Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson


Rating: WORTHY!

As was the wont back then, Robert Louis Stephenson began publishing his novel in serial form, at the beginning of the same month that the Earps and Doc Holiday were to confront the Cowboys over the latter's disregard for the city ordinance - a dispute that was resolved with ordnance, as are so many in this novel! It was alter published in book form about two years alter.

All the well-known names are here: Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones, Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Black Dog, Israel Hands, Ben Gunn, and so on. All the stock phrases are here, too: swabs, lubbers, shiver me timbers, avast, and so on! This is the source-book for all things piratical, including the parrot on the shoulder and the peg-leg! It's also the source of some unintentional humor given how much phrases have changed in the century-and-a-quarter since Stephenson wrote this. "I'll lay you" and "I had my way with him" were never more misunderstood, but at least I discovered from whence the British term "quid" - meaning a pound (money) - originated!

This, the original pirate story, is told in six parts. I was fortunate enough to have it read to me by Alfred Molina, who does a damned fine job of it. It was one of the best narrated stories I've listened to, and it begins with the slightly mysterious Billy Bones, who is known as "The Captain" at the Admiral Benbow inn where Jim helps his mother, his father having very recently died.

Billy Bones is a secretive man, and it's only when he dies that Jim discovers that he was in possession of the feared Captain Flint's treasure map. Dr. Livesey, who had been treating The Captain, and the local district Squire Trelawny manage to get themselves a ship, the Hispaniola, and they go off questing for this treasure.

Somehow word got out about Billy Bones though, and both Black Dog and Blind Pew come looking for him. Just as Jim and his allies think they have escaped all that, they discover that pretty much their entire ship's crew is pirates, who signed on for the voyage under the leadership of the ship's cook, who is really a pirate himself - Long John Silver, who even Flint was reputed to fear. The odds are three to one against Jim and his associates. Long John Silver proves how ruthless she is on the island, and Jim manages to escape his clutches only to run into Ben Gunn, who had been three years stranded on the island. He throws his lot in with Jim in return for a cut of the treasure, and safe passage home.

Retreating to an old stockade built by Flint, Jim and his allies hold out against the pirates, and an attempt at parlay breaks down. Silver loses patience and promises an attack. The attack is repelled, but Jim goes off on an adventure of his own, leading to his cutting the stolen ship adrift which in turn leads to his confrontation with Hands. Returning proudly to the stockade to report his triumph in recapturing the ship, Jim is rather perturbed to discover he has now become the prisoner of Silver and five of the mutineers, who evidently have taken over the stockade while he was gone!

As if this wasn't twist enough, his friends and Silver are now apparently entreated with each other, and are going to recover the treasure together - but the treasure burial site is empty! Gunn has secreted it away. On the voyage home, they hire a new crew, and Silver escapes with a bag of gold forever. Given, as Jim says, there's still treasure on the island, you have to wonder if Silver didn't exploit his stolen treasure for a new ship and crew to go after what was left behind! This is a great story, the very bedrock of all pirate stories that followed, and I recommend it.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park


Rating: WARTY!

I liked Linda Sue Park's The Kite Fighters which I positively reviewed back in February 2015, but I cannot say the same for this one. If you are a fanatical, dyed-in-the-wool, psychotically passionate baseball fan, and you like middle-grade novels, then this might be the perfect entertainment vehicle for you, but for me, quite frankly, I'd have rather spent the time watching the little dot fade in the center of one of those old cathode ray tube TVs when you turn it off, than have endured this.

I had thought it might be quirky, or funny, or give an endearingly-skewed take on baseball from a young girl's PoV, but it offered quite literally none of that. Instead, it offered nothing but endless discussion of baseball players, and baseball games, and baseball stats. It was all baseball all the time and it was not as boring as hell - it was far more boring than all hell. Wporse than this, it was trite as all hell with the pathetic little story tacked on the end about some wartime tragedy. I mean seriously? Pathetic. I'm also done with Linda Sue Park. I can't voluntarily read any more stories written by an author who would stoop to writing such trashy pablum as this, I really can't. Stick a frigging Newbery in it. It's done.


Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly


Rating: WARTY!

I found this best seller to be very disappointing. I listened to the audio-book version which lacked a little something in enthusiasm, but otherwise wasn't too bad of a listen in terms of the reader's voice. The problem was much more with the material, and it got me thinking about what people would be looking for when they pulled this off the shelf at the book store or the library, and whether they would be as disappointed in it as I was. For me, I was looking for what promised to be an interesting and shamefully belated story of the contribution of black women to the US space program. Waht OI got was a rambling family history written by a relative which was more focused on rehashing the shameful black history of the US rather than telling the story of these women.

Though the Russians put a woman into space in 1963 (Valentina Tereshkova), it was really more of a showboat than a space flight, aimed at furthering the embarrassment the Americans, who were continually playing catch-up back then, than ever it was a serious effort to integrate women into the space program. The Americans to their shame, took twenty years to set this right, and it wasn't until a year after the Russians had put a second woman into space, Svetlana Savitskaya.

Sally Ride was a physicist and went into space aboard the shuttle in 1983. It took the bulk of another decade before the first black woman went into space: Mae Jemison, who is an engineer and a physician and went up in 1992, which was a decade after the first black male astronaut, Guion Bluford, had gone up there. Everyone knows Armstrong and Aldrin. They may even know names like Gagarin and Glenn, but few know the names of Bluford and Jemison. No one even remembers the second two men on the Moon (it was Charles Conrad and Alan Bean), so why would they ever hear about black women who helped make it possible for early astronauts to get into space and return safely?

Of course we typically don't hear of the back-room people in these adventures, so this isn't quite as bad as it's painted, but what makes it worse is that white people tend to think that all of those 'unsung heroes' are also white, and so do far too many black people. It's a bad habit that shamefully overdue for correction, so it's a good thing to learn that no, they're not all white! A good many of them are black (and Asians and Hispanics too, for that matter). I just wish the three depicted in this book: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, had a better memorial.

The book covers a range of topics and many people, but is primarily about those three women who succeeded despite having to contend with the appalling discrimination which had become so embedded in the nation's psyche so much that it was actually considered normal back then, and in some minds, is still viewed that way today. But let's not mention any recent presidents.

The problem I had is that the book is so intent upon laying the scene that the main characters tend to get subsumed into the scenery, which in my opinion does them a dire disservice. The discerning listener can pick out their dark threads which have been in the dark for far too long before now, finally, being brought into the light, as they run through the story and intertwine, along with other characters, such as the rebellious Miriam Mann, who quietly removed the 'coloreds' sign from the cafeteria table every time a new one appeared until whoever was putting it there finally gave up. A small victory but an important one.

