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

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer by Emily Arnold McCully


Rating: WORTHY!

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

I really enjoyed this short biography of Ada Lovelace, a near contemporary of Jane Austen, who is commonly described as the world's first computer programmer. It goes into sufficient detail to give you a good picture of her life, but not so much that it gets bogged down. There are images of some of the main characters involved in her life to provide a visual, and the text is a swift and informative read.

Lovelace was beset by a matching pair of bad parents in that one was way too loose and the other way too strict - to puritanical levels. She never knew her father in any meaningful sense because she never really met him. Her mother took her from him at a very early age, got custody - which was unusual for a mother back then, and she never let Ada know who her father was until after he had died, by which time Ada had sort of figured it out for herself. That said her mother was very liberal in terms of getting her daughter an education, which was extremely unusual back then.

Ada had some flighty impulses, but constantly either had them reined in or reined them in of her own accord. She was an avid scholar of many disciplines and excelled at math, which brought her into Babbage's sphere when she became interested in his difference engine at the tender age of seventeen. The rest is quite literally history. Ada died quite young. I commend this story as a very worthy read about a strong female character who happens to have been real, not fictional!


Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Mozart Girl by Barbara Nickel


Rating: WARTY!

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

Set in 1763, this is a middle grade (not middle-grave as I initially typed! That's a whole different genre! LOL!) novel that I originally thought was based on a diary, but no such diary exists. In fact we have almost nothing of Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (who was a contemporary of Jane Austen), that doesn't come to us via a third party. There is a notebook that was created by her father, and which contains compositions that she played, but the only reason that survives, I suspect, is that it also contains compositions that her kid brother, the renowned Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, added to the book of his own accord.

I was disappointed to discover that the diary entries are spurious. That removed this novel further into fiction, and that became a problem for me because other than the general outline of the story - a tour which actually did take place - this book is pretty much all fiction, and for me it was way over-done. I had thought the over-wrought tone of the novel was taking its complexion from the diary, but that's obviously not the case if there is no diary.

Additionally, some of the history is a bit off and the modern language seems inappropriate. Naturally you don't want a novel of this nature to sound archaic, but a little less modern slang would have improved the tone. It's also historically inaccurate. At one point, the author is talking about wax candles when in that era, tallow was the norm, and she mentions gelatin, when aspic was the norm back then.

She frequently refers to financial woes when in fact, the Mozarts did very well for themselves in this tour, at least until both children became ill and things slowed down quite a bit, but no such illness is mentioned for "Nannerl" (Marianne), only for "Wolferl" (Mozart). I have to say that though it is historically accurate, these endless '-erl' nicknames made me want to hurl. I shall refer to the sister as Marianne which was what she went by when pet names were not used.

The worst faux pas was getting the main character's birthday wrong! Marianne turned 12 on 30 July 1763 when the family was in the middle of a three year tour of Europe, but in this novel, she turns twelve before the tour begins, and the author has her birthday in June!

At each stop during the tour, the author has her taking second place to Wolfgang whereas in reality, she was, at least initially, the star performer, but clearly this changed as Mozart the younger began to flourish, and maybe that's what the author is trying to reflect here. I don't know. I was quite confused by this point!

Another faux pas the author makes is the discussion of money. She makes the father sounds like some sort of avaricious beggar. As I said, they did well for themselves on this tour earning substantial amounts, but the author always has them sounding impoverished. That's not as bad as this one section when they visited an important family - that of Baron Kerpen and his musically talented children - and the Mozart father says at one point: “How wonderful to have such a fine orchestra, all in one family...Do you ever play in public, for money?”

That would have been an unconscionable impertinence back then. It really stood-out like a sore thumb to me, and continued a process of turning me off this story even more than I already had been. If the novel had not been so short, and I was not already over halfway through it by then, I would have DNF'd right there. As it was I made it only to eighty percent before I could not stand to read any more when the author was making a fuss about Christmas, which back in Mozart's time, was not the big event it is today. Yes, it was celebrated, but the bigger event was Saint Nicholas's Day which was early in December.

I understand this is fiction, and little is known about Marianne, particularly how she thought and felt, and that some dramatic license is permissible in a novel like this, but the portrayal of her in this story felt wrong, inauthentic, and frankly, disrespectful of such a talented young woman. It may well have been that she had the same musical yearnings as her brother, and even the same skills, but we will never know because nothing of hers survives to compare with Mozart's own work.

What does seem likely is that her facility with music was what inspired such a passion for it in her kid brother. He watched as her father taught her to play. She was an accomplished musician, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was all she ever had on her mind as is implied here.

Rightly or wrongly - obviously wrongly by our modern expectations - there were different pressures and constraints on girls back then, and certain behaviors that now are considered restrictive and even abusive, were the norm and accepted as the way things are. Precious few people saw life differently. To present her in a modern light as though she had beliefs and lofty, but frustrated ambitions that she may well not have had is an imposition and is dangerous ground for writers to traverse with such abandon.

