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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2016

Exile by Jan Burchett, Sara Vogler aka Working Partners Limited

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Lost World by Arthur Doyle

Rating: WARTY!

Although it was read reasonably by Paul Hecht, this one ultimately disappointed. It was another audiobook experiment from my local library, but it's also available for free from LibriVox. This book was a DNF because it was taking so ponderously long to go anywhere that I lost patience with it! We were very nearly half way through the entire novel before these guys ever got to their 'lost world'. Everything prior to this was a slow set up.

The lost 'world' is really a high plateau in South America, and the idea is that this was so cut off from everything else that what killed off the dinosaurs elsewhere on Earth didn't affect those guys living up there. Of course, Doyle could not have known what we know now: that an asteroid destroyed them, and along with them very nearly the whole planet, so no dinosaurs, and none of what people popularly, but mistakenly lump in with them, such as the pterosaurs and the Sauropterygia, would have survived whether they were on plateaux or wherever.

There were things Doyle could have known, which I shall discuss shortly, but the problem here for me was that Doyle took an entire chapter with these guys parading round the plateau trying to find a way to get up there. The solution was obvious, but it took them a while to figure it out, and it was boring. This where I started skimming and skipping, and before very long decided to give up on it altogether.

The first problem is that the lost world as Doyle depicts it couldn't have stayed lost! There were pterosaurs living up there and while those animals which depended on legs to get them around would have been trapped up there, the flying animals would not have been so confined, and would have been discovered living in other areas long before the lost plateau was ever discovered, so this rang false.

The same thing applies to plant life. Why were none of the plants up there spreading to the areas around the plateau and becoming discovered? Doyle lived in an era where it was known how organisms get around. Darwin himself, a half century before, had made that clear, so Doyle cannot have been ignorant, yet still he wrote approached this story as though his little enclave atop the plateau would have remained entirely hidden. It wasn't credible.

Nor was it credible that this plateau could have risen so high so quickly that it preserved an antique set of species that never changed in over sixty million years! And held apemen! I'm sorry, but no. Anyone who thinks hominins and dinosaurs ever occupied the planet at the same time - anywhere - is an ignoramus, period. Doyle also knew of evolution, but failed to realize that it would have been going on up there on the plateau just as it was everywhere else.

Even if I were to overlook all of this for the sake of the story, the story itself was boring and entirely predictable. The encounters Doyle depicts, for example, between animal and human are all of the typically gory and violent kind that we find in every single story of this nature ever told, whether it be in book, in movie or on TV, about prehistoric animals - which are exclusively and savagely predatory. Predators do not behave like that in real life.

As I mentioned in a review yesterday, predators are not constantly hungry, constantly on the prowl, or constantly hunting. They do very little hunting (unless they're unlucky enough to be in a place where there's little prey or great competition). Neither do they obsessively track prey which they normally either do not encounter, or simply don't bother within real life. Yes, a really hungry predator will go after pretty much anything that might make a meal, but most of the time, predators - even warm-blooded ones - are doing quite literally nothing but sitting around until they get hungry!

When they do get hungry, they get on with it. They give up in short order if they can't catch their prey, and they try again later. When the hunt is done, they go back to their sedentary life until they're hungry again. That's it! When they're in that mode, their usual prey can saunter past them all the time and the predator really doesn't care. So for Doyle to depict the dinosaurs as constantly chasing down food, especially when they've clearly just eaten, as evidence by fresh blood on the beast's maw, is not only wrong, it's stupid and boring. I can't recommend this book at all.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The History Puzzle by Susan Provost Beller

Rating: WORTHY!

This book doesn't offer a heck of a lot for the adult reader unless they're extraordinarily ignorant about historians, but it is a great middle-grade and lower high-school book which is where I donated it once I'd read it. The subtitle is "How we know what we know about the past." It's heavily biased towards US history, but it does not neglect historical and archaeological questions elsewhere, so we get coverage of Stonehenge and other such henges, of the so-called great wall of China, Roman ruins in Italy, and even cave paintings in France. Sadly, Africa gets no coverage.

That said, the author does offer some engaging stories about historical misunderstandings, such as that over the Battle of Little Big Horn, and who really did discover the Americas. The chapters are brief, each covering a different historical event or people, so we learn about gunboats in Lake Champlain, The Edmund Fitzgerald on lake Superior, which is big enough to be a sea if only someone would dump enough salt in there, Martin's Hundred, Mesa Verde, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and even Noah's ark! The Old Testament has it wrong! Who knew?!

I think this is a great introduction for young people to history, which is a subject that's all too often overlooked or under-served, and I recommend it. And it's written by a provost!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Wicked Little Lies by Victoria Alexander

Rating: WARTY!

I didn't realize this was part of a series (Sinful Family Secrets, volume 3) otherwise I would never have requested it from the library. I'm not a fan of series. That said, it appears to be amenable to reading as a stand-alone, and as an audiobook, it seemed like it offered an interesting read. Unfortunately it's yet another American author thinking she can write Victorian drama. Some US authors can do it admirably, but others cannot. This one gets too much wrong, and authenticity falls victim to this failed effort.

Additionally, there was paragraph after paragraph of idle gossip which I am sure the author was thrilled with herself for, but which was boring, and which did nothing whatsoever to move the story, except into the DNF category. I was twenty percent in before anything of interest happened, and by that time I was so tired of the reader's voice and the lackluster plot that I gave up on it. The book was read by Justine Eyre, whose voice was a bit annoying. I recognized it at once from other audiobooks because it's very distinctive, but in the other book I recall, she sounded far too mature for the character she was reading about (and it was first person which made the discrepancy worse). In this case her voice tended to fall off to what sounded rather like a pout at the end of each sentence which became irritating after a while. Even with a perfect reading voice though, the story would still have dragged abominably.

The basis of it is that Evelyn Hadley-Attwater used to be a government spy. She purportedly worked for the Department of Foreign and Domestic Affairs, but 'Department' is an American thing. In Victorian England it would much more likely have been called an 'office' since it wasn't large at all, or a ministry. Additionally, Lady Evelyn is married to a Count, but again there's a problem because 'Count' isn't really an English title at all. It's European, where the man would be a compte, or a graf, or something along those lines, so this didn't really work either and felt appallingly pretentious.

This is also a story where the main character has retired but is called back into service because no one else can do the job. Yes, everyone is utterly incompetent except our miracle hero. Barf. These stories usually feature some guy named Jack who is ex-military, or he's a troubled FBI serial-killer profiler, and I avoid such stories like the plague because they're too tedious for words. The idea here is that there's tension now between Evelyn's need to get this one last job done, and her need to shield her husband from her activities. My wild guess is that her husband is the very man who used to hand out her assignments when she worked for the "Department" and she doesn't realize he's her fantasy guy (whom she never met). Of course I may be completely wrong with that, but I really don't care because I honestly don't care about this character. I cannot recommend this: it was boring.