So while I believe books of this nature are important ones, I have to caution potential readers about this one. You should consider what it is you're looking for before you plump for this volume. If it's a book version of the movie you just saw, then this isn't it. This is much longer, and more detailed and in considerably more depth than Hollywood ever likes to go, and more than you (or I) might be prepared for. If you're looking for black abuses revisited, then this will work for you, but if you've been there and done that, and are looking for something a bit different this time like a good real life story that gets under the personal skin of the black female experience, this one might leave you as dissatisfied as it did me.

Hollywood likes it short and snappy, perky and preferably controversial, but shallow and easy and that has its place, but this isn't any of that apart from the controversial bit), and it rambles endlessly and digresses mercilessly, and offers all kinds of details you may not care about or be interested in (such as soap-box derbies).

It doesn't even get to the NASA bit until two-thirds the way through, and then it's a long stretch of John Glenn, a huge leap from there to the Apollo program and the Apollo 1 disaster (from which NASA learned nothing if we're to judge from the subsequent Challenger and Columbia disasters which together robbed us of more than four times as many astronauts as the Apollo One fire did), and then a quick skip to the moon landing and we're done. I confess I skipped tracks increasingly as I plowed through this as the bits that interested me became ever more scarce, but I did want to tackle this before I took on the easy, sugar-coated, and simplified version of the movie. I haven't seen that yet, but even unseen, I'd recommend the movie over this for most people.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M Martin


Rating: WARTY!

When I picked this off the shelf at the library, I didn't realize it was a Newbery Honor book. Had I done so, I would have put it right back on the shelf, but I missed the little sticker in the corner, focusing instead on the back cover blurb. 'Newbery' is synonymous with 'tedious drivel' in my experience, and this one was no different. The books ought to carry large, bright, garishly-colored neon warning stickers.

It was another audiobook experiment I tried, and we didn't get along with very well. The story is about this eleven-year-old Hattie, who discovers she has an uncle, Adam. Adam has been confined to a psychiatric institution for schizophrenia and autism, and is now coming home to roost, because the place is being closed down. No one has ever mentioned him to Hattie. The two of them get along like a house on fire.

My problems with this book were two-fold. Most of the text consists of Hattie talking about her life, which has to be the most mind-numbingly boring life ever lived by anyone, anywhere. It was an awful listening experience having her endlessly rambling about who did what and where, with nothing she said being in any way remotely out of the ordinary. I couldn't stand this pretty much from the off. It was tedious listening.

The other problem, and the bigger one I feel, is the reader of the book. The main character is telling this story in the worst of voices for a novel: first person, yet the book is being read by Judith Ivey, who was in her fifties when she recorded this. Hattie is eleven. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work. It was entirely wrong, and made the book into a joke for me, having this mature woman speak for an eleven-year-old girl. I cannot recommend this one at all.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken


Rating: WARTY!

This was ultimately a waste of my time. The story is old (1962), but not as old as its setting, and it's the start of a series which I have zero intention of following. It was read by the author's daughter, Lizza Aiken, which seems like a charming idea, but while her voice was pleasant enough, it really didn't engage me very much in relating a children's story. I think it would be much better employed in reading adult historical novels.

Why this is called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase I haves absolutely no idea. Clearly the author knows nothing about wolves, and while they do feature very briefly a couple of times in the story, they ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with it. I had hoped that the villain would meet her come-uppance at the hands...paws (and jaws) of the wolves, but she did not, so I was forced into contemplating that perhaps the wolves of the title were not really the four-legged variety, but the two-legged one.

The story is that Bonnie is expecting a visit from her cousin Sylvia at the same time as her very well to-do parents are planning a trip pursuing Bonnie's mom's good health. Sylvia arrives and the parents depart, and the new governess, Miss Slighcarp, a distant relative, has designs on the manor. When the news comes back that Bonnie's parents have died, Slighcarp suddenly fires all the servants, dispatches Bonnie and Sylvia to an awful workhouse posing as a school for orphans, and promptly begins changing everything around at the manor.

Of course this does not stand, and everything works out well in the end. Her parents aren't even dead, as I suspected from the beginning. The story though, wallowed in abuse of these two children without a thing to leaven it, and it was honestly boring - even the wannabe adventurous parts.

Bonnie's parents appeared to be landed-morons. There's this kid, Simon, who is homeless and when he approaches Sir what's-his-face about living in a cave on the property, he leave shim to it, not even once offering the boy the chance to come live a the house, perhaps in exchange for work. He seems equally clueless later when Bonnie asks him what's to be done about the five-score orphans at the school they've just been rescued from. I'm sorry but no.

Here's yet another story where the girls have to be rescued by the boy and it's just not good enough. I can't recommend this one.


Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare, Matt Wiegle


Rating: WARTY!

No Fear Shakespeare is a collection of "translated" Shakespeare texts - in other words, delivered in modern English instead of in the antique lingo with which Shakespeare was familiar. A PDF of Romeo and Juliet done in this way with the original English alongside it can be read online here. I reviewed Hamlet done this ways back in January 2017, and liked that one. This one just didn't get there for me, but it is a simpler introduction to Shakespeare if you want to try to get a handle on him.

Everyone knows the story to one extent or another, but to me this story has always been a really bad YA love story. In fact, in a way, if we include Rosalind, who despite being a no-show here, is an important player in the story, it's a bad love triangle. If John Green had written it (barf!), it would have had a truly pretentious title like, "The Absence of Rosalind" or some such trivial drivel.

Yes, Shakespeare does turn out a nice phrase here and there, but this is sadly canceled out for me by the sick bawdiness and the un-pc attitudes of every male character in the entire story, because they're omnipresent with their puerile attitude, and thoroughly out of place here. Yes, I get that this is what audiences wanted back in Shakespeare's day, but that's no reason to worship him today (or even toady). This is often praised as the love story to outdo all love stories, but it's not a love story at all. There's no love here, only a deranged lust and foolishness, shallowness and cluelessness. It's ultimately a story of the brain-dead and the vacuous, a Dick and Shame story, and if we can blame violence in society on video-games, TV, and movies, then we sure as hell can blame relationships gone wrong on Shakespeare's juvenile view of them.

I ask not "wherefore art thou Romeo?" but why Romeo & Juliet instead of Juliet & Romeo? The answer to that is that this isn't actually a story of a love, true and deep, between two people, it's about a mentally disturbed dickhead and his wasted life. Juliet is thirteen years old, and is nothing more than collateral damage here, not really a character at all, but merely a narcissistic mirror in which Romeo reflects himself in all his vainglory. Not that she has any more clue than Romeo, but he doesn't love her, he wants her only as an emollient for his rough and rudimentary lust and need.

Look how the story begins - with Romeo pining for Rosalind! He's all Rosalind all the time, and there never can be another until the instant - not after several weeks of growing to know her, but the very instant - he sets his reality-challenged eyes on Juliet. From that moment, Rosalind is out, passé, forgotten, so five minutes ago, and nothing but a flimsy fantasy. Now it's all Juliet. I call bullshit on that one!

