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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry


Rating: WARTY!

This one was not really my cup of tea! I tried to listen to it through child's ears and see it through 1947 eyes, but it wasn't easy at all. It was only three disks, so I pushed on through to the other side as they say. Fortunately it was not a Newbery winner, just a runner-up, otherwise I would have flatly refused to read it on that basis alone.

In a prologue which the author wisely includes in chapter one, otherwise I would never have read it, a Spanish galleon wrecks on the shoals of Assateague Island (speaking personally, I'd change that name!) off the coast of Virginia, the horses magically escape and swim ashore, where they adapt and take to life there. This goes to prove how thoroughly worthless and antiquated prologues are, since the same story is perfectly adequately (and with more drama) conveyed in a few sentences in a story told by Paul Beebe, a youngster who is on the island (centuries later) with his sister Maureen.

They're interested in a mare named Phantom, which is a legendary horse they set their sights on owning. For me, this was a big problem with this book. I know sensibilities have changed since 1947, but the avarice displayed in this story is scary - that people can rape and pillage nature without a second thought, taking whatever they want with no consideration for others, or for the consequences of what they're doing - consequences for which we're now paying in spades.

The kids are on the island with their grandfather, who is the pilot of a boat which brought over some guy who is doing some sort of survey on the island. His grandchildren are the aforementioned Maureen and Paul. I thought the grandfather was way-the-hell over the top. He sounds more like a pirate than ever he does a grandfather, and he has all the sensibilities of one, to boot. This is where the two kids set their sights on owning the Phantom, like this wild horse merits ownership and confinement.

The grandfather irritated me to no end. I know there probably are people who speak like him, yet in several years in Virginia I never met one. But that wasn't his worst fault. He talks of people tracing their ancestry back to Jamestown, like they were the first to inhabit these shores, but he has a better idea. No, it's not American Indians - it's the horses!

He says those were the first to live here, and in this he insultingly downgrades American Indians to a lower status than horses. I found the insensitivity displayed here, appalling. Besides, by the time the Spanish were coming here with horses, other Europeans were already resident, so this spiel from gramps is ill-advised whichever way you look at it. He says the first person to tame the horses was a white person, ignoring centuries of relationships between the natives and horses.

It was this kind of thing which made me decide that I cannot rate this positively, regardless of the ending. And it is this kind of stupidity which is what makes me so despise the Neuteredbery Award. It needs to be renamed Get-a-Clue-Bery. I cannot recommend this story and I have no desire to read anything else by this author.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Betty Boop by Roger Langridge, Gisèle Lagacé


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the first of three reviews I'll be doing this weekend of graphic novels; it's from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher!

I'm not sure why comic book writers go to such lengths to put a completely different image on the cover to the ones you routinely find inside. It smacks of bait & switch. In this case, I didn't expect anything other than standard imagery inside, so the cover was pretty well-received and not resented for misrepresenting! Howard Chaykin's work here, colored by Jesus Aburto, is really was quite stunning, worthy of your screen wallpaper if not framing and hanging on a wall! I felt it a pity though, that someone isn't willing to buck tradition and do a whole comic like that, but it seems Betty is going to continue to be confined to the 1930's which was her era (and she owned it!).

Betty Boop is modeled (both in face and voice) on singer Helen Kane who was best known for "I Wanna Be Loved by You," and who sued Betty Boop's creators, but they cited the "boop-boop-a-doop" as originating with Esther Jones, and Kane eventually lost the lawsuit. I think she needed a better lawyer!

I never was a big fan of Betty Boop (although I love the concept) and I've enjoyed some of the whacked-out animated cartoons which were really off the wall, especially for the era they were created in. In this series, which combines several comics, the arc is all about villain Lizard Lips. I wish there had been more variety but it was all LL all the time. Each story is self-contained, and LL plagues Betty in every adventure, obsessed with getting his hands on her house, for no reason that was apparent to me!

Betty always wins of course, and there's a lot of celebratory singing, which obviously doesn't work as well in print as it did in animation. Betty isn't as much of a sex symbol here, either - she plays more to cute than to Woot! This isn't a bad thing, but it did lend her a slightly neutered air. Since Betty began life as a sex symbol it would have been nice to see her let off the leash a little more in a comic book.