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Rating: WARTY!

I positively reviewed a novelization of Shaw's Pygmalion back in January of 2015, but this is the actual play which I had never read. If your only exposure to this is from the 1960's movie My Fair Lady which starred Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, then you may be surprised at how much they changed the story - particularly the ending, which actually ended-up subverting Shaw's intent.

The character of Eliza Doolittle was based on a woman with whom Shaw had an infatuation, and the story begins very much in line with the treatment the movie later gave to it, but there is no singing of course, and there is no trip to Ascot. Why they'd want to visit a place that makes water heaters I don't know, but...(that's a joke!). Eliza comes into some money (actually tossed into her 'flahr' basket by Henry Higgins, a voice coach and student of language. She hears him boast that he could pass her off as a duchess, and decides he can at least teach her to speak sufficiently well to find work in a flower shop. She visits him, and he and Colonel Pickering wager over Higgins's success or failure with this conversion project.

What's rather glossed-over in the movie is how dependent Higgins becomes upon Eliza to fetch and carry for him, and keep his appointments straight. What's completely glossed-over is how intelligent she is and how capable. In the movie she's rather made to look incompetent and slow, but in the play, she comes along quickly, and proves herself very capable - even picking up how to play the piano because she has such a good ear.

In the end, Higgins wins his bet, and inadvertently and rambunctiously sleights Eliza and her hard work. She leaves after an argument and Higgins, in a panic (he hasn't a clue what's going on without her to shore him up) he visits his mother and finds Eliza there, she having become quite friends with his mother. Instead of her showing-up at his home afterwards, and him relaxing into a chair and demanding his slippers, she bids him goodbye, and eventually marries Freddy. They make a go of their life together, difficult as it is, with a little bit of help from their friends, including Higgins and Pickering surprisingly.

The thing is that this part isn't part of the play! It's all tacked on in a sort of short story or epilogue at the end of the play. Frankly it's done rather amateurishly and looks like a kludge, but overall, the story is much better than the movie, much as I do like the movie and adore Hepburn's sterling role in it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Emma by Po Tse, Cystal S Chan, Stacy King

Rating: WARTY!

With line drawings by by Po Tse (aka Lemon Po), story adapted by Cystal S Chan (aka Crystal Silvermoon), and English script by Stacy King (aka Stacy King), this manga version of Jane Austen's Emma failed to please me. The adaptation wasn't bad, but reading it backwards isn't natural for we Westerners, and though I liked a manga version of Pride and Prejudice, I feel that i, like Po Tse, have to draw a line here!

In some supplementary material at the back (aka front) of the book, Po's art is praised for his "uncanny talent," but to me every drawing looked the same. It was hard to distinguish the characters except by their hairstyle, and I have never been a fan of that pointed nose, pointed chin, ridiculously large-eye mangled - er manga - style. It strikes me as lazy, where every face is merely a clone of every other, and the only actual difference between them is in the eyes and hair. After this experience I think this is the last manga of this nature I will read.

I have a few observations on the story, too. This is one of Austen's later novels. It was not her last, but it has been praised for good plotting, yet no one seems interested in saying a word about how snobbish and elitist it is. Yes, I get that this is how society was back then, and Austen is merely reporting it, but this only serves my point. Where is the daring, the invention, the scandalous skirting of the rules? I use the word 'skirting' advisedly because Austen no doubt wore skirts. Her book really isn't much more than a dear diary, is it though, in the final analysis?

The snobbery, even from the "heroic" Mr Knightley, is shameful, and it makes it only more obnoxious knowing that this was the acceptable norm back then. The talk is endlessly of people above their station, and poor matches. Love has no place in this world whatsoever, so where is the romance? It cannot breathe here, starved of oxygen as it is.

Emma is a frivolous, immature, vindictive, interfering and very stupid woman, and not at all pleasant to read about. She fails to grow and learn, yet ends up with everything despite her foolish meddlesome behavior, yet we're expected to condemn characters like frank Churchill, Philip Elton and August Hawkins, who are in reality just like Emma, if somewhat more exaggerated. While I confess I do like the movie featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, and I like even more the one featuring Alicia Silverstone, I really can't recommend the story of Emma or this graphic novel version of it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Greek Gods by Bernard Evslin, Dorothy Evslin, Ned Hoopes

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a very short book (little more than 100 pages), and lacked an index which it could have used, but it offers a refreshing take on Greek gods and associated mythology, telling the tale of the Greek pantheon (twelve disciples anyone?!) with an unflinching eye. We learn of Zeus, Hera, Athene, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Apollo & Artemis, Hermes, Hæphestus, and Aphrodite, as well as other important characters such as Prometheus, Pandora, Phaeton, Orpheus (yes in the underworld!), Echo & Narcissus, Eros & Psyche, and Arion.

What's striking is how much Christian mythology owes to its Greek forebear. Male god associated with mountains and lightning? Check! male god makes humans out of clay? Check! Those with the power of a god having to walk around in the garden trying to find someone? A god changing into an animal to seduce someone? A huge flood? Check! A man and his wife trying escape burning destruction and because one of them looks back the wife is lost? Check! It's all here: everything the Judaic and Christian pantheons later purloined for their own mythology.

It's entertainingly written and does not shy from the gory bits, so it's no sugary, boring middle-grade series inexplicably set in the USA. I recommend reading this or something like it, if only for the ideas it can deliver for your own writing.

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Rating: WORTHY!

At one point there's a woman described who is wearing a T-shirt with an inscription on it referring to a breed of dog. Now it's entirely possible given the appalling grasp of good English in this country that a T-shirt could be misspelled, but I'm not convinced this was intended by the author - if it had been, I feel something would have been said about it in the test. The misspelling is of the name of a dog breed: Pekingnese. It should be 'Pekingese'

Note that this is a review of an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is the kind of novel which I don't normally like, because in a real sense, it's just an author's trip down memory lane, which is as boring to me as a memoir usually is. Such trips are very personal and not all that meaningful to others unless those readers led a similar lifestyle and are of a similar age - and grew up in the US. In this case, we get a lot of references to 80's culture, but either the author doesn't remember the era very well, or he hasn't properly researched it.

