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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fun book. It started out great and just when I thought the author was giving me a tiresomely trope school-bully story, she changed her game and twisted things around, and overall I really enjoyed it, despite an oddly-rushed a somewhat lackluster ending.

The main character is Piper McCloud, who was born late to her simply country-folk parents and who, from a very early age, exhibited her lighter-than-air abilities. This did not go down well. Her dad had little to say about anything, and mom managed to keep Piper indoors, and keep suspicious and gossipy neighbors away, homeschooling her daughter, but Piper really wanted to explore her ability even though she also tried to keep it secret at her mom's behest. It nevertheless got out and soon the government was showing up offering to take this troublesome child off her mother's hands to a place where there are many children like Piper, and where Piper will get a good education. She certainly does.

The children at the school are very regimented, and are not allowed to use their abilities, which is quite the opposite of what Piper had been expecting. The smooth-talking Doctor Hellion has evidently fed Piper a bill of goods, but while Piper may be down, she's not out and she's going to be up and at 'em first chance she gets. The novel is a bit long and at some points annoying. Also it's lacking somewhat in logic, in particular that all of these children would be sent off by their parents to a place unseen and completely unknown, including its location, and that no parents would raise a stink about their kids disappearing and losing contact with them?

I was surprised no other reviewers raised this issue - not of the reviews I read anyway, not even the negative ones. It's even more curious given that there were other objections raised, such as that the novel pokes fun at religion, like somehow religion is not to be talked about in any negative light? Bullshit! It's not a crime to write fiction about religion whether positive or negative. But I didn't see it as poking fun at anything; it was simply showing Piper in a certain milieu from which she longed to escape. Religion was a very minor part of it and not even the most important one - just like life, in fact!

The other issue was about grown-up themes which clearly never impinge upon children's lives and all children of Piper's age are too dumb to understand them anyway, Right? Again, bullshit. I found these objections rather curious and narrow-minded. They seemed to forget that this is purest fiction. It's not a documentary. It's not a biography. It's not a prescription for how to raise children. It's merely fiction for children. Get over yourselves!

For me the most curious thing was that in the acknowledgements, the author writes of the first thankee: "My Dear husband, Wayne, who has stood by and watched me muddle through this process." I'm not sure that's much of a compliment. At best it's back-handed. From a writer it's poorly worded! If she means he has stood by her, then that's one thing, but if she means what she wrote, then he wasn't much help, was he? What you say matters, How you say it matters more! Every writer should know this, especially one with this author's experience. But aside from these quibbles, I recommend this novel as a worthy read.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Honey Moon Not Your Valentine by Sofi Benitez, Joyce Magnin, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This is the third and last of this series I shall ever read! I liked this much better than the previous two, and I think that's because it really didn't feature Harry Moon, but his sister with the unfortunate name of Honey Moon. I liked her a lot better than him - at least she did something, but her behavior tended towards the mean and the cowardly, and instead of making the right protestations, she made the wrong ones, but like her brother, she never seemed to learn anything, least of all how dumb she was.

The book had its amusing moments, but otherwise was really nothing new, and it presented children with the wrong options, I thought. The entire story was of Honey Moon's completely misguided attempts to get out of a Valentine's Day dance, and int his it suffered precisely the main problem that the previous "Harry the magician" series suffered: if only people would talk to each other instead of acting like idiots and flying off the handle, then most of their problems would never arise. How hard is it to advise children to talk to one another - and to responsible adults? No magic required!

Again the book featured bullying, but never once was it suggested the children do the right thing - go tell a grown up, preferably a teacher if this happens at school! It's really that simple. Instead of addressing Honey's problem, the so-called man of the house quotes the Bible to Honey: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink." The idea is to show kindness, but he conveniently fails to quote the sentence which follows that in Romans 12:20 though: "In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

It's hardly a kindness to shame someone so much that they feel like this, and most of the time it will not work. One again the Bible is the last place to go to get good advice for modern times, but it is a great place for reading about bullying and rejoicing in brutality. The whole point of this advice was to show kindness to those who bully you. Well, good luck with that half-assed plan. No, the way to deal with bullying at school is to REPORT IT! For goodness sakes, REPORT IT! If you want to show kindness to bullies, then advise them that if they do not stop, you will report it, and if they do not stop, then REPORT IT! It's that simple.

Once again the illustrations - all of white folks as usual, and yes you can judge this book by its cover - were done by Christina Weidman, but either she never read this novel, or the author did a poor job in describing Honey Moon to her. In the text, Honey's hair is described thus: "Her wild brown curls waved crazily in all directions." A couple of pages later it's described as a "wild mane," and later still as "long curly hair," so the take-home message is long, wild and curly, yet her hair is consistently illustrated pretty much as kempt, short, and straight: pretty much a bob! Even when she's depicted climbing out of a box of basketballs in which she'd tried to hide, her hair is straight, and very nearly perfectly arranged.

Again the book was formatted with unnecessarily wide-margins, and widely-spaced paragraphs so I'm getting the distinct impression that neither the authors nor the publisher has any love of trees. This, too, is a really poor message to send to children and overall, I cannot recommend this volume either.


Harry Moon Snow Day Color Edition by Mark Andrew Poe, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was yet another book in the Harry Moon wizard series and I liked this even less than I did the first. The situation has not changed. There is a derivative Harry the wizard boy living in a derivative town (Sleepy Hollow, yawn), permanently stuck in a derivate Halloween, and being harassed by trope stupid, but brutal villains. Again the illustrations are by Christina Weidman and again they depict whites only.