That said, she was extremely cute and I enjoyed the dialog, the references back to her original life and friends, and the quality of the artwork by the amazingly-named Gisèle Lagacé. She really captured the essence of the original, and is definitely an artist to keep an eye out for. So overall, this was a fun book, told good stories, and was very enjoyable. Despite the one or two relatively trivial regrets mentioned, I think it's a winner, especially if you're a big fan already.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown


Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray


Rating: WORTHY!

This volume concludes the trilogy and is set a year after the previous one, when Gemma is about to come out to society. She's still at the Spence Academy, but finds she has lost her power to enter the realms at will. When she finally does get in she discovers the Pippa has been building a little queendom for herself and has changed significantly, now bordering on megalomaniacal evil. Pippa is unable to cross to the afterlife because she has become so embedded in the realms by this time.

Feeling like her life is slipping out of her control, Gemma decides she has no choice but to follow every clue and discover what is really going on here since her mother was so utterly useless in helping her. After rambling around London following rather tedious clues, Gemma enters the realms again and visits the Winterlands in hopes of finding the so-called Tree of All Souls. When they touch the tree they get visions, and Gemma's is of Eugenia Spence telling her about this mysterious girl in lavender she keeps seeing. Evidently, the girl has a dagger which is somehow a threat to the Winterlands.

Felicity and Ann are becoming increasingly frustrated with Gemma's refusal to allow them back into the realms, and they discover that they don't need her because there's an alternate way to get there. When Felicity encounters the very dangerous Pippa, the latter tries to talk her into eating the realm berries which will maker her visit to the realms permanent so she can always be with Pippa - who's true love was evidently Felicity all along.

In a big showdown at the end, Kartik sacrifices himself to save Gemma who then does what we all thought she'd done in volume two which was to give her power back to the realms, robbing herself of power and sealing the two worlds from each other. She then retreats to the Americas which is what all young girls do when they have no power, of course!

Some issues with this last volume, but overall, I recommend it as a fitting finale to the trilogy. It's a worthy read, despite a few problems here and there (mostly there).


Rebel Angels by Libba Bray


Rating: WORTHY!

Now we're two months along from the end of the first novel, and we learn that Kartik has been ordered by the anti-Order known as the Rakshana, to induce Gemma to perform a certain piece of magic and to then kill her. Gemma must go into the realms, and "bind" the magic therein, in the name of the "Eastern Star".

Unfortunately for Kartik's plan, it's Xmas and Gemma goes to London to finally meet her family. Her brother Tom is supposed to pick her up, but Gemma cannot find him and she believes she's being stalked by someone from the Rakshana. Rather brazenly, she accosts a nearby young man (of course), Simon Middleton, and feigns acquaintanceship with him. Middleton is from a wealthy family and is quite taken with Gemma, so he invites her family to dine with him.

It turns out that Middleton was very conveniently at Eton, a very manly college, with her brother. Moving around London, Gemma also runs into Hester Moore, who is known to Gemma because she used to teach art at Spence, and who now conveniently lives in London. Hester's replacement at Spence, Miss McCleethy, is the one who Gemma believes is really Circe.

While on the topic of complete, utter, and highly suspicious convenience, Gemma's brother works at Bethlem Royal Hospital a psychiatric institution (although that's not how it was known back then) from which we derive the word bedlam. Conveniently, one of Tom's patients is Nell Hawkins. When Gemma is conveniently with her one day, she conveniently rambles on about "The Temple" which is the very thing Kartik had requested that Gemma seek out in the realms! it turns out that Nell was once also conveniently a student at a school at which McCleethy once taught.

We learn here why Felicity requested power as her wish from the realms - when a girl called Polly comes to stay with them, Felicity warns her severely to lock her doors and not let Felicity's uncle into her room. Gemma's father is a drug addict and is not well, eventually winding up in a health facility.

In the finale to this volume, Gemma determines the real identity of Circe, and defeats her in open battle. She discovers the true meaning of the temple, which is quite messianic, and in discovering this, she finds she can distribute the magic democratically across the realms so it resides in no one person's hands.

