Showing posts with label ebook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ebook. Show all posts

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Thomas and Buzzy Move Into the President's House by Vicki Tashman


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great idea: teaching children history by letting them see it through the eyes of well-known historical figure's pets - and at the same time, in this case, allaying fears a child might have about a change or even upheaval in their life - such as moving to a new house.

I'm not a fan of Jefferson and see no reason for deface on Mount Rushmore(!), but whether you like an historical figure or not has no bearing on whether it's worth learning something about them, and I think this is a charming way to do it: seeing Jefferson through the eyes of his French chien bergère de Brie (sheepdog of the brie region - the home of brie cheese).

Beautifully and artistically illustrated by the talented Fátima Stamato (I loved her image of Buzzy on page six, at the start of chapter two, which is monitor-screen wallpaper-worthy!), this book tells of the worries of Buzzy, when she learns that Jefferson is going to become the new president (in 1801) and has to live in the President's House, now much more commonly known as The White House.

Buzzy (which actually was the name of a dog owned by Jefferson) is afraid of moving and leaving her beloved farm and friends behind (a horse, another dog, and a mockingbird Jefferson got to replace an earlier one he had bought from a slave), but when she realizes she can bring along her favorite pillow, and her fetch toy, and water bowl, and set them up where she wants in this new residence, she feels a lot more comfortable. Some things change, but others remain much the same, and finally she's happy with her new home.

The author rather glosses over the fact that Jefferson had been vice president for the previous four years (a position he got through a mistake in the constitution!), so while he had not been resident in the White House (vice presidents lived in their own home until relatively recently, when a government residence was opened for them) he certainly knew it quite well, both inside and out. That doesn't mean Buzzy ever visited, of course, so this was more than likely a very new situation for her.

The author also glosses over the fact that Jefferson soon became a breeder of the variety of dog (indeed, Buzzy gave birth on the trip back to the US, so Jefferson actually arrived here with three dogs). Buzzy was not the only such dog at Monticello, but to have multiple "Briards" running around would just confuse things as would it have done to depict Buzzy more accurately as an outdoor dog, rather than living in the house. Dogs back then were considered working animals (and even pests in livestock country, the ownership of which was taxed), so the mockingbird, "Dick" was much more of a pet to Jefferson than Buzzy was, but again, this makes for a better story for children, even if somewhat inaccurate, so overall I was very pleased with this book, and I recommend it as a worthy read for the intended age range (4 - 8yrs).


The Waking Land by Callie Bates


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher - and thank them for an ebook copy which was nicely formatted! Far too often the ebook is a second thought after the print version, and the formatting suffers, but that was not the case here.

That's where the joy ended though, because then I had to read it. You know you're in trouble with a novel when you're only ten percent in and you're asking yourself how much more you really have to read before you can DNF it and say you gave it a fair chance!
The novel started with a prologue, a thing which I never read. They're antiquated and contribute literally nothing to a story except to kill a few more trees in the print version. Maybe authors who write prologues and epilogues hate trees? The thing is that this whole business of Elanna being kidnapped and held hostage made zero sense, except in that it did herald a lot of other plot points which made no sense either! Maybe I should have read the prologue and then DNF'd it at that point?

The thing is that if I'd known going into this, that it was to be a first person YA trilogy full of cliché and trope, I would never have asked to read it, but Net Galley offered not a whisper. Such books ought to be required to carry a warning sticker. From the blurb, it had sounded like it would be an engrossing and entertaining read. Sic Transit Gloria Blurbi!

I'm very rarely a fan of first person, and unfortunately that voice is chronically over-used in YA stories. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many writers herd themselves like sheep into such a constricting voice, and one which simultaneously makes their character look so dysfunctionally self-important that it is, unless handled well, thoroughly nauseating to read.

Nor are YA trilogies any more welcome in my reading list. They're typically unimaginative, rambling, trope-filled, derivative, and bloated by their very nature. I long for a YA writer who is willing to step outside the trope and think outside the box, but they are a very rare and much-treasured commodity these days, as everyone else rushes-in like lambs to the dip, where more angelic bovines are far too wise to tread. It's all in pursuit of the almighty dollar, and it's sad; truly sad.

This novel initially had intrigued me because of the Earth magic. It's what attracted me most of all, but we were largely denied any exploration of that in the portion I read, and what we did get was accidental or incidental. This was one of the problems. Elanna has this magic, and has known of it since childhood, but she has suppressed it.

To be fair, there are reasons for this, but the fact that she's scared of it and never explores it (except for one too-brief incident we're shown right at the beginning of the novel) made me dislike her. What kind of a dullard do you have to be to have such delightful and powerful magic, and not want to at least tinker with it in private, and learn something about it? The fact that Elanna didn't, not only made her inauthentic, it also made her thoroughly boring and cowardly. There's a huge difference between teasing your readers, and denying them a story that feels real.

Elanna Valtai (often called Lady Elanna for reasons which are not clear - and which felt employed only to give her a cachet she has not earned) was taken hostage at gunpoint (pistol-point more accurately) at the tender age of five, by a conquering king who, over the last fourteen years, she has grown to love as a father. This made little sense, but Elanna is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She was more like a spork with blunted tines, and consequently neither one thing nor the other. She's fascinated by botany and so, when the king is poisoned, she becomes the prime suspect with improbable rapidity, and is forced to flee.

To me, this made zero sense. The one-dimensionally hateful and cardboard princess, who is now queen, has no reason whatsoever to fear Elanna. She considers her too low to even take seriously, so why bother framing her? We're offered no honest motivation for this at all. At this point the story was no different from the trope high-school story of the girl who is bullied.

Elanna is paradoxically presented as a charming and easy-going woman who everyone likes on the one hand, and on the other, a crudely rustic figure of fun who has no place in court and who is disliked by everyone, having no friends at all! Again, it made no sense that she would have literally no one. It felt like the author was following a rigid plot without actually giving any thought to how realistic or practical this world was that she was creating. If the king is so great, then why doesn't he put a stop to the bullying? The fact that Elanna never once questions this is yet another example of how stupid she truly is.

As I mentioned, despite being repeatedly given the appellation 'Lady', Elanna is never shown to be one. I have no problem with a character being portrayed as having emotions and sensitivity. I think we need more male characters like that in fact, but as usual in YA, the author overdoes this with their main character, so instead of showing her to be a reasonably empathetic young woman raised to be nobility, not a princess, but at least with some spine, she comes across as a weak, limp, and as a weepy, clueless little girl. It was pathetic to read about her.

Once she realizes she's going to be blamed for the king's death, and instead of taking control of her destiny and facing down the charges, which would have actually made for a much more engaging story, Elanna betrays her entire upbringing, and runs away like a scared little girl. Worse than this, she's manhandled by her love interest (and yes, it was ham-fistedly and loudly telegraphed as soon as he appeared in the story), so immediately, all control over her life is removed, and she becomes the toy and plaything of a complete oaf of a man named, inevitably "Lord", as in 'Lord and Master' no doubt as we see her weakly complying with his every demand.

Not only that, she takes the usual abusive and utterly sick YA route of falling for this patronizing and condescending dick like she's an air-headed thirteen-year-old. This is entirely the wrong message to send to young girls, and the fact that so many female YA authors do this so consistently is as scary as it is dangerous. People who talk about a rape culture seem ignorant of this facet of it, in which women are taught, in story after story, that's it's not only okay for a guy to take control over your life, but that you should go along with it mindlessly, and even fall in love with him no matter how he treats you; then we look askance at those women who end-up in abusive relationships.

The saddest thing about this is that all the hots she has for this man take place when she is quite literally fleeing for her life. What kind of a pathetic, misguided specimen do you have to be, to be having hot flashes for a guy when your very life in in peril? It made zero sense and cheapened the whole thing. It was so badly done that it ruined all hope of an intelligent or realistic romantic relationship.

For me, it did nothing but keep reminding me that I was reading a poorly written YA novel into which romance had been jammed for no other reason than that the author and/or publisher determined it was a requirement rather than that it might naturally and organically grow out of a realistic relationship. It suggests that the author either doesn't trust her characters, or she doesn't trust her writing skills, and it sends the wrong message yet again: that all women are Disney princesses who are useless without a man to be a father figure as well as (sickly!) a lover. It says that no young woman can stand on her own two feet - she always needs a studly guy to validate her and shore her up. I call horseshit on that one.

