Showing posts with label Daniel Kenney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daniel Kenney. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney, Emily Boever

Rating: WARTY!

This is volume two in a series of at least three, and the book very kindly indicates this on the front cover, which is nice. I have not read the third volumes, but I did read the first, and I rated it positively back in June of 2015 with the caveat that I'd prefer it if these books improved! Obviously they have not, so I am now going back to de-rate that one as part of an overall series rating. These books can be read as standalones, and the essence of the series is a commendable one in that it revolves around four middle-grade students who help the police to solve crimes using mathematics. This is great, but the spirit behind the book turned out to be rather more noble than the execution of the novel itself.

I am all on-board for a series that teaches the subjects which too many students in the US fall down on: math and the sciences, but this novel disappointed me in that it offered a lot more than it actually delivered. There was very little math, and what there was of that was a bit limp and vague. The story revolved around acts of petty vandalism being conducted by "Mr Jekyll" a name which was a clue in itself. This was fine, but the attempt to bring math into this by employing a mathematical technique known as the Line of Best Fit, and the Least Squares Method to track the vandal's movements wasn't employed very well and wasn't explained in very much detail. That was all the math we got!

I felt like I was reading a very dumbed-down novelization of the TV show NUMB3RS which ran on CBS from 2005 to 2010. This was aimed at an adult audience and starred Rob Morrow as an FBI agent and David Krumholz as his mathematically-gifted younger brother who helped him solve crimes. It was a good show, and reading this made me want to go back and watch that series over again because it did a far better job of teaching math and incorporating it into the plot! The novel felt further dumbed-down in that the kids names - which admittedly the authors were stuck with after volume one - are as improbably as the plot: Felix, Gertie, and Stanley? Honestly? The fourth kid had a much more regular name: Charlotte. Names are important to me in my own novels, and if these kids were named that way to serve some purpose, then I could understand it, but they're apparently not so-named for any particular purpose.

In this novel, we had some unknown and obviously disaffected kid who was spray-painting "Mr Jekyll" on various things, including, in one case, a pet dog, which was drugged and shaved first. eventually the kids figure it out of course, but there was far too much melodrama leading up to it and a complete lack of justice at the end. Worse than this, there was bullying conducted by the kids themselves, and a really poor attitude towards the police, mainly in the form of a dumb and vindictive police chief who was dedicatedly seeking to jail the math inspector kids, and who, let's face it, indulged in bullying himself. This attitude has not improved an iota from volume one, and the authors should be ashamed of themselves for it.

I know it's fun and important to dramatize stories like these to make them engaging for readers, but there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do it, and this was the latter. I know also that the kids have to be given center stage and that story lines do end-up being improbable to one extent to another, but this particular one, for me was way overdone and done foolishly. Unless the story completely hinges on a police officer being stupid or brutal, which this story did not, I think it's mistake to depict the police in such a poor light to young children. Yes, the police do have their issues, but those issues aren't going to be resolved by showing the police as plodding, bullying brutes instead of as humans.

Unlike in the first volume, the illustrations in this one did example the math a bit, but I think there could have been more. There was no improvement in the depiction of the two girls in the group. They took a back seat to Stanley the math whiz, who pretty much dominated that portion of the story. I'm actually surprised the girls weren't depicted in Barbie Outfits saying, "Gee, math is hard!" But this wasn't even the worst part of it. In addition to showing the painting of a dog, the authors. had the math inspector kids encouraging the vandal, who got away with it in the end, bullying and humiliating one of the girls in the school by dumping a can of blue paint over her - real, oil-based paint. This was the final straw for me because it was entirely disproportionate to what she had done to them (which was merely making snide remarks and trying to get them into trouble with the police), and even if it had been proportionate, it still wouldn't have been right.

Showing the police leaping to inane conclusions with no evidence was stupid and irresponsible. Having the entire school board meet to vote in public on whether these four kids - who had been charged with nothing - expelled for something they didn't even do in school or on school time, was simply ridiculous. The authors had the school board conduct an anonymous ballot and then had each member of the board read out how they voted! What?! Do the authors simply not get what 'anonymous' means, or did they think they were being cute or ironic? It came off as moronic to me. Teaching middle-grade kids that adults conduct kangaroos courts based on knee-jerk assumptions, zero solid evidence and no trial is dumb. Yes, there are far too many adults like that, but these were not random adults, they were the police and the school! It's not acceptable.

