Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Big Book of Twisted Fairy Tales by Sue Nicholson

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Personally I think 'twisted' is a misnomer for a quartet of stories about honesty, kindness, responsibility, and teamwork, but it wasn't my choice! Rest assured that the stories are only twisted in the sense that they're changed and updated in relation to the originals.

Cinderella, whose original story revolved around a shoe fetish, loves dancing of course, but what's she to do when everyone except for her seems to be getting new shoes for the newly-opening dance school? Cindy puts her best foot forward however. This story is aimed at teaching about generosity and kindness. Unlike Cinderella, Beauty has her wish granted, and is given a pony which she names Flick, but (and here actually is a twist!), the beast isn't the animal, it's Beauty! She neglects her charge and the horse charges away! Will her parents have to pony-up for a new ride, or will beauty become more stable? This story aims to teach responsibility.

One of the fun things about these stories is how the characters each appear in the stories of the others. They not only exist in the same world, they live in the same town! One of those other characters is Jack who, like two beans in a pod, is just as irresponsible as Beauty, and who ends up destroying the family's crop. This story is about honesty, though. Will Jack fess up and will mommie bean him for his behavior? Last, but not least, is Snow White, who unaccountably isn't white in this story, so "yeay!" for diversity, but "huh?" for logic. Snow's problem doesn't exactly dwarf the others, but it is serious. She's one of the best soccer players, yet she's paradoxically not a team player! Will she also learn her lesson or will there be a penalty for her behavior?!

I liked these stories and commend them as a worthy read for young children, offering useful lessons.

More to the Story by Hena Khan

Rating: WARTY!

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

This was a story about a family living in Georgia, which to be fair is aimed at a younger and more feminine demographic than I represent, but I typically enjoy stories about Asian families; not always, but preponderantly, which is why I requested this one. Unfortunately, I couldn't get with it, and I DNF'd it about half way through because it was becoming less and less interesting to me and seemed more and more like it was going nowhere.

I only read as far as I did because I kept on hoping that something would happen, but nothing ever really did. Worse, there seemed to be no promise of anything interesting happening. All we got was day-to-day family routine and while, to me, that's interesting to begin with, in the long run it becomes boring if nothing else is going on.

The story tells of four Muslim sisters: Maryam, Jameela, Bisma, and Aleeza. The story focuses on Jameela, whose ambition it is to go into journalism, but her focus is very small - only on local things and low level activity. She never seems to look for a bigger picture. Even this limited focus became completely skewed when Ali, a first cousin, arrives from London, and starts attending Jameela's school. It seems that all she can focus on then is him, and it was at this point that I started losing interest as I saw that Jameela was no different from any other girl in any other such story, and that this one really had nothing new to show me or bring to the table. Since I DNF'd the novel I do not know where the relationship went, if anywhere, but that problem was that the author had written this story in such a way that I really didn't care.

The problem was that in introducing this guy, the author had ripped the story from Jameela's hands, No longer was it about her, but about her in relation to him, so she became his appendage instead of her own person. This is why I lost interest in her. Even before this, Jameela's ambition was to write a story to make her father proud. This was a problem because she was always chasing after his approval, especially when work took him away from home for an extended period, so even before Ali came into the picture, Jameela was an appendage of her father's.

I truly detest stories which have titles in the form of "The _____'s Daughter" where the blank can be some profession or whatever - such as 'The Undertaker's daughter' because books like that devalue women from the very title on. This book felt like one of those, which was simply missing the demeaning title: "The Asian Dad's Daughter" or "Ali's Love Interest" or something. Or, given that this novel was rooted, for some reason, in Little Women, perhaps its title should have been "Belittled Women"? Maybe Jameela changed later in the book, but the author left it far too late for me, since I'd lost all hope and faith in her by then.

Regardless, I cannot commend a story like this where the main female character isn't so much striking-out determinedly along the road less traveled, but instead is being swept along by traffic on the main road to the nearest mall and she doesn't even care. I wish the author all the best in her career because she has talent, but this story was flat for me. I truly wish there had been more to it.

The Time Machine by HG Wells

Rating: WARTY!

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

Published under the banner of "Classics Reimagined", this is a reproduction of the text of HG Wells 1895 novella. I requested this for review mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel. It isn't; it's an illustrated novella. In it, a man who is never named in the story, but referred to simply as 'the Time Traveller' (note that this is in an era when characters in stories were often named "Mr B_____" or Mrs "M______", or whatever, builds himself a time machine and travels to the year 802,701.

Why that particular year, I have no idea, but by then London, his starting point, has long gone, as has every vestige of the society he knew. In its place is what appears to be a purely natural world in which dwell two peoples, the childlike androgynous Eloi, and the subterranean-dwelling predatory, and of course ugly, Morlocks, who groom the Eloi as their prey. The time traveller befriends one of the Eloi who is unfortunately named Weena, which sounds to me like some sort of sausage. Why Wells made the predators ugly was to me a bad piece of writing. If you looka t nature, the apex predators are enver ugly - theylre sleek and admirably-appointed - think of the lion, the tiger, the leopard, the jaguar, the cheetah. Often it's the prey who look stupid or behave, well, like cattle. But each writer to their own.

Much of the story is spent with the time traveller blundering-around trying to find his time machine which has been hidden by the Morlocks, but later they use it to lure him into their clutches, not grasping that he can escape in it. For some reason, he next travels some 30 million years into the future where the Earth is dying (this was a little premature by Wells, but he was writing in some scientific ignorance, let's not forget). In that future, the Sun is dying, and Earth is degenerating, exhibiting only lower life forms. After he has returned and told his story, he takes off again, promising to come back, but he never does.