I've read this story so many times that it turns my stomach. The author might change character names, and set them in a new locale, and even give then magic, but it's the same story. They're exactly the same characters going through exactly the same empty motions over and over again. Can YA authors not come up with something new for once? Really? It's pathetic how unimaginative and uninventive YA authors are. Here's a choice quote: "Don’t they realize I’m a scholar as well as a lady of fashion?" What?! Where the hell did that come from?

There are a few, a precious few, a band of sisters, out there who honestly do get it, and who write great stories. They get that this isn't the Victorian era, and that weepy, lovelorn princesses are not only obnoxious, but they are antiquated and inappropriate. They do these stories right: making them fresh and original, but the rest of those authors are doing nothing short of writing cookie-cutter "Harlequin" romances for teens, chasing the easy buck, and that's all there is to it. This is one such story, it saddens me to report. And it could have been so much better.

So, while fleeing on horseback with a group of riders, the wind whistling through her hair, Elanna conducts a whispered conversation with her BFF, who is pretentiously named Victoire. It's described as a "whisper-shout", yet everyone seems able to hear it over the wind and the pounding horse's hooves! At one point they're told, like naughty children talking in the classroom: "That is enough, all of you! No more talk. Do you want to put us all in danger?" Seriously? They're racing through the dead of night on horses with hooves slamming into the ground, and this idiot is worried someone might overhear them talking? Who, exactly, is listening? This is another example of the story not being thought through.

The sad truth is that a lot of the writing leaves a heck of a lot to be desired. We get that Elanna is afflicted deeply with the wilts and the vapors over J-Han, We don't need to be gobsmacked every few paragraphs with yet another account of how she's is hanging on his every breath and touch, and the heat of his body. It's painfully obvious who the murderer is, so there's no mystery there. We know Elanna is going to win in the end and get jiggy with J-Han, so what's the point of reading this again?

Instadore how do I hate thee? Let me count the brays! Well, for one, she has to share a horse with him, yet there's not a word of his sweating or stinking of horses. Seriously? Just how pathetic do you want her to appear to us? Elanna doesn't notice any of his smells, which were rife in that era, even in a fantasy land, but she does notice mundane things like the color scheme in the house she visits - things which seem very odd to have been taken note of by a scared woman who has never paid attention to furniture before, and who is fleeing pursuers who want to put her through a sham trial and then kill her. At the same time, for a botanist, she notices almost nothing of nature! Again, it's not thought through.

Another oddity is that Elanna seems to have perfect, if selective, recall! Despite being gone since she was a very young child, she had no problem understanding her native language, which she last heard - and spoke - when she was merely five years old. We read, "Hugh has switched into speaking Caerisian, which the Count of Ganz evidently understands, and my ears are too tired to deny they know the words, as well." Now I won't try to argue that she would have forgotten her native tongue completely, but at the very least, she would have been extremely rusty in it, and not know many of the words spoken by adults, since she never learned those as a child, yet she appears to have a completely unencumbered grasp of it.

Again, this is not thought through. It's especially bad when it's compared with the time when Elanna goes back to her childhood home. She recalls nothing of that at all! So we're expected to believe that she has a perfect (and adult!) grasp of a language she has neither spoken nor heard in well over a decade since she was barely beyond being a toddler, yet she recalls literally nothing of her childhood home? It's simply not credible.

Her respite at the house is short, because they are quickly - and unaccountably - discovered by the palace guard. How the guards knew exactly where they were goes unexplained, but even that isn't as inexplicable as why Elanna, who was desperate to escape her initial captors with her friend, fails to take Victoire with her! She decides to find the "lay of the land" by herself, first. It's just a house! What's to know? They need to get out, get a couple of horses, and leave.

It's really that simple, yet this limp dishrag of a friend leaves Victoire behind, so that when the palace guard arrives, Victoire is abandoned upstairs. Elanna whines about getting her out, but instead of growing a pair and insisting on rescuing her best friend, which would have made for some great drama, and would have given Elanna some street cred, she's portrayed as spinelessly complying with Lord Almighty J-Han's dick-tates. Once again what we're shown is that she's his property now, not her own. Once again this is entirely the wrong message to send. I truly detested Elanna by this point in the story.

While fleeing for her life, Elanna observes, "I won't be made to use my magic - the magic that puts me in mortal danger" Excuse me? She's already in mortal danger! She's already been declared a witch and a murderer, and had that broadcast across the land. How could she be in any more danger? This is exactly what I mean about Elanna being a profoundly stupid woman, and the last thing I need to read is one more YA novel extolling the 'virtues' of stupidity, in a female main character.

The sad thing is that it never stops in this novel! At one point Elanna reveals that "I know how terrifying it is to walk into a room full of strangers." This is a woman who was raised in a position of nobility, taught to expect deference from everyone. Never before have we been given any indication that she suffers terrors at walking into a room, and now suddenly she knows? Again it makes no sense.

The root problem here is that this novel offers nothing new, which begs the question as to why it was even written! The romance is cliché, the bullying is cliché, the main character is a walking, YA female lead, cliché. At one point very early in the novel, shortly after the studly J-Han arrives to take Elanna into his possession, I read this: "He swings me around, making the world spin, and then we go inside together, my cold hand tucked into his big warm one" so immediately the process of infantilization has begun right there, and this main character is now no more than a weak child in the hands of a trope, strong, manly man. This is one of the biggest problems with YA - the girl becomes a toy for the boy, a plaything, a piece of property, to do with as he wishes, and the girl goes right along with it. Elanna is one of the most stupid, vacuous, compliantly empty characters I've ever encountered. The more I read about her the less I wanted to read about her.

So when did I quite reading exactly? It was right on the cusp of thirty percent in, when I read of a character's eyes that they were "flecked with gold." I cannot even number the times I've read this exact phrase in a YA novel. What the obsession is with gold-flecks in a character's eyes completely escape me, but it's been done ten trillion times if it's been done once, and if I'd read this any earlier, I probably would have quit right then. Admittedly, the phrase is usually employed to describe the male love interest of the female MC, and in this case it wasn't, but does that make it okay to copy? No! That description needs to be summarily banned from YA literature.

It should be needless to say at this point, but I will clarify it anyway: I cannot recommend this story, because it's really just a clone of far too many others that I have also been unable to recommend for the same reasons. I don't care if she gets better as the trilogy goes along. I really don't, because for me she's already a failure, and if it takes her three books to grow a pair, then that's two books too long. The problem with trilogies is that the first book typically only ever is a prologue, and I don't read prologues. Novels like this one have been steadily nudging me to the point where I'm ready to forsake reading YA stories altogether, which would be sad, because once in a while there's a real gem to be found among the base rock.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Handbook of LGBT Tourism & Hospitality by Jeff Guaracino, Ed Salvato


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This is the second non-fiction book tied to the LGBTQIA community that I shall review today and it gets a 'worthy', too, despite problems I had again with the formatting of the ebook. Clearly this is intended as a print book, with the e=-version getting short shrift, in that it looks like ti was pretty tossed together to get it out before reviewers, but just as this book advises those who wish to take advantage of the spending power and willingness to travel of a particular community to prepare well and know your market, I'd advise publishers to send out better review copies if they don't want to irritate reviewers and get lower grades!

That said this is an important book, and formatting problems aside, it offers a detailed and thoughtful approach to how businesses can position themselves to take advantage of the current boom (which I dearly hope continues) in how the LGBTQIA community is looked upon by the rest of us, and I thought it deserved to have the shortcomings of the e-version overlooked in the hope that if this ever does get released as an ebook, it will look a lot better than the sorry copy I got to review! The rainbow community deserves better, too!

It may sound a little mercenary to talk about a community of people who have had enough crap to deal with already, as a marketing opportunity or as a rising segment of disposable income, but that's what this book is about, and businesses wouldn't be in business long if they didn't make money, so what are they going to do? Ignore this community? They're morons if they do. Meanwhile the smart ones are going to be looking for ways to work with an in this community and this is where this book shines. The authors have done their homework and talked to the people who know.