Eminently readable and listenable, this novel was a bit too convenient in many places, but despite that, made for a worthy read. I recommend this as part of this complete series!


A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


Rating: WORTHY!

Gemma Doyle is a girl in her mid-teens who is rather less than thrilled with her lot with life with her mother in India. She dreams of going back to her native England where her father resides, and taking up the society life to which she believes she's entitled.

Gemma should be careful what she wishes for, because when her wish comes true, it’s at the cost of the tragic death of her mother. One day, out in the hot and dusty market place in Mumbai, Gemma's mother is approached by a man accompanied by a boy who is conveniently Gemma's age. The man relates a cryptic message to Gemma's mother, and her mum then demands that Gemma return home immediately. Gemma becomes so frustrated with her mother's secrecy that she runs away, and gets herself lost. She's visited by a horrible vision of her mother committing suicide, and when she finally makes her way to where her mother is, she discovers that her vision was true: her mother is dead, and subsequently Gemma is being hastily packed off to England, to be sequestered at the elite Spence Academy.

Gemma starts out by being the lonely newbie because of her derided Indian background, but when she discovers the snottiest girl in school, Felicity, in a compromising situation, Gemma finds herself elevated to the top notch of clique-dom. Finally, she's where she wanted to be. She begins to form a close relationship with Felicity and her two friends, Pippa and Ann. Gemma also learns that Kartik, the boy she saw with the man in Mumbai, is now in England! He warns her that she is in danger, and must close herself off to what happened to her mother if she wishes to remain safe.

Gemma increasingly has visions and one of these leads her to a cave in the school grounds, where she finds a 25-year-old diary written by Mary Dowd, a girl of Gemma's age, who also was a student at Spence. Gemma identifies with Mary because May also had visions which she shared with her friend Sarah Rees-Toome.

Gemma reads the diary and discovers that Mary was associated with a society known as the Order, initiates of which were able to open a portal to other realms. They could use this power to ease the passage of souls, and the power gave them prophetic insight and the power to create illusions. The four new friends create their own "Order", meeting in the cave.

As they read more of the diary and investigate the history of Spence, they discover that the two girls from a quarter century ago died in a fire at Spence along with the principal of the school.

Finally Gemma & Co travel to the realms which are weird, beautiful and wonderful. They do not travel there bodily but spiritually, leaving their bodies behind in the real world. Gemma is able to meet with her mother there, but predictably her mother is unnecessarily mysterious. She does, however, warn Gemma not to take magic from the realms into the everyday world because it would let them fall foul of Circe, who seeks this power and wishes to take over the realms. The magic of the realms allows them to have a wish granted. Ann, who is plain, requests beauty. Felicity, who feels abused, asks for power. Gemma wants insights into her self, and finally, Pippa seeks true love.

The girls begin a routine of secret night-time meetings in the cave when they visit the realms. Gemma discovers that her mother was Mary Dowd, who obviously she did not die in the fire but escaped and changed her name. She also learns that Sarah is Circe.

Gemma is the only one who can control the portal, and during one visit, Pippa is separated from them and is left behind as the others flee an evil power seeking them in the realms. Back in the real world, Pippa is now having a seizure. Gemma returns to the realms to retrieve Pippa, but Pippa has met her true Love there and refuses to return to real life and the arranged marriage which awaits her there. When Gemma returns to her own world, Pippa is dead.

I've also listened to the audio book version of this, narrated by Jo Wyatt, and I recommend that version, too. She does a thoroughly amazing job of narration and voices. I've had good success with Libba Bray, and although this is a series (a trilogy specifically) which I usually detest, this one turned out to be eminently engaging. I recommend it.


Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie R Sorensen


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this was an advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher. It's been a while since I've fond something I really wanted to read on Net Galley and this was worth the wait in gold to coin a phrase!

It was an awesome novel - steampunk set in Japan (kinda)! But that's not why I liked it. I've read a few steampunk novels and found too many of them less than satisfactory, the author being far more in love with steampunk than ever they were in good story-telling. This is a different tack. This author clearly loves to tell a great and well-put-together story and steampunk is just an accessory.

