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

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Happiest Kids in the World by Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison


Rating: WARTY!

I requested this book because I thought it would be interesting, and in some ways it was, but I evidently expected too much from it because it failed to make a case for me. It's sad, because I felt like I shared some common ground with the authors. I've never been to Holland, but I grew up in England and went to school there, and now I'm seeing my own kids through school in the US, so I share two of the three perspectives presented here, but I have to say that the picture painted by the authors felt narrow, very biased, and worse than this, there was really nothing offered to suggest how a nation which might want to emulate the Dutch could get from here to there.

The fact that we call them Dutch, and they call themselves Nederlanders, and we call the nation Holland is an interesting mix of etymology which has deep roots. The word 'dutch' just means people, and there were mountain dutch and lowland dutch, but the ones we now call Dutch go stuck with the abbreviated version of that title. Holland was just one part of a group of people who settled together into one nation, and the rest of them got stuck with that name! Nothing to do with the book, but just in passing....

I'm open to the notion that the Dutch can teach us some things, but I was neither convinced that they have a world-beating handle on things by this book, nor that what was presented here offered was anything more than what intelligent and common-sense parents are doing anyway. In this regard it was rather insulting because the authors seemed intent upon translating a lot of personal perceptions into a generalized diagnosis of, and prescription for everyone, so that all Dutch were painted the same color - and a very bright one, whereas all Brits and all Americans were each panted their own dull and muddy shade of grey. This struck me as entirely unfair.

In 2013, a Unicef report rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world, so something seems to be working there. Two writers, a Brit named Michele Hutchison who moved to the Netherlands in 2004 with her Dutch husband, and an American, Rina Mae Acosta who is also married to a Dutch guy, are raising their kids in Amsterdam and they explored why it is that Dutch children are so happy. This book is the result. In that same survey, Britain ranked 16th and the USA ranked 26th, which was just above the three poorest countries in the survey, so I can't help, but ask why that is. Why did the Dutch do so well, and the Americans and Brits so poorly? or is it not quite so black and white as is portrayed here?

While I initially felt that I might like this book, and rate it positively and encourage others to read it, the more I read of it, the more disillusioned I became. It is truly important to widen our perspective when it comes to how we live our lives, and in particular, how we relate to and raise our children, but I had serious qualms about the validity of the conclusions the authors were drawing.

The first of and most obvious of these is that the Unicef report was only one survey, and a recent one, so I have to say I'm skeptical about basing any long-range planning on a single narrow study. The study did cover five dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, behavior and risks, and housing and environment, but the idea that the Dutch do it best is based on that single snapshot. I'd have to ask: were Dutch kids also the happiest five, ten, fifty years before? If so, then we have something to build on, if not, then what's changed and how reliable is it? We don't know from what we're told here, and that question isn't asked in this book.

There was one part of this book which related how the principal of a school, who liked to greet each child as they came in through the door, mentioned that this was not always the way it was done: kids came piling in chaotically when she first arrived. This is a change she has made herself to this one school. There was no mention of whether this same polite, stress-free organization existed in other schools or whether it was just this one principal's peccadillo. To me this was a failing, and it was one which ran like a thread through the book. There is no grand plan here or any deep survey, just a lot of anecdote and opinion. It's not something I'd want to base my kids' futures on.

This book does cover raising children from conception through schooling, so in that regard, it's comprehensive, but the authors haven't finished putting their kids through high school, and since this is based so much on personal experience, that end of things was a bit bare; however, it was at the beginning of that path of life where I encountered another instance of confusion or conflation. At one point early in the book the authors praise the Dutch for their having babies at home as opposed to in the delivery ward of the nearest hospital, but later we learn that only 25% of Dutch mothers-to-be actually do this.

Now that's higher than in other countries, but I'm unclear what the point was that the authors were trying to make here. If the number of moms (even though it's relatively large) is still in the minority, can we make any valid claim that this materially contributes to anything beyond the personal, much less to kids being happy?

This was further confused later when I read of moms in the US and Britain, who do give birth in hospital, being kicked out after a very short stay. This was mentioned like it was a problem, but If the idea is to have a safe birth and then get mom home as soon as is practicable, how is this problematical as compared with those quarter of Dutch moms who stay home for the birth? I didn't get the point of those portions of the book which were like this.

What bothered me is that the authors clearly are starting out with the conclusion that the Dutch do it better than anyone and the Brits and the Americans do it badly by comparison, yet we never get any questioning of whether this is really true on a widespread basis. The odd survey will only tell you so much, yet the Dutch get endless praise here to the point of it being tedious and irritating. Frankly this praise felt like fan-girling. We never got an unbiased perspective with the same kind of detail on how things are done elsewhere, except for frequent and very negative sniping which was as unfair as it was inaccurate.

Worse than this, we tend to get a lot of personal anecdote from one or other author including a three-page-and-a-half spread about the high-school experiences of one of the authors. While it's sad that anyone should have to go through what she did, the fact remains that it's her personal subjective experience. So far so good, but the thing is that after a revelation like this one, the authors generalize and talk as though their own personal experiences, interviews and opinion apply to everyone equally!

No, they don't. My school experience in Britain was far removed from hers, and my kids' experiences are likewise far removed from the ones depicted here as being representative of the USA. You cannot generalize from the personal or blandly take your own experience and treat it like it speaks for everyone. It was things like this which made me quickly lose all faith in this book's message, turning me from a potential convert to an adverse critic.

The vista over which this book looks is disturbingly narrow. We get a lot of author opinion, and we get second-hand interviews and comments made by Dutch women, but for a book about children's happiness, we get precious little from the kids. We don't get a significant number of kids views, and the few we do get are anecdotal Dutch ones. We almost never hear from other kids in other countries, and the authors make no effort to try to seek out views which might actually oppose theirs, to give some balance to the presentation.

It's this lack of adequate comparison with other countries in a quantifiable way which lets the book down. We hear a lot of opinion, but precious little to back it up. One thing that's mentioned, for example, is suicides in Silicon valley, but if we look national suicide rates in Wikipedia, the Dutch do not come out best! A lot of Middle-East countries are lowest, with the Dutch appear halfway down the list, beating US citizens, but not doing as well as the British. It seems to me if the kids are extraordinarily happy here, this certainly doesn't seem to permeate into adulthood, and the authors never address this or ask why. They simply keeping on pointing to the shiny Dutch way and praising the bright colors of the Dutch lifestyle, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's a rather thin veneer of paint in many places.

One of the odd things which are praised is how tall Dutch men and women are. This point was made over a dozen times in one way or another, but I fail to see how it relates to happy children, unless being happy somehow magically makes a person taller! Dutch men average the tallest in the world at five feet eleven inches in the survey I read, although the authors cite one which quotes them at six feet one inch. Dutch women came second to Latvian women for tallest, but the fact is that eight other nations in the survey I saw were within two centimeters of the Dutch, so I kept asking, "What's your point?" I still don't know! Nor do I know how tall the authors are, talking of perspective. If they're relatively short, then perhaps the Dutch men did seem particularly tall and this is why they kept returning to this. Again, it felt like fan-girling. Other than that I have no explanation for the repeated references to it!

This was one of a many digressions which took us away from the main topic (if we assume from the book title that the main topic is childhood happiness). It's for this and related reasons that I have questions about the approach this book took. If we put aside the Unicef survey for a minute, the entire rest of the book consisted of observations and some interviewing, but there was really nothing offered to support a causal relation between A and B - it was simply assumed.

At one point, for example, the book began talking about biking adding six months to life expectancy. It rambled on about how the Dutch have taken to bikes and how children learn to bike independently to school at an early age, and while I can see that this contributes to children gaining confidence, I don't see how it's any different from other activities pursued by children in other countries which contribute equally to child welfare and confidence. It was just tossed in under the untenable and unsupported assumption that this very Dutch activity was quite different from anything any other nation does and therefore must somehow contribute to this unique Dutch happiness!

The most amusing thing to me about this whole story of children biking to school was that the author complained of how busy the bike lanes were, yet the school was only a half mile away! Why were the children not walking, and getting their exercise and building their confidence that way? It was one more confusing episode that made no sense at all.

Meanwhile, the dangers of cycling were swept under the rug. A report discussed at DutchNews.nl (April 2016) shows that 25% of those who die in a road accident in the Netherlands are cyclists, compared with a European average of 8%. Denmark and Hungary are next on the unsafe cycling list; in both countries, 16% of the people who die in road accidents are cyclists, so to pretend there is no problem with cycling safety or that dangers are low and controlled is simply dishonest.

With regard to child mortality, it's the same in the Netherlands as it is in the U.K., with the US being about twice that. other numbers do not put the Netherlands out there as a shining and unique exemplar. This is not to run the Dutch down but to put things into a perspective which the authors of this book seemed somewhat loathe to embrace in their gushing prose. There's a report online which numbers 2,375 children as victims of human trafficking in the EU in 2013 and 2014, and most come from Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. This did not fill me with confidence that the Dutch system is so much better or safer. These are just a couple of examples which I found quickly and which are glossed over or ignored here.