I list below a more detailed contents than you might find elsewhere (and frankly, I deserve a medal for managing to extract this from Kindle's crappy app!):
THE FOUNDATIONS OF LGBT TOURISM AND HOSPITALITY
Your “elevator pitch”: The importance of developing a segment-specific program for LGBT tourism
Sizing the LGBT segment: Buying power
The importance of the LGBT segment in the travel industry
Tips before launching your LGBT marketing campaign
Success in the LGBT travel market: Top ten tips from Jeff and Ed

BUSINESS ESSENTIALS: UNDERSTANDING THE LGBT TRAVEL MARKET
Understanding key segments and focusing your resources
Lesbian travel: Women first, then lesbians
Bisexual travel: Identifying an elusive population
Putting the T in LGBT travel: Introducing the trans traveler
LGBT family travel trends
The top ten trends in LGBT travel
Training, staff, business policies, and employee resource groups

BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
LGBT tourism and hospitality businesses
LGBT events, festivals, and sporting events: An overview
LGBT sports to drive revenue and visitation
Pride festivals
Tailoring your mainstream product with an LGBT twist
Welcome signs and symbols
The cruise industry
LGBT tour operators
Gays and the motor coach
Airlines: Putting more butts in seats
Hotels and lodging
Meetings, conventions, and business groups
Milestone celebration travel: Weddings, honeymoons, and other celebrations
Navigating controversies and turning them to your advantage

MARKETING YOUR BUSINESS
Setting your marketing goals, budget, and staff
Getting your advertising history straight
Strategies for building an effective marketing campaign
The changing media landscape: The rise, fall, and rise of LGBT publications
Great content in context is your foundation
Communications, public relations, and media relations
Smart press trips
LGBT print advertising and gay-inclusive creative
Online and digital marketing
Marketing through mobile phone apps
Ten tips to keep your LGBT campaign and your destination competitive
The ten classic principles of successful LGBT marketing

THE GLOBAL VIEW: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Asia: The most gay-friendly destinations
Argentina: Five tips for your LGBT business
Brazil: A strong LGBT tourism market
Canada: New ways of marketing using content in context
China: A market opportunity
Colombia: Five tips from an emerging destination
Europe: Tips on the lesbian market
India: Cultural, religious, and societal challenges
Israel: Marketing LGBT tours in Tel Aviv
Japan: Welcoming international LGBT guests to a conservative country
Mexico: A gay-friendly but macho country
United Kingdom: Reaching LGBT travelers is always a challenge
The United States: Beyond New York and San Francisco

TRENDS AND INDUSTRY RESOURCES
Market research: Companies, data, surveys, and reports
Associations and conventions
Advocacy organizations
Conferences and expositions
Further reading
Annotated bibliography
Discussion question
Notes
Index

I'll mention a few of the problems with formatting I encountered which will hopefully be cleared up before any ebook is released. need to mention. There were items like this: "For exam2A ple, an LGBT traveler in the United States," where some sort of numerical marker had become embedded in the text. This was quite common.

There's a table, Table 2.2, featuring "Terms Used by Trans People to Describe Themselves" which is so screwed up that it's completely unintelligible. The phrase, "3d 3D PRIDE FESTIVALS" was not only repetitive, it was in three different font shades/colors!"

But as I said, I am not rating it on the crappy Kindle app(earance). I'm not a fan of Kindle (or Amazon!), so ignoring that, I rate this a worthy read and a valuable asset to anyone who wants to attract LGBTQIA business, because take it from me, we're never going to be over the rainbow!


LGBTQ-Inclusive Hospice Palliative Care by Kimberly D Acquaviva


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This amazingly-named author is a tenured associate professor at the George Washington University School of Nursing, and evidently knows her stuff. I'm not a health-care professional, but I have worked closely with nurses in two different hospital environments, so I was familiar with the kinds of things she discusses here, and the importance of getting them right. She's also a doctor - of the PhD variety (in Human Sexuality Education) rather than the MD variety - and has a master's in Social Work and a BA in sociology (all from UPenn). She's also been a Fulbright scholar, so clearly she's on top of her game when it comes to the material she goes into here, and she pretty much covers the gamut of required learning when it comes to the treatment (in the broadest sense) of people from the LGBTQIA community.

The chapters cover these topics:
Self-Awareness and Communication
Sex, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Health
Understanding Attitudes and Access to Care
The History and Physical Examination
Shared Decision Making and Family Dynamics
Care Planning and Coordination
Ethical and Legal issues
Patient and Family Education and Advocacy
Psychosocial and Spiritual issues
Ensuring Institutional Inclusiveness
But what was really impressive was how often the author steps outside the box to point out areas you might never even have considered might be relevant or important. She's definitely given this topic some considerable thought, and I doubt there are many questions you could come up with which aren't at least touched on here.

The book is written for academics, but it's very accessible and straight-forward throughout. It contains a glossary, references, and an index. Overall I recommend it. If I had a reservation about any of this, it was that, as usual, this type of book seems to have been written solely with a print version in mind, and the e-version coming in a poor second, so while I am sure the presentation and formatting of the print version is excellent, the e-version which I got left a lot to be desired! I am hoping, as I write this, that the advance review copy I had was a quick and dirty conversion for reviewers, and that if there is to be a ebook, it will be a lot better than this, because frankly the e-version was awful!

The errors and poor formatting of the e-version made for a really irritating read. You may call me a prima donna if you wish, since I don't care what you think of me, but my expectations are low when it comes to the quality of e-versions of ARCs. Even so, there really is no excuse for a sloppy review copy like this. Reviewers aside, it's an insult to the LGBTQIA community, and any reviewer would be perfectly justified in failing a book in this condition. I know Amazon offers a truly crappy Kindle app, but even it can do better than this would lead you to believe!

I'm not a professional reviewer despite the shields with which Net Galley has honored me, and I realize that we amateurs can't expect to be treated like professional reviewers and get a pristine copy, much less a print copy, but we do deserve a certain minimum level of respect, especially if we're expected to enjoy a book and be persuaded to feel inclined to review it favorably! personally, I ditched Smashwords as a publishing platform because they're insanely anal and too-often inconsistent for my taste, but I have to agree in principle with their approach to pristine ebooks, because it does matter!

However, for me what's most important is the overall book - not the cover, the gloss, the blurb, or the hype, but the interior, and what it says (or what the author clearly intended it to convey in the version they worked on!). What saved this book for me was that it's far too important to fly off the handle over poor formatting in review copy, so while I recommend it, I am going to point out examples of the main flaws I saw here for the record in the hopes that they will be fixed before any e-version is published.

Tables are not represented well in this version. Some of them appear right in the middle of the text with no separation, such as table 1.1 in the self-disclosure section. The result of this is that the table appears as though it's a part of the text, causing some sentences to end right in the middle, and then resume later, such as "...wife, though her eyes were dry..." in Chapter I step 5. There was a really bad example at location 593: "If you notice the patient appearing agitated or impatient each time a family My dad moved in with me over the Christmas holiday in 2012." 'Family' was completed three paragraphs later with 'member'. The 'My dad' portion was evidently an insert for a side bar or something like that.

There were also other oddball mixtures, such as Location 679 where there was a book reference and copyright notice to this book and author right in the middle of the text with what looked like a page number (38), but it's hard to tell what that was since there are no easily discernible page numbers in this e-version of the book. I don't read introductions (or prologues, prefaces, etc). I think they're antiquated, but as I was swiping past the intro to get to chapter one, I noticed that the lower case Roman numerals for the page numbers were in the middle of the screen rather than at the top or bottom. Some text was randomly in red "ink" such as " What are your goals related to the treatment and prevention of adverse effects of treatment?"

So, while I was disappointed that the presentation was not better, I was delighted with this book, which from my non-professional, but not uninformed PoV, looks to be an invaluable addition to resources any health care professional can call upon to enable them to do a better, more empathetic, and more caring job. The rainbow can only get brighter.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Random Illustrated Facts by Mike Lowery


Rating: WARTY!

The facts in this book (an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher) were just a little too random for my taste, and the illustrations are extremely rudimentary (if sometimes amusing), so i cannot recommend this because I see no purpose to it unless you find it amusing to read a mix of true and at best "augmented" or at worst, possibly fictional "facts".

It quite literally does have random facts. The organization of the book is as rudimentary as the printing and illustration, but it does make some vague kind of sense. The facts however, are very short and completely unreferenced so it's hard ot know whether they relaly hard facts without a lot of research. I checked a (random!) few here and there, and most of what I checked seems to be true, but there were some glaring errors that would have been easy to fix has some simple fact-checking been indulged in online. Some, such as the church steeple in Germany which was stuck four times by lightning over several years, each time on April 18th were unverifiable. No, I don't believe that one!

This begs the question as to how some of these 'facts' arose. One I checked on, for example: that it is illegal to fall asleep in a cheese factory in Illinois, while technically true, is misleading. The Illinois statute forbids sleeping in food preparation places http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=1584&ChapAct=410 which is entirely reasonable, and which I imagine is also forbidden in other state laws, so to single out Illinois, and word the "fact" that way isn't exactly honest. I was more surprised that it was Illinois that was chosen rather than say Wisconsin, than I was impressed by this "fact"!