The story is told in a frame set by the time traveller's return from this expedition, where he narrates this entire story, never once interrupted by his guest audience, and his eidetic recollection is miraculous given what he went through, so there's a certain falsity or lack of authenticity about it. It was never one of my personal favorites, and the sad thing for me is that the only difference between this 'updated' version and the original is that it has some artwork added, created by the studio team of 'Ale + Ale'. While the art is quite good in its own right, it really contributes nothing to the story, and the story itself is unchanged. Indeed, the art is false too in some regards, because the Eloi depicted in the art don't match Wells's description in the text, which I found strange. If you're going to leave the text totally unchanged, why add art which differs and detracts from it?

Another problem with it for me was the formatting. There was random block-cap text at various points in the middle of the narrative (a quote from the regular text), and which was larger than the regular text font. It was inserted into the main text like this was some cheap tabloid newspaper with sensationalist headlines. This interrupted the original text and I found it annoying, especially since it was in different font sizes which often stepped on the toes of the rest of the text in the same quote. I saw only the ebook version of this so I cannot comment on the print version (assuming there is one), but to me, the ebook looked messy and unappealing, and that along with the rambling story and mismatched artwork made for a disappointing experience. I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Dad, I Love You Because... by Rhea MacCallum, Laura D. MacCallum, Fabrice Florens

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Written by the MacCallums and illustrated by Fabrice Florens, this is a little late for Father's Day - but better late than never! It would make a great birthday present or Christmas present, or just at the present present! Aimed at young children, and populated by a mixed-family of cute animals, this finely-illustrated little book lists out one reason after another why dad is special. I liked it and commend it as a worthy read as a gift from a young child to whoever they call dad!

Daughter of Athena by A Rose

Rating: WARTY!

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

"She knew it would earn her a lecture from Jackson if the she ever saw Amara do that" - the 'she' should be a 'he' and the 'the' should be omitted.
"Its bright blue eyes glinted off the sun" - surely the other way around?!
"Amara tried to get up and move but found her hands, chained to the floor." That comma doesn't belong there. It should be placed after 'move'.
"Let me go, there is a dragon I need to slay," is a run-on sentence.

This novel is written in a rather innocent style which initially charmed me, but over time it became rather more disagreeable to read, and after about twenty percent I DNF'd it because this simplicity of writing wasn't entertaining me at all. I found that the narrative was superficial, with no history and no depth and often nonsensical, so it became far less charming as it went on, and I was asking questions which the story didn't seem interested in answering.

I couldn't have put it better than one reviewer who gave this a five-star review while telling us next-to-nothing about what it had done to earn those stars. In one part of the very short review, the reviewer said, "... Amara the dragonslayer hunts and kills a dragon and the story starts to unravel from there..." and that's exactly what it did: unravel. I rather suspect the reviewer meant to say it 'unfolded' from there, but what it really did was unravel, so she inadvertently got it right.

The story is set in a future post-apocalyptic world where, for reasons which go unexplained, Chicago, which was evidently burned to the ground by dragons, was rebuilt in stone, because dragons apparently can't melt stone, although this claim is overturned when shortly after the story begins, the main HQ of the dragon-slayer force is pretty much burned to the ground by a dragon, despite it being built from stone. Worse though, the story failed to address the fact that Chicago was largely built of stone to begin with - at least when it came to the main buildings downtown - since it is such an old city (by USA standards). It would hardly have been burned down as described. Yes, the newer stuff is glass and steel, but even that incorporates huge amounts of concrete (which is for all practical purposes, stone), and most of the older large buildings are stone, so none of this made sense to me.

It made less sense as to why the rebuilt Chicago would be renamed Athena. There is no precedent for this. If the story had been set in Athens, in Georgia, I could see it maybe being renamed Athena, although even that's a stretch, but renaming Chicago? The city was named after a wild onion that grew abundantly in that area, and has had that name since the late seventeenth century. There would need to be a really overwhelming reason to change it so drastically, and maybe that would even happen, but the problem is that we're not given any reason why it did happen, just the credibility-straining bare fact of the name change, and it doesn't work. It simply makes it seem whimsical and random.

There were lots of errors in the text, some of which I've documented above. There were other oddball issues such as when I read, "Even though Emery was attractive, she did not trust him." I don't get the connection there! Are we supposed to trust people just because they're attractive?! Why would his attractiveness (or otherwise) have any bearing on his trustworthiness?! At another point, I read, "Their bodies did not have scales in the drawings, making their skin look like that of a snake." Well, snakes actually do have scales! At another point I read, " took point in the front." Taking point quite literally means assuming an exposed position in front! It's a tautology to say that someone takes point in front! I quite understand that mistakes appear in novels. We've all been there, but the sheer number of them in this story was a major reason why the writing lost its charm for me.

A major problem with the future presented here is that this one city (Athena) is totally divorced from everywhere else in the world, like it's the only place that exists. It isn't, but it feels that way. This is all-too-often the problem with this type of novel. It's not been properly thought-through: the author has focused so tightly on the little story that unfolds in this one location, and hasn't given an ounce of thought to how this apocalyptic scenario would have played out on the world stage. This insularity: that only the USA matters, and in this case, that only this one city matters within the USA, is really a problem not just in this story, but in a much wider context of how a person's mind works. If you get into a mentality that none of the rest of the world is important, then it's a serious delusion that I'm not in favor of promoting, not even in fiction. On top of that, it makes for a very claustrophobic story. What happened to the government? The police forces? The military? We get no explanation. It's like all of that somehow disappeared along with the cities of old. It makes the story sound very artificial.

Related to this is the total isolation of one city from another. We're told that the area between cities is a wasteland where no one wants to live, but when Amara, the main character, is kidnapped, she's transported to a thriving community that exists within sight of the city. No one in the city ever noticed this? Despite this, and despite there still being people around from Amara's dragon enforcement bureau, or whatever it's called (I forget), no one traces the attack back to this community despite their use of 'Hummers' to travel back and forth on their attacks.