Perhaps Marianne was exactly as she was as depicted here, but we don't know, and it seems to me to be more likely that she simply enjoyed playing, and had no other ambition. It may well be that she chose to set aside music later in life in favor of other priorities, and had no grand plans, frustrated or otherwise, that she longed to pursue.

It may have been just the opposite. The fact is that we do not know. What we do know is that women had certain expectations both for themselves, and also that were set upon them by others, particularly their parents and husbands, and we do not know exactly where her own views lay, so to present her as this thwarted, frustrated genius felt like a grave imposition to me and one which is not supported by history.

It's true that there is much debate about her talent, not so much about her playing ability, which is a given, but about her compositional skills, but as I mentioned, of those we have nothing by which to judge. She composed music, that we do know, but none of it has survived. The only real 'evidence' we have of its quality is the complimentary comments of both her father and her brother, and while I'm sure these were genuine, we do not know if father was praising a talented daughter and brother was praising a fellow prodigy, or if both were simply bolstering a beloved daughter/sibling with great praise where average praise may have been more objectively appropriate. It’s a great shame that we do not know, but the fact remains that we do not.

Where this book did well was in highlighting her playing ability, but everything else is pure speculation and I felt it serves a woman like Marianne badly to puff her up for talent (in composition) that we know nothing of, while underserving the talent she had that we can certainly attest to, based on historical records. I cannot commend this as a worthy read therefore.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Cowl Vol 2 The Greater Good by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Rod Reis


Rating: WARTY!

I didn’t like this. It was too much of a rip-off of Watchmen: set in earlier times in the 20th century, a death of a super hero, an investigation. That might have been fine, but the problem was that it did not have the characters that watchmen had. The super heroes here had no life to them. They were boring. If I had read volume 1, I might have found more investment in it, but I doubt it. The story by Higgins and Siegel was dragging, and there was nothing of interest (to me) happening, especially since the super heroes were out on strike(!) and so there was no super hero-ing going on to speak of. It seemed stuck in a rut, and the Reis‘s artwork was nothing special either. I cannot commend it based on this experience and I have no interest in pursuing this series at all.

And what a trite title! Cowl? Could they not have come up with something a bit better and more original?


Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba by Robin Brown-Lowe


Rating: WARTY!

I picked this up because I thought it might have something interesting to say about the very enigmatic Queen of Sheba, which might perhaps lead to an idea for a future novel, but no! It had almost nothing to say about her because almost nothing is known about her. Solomon gets short shrift. It's tempting to say that the main thrust of the book is as its title suggests - the lost city of Ophir, but I can't say that because there is no thrust, and the names of Solomon and Sheba were obviously just tossed into the title merely to draw potential readers' interest. Well, shame on me!

This endlessly rambling book does recount a lot of history, but it's disjointed and disconnected and sways back and forth between time periods without ever making its case. The main problem with it is that, in the same manner employed by those morons who write books about Earth being visited by aliens from outer space, it builds tissue-thin claims upon non-existent foundations, with the author, who is not an archeologist but a journalist, making huge speculative leaps based on the flimsiest of 'evidence'.

Thus we have him categorically setting Ophir in Zimbabwe, based on the Great Zimbabwe, a beautiful monument which racists have traditionally tried to deny was built by native Africans. The author seems to be doing the same thing. His chapter titles are sensationalist: To Ophir Direct, Ophir Revealed, Ophir Spinning, and closing with Ophir Writ Large (there are many other chapters) yet not once does he fulfill the promise of the title by laying down a solid case for The Great Zimbabwe being Ophir. Nor doe she explain

He defeats his own claims because while the book does contain some photographs, none of them support the text our the claims he makes in it. In fact, some refute his claims. One of these claims is that bird effigies were found at Zimbabwe which had a design around their neck like a necklace or perhaps, it occurs to me, a pattern or tattoo, yet though he shows several pictures of the birds, not one of them has any of the features he claims for them. This alone defeats he 'thesis'.

Of these birds, wikipedia says, "They are unique to Great Zimbabwe; nothing like them has been discovered elsewhere." - something which the author seeks to muddy at best, and never once does he mention that certain birds were sacred to the people, more than adequately explaining why they would want to sculpt images of them. So once again we see a native culture being denigrated by a white writer, as though no native African could ever have an advanced thought in their head, and none could create or build anything beautiful. I call bullshit on that.

So after plodding through most of the book vainly searching for his supporting evidence, and skimming other repetitive areas, I concluded the guy doesn't know what he's talking about. As wikipedia puts it, "The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe." And the site is dated as originating In the Iron Age, long after Solomon. The stone structures were built in the eleventh century. It was half millennium after that before any white person came anywhere near them. QED.