By the same token the California Fish and Game Code over not eating frogs used in jumping contests is a law aimed at preventing people capturing frogs for food (for which they would need a license), by claiming they were going to use them for a jumping contest (for which they would not need a license). In context, it's clear that the law is to protect amphibians from being eaten to extinction and makes perfect sense, and has nothing to do with "eating a frog that died in a jumping contest" per se. So once again, this "random fact" is highly misleading. I'd have liked this book a lot better if it had been vetted more stringently over the facts which appear in it.

The story of the five-year-old-girl mailed to her grandparents in 1914 is equally misleading. It was a four-year-old-girl named Charlotte Pierstorff, who was accompanied on a train by a postal clerk, so she wasn't exactly put into a cardboard box, stamped and dropped into a mailbox as the illustration suggests. So yes, it did happen, but again the random "fact" doesn't tell the whole story. Mailing children back then (right after the post office first introduced parcel post) wasn't exactly a complete rarity. The first child to be so mailed was a ten pound baby! It was unarguably bizarre and abusive in the extreme to modern minds, but innovative to impoverished families back then!

Yes live scorpions can be mailed, but the regs say nothing about live spiders being banned! They specifically permit "Other small, harmless, cold–blooded animals" which would include most spiders, and scorpions have restrictions ("Live scorpions (only under limited circumstances)"). So once again we find a "fact" that is not exactly up-front about what it purports.

In Serbia, there is a tradition of children tying up their mom on Materice day, but it's as part of Christmas celebrations. On a different day, parents tie up their kids. The idea is to get gifts as a 'ransom' for freeing the hostage. I'm not aware of such a tradition for Mother's Day, but I guess if they do it at Christmas, they might do it then, too. So while, like I said, a lot of what I checked did prove out (at least in part), there were far too many of these misleading ones, or ones which were wrong or uncheckable, so I felt rather disinclined to trust the other facts that I do not have the time spend checking. The book does not strike me as very trustworthy, and there really is no excuse these days for not verifying your 'facts'.

Some of the 'facts' are repeated in slightly different ways on different pages, and overall there are a lot of 'facts'. Some of these are weird and wonderful, others amusing, others not remotely surprising, but overall, I can't recommend it as a worthy read. You may not have these qualms, but for me, in an Internet age where misinformation and blind 'regifting' of trivia through endless, tedious chains of emails is the norm, I think it behooves all of use to not pass on things we don't know to be true, and certainly to not engender materials which are at best suspect.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Sound of the World By Heart by Giacomo Bevilacqua


Rating: WORTHY!

This was an odd sort of a story, but in the end I liked it despite some issues with the advance review copy (for which I nonetheless thank the publisher!).

The story felt like it went on a little longer than it ought, but it talks about something I am quite attuned to at present having been watching episodes now and then of the Netflix series called Brain Games, which delights in telling us how our brain is in many ways magical, but also easily fooled and often in surprising ways. Despite what we might think, our attention bandwidth is quite limited, and it's on the margin of this that pickpockets and illusionists ply their trade

This story is in some ways about that: about how we have blind spots and are in denial. The one in denial - denying himself social interaction (and there's more to it than just that) - is a photographer. He has undertaken with his editor, to spend two months in New York City and during that time, not speak to anyone. He pays his rent by means of his landlady sticking an envelope under his door, he filling it with the rent money, and she giving him a thumbs up through his security glass. He isn't allowed to eat in the same place regularly, so he is forced to try different venues. He navigates this by using a sign explaining that he's deaf, and asking people to please not talk to him. He writes down his meal requests. He's not even allowed to eat at home very often.

And he takes lots of photos. Despite having an electronic camera, he likes to get the prints so he can put them on his wall and examine them. But the real printing process is in his head. He takes a mental snapshot of what he just photographed, and keeps it in mind rather well. That is until he has the next batch physically printed and discovers there's a girl in them, in color, while the rest of the print is gray-scale. He doesn't recall ever seeing this redhead, and when he tries to call up the shots from his mind gallery, he cannot - they're all blank spots! It would seem that his perspective is eagle-eyed everywhere except where this girl is. Who is she and how is this happening? The answer might be different from what you expect and certainly different from what Joan of Arc, his muse in a painting in the museum, might advise.

I've never been to New York, and I'm certainly not one of these people who worships the place. My problem with those who do is that they view it through absurdly biased and rose-tinted lenses. Crime might be commendably dropping there, but it's still horrific. There is a murder pretty much every day, which is unacceptable. The homeless population of New York rose to an all-time high in 2011. Thirteen percent of all homeless people in the USA live in NYC.

At least there, they're legally entitled to shelter, but again, it's a problem that those who worship NYC choose to ignore, extolling what they consider virtues instead. For me, paeans to NYC fall on rather deaf ears because the city, notwithstanding what worshipers say, is essentially no different from any other large city. I doubt that people are particularly more friendly or antagonistic, nor more ordinary or extraordinary, nor more heroic or cowardly than anywhere else, so those views of the city tend to fall flat for me.

That said, and while this book did indulge in some hero-worship, it was kept to what I consider an acceptable level. That aside I had no complaints at all about it, except for a couple of instances where the text balloons were inexplicably blank! The balloons were there but no speech was in them! Maybe in graphic novel worlds this should be a phrase, akin to "The lights are on, but nobody's home!" - "This dude's speech balloon is blank!" I assume this will be fixed before the published copy comes out. Either that or I hope this was merely an anomaly in my copy. The missing speeches were on pps 25 & 26, and also on 120 thru 124. There was also some staining around the dates which separated the various segments of the story, like the dates had been stuck on with Scotch tape and then Xeroxed, and the Scotch tape had left a shadow! But this is a minor thing.

Overall though, and this is what truly matters to me rather than minor details, I really liked this. The illustrations, in color, are gorgeous, and the text is easy to get into and enjoy (and large enough to read on a tablet!). It was fresh and original, and it told an engaging story, so I recommend it as a worthy read.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Homies by David Gonzales, Elliott Serrano


Rating: WARTY!

It's time to review some graphic novels again! This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I was not sure what I would get out of this, but I was interested to learn. I'd never read any of the original work from the 90's, and now I have no interest in looking it up. Neither have I ever been to LA, but I do live in an area steeped in Latin Culture (it seemed like half the workplace was taking the day last Friday for Cinco de Mayo!), yet this book turned out to be a disappointment because it felt more like it was steeped in stereotyping than ever it was in telling original ethnic stories. The most striking thing about this graphic novel though, was that you could have told these same stories, almost word for word, and veneered them with any culture, and it would have read the same and not seemed wrong or out of place.

There's the wedding ceremony where everything seems to be going wrong, and in the end it's the love between the couple that shores them up. So what's new? This story has been told a hundred, if not a thousand, times before. It doesn't matter if it's in the barrio or in the ghetto or in the relatively impoverished circumstances in which I grew up: it's the same story, and that might have worked had there been something here which rendered it peculiarly Hispanic or even original. But there wasn't.

The artwork was curiously angular and not all bad, but to me it was nothing especially striking either. A lot of it felt far too busy and messy but others may well disagree. Cat and Hair (Gata and Pelon - hardly outstanding character names!) are the ones who are marrying, but Pelon looks like he's one of King Charles the First's cavaliers with that hairstyle and goatee.

The thing which made the biggest impression on me though, was caused by the severe angularity of the art. The white highlights on his face were rectangular, and when I first saw them, I thought he'd been in a fight and these were those little "butterfly" adhesive strips that are typically used (in movies and TV shows, but not in real life, it seems!) to hold small cuts closed!

The second story was straight out of Rocky (the original Stallone movie) where the challenger steps up and beats the professional and gets his girl. The only thing missing was that she wasn't called Adrian. Again, nothing original here, only predictable, and again other than the references to Lucha libre, there was nothing particularly embedded in Hispanic culture. The next story was essentially an episode of Scooby Doo with a ghost under a bridge - or is it really a ghost? there was even a dog. The last story was taken from X-Files, and not even really about Hispanic culture - more about refugees.

So I have to say I was very disappointed. Maybe the original 90's editions had more to say, or were more controversial or had some truly original thinking behind them, but I got none of that from this edition, and I cannot recommend this comic book.


Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook


Rating: WORTHY!

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher!

