Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lady Mechanika Vol. 2: The Tablet of Destinies by Joe Benítez, MM Chen, Martin Montiel, Mike Garcia


Rating: WARTY!

This combines volumes one through six of the original comic books and was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

In a beautifully wrought steam-punk world, the young daughter of a friend of Lady Mechanika's is in need of assistance, and the Lady responds. Her father has disappeared on a quest in Africa, and Mechanika sets out to find out what happened. Her quest is lent added urgency when the young girl is kidnapped. Mechanika meets a mysterious guy in London, who offers air transportation to Germany, where the kidnap victim is, and where lies another clue pointing to a specific site in Africa, so they set off there, only to crash in the desert and be taken prisoner by slavers!

Meanwhile in interleaved portions, we get the view from the other end of this quest, where the professor and his assistant are under pressure to decipher ancient scripts and uncover what the villains believe is an unprecedentedly powerful weapon.

The adventure was well-written, fast-moving, and full of action and feisty characters, including the distressed young girl at the start. The artwork was beautifully done and colored. That alone would have been sufficient for me to rate this graphic novel as a worthy read, but what bothered me too much here was what I let slip by in volume one, and it was the sexualization of all the female characters. When the blurb says, "Lady Mechanika immediately drops everything" it really means her clothes, and for me, this is what brought this particular volume down.

I found it disturbing, because Mechanika is fine regardless of her physical appeal or lack of same! She doesn't need to be rendered in endlessly sexual ways to be an impressive character. It's sad that graphic novel creators seem so completely ignorant of this fact. It's like they have this phobia that their female characters are going to be useless and entirely unappealing unless their sexuality is exploited. I'm not sure if this failing says more about the creators or about their readership, but either way it's obnoxious and I sincerely wish they had more faith in women than they evidently do. Do we really want to be writing comics which only appeal to people who see women as sex objects and very little else? Do we really want to be perpetuating a message as clueless as it is antiquated, and which offers only the sleazy equation that girls = sex = girls? I hope not.

This abuse was bordering on being abused in the first volume, but it was nowhere near as rife as it was here, so why they went full metal lack-it in this one is a mystery. Unlike in the first volume, it was all-pervasive here, with full-page in-your-face images of scantily clad adventurers bursting at what few seams they had, entirely impractically dressed for their quest.

I guess I should be grateful that the African woman who joined Lady Mechanika wasn't bare-breasted, but what I most noticed about Akina (other than the fact that she at least had a Congolese name) was that she looked like your typically white-washed model from Ebony magazine, not like the Congolese woman she supposedly was, whose skin would have been darker, and her face broader and less Nordic-nosed-white-westerner than this woman's was.

Why are comic book artists so afraid of showing the real world? Do they think real Congolese women are unappealing? Or is it that they feel they cannot sell the sexuality of a black woman (as opposed to a pale brown one)? If this medium is to grow-up and maintain relevance and meaning, then this kind of bias needs to be dispensed with urgently, because it's bone-headed at best, and racist at worst.

So, despite the appeal of the art in general, and the entertainment value of the story, I can't condone these practices, and I cannot rate positively a graphic novel which is so brazenly perpetrating abuses like this one did.


Lady Mechanika, Vol.1: the Mystery of Mechanical Corpse by Joe Benítez, Peter Steigerwald


Rating: WORTHY!

This gathers volumes 1 through five of the single comic books and was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I had a better experience with this one than I did with the second volume of the series, which I requested at the same time as this. The steam-punk world is rendered and colored beautifully, and the story was an intriguing and entertaining one, well told. Lady Mechanika is a cyborg - inasmuch as such things went in Edwardian times. I am by no means a fashion expert, not even in modern times, so I may have this wrong, but the styles didn't look Victorian to me, notwithstanding what the blurb says. That's not a problem, just an observation. I rather liked them as it happens. Joe Benítez and Peter Steigerwald could probably make a living as fashion designers if they ever tire of comic books!

Lady Mechanika is quite evidently someone's creation, but her memory is impaired, so her origins are as much of a mystery to her as they are to us. I am wondering if the guy she meets in volume two (reviewed separately) might have some knowledge of that, but it remains a mystery in that volume, too! Her mechanical parts are her limbs, and her 'title' was given to her by the tabloids. Her backstory isn't delivered here or in volume two, so we don't know how she came to be a private investigator and adventurer. I was interested in this story because of the upcoming (as of this writing) live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell movie, which is a favorite of mine. I'm looking forward to the new one.

When the story opens, the Lady meets the 'Demon of Satan's Alley' which appears to be some sort of a human animal hybrid and which isn't a demon but which has been demonized by the public. Some crazy guys blunder in and kill it before Lady Mechanika can talk to it enough to maybe find out what it knows of its past - and maybe of hers, too. She's not best pleased by that. Soon she's off adventuring and trying to track down this creator of mechanical melanges. In this regard, the story has some resemblances to Ghost in the Shell, including the overt and unnecessary sexuality.

There were some technical issues with this as there are with all graphic novels which have not yet clued themselves in to the electronic age. In BlueFire Reader, which is what I use on the iPad, the pages are frequently enlarging themselves to fill the screen which means a portion of the page is curt off, since the iPad screen and the comic book page size are out of whack compared with each other, the comic book being a little too 'tall and slim' for the 'stouter' table format.

This is something I can work with, but whenever there's a double-page spread, it means turning the tablet from portrait view to landscape and back again for the next page. This isn't such a hassle except that the tablet is self-orienting, so the page is constantly swinging around like a loose yard-arm on a boat at sea.

One image was a portrait-oriented double-page spread, and it was so set-up that I could not orient this to view it since the image always swung to the wrong orientation no matter what i did! The only way to actually see it as intended by the creators was to orient it as a landscape, then carefully lay the pad flat and rotate it while it stayed flat; then the image was view-able in all its glory, but this only served to highlight one other problem - the minuscule text. It's far too small for comfortable reading. I know comics are all about imagery, but for me, unless there's also a decent story, all you really have, is a pretty coffee-table art book. It seems to me that artists and writers might consider collaborating a bit more closely on legibility!

This is going to become increasingly a problem as the old school comic fraternity struggles to repel all technology boarders. Personally, I prefer e-format to print format as a general rule, if only because it's kinder to trees, which are precious. The sentiment is especially poignant when we read horror stories to the effect that 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom had to be pulped because of typos. At 3 kg of carbon emissions per book, that's not a charmed system. You would need to read a hundred books for every one print book to balance the manufacturing pollution of an e-reader against that of the print version, but then your ebook comes over the wire at very little cost to the environment, whereas the print book has to be transported to you, even if only home from the store in your car.

But you can also argue the other side, which is that reading devices employ petrochemical products, and precious and toxic metals, and probably contains 'conflict' minerals which were mined in the Congo (curious given the location for volume two in this series!); however, you can argue that a multi-use device, such as a tablet or a smart phone, can be employed as an ebook reader without contributing to even more environmental carnage than it might already have caused. On the other page, you can also argue that a book never needs upgrading (as countless young-adult Jane Austen rip-offs have conclusively proven), will last for years, and can be recycled when done with. So you pays your greenbacks and you hopes you get the green back.