For example at one point, one of the characters is surveying magazines on a rack in a store while waiting for someone, and he mentions that there are articles on the trial of Bernard Goetz, who shot four passengers on a subway rain, and on Gary Hart suspending his presidential campaign because of the smell of scandal. Yes, Gary Hart ran in the 1984 campaign, but the scandal with Donna Rice was during the 1988 campaign, and the shooting by Bernard Goetz took place in late December 1984 after the November election. His trial was in 1986 (with a civil trial a decade later).

All of this took place in the novel during a boring and dumb sequence in which the young boys were trying to get their hands on a Playboy which featured Vanna White, but that edition came out in 1987, so the timeline is wrong if we're trying to encompass all three of these events. This definitely has to be 1987 based on the arrival of the IBM PS/2 computer, so the Goetz reference was the confusing part.

The story would have been just as good with the Vanna White nonsense left out, and the with timeline touches of color omitted. Maybe some people will like that, but for me they were way overdone, and I could have also done without the constant references to music. It was like the author was showing off how much research he'd done, but we know how well that worked! Taht said, there was a point wher eosme of the music references had a purpose, but that was overdone as well, for me.

I say this because for me the story became interesting not because of all the endless, annoying timeline references, but in spite of them. To me they were distractions and irritations and the endless Vanna White obsession cheapened the story. The power of this novel came through the interaction of Mary Zelinsky - a commendably strong female figure, and an unusual one in a story like this - and main male character, Billy. Mary is one of the coolest characters I've read about in a book like this in a long time. I quickly reached a point where I was willing to positively review this based on her alone! LOL! The boys let down the story but she stood above all that and rescued it for me.

One thing which troubled me is how much access to endless ready cash these boys seemed to have and how profligate they were with it. Whenever they needed money they always had it, and lots of it, yet only one of them seemed to hail from wealthy circumstances. That felt unrealistic, but these things are offset by cool stuff, such as when Billy first meets Mary and notices that she has her nails painted with binary digits, reading 01111101010. The problem with this is that they go to eleven! Unless Mary has eleven fingers and thumbs, there's one too many digits! Or from a different perspective, one too few. Binary is based on multiples of two, so whereas decimal - the system we routinely use - goes up in multiples of ten when reading digits from right to left (the number 100 quite literally equals zero units, zero tens and one 'one hundred'), binary goes up in multiples of two, so 100 in binary would be zero units, zero twos, and one four, equaling four in decimal.

Eleven characters makes no sense in terms of translating the numbers to letters, all of which have an eight character code (or would have back then). At best it should be eight or sixteen, or if divided into groups of four, it should be eight or twelve. If she'd had a binary digits on each finger, this would have given the expected eight. As it was I couldn't translate it to any text (I had initially thought it might be her initials).

The decimal equivalent of the binary number we're given is 1,002, and you don't need the preceding zero, so maybe that's a typo. I guessed that it had something to do with Mary's mother - maybe she died on October 2nd? You'll have to read it to discover what those numbers really meant, and to discover that they were used in two ways. There's an old but amusing binary joke for which you have to keep in mind how the numbers are translated (multiples of two). It goes like this: there are only 10 kinds of people in the world - those who understand binary and those who don't!

Assuming the book is printed as it appeared in the ebook format, it's horribly wasteful of trees! It has seven pages to swipe past (or 21 screens, depending on whether you're reading on your phone or on a tablet), and most of this is not necessary. A lot of it is disgustingly gushing mini-reviews and recommendations, which to me are as pointless as they are nauseating. If you already have the book, what is the point of these? Why are they even there?

Does the publisher think that reviewers are so weak-willed that the opinion of others will sway them into liking a book they might have disliked otherwise? Maybe they appear only in the ARC, but to me they're a waste of time. I want to read this and decide for myself; I honestly don't care what others think, no matter who they are! But this is on the publisher, not the author, so it's not his fault. For me, it's yet another reason to self-publish.

The chapters are numbered with stretches of numbered BASIC programming code which is amusing and brings back some memories for me. When you're programming in that style, which is antique, you number the lines in tens not in units, so if you later realize that you missed something between lines ten and twenty, you can add it as line fifteen, and escape having to renumber every line. In terms of numbering chapters, this meant that chapter one for example, began with half-a-dozen lines of code numbered 10, 20, 30, etc., which was a bit of a cheat since it ought to have been numbered in the 100's.

All the other chapters were numbered appropriately - chapter two using 200 and above, chapter three using 300, and so on. I thought that was cute, although the programming syntax on each numbered line will be completely obscure to anyone who has no programming experience and perhaps to many who do if all they know is modern stuff like Java. Even Visual Basic and VB .NET are a different world from those older languages. It was fun though, and about the only memory lane portion of this book that I liked!

The story - finally, yes I'm getting to it! is that Billy has his own Commodore 64 computer which was all that and a bag of chips in its day, but he realizes that it's an amateur machine (and was half-way through its lifetime in 1987) when compared with the brand new PS/2 which boasted the power of IBM behind it. He's into programming games, and his school work is suffering because of it. When he learns, from Mary, of a competition in which he could win the IBM computer, he starts seriously working on his game, but his program is sluggish.

He turns to Mary for help and discovers that she is better than he is at programming, and she delightfully knows the names of some stellar female forebears from the earliest days of computing: Dona Bailey, Jean Bartik, Fran Bilas, Margaret Hamilton, Brenda Romero, Marlyn Wescoff, and Roberta Williams. The two begin working together and this is where the story really took-off for me. The time they share is quite wonderful, and you can see them growing towards each other. Call 'em software moments if you like!

These parts are written well, and make a refreshing break from the ridiculous instadore encounters typical of YA literature. This is only bordering on the young edge of YA and is more akin to middle-grade, but the romance is handled in a very mature and realistic fashion which is at times truly magical, such as the time when the lights go out in the back of her dad's store where they meet to program, and the two have a few moments in total darkness and close proximity. This was beautifully written.

Of course, you know there are going to be potholes in this road, and at one point the story got too dumb, and I feared I was going to have to rate it negatively, but after that part, it turned around again, and really settled back into a pleasing cadence. I liked the way life imitated art towards the end when Billy was trying to get back with a rather distant Mary.

She has a secret that juvenile Bill has been blind to, and her behavior is less than exemplary, but in the end, they both come to understand each other at a deeper level, and realize that there is more to them than juvenile attraction. I really liked the ending and it was this, and Mary as a character, which were what made me want to positively rate this story. I loved the way it worked out, and how well the Billy-Mary interactions were written. I recommend this as a worthy read.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Meet Kaya by Janet Shaw, Bill Farnsworth, Susan McAliley

Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of a series of short (around seventy pages), illustrated, "American Girls" books which tell stories of pioneer girls, American Indian girls, Victorian girls, and so on. In this case we're with Kaya, a Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) girl living in the American West in 1764. Kaya has several stories of her own, told in different volumes. This one has illustrations by Bill Farnsworth, and vignettes by Susan McAliley.

