

Her problem, I think, is that she's a journalist and journalists were traditionally taught to make stories human interest stories, so every time a new person was introduced, we got a potted biography and it was both irritating and boring to see this pop up every time a new name did. I quickly took to skipping these.

The book was also not quite linear. It kept bouncing back and forth, and was often repetitive, reiterating things which had already been fully-iterated. There was a lot in it to interest me and a lot that was good material, but you really have to dig through the fluff to get to it.

The book was some 400 pages and I really felt for the trees that had been sacrificed unnecessarily to the God of Excruciating Detail to produce this thing. I felt better about that knowing that the last reader had recycled this book back to me and I had in turn recycled it back to the library after my use, but still! It was too much detail. Far too much!>

I cannot commend this unless you're really anal about excessive detail, and enjoy wasting your time reading all this stuff instead of getting to the story you thought the book contained. I really do not like authors who insist you make your life revolve around their inability to edit themselves then when all you really want to do is read a good book.

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a science book that purports to look at humans from the perspective of how an alien might see them, but in practice, there is very little of this perspective employed. After an initial flurry, aliens are mentioned only spasmodically.

On the one hand this would seem to offer an interesting PoV, but on the other, this kind of thing been done before, and it seems a stretch to begin with. The arrogance of the pretension that we can honestly and objectively look at ourselves as an alien might see us seems antithetical to a scientific approach. By definition an alien is a being not like us, so to suggest we can honestly put ourselves in their shoes is a stretch at best!

We can't even put ourselves reliably into the shoes of animals most like us on Earth let alone some tentacle-sporting Betelgeusian, so it seems to me that there's an inherent insult in taking such a perspective. Such a PoV almost inevitably makes the alien look like a moron.

I really did not like the Star Trek Original series. Actually, these days I've gone off all Star Trek TV shows. I refuse to watch Discovery for its stupidity and lack of imagination, but TOS was the worst. Admittedly it was a product of its time, and in some ways ground-breaking, but it was nonetheless a poorly-written and simplistic show, and it carried the same pretense this book does: that of an alien observing humans.

The alien was Spock, and in trying to show him coping with human culture, it made him look like a complete idiot who, despite having lived among humans for some considerable time, and being half human himself for his entire life, simply didn't get it. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the fact is that he never got it, and was typically at a complete loss, which is what made him moronic. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't brilliant. He wasn't even logical a good portion of the time.

Star Trek has a habit of doing this. In Next Generation, the resident imbecile was Commander Data. In Voyager there wasn't one single dumb-ass. It oscillated between Neelix, Tuvak, and Seven of Nine. The only show I've seen where the Vulcan wasn't made to look moronic was in Enterprise, which actually made her a complex character with a real life. And we all know what happened to that show! Having realistic characters got it cancelled and kept Star Trek off the air for years! Then they rebooted with Discovery, where everyone's a dumbass. Go figure!

This book treats its aliens in the same way, but since that was a minor part of the book, I let the conceit go, hoping the book would win me over. I'm sorry to report that it didn't. A huge portion in the middle of the book is devoted to sex and reproduction and how animals differ (or don't) when compared with humans. How anyone can make a discussion about sex boring, I do not know, but this author did it with the facility of a guy who was trying to pick up a woman in a bar or some such social setting, and insisted in rambling on about sex and intimacy when the woman wasn't even remotely into him.

That's how this affected me. It went on far too long, it was rambling, it really offered nothing particularly engaging, and as with the rest of the book, for me it brought nothing new, nothing amusing, and not even a new perspective on things. Others may find this more educational and entertaining than I.

I'm not a scientist, but I am very well read across multiple sciences from books and other materials by a variety of authors over many years, and so perhaps I have a leg up on the lay reader, but to me it felt as though you would have to know literally nothing about any of these topics to find much here that was very stirring. In short, you'd have to be the idiot alien!

So, some of the approaches taken here just seemed plain wrong to me. For example, at one point the author informs us that "Evolution ain't about the good of the species." Well you can get into some good semantic arguments here, but from my reading, that assertion is plainly wrong in very general terms, because evolution doesn't work on individual animals! Mutation does work on individuals, but for evolution you need a species over time.

That's how it works, that's the origin of species. Mutations can be good, bad, or indifferent, and not all of them get spread, not even if they're good, but often enough, the good ones - that is the ones that give the organisms in the species some reproductive or survival advantage, will tend to outcompete those without such advantages and there it;s good for the species! The mutation(s) will spread through the species and so the species succeeds where others fail, or it may even become a new species over time.

So is this for the good of the species? Well it's not designed to be for the good of a species. There's no designer. It's simply a filter - rather like a knock-out game. No one designed France to win the last World Cup, but that's how the filters played out. The France 'species' of soccer team proved to be the fittest; better able to compete. No individual won that world cup, but all members of the 'species', fitter than members of competing 'species' in the contest, contributed to the win.

To use the author's example, sharper teeth may be good for a lion, but if the genes that produce them don't spread across the species, then nothing's going to change! Teeth that are too sharp may end up slicing the lion's mouth, allowing infection in, and killing it off before it can reproduce, and that's an end to it, but if the teeth were just perfect and it left offspring that were more successful than their peers in surviving and reproducing, the teeth would spread, over time, through the pride, and so would benefit the species.

The author admits this when he says that evolution works within species - not within individuals, so I really have no idea what he was trying to argue here, and you can argue that's my fault or you can argue that the author did a poor job of getting his point across. The problem is that this was a repeated issue for me in reading this.

This is a long book with 6,904 locations so making it engaging and interesting was important to me, and it simply wasn't. I hate to invest my valuable time in a long book only to find it's not done anything for me or even worse, not so much as done what it claimed it would in the blurb. Of course, blurbs aren't written by the author (unless they self-publish), so the disconnect between what you're told you will get and what you end up getting can be quite jolting and can make or break a book for me.

Talking of book length, I found this formula online which purportedly converts location to page count. If you divide the location number by 16.69 this gives the page number supposedly. By that method, there are over 413 pages in this book. Another online formula suggests dividing by twenty which would mean this one has 345 pages. It's listed online as having 378 pages which suggests the formula ought really to be in between those two, dividing it by 18.26. But maybe there is no accurate formula for every book. What a world we live in, eh? I blame Amazon!

The point though, is that however many pages it had were too many, so this book could have done with a lot of editing and a serious trim to the discussion on sex which rambled on repetitively, circling round and round, until I completely lost interest in reading any more about it or any more of the rest of the book.

I did skim the altruism pages and found it somewhat disturbing that the author has never apparently heard of cases of altruism between different species of animal. It's like he could not see the trees for the florist, so this tended to rob him of whatever point it was he thought he was making about investing in your own genetic lineage. He seemed to be seriously undervaluing nurture and friendship, especially when it came to humans. But as I said, I skimmed it, so maybe I missed something there.

I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot in good faith recommend this particular science book, which is unusual for me. I typically enjoy science books and recommend them, but this one simply did not get there. It was more of a spandrel than a genetic improvement in the species of science books, and definitely not at its fittest.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Rating: WARTY!

It's my policy never to read books with pretentious words like 'Chronicles' or Cycle' or 'Saga' in their title, but this one slipped under my radar. It wasn't until I was almost finished with the novel that I realized it was part of 'The Raven Cycle'. Yuk! The thing is that while I did initially enjoy this particular volume, it was painfully slow, and when I discovered it was not even going to reach a conclusion, I began losing faith in it.