For this volume, I think it worth reading in any format, and I recommend it if you can overlook the sexploitation which is relatively restrained in this volume.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Forbidden Stone by Tony Abbott


Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook which failed for me. I didn't like the story and the reading by the curiously-named MacLeod Andrews was bad. The story started out just fine for the first chapter or so, but after that it devolved into tedious and stupid activities in which an irresponsible father trails four kids with him to Europe (and elsewhere, evidently) into dangerous situations, and then fails to go to the police, fails to get his kids out of danger, and in general just is a moron. These dimwits contaminate crime scenes and tamper with clues which could have led to a perceived suicide being seen by the police for the murder it was. I quickly decided this was too stupid to live. The fact that it's the start of a series is only one more reason to reject the mercenary heart of it.

It's a ridiculous Dan Brown-style story where some idiot leaves a trail marked by asinine cryptic clues for Becca, Darrel, Lily, and Wade, when all he had to do was make a phone call and tell his friend, or better yet, the police, what the deal was. Failing that, then at least post it on the Internet so the "shadowy" villains have no reason at all to chase your kids threateningly. It was profoundly dumb. I hope middle-graders are smart enough to see how silly this all is, and I feel sorry for those who are not, but of course, without this level of stupidity, there couldn't be a six book series, and neither the author nor the publisher would get rich off the allowances of middle-graders, would they now?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Caribbean's Keeper by Brian Boland


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
"began to peal the skin back" 'peal' should be 'peel' unless the skin is ringing like a bell!
"from where the helo had come from" - too many 'from's! The last one needs deleting.
"Cole treaded in place and watched it" The past tense of 'tread' is 'trod'. Don't you love English?!
"Cole bid his time and made idle chatter with Tony." The past tense of bide is bided, bit bid (and apparently even Google doesn't know this!).

I was invited by Open Road Media to read this advance review copy, and I was glad I got the chance!

The author was actually in the Coastguard, so he knows what he's talking about, which always helps! I have a brother-in-law who is in the Coastguard and have nothing but respect for the job he does - so yeah, call me biased! This novel felt real, and the descriptions were very evocative. The story unfolded naturally. It was credible. It felt like being there in many ways, which makes for a really nice read! Of course, the plot counts too, more-so than the descriptions for me, but that was also appealing and felt authentic. I haven't been to any of the places the author mentions: Curaçao, Martinique, Nicaragua, Panama, and so on, and my experience in Florida is very limited, but there was nothing here that struck me as implausible or dumb.

The story is of Cole (yeah, I know. Hardly my favorite character name, but at least it wasn't 'Jack', in which case I would have flatly refused to read the novel at all!). Cole is a Coastguard operative who gets kicked out for his rather unruly behavior and his disregard for the rules on occasion. Out of work, he drifts a little in Florida and eventually, to make ends meet, starts working on a tour boat. It's hardly his style, but it pays and he gets to room with one of the guys he works with, someone he likes and gets along with.

Over time he notices that this guy Kevin, has something going on on the side and as the two grow to trust each other, Cole finds himself involved in the smuggling of Cubans into Florida. So far so good, but Cole is not only a functional alcoholic (at least that's how he came off to me) he's also an Adrenalin junkie, and the kick he gets from outrunning and outfoxing his old colleagues in the Coastguard starts to be insufficient for him. Like every addict, Cole wants more. That's how he gets into drug-running, but there's no loyalty in that world. You upset the cartel kingpins and they're going to come gunning for you - literally. This is the story of how Cole survived and who he met along the way.

It was gripping and engaging, and just as importantly, it was realistic. It really felt like any and all of this could have happened. It was like reading a good James Bond thriller, and I kept wanting to turn the next page to find out what happens. The book is not too long, not too short, and makes for really easy reading. The ending felt a little bit abrupt, but it was right, and I'd rather have it come to a halt like that, than have the author just write on and on not knowing quite where to stop. Plus it's a single volume as far as I know, so not being a fan of series, this worked well for me. I recommend it for anyone who wants an adventure with a likable rogue (despite his faults) who is in it for the thrills, only to discover that underneath it all, he actually has a conscience. Great story.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Light by Rob Cham


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a magnificent work of art. Rob Cham is inventive and talented and has produced a visual feast of a comic which needs no words. The story is of a young character who is fearless and adventurous, and who goes out into his literal black and white world looking for something new. Deep in a cave world he discovers it in the shape of five hard-won crystals, each a different color. Along the way he makes enemies and friends, but when he returns and unleashes his treasure, his whole world changes.

The drawings are very detailed, and superbly drawn and shaded, even when black and white. The world is imaginative and the characters, all of them non-human, are fantastical in nature and fascinating. The comic is a hundred pages or so, but seems too short. It flies by too fast even as you take your time reading it. I recommend this comic book highly.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner


Rating: WORTHY!

This audio book was a major disappointment. It began well and really drew me in quickly, but around halfway, when it ought to have been picking up speed for the David and Goliath-style grand finale, it just fizzled away into tedium and nonsense and became insufferable. I gave up on it. I have to say I would not have listened for as long as I did were it not for the excellent and talented reading voice of Carrington MacDuffie. Kudos to her!

This is book one in a series and I have no interest in listening to any more. I have no idea why it would even become a series, either, for that matter, but as I said, I did not finish it, so maybe there's something there at the end which gives some sort of reason for the book to go on to a second volume, however weak. I don't care what it is!

Here's one problem with audio books. If a word is unfamiliar to the listener - and this especially applies to names! - or if the word sounds like one you know but is actually a different word, there's no way to tell what word was used or how it was spelled, so I am relying on some research in Google books for the spelling of the character's names. Set in the period of the early days of the French revolution, this novel begins with a small troupe of entertainers being invited to the house of Marquis de Villeduval for a well-paid private performance. Yann Margoza, one of the three in the troupe, counsels against going, but the leader, Topolain insists upon it. He is signing his own death warrant by doing so, because also in attendance is and Count Kalliovski, who shoots Topolain dead by "accident" during his performance of his "bullet proof routine

This is the first thing which ticked me off about the story: I never did learn what it was between Kalliovski and Topolain which led to this. It may be that it was covered in the part I skipped, but I listened to a lot of this and it never came up. Either that or I was so focused on driving at the time it was revealed, that I missed it! Maybe the author kept this for volume two which would have ticked me off even more!

Topolain's death leaves Yann and the dwarf member of the troupe, Têtu (which is actually the French word for 'stubborn') running for their lives because evidently - again, I know not why - the Count is out for them too, and they'll be out for the count if they don't get away. Somehow, out of this, it winds up that Yann, who has started falling for the Marquis's daughter, Sido, ends up going to England. I have no explanation for how this happened. I'd been seeing this woman's name as Çideaux or Sideaux. Maybe Sido is short for Sidonie or maybe it's short for Do-si-do! I don't know!

The count has been loaning large sums of money to the marquis, but he knows he's not going to get it back. What he wants instead is Sido's dowry and eventually he forces the marquis to effectively sell her off in marriage, whereupon he will kill her and keep her fortune. Back then, women were essentially property. In some parts of the world this hasn't changed even today. They had no rights, no vote, no say, and could own nothing. Sido was money int he bank to the trope evil count, and nothing else.

The second thing which ticked me off was that the count is all set to marry Sido, and then suddenly two years are gone and we're with Yann in England. When we get back to France, Sido still isn't married! This made no sense to me, and again no reason was given for it - not in the part I listened to. It was at this point that the quality of the story began a rapid decline, and I lost all interest in it, so I can't speak for what happened after that. I can't recommend this base don my experience of it, despite the MacDuffie voice!