It's not even really steampunk as such, but the story of an alternate-world Japan entering the steam age perforce to save themselves from falling under the thumb of an expansionist and capitalist USA in the form of Matthew Perry, not the actor from the Friends TV show, but a US Navy Commodore who also happened to be a belligerent bully who, in the real world, forced under threat of arms, a very feudal and unprepared Japan to sign a so-called treaty which treated the US and no-one else.

In this novel, things happen differently. Toru is the name of the mysterious "fisherman" who arrives back in Japan after two years of living in (and closely observing) the USA, and in this world the Japanese, because of Toru's efforts, are fully armed and very dangerous when Perry arrives in the last twenty percent of the novel.

So no, it's not a novel full of battles. Instead, it's a story of perseverance and bravery, and of hardship and ingenuity, where Toru has to overcome one prejudice after another in a very strict, very isolationist nation which rejects him to begin with because he's 'soiled goods' having lived outside of Japan. Rejection here, please note, means no less than ritual beheading. It's a story of codes of honor, of class separation, and of how barriers can be worn away with diligence and dedication. The story is one of change, and skin-of-the-teeth survival, and of a slow awakening (in this case militarily) of a nation which in the real world enjoyed a similar rise, but economically after World War Two.

The author quite evidently knows her stuff (or at the very least, fakes it beautifully, which is fine with me!), and while - now and then - I found the frequent use of Japanese terminology annoying, for the most part it was fine and even educational. Some readers who are seeking only a story of martial might, may find this rather restrained and slow-moving, but for me it was a comfortable, easy read which entertained, educated, and showed how non-violent change can come even to a nation as rigid as Japan was (and still is in many regards).

It's not all about the men, either. We have a strong female character who is admirably understated but very much to the fore. We also have a restrained love story which even I liked, so if you've read my reviews of not a few young adult stories, you must know that this one had to be well done to please me!

I had one or two minor issues, but nothing that put me off the story overall. For example, we're told that Toru meets Helmuth von Moltke at West Point, which is highly unlikely since he was stationed in Magdeburg in charge of the 4th army corps when Toru was supposedly in the US! Moltke is the guy who goes uncredited for saying "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy," when what he actually wrote was rather different: "No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force." I honestly did not see the point of referring to him or to what he supposedly said. This guy was an appalling racist and doesn't deserve to be remembered for anything.

While the author conveys a good feel for Japan, when it comes to preparations for war - in this case a huge build-up of steam power - the idea of powering steam engines is a bit too easily accomplished. Coal was not scarce in Japan in terms of being available for mining, but in order to mine it to power the steam engines, a lot more work would have had to be done than there was time for here! Perhaps this is why it gets so little mention, but I'm not convinced that there were enough trees to do everything they did either - not to do it and sustain it! The same problem exists for mining iron to build those engines and the tracks upon which they would run.

But I wasn't about to let minor quibbles spoil what was otherwise an excellent and very much appreciated read. I fully recommend this one.


Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee, Sam Hart


Rating: WARTY!

This was a very disappointing graphic novel which I got from my wonderful local library about the woman the French know as La Pucelle d'Orléans. I think a woman like Jeanne d'Arc deserves a better memorial than this one because, deluded as she was, she did make her mark on history. This novel doesn't. It basically tells the same tale as everyone else does, so what's the point? The illustrations are indifferent and there was really nothing there to inspire me, which is sad given that Jeanne was said to have inspired an army to win a war!

Rising from an obscure childhood to become and legend and now, one of the nine secondary saints of France is quite an achievement, although it took five hundred years, all told. The problem is that the authors don't offer anything other than what you can read in Wikipedia - which for all I know might well be where they took their 'plot'. But apart from purely fictional and very trite conversations, they offer nothing more - just a by-rote, pedantic retelling of the facts, including several information dumps and much folklore unverified as fact.

I'll give just one example of how pathetic the invented dialog is. At one point the English drop a rock on Jeanne's head. She's in process of storming their castle when it happens. This evidently was a real event and she survived it. I suspect the real rock was a lot smaller than the one depicted in this novel, but in this story, evidently rather peeved, she says, "They throw stones at a girl? Show them what you think of that! To arms!" which is as pathetic as you can get and makes her look like a moron.