After I listened to the weak ending, I could no longer support it positively. If the author had moved things along, she could have included the entire four book 'cycle' in one volume, I suspect, made a great story out of it, and saved trees into the bargain.

As for me, I will serve the word! I'm not going to indulge the rip-off attitude of 'why write one novel when you can spin it into three or four?' which seems to pervade the fiction world these days. This is nothing but a conspiracy among publishers to milk money from suckers, and I refuse to be a part of it, which is why I personally will never write a series. Yes, there are one or two series out there which are worth the reading, but in my opinion they are as rare as a series should be. Not everything needs to be a trilogy. And yes, YA authors, I'm talking to you!

This story is about a young woman with the curious name of Blue Sargent, who isn’t a psychic, while her two eccentric aunts and her mother all are. Father is of course absent from her life, because god forbid we should have a YA character who has both parents in the picture and an otherwise normal life!

We meet Blue when she's out by a derelict church (sitting on a ley line of course) watching the ghosts go by. Blue can’t see them, but she has the ability to amplify signals for her psychic mom to pick up. It’s never explained why they need to go there to see these ghosts which technically aren’t ghosts, but premonitions of those people who will die in the coming year.

Blue never sees anything until this year when she sees this one ghostly guy. When she confronts him and asks who he is, he answers "Gansey." Later, of course she meets him and her mother warns her off him. Blue is instructed that he will die if she kisses him! Who knew Blue was really Poison Ivy?!

She meets him later of course, along with his three close friends. They're all students of the prestigious and snobbish Aglionby school. I only know that's spelled right because it's on the back cover. I listened to this on audio read by Will Patton, one of my favorite actors, and who did a great job. On audio though, it sounded like Aglin-B, like Zyclon-B - one of the gases used in the death camps by Nazis in World War Two, so I could not take that name seriously as a school! Sorry! My imagination gets out of hand often which, as a writer, is actually a good thing!

Anyway, the first of these friends is the unimaginatively-named Ronan, who is such a cliché that I did not like his character at all. I am so tired of USA authors writing about Irish characters and Ireland with such a condescending and unimaginative tone. Ronan is a stereotypical Irish boy who fights - physically - with his domineering brother who is unimaginatively named Declan.

Adam is a retiring, impoverished boy who has to work other jobs to finance his time at the school, and whose father is a brutal jerk. Noah is even more retiring than Adam and there's a reason for this, we learn towards the end of the novel. Richard Gansey is obsessed with tracing ley lines, and even more obsessed with finding the body of a Welshman. So why look in Virginia instead of in Cymru?

Owain Glyn Dŵr, often anglicized as Owen Glendower, but pronounced more like Oh-wayne Glin Duhr, was the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, who came off poorly in his uprising against the English (early 15th century), and spent his twilight years in obscurity. Because of this, legends have grown up around him, including the one that he's not dead but sleeping, like King Arthur, who was actually more of a tribal leader than a king, and who will sleep until his nation needs him, whereupon he will awaken.

Well, that was categorically disproved when Arthur failed to wake up for either of the two World Wars, so I think we can retire that legend! I mean, honestly, of what use will a medieval tribal leader wearing a leather jerkin and carrying a spear be in modern warfare? Will he toss his spear at a Raptor drone?

The asinine conceit of this story is that Glyn Dŵr went to the Americas, despite those not being discovered (or more accurately, rediscovered) until almost a century after he died. Yes, the Vikings knew of the Americas, but it’s unlikely that this information would have found its way to Glyn Dŵr and even if it had, what incentive did he have to abandon his family and move there? None! Although I did develop a theory that Ronan is really Glyn Dŵr in disguise.

This is a problem with readers in the USA: far too many of them are so lamentably and irrevocably provincial that they seem quite loathe to embrace any story that's not set in their homeland. This is why Hollywood lifts so many foreign movies and recasts them in the USA, even if the recasting makes little sense to the story, so this whole Glyn Dŵr angle is nonsensical. You would think someone of Steifvater's stature would have the guts to step away from trope and safety and and set her own course, but I guess she's as unimaginative and chicken as far too many other YA authors.

Anyway, these five (Gansey & co, and Blue) discover a place on a ley line in the forest where time seems mixed up and where a body lies. Here's where the story went downhill because it became obvious all of a sudden who the murder was and what his relationship with the boys and (I believe) also with Blue was. I don't normally catch things like that so it had to be very obvious if even I saw it!

So they story moved slowly, wasn't exactly a mystery, and Blue was a little too subdued and passive for my taste for a female lead. I confess I did enjoy parts of the story as far as it went, but overall, I cannot commend it as a worthy read, and it was certainly not something I'm interested in pursuing into another volume.

Undaunted: by Zoya Phan, Damien Lewis

Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled " My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma" and co-written with a British journalist, this book describes the horrific life Zoya Phan led as a member of the Kariang, Kayin, or Yang people usually referred to as Karen in this book. Karen nationalists have been fighting since 1949 for an independent state (which was to have been called Kawthoolei). The Karen National Liberation Army has been in conflict with the Tatmadaw, the well-funded Burmese military all this time.

You will not read this in the book, but three-quarters of the Karen population has never lived inside Karen State, which is in the southeast corner of Burma. Karen is a generic term meaning peoples of the forest, and this is not a homogenous group, nor is there complete agreement among all Karen peoples about objectives. In the Burmese election in 2010, for example, there were three separate Karen political parties.

That said, it doesn't take a single thing away from this author's own personal experience and the horrors she had to endure as a child. The Karen people are one of the most populous ethnic groups, numbering around six million, which makes it startlingly clear how big a problem this is when we understand that some two million people of the many ethnic groups in Burma have been displaced, and another two million are refugees living in squalid conditions across the border in places like Thailand. The bulk of those latter people are Karen.

That story - the one of being attacked in one's own country and forced to flee to become an illegal emigrant, living in a camp and desperately trying to keep family together, and keep track of those family from whom you're separated, and trying to make a decent life for yourself, are what this book is all about. I found it depressing to read, but that did not prevent me from reading it. The most horrifying thing about this is that the author is one of the luckiest ones, yet even her story is soul-destroying.

How much worse then was it for they who did not get to tell their story because they were captured, and raped as children, and tortured and mutilated, and murdered for simply being one of the Karen? That's what people who rated this book negatively simply didn't get and they should be ashamed of themselves, because they focused on grammar and story-telling and completely forgot that this book isn't a story, it's a life, one of millions, and a positive one. Far too many other "stories" were not, and this book exists to speak for them, and to remind us of those people who cannot speak.

The author lived a life of misery and deprivation from the time she was fourteen until even after the time she was able to move to Britain, where she still initially had to suffer some more, but that treatment never once caused her to lose courage, and never once did she stop from speaking out for her people and their suffering. This woman is a hero. A real hero. And her story ought to be required reading. I commend this book for its honesty, bravery, and for the truths it reveals.

The Worst Book Ever by Beth Bacon, Jason Grube, Corianton Hale

Rating: WORTHY!

As I mentioned in my review of another book by this author, which is published alongside this one, there are so many books out there now in this era of self-publishing that it seems like it's only made things worse when we try to encourage younger readers to get started. That's why I admire Beth Bacon's valiant attempts to inject some humor, excitement, and adventure into the process. I've read three of her books now and liked them all. While superficially, they're very simple, and contain little text, they're really a very subtle bait and switch, luring kids in with one promise, and secretly getting them to read! I think it's a great idea.