I think Kaya (full name Kaya'aton'my, short version pronounced Ky-YAAH) is a great role model for young girls who are struggling with the same kinds of issues she has, and let's face it, coming of age stories don't vary all that much (in very general terms), no matter which century you're in. Kaya is feisty, and a bit proud and boastful, but she's still finding her way in her world - a world which has not yet been ruined by predatory easterners plowing through everything which lay before them on their destructive trail westwards.

Kaya is proud of her horse and likes to run it, but when accepting a challenge from the boys in her band, she almost ends up injured and is censured for it. However, she recovers well at a later time when a friend's life is at stake. The story is realistic and fun. I don't buy into this "noble savage" mythology, or believe that American Indians of yesteryear lived in close harmony with nature, or expertly managed the land, or had any particular affinity with it. The truth is that they exploited it just as much as we do. The only difference is that their numbers were so small that they didn't over-exploit it as we do.

That said, this story presents Kaya and her people in a realistic light and tells a harmonic tale. The fiction is supplemented at the back with about eight pages of photographs and text discussing Nez Perce history and culture, and their modern world. All in all it's a great book, and I think I'm going to keep my eye open for others in this entertaining and educational series.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters

Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook I picked up on spec at my delightful local library. I tend to experiment more with audio books taking chances on things I might not be interested in looking at in print or e-format. It turned out that the title was more entertaining than the novel. The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters, when read as a sentence like that, suggests that at midday, near where Elizabeth was standing, the last camel died! The story itself, which is number six in a mystery series, was not listenable. The prose was entirely too florid for my taste, making it sound far more like the author was more intent upon impressing herself with how well she could portray Victorian characters, than ever she was in getting on with the story. On top of this, I didn’t like the two main characters, and certainly was not interested in listening through a long book about them.

The story is supposedly set in Egypt although the main characters had not arrived there by the time I gave up on this, and actually didn’t even remotely seem like they would ever get there at the rate they were going. It was too ponderous and too pretentious, and I really couldn’t stand it or Barbara Rosenblatt’s narration. Based on what I listened to which was admittedly not much, I can’t recommend this one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Quiet Life in the Country by TE Kinsey

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great old-style English country house murder mystery which kept on giving. There were some parts where it flagged a little, but overall it was a very worthy read. I enjoyed it immensely and I recommend it, which may come as a surprise to people who follow my reviews because I'm typically not a fan of series, nor am I at all enamored of first person voice, and this is both: it's book one of a "Lady Hardcastle" series, and it's also told in first person! As it happens, the voice wasn't at all distracting or intrusive, and since this was book one, there was no fear of cookie-cutter stories or of a tediously formulaic approach. It just goes to show that even a cynical, cantankerous curmudgeon like me can find the occasional exception to the rule!

In a sense, it's reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, in that the assistant is the one relating the story of the 'great detective' (although both parties do their share of detecting here). On the other hand, this story departs rather a lot from the traditional Lord (or in this case Lady) and servant duo. Lady Emily Hardcastle and her Lady's maid, Florence Armstrong (that latter name is chosen wisely, trust me), are more like companions than ever they are mistress and maid. Flo has no problem setting Lady Hardcastle straight, and even being a real smart-aleck from time to time. They have a wonderful repartee, which is what made this story for me, but then they've been together for a long time and Lady Hardcastle is a widow, so they have only each other and their relationship is entirely understandable and realistic. The two have a history of adventure abroad, which made me think this was not the first volume in the series, but it is, and I shall be interested in learning how things develop from here.

In this particular adventure, as the title suggests, the pair have arrived in the English countryside and are setting up home in a cottage with the idea of enjoying a real break from the adventurous and hectic life they had been leading (not always by choice!) abroad. The problem is that on their first ever foray into that countryside, they happen upon a dead body hanging from a fine old English oak. It looks like some despondent young man hung himself, but as Lady Hardcastle observes, one or two things about this scenario hardly ring true.

From that point onward, the game is afoot and before long there's another murder and a theft. Lady Hardcastle and Flow dive into the case because they think the detective has got it rather more round his neck than the first victim had, but in the end, and contrary to one or two negative reviewers' observations I've seen, the detective turns out to be a lot smarter than he first appears, and he and the two would-be detectives begin to get along famously.

I thought I'd solved the first murder quite early in the story, but I had not. On the other hand, I'm typically useless at solving these things, which is why I enjoy them! I still think my solution would have worked in a slightly different story, but this only serves to give me the chance to turn it into a story of my own, right?!

All in all, a fun read, a decent mystery, and a good story. I think it could have been served by being slightly shorter, but I'm not about to make a fuss over that that because I did enjoy it as is, and I recommend as a thoroughly bang-up show, what?!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due

Rating: WARTY!

I could not read this book the whole way through. I made it to about 70% in in terms of page count and almost two thirds through it in terms of the number of stories I read, but I simply could not continue reading because the stories were crushingly boring. In my experience with this author, the best thing about her has proven to be her astonishing name, which I love. I'm sorry I can't love what she writes, though!

There comes a point even with the best of good will that you need to cut your losses and move onto something that will provide a more rewarding read. To continue reading in a situation like this is really to indulge in what's known in economic terms as the sunk cost fallacy (I think wikipedia has it under 'Escalation of commitment'), and I do not subscribe to that! I did move on, and I didn't regret it because the advance review copy I moved to after this proved to be eminently entertaining! Life is far too short to spend it on books that don't thrill you from the off!

By the time I quit, I'd read nine of the fifteen short stories it contained. Only one of them had been interesting to me, and even that was nothing special since this kind of story has been done to death: laying a ghost by discovering long buried bones? This variation on an old theme brought nothing new to the oeuvre.

I got this book thinking it was a graphic novel of Tanarive Due stories, so I thought it might be interesting even though I hadn't liked the only other novel by this author that I read, which was Joplin's Ghost. It was included in a flyer from Net Galley advertising graphic novels. Two of the "graphic novels" were short story collections. I got both of them and liked neither! I am going to be very careful about requesting any more 'graphic novels' from Net Galley, rest assured!

