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

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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pentecost by JF Penn

Title: Pentecost
Author: JF Penn
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
Rating: WARTY!

You'd think a novel with 'Pen' in the title penned by a writer whose last name is Penn would be a novel made in heaven, especially if it's about religious nut-jobs, but it wasn't to be. More like 4F.

This novel is about Morgan Sierra who is a psychologist resident in Oxford, England. She was, at one time, a soldier in the IDF - the Israeli Defence Force. When a stone is stolen from a nun who is murdered in Varanasi (aka Benares or Kashi) in India (I am not making this up!), this somehow connects to Morgan, and she becomes the target of Thanatos - a cult of the deludedly religious (OTOH, what religion isn't?!) who are evidently chasing after the 'stones of power'. Her involvement also brings in her sister and niece, who are kidnapped. Fortunately, this weak woman is saved by a trope macho military guy who happens to be a member of a secret society named 'ARKANE', especially not when his name is, absurdly, Jake Timber! Really?

I can't even remember how I got hold of this novel and it sat there for ages without me feeling any great urge to pick it up. I started it more than once, but I absolutely could not get into it. I don't like stories where the main female character is presented as tough and independent, but immediately needs a guy to rescue and validate her. I didn't read all of this by any means, so I can't speak for how it all panned out. Maybe things turned around, but I simply could not get into the novel at all, so I can't offer any sort of recommendation.

I don't see how a huge secret of 'power stones' (seriously?) would lay dormant for 2,000 years, so the underlying plot was farcical to me to begin with. Worse than that, there seemed to me to be nothing here but trope - the tough female, but motivated solely by 'female motivations' - her sister, her niece - her mothering instincts.

Not that there's anything wrong with that per se, but why is it that when a male hero is in play, his motivation is typically patriotism, duty, military loyalty, training, and bromance, but when a female becomes the main character, the criteria change completely? Can a woman not be patriotic? Can she not feel comradeship with her fellow men/women? Can she not be motivated by duty? Does it always have to be rescuing her mom/sister/niece/nephew/child? And vice-versa for the guy.

I think this is one of the strongest reasons why this was so tedious to me, and why it didn't pull me in or invest me with any interest in these people. They were, essentially, non-entities. It seems like the plot had a life of its own, and any random characters could have been plugged in to fill the character slots, so there was nothing special about the characters who happened to be attached. There really was nothing really new or notably original in the part that I read, and since the characters were unappealing, I found no point in continuing to read this and certainly no need to pursue an entire series about such pointless and uninteresting people.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ryder: American Treasure by Nick Pengelly

Title: Ryder: American Treasure
Author: Nick Pengelly (no website found)
Publisher: Random House
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!

On page 8 in the Adobe Digital Editions version, there is the full name of the Israeli organization, the Mossad, but one of the characters in the name is rendered as a box with an X in it (X-Box!). In the iPad Bluefire version, there is no problem with this name.
"...cavalry have arrived" is Wong. Calvary is singular. it should be "...cavalry has arrived"

This novel is a mix of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Robert Langdon, and I found it to be, overall, a worthy read despite some issues I had with it.

I love irony! On page nine of this novel, I read, "…the capitol the British had looted and burned in 1814, during the war of 1812…." This phrase was highly amusing to me because it makes it look like the British were two years late (and a dollar short) with their burning and looting, doesn’t it? The fact is that "the war of 1812" did indeed run for three years!

It’s important to this story because of the burning down of the White House. The conceit here is that something possibly taken from the White House at that time, a letter which might impinge upon the success of a candidate in the current US election campaign, was believed to have ended up in the possession of Lord Kitchener.

A problem I had here was with one of the central premises of this novel: it's not really believable! The contention is that a past US president knew of a spy in a high level position, yet did nothing about it. In that era, where spies were rapidly dispatched via rope or rifle, this made no sense to me, but there's a really nice twist at the end that I did appreciate.

1812 was quite a year. It was a leap year. It was the year when Lord Byron first addressed the House of Lords, the year Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and Edward Lear were born, and Sacagawea died, and it was the year in which Napoleon introduced metric measurements in France and begun his ill-fated invasion of Russia. It was not the year in which Tchaikovsky wrote his 1812 Overture to commemorate Russia's defence of its homeland against Napoleon.

This novel is the middle of what's so far a trilogy: Ryder, Ryder: American Treasure, and Ryder: Bird of Prey. I have not read any of the others, but I plan on doing so, having found this to my taste, but nevertheless hoping for better in other volumes.

It's about Ayesha Ryder and her tracking down of this "treasure". Ayesha is tall and dusky, of Middle Eastern origin and already accomplished when the novel begins (from the previous volume, Ryder). She's at a ceremony where she was presented with the British George Cross for her services to the nation. She's trying to calculate how quickly she can leave this event without seeming rude, but she's trapped by the formidable trio of Dame Imogen Worsley, the head of MI5 (the Brit equivalent of the FBI), Susannah Armstrong, the Brit prime minister, and the American Secretary of State, Diana Longshore. How cool is that?

Yes, all women. I really want to know why it takes a male writer to put a host of women in prominent positions?! I've read far too many novels by female writers where women are given disturbingly short shrift (if not shift) and it bothers me. I know there are some excellent novels penned by female writers which do give due prominence to female characters, but there is nowhere near enough of these writers.

On the other hand, my fear at that point, once I’d seen this bevy of female influence, was that the author would betray it all by turning Ayesha into some wilting vaporous girl swooning in the arms of some tough American operative as the story progressed. I could only wait and see with baited breath (and baited breath is pretty disgusting when you think about it, so I didn’t like that at all...).

Rest assured that Ayesha turns into no such thing. There was, however, an issue with these powerful women which bothered me and which is hard to discuss without giving away too much, so let me confine myself to saying that lesbianism should be conflated neither with stupidity nor with women in positions of power. The two sets overlap in places, but they are not equal sets!

Ayesha is very much a female Indiana Jones - chasing after the ark of the covenant no less! She's irritated that she's been deflected from her course by some American nonsense in which she has no interest. What she doesn't know is that she's about to come into collision with someone else who has a much greater interest in finding what she's been tasked with uncovering.