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Infinity Ring a Mutiny in Time by James Dashner


Rating: WARTY!

The author of The Maze Runner fouls up again with this series aimed at middle graders. Not that I've actually read The Maze Runner series. I was interested after seeing the first movie, but then lost all interest after the disastrous second movie which was profoundly dumb and tedious. If it's anything like the novel I've lost all desire to read any of those books. I was curious to see if he might do better with something aimed at a younger audience. He didn't.

The cover designers showed their legendary ineptitude again by putting a compass on the front cover instead of the actual infinity ring. This is about time travel not geographic travel per se, so what's with the compass? I swear I get more laughs out of Big Publishing™ cover designers than I do from books which are actually intended to be humorous!

This is your standard middle-grade time travel novel where young kids save the world by visiting extremely famous points and/or people, and/or landmarks in history. I'm sure there's a novel (or maybe even a series) which gets it right, but this one isn't it. Set in an alternate reality (where the US capital is Philadelphia and Columbus didn't discover Cuba) - which we learn is really our reality gone awry, we soon discover that there are breaks in history, starting in Aristotle's time, which must be set right to put reality back on track. Who determined where these were, and how they figured out there were breaks in the first place is left unexplained.

That's just the problem with this novel: there's far too much unexplained. Why they cannot go back and fix the first (in Alexander and Aristotle's time) and have all the other breaks fall into place goes just as unexplained as why they start with Columbus instead of starting with the first, or even with the last and work backwards. My guess is that no matter how many they fix, and no matter where they start, every single volume in this series will be exactly the same - with Time Wardens seeking to thwart or to capture them no matter how much history they change, which makes zero sense, and it's why I didn't bother finishing this novel once I saw where it was stupidly determined to go. Worse than this, the two kids have a pad computer with them, yet instead of information, it delivers clues in cheap rhymes and in absurdly simple visual puzzles! Why? No reason at all! God forbid we should make our young readers actually think when we can serve everything up like it's fast food!

The idea is that there are good guys and bad guys (the Time Wardens) stationed throughout history. How that works goes unexplained, because they would either already have to know where the breaks were, in order to station guards there, or they would have to station people all over the entire planet throughout time, which is absurd. That was the major problem with this story: the sheer absurdity of it. I couldn't stand to finish it, especially since it was puffed up with so much fluff. The novel could have comfortably begun on page 80 or thereabouts, at the end of chapter twelve, about two fifths of the way into the story, and lost nothing in the telling!

Had anyone but an established author submitted this trash, any respectable publisher would have rejected it. This novel seemed to me to be nothing short of a cynical attempt to bilk the rubes (aka middle-graders) out of money by running a cheap series which retells the same story over and over with a few details changed here and there to make them superficially different. I mean why tell an intelligent and original story in one concise volume when you can stretch it to a dozen? I can't support that and I can't recommend this.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Tapper Twins Tear Up New York by Geoff Rodkey


Rating: WORTHY!

I favorably reviewed this author's The Tapper Twins Go to War in December 2015, and I got this other volume from the library and read it through very quickly. it was in a way, more of the same, which is why I liked it, but the story was different, and equally as inventive as the first one, and it was highly amusing.

It's told in the same way as the previous volume, wherein Claudia, the female half (or maybe two-thirds) of the Tapper twins, gives an oral history of an event. This isn't, of course an oral history - it's a written history, or at best, a transcription of an oral history. You'd have to listen to the audio book to get the actual oral history! That aside though, the story was well told, being both funny and inventive. The premise is that Claudia organizes a scavenger hunt in order to raise money for the Manhattan food bank. The hunt consists of groups of four children from the school - each group with an adult escort, I'm happy to report, taking pictures of landmarks and other not-so-readily-visible items. In order to prevent cheating, each photo must include the school mascot, a small plush toy of which each group has in its possession.

The first prize is front row tickets to an event at Madison Square Garden, which features both sports and music events, so it appeals quite widely The fembots (spoiled rich kids) are cheating (or are they?), and so is Claudia's brother's group. Things get out of control. Children go astray. Liverpool fans are angered...wait, what? But it all works out in the end and the winner is completely unexpected. A fun romp which entertained me and which I'm convinced will entertain its target audience. I recommend it.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Princess Tiffany Tooth Fairy by Lily Lexington


Rating: WORTHY!

Princess Tiffany rides a royal cart pulled by two ponies as bright as the moon. Not only does she fulfill all the usual royal duties, she also had to collect teeth. it;s hard work, but it's not like pulling teeth, since these have already fallen out and have been placed hopefully under pillows by young children.

Do you have any idea how heavy teeth are when you’re a tiny fairy and you have fifty seven of them in a huge bag? I thought not. Well, neither do I! But it has to be something that makes you grit your teeth, right? It’s especially onerous if the young child wakes up right as you’re carrying our such an important duty, and rudely traps you in a glass jar. What a royal pain!

This little girl greatly underestimated Princess Tiff, however. The princess is not only cute, she’s also smart. The princess would give her eye teeth to get free, but unfortunately she has none, so she tricks the girl into letting her go. Actually it’s not even a trick. It's more like a brush off as she offers some really good advice that all children would do well to heed, and escapes by the skin of her teeth. Delightfully told and warmly illustrated, this is a fun and inventive story you can really get your teeth into. If it made an old codger like me smile, it can probably work wonders on your child!


Gracie Gourd by Lily Lexington


Rating: WORTHY!

I have no idea what goes through this author's mind, but a conversation with her would probably be weird if her routine thoughts are anything like her authorial meanderings! A gourd named Gracie? A gourd who can't get moored?! Why not?! Gracie has no idea where she belongs (she's a bit green) and she tries to take up residence with the pumpkins (which are kin - not to pumps, but to some gourds), but when the pumpkins round on her (and they're a lot rounder than she is!), she finds she has to move on.

She considers popping round to the corn, but she really doesn't fit in. She has no ears, and evidently rumors of her kinship have not even a kernel of truth to them. Where else can she go? Not the tomatoes. She makes them see red, and watermelons are even greener than she is, so perhaps it's just as well that the farmer's daughter has a stately residence available! I liked Gracie Gourd.


Luna the Night Butterfly by Lily Lexington


Rating: WORTHY!

Luna has issues. She's glowing luminous green to begin with, which is a problem, because she's a night "butterfly" and those nighttime predators are pretty skillful. Fortunately, she meets none in this poetic paean to positivity and perseverance (and don't try saying that too fast unless you cover your mouth!). Luna's kinda cute actually, despite having two legs and four arms, but you know what they say - four armed is forewarned. Maybe I got that wrong. Never mind.

Poetry is only one pleasing part of the picture (there I go again! Sometimes you just have to pee....). The images are gorgeous. Colorful (yes, even the night-time ones) and wonderfully rendered. Luna actually doesn't realize that she's a Luna Moth, but when she finds out, she adapts admirably and ably. She's absolutely awesome! I give her an 'A'!


Friday, November 27, 2015

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi


Rating: WORTHY!

The author's name, we're told in the fly leaf, is pronounced SWA-thee Of-US-thee. The author was born in in India, but now lives in the USA. I find myself wondering, given that none of the native Indian languages uses the English alphabet, why her name isn't spelled phonetically. Why spell it in a way that necessitates either a phonetic spelling or a wrong pronunciation?! I've never understood that kind of thing when words are translated from languages which do not use anything remotely like the western alphabets. Life, it seems to me, would be a lot simpler for all of us if more thought was put into making it easier on ourselves!