This might sound strange to say, but one of my biggest problems with this novel was that it felt racist to me. It seems this author can write only about black families, and even then only about ones with issues or with silly superstitions. There are no Caucasians or Asians in her world. This is why it felt racist to me. And no, I'm not trying to suggest she's saying all African American families are superstitious or believe in ghosts or whatever. Clearly this whole book was written about the paranormal so that's a given, but the family circumstances of everyone she writes about here are awful and it felt like racial profiling! Are there no black families that lead relatively ordinary lives that she could write a paranormal story about?! Not according to this author, which is one major reason why I did not like this.

The story titles are as follows. They were divided in the book into sections which meant quite literally nothing to me, so I'm simply listing them here in order they appear in the book and ignoring the section headers:

  • The Lake
  • This was about some kids rowing up around a lake wherein resides something that's not very friendly to kids and which is also very hungry.
  • Summer
  • This is apparently about a baby which was apparently switched out by fairies, or something along those lines. It simply fizzled rather than have any kind of an ending.
  • Ghost Summer
  • The title story was the one I thought was ok, but as I mentioned it really offered nothing new or different. I think this is the longest story in the collection, and it honestly felt really long, but it avoided being boring.
  • Free Jim’s Mine
  • I honestly saw no point whatsoever to this story. It didn't seem to go anywhere to me. It touched on slavery and servitude, but cheapened that message by tossing in the supernatural element. It's like the author felt that slavery isn't bad enough by itself, there has to be something more - some horrific supernatural element added to the recipe to make it truly cook. I think the author and I will have to agree to disagree on that score.
  • The Knowing
  • Is it a blessing or a curse to know when people will die? The "twist" in this story was pretty obvious, so it really offered no kick for me, and making this story first person failed for me because I detest that voice.
  • Like Daughter
  • This is about cloning and again was boring and made no sense to me. There was no supernatural element: it was all sci-fi.
  • Aftermoon
  • This is a werewolf story which made so little of am impression on me that I completely forget what happened in it.
  • Trial Day
  • This is a story about a man who is on trial for his life, and whether or not someone who could help him will testify.
  • Patient Zero
  • This one, as was pretty obvious from the start, is the story of a kid who is immune to a plague that is slowly killing off everyone else on the planet. It was again first person and I found it obnoxious. I skimmed lots of it rather than read every last word, and it was at this point that I decided I couldn't bare to start another of these stories, so I can't tell you a thing about the remaining stories which follow.
  • Danger Word
  • Removal Order
  • Herd Immunity
  • Carriers
  • Señora Suerte
  • Vanishings

Like I said, life is too short and these stories were quite simply not speaking to me or entertaining me. I can't recommend this one at all. I don't get why she's so fond of Roots, either. From what I've read it would seem to be a mashup of fiction and plagiarism, so I have no desire to read it when there are more realistic books available on the subject.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Harper, and Dennis Calero

Rating: WARTY!

This is the third of three graphic novels I got from the library recently, all three of which I was disappointed with. This one is not about super heroes, but is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story published over a hundred seventy years ago wherein a man who, shall I say, doesn't have all his ravens in a row, takes exception to the disfigured eye of his friend, and ends up killing the guy and secreting the body under the floor of his dwelling. The novel is part of a graphic series, but I don't think i will read any more of these.

When a neighbor reports hearing a scream from the house and the police arrive to investigate, the psycho guy (who goes unnamed), invites them in, confident they will find nothing incriminating, only to incriminate himself when he believes he can hear the still-beating heart of his victim and ends up tearing up the floor with the police present to witness it.

I haven't read Poe's original, so I can't make a comparison. All I can say is that this was dissatisfying and the story was changed slightly - the body in the original was dismembered, but it is not, here. What bothered me though, was the lack of inventiveness of the illustration. It seemed to consist almost solely of close-ups of the faces of the characters, with very few more removed images, and while this artwork was not bad, it wasn't that great, either.

Admittedly some guy rambling on about how his friend's eye drives him nuts isn't really something you can make a lot of, so perhaps choosing to turn this particular short-story into a graphic novel was a bad decision. As I can testify, while it's a lot easier to tinker with someone else's story and (in my case) make a parody of it, than it is to come up with an original story, it's not impossible either. All-in-all, I was unhappy with this one, and I cannot recommend it as a worthy read.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Rating: WORTHY!

Here's how to write a decent first person voice story! There were some issues with this, notably gratuitous animal cruelty and lack of justice, but overall the story was a worthy one and an enjoyable read and shows that once in a while, first person can be told without it being nauseatingly unrealistic. A lot of authors, not only in the YA field, could learn from this.

It's told (and rather like a reminiscence), by Eleanor McGrath of Indiana, who lives with her brother Jake in a podunk village which is just beginning to wake up to the disastrous rise of the internal combustion engine. But this isn't about ill-considered decisions, or big oil, or pollution and climate change. It's a love poem to the early automobile, some of which were awful, others of which were works of art. It's also a coming of age story - not of the young girl, but of the countryside, which was about to lose its isolation and idyllic innocence to the rape of petroleum and brute force or the carbon age, amply represented by the villains of the piece, the Kirby family, who are the only rivals in town to Jake and Peewee's garage, where you can get gas, flats fixed, and free air! Try getting that these days!

When I tell you that the story begins with a tornado, and it's not the most tumultuous event, you'll get an idea of the upheaval that's to come, when Eleanor's comfortable and happy life starts to be completely remodeled in the same way a modern vehicle's flimsy front-end is readily remodeled by an accident which wouldn't hardly even faze one of the older, solid-steel vehicles like the Stutz Bearcat which is a centerpiece of this story (you can hear that bear chasing that cat all around!).

It's not the only vehicle to get an admiring nod. All the early ones are here: the Cadillac, with it's electric self starter(!), as well as a host of vehicle you may never have heard of much less surmised existed, such as the Brush Motor Car Company's vehicle with a wooden chassis! Actually it did feature metal cross-bracing, which you will not learn from this novel, but nonetheless there it was. It helps if you keep in mind that back then, these vehicles were quite literally thought of as horseless carriages, and no one saw any reason to design them as anything other than carriages. If you look up pictures of the oldest of these vehicles, you can plainly see it.

The names are unfamiliar, too. They have gone out of business or been subsumed under modern mega-corporation names, and all the charm and individuality has been lost to convenience, cost-cutting, and shared resources. Thus we no longer have the Stoddard-Dayton, the Peerless, the Packard, the Pierce-Arrow, the Stevens-Duryea, the Apperson Jackrabbit, or the Marmon Wasp, although others, such as Chevrolet, will be very familiar, and it may be a surprise to learn that some names have a very long history.

