Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

Rating: WARTY!

Read okay if sometimes annoyingly by Charlie Thurston, this audiobook novel started out with an interesting premise, but got lost somewhere along the way and by about two-thirds the way through it, the author had lost me as a supporter by having the story ramble way too much. The blurb describes this debut novel as "clever and witty" but it's neither. And there's no "sharp-witted satire." In the end, what there was, was boredom and I DNF'd it. The writer is a comic book writer, but the novel doesn't read like a comic book; it reads more like a menu. A disjointed, rambling menu advertising yesterday's leftovers.

The premise is that a musician with the bizarre name of Will Dando (have prophecies, will dando?!) gets these predictions spoken to him in his sleep; over a hundred of them. With the usual computer geek friend, he sets up an anonymous website where be begins posting the predictions. The website is unimaginatively referred to as 'The Site' and the predictor is unimaginatively known as 'The Oracle'. There is a predictably ruthless jackass working for the government who wants to track him down and who hires a predictably tame on the surface, but dangerous underneath, older woman known as 'The Coach' to do the dirty. There is a predictably pissed-off religious leader with a predictably Biblical name who also wants him.

The predictions seems random, and will dandos around aimlessly, not knowing what to do with them except post them in batches on his website, but instead of posting them all and then severing all ties to the website, Will dandos on and on stupidly and gets tracked down, of course, because he's a moron. Monkey see, will dando. Yet despite being a whiny-assed moron, he has a "beautiful journalist" fall for him. Why it's important that she's beautiful according to the book blurb, is a mystery, except that only beautiful counts for anything in these novels, doesn't it? A smart woman doesn't work for this kind of story, neither does a capable one or one with loyalty, grit, determination, bravery, integrity, humor, or whatever. No, the only important thing to the misogynist of a book blurb writer is that she's beautiful because in his world, women have no other value, obviously.

Eventually even dandoing around as he does, Will figures out there's something going on here because the predictions, when combined and in hindsight, seemed aimed at orchestrating something. He's just too dumb to figure out what it is, and I simply didn't care what it was. I can't commend this.

Red Dove by Sonia Antaki

Rating: WARTY!

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

Not to be confused with The Red Dove by Gerry Hillier or The Red Dove by Derek Lambert, this Red Dove (illustrated by Andrew Bosley and subtitled "Listen to the Wind") tells the story of a young Lakota Sioux girl named Red Dove, who lives on a reservation in the Dakota Territory in the early 1890s. She is a child of a white Irish father and an American Indian mother. The blurb tells us that food is scarce, yet the opening few paragraphs detail a hunting trip during which the girl and her half-brother Walks Alone are looking at a whole posse of turkeys, one of which Red Dove brings down with an arrow even though women are not supposed to hunt so we're told.

One issue I had with this book was that it is supposed to be about a strong female of the Lakota Sioux, but if felt like an ordinary story, and there were no references anywhere to any other Sioux women except for the main character's mother. There have been scores of strong American Indian women, including tribal leaders, who lived around or before the time this story takes place, yet we hear of none of them. For example, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where Custer led a bunch of the Seventh cavalry foolishly to their deaths, is mentioned in this story more than once, yet none of the female Lakota who fought in t hat battle get a mention, and there were at least three of them: Minnie Hollow Wood, Moving Robe Woman (a Hunkpapa Sioux who is credited in some accounts with dispatching Custer), or One Who Walks With the Stars (an Oglala Sioux woman). The leader known in the west as 'Crazy Horse' is mentioned, but his wife, Black Shawl, never gets a word. It's like, despite this novel being about a Sioux woman, Indian women are excluded from the story. It made no sense to me.

Note that Lakota women were not the only ones who fought in battles. There were other American Indian women of other tribes who also fought at Little Bighorn or elsewhere. These women were not shrinking violets. They were tough and self sufficient, and very strong. Names that come to mind are Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Cheyenne woman whose rescue of her brother at the Battle of the Rosebud was instrumental in turning the tide in the Indian's favor. She also fought alongside her husband at Little Bighorn, and is credited with knocking Custer from his horse. Pretty Nose was a female Arapaho war chief who fought at Little Bighorn.

So anyway, there clearly was no scarcity of food if there are so many turkeys to be had, but these two kids are nevertheless sent off with strangers to a Catholic missionary school where they're treated brutally. Now I get that American Indians have been - and in far too many cases still are - treated appallingly, but the problem I had with this book is that it's relentless in its brutality, with no leavening whatsoever, and it's also unrealistic. It's unrealistic in that this girl was of an age which back then would have been considered 'ripe for the plucking' by the unscrupulous and brutal white men with whom she comes into contact, yet she is never once sexually assaulted or even threatened by it.

Naturally you don't want those horrific details in a middle-grade book, but to not even hint at what a precarious position a girl like her would have been in seemed inauthentic to me when other forms of violence against her were depicted without reserve. The fact is that (according to a 2010 Department of Justice study) over four out of five American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, over half have experienced sexual violence and of those, almost all of them experienced it at the hands of a non-tribal member.

The truth is that Native Americans are more than twice as likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group in the United States, and this is today in our supposedly more enlightened times. To avoid this topic in a book set back when there were neither rules nor any sort of moral compass to enlighten and dissuade men from abusing American Indians is a grave failure to face the facts. It's disingenuous and the Sioux women deserve better. The author isn't native American, and while I don't consider that a disqualification by any means, I have to wonder if she perhaps she did not think this idea properly through.