Is this really how Shakespeare viewed love? Very likely. He married at eighteen a woman eight years his senior for no other evident reason than that he got her pregnant, so he was just as irresponsible as Romeo. Worse, he then turned into a deadbeat dad, and abandoned his family to head south to live a Hollywood life - or what passed for it back then. While he may have visited, he didn't actually return to Stratford until he grew old and retired. What did he know of true love? Nothing.

And what of positive influences in Romeo's life? There are apparently none. It seems that all he has known is violence, never love. He never talks to his parents nor they to him. He takes his advice (not that he really listens) only from kinsmen and "friends" who never once try to set him on an even keel, because they're just as shallow, belligerent, and moronic as he is!

There are no responsible women in his life, and no one at all in Juliet's - not close male family, nor female friends. She's completely isolated and essentially imprisoned, having to beg permission even to go to church and confess! What the hell sins does she have to confess? She never goes anywhere to commit any, and does nothing with her short life. She's thirteen for goodness sake, ripe for taking advantage of!

And what of their affair? They meet one evening and marry almost immediately. Instead of looking to how he can make his wife happy and how they can be together, he lets his temper get the better of him and without a thought for any consequences or for his wife, he kills someone from Juliet's own family - the very man he had sworn love and kinship to not an hour or two before! When Juliet says, "O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon" she should have used Romeo, not the Moon. The Moon is actually extremely constant, but Romeo is far from it.

For murdering Tybalt, Romeo is lucky enough to be banished, not killed, but even then he can't get his act together! At the same time as he's banished, Juliet's father pretty much threatens to banish her, so here's the perfect opportunity for the two of them to hit the road and start a new life somewhere, but neither has the smarts to see it! Instead, they both take the easy route out. In short, this story is a badly written one which could have been much improved. Not only did Romeo murder Tybalt, he also murders Paris. His behavior is one of constantly slithering away from taking responsibility for his actions. He won't own-up publicly to being Juliet's husband! paradoxically, he won't avoid a fight, yet he won't fight for his marriage. He's a train wreck not even waiting to happen and in the end the world is better off without him. The real tragedy here is that he derailed Juliet from her life, too. So much for love; try selfishness instead.

As for the graphic novel version, I can't recommend it any more highly. It does tell the full story - including the parts which the movies, even the definitive Baz Luhrman version, routinely avoid, but the artwork isn't very good, and apart from simplifying the story and making it somewhat more accessible, if that's important to you, it really doesn't bring anything new to the table.


As You Like it by William Shakespeare, Richard Appignanesi, Chie Kutsuwada


Rating: WARTY!

So when we're reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a Shakespeare play, do we review the original work? This isn't the original work. It's an adaptation by Richard Appignanesi. So do we review the adaptive work? Well it's not original, so we can't ignore that from which it was adapted. So what about the graphic portion of it by Chie Kutsuwada? That's the only part of this work that's truly original, but even so it's still derived from Shakespeare's. Aye, there's the rub!

So, in fact, we have to review all three simultaneously. All of Shakespeare's a stage, and all the writers and artists merely players. They have their successes and their failures, and each play in its time fulfills many roles. There are seven stages. First there is the writing of the original, then comes the acting of it on the stage by the original players, then the adaptation by many other actors. Next the catch-phrases enter the lingo, and works of art take the field depicting renowned scenes form the play. Movies then come along in their various forms necessarily shedding much of the original work in order to conform to a silver screen chronology. After this come the novelizations, and the death of the play wrought by crappy YA adaptations which pay little heed to the original and, let's face it, less heed to intelligent story telling.

I have to say if I were reviewing only the Shakespeare portion of this particular story, I would have to rate it warty. The reason for this is the same reason I've rated so many YA novels negatively, because of instadore. Some reviewers call it insta-love, but the fact is that it's not love. Love is a lot more rational than writers give it credit, even as it might seem completely out of control, but what was depicted here not once, but four times, was insanity.

The truth is that what's irrational is this falling in lust (which I call instadore) and stupidly mistaking it for love. Instadore is shallow and far to fast to be meaningful. You'd have to be a moron to trust that. It doesn't mean it cannot grow into love, but the overwhelming chances are that it won't, yet endless YA authors insist otherwise. Fie on them, say I! And fie on Shakespeare's crappy, meandering, confused, and ultimately meaningless of usurpers and exiles and forest foolishness.

What I did like here was the artwork and the adaptation. Both were well done. The art in particular, which was gray-scale line drawings, was very well done, integrated with the text well, and went beyond mere panels depicting the text. It truly was worth reading. If you want to get a handle on Shakespeare and not get enmeshed in his absurd endless punning, and his clueless idea of love, his thoroughly un-pc attitude, and his boorish male characters pandering to the lowest common denominator in his audience, then starting with something like this isn't at all a bad idea. I recommend this one.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Butterfly Palace by Colleen Coble


Rating: WARTY!

Colleen is such a sweet name isn't it? I picked this audiobook up because it purported to be a murder mystery set in Austin, Texas, in the early 1900's, where a serial killer is offing blonde servant girls who each seem to get a butterfly in a glass sphere as a present before they go under the knife as it were. So in some ways it seemed to offer itself as a cross between Silence of the Lambs, and Angels and Insects which was an intriguing mash-up to me. The problem with it was that the first quarter of the novel had nothing to do with tracking down murderers. Instead it was a dumb romance. Even when the murderer showed up, the novel gave him only a few pages and then went back to discussing chenille and tea services. In short, it sucked and I proudly DNF'd it.

Main character, Lily Donaldson, has suffered a degradation of her circumstances. In a prologue, her family farm burns down in Larsen, Texas, and she's forced to move to Austin to seek employment as a maid. I normally skip prologues, but sometimes they're hard to detect in audio books and hearing this one only served to reinforced my already strong feelings about them: they are a complete waste of time, and in print form, a waste of trees. The farm burning, instead of being offered as a boring and overly melodramatic opener, could have been included in chapter one as a two-sentence back-story and achieved the same end. I don't get this obsession which writers have with prologues and epilogues. Cut it out! Cut to the chase instead!

So this book could have saved trees (or in the audio book, fossil fuels in the form of the plastic in the CDs). Shame on the author. Anyway, Lily works for the Marshall family as a maid and has impressed her employer so well that she's assigned as a ladies maid to the bitch daughter of the family, who happens to have set her sights on Lily's ex-boyfriend, Andy, a jerk who abandoned Lily in Larsen and is now living in Austin in much elevated circumstances, and lo and behold! happens to run into lily on day one - or near enough. What are the odds? Well, in romance novels, quite obviously they're better than one to one raised to the power of trite.