It was also a fascinating study of art dealership over the centuries (yes, centuries!), focusing on some of the main characters of the last two or three hundred years, and their modi operandi. It's also, in parallel, a study of greed, avarice and capitalism at its worst. I found it engrossing, and was pleased to see that one of my pet peeves about scholarly works like this: that they have margins far too wide, and text lines far too widely-spaced, and are thereby abusive to trees, circumvented in this case, because the margins were not ridiculously wide and the text was quite finely spaced, so you see? It can be done! Kudos to the author and publisher for achieving this.

Of course, none of that matters if the book is only to be released as an ebook, but usually these works are not, so this is important. In fact, one of only two complaints I might make is that this book it did not work as an ebook because it was in PDF format which is not ebook-friendly unless you read it on a reasonably large tablet or on a laptop or desktop computer.

On a smart phone, the text is far too small to read comfortably, and if you try to "stretch" the screen to enlarge it, it takes forever to get the fit right, and then you can't swipe to the next screen without reducing the text again! It was a real irritation. Another issue was that the PDF format did not lend itself to reading in "night mode" wherein the screen colors are inverted so the text is white and the page is black.

This is actually my preferred mode to read, and it's a great way to save energy (by reducing battery use so recharges are required less frequently), but it doesn't work with this because what happens is that the screen colors are quite literally inverted - not just the text, but also the images, so instead of looking at gray-scale photographs of people or art works, you're looking at photographic negatives. I think publishers have a long way to go before they can say they're in the ebook book business - and have that claim sound intelligent!

The other complaint I originally had was circumvented in one away but exacerbated in another! It was initially to be that the biggest problem with the book was that, for a work which talks about paintings, it was curiously lacking in pictures of them! In fact there are pictures, and in color, but they are set together in the middle of the book rather than appearing close to the text that references them. Again this is because the book as designed as a print book, not as an ebook.

There are also pictures of some of the characters brought to life here, but these are in gray-scale imagery. When I also saw a couple of pictures in that format too, I had feared this was all I would get, and not even at their best because of the lack of color, but I need not have worried because between pages 160 and 177 there is satisfaction to be had. It only served to leave me wanting more though.

If there is to be an ebook version of this, then it would have been a real joy to have had links directly in the text to an online source for color images of the paintings which are discussed. This would be a perfect use of an ebook, especially since I am also greedy when it comes to wanting to see everything that's talked about. Again this leads me to believe this was produced solely with thought to the print market and not to the electronic market, which begs the question as to why the review copy is being distributed in electronic from? It made little sense to me and did no justice to either the print version or to the e-version if there ever is to be one. But I have to blame the publisher, rather than the writer, for this! it did make me decide not to request any books of this nature for review in future. I don't think it's possible to adequately review a book designed for print by means of an electronic version of it when it contains art work as this one does.

But let's look at the writing because to me, that's typically far more important than anything else. This book focuses on the last four or five hundred years, becoming more detailed as we get into the twentieth century, but it reaches even as far back as ancient Grecian times, so it is very wide-ranging.

Art dealing is nothing new, but those dealers from yesteryear can scarcely have imagined the kinds of sums that modern art dealers routinely deal in, not when a dealer sells a picture in the USA and immediately claims $300 is the highest price that will ever be paid for a painting in America! LOL! Even in Victorian times, there were large sums of money exchanging hands in one direction as paintings moved in the other. Some of these characters, such as Joe Duveen, were both notorious and well-liked, others were merely notorious. For at least one character, his love of his partner's wife evidently exceeded his love of art, and this queered his pitch in a serious way in time.

Another dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who almost single-handedly brought Impressionist works into the spotlight when no one else gave them the time of day was an intriguing guy. The names of the people he personally knew are impressive: Degas, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and so on. It's pretty odd to think someone knew all of those guys and such a relationship would be a lot harder to have today, when artists names are not so legendary as those past masters.

There are controversial issues discussed here, too, such as how maligned should be those art dealers who dealt with the Nazis? On the one hand, they rescued paintings that would probably have been destroyed, since the Nazis considered them deviant. On the other hand, those who rescued the paintings by buying them from the Nazi art dealers (and others), were helping to fund that evil cult even as they preserved the paintings. Were they good or bad or were they, like the pictures of the people featured in this book - in a gray area?!

The author makes some fascinating observations and interesting points, and he's not afraid to ask awkward questions about dealers or about dealing in general. Does it really make it better to say that pictures are sources and placed rather bought or sold, for example?! It may rob the transaction of its 'filthy lucre' connotations, but does it really sanitize those transactions?

I should probably say before I close out this review, that I'm not widely knowledgeable about art, nor do I consider myself even remotely an expert on the topic. I'm not an artist either, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a book like this or learn something from it.

So while I can very much enjoy works of art, I can also see both sides of this world - the appreciative side, and the cynical side. What I think is that art is a very personal thing, and its most personal for all of course, for to the artist. Anyone beyond that artist who talks about art is doing it purely from their own perspective, not from any objective and authoritative position. Anyone who wants a laugh at the expense of art critics (not the same as dealers per se, but definitely in a parallel line of "business", they should look up Pierre Brassau in wikipedia.

On a related note, When we have a director of a state museum of art, Katja Schneider, mistaking a painting done by a chimpanzee, for a work by the artist Ernst Nay, it serves only to highlight how very personal a world this is, and sometimes i honestly have to wonder if any of these people really have a clue what they're talking about!

That Impressionism, which is today renowned, had to be kick-started against opposition for example, poses questions about what is art, who determines this, how the quality of one picture over another is to be honestly and fairly judged, and how some works get to become all but priceless, whereas others which to someone like me, seem every much the same, cannot even command a price. This book helped with some of those questions (it comes down to trust as often as it does dissimulation it would seem!), but it also raised others, and that's fine with me; ideal in fact!

Overall, I do recommend this for anyone interested in art and art history. It makes for an engrossing insight into the past, and into the world of the dealer, As well as into artists and dealers themselves, and the shifting, often contentious, yet at other times endearing and heartwarming relationship between them, and into people struggling to make a living, and those with more money than sense!


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Read Nature: An Expert's Guide to Discovering the Outdoors You've Never Noticed by Tristan Gooley


Rating: WARTY!

Note that this is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book was written by a guy who seems quite dedicated to the outdoors and this book is supposed to communicate his love to the rest of us, but I had a hard time with it.

The author is very widely-traveled, I understand, and he seems to know what he's talking about, but for me this book failed to connect or to inspire, and I think it was because he didn’t approach it the right away. It felt to me like a slapdash approach, with scattered thoughts being tossed in almost at random, like the author was merely dabbling here and there without really coming to grips with things. I think he could have done a better job at bringing newbies into his world. He has other books out there along similar lines, and I found myself wondering if this might be a shorter distillation of one of the earlier works.

I kept asking myself who is this book aimed at? To whom is it supposed to appeal? The obvious answer is 'anyone who is interested in nature', which is why it interested me, but the problem is that it’s too invested in 'wild nature' - being out in the countryside - for it to be relevant to city dwellers. Now it’s true that many city dwellers do like to get out into nature, but it’s not so common for those people to be able to devote the time and frequency to getting out into the countryside that it would require for this book to be of any real and enduring value. I kept thinking that a 'Nature for City Dwellers' book might have been of more utility in this case.

For those who reside in, or spend a lot of time in the country, a lot of what's in here will be preaching to the choir, since they already know many of these things. I acknowledge that there's nearly always something to be learned, but it felt like it would be of limited value to them, too.

Is there a segment of the population in between those two extremes which might benefit? I'm sure there is, but how large it is, is an open question. Additionally, the book is very British in its own nature. It’s not that it doesn’t mention other countries and other cultures, and other wildlife, but it’s essentially British at its core, which may limit its appeal.

There is a group of people like me, who are not blind to nature and always willing to learn more. I live on the edge of a city and take care of my own yard, so there is a connection I have that perhaps too many others do not. I don't notice the detailed things he does, because I don't have that kind of time to spend on this, but I do notice things both in the yard, and at times when I do get a chance to be out in the semi-wilds, and to me they're interesting.

On hikes and rambles in the past, I've pointed things out to my kids, but their interest in those things waned as they grew to have other focuses. Maybe that's a failing of mine, but I remain unconvinced that this book, which tries to do the same thing, is a going to draw in very many people who do not already lead, or seek to lead or in some way emulate the same kind of outdoors life to which the author has access. Most people do not have that option very readily available to them.

Yes, these things are interesting, but they’re not critical to most people's everyday life and a lot of the things he talks about are irrelevant or unattainable to most city dwellers. So this begs the question as to why a better connection was not made to the advantages this knowledge would bring, or to the utility it would have or your average person about town (and I mean that quite literally).

