Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson


Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Emily and the Strangers Vol 1 by Rob Reger, Mariah Huehner, Emily Ivie


Rating: WARTY!

I must have slept through the nineties because I had never heard of "Emily The Strange" until I saw this graphic novel in my ever-adored local library. It called to me, but now I'm left lamenting what else is out there that I might never happen upon.

Emily, as represented in this short graphic novel, is completely lovable, from her 'tude, to the way she's drawn and colored. She's a perfect mix of Goth and Steamed-punk. I love her positive, if aggressive, attitude, her never-defeatist approach to life, and her very inventive G-Rated cussing, which was hilarious.

From reading around (yeah, I'm a shameless book slut!) Rob Reger's friend Nathan Carrico designed Emily in 1991 for a skateboard company(!). Reger created the designs, and he and Matt Reed brought them into the fashion world on T-shirts featuring this girl and 4 black cats (one of which no doubt had a ring-tailed lemur tail). Those cats have bred, because there are many in this story, and they're exquisitely depicted. I don't know anything about Emily Ivie, the evidently very talented artist, but co-writer (with Reger) Mariah (that's mar-eye-uh, not mar-ee-uh) Huehner describes herself as a "big old geeky nerd who loves talking about stories and storytelling." She lied! Her face isn't old and her eyes are very young which is probably why she can get inside Emily The Strange's head so readily.

This volume combines the first three issues of the Emily (and) the Strange(rs) mini-series in which her idol Professa Kraken dies, and she has the chance to win his octopod-inspired guitar - which is also conveniently haunted by his spirit. The story here is that Emily strives to win the guitar, and just as she is convinced she missed her chance, fate (and cats) conspire to put her in front. The odd thing, which I really didn't get, is that even though she won it, there's a condition attached to it: that in order to keep it, she must win the battle of the bands, for which the anti-social (if not sociopathic) Emily must put together an actual band.

The story then moralizes somewhat about team-work and 'can't we all just get along', so for me it lost some momentum at that point, but it was still enjoyable. I'd dispute that this is a young-adult story! It felt much more like middle-grade to me, but it was fun. The other characters in the band were interesting. There was the guy who factored into Emily's success in the guitar contest; I don't know what his angle is and I wasn't too fond of him. He's a fan, if not a stalker of Emily's, and he rather creepily named himself Evan Stranger (Even Stranger), but other than his weird addiction to Emily, he isn't strange at all.

There was also Winston and Willow, who are fraternal twins, but otherwise complete opposites, and there is Raven, who is a girl-bot which was made and then lost track of by Emily, and who is now working in a vinyl, record store where Emily encounters her again. She fascinated me, but got very little air-time. This band doesn't work until the final member turns up, the very orange Trilogy, and then they're winners all the way.

Now I'm interested in Emily. I'd like to read the story of her creating Raven, and also about her earlier history. I recommend this one.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Elvis and the Underdogs by Jenny Lee


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment which failed! The story is about a rather sickly kid named Benji Wendell Barnsworth who is ten. He tells the story in first person, which is usually a problem for me at the best of times. It was not remotely helped in this case by the fact that a man with a rather croaky voice was reading this story. It. Simply. Did. Not. Work. The book was a DNF for me. Life is too short!

I can only conclude, from the number of trips we're told Benji makes to the hospital, that this mom is a world-class lousy mom. Or maybe it's the fact that the nurse at the hospital Dino, is practicing medicine without a license? This could account for at least some of those repeat visits.

These idiots think prescribing a therapy dog for Benji will cure him of his ills. He gets the president's puppy delivered by mistake and the president is such a bastard that he demands the dog be wrenched away from Benji, so the kid gets a different dog. This dog goes literally everywhere - including into the department store, and into the hospital. I somehow doubt that even a therapy dog would be allowed to get away with that, but who knows. Crazier things happen in this story.

Benji's two brothers, who happen to be twins, are complete dickheads and need to have their asses kicked (where's the trope school bully when you really need him?), but they get away with pretty much whatever they want to - due largely to the fact that mom is a lousy parent. It should be needless to say that I very quickly tired of this. even if it were not for the reader's annoying voice, the story was garbage. Maybe young kids will like it, but I don't really see how. I'm sure not about to recommend a children's story as flaccid and vacuous as this was.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park


Rating: WARTY!