So all suspense is lost. We already knew the serial killer would be caught, but at least we had to look forward to him being tracked down and caught, yet the story is less focused on him than it is on Lily's pining for Andy, and her being bullied by her mistress, who finds any contact between her maid and Andy to be objectionable, and on silk skirts and fine hats. This author needs to get her priorities straight. Meanwhile, Andy is apparently investigating the murders, and is leaning on Lily for help, thereby causing her trouble. In short, he's still a selfish jerk, yet she's still pining for him. I have no respect for a character like that.

Clearly the story is going to get these two back together, and make his obnoxious behavior all okay, but to me it isn't, and if I already know exactly how this story is going to pan out, where is my incentive to continue reading it, let alone recommend it, which I certainly do not?


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Lyddie by Katherine Paterson


Rating: WORTHY!

I twice had mixed feelings about this novel, but both times in the end, it came through for me, and so I have no choice but to rate it a worthy read! That's my kind of author, despite the fact that she won a Newbery for some other novel she wrote. I started out int he first few chapters wondering if I could drop this at a quarter the way through, but as soon as Lyddie left her rural background and headed for the city, it picked-up and never stopped from there on out. That was when I began enjoying it.

This is the story of a young girl who lives on a farm with her mother and her younger siblings, but their father has left them and offers no hope that he's coming back. Their mother is weak and worn out, so it would seem that it's all up to Lyddie Worthen (come on - if she'd been named Worthy it could hardly be any closer!). She almost despairs when her mother announces that the family must be split-up in order to pay off the debt that's owed. Mother and the youngest are going to stay with relatives, but Lyddie and Charlie, despite their tender age, are to be let out as servants in order to start working down the crushing debt.

The paltry little farm will stand idle and Lyddie hates that. She isn't happy with her lot either although Charlie, in a luckier situation, flourishes. Lyddie hears about the money that's to be made up in Lowell, Massachusetts, working in the yarn-spinning factories, and she jumps ship.

The life in the factory pays well (by Lyddie's previous standards), but the work is long, long, long, and the conditions are awful. Get used to this folks because this is where the The Business President is aiming to take us all in the next four years. Lyddie struggles at first, but eventually becomes the best loom operator in the whole factory. It's piece-work which means that the workers have no peace, because they have to meet a quota and unfortunately, saving is slow and problems abound.

Some girls are talking of agitation for better conditions, and all the while the factory makes greater demands - running the looms faster, reducing pay and raising quotas. The horrible condition inside the factory are best exemplified in the BBC TV serialization of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South which stars Richard Armitage of The Hobbit fame. Several scenes in this show display in graphic detail how god-awful working conditions in a spinning factory were back then.

Lyddie has no time for agitation. She focuses on working hard, and being the best, so she can run four looms and make more money, but even as she almost literally slaves away, her family and farm situation deteriorate bit by bit. The ending seemed obvious and I was getting ready to down-rate it because it looked like this author was going to perform a YA weak, dependent, girl atrocity on her main character, but once again she turned it around and sent Lyddie in a different direction: one which returned control to Lyddie, and one of which I fully approved. It was this that really won me over, because the girl had not given-up. She had merely refocused her goal and went for it with a control-taking dedication which I admired and approved of. I fully recommend this read.



Friday, January 27, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Doyle


Rating: WARTY!

Published originally between July, 1891 and June, 1892 in The Strand magazine as serials, these stories were gathered together into one volume shortly after the last was published. It is this version, in a form recorded in the early 1990s for BBC radio, that I listened to. The stories are listed below with a brief commentary on each.

While I recommend the Holmes stories, particularly for any writer who aspires to write detective fiction themselves, I cannot recommend this particular audiobook version at all. It would not have been so bad were it not for the whining violins which periodically inject themselves and for the ridiculous "acting" if one can call it that, by the lead. The reading is a full-cast one, with a guy named Clive Merrison, who is amusingly a welsh actor playing the quintessentially English Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Williams who, until he died in 2001, was married to actor Judi Dench, playing Watson.

The problem with these two is that Merrison is way-the-hell over the top, cackling like a mad scientist at times, and his voice is brassy and jarring, whereas William's voice is understated and quiet, so I'm constantly adjusting the volume when listening to one or the other. I thought (more than once) of just giving up and returning this to the library, but it served my purpose to stay with it and see it through, to refresh my memory on some of these stories and on Doyle's writing style in particular, about which I'll have a few comments.

The recording quality is shamefully poor for the BBC. It sounds loud and brassy in parts, and awfully tinny in others, especially when we're forced to listen to an obnoxiously maudlin violin screeching at random intervals. The sound effects were more irritating than illuminating. There were also changes made to the stories in the name of "dramatization' which were overly melodramatic and quite frankly annoying. If you went to listen to this I recommend finding one where it's read, not acted, and avoid this particular edition like the plague.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia

The most remarkable thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories is how John Hamish Watson always seems to be conveniently arriving at 221B Baker Street just in time for Holmes's next adventure! Watson is supposed to be a doctor, but he never practices because he's always putting off his patients in order to take-off with Holmes. In short, he's a truly lousy and unreliable doctor, and it's rather surprising that he even has a practice. In this adventure, he shows up on spec and happens upon the beginning of the Irene Adler case.

The curious thing about Holmes, given his reputation, is how little of his famed 'brilliant observational deduction' he engages in, and how little of that is relevant to the case. Most of the deductive work for which he's famous is done at the beginning of the story, where Holmes first meets whichever person it is who will launch him on his case. In this particular example, he sets his sights on the "King of Bohemia," and it's fairly easy to see how he figures out who the guy is. This early display of 'brilliance' typifies the Holmes stories, leaving the rest of the story to simple detective work, with precious few flashes of the vaunted deductive excellence that are typically associated with Holmes in popular culture.

The king has a problem with Irene Adler, an American opera singer and actor, and ex-lover of his. Doyle introduces quite a few American characters in his stories, and seems to be rather an aficionado of the country. At one point, in one of these stories, Doyle has Holmes spout some absurd nonsense about the US and Britain reuniting, which felt to me like it was a clueless Doyle speaking through his character.

Adler has a compromising photograph of herself and the King, and she will not give it up. The King's agents have been unable to discover where she keeps it hidden. At 5½ by 4 inches, it's claimed to be too large for her to keep on her person (and evidently they don't consider that she might have cut it down a little), but it simply isn't the case that it's "too large." An eight by ten, yeah, but five by four? No! This is merely a contrivance of Doyle's to have the photo hidden in a fixed location somewhere, and therefore readily accessible for Holmes to discover.