Eleanor, better known as Peewee, for want of a more original name, is also a work of art. She's one of the most unladylike ladies you ever saw, but please don't misunderstand that to mean she's crude, entirely uncultured, or plain ignorant. She isn't, far from it. But you wouldn't want to call her a girl or talk about her wearing a dress if you didn't want a tongue-lashing. She'a feisty, capable, fearless, non-nonsense girl who has everyday smarts, and who is every bit the measure of a boy. She has no problem getting under a car and checking your brakes (which, like your steering, were not hydraulic), or popping the hood and fixing your carburetor or blowing out your blocked fuel line.

Eleanor and Jake's life really turns around when some city girls breeze into town. Why they show-up there isn't satisfactorily explained. Yes, it has to do with their idea of resurrecting the local library, but why this library in this little town? Because they heard of the tornado? We don't know. Either that or I missed it! But the point is that they encounter Jake and Eleanor when they have the inevitable car trouble. As much as we might love those old cars for their personalities and looks, those vehicles could be very unreliable, even more so than modern ones. But they were a hell of a lot easier to fix, and willing owners could do it themselves, and took pride in it. There were no complex electronics and computerized engines. The engines themselves were bare bones, and only just starting to become powerful and migrate form as little as one cylinder(!) to twelve!

As the new library takes shape, so do events, with the Kirby family trying underhand tricks to run Jake and Peewee out of business and Jake having eyes only for the ten-lap county automobile race. But things never do turn out how you plan in these stories and events take some interesting, amusing, annoying, and even surprising turns.

It bothered me that there was gratuitous animal cruelty, as I mentioned. What do I mean by gratuitous? Isn't all animal cruelty gratuitous? Yes it is, but in a novel, there can be instances of it which contribute something to the story you're telling, and other instances where the author evidently thinks it's funny to have someone cut off a cat's fore-paw, or deliberately stomp on a toad. I don't think that's remotely entertaining, and I saw no reason for it to be in a children's book.

The other issue I had was with the Kirby family. They were evil and lacked all morality, yet nowhere do they get any sort of comeuppance. Yes in real life bad people do get away with bad things. The oil corporations immediately come to mind, along with the junk food purveyors and the financial industries, and certain mega-computer software corporations, and yes, a corporation is a person so we're told, so they're bad people. But in a children's story, we expect evil to be punished, and it simply isn't here. Nothing befalls the Kirby family. Their evil pays off in the end.

It bothered me that the feisty girl was a trope redhead, and she went by the trope name of 'Peewee' but those were not major issues for me. I'd like to have seen the other issues addressed, but if I stack those against the overall story, I have to conclude that the quality of the story outweighed them by a large margin, and I have to say that I liked it, and thought it was, for the most part, a well told and entertaining read. Note that this is the second successive Richard Peck novel that I've rated positively. That one is also set in the same era and features a strong female character.

Friday, September 30, 2016

True Grit by Charles Portis

Rating: WORTHY!

It's so nice to end the month on an up note, especially given that it's an audiobook, which tend not to do so well with me because they're more throw-away reads than other formats. Anything to take one's mind off the tedium of driving, right?! But not too far off!

True Grit was published in 1968 and it's has stood the test of time well, spinning off two movies. The first was in 1969 and featured such luminaries as John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, and Kim Darby, who played the 14-year-old Mattie Ross when she was twenty-one, and a married woman with a child! They started young back in th' ol' west! By various accounts the cast and crew did not get along on this set! The 2010 remake featured Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and Hailee Steinfeld who, when she starred in her film debut here, was actually the same age as character Mattie Ross. Paramount pictures also spun-off a twenty-seven page comic book from the movie which is available free from Barnes and Noble and other online outlets.

The earlier script has its own interesting background since it was written by Marguerite Roberts who refused to testify before the dumb-ass House Un-American Activities Committee (aka witch hunt) and was blacklisted for a decade because of it. The story in the novel, but not the film, is told by a mature Mattie, who is looking back on her adolescent adventure in pursuit of Tom Chaney, the man who shot and killed her father. She tells us how she hired US Marshall Reuben J Cogburn to go after him into Indian territory (now Oklahoma - they wuz dun robbed agin). The third man in their party is a Texas Ranger name of LaBoeuf (but consistently mispronounced "LaBeef"), who has long been on the trail of Chaney.

The novel was read surprisingly well by author Donna Tartt, who really digs deep into Mattie's central Arkansas accent. I'm not a fan of Tartt's own novels, and I sure wouldn't want to listen to her speak in person for any length of time, but she did a decent narration job here, emulating young Mattie. Neither am I a fan of 1PoV, but again, some authors can get away with it and Charles Portis evidently is one of them - at least in this novel.

Mattie is feisty, humorless, no-nonsense, and definitely not a retiring sort of a girl. She speaks plainly, holds nothing back, and sticks up for what she believes is right. She and will not back down once her mind is made up. The two lawmen hate her and aren't that fond of each other. They try to lose her, and leave her behind, but eventually she wins their respect and the three pursue their goal and eventually win through, with some heroic deeds backed by a sterling spine.

I loved this novel and found it amusing and entertaining, and though I have no idea how folks really spoke back then, this novel felt authentic as hell to me - and that's all I ask from author!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Rating: WORTHY!
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

"Sasha though suddenly of his stepmother," 'thought'?

This is a traditional-style fairy tale employing Russian folklore and mythology, and exploring the inevitable clash between religions: the extant traditional natural religion of the Russian hinterland, and the sick encroachment of Christianity into it. I loved the way the story started out, and enjoyed the ever-unfolding pace and power of the story-telling. There was no slack here, no annoying flashbacks or side-tracking and meandering, and it grabbed me from the start, even though I'm not usually a big fan of stories set in Russia.

This author knows her craft, and she did not cheapen the tale by writing it in first person, either. For that alone, I intend to paint an icon in her name! (You have to read the story to get that!). For me it really took off when a couple of new characters showed up, bringing conflict to what had been a rather idyllic existence for our main character. The fun thing was that the story never did play out quite as I might have expected, or even written it myself. There was always a twist, a turn, a quirk, an event to keep me guessing where this would go. I adored it for that.

The very best thing about it is the main character Vasilisa Petrovna, aka Vasya, aka Vasochka. Yes, the endless variations on names was one complaint I had. It was really hard, to begin with, to keep track of who was who since so many name variations, nicknames, and pet names were employed for the same character. I realize this is what Russians do, but this wasn't written in Russky! The author herself explains in an afterword that literal translation is not always a good goal for an author of fiction, and I agree with her very much, so a little more clarity would have been nice, but maybe that's just me.