The novel seemed to drag for me, made worse by the never-ending brutality, and while Red Dove is shown as escaping at one point from the Catholic school she fails to get very far before being captured. After that, she suffers the 'white savior' trope in which a white kid helps her out, so she's not really demonstrating "that her greatest power comes from within herself" as the blurb promises.

I think her agency is further diluted by the introduction of a ridiculous level of the supernatural. For me this cheapened Red Dove's story considerably, and made her look like she was mentally unstable. I think a novel without the supernatural, where the girl was shown to have delivered herself from evil as it were, but without need for spirits, and men, including her grandfather, telling her what to do, would have made for a much stronger story. The book also mentions conscription at one point in the narrative, but there was no such thing between the end of the civil war and the start of World War One in the USA to my knowledge.

This book was evidently designed as a print book with no thought given to the ebook version, so the use of drop caps, which I personally do not like, managed to screw-up the layout of the book after it went through Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process which will mangle your book if it's anything more ambitious than plain vanilla. On more than one occasion, the drop-cap was removed from the start of the first sentence in a chapter and deposited at the start of the second line, so at one point, for example, I read, “he sun sank low behind the hills, the air carried a chill, Tand the sky shimmered from gold to pink.” Here you can see that the 'T' that should gave begun the sentence is appended instead to another word that presumably started the next line in the print version. That line, beginning with ‘Tand’ was a half line below the rest of the text as well.

Many parts of the novel seemed like they had hard 'carriage returns' built into the text, so while some screens had the text run from one side to other as is normal, other screens had the text ending mid-screen and dropping to the next line. It made for a scrappy-looking book and both author and publisher need to take responsibility for checking these things. I personally refuse to publish with Amazon, but if you're going to do that, you need to watch them like a hawk because they will ruin your book's layout if they're not watched like a hawk, as this example proved handsomely in its ugliness.

So all these things together made for a very unsatisfying read for me, and shortly after the white savior came riding to the rescue, I gave up on it. That was around eighty percent, when Red Dove began having out of the body experiences. Sorry but this as not for me and while I wish the author all the best in her career, I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

The Complete Food Substitutions Handbook by Jean B MacLeod

Rating: WORTHY!

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

If Jean B MacLeod who can stand against her?! I was interested in this book, but having looked at it, I confess that I'm wasn't sure how to review it. The problem isn't that there is anything wrong with it, it's that the book is quite literally what the title says. It is the complete book of food substitutions! It is an alphabetized list of a huge number of food items, many of which I have never heard of, with alternative items that you can replace them with in recipes, if you don't have the original or if you want to change it out for whatever reason. The book covers the globe with entries from literally every continent except Antarctica, which admittedly isn't known for its vegetable or meat products!

So without tasting a significant sampling of the recipes, all I can say is that the author has done some serious work here, and that from the substitutions I recognize, it looks like they will work just fine. That's not to say a substitution is always meant as an exact replacement. Sometimes the substitution is so close to the original that it's an obvious replacement and shouldn't really affect anything, but other times the replacement food is different or even quite different, so the aim is more to replace the texture or effect of adding this particular ingredient rather than replace the taste. The thing is that this book gives you choices so you can maybe find a cheaper ingredient, or one you're not allergic to, or one that fits your dietary requirements. The choice is yours! And that's the point! Most items have several options, so you can readily play with them to find something you will like.

Once again, I think the book was designed as a print book because there is very little use made of electronic linking. It's in alphabetized sections, so you can tap the letter in the contents and go to the start of that particular letter's entries, and you can tap from that same letter header for any section to return to the contents page, but one thing I noticed is that quite a number of items in the list will say something like BITTER ALMOND OIL See OIL OF BITTER ALMONDS, and there is no link to tap to go there. That would have been a nice feature.

Given that people sometimes put fake entries into lists like this so they can prove it if someone copied their list, I half wondered if, under 'FIG LEAVES' it might say, 'See LOIN CLOTHS', but it didn't! I was a little disappointed in that, but fig leaves are a legitimate food item here, so that would have meant missing an entry and thereby making the book rather less complete! So I understand, really I do! Maybe the author has an even more sneaky one hidden away somewhere else!

But overall, I liked this book, and I commend it as a complete food substitutions guide.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Missing Barbegazi by HS Norup

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Helle Sidelmann Norup is Danish by birth and it shows in this work which would have been handled differently by am American author (assuming one had even thought to write this). The story is original, to begin with and not derived from some long line of stories rooted in a tired old fairy-tale, like so many US middle-grade authors do, but more than that, it's realistic and inventive, playful and fun, and tells an engaging and interesting story.

It's fiction, of course, but it would be so easy to believe something like this could happen or even has happened. Not being American, the author felt no compulsion whatsoever to set this in the USA, which an unfortunately large number of US authors seem to think is the only place in the world where anything worth writing about can take place. With an attitude like that pervading our literature, it was no surprise to me at all that we finally elected a president who is xenophobic and seems to think there's nowhere else on this planet other than the USA that merits any attention at all. Believe me, this book is a breath of fresh air in middle-grade writing.

Barbegazi are beings from the folklore of the French and the Swiss. The odd name comes from the French barbe-glacée, which literally means 'frozen beard'. Tessa - the main character in this story - grew up hearing of the barbegazi from her grandfather, who has recently died. Her grandmother isn't taking it well. Tessa feels that if she can locate a barbegazi, and prove - at least to herself and her grandmother - that her discredited grandfather wasn't deranged, it will help her grandmother to recover.