The author is not wrong in asserting that there is a genetic link between the male line of the peoples known as Mwenye, and people of ancient Jewish descent, but he fails to mention that they could also be of South Arabian descent too. This is dishonest, in reporting only the evidence that can be deemed to support his claims and withholding that which might defeat or dilute them. Just because a lineage has certain DNA doesn't make the author's case at all. DNA is so dissipated around the world these days that no one group is really isolated from another, and we're talking many hundreds of years ago. One trader passing on his DNA to a local woman all that time ago could easily lead to a tribe later in history, and there were no doubt many traders. This doesn't prove the author's thesis though, especially not with the lack of evidence he has.

I disrecommend this book.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert


Rating: WARTY!
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I believe in giving credit where credit is due, but aside from the focus on Sullivan rather than Keller - and lets face it, without Sullivan there would be no Keller as we know her today - there really is very little due here.

This graphic novel is aimed at grades six through eight, but while I am far from those grades, I was not happy with it. The artwork is indifferent and appears in tiny panels (a rigid and plodding sixteen per page) such that the image is not only tiny, but the text is also small. I had a hard time reading it and an almost impossible time reading the narration, which is in script. There were parts I skipped rather than strain my eyes trying to read it. If the format of the book had been larger this would not have been such a problem, but as it was, it was really irritating to me and overwhelmed the story.

While the book does convey the magnitude of the task which faced a visually-impaired 20-year-old Sullivan trying to teach a willful and spoiled seven-year-old who was impaired in ways much greater than Anne herself was, it fails to make the impact it should because it is so choppy. An early flashback itself dissolves into an earlier flashback and this back-flashing keeps happening as we move back and forth between the 'present' where Anne is teaching Helen, and the past, where Anne had her own trials to go through, which were tough enough. Anne Sullivan was a strong woman.

This story is about Anne as opposed to Helen, which most stories are written about, and such a story is important and needs to be told, but I don't think this book gets it done. The 'Annie' of the title was better known as Anne, although her birth name was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan to which she added a 'Macy' when she married later in life. Her initial interactions with Helen were nightmarish because Helen was so spoiled and had no discipline. Anne was not only fighting her charge, but also Helen's parents who did not understand the huge amount of work which needed to be done to liberate Helen from the prison of her impaired senses.

Much as I'd like to recommend a book like this, I cannot. I've read other books about Helen Keller and the one I commend so far is Helen Keller by Jane Sutcliffe. This might not be quite as appealing as a graphic novel to children in this age range, but it isn't something they could not handle, and I'd prefer it to this graphic novel. However, if this novel gets kids interested enough to read something on this topic that's more grown up and less picture-y, then all well and good, but I have doubts it will do that.


HP Lovecraft He Who Wrote in the Darkness by Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aon, Lara Lee


Rating: WARTY!

I'm always interested in reading about other writers if they have anything interesting to say but for me, this graphic novel about Lovecraft was a fail. He wrote over sixty stories - most of them short stories, during his short lifetime (he died at 46 from cancer), but this didn't really delve into many of them or even keep track of his writing them, which seemed very odd to me for a book about a writer.

It did highlight some of his quirks and made a passing mention of his racism, but it seemed more focused on his inabilities rather than his abilities - his inability to live with his wife (a curiosity for someone whose name is love craft!) and his inability to focus on writing stories while effortlessly penning thousands of long letters - than it ever did in discussing his work or even mentioning it.

That said it is a graphic novel, not a biography, so some things inevitably get left out. It just felt to me that writer Nikolavitch left out the wrong things, and the art by Gervasio, Aon, and Lee was average at best, so I cannot commend this as a worthy read.


Friday, January 4, 2019

The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled 'How the Bicycle Shaped American Life', this book made for an informative and at times fascinating read and even gave me an idea for a novel - you never know where your next inspiration will come from!

It details the growth, retrenchment and regrowth of the bicycle (and it went through that...cycle...several times) from the earliest bike to modern times, discussing how it impacted not only the obvious - roads - but also other things, such as women's independence and military activities. It tells some great stories and makes for an engrossing book, and I commend it as a worthy read.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Miss Don't Touch Me by Hubert, Fabien Vehlmann Kerascoët


Rating: WORTHY!

Set in 1930s Paris, this was a fun "naughty" (but not too naughty) novel about a young girl Blanche, who sees her sister Agatha murdered by the 'Butcher of the Dances'. No one will believe her, and Agatha is written-off as a suicide. Losing her job as a maid, Blanche seeks work at the Pompadour, an elite brothel, and the only place which might take her in. She's almost laughed out of even there, but once taken in, quickly establishes herself as a mistress of untouchability and the virgin dominatrix.

But she hasn't forgotten her sister and slowly begins to unravel the brutal crime, while fending off assaults from patrons, unwelcome attempts at relieving her of her prized virginity, and shifting allegiances among the call-girls. This made for a different and fun read and I commend it.


Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers by Sara Ackerman


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment which looked superficially good but which turned out to be just another idiot romance in the telling. It’s been only a short while, but the novel is already a vague memory to me. So this woman on Hawaii at the outbreak of WW2, which for the US began on December 7th, two years after everyone else signed up!

This woman whose name I happily have forgot, is supposedly widowed - her husband was at the dock, blood was found, but no body - which typically means he’s still alive, is evidently not that caring about him because she easily falls for a smooth-talking soldier who is stationed on the island and becomes way too familiar with her way too fast. That’s when I ditched this as a waste of my time. I'm guessing the husband is alive and having an affair with some other woman, which gives the main character the freedom to carry on with the soldier. There are better-written and even badly-written yet still more entertaining stories out there which I’m not going to get to if I waste more time than is necessary on one’s like this. Based on about a third of this that I could stand to listen to, I can’t commend it.


Spellbound by Blake Charlton


Rating: WARTY!

There's not much to say about this that I didn't cover in the negative review of volume one of this trilogy. In volume two we abandoned Nicodemus altogether at least as far as I read, which was not very far because, despite a really quite engaging beginning, it rapidly descended into one of those love-hate romances which I despise.

It's set ten tears after the first volume, which struck me as very strange, and Nicodemus, the boy wizard who lived from the first volume, was barely mentioned, much less actually appeared in the part I read. After a great start, the story began obsessing on this healer woman named Francesca DeVega, who had interested me to begin with, but who then became involved in this 'roguish' pilot who reappeared in her life, and I couldn't stand to read this anymore. Based on my short acquaintanceship, I cannot recommend this, and I'm done with this dreary and unimaginative author.


Spellwright by Blake Charlton


Rating: WARTY!

I picked up the sequel to this without realizing it was a sequel - once again Big Publishing™ failed to disclose on the front cover that it was volume two of a trilogy. Despite this dishonesty, I started reading it and enjoyed the opening chapter, so I decided to get the previous volume - this volume - from the library and read that one first. I ended up enjoying it sufficiently to want to go back to volume two and continue reading that, although the entire story was rather ponderous and overall left a bad taste.

In this volume we're introduced to Nicodemus who is the usual hobbled wizard in this kind of story. In his case though it has a twist in that spells (for reasons which went unexplained) are wrought in the muscles of the body and involve words which then migrate to the hands where they can be used. Bizarre, yes, but that's how it was. So Nicodemus's problem was that he was dyslexic, and therefore could not cast spells reliably - and sometimes cast them dangerously. He was the Seamus Finnigan of this story. Harry Potter's Finnigan may well have been named after Seamus Finnegan, an Irish playwright, but Nicodemus was initially interesting to me because of this twist.

As is the case in most every wizarding story, Nicodemus was the savior of the world because of his 'defective' condition. He'd been rendered this way because some other wizard was sucking the magic out of him. Albus Dumbledore - er, the aging wizard - who has taken a special interest in Harry - er Nicodemus - of course keeps him in the dark, so when all hell breaks loose, Nicodemus doesn't have a clue and has to figure it out himself with the aid of his male and female companions, one of whom is a powerful wizard herself, and just like in Harry Potter, friends are being murdered, and Nicodemus has to go on the run. Unlike with the Rowling stories, this all happens in book one.

here's something I've warned about before. The problem with pronouncing the word 'shone' as 'shown' instead of pronouncing it like you'd pronounce 'one' ('shonn'), as many Americans do, is that sometimes it bites back. On one page, I believe in this volume, but perhaps in volume one, I read, "A wall of silvery text shown down from the other side of the door..." Clearly this was intended to be 'shone down'. Not 'shown', but when pronounced incompetently, leads to a different word and a different meaning! Beware the language, fellow writers! Rein it in before it rains on you (or at least that's what it will tell you is falling on your back...).

So apart from the dyslexia which I found interesting, there really was nothing new here that we haven't seen before. I was able to read all of this and get back to volume two, but things continued to go downhill, only more rapidly. On that basis, I'm going to rate this negatively because it really didn't live up to its potential, it was boring in parts and brought to the table very little that was fresh. I cannot commend it, especially in light of how volume two went.


Spit and Passion by Cristy C Road


Rating: WARTY!

This is yet another LGBTQIA coming of age graphic novel and while I'm pretty sure I;m not the audience the author was seeking to impress, I'm sorry to have to report that I was not, in fact, impressed by it.

I've read many of this kind of autobiography, and they've all had a story to tell, but whereas some are outgoing and relatable even for a cis male(!), others are more a personal or even self-centered odyssey which don't seem interested in opening up or being inclusive in any way. These may well play to a segment of the population, and if they do, that's fine, but if they do, I'm not a part of it, not even indirectly, so I can't speak to it. All I can relate is what it said to me and in this case, it said very little of interest, nothing that was new or engaging.