That aside, Vasya was one of the most engaging and amazing characters I've ever read of. Alert to all Young Adult novel writers! If you want to know how to write a strong female character who is more than merely a male appendage, then you seriously need to read this novel. It's not the only novel which has a strong, independent female character who owns her life, and by 'strong', I mean within herself, not necessarily in her ability to kick someone's ass, but this is a fine example of such a novel. Katherine Arden gets it, period. Vasya was wonderful: a breath of fresh air in a world of lackluster and very forgettable young adult female characters.

The basic story begins with a Russian land baron in a period of history often called The Renaissance. That name didn't seem to fit here. Medieval felt more appropriate, but this was just after that era. In the particular case of this novel, I prefer to think of it as Age of Discovery! The land baron's wife dies giving birth to main character Vasya, a child who grows up rather odd and wild. She is so in need of minding - thinks her father Pyotr - that he travels many weeks to Moskva (curiously written as Moscow in the novel) to find a new wife at court. The ruling monarch is one of a small handful of Ivans to come to power in Russia. The story doesn't make this clear, but I assume it's Ivan the Fourth ("the Terrible"), who ruled from the mid- to late-sixteenth century.

He had three daughters named Anna(!), one of which died before she reached the age of two, and the other two of which were sent to convents. Such was the fate of unmarriageable girls, in Russia or anywhere. And that gives me an idea for a story! I hat eit when that happens! Anyway, Ivan did not like immodest girls, and he accidentally killed his own son during an argument over his daughter-in-law's perceived immodesty. In this story however, one Anna isn't sent to a convent; she escapes such a fate because Ivan adopts a plan to rid himself off this "crazy" girl to Pyotr in exchange for one of Pyotr's daughters marrying his son, and thereby helping secure his dynasty. This story succeeds admirably where Ivan failed so dismally in his quest!

The thing about Anna is what she shares in common with Vasya. The difference between them is the interpretation of what they see, and the subsequent fear or it, or lack of such fear. Anna often sees what she believes are demons around the palace, and she is scared to go into the wild, frozen north. When she arrives, she sees even more demons, and this time the demons see her. Meanwhile there's a strange nobleman (or maybe not so noble) who manipulates Pyotr into giving his youngest daughter a necklace, unless Pyotr wishes to see his oldest son die. But the family nursemaid manages to wangle it so that the daughter doesn't get the gift until she's of age. What will happen then, is anyone's guess!

The writing was evocative and engaging, but occasionally, a part here or there struck me as being 'off'. For example, at one point early in the story the youngest daughter, Vasya, wanders off and gets lost in the forest. She is rescued (fortuitously before a freezing night falls) by her older brother who was out searching for her. She had encountered a strange man in the forest before her brother brings her home. She was terrified, but we read, "Pyotr thrashed his daughter the next day, and she wept, though he was not cruel." Excuse me? He "thrashed" her, for getting lost and scared half to death, and he's not cruel? That struck a sour note for me.

And yes, I get that people, especially people in those climes and times, were a lot more rough and ready, and pursued what might be termed "frontier justice" with a lot more vigor than people do today, but this is cruel by any light. I get that someone like him might thrash his daughter, but to 'qualify' that by adding that her father was not cruel, was poorly done for me. This isn't the last time that Vasya is so disciplined. In fact, the second time it's an even greater injustice, but she's older then, and bears it stoically, especially since it simultaneously rescues her from something she was not looking forward to. It seems that Vasya is fated to live always slightly apart from her own people. This is one of the things which made her such an intriguing character for me.

Yes, nicknames and pet names! Here's one example: "After Sasha and Olga went away, Dunya noticed a change in Vasya." I had to actually parse that sentence before I got out of it exactly who was doing what here! Here's a classic example:

Alyosha was waiting for her. He grinned. "Maybe they will manage to marry you off after all, Vasochka."
"Anna Ivanovna says not," Vasya replied composedly. "Too tall, skinny as weasel, feet and face like a frog." She clasped her hands and raised her eyes. "Alas, only princes in fairy tales take frog-wives. And they can do magic and become beautiful on command. I fear I will have no prince, Lyoshka."
Alyosha is actually her older brother, Aleksei Petrovich, who is one of the few people who actually 'gets' Vasya and supports her. I really liked him, but this endless parade of nicknames was irritating (Google is going nuts underlining all these names in red as I write them! LOL!). Eventually I learned to overlook it and it became less important as the story progressed, but I could have done with a lot less of it. It's not necessary to name a person every time you speak to them or even of them. I think quite a few of these names could have been dispensed with and left the novel a more pleasing demeanor in the doing.

That was my only real complaint about this story. I do have to say that the ending fell a bit flat given that the entire novel had been leading me to it. I was expecting more of Vasya, but overall the story was an engaging and very endearing one, and I fully recommend it. In general it's a tour-de-force of how to write a fable like this, mixing folklore and fairy-tale, and it was a joy to read. I very much look forward to Katherine Arden's next literary outing.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Rating: WARTY!

Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

While I applaud the sentiment to write a book about Einstein's first wife, I have to say I was disappointed in the result. When I requested an advance review copy of this novel, I had initially thought it was a biography of her life, and I was very interested to read it, but it turned out to be a novel: a highly-fictionalized account of her life and as such, I think it did the real Mileva Marić a disservice. Note that her name is pronounced like Me-levv-ah Marityu as far as I can tell, but I'm not Serbian so caveat lector!

The first problem for me was first person voice, which is rarely a good voice in which to tell a story. It’s far too self-important, self-indulgent, breathless, and "YA" for my taste. It makes the mistake of imbuing a real person with thoughts, feelings, and opinions that were not hers and in this case, which are in fact alien to her, shaded as they are by modern American thought projected over a century backwards onto Eastern sensibilities. A good example of this appeared very early when I read, "Mama gifted me..."! That took me right out of the turn-of-century Switzerland into modern USA, and it wasn't the only instance of totally modern idiom pervading these pages.

Another problem for me was that first person also says something about the main character's sense of self-importance, and it felt wrong to imply that someone as evidently retiring as Mileva would promote herself with a book like this one. Not that she actually did in real life, but the suggestion is there in the writing: I, Mileva, did this! I, Mileva thought that! I, Mileva, am baring my soul to the world, and it didn't honestly feel like her to me. Not that I'm an exert on her by any means. I know only what I've read, but it felt inauthentic.

I had no choice but to try to overlook that and read on, ever onwards; however, in the end I couldn't make it to the end. I made it only sixty percent of the way through before giving it up as a bad job (which was before Einstein gave up the marriage as a bad job!), so please keep that in mind when reading this review. And please don't assume the arrogance or the impertinence to tell me that I can't review a book when I haven't read it all. Yes, I can, and the proof of the Slivovitz is right here!