This particular one delights in reveling how bad it is:- the worst book; one that would make a librarian's skin crawl. It's loud, it's obnoxious, it's unruly and ill-behaved. It's not a nice book. It doesn't play well with others. Meanwhile your child has read the book without even noticing they were...ugh...reading! I think it's a great idea.

I doubt there are many people who read a whole lot more than I do, so this book really isn't aimed at me, but I still enjoyed reading it, and I recommend this book as a worthy read.

Blank Space by Beth Bacon

Rating: WORTHY!

There are so many books out there now in this era of self-publishing that it seems like it's only made things worse when we try to encourage younger readers to get started. That's why I admire Beth Bacon's valiant attempts to inject some humor, excitement, and adventure into the process. I've read two of her books now and liked them both. While superficially, they're very simple, and contain little text, they're really a very subtle bait and switch, luring kids in which one promise and secretly getting them to read! I think it's a great idea despite the unfortunate initials of the book title! It's definitely not BS!

This particular one extols the virtues of the blank spaces in books! Normally I rail against wasted paper in books, because it means wasted trees, but even a curmudgeon like me can see the value of using the space artistically and as a lure to young readers. Even as it admires these swathes of unprinted page, the book runs off its mouth in print about how wonderful they are - and actually makes a good case! it also brings the readers along with it in sharing the delight of ignoring the text while reading the very text which tells us about the spaces! Brilliant!

I doubt there are many people who read a whole lot more than I do, so this book really isn't aimed at me, but I still enjoyed reading it, and I recomnend this book as a worthy read.

Byte by Eric C Anderson

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

From the blurb, this book looked like it would interest me, but I knew I was in trouble when I started in on it and it turned out to be first person voice, which is rarely a good choice. That said, I have read some first persons that I enjoyed. I didn't enjoy this one because the first person part narrated by "Roller" was so arrogant and snotty that it turned me off the person, which is hard to do given that she was female, African American, and wheelchair bound. Any one of those, all else being equal, would have interested me. All three together should have been a winner, but having your character insult the reader isn't a winning strategy.

This character was in some ways reminiscent of Odetta/Detta from the Stephen King trilogy that morphed into the endless Dark Tower series which I gave up on, but not as likeable (sarcasm!). You know Stephen King can't write a trilogy without it running to eight volumes. This Roller character couldn't put two sentences together without lecturing the reader on ancient computer history. And some of it was wrong. For example, Stuxnet wasn't given that name by the people who created it but by the people who were deconstructing it to try and discover what it did.

Nor is the British Parliament based "in that temple of democracy, Westminster Abbey." Westminster Abbey is a church, Parliament is in the Houses of Parliament. And "In 2008, when Obama spent $760,000 to win"? No, try $760 million! But anyone can screw up a fact here and there. Normally that wouldn't bother me so much, but the relentless ego of the narrator was annoying at best (especially when coupled with the misstatements). The author realized he had made a mistake when he chose the very limiting first person, and we see this as he resorts to third person to tell two other parts of the story, which made for a really clunky downshift every couple of chapters.

And for a story seemingly rooted in the latest and greatest in high tech hacking, and set in 2025 yet, I was quite surprised to read this:

I've been living here long enough to know bad news only gets dumped on Friday afternoon. Preferably about 5 p.m. Too late for the newspapers to update, and the camera boys are already locking in the nightly news. Yeah, you're right, CNN will carry the latest update, but who watches CNN on a Friday night?

Seriously? In 2025 no one is going to be reading newspapers, which have been in major decline for the last two decades and more, and with the younger generations tied almost exclusively to their smartphones, rightly or wrongly getting their news from social media, no one is going to watch CNN on any night.

I doubt many people are going to care much about newspapers in 2025, let alone plan their news releases around them. I doubt they do now. Nightly news viewership on TV has been falling precipitately and by 2025 it will be similarly irrelevant. This felt particularly clunky for a novel which was at its very core about Internet use (and abuse). The blindness to social media was a real suspension of disbelief breaker.

Those were not even the worst sins though. The worst sin is to be boring, and I made it fifty percent the way through this, growing ever more bored with the complete lack of anything exciting happening. You could barely see things moving, so glacial was the pace, and I lost all interest. I should have quit before fifty percent.

If the main character had been at all likeable, that might have made a difference. If there had been some real action in the third person parts of the story: things happening instead of it feeling like I was watching a chess game in which neither participant had any interest in competing much less completing, that might have made a difference, but as it was, I could not justify reading more of this when I didn't even like the main character, when I found myself much preferring the dark web hacker to the 'good guy' hacker, and found nothing to make me want to swipe to the next screen. I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this one.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Anne Frank by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Sveta Dorosheva

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This tells a story everyone should know. Like Jane Austen, Anne Frank was a writer from a young age and she also died tragically young, thereby robbing the world of yet another worthy voice, but other than that, her story was radically different from that of Jane Austen.

Escaping Nazi Germany to live in Holland, the Franks thought they were safe, but they were not. They spent endless months in the middle of the war living hidden in a factory, but they were betrayed and split-up, and taken to concentration camps. Anne died just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. Her father was the only one of the family who survived those horrors. Her diary, mercifully, had not been destroyed and her father saw to it that it was published so that everyone might know her story. This book tells that story admirably, and I commend it.

Jane Austen by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Katie Wilson

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is another in a series aimed at making well-known historical people well-known to young children and as such is an admirable effort, if sometimes misguided as my previous review made clear. This one, however was a better offering. Austen needs no introduction which is presumably why this book gets right down to it!

It tells of her childhood (she was born only a hundred fifty miles or so from where I was born!), as a young girl in a large family of mostly boys, her listening in on her father's tutoring classes, and her love of reading. Jane Austen took up writing at an early age and made some interesting and amusing efforts at it. Her The History of England, which I read and reviewed last month as part of a review of her minor works, was hilarious.

The book, perhaps because it is aimed at children, mentions nothing of the tragedy of her death at such a young age (she had barely entered her forties), right in the middle of writing a new novel. But the story this does tell is positive, and empowering for your girls, and hopefully at least a few who read this will be moved to become writers themselves.

Mother Teresa by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Natascha Rosenberg

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Illustrated in color but very simplistically by Natascha Rosenberg, this book tells the breathless story of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu who was canonized in 2016 as Mother Teresa for at best, dubious miracles and her work among the suffering in Kolkata (aka Calcutta) in India.

I have to take issue with this book because Mother Teresa had far to many questionable practices to be worshipped as a saint, and this book mentions none of them. Wikipedia has a pretty decent coverage of this topic: Information can also be found from other sources.

The problem with this book is that it swallows the hype far too easily and does nothing to mediate it. I cannot commend a book about a woman who actually said, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot...I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." while taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts.

I Spy the 50 States by Sharyn Rosart, Sol Linero

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Fifty States in Fifty Pages! This is intended as a print book, but all I merit as an amateur reviewer is the ebook, which is fine because I love trees far more than I love print books, but it doesn't quite work as the author intended because one of the treats of the print version is a spy-hole through which you get a glimpse of the next page so you can try to guess at your next destination. These spy-holes are represented by little red circles in the ebook.