I'd have been a lot happier if their survey of childhood happiness had gone wider and crossed a greater range of social classes. This is why I had questions about whether the authors of this book are correctly diagnosing the situation. Perhaps they are. Perhaps everything they have discussed is measurably a contributor to their conclusion and explains why Dutch children are happier, but I never felt convinced of it by what I read. It was all too loosely wrapped, too rambling, too repetitive and disorganized.

The authors offer a lot of suggestions, but nowhere was there any discussion about whether or not other parents in other countries were already doing these things despite not being Dutch, or whether it was even practical to advocate 'the Dutch way' when so much of it is inextricably tied to Dutch culture and Dutch laws, and government and national attitudes. You can't simply move those things to another country, and even if you could, you can't expect them to work as they do at home. Also conspicuous by its absence was any survey of Dutch ex-pats, who are living in other countries, but adhering to the Dutch method. Does it even work abroad? How do their kids fare? The book is silent on this perspective.

There was some talk of stress. One the one hand we're told that the Dutch lifestyle avoids stress and this is a contributor to happiness, but then the authors turn right around and tell me that there's a special world in Dutch, Faalangst, which is exactly what it sounds like: fail angst. The very fact that such a concept exists and has a special word for it presupposes that there's stress and attendant measurement of it, which are the very things we're told don't exist! This evident hypocrisy was not an isolated incident.

One section of the book covers bullying, and Britain and the US are given a poor commentary here, yet a quick look online again reveals that this is not a fair picture. World Atlas doesn't show Britain or the US in the worst 10. Even in this older study more UK students (42%) said they were happier in school most of the time than on average in the rest of Europe (33%). Most of the bullying seemed to be tied to racism and religion, and nothing to do with pressure of school work. This study reports the Netherlands and the UK almost neck-and-neck with the US not far behind, so there appears not to be a huge discrepancy.

Google really screwed me over yesterday when I began writing this! I must have hit some oddball key combination while typing, and my entire blog edit screen went blank! I'd never encountered this before, nothing I did would bring it back, and my last save had a half-hour before because I was so focused on writing this! Google doesn't do backups or undo in its blogger environment.

More fool me for trusting Google, whose motto is "don't be evil"! Thanks Google. That's a half hour of my life I can't get back! I decided to quit for the night because I'd spent so long on this. The rest of my review, below, is more of a summary so I don't end up spending a large portion of yet another evening on this when I need to be doing other things!

So let's get going. On another tangent, the book delved into antibiotic use, and yes, the Netherlands does commendably have the lowest human antibiotic consumption rate in Europe, but what this book doesn't reveal is that between 2005 and 2009 The Netherlands also was among those nations with the highest sales of antibiotics for veterinary use of 10 European countries investigated! It's the antibiotic use in animals which is really the issue in the form of germs building resistance to the drugs, and which is becoming a chronic and dangerous problem, so once again we had a biased perspective which favored the Dutch.

Anecdotal stories of kids being too tied up with "building up their resumes" instead of playing outside that were related here neither described my childhood in England, nor that of my own kids' childhood here in the US. I'm guessing they don't represent a whole host of other kids either, judged from what I see in my neighborhood, so once again we had a personal perspective being generalized and applied as though everyone else was the same. It's not the case, and it's misleading.

At one point the authors gush about how Dutch moms never get depressed, but dutchdailynews.com reports that "The Netherlands, U.S. Have Highest Depression Rates in World"! Another web site, iamexpat.nl, agrees: "... new study has found that the Dutch have very high rates of depressive disorders compared to the rest of Europe." The nltimes.nl website agrees: "Eight percent of the Dutch population aged 12 years and older admitted to suffering from depression in 2014. That is more than 1 million people."

So once again we get a different view outside of the book to the one we got inside it, and the one inside both favors the Dutch and appears not to have been well-considered. The more of these instances I encountered, the less confidence I had that this book was being fair or was telling it how it really is!

One of the things mentioned more than once was the Dutch habit of making a "breakfast" out of chocolate sprinkles on a slice of bread and butter. That sounds yukky to me, but apparently it's quite popular; however, as dutchfood.about.com explains, it's not the only thing they have for breakfast and I think it's misleading to go on about it like it is.

This lack of a reliable and comprehensive coverage of the facts was disturbing to me, and I found it over and over again. For example, the chapter on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) fails to mention how close most results are, giving a false impression. It does show that the Netherlands is in the lead (except in science, where the U.K. came ahead, but the book mentions only the ranking, without recognizing that the rankings can be misleading. Look for yourself, here.

In this chart, for reading, the Netherlands is placed 11th, the UK comes 27th, and the US a "shocking" 41st! But if you look at the actual scores, the Netherlands gets a 512, the UK a 492, and the US a 470. This is a less than a 10 percent difference. So yes, the Netherlands is ahead, and yes, the UK and the US need to do more, but the actual difference is smaller than we're led to believe when we're told only the rankings. This same mis-perception applies to reading, where Netherlands scored 503, the UK 498, and the US 497. That's a one percent difference, but to hear only the ranking, we learn that the Netherlands came fifteenth, while the UK and US were 22nd and 24th. That makes it sound so much worse and it's misleading. This also applies to the science scores, where there's only a two percent difference.

So yes, the authors made their point about the Netherlands having a decent education system, but need that have been done at the expense of unnecessarily dissing the US and the UK? No, it needn't, and worse than this is the studied ignoring of all those nations which appeared above the Netherlands in the scoring, such as for example, Norway, which scored well in PISA and also did well in the happiest kids ranking, as did Finland (except in science!), Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium to name five. None of these other countries come under the microscope in order to determine what it is they're doing right and whether or not it compares or contrasts with the Dutch system. Again, I found this lack of a wider perspective to be glaring and regrettable.

There was a chapter on discipline which showed a Dutch bias too: even as we're told Dutch kids are badly behaved (as in running around in restaurants, and so on), we're expected to accept that and not find any real fault with it. Again we're given no comparative examples except for one anecdote of quiet French kids on beach! These quiet kids were taken as representative of the entire French nation and contrasted with the Dutch kids who were exploring and so on.

For all we knew, the French kids had been exploring, and were tired and wanted to rest. Maybe they'd been to that beach many times and were bored. Maybe they'd been brought to the beach against their will and resented it because they'd rather be doing something else. The fact is that we don't know, and even if we did know, it was entirely wrong and completely unfair to make a comparison like that and generalize from it. These two chapters were really the final straw for me, and they lost whatever remaining goodwill I'd harbored for this book, because this type generalization was rife: taking a few stories, or an interview or two, or a personal opinion, and extrapolating it into a grand argument favoring the Dutch way.

In the final analysis, we have only a narrow viewpoint from two writers who are apparently quite comfortably-off as judged from the text (occupations, lifestyle, friends, etc.). One of the things they discuss is owning cargo bikes and tandem bikes which can cost several thousand dollars, but my point here is that their perspective is not necessarily representative of everyone, and I didn't see any serious effort to expand their viewpoint beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances or to seek out contrary points of view for the sake of presenting a balanced argument. It seemed like the only things they were reporting were those which upheld their preconceived conclusion, and they were downplaying or ignoring anything which might sabotage that apple cart.

Finally, I have to say a few words about the technical aspects of reading this book. The advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher, was available only as a PDF, and it felt to me like it was written for the print edition, with no thought given to reading it as an ebook. If you can read it on a tablet or a desktop or laptop, and see it pretty much full size, then it makes for a decent read.

I read most of it on my phone, because it was more convenient for me, but it made for a very annoying read! The screen on my phone is larger than most, but if I tried the read the book as single pages, the text was annoyingly small. I could turn the phone sideways and read the text in a larger format, but then I had to contend with sliding the page up and down to read all of it. This would not have been so bad had it not been for the tendency of the app (BlueFire Reader) to get confused. Often when I tried to slide the page down or up, the screen would switch to the previous page or to the next page, There didn't seem to be any reliable way to swipe the page up or down without triggering a page change and it really was annoying. In the end I put up with the tiny text and read it as single pages. Just FYI!

Here are one or two more brief notes that I missed yesterday(!), in this and the next two paragraphs. A paper on Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) noted that "The incidence of STI-consultations and diagnoses increased substantially in recent years, both at GPs and STI centers" so again, not everything is as perfect as it might seem with Holland's child-rearing practices. A reason for this STI increase might be that Dutch do not employ condoms as frequently as some other countries in Europe, such as France, for instance. Maybe those French kids on the beach were soberly contemplating that?!

On this same sexual score, the incidence of teen pregnancy in Holland is almost the same as in Germany, and HIV infections and abortion rates are higher in the Netherlands than in Germany, so here we have another case of another country doing equally well, without a hint of recognition from the authors, or any hint of questioning whether the Germans do things the same, or differently, and what that means in either case. Again it's biased reporting.