Worse, Amara never tries to escape despite being completely free to do so. She never attempts to report back to her people in the city and tell them what's going on, and we're given no good reason for this; yet we're expected to believe she's the best there is at what she does. She even participates in another attack on her own headquarters in which she takes part freely, and has no remorse about it! Her motivations do not work.

I didn't get the Hummers, either. The last Hummer rolled-off the production line in 2010. Are we to believe these gas-guzzling catastrophes were still hale and hearty almost a century later? That would be like driving the Ford Model T today as an everyday run-about rather than a classic car. It's too much of a stretch. Here's the thing: if everything that wasn't stone was razed to the ground, then so was all of the gas and oil infrastructure, so whence the gasoline that the Hummers run on? Where does it come from? Who processes it from oil - and where does the oil come from in the first place? How does this tiny community which kidnaps Amara, pay for itself? Hummers get only some ten miles or so to the gallon, maybe a little better at a relatively low speed on the highway, but not rumbling over rough terrain in a post-apocalyptic world, so they'd need a lot of gas, and it's like the gas magically appears from nowhere.

Maybe it does because there was another component of this story which was the magical abilities. Amara wasn't born. She was somehow created in a genetics lab, and endowed with special abilities. How magic was inbred into her is again unexplained, but what's worse is that she almost never uses her magical abilities, which are ill-defined to begin with. Maybe there are limitations on them, but we never know, since it's never specified what she can and cannot do. To judge from the endless times she seems unable to employ magic, it would seem that it's so limited and weak as to be pointless, so why include it at all? It doesn't help her fight dragons. It doesn't help her avoid being kidnapped, or to escape when she's briefly confined. It doesn't help her to solve any mystery she was faced with during her captivity in that first 20% of the novel. And she's supposed to be the best there is?

There's a weak love interest which, as usual in YA novels, has zero basis. We're offered no reason why Amara, genetically engineered so she isn't distracted from her dragon-slaying purpose by anything, including men, starts falling for this one guy. There's no reason for it. There could have been, if the story had had a little more depth. There could have been something about this guy which really resonated with Amara, but we're not given that or anything else to explain it, so the rationale wasn't there and the relationship is forced, as it is in nearly every YA story I've read.

At one point I read, "He had almost died in her arms, they were forever bonded from through experience and she couldn't leave without knowing he would be okay." In addition to being a run-on - and slightly nonsensical - sentence ("from through experience"?!), the problem here is that she barely knows this guy and has had her limited acquaintanceship with him for only a short time. There's no way she could realistically feel this way about him unless she's a moron, and especially not since she's genetically-programmed not to have such crushes!

The fact that she's genetically engineered is a problem in itself. Even today, we cannot genetically-engineer a healthy human let alone a super human, so how would this be possible in a post-apocalyptic world a mere eighty years into the future? How did such a devastated society manage to rebuild so quickly and get so far ahead of even where we are now? It makes no sense!

Maybe by now you can see my problem with this: the basic idea was great and the author has some real story-telling potential. I wish her all the best in her career, but no matter how good an idea is or how charming it starts out, if it keeps on racking-up one improbable assertion after another, as this one did, and if it fails to build a solid foundation, it's not going to win me over. This one faield to do that, and for the reasons I listed, I can't commend it as a worthy read.

Dolly Parton by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Daria Solak

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I've been following this series of biographies for a while and rarely does it take a misstep, so this was pretty much a guaranteed winner. Written by Vegara, and illustrated flamboyantly by Solak, this book takes a look at entertainer Dolly Parton's life. Parton has had 25 number ones on the Billboard Country Music chart, and just as many gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, as well as a record number of top ten country albums.

She started out young and dirt poor, and her voice and talent carried her to stardom, which she did not let slip from her grasp, converting her fame into long-term business ideas that kept her comfortable (and more!) even when her popularity wasn't always what it had been. This book aimed at young children tells of her life in simple and straight-forward terms, always moving the story forwards. It's short and sweet and I commend it as a worthy read.

Ella May Does It Her Way by Mick Jackson

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This young children's picture book was just wacky enough to appeal to my sense of the strangely amusing. Like me, she finds herself wondering from time to time why things happen in a certain way or why things are done this way instead of that way, and one day she decides to change it up by doing things backwards or opposite. It's not just a case of Ella May, but Ella does!

This comes to a head when she begins walking everywhere backwards, and her mother decides to join her, and soon the whole town is doing it. But does Ella May stop there? Nope! A well-written, colorful, and very entertaining exploration of one child's take on life. If your child is in a reading rut, this will get them out of it!

The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O'Neill

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I happily reviewed Katie O'Neill's The Tea Dragon Festival back in August of 2017, and while I felt this one did not quite match up to the high standard that one set (I really enjoyed that one!), I still think this is a worthy read. It expands on the original story and adds new folklore, and has some interesting new characters.

The author's artwork is of the same high standard as before, but the story felt to me a little bit more meandering. I should say up front that I'm not a fan of series because they tend to be little more than a retreading of the original story. Like retreaded tires, they're not worth the money, and are typically boring to me. This was not one of those sequels I was happy to see. It did have some more story to tell that was new and different.

As I said before, the tea dragon story book is everything that the overly-commercialized 'My Little Pony' garbage ought to have been, but failed so dismally to get there. The tea dragon stories do get there, and by a different and far more interesting route. The little dragons are renowned for the tea they produce through leaves which grow on their horns and antlers. Those leaves contain memories which the drinker can share, but they cannot grow without a true bond between the Tea Dragon and its care-giver. And no, you cannot buy that tea commercially!

Rinn, the protagonist here, grew up with tea dragons and is used to their being around and their habits and foibles, but in this outing she runs into a real dragon named Aedhan, who has been sleeping for a very long time. This enchanted sleep is a mystery that begs to be solved, and Rinn is up to the job! I commend this story as a fun and worthy read.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Confuchsia: An Early Bird's Tale by Alan J Paul

Rating: WARTY!