In this world which the author has created, Israelis and Palestinians have united and formed a new nation known as the Holy Land, but some movers and shakers in both the US and the Holy land want to return to the days of Israel's independence. There are all kinds of unexpected alliances (and dalliances) and unusual undercurrents in play in this novel, and the power players are not neglected in this wild and crazy interplay, although some of them behave rather foolishly at times and it's a bit hard to credit that a woman would put her position at risk. Unlike men, women know they've not only worked damned hard, but succeeded against the odds to get where they are, and they're not so foolish as to put it all at risk like that. But this is fiction, so I guess it could happen.

As always, no matter how much I may like a given novel, there are issues to be found with it. In this case, the most disturbing one is that Ayesha isn't always presented as the smartest cookie in the box (or, since this is set in Britain, I guess I should say, 'biscuit in the barrel'. I can understand a need to have your prize character have flaws, and to put him or her into gripping situations in a novel like this, but in my opinion, integrity and faithfulness to your character trump excitement every time!

For example, at one point in this story, when under fire, Ayesha could have used a truck to shield her friend and protect him from gunfire, but she never thinks to do it, exposing him to the fire by her thoughtless inaction. Now you can argue that she wasn't thinking straight, but this takes place immediately after we're given a flashback which shows us how admirably cool and calculating she is when her life is threatened.

At another point, someone tries to set her up as a murderer. This stupid given who she is and how well-known and well-connected she is, but the plan is to kill her so she can't clear her name. This is also flawed (as the finale shows!). The author went for dramatics rather than realism, which can sometimes work and be more entertaining, but it can also back-fire. In this case it seems to me that a deadly killer like the one who is after her, would use much a more simple, sure, and direct method of assault. It's issues like this which repeatedly kick a reader out of a story.

At one point Ayesha directly observes an easily-identifiable man planting an object which will set her up as a murder suspect. Immediately afterwards, she runs into a cop who she knocks out. If she had taken a second to tell him that she saw someone plant the object and tell him where it is, before disabling him, she would have been in a lot stronger position. Instead, she knocks him out and runs, and makes herself look guilty.

Indeed, she assaults several police officers quite brutally over the course of her escape, almost killing one, and pays no kind of penalty whatsoever for this. That was too much of a stretch, and her actions only served as a confirmation of her guilt. I began actually disliking her during this part of the story and wondering if I really wanted to read on. I'm sure that's not what the writer intended, but it is what was achieved in my case. It's hard to like characters who are, we're told, smart, but who routinely act foolishly! Fortunately things improved.

Ayesha personally knows some very important people, yet never once does she consider calling any of them to let them know what's going on. Instead she runs like she's guilty, and acts like she's guilty, and thereby digs herself deeper into the hole which has already been opened-up for her by the very people who are trying to set her up! She plays right into their hands, which doesn't make her seem very smart.

Fortunately the villain is even less smart. He's one of these James Bond types who monologues instead of dispatching his captured secret agent and accompanying love interest du jour Fortunately, I was on-board sufficiently with this novel that I was willing to let a few clunkers get by, but I do have my limit! This author managed to avoid exceeding it, and on top of that gave us a non-white, non-American, non-male hero, and I think that deserves encouragement. So here's to more - and steadily improving quality - volumes!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey

Title: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand
Author: Jen Swann Downey
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Rating: WORTHY!

Well here we are on the fourteenth day of December, the start of the twelve-day count-down to Xmas day (although the actual twelve days of Xmas begins on Xmas day). The fourteenth letter of the alphabet is 'N', so in keeping with my little scheme for this month, this is a review of a novel which has a title starting with that letter.

Dorrie Barnes is a rather ill-behaved and irresponsible twelve-year-old who is represented on the book's cover as a woman who appears to be in her mid-thirties with improbably long legs. Once again Big Publishing™ strikes! I don't normally rant about covers, but this one in particular has two strikes against it. Usually the plain hard-back has a decorated or illustrated cover. This one does, too, but underneath the paper cover, the hardback cover isn't plain: it shows precisely the same image as the paper cover does, so why add the paper cover? Why not leave it without one and save a tree? Yet another fail by Big Publishing™. Do they never end?

You might guess that I hated this book, but I didn't actually hate it. It just wasn't for me, but it might well be for the age group at which it's aimed, which is why I'm rating it positively. There were some really good parts after all. Seriously, how can you hate a book titled "Ninja Librarians? Unfortunately for me, the book was too long, and too dissipated and meandering. It seemed like the author couldn't decide what to write about and the editor evidently couldn't say no when the author would stray from topic.

Also, for a book with 'librarians' in the title, there was precious little in it that was actually about books - except how Dorrie was neglectful of returning library books, which to me is a cardinal sin! In additional to that, Dorrie was in one case abusive to books in that she tore a page out of a valuable and important book, and instead of 'fessing up, she hid the page and eventually lost it. That was not forgivable and was one reason why I felt that this novel left a lot to be desired - especially given its title.

Dorrie came across as very selfish and self-centered, which is never a good thing in a main character in my book - or in any book, unless there's a really good explanation for it! That wouldn't have been so bad if she'd grown out of it, but she really didn't. I also was not too thrilled with the obsession with violence and sword-fighting. I don't mind a good mêlée once in a while, even in a children's book if done properly, but the fact that Dorrie obsessed on this and not on any other aspect of what these misnamed "ninja" librarians do with their time was distressing at best.

The book begins with Dorrie running off to a renaissance festival instead of looking for her overdue library book. She's a play sword-fighter, but when her friend's mongoose gets loose, and runs into the library, Dorrie chases it and uncovers a secret portal to Petrarch's library. Now why we get Petrarch's rather than the library at Alexandria I do not know. Petrarch never appears in the story, but Hypatia, a mathematician, teacher, and philosopher who was brutally murdered by psychotic Christian thugs, appears quite a lot. I found that incomprehensible.

Anyway, the library turns out to be a secret hub connecting to various places at various times, so that by passing through a portal, you could be in ancient Greece (not ancient grease, which really takes some getting off) or in medieval Paris. The only way to pass through these portals is with a key-hand - someone who has undergone training and become an approved key to the portal. When Dorrie, her brother Marcus and the pet mongoose fall through a closet in their local library, Dorrie somehow accidentally becomes a key-hand. This has never happened before.