A connection with nature is always better - better for the planet if nothing else. If people are made more aware of how critical Earth's health is to us and how delicate aspects of it are, through people being led to feel closer ties to nature, Earth is likely to be better protected, but there are other virtues, mind-expanding ones which, while touched upon here from time to time, felt somewhat glossed over. Which brings me to the photographs included in the book. They are all monochrome, which really divorces them from nature, in its glorious technicolor, so for me they didn’t add anything. More on this anon.

The biggest problem for me though was the apparent random nature of the book. The chapters I thought ought to have been the lead-in: nature's clocks and calendars, all appeared in the second half of the book. This made no sense to me. Starting with the big picture and carefully moving to an ever detailed smaller one would have been the best approach.

To me it would have made more sense to organize the whole book in that way: following the year, and looking at how nature changes during it, with little detours into the other topics he covers as appropriate; in this way, people could jump into the book at whatever season they're in when they get their hands on it, and follow it all the way from there.

Some parts were slightly misleading. For instance, the tale of the Jarawa people who survived the St Stephen's tsunami in 2004 by moving to higher ground before it came. The book implies that they had - not quite, but almost - a sixth sense to read the clues and take action, but the fact is that their folklore told them if there was an earthquake, there often can be a giant wave on its heels. They were merely following word-of-mouth traditions of their people. It was not some magical connection with nature. They would still have moved even if a tsunami had not come, which would have been a waste of their time on that occasion, but still a smart move in the grand scheme of things wherein it’s better to be safe than sorry. Their survival is to be rejoiced and is worth learning of, but it's not worth making it seem like there was something just short of otherworldly going on.

In contrast, other parts of the book were oddly-lacking important details. For example in one section the author makes some observations about how to determine what kind of rock you're likely to find under a piece of land based on the flora that grows on that land. He says pines like acidic soil and beech trees like alkaline, but he doesn't say how to recognize a beech tree! Without that basic piece of knowledge, you’re prevented from anything else in that cascade. That seems like a sorry omission when it would have been just as easy to put it in there. Would a photograph, even a black and white one, of a beech tree have been appropriate here? I think so - or at least a drawing. Such photographs would have made a difference and not at all appeared all-but randomly chosen.

Obviously in these days of Internet searches, you can not only discover what a beech tree looks like, but also feed in a picture of an unknown tree and likely get a result telling you what tree it is, but if you only have the print book to hand, you’re rather stuck! This is part of what I meant when I said this book had a slap-dash feel to it, like a hastily-packed suitcase might be opened at your beach-front hotel to reveal no swim-suit or no sun tan oil! At least most-everyone knows what a beach looks like!

On a more serious note, I do agree that taking a greater interest in nature not only adds to our joy of life, but also helps us become aware of the more important things: that pollution and climate change are real and dangerous. I'm sorry there was essentially nothing about those critical topics in this book. It's a sad omission which brings me to an observation of my own. This book was formatted with very wide margins and a huge amount of white space, and with lines that were not single-spaced. It’s only a hundred-sixty pages but it could have been much shorter, probably a hundred pages or so.

This matters less in the e-version, except in that it still requires energy to transmit all those blank spaces across the Internet. In the print version, however, should this book go to a large print run, it’s an awful waste of trees. I would have thought that someone who boasts a close-connection with nature would have appreciated that and sought to ameliorate it, so this was another disappointment for me.

As was the search engine! At one point I was looking back to the beech tree and alkaline reference to verify I had not misunderstood. When I searched for 'beech', the app (Bluefire Reader) found it with no problem, but a search for 'acidic' crashed the book and brought me back to the screen which contained the list of books in my Bluefire library (which in this case was only this one book). That's not a problem with the writing or book layout, but it is a problem if people want to look up something and the search engine isn’t stable. Again this was an advance review copy, so maybe this problem, whatever it is, will be fixed in the published version. Maybe the problem is with Bluefire reader. I can't say. I can say it was annoying.

There's a practical issue to the book formatting, from a purely reading PoV, which is that the text was very small on the screen of my phone, which is more likely what you'd be carrying on a nature ramble, rather than the book or a large tablet computer. It’s possible to enlarge text on the screen, but then the page will not swipe to the next one (and sometimes it jumps back to the previous one while you're enlarging it, which is another annoyance!).

For each page, you have to enlarge the text to read comfortably, then you must reduce it to its original size in order to swipe to the next page, and finally, you must then enlarge that page to read it. It made for an irritating read. This is a problem with distributing books in PDF format. It’s not e-reader friendly unless you have a large screen. As I mentioned, though, this was an advance review copy, so maybe the actual published version will be in a more e-friendly format.

So in short, while I do believe books like this are of value and it’s important that people read them, I think this one could have done a much better job than it did and as such, I cannot recommend it as a worthy read.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Demagoguery and Democracy by Patricia Roberts-Miller


Rating: WORTHY!

Having battled a few young-Earth creationists in my time online, I can't say there was anything new in this book for me, but I still considered that it was worth the reading. It refreshed my mind, and reminded me of a few things that I might be getting rusty on. The saddest thing about it is that the people who most need to read this are the very ones who are least likely to want to read it, but I hope I'm wrong on that score, because everyone who is registered to vote needs to read this book, especially after the last few elections in the USA, and there is no excuse not to, since it's very concise, very clear, and pulls no punches.

From the blurb, we learn that a demagogue is someone who turns "complicated political situations into polarized identity politics," but as the author points out, it's more complicated and more nuanced than that, and it's all-too-often difficult to spot when the demagogue wool is being pulled over your eyes precisely because we're so used to it. In fact you could make a decent argument that American politics is composed entirely of demagoguery on both sides of the aisle these days. Those who bravely seek to do an end-run around it and stand as independents, are mauled to death by the sound-bites of the two front-runners. The media - which is supposed to be impartial and be wise to these tricks - simply plays along with them.

We can learn from this book what these shameless, grandstanding people say and do to gain and hold power, and what we can do to restore deliberative democracy, because that's the antidote to this poison. The first step is to recognize it, and the next step is to focus on the best way to deal with any given instances of it. This book will help you with both of these issues, because this author knows her stuff and displays it to advantage here. I recommend this book and I sincerely hope more people read it than I fear actually will!

I'm surprised the author didn't use references to creationism or climate change, because demagoguery is rife in the shallow dialog over those contentious issues, too, but if I had a complaint about the book, it's not about the content or the writer's style, but about the presentation, which is in what I call academic minimalism - and it's a style which is wasteful and may even turn-off some readers.

For an ebook, it really doesn't matter that much, but even there, a bulkier book requires more energy to transmit over the internet. From the point of view of a print run, a book like this is far harsher on trees than it ought to be. The pages have wide margins and widely spaced lines. Were the margins smaller and the lines closer, the book could have been probably a third smaller and saved a proportionate number of trees (and perhaps encourage more people to read it since it looks shorter!) I realize my voice is one of a paltry few crying in the wilderness, but at this rate that wilderness ain't gonna be with us much longer and all that will be left is the crying.

Other than that I recommend it unreservedly. Trish Roberts-Miller is a Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches in the Liberal Arts department. Though UT is only a few miles from where I live, I don't know this author, but I do know never to get into an argument with her! I wish her all the best with this book.


Marrow by Preston Norton


Rating: WARTY!

This is yet another in a long line of sorry-ass first person voice novels. I loathe that voice. Once in a while I've found an author who can carry it, but for the most part it's far too limited, self-serving and self-obsessed, and it turns me right off. I'm at the point now where I'm not even going to read a book, no matter how interesting the blurb makes it sound, if it's in worst person. There are lots of other books out there that are far less annoying!

The story is about this 14-yer-old boy who has the super power to change his bone density. How that works without his changing his muscles to cope with the weight, is left completely unexplained. So we have yet another example of a writer simply not thinking his story through so we have magical powers here! Worse though, is that this super hero story is far too derivative of every other super hero story, particularly of the DC comics canon, of the 2005 movie Sky High, and of the lesser-known movie Super Capers.

The center of this story is Marrow, also known derisively (and accurately), as Bonehead because he is an obnoxious bonehead. I did not like him at all, so I'm not about to continue read his story. He barely manages to get through his graduation test (who graduates at fourteen?!), because he has anger management issues which are simply not addressed!