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

I couldn't get with this book at all and for a number of reasons. It's not accurate at all, and doesn't even try to be. Yes, it's aimed at young children, and no, it's not a science text book, nor should it be, but science education and understanding in the USA frankly sucks. It's consistently shown itself to be appalling and has fallen lately to where the combined math, science and reading scores in the US are way behind China, for example with whom a trade war is, as of this writing, in full swing, and even behind other places not renowned for their prowess, such as Estonia, Vietnam, Slovenia, Macau, and the Czech Republic, for example. Books like this are not to blame for those poor scores, but they sure don't lift a finger to help, and so are a part of the problem.

You can argue all you want that this is a children's book, not a science book, and it shouldn't be expected to teach children what they're obviously failing to learn in our underfunded schools, but the bare fact remains that it is just as easy to get facts right as to get them wrong, and you never hurt a child by telling the truth. On top of that, there was a strong religious element in this book which I didn't appreciate what with talk of a supreme being - which contributed nothing at all to the story and had no place in it, and with naming the characters after Confucius and Buddha! Why?!

The basic story is an old one of the 'ugly duckling' variety where a baby is born (in this case hatched) and doesn't fit in with the rest of the family - and so it's kicked out? This was the wrong approach to begin with. I hope no adopted child reads this. The child, Confuchsia, has to make her own way in the world very briefly, until she's rescued by a guy! Way to make a woman feel invalid until some guys saves her. The book buys right into the 'women are helpless playthings or property of men' garbage that women are still fighting, even in the west.

Confuchsia is obviously based on the fossil Confuciusornis, which contrary to this author's belief was not a bird and could not fly. Confuciusornis lived about 120 million years ago, and so would never have encountered a Brachiosaurus which lived thirty million years earlier, nor T rex, which lived sixty million years later, nor any velociraptor which also lived much later.

Obviously you don't want to spell out all these things in a children's book, or lecture them, but a modicum of research would have turned up a primitive bird such as Apsaravis which did live at the time of the velociraptors and T rex, and which could fly, along with Chiayusaurus which could have readily stood in for the brachiosaur. Also Confuciusornis was far from brightly-colored. It was a rather drab gray and brown color as far as science can determine. It took me five minutes to dig-up this information!

I'm sorry but this book could have done a lot better both in the factual parts of it and in how the story was told. As it was, it was passing on misinformation when it would have been just as easy to get it right and without even changing the arc of the story! I can't commend a book that so badly misinforms children and really doesn't tell that great of a story anyway.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Hide and Seek, Little Chameleon by Anita Bijsterbosch

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a fun children's book which is short and colorful with simple images for the young. In most images, a chameleon hides and you and your kid have to figure out where it is. The book also talks colors and offers counting opportunities, so it's quite educational too.

Some of the chameleon finds were not so obvious, so this is good training. My one fear was that if a child had some sort of color deficiency in their vision, they might not see the chameleon at all, but when I took a little screenshot of some pages (the part of the book where the chameleon was hiding) and tinkered with them to change the colors, removing red, or green, or blue, and when I desaturated the image turning it to grayscale, the chameleon was still discernible, so I guess it's good to go! The only one where it pretty much disappeared altogether, was where it was hiding on a page featuring a lion, so I can't blame it for that! LOL! Besides, you could still see the eye even on that page. I'm happy to call this a worthy read for young children and a fun exercise in hide and seek!

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was an awesome LGBTQIA graphic novel about a cross-dressing southern boy (or maybe a girl) who goes by the name of Grace, and actually has some, and a lesbian stage-coach robber who goes by Flor. I was not sure of her heritage. She's described as Latinx by some, but to me, she had an American Indian look to her from what I saw, so maybe she was a mix of both? Not that it's that important in the big picture of the story, which consists of Flor kidnapping Grace during her robbery of a stagecoach, and eventually entering into an alliance with the latter, to steal from a function being organized by some southern gentlemen of military mein.

All I will say about that is 'the best laid schemes o' mice an' men...' and you know how it goes (or you ought to! It involves gang, aft, and agley). This was a sweet, fun story, easy on the eye and the ear, and I commend it whole-heartedly. The rather sepia artwork gave an antique glow to the novel, and it was a fun romp all the way through. You can find Melanie Gillman at pigeonbits on tumblr and elsewhere online no doubt. Her artwork has a habit of getting around!

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This middle grade graphic novel is about a witch of color, with the curious and charming name of Moth Hush, of Founder's Bluff, Massachusetts, who is about to discover that her love of witchery isn't just a fad of hers! Eighth-grade bullies are what triggers her powers coming to the fore, and there's no looking back.

Yes, it's a bit trope-y that this takes place in Massachusetts. I'm a little tired of that, but I decided to let that slide since this novel had more going for it than your usual tedious trope 'Salem witches' rip-offs, which personally I find offensive on behalf of the innocent women who died because of blind religious hatred.

It turns out that Moth's home town has a history of witch-related activity, including a family of witch-hunters. Plus there is, as the blurb advises, a talking cat which some readers may find familiar (that was a joke - a little chortle in the cauldron!). There is also an enchanted diary, and a hidden realm - because you have to call these things a realm, right? Anything less simply will not do. But there is also conflict, a sort of tug-of-war between old and new, and Moth isn't the sort of person to back down and give up.

I liked the story and the art, although the character's noses seemed a bit weird, but I didn't worry about that. I enjoyed the story and the main character (I'm a complete softy for a strong female lead), and I commend it as a worthy read.