Actually there's some confusion about who was a key-hand and who wasn't, and how it happened, but let's not get into that, since it's one of several issues I had with this novel. Another of these was with the poor world-building. There was no indication as to how the portals worked. We're given to understand from the blurb that the people can travel to any place at any time, but that's an outright lie! Duhh! It's a book blurb! Their whole purpose is to lie! The portals are actually limited in number, and each one leads to a fixed place and date which is slowly advancing!

The book tells us that time passes slowly outside, or conversely, quickly inside the library. Dorrie is gone, subjectively, for several weeks while only two minutes pass back in her hometown, yet this "rule" isn't consistent, and no explanation is given for why it varies between portals. I guess it's timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly thing, you know?

So lots of issues, but overall not too bad of a story for children. It just doesn't welcome discerning adults. However, I will rate it positively because I think children will like it - if they have the stamina to get through it all!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hello, Airplane! by Bill Cotter

Title: Hello, Airplane!
Author: Bill Cotter (no website found)
Publisher: Jabberwocky Kids (no website found)
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 novel is reward aplenty!

I envy writers who can illustrate. This author does a great job of conveying to young children in simple words and more complex images, the thrill of an airplane flight. It's an ideal introduction to children who are going to be traveling by air, or to any child who dreams of flying.

The story is very short and has few words, so there's not a whole heck of a lot to say about it, but the drawings are warm and engrossing, and will catch a child's eye and hold it. They show perspectives that perhaps your child hasn’t seen or noted, or thought about yet, and give a really good idea about what it’s like to fly - about what it’s like to climb higher than a chair or the upper floor of your home, or even the top of a tall building - higher even than the birds!

We not only look up through the trees (which is a image that will make a good and familiar impression), but also down, and in some interesting ways - such as looking down at the airplane's shadow on a cloud, which is an enthralling image. These pictures are colorful in some instances and rather muted in others, showing a changing view of things, just as you would experience during an airplane flight.

Finally, at the end of the flight, the people get to climb down back to the good earth, say goodbye to the airplane and head off on their various journeys. I still remember my first airplane flight and this was a fun reminder of how new and different, and exciting it all was.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mr Squirrel and the Moon by Sebastian Meschemoser

Title: Mr Squirrel and the Moon
Author: Sebastian Meschemoser (no website found)
Publisher: North South
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 novel is reward aplenty!

This story's absurdist humor had me laughing. Mr Squirrel wakes up one morning to find a wheel of cheese sitting on the end of the branch that leads to his nesting hole. He thinks it’s the Moon, fallen out of the sky, and fears he will be in trouble if people find it there and think he stole it.

Heaving it off the branch only makes the problem worse, since it lands on top of a hedgehog - and sticks to its little spikes! I think Sebastian Meschemoser has been spying on me and chose my favorite animals to create this story. I used to have pet hedgehogs as a child. They're completely adorable. It’s not really possible to have squirrels as pets - they’re too wild - but I really wish it were.

As if the hedgehog's problem isn’t bad enough, a goat shows up and horns in on the problem, managing to get the cheese stuck to its head (I "kid" you not!). The hedgehog is still stuck to the cheese. Fortunately, a local gang of mice make an assault on the cheese and milk it for all its worth. Curds and whey to go mice!

I loved this story and will be looking for more from this author, if he maintains this kind of humor in them. If your kids are as crazy as mine were at that age, then they'll love it too, I'm sure. The artwork is really well done - way beyond the usual simplistic standard for a young children's book, and really engaging.

Madison and the New Neighbors By Vanita Braver

Title: Madison and the New Neighbors
Author: Vanita Braver
Publisher: Starbright Books
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 novel is reward aplenty!

Illustrated exquisitely by Jonathan Brown.

When Madison's Mom meets her off the school bus, Madison reveals her plan to sell candy and thereby earn herself a fine T-shirt from her school as a reward for generating money for classroom supplies. That evening they set off, and Madison starts recruiting neighbors, but she doesn't want to go to Seema Patel's house. Seema's family are new to the neighborhood. The story going around is that Seema talks funny, and as if that's not bad enough, no one wants to sit next to her on the school bus.

Madison rails fiercely against visiting the Patels and ends-up running off home. Mom isn't best pleased with this behavior. She asks Madison to seriously think about her actions, as does dad. Later, after a time for reflection, Madison decides she did indeed perpetrate a rash act, and she and mom go visit the Patels.

Madison is fascinated by the differences between her home and that of the Patels. She's even more enthralled by Seema's dolls of the world collection. Madison decides that she wants to be friends with Seema and introduce her new friend to her old friends.

I'd actually have liked this story to go on a little further, to show Madison and Seema going bike riding with Madison's old friend. It felt a little unfinished as it was, but this didn’t detract from the important message that it’s not just our similarities which make us interesting to each other, but our differences, too, and perhaps those differences are, in the last analysis, much more important.

The author is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and includes a page of advice at the back of the book on raising a moral child - which may not be exactly what you might think it means! This is a useful educational book, and intriguing story, and a fine teaching tool. It's part of a series, and I recommend it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

KeeKee's Big Adventures in Athens, Greece by Shannon Jones

Title: KeeKee's Big Adventures in Athens, Greece
Author: Shannon Jones
Publisher: Calithumpian
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 novel is reward aplenty!

Wonderfully illustrated by Casey Uhelski.

Don’t tell my wife, but KeeKee had me at the cover, which is why I requested to review this. I was inordinately thrilled to receive this young children's adventure book because I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. How could I be with a cute kitten like this on the front? Her only competition was Athena, but for me it was always KeeKee, a can-do cat who doesn’t let half a world get in the way of travel, adventure, fun, and education (and in that order, too!).

She's already been to Roma and Paris in previous books, so this time, it's Athens! Off she romps in her hot-air balloon, and soon she's traveling over Europe and touching down in one of the oldest cities in the world. I've been to Athens more than once, and I love it just as much each time. She visits the Parthenon, and the oldest neighborhood in Athens (the Parthenon isn't?!), the Plaka, which frankly I don’t personally remember from my trips, but that's Ouzo for you….

You know what I think they should do with old monuments like the Parhtenon? Of course not, so I'll tell you! They should move such priceless antiquities bodily into a protected area, and build a brand new one in the original location to represent it at the height of its glory. What a sight the Parhtenon would be then!