Well, guess what? She does find one! She finds a whole family of them and the family has a problem. Tessa is only too happy to help them out, but the problem is: barbegazi don't trust humans! Tessa will need to learn and grow, and take on her shoulders some adult values and traits. And she's equal to it!

She knows a lot about the barbegazi from her grandfather, but when she needs to know more, she reads the notes her grandfather left. Oh my - a girl who is shown to be intelligent by her actions, not from the fact that a lazy author simply told us she reads books! What a pleasant novelty! This is how you write a story about a smart young girl! You don't say she reads books, you show her studying a book to find answers! This author gets it. Far too many authors I've read do not.

I liked this story from the start, and though I'm far from middle-grade, it maintained my interest throughout. It was original, realistic, thoughtful, and fun. Tessa was shown authentically: not perfect, not a genius, not a dope, not cowardly, not super-powered, not squeamish or squeal-ish - just an ordinary girl who has a few things to prove not for herself, but to help others. This author nailed it completely, and I'm happy to commend this as a worthy read and a fun novel. It's one of the best I've read this year so far, middle-grade or otherwise!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Doc's Mobile Clinic by Marcy Kelman

Rating: WORTHY!

Based on a TV show created by Chris Nee, and illustrated by the so-called 'Character Building Studio' which appears to make heavy use of computer-generated imagery, this book actually wasn't half bad as it happens. It's also from Disney (although the show was produced by Brown Bag Films, it was shown on the Disney Channel and Disney Junior). The book was even mildly amusing.

Doc McStuffins likes to take care of injured toys and now she has a mobile clinic which hooks on the back of her bike, she can travel to where the injured toys are and fix them up, which is exactly what she does. This book depicts a kid of kolor who is actively pursuing her own goals and not afraid to wield the tools she needs to do it (and that's not a metaphor!). She's a self-starter and definitely not a princess, and she deserves some recognition as a much better and more realistic character than some of the whitewashed and flimsy female abuse that Disney has served up over the years and doesn't seem like it's going to give up on any time soon!

Perhaps this character only grew to be what she is because she didn't originate in Disney studios? Anyway, I commend it as a fun and worthy read and I hope Disney learns something from it.

Enchanted Moments by the Disney Product Marketing Team

Rating: WARTY!

This seemed to me to be a cynical offering from Disney. I have mixed feelings about this mega-corporation. They're way too big for one thing. Worse than that, they insist on churning out Star Bores movies that are so derivative as to be pathetic, and turned me permanently off the whole space opera.

But I do like what their Marvel unit puts out. The problem with Marvel is the same as it is with the 'princess' movies: it's all about the guys even though those princess movies superficially appear to be dedicated to their respective princesses! Most of the time, the stage is occupied by the male characters at least as far as speaking roles go. Apparently the princesses have little to contribute according to Disney. This weekend Marvel makes a major move to redress its deficit. What's its parent going to do?

This book, however, was just too much. It's nothing more than an advertisement for their Disney princess product line which is a part of the three billion dollar Disney product marketing machine. I have zero respect for the princesses despite Disney's limp efforts to retcon these girls into feminine powerhouses.

These days, if not always, Disney is all about retconning, taking public domain properties and turning them into movies and products, and then incestuously and endlessly feeding off of those same products by nothing more inventive or imaginative than repackaging. There's no originality here at all. Just how many times have they remade Cinderella? And now it seems they're embarking on a massive remake of everything. The only fresh thing they've had for years is Frozen, which I had a sneak preview of and enjoyed, but now they're essentially remaking that by adding a limp sequel.

This particular book consists of five thick cardboard pages, each starring a 'princess':

  • Cinderella, not really a princess, but certainly the girl with the smallest shoe size on the planet, yet whose movie stands alone in the Disney canon by actually giving her close parity with the male characters in terms of exposure, but the truth is that Cinderella really did nothing for herself. She had it all handed to her by her fairy godmother and her animal slaves.
  • Ariel was disobedient from the start, putting herself first and foremost in everything, and completely disregarding her father and the rest of her family in pursuit of her own selfish ambition.
  • Belle's actual name was Beauty in the original (contrary to Lady Gaga's dilemma, early Disney movies were all about the Shallow). Again, she wasn't a princess, and she curiously seemed to favor the beast in his animal form, but her worst trait is that she despises everyone else in her village!
  • Snow White was demoted from princess by the queen, and I've heard that she was Hitler's favorite Disney character. Perhaps the limpest of all princesses, she needed not one guy, but seven to validate her. And all she had ambition to do was clean house.
  • Aurora slept (and didn't even walk) her way through life until some dude kissed her without her permission - which admittedly would have been hard to give. She has the least to say of any major Disney character.

I find none of these inspiring and cannot rate this as a worthy read. It's really just a marketing tool

The Looking Book by PK Hallinan

Rating: WORTHY!

I loved this book. It's a great idea especially if, like the somewhat beleaguered, but upbeat woman in the story, you have kids who are glued to the video screen whenever they get a chance. It encourages them to get to the other side of the screen - the screen door that is! - and enjoy the great outdoors.

Mom hands the kids a pair of eyeglasses each, but there are no lenses in them! She advises the kids to put them on, and to go outside to see what they can see through these special 'glasses'. It turns out that the kids notice more wearing them than they're used to seeing - especially on the highly restricted and biased canvas of a video screen! It also turns out that they learn they can see just as much even without the glasses, so their whole world opens up. I think the story is a great and inventive idea to encourage kids to pay attention to the world around them and get away from the idiot box for a while. I commend it.

Me by Tony Bradman, Bill Brandon

Rating: WORTHY!