The tour begins in New England and proceeds from there and a linear and switchback fashion. On each double-page, a state is represented with many small and colorful pictures by artist Sol Linero, and the author writes a few words. I think she had the easier job! The words are a tease because you have to find three things she names, each starting with the same letter. This worked fine until we reached Vermont, the third state in the trip, where I was told to find a Sugar Shack, a snowshoe, and a sleigh. I found the first two, but there ain't no sleigh in Vermont! I had to wonder if the fishing lure was mistaken for a sleigh up in the top right corner, or if a snowboard was mistaken for one at lower left?

The rest of the pages I checked (not all of them!) I didn't see any such issue with, and maybe I'm blind that I can't see the sleigh. There are so many pictures, it might be easy to miss something. I haven't been to all fifty states, but I've visited many and lived in several, and it was nice to be reminded of some of the things I'd seen there. The book is fun, and colorful, and offers a lot of things to keep a child's interest. I commend it as a worthy read and a great distraction on a long trip!

Aspertools by Harold S Reitman, Pati Fizzano, Rebecca Reitman

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Subtitled "The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger's, Autism Spectrum, and Neurodiversity" this book is aimed at understanding and learning how to deal with these conditions. Asperger syndrome (AS) is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who described children with the features 1944. It's thought to affect some forty million people worldwide.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders. This syndrome includes Asperger's, but this author refers primarily to Aspergers, and makes little mention of Autism. The word itself comes from the Greek word autos, meaning self or same. It's this same root that appears in autobiography, autopilot, and so on.

This book is available in both print and electronic format, but I have to say once again that the Kindle version is a disaster! The PDF version was much more readable, but I read most of this in Kindle because I always have my phone with me and it was more convenient to read it there.

This is a book which was designed for print format, evidently without an ounce of thought being given to how it would appear as an ebook. Amateur reviewers like me do not merit a print version, and it's fine because I'd rather have the trees than the pages, but it does mean that we have to put up with some pretty rough-and unready versions of books from time to time. It's well known that turning a print format book into a Kindle book to be read on Amazon's crappy Kindle app will as likely ruin it as render it readable if great care isn't taken.

I recommend using B&N's Nook or PDF format. Anything but Kindle, which in my experience will destroy any book that isn't formatted in the blandest and most vanilla of manners. Full disclosure: I am an arch enemy of Amazon not only for the fact that they're too big and powerful, but for their business practices (or lack of same) and also from my personal dealings with them on my own projects. I will never do business with them again, and neither will my estate when I;m gone, so if you think I'm biased, you're perfectly correct! That doesn't alter the fact that Kindle is for crap though as I shall hereinafter demonstrate.

Note though that this was an ARC, and one;s hope is that these issues will be fixed before the published e-version is released lest it become an aversion, but how it came to be this way in the first place is something that demands investigation. From page one this book was literally all over the place, with misaligned text, random red text in places whereas the rest of the text was white on my phone. I set my phone this way to save on power drain: white text on a black background uses less energy than the reverse, but switching it to black text on white background made no difference to the issues I'm discussing here.

The contents followed straight on from the book details page with no break, and the word 'contents' was randomly capitalized so that it read: COnTEnTS. The FOREwORd and the ACknOwLEdgmEnTS were just as bad. You can see a trend there: d, g, m, n, w are all lower case. Everything else is upper case. Why? I have no idea, but the Kindle conversion 'process' is well-known to me for this kind of inexplicable mangling of books.

This was followed by a truly poorly formatted contents list in which nothing was aligned. Some of the text was blue, indicating a link, and tapping that took you to the correct page, but there was no way to get back to the contents from that page since it wasn't linked in reverse. The real problem though, was that only a few contents items were actually linked - the rest was plain white text and tapping on it achieved nothing, other than swiping the screen if you tapped too close to the edge, of course!

There were multiple images of snowflakes separating each section of the book because every snowflake is different, right? That's actually not true (there are identical snowflakes!), but this was used as a metaphor for each brain being different, which I do buy. The problem from a formatting point of view was that while these snowflakes looked pretty and elegant in the iPad, in the Kindle version they were a complete disaster.

When you reverse the colors (white text on black background), the blobby snowflakes stand out like a sore thumb. Worse than this, they're all over the place: spread over three or more screens instead of being confined to one dividing screen - again a problem with the formatting for the ebook being ignored completely. Several instances of these snowflakes spread across five screens! That's way too much real estate for a frivolous affectation which ought to have been dispensed with in the ebook version.

I recommend reading the PDF format rather than the sad Amazon format which is all Kindled up - that is unless the actual published version has all these problems fixed. In the iPad, the image of the snowflakes makes sense - it's in the shape of a brain and part of the spinal cord. If this had been one small image instead of apparently being composed of multiple tiles, then it would have looked a lot better on the smart phone than it does in the ARC that I got.

The book has a preface and an introduction, both of which I ignored as is my habit. They almost never contribute anything worth reading in my experience, so I routinely skip them. I prefer my introduction to be chapter one, so that's where I started. Everything else is nothing but pretention and OCD addiction to tradition. The chapters have chapter quotes which are another no-no to me and I skipped those, too. If you have to quote someone else to make your case for you, you're not making your case.

I assume the print version has drop-caps. Frankly I've never seen the point of these even in a print book, but they should have been eliminated for the ebook version because what we got instead was, on the first screen for chapter one: some left over snowflakes, the chapter number and title, a thick line, a quote from Mark Twain - a well-known expert on Autism - not!, another thick line, an anonymous quote, another thick line, a 'helpful hint' which was really just common sense, an apparently random number 7 (which may or may not have been a footnote, and which doesn't work in an ebook - better to have a tap-able link instead), and finally the start of the chapter - at the very bottom of the screen. The start of the chapter was the letter E. That's it. That's all. The next screen contained the rest of the truncated word which was evidently intended to be 'Every'. Drop-caps should be dropped. Literally, but especially so in ebooks.

Throughout the book, people on the autism spectrum were referred to as 'Aspies' which seemed really condescending to me. I don't know if this is considered a term of endearment or otherwise acceptable within that community, but repeatedly reading phrases like " might not be true of your Aspie..." just sounded wrong to me - like these people were objects to be owned rather than individuals who needed careful consideration. That's just my feeling on the topic.

The author's daughter (Rebecca Reitman) adds sections here and there with her own thoughts since she has to cope with this condition, and these are listed under the title 'thought from rebecca reitman' - and that's exactly how it's headed in the Kindle version: all lower case, no differentiation with font, which even Amazon's crappy Kindle app can usually handle. It was really hard to see where these sections began and ended.

There was a similar problem with the other contributor, Pati Fizzano, a teacher of autism spectrum kids, whose contributions were fine in the iPad, but which seemed always to be competing among those annoying snowflakes for attention in the Kindle version on my smartphone. Once again, the book was formatted for the printed page and apparently zero thought was given to the experience that ebook users, who might want the convenience of reading on their phone, would be subject to.

Those complaints aside, the book did contain educational and useful content which is well worth knowing. The topics were rather repetitive, and while it never hurts to reinforce ideas, especially with someone who is on the spectrum, as a reader I did find myself wondering from time to time whether the book was actually aimed at those who wished to at least understand (as it was in my case) and help people with these disorders, or whether it was aimed at people who actually had these disorders!