There's a comment at one point on the wearing of school uniforms, which isn't the practice in Holland. The problem with this is once again that the authors don't look at the other side of that coin, either. School uniform is not just about identity and belonging, it's also about not being singled-out for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is that poor families, who cannot afford to dress their kids the way wealthier families can, do not stand out in an adverse way from everyone else who might be wearing designer clothing and the latest fashions otherwise. This is another example of where this book failed in not seeking out a broader sample base than merely the authors' own opinions, or the personal acquaintances of the authors.

So to conclude quickly, while I'm by no means trying to say that there's nothing we can learn from the Dutch, I have reiterate that this book failed to convince me that there's any more we can learn from them that smart and caring parents haven't been doing all along. Much of what's advocated here is simply common sense, and it's insulting to continually suggest that parents elsewhere, particularly in the UK and the US are not doing these things or are clueless about them.

Worse than this, though, is that their conclusion, grandly titled "Let's Start a Revolution" offered no way to start this revolution! Yes, individuals can adopt best practices, but a lot of what was discussed here was dependent upon the Dutch government, Dutch laws, Dutch culture, and so on. You can't pick that up and drop it into another country and expect it to be accepted or to work.

The authors' failure here, was in their offering absolutely no suggestions as to how other countries, even assuming they buy the authors' Dutch is best philosophy, could go about embracing the Dutch way, and if it's not possible, then what was the point of discussing all of those things? The book too often felt that it was much more interested criticizing British and American child-rearing than ever it was in trying to offer suggestions as to exactly how those societies might facilitate changes which could bring these supposed benefits of the Dutch way into those other countries, and for these reasons I cannot recommend this as a worthy read.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Doctor Kangaroo by Gerald Hawksley


Rating: WORTHY!

I've enjoyed several of these crazy Hawksley books. They're not much for being educational, but not every book your kid reads has to teach something. Sometimes silliness is a valuable lesson to learn. In this story, Doctor Kangaroo's patented treatment is to send every patient to bed with a bandage round their head no matter what their complaint.

What I liked about this story is that it didn't know when to stop. Even after the Kangaroo story it plunged into yet more silliness, which felt like getting a couple of bonus books. I recommend this one for the fun and general all-around goofiness. The artwork is rudimentary but no one in need of a book like this is going to care about that.


The Land Without Color by Benjamin Ellefson


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a middle-grade ebook and it was odd because the first chapter seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the chapters that come after. The first chapter is about four kids named Brandon, Derek, Paul, and Steven playing kick-the-can with some younger kids; then they go fishing. They disappear from the story at that point, and in chapter two and every chapter after that, the story is about a kid named Alvin, who gets this never-pop bubble gum for his birthday, and finds he can blow giant bubbles without the gum popping, one of these bubbles which carries him into a magical land where everything is grey. There are no other colors because they're been stolen by the goblins.

I began wondering if the grandfather who the kids visit in chapter one is the same person as Alvin, and the story is a flashback starting in chapter two. The last chapter confirms that it is. It just seemed like the writer had forgotten what he started writing about! There were one or two other, minor, issues, such as this sentence: "he saw the path before him stop directly into a sheer cliff" which could have been worded a lot better! There was also a disconnect between some of the images and the text, for example where we're told a general is wearing a "camouflage military uniform of red, orange, yellow," but where the illustration shows no camo, only your usual olive drab (or in this case gray drab!). In general, the story was well-written.

I have to question some of the choices here, though. The underlying theme of the story is that good nutrition brings color to your life and health, and I concur that good nutrition is sorely lacking in far too many lives. A third of the US adult population is obese, which adds something like one hundred fifty billion dollars to national healthcare costs, and it also means that the overweight are paying $1,500 dollars a year more for healthcare. That's the real reason behind the health industry trying to get people to lose weight. Don't ever forget that they're not charities, and their motivation has nothing in common with actually caring, rest assured!

Thirteen million children in the USA are obese, but a healthy diet needs to be more than simply eating vegetables. Fruit is mentioned, but it's the overriding obsession with vegetables I don't get. There's no mention of cereals or dairy, or of a balanced diet. A real diet needs to be a whole mind and body affair, including exercise and yes, including some moderated junk food. Remember, your body needs sugar, it just doesn't need as much as you think it does, and the excess goes straight to the fat factory.

The oddest thing about this ebook though, was the images, which are black line drawings on a white background. I typically have my Kindle app set to white text on a black background to save on battery power. I imagined that the images were designed with a white page and black text, so I tried to switch colors to see if it made any appreciable difference to how the images appeared in the text, but the only options the Kindle app on my phone offers for background screens is black, sepia, and pale green! Who ordered that? It's one more reason why I call it a crappy Kindle app. You'd think with all the money Amazon is minting, they could offer a better app than this, but maybe they don't care. Maybe they'd rather have you shell-out for a Kindle reader with the attendant limited functionality. I've been there and done that. I don't want to go back.

The thing with the white image background is that it butts up right against the text, making the text look like it was cut off. The first image I saw, I thought it had been accidentally placed right on top of the text, but I realized after a moment that it wasn't. If the images are at the left of the screen, then there's a gap between them and the text, but when the images are on the right, as almost all of them are for reasons unknown to me, the text butts right up to the white image border and looks truncated. I am not fond of Amazon's Kindle app!

On the iPad, the kindle app does have the option for a white background and the images and text looked fine there, but I still prefer to have white text on back for battery conservation so maybe authors should give some thought to how they design their images. The more wear and tear on the battery, the sooner it's going to die and have to be junked, and a new one purchased, which costs energy and resources to make. Recycling doesn't start at the trash can. It starts when a product is produced.

This image issue is a definitely a peril for writers who try to illustrate their stories. You cannot count on the ebook rendering them as you envisioned them for the print version. The simple solution would be to have the image background transparent, so that it merely shows through whatever background the reader chooses for their Kindle reader, but if your background is black and your line drawings are also black, then the image will disappear into the background if your reader chooses a black background screen, so you can't really win! I like my ebooks, but this is one reason why ebooks fail when compared with print books: the writers and illustrators lose all control over how their work is viewed.

The other issue I had with the images was that the way Alvin was drawn made him look like a grownup! Seriously. He did not look like a middle-grade student; he looked like a midget adult. So for me the images were a fail. They really contributed nothing to the story, and were not particularly well-done. They weren't a disaster by any means; they were okay, and maybe younger children will like them, but for me they didn't work. That said, the story was engaging and descriptive enough that it would have done well without images. It had lots of oddity and weirdness which I tend to like.

Having been carried into colorless land, Alvin tries to find people to ask where he is. On a point of order, gray is a color! If there were literally no color, then the world would be black (and part of this world is), but since we consider black to also be a color as opposed to what it really is (the absence of light and color), then using gray, as most writers do, is fine, I suppose.

The first 'person' Alvin meets is a squirrel which can talk and which becomes his traveling companion. He next meets a mouse which also talks. All the people he meets are gray except in rainbow city, and even there, they are struggling to maintain their color, eating free junk food dispensed by the King, which supplies some color. Some of them are missing their head. The junk food is also part of the underlying theme, and I commend the story for that.

I did have a bit of a problem with this being a 'great white hope' story where the interloper rescues the natives who can't help themselves. In addition to that, it was a case of a knight in shining armor rescuing the helpless princess, which is far too Disney for me, but balancing that, the main character was a black kid, which is far too rare in stories, so it gets kudos for that! What a tight rope the author walked, in trying to get past my filters! LOL!

On this same topic, the author has a short bio note at the end in which he proudly mentions his "four beautiful daughters" and I have to take issue with this as well. Is the only thing a writer can say about women is that they're beautiful? It's degrading. And no, I don't buy that it was meant in a generalized sense either, because then he could have said "four wonderful daughters" or something along those lines. the problem with endless claims of 'beautiful' is that the word becomes completely meaningless. If everyone is beautiful then the word has no value, because it literally means nothing to describe a woman as 'beautiful'.

My problem here though, is that I have to ask: do these daughters have no other qualities? He couldn't have described them as "four smart daughters"? Four industrious daughters? Four accomplished daughters? Four loyal daughters? Four talented daughters? Four loving daughters? The only thing he can think of in relation to a woman is skin deep? It's shameful. It really is; however, this is a different issue the story he tells, so I'm not going to grade his book on his attitude towards women when that misguided attitude isn't expressed in the novel, so he gets a bye on that one!

Meanwhile, back at the story, Alvin has to battle sinking land which, when he illegally picks flowers, delivers him to the underground prison for goblins. He has to deal with the idiot Crimson Guard, the idiot King, and a two-headed dragon. He has to visit the goblins who strike terror into everyone, and he has to figure out the real reason for the color drain, in which he gets a lot of help from the mouse who seems to know everything.