But I digress! With her owl friend who is showing her around the lively and thriving city, they get to sample moussaka and tzatziki. Now if you say those words as you eat the food, you can be sure you've chewed it properly…(mouth closed, of course!). KeeKee ends-up as stuffed as an olive. Her words, not mine, but they made me laugh out loud. I guess that's a LolCat, huh? When I was in Greece, they had this spaghetti at my hotel which is the best I've ever tasted anywhere. And I fell in love with stuffed grape leaves there, too. I still eat those whenever I can get 'em! I don't really miss the retsina....

Anyway, KeeKee has a lot of fun, and after confusing 'dork columns' with 'Doric columns' she learns a lot, too. And on that subject major kudos to author Shannon Jones for avoiding the absurd mythology of Atlantis, and instead putting in a realistic interpretation featuring the fascinating island of Santorini. Casey Uhelski deserves a mention too for the artwork, which really is quite captivating. It’s due to her that I'm in love with KeeKee!

There's even a glossary in the back to teach you a little more about the places KeeKee visited, and where you can learn a little Greek - and no, it wasn't all Greek to me. Many of the phrases were familiar even though it's been a while since I was there. This story made me want to visit again, but I won’t hold that against it!

This story had nothing wrong with it at all. It was perfect, and an ideal way to introduce young children to exotic places. Enticingly written, gorgeously and colorfully illustrated, and very educational, I highly recommend this for those of appropriate age - and children, too!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Harriet Can Carry It by Kirk Jay Mueller

Title: Harriet Can Carry It
Author: Kirk Jay Mueller
Publisher: Starbright Books
Rating: WORTHY!

Nicely illustrated Sarah Vonthron-Laver.

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 novel is reward aplenty!

Harriet Huff is a mail carrier,
But she's not a male she's a female!
She's really worn-out hopping pillar to post
And wishes everyone would use email!

She thinks and decides that it's now high time
That she quickly heads on out coastal,
She's tired from her job and she wants a nice rest
For to keep her poor self going postal!

She wants to set off and head for the beach,
With her sweet young son Joey in tow,
But they haven't put foot from stoop to the ground
When Wanda the Wombat wanders in view.

"I must come with you both!" insists Wanda,
"And because we all know you're no slouch,
Carry my chair!" she says, with such a high air,
I know you have room to spare in that pouch!

If you pronounce 'beach' as two syllables
Then Wanda is - well let’s not go there,
'Cos Wallaby Wendy wends her way over,
Suddenly it’s seeming very unfair!

Kenny Koala and a bandicoot,
a marsupial mouse, twin dingoes,
All piling their stuff in poor Harriet's pouch,
Until the bulging pocket overflows!

What was just two for a day on the sand,
Has now swollen into a huge crowd.
Harriet's sore, aching pouch is swollen too,
Leaving poor Harriet feeling so cowed.

Fortunately, there's a possum nearby
And he's just not about to play dead
With a large pick-up truck he has lots of room
And soon Joey and his mom lose their dread.

On warm sunny sand they are happy,
No longer do mom and boy feel meek
And relaxation can happily begin,
So they decide to stay there for a week!

I only wish Harriet had spoken
A word or two before she lost it!
It's so important to know when to say when
But I'm so glad she finally did it!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Second Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn

Title: Second Daughter
Author: Susan Kaye Quinn
Publisher: Susan Kaye Quinn
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 novel is reward aplenty!

This is the sequel to Third Daughter which I reviewed positively today. I have to say I was a bit surprised, since I'd had the impression (wrongly, it seems!) that each of the three novels in the trilogy would be told from the perspective of the particular daughter to which the title referred, but it does not seem to be that way since this novel opens not with Seledri, the second daughter to the queen, and her adventures, but with Aniri (the third daughter) focused on her imminent wedding to Prince Malik. Indeed, the second daughter plays very little part in the story although she's the trigger for some major events.

This novel takes off from pretty much where the previous one ended, and is told from Aniri's PoV (again, not first person thankfully!). At the end of the previous novel it looked like there was a second sky ship out there which could still threaten Dharia, Aniri's homeland. In addition to that, Seledri has long been married to a Samiran lord, and living in that nation. If the two countries go to war, then her life - or at least her welfare - may be at risk.

With regard to the proposed wedding, I have a hard time believing that in Victorian times, there was a 'wedding rehearsal dinner'. Yes, they had a wedding rehearsal if they were wealthy enough, but this was a very private thing, quite literally to rehearse the wedding itself. The author here has created her own world, and she can do whatever she wants, but this rehearsal with a huge number of people in attendance struck a really false note for me. Of course, if she had not written this, then it would have been impossible to interrupt it with the dramatic news of an attempt on the life of Aniri's sister, the second sister of the title, Seledri.

This is where the novel (and the series) took a downturn for me. I was already soured with all the frivolous pomp of the 'wedding rehearsal', but to have Aniri take a big step backwards in her development, and to be dithering and fretting and panicking, and then to decide to postpone the wedding (scheduled for the very next day), and thereby failing to cement the alliance with Jungali, for no reason other than to hie herself to Samir to find out what happened to her sister was just plain stupid! It was foolish in the extreme and not at all in line with what we had learned to expect from Aniri in the previous volume, so for me it was a really poor start to this novel.

Aniri was taken prisoner and her life threatened by the Samir ambassador, and now she's going to voluntarily put herself at the mercy of these people, traveling pretty much alone into the heart of the enemy territory and give them a second hostage? This behavior is moronic. Clearly it was only done to elevate the drama between herself and Malik, but it was done badly, falsely, and amateurishly, and this wasn’t to be the first time. Things seemed to go determinedly downhill with one farcical daytime TV melodrama after another cropping up.

About half-way through this I was getting ready to ditch it and down-rate it, but it turned itself around somewhat - at least sufficiently fro me not to be able to rate it badly! I have to say I was disappointed in it. Aniri was nowhere near as good as she was in the first one, and the novel quite literally went around in circles ending-up at pretty much the same point as it began. It definitely had MTV (Mid-Trilogy Vexation) syndrome.

That said, there were sufficient good parts, particularly when Aniri gets her head out of her gaand and starts trying to make good on her deficits, that I felt I could uprate it in the hope that the third volume would be truly a worthy read like the first volume was.

Third Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn

Title: Third Daughter
Author: Susan Kaye Quinn
Publisher: Susan Kaye Quinn
Rating: WORTHY!