She's dressed as a soldier. She has short hair and she's waging war on the English dressed as a regular male warrior, and now she thinks she should be entitled to special treatment because she's a girl? I'm sorry but that line alone makes this novel total trash. The writer should be ashamed of himself for even thinking of writing it. I seriously doubt the real Jeanne said anything like that.

Michael, who is a Jewish archangel who supposedly communicates with her, is depicted as a long-haired muscular blond with white wings! In short, not a Judaic angel, but more like a Norse god named Thor. Pathetic. For this reason and others, this story doesn't seem organic. It doesn't seem life-like. It's more like reading a history book than ever it is a work which gives us the opportunity to enjoy and celebrate a living, thriving person exhibiting bravery you can rarely find in modern YA stories, and offering inspiration, and adventure.

That said it would be hard to repeat her story in any age (or in these days nation) other than one bogged down in religious strait-jackets and blind belief in ridiculous fairy tales. Only in such a world could someone so totally fool others in to believing they had a direct line to a god!

This would have made a much better tale had it been explored with a new light - that of a young deluded girl being elevated by men into a figure of inspiration when it served them, and discarding her callously when she was no longer of use, but that tale has yet to be told in this format, to my knowledge. I think this version cruelly under-serves her.

Another approach would have been to have shown how useless God is: in that he cannot do a thing for himself, always having to rely on mere mortal, weak humans to do his work for him, and then failing them repeatedly. I mean, is he an all-powerful god or merely another insane being no better than the Devil, whispering things in people's ears to make them do his absurd and contradictory bidding purely for his own entertainment?

I'm not a believer at all, but let's just pretend there is a god who for reasons unknown, wishes half a century later to reverse Agincourt, where the English soundly beat the French on their home turf, and who now wants the French to beat the English on that same turf. There's actually a whole other story right there about a schizophrenic god who doesn't know what he wants, but I don't want to pursue that here.

Set aside any quibbles about why this god even cares who owns France, when he's always been the "God of Israel," not anywhere else, and then not even the God of all of Israel, but a mountain god - a god of the hill tribes. Instead let's pretend he actually cares. If it's that important, then why pick an obscure girl from nowheresville? Why not pick the pope?

Better yet, why not do his dirty work himself, and de-materialize the English army? Instead, we're expected to believe that this purportedly all-powerful god cannot do the job and is forced to pick an illiterate and highly superstitious child, and force her to try and change history before abandoning her to misery and suffering. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and in effect means that this god murdered that child.

And for what? The war did not end with her. France did not become whole immediately because of her. Indeed, even after it became whole, it later fell to the English after Napoleon's depredations. Where was this god then? Where was his messenger then? France again fell to the Nazis, and in the worst way. Where was this god then? Where was the messenger then? What was the point? Why only one messenger in a suspiciously superstitious and ignorant time and then no more? Does this god not take a long view?! Or is the real story not that he's so petty and short-sighted, but that there really is no god other than what we sad and ignorant humans invent to delude ourselves with, and to satisfy our own petty needs of the moment?

It makes even less sense that he would then allow his savior to be burned, but he does have a history of throwing his Messiahs to the wolves, doesn't he? Even if he is real, he's not a god I want anything to do with. There's a far better story to be told about Jeanne than ever we've been given by those blinkered people who merely retell the historical plot points without any feeling or heart and add nothing new in the telling. I can't recommend this one at all.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jane Austen's England by Roy Adkins, Lesley Adkins


Rating: WORTHY!

Sometimes fortune favors the depraved, so today I have two books to blog which were pure joy to read. The first is this one, written not about Jane Austen's stories, but about her times - not her life, but the time in which she lived, and what life was like back then. It's reasonably-well documented because people were fond of writing letters and keeping journals, and some of Austen's own letters are quoted from here.

Austen was a contemporary (near enough) of Mary Shelley, although to my knowledge, the two never met. Austen was twenty-two and had completed Lady Susan when Shelly was born. She died by the time Shelley was twenty, the year before the latter published Frankenstein, so while Shelley had undoubtedly heard of Austen, the reverse was never the case. Austen as so prim and proper that the two of them probably would not have got along together even had they known each other! The Brontës were all of this era, but they were all born right around the time Austen died, so they never met either, which was probably just as well. By all accounts, Charlotte was no fan of Austen's.