All in all, and criticisms aside, this was a fun story and will offer young minds a lot to think about. It has a lot in common with Gary Ross's movie Pleasantville which has a similar basic theme, but which is a different story intended for an adult audience. It also has some things in common with Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey (which has nothing to do with the "fifty shades" trilogy. I recommend this novel for middle-graders, but I wouldn't want to read a sequel to it.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Love Muffin And Chai Latte by Anya Wylde


Rating: WARTY!

Tabitha Lee Timmons is a thirty-something American living in England. Why she is there is never explained. I guess it's just to appeal to American audiences. For the last year, Tabby has had a loose relationship with a guy named Chris, but that's not his real name since he's Indian. He just uses that name because us idiot westerners can't handle Indian names. His real name is Chandramohan Mansukhani which isn't that hard of a name to grasp, and neither is his family pet name, Chintu.

At the start of the story, "Chris" proposes to Tabby, and she promptly swallows the engagement ring which he had stupidly hidden in the muffin her gave her. 'Love Muffin' is her nickname for him. Fortunately it isn't used often. Chai latte is her favorite drink. I really enjoyed the first third of this book, but then it started to go downhill for me, big time. This was curiously right at the point where I thought it would take off, because this was when she went on a trip to India which was one of the main reasons I picked up this novel.

I never had understood why Tabby was with Chris in the first place, because far more often than not, he acts like a major dick and a jerk, treating his fiancée like she's an annoying a piece of furniture he's forced to live with, yet this seems to impinge upon her consciousness not a whit, let alone make a negative impression on her, or issue a warning that she's with the wrong guy. The two do not live together and have apparently never had sex. He's painfully self-centered and she's tragically ignorant of this fact. His response to her question, "Do you love me" is along the lines of "I guess." That ought to tell her right there, but she's too dumb to see it.

Normally I would be out of there at the first sign of that in a novel. I don't like stories about idiot women - unless there's some sign down the highway that we're just a few miles (or in this case, kilometers) from wise-up-ville. What kept my interest was the quirky humor which ran through the story and which was, I admit, silly in places, but it amused me.

I very much enjoyed that, but it became harder to use that as an excuse to continue reading, when Dev showed up. Dev is right out of trope casting: a muscular hunk of a guy, good looking, mysterious, a bad boy. The problem is that he's also a dick and a jerk, yet Tabby gets the hots for him like she's a fifteen-year-old watching a music video. It's pathetic. I lost all respect for, and interest in, Tabby at this point, and I quit reading this novel about forty percent in.

I have no time for love triangles because they always make the one in the middle - in this case Tabby - look like a dithering idiot. Either commit or get out of the bedroom! I also dislike the idea of this trope hunk. Maybe there is a portion of the female gender who respond to this. I know it's a biological urge and there is obviously a market for it with these novels, but my feminine side doesn't reach that far and frankly, I much prefer the road less traveled, especially in a story like this.

I respect women who are smart enough to know the difference between an idle feeling of lust, and a real attraction on a level deeper than skin goes. That doesn't mean you can't have both, but if you're going to do that, then you'd better give me a real reason as to why this relationship actually is both, and it had better not be you just telling me it's an enduring love while all you're showing me is nothing but the shallowest and most juvenile of lusts.

While there are welcome exceptions (I've read one or two), this kind of romance is all too often that shallow and I have no time for it. It doesn't help to lard up Dev with good deeds which are told rather than shown to Tabby, and this had especially better not be when the author has already portrayed him as a complete jerk in his previous interactions with her.

I cannot recommend this one at all.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Princesses Don't Become Engineers by Aya Ling


Rating: WARTY!

I'd hoped to have something better to offer you on Bessie Coleman day. I had been hoping I could review a refreshing novel with a strong female character, but unfortunately, I cannot. Yes, it was going to be this novel, but no, this novel which so promisingly started out, started doubt and then went so far downhill so fast that I almost got whiplash from it.

I'm not a fan of series and this novel is part of a somewhat disconnected trilogy, in that the stories are about different people in the same world, but there's a lot of crossover. The other two are Princesses Don't Get Fat and Princesses Don't Fight in Skirts, neither of which I've read. I'm unable to rate this one positively because of some serious issues I have with it, and while I confess I was initially interested in reading the '...Fat' novel purely out of curiosity since it's not a topic you usually find in books such as these, I changed my mind after learning more about it, and being increasingly disappointed in this one to the point where I DNF'd it at around 75%.

That said, the reason I chose to read this one is that it sounded like it might take a different path from your usual princess story, but in the end it didn't, so why would the '...Fat' novel be any different? I don't know, and I certainly have no faith that it would be. The engineering and steam-punk elements were quite obviously nothing more than sugary frosting adorning a doomed attempt to disguise on the usual stodgy "beautiful girlie princess meets strong, handsome, manly man and falls in love" cake. Those tales are not for me and are the very reason why I wrote Femarine. I had hoped that this one would be in the same vein as Femarine and was very disappointed when I discovered it would not be so.

This novel appears to take place late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but there are anachronistic problems. Note that this is an alternate reality novel, which has huge similarities to our own reality, but which is also set in a fantasy world. No dates are given, so it's hard to place it on any kind of intelligent timeline as compared with our own. Roller skates were invented (to our knowledge) in the mid-eighteenth century, but were not widely known until early nineteenth, so would skates have been part of the vernacular? Probably not. The wheelchair was in use by the late eighteenth century, yet this story has Princess Elaine inventing it. The same applies to the parachute, which she invents.

She also invents the wristwatch, which didn't show up until the mid-nineteenth century in our timeline, but the real problem with this is that the premise for it failed. According to the story, Princess Elaine was inspired to think of a watch for the wrist because a guy who had been overwhelmed by her beauty (more on that shortly) had dropped his pocket watch and it broke. The problem is that pocket watches routinely have chains attached, so it's hardly likely, no matter how startled by her 'stunning beauty' he was, that it would have ended up on the floor.

None of this would be an issue had Elaine been frequently shown tinkering and inventing from the beginning, but she was not. She was shown only with a penchant for escaping out of her window, which was amusing, but hardly inventive. The stream of inventions which are ascribed to her was becoming ridiculous by about sixty-percent through the book. Not a one of them was original in the sense that it had never arisen in our timeline.

All of this inventiveness consisted of simply ascribing something to her which already exists on our world, and most of it was very simple - so simple that it did not take a genius to invent it. In fact, it was actually derivative, not inventive: all she did was add wheels to a chair, add a strap to a watch, and so on. Straps and wheels, chairs and watches already existed, she just proposed a "novel" use for them.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, yet she invents this, too! And exactly how she does it is rather conveniently glossed over. She's supposed to copy out a text twenty times as a punishment, and handwriting is specifically mentioned, yet she thinks she can get away with inventing a printing press and printing twenty copies. The fact that she would have had to typeset the entire work beforehand (or represent the text in some other way) is completely ignored, as is the fact that if she did it by typesetting, she would have had to create the individual characters, too! In only three days! So her inventiveness and her inventions felt amateurish at best and cynical at worst.

Either way they were very klutzy, and we're never shown anything in the way of how she develops her thought processes or where the ideas originate. They just suddenly spring up magically, already completely formed and bubbling out of her head, like Aphrodite ejaculating from the foam of Uranus's sinking genitals.

The printing machine ("You asked the carpenter to make an automatic printing machine that you designed yourself?") was an oddity not only because it was not automatic, but because one of the princess's goals was to present an invention at the quadrennial engineering exhibition, and her printing press should have qualified easily, yet no one ever mentions it even as a potential candidate for exhibition. Instead, she obsesses on building a flying machine for the next exhibition, four years on. It seems that this was done solely to allow her to mature those four years, but it leaves a huge hole in her story. Meanwhile the printing press has spread like wildfire and made books available to the masses. It made no sense at all that she had no recognition of any sort for this.

Another anachronism was that, given how advanced some of these discoveries were (steam-power, for example was in wide use), why there would be would-be knights still training with lances and swords? Where were the firearms? Again it felt like the story had been thrown together without any real idea of what kind of world this was, and it made it seem amateur, piecemeal, and disorganized.

One example of poor planning was when Princess Elaine learns of Titanium, and decides it's exactly what she needs for lightweight tanks for her flying machine. Aluminum, which is also known in her world, is far lighter than titanium, far easier to work, and just as suited to making tanks as is titanium. It's in wide use in our world for SCUBA tanks. If Elaine had been anything of an engineer, she would have known these things, and not had to have discovered Titanium by accident from seeing it used as armor by the tournament competitors.

So the story itself was bad in many parts, but worse, there was a shockingly poor use of English. I don't mind the occasional author gaff - we all make them. I find them in my reviews on occasion when I have cause to revisit one, but there was a lot of them here, and many of them could have been caught with a spell-checker and some careful reading of the final copy before it was published. There really is little excuse for this.