Another problem for me was the author's gushing cheerleading for her main character. Mileva Marić was indeed a remarkable woman who beat the adversely-stacked odds of her time. She deserves a book, but she was not a superhero or a goddess, or even a towering intellect, and it does her no favors to pretend that she was! I'm not in the habit of reading introductions, forewords, prefaces or author's notes, but in the case I did skim the preface material and in my opinion, the author exaggerated her abilities to an embarrassing degree.

I read that she was a "brilliant woman" and if that was meant as a metaphor for the light she shone as an achiever in an age where women were pretty much condemned to exist only in the long shadows cast by men then I’d agree, but I rather suspect it was meant in an intellectual sense and I don’t see any evidence for this. Yes, she was smart. Yes, she achieved a lot which most women did not even imagine, let alone dream of back then, but does this equate with true intellectual brilliance? I don’t think it does. At another point I read: "Mileva Marić, who was a brilliant physicist in her own right" and I had to ask: "By what criteria?" On a point of order, she never actually was a physicist, despite her equaling Einstein's grade in physics in at least one exam!

What went wrong academically is hard to say. Mileva seemed to have experienced a roller-coaster ride with her math scores. Prior to the university, she passed final exams in 1894 with the highest grades, including those in math. She was an excellent student, who would no doubt put many modern students to shame, so it’s a bit of a mystery what happened with her diploma efforts. After she quit the academic world because of her pregnancy with the mysteriously vanishing child Liserl, she never really pursued her studies again.

She did not, contrary to popular opinion, contribute intellectually to Einstein's "miracle year" work nor to his later work. She never published any papers. In contrast, Einstein continued his work long after they separated. Correspondence between Mileva and Albert talking of "our work" referred not to work for which Einstein became known and for which he won wide acclaim and awards, but to the work they were doing as students on their diploma dissertations, which happened to be on the same topic.

This is not to demean Mileva Marić at all. She was a very capable and distinguished student by all accounts, and a smart and remarkable woman, but "brilliant"? I think you’d have to carefully define your criteria to make a statement like that because I also think that it demeans her far more to present a misleading view of her life than it does to tell the plain and simple truth about her which is quite remarkable enough.

In this light, I have to question the beginning of the novel which represents her erroneously arriving in Zurich as a naïf about to start on her higher academic life, when in fact Mileva was well-traveled before then, and had actually been living in Zurich prior to this. Nor was this her first exposure as a woman in a male institution. She had attended the all-male (until she arrived - albeit as a private student!) Royal Classical High School in Zagreb (a city I've visited myself and loved), and she'd subsequently attended the Girls High School in Zurich. After that, she began studying medicine at the University of Zurich. So no, she was not in any sense new to this "civilized" world, nor to this city, nor to this university!

But back to her physics credentials! She was not studying to be a physicist. She was training to be a teacher which is why she became a student in a teaching diploma course where she shared a class with five other students, all male, one of whom was Einstein. She never taught, having failed to pass the final teaching diploma examinations because of poor performance in math. Twice! So to suggest she brilliant and perhaps some sort of contributing partner in Einstein's work is misleading at best. They no doubt discussed some of his thoughts on those topics, and perhaps she helped him with his studies (as perhaps he helped her) in school and later with research, but to intimate that she was some sort of equal partner in his scientific life is not true. She herself never made any such claims, and there's no correspondence from her or to her indicating any such thing. To suggest otherwise is to detract from what she actually did achieve which was praiseworthy enough in itself

I also read that "Mileva was forced to subsume her academic ambitions and intellect to Albert’s ascent" and again I had to ask, where is the evidence for this? She dropped out to raise a family, but was she forced? Was this Albert's dictum? I don't think you can argue a good case for that. I have to wonder why an author would do this to Mileva. Are we to take home from this the idea that her ambition to raise a family (if that was her ambition) instead of pursuing a career in science was abnormal or beneath her, or that she was pressured and browbeaten into it? That she had no alternative? She took a final while she was pregnant for goodness sakes! She was not being dictated to or subjugated by anyone, and to suggest that she was is an insult to her. It's also an insult to anyone who's raised a decent family, male or female, and especially to women back then, and especially as a single parent - at least in the early months.

Mileva's withdrawal from academic life for anything other than illness was through her first pregnancy. Their daughter was named Liserl. What became of this girl is a mystery, but the best guess is that she died, possibly from scarlet fever when she was still an infant. While pregnant, Mileva failed in her second attempt at passing her diploma and gave up on her PhD ambitions at that point. It would seem clear that she was not forced into anything. It seems from the available evidence that she was not academically up to pursuing what she had initially aimed at, and she gave up that pursuit in favor of pursuing a family, which is an equally worthy endeavor.

So what bothered me most about this novel was the inconsistency, On the one hand we're being told she's brilliant and was somehow prevented from pursuing academics, but on the other we're shown an air-headed girl who can't focus on school-work because of her giddy obsession with Albert, which has her mindlessly blowing money on a trip to be at a village near him and sitting around, too distracted to even read, and doing nothing but wait in the desperate hope he will come visit! I resented this picture of Mileva and I found it demeaning. Brilliant people of course can be giddy, but this isn't math: there is no Commutative Law here. You cannot equally argue that if truly brilliant people are giddy, then giddy people must be smart!

The inconsistency (that serious student was somehow robbed of her career) falls apart when we read, "It didn't help that I kept drifting off into daydreams about the trip to Como..." I found it insulting to Mileva that she purportedly had such an adolescent crush on Albert that it was affecting her schoolwork. Personally I cannot credit that; not with a woman like this one, but even if it were all true, it still flies in the face of what's said elsewhere about her being brilliant and being a strong student. I'd believe those latter two traits long before I'd believe the rather vacuous starry-eyed version of Mileva Marić with whom we're far too frequently presented here. We get too much of this with poor maligned Mileva: "Stomach fluttered" (location 825 on Kindle), "stomach churned" (841), "stomach lurched" (1132), "Stomach fluttered" (1191), "stomach lurching" (1252), knot in my stomach hadn't untangled (1303). Seriously? At the same time we hear nothing of Albert's inner feelings. It felt biased at best, genderist at worst.

I wanted to like this and view it favorably, but I can't in good conscience approve of such a young-adult, even 'Harlequin romance' version of a woman who stood out in her own time as different for a variety of reasons. This was a woman who was strong, self-possessed, competent, and dedicated to her chosen aims, whether academic or family. I think her life is remarkable and it think it should have been much better served than it was here - or at least than it was in the first sixty percent!