If Adler were really as smart as she's popularly claimed, she would carry it with her just to thwart those who did think it not portable! Then I don't subscribe to this fiction that Adler was Holmes's match - that she was a brilliant tactician who outsmarted "the great detective." Yes, she did outsmart him, but to claim that the way she did it was genius is the same thing as saying that most women are idiots. She acted only in her highly-motivated self-interest, employing nothing more than commonsense in the process. There was no genius or brilliance involved. it was no great feat or her to disguise herself with make-up (having been an actress) and follow Holmes.

If Holmes were smarter he would have asked Adler why she wanted to keep the photo, but neither he nor the king seem to have considered for a minute that Adler had a reason other than blackmailing the king or spoiling his impending marriage. Holmes did not deduce this - he found it out purely by accident whilst spying on Adler. Prior to this, Holmes had simply taken the king's word for it that Adler is in love with him, so there's a heck of a lot of blind gullibility going on here which is hardly a hallmark of brilliance on the part of Holmes.

  • The Red-headed League

It would be hard to write some of the Holmes stories today because so many of them revolve around quirks and foibles of yesteryear, such as this one. One can imagine there would be a redheaded league a hundred years ago, and even more so that it was a fake one, but it's a lot harder to see that flying today.

In this adventure, a red-headed man visits Holmes about this 'occupation' he was hired for, purely because of his red hair. His job was to transcribe the Encyclopædia Britannica, for which he's paid handsomely, but after two months went by, the 'work' evaporated. When he showed up for it as usual one morning, he was told there was no more job!

Holmes is intrigued and investigates, and it turns out that the purpose of the job was simply to get the man away from his pawnbroker business so that thieves could use his basement to tunnel through to a nearby bank and rob it. There really was no great deduction going on here once you realized that the mystery was not the job, but why someone would want the red-headed Mr Wilson out of his shop for so long.

  • A Case of Identity

This is another story wherein the perp probably wouldn't get away with it today, since people are less trusting and less gullible in broad, general terms, educated no doubt by the plethora of detective stories which flood the market today in print and via video media.

In the story, Mary Sutherland is engaged to someone with the oddball name of Hosmer Angel. Where Doyle came up with these names is a mystery worth a Sherlock Holmes style exploration in my opinion, but this character is actually Mary's stepfather in disguise, and he's trying to make her so miserable over a ruined engagement caused by his last minute 'disappearance' that she will never look at another man again and in this way, he can keep his sticky fingers on her inheritance, which she would get were she to marry. Curiously, Holmes fails his client when he fails to tell her the truth about what happened, meaning the stepfather will get away with his plan. It's neither a very good nor a satisfactory story.

  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery

This one involves Inspector Lestrade who essentially fulfills the role of clown. The police are routinely and rather insultingly rendered as idiots in the Holmes stories. The crime here is the murder of Charles McCarthy and the "open and shut case' against his son, James. Of course, Holmes proves this wrong. I found this story boring and rather lacking in the brilliance these stories are supposed to exhibit.

  • The Five Orange Pips

This story is nonsensical from the beginning to the end. The five pips from an orange are purportedly a warning from the Ku Klux Klan, but Doyle proves himself profoundly ignorant of this petty, amateur racist movement which never has had a large following and which was dead as a dodo when Doyle wrote this story. The KKK name comes not from the sound of cocking a rifle as Doyle writes, but from the Greek word for circle: kyklos, with the alliterative "Klan" added for effect.

It makes no sense whatsoever for them to send the warning, and especially not of a pathetic five orange pips. Why did they not simply visit the man who had the damning written evidence and demand it from him, or kill him and burn his home to the ground if they were that desperate? The whole story is absurd and is essentially nothing more than a variation on the Irene Adler story.

  • The Man with the Twisted Lip

This one is equally stupid. A man who falls into debt discovers that he can make more money begging on the street than he can by actually working, so he kits himself out with an ugly disguise which rather than disguise him draws more attention to him such that he's very well known to the police. Hardly much of a disguise if we deem a disguise to mean something to prevent him being noticed. despite the police attention, no one has ever noticed his disguise!

One day his wife happens to be in the neighborhood of his lodgings. Why he needed those is never satisfactorily explained, especialyl givne how expensive they are to maintain. Why the man's respectable wife even be in such a lowlife area of London is even less explicable, but sees him in a window. By the time she can get up there with the police, he's donned his disguise, Literally thrown his coat across the street and into the Thames on the other side (which is impossible if "Swandam Lane" is anything like its real life counterpart, Swan Lane), and even his own wife doesn't recognize him? Absurd! This is really the Hosmer Angel story over again with a few plot points changed.

Unintentional humor is rife in these stories, such as in this one, where Watson says "...a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up..." LOL! Wet dreams in Holmes stories! There is rather a lot of ejaculation going on in this book. Of course I'm sure Doyle didn't mean what a prurient mind twists it to mean, but this particular mention of it was perfect!

  • The Blue Carbuncle

Blue carbuncle is just another name for a blue garnet, but 'carbuncle' is wrong because it refers to a red gemstone, not to a blue one. This story is almost literally a wild goose chase, and involves no brilliant deductions on Holmes part, merely an understanding of avarice and a trick to try and lure in the villain who "hid" his stolen gem in the goose by forcing the poor doomed creature to swallow it.

It makes no sense that, having successfully made it all the way home with the stolen gem in his pocket, he would then risk losing track of it by depositing it in a goose which is likely to abruptly disappear since it's Christmas season; then the guy evidently isn't too smart, so maybe he would. This was not a very satisfactory story.

  • The Speckled Band

According to Wikipedia, Doyle considered this to be his best Holmes story, but I have to say I think it's the worst. It makes zero sense from start to finish. The speckled band is a snake. Who in their right mind ever refers to a snake as a band, speckled or otherwise? The very premise is nonsensical, yet the entire 'mystery' depends upon it.

Helen Stoner (the name probably explains a lot!) visits Holmes because two years before, her twin sister had died under odd circumstances while in her bedroom, and now Helen is forced to sleep in the very room where her sister died because of unnecessary modifications to the house. The clues are a bed fixed to the floor, a bell-pull that doesn't work and which hangs from a vent in the ceiling right over the bed.

The idea is that a 'swamp adder' is controlled by a whistling sound and on activation, it descends the bell-pull and bites the sleeping victim, retreating back up the pull afterwards. Since there is no such thing as a swamp adder and no venomous snake which could climb or descend something as insubstantial as a bell-pull, and since snakes are effectively deaf (they can detect sounds if their jaw is in contact with the ground, and perhaps some low frequency airborne sounds, but nothing else), then whistling to control one, even if such fine control of a snake were possible, is absurd. If you want a snake that can climb, why invent a swamp adder? Why not a 'tree' adder or a 'vine' adder? And which snake, exactly, drinks milk? Doyle clearly knew nothing about snakes.