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

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


The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker


Rating: WORTHY!

Erratum:
"The Mapmaker took in and impatient breath." - presumably should be "an impatient breath"

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

Don't be misled by the resemblance of this middle grade novel's title to The Lightning Thief. I'm not a fan of the Riordan series, but this is as different as you can get, and this author had me at the very first sentence, which is what all we writers should strive for, but few achieve! That first line read, "Honorine realized it was going to be a difficult night when she stepped into the east parlor to do a bit of light dusting and found it on fire." That struck me as hilarious and an awesome start. It's like she knew exactly how to begin this to bring me on board!

The book continued to impress as I read on. It's an easy and fast read which hits the ground running and never stops. It's something of a steam-punk fantasy for kids, and has the interesting premise that the constellations are really mystical animals who have powers, and with whom regular people can interact. There are also rather evil creatures in this story too, so in some ways it's like reading about angels and demons.

Honorine is a young housemaid who works for the wealthy Lord Vidalia who has disappeared. She's also something of an inventor. When odd events get going in the manor that night, starting with the fire and progressing to curious discoveries Honorine makes, and then to visits from two different factions on the same wild night, both of which claim that the other guys are the bad guys, Honorine has to choose who to trust. But she's torn. At first, she sides with the group which has her childhood friend and young lord of the manor, Francis, working with them. She had thought he was away at school. After this she gets to spend some time with the Mordant, which is what these constellations are called.

There are few mordant on their magical 'ship' and the reason is that there's a battle going on between two sides, one of which is trying to capture all the Mordant, and the other of which is trying to prevent that. Maybe both sides were bad! Yes, it was exciting, adventurous, action-packed and confusing, and my hope was that the author had it in her to keep up the pace. It turns out she did. There is never a spare moment, and always something new to find.

Like a seasoned professional, the author keeps on peeling back layers and just as you think you have a good handle on things, another layer strips away and reveals a deeper understanding. Honorine is thrown into the middle of this turmoil, and is constantly trying to determine who is right and who is wrong, what's really going on, and where she fits in. In the end, this strong young female figure takes things into her own capable hands, because she knows, ultimately that she's actually the only one she can trust to do the right thing.

I loved the story, the plot, and the characters, all of them, but especially Honorine, who is a true hero and a great role model. I recommend this book without reservation.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M Martin


Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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


Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken


Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Land Without Color by Benjamin Ellefson


Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sara Pennypacker


Rating: WORTHY!

I never knew exactly what a penny-packer did for a living, but now I do: she writes great stories for kids! This was a fun book for middle-graders. I haven't read any others in this series, but this one worked as a stand-alone. it was smart, inventive, and entertaining even for an adult reader because of Clementine's quirky take on her life and her interactions with everyone she encounters.

Clementine is apparently prone to get into trouble one way or another, and when she learns there is to be a family meeting at home one evening, she panics because she can't remember doing anything wrong lately and is mystified as to why a meeting should be in order. It turns out that the family is going to be welcoming a newcomer: mom is pregnant!

Naturally Clementine has issues with this, being perfectly happy with her four-square family. Adding a fifth to the mix knocks everything off kilter as far as she's concerned, and as if that wasn't bad enough, her rat has escaped - the one she was working with in a science experiment at school. And she;s lost her favorite winter hat - the one grandma knitted for her.

Marla Frazee's line drawing are great, and very evocative. Sometimes her perspective is a little off - Clementine seems to shrink to almost half her size when she goes to talk with her teacher one day at recess. That aside, I liked the drawings and the take on life shown here, as well as the well-written ending. I recommend this (and perhaps the others in the series too, if they're anything like this one).


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu


Rating: WORTHY!

Paris is one of three siblings, the others being older sister Verona and even older brother Athens. They're a Chinese family living in the USA. Their father fixes up houses and when he's done with the one in which they're currently living, he moves the whole family to a new fixer-upper and starts over. Paris hates this life. She hates even more the podunk village they just moved to.

The children were all named after cities because their idiot parents figured this would inspire them to go places, but this made no sense to me. The family is repeatedly presented as a traditionally Chinese one, yet not one of the cities was one in China? This was one of many issues I had with the Chinese angle of this story.