There were other well-known writers alive in this era, too, such as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who published anonymously, Donatien Alphonse François, aka the Marquis de Sade, who died three years before Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley's mother, who died as Shelley was born. There was also Sophia Briscoe, and in terms of better known writers, both Charles Dickens and Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot were born around the time Austen died - to within a few years. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, was around treize when Austen died.

Austen was not the only known and read female writer of that time; Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Ann Radcliffe all preceded her very slightly, and she knew of, and liked at least two of these. She disliked Radcliffe. The reason I mention all of these people is that this book surprisingly does not. Despite it being about Jane Austen's England, and despite it quoting many many writers of letters and journals, there are none other of what we might term "professional" writers, even mentioned! We get not a word on their lives or influence during this era. I found that very strange.

That glaring flaw aside, I enjoyed this book every much; it was well written, well-supported by contemporary account, well-referenced, and fascinating in many regards. It was very much another era back then, with different senses and sensibilities, much misplaced pride and prejudice, and a different outlook on life altogether, with death and disease looming at every stage. There was war, off an on, and many injured ex-soldiers had been left on the scrap-heap with little to their name despite their sacrifices. There was a huge gap between rich and poor, as there is now, and very little hope for - or love of - the latter.

This book devotes a chapter to each stage of life, exploring what it was like for rich and for poor, what customs and habits were, and how things fell together. There was an introduction, which I skipped as I do all antiquated prologues, prefaces, forewords and so on; then comes a chapter each devoted to marriage, "breeding", childhood, home, fashion, church, work, leisure, travel, crime, medicine, and death. Some of it is amusing, much disturbing, some very surprising. Nude weddings, for example, were not invented by Star Trek writers!

Aside from the missing writerly references, this is all-in-all a very comprehensive work, and a must-read for anyone who aspires to write a novel as Austen did. I recommend this as a worthy read, although I must confess curiosity as to why Roy gets precedence in the attribution over Lesley. The names are not alphabetical, so was this done because Roy did the most work? Because it was his idea? Or because even in 2013 when this book was published, even in a book dedicated to a woman and her times, the male still takes precedence as he did during Austen's lifetime, and the woman still takes his name?


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson


Rating: WARTY!

In yet another audiobook experiment, I decided to explore a novel by Ibbotson, whom I've never read before, and doubt I will again after this! It began a little shakily (I skipped the prologue, which isn't always easy to do in an audiobook, so I consider myself quite accomplished on that score!), but the book began growing on me. That lasted to twenty-five percent in, but the next ten percent was so boring and unnecessary, and irrelevant to the theme (assuming the theme is to get the countess below the stairs and the earl above them together), that I DNF'd the whole thing.

At first I thought that the young lord of the manor, Rupert, would immediately fall for the Russian countess, who is forced into work as a maid, but he's actually fallen for the nurse, Muriel, who took care of him when he was wounded during the closing overs of World War One. I was convinced that would change, though. The nurse, I decided, would probably end up being a gold-digger. In the end, I became more interested in her, and began to think that this story would have been a vastly-improved romance had it been about Muriel and Rupert, and Anna the countess left out of it altogether. She was tedious.

Why this countess is a maid rather than say, a governess or a lady's companion, or even keeps her title, is conveniently bypassed by the author, presumably the only reason being that it wouldn't work in getting her and the earl into close proximity. Anna is a young Russian Countess forced to flee Russia after the revolution. Now she's impoverished, and inexplicably forced into menial work to get by. The Earl of Westerholme's household takes her on temporarily, and she works hard, determined to do her best. Rupert was not destined to become the next earl until his older brother was killed in the war whence, in line with the British custom of Primogeniture, everything passed to the oldest remaining male.

But rather than take off when Rupert arrived, this story dissipated into endless rambling asides about an odd assortment of characters and the so-called romance never got started - not in the first third, which was all I could stand to hear. I dislike instadore, but this went in completely the opposite direction, offering no reason at all to imagine that these two would get together! On top of that, the author has the countess (as the maid) behaving so inappropriately that she would have been summarily dismissed without references had this really been England in the inter-war years. The author's approach misfires even more than Rupert's aeroplane engine, and that crashed and burned!