I was reminded several times of assorted things, for example, that Rebecca Reitman had “...twenty-three vascular tumors in her brain," and also had "two life-saving [against all odds] brain surgeries...” While I sympathize and really feel for anyone who is in that kind of situation, telling me something like that once really makes an impact. I wasn't likely to forget it! Repeatedly telling me was more likely to make me honestly wish I'd never heard it! This wasn't the only thing that was repeated.

Anyway, the topics covered were these:

  • Anxiety
  • Hypersenses: Senses on Steroids
  • Observation: Elementary, My Dear Watson
  • The Meltdown
  • The Safe Place
  • Rudeness, Truth Telling, and Manners
  • Transitions
  • Routines
  • Structure and Positive Activities
  • Obsessions and Hyper-Interests
  • Social Awkwardness
  • Limit Choices to Avoid "No!"
  • Instilling Street Smarts
  • Taking Things Literally: "Why Did They Say I'm Not Playing With a Full Deck?"
  • Specifics: Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
  • Preventing Overwhelm: Breaking Down Big Jobs Into Smaller Tasks
  • Setting Goals
  • Rules, Rewards, and Consequences
  • Checklists: The Indispensable Tool
  • Time management: Tools for getting 139 Your Aspie to Be on Time
  • Overlapping Conditions
  • It's Not About You
  • Love Unconditionally

Note that the '139' in the 'Time Management' section is actually in the contents list - it's a page number that's out of place.

There's an afterword, which I also skipped as I do all afterwords, epilogues, etc. There are three appendices chock full of resources and references.

Despite all of the formatting issues and the repetitiveness in parts, I really enjoyed reading this. it was interesting, educational, and sometimes heartbreaking, and I commend it as a worthy read. This isn't the first book I've read on this topic, so much of it I already knew, but it was nice to be remind! Much of it is actually nothing more than common sense when you learn a few things about people with these conditions, and there's the rub: it's not like they have a sign, or they're in a wheelchair, or have a certain 'look' about them.

It's not like they're missing a limb, or are carrying a white stick, or wearing a hearing aid, but it would behoove everyone to give anyone who is behaving - to our routine eyes - slightly oddly, because it may well be someone like this who needs our concern and compassion, not our Trump-mentality, knee-jerk condemnation. I enjoyed the comments by the authors daughter, even though they usually echoed what I'd read in the preceding chapter. They were delightfully blunt and to the point, and I would definitely read a biography if she wrote one. I think it would be interesting. In the absence of that, this book does an excellent job of opening eyes and hearts to people who need our understanding and support.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

First Year Out by Sabrina Symington

Rating: WORTHY!

This is another graphic novel about transitional experiences. It's completely honest about feelings and experiences from start to finish and it pulls no punches.

Presumably based on the author's on experiences at least to an extent, this is a fictional account of a mtf transgender named Lily. As is typical, she always knew she was a female from a very early age, despite being hampered with a male body. She wasn't gay, and she fought against these 'sissy' feelings by body-building and indulging herself in insensitive traditional masculine behaviors, but of course these were doomed to fail because her body notwithstanding, she was a woman through and through.

The color artwork is fairly rudimentary, but what's most important is the story, which discusses her problems: personal and interpersonal, the troubles in finding a decent date - and keeping him, and the support or lack thereof she got, from her parents' changing perspectives to being denied use of the women's restroom in a restaurant, to the friendships she made and the loving relationship she formed, to the unintentional torture of the final step of sex reassignment surgery.

This is educational, painful, humorous, and thoroughly worth reading. I commend it.

Fight Like a Girl by Kate Germano

Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with Fight like a Girl by Clemetine Ford, or Fight like a Girl by Roz Clarke, or Fight like a Girl by Megan Seely, or Fight like a Girl by Lisa Bevere, or Fight Like a Girl by April Steenburgh, this book tells the story of LtCol Kate Germano's turmoil-ridden experience in commanding the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion at Parris island - the Marine training unit which is the only one of the major branches of the military which segregates women from men in basic training. That ought to tell you all you need to know about the attitude of the Marine Corps when it comes to integrating women into the service.

I liked this book and consider it a worthy read, but the biggest weakness of it was the fact that it lacked a good editor. Given that it was co-written by a journalist who also had a military background, this prolixity and repetitiveness in the text was strange to say the least, and it made the whole book come off as a bit on the whiney side. If the repetition had been cut back, the book could have been about two hundred pages instead of almost three hundred and it would have been better for it. Neither was the glossary necessary since each item in it was explained in-line in the text and made for a better read that way. And it was hardly rocket science!

That said, I enjoyed the book because it pulled no punches and made sense to any rational person reading it. LtCol Germano made an irrefutable case that there is institutionalized resistance to fully including women in the Marines and worse, that the training is set up to deliberately cause women to fail in a self-fulfilling prophecy: they can't hack basic training and therefore don't deserve to be 'real Marines', when everything from recruitment to basic training is set up with a lack of planning and a deliberate lack of caring about what happens to recruits who go through it. It's no wonder they come out the other end looking bad.

LtCol Germano set about fixing this from day one and her success is a matter of record, but her superiors and some of her inferiors were against her all the way, undermining her attempts to do her job and as she explained, thereby sabotaging half the population so that they appear inferior when compared with the other half. in the end she was forced out and the situation in that battalion is unlikely to improve until they get someone else with the integrity, standards, and determination exhibited by this officer - and the full support of the Marine Corps behind her.

This book will probably hold no surprises for far too many women, I'm sorry to admit, but I recommend it as a worthy and important read.

The Cow Said Neigh! by Rory Feek

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a fun children's book aimed at getting kids to understand and experiment with sounds and to consider when the wrong sound is coming from somewhere. I can see it leading to a wider discussion - maybe even about what it means when the smoke alarm goes off. Is that the right kind of sound to hear? But it's not about that. It's about a very confused farm!

In a series of fun, bright, and colorful images, and some happy verse, we discover that several of the farm and domestic animals - and even the farmer himself, are getting some weird ideas about their station in life! The cow sees the horse and decides she would like to run free - so she starts neighing. The horse starts quaking, the duck starts baaing and this cascade effect ricochets around the whole farm! Will it ever end? Hopefully, otherwise it'll be a long night reading this to your little loved one!

I commend this for a fun and instructive read to young children.

30th Century: Revived by Mark Kingston Levin

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I'm not a fan of series except for the occasional rare and treasured one, which is why I felt duped when I requested this from Net Galley, because there was nothing there to indicate that it was book two of a trilogy. Hence I felt lost from the start because this one clearly takes off from wherever volume one left off and there's very little context to help the reader. Add to that the complete lack of world-building, the unnaturally stilted conversations, and the truly simplistic nature of the writing overall, and I simply could not get into this at all. I could not finish it and I quit about a fifth of the way though.

An example of how lacking in interest the writing was is this (and note that this was from an advance review copy, so even though this novel was published last April, it could, I suppose, change!):

The reporter continued. “When the engines failed, the parachute, made of ultra-strong carbon nanotube fibers, was deployed, and according to the crew, it saved all the passengers. No one lost their life, but over four hundred thirty-three were injured out of the twelve hundred twenty-two people aboard this Can-Air 999.”
After eight months, the news reporter for the Canadian Broadcast Company announced, “The investigation turned up a possible sabotage of this aircraft. The computer system had been infected with a virus or worm. This is an aircraft designed to hover low over the ground so passengers can see and photograph the wildlife, including moose, polar bears, and deer.”