We're often told to write what we know, but we would have a very dull library if everyone did that. Stephen King never met any of his horrors, ghosts, psycho schoolgirls, or vampires. George Lucas never fought any Star Wars. Suzanne Collins never competed in any post-apocalyptic Hunger Games. The truth is that you don't have to write what you know! In fact, it's actually better if you don't, unless you happen to have led a really amusing, exciting, unusual, or adventurous life. As long as you make what you write sound plausible within its context, I'm good with it. It doesn't even have to be authentic as long as it's not idiotic!

I think this might be where this author went wrong with this book, because at lot of it felt like it was semi-autobiographical and the author seemed to be having difficulty with interleaving it effectively into a USA milieu. Maybe she was writing about some of own experiences, maybe she wasn't, but in trying to present a US family from Chinese roots, I think some things got lost in the translation.

Talking of which, the biggest annoyance was having Paris's parents speak pigeon English. This sounded condescending at best and racist at worst. Yes, I get that there are people who speak like that, but I didn't see how this contributed to the story. There was nothing in the novel (if there was I missed it) to suggest that the Pan family had just moved here from China, and there are better ways of portraying a language issue without making the speakers come off as lazy, incompetent or stupid. None of the kids had the slightest issue with English, indicating that the family had been here all their lives. This doesn't mean the parents had of course, but it made the difference between kids and parents glaring. This was a discrepancy which called for some sort of acknowledgement if not explanation, yet it was never raised in the story for any purpose.

The parents names are not given except for one reference to "Frank" - the dad. Now Frank is not a Chinese name and while Asians all-too-often adopt western names to make life easier on us klutzy westerners, and to whom subtlety of language is an alien concept for most people, especialyl in an age of lowest common denominator Internet chat and texting, Asians do have original names, so why would mom call dad Frank unless that really was his name? If he was actually named Frank, he wasn't born in China. Or maybe he was and the author was very confused. Like I said, there were better ways she could have written this.

It was not just in their language either. There are other ways in which they were portrayed as idiots. One was the constant moving of houses. It made no sense and was never explained. If it had been making them a fat wad of money, I could see a reason for it, but it wasn't! If this was their father's business, fine, but why not do this in a larger city where there are more houses to work on and no need to move the family miles away? On top of this, dad was portrayed as a heart attack waiting to happen and even when it did happen, he learned nothing from it. Idiot!

That aside, I really liked the Paris story, even though she was also portrayed as an idiot for a while. She was so desperate to make friends that she essentially became a performing dog for the alpha girl in her class, but she did wise-up in the end, and I loved the ending, especially the pro-active part Paris took in her own destiny. I'm just sorry it took her so long, but I liked her as a character, and I liked her brother and sister. I'm sorry we didn't get more of the relationship with Robin, the shy, outcast girl. That could have been a story to rival the one we did get.

The story involved the death of a girl of Paris's age (twelve), which occurred almost thirty years before. Paris, it turns out, is living in the house the girl once occupied, but her body was found in a creek bed out in the woods a couple of years after she vanished. We never do get an explanation of how the girl died, but Paris is so spooked by all the rumors that she starts thinking that the girl's ghost is maybe trying to contact her from "the other side"! Call me a science nerd, but I was really thrilled to see how the author provided a perfectly prosaic explanation for all the "supernatural" experiences Paris had. That was a real joy to read and is why, overall I recommend this as a worthy read for middle-graders.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney, Emily Boever


Rating: WARTY!

This is volume two in a series of at least three, and the book very kindly indicates this on the front cover, which is nice. I have not read the third volumes, but I did read the first, and I rated it positively back in June of 2015 with the caveat that I'd prefer it if these books improved! Obviously they have not, so I am now going back to de-rate that one as part of an overall series rating. These books can be read as standalones, and the essence of the series is a commendable one in that it revolves around four middle-grade students who help the police to solve crimes using mathematics. This is great, but the spirit behind the book turned out to be rather more noble than the execution of the novel itself.

I am all on-board for a series that teaches the subjects which too many students in the US fall down on: math and the sciences, but this novel disappointed me in that it offered a lot more than it actually delivered. There was very little math, and what there was of that was a bit limp and vague. The story revolved around acts of petty vandalism being conducted by "Mr Jekyll" a name which was a clue in itself. This was fine, but the attempt to bring math into this by employing a mathematical technique known as the Line of Best Fit, and the Least Squares Method to track the vandal's movements wasn't employed very well and wasn't explained in very much detail. That was all the math we got!