In this context, one of the main characters is named Savitri, and again, it's not spelled how its pronounced. Interestingly, for a novel about three main characters, her name is pronounced like it's 'savvy three', but that's ruined when Holly, one of the other characters, shortens it to 'Sav'. Maybe this is on purpose, because it sounds like the way Americans pronounce 'salve'. Is Savitri going to be Holly's salve when things go bad? You'll have to read this to find out. The ending wasn't at all what I had been expecting, but it was a really good ending. Although this kind of thing is exactly the kind of word play in which I like to indulge myself in some of the things I've written, somehow I don't get the impression that this is what was going on here.

This novel is about friendship and about the psychology of loss, and about free-running or parkour. The free-running could also be taken as a metaphor for the ups and downs of friendship, and it was this panoply of opportunity and ideas which attracted me to this novel. It also has an Indian character written by an Indian author, which is another attraction for me. I find it hard to believe that authors do not include more Asian characters in their work given how huge the Asian population is - half the world! Given that African Americans are a significant component of the USA population and still struggle to get a fair shake, I guess I'm living in dreamland expecting that a community that is seen as being distanced from the US by half a world would get their turn, even though large numbers of them also populate in the USA.

There was one more thing to like about this novel. Although it's largely text, it's also somewhat of a mixed media publication in that it has a significant graphical component - rather like a comic book or graphic novel - which intrudes on the text from time to time. That said, the novel was written in first person PoV which I don't like, and to make it worse, this novel had three main characters, two of which were telling it in their own voice. That doubles the issues you have with only one PoV.

First person PoV is unnatural to me. We're being told that the author is typing-out the story as it happens, which is patently absurd, so we have to understand either that they telling us - narrating it as it happens to them - or they are writing it in retrospect, in which case, they evidently remember every little detail with eidetic clarity down to pinpoint accurate conversations, all with none of the natural modification which memory inevitably molds events. I can't take any of that seriously. Typically if I pick up a book off the shelf in a book store or the library and I see it's first person, I put it right back. Some writers, however, can carry this voice, so every time I find myself stuck with a novel like this, I'm hoping against no hope that this writer can do it without nauseating me or making me resent their self-important main character, and from the way this one started, it seems my wish was granted. In the end, it worked, and for once, worked well provided you were willing to let the absurdity of first person slide by.

Holly Paxton is the daughter of a cop, but this doesn't stop her free-running with her twin Corey and their friend Savitri Mathur across the cityscape of Chicago. These three late teens are (we're told on page six) "Defying the Physical Laws of Gravity." I have no idea what that means! There's only one law of gravity and nothing defies it, not even the birds. The best you can do is learn to work it, which is what these guys are doing, and as the story begins, Holly almost fails to work it. She comes close to missing a jump, and Savitri knows this, but neither Corey nor Holly are willing to consider that she could have died in a forty-foot fall. This near disaster presages the real disaster which is about to befall them.

Savitri and Corey are an item, but Savitri is heading off to Princeton when her high schooling is done, and Corey doesn't know this to begin with, so the story began well with a nice variety of friction from different sources showing up right from the off. Talking of controversy, the twins have a silver Mini Cooper which Corey has named "The Dana" and the author talks of this as though it's exclusively a female name, but it isn't. It's bi-gender. Just saying! In fact, pretty much every name is bi-gender if you're willing to let a few hang-ups go! There's a boy named Sue and there's a man duhh!!

What happens next is that Corey is shot and dies. Holly almost dies, and she and Savitri are left to try and make sense of their world sans Corey. The story that follows from this is beautifully told and unfolds about as close to perfection as you can hope for. The title was perfect! This is really well written, and tells a good and engrossing story. It constantly fooled me because I would think it was going somewhere when in fact it went somewhere else that was at least as interesting. I would have liked it to have gone further than it did in some directions, but I was satisfied with how it moved. Be warned: this is not your usual super hero story!

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. For example, I didn't get why both Savitri and Holly were letting jerk Josh back into their lives. It seemed to me to be unforgivable what he had done, but then it wasn't my call, it was Holly's and Savitri's choice. There was also one instance where Savitri came home from free-running and without washing her hands, immediately launched into helping her mom make roti (chapati). This didn't do Asian cuisine any favors and played right into the hands of any bigots and racists who like to trash foreign kitchen hygiene. Maybe most young readers won't notice this, as probably they won't notice (but they sure as hell should) that a revolver does not have a safety like an automatic does!

The biggest issue though, if I had one, was that what was happening (with regard to the graphical portion of the story) was happening to Holly, yet it was steeped in Indian mythology. I know this author is Indian at her roots, and if it had happened to Savitri, it would have flowed organically, but it didn't make much sense that a westerner who had been raised in different cultural traditions would have experienced what Holly experienced. Yes, she had read comic books about that mythology, but she also read comic books about different mythologies, and she had been raised in an entirely different cultural milieu, so this focus on Indian ritual didn't flow logically. That said, it was still interesting to me, and it was definitely different, so I was willing to let that go and enjoy it for what it was overall: a fun adventure, engrossing and entertaining, and I rate it a worthy read.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kat McGee and the Halloween Costume Caper by Kristin Riddick


Rating: WORTHY!

"Long Ranger" should maybe be "Lone Ranger"?!

This is my first Katherine McGee, and indeed my first Kristin Riddick, novel, and it was a worthy read, although as a series, it’s not something which at my age I feel any compulsion to continue, but for the intended age range, I see no problems with it at all. It was a fun, inventive story of wild derring-do, support and friendship and sends a very positive message. I have to add that the illustrations are remarkable and worthy of a novel aimed at any age. Nick Guarracino is a fine artist - and a useful contributor. For example at one point the questers came upon a wall of trumpets and I was picturing that completely wrong until I saw the artist's depiction of it. Hopefully he saw it as the author intended!

Kat loves Halloween, and makes her own costume every year, but this year, "the menacing Dr S" has prevailed upon the powers that be to cancel Halloween, based on problems of vandalism and theft which have accompanied previous events. I strongly suspected Dr S of actually orchestrating those very events, and we soon learn why. Kat's grandmother - the only one who fully supported Kat's amizing costuming ambitions, feeds her a special home-made lollipop one evening which not only puts Kat to sleep, it transports her from her native Totsville to Treatsville, which is the town where the Halloween costumes live. Someone there, who looks remarkably like Dr S, is stealing those costumes for his own benefit, which in Treatsville, where the costumes have a life of their own, is nothing short of kidnapping!

Kat is hosted by Dolce, who frankly creeped me out despite her charming demeanor and her appealing looks. Dolce initially prevaricates about being a witch, and certainly doesn't behave or look like traditional witch, but later she describes herself as a "wee witch-in-training," and she explains to Kat why this young girl is so important to Treatsville's future - but can she brave the Forest of Fear, the Pits of Gloom, and the Swamp of Sorrow? Kat calls to herself costumes from previous Halloweens: The Jujitsu Princess, and The Candy Cane Witch, and with these trusty companions, she launches herself on this quest, bravely if cautiously, but with Preppy Pirate spying on them and Snaggletooth trying to kidnap all costumes and thwart (yes, thwart!) her quest, can she succeed? I guessed that she would!