Don't Let the Beasties Escape This Book! by Julie Berry

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a fun children's book which takes its inspiration from the fantastical creatures people believed existed back in the dark ages and earlier: unicorns, basilisks, griffins and the like, and pretends they really do exist in mischievous (but harmless!) forms that can come out and really disrupt your daily chores if you're not careful. They might even help in a purely accidental way! The drawings are amazing and detailed, and the colors wonderful. The book was a delight. I commend it as a worthy read for children - and even adults too. Why not?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Only Woman in the Room by Beate Sirota Gordon

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a memoir written by a woman (Beate Sirota as she then was) who, through her extensive knowledge of Japan, having grown up there despite being born in Austria, and because she spoke several languages, including English, German, and Japanese, was part of the American delegation which went to Japan after World War Two, and helped draft the constitution, in her case, specifically a section on women's rights (which was largely gutted by the old white men unfortunately) before the final draft was presented to the Japanese so everyone could pretend the Japanese came up with this instead of the Americans.

The story is short and to the point, which I appreciated, but it contains enough detail to paint a vivid picture. It tells of her growing up on Japan, of her time in the USA during the war, working on translating intercepted Japanese military messages, of bigotry, bias, and racism, and of her return to Japan, not knowing if her parents, who were there during the war, were even still alive. Happily they were (and not even interned!), and the story of her involvement in post war planning and then moving back to the USA where she became heavily involved in trying to encourage cultural exchanges between the USA and Asian countries, was both moving and educational, as well as entertaining.

The author writes well and gives the right details without getting bogged-down in material that contributed nothing to both enjoying and learning from the story. I'm not a big fan of memoirs, but i commend this as a worthy read.

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

Rating: WARTY!

This is a short audiobook that I thought I would give a try. I am not much of a fan of Christie's writing, but I did enjoy the Hercule Poirot series on TV to the point where I even wrote a parody of Murder on the Orient Express. I have to really like something or really hate something to do a parody of it, and I'm not thinking of doing a Miss Marple parody, but I know nothing of those particular stories, so I decided to give this try since I found it on audiobook. My bad!

It's read by Joan Hickson, a Brit actor with whom I'm familiar (no, not that familiar!). She played the role of Miss Marple in a TV series of the same name (Marple, not Hickson!). There were twelve shows, and one of them was based on this particular novel. I may try to see that if I can get my hands on it, just out of curiosity, but this particular novel I found far too plodding and filled with too much extraneous detail to be entertaining. I think Hickson was the wrong choice too, because her voice, sorry to say, sounds a bit too mouth-filled-with-marbles for enjoyment. It reminded me of the voices the Monty Python crew used when they were impersonating women. I can see why the publisher hired her, but going the 'obvious' path isn't typically the best option and for me it didn't work well here.

Christie is the world's all-time best-selling author, even as of today, having sold some three billion books (that's not the same as saying almost half the planet's population have read her!), which ranks her behind only the Bible and Shakespeare, but I have to ask, if Christie had never lived, and some unknown writer today wrote her books and offered them for sale, would a publisher actually buy them or would that poor writer end up having to self-publish if they wanted to get anything out there?

Would these books sell even if they were picked up by a mainstream publisher? Would a publisher even pick up a typescript to read if its title was "4:40 from Paddington"?! I may be wrong of course, find it hard to believe that they would. Certainly not as well as they historically did. But guess what? Her books are now starting to come into the public domain, so who knows what new writers will do with them?

Anyway, this one, first published in 1957, has the interesting plot of a woman traveling on a train which happens to run in parallel for a short time, with another train traveling in the same direction. Through the windows, before the trains part company, the woman witnesses a man strangling a woman on the other train, and when she reports this to the train authorities (why them and not the police I have no idea) they dismiss her story, thinking she has dreamed it after reading a magazine story about someone who was strangled.

The woman is a friend of Miss Marple of course. I have a theory about this. People like this Marple and this Poirot (and far too many others) always seem to be around when murders are committed! It seems only logical to conclude that they somehow cause the murders. How else can you account for them being in such proximity to so many of them?

Anyway, when the woman reports this murder to Marple, she's believed, and the two of them then go to the police, where Maple knows the desk sergeant. They're taken more seriously, but when inquiries come up blank, Miss Marple recruits a small army of advisors to figure out where the body most likely was tossed from the train. She's working on the theory that this was a planned murder, the murderer throwing the body out at a convenient, but secluded location, and then afterwards coming back by car and picking it up to dispose of it.

The basic problem here is: why would he plan it on a train? If he could lure the victim onto a train ride with him, he could evidently lure her anywhere. The limp excuse given is that someone might see him with his victim and remember it if he tried the murder somewhere else, but this completely ignores the fact that everyone and their uncle would see him and this poor woman going onto the train together! So, not so well thought out.

What got to me though was the excessive detail which had nothing to do with the murder or the investigation: eating all the food at the table, clearing away the dishes, washing the dishes. Sorry, but no! There was too much of this, and the story felt perfunctory even with these details, like Christie wrote this as detailed notes, but never bothered to flesh them out before it was published. While the plot was a good starting point, the story itself felt poorly-written and was consequently unentertaining, and I gave up on it. Besides, everyone knows the Butler did it, right? Or the doctor.

The Body Snatchers by Robert Louis Stephenson

Rating: WARTY!

This was a very short story rooted no doubt in the true events of William Burke and William Hare, notorious for their not only laying their hands on dead bodies which they sold on for medical research, but also laying hands on a few of the living and changing their status so they could sell those bodies on too. Hare turned on Burke for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His skeleton lives on today in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School.

In this story, a man named Fettes, who works in a facility where bodies are made available to medical students for research, recognizes a body they have just bought as a woman he saw alive and well only the previous day. Naturally he becomes suspicious as to how this happened, but he's such a wuss that he does nothing about it, simply falling in line with his superiors regarding not asking questions as to where these corpses come from. This is actually realistic. People tend to be sheep-like rather than rock the boat even when skullduggery is involved.