I felt like I was reading a very dumbed-down novelization of the TV show NUMB3RS which ran on CBS from 2005 to 2010. This was aimed at an adult audience and starred Rob Morrow as an FBI agent and David Krumholz as his mathematically-gifted younger brother who helped him solve crimes. It was a good show, and reading this made me want to go back and watch that series over again because it did a far better job of teaching math and incorporating it into the plot! The novel felt further dumbed-down in that the kids names - which admittedly the authors were stuck with after volume one - are as improbably as the plot: Felix, Gertie, and Stanley? Honestly? The fourth kid had a much more regular name: Charlotte. Names are important to me in my own novels, and if these kids were named that way to serve some purpose, then I could understand it, but they're apparently not so-named for any particular purpose.

In this novel, we had some unknown and obviously disaffected kid who was spray-painting "Mr Jekyll" on various things, including, in one case, a pet dog, which was drugged and shaved first. eventually the kids figure it out of course, but there was far too much melodrama leading up to it and a complete lack of justice at the end. Worse than this, there was bullying conducted by the kids themselves, and a really poor attitude towards the police, mainly in the form of a dumb and vindictive police chief who was dedicatedly seeking to jail the math inspector kids, and who, let's face it, indulged in bullying himself. This attitude has not improved an iota from volume one, and the authors should be ashamed of themselves for it.

I know it's fun and important to dramatize stories like these to make them engaging for readers, but there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do it, and this was the latter. I know also that the kids have to be given center stage and that story lines do end-up being improbable to one extent to another, but this particular one, for me was way overdone and done foolishly. Unless the story completely hinges on a police officer being stupid or brutal, which this story did not, I think it's mistake to depict the police in such a poor light to young children. Yes, the police do have their issues, but those issues aren't going to be resolved by showing the police as plodding, bullying brutes instead of as humans.

Unlike in the first volume, the illustrations in this one did example the math a bit, but I think there could have been more. There was no improvement in the depiction of the two girls in the group. They took a back seat to Stanley the math whiz, who pretty much dominated that portion of the story. I'm actually surprised the girls weren't depicted in Barbie Outfits saying, "Gee, math is hard!" But this wasn't even the worst part of it. In addition to showing the painting of a dog, the authors. had the math inspector kids encouraging the vandal, who got away with it in the end, bullying and humiliating one of the girls in the school by dumping a can of blue paint over her - real, oil-based paint. This was the final straw for me because it was entirely disproportionate to what she had done to them (which was merely making snide remarks and trying to get them into trouble with the police), and even if it had been proportionate, it still wouldn't have been right.

Showing the police leaping to inane conclusions with no evidence was stupid and irresponsible. Having the entire school board meet to vote in public on whether these four kids - who had been charged with nothing - expelled for something they didn't even do in school or on school time, was simply ridiculous. The authors had the school board conduct an anonymous ballot and then had each member of the board read out how they voted! What?! Do the authors simply not get what 'anonymous' means, or did they think they were being cute or ironic? It came off as moronic to me. Teaching middle-grade kids that adults conduct kangaroos courts based on knee-jerk assumptions, zero solid evidence and no trial is dumb. Yes, there are far too many adults like that, but these were not random adults, they were the police and the school! It's not acceptable.

One of the big issues in the story was the school bully, who was shown as getting away with it and being completely unchecked by the teaching staff or the school bus driver; then we're shown the four math bullies encouraging the vandal to douse another student in paint. I'm sorry but this is totally unacceptable. If the girl had accidentally douse herself because of her behavior, that's one thing, but encourage vandalism and violence like this as though it's a good thing, or is supposedly some form of justice is inexcusable in a middle grade book. That's why I'm rating this as a complete fail, and why I'm going back to down-rate the contingent rating I gave the first volume now that the authors have shown me that they have no intention of improving this series.


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.


Lydia's Golden Drum by Neale Osborne


Rating: WORTHY!

Disclosure: After I positively reviewed (yes, I'm positive I reviewed it!) Neale's Lydia's Enchanted Toffee back in November 2015, he and I became email friends, so I am definitely biased here, but I loved this book! The writing is so rich that you feel like you've eaten a tin of toffee by the time you're done reading. You might even get an empathic if not emphatic tooth-ache!