I had an issue or two over some of the events in the story like this one: "...like when Ellie Byrd stepped on the end of a rake two years ago. A fish head attached to the handle flew in her face. She hasn’t been able to go near a hay maze since." I know that's meant to be scary and funny, but stepping on a rake can lead to puncture wounds that in turn necessitate a trip to the Doctor for a tetanus shot, or at the very least a painful whack in the face. Even if we assume it was a leaf rake it's still potentially dangerous. Could the author not have called it a hoe or a shovel or something less spikey? Or maybe had the fish-head come at her by some other means?

Minor complaints like that aside, I liked Kat's attitude and the sense of humor which pervaded this story, and some of the text was choice. How about this for a rich phrase: " A festering laugh", or this comment on vampires: "...if this vampire’s bite doesn’t kill me, his four-hundred-year-old breath will!" I loved that, and it's for those reasons I am rating this a worthy read for the intended age range.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Urchin of the Riding Stars - The Mistmantle Chronicles by MI McAllister


Rating: WORTHY!

Normally I avoid like the plague novels with the word 'chronicles' (or 'cycle' or 'saga', etc.) in the title, but in children's stories, these words are more often not indicative of a pretentious and overblown story. This one sounded like it might be fun when I saw it in the library, and I was enamored of the first few tracks on the disk, listening as I drove in to work the next morning. It was well-written, and beautifully read, and was reminiscent of Phillip Pullman's writing. This is the start of a series of novels in this world.

I normally don't think actors are particularly good at reading stories, but in this case, the reader was Andrew Sachs, who I really like. He learned English as a second language and you may remember him from John Cleese's Fawlty Towers TV show. He was the hapless general dogsbody known as Manuel (he's from Barcelona). His voice in this novel is amazing, and he did an awesome job of reading. This story is advertised as being the squirrel version of "Watership Down" relating a tale of squirrels, moles, otters, and hedgehogs who live on the fog-shrouded island of Mistmantle, which no one but a rare and lucky ship can find. No word yet on whether King Kong is in residence there. Frankly, It didn't sound very much like Watership Down to me, but it is from a similar mold. It seemed to me to bear more relation to Lord of the Rings than ever it did to Watership Down which I've also reviewed

Urchin is a bit of a double-, if not a triple-, foundling. His mother snuck aboard one of the rare ships to find Mistmantle, knowing if she could reach it, it would be a safe haven for her newborn. She was wrong as it happened. She died after she had given birth to him, and by a strange series of events, Urchin (so-named because he was found near the ocean), was adopted by this community despite him being a very pale color for a red squirrel (no, he's not pink, but then red squirrels aren't really red!). His adoption may have been aided somewhat by the fact that he arrived on the night of the riding stars - a meteor shower, which is seen as an auspicious festival time amongst the Mistmantle community. It appeared to them that the squirrel had arrived on one of those 'stars', but until he matured and became ready to start work in the community, unloading ships, he wasn't told of his origin.

Urchin's idol is Captain Crispin, who unexpectedly appoints Urchin as his number two, saving him from every-day drudgery, but just as life seems to be looking up for our bushy-tailed bushido, it quickly becomes clear that things are not right in the Mistmantle world. The beneficent rule of King Brushen and Queen Spindle is no longer the carefree one it used to be. There is evil abroad - well actually not abroad, but right there in the court! The newborn prince is murdered, the loyal Crispin is accused and exiled, yet it seems it was at the hands of Lord Husk and Lady Aspen, in a plan to take over the kingdom, that this evil was unleashed. Are these villains blind to the strength of this community, and to ancient prophecies? Urchin discovers he must tread carefully and watch his own back as he tries to unravel what happened and tries to help the last remaining loyal captain to restore the kingdom.

This was a great story, full of inventiveness and strong character portrayals. I wasn't sure about the wine being introduced into a children's story, even though there was a reason for it, but then we have sword-fighting otters and talking squirrels, so why not? Minor quibbles like that aside, this was a very worthy, well-told and well-read tale and I recommend it.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mystery of Adventure Island by Paul Moxham


Title: The Mystery of Adventure Island
Author: Paul Moxham
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

This is a story, set in the fifties, about four kids who sail to an island just off the coast of England for some camping fun and end up investigating a ghostly presence. It’s written very much for the age group depicted in the story, so adults might find it a rather simplistic and unfulfilling read. it's number two in a series, and to me it felt very unrealistic, but my biggest problem with this novel was that genderism was rife in it.

I know it’s set in the fifties, so we can’t expect it to be thoroughly modern in all regards, but I don't see that setting it half a century ago gives the author blanket permission to put women in the back seat again. Yes, it if was 1943 and he's writing about a military operation behind enemy lines, then the chances are it was all men; however, this is in the fifties and it’s about kids, so why are the girls are consistently treated like they can’t take responsibility or carry heavy loads, and they are given to emotional break-downs and act like scaredy-cats? I found that obnoxious.

I know that one of them was very young (eight years old), but still, do they have to be presented in such a negative, passive light?! I realize that this book might be largely aimed at boys, but this doesn’t excuse the approach if the take-away for boys is that girls are second-rate or second best, not up to it, and in need of constant protection and direction. Any young girls who read this are going to get the same message.

The story begins with the boys and girls fixing up a small sailing boat and taking it to an island about three hours sailing up the coast from where they live. The problem is that this is the fifties and they're a mixed-gender group going on a camping trip, unsupervised by any adult. This struck me as odd for the era; it’s especially odd in that, given this amazingly liberal attitude towards norms and propriety for that time, we see a strongly contrasting conservative approach in how the girls are treated.

The boys are making all the decisions, they're rowing the boat, they’re unloading the boat while the girls are sent off to scout for a camping site. The girls are the ones shown to be scared of the ghost while the boys are all macho. The girls want to leave while the boys want to find out the truth about the ghost. It's not just the girls, either: at one point mom acknowledges her subservient place to dad in a grammatically odd statement:

Their mother smiled. “If you’re happy, then I’m too..."

I just found this to be painful to read and the mystery to be very simplistic with little motivation or rational for the children's actions. It’s obvious it's not a ghost, which means the kids could be in real danger. This is not some fictional supernatural nonsense, but a real person who wants them off the island. He could be a smuggler or a psycho. Neither one of those is likely to be very friendly towards - or considerate of - the kids, yet not a one of them ever voices any concern for what could be a very real threat to their own safety. This doesn’t impress me with their smarts.

They pass up the chance they have to sail away, and they merely row around the island from their initial camp site to secrete their boat in a small cave, before venturing back ashore to try to find out who this guy is. Maybe he's just a lonely guy who built the now ruined church and tried unsuccessfully to start a community on the island, but these kids don’t know that, and it’s really none of their business why he's there - and he's not alone. The kids discover another two guys and later a young woman arrives. This supposedly deserted island is positively crowded by this point!

Here’s another oddball piece of writing:

Will, who was now carrying the binoculars, peered through them. “It’s a rowboat. I can see one person in it.”
“Why would a person come to this island alone?” Joe wondered

Seriously? This is a huge mystery?!

This is part of a series of stand-alone books about these kids, so you don't have to have read previous volumes to enjoy this - if it’s your cup of tea that is - and because of that, I am doubtlessly missing some history from earlier volumes. Maybe one or more of the kids are children of cops and so have some sort of motivation from that, but that possibility aside, rational and compelling motivations - unless you count merely being meddlesome and tiresome - were not in evidence in this volume.