The villains work for the mayor, Kligore, whose motivation is entirely unclear. Why he is evil goes unexplained. What he hopes to gain from it goes unexplained. Why he keeps the town permanently at Halloween goes unexplained. Why no one outside the town even notices Sleepy Hollow is permanently at Halloween goes unexplained. Why the senior magician in situ never does anything to stop the mayor's evil goes unexplained. Why no adults or police in town ever even so much as try anything to stop the mayor's evil goes unexplained. Why Harry, supposedly the derivative last great white hope for salvation (in which other magical Harry book series did I read that now?) never ever ever performs any magic, nor seems to learn anything new goes unexplained. In short, the novel made even less sense than the prologue novel did.

The only difference between this and the previous one is that Harry is somehow now quite famous in town (for reasons which went entirely unexplained). Because the mayor is allergic to cats (despite employing a humanoid one as a minion!), he forgets to control the weather (why he must do this each night goes as unexplained as why he even wishes to do it), and again for reasons unexplained, it snows. So snow day! School is out! All the kids want to play in the snow, but the mayor's minions are ordered to stop them having any fun. Why on this day they're not supposed to have fun when on every other day the mayor apparently has no problem with kids having fun goes unexplained.

The villains, including the mayor's two sons, dress in white track suits and wear ski masks, and they patrol the town brutalizing - quite literally - the young children who are out sledding. They scare the kids, break the sleds, and yet no police ever show up! No one even calls the police and the parents of the town do quite literally nothing to stop it. Not a single parent even has anything to say about this terrorism. These violent and merciless kids are encasing blocks of ice in snow and throwing them at other kids' heads. Yet they face no justice whatsoever by the story's end.

Never once does the majestic white wizard Harry ever bring out his wand - because that would be inappropriate! What? This book was unnecessarily violent, entirely unjust, and was a wizard book in which the great wizard boy never does any magic, not even to save young kids from being hurt. In short, Harry is just as evil in passively letting this happen and not reporting it, as any of the mayor's minions! It's entirely inappropriate for young children to read, even though it is evidently written for the young end of middle-grade. Apparently the message being purveyed here is that bullying is wrong, but doing anything to stop it is also wrong!

The magic on the extremely rare occasions we do get a fleeting glimpse of it in these books is of the original Harry-the-wizard sort: mindlessly simplistic, except that instead of chanting two Latin words and waving a stick, they chant an English rhyme and wave a stick. There is no cost to anyone for using this magic, yet even though it is so simple and inexplicably cost-free, Harry still cannot bring himself to do it, not even to save young kids. Not even to save his friends. I'm sorry, but no!

Again, with its wide margins and widely-spaced paragraphs, this book is quite literally a waste of paper, and I cannot recommend it.


Harry Moon First Light by Mark Andrew Poe, Barry Napier, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was one of three middle-grade novels I got from Net Galley all on the topic of Harry Moon (two of them) and his sister, Honey Moon. I know these are aimed at middle-grade and not at me, but I still can't rate this one positively even in that light because it did not tell a great story and it was so derivative as to be quite sickening. Do not confuse this series with The Dream Life Of Harry Moon: A Novel by Meg Stewart, or with Harry Moons fyra faser by Thomas Sullivan, or with The Last Breath: A Harry Moon Novel by David Graves, or with The Phases of Harry Moon by Thomas Sullivan! Harry Moon is quite a popular name for story tellers.

So the derivative parts? Well, to begin with, the boy wizard's name is Harry. He has an older magical mentor who fortunately wasn't called Albus, but who does carry a wand and wears rather eccentric clothes. Harry of course didn't know until this opening novel what magical powers he had. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, which is as over-used when it comes to paranormal events as Salem for witches. Nothing original there. Harry has a large talking rabbit for a friend, reminiscent of the 1950 movie Harvey. Finally there's a gang of boorish bullies and an evil villain, none of whom faces any consequences. There was nothing original here.

Just as in the movie Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, in this story, the calendar, but not the clock is somehow stopped at Halloween for reasons which were never explained, yet life went on perfectly normally, so I didn't get what it meant to say it was stuck at Halloween, or how that was supposed to work, and why people didn't see anything amiss with that, or why no one complained! It was like the town was somehow not connected with the rest of the world which evidently never noticed that Sleepy Hollow was nearly always out of sync with the rest of the country when it came not only to the date, but also the weather. Yet All Hallow's E'en was never actually celebrated! The whole thing seemed ill-conceived to me, and it simply didn't work.

Of course Harry has to come into his power, but just like the original Harry the magic boy, this Harry never really did anything with it when he got it. He never went after the villain, and he never used it to improve anyone's life, so it seemed quite pointless that he even had this power. Nor did it make sense that his wizard mentor had utterly failed to fix anything during his tenure either. What's the point of having magic if you never use it? What's the point of being a boy wizard in a story if there is never any wizardry - indeed Harry is pretty much warned against using it.

It made no sense and was a dissatisfying and really pointless read, especially when the blurb built it up so the reader expected weird things to happen when Harry began his paper route, but nothing really ever did. There was this thread of goodness running through the story which superficially seems like a good thing - we don't want kids going off down paths of evil and brutality, but where this failed was that there was no justice in this world! That's entirely the wrong message to send to kids.