If I had a complaint it would be that the book felt a little bit long, which was fine with me since I was very much into it, but which might not appeal to some readers. I also felt the print version might have been kinder to trees in being a little more compact (the lines were widely spaced), but I have that complaint about a lot of print books, including my own, which is why I refurbished them all last year.

That said, this book is poetic and rich, it's endlessly inventive to an amazing and humbling degree, and it was a joy to read. Lydia is once again called into action with her toffee tin drum and magically empowering toffee, which gives her control over metal (probably including metal dental fillings!). The Jampyrs are evidently on the move and someone has to stop them. Lydia's journey involves meeting up with friends and traveling her Candi world to collect the tools they will need to defeat the horrific jampyr menace and save their planet. Can she succeed? Can she suck toffee? I think you know the answer to that! I recommend this one. It's a sweet read....


Messenger by Lois Lowry


Rating: WARTY!

This is the third in Lois Lowry's "The Giver" quadrilogy. I negatively reviewed the first, The Giver back in April 2016, and now I'm certainly not planning on reading the other two in the group: Gathering Blue, and Son. This one can at least be read as a standalone, but like in The Giver, the world-building here sucks! And monumentally so.

Main character Matty was far too much of a Mary Sue in this novel, and while it started out decently well, it went on too long (despite being a short novel!), and it dwelt so long in the horrific gore of the forest that it was sickening. The end was so predictable that it was even more sickening. Even the puppy lived!

Matty is the adopted son of 'Seer'. Every adult in the village has a really dumb-ass "true name" given to them by "Leader" who is head of the village. Let me just interject at this point that I'm not a fan of this "names have power" bullshit or of the "true name" fallacy. I laugh at stories that follow those tropes. Names do have meaning but that's not the same as saying they have, much less give, power.

Matty wants to be named Messenger, but doesn't get his wish. Instead he gets a predictable and different name. Read pretty decently by actor David Morse, the story's material and plot let it down badly. They were drab and lifeless, and ultimately boring. The village was sad-ass, but we're told - not shown - that it was a happy and comfortable place. As the story takes off, we're being hit over the head with the regularity of a metronome by how much it is changing for the worse. It's as if Donald Trump got elected and the entire country began rejecting huddled masses and becoming very insular and closed-off. Oh wait, that really happened!

Despite all these people having gifts, they're hobbled in a trope way by not really being able to use the gifts to any great advantage. Some of the gifts make no sense. One guy is called Trademaster and is in charge of the villagers trading their personal goods with each other. I'm sorry, but what? What the hell that's all about is a mystery, and I found it laughable. So anyway, Seer doesn't see a whole heck of a lot especially since he's predictably blind. Leader, who is also a seer, can't see very far into the future. Why the author called one of them Seer but gave the power of seeing to a different character is a great mystery!

The village, which is called Village, is surrounded by a dense and increasingly hostile forest which is called Forest. Seriously? Donald Trump clearly took his manifesto from this novel because the villagers have decided to build a wall around the village and not let anyone else in. Why anyone would even want to try and get in, given the nightmarish and brutal forest and the asinine way village life goes on is an unexplained mystery as is everything else in this story. It suggests that the rest of the world is in even more dire straits than is the village, yet when we see another part of this world, there is no problem with it! It's just like Village minus the psychoses and psycho forest.

The villagers have tools and fire. There's no reason they couldn't burn down the whole forest and sow salt on it, but they never think of it. They simply accept it. No explanation is given for this, either.

Maybe some of these things are explained in the previous two volumes, but they sure aren't here. The only thing of any interest at all in this story is Matty's last minute desperate dash through the forest to bring Kira, Seer's daughter, back from outside into the village so he can see her again. How selfish is that? She left the village and though she said she would return, in several years she's made no effort to do so, and now Seer essentially wants her dragged back through a dangerous forest with no warning, for his own selfish ends? What a jerk!

Matty, who has always been able to pass through the forest unharmed, now finds that it's attacking him. Why there is this change is unexplained, Why the forest is alive and hostile is unexplained. This portion of the novel just went on and on with increasingly obnoxious descriptions of pain and torn flesh, and suffering that I could barely stand to listen to it. It contributed nothing to the story, and it was all washed away and undone by Matty's magical power which we'd been told about right from the start, so no surprises there.