P65 ""…secret us away…" should be "…secrete us away…"
p212 " have been the one to secret me to the sky ship's hiding place..." makes no sense. "secrete me in"? "spirit me away to"?
P332 "She threw him and arched look..." should be "She threw him and arch look..."

Third Daughter is part of a trilogy which features the exploits of a young princess from a nation (Dharia) modeled loosely on India, but set in a purely fictional world and sprinkled lightly with elements of steam punk.

I love exotic India, so this drew me in immediately and effortlessly, but it would have just as easily kicked me out again, had the main character, Aniri, been a wet blanket or a wilting violet. She isn't! Kudos to the author for providing a non-white strong female character! These are very rare! Treasure them!

Aniri is the third daughter of the queen, so not in line for any throne, and not laden with expectations. We meet her climbing down the palace wall via a rope of knotted sheets to visit her boyfriend Devesh in the palace gardens, and she's a feisty, independent, rather love-struck young girl, but her plans this evening are thwarted by Janak, the queen's bodyguard, who is there to tell her that she must attend upon the queen.

Aniri resentfully visits with her mom only to learn that she has been put forward as a marriage candidate for Prince Malik, ruler of the rugged, northern, purportedly barbaric Jungali nation. Aniri wants no part of this, but when she realizes that her withdrawal from this pledge might mean war, she agrees to go, under the pretence that she will marry Prince Malik after a month's courtship, but really acting as a spy to discover if rumors of the Jungalis developing a flying machine are true.

Now how this works - sending a young girl with only two attendants into what’s considered to be a primitive and dangerous territory remains quietly unexplained, but Aniri doesn’t see Prince Malik as a threat. He seems reasonable, and decent, and she can get along with him. He is understanding that there is no love here, and that this relationship is purely for promotion of peace both across and within borders. He tells her outright that this will be platonic and that if she wishes to have a secret lover after they are married, she's most welcome to do so.

They board the train and begin their journey to the border. Aniri has only Priya, her young personal attendant, and Janak, the queen's most trusted bodyguard with her. Now why Janak is abandoning the queen to protect the daughter goes unexplained.

There was a really poorly written and very YA attempt to get the two of them into each other's arms by having Aniri get so close to a fire that she sets her cloak on fire, and then having Malik not even notice this until it's burning, whereupon he doesn't simply warn her that her cloak is on fire or tear it off, but grabs her and holds her to him, and then beats at the flame with his hand? Weird! And badly written! But not as bad as it might have been.

After that things really take off, with Aniri turning out to be very much the strong female character I was hoping she would be. That alone, for me, is sufficient to rate this as a worthy read. The love story ultimately turns out to be very natural and not forced or amateurish at all, and Aniri turns out to be a smart and capable lead character, and an admirable adventurer, with some foibles of youth haunting her, but not hobbling her, which is exactly how it ought to be.

One thing I did have a huge problem with is Janak. I already mentioned him as Aniri's mom's bodyguard, which makes it inexplicable how he comes to be traveling with Aniri, rather than guarding the queen, but the real problem is that his attitude sucks. "Off with his head!" I say! I don't have any respect for royalty myself in real life, but I do not go around insulting them. In a novel like this, it's inconceivable that a bodyguard would get away with being outright disrespectful to a princess as Janak does routinely.

This did not sound at all realistic to me, nor did Aniri's putting-up with his forceful, insulting, and domineering attitude towards her. I'm serious, his attitude and behavior is intolerable; I don't care what secrets he knows about Aniri's father, it's no excuse for his behavior whatsoever, yet he repeatedly gets away with it. That was bad writing and makes Aniri look weak, ineffectual, and juvenile, which is the very last thing she needed heaped on her after she'd shown herself to be a sterling main character in the previous chapter.

One thing which made no sense was this focus on the 'flying machine'. I can see how it would be considered a weapon of war, but Prince Malik's assertions that it would be a tool for trade between Dharia and Jungali made no sense given that they already have railways. It's far more economical to send goods and materials by train than ever it is by 'sky ship'. Yes, the sky ships can access the mountainous regions in Jungali where trains might not be able to reach, or where it might be difficulty or expensive to lay tracks, but in terms of trade between the two nations, I didn't see the value of it.

There were a couple of other issues where the writing was nonsensical. For example, at one point, Aniri is on an airship which is described as being thousands of feet in the air. She has already exhibited some instances of being short of breath because of the thin air in the high mountain region, yet we're expected to believe that she's clambering (yes, clambering!) around outside the airship - at thousands of feet, without even remotely becoming light-headed? Not credible!

But these are relatively minor points in comparison with how well, and how engagingly, the rest of this novel was written. The only oddball exception to this of which a mention still seems required, is that of the clothing Aniri wears. It was a really good idea to set a steam-punk novel in a place other than London, but if you're going to move it all the way to India (or more accurately, a setting rooted in India) - a move of which I approve, I have to say - then why would you drag Victorian clothing along with you? I don't get the point of having women in a nation strongly reminiscent of India dressed in corsets and stays when they could have saris and Punjabis. Why make the location exotic if you're not planning on doing anything with it? It seemed like the author was afraid to stray too far from steam-punk convention, which ironically makes her lurk rather timidly in comparison with the main character she's created!

But in conclusion, I have to say that this novel was truly remarkable and very addictive. I loved the setting, the characters in general, and specifically the main character Aniri who is a kick-ass strong female character. I loved that the love was in no way overdone and that it fit in with, but did not high-jack or derail the main story. Apart from a trope or two, it was normal, ordinary, and natural, like real love is.

So I fully recommend this novel. It has some issues, but overall the story is wonderful and refreshing. I was less thrilled with the sequel, a review of which I'm also posting today.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Armadillo in Paris by Julie Kraulis

Title: An Armadillo in Paris
Author/Illustrator: Julie Kraulis
Publisher: Tundra
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.

OK, I wanna say right up front that this is all Kraulis's fault. I had nothing to do with it. She made me laugh. It's all on her. Seriously. How can you not want to read a book with a title like this one?

The best thing about it is that it proved to be hilarious and completely up to its promise. The line drawings are splashed with color, beautifully done (quite the artist is our Ms. K), and the story is a real tease.