The problem as that the story was very rigid and uninteresting. This isn't surprising given that it was written long ago, and in a way you have to expect this, but you also hope that the story will be interesting enough that it makes up for the antiquated story-telling style. In this case it did not, so no commendation from me for this one, only condemnation.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Rating: WARTY!

Time to look at some more audiobooks!

Emezi was born in Nigeria which is wealthy in oil, yet despite this, over 50 per cent of young people cannot find work and many cannot find food. Out of this came this author, and this is her debut novel which fortunately for me was read in English, not in Igbo, and it's read by the author, something of which I approve for an author who can do it. No one can give better voice to their words than the one who wrote them. Unfortunately, while getting off to a strong start, the novel went into a downward spiral in the second half and I ended up not able to commend it as a worthy read despite it being a really pleasant experience listening to the author's voice.

This novel is about Ada (the author pronounces it almost like the word 'adder' but with very little of the R on the end, and she's referred to most often as The Ada, because the story is narrated by the spirits which occupy this girl and have done so since before she was born in pretty much the same region of Nigeria as the author herself was. The blurb claims that Ada "becomes a troubled child, prone to violent fits of anger and grief", but there really is very little of this. She seems perfectly ordinary for the most part, although far from normal.

The blurb does get it right when it says that "a traumatic event crystallizes the selves into something more powerful." Ada has long known that whatever is in her is satiated by a blood sacrifice, which is why she occasionally cuts herself, but after she experiences something which is all too common and which sees little justice in the coed world of American higher education - a topic I touched on in my own novel, Bass Metal - one of the spirits takes over Ada's body and the original Ada fades into the background much more, although she isn't lost altogether.

What I found poor about this story was how human the gods were. In some parts of it the author goes out of her way to point out how unimportant human life is to them and how trivial it seems, yet the parts narrated by the god reveal them to be very human and petty and to focus on human needs and wants. There is nothing godly about them, and in Ada's case their interest revolves almost entirely around sexual gratification which I found rather pathetic. So while this started out interestingly, it quickly became repetitive and boring for me.

A conflict arises when Ada - the real Ada - falls for this guy that the female god Asughara does not approve of. She's not the only one onboard, although the others are really non-entities as far as the story is concerned. The only other one to really appear is Saint Vincent, but he's a bit player and not worht the writing in the end. So there's a conflict, but the god is really uninterested in doing anything about it and when things go badly simply says "I told you so" and that's pretty much that. The story rather fizzles out after that and I gave up on it. I can't commend it, although I'd be willing to listen to another story by this same author as long as she reads it!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Mermaid Upstairs by Jami Lilo

Rating: WARTY!

A Lilo when I was younger, was the brand name of an inflatable raft for floating around in a swimming pool or at the beach - a cheap plastic thing full of air that inevitably disintegrated before summer was over. That's why this author's name seemed so à propos to me since this novel seemed to be of the same construction.

The weak premise is that this girl's mom suddenly decides, apparently out of the blue, that she's a mermaid and bemoans her missing tail, etc. rather than get her the medical attention and meds she needs, daughter and husband sit home with her bewailing their fate and her fate and their inability to fix the problem, like a sorry bunch of professional mourners at a cheap funeral.

I couldn't stand to read any further than the first couple of chapters. If it had seemed like it had some life in it or some humor, or had seemed like it was going somewhere, I might have given it a better chance to impress me, but it just floated there full of nothing, not even sound and fury, trying to look inviting and shiny, but the air was escaping and the water was cold and it really wasn't remotely appealing at all.

Sector 7 Adventures - The Battle at Half Dome

Rating: WARTY!

This was a dumb-ass comic book that came with the Blu-Ray of the movie Bumblebee. I've always had mixed feelings about the Transformers so this was a good way to get into a discussion of the whole genre under the guise of reviewing a graphic novel - of more like a graphic pamphlet in this case. I used to review movies on this website as well as TV shows, but I ditched all of that to focus on books when it became more work than I had time to do.

The first Transformer movie that came out back in 2007 was, I thought, really good - amusing, realistic (for the genre) and entertaining. The military battles seemed quite authentic to me (but what do I know?!) - certainly better than in too many military action movies I've seen. After that though, the movies began to go downhill, and for me they have never recovered, not even with two reboots (2014's Age of Extinction and its sequel which fared badly, 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight which I never bothered seeing, and the aforesaid series 'reboot' Bumblebee movie of 2018).

My biggest problem is that I can't take the premise seriously which means I have a hard time taking the movies seriously. They're flawed from the start, and admittedly they began as a kid's franchise - toys and then cartoons, but when they moved into adult/young adult movies, they became fair game, I think for some serious reviewing. The biggest problem is the colonialist attitude of American writers and film-makers in that everything is always about the USA. In one regard, it's understandable because these things originated in the US, but this fiction that all of this presents - that everything and anything of importance must take place here is provincialism at best and bigotry and isolationism at worst, and since the US is taking that path right now politically, I just think it's a bad time to be championing such a thing in fiction - like there's ever a good time!

So this leads to a race of robots that speaks American English and which comes to Earth for no reason. Let's face it, they're robots! They may need resources, but they do not need a planet which can support carbon-based life and which has an oxygen atmosphere, so why come to Earth? The Autobots (why do they already have an English name?) are supposed to be benign, yet they brought their troubles here and now Earth is suffering. That's not the act of a benign race! The Decepticons (again and English word meaning, essentially, evil!) follow them. Admittedly there was a reason for this in the first place, but once that was gone, then why the hell would they care where the Autobots go or what they do once they've left the home world? Why would the earlier Transformers come here at all in Earth's past?

Why are the transformers exactly like humans emotionally, behaviorally, and socially? They display the same facial expressions, the same emotions, the same need to talk rather than simply transmit by radio or some other means? Why are all of them built to resemble machines or animals you find on Earth? Even their home planet, Cybertron, has an Earth name! None of this makes any sense at all. Why would they have eyebrows and eyelids, and lips? Yes, obviously it's to humanize them, but none of this makes any sense subjectively.