I lost interest in it pretty quickly. The writing is pedestrian at best, with nothing really Earth-moving going on. Maybe undiscriminating children in the middle-grade age range will enjoy it, and if so, good luck to them in finding a series that they can read, but nothing here made me think that my own kids would be interested, and I can’t recommend it based on what I read.


The Mystery of Smugglers Cove by Paul Moxham


Title: The Mystery of Smugglers Cove
Author: Paul Moxham
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

Not to be confused with the 'Hardy Boys' story of the same name or with the Disney Press story Annette and the Mystery at Smugglers' Cove, or with the Syvanus Cobb story The Smuggler of King's Cove, this rather uninventively (and arguably ungrammatically) titled novel is set in the fifties, aimed at young children, and number one in a series of highly improbable 'adventures' which always seem to happen to the same few children. If they had been written better, they might have been a worthy read, but as it is I cannot recommend this any more than I could the first in this series, and after reading two of these in a row, I certainly have no intention of reading any more.

I had too many issues with this to rate it 'worthy'. One of these was in the quality of the writing. There were some spelling gaffs and some grammatical issues, such as using the term "...going a bit faster than her and Sarah..." when it ought to be "...going a bit faster than she and Sarah...". This may not bother some people, particularly young readers, but it jumped out at me. There were other weird sentences such as "...storm clouds moved inland towards the coast..." - no, 'the coast' comes before 'inland'. If the clouds are moving inland, they're moving away from the coast! If they're moving towards the coast then they might be threatening to move inland later - or they may be moving out to sea! It was just poor writing.

Another instance of thoughtless writing was when the boys were following a smuggler's tunnel dug from the beach up into a house on the headland. I've seen such tunnels in Cornwell, and they are tiny - even a child - which was what they used to run these tunnels, would have had to to crawl. Even if such a smuggling route had begun as a natural cave, there would have to have been some tunneling at some point to get them up to the house, yet here these kids are walking along the ridiculously roomy tunnel, and they come to a blank wall. That the wall was not natural ought to have clued them in that there was something else here, but instead of looking up (why does no one ever look up?!) we read: "Only a madman would build a tunnel that ended in a blank wall...". That they didn't get this right away - that either it had been deliberately blocked off, or there was a hatch above them just made the kids look stupid and short-sighted, and it robbed them of any credibility as mystery solvers. Perhaps younger readers won't mind that, but I hate stories that talk down to kids. They deserve better.

That the kids are not too smart is evidenced elsewhere in the book, too. At one point, we read, "The afternoon wore on, but Will never arrived. Wondering what could have happened to delay their friend, they headed back home disappointed." Never once do any of them think of going to Will's house to see if he's there or if he got sick or delayed or something. It doesn't imbue me with much faith in kids who are clearly unimaginative, especially in their ability to get things done, which is what this novel is supposed to be all about! If they cannot step-up with such a simple thing as finding out what happened to Will, and they all give-up and go home at the drop of a hat, where is my rational for believing that they can come through in resolving a smuggling case later? It's simply not authentic. The earlier actions betray the later premise. Again. this may not bother younger readers, but it bothers me that poor writing is being foisted on kids who can handle and who certainly deserve better.

There were some genderist issues such as the author writing, "Like many twelve year old boys, Joe was always on the lookout for an adventure", as though only boys have this desire for adventure, no girls need apply. The sentence could just as easily have read: "Like many twelve year old boys and girls, Joe was always on the lookout for an adventure". I know this novel is set in the fifties, which is a cool idea, but this doesn't mean we have to write to the mind set of the fifties, but this book definitely was, with the boys taking strong leadership roles and the girls just along for the ride. Yes, the girls were younger, but this doesn't mean they have to take a complete back seat all the time in all things and always be the ones who are scared and squealing. I resented this intensely.

In short I cannot recommend this novel as a worthy read.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Nikki Powergloves: A Hero is Born by David Estes


Title: Nikki Powergloves a Hero is Born
Author: David Estes
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

Nikki Nickerson is a nine-year old who is at a loss this summer holiday because her best friend Spencer is out of town, she doesn't like doing "girl stuff", and the boys won't let her do "boy stuff" with them. I found this author's going out of his way to establish the young girl's tomboy cred a bit overdone. Plus I really didn't like how dependent this girl was made to be on her best friend, especially since her best friend sounded like a jerk. He inveigles himself into becoming her side-kick and when he acknowledges her supremacy it's with the words "Big-Boss-Man", not "Big Boss Woman" which was annoying. He likes to use pet names which he ad-libs for Nikki, and I'm sorry but these were tedious in the extreme, and just plain stupid. They became really irritating, really fast, and were not remotely funny.

Spencer is actually a complete disaster and I think it was an awful plotting decision to make Nikki so dependent upon him. It was unnecessary and abusive of women when you get right down to it. even a nine-year-old needs a guy to validate her? Shame on the author. Can this young girl not stand on her own feet and have her own adventure without having to have this kid act pretty much like a father figure to her? It was weird and uncalled for, especially when we were repeatedly told how smart he was, yet were shown that he really didn't behave like he was. Masculinity does not equal smarts and femininity does not equal dumb, yet it seems like this is the lesson that's being foisted onto middle-graders here.

That gripe aside, the story wasn't too bad in parts, although I all-too-often had mixed feelings about Nikki. There were times when she could be endearing and other times when she was a little jerk herself. For example, when they were testing out the powers of her gloves, she more than once did bad things to Spencer, like turning herself into a lion and scaring him, and like tying his shoelaces together so he falls over. You can have a girl being a tomboy without actually turning her into a boy - especially one who is a troublemaker.

The story begins with Nikki walking out in the woods, and her little dog, too. She discovers a weird creature which she later learns is a Weeble. It looks like a cross between a porcupine and a beaver, but other than this introduction, this creature plays very little part in the story. It made me wonder why it was ever included, especially since Weeble is a proprietary name (they wobble but they don't fall down, you know!).

But anyway, the "Weeble" runs off down this weird path in the woods which Nikki has never seen before. It leads her to a chest containing several pairs of differently colored and designed gloves. She learns that these are magical gloves and if she wears them, they give her super powers indicated by the particular design on the gloves. One pair might allow her to fly, another to become invisible, another to impersonate someone, another to turn herself into an animal, another to manufacture ice, another for fire, or lightning, and so on.

Nikki evidently can't cope with this by herself and has to put her life into the wise hands of Spencer, who luckily is coming back early from his trip out of town. He immediately takes charge of this lost girl and tells her what to do. They test and catalog all the gloves and then hurry home to design a super hero costume for her. Meanwhile, her nemesis shows up in the shape of Jimmy, who has magical boots which do for him the same kind of things which the gloves do for Nikki. We quickly learn he can fly and teleport, and he can make himself very strong.

To her credit, Nikki sets herself to putting right the things she screwed-up when she accidentally called up a really damaging thunderstorm, and then sets about developing a costume, and is once again completely overrun by Spencer Quick, who pretty much designs it for her. Finally she gets the chance to show her super hero skills, in her new costume.

A lot of the references in this book seemed more aimed at people the author's own age rather than at nine-year-olds. And Spider-Man isn't "Spiderman" - if you're going to write book about a super hero, at least get the comic book references right!