In the Care Bears Big Wish Movie, there;s a scene where Me Bear accidentally catches sight of herself in a mirror and exclaims in surprise, "Oh! Me!" which fro me, watching this with my kids years ago, was the funniest thing in the whole movie and made having to sit through the rest of it worthwhile! Maybe that's why this book title caught my eye (don't worry, there was no injury - I still have my sight!).

There's an interesting juxtaposition of last names between the author (Bradman) and the illustrator (Brandon) here! The book itself was very short and simple, and aimed at lending some identity to young children who may have been befuddled one time too many by peoples' tendency to tell them they have their mother's eyes, and their father's ears and this that and the other thing.

If all her parts 'belong' to someone else, then who exactly is she? It's a good question, and this book has her decide that she's not anyone, but herself, which is the only valid and rational conclusion! I think this might be a good read for kids who have been told one too many times that they're made up of bits of other people! I commend it.

Eloise and the Very Secret Room by Ellen Weiss, Tammie Lyon

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fun book based on Kay Thompson's 'Eloise' stories. I've never read any of those, but I have an audiobook on reserve from the library. There were only five original books, one of which was published posthumously. They were originally illustrated by Hilary Knight. I did see a movie based loosely on them some time ago which was entertaining. I think it was titled Eloise at the Plaza. Thomson, who was born Catherine Louise Fink in 1909 died two decades ago, but her legacy evidently lives on.

The very secret room turns out to be the hotel's lost and found closet, and there is so much stuff in there that Eloise can spend all day hidden there playing games and dress-up using the various items she discovers in the closet. She's inventive and playful and has a good time, and so will any kid who reads this - or who has it read to them. I commend it as a fun book, with nicely rambling illustrations by Lyon.

Mike & Spike by Diane Namm, June Goldsborough

Rating: WORTHY!

Mike and Spike are magpies and this story is about a race to migrate south for the winter. The problem is that magpies really don't migrate, so I'm not sure where the authors got that idea from. That aside, the story was fun and nicely-illustrated by Goldsborough. It's a bit like the tortoise and the hare, but there's a fun twist at the end.

One of the birds is a dedicated flyer, taking off with his little backpack and heading south, whereas the other is a bit lazy and wants to find the easy way, so we get to see a variety of vehicles (cars, trains, a fire truck), as he tries to cheat his way there by hitching a ride, but of course none of these vehicles are going the distance. He also naps and lollygags, and gets there last, but he doesn't know his friend also cheated - and was smarter about it!

Safari Babies by Lisa McClatchy, Cindy Kiernicki

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a sweet book for young kids talking about African animals (mostly mammals as usual - you won't find a crocodile here, but you will find an ostrich) and their young. It's brief, colorful, and informative, and covers a variety of critters starting with Lions and zebras, and going on through elephants, gazelles, hippos, meerkats, warthogs, and so on - the usual suspects. A bit more variety would have been nice. Some emphasis on threatened species would have been good (some of the species here are vulnerable or threatened, but there was nothing said on that topic). Overall, this isn't bad for kids to learn a bit about the world, so I commend it as a worthy ready for young kids.

The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins

Rating: WORTHY!

This was an amusing and nicely illustrated story that's really about math. Or is it really about sharing a plate of cookies? Anyway, it's really about generosity of spirit.

One or two kids are sitting down to enjoy a large plate of cookies, but that doorbell rings. More kids come in, and each time they divide up the cookies, the doorbell rings again. Finally they're down to one cookie each when that pesky doorbell rings again! Are they going to have to divide the individual cookies into pieces? Or maybe some good Samaritan will help them out?

This was a fun story about interruptions, good nature, and sharing, and I commend it as a worthy and educational read for kids.

Jamaica's Find by Juanita Havill, Anne Sibley O'Brien

Rating: WORTHY!

Jamaica (who may actually be from Jamaica for all I know!) is a young girl who likes to ride her bike and ride the swing in the park when there are few other kids around and no one is crowding to use the swings. This one afternoon on her way home she does just this, and discovers a couple of things that got left at the park. She returns one of them to the lost and found, but the little plush dog, which has seen better years, she takes home.

Then she feels guilty about it, and the next morning she hands it in to lost and found as well. Returning to the park she meets another little girl and on befriending her, learns that this girl lost something at the park the day before! I wonder what it could be? It's a perfect friendship. I enjoyed this story about honesty, integrity, and friendship, and I think it's perfect for young kids.

Deputy Dan and the Bank Robbers by Joseph Rosenbloom, Tim Raglan

Rating: WORTHY!

I can feel a bunch of children's book reviews coming on, and there aren't many more amusing ones to start it off with than this one. I rather suspect that the author had more fun writing this one than any kid will reading it, but it amused me at any rate. Some would argue that's easily done....

Deputy Dan is new to the job and unfortunately, he's rather a literal kind of guy. You tell him to answer the door and he'll go say "Hello" to it. You tell him to cover the door, and he'll fetch a blanket and hang it over the door. But when it comes down to finding criminals like the scrambled egg gang, he's willing to go to no lengths to catch them, and he doesn't! You tell him they're dirty crooks and he'll make 'em take a bath!

This was amusingly illustrated by Tim Raglan and even more amusingly written by Joseph Rosenbloom. My kids are too old for this now (or maybe not!), but they would have loved it when they were younger. I commend it as a fun read.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, EG Keller

Rating: WORTHY!

Written amusingly by Jill Twiss, and illustrated beautifully by EG Keller, this fictional account of a gay bunny is 'presented by Last Week Tonight by John Oliver'. How he got involved I do not know. I'm not a fan of his show; it's a little pedantic, tedious, obvious, and over the top for my taste, but that's really not relevant to the content of the book.