It made little sense anyway, adhering to this Biblical moral code because following it blindly made Harry and his friends into perennial victims who got punished painfully, even brutally at times, and no adult ever stepped up to the plate to put an end to it or even to help the kids out. That's also entirely the wrong message to send. Talking of which, the illustrations in the novel were of a very simplistic cartoon-like nature and drawn and colored by Christine Weidman. From those, it would seem that there are only white folks in Sleepy Hollow. No characters of color are mentioned in the text, so it appears that no Latinos or African- or Asian-Amnerican people live there. Maybe all the smart folk have already left this dumb town? The only beings depicted with darker skin are the evil ones - not the mayor and his minions, but the ones referred to as the Quiet Ones: some sort of red-eyed humanoid creature. This actually struck me as rather racist.

On a related topic, I have to register a complaint about the abuse of trees here, not in Harry Moon's world, but here in the real world. In the ebook version this doesn't matter, although longer ebooks still use more energy to transmit to recipients, but in a print book, this much white space on the page is criminal. No on wants to see a novel which is all crammed text all over the page, granted, but to have such wide margins and such spaced text means a lot more trees have to die to produce a run of such books than would have been the case had the margins and paragraph-spacing been realistically conservative.

For all these reasons, I cannot in good faith recommend this novel.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Ghoulish Song by William Alexander


Rating: WARTY!

This was another boring audiobook experiment. I didn't realize it at the time but it's number two in a series, and that pretty much describes it. There was nothing on the CD case to indicate this was a series - as usual. I think series should have a warning sign on them like cigarette packs do. I think this one was read by the author, but I don't recall for sure, because it's been a while since I listened to it. I'm a big advocate of authors reading their own books, but whoever it was reading this, it wasn't great. Neither was the story.

It started out well-enough, but seemed to become lost somewhere along the way, and I became bored with it. It's a very dark story for young kids to be reading or worse, listening to in a stranger's voice. It's set in Zombay - an invention of the author's. A girl named Kaile is forced to bribe some goblins after her parents insult them. She does such a good job of debasing herself that she's given a bone flute which initially pleases her since she's into music, but it causes Kaile to become detached from her shadow, which is widely taken as a sign that she's dead. This is the kind of material we're dealing with. Her dumb-ass family refuses to countenance her now that she's 'dead', and the story goes downhill from there.

Her conversations with her separated shadow are mildly amusing, but they were nowhere near enough to save the story for me, so I cannot recommend this.


The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer


Rating: WARTY!

You take Cremer with your coffee? Not me! Read decently by Leslie Bellair, this story still failed for me. Another audiobook experiment, it started out quite well, but soon started to sound tedious, and although I did not know at the time that this was a series, now that I know it is, I'm glad I didn't waste my time listening to this until the 'end' only to find it didn't actually have an end; instead, I'd have to go read the rest of this series to get the whole story. No thanks!

Essentially what this is, is the American revolutionary war transferred to the steam punk age, and there's little steam punk in it or at least here wasn't in the portion I listened to. The British Empire is once again the villain here, because it's a purported "global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery" according to the blurb. This could actually describe the present day USA!

In the story, Charlotte, who we're told is sixteen but who behaves more like an eleven year old, is living with a bunch of 0other refugees in a forest. Periodically, big brass collector machines which seem to have been modeled somewhat on the Martian machines from the 2005 War of the Worlds movie, come into the wilds to grab stray children. Charlotte helps one of these kids, escaping from the machine and hiding out in her secret layer with the rest of her crew

Now why do these impressive machines grab children? Surely it can't be for slave labor since they have these wonderful machines, now can it?! Oh wait, it is for slave labor! Fail! This made zero sense, but even that I was willing to let slide, until I started hearing about what Charlotte had to put up with in the camp. There was this utter jerk of a kid named (predictably) Jack who shamelessly harassed Charlotte, who was the sister of his best friend. Pathetic. I'm not going to read crap like that.

There was the occasional stroke of humor in it, but only when one of the youngsters cussed in British, such as "Bloody hell" or when Charlotte announced she was going to bed because she was "Knackered", but those moments were far too brief and scarce. Overall, this novel left me steamed and punk'd.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sadia by Colleen Nelson


Rating: WORTHY!

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

The story is about displaced and immigrant Middle-East young Muslim girls in Canada. Sadia Ahmadi is fifteen years old. She and her family left Syria when her father got a teaching post at a University in Winnipeg, which is the capital city of Manitoba, a Canadian province. Winnipeg sits some seventy miles north of the North Dakota-Minnesota state line. It's cold up there at this time of year! it's 5° Fahrenheit, or minus fifteen Celsius as I write this! The average low in January is minus twenty one! Even in August it doesn't breach eighty (25°C), and it's down to the fifties (12°C) at night. Call me a wuss, but that's way too cold for me! You have to be tough to live in Canada!

By moving when they did, Sadia's family missed the Syrian civil war. Sadia has some mixed feelings about the move and her new homeland, but she gets a real education as to how lucky she is when Amira Nasser, a refugee, ends up at Sadia's school having left everything behind in Syria to escape the not-so-civil war. Now she's in a strange land with different customs and language and she's expected to integrate and learn. Sadia is assigned by her school (Laura Secord High School) to help her get up to speed. Laura Secord is (or was) a real person - a Canadian hero of the 1812 war.