I hate to be negative about a book like this, but I guess you can't love 'em all, especially not if the author doesn't seem interested in being loved as a writer or artist and who, instead of bringing an audience in to share her story with her, seems more interested in what's almost an internal monolog, rattling on without caring if there's an audience tuning in or not which to me, frankly, seems a bit creepy. i mean, whatever trips your ship is fine, but I've never seen the point of writing any story, fiction or no, if all you're going to do is tell the same story that's already been told and add nothing new or particularly interesting, so against my ordinarily natural inclination, and while I wish the author all the best in her endeavors, I can't rate this as a worthy read.


Becoming Unbecoming by Una


Rating: WORTHY!

Most people outside of Britain have never heard of the Yorkshire Ripper aka Peter Sutcliffe, who attacked women over the decade from 1969 to 1980. He was stopped only when arrested for using false license plates on his car. The entire inquiry was a farce of incompetent British policing. Sutcliffe had been interviewed some nine times during the lengthy inquiry and not once actually suspected of being the perp. Even after his arrest, he was able to slip away from police and hide incriminating evidence under pretence of having to take a leak!

The fact that many of his victims were prostitutes meant that police did not give this murderer the attention required to catch him. This is all disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as the fact that he somehow got to be that way in the first place. Unfortunately, that critical factor is not explored in this story - not for him, nor for the perps who assaulted the author.

This autobiographic novel is set in 1977 after Sutcliffe had assaulted several women and murdered at least two, and yet was still several years away from being caught. The author was twelve and became herself the victim of assaults. Though fortunately not fatal, they nevertheless left an indelible mark. These parallel stories build slowly, and sometimes the reading was frankly boring. Other times it was highly disturbing in a way that complacent people need to be disturbed if this continuing abuse of women is to be stopped, so this is an uncomfortable read, as it ought to be, but one that also ought to be required reading. I commend it.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ella Queen of Jazz by Helen Hancocks


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was a very short book - effectively only thirteen pages - aimed at a children's audience, to introduce them to a true diva, but for me it missed the mark. I don't lower my expectations for children's literature, but this book seemed to, and the ebook version - which as an amateur reviewer was the only one I had access to - was missing text on at least two pages as far as I could tell. Hopefully the print version is complete!

Ella Fitzgerald was known for her singing talent and in her earlier years for her love of dancing, but I didn't get any of that feeling for her out of this book which seemed more like it was interested in telling the tale of a struggling artist than telling that and the much more joyous success story - with a huge love of singing - that she became. Her career began when she wanted to enter amateur night at the Apollo theater, but was intimidated with regard to her dancing, so she chose to sing instead. She won first prize.

That pivotal moment was completely bypassed in this book, which began when she was already a mature performer. The first two pages which were, I assume, double-page spreads in the print version, simply showed her singing, with neither words nor descriptive text. The pages were not numbered, but the e-numbering at the bottom of the screen showed the first text appearing on page 'seven' where it began, "Before long, Ella was taking her music up and down the country" - so, story already in progress. It was a bit of a sour note for me.

While the illustrations were colorful if nothing extraordinary, and the text did tell her career story in brief, nowhere was there a song lyric. I know to quote whole lyrics demands all kinds of permissions, but to fail to quote even a line here and there, which is entirely permissible, was unconscionable for a story about someone of Fitzgerald's pedigree and contribution to music. We learned nothing of her childhood or influences, but first encounter her on the road, running from one gig to another.

There's a brief mention of how Marilyn Monroe helped her get a gig at a venue where 'coloreds' were typically not welcomed, and this boosted her career too, but then the story is pretty much over. On the 'Marilyn' page there were two speech balloons which contained no text. I don't know if this was intentional or not, but after the obviously missing text earlier in the book, it was irritating to be left in the dark about whether this was purposeful or not. Keeping Marilyn's name secret for a couple of pages previously seemed fatuous. I don't imagine for a minute than any child reading this has a clue who Marilyn Monroe was. Well, she was Norma Jean Baker! But kids today won't know that either so the reason that this section was written this way was obscure.

I felt this was a chance to really talk about a powerful and influential woman of color, and it was lost. I know for a book for young children, you can't go into huge amounts of detail and technical matters, but for a book for children, it helps to connect to them by showing that Ella was herself a young child at one point who came from poor circumstances, but who loved music and dance, and who overcame setbacks to reach success on her own merit. It could have been so inspirational, but to me it did neither her nor the young reader any favors. It essentially told a rather plodding story of how a white woman 'saved' a 'helpless' black woman, and it felt patronizing. Consequently I'm not able to commend this as a worthy read.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Egypt Magnified by David Long


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Technically this is Ancient Egypt Magnified, but I'll let that slide! I have no idea how much work it took to create this picture book for children (and even a few adults, I'll be bound!), but I will testify from my own experience that it had to be a heck of a lot.