This really wasn't very inventive on Doyle's part, and to me it's a poorly thought-out story which contains very little of Holmes's highly praised deductive skills. There's nothing he does here that any person of average intelligence and an inquiring mind could not have done. And why does Stoner come only when her own life is in danger? Did she not care enough about her twin to pursue inquiries into how she died? I thought this a weak and amateur effort.

  • The Engineer's Thumb

Victor Hatherley comes to Watson's attention having suffered a severed thumb and blood loss. After treatment, Watson refers him to Holmes. The engineer had been contracted for five times his asking price to consult on a malfunctioning hydraulic press. When he gets too inquisitive, his employer comes after him with an ax, and he escapes through a window, losing his thumb to the ax in the process. Holmes uses some simple deduction to figure out where the engineer was transported in secrecy late at night, only to find the house burned down and the perp escaped. It's hardly a case of brilliant deduction, and certainly not one in which Holmes "gets his man".

  • The Noble Bachelor

Lord Robert St Simon marries an American woman only to have her scarper immediately after the wedding. Holmes, with Lestrade's help(!) discovers that Hatty Doran was married to Francis Moulton, who was reported to have been killed by Apaches in New Mexico. Doyle does get it right that this is Apache territory, but New Mexico wasn't a state until after this story was written. It was however, a very large territory. Hatty had married Frank and when she thought he was dead, she felt free to marry Lord Robert, but Frank showed up at the wedding and rather than raise objections, snuck away with the bride. Again, the story made no sense, because it was Frank who wanted to tell Lord Robert the truth, so why did he not raise an objection at the wedding? Again no brilliant insights here, only 'elementary' deduction my dear Holmes.

  • The Beryl Coronet

In this story, in another unintentionally funny sentence, Holmes, talking about shoes, says he disguised himself as a loafer (vagrant or slacker)! LOL!

A banker discovers his son holding a damaged coronet. Like a moron, Arthur refuses to give an account of himself and like an even bigger moron, his dad immediately leaps to the conclusion that his son has stolen the piece of the coronet which was broken off. There is no brilliant deduction here either, Holmes merely following a trail of footprints and surmising that Arthur's cousin conspired with an outside agent to steal.

  • The Copper Beeches

Violet Hunter is unknowingly hired (and overpaid) for the purpose of impersonating a woman who is being held captive at that same location, Violet's role is to impersonate the woman so an outside interested party is fooled into thinking that she's there of her own free will and is enjoying her time. Holmes figures it out, but there is no great deduction involved. This story is really an amalgamation of three others, because it incorporates elements of The Engineer's Thumb (someone is hired for a ridiculous fee), The Redheaded League (hired for a particular look, and to occupy a certain place on certain occasions), and The Adventure of the Yellow Face, which is not included in this collection, but was with m The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in which a woman in disguise is required to be visible in a window.

So, like I said, skip this and find a different version. I can't recommend it.


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

Gangster Women by Susan McNicoll


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a book about the women who hung out with the infamous mobsters and gangsters, mostly during their heyday in the early thirties, but also covering one from the fifties. it tells an unflinching tale of the ruthlessness and brutality, and of the love and loyalty. The book begins by covering the quartet of Billie Frechette, Marie Comforti, Jean Delaney Crompton, and Helen Gillis. Frechette was John Dillinger's girlfriend, and Delaney was one of three sisters, all of whom took up with gangsters. Helen Gillis was the wife of Lester "Baby-Face" Nelson, who died in her arms with nine bullets in his body after an insane shootout on a back country lane in late November 1934.

That turned out to be a banner year for renowned gangsters flaming out. It saw the deaths of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May, Marie Curie and John Dillinger in July (one of those might not be an outlaw), and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd in October. Ma and Fred Barker only just escaped that watershed year by 16 days, dying in a gunfight with police in mid-January 1935. There were lesser names, too, such as Ford Bradshaw, Robert Brady, Tommy Carroll who was an associate of Dillinger's and who was the boyfriend of Jean Crompton, Aussie Elliott, an associate of Floyd's, Fred "Shotgun" Goetz, of Valentine's Day Massacre fame, Joseph Moran, an associate of the Barker gang, and last but not least, Wilbur "Mad Dog" Underhill. Also on the list are five more associates of John Dillinger: Eddie Green, John Hamilton, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter. Clearly it wasn't safe to be a member of the Dillinger crew!

The book covers Bonnie and Clyde, of course, and Clyde's brother Marvin Barrow aka Buck, who was wounded with his wife Blanche and died in July 1933. Blanche lived to a ripe old age. Bonnie and Clyde's career seemed like ti was laways on the downhill slope. They were petty thieves and violently resisted arrest. Their spree lasted only two years, all of it spent on the run, and often wounded. Bonnie was injured severely in a car accident and never recovered, spending the last year of her life in pain form an injured leg. They both die din their mid-twenties.

The last story in the book is of Bugsy Siegel's abused girlfriend Virginia Hill, who looked like a movie star and who evidently was a petulant and avaricious girl. She was apparently murdered in the mid-sixties, but she outlived a girl who as a kid, resolved to emulate her, and who ended up 'collateral damage' in a hit job on the guy she was traveling with, Little Augie Pisano. Janice Drake left behind a thirteen year old son.

It had to be infatuation. No one who wasn't blinded by love of some variety or another would be seen dead with these people. Or maybe they would....


Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Fame Thief by Timothy Hallinan


Rating: WARTY!

This is supposed to be the "highly anticipated, laugh-out-loud thrid [yes, thrid! That's how useful the Goodreads librarians are!] installment of the an favorite Junior bender mysteries." I imagine it's a fan favorite because it stunk, and you'd need a fan to remove the stench. Had I known it was part of a series I would have left this audiobook on the library shelf, but since the only indication is some very tiny text hidden on the front cover, I didn't notice until after I checked it out. But that's a mistake that was easily remedied!

The reader was Peter Berkrot, whose voice sounded like it had been fogged by about five thousand cigarettes too many so it did not appeal. What had appealed, until I started listening to it, was the idea that a retired mobster and movie mogul, Irwin Dressler (who I guess has to be a Jew because that's a hard and fast cliche that no writer has the power to change) would hire a burglar, to figure out what had happened to a star if the silver screen form the golden age. It made no sense, so I thought this was either going to be a great idea, or a disaster. It was a disaster of government-planning proportions.

None of the characters was interesting, nothing interesting happened (not in the portion I listened to), and no hilarity ensued. End of story. For me anyway. This DNF'd novel is back on the shelf where it truly belongs, and I'm moving on to the next experimental audiobook I checked out during my latest raid on the library.


Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Neil Babra


Rating: WORTHY!

No Fear Shakespeare is a collection of "translated" Shakespeare texts - in other words, delivered in modern English instead of in the antique lingo with which Shakespeare was familiar. A web version of Hamlet done in this way can be found here.