If this novel had been a first-time novel by a new writer, it would never have got published. I'm just sorry it ever did.


Brain Jack by Brian Falkner


Rating: WORTHY!

Set in a rather less than ideal near future, this middle-grade to young adult work of fiction depicts the arrival of 'neuro' headsets which link a person's brain directly into the Internet purportedly enhancing usability and virtual reality significantly. Neuros are new, but catching on fast. The question is, how safe are they? This story reminded me a little bit of other books on this kind of topic, such as The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas J Ryan, and also a little bit of This Perfect Day by Ira Levin.

Our main character, Sam Wilson, is of course a hacker who, like Dade Murphy in the movie Hackers, got into trouble for hacking computer systems. Unlike Zero Cool though, Sam actually gets hired by the government to work for them on cyber security. I like the way the author has Sam lured in via a trick so the government powers which are interested in him can be sure he really does have the right skills for the job. He finds himself working for an elite group of hackers who are the first line of defense when it comes to cyber security in the US.

Things take a turn for the disastrous when hackers start trying to probe nuclear power stations, and then the security team itself is attacked in a way somewhat reminiscent of the movie Surrogates which itself was taken from the comic books series, The Surrogates. Soon it becomes clear that something powerful and very nearly omniscient (rather like the computer in the movie Eagle Eye!) can track what they're doing and zero in on them almost before they know what they're doing themselves. Is this an elite group of hackers? Is it some super computer? What's behind it? I thought that what was behind it was inventive if a bit improbable and I really enjoyed the way this story panned out. I recommend it.


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.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Agent Amelia by Michael Broad


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a fun middle grade novel about a very capable self-starter named Amelia who gives Sherlock Holmes a run for his money with her keen observations and her deductive and inductive logic skills. This book is one of a series, and features three stand-alone stories:

  • Hypno Hounds is a story about Amelia and her mum's trip to a vacation cottage for a week. When they arrive, the locale is like a ghost town, and Amelia immediately notices that the name of the cottage has been changed to Bevil Cottage from...Devil Cottage! It turns out that baying hounds from hell supposedly haunt the area, and these are driving out the locals. Amelia's detective senses are triggered, and she goes on the hunt for clues, determined to solve this mystery, and solve it she does.
  • A new chemistry teacher trips Amelia's alarm bells with his odd habits, so the next time he leaves the classroom in the middle of the class, she sneaks out and tails him - to the supermarket. What's he up to with buying huge amounts of breakfast cereal? Well it turns out there's a sweet explanation for it that you would never guess.
  • The last story was my favorite. I thought it was hilarious. It features Turbo Teddies, which are remote-controlled roller-skating teddy-bears. They're the new hot toy craze, but when Amelia goes shopping for one, they've very mysteriously disappeared. Or have they? Just as the alarm goes up that customers are being robbed, Amelia thinks she get a glimpse of one of those teddies here and there. Now how can she get a look at the store's security cameras to see what's going on?

The stories are quite simplistic and a little improbable, but they're fun and they entertainment me. I imagine they will do a lot more for young readers, and perhaps inspire some young girls to be more aware of their surroundings, which is never a bad thing. I recommend this one.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bindi Babes by Narinder Dhami


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a highly entertaining novel about three young Indian girls living in England, who lost their mother to severe illness quite recently and are not dealing, although they think they're dealing well, and in some ways they really are. Narinder Dhami is the author of the novelization of the Bend it Like Beckham movie which starred Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I have not read that book, but I saw the movie and really enjoyed it. Hopefully the novelization captured the spirit of the movie.

This volume was the first of at least four in a series with Bollywood Babes, Bhangra Babes, and Superstar Babes succeeding this. It was amusing enough to me that I'd be interested in reading more, although I am not a fan of series since they tend to be repetitive, derivative and ultimately boring. Once in a while though, I do find an exception, and maybe this will be such a one. The author has many other stories out there too, including individual novels and a long-running The Sleepover Club series.

In this tale, three sisters: Geena, Ambajit (Amber, the narrator), and Jasvinder (Jazz) Dhillon are the Bindi Babes. Bindi, in Sanskrit means literally 'a drop' and refers to the red dot (or these days anything!) placed on an Indian woman's forehead at the fictional point of the sixth chakra. These three though, are not traditional Indian women. They're a new generation: a mix of the old and the new, and ostensibly are doing amazingly well after the death of their mother.