Here are some examples:

  • "...the right course of action is to take it up to the king, not resolving to pranks." - should be 'not resorting to pranks'.
  • "...why are we supposed to learn those vocabulary when no one knows about them?" - should be 'that vocabulary'.
  • "She's in the kitchens noe" - should be 'in the kitchens now'.
  • "Francis Wesley, who would and probably already had, delight in reporting every single of her failure" - the mixed verb tense could have been easily fixed by re-wording.
  • "Elaine pulled apart the curtains of her window and stared outside. Outside, Valeria was taking Baby Charles for a walk." Repetitive 'outside' could have been avoided.
  • "Hasn't Samuel taught you that you must show, not tell?" Author, heal thyself! There's far too much tell about Elaine's engineering desires, and no show to speak of!
  • "Elaine sailed into the Dome as though she were on roller skates" One doesn't sail on roller skates, one glides!
  • "There was a pot of oil burning by the door. She lighted a fire in the pot" - if it was already burning, no lighting was needed!

  • "...plus three inches taller. Add the bun on top of her head and she was five inches taller than her usual height. No wonder the servants seemed to have shrunk." This doesn't work! Wearing three inch heels would make the servants appear subjectively three inches shorter, but the two inch bun of hair on top of her head would add no further height to her eye-level, and three inches is hardly sufficient to make the servants all seem to have shrunk.

  • "Own tried to elbow Alfred out of the way." Should be character name 'Owen', not 'own'

  • "...her dodging skills remained as sharp as evet" - should be 'ever'!

  • "...the cylinder was promptly finished..." and "Elaine carried it off...," - note the singular references here, but later we have "two titanium cylinders..." Where did the second one come from?!

The biggest sin, for me, was the nauseating obsession with beauty in this novel. The novel is supposed to be setting out to show that Princess Elaine was more than your usual ridiculous Disney princess, or a pretty royal façade, but the author constantly tripped herself up in this regard by repeatedly drawing our attention to the shallow and the skin-deep. I don't mind a character being described as beautiful as long as she has other qualities, but to obsess on it in the narrative (which is not the same as having a character mention it - although that can be overdone, too) is just stupid and abusive to women everywhere.

If your novel is about runway models or actors, then I can see how looks might play a part, but to make this one of the major focuses of the novel is appalling, especially when the novel is supposed to be about her other traits and skills as evidenced by the choice of title. The only thing you're achieving by doing this, is to instruct your readers that you are a shallow author who values beauty and nothing else in a woman, and by extension, that if your reader isn't beautiful, then she'd better get with the program otherwise she'll be worthless for the sole reason that there's no other trait a woman can have which can compare with beauty. Seriously? I'm not going to reward appallingly abusive behavior like that with a positive review, and female authors who routinely write like this ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, as should this author.

It's not so bad in the early stages, where the princess is only twelve, but as the story goes on, the constant references to how beautiful she is are truly stomach-churning. And hypocritical. Here's what the author says, just over half-way through the novel: "...most people still hadn't seen past her face. They valued her beauty more than her work." Well who is to blame for this? The Princess's admirers, so-called, or the fact that it's the author who has repeatedly bitch-slapped the reader with the princess's sheer beauty - not her smarts or her engineering skills, or any other trait, but her beauty? The overriding importance of beauty not just in the princess but in all young women of nobility is pounded into us from the start of the novel.

Here are some examples:

  • It was unquestionable that the Linderall princess was the most beautiful woman in the Academy
  • Despite a lack of regard for her appearance, [the princess] was still remarkably beautiful.
  • "Your Highness is the most beautiful girl throughout the kingdom."
  • "While her beauty certainly didn't measure up to Elaine's..."

Here's a particularly shameful one:

Elaine grimaced. Part of her was flattered, but since she was used to have people fawn over her beauty, she still genuinely regarded the attention a nuisance. She liked to be admired, but not by strangers. "Well, Her Highness is sixteen already! And she's the most beautiful girl in the world!"
That's not only a grammatical issue, wherein it should read 'used to having', not 'used to have', but also makes her main character look like a female Narcissus. She liked to be admired? How does this even fit the character who has shut herself away in a laboratory for months? The same sad shallowness applies to male characters, too. The phrase "how tall and strong he was" put in an ugly appearance in one form or another more than once. It was as though, if a guy isn't tall and strong, then he's a piece of shit. I'm sorry, but I don't subscribe to that blinkered garbage for men any more than I buy beauty as the sole measure of a woman, especially in a novel which purports to offer a princess with something more about her.

Princess Elaine wasn't always the nicest of people, either. For example, at one point she's approaching André, her unrequited love interest, to congratulate him on his inevitable win at the tournament, when a redheaded girl rushes past her and congratulates him, kissing him on the cheek. Elaine dismisses her with this thought: "that redheaded chit' which seemed especially mean.

Elaine has no idea who this girl is. It could be his best friend, his sister or cousin, or a colleague at the academy, yet she has these inappropriately hostile thoughts right from the off. She didn't seem like a nice person at that point, but perhaps her sour attitude came from the fact that even at sixteen, her servants and her family still conspired to infantilize her, with her brother calling her 'Pumpkin,' and her maid referring to her as 'Little Princess'. It's abusive and annoying. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a young adult novel and not a middle-grade one because it sure seemed like middle-grade even after the princess grew up.

The princess's schooling at the university bore no relation to what university was like in the nineteenth century. It seemed to be based on a twenty-first century high-school model which made it sound ridiculously juvenile. There was too much of this amateur approach, which detracted from the parts of the story I did like - such as the princess's rebelliousness.

The oddest thing about the school was that not a single person showed any deference to Elaine. Don't get me wrong here. I feel that this is how it ought to be! I have no tolerance for upper class privilege, but this story was about that very thing, so in the milieu of the story, while she was a princess royal, people were not only talking to her like she was a commoner, they were treating her like one. Even the teachers had no respect! They called her by her name instead of addressing her as 'Your Highness'. Again, I'm all for that, but in the context of this story, it felt ridiculous and amateur. The story felt more like fan-fiction than ever it did a professional novel.

In addition to that, Elaine is repeatedly shown as spoiled, inconsiderate, lazy, and privileged without a thought for people less well off than herself. This is startling because André is not privileged. If she cared for him so much, then why would she not spare a thought for others like him? Again, she's not a nice girl.

This whole affair with André felt odd. Usually the problem in these YA princess romps is that the love isn't love, it's what I call instadore, and it fails because it's not real and doesn't even feel like it might be real. In the case of André it was slightly different: there was a long time for them to get to know each other - four years to be precise, but this entire period is skipped over by the author, so we experience nothing of their interaction with each other apart from two brief, too brief interactions very early on. What this means is that this "love" felt just as bad as if it had been instadore, because it had no history for us to follow and it made Elaine look immature and stupid.

Based on this observations, and despite liking this novel in the beginning, I cannot recommend it as a worthy read. In the end, it would seem the engineering idea was really no more than a flimsy veneer on top of a story that does nothing to buck tradition. The very reason I gave up on this in disgust at 75% was that the author started channeling Austen and not in a good way - it was Austen at her most maudlin worst.

In an exact parallel to the portion of Sense and Sensibility where Willoughby happens upon Marianne after her injury and speeds her home on his horse in the pouring rain, Elaine gets injured in the pouring rain and is carried by André who was evidently stalking her. She immediately starts sneezing, like rain gives people cold viruses and the virus peaks instantly!

I would have had no objection if someone had ignorantly remarked "You'll catch your death of cold" because there are stupid people. What I don't have time for is stupid authors. For an author to actually subscribe to the brain-dead notion that getting soaked in a rain shower gives you instaflu is monumental horseshit and a disgrace for a writer to buy into. This kind of moronic writing is par for the course in the majority of asinine YA "romance" novels though, I have to admit.

Elaine's dash into the deadly 'flurain' was to collect her flying machine invention, which she;d left up on the roof, and which consists of two titanium cylinders for compressed air, a leather harness to strap it on, and an engine. What? An engine. That's what I thought you said. Excuse me, but what does the engine do? I have no idea, and apparently neither does the author. It doesn't compress air, because she had to land when the air tanks run low. There was no mention of propellers, so it;s not that. How the thing worked is a mystery. Why it needed an engine is a mystery. Where she got the compressed air is a mystery, but there it is: yet another cockeyed invention from someone we're told is a genius but who we;re shown is a rip-off artist at best, and a clueless time-waster at worst.

I don't buy it, and you shouldn't either. Spend your money on someone else's novel! This one is trashy and derivative, clueless and cheap, and I actively dis-recommend it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Dreadnought by April Daniels


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
"With Dreadnought's dead" Makes no sense. 'With Dreadnought's death', or 'With Dreadnought being dead' makes more sense.
Camouflage misspelled at start of chapter 14
Bicep on p115 needs to be biceps!
I wouldn't keep let mom bribe me p115 makes no sense. 'I wouldn't keep letting mom bribe me', maybe?

I'm not a fan of series in general because they tend to be bloated, repetitive, and derivative. I like my novels fresh, not warmed over from the previous volume in the series! Once in a while though, a series comes along that's worth reading, and though it's premature to say so after only one volume, this series, Nemesis, of which Dreadnought is volume one, might be one I can finally stomach! Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the author and the publisher.