The patience involved in this kind of detailed work is stunning. In a small way, it's reminiscent of the Where's Waldo books, but other than a superficial resemblance, it's a very different book. It does involve some spotting of people among a crowd of similar-looking people, but the underlying power of this book is educational, and in that as well as in visual appeal, it runs like an Egyptian Mau (which in case you don't know, is a very sleek and fast domestic cat and a descendent of African wild cats).

Each double-page covers an aspect of ancient life or history in a country which is replete with historical depth. The pages show hundreds of ancient Egyptians living, moving and having their being, involved in all kinds of activities from farming, to pyramid construction, to parades, to mining, and on and on. I don't think there's anything that isn't covered.

Note that this is designed as a print book so even on a tablet computer, the text is very small. You'll need to stretch it to read it, or buy the print version. It's not designed to be an ebook, unless you own one of those television-sized super pad devices, but the ebook is the only version I had access to for this review.

Note also that the author encourages the use of a magnifying glass (hence the title!) to spy-out the 'search' items on each page, which sounds like fun for a young kid. On a tablet, you really don't need one, since you can splay your fingers and enlarge the image, but if your kid isn't up to that, a magnifying glass would work too. The images in the ebook version were a bit blurry when enlarged. I assume that's because the images were low-resololution to keep the file size down, and that the print version will be sharper, but this is only a guess on my part.

Each page contains a couple of short, but information-packed paragraphs about life, as well as a key to ten things or people you can find in the picture, and what those particular things and people represent. There's also a quiz at the end to see if you recall where you saw certain images. On top of that's a primer on hieroglyphics, a glossary of terms, and a timeline of Egyptian history, highlighting the highlights! In short, it's perfect.

I had to do some research on Egyptian ancient history for a section of my novel Tears in Time and also for the more recently released Cleoprankster so I know without even having to look anything up that this author knows what he's talking about.

There are some areas of Egyptian history that are obscure - such as exactly how those huge stones were hauled up those even huger pyramids. I can pretty much promise you it wasn't up a long straight ramp like the one depicted in the fanciful movie 10,000 BC! Such a ramp would require hauling more material than the pyramid itself! Whether it was by an encircling ramp as is depicted here or some other method, such as levering the stones up the stepped outside of the pyramid, or by my personal favorite of maneuvering them up an internal ramp (at least in the later, larger pyramids) is hard to say without further research or discovery.

There's no de-Nile - everything a kid could ever want to know about ancient Egypt is most certainly here for their enjoyment, from ankh to Zoser (okay, Djoser, gimme a break!), and from mummy (which is a bit graphic be warned!) to sun worship, and everything in between. I commend this as a fun and education read for children of all ages.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

March of the Suffragettes by Zach Jack


Rating: WORTHY!

This marks my 2,800 book review! Yeay me!

A century ago this year, in Britain, Parliament granted the right to vote to women, but only if they were homeowners over the age of thirty! This purported enfranchisement still very effectively disenfranchised the majority of women. Thankfully that has changed now, inevitably for the better, but there was a fight on both sides of the Atlantic for a woman's right to have a say in the largely old white male government which dictated how she should live her day-to-day life.

While in Britain the fight got quite brutal, in the US it was rather more gentile, and a leading light in this 'fight' was a woman in her late twenties from a privileged background, who led a march from New York to Albany to present a request to the newly-elected governor in New York state.

Somewhat misleadingly subtitled "Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights" this library print book aimed at younger readers, began as a real disappointment because the male author seemed like he was far more interested in talking about press coverage of the march by the male reporters than ever he was about the women enduring the march. Since it seems like he took his entire story from newspaper reports I guess this isn't surprising, but it makes for a disappointingly thin story.

Thankfully this approach seemed to change about halfway through and the story became much more palatable. Even then though, we got to learn very little about the women involved. I am far from a Stephen King fan so I do not demand the entire life history of a character back through three generations. I can do very well without that, but a little bit of background in this case would have been nice.

This highlights the weakness of the author's approach because investigative reporting wasn't a thing back then. The old boys reporters club was more interested in pointing out the cute women marchers and the hiccups along the route than in actually doing any real stories on the marchers, and I'm guessing that's why the author offers no background. There was none in the newspaper sources he used and he was too lazy to do any digging of his own.

Another weakness at times was his style. At one point when he was talking about a rousing speech delivered by Jessie Stubbs, he said, "Here was a woman who would not be slowed by excessive baggage or supposed burdens of her sex," but this was right after he had, in two different successive paragraphs, loaded her with precisely that baggage by describing what she was wearing. This is a typical journalistic approach to describing women subjects of a news report, but not when describing men! So please, journalists do not burden your female subjects with this excessive baggage and burden of her sex! Good lord!