But the story isn't about Amira; neither is it about Sadia's best friend Nazreen Hussani who originally hailed from Egypt. Instead, these two are rather employed to represent the trope angel and the devil sitting on Sadia's shoulders. Amira is very much a traditional Muslim girl. Nazreen is a rebel who removes her hijab and conservative clothing as soon as she gets to school, replacing them only before she leaves to head home. Sadia has issues with this and while she tries to maintain their friendship, she also feels increasing tension, dissent, and distance between herself and Nazreen. She feels pulled between these two extremes, yet tries to find her own path.

The thing which seems to erode the rough edges, and bring all these girls together is basketball. It is Sadia's passion. She has the chance to be on a co-ed team which enters a small tournament. Everything seems to be going great until the finals, when one of the teams objects to Sadia wearing what is a suitable outfit for a strict Muslim girl to play a sport in public, but which the opposing team finds objectionable, and which we're told is contrary to the official rules of the game.

On a point of order, it really isn't. The problem is that there is a slow turn-around time for professional publishing houses - a lag between the author finishing a novel and it being published. I don't know when the author wrote this or how long it was between her signing-off on the finished copy and the publishing date (which is this month) but as it happens, the rules in basketball got changed early last year in Canada to allow religious headwear (with certain restrictions), so I chose to assume that events in this novel took place before that date! Full disclosure here: the publisher, Dundurn, is the largest Canadian-owned publisher, and I am on their auto approved list on Net Galley, for which I am grateful since I tend to like what they publish.

Just as importantly, a young girl named Amina Mohamed of the Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg came up with a design for headwear that meets both Muslim restrictions and basketball regulations. In the novel, it's Nazreen who comes up with this idea. There's no acknowledgement to Amina, so I'm wondering if this book was locked-down before that item got into the news. Perhaps in future editions, the author can acknowledge Amina Mohamed's accomplishment.

The story itself, though, was well-told and moving. It did bring to the fore the issues Muslims have when trying to live in Western society and stay true to their faith: the restrictions, the difficulties, the prejudices and the outright racism in some cases. I'm not religious at all, so some of these issues struck me as trivial, but that's certainly not how they feel to people who are invested in faith, so I let that go, but what did bother me is that there are deeper issues which the author did not explore. The most outrageous of these is the appalling gender bias that seems to go hand-in-hand with far too many organized religions (and not a few disorganized ones as well, for that matter).

If the purpose of covering a woman's body is to prevent inciting passions, then it seems to me to be doomed from the off, because when a woman is completely covered, doesn't that in a way inflame an embarrassing number of the male half of the population with curiosity and desire to know what's under there? Of course you could argue that no matter how a woman dresses, but this is actually the other half of this problem: while all the pressure is placed upon women to tone down their dress (whether it's Muslim dress or even western dress as it happens), none is placed upon men to tone down their behavior and it was this which the Quran addressed first!

The whole idea of covering a woman up isn't only an insult to the woman, it's also an insult to the men in its implicit assertion that they're so lacking in self-control that women need to be hidden under blankets lest their very appearance cause the men to become serial rapists. That whole idea is absurdist and wrong-headed to me and says far more about the men who promote these ideas than ever it does about the women who have suffered and continue to suffer under this oppressive and cruel patriarchal hegemony.

The Quran is quite explicit in terms of modesty, but this requirement did not so much address clothing as partition between the genders, and it does not apply solely to women! It applies to men, too, yet in this story, we find no issues raised over the boys, only over the girls. I thought this ought to have been delved into a little. What;s good for the goose is worth taking a gander!

Why must girls wear a head covering (which technically is a khimar, 'hijab' having a more general meaning) and not the boys? I think there is some mileage to be had there, especially when telling a story of this nature. On a related, but slightly different topic, one of the things Nazreen did in her little rebellion against conformity was to wear (when she did wear them!) very colorful Khumur (the plural of khimar).

Personally, I have no problem with what women wear (or don't wear!), it's their choice, but I can't help wonder how making a Khimar more attractive meets the stated purpose of the garment in the first place, which as I understand it, is to promote a modest appearance. Isn't it less modest to make yourself stand out? Indeed, in western society, wearing a Khimar in the first place is rare enough that it makes a woman stand out more than if she went bare-headed, so this seems to me to be in conflict with the whole purpose of a head covering if it's to detract from attention! That's all I'm going to say on that topic, although I certainly reserve the right to go into it in some future novel of mine!

On a minor technical issue, and prefacing this by saying that I'm not a basketball fan and I certainly don't pretend to be an expert on rules: as far as I know in regular play, once a basket is sunk, the ball goes to the other team! There's no rebound to be had and you certainly can't try to score again. So when we read that Jillian scored a trhee-pointer and then "Allan grabbed the rebound to shoot again" I had to ask: what rebound? There's no rebound from a sunk basket! And even if there were, you can't just grab the ball and shoot again! The possession devolves to the defending team. I'm thinking that the author was conflating regular play here with taking a free throw during which - if the ball rebounds - a player can grab it and take a shot. But like I said, it's a minor issue and we all manage to let a few of those get by if we're honest!

So in conclusion, the novel felt maybe a little young for high school, but then the students were only on the cusp of the high school experience, so perhaps I'm being too judgmental there. Or maybe just mental! I felt there were some issues with this as I've mentioned, more in the omission than the commission, but overall, the novel was a worthy read and I recommend it, especially for the intended age range.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Leatherback Blues by Karen Hood-Caddy


Rating: WARTY!

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

Subtitled "The Wild Place Adventure Series" this is evidently the first of a wildlife series for middle-grade readers. I'm not a big fan of series, and while there are some exceptions, this did not make the list. I started out liking this one, but ended up feeling like it did not achieve its goal. That said, I'm not the audience for this, but I have two kids who are just out of that age range and I can't see either of them wanting to read this, although they are far from a scientific sample!