Let me address some issues I had with it first. The story was in first person. I have no idea why authors are so addicted to this, but usually it sounds awful, self-obsessed, and totally unrealistic. Once in a while an author can carry it off, and in this case it wasn't bad until it got to about 80% of the way through when the big action finale began, and then it really showed what a poor choice this voice was. No one narrates like that when experiencing horrors or trying to figure out how to set wrongs right in emergency situations.

Yes, I would agree that the actions and thoughts of Dreadnought in some ways showed how new she was to this job, but in other ways it was steadfastly undermined that by how analytical and detailed she was in relating what was happening. Even accounting for the inexperience, for me it was almost completely lacking in credibility. It wasn't god-awfully bad, but the scenes needed to be tightened considerably. There was way too much fluff and filler, and with the first person voice it simply didn't feel realistic. Overall, the finale was not bad in terms of being a finale. It was just poorly executed, I thought.

It may seem strange to make this point with someone like Trump in office, but the extremes depicted in the novel, in terms of how people despised Danny, the mtf transgender girl who became the super hero Dreadnought, were too polarized. It’s like there was no one on the fence - they were either totally supportive or psychotically antagonistic and to me, this lacked credibility. I know there are many people hostile to the LGBTQIA community, and for the next four years, we're going to see them crawling out of the woodwork, emerging from the shadows, and slithering out from under rocks, I'm sorry to say, because they've been invited to do so by one of the most bigoted and insensitive public figures I've ever seen, and unfortunately, because of the complacency of registered voters, he's now in a position of way too much power for four years.

As far as this story is concerned, more nuance would have served it better. Danny's high-school friend, her dad, and the Graywych character at the super hero building came off more like caricatures than actual people, and this robbed them of their power, although Graywych's perspective was an interesting one, I grant. Instead of being threatening though, they were more like "representative' cardboard cut-outs, or placeholder set up to mark a particular perspective without making the perspective feel real.

That said, I really liked this story overall, and I loved how it brought the character into being with a history and a legacy already in place because of the way the mantle is passed on from one Dreadnought to another. Like Danny needed any more pressure! Danny is a girl, Danielle, as she'd like to be, born in a boy's body, Daniel as he was known.

She has felt trapped for seven or eight years, and is desperately counting the days until she's eighteen, and can get a job to save up for the surgery which will make her outward appearance match her inner self, or at least as close as modern medical science can render it. She did not ask for super powers, but once she gets them, and realizes that part of this transference grants some wishes to the recipient we quickly discover (like it was any surprise!) what her dearest wish was, and this is what she got.

Some reviewers, I've noticed have had issues with how 'beautiful' and 'curvaceous' she became, and I’d have an issue with it if that was all she became, but there was more to it and it’s wrong to focus on one aspect to the exclusion of others which turn out to be more important.

That said I would have preferred it if it had been toned-down, or if it was only Danny who considered she was 'beautiful'. This is for two reasons: one, because I'm tired of female super hero tropes where they're essentially nothing more than pneumatic Barbie doll clichés instead of real people, on the outside, and guys on the inside. Two: I think it would have made for a more powerful story and a more compelling character had Danny been just 'ordinary' looking, but was so thrilled to finally 'be a real girl' that she felt beautiful. But that's just me!

One problem here is that she wasn't really a girl, though, not biologically speaking. This part made little sense to me. She got the proportions and outward appearance of a girl, including a 'healthy cleavage,' but inside she was still XY, with no womb. There was no overt discussion of what her genitalia looked like exactly, just the hint that it was entirely female, so what I didn't get was why? Why did she have this limitation? If the mantle could confer femininity on her, why could it not go all the way?

I didn't buy the flim-flam we were given that it was too much for the mantle to confer. Men are really just mutant versions of women when you get right down to it, and there are direct parallels between a male and a female body. What's referred to as a penis in a male is nothing more than a distended clitoris. Men have an X chromosome, so if the changes somehow called for a man to be raised to the power of X to put him on par with a woman, then why couldn't the mantle achieve this? What couldn't the Prostatic utricle become a uterus? Was it because the man-tle was designed by a man?! You could argue that you would lose your transgender character if this had happened but I would disagree with you!

I like the way Danny came into her powers, and I speak not of the initial transference here, but her growth into them over the story, her reluctance to blindly throw in her lot with the Legion, and her willingness to learn everything the mantle could show her, and put it to good use. The other side of this coin is that it made little sense that she didn't stand up to her father earlier, but when you're beaten down so hard for so long, it's very hard to get back to your feet with any strength of conviction, so I was willing to let that go. I felt bad though when Danny's first thought on waking after Calamity's injury was not that of going to see how she was, but a lot of selfish thoughts about how much she was having to put up with herself. That felt like a real betrayal

I adored Calamity. This seems to be my lot on life whether I like the main character (as I did here) or not: I like the 'side-kick' more, although Calamity never was a sidekick, and even had the balls to call Dreadnought her sidekick at one point, which was both beautiful and funny. So enough rambling. Overall I really did like the story despite some issues. It's the first I've read of a series in a long, long time that has really stirred my interest and made me seriously want to come back for more. That's about the biggest compliment I can give it, and from me, it's a heck of a lot!


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Winter's Bite by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

Winter's Bite is a beautifully titled, good old story. It's short and bittersweet, and it has an ending that really isn't an ending, but this worked well, as it happened. This is another free short story by Annie Bellet available through book outlets and one that presumably introduces us to another one of her fictional worlds. I've had consistently goods results with this author.

Ysabon is a retired warrior woman, living on the outskirts of a village in a fantasy land, running a forge and helping raise two girls and a boy with her brother. She's hardly antiquated, and is still physically active, but she feels the weight of her years and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from her adventuring days, and old wounds. When a party skis by (the story takes place in in dead winter), heading off to the nearby garrison, to report the forays of a pack of Widowhulks, which are some sort of intelligent, hairy hexapod with a thirst for blood, they ask Ysabon, who is known for her military past, to accompany them, but she refuses, saying she's too old.

Instead, her nephew volunteers to go. She resents it, but can't stop him since he's a grown lad. It's not long before he comes back, reporting that their party was set upon by the widowhulks and he can't be sure anyone got through to the garrison. Ysabon now realizes that it's up to her, because if no one goes, then the widowhulks will simply keep on laying waste to the villagers until no one is left. She cleans her old sword and sets out with her nephew, and along the way they encounter a wounded survivor of the previous party. The story ends with her nephew heading off across the river to the safety of the garrison while Ysabon and the survivor turn to face-down the widowhulks, and hold them off at least long enough for her nephew to report the village's predicament.

I liked this story and the ending, but I had some issues with it from a writing perspective. The major one was the widowhulks. Authors often make a mistake when writing about predatory animals, making them endlessly hungry and bloodthirsty. It's rarely realistic. Predators rarely prey. When they do, they prey only on what they need to eat, and then they back off and idle their time away until they're hungry again. To portray them as endlessly bloodthirsty and dedicatedly hunting down humans is ridiculous on the face of it.

Yes, they do sometimes hunt humans, and sick animals sometimes go off the reservation, but we're not the natural prey of any animal, and it's rare for them to attack humans, especially just for the hell of it rather than for a needed meal. That said, these are not your usual predators that we're familiar with from Earth. Maybe they are more human than animal, in which case they may well have a legitimate agenda in harassing the human population. There isn't enough in this story to determine what's going on, so I was willing to let it go, but it would have been nice if the author had addressed this, however briefly or in passing.

The only other complaint would be the incomprehensible sentence I found on page five. Ysabon is advising the initial ski party on how to avoid this dangerous pack of widowhulks and she says: "Your best hope is speed. Safety might come with numbers, but with that many widowhulks out there, the only chance to reach the garrison before the hunting group finds you." The sentence looks like it needed to end with two more word: is speed. Either that or that last clause ought to have begun "speed is the only chance" or "it's the only chance," but I can forgive a mangled sentence here and there. We all do it. It's harder to forgive if there are many such mangles in one short story, but this author has not proven herself prone to that kind of sloppiness.

In short I liked this and the world where it was set sounded interesting.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Small Favors by Colleen Coover


Rating: WORTHY!

I haven't reviewed a Net Galley graphic novel in a while, but there hasn't been much come up which has interested me. In their latest flyer this was the only one that I thought might be worth my time, and in the end I wasn't quite sure of that to begin with. I was won over by the playfulness and sheer exuberance of the stories. As I intimated, this is an advance review copy for which I thank the publishers.

I wasn't at all familiar with Colleen Coover's work, but I am now! Note that this isn't all she does, because when I tell you this is a graphic graphic novel for adult-only audiences which features explicit and what many might consider even kinky sex, you might wonder where she's coming from. Well, I can't speak or her, but for her characters, it's obvious where they're coming from!