Marlon Bundo is a rabbit owned by the evidently homophobic vice president's family, and one day he's out and about, as rabbits will be, when he encounters another male bunny with whom he forms an instant friendship. The two hop and skip, and run around and decide they enjoy each other so much that they want to get married, but the stinkbug is thoroughly against it. Fortuantely he's an elected official and the one thing you can do with them (other than ridicule them) is vote them out of office, so all ends well.

In an era where hatred, biogtry, and all manner of genderist phobias are all-but given the official stamp of approval by the two highest elected officials in the country, we desperately need books like this. I commend it thoroughly.

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner

Rating: WARTY!

I didn't like this at all. I got interested in it because it sounds like the kind of thing I might write, but the story changes were such obvious ones that it didn't feel inventive or ambitious at all, and so after reading a couple of pages of the first one, I started skimming others and after two or three of those, and seeing that they were much the same, I was done with this book. Maybe it will amuse you more than it did me. The three little pigs was mildly amusing, but I couldn't rouse much interest in it, and none at all in any of the other stories. I can't commend it based on what I saw of it.

The stories the author covers are as follows FYI. The book is only a very short book so each story is really short:

  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • The Emperor's New Clothes
  • The Three Little Pigs
  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • The Three Codependent Goats Gruff
  • Rapunzel
  • Cinderella
  • Goldilocks
  • Snow White
  • Chicken Little
  • The Frog Prince
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Tidewater by Libbie Hawker

Rating: WARTY!

You know I should just swear off any novel about Jamestown which features the name Pocahontas on the cover. Even though that was not strictly speaking, her name, but a descriptive term, the author uses this name exclusively for the main character (at least in the part I listened to which honestly wasn't very much).

The American Indians speak in modern English idiom, and while I certainly didn't expect that their words would have been spoken in their own language in this audiobook, I thought some effort might have been made to render their exchanges a little more authentically. It felt so fake.

On top of that, The Pocahontas, who was well-known amongst her own people, was refused entrance to a meeting to which she had been instructed to bring food by her father. The guards on the door didn't recognize her? There were guards on the door? It felt so completely unrealistic that I couldn't hear it. It felt like the author had no clue whatsoever as to how these people lived back then, and simply translated everything into modern western European terms and was happy with what she'd done. The truly disturbing thing is that believe it or not, this wasn't the worst part of it for me!

The story was narrated by three people, and the woman who narrated the Powhatan portions was Angela Dawe, an actor who isn't native American and whose voice was one of the most harsh and strident I have ever heard. It was quite literally painful on my ears. I began listening to this on the drive home from the library after I picked it up. That drive is very short, but even so, I couldn't stand to listen to her voice for the entire journey home. I turned it off and almost looped the car around to return the book that same afternoon! LOL. It was awful. The voice was completely wrong in every measure. It was hard to listen to because of the tone, and cadence and pacing. Every single thing was off about it, and it made my stomach turn to listen to it.

So based on an admittedly tiny portion of this, I can't commend it.

The Affliction by Beth Gutcheon

Rating: WARTY!

This audiobooks started out well enough, but it moved so slowly that I was truly tired of it by the time I was about forty percent the way through it. I gave up on it shortly after that. The narration by Hillary Huber wasn't bad, it was just a poor story.

It's apparently part of a series, but once again the publisher has failed to identify this on the cover. What are they afraid of? All it said was that it was by the author of Death at Breakfast a singularly uninspiring title which it turns out is the first in the series. This is the second, but it can be read as a standalone if you don't mind occasional references to a prior history between the two main protagonists, Maggie Detweiler and Hope Babbin.

Maggie is a retired school principal. How that qualifies her to solve murders is more of a mystery than the murder mystery itself is. Hope Babbin is a bon viveur as far as I can tell - wealthy and no clue what to do with herself. She's happy, in this story, to abandon her book club, which begs the question as to why she's in it in the first place. Maybe it's lazy author shorthand for her being smart? It doesn't work. It never does.

Maggie is supposed to be part of an assessment group that's inspecting a private and formerly elite, but now down-at-heel, girls school which is under threat of closure. None of this has anything to do with the murder, but it gets Maggie in the door. When one of the teachers is found in the swimming pool - on the bottom as opposed to swimming - Maggie is asked to stay on to help guide the relatively new and young current school principal through the crisis, but Maggie spends absolutely zero time advising the principal on anything, and instead immediately launches herself and her friend Hope whom she recruits for this purpose, into a serious investigation of the crime.

Never once does it cross her mind that she might screw things up for the police. Never once do the police advise her to keep out of the investigation. Never once do any of the people she interviews tell her to get lost and quit meddling, or that it's none of her business. Never once do they refuse to answer any of her questions - at least not in the part I listened to. Never once do these two share anything they have learned with the police, and never once do the police start suspecting them of being involved or covering-up anything. It's just too frigging perfect!

The whole thing was so inauthentic that it really made for an increasing lack of suspension of disbelief the more I listened to this. The feeling that grew on me was that here were two interfering busybodies who evidently had nothing better to do with their time than to get into other people's business with no concerns whatsoever for what they might mess-up. That's not my kind of story and this one wasn't even written well, so I can't commend it for anything other than wasting my time quite effectively.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn vol 1 by Waki Yamato

Rating: WORTHY!

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

"Beatiful black hair" on p220 Beautiful is misspelled.