There were several issues which led me to my conclusion which I shall get to. To begin with, overall it offered a decent start to the plot, and the writing isn't bad at all, except for the section where I read, "...the smell of wet, moist things coming back to life." Things are not usually wet and moist! But any writer can say odd things, which is why proof-reading is such a tedious but necessary chore. And what we wrote sounded so goodwhen we first wrote it, didn't it?!

The book is very animal-centric (which I personally enjoy), but sometimes that was overdone, as I shall mention shortly. Despite this, it seemed to 'fall off the wagon' after a while and become much more about the main female character than ever it was about leatherback turtles, which seemed to defeat the purpose. The thing I liked at first was that it avoided giving the animals magical powers or human qualities, or having them talk (which I personally detest unless it's in an out-and-out fantasy story), but it even jumped those rails before long, and this is what ultimately turned me off it.

Young Robin Green works with her father (when not in school!) in a wildlife rescue center. Her father is a vet. Her mother died a while back and Robin is still understandably feeling it, but she's trying to cope, despite having self-doubts and confidence crises from time to time, unlike her sister Zo-Zo, who is super self-possessed much to Robin's chagrin. Robin also has a younger brother nicknamed Squirm, who loves bugs of all kinds, of course.

I didn't get the young boys name at all (or Zo-Zo's for that matter), but I let that go. What I found really lacking credibility was that so many things happened in so short a time, including the bear with its head in a bucket which they encountered on their way to the airport, and which took things too far for me, especially when Robin flew off after it without a thought for safety. This is not a good thing to teach young kids.

Any animal can be dangerous, especially if it's sick or frightened, and wild animals definitely are dangerous, especially a bear. Fortunately her father had a convenient tranquilizer gun and even more conveniently, a shot prepared beforehand for the exact size and weight of the bear in question; frankly it was a bit too fortuitous for credibility, and hoping kids in the intended age grange for reading this won't notice is not only risky, it's a bit insulting to the kids.

It was like the author wanted to include everything she possibly could in the story, but adding so much stuff robbed each individual event of any chance it had of being a special moment. It became instead mundane, and the animal encounter suffered from this conveyor-belt approach in my opinion. One example of this kind of thing was in how the baby turtles were described, There was nothing about their outsize flippers (comparative to their baby body size) which s what I find one of the most hilarious and completely adorable things about them.

Worse, there was nothing about the many predators which seek out these 'turtle runs' and which eat their fill of the largely helpless hatchlings as they scatter across the sand in a desperate rush for the comparative safety of the ocean. That was a bad mistake. It's not only humans which imperil turtles and it never helps to sugar-coat a story like this.

Robin finds herself with an unlikely opportunity to visit Costa Rica and help save these leatherbacks which are under threat from egg-poachers. Again I found this a little bit too fortuitous, and I could not let it go because it suggested that the Costa Ricans had no interest in helping leatherbacks, and/or there are no adults or kids there who could or would help, or who were able to design websites or contribute in some way. It felt too much like the insulting trope of the 'white man coming to the rescue of the native'.

Leatherbacks are the fourth largest reptile currently extant on our little planet, after the crocodilians. They're not considered endangered, but they're rated vulnerable, which is a threatened status only one stop down from endangered. To me, it's tragic to see how the little turtles, in their mad rush to reach the ocean and safety, are preyed-upon mercilessly by seagulls and other such predatory birds, as well as by crabs, and then other competing life in the ocean. Sometimes nature sucks even while it's being perfectly natural, doesn’t it?

The problem is that Robin is a bit of a wuss and even while she's excited by the trip, she isn't looking forward to the humidity and heat in Costa Rica. She's also unaccountably perturbed by the presence of scorpions, which is peculiar since there are scorpions in Canada believe it or not.

It’s only one species, the boreal scorpion, and as a threat, it’s more like a spider - small and not commonly known to sting humans. Neither Canadian nor Costa Rican scorpions are deadly. But the fact that Robin was supposedly a bit of a wildlife expert yet had this huge fear of scorpions like they were rare and exotic made no sense. The fact that Squirm, supposedly an expert on insects and arachnids, didn't remind Robin of the native scorpion undermined his credibility too.

At one point the book refers to people who are "Chinese or Asian" seemingly forgetting that Chinese are Asians, as are Indians. I mention this because it struck me as odd that the two should be separated, like there's no connection between them, but it’s important in one respect because the Asian predation of turtle eggs has pretty much driven nesting populations there to extinction. Good luck with keeping your jellyfish populations in check you guys now you've killed-off a major predator of them! They will pay the price for their stupidity, selfishness and short-sightedness in Southeast Asia.

Another minor quibble was a discussion of "poisonous insects." Some insects may well be poisonous if eaten, but I think what was intended here was to discuss if they were venomous. There is a difference! There's also a difference between kids talking of snakes and insects being "poisonous," which many people habitually do, and the narrator of the story using the wrong terminology! The one is likely, the other is not a good idea.

The point where Robin's dead mother magically started appearing to her turned me off this story completely, and I think it was a mistake to take this route. It ran the story into fantasy land, thereby undermining all the factual and 'hard science' material which had gone before. Dead moms do not reappear, and I think it sets a bad, and even scary precedent to make kids think that a parent who died would come back to help them, and an especially bad one to suggest she will rescue them by making an animal, in this case a snake, act out of character by biting a kidnapper for no good reason. The kidnapping itself lacked credibility or that matter.