Frankly I had initially thought that the 'Iron Lady' was - no, not Margaret Thatcher, silly - but Lady Liberty. Of course there are two immediate problems with that: Lady Liberty is made from copper (although the framework was iron and designed by someone who played a crucial role in this story!), and she's not in Paris, she's in New York City; however, as Nicholas Cage's character pointed out in National Treasure 2, Lady Liberty originated in France, and there are copies of her there which might have been made from iron. Maybe.

But my initial idea was WRONG, and I'm armadillo enough to admit it! Shame on me since I've actually been to Paris and visited the Iron Lady without realizing it was known by that title! The novel also has a little info page listing some interesting trivia about its subject, so one must be sure to stop by there whilst one consumes one's stuffed croissant.

So anyway, you have to figure it out for yourself, just as Arlo the nine-banded armadillo did. I loved this story. I loved the depiction of Arlo which I found endlessly entertaining. Like I said, it's Kraulis's fault, so I'm really, really sorry if she didn't intend that...the hell with it. No I'm not sorry. I laughed my derriere off and I'm proud to admit it! There! Stuff that in your Place de la Concorde n'est-ce pas?!

For some reason this children's story just hit my os du coude. No, not that one, the one on the other side. No, a bit further over. Aw, you've gone too far; c'mon back and start again. Frankly I'm convinced that I got way more out of this than ever the author intended, especially given how far out of the target age group I am, but the fact is that you have to really get into this and do a stereotypical French accent and ham it up for maximal effect. It was a blast and I completely recommend it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Title: Robinson Crusoe
Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Books on Tape
Rating: WARTY!

Read in a rather strained voice by Jim Weiss.

I learned a few things from this novel. For example in 1719, 'nor' was not paired with 'neither' and no one cared what they ended a sentence with. I learned that Crusoe's original name was Robinson Kreutznaer, that the long form of 'viz' is 'videlicet', and that the original title of this novel was:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates.

That aside, this novel was one of the most tediously interminable and boring novels I've ever had the misfortune to read in my life (I guess the title should have told us that, but no one uses the original title any more for good reason). I swear that the more of these so-called 'classics' that I read, the less do I understand how they ever became classics. Unless 'classic' is merely a euphemism for 'shit'.

Published in 1719, the novel is of interest in that it's a historical novel which was actually contemporary when it was written - or nearly so. The novel is set a half century before, in the 1650's.

The problem is that it's nothing more than a litany of Crusoe's repeated maritime disasters - and not just the one for which he's known. There was a troubled voyage from Hull to London, wherein he was shipwrecked. He set out again, this time on the high seas and was captured by pirates, becoming a slave for two years, whereupon he escaped and ended-up founding a plantation after winding-up in South America.

He sets out to bring slaves from Africa and gets his sorry ass shipwrecked again, and for my money he could have rotted there. The way slaves are talked about - exactly as they were treated unfortunately - as pieces of equipment, as commodities, as tools, as machines, as possessions - is truly sickening. And all of these slavers and slave owners were religious people - they believed in the Christian god, or the Islamic god, or the Judaic god. All of them.

His man, Friday, is given that name by Crusoe who then tells Friday that his own name is "Master"! I know this was how things were back then, and if the novel had some literary merit, I would view it a bit differently, but it has no literary merit. It's nothing more than a tedious recital of things he did: salvaging material from a wrecked ship, putting up a 'tent', digging out a cave, planting corn. Planting more corn. What a great corn yield he had. He must plant more corn. It's corny to the max.

When he's not obsessing on corn, he's obsessing on his fowling pieces (shotguns) and how many pounds of shot and powder he has to hand. I wished he would just shot his mouth.

I cannot recommend this drivel.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rebels of the Kasbah by Joe O'Neil

Title: Rebels of the Kasbah
Author: Joe O'Neill (unable to locate as website)
Publisher: Black Ship Publishing (unable to locate a website)
Rating: WARTY!

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 novel is reward aplenty!

(Note: don't confuse this writer with the Irish writer Joseph O'Neill or freelance writer Joe O'Neill!)

This novel, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, is about four young (middle-grade) children who have been kidnapped for slavery: Aseem, Fez, and Tariq are Arab boys of different skin hues from light to very dark, who were kidnapped in Tangier. They all end-up being taken to the kasbah (pretty much the same as a castle, but note that kasbah is actually an Indian, not a Middle-Eastern, term per se) of Caid Ali Tamzali to be trained as jockeys to race camels for the entertainment of the desert tribesmen.

Margaret is an English girl who was kidnapped into white slavery to be given as a gift to the son of Tamzali. The four children meet each other and from a blood-bond of friendship. They begin planning their escape immediately, but fail to take advantage of several opportunities, which was not only frustrating to me, it made me doubt both their sincerity and their chops! It's only when they reach the kasbah and begin training and racing that a plan comes together, and they escape with the help of a rebel tribe.

That was as far as I got. I didn't like this story for several reasons, not least of which were the graphic depictions of brutality which seemed to me to be inappropriate for the intended age range. While we know that slavery even today is brutal and appalling, I don't need to read that for entertainment in a novel, in gory detail yet, and children certainly do not need this kind of detail.

Even had that not been a factor, I would still have disliked this novel on technical grounds because while it began in an exciting manner, it kept periodically slamming the brakes on the story to tell the back-story of many of the characters which not only destroyed the excitement and flow of the narrative, but bored the pants off me.

I began routinely skipping the chapters which had these back-stories, but even aside form those, there was too much detail in the action sequences to let them flow properly. I found myself wanting to jump a sentence here and a paragraph there in order to get on with the action, and this is never a good sign for me!

When we reached a chapter which was a back-story not of one of the main characters but of another character who was helping the main ones, I said "Check please! I'm done." I really didn't care. I wasn't interested in going back and forth like a bouncing bungee for the main characters, so why would I be interested in learning the history of one of the incidental ones tossed right into the middle of the narrative flow?

I'm a parent of middle-grade kids and I think these fictional kids could have been truly interesting and had a worthy story told about them. This was not that story and I will not recommend it. You need to do more than put kids in an exotic location to make a story worth the telling.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Title: Watership Down
Author: Richard Adams
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

It's very heartening for the rest of us writers that this novel was turned down by several staid and self-interested Big Publishing%trade; concerns before a small publishing house was smart enough to give it a chance. There's always a chance - especially now when we no longer need to kow-tow to Big Publishing%trade; - that we can not only get our works out there, but enjoy some success with them, too, and without being born down under the yoke of big business interests.