Why do their weapons do so little damage to each other? The transformers are made from precisely the same finite set of known elements that the rest of the universe is, so how is it they can sustain so much damage? Why are there no EMP weapons in their world? Why didn't the damage done to Megatron in the first movie actually finish him off for good? And why does every Transformer have an Earth name?! Clearly the flaws are endless and while I was willing to overlook his for the first movie, the more they tried to add to the mythology in subsequent outings, the more laughable it became to me and the less interested I was in watching further editions of what is essentially just anthropomorphized robots fighting each other and causing horrific destruction wherever they go.

The presumption that the American military could go into a Muslim country on a whim in the second movie was shameful. I can't believe there wasn't more outrage over it, because it's this colonialist attitude that we can go wherever we want and do whatever we want, and permission, treaties, agreements and accommodations be damned which pisses off people and makes them want to hit back with terrorist strikes.

As far as this particular graphic novel is concerned, it's a microcosm of the larger problems. It's meant to be a prequel to the Bumblebee movie. Bumblee, one of the least capable Autobots, is sent to Earth for no reason at all, and of course is discovered by Blitzwing, but rather than utterly destroy Bumblee, all Blitzwing does is disable him. Why? Because Bumblebee has to survive, not because it makes any logical sense!

So in short, no. I saw Bumblebee in the theater because I didn't have to pay for the ticket, otherwise I would have skipped it, and I really wouldn't have missed much, because now Transformers have come full circle, going from toys to movie icons and now Bumblebee had brought them right back to where they're nothing but toys again. I'm done with Transformers.

Betty and the Silver Spider by Craig Luebben, Jeremy Collins

Rating: WORTHY!

Amusingly, but carefully written by mountain guide Luebben and illustrated ably by artist Jeremy Collins, this graphic novel teaches important safety and technique for both new and expert climbers. Although the initials of the title spell BATSS, there's nothing bats about the story, as near-expert climber Betty attempts the top-level Silver Spider climb on the indoor 'rock face', and her partner, Moe is literally learning the ropes and when not to let go of them.

The book discusses equipment and technique, offering hints and tips for safer, better climbing, including belaying, bouldering, gym etiquette, leading, top-roping (you'll get it when you see it!), tying knots, and everything else you will need to know to have a fun, educational, and above all safe climb in your nearest rock climbing gym. I am not a climber, nor am I planning on becoming one, but even so I enjoyed it and learned a lot - who knows, maybe I'll write a novel about a climber one day, and if I do, I'll know just where to go to get the low-down on the high up. I commend this as a worthy read especially if you're into climbing.

Jackie Chan Adventures by Duane Capizzi, David Slack, Tomás Montalvo-Lagos

Rating: WARTY!

This was a small format graphic novel featuring two stories, "The Mask of El Toro Fuerte" by Capizzi, and "Enter...The Viper" by Slack. The artist in both cases was Tomás Montalvo-Lagos. The artwork wasn't bad, but the stories were really not particularly inventive or interesting, and worse, featured clichéd villains and uninteresting story lines. Why they're Jackie Chan adventures I have no idea because there's no kung-fu involved at all, not even vicariously. They were more like Indiana Jones adventures, but I guess Harrison Ford wasn't interested - either that or they couldn't afford to pay for the use of his name?

I dunno. The adventures were not the great. The first was about a magical lucha libre mask which gave extra strength to the wearer, and the other about some female thief which seems to have borrowed from a Doctor Who episode if I recall, but I really am trying not to! Admittedly these were written for a much younger audience than me, but even so they were pretty limp and despite being a fan of Jackie Chan, I can't commend this as a worthy read.

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

Rating: WARTY!

I think I'm done with Kate Mosse at this point! I liked the first one I read by her, but the next one and now this one, I did not like. I am not a fan of novels which have their title in the form: 'The ______'s Daughter' or ' The ______'s Wife' because it reduces the main character to an appendage of a man. I think that's an awful way to start a novel or to describe a person especially if she's female.

I barely got into this one because it was so filled with rambling and bouncing around between characters that I simply could not get with it at all. I decided to skip to the part where the body is found in the hope that it would pick up there, but it did not. The body is found in a creek, and it's found by the title character, whose actual name is Constantia Gifford, but rather than call for the police, the idiot gets someone to get the body out of the water. He's also an idiot because he doesn't call the police either. He drags the body out thereby destroying any evidence that might be connected with it as it lay in the water - face down and obviously a corpse.

I know that there are idiots out there, but I don't have to read about them! It wouldn't have been so bad had there been some sort of discussion about destroying evidence, and there arose some reason for why they acted as they did - like the body was in danger of being washed away, or despite being advised to leave it where it was for the police, some jackass went in there and fished it out anyway, but there never was any such thing. In short, it's bad writing. I don't do novels about stupid people, especially not about stupid female main characters, and I certainly am not interested in reading poorly-written one which is so larded with exposition you could fry dry bread in it, and no action, so that was it for me. Based on what I read, I cannot commend this and will not be reading anything more by this author - not when there are so many authors out there and so little time to find interesting new ones!

Genius by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, Afua Richardson

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a graphic novel that took a trip into a reverse perspective after a fashion. Instead of black people being shot by the police, it was the other way around when a neighborhood in Los Angeles sets itself up as a no-go area for police, and fights violently back at any attempted incursions. The police are trying to figure out who is running this show and consider that it has to be a guy with a military background, when in fact it's just a teenage girl named Destiny Ajaye, who happens to have read a lot, including Sun Tzu's The Art of War. I haven't read that book (it is on my ebook reading list!), but I somehow doubt it has much to say about urban guerilla warfare.