The comic is a series of stories, with mini-stories interleaved, and separate by title pages which are done in grey-scale. Nearly all of the art is black and white line drawings which for me were charming and well done. I enjoyed them so much that I had some trouble adapting to the color section which is contained towards the middle. It felt really odd after I'd become so comfortable with the original artwork, but it wasn't bad at all - the line work was the same and the coloring was nicely done.

The inventive tack taken here is that main character Annie is called onto the mat by her conscience for excessive masturbating. Apparently at the age of twenty-one, she's already used up her lifetime allotment of "sexual self-abuse" as it used to be termed. I confess I never knew there was one!

A part of her conscience named Nibbil (which is misspelled Nibble at one point in the comic) is assigned to her twenty-four-seven to keep her on the straight and narrow, but this only results in her avidly exploring the bent and wide, since Nibbil is at least as big of a nymphomaniac as Annie. Happily, the two fall in love, but this doesn't prevent them exploring their sexuality with others. One thing I really did like about this was the brief interludes. No, this is not about girls wearing briefs and being lewd, it's a series of mini stories scattered through the main collection. How to spank Girls was hilarious.

The obvious candidate would seem to be Annie's next door, and single, neighbor, a young Asian woman about whom Annie fantasizes daily, but this doesn't happen (not immediately!). Instead they encounter another lesbian who is feeling lonely, an African American woman named sage. Soon the three of them are bosom buddies - in every sense of the phrase. This sparks a whole new set of stories. The sweet thing about this is the love between Annie and Nibbil, which is never lost sight of, no matter what adventures they get into.

The stories were for the most part highly amusing, such as when they play doctors which I thought was funny, as was the jungle adventure fantasy in which Annie and Nibbil take part, but be warned that every one of the stories is focused on sex. Even a trip to a yard sale ends up with them nude and passionate. They really have no life that doesn't involve sex!

Some potential fans might find that a turn off since there really isn't much story here. Others might find it a bit repetitive. I might have classed myself in those groups if the stories had not been so playful, unabashed, amusing, enthusiastic, and yes, even innocent in a weird, juvenile, exploratory way. The characters are all so likable and passionate, particularly Annie and Nibbil, that you can't help but appreciate them.

I have to mention that safe sex was not a concept here, which I found sad. Admittedly when having sex with the embodiment of her conscience, Nibbil, this wasn't an issue, but when they began to involve Sage and others, then at least a nod and a wink towards hygiene and safe sex needs to be in there, no matter how fleeting. There's nothing wrong with adventurous sex, but adventurous sex with multiple partners carries baggage that is neither erotic nor fun and which can be at best debilitating and at worst, deadly. Adventurous sex means trusting your partner(s), and this means informed consent and responsible sex. It's by no means incompatible with being erotic, and I think it's sad that more writers don't get this.

That said, I did like these comic stories. I really appreciated the author's sensibility about how the tales should be told. I think she got the tone right, and I consider them a worthy read for anyone who is interested in erotica in the comics.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Delivering Yaehala by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of two short stories by Annie Bellet that I will review today. Both get a worthy rating. They're also both available (at least as of this review) for free on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords, although I have to say Apple and Kobo seem much more interested in getting in your face than in getting you to your reads. This author has quite the oeuvre, and some of her other materials are free, too.

This short-story-for-free idea seems to me to be a good one. Yes, you can get a sneak preview of most books before you buy them these days, but all you get is the beginning, and while this does clue you in to how the author is going to approach a story (and happily allows you to reject stories which are first person voice as I habitually do!), this gives you no sense of how an author can carry a whole story, or bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, so it seems to me to be a valid approach for an author to put out short stories for free.

It's better yet if those stories are somehow tied to her main works, so you also get a sense of the entire world in which the main story takes place and might well be more willing to buy one of the other books in that world. I'm not a huge fan of short stories in general, but I've written one or two myself (contained in my Poem y Granite collection), and I've read and reviewed a few that were worth the time. These two are definitely worthy. I found it interesting that both of the stories told a similar tale: a young woman scavenging for a living, scarred, outcast, in danger, who ends up rescuing someone. Despite the underlying theme being the same, both stories were well-told and happily different.

This particular one is a fantasy tale set on a different world where unicorns and other exotic animals exist. Set iIn a land delightfully evocative of the Middle-East, a young woman named Alila, who is an outcast from her own people, is harvesting frankincense from trees which dangerously overhanging a precipitous drop. She spies a rider on a horse.

At first suspicious and fearful, Alila discovers that the rider is a princess royal, and a pregnant one at that, and in dire straits at that! She is apparently with a male child and this is why she is on the run. She's part of a harem, and the oldest member of the harem fears the younger woman's ascendancy if she provides the male heir which the older woman could not. Killing the pregnant Yaehala seems like the best solution. It feels like a twisted take on Henry the Eighth!

Against her better judgment, Alila takes it upon herself to escort the princess to the coast, where Yaehala's own people will take care of her until the child is born. At that point the threat to her life will transfer to the child, and she will be safe! The two bond as they ride together, pursued by the ruthless minions of the older, vindictive princess. I liked this story for how evocative it was of the world, and for the realism of the adventure even as the story was imbued with imaginative fantasy elements. Alila was never portrayed as Supergirl, but she was strong and resourceful and Yaehala's story was authentic.

I'm not a fan of stories that have a woman's name in the title. They pretty much uniformly tend to be a waste of my reading time, but I do have a fondness for stories which sport a name on the cover which is not the name of the main character because I did this same thing with my "best seller" Femarine. I call it a best seller not because it actually is, but because it generated more interest than anything else I've written, and I am still trying to work-out why! But that's just me. This story, Yaehala, was a really enjoyable one, and has attracted my attention to this author. I will be pursuing the perusing of more stories from Annie Bellet!


Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials by Annie Bellet


Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of two short stories by Annie Bellet that I will review today. Both get a worthy rating. They're also both available (at least as of this review) for free on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords, although I have to say Apple and Kobo seem much more interested in getting in your face than in getting you to your reads. This author has quite the oeuvre, and some of her other materials are free, too.

This short-story-for-free idea seems to me to be a good one. Yes, you can get a sneak preview of most books before you buy them these days, but all you get is the beginning, and while this does clue you in to how the author is going to approach a story (and happily allows you to reject stories which are first person voice as I habitually do!), this gives you no sense of how an author can carry a whole story, or bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, so it seems to me to be a valid approach for an author to put out short stories for free.

It's better yet if those stories are somehow tied to her main works, so you also get a sense of the entire world in which the main story takes place and might well be more willing to buy one of the other books in that world. I'm not a huge fan of short stories in general, but I've written one or two myself (contained in my Poem y Granite collection), and I've read and reviewed a few that were worth the time. These two are definitely worthy. I found it interesting that both of the stories told a similar tale: a young woman scavenging for a living, scarred, outcast, in danger, who ends up rescuing someone. Despite the underlying theme being the same, both stories were well-told and happily different.

This particular one is a sci-fi tale set in your standard dystopian future, where a young woman, Ryska (great name for one who takes risks!) who had evidently spent time in a research lab with many other children, being experimented upon, has escaped somehow and is now making her own way in the world. Why the kids were lab rats in the first place goes unexplained in this story. It seems the main character was purposefully blinded, and fitted with whiskers which feed her senses with sufficient information that she can get by without her eyes, and which supply her with sensory input that her eyes could not deliver. Why this was done is again unexplained.

On the one hand this seems stupid. Human cheeks are not cat or rat cheeks. Fitting whiskers to an area which is not rich with sensitive nerve endings will not give humans the same sensory capabilities that whiskered animals enjoy. Besides, animals have whiskers on their nose, not their cheeks, a fact of which far too many writers seem lamentably ignorant. I was willing to let that slide though, since my needs are simple. If you tell me this is the way it is in your story, I'm happy to go with you on that as long as I don't have to hike with you down the road to Dumbsville in the telling, and as long as you don't spend pages coming up with ridiculously lame "explanations" for why this is this way.

Talking of Dumbsville, this was yet another case of a publisher putting an inapplicable covers on books! Do cover designers never read the book they design for? This is yet another beef I have with Big Publishing™ or Big Publishing™ wannabes. This book has two covers that I know of, and neither shows a girl who looks like she's blind or who sports whiskers! The one cover shows a slightly steampunk-looking girl with goggles on her forehead. Why would a blind girl need goggles? LOL!

Perhaps that's why they changed the cover, but thee are still no whiskers on the new one, and this girl isn't dressed like she lives on the streets! In short, these covers are just plain stupid. This is why I don't review covers or wax about how great they are because the cover is window dressing only, and it has zero to do with the story inside. I'm sorry, but if you judge a book by its cover, then you're stupid. Had I done that, I never would have read either of these short stories.

The story (yes, I'm getting to it!) is that Ryska is scavenging and finds herself in a situation where violent men are searching for a young child. She doesn't want to get involved, but when she recalls the children at the lab, where she escaped and they did not, she feels compelled to counterbalance her failure there with a risky attempt at rescuing the boy here, which she does with inventiveness and courage. It turns out the boy has mob connections, so maybe Ryska's action will bring a reward or some favors? We never find out - not in this story. But that's fine. I really liked this, and I recommend it.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reinventing Mona by Jennifer Coburn


Rating: WARTY!