All this conceals an largely unacknowledged hole in their life, which their father is failing to fill because he's working all hours to distract himself from the same loss they're feeling. This leaves the bindi babes free to run wild, but the interesting thing is that they're not running wild. They do enjoy more freedom than their peers, and their father is a pushover whenever they want anything new. He has both the lack of interest in their daily activities and the complete absence of a lack of money to buy them whatever they request of him. Curiously, they're actually not spoiled rotten. They are are spoiled, but in many ways their life is the contrary. They're mostly reasonable in what they request, although they do run to excess, but they're also confident, hard-working, self-possessed, and envied by their peers at school for being respectable, fashionable and pretty.

Of course, admirable as all this is, they're still doing it to wall-off their pain of loss and have become so self-obsessed that they're failing their friends. All this starts to change when their father's sister arrives from India to take them in hand. No matter how they try to thwart her plans, she always seems one step ahead of them, and right at the point where they're about to take drastic action, they finally get the vision to see clearly what's going on around them.

In some ways this story is a fake, because these girls are doing fine, and are maturing pretty darned well. Yes, they're spoiled to an extent, and they've failed to grieve over their mother, but not everyone grieves in the same way and this business of 'x' number of steps of grief you 'have to go through' is bullshit, so this 'conflict' between them and their aunt and the resolution of it felt a bit fake to me. On the other hand, their aunt's story interested me, and I could envisage a novel about that rather than about the girls, or at least told from her PoV, doing very well for itself.

To me though, the girls were highly entertaining, often in-fighting, but standing firm when attacked from outside their trio, they are always thinking and planning, and they come up with some amusingly interesting schemes to try to root this pernicious Auntie influence from their lives. I'm no more a fan of first person PoV stories than I am of series, but once in a while - and this proved to be that once - an author writes one of these and she carries it. I found Amber (the middle sister's) had a voice I could listen to without becoming nauseated. Maybe this is became I married a middle sister and I've never regretted it! I can see where she;s coming from! LOL! But Amber was an intelligent, incisive, and amusing story-teller, if a bit on the cruel side on occasion. But then she's very young, and her voice did sound authentic to me.

I loved this story completely. It was entertaining and amusing, and it came to a satisfying conclusion. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in stories of Indian culture, stories set in England, or stories about young, feisty, and fiercely loyal sisters.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak


Rating: WORTHY!

Erratum:
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.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban


Rating: WORTHY!

Normally I avoid like the plague stories which feature striped socks on the cover - which is almost a genre of its own these days - but once in a while a worthy one comes along, and as it happens, this was a very short audiobook which I loved. Yes, there were bits and pieces which were less than thrilling, but overall, I loved the voice of this ten-year-old girl, Zoe Elias, who dreams big dreams but lacks the motivation to achieve them, as many in her age range doubtlessly do. Plus, she gets very little support from her parents who are bordering on being abusive, not in a 'physically beating their kids' sense, but in the case of her dad, having issues which need medical treatment he's not getting, and in the other case, a mom who works all hours and is almost not even a character in the story because she's so absent. Her dad being a conclusion short of a premise the reason her mother works so many hours, it would seem, since dad is profligate with money on those rare occasions he ventures out. I loved the reading voice of Tia Alexandra Ricci, and the sense of humor which ran through the narrative.

Zoe dreams of playing piano in Carnegie Hall, wearing a tiara no less!), but it's only a wild fantasy, which is squelched when her three-sheets to the wind father comes home with an electric organ instead of the grand piano she unrealistically demanded. But the organ does come with some free in home lessons, and so this is what Zoe has to deal with. That and Wheeler Diggs who is an oddball guy at school who befriends Zoe's dad more than he does Zoe, and consequently hangs at her house routinely after school instead of going straight home. Rightly or wrongly, Wheeler reminded me a bit of Heath Ledger's character in the hilarious movie Ten Things I Hate About You, which itself was loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew.

Zoe's Carnegie Hall moment comes actually in the form of a minor win after entering the annual Perform-O-Rama organ competition sponsored by the makers of the organ she's learning to play. All around, the story was engaging and funny - especially in regard to Zoe's take on life and on people. It was occasionally boring here and there, but overall, a worthy read.