On a final note, and this goes to the story drifting into fantasy land: animals - reptiles included - cannot smell fear. The author avoided that pitfall by saying they can "sense fear. They knew fear made things weak." That first part is correct to an extent; the second part is the fantasy. Even telling kids that animals can smell/sense fear is a bad step to take because it makes the child fearful, and therefore much less likely to have a good interaction with the animal. Telling them instead that animals are very sensitive and kids need to be gentle and careful with how they approach them is much wiser.

Just to put the idea out there, like it's a 'smell fear' kind of magical thing is insulting to the animal and misses the much more important and interesting reality of how sensitive some animals truly are, and how entrallingly perceptive they can be. While I would add birds to this skill level, I would not include reptiles, amphibians, and fish in the mix because they do not have the kind of brain which mammals and birds do. Snakes are essentially rodent killing machines (amongst other prey); they have no mammalian traits and to lump all animals together is to mislead children and do an injustice to the animals for the fascinating skill sets that they do have.

One final issue has to do not with the plot or writing, but with the overall formatting of the book. To talk about rescuing animals and not include plants in the picture is a short-sighted approach since one depends so much on the other. It seemed hypocritical therefore to put out a wildlife book which makes such tree-abusing use of the printed page. In an ebook this doesn't matter since it's all lumped together (especially if you read it in Amazon's crappy Kindle app which seems to think formatting is a joke), but when I read this in Bluefire Reader, which gives a much better impression of how the printed page will look, you see that there are problems.

This book locked-up Bluefire Reader (BR), which reads PDFs! It completely disabled the app so you could not tap on anything and have it respond. The first time it did this was on page 100, so thinking I had a bad copy, I downloaded it again, and the second copy would not let me get past page 14! I downloaded it to my desktop on which is installed Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), and I found in this, I could type in some page numbers, and it would go there, but for others, such as pages around page 14, it would simply spin its wheels and not go anywhere for some time.

Eventually it settled on page 15 which is a prologue, which I routinely do not read anyway, but it took an inordinate amount of time to alight there, and to try and click the bar to go to the next page didn't work any better. Once I'd got past about page 17, then things seemed to work again until I got to page 94, when it locked up again. At this point I gave up experimenting, but something is definitely wrong with the PDF of this book! I've never had these problems with other books in ADE or BR that I can recall.

Another issue was the overall look of the page. On my desktop computer in ADE, the book measured 10 inches tall by 6.5 inches wide. The print area covered four inches by eight It doesn't matter what the exact measurements are in the printed book because I'm talking relative percentages here. These huge margins meant that the actual printed area was roughly fifty percent of the page and the rest was blank. That's an appalling waste of trees.

No one wants a book which is printed gutter to edge and top to bottom, with the printed lines all crowded together by any means! It has to be readable and catered to the age of the reading audience, but to waste around fifty percent of a page and thereby slaughter far more trees for a large print run than is 'necessary' is an appalling abuse, especially in a book which claims such an affinity for the natural world. Maybe other people do not care or even think about this, but I do, and it's become for me a criterion when it comes to rating books.

As I said, this is an advance review copy so hopefully the final edition will not have the issues I discussed above. In Kindle it worked fine, but the formatting, as usual with Kindle, sucked. The turtle logo at the start of each chapter occupied a full screen and it did not work as intended because it was just one more screen to swipe by before I could start reading the chapter.

I keep my Kindle app set with a black background and white text to save power, so the turtle logo, black on white really stood out, which made it more annoying! These are formatting issues and have nothing to do with the story itself except in the practical experience of reading it. I just wish that publishers would pay more attention to the overall reading experience in different media than they do.

So talking of overall, this was not a great reading experience either in the book itself or because of technical issues. Hopefully these will be resolved in the final edition, but based on the book content alone, I cannot rate this as a worthy read, although I wish the author all the best in her series. It has some very promising potential.


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Rating: WORTHY!

This was from another audiobook, another experiment that worked! I get a lot of misses with audiobooks because I experiment more with them, but the disappointments are worth it because of the gems I find now and then. This was one of the latter.

April is not too happy at having to live with her grandmother, but she finds ways to make it work. Befriending Melanie and her very young kid brother Marshall who wears a plush octopus around his neck, is a good move, especially since the two have a shared interest in ancient Egypt. Melanie has made quite sophisticated families out of paper dolls - people cut from magazines and newspapers - with entire family histories, but soon, the two of them are using an empty, slightly overgrown back yard next door, behind an antique store, as their playground.

In their eyes it's Egypt, and they concoct elaborate rituals and stories to play out, which they call the Egypt game, and they refer to themselves as Egyptians. They create props and costumes and hold sophisticated and serious ceremonies after the manner, as far as they can tell, of the original Egyptians. A third girl, Elizabeth, joins them and despite a falling-out one time, they're having the best time until there's a murder in the neighborhood. All games are on hold since all girls are grounded for safety. But before long play resumes, and just when things seem to be going well, two boys, Ken and Toby, show up.

The boys had been curious about what the girls were up to when they snuck off after school, and spied on them! Rather than make trouble the boys want to join them! Again, it's game on, but then, one strange day, the statue to which they make their 'sacrifices' starts talking back to them!

I really liked this story. It was nicely-paced, interesting, entertaining, and made me want to listen. I recommend it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Turkey Monster Thanksgiving by Anne Warren Smith


Rating: WORTHY!