I was thinking that after reviewing Becoming Zara back in July 2016, and now having read Reinventing Mona, all I need do is find a title like Uplifting Abigail, and I'll have the whole span of the alphabet pretty much covered; however, I think I'm going to retire from reading this kind of novel having struck-out twice. To coin a baseball metaphor, since I'm not having a ball, I'm going to take a walk! Frankly I haven't had a lot of success with novels which have a female name in the title. I'm beginning to think they're bad news bears all around.

This was unabashed chick lit and my inner chick wasn't impressed. I don't mind the genre if it has something positive and interesting to offer, but when it gets deep down in the dumb, I'm outta there. That's what spoiled this one for me. I was initially impressed and interested in Mona, who is an engineer undergoing an early midlife crisis. It's not often we have women portrayed as engineers in fiction, and it's something I welcomed.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a genre of chick lit where the main female character doesn't own a cupcake shop or a coffee shop, but instead is an engineering consultant or a mathematician, or a biochemist or something? Must we confine our females to trivial or clichéd occupations? Come on authors! Why take the easy route of wallowing in someone else's tired genre and way overused trope party when you can strike out on your own and create a compelling new genre that celebrates diversity in women's occupations instead of similarity, and which celebrates smart instead of dumb, imagination instead of rote, and energy in the form of something novel instead of same old story?

Unfortunately, the revelation that Mona was an engineer was all we got. It was all downhill from there. Offered a generous lay-off package in a downsizing, Mona jumps at it and decides she's going to change her life around. All well and good, but instead of say, starting her own engineering business, she reads a male chauvinistic column in a magazine and buys into macho guy Mike's bullshit, hiring him as a consultant in how to be a guy's ideal chick. I am not kidding you. This is how pathetic Mona is. She isn't a person. All she is, is a walking need for a guy. Not even walking. Limping.

She evidently doesn't have a mind of her own and notwithstanding her hard-earned engineering degree, she apparently has zero smarts. This is not merely my opinion - it's what Mona shows us through her every action. She ignores her friend (about whom I have some agenda suspicions, but also whom I would trust more than this guy), and she swallows everything the guy tells her while ignoring everything her best friend tells her.

The problem is that her goal isn't to win over Mike or anyone like him (although it's obvious from the start that this is where the story is going even if you didn't read the blurb). No, her goal is to win the love of an accountant (Adam) whom she's known forever, and who is Mike's polar opposite and Mona's inane girlhood crush. We're never given an reason why she hadn't pursued Adam before now if he's such an attraction, nor are we told why she feels she needs to turn her whole life around in order to get him. But he stupidity did give me a great idea for a novel (well, maybe not great but good enough!), so my time in this one wasn't all wasted.

For someone who has lived a subdued, even monastic life thus far, Mona really isn't going very far out of her comfort zone and someone is holding her hand the whole time. The truth is that she's failing to direct herself and make her own mind up, and instead, merely taking direction from someone else as she has done all her life evidently.

Instead of dating Adam and finding out what they have in common, she takes Mike's advice which is to take a short stripper course to learn how to tease and please, and to hire Mike's kid sister to go shopping and buy come-on outfits. She also goes jogging. The problem with all this is that it's all outward. She literally does nothing to change herself inwardly which is precisely where her problem lies. Her best friend even complains about this and Mona lies that she is changing herself inside and out, when all she's actually doing is to have herself conform to one guy's puerile image of what a woman should be and frankly, this was sickening to read.

When she finally feels like she's "good enough" to keep Adam's attention, she still doesn't let things happen naturally. Instead, she engineers (yes, I guess that schooling was good for something) fake situations in order to try and impress him. Without asking if he's interested in heavy metal music, she claims she has tickets for Ozzfest, and then has to pay a thousand dollars on eBay to buy some. Not content with that, she hires an actor to play a fictional ex heavy metal boyfriend without discussing with him how he will play the role. He overdoes it and she looks like a moron, and none of this is remotely funny.

Having learned nothing from this disaster, she then hires another actor to fake a heart attack at the zoo so she can step in and do "CPR" and impress Adam. Again, she comes off looking like a moron. Not surprisingly. It was at this point, where she was being ever more stupid, clueless and brain-dead, and the so-called humor was face-planting in its own ass that I quit reading. This novel sucked. If you're going to write a self-help novel can you not make it smart and uplifting instead of demeaning and pathetic like this one was?


Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Last Firewall by William Hertling


Rating: WORTHY!

This was an interesting novel with some similarities to Brian Falkner's Brain Jack which I reviewed positively in January 2017. Like that novel, it's set in a future where neural implants allow people to access the Internet without a computer in front of them. They can also hook-up directly with others who have implants for everything from business meetings to sexual liaisons.

In this story, there are robots and AIs galore and there is also, predictably, an anti-AI movement which is, predictably knowing humans, becoming violent and polarized. Instead of intelligently addressing the issues, the mob is going after the two young men, Leon and Mike, who have done most to design safety into the systems, but these systems are also policed and designed by the AIs themselves. There;s even at one point a battle bot named Helena, about which I couldn't help but wonder if it was named in honor of the assassin clone in the TV show Orphan Black!

The AIs are now several generations advanced, and the most recent models are considerably smarter than humans. There are flies in this electronic ointment though. Leon and Mike are informed that there have been a significant number of deaths which may or may not be accidental, wherein the victim's brain has overloaded with data and those affected have died. In addition to this, one of the main characters, named Cat, who was an early implant adopter, has found she can control the implants of others.

This shouldn't be possible, but Cat got her experimental implant as a young child, much younger than people typically get them now, and something in her connection works differently. She is unable to have neural net sex like other people are, but she is able to control things which other people cannot. Naturally, she keeps this ability as secret as she can, and initially uses it in a very limited manner, but later she finds herself forced to not only explore, but also to push the envelope of her abilities.

Because AIs and robots do all the work, there is a huge amount of idle time. The author, perhaps wisely, doesn't go into any details as to how this economy is supposed to work, but because of the productivity of the AIs and the robots, we're told, everyone gets a free living. There seems to me to be a flaw in that economy somewhere, but I can't immediately put my finger on it! That aside, in this world, most people simply idle away their days playing games, or watching vids in their brain, or having sex. They can increase their subsistence level income not by doing a job of work, but by pursuing higher education, which is what Cat is doing - or was doing before she had to go on the run for accidentally killing some guys who were beating up on a little sentient robot.

So in this world, no one works, which makes it completely odd later when Cat meets a guy and assesses him as a construction worker, or a robot mechanic. If no one works, how would he be a worker? This part made no sense. Neither did it make sense that she would immediately want to take him to bed. Yes, there can be non-contact sex, but she can't indulge in it. Yet she picks up a complete stranger at a bar for physical sex, and when he tells her he wants to tie her up, she says bring it on? Sorry but no!

He's not talking about virtual tying-up, and there's not a word written here about venereal disease. Perhaps it's perfectly safe in a world which has health nanites (a word which Microsoft Moron wants to turn into 'nannies' LOL!), but not a word is written about that, so in the way this is presented, Cat is depicted as a complete moron. At this point she plummeted from being quite high in my esteem! I can't help but wonder if a female author might have written this differently, but given the shamefully lousy state of YA "literature" these days, maybe she would not.

Fortunately, Cat redeemed herself later in other ways, but this one spot left a sour taste. However, overall the story was very well done - descriptive, but not overly so, revealing, but without info-dumping, entertaining, realistic with its context, and compelling. I had some issues with it and did not appreciate the part at the end where it inexplicably slipped into first person voice. I also had an issue with how the AIs were depicted: essentially they were just like humans which, given what the author had told us, made no sense at all!

Also the author makes the same mistake we see in The Matrix movie and other stories where people "upload" their consciousness onto a network. This is Sole Copy Syndrome or SCS, where a writer seems to think that there can only be one copy, and if a person uploads their consciousness into a system, then it can't also simultaneously reside in their mind! Bullshit! Does the author also think their novel, when they're working on it on the screen, doesn't also exist on the hard drive? Do they think there can be only one copy of the novel so if I'm reading it, then no one else can be reading it because it's been uploaded to my phone? I'm sorry but this is thoughtlessly ignorant.

However, overall, I did like this story and found it to be compelling reading, so with the above caveats in mind, I'm rating it as a worthy read. That said, I will not be pursing this series. I had thought this author might be worth following, but there was a "sneak preview" (so called) of the next volume in the series, and Helena had been so neutered that it was pathetic. The story was far too cute and domesticated to be remotely appealing to me! It felt more like a family sit-com version of the story than an actual sequel. This is why I'm not a fan of series unless they're exceptionally well-done, and they so rarely are. You have my word that I will never write one (unless it's a children's series!). This one volume, though, was worthy!