The original Tale of Genji was written by someone with the honorific of Murasaki Shikibu. She was a Japanese writer and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian period, and she lived around 1000AD. She was strictly speaking not a 'Lady'. The 'Shikibu' referred to her status as a relative of a high ranking official in a ministry, so 'Lady' is an approximation. Murasaki seems to have referred to the wisteria plant and its color which the Japanese probably did not differentiate between.

No one knows her real name, but some suspect she may have been Fujiwara no Takako. She was married for two years before her husband died, and later retired from court with her daughter. In between those times she wrote an ongoing 'novel' about a fictional character in the Heian court, known as The Shining Prince, and commonly referred to as 'Genji'. This guy was a bit of a playboy (as this pull-no-punches manga reveals), who having lost his mother early in life seems to have pursued a need to replace her with a lover who had her qualities.

He fell in love with his stepmother, something perceived as forbidden, but she's not the only one. Every few pages he finds another woman who inspires powerful feelings, yet every one of them seems inappropriate for one reason or another - that she's an older girl with whom he grew up, so there are sibling feelings involved, or that she's a lower class woman who lives in a small house in the city, and on and on. It's like he can only love she who is decidedly wrong for him to love!

I enjoyed this story and I'm now inspired to actually go read the original (in translation of ocurse! LOL!) that's been sitting on a shelf to my right as I sit typing this, for several years. The author published this manga some time ago and it has been rereleased to coincide with the opening of “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” at MoMA in NYC. To prepare for writing it, Waki Yamato traveled to the locations where the Heian court had existed and visited museum exhibits to see the kind of clothing they would have worn.

She even was able to don one outfit and have photos taken so she could see how it hung and moved. The effort was worth it, because the artwork is beautiful. My only problem with it was that the drawing style tends to render characters to look very much alike and it was at times confusing and a little harder to follow the story when one new character after another was whisked in and out.

The design of the book was a bit confusing too. This was an ebook, which slid up and down the screen on my pad, not left to right. It began at the front of the book rather than at the rear, as many manga do, yet the page had to be read from right to left, not the western left to right, and this was really confusing to begin with because some of the panels made little sense until I figured out what they had done here! Also page numbers are not visible, and there is no slide bar to navigate the whole book so you can't tell at a glance where you are in it. You can only see page numbers if you tap the screen twice or during the actual swiping form one page to the next.

This was also a bit annoying, especially since, in swiping up to the next page, if you accidentally started too low on the page it would bring-up my iPad's nav bar which then necessitated a tap on the center of the screen to dismiss it. That was also annoying! So not the best design for an ebook, but I'm guessing it was as usual, never designed as a ebook, but as a print manga which was then crammed into ebook format without much thought to practicality. Publishers really need to get on the ball with this and decide what it is they're publishing these days! A book cannot be all things to all formats! That aside, though, I really enjoyed the story and the art, and I commend it as a worthy read.

The Humiliations of Pipi McGee by Beth Vrabel

Rating: WARTY!

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

I started out really liking this book, but it developed two major strikes against it. The first was that the ending really went downhill into complete unbelievability for me, so the last twenty percent or so was an unpleasant read. That wasn't the worst part though. The worst was that the main Character Penelope McGee, never ever seemed to learn!

I don't mind reading about a dumb female character if she turns herself around, or if she has some other qualities that come to light, but "Pipi" never changed. As the story went on, she proved herself to be actually worse than anyone she had a vendetta against, and on top of that she proved weak, unassertive, and just completely lackluster, willing to betray friends, family, anyone, to get what she wanted. She was not a nice person and had little thought for the consequences of the poor choices and decisions she persisted in making.

The basis story is that in her last year of middle school, she unilaterally decides she can wipe her slate clean and start high school with a fresh outlook. She determines, against the better advice of her friends to whom she pays little heed, that the only way to do this is to seek vengeance on everyone who wronged her, and try to wipe out her humiliations. She talks like this will be redemption, but she really doesn't act like any of it is. It felt like a real shame to me because some parts of the story were really good, and there was this one nose-piercing scene which mede me laugh out loud, but such meager leavening in a book that is otherwise sinking does far too little to improve matters.

On top of this, her story is presented against the backdrop of what has to be the worst middle school in the entire country. There is no discipline there, the teachers are all either bullies or idiots, and there is absolutely zero parental involvement whatsoever. It's not surprising then that there was open and unchecked bullying going on in this school, which the teachers never did a thing about.

One of the teachers openly bullied the girls, yet there never were any repercussions, for example with parents making complaints about her. The principal of the school was female and all this was going on under her watch, so what message does this send about female competency? It was a disgrace. It was so unrealistic as to be more of a caricature than anything that felt real.

Pipi herself was also a caricature in practice, because everything presented in this story was either stark black or it was glaring white. there was no subtlety here; no shades of gray. On top of that, Pipi had to be one of the most self-centered and ignorant characters I've ever encountered. It was pretty obvious that one of the main characters was gay and Pipi never figured this out at all. She was so self-focussed and self-obsessed that it never occurred to her that other people might be real people with feelings and secrets and problems and worries.

On a technical level, this book was not helped by submitting it to Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process. Personally I refuse to have any truck at all with Amazon for a variety of reasons, but one repeated problem I see with review books that come to me in Kindle format is that they have evidently been submitted to Amazon with far too many expectations for the end result, and the ebook comes back looking like a mess. If the publisher or author doesn't vet the resulting ebook for quality, the review ebook gets sent out to reviewers looking like a disaster.