Instead of him being paired with a capable mentor who can help him, he's blindly paired with Flex, a rip-off of Hancock, for no other reason than that the author evidently is blindly following a rigid plot here, which pairs opposites and has them become wonderful friends and super effective. Barf. At least I'm guessing that's what happens, and Flex probably dies, too. But I wasn't interested. I ditched this right after Flex appeared. I think if he'd started with more original characters and allowed them room to grow, and move and 'have their being', this could have been a much better story.

There are other rip-off heroes here too: Zero is merely Frozone from The Incredibles. Sapphire is Jean Grey from the X-men. Fantom is Superman. For some reason, I immediately felt suspicious from the start that Fantom might be some sort of villain in disguise. The super-powers these guys have - all derived form a comet impact - don't make any sense - but then super powers never do. The X-men super powers made no sense either, but at leas there was a deeper story there, one engaging, and attractive. This one was not.

The super villain Arachnis is essentially the Empress of the Racnoss from the Doctor Who Christmas episode The Runaway Bride. She's tediously quoting lines spoken by The Goblin from the original Spider-Man movie: 'itsy-bitsy spider. Yawn. I won't insult you by recommending this book. I'll do you the favor of warning you away from it.


Diary of a Dancing Drama Queen by Louise Lintvelt


Rating: WARTY!

I've had mixed success with books by this author, but until this one the balance was slightly favoring the positive. This one brings down the batting average to a .500 I think.

This was a short novel aimed, it would seem, at middle grade readers (or even younger, based on the writing) but despite the youthful voice, it was written with a very adult tone and referenced a lot of things in which children in that age range probably have little or no interest at all even assuming they had knowledge of it.

The title indicates that dancing is going to be involved, and the main character is an extremely reluctant dancer - in that she has a really poor self-image and has no interest in disporting herself in such a manner, yet she mentions the TV show Dancing with the Stars as though she's really familiar with it, which begs the question: why would a kid who hates dancing be watching such a show in the first place? This was one of several things in this story which made little sense.

Clearly this book is heavily influenced by the author's own experiences either directly or vicariously, and it really doesn't work because of the age difference. The first problem is the constant whining. This kid is negative about everything, and she's especially down on herself. It really makes for a sorry story that's not at all a pleasure to read.

It would also help if the author knew what she was talking about. She mentions a 1973 Volkswagen bug car which belongs to the kid's mom, and says, "My dad says he spends more time fixing the thing than she does driving it. I can confirm this - I can think of more than one time when we got stuck on the side of the road with the hood in the air and steam hissing from the engine," but the Volkswagen was an air-cooled vehicle so there would be no steam hissing from anywhere - or if there was, then you have some serious issues with your vehicle!

Naturally a kid would not know this, and any kid reading this would likely not notice this, so I guess it’s a lot easier to get it wrong than to get it right unless you actually care about your writing. For me it was sloppy. It would have been just as easy to have mentioned a different vehicle, but again there's this anachronistic "hippie" vibe running through this story which doesn't sit well, because it reminds us once again we’re reading a story that wasn't written by the girl who claims to be telling it. Which twelve-year-old would say, "She has straight brown hair, cut into a perfect bob" or who would know the name of Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter? If there had been some prior suggestion that the kid watched the Marvel movies, then I could see her knowing who Paltrow is, but there wasn't, and I know Paltrow has made many other movies, but none of those seem like anything this kid would have seen.

On top of this there's the sexism in having the mom be the one with the cute car, yet unable to fix it, and the dad being the one with the sensible vehicle, and having to come to the rescue of the helpless maiden in distress. I had hoped we might have moved beyond this by now, but evidently this author has not. I quit this at less than halfway through even though it was only seventy-some pages because it simply wasn't appropriate, and it wasn't an entertaining read. I can’t recommend it, not for any age group.


The First Taste is Free Pixie Chicks - Tales of a Lesbian Vampire by Zephyr Indigo


Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with The Pixie Chicks by Regan Black, or with the Pixie Chicks' Writers Group, this story was so whimsical (and very short, but it's free - as an introductory overture) that I was lured into reading it and in the end, it was not a bad temptation at all. I'd be interested in reading more, but the story is an episodic one, and there are ten episodes, which means you'll end up paying nine dollars for the whole book. Is it worth that?

Only you can answer that question, but consider that there is no page count offered for these 'episodes', only a file size, which is a cautionary omission! This one (excellently titled 'The First Taste is Free!) is 174K. The next one is only 211K so that means it's hardly longer than the free book - maybe 25 - 30 pages max, depending on font size. So all ten can't me more than two hundred to two-fifty or so pages. For nine dollars it had better be good for as slim a volume as that would be.

Mega-vendors like Amazon have forced authors into this world though, so it's what we as both writers and consumers have to deal with. Will it work? Does it pay? I guess we'll find out! At least with this method, the author gives you the option of buying bite-sized pieces and you can quit any time, so you don't find you've laid out the full price for a novel that you can't stand to read past page twenty! Frankly, I'm wondering if I should try that with one of my novels. I had this weird idea for a humorous story just a couple of days ago, and I'm wondering if it might be worth experimenting with this technique: write it as a short set of episodes for ninety-nine cents each. It's worth a try, but I would never run it to ten volumes of twenty pages each, so you can relax on that score!

I'm not familiar with the author at all, but I seriously doubt that Zephyr Indigo is a real name. I also have my doubts that the author is even female. It's a sound marketing ploy to have a female front for this kind of story, but I feel like it's probably a guy; however, I do not know, so I could be completely wrong on both scores. I often am!

That said, and though I was skeptical about this story, it did win me over, so there is something there. You;'re quite free to disagree of course, but for me, I thought it was pretty darned good for this genre. The story was fresh and different, and though the sex is rather perfunctory, which may displease many female readers, it really did feel like it counted as erotica. It's about a lesbian vampire. Much of what is termed erotica these days is nothing more than smut, but this wasn't like that. I know it sounds cheesy, but the erotic bits are decently if somewhat clinically done and the story that links them is actually an interesting one.

The vampire is sick with herself and looking for a cure or for the vampire hunters to find her and finish her, but she meets this pixie one night, alone in the forest, which is a dangerous place to be when vampires are loose. The vamp of course get the hots for her, but the pixie, who goes by the amusing name of mint (but who may as well have been called catnip) will only give in to her desires if the vampire meets with Ariel, the pixie goddess. Ariel has a mission for the vampire - to work with the pixies in finding a cure for vampirism.

For me it made for an interesting story, even though it was only some twenty pages. I am sure this is what the author wants, to lure readers in, but you can't blame him or her for that in this ebook world we've created for ourselves, and this is a good lure. Maybe I'll be lured into reading more. We'll see.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Perennials by Mandy Berman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This novel didn't work for me. The blurb did, which is to say that it did its job and lured me in, but it was, as usual, misleading. If I'd known Kirkus had praised it, I would have definitely skipped it, because Kirkus pretty much praises everything, which means their reviews are completely worthless, but I didn't and the blurb sounded good, so I bought into it. The story is presented as a summer camp story, but in fact this particular story could have been set in a variety of other venues and still been essentially the same story, so I never saw the advantage of the camp setting except maybe as a nostalgia lure for readers. There really was nothing about the camp which was essential to the story being told, and the camp suffered by being merely one more "character" which became lost in the mass of people ambling among the pages.

This is also presented as a story of two people meeting as young adults after knowing each other as children. There's a giant jump from their early teens when they are at camp, to their life after their college freshman year, but it's misleading, because the two have never been apart in any meaningful sense, so there really was no drama to it, and no sense of anything changing or fulminating. I think it would have made for a better story to have followed them through their first year in college. Largely the same kind of events could have transpired in such a story, and it would have felt more organic and more real.

Even as it was, the story would have been a more entertaining if we could have focused on the relationship between these two girls, but they were quickly pushed very much into the background by the plethora of other characters who were quickly ushered in and out. Instead of a coherent story we got a potpourri of people, and this messy patchwork never let the reader get to know a single one of them properly. It was like looking at snapshots in a photo album at an orphanage. You know there's a bunch of stories there worth the telling, but you can't grasp any one of them from the narrow, static glimpses you get into these lives. The collage overwhelms the power of the story, which gets lost: all the actors became minor characters, and there are so many of them that it's impossible to actually care about anyone.