This is the story of how brothers Hazel and Fiver, two rabbits on the fringe of their society, lead a band of disaffected fellow rabbits in an escape from their warren, through hassles and trials until in the end, they get to establish their own warren in a new and pleasantly safe environment far from their original home, which true to Fiver's psychic predictions, fell afoul of a human - or rather an inhuman - development which began by gassing all the rabbits in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is the Sandleford warren, a very large and rather disorganized habitat in which the owsla, the rabbit 'police force' was given privilege after privilege with the rest of the rabbits suffering in consequence. It wasn't hard to find a party of rabbits who were looking to set out on their own.

All-in-all, Adams did a remarkable (and very successful) job, but where he failed, especially given that this novel began as nothing more than stories he told his two daughters (Juliet and Rosamunde, believe it or not) on long drives, was in representing female interests. His daughters were the ones who begged and urged him to write the stories down, so it's particularly sad that Where he evidently got it wrong was that rabbits have a rather matriarchal society whereas Adams misrepresented it as patriarchal.

Since Adams was loosely basing the stories he told on his own wartime exploits, it's hardly surprising that he primarily considered males to be the protagonists. Even that wouldn't have been so bad if he'd had some leading female rabbits along for the ride, but this apparently wasn't in his mindset. The story isn't entirely devoid of decent female representation, however.

The only other real complaint I have is that there are parts of this story which are ponderously slow. Yes, there are some beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, but there's also a lot of rambling, which might be wonderful were we actually in the country, but which is never a good thing in an action novel.

When a visit to the warren's chief rabbit fails to stir interest in addressing the impending doom of the warren as foreseen by Fiver, and indeed gets the owsla member Bigwig, punished for allowing these crazy rabbits into the chief rabbit's presence, Hazel decides to go on the run himself, with anyone who will come along, regardless of rank or position. This is dangerous, because it's one of the duties of the owsla, led by Captain Holly, to prevent rabbit runs (so to speak!).

On the night of the big escape, several rabbits show up: Acorn, Bigwig - with no reason to stay now he's lost his owsla privileges, and Blackberry - a really smart and inventive rabbit who often comes up with great plans to achieve whatever it is that Hazel seeks to do. He's instrumental on their first day of their escape, devising a way to float Pipkin and Fiver across a stream on a plank of wood. Others escaping are Buckthorn, Dandelion - a story-telling rabbit, Fiver - the prophet and seer, Hawkbit, Hazel - Fiver's brother and a wise leader in the making, Pipkin, the smallest rabbit to run with them, who proves to be loyal and overcomes his fears, Silver - a new and disaffected owsla member, and Speedwell. But these are all bucks - no does in sight.

After a nightmarish journey across a seemingly endless heath terrain, the rabbits arrive in an area which looks like it might be worthwhile colonizing. Fiver warns that this isn't a good place, and that they should head for the hills (the distant Watership Down), but everyone is tired, disillusioned, and scared, and they foolishly ignore him.

As they try to settle in and scratch a few shallow holes for shelter under an old Oak tree, they encounter a very large and sleek rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren which, after hesitation and debate, they do. It seems like a wonderful place, and has a large underground gathering space which impresses Hazel, but something seems not quite right here. The rabbits behave oddly, and will never answer any question that begins with "Where...". Despite this, the local rabbits are all large and well-fed, so the rag-tag rabbits in Hazel's party cannot figure out what's wrong. They just know something is; then tragedy strikes.

They suddenly realize, as the life of one of them is almost lost, that Fiver is not someone to be ignored when he issues a warning. They quickly abandon the camp and head towards watership Down as Fiver advised. One of the local rabbits, Strawberry, follows them, and Hazel lets him join their band. Before long they make it to Watership Down, and scratch a temporary home under some bushes near the top. Soon they're planning out their warren and excavating it, making it look, as far as they can, like the warren they just escaped - with a large meeting chamber underground.

As they work on building it, several things happen. Hazel rescues a mouse, which pledges to help them in return. After a fright, they discover Captain Holly and Bluebell, from Sandleford warren, hiding out in a hedgerow, Holly almost dead from injury. They nurse him back to health and he tells them a horror story of the last minutes of the old warren. Also, a seagull, Kehaar, shows up, with whom they make friends. Just when it sounds like their adventure is over, it's really only just beginning with their most daring adventure yet to come.

Despite a few issues I had with this, I recommend it. It was engrossing, fun and inventive, and while there was, at times, a little too much description, this novel does hark back to a time when life was not rushed, where there was no such thing as a sound bite, and where people (that is they who actually had leisure time) took time to do things and were better for it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Kiki Strike: The Empress's Tomb by Kirsten Miller

Title: Kiki Strike: The Empress's Tomb
Author: Kirsten Miller
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: WORTHY!

The title of this novel is something of a misnomer, implying that it's about Kiki Strike when it actually isn't. Yes, she appears at crucial times throughout the narrative to facilitate the action, a bit like a deus ex machina, but Kiki is side-lined by her protector Veruska's life-threatening illness, and she takes a back seat in this adventure (as indeed does most of the crew to one extent or another), leaving the stage to Oona and to Ananka, who is telling the story again. This is the second in what is a series. I already reviewed the first one. The third is now available. I suspect that there will be at least seven, because there are seven main characters in the irregulars:

Iris isn't shown here, nor is she mentioned in the irregulars group at the web site. I don't know why. The web site is worth a visit if you're into this series. It has a lot of interesting stuff.

The girls are now fourteen years old and still together as the irregulars, still righting wrongs and fighting the good fight, but there's some dissension in the ranks. Ananka is growing increasingly suspicious of Oona's behavior, thinking she's going over to the dark side. This becomes especially startling when Oona's father, the notorious Chinese gangster Lester Liu, who escaped capture in volume one, pops up again, seemingly reformed and asking Oona back into his life - the girl he tossed away at her birth like garbage because of her "useless" gender. His life now, he claims, is to be one of contrition and philanthropy.

Oona has a secret which she wants to share with the irregulars, but no one seems to have time to listen, and some are antagonistic towards her for being spoiled, snooty, rich, and unkind to their newest honorary member, Iris, who is two or three years younger than the rest of them.