Nine-year-old Katie and school friend Claire, who is also Katie's across-the-street neighbor, both have in common that are short of a mom. Claire's father is, I believe, divorced. Katie's mom selfishly left the family to pursue a singing career in Nashville, although Katie apparently is apparently fine with that.

Claire is a bit uppity, so while Katie is looking forward to their usual Thanksgiving: eating her father's "famous" pizza in their pajamas, and then eating popcorn while watching the football on TV, Claire proudly announces that her family is going to throw a banquet for a score of people. Also her Thanksgiving decorations, which are spilling out onto the porch and the yard, are something else, especially the monster turkey which Claire's father plans to put onto the house roof, and which scares Katie's young brother.

Katie starts to feel like her plans are inadequate, and she begins to compete with Claire by making a list, checking it twice, and,...wait, wrong holiday! She does make a list of things to do, including making decorations and buying a bird ahead of time so it can be thawed and cooked, and also looking up recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes to prepare. She starts looking for people to invite to dinner as well, but in the end she can come up with only two, one of whom is a teacher and the other her dad's boss. It doesn't help her situation that she's lied to Claire about what kind of a Thanksgiving her family's will be like.

Now you know things will go astray here and they do (festooning the house with poison oak and setting the sweet potato dish on fire are never good ideas), but Katie stays true to her course even as she realizes and acknowledges that compromises must be made. She is an admirable and strong female character who has dreams, but who also has her feet firmly on the ground. I liked her and thought she was a good role-model for children of her age. I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it unreservedly.


Cloudia & Rex by Ulises Farinas, Erick Freitas, Daniel Irizarri


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a great story which I really enjoyed, although I have to say it was a bit confusing at times. The art was lovely and the story was different from the usual fare. I always appreciate that! For one thing, it presented African American females as protagonists. It was nice to see strong female characters of color, who are far too few in comic books, and strong, independent females who are equally rare. I would not recommend a graphic novel if that was all it had to offer, but I would sure be tempted! Fortunately this offered much more.

In the story, two young girls, the eponymous Cloudia and Rex, and their mother run into ancient gods who are seeking safety which can only be found in the mortal world. An antagonist named Tohil wishes to destroy those same gods and is hot on their heels.

Somehow the gods end-up being downloaded into Cloudia's phone, and some of their power transfers over to the girls. Rex is somewhat bratty, but she finds she can change into an assortment of animals. It's amusing and interesting to see what she does with that. Cloudia is a bit strident, but maybe she has reason when her life is screwed-up so badly and unexpectedly.

Daniel Irizarri's coloring is bold and pervasive, and it really stands out from the comic. It's almost overwhelming, actually, but overall the story was entertaining and the characters were fun, I recommend this one.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Curiosity House: The Screaming Statue by Lauren Oliver and HC Chester


Rating: WARTY!

I'm not sure about the HC Chester - whether that's a real person or some sort of fictional device - but I have avoided Lauren Oliver's books since she's never written one which has appealed to me enough to want to read it. Now I know why! This one did appeal until I started reading it; then I found it was definitely not to my taste at all, and I DNF'd it rather quickly. Yes, it's not aimed at me, but I have to wonder if those at whom it is aimed would like it. My own two kids who are broadly in that age range would not give it the time of day, I'm sure.

The book is part two of a series of loosely connected adventures, I believe, featuring the same mystery-solving kids, and I know this is what Big Publishing™ pushes authors into, and authors dream of getting that series sinecure so they don't have to think-up good ideas for stories anymore, but I am not a fan of those authors who chase easy cash, and I don't read series very much for the same reason I tend not to go for overly long novels: I'm very easily bored by a surfeit of sameness, and books like this are all about same-old, same-old: once you get through that introductory portion, whether it be the first twenty chapters or the first volume.

There are exceptions which are rare and treasured, but this was not one of them. I didn't like the charcters or find them interesting. It took way too long to actually find a mystery (I was still unsure what it was when I quit reading, but it seemed like maybe the 'murdered' wife wasn't actually dead at all). Maybe I'm wrong in that guess, but what I do guess right is that I'm done with Lauren Olvier now.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Team Fugee by Dirk McLean


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was a short book aimed at middle grade readers, but I'm not sure how well it will be received. Obviously I'm not in that age group, but I can still appreciate a good novel and this one did not feel that way. It was too choppy, the story being told more in a series of cameos than in a flowing style. Problems in the plot seemed to arise from out of nowhere, and to be resolved with little difficulty.

The soccer descriptions were not very good. I got the impression that the author knew little about soccer and had done some reading, but still hadn’t quite grasped it. For example, at one point there's a description of a penalty kick, but what the author describes is not a penalty kick - it’s a free kick, with players standing by each of the goal posts and a wall of five boys in front of the goal. No! That's not a penalty kick! With a penalty, it's just the kicker and the goalkeeper! That's it! There's no one else. This as a big fail, and will be noticed by any kid who knows anything about soccer.

At another point the author describes some kids "struggling to pump their ball." This confused me at first until I realized they were trying to inflate the ball, with a pump that didn't work properly. I'm not Canadian and for all I know maybe Canadians describe inflating the ball like that, but it seemed odd and won't play well to an international audience. It’s a minor thing, but these things count, especially when there are lots of them.