“…he saw a flying shape appear on the horizon. It was moving so fast it was only a blur. Good girl, he thought, Nikki was giving the cameras plenty of time to capture her on film…”

How does this make any sense at all?! I'm sorry but the domination of a nine-year old girl by a jerk of a nine-year old boy for me destroyed anything this writer might have been trying to do. I cannot recommend it.

Alexandra Fry, Private Eye by Angella Graff


Title: Alexandra Fry, Private Eye
Author: Angella Graff
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
"...had similar Coat of Arms" should be "Coats of Arms"
"...buku bucks"?! She means "beaucoup bucks", beaucoup being French for very many.

This is a middle-grade leading into young-adult story about a girl who can see ghosts and has suffered for it by being labeled Loopy Lexi as her old school. Now she's moving up to middle school and has the chance to hide her past and start over. She can do this because the move coincides with her mom moving to a new home across town which happens to be in a different school district. Her dad is not living with her mom, and her older sister is in college already, so it's just Alexandra and her mom. And her new friend Penelope, who quickly spots that something is going on with Alexandra, and finally gets her to spill the beans as to her behavior.

Alexandra's ghosts are not your regular everyday characters. They seem, for reasons unexplained, to be the cream of ghostly society. For example, her last visitor in her old school was Ferdinand Magellan - yes, he of the straits. In her new school, she is once again accosted in the middle of a class by a new ghost - this time it's Elizabeth the first - of England, not of Britain as this author has her state. While there were Britons, there was no Britain during Elizabeth's reign, so she never would have introduced herself with "My name is Elizabeth, Queen of Britain." I know this is a kids book but that doesn't mean they deserve less respect than do adults in their reading material.

This is a problem with having old ghosts (or with time-travel novels). Do you have them speak in Elizabethan English and risk sounding pretentious or worse, being misunderstood, or do you say the hell with it and have them speak modern English and hope your middle-grade audience isn't as sophisticated as an adult audience? It's the author's choice of course, but it needs to be made very carefully, and Elizabeth was a bit too modern and sounded fake. What bothered me here though is that Alexandra simply took it at face value that this was Elizabeth without any questioning or any attempt to verify it. I don't like dumb lead characters, and it sets a poor example for kids.

Here's something which bothered me more. In the middle of chapter six, Alexandra goes to visit her father. Elizabeth 1.0 had told her that a locket had been stolen and if it wasn't recovered, then disaster would befall the town. How Liz knew it was gone, but didn't know who took it goes unexplained. Alexandra decides to visit her dad after school, in the museum where he works. She declares:

Even when it was his weekend, he mostly just ordered me pizza and handed over the TV remote while he was shut up in his study doing stuff for the museum. I mean he was a great dad...

I'm sorry but the last sentence definitely doesn't follow what's gone immediately before it. In what way, exactly, was he a great dad? I really do not like this kind of writing. He sounds like a deadbeat to me. Here's more evidence:

The good news was my dad was good friends with the guy who owned the coffee shop, so knowing him, he’d get into some half-hour conversation and totally forget I was still out here.

Here's another such quote:

I'd always liked staying my dad's place, even though he was usually too busy to spend time with me.

The hilarious thing is that after all these statements of clear neglect on the part of her dad, we then get the absurdity of him going on about her wanting to go over to a friend's house on a Saturday afternoon, with a girlfriend. The other friend is male, but seriously? If you don't know your daughter well enough to trust her, or worse, you failed your daughter by not putting in the time it takes to raise her properly (which is clearly the case here given how frequently Alexandra tells us he leaves her to her own devices while he goes off to do something he evidently prefers over spending time with his daughter), he has no business raising issues here.

Elizabeth claims that one of the Ainsworth family stole her sister's jewels (presumably she's talking about Queen Mary) "and burned for it," but they never actually burned people for theft. They had lots of other horrible things they could do back then, trust me. Again with the historical inaccuracy. Fiction is entitled to be fiction, but there's no reason at all why real historical people cannot be made as authentic as is reasonably possible. This writer struck me as simply lazy or uncaring and it showed in her writing. Kids deserve better.

Alexandra continually sets bad examples by running around late at night and breaking into places. This is a really poor role model for children of this age.

This last one was what decided it for me: I was rating this negatively:

"I promise," I said, but that was probably a lie.

'This isn't a good thing to have young kids even thinking, let alone asserting. There wasn't even a moment's hesitation or any attempt at hedging here. She knowingly and with no good reason, outright lied to her parent. I know all kids fib here and there, especially if they think the truth will get them into trouble, and sometimes there are good reasons given for lies in stories like this, but this was not one of those cases. Alexandra's behavior does not set any kid of good example, shows her lack of integrity and honestly, and certainly doesn't make me respect this kid or want to read about her. I can't rate a book positively when it fails on as many levels as this one did.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ryder: Bird of Prey by Nick Pengelley


Title: Ryder: Bird of Prey
Author: Nick Pengelley
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
One of the Russian phrases at the start of chapter 21 didn't render properly in Adobe Digital editions. In place of characters or spaces are two boxes with an 'X' in them (page 104 of ADE version)
Page 141 (end of chapter 30 "...when'd he'd" should be "when he'd"

The Ayesha Ryder series is a highly fanciful cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones, with some Dan Brown tossed in for good measure. It's evidently set in an alternate universe - an assessment with which the author may disagree, but I have to disagree with him on that score in return: this "world" is so fanciful that it's honestly not realistic. In it, the Israelis and Palestinians are living in a shared nation, and air travel is by Zeppelin, to name two of the unlikeliest differences between this and the real world.

Although there are three books in this series out now, this is only the second of these stories that I've read. The first one by-passed me somehow. You can read them as stand-alones as long as you remember that you may find yourself missing some of the references if you do. I was favorably impressed with volume two, Ryder: American Treasure, but this third outing simply failed to make the grade.

The first problem showed up early, and it's that Ayesha Ryder is really Mary Sue! She can do no wrong, although she's always inexplicably suspected of (or blamed for) wrong-doing by someone each outing. I was impressed by her in the first one I read because she was not the trope white American. She's Palestinian, which is a refreshing change, although she was also a terrorist, so how an ex terrorist came to be, in effect, working for the British government is a mystery to me (which may or may not be covered in volume one - I don't know).

In this edition, we meet Ayesha hanging out with the British Prime Minister, who in this world is female and gay (although that latter characteristic isn't widely known). With the two of them is the Prime minister's secretary, who is female and bisexual as well as being a BDSM devotee. Or addict, more accurately. All the villains in this series are far more oddball than ever they need to be, which to me makes them more of a joke than a threat.

Ryder and the other two take part in an archery 'contest' trying out a replica English longbow. The PM can't even pull the string. The secretary, Bebe Daniels, handles it expertly and hits the bull's eye roundly in the middle, but Ayesha of course, splits Bebe's arrow with one of her own. This was where this book and I began to part ways in terms of it retaining my favor. It's quite okay, you know, to have your main character screw up on occasion. In fact, it's preferable to having her be Mary Sue, Handmaiden of Perfection, as she's depicted here.