I don't get how a noisy hovering aircraft would permit passengers to see and photograph wildlife - which would have taken off, scared to death with this huge, noisy machine hovering overhead! And it took eight months to discover that the computer system was infected? No. Just no. That was what all of this writing was like - like the author was so enamored of how it sounded to him that he failed to consider how realistic it was.

He's evidently not paid much attention to how people actually speak to one another in real life, nor has he given any thought to the fact that language a thousand years from now will undoubtedly have changed as much as it's changed over the last thousand years, yet the woman from the 30th century speaks exactly like her husband from the current century.

The whole thing was far too simplistic for me, and I honestly could not get into it at all. I wish the author all the best with his career, but cannot commend this book.

Joann & Jane: Who Made This Mess by Brandon T Mayes, Taylor McDaniel

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

If you were hoping to let your kids read this on a smart phone as an emergency distraction, it won't work! The picture is larger than the screen so you can't read the text, and you can't shrink the picture! You'd best plan on reading it only on a tablet or in the printed form.

The screens slide up and down, not side to side, but you can't catch the slide in the middle to maybe read the missing text, because for one thing, the text simply isn't there, and for another, the screen doesn't slide - it quantum jumps to the next image too quickly to ready anything even if there was text there to read at the margin.

That said, it's beautifully illustrated by Taylor McDaniel and engagingly written by Brandon Mayes, and it's wonderfully colored in more than one way, because this is a mixed race family which is very rare to see in a children's book even though such marriages have been steadily increasing in real life.

It's been half a century since mixed-race marriage stopped being illegal in the USA, and they're now at the highest proportion in US history, with one in six couples being mixed race, but it remains the case that Asians and Latinx are more likely to marry outside their race than black or white people are. Unsurprisingly, especially in the present political climate, twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe that mixed race marriage as a good thing.

But I digress! Sisters Joann and Jane can't figure out how their room got into such a mess. I'm sure many parents have heard this excuse many times, but here, it's a bit more complicated, it seems. While everyone is wondering how this happened and J&J are playing detective, the little beagle, known as London Dog, seems to be napping quite contentedly. I wonder why? I thought this was a great book and I commend it.

Say Please, Little Owlet by Ellie J Woods, Mirra Oblakova

Rating: WORTHY!

Haviing enjoyed Goodnight Swampy the Little Monster by this author (Not to be confused with Elle Woods of Legally Blonde fame!) in November last year, I wasn't surprised to find this one a worthy story for children as well.

Little Owlet lives with dad, mom, grandmother, sister Lily, and a jumbo-eared pet mouse in a very spacious brownbark in the forest, and consequently is a bit spoiled. He doesn't want veggies, he wants chocolate! And why should he say please? When he sees mom baking a delightful cake, that's all he wants, and no two pleas about it!

The only problem I saw with this book is that it's very simplistic - it seems to suggest that all you have to do is say please to automatically get a huge slice of cake. Real life doesn't quite work like that, so the writing problem here is the balance between keeping it simple for kids while making am important point, as well as providing some colorful entertainment. It's not an easy path to walk.

Artist Mirra Oblakova does a fine job with the illustrations, and the author does a great job with the rhyming text, but there's a third party here which needs to be involved, and that's the parent, guardian, or older sibling who is reading this. There needs to be a discussion, pitched at your child's level of understanding, of what it means to be polite and why it's important. You can't just leave it to the book. There needs to be interaction so you can tease the important message out of this story: that we don't say please to get things, we say please because it's the civilized and polite thing to do.

That's not a problem with this book, it's a generic thing that arises out of the need to keep children's books simple, but I think children can handle a little more complex, especially with the input from a responsible grown-up who knows the child well. That said, this book is a great starting point and I commend it.

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook fail. It sounded interesting from the blurb, but don't they all? Well not really, but many of them do! The blurb says (yes in block caps!) that this is "ONE OF PEOPLE MAGAZINE'S BEST NEW BOOKS." It adds that People thinks it's "An intimate illumination of sisterhood and loss." No, it really isn't. I immediately made a mental note never to trust a People magazine rating. The blurb also says that according to the BBC, this is "A searing and intimate memoir about love turned deadly." No, it isn't. It's a rambling recollection of a childhood that was seemingly obsessed by defecation. I kid you not.

The most absurd aspect of the blurb though was when it said, "Kohler evokes the bond between sisters and shows how that bond changes but never breaks, even after death" yet the memoir is titled, "Once We Were Sisters" like that no longer holds. Unbreakable bond? Bullshit. Had it been a truly unbreakable bond, Maxine would never have died so tragically.

So the blurb was at best hypocritical, but unless they self-publish, authors typically don't write their own blurbs. In my experience that chore is typically consigned to the most inept member of the publishing team. The fact that none other than Joyce Carol "Feeling Her" Oates says this is "Highly recommended" ought to tell you all you need to know about how useless these recommendations truly are.

The author got the news that her older sister by two years, the thirty-nine-year-old Maxine, had died when her husband drove them off a road in Johannesburg. The blurb tells us that, "Stunned by the news, she immediately flew back to the country where she was born, determined to find answers and forced to reckon with his history of violence and the lingering effects of their most unusual childhood--one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother."

To me that sounded like it would make for an interesting read, and maybe provide some ideas for a story of my own? Who knows? I'm always open to ideas but that's not my primary motivation for reading anything, especially not something that came off sounding like a detective story, but in the end it wasn't: there was no detecting and there were no answers offered.

Anyway, I checked it out of the library I adore and started listening to it right away, and I noted the first problem: it's written exceedingly sparsely. It's more like a set of notes for a memoir rather than a finished work. It's read pretty well - if somewhat quirkily on occasion - by the author, but the story itself really isn't anything special or very engrossing. Apart from the excrement fetish, it's nothing more than the usual childhood recollections that any family of similar circumstances might relate. Why all this stuff and nothing about finding answers? I'm guessing this is because there were neither answers sought nor found. I have my own theory about why this memoir was written which I shall go into shortly.

It's obviously set in South Africa, but you really wouldn't know it from the writing. Apart from an occasional reference here and there, this memoir could have been of any wealthy, slightly dysfunctional family, living anywhere, which had rather more tragedy than any family ought. There really was very little to anchor it to South Africa and the story jumped around too much between early childhood and later life, so we have the author talking about an eight year old in one paragraph, having babies (which seemed to excite her quite a lot) in the next, and then back to relating how she, as a child, had urinated through the wicker chair on the porch. Really? As a listener, I wasn't prepared for the jumping between different ages, let alone for the entirely unnecessary revelation about urination.

I don't do prologues (or prefaces, introductions, author's notes, and so on). To me they're misplaced at best, and fatuous at worst, but it's often hard to avoid them in an audiobook. I managed it here, but not without hearing the opening sentence to the prologue, which said, "This is a story about South Africa" No, wrong again! I was truly sorry because I'd wished it was, but it wasn't. The truth is, it seemed to me, that this was about the author: her childhood, her love of babies ...and defecation, her spoiled-rotten life and oh yes, I think there might have been a few mentions of this beloved sister.

The saddest thing is that even when she told us of this life of hers, it was always superficial. There were never any real insights into living in the depths (and I do mean depths) of apartheid or even anything insightful in her relationship with her sister. It was always about the author, and only the shallowest recollections even of that. This is why the story felt so bland and generic rather than richly-hued and personal.