I'm familiar Hamlet from its general reputation, and from the Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson movie versions, but I've never read the original play. I will be setting that right at some point since reading this gave me an idea for a novel! Those who have no familiarity with this story (the full title of which is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but shorted merely to Hamlet for this book) might be surprised to discover how many quite well-known English catch-phrases were derived from this play. It seems like it's full of them. This was Shakespeare's longest work and was derived from the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth which in the beginning is very much like the Hamlet we know, although the ending is rather more convoluted (Amleth ends up with two wives!).

This graphic novel follows the 'No Fear' text, and the black and white line drawings are rudimentary (and predictably shaded dark in many places!), so the artwork was no great shakes (peer!), but overall I liked the way this was done. I found it eminently readable and easy follow (although frankly the text could have been more legibly printed, especially in the reversed panels where it was white text on a black background).

The story is of course that Hamlet's uncle, with the rather un-Danish name of Claudius, murdered Hamlet's father and took over the throne, but disguised the murder and got away with it. This never made any sense to me. Hamlet was old enough to be king, so if his father was king but died (whether murdered or through natural causes), why was Hamlet not king? I think Shakespeare screwed up!

Whether Hamlet was insane or merely faking it to achieve the end result of exposing his uncle is a much debated question. I think at first there is no doubt of his sanity, but certain later actions of his, such as his lack of remorse at slaying the father of the woman he purportedly loved, and his callous rejection of this same woman and lack of concern over her becoming unhinged suggest to me that while he wasn't exactly what I'd term missing a few planks from his stage, he was certainly a folio short of a play!

So in the end, as is the wont in Shakespeare's tragedies, there's a slaughter and, as Prince Escalus might have it, "all are punish'd." Denmark falls to Norway, the very nation which was lost a war with it before the play begins. This part made no sense to me either. Did Shakespeare not know his Europe? It made zero sense that Norwegian armies would need to March across Denmark to get to Poland! Why did they not go directly through Sweden (a country with which they had not been at war recently), or simply sail though the Baltic? That Shakespeare, I tell you! But let's take a page out of Shakespeare's book on this: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"! So it's all good and I recommend this one.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lise Meitner Pioneer of Nuclear Fission by Janet Hamilton


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a great book for young readers. It's clear, concise, informative, and pulls no punches. Lise Meitner was an Austrian who made amazing strides as a woman through a man's world of science and education. She earned herself a doctorate, became a professor, and importantly, was key to understanding the process of nuclear fission in uranium caused by the absorption of a neutron.

Born in Austria, Lise moved to Berlin in Germany to pursue a physics education, and she worked there for thirty years on the forefront of nuclear physics, fighting sexism by means of leading by example, rarely getting the distinction and recognition she earned, sometimes betrayed by those she worked with and trusted, and because she was Jewish, falling afoul of the brain-dead and psychotic Nazis who were destroying their own world-domination plans by chasing-off and killing the very Jewish scientists who could have won the war for them had they been enabled and inclined to do so! Morons.

Lise barely escaped Germany with her life and had to kiss goodbye not only her lab and equipment, but also pretty much everything she owned. First Holland and then Sweden took her in. Of all her calculations, her biggest miscalculation was her failure to move to Britain when she had the chance. World War Two broke out and she was trapped in Sweden for the duration, but she continued her work, her blind pursuit of science inexplicably helping her former colleague Otto Hahn who remained in Germany.

During World War One she had worked as an X-ray technician (pioneering the medical science with her own physics knowledge!), and as a nurse, and was so disturbed by the horrors she experienced there, that in the Second World War, she refused to contribute her expertise to developing the atomic bomb because she hated war so much.

In her later years she finally did receive much of the recognition she had been denied for much of her life, and led a quiet life in science, teaching and continuing her research. She died in 1968 at the ripe old age of nearly ninety! This is a great book for young girls to learn how much they could contribute if they decided to pursue a life in science as Lise Meitner had done.


The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages


Rating: WORTHY!

This was an audiobook read capably by Julie Dretzin, which told the story of a young girl who is at Los Alamos during the development of the atomic bomb. Dewey Kerrigan is only eleven, and since her mother abandoned her, she has been living with a less than satisfactory woman who is hardly fit to be any kind of mom. She is thrilled to get the chance to move back with her father. The only fly in that ointment is that dad is a scientist at Los Alamos (which in English means, lots of Alamo's! No seriously, it means "The Poplars."). But Dewey must travel some distance alone to meet up with him.

Now keep in mind that this is set in the 1940's with the US (along with much of the rest of the world) under a war mentality, so when we find out that she befriends a grown man on the long train journey, it's nothing sinister here, especially since he turns out to be yet another scientist on his way to the same place she's headed.

The means by which they become acquainted is over a little science project which Dewey has set herself. This - the scientific bent Dewey has - was what won me quickly over to this novel. It was refreshing to read a story about a middle-grade girl who had an interest other than boys or the usual gamut of topics with which authors beset their young girl characters. It was truly refreshing for a girl to be shown as self-motivated, smart, capable, and inventive.

It wasn't all plain sailing though. Dewey has a somewhat handicapped leg and is forced to walk with a supportive boot which means she's always wearing odd shoes. Other children make fun of her, but one of the young boys who also lives there befriends her. Now here's where it could imploded like a beryllium ball as an ill-advised young romance sprung up, but this author never went there. She avoided that pitfall and instead set up a different dynamic and the story was much better for it.

At one point her father is required to be out of town on business and Dewey cannot go with him, so for the time he's gone, she's rooming with one of the girls who has been less than kind to her. This girl angrily resents Dewey sharing her home, and much more her room, so the two do not hit it off at once, but over time they become friends. The interactions between these two were charming and engaging to read, and they really brought the story to life for me.

The story culminates with the first test of the A-Bomb at Trinity, and the melted sand is the green glass of the story title. It's not permitted to collect this glass any more, but those who had already picked-up this mildly radioactive material were allowed to keep it and trade it, so it's possible to buy this glass online - and it's also possible to be sold faked trinity glass too, so don't get burned!

I really enjoyed every minute of this book, and I recommend it. It's apparently book one of a series, and while I am not typically a fan of series, I do enjoy one if it's a really good one, so I may well be tempted to go for volume two at some point.


Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell


Rating: WARTY!

Edited by Stephen Mitchell from translated sources, this is the antique story of Gilgamesh, King of the "Great walled Uruk" which is where the Biblical Abram hails, I think.

This book has a bibliography, a glossary, some eighty pages of notes, as well as as sixty-page introduction which I skipped as I do all introductions, prologues, and so on, meaning that the actual story occupies only a hundred pages or so in the middle! That said, the story was fun. It's they way they told tales back then which was as entertaining as the tale itself. There was much repetition, especially during the travel portions, but to be able to read literature from two thousand years BC is pretty epic. How many authors of today will still be read in 6017?!