However, I let that go because the story itself has much to say and it unpeels like an onion. It was engaging and had some interesting perspectives, although none that have not been raised before. The initial cops who were killed, it turns out were corrupt and into all kinds of shady things, and the girl who leads the insurrection has a bad episode of negative police interaction in her past. As the violence escalates and ever more force is brought to bear by the police, including calling in the National Guard, the reader has to wonder where all this is going to end up. Destiny has, through violent means, united several gangs and turned them into her own personal army, but are they up to taking on what's thrown against then or is this Destiny's Last Stand?

This comic series garnered some praise for itself and some attention having been released coincidentally during the time of the Ferguson, Missouri riots over the shooting death of Michael Brown which was stirred up by a combination of inaccurate reports of how he died and bloody-minded people. I consider it a worthy if disturbing read, but I can't get with it all the way because there was too much convenient happenstance in it for it to be realistic, and too much omitted, such as taking out several Nation Guard tanks by using sticky bombs as depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan but without access to the anything like the comp B explosive they had.

The LAPD didn't use drones back in 2014, so I didn't expect that technology, but rooftop spotters? Taking out snipers from helicopters? None of this was explored and the police were made to look like complete idiots, which any police can do from time to time without any assistance, but they are not quite the reactive bunch of human 'drones' or ku klux klueless that they were depicted as here, which rather took away from Destiny's value as a master strategist.

That wasn't my biggest beef though. The biggest problem with it was once again the sexualization of female characters by comic book artists. Usually this lands at the feet of male artists, but in this case, we have another female artist who is selling her gender down this flood-stage river and I have no idea why. There was no sex in this story at all, so why is Destiny depicted as a this unnaturally posing, semi-topless Barbie-doll shaped bimbo? I would have complained - maybe even equally - had she been depicted as this bookish eyeglass-wearing nerd cliché too, or even as a Ian Fleming style 'flawed babe' with a scar or a limp or something, but surely there is a happy medium that could have been struck here? Why not simply depict her as a regular person?

Giving her an improbably narrow waist and pneumatic boobs does nothing to aid the story you're telling and in fact detracts from it badly. I live for the day when graphic novel illustrators don't have to be lectured about this and where male writers such as Bernardin and Freeman, and publishers such as Top Cow and Image automatically say no to such illustrations unless there's a really valid reason for using them.

That said, this is an interesting story so I decided to let that slide this time since it was only Destiny who was inexplicably depicted in this way. What this does mean however, is that I don't rate Afua Richardson as a valid comic book artist and I won't be inclined to read any graphic novel that she's had a hand in from this point onward, so no, I won't read the sequel to this: Genius: Cartel, not least of which is that I'm not a fan of retreading stories and selling them on as something new just to make a fast buck. It's bad enough that a $26 billion-earnings conglomerate like Disney is showing these days that all it can do is regurgitate without the rest of us jumping on its sadly derivative bandwagon.

Ironheart by Allan Boroughs

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a dystopian story which I normally avoid like the plague, but his one seemed like it might offer something different, and it did, so I was glad I gave it a chance.

India Bentley lives in what used to be London, on the north bank of the Thames, seeking a sad existence for her family by foraging and trying to avoid the evil people who live on the south bank, and who like to boat across there on occasion and kidnap people. Naturally for this kind of a story, her father went missing and her mother died, leaving her in the clutches of her evil stepmother who seems to be in process of being courted by a sleazy new guy in town who, it turns out, is angling to make young India his bride. So it's a bit of Indiana Jones meets Cinderella meets steampunk (kinda).

It turns out, as India learns during a visit from a female version of Indiana Jones named Verity Brown, who is a tech hunter like her father and who becomes a figure of inspiration fro India, that her dad wasn't prospecting for oil, but for old technology from the time before the fall of civilization. He was seeking the almost mythical Ironheart, a rumored stash of well-preserved old tech which would be worth a fortunate to anyone who found it and which could potentially revolutionize what this society had devolved into.

Verity is escorted by an old tech military android which has the absurd name of Calculus and which serves as her bodyguard. This led to the first example of poor writing I saw in this novel. India meets the android and hears it speak and shortly after she asks, "Can it talk?" What? Yes, you just heard it talk, moron! This evidently came about because the author didn't read back through what he'd written - or more likely added the earlier speech and never read on through to catch the continuity error.

Worse is: "He tensed a thin bicep and invited India to squeeze it." I read this before I decided in a later story that I was very likely going to quit reading novels where the author quite obviously has no clue as to the difference between biceps and bicep. They're not the same thing and while biceps is the plural of bicep, it's not the plural in the way these authors seem to think. I've started to expect this ignorance in YA novels, though, so it wasn't a complete surprise. Just annoying and depressing to think what we're doing to our mother tongue. Another example is: "It is possible," he said eventually, "that you are experiencing some sort of psychic phenomena." Well, it was just the one, so 'phenomenon' was the word required here.

This aside, the story, despite it becoming a bit trope-y and boring in parts, was overall a worthy read with some interesting adventure and action in it, and I enjoyed it, but it was not enjoyable enough to make me want to read any more about any of these characters. As it stands though I commend this one as a worthy read.

Fierce Winds and Fiery Dragons by Nan Sweet

Rating: WARTY!

This was a middle-grade novel and unfortunately part of a series, but I wasn't going to hold that against it until I came across too many tropes in a row: the bullied girl who is granted magical powers; the cute girl who thinks she's ugly, and worst of all, something I expect to read in a bad YA novel, but not in a middle grade one: the character who has gold flecks in her eyes! I am not, kidding! You could make a fortune mining all that gold in YA characters' eyes. Anyway, based purely on that in the first few pages of the novel, I quit it and moved on. I cannot commend trope-laden, derivative, unoriginal nonsense as a worthy read, and this was all that and a bag of chips.