Rosalie Gardiner Jones was a remarkable young woman who was influenced by the Pankhursts in Britain (Emmeline nee Goulden, and her daughter Christabel), although the book won't tell you this. In late 1912 when this march took place - just months after the Titanic sank with 1500 people preserved in icepick. Rosalie was just 27 when she led her group of varying size (sometimes it was down to only the three core marchers) over a hundred-fifty miles due north. They walked all the way, blisters and all, through fog, rain, and snow.

Many towns along the way took the opportunity to hold fetes and welcome the visitors. The support they had was surprisingly diverse and commonly to be found. The coverage they got was international. The march really was a game-changer. Sometimes men would march with them. They were kindly treated by police it would seem. Some senior police officials would come out from their towns and walk or ride along with the march as they entered their domain. One factory owner apparently supported the march and allowed his female employees an afternoon off (without pay of course) to march with the group. This was interesting because at the same point in the journey, the marchers were joined by female students from Vassar college who, the author tells us refused to associate with the factory girls, so not all rights were being represented here.

The press coverage though was a part of the problem because in the first half of the book we learned very little about Rosalie and her marching partners Sibyl Wilbur, Ida Craft and the feisty Lavinia Dock who was in her fifties at the time of the march). The even more feisty Inez Craven, who seems to have been lost to history was also on and off the march, somewhat scandalously so at times. She was of the more proactive British origins. Jessie Stubbs was also there from time to time but she commuted back and forth delivering press reports. Jesse made an important speech along the route and was known for urging women to refuse to bear children until war was abolished. She died apparently by suicidal drowning less than a decade after the march and only a year after the nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Later in the book, we did learn a little about Rosalie's mother. The young marcher spent a part of the trip fearing her wealthy upper-class helicopter mom would come down there and wrench her wayward daughter away from this folly! The author won't tell you this (at least I don't recall reading it), but her mother was a member of the anti-suffrage league! There were a couple of other issues with this author's habit of omitting or worse, inventing information. The first of these is that while the author does reference certain material (references are pretty much always to newspaper articles), he makes up an entire story about how Christmas was spent and offers no references at all.

There's a huge difference between telling a story based on historical fact, and fabricating one, and that latter is what would seem to be happening there. There's also an outright fabrication, when the author mentions suffragette Gretchen Langley rowing away from the sinking Titanic in rough seas! No, she did not. If there is one consistent agreement among all Titanic survivors, it's how mirror-calm the sea was that night. The ocean was like glass, and that's what Langley would have rowed in. The next day as dawn broke and rescue finally seemed a hope, the seas did kick up more roughly, but by then the Titanic was some two thousand fathoms down, and no one was rowing away from it. On the contrary. Through the night and as daylight dawned, they would have been rowing toward one another to secure the lifeboats to each other for safety.

How times have changed, and how times haven't. It was a sixty-year battle to get to the 19th amendment to the US constitution adopted and even then women were far, far from equality. This same battle goes on today albeit in different arenas. I commend this not because it's a great book, but because it does cover, albeit in amateur fashion, an important step on a too-long road to equality, but if you can find something better, then please read that instead.


Polaris by Michael Northrop


Rating: WARTY!

This sounds like a sci-fi novel from the title, but it isn't. It's a middle-grade scare novel a la Goosebumps, but not. I picked it up because I thought it was sci-fi, but even when I realized it wasn't, it still sounded like an interesting premise when I first looked at it at the library: "The proud sailing ship Polaris is on a mission to explore new lands, and its crew is eager to bring their discoveries back home. But when half the landing party fails to return from the Amazon jungle, the tensions lead to a bloody mutiny. The remaining adults abandon ship, leaving behind a cabin boy, a botanist's assistant, and a handful of deckhands -- none of them older than twelve."

I think as a writer you need to bring your reader in pretty quickly (of course this rule doesn't apply to established writers how seem to think they can ramble on endlessly and still keep all their readers entranced. Stephen King I'm looking at you...). The problem is that for different readers this type of entrance means different things. It's hard to write a generic opening that will draw everyone in, and in this case, the writing just did not welcome me at all. Right from when I first started listening to it, I couldn't get into it at all and I DNF'd it pretty quickly.

I think the problem was the mesmerizingly rapid, if not rabid switch of viewpoints as the story opened so I wasn't ever quite sure where the hell I was. Maybe if I'd been sitting in a room listening to this it would have been different, but I listen to audiobooks pretty much exclusively when I'm driving, and when I am driving, I'm all about driving, and will ditch attention to a novel rapidly if something demands extra attention on the other side of the windshield. That's not to say I ignore traffic if a story is really engrossing, by any means, but I know that if my mind is wandering onto other matters - such as my own writing, then the audiobook just ain't cutting it. So, other than that, I don't have anything to add about this except that based on my experience I can't commend it.