So what are these distractions? Well, the first is the break-in at a pet store which occupies the ground-floor of an apartment block. The apartments are subsequently invaded by animals which were released from the store, each critter sporting a necklace which itself sports a small sign saying "I want to go home" or words to that effect. The immediate suspect is the legendary Kiki Strike, but Ananka doesn't believe it's her - it's not Kiki's style. The next thing is the new artwork appearing all over the city - a form of artistic graffiti that depicts squirrels issuing warnings about abusing animals. As if that isn't plenty to consider, large squirrels start mugging people in Central Park! And why did Phineas run away from his psychologist parents?

As if all that isn't enough on her plate, and intent upon mapping the last section of tunnel in the Shadow City, Ananka discovers a boy, and later a girl, both of whom have evidently been kidnapped from China. The two are talented artists, but why would someone want to illegally "export" artistic children? There is increasing pressure from Ananka's parents (who are suddenly a lot more hands-on than they ever were in volume 1) to wake up at school and bring her grades up, otherwise she'll be kidnapped herself, and exported to West Virginia to a farm school, which fills her with dread. But she has an ally in the principle of Atalanta school - or so she hopes.

This novel was a little bit too drawn-out for me. It could have benefited from being somewhat shorter, especially with regard to the finale. Still, it was really good - as good as the first one. It's the same kind of set-up, with Ananka's astute and often caustic observations as well as her end-of-chapter tips on topics like how to be mysterious, what to do with secrets, how to appreciate odors, and what not to put in your trash if you don't want someone to learn secrets about you.

I rate this novel a worthy read. The message here is make good friends and then trust them, and part of making good friends is to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to listen to them when they have something to say. This story is well-told and as intriguing as it is engaging. It builds on the groundwork laid in volume one, but is not so dependent upon it that you don't know where you are, even if you haven't read volume one. However, I'd recommend reading these in order. The first volume is so good and it will enrich the experience of reading this one.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Kiki Strike Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller

Title: Kiki Strike Inside the Shadow City
Author: Kirsten Miller
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with Kirsten Miller the South African writer and artist, nor with actor Kristin Miller, nor with poet Kirsten Miller, it’s novelist Kirsten Miller's work that I'm reviewing here!

Not to be confused with Kirsten Miller the South African writer and artist, nor with actor Kristen Miller, nor with poet Kirsten Miller, it’s novelist Kirsten Miller's work that I'm reviewing here!

Note that this is a book by a girl, for girls, about girls. It’s not that boys aren't allowed, it’s that they’re simply not needed. This novel is a magnificent exemplar of how to write a novel about strong, independent, no-nonsense young women. Miller gets it and isn't shy about showing it. I wish a host of young-adult authors would take a leaf (or fifty) from this novel and re-write some of their sorry and sad main female characters. Having said that, these girls are only twelve, and so aren't even within the YA range, and I have to wonder where parenting was! A story like this is fine for some fun fiction, but the sad thing is that there are really young girls out there who are saddled with, shall I term it 'disengaged' parents and unfortunately, those children are certainly not having the time of their lives.

Kiki Strike is the subject of this novel, but it's told in first person (and not obnoxiously, so this proves it can be done if you know how to do it!) by Ananka Fishbein, who attends the Atalanta school for girls, where some get in on their money, others on scholarships. It's needless to say how Ananka is there. It's Ananka who first starts getting interested in Kiki, and the two of them eventually hook up and recruit four others to help them: Luz Lopez, DeeDee Morlock, Betty Bent, and Oona Wong. Luz Lopez is the 'electro-genius' (inventor) and she is good friends with DeeDee Morlock, but often clashes with her, quick to point out the fact that DeeDee is much more well-off and privileged than she. She's installed a fire extinguisher which saves Deedee's life many a time. Although Luz is innocent, she has a criminal record which she is often worried about. She is very poor, but more than meets the eye. Betty is expert in disguise, Dee-Dee in explosives and chemistry, and Oona in forgery.

Miller inserts some text here and there throughout this novel offering some delightful (if potentially dangerous), and amusing advice for young female adventurers on how to lie, how to disguise yourself, how to properly prepare for exploration adventures, and so on. Heaven knows where she came up with this stuff, but I loved it, particularly the smart portions of it, even as I hoped that there are no twelve-year-old girls who would read this and then actually try to follow some of the more questionable advice! On the topic of text, here's one weird bit: "…but there was one thing I knew for certain. At least some of the people who had called Shadow City home had never left." This screams for a colon between 'certain' and 'At' in place of the period.

But beefs aside, Miller keeps this story cooking at a warm temperature, continually revealing new and interesting character and plot twists as she goes. The five girls display their individual talents as they ramp-up their plan to discover an entrance to Shadow City, and to explore it fully. Ananka has no special talent, but she has a repository of wonderful books, collected by her parents, at her apartment and so her 'talent' is considered to be that of a librarian. Oona brings her abilities in forgery and computer hacking, DeeDee brings her chemical and explosives knowledge, and Betty her ability to create amazing disguises. Kiki's avowed intention is to own Shadow City, locking-up weak spots to prevent a criminal element from making use of it, even as they explore and map every tunnel of the underground world, seeking "treasure" that might be lurking in forgotten nooks.

Given that they wait for the summer holidays as they prepare and plan, I failed to grasp why they then pursued their avocation at night. It made no sense whatsoever, and necessitated the majority of the girls lying to their parents and exposing themselves to unnecessary risks. This would have been fine had there been some explanation offered for the nocturnal nature of the activities, but Miller offers none. She just expects us to accept that this is the way it is. That was a weak spot for me, but not a killer.

As the explorations begin, Ananka becomes increasingly suspicious of Kiki, but she's the only one who seems to suspect an ulterior motive for her putting together this talented team of feisty fillies. At one point, Kiki is insistent that DeeDee blow open a door against Ananka's objections. DeeDee has done this kind of thing before, but this time something goes wrong, and DeeDee is injured, a flood ensues as a pipe is ruptured, and Kiki disappears with a sack of what appear to be gold coins which the quintet had discovered that night!

That's all the spoilers you’re getting! Of course, here we’re meant to think ill of Kiki, and Miller has put in some decent attempts to sour her for us, but I refused to be fooled. I don’t see the how you can title your novel 'Kiki Strike' and then make her into the villain, so that attempt at slapping a big red herring in my face was squandered!

In conclusion, this novel was excellent: it was inventive, entertaining, and full of adventure. I recommend it.