Gilgamesh and his sworn friend, once enemy, Enkidu were giants of men, legends in their own lifetime, who took on challenges and monsters, and even faced-down gods, and while they were often fearful, they nevertheless won through with each other's support. These epics predate and underlie the later biblical stories (the Biblical flood story comes from the legend of Utnapishtim mentioned here). You can truly feel Gilgamesh's grief when Enkidu dies, and understand his sudden need to find out if it's possible to live forever. How he's robbed of this is a bit unconvincing, but even story-tellers back then knew that no one really lived forever!

I recommend this. You can find it free online at Google docs or at Gutenberg. I'm pretty sure this is out of copyright by now(!) even by Disney's ever-expanding standards, so you might consider it as an inspiration for your own novel.


East of the Sun by Julia Gregson


Rating: WORTHY!

Having just reviewed East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris and liked it, I thought it would be fun to review this one alongside it. Now I've anchored East of the Sun in India, maybe I can read West of the Moon, either by Margi Preus or by Barbara Bickmore, and find where that's set, which would then pinpoint the location of the troll queen's castle in the first novel! LOL!

Well, they said I don't have the stamina for a long novel any more! Pshaw! They laughed at me, but I showed them; then they laughed even harder! Oh well! This one was 587 pages, and for the first 487 it was really quite engrossing and pretty good. It was well-written and told an engaging story. The last one hundred pages though, felt like the author had lost interest and just wanted to get it wrapped up, and so did I somewhat, at that juncture.

This is one reason I'm not a huge fan of long novels or series: it's far too much valuable time invested if the novel goes south! As it happens I'm quite willing to give this particular one a worthy rating because it did entertain me for so long, and the ending wasn't a disaster, it was just dissatisfying and highly predictable.

Viva is a twenty-something girl living in the early inter-war years in England, who decides to return to India, a place she knew vaguely as a child, so she can recover a trunk which her deceased parents left there for her. Why she didn't simply pay to have it shipped is a mystery, especially since she's not well-off enough to pay for her trip! She has to agree to play the role of chaperone in order to have her passage paid. She's to look after two teens: Victoria, who goes by Tor and who was an interesting character for all her flightiness, immaturity and insecurity, and a guy named...Guy, who is a young sociopath.

On the ship Viva and Tor form a little klatch with another young woman named Rose, a rather disappointing character who is going to India to marry her soldier - a man she's met only a couple of times, and who frankly turns out to be a bit of a jerk. The weird thing about him is that he seems like a different character when we first meet him, so his resolving into your typical spoiled, regimented, chauvinistic Edwardian soldier as we read on was something of a shock to me. It's not as much of one though as realizing what women and so-called minorities had to go through back then (and sadly still do).

The truly depressing thing about the "minority" here is that this is their nation and they're actually in the overwhelming majority! The author pulls no punches; we get India, warts and all: the stunning beauty, the scary, the over-heated barren plains and deadly mountains, the ignorance of both the people and of the ruling Brits about this people and their beliefs and realities, the nauseating poverty and sickness, and the huge clash of cultures.

The story follows these three over the next few months as Rose gets married and becomes pregnant, as Tor finally meets a guy and marries him in order to avoid having to return to England, and as Viva inevitably marries the guy we knew she would almost from the moment she met him. The story took rather too long to tell and not have better resolution at the end than it did. I would have liked to have seen Viva do something unusual rather than predictable. I would have liked to have seen Rose take charge, and I would have liked to have seen Guy get his just deserts. None of these things really happened, so in some ways it felt like a long build-up to a finale we never got, but overall I think this is a worthy read. Maybe other readers will find more satisfaction in the ending than I did.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Exile by Jan Burchett, Sara Vogler aka Working Partners Limited


Rating: WARTY!

This is one of a series (the fifth) and is the second I've reviewed. The first one I read was actually the fourth in the series, titled Deception, and was a disappointment back in January 2016. I'd picked up both volumes at the same time and only just now got to this one, hoping it would be better. It wasn't! It had all the same problems the first volume had: first person, epistolic narrative, thoroughly modern language which didn't at all hark back to the Elizabethan era in which it was set. No one really wants to read archaic English, but you can write in a way which indicates history without going full-on Shakespeare.

This is a series which, judged by the titles (Assassin, Betrayal, Conspiracy, Deception, Exile), is intended to run to twenty six volumes. I can't think of anything more tedious than that! I started in on this only to see if it was indeed any better. My expectations that it would not be better were quickly and thoroughly met. It's written by a writing partnership whose members all contribute under the pseudonym of 'Grace Cavendish', the main character. I’d actually be more interested in learning exactly how that partnership works and how disputes are resolved than in reading another of these stories!

Anyway, Grace is a young lady courtier who is supposedly a pursuivant - an investigator for Queen Elizabeth. 'Pursuivant' didn't actually mean that, and in Elizabeth's time was far more likely to have still been used in its French version, poursuivant, so this felt wrong. In fact, her whole presence here feels wrong. The queen is in her thirties, so why she would be remotely interested in having a middle-grade-aged girl as a lady at court is a complete mystery. These "ladies" (not all of them were actually title-bearing) are supposed to be companions to the queen. I cannot imagine how companionable a gaggle of thirteen-year-olds would be to a mature queen. At that age, too, they wouldn't have been behaving like modern children - or even like children at all. Even thirteen-year-olds would have been considered marriageable maidens in that time, and would have had old male courtiers chasing after them, but none of that is represented here. This might well be appropriate for a middle-grade book if you want to keep your readers ignorant of real history, but all it served for me was to make it thoroughly unrealistic.

The story made little sense, too. The palace has an exiled princess being hosted by the queen. The princess is from the Middle East, and the royal leaders in her nation all speak perfect English, because during the crusades, an English Knight, rumored to be Richard Cœur de Lion himself, found himself seeking shelter and healing, and they learned English from him! Why Arabic potentates would harbor a crusader is a mystery which goes unresolved. Why their English should remain perfect after three hundred years is also unexplained. But that's what we have here. The plot involved the theft of a valuable ruby belonging to the visitor, but I lost interest long before it was even stolen, let alone was recovered, no doubt through Grace's efforts.

The worst thing about his story is the conspicuous consumption and flaunting of wealth. Never is a thought given to the poor and deprived, even as Grace is depicted as being a good friend to a maid and to one of the court clowns. I know that people back then actually didn’t spare much of a thought, if any at all, for the downtrodden, but given how Grace is portrayed as a modern girl, the fact that there isn't even a mention of the appalling way the commoners were treated and the conditions in which they lived is inexcusable. So this book fails as an interesting story and as a sort of history primer. I can't recommend this series at all.