Igraine the Brave written and illustrated by Cornelia Funke


Rating: WORTHY!

Written and illustrated by Cornelia Funke, this tells the story of Igraine, who is the younger of the two children of Sir Lamorak (which sounds a bit like caramel backwards!) and Lady Melisande. The parents are fine magicians and are proudly raising their magician-in-training son, Igraine's older brother, Albert. Igraine though, has no interest in magic. Enamored of the life lead by one of her grandfathers, Igraine longs to be a knight. It's soon to be her birthday and her parents are working long and hard on a magical gift for her - a magical, lightweight suit of armor - which she longs to see, but is not allowed.

As her patience wears thin, doing her chores around the aged and slightly crumbling castle, such as feeding the water snakes and cleaning the stone lions and gargoyles which help protect her home, Igraine learns of unexpected developments in their neighborhood, namely: the disappearance of their neighbor, and the usurpation of her power by her unscrupulous nephew, who now has designs on the magical singing (and talking) books owned by Igraine's parents. These cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy, but Igraine's parents are confident they can repel any attack from Osmond the Greedy.

This all turns around when, in process of adding a finishing flourish to Igraine's armor, the parents accidentally turn themselves into pigs. Worse, they are out of giant's hair, which is essential to turning them back into humans. Since Albert must remain to guard the castle, being in the only functional magician left, it falls upon Igraine to go get the giant hairs. Why these hairs could not be summoned by magic is. I think, a good question, and one the author didn't see fit to address!

Igraine sets off alone, and eventually finds the giant, Garleff, who happily gives some hairs because Igraine's parents were very kind to him. On her way back, she visits the Sorrowful Knight, aka Sir Urban of Wintergreen, who is pretty much in an isolated sulk because he failed to beat the evil "Hedgehog," Osmand's henchman, in a joust. Somehow, this sulker is the guy who teaches Igraine about chivalry! Go figure!

He decides to accompany Igraine back to the castle to make sure she get home safely and ends up challenging Rowan Heartless (aka the Iron Hedgehog because of his spikey armor). On the way back they encounter a three-headed dragon. I am not at all sure why this bit was put in. I thought the dragon might be connected with the disappearance of three princesses, or that it might come help them fight the usurper, but it just disappeared. Maybe the author forgot about this plan? Maybe there was no such plan.

Likewise, I'm not sure why such a big deal was made of Igraine's desire to be a knight, and her special armor, because at no point does she enter into a fight of any kind, or put the armor to any test other than getting it wet (and it doesn't rust). Maybe the author has some plan she forgot as she wrote this, or maybe her plan changed. It just seemed odd; however, Igraine was strong in other ways, and so this is why I liked her. To me a strong female character isn't necessarily one who can kick your ass, she just has to be kick ass, and Igraine was.

Obviously Igraine wins-through in the end. I liked the story and I recommend it, despite it being somewhat bland. I had hoped for more. I'm not sure why this was so lacking in some respects, but it was amusing and entertaining, and this is why I consider it a worthy read.

It's worth noting that this story is bears some references to Arthurian tradition. Igraine was supposedly the name of King Arthur's mom. Maybe this Igraine grew-up and married, and her offspring became England's legendary king? (or a Welsh hill tribesman, depending on how much legend you swallow!)? Who knows?! Melisande is a Germanic name, also found in other languages, meaning strength, and was the name (in the form of Melisende) of the Queen of Jerusalem in the mid-twelfth century. Sir Lamorak was a knight of Arthur's purported 'Round Table', and Albert was, of course, the name of the German who married Queen Victoria!


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 published in book form about two years later.

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. I could have done without the pain-in-the-stern squeeze-box sea-shanty music! Why do audiobook publishers feel this insane compulsion to add irrelevant and trite music to the story? What an insult to the author! "Oh, your story lacks a little something! Let me punch it up with this irritating music! It'll keep your readers awake I'll lay! Have my way with them I will." That aside, 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.