Very shortly after this, the Prime Minister is reported to be dying of polonium poisoning, and Ayesha is the main suspect, being sought by MI5, the police, and Special Branch, and if the deputy PM Noel Malcolm has his way, the British army, too. Ri-ight! Here's where we encounter another departure from the real world. The prime minister seems to have surrounded herself with traitors and scoundrels, which is simply not credible. Yes, there may be a mole or a turn-coat on a team, but here it's like every edition of this series turns up yet another traitor at the gate. I simply could not credit that the government would be shot through with such people in the highest positions, especially someone like Malcolm, who's completely delusional.

In the deputy prime minister's case, he wants to break-up the United Kingdom and shed England's ties to the WTO, NATO, and the European Union. He also wants to force upon Scotland the independence it turned down just a few months ago, and force upon Northern Ireland a subjugation to Eire, which NI has consistently - and oftentimes literally - fought against. It's simply not conceivable that the prime minister, who is against all this, would have as a deputy someone who is diametrically opposed to her core beliefs.

By this time I was about a quarter the way in and I was already losing interest in what had, by this point, become a classic British farce, populated with grotesque caricatures, but incredibly it was about to become yet more farcical! The next thing we learn is that the Maltese Falcon (of Dashiel Hammet Fame) is not only real, but contains a second-rate Dan Brownian clue-cascade leading to the lost sword of Harold Godwinson (King Harold of the Battle of Hastings fame. The deputy PM is of the opinion that if he can only find the sword, it will magically convince everyone that he's right and England will be freed of its shackles! Drool much Noel?

Thus, a pell-mell chase for the sword is on, with Ayesha and some dude from the library at the institute where Doctor Ryder (Doctor Jones much?) works, directed by a clue in the Maltese Falcon, and descending into London's catacombs to find clues in Æthelred the Unready's (aka Æthelred 2.0's) grave which supposedly directs them to king Harold's grave. The problem is that none of this really was very well done or very gripping. This novel was not as well put together as Dan Brown's efforts, and he's hardly a sterling example.

Another major issue was that of American influence in British governmental affairs. The depths to which it supposedly runs in this story is simply not credible. Rather than turn out to be an enjoyable and mature yarn about spying and intrigue, this turned out to be more like the Spy Kids movies, which were fun as far as they went, but hardly to be taken seriously.

The one thing that kept me reading for a while was that I have actually been to the site of the Battle of Hastings, and to the ruins of Battle Abbey which stand hard by it, but Pengelley's fantasy that Harold's body is discovered intact and as well-preserved as if he just died is nonsensical. This is in a porous sandstone cave close by the salty ocean, and we're expected to believe everything has been preserved for a millennium? That's reality leaving on the bus over there.

The truth is that there are the remains of a headless and largely legless man in Bosham church which is a likely candidate for Harold's actual skeleton. He was reported as being dismembered after dying in the company of his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine at which point, and having no leadership remaining, the English, who were on the verge of winning not long before, finally collapsed and William of Normandy became England's new ruler. It was the last time England was successfully invaded. And no, the story of the arrow in the eye is by no means verified, and may well be due to a misunderstanding of the graphic novel known as the Bayeux Tapestry!

One of the most annoying aspects of this novel was the random flashbacks. Most of these were Ayesha's (to her Gaza strip past), but there was also one for the CIA operative, Danforth. This took the novel to ever more ridiculous heights, whereby we have Zeppelins flying over the Taliban. how absurd is that? They have rockets. The author apparently didn't think for a second about what a monstrously tempting and easily assailable target a gigantic Zeppelin would be to someone with a surface-to-air missile at hand.

I began routinely skipping these flashback chapters because they really contributed nothing to the story and were, frankly, really annoying interruptions. They felt like nothing more than padding (without which the novel would have drifted perilously close to the sub 200 page arena, I might add). It's never a good thing when the author includes paragraphs and worse, entire chapters, which actively encourage readers to skim and skip.

At about 70% of the way in, at the start of chapter 38, this novel became far too ridiculous to continue reading, even by its own standards. Ayesha is at this point in an ancient underground hall where equally ancient tombs are preserved, yet she starts a gunfight whereby damage galore is inflicted upon the ancient artifacts - and this woman is supposed to have earned herself a doctorate? If she had any smarts at all, she would have fired on these people before they got down the stairs, not afterwards where they have all kinds of room to maneuver and places to hide. At any rate, it was too laughable to continue, and I quit reading right there. I can't recommend this cartoon.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular by Steve Hockensmith


Title: Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular
Author: Steve Hockensmith
Publisher: Quirk Publishing
Rating: WORTHY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Science advisor: Bob Pflugfelder.

This story wasn't for me, but I'm rating it positively for several reasons, not least of which is that it definitely was for the age group (middle grade) at which it's aimed. In addition to that, it has a strong female character who isn't sidelined or dependent upon a male figure (and from a male writer! Why can't female writers do a better job at this? YA authors, I'm looking at you!). In addition to that it has gadgets you can make (and relatively inexpensively), some of which are not really practical to use (such as the grappling hook), others of which are eminently practical, even ingenious, such as the steadicam device.

If there's one thing we need to encourage in our kids academically, it's math and science, and I am on-board with pretty much every book out there which nudges kids in that direction. Science isn't for nerds, it's for everyone, and it plays an important part in everyday life. It can help you to understand the world around you and live a better life in it, with greater understanding of how everything works.

This is one of a series (the first I've read). You do not have to have read the others to enjoy this one. Fraternal (or sororal, why not?!) twins Nick and Tesla Holt are, to be frank, rather neglected in the regard that their parents are evidently always away on projects across the globe, leaving the kids in the care of their "mad scientist" uncle. I had two problems with this: first that this neglect is effectively presented as a good thing, and second that their uncle Newt is presented as your stereotypical mad scientist, always blowing things up. I think that was a bad choice, and a better choice would have been to have kept the kids at home with their parents, and had mom be the engineer/inventor instead of having a clichéd male scientist character.

However, if you're willing to overlook that, then there is a cool adventure to be had here. There's something afoot in the movie industry, and Nick and Tesla have an 'in' to the studio back-lot through a relative of a friend of theirs. Together, Demarco, Nick, Silas, and Tesla solve the crime, and learn a huge amount about movie-making and special effects. I would have loved a story like this when I was that age. Who is leaking embarrassing paparazzi-style footage onto the Internet? Who is sabotaging filming on the set - and why?

I would have preferred a stronger word or two of caution with regard to having kids running around the studio lot (or any place of work, especially where there's a potential for serious injury) unescorted, but that aside, the kids show smarts and responsibility, and they show inventiveness - two of them are making their own movie: "Bald Eagle: The Legend Takes Flight" featuring their own special effects, with which Tesla and Nick are helping. Thus they have the grappling tool, the robo-arm, a stunt dummy and the steadicam rig.

The only big problem I had with this is one which I've had with several other books. The translation of the book into Kindle format sucks! I mean it seriously sucks. Take a look at the sample screen-shot on my blog. This was one of very many such screens which are screwed-up for several reasons: because the text is ragged - failing to run to the full width of the screen, or it's randomly displayed as gray instead of black, or the text randomly changes size for a few words before reverting to its original size, or page numbers appear in the text. All f those issues can be seen in the image here.

There's absolutely no excuse for this shoddy presentation whatsoever, not even in an advance review copy. The novel isn't due out until May - there was plenty of time to finish up the illustrations and get the presentation right! Hopefully the commercial version of the Kindle version will be error-free! However I am not rating this in the presentation of the ARC, but on the writing and the story, which I rate as a worthy story.