Prophecy by SJ Parris


Rating: WARTY!

This is one of those bloated historical novels which place important people at the author's beck and call, and which consists of name-dropping and the most sluggish pace imaginable. I was hoping for better. Once again it's a series - the Giordano Bruno mysteries, in which this Catholic monk becomes a detective. Seriously? He's also helping the Elizabethan government stave off encroachment by the Catholic church? No! He was a devout Catholic himself. Why would he help a fight against it? All that crap alone should have warned me off it. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

So, he's in England - which he was at the time this story is set - and a ritualistic murder is committed inside the palace grounds. Sir Francis Walsingham is seeking to solve it and calls on Bruno to help him. No! Someone of Walsingham's ability needs outside help? Not going to happen.

I don't hold authors responsible for book blurbs, which they typically have nothing to do with unless they self-publish, but this one claims "It is the year of the Great Conjunction, when the two most powerful planets, Jupiter and Saturn, align an astrological phenomenon that occurs once every thousand years and heralds the death of one age and the dawn of another." This is patent horseshit. The last such conjunction was in May, 2000, and the next will be around Christmas or New Year's of 2020. My math sucks, but even I can distinguish between 5x22 and 5x200! Elizabeth was queen for some forty years so her lifetime would have seen at least two of these conjunctions.

So it really didn't get me interested which is the first mistake a book can make, but worse than that, it didn't evoke Elizabethan times at all. The author made the common mistake of putting it into first person voice from Bruno's perspective. I typically do not like 1PoV, and in this case it was glaring because Bruno's thought processes were entirely modern. It kept kicking me out of suspension of disbelief pretty much every time he thought something.

When Bruno was in England, he was writing a bunch of stuff that he couldn't get done in Europe for persecution by the idiot church. All he was trying to do was tell the truth, but brain-dead church dogma wouldn't let him. This is why we must never let blind faith control our lives again; it is universally disastrous. But the point here is that given how busy he was, he would hardly have had the time to swan around solving murders and spying for the protestants, so the very basis of this novel is nonsensical prima facie, and the author never gave me writing of sufficient quality to make me willing to overlook these shortcomings for the sake of the story. For these reasons, I can't commend it.


Friday, November 2, 2018

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson


Rating: WORTHY!

Read charmingly and beautifully by Frankie Corzo, this was a very short audiobook (written by the author of Bridge to Terabithia) that I picked up on a whim at the local library. It turned out to be an inspired whim because I really enjoyed it. It tells an interesting story based on actual Cuban history.

Evidently at Ernesto Guevara's suggestion, Fidel Castro launched the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, known as a year of education, which occupied almost the entire length of 1961. Literacy brigades (the Brigadistas of the title) were trained and then sent out into the countryside to build schools, train new teachers, and teach the illiterate to read and write. The campaign taught almost three-quarters of a million farmers and their families, and succeeded in raising the national literacy rate from around seventy percent to almost one hundred. There's a short documentary titled Maestra about the campaign, but I have not yet seen that.

This novel tells a fictional story of one such teacher named Lora, a girl in her mid-teens, who lived on a small farm while teaching the family and nearby families the alphabet and reading and writing skills. It was at no small risk to her life, since there was an orchestrated campaign against the literacy project because it was viewed as a political effort to indoctrinate those people, and there were attacks on the Brigadistas, including murders.

The story is told very actively, always moving forward, with little time for reflection, but which is nonetheless included in appropriately brief and organic moments. There is tragedy and joy and humor and moving times, and there were times I laughed out loud at the Brigadista's observations particularly towards the end about her friend's poetry (how many times can you write in the same poem that your heart was broken into a million tiny pieces?!). I commend this novel as a worthy, educational, and fun read.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Simone de Beauvoir by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Christine Roussey


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was a French author and philosopher, and very close companion of Jean-Paul Sartre. She lived through most of the twentieth century, and left a strong legacy of feminism. She wrote novels, biographies and an autobiography, and she made a lasting impression on literature.

Illustrated simply but colorfully by Roussey, this book tells a concise and easy-to-read story of her impressive life from her well-to-do origins, through her family's loss of fortune, to a decent education, to a life spent as a single woman, giving birth to literature instead of children, by her own choice. She pretty much became a feminist before there were women recognized as such (back then they were called trouble-makers!), and a philosopher long before earning any academic credentials. It just goes to show that girl-power isn't a modern invention!

She lived a long and productive life and while I would not agree with the assertion that she "was the first person to write about women making their own choices" (has the author not heard of female authors such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Wollstonecraft and even earlier, women such as Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu?!), she definitely made substantive contributions to what was known back then as emancipation.

I think books like this - part of a series of strong females of history - are highly important for young children - male and female - to read, and this is one more in a series I have been happy to support (with one exception!). I commend this one as a worthy read.