I see this a lot with a variety of books. In this particular instance, there were page headers and page numbers blended into the body of the text. There was random bolding of text here and there, and all of the images at the start of the book were sliced, diced, and julienned. Kindle does this routinely. You cannot submit a book to Kindle for conversion unless it is the plainest of vanilla - nothing fancy, no images, no text boxes, no page headings or numberings, no tables, charts, or anything remotely fancy. Essentially it must be just plain vanilla text, otherwise Amazon will completely mangle it for you.

Here's an example. At one point I read the following:
Ricky glanced around, nodding at me, then sat (this part was bold. The text line ended here)
next to Tasha. (this was on the next line and was regular text)
Tasha even wore makeup today—something she rarely did—her lipstick and eyeliner a bright turquoise blue. When I asked her about it, she (this was the next couple of lines, all bolded)
said Eliza showed her how to do it. (this, the next line, was back to regular text).

On another page (evidently page 107!) I read this:
It’s just how I pictured Freya.” 1 07 Tasha grinned.
There were also random examples of a bold lower case letter 'f' appearing in the middle of the text like so:
"The dots disappeared.
I called Sarah over and over,"
I have no idea what that was all about.

So technical issues aside, I cannot commend this as a worthy read when it has such a limp and misguided main character who never seems to learn her lesson and yet for whom everything magically works out in the end? No. Sorry but no! That's way too much fiction for my taste!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs by Susan Schaefer Bernardo, Courtenay Fletcher

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a warmly-written kids book which offers way to feel close to someone you love when they're not right there before you - or when they may even be far away. Told poetically by Bernardo, and illustrated equally poetically by Fletcher, it advises turning to nature - which is usually a good idea provided we don't destroy it first. It was a fun read and I commend it.

Brilliant Ideas From Wonderful Women by Aitziber Lopez

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a great book championing women who invented something or greatly-enhanced something yet who have received little or no credit for it. The only one in the entire book I'd heard of was Hedy Lamar so shame on me! But now I know better!

This book is aimed at a young audience, but it's educational for anyone and everyone, and it's important to realize and properly understand that it wasn't white men who did everything in history. Nor was it all white women, so having someone of color in here would have been better, but for now, I'll take this. Maybe volume two will fix that other discrepancy.

This was an ARC, so there were some errors in it which I presume will be fixed before the final edition comes out. I list them here as (hopefully!) a help to the author and publisher. The section on Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar®, talks about nylon as being natural, like silk, but it isn't! It is organic in that it contains carbon, but that's not the same as saying it's natural. Nylon is very much artificial.

Page 23 ends the description in the middle of a sentence. It would be nice to have the rest of that sentence! This same thing happens on p30 where it seems to suggest that Mary Anderson invented the windshield rather than the windshield wiper! In this context, and from what I've read, the tram operator wasn't stopping repeatedly to clean off the windshield, but driving with the front windows open because of the sleet. This is how Mary came to the conclusion that a windshield wiper would be a good idea.

Note that I don't merit a print copy for reviewing, so all I get is the ebook, and in that context, there is an issue on page 26. The ebook shows only one page at a time, not a double spread, so swiping to this page made it appear as though it was a continuation of something from a non-existent previous page. It was only when I swiped to the next page that I saw that the title section for this double spread was on the second of these two pages. This isn't obvious and is in fact confusing in the ebook. On p27, where the article actually begins, there is also a grammatical error where it begins, "Helen's initially wanted to study..." There's an apostrophe 's' too much there, it would seem!

On page 28, Maria Beasley's birthdate is completely wrong. She could hardly have invented an improved life raft used on the Titanic if she was born 35 years after it sank! Should the date be 1847 instead of 1947? I don't know since I couldn't find a birth date given for her, but 1847 would make sense. Finally, on page 32, there's a Spanish phrase at the end of the description, which appears to be a Spanish translation of the start of the previous sentence. I don't know what that's all about (given the author's name perhaps the original of this book was written in Spanish?), but it certainly doesn't belong there in an English edition!

Those issues aside (and believe me I understand how easy it is to make goofs like that - we authorial wannabes have all been there!), I commend this as a worthy read and an educational read too.

The Art of Modern Quilling by Erin Perkins Curet

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I had no idea what quilling was - never heard of it, which is why I was interested in this particular volume. It turned out to be quite fascinating. It's a skill that can be - I assume since I'm not a quiller myself - learned quite readily with some practice, and it requires little in the way of equipment to pursue this. The results are charming if they're to be judged by what this book contains. On that topic, I have to observe that this author seems to have an inordinate fondness for butterflies, but they were very pretty, and there is much more contained here than just alluring lepidoptera!

The most elaborate item she demonstrates is a clock face to which was attached a clock mechanism to create a wall-hanging, working clock. The work involved seems to my not-even-amateur eyes to be heavy and requires a dedicated crafter, but the result is quite stunning. I have to say though, that the utility of it to me was lessened by the fact that the clock had so many components and was so colorful that it was more likely to befuddle than enlighten anyone who was trying to decipher the time of day from it! As a hanging decoration however, it was truly eye-catching.

I think I was most impressed by the jewelry the author constructed. The paper is curled, glued, and treated with some sort of fixative so it's not just raw paper. She created a pair of dangling earrings which were rather bell-shaped and quite pretty, and she made a necklace out of quilled hemispheres of paper glued together to make spheres, and threaded onto a string. The end result was remarkable. Not that I plan on making any of this myself, but I can't help but admire the skill and work that went into all the things she made. They were solid, colorful, beautiful to look at, and very attention-grabbing.