One of the big issues in the story was the school bully, who was shown as getting away with it and being completely unchecked by the teaching staff or the school bus driver; then we're shown the four math bullies encouraging the vandal to douse another student in paint. I'm sorry but this is totally unacceptable. If the girl had accidentally douse herself because of her behavior, that's one thing, but encourage vandalism and violence like this as though it's a good thing, or is supposedly some form of justice is inexcusable in a middle grade book. That's why I'm rating this as a complete fail, and why I'm going back to down-rate the contingent rating I gave the first volume now that the authors have shown me that they have no intention of improving this series.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney and Emily Boever

Rating: WARTY!

This is a really short (~127 pages) novel aimed at middle graders. It's book one of a series, and although I originally rated it a conditional 'worthy' the rating was a vote for improvements in future episodes. I had two issues with it which I hoped would be resolved in future episodes in this series. They were not, hence the downgrade. The first problem was with how this novel viewed the police.

I'm writing this review on the same morning that the Dallas police escaped a massacre when a severely disturbed and unfortunately also very violent person launched what appears to have been a one-man assault on a police precinct using bombs and automatic weapons - and this wasn't even a terrorist attack as such. It was just a pissed-off guy who didn't take kindly to police interfering in his cozy little abusive relationship.

Police are human, and as such they can be clueless and idiotic and even violent, but they are all we have between us and a wild west existence where might makes right. I certainly don't want my kids living there, although all too many kids do suffer such an existence. I didn't think this novel took the right tack in portraying these police as being incompetent, arrogant, and downright knee-jerk stupid. Cops are a heck of a lot smarter than that when it comes to seeing through the foggy veil of criminal theft and violence.

The other issue I had was with the portrayal of one of the female characters. One minor problem with this story is that we don't get much information about the four main characters, young children who are really good at solving problems, using math. We didn't get an info dump at the start, for which I was grateful, but we didn't get much info doled out as the story progressed either, which I think was a mistake. Maybe the middle graders won't worry about that. One character we did learn about was Gertie. I can't imagine anyone calling their kid Gertrude these days (or Stanley, or Felix for that matter. Charlotte I can see), but my problem wasn't actually with her name, it was with the fact that she's chubby and evidently sensitive to it.

The problem is that we don't know if this is merely "baby-fat" in which case it's of no concern as long as the kid is otherwise healthy, and eating wisely and exercising judiciously, or if it's really a health problem. It would have been nice to know more, but without better information, I have to say that I was sorry to see this represented as an issue in a world where women are already pressured (and yes from that age and younger) to conform to a certain male ideal as represented on fashion runways, and in movies and TV shows - as well as in an ungodly amount of fiction.

In the US, a nation which accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, 30% of people are overweight or obese, and this is going to get worse. This five percent of the population represents thirteen percent of overweight people world-wide. America is living large and that isn't a compliment - it's a tragedy which is not only waiting to happen, it's already happening. This doesn't help those women who have a perfectly fine weight and shape (ie they are neither stick insects nor Goliath beetles) to have this added pressure of feeling like they're part of the problem. This isn't just an adult problem either, it's a children problem too, and it starts at a disturbingly young age. Most people are not overweight, and that includes most women. It doesn't make things better if young children are given to understand that they're overweight when they're really not, so I wish this novel had been clearer, or had not mentioned this issue at all if it's not going to be relevant to the story.

Okay, after that rant, let's get to the story! The four afore-mentioned, Charlotte, Felix, Gertie, and Stanley are sixth-grade friends who love math and like to solve problems. It's commendable that there are books like this showing kids doing math in the real world and getting useful, meaningful results. Frankly, I never cared how many apples Johnny had or how many friends he had to share them equally between. It never happens! But to show Stanley work out that the prime suspect could not have driven his car to the point where police picked him up if he had committed the crime as first indicated, was wonderful! I would have liked to have seen more math - and seen illustrations showing how the math problems are worked rather than the handful of illustrations showing scenes from the story, which were neither very good nor particularly helpful.

I would also have liked to have seen the work-load distributed more evenly over the group, so each of them did some math, rather than have Stanley steamer the math whiz do everything while the others, including the two girls (including the "chubby" one), serve very little purpose other than be his minions. It seems that Gertie's only distinguishing feature is that she has a good memory. I felt that this demeaned her and I would have liked to see a more equitable distribution of talent, work, and drudgery, all of which is needed, and all of which merits praise.

I liked the way that clues were dropped here and there, and that there were some red herrings and wrong turns, but like I said, I was hoping that this series improved as it went on, and instead it has deteriorated. My review of volume two was in January 2017