So the story is that Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin used to meet every summer at Camp Marigold. That's the extended prologue, although it isn't called a prologue. For me it could have been dispensed with altogether. The main story begins when both girls come back to Marigold, but this time as counselors. We're told that their relationship is more complicated, but I saw no evidence of this. The bottom line is that Rachel is a jerk and Fiona is a whiner. For these "sins", both are punished towards the end of the story, but the 'punishment' didn't match the 'crime', so that was a fail for me, and neither of these people was entertaining or interesting, or had anything new or worthwhile to offer. Yes, there are two tragic events. I guess the blurb writer doesn't count drunken rape as tragic. I'd have to disagree on that one. Either that or the blurb-writer never actually read the story before describing it to us.

I never went to summer camp, which is why I have found several such stories to be interesting, but this one was not, and at least one aspect of it struck me as highly improbable. The camp Fiona and Rachel attend is not that spectacular. It's supposed to cater to rich kids, but it's a rather shabby and resource-lacking little concern, so this made very little sense to me. It also lacked credibility in that for reasons unexplained, the camp seemed to be a huge magnet for international camp counselors! I found that hard to believe. Like I said, I've never attended a camps, so maybe camps really are like this. I have no problem accepting that foreign counselors might want to come to US camps. What I found beyond credibility was that so many of them would want to come to this particular one!

So overall, not a worthy read for me. I can't recommend this one.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown


Rating: WARTY!

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

'A hanging' ought to be the collective noun for witches. It would remind us of what has happened to so many women who were not even witches. This book could have set that right at least a little, but in the end it was a disappointment. The very title is an issue since it's in the form of "The 's Sister/Daughter/Wife." I admit that such titles are provocative, but when you get right down to it, all they really achieve is the reduction of a woman to a mere male appendage of some kind, and it's appallingly insulting when you think about it. I think this is the last novel with such a title that I shall read, no matter how interesting the blurb might make it.

I think there was a story to be told here about a fictional sister of a real historical person, but the telling of it in this way did not work for me. Others might draw different conclusions, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me confess here (you don't even need to torture me!) that I am not a fan of first person voice stories at all. They're decidedly unrealistic and I cannot for the life of me understand why authors, particularly female and particularly in the YA genre, are so addicted to them.

I think it awfully sad that female authors are implying, by so dedicatedly employing this method, that women have so little confidence and feel so unheard in novels that they have to make their stories "all about me" just to get anyone to pay them any attention. As an avid reader, I certainly don't believe that and yet I've encountered very few first person voice novels that were satisfying. First person is far too self-centered, and it typically makes me dislike the narrator because it’s all, "Hey focus on me! See what I'm doing now! It's time for some more about me! Lookit me! It’s all about Meeee!" and I honestly cannot can't stand it, with very few exceptions.

Once in a while an author can carry it, but here it did not work. In terms of realism, it’s highly unlikely that a young girl growing up in a large family of boys, even one as relatively well-off as this one was, would be well-enough educated to be able to write, and especially not a story like this (which is supposed to be her diary or journal, but which reads nothing like one).

Girls did not get much of an education if any, not even in the nobility, and the Hopkins family was hardly nobility. It was deemed that an education would be harmful to a girl's marriage prospects, so it was neglected (beyond the basic housekeeping, sewing, etc.). Because of this, Alice's literacy was hard to swallow. It was inauthentic. On top of this, her voice did not suggest the mid-seventeenth century at all. The mentality was far too modern, and no one has that kind of recollection of events down to detailed conversations, so it just felt wrong from the start, and kept throwing me out of suspension of disbelief.

There's another problem with this voice and the author illustrates this one handsomely for us here. When you trap yourself in first person, your character has to be there and everywhere - otherwise how can she tell us what’s happening? Almost the only alternative to this is the info dump, where she learns what’s going on by having someone tell her in a story-halting binge, or where she reads something which feels so fake, because the only purpose it serves is to clue us in to what she's missed.

The equally clunky alternative to this is to have the character end-up in a position to listen in on something she's not meant to hear. Typically this is far too convenient or contrived, and it feels fake and thoroughly unnatural. In this case, at a meeting of men, we get Alice dragged in there for no good reason, and it felt so obvious and so fake that it really kicked me out of suspension of disbelief. Again. These kinds of men certainly would not want a woman in on their meetings. They had no use for women whatsoever.

Did Matthew Hopkins have a sister? It’s unlikely. His father had six children, but we know the names only of the four eldest. The author argues that at least one of the other two could have been a girl, and uses the lack of mention as evidence: since girls were not counted for anything back then other than as housekeepers and baby mills (an argument which, of course, undermines her entire sister story!). But if the two youngest had died, then they also would have merited no mention even had they been boys. It's unlikely in a family of six that all of them survived infancy in that era. Mortality was appalling.

But fine, if you want to say one was a girl, then let's go with that and ask how she got her name. The name 'Alice' for the main character is chosen for a reason, and it would be a spoiler to reveal it, but it doesn’t work. The Hopkins boys were all named after apostles, the other three (older) brothers being called James, John, and Thomas. Where then would this family come up with a non-Biblical name like Alice? It stands out like a sore thumb, and for me wasn't worth the ending which is too cute by far to be taken seriously.

For a story which promises witchcraft and horror, this one kills the thrills by moving achingly slowly, with rambling reminiscences and flashbacks. These are not to my taste at all. For me, all a flashback does is bring the story to a screeching halt, and I never appreciate that, especially not when it's a reminder that a writer seems to be trying to hit plot points and a story outline, rather than relate a realistic and organic tale of a person's experiences (fictional as they are) as they happened.

Flashbacks have such an amateur feel to them that they ruin suspension of disbelief. No one in real life sits lost in pages flashback or reminiscence (unless they're mentally ill) - not for as long as characters all-too-often do in such stories. It's an amateur conceit really ruined the pace for me. I took to skipping all the flashbacks because they contributed nothing to the story and actually impeded it as far as I could see.

It was a third of the way through the story before we ever got to what Hopkins was doing! Up until that point it was all about Alice, and she was not an appealing character at all. She was tedious, and in very short order, I had lost all interest in her and in what she was thinking or doing. For some reason she became obsessed with a list of witch's names and we had to go through that list over and over again. I took to skipping those passages, too, because they were simply annoying and led nowhere. I had read some reviews that said the story picked up around the halfway point, but I didn't find this to be the case. For me, it continued to be lackluster the entire length of the novel.

Of course not a one of these women was a witch, neither in the pagan sense nor in the absurd evil caster-of-spells sense. They were simply tragic victims of Hopkins's religious fanaticism, and the worst thing about this novel is that we got nothing of that from this story. Just as with his sister, Matthew was completely bland and unmemorable. He's presented as a simple, flat character who offers nothing original or entertaining. He has no emotional depth.

He ought to be a firebrand and a dynamo, but he's a limp rag, and it made for a boring story. He was larded with far too dramatic a past and it completely overshadowed his present whilst contributing nothing materially to it, so instead of an emotional story about the horrible slaying of scores of innocent women, we got a bland family melodrama, and I found it insulting to the memory of those women who were slaughtered on the altar of religious psychosis.

Matthew Hopkins was a real person about whom we know very little, and would probably know next-to-nothing were it not for the eighteen months or so when he became Britain's most prolific serial killer, hiding his vindictive blood-lust beneath the guise of a Christian witch-finder as he acted on the clear Biblical injunction, which fortunately everyone outside of Africa ignores today - of not suffering a witch to live.

He terrorized East Anglia - that butt rump of a bulge on Britain's south eastern shore - running from village to village, and being paid by the local parishes to cleanse their territory of witches. The Bible has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? It’s the most execrable terrorist manifesto ever written, and we could have had all of this in this novel: the empty message of a god's unconditional love contrasted with the brutal Biblical injunctions to kill, slaughter and eradicate, but we got none of that. For me that was the saddest aspect of all.

On top if this there were portions of the story which seemed to start up dramatically, like an avocado pit on a plant pot, only to die inexplicably without going anywhere. There was a suggestion of the supernatural quite early in the book which never went anywhere, as though the author forgot about it, or had second thoughts. Alice's pregnancy (a left-over from her deceased husband) was an obsession for much of the start of the book and then it fizzled out. At one point I was starting to suspect that Matthew had had Alice's husband killed. I admit that if this suspicion turned out to be true, then I missed the revelation because I was, I confess, skimming the last forty percent of the novel just to get it over with.

As I said, so little is known of Hopkins's life that you can make up pretty much any story you want about him and get away with it. The saddest thing about this novel was not a hanging of witches, which ought to have been front and center, but of a tragically wasted opportunity - one squandered on unimportant trivia in the life of a fictional women when there were so many very real women, all of them murdered by Hopkins, who are begging to have their story told, and yet were denied that opportunity by this author. I cannot recommend this at novel all.