These sisters thought nothing about jet-setting and going on ritzy vacations and fashion-buying trips to Europe, leaving their children behind. Neither did they have a problem taking lovers, yet they would not leave abusive husbands? The most powerful thing that this author conveyed to me is not so much how utterly clueless she is (or was: maybe she wised-up) about real life, but how thoroughly shallow, self-centered, and superficial she is. I detected no sign of any love here for anything but her own comfort.

Ultimately the saddest part of this is that it would seem that the author knew her sister's marriage was a bad one: that her husband was physically abusive to his wife and their children and yet no one did a thing about it. They just let it run its unnatural course and so it seems that her sister's untimely and violent death was an inevitable outcome, and that the blame for it really needs to be placed elsewhere than on this psychotic husband's shoulders. Her mother forgave her son in law. Sheila never pushed for an investigation regardless of what the blurb says.

When Maxine had indicated there were problems, she was never offered any assistance by her family, so we're forced to conclude from this memoir. Where was the love? Where was the bond? It felt like her mother and sister had said to Maxine: you made your bed; now you must die in it. In her own words, Sheila pretty much told her sister to stay in the marriage for the sake of her children, thereby ultimately condemning her to death. And it's unclear whether Maxine's husband drove the car off the road or whether Maxine took hold of the steering wheel to end it all, or whether it was simply an accident. He was wearing a seatbelt. She wasn't. Still, today in South Africa only about six in ten drivers use a seatbelt.

Had the memoir been written differently, I may have experienced it differently and now been able to view it differently, but I could only review what the author offered, and what this felt like was less of a loving memoir, or an attempt to find some truth, as it was a determined effort assuage a tortured soul: to seek absolution for the author's inexcusable inaction in light of her sister;s suffering.

In the end, it was really nothing more than an attempt to turn a hard, harsh marble sculpture of a life into a soft, pretty, pastel watercolor, and in that light, it was quite sickening to listen to. It's a very short memoir, which is just as well, because if it had been any longer I would not have stayed with it to the end, As it was, I found myself skipping parts here and there. I cannot commend this at all. It doesn't remotely feel to me like it's a fitting memorial for the tragic life of a prematurely deceased sister.

The End of Summer by Tillie Walden

Rating: WARTY!

This was a nonsensical graphic novel which I did not enjoy because I had no clue what was going on despite wasting my time reading right to the end!

The story is of this extended family which lives in a palatial home in some location where the winters last three years. How that works is an unexplained mystery. Usually the winter (or the summer) is a function of axial tilt and orbit. If the axis of the planet isn't parallel to the axis of the star, then for half the year one hemisphere will be more or less inclined towards its star, the other half of the year inclined away.

This is how the seasons work, so aside from bizarre orbital systems or multiple stars, the only way a three year winter is going to work is if the planet takes six years to orbit its star, which means it would be so far away from the star that winter would be all year! The planet could have a highly elliptical orbit, bringing it closer to the star in summer and further away in winter, but this would be a one year winter from a subjective perspective. It makes no sense to talk about a three year winter, but we're expected to accept this, and that the winter requires that the people have to lock themselves inside the house for three years.

Fine, let's accept that and move on; next up is this giant cat. It's exactly like a cat, but it's the size of a horse. There's no explanation for this - it just is! They don't even turn the cat outdoors for the night! Anyway the house is shutting up and then what? I have no idea what. The story is vague to the point of non-existence. It shows the family eating, playing games, relaxing, sauntering around, riding the cat, but suddenly it's like a kid is missing and no one knows what's going on. Is someone dead? I have no idea. Is there a killer on the loose? You got me.

The artwork was so scrappily bad that it was truly hard to distinguish one character from another, and they were all so uninteresting that I gave up trying. I read the early part and then read and skimmed to the end without having a clue what was going on or how it panned out. That's how blandly bad this was. I cannot commend it, not even slightly. It's nothing but a long, drawn-out winter of discontent for the reader.

The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D Sonnier

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

"...she watched as her family prepare to leave the house." This really needed to have used 'prepared' rather than 'prepare'.
"When do you think they'll finally drag you into the family business, brother dear?" Arabella smiled. "Oh, I think not." John barked with laughter." The second speech doesn't follow from the first! If the 'when' was omitted from the first speech, it would make more sense.
"We've combed the library and its' not inconsiderable resources" no apostrophe is required on 'its'

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I am not a huge fan of steampunk, but then this really isn't a steampunk story even though it superficially professes to be a mashup of witchcraft and steampunk. That juxtaposition is what interested me in the novel as it happens, but I had too many writing issues with it to love it, despite it starting out very strongly for me.

My blog is more about the writing of novels than the reading of them, but I explore writing through discussing my reading experiences and assessing the book accordingly, and this one felt very much like a book feels when an American writer tries to write a Victorian novel without really knowing the Victorian period very well - at least as it was experienced in Britain. An example of such an Americanism was "She'll be furious is what she'll be." That's a common format - repeating the same person and verb at the end as you've used at the start, but I don't see a well-bred Victorian family employing it in Britain!

I don't profess to be an expert by any means, but since there exist very many books from that period, fiction and otherwise, my advice to writers is to read a lot of them so you get a feel for the vernacular in use back then. That aside, I did enjoy reading this to start with. Unfortunately, it had too many issues, by far the worst of which was the disturbingly weak and bland female main character.

I adore books with strong females - and by that I do not mean they can arm-wrestle a guy to the ground (although that could be a trait they have!). No, I mean women who are self-possessed and self-motivated and who do not wilt every other paragraph. I don't care if they start out weak and grow strong or if they're strong from the off. I do care if they never grow, and never change no matter what provocation or incentive they have, and that was this character's problem.

I know it was set in Victorian times when women were all-too-often deemed weak and delicate, and some actually were, just as some are today, but there were some amazing women who lived in that era (the queen for one example) and who made their mark: such as Ada Lovelace, Annie Besant, Eleanor Coade, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, Millicent Fawcett. Dido Belle was another although she came long before the Victorian era. Radclyffe Hall was another although she came later.

The novel began strongly, but then slowly and inexorably went downhill. The main character was so weepy and showed no sign of growing a backbone, so around seventy percent in I couldn't stand to read about her any more. I did a search for the word 'sobbed' in this novel, and it showed up ten different times and each time it was the main character who was doing the sobbing! This was throughout the novel. I don't mind a girl (or a guy for that matter) breaking down once in a while, but this girl was doing it habitually, at the drop of a hat. It was nauseating to keep reading it. Parts of the novel were really great, but she was such a lackluster and limp woman who had showed no sign of ever growing, and I lost all interest in her and her story.

People have on occasion chided me for DNF-ing a novel, but I see no point in forcing oneself to read something that simply doesn't get the job done. Life is far too short. Their argument that maybe things will turn around is weak and I've disproven it repeatedly. If the novel isn't getting it done by the time you're twenty percent in, you should quit right then. I almost quit around the half-way point, but decided to struggle on in hopes that it would improve because there had been parts I really enjoyed, but it did not improve. It steadily grew worse, and meanwhile I'd wasted more of my time pursuing it! I do not subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy; quitting is a smarter move than continuing to invest effort in something not worthy of your time.