There's a quilling article in Wikipedia if you want to learn a little about the art, but if you want to learn how to actually do the art, then this is definitely the book to go with. The author has clearly mastered this, and has gone beyond mimicking things - as anyone would do when developing her skills - and she has moved on into a fascinating and creative world of her own. I commend it for a captivating and instructional glimpse into a world I had not known even existed.

Colorways: Acrylic Animals by Megan Wells

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I've reviewed several books about art and painting over the last few months. I don't consider myself an artist by any means, but I have dabbled, and it is a topic which fascinates me and in which there is always something to learn - especially if you're a writer and want to imbue your stories with a little realism. It doesn't hurt to absorb some advice from established artists in books like this to sort of sprinkle yourself with a bit of authenticity to use in your writing projects. Plus the books are interesting in themselves. I'm always happy to learn how artists do what they do and get such appealing works out of the seemingly paltry source materials of some colored pigments and some brushes. It's really quite magical when you think about it. The paintbrush as a magic wand! Paint as fairy dust!

This book is firmly in the acrylic camp, and it takes a loose and playful approach to painting animals. This artist definitely has fun, and the art here isn't about absolute photographic realism, but about conveying a sense and feeling for the animal subject and making it stand out, in both how the basic image looks and also in the colors it employs including some collage techniques in one image.

The subject titles are amusing. We have complementary cows, pointillistic pandas, tetradic llamas, and vibrant flamingos. The titles are a hint to the technique the author/artist is going to use and the shades and hues of paint that are going to be employed in it, because each exercise follows a slightly different strategy to reaching the end goal, although there are certain rules about building-up the painting which are common to all. The level is beginners, so if you're just starting out, have a little experience, or have never picked up a brush before, this should still work for you. I don't think anyone is so advanced that they can't learn from a new talent!

There was one section on painting a giraffe that I found interesting for several reasons. The author shows her work - like anyone taking a math test should do! - so you can see the steps to the result, and sometimes looking at those early images, I wondered if I were painting this, would I have stopped there and not gone on to 'finish' the work. Is a work of art ever finished? I guess it is if the artist thinks so, but there are different places any individual can stop and say it's done, so it was interesting to think about that. Another reason this was interesting is that the giraffe image was laterally reversed in the final picture. I think someone got an image the wrong way round, but it didn't detract from the effect of seeing the resulting finished-image after following all the steps to get there.

The book is replete with hints, tips, suggestions, and most importantly, encouragement, and the whole works well together to give anyone a solid grounding in expanding their range and ability if they're looking for a leg up. I commend it as a worthy read. Each time I read something like this it makes me want to go pick up some supplies at the art store and get to it! Fortunately for my kids' clothing and dietary needs I restrain many of these impulses! But setting yourself up with some basic brushes and colors doesn't cost that much these days, and you can paint on pretty much anything you want! Grant Wood's American Gothic was painted on "beaverboard" which is more like cardboard than it is like canvas! So grab this book and get to it!

The School of Numbers by Emily Hawkins

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a comprehensive and fun book with quite a few tips, pointers (indicators - not the dogs, which I found a bit disap pointer ing...), and hints along the way, and it covered a surprising array of mathematical concepts from simple math to powers, and from geometry to negative numbers. It even finally got me a visual that clarified in my mind why the so-called Monty Hall problem makes sense!

This 'problem' is where a person offered a choice to open one of three doors (or maybe boxes). One of the options contains a nice prize, the other two contain a booby prize or nothing at all. The person chooses which door or box to open, then the host (Monty Hall in the original show, although the problem predates his show) opens one of the booby prize doors showing you that it was wise not to choose that one. Then he gives you the option to change your choice. Should you change? It seems counter-intuitive, but the fact is that you will more than likely improve your odds of winning if you change. Many people (even some mathematicians) find this hard to believe. I did initially, and even when I decided that changing your choice was the indeed the better option, I still couldn't get my mind around why! Now it's clear thanks to this book!

But the book contains much more than that, and it explains things clearly and simply, with good examples, and little exercises for the reader to follow (with the answers!). There were a couple of errors in the book - or at least what seemed like errors to me, but math isn't my strong suit, so maybe I'm wrong. I'll mention them anyway. There was a section on geometric progression which used the old story of starting with one grain of rice on a chess board, and doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square. It's a great demonstration, but on page 47 it's seemingly implied that a chess board has only 62 squares! Wrong! Eight squared isn't 62!

The other issue was on tessellation (I told you this book was comprehensive!) which is a fascinating topic and really only a fancy way of saying 'tiling', but it suggests that triangular tessellation requires adding 6 walls whereas hexagonal tessellation requires only 3 and this is what makes bees so smart? I could not get my mind around that concept at all - not the smart bees, but the walls. I had no clue in what context this was supposed to be true. I mean if you draw a triangle and want to add another triangle, you have to draw only two more walls, and there's your second triangle making use of an existing wall from the first. If you have one hexagon and want to add another, you have to draw five more walls!

If you have two hexagons side-by-side, you need to draw four walls to make another, whereas if you have two triangles, you need draw, again, only two walls to make a third! Admittedly, if you have three existing hexagons, making a shallow cup shape, then it's true you need add only three more walls on the concave side to make a fourth hexagon, but with three triangles, depending on how they are joined, you still need add only two walls - or perhaps even just one wall. Now maybe I am missing something or maybe the concept that was being conveyed here wasn't worded very well for clarity - or was over my head(!), so like I said, I may be wrong but it seemed to me this needed something more to be said!

But that was a minor issue and I'm happy to commend this as a worthy read and a great math tutor for young minds.