The story is of the Sortileges, the leading witch family in Britain, and one which is highly-regarded beyond the immediate shores of the so-called Sceptered Isle. The Family is a large one - seven daughters and two sons. In this world, the daughters take precedence, because they are witches, and men take a back seat, contrary to 'mundane' society (read: muggles!) where it is of course the reverse, as real life history shows.

The main character is Arabella, a name I can't think of without being reminded of the rather catchy song from the old Peter Sellers movie based on a stage play: There's a Girl in My Soup (which I recommend for light-hearted fun and a few witty remarks, but you have to be something of an anglophile to get the best from it). The song runs along the lines of: "Arabella, Cinderella, what did she do? She turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of two! You know she should have done it way back at midnight. Why, oh why, can she never get it right!"

The biggest problem with Arabella, the trope seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, is that she wept constantly and never once stood up for herself. It was too much. Once in a while under stress, or from a major setback perhaps, it would have been fine, but it was every few pages and for the slightest of reasons.

That song I mentioned is particularly appropriate here, because Arabella can't get it right. She's a squib, to put it in Harry Potter terms. This is trope for this kind of story: the magical person with no magic who in the end turns out to be especially magical. It's a bit tired, and this particular story - the initially undiscovered mastery machinery - has been done before in The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker, a story which I really did enjoy.

The family is invited to a demonstration of a new calculating machine along the lines of Babbage's difference engine, but whereas his machine was a small one controlled by turning a crank the requisite number of times to do the calculation, Mr Westerfield's machine is quite the behemoth and runs on steam. Note that Babbage never built his final machine - only a smaller model of it because the government lost patience with him and stopped funding it.

The reason we know it works is that the machine was actually built in the 1980's in Australia using Babbage's original drawings and the machining techniques available in Babbage's time. The engine worked as specified. The name of Westerfield's machine looked like it was simply chosen because it had some superficial resonance with 'difference engine' but Babbage chose his name for a valid reason. I didn't get the impression that 'distinction engine' had any rationale behind it at all, so it stood out as an odd choice.

During the demo, Arabella discovers she can literally see the work in progress in the form of a glow in the machine's mechanisms, and she discovers that she can operate it using only thought. This is how she learns she actually does have a power, and it's also what brings her into conflict with Westerfield, although his antagonistic reaction to her is way over the top and her weasel reaction to him is, honestly, pathetic.

There was one part of the machine which Arabella cannot see any glow in, and it seemed obvious why this was so. Unfortunately, it made Arabella look a bit on the dumb side that she did not figure this out quickly, but the reason I mention this event is that there were a couple of writing issues with it.

The first of these is when the dignitaries are addressed to call the meeting to order and the guy says, "Ladies and gentlemen, members of Parliament, and noble witches," but he has the order wrong. If the witches are indeed as important as they're portrayed in this story, then they ought to addressed first. This is still the way it's done - prejudiced as it may be - with the monarchy, peerage, and nobility coming first, as in "My Lords, ladies, and gentlemen," for example.

It seems to me the witches would have been insulted to have been placed last, but no one says a word about it! This issue is further highlighted later in the story when Arabella's older brother John comes to tea and I read, "Arabella served tea and inquired after their father's health." Wait - in a witch family, the female serves tea? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I think the author means that she poured the tea, not served it, which a maid would have done, but even so, it undermined the earlier statements to the effect that women in witch families always took precedence.

The other issue I had in this section of the book was with the naming of the leading witch's daughters. One of the sons is called John, the other, Henry, both of which were very popular names back then and fitted right into the story, but not a single one of the daughters was given a name anywhere close to the usual names for girls in that time! Now you can argue that this is a different world, and these are witches, but if this is so, then how come the author doesn't mention it?

If one had been named Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay, or Jennet, as in Jennet Preston, or Mary, as in Mary Trembles, that would have worked, but none of the girls' names here invoked what you might consider to be a suitable name for a witch based on the names of those who were (of course insanely) deemed to be witches historically. Just FYI, the girls were named: Vivienne, Rowena, Jessamine, Josephine, Arabella, Amelia, and Elizabeth.

Apart from that latter one, these are quite simply not names that Victorian parents gave to their daughters, so this stood out like a sore thumb. Maybe the author chose them for a reason. To me, names matter a lot, and I always try to give my main characters meaningful names, such as Janine Majeski in Seasoning or Cora Graigh in Saurus. Cora's name pretty much told her entire story, if you knew what to look for, but if that wasn't the case in this novel, and they were merely names that sounded good to the author, then this rather betrayed the deeper story. At least that's how I felt about it!

The timeline of the novel is a little off. As set by the date of the great exhibition at Crystal Palace, the story takes place in 1851, but it conflates two periods of history which never coincided. The Irish potato famine was largely over by 1851, and the suffragette movement set English society alight toward the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, but it was barely an ember in 1851. Crystal palace is now better known as a soccer team than an exhibition, but that's the only part of this story's background that did take place in 1851!

The novel seems to be intended as a steampunk story - which is by definition an obfuscation of the timeline - so perhaps this conflation can be covered under that, but in another such conflation, at one point the author has the sisters playing croquet. The earliest record of croquet is 1856. That doesn't mean it could not have been around earlier, but it didn't become popular until the 1860s a decade after this story is set, so it seems hardly like this mundane game would have been played by Arabella's witch family in 1851, especially since the family snobbishly had no truck with the 'common people' (and Arabella saw no problem with this - another reason not to like her). In short, everything just felt off.

At one point I read John saying, "Arabella Helene Sortilege, I'm surprised to hear you lecturing me about respect when you've obviously snuck out of the house..." I had two issues with this. First of all 'snuck' is an Americanism, and while it may be used in Britain today (a lot of Americanisms are) it would never have left the lips of a person of breeding in 1851! Additionally, an older brother in England back then was hardly likely to use her full name. He would be much more likely to use a pet name - something from their childhood. There were other such lapses, such as "John leaned his elbows on the table" - no! Not in a well-bred family he didn't!

There's one more such incident. Amelia's boyfriend Harlan (again not a name likely to be found in 1850's Britain) says to Amelia: "join the Sisterhood today, chickadee...." No! Just no! The chickadee is a North American bird. It's unknown in Britain and unlikely to have even been heard of by most Brits back then. The closest thing to it is a tit, but he could hardly have described Amelia as 'my little tit' - although that would have been amusing had the guy been set up as socially inept. But no! A better choice would have been linnet. This is a British bird and was used as an endearment when talking of young women, back then. That was something I could let go, but then for inexplicable reasons, Arabella's mom starts referring to her using the same term, and honestly? It just sounded stupid.

Technically, the book is well-written in terms of grammar, spelling and such, but the formatting is odd. There is an extra carriage return between paragraphs which is a no-no for professional publishing and means that the book takes up far more space if it runs to a print edition than it would otherwise. My advice is to save a few trees in your print version using a thing called paragraph spacing (along with a smaller font and narrower margins). In the ebook, this doesn't matter so much except that a longer book uses more energy to transmit, so it's always wiser to keep it shorter if you can.

So for this large variety of reasons, I cannot rate this novel as a worthy read, but I am interested in this writer. I think she has imagination and talent, and I would definitely read the next thing she writes - assuming it's a genre that I have an interest in of course! I have zero interest in reading a Harlequin-style romance by any author for example, no matter how much I love them! So even though I cannot commend this one, I wish the author success in her endeavors. We need fresh young voices and she's in an excellent position to become one of them.