The story involved two soccer teams which formed of their own accord at the school, one comprised of Syrian refugees, the other Nigerian refugees. That's where the title of the novel comes from: reFUGEE. I didn't realize that the title should be pronounced with a soft G, so the title made no sense at all until I read the novel. Because of this, the story was in a sense rather racist. Essentially the only people who were depicted as important here were the Syrians and the Nigerians. No Canadians (or anyone else) need apply. I found that insulting and counterproductive, because the essence of the story was supposed to be about cooperation and collaboration. How could this be if the team was exclusively Nigerian and Syrian?

So while I wish the author all the best, I cannot recommend this as a worthy read. The story didn't feel like a story. it felt like notes for a story or at best a rough draft.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins


Rating: WARTY!

This book might appeal to the intended age range, but for me it was poorly done, and makes American Indians look like antiquated idiots. That said, it was set in 1849, when everyone by today's standards seems antiquated, but the story itself simply made no sense.

Addie is twelve, and lives in Essex, Massachusetts, where shipbuilding is the line of work every boy wants to get into. Girls have no choice about their lives, and this never changes for Addie. Her father took off to join the California gold rush and almost as soon as he's gone, her mother and infant brother take sick with "the flux" and both die. This is where we join the story.

With Anna fearful of being sent into servitude, she conceals her family's death and steals a coffin for burying them, from the local undertaker. This is the first problem because this is not an insubstantial theft, and had it been investigated, which it undoubtedly would have been, it would have led directly to the girl who dragged the pine box to her home, yet she gets away with it!

Unfortunately, her continued rejection of the town's people's offers to come visit her mother eventually reveals the truth. Rather than stick around, Addie flees into the woods, looking for 'Nokummus' (the Wampanoag word for grandmother, aka Nokomes), an American Indian woman who offered to help Addie, but who singularly fails to do so.

As it turns out, Nokummus is quite literally Addie's grandmother, but we have to wade through countless tedious pages as Addie flees home in mid-winter, camps out in a lean-to near a shipyard, and all but freezes and starves despite her supposedly having experience of camping with her father. I can't help but ask, since Nokummus was known in Essex and several people knew she was Addie's grandmother, what the hell was the whole story about? Why did this woman not come and live with Addie when her father left town, so everything was okay?

Rather than help her granddaughter, this clueless, selfish, dangerous woman left Addie to her own devices until she was almost dead, then "rescued" her and took her off to a deserted island just off shore, apparently for no other reason than to have Addie find her daughter's grave. Nokummus had thirteen years to find that grave! What the hell was she doing in all that time? Sitting on her idle ass, doubtlessly.

She takes Addie in (and I mean that in every conceivable sense), and poisons her by feeding her some bark gruel so Addie vomits profusely, then hallucinates, and finally and wakes up after a two-day bender, deludedly thinking she's communed with the spirits. After this, Nokummus finally lets Addie return home, and moves in with her! The selfish bitch couldn't have done this in the first place and gone on this grave-search next summer? What a bunch of pinto dung!

Nothing is resolved. Addie never moves to the Wampanoag tribal lands to become their powwaw. Her father doesn't even return by the end of the novel so all the 'waiting, hoping. crying' for him is a complete red herring. Her best friend John proves himself as big of a jackass as the school bully who picks on Addie because she's a 'halfbreed'. Justice is never served on that dick, but John is just as bad save for being more subtle in his prejudices and dickishness, and he gets no comeuppance either so I guess that's fair. The story is a mess and not even a hot mess since it's set in winter. I think it stunk and I think it's insulting to and belittling of American Indians, and I cannot recommend it.


The Girl With Brazil-Nut Eyes by Richard Levine


Rating: WARTY!

Erratum: It's not Kerr Dullea! The actor's name is Keir Dullea.

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

This was offered on Net Galley as a 'read now' and I've found those to be a mixed bag. Some are gems, but often those books are ones which people have not been interested in because they are not very interesting; others are interesting to a few but not to all because they specialize in some niche which may or may not have very wide appeal. For me this book was not a worthy read because it just struck me as odd, in the writing, in the subject matter, and in the ending.

There are two main characters are a fourteen-year-old boy named Josh, and a girl of similar age named Ashleigh. The story is told as one long flashback by Josh in his fifties, who is recalling events (down to verbatim conversations, yet!). This means it's in first person and a flashback, both of which I tend to truly detest. This did not help me to like this novel. If people are relating a story about something that happened years ago, or even days ago for that matter, they do not do it verbatim and go into every detail - most of which they cannot remember, and those of which they do remember having been inevitably modified (sometimes stupendously) from the reality.

I think first person novels need to have some sort of warning on the front cover akin to the one on cigarette packs so those of us who like realistic stories can avoid them as though they were Madagascar (which currently has the plague FYI). No one can remember verbatim conversations from fifty years ago, so this was a constant reminder that I was reading a novel, and that the narrator was an unreliable one. I did not trust his recollection.

Om top of this, the story was disjointed and as manic as Ashleigh was supposed to be (although she showed little evidence of it - that part was all tell and no show). The novel jumped around too much, especially in his reminiscence of that one summer, which was less of a story than it was a list of events, and it swung from high to low like the novel itself was bipolar.

As a character, Ashleigh made no sense to me at all. I know that people who have depression and phobias and those kinds of problems cannot always logically argue themselves out of it because the very fears are irrational and in depression, your own mind is betraying you, but it can be done to an extent; yet here we have Ashleigh, described in the blurb and in the book as 'beautiful' and 'brilliant' (notice the beauty always comes first as though that's the most important quality a woman can have, nothing else being quite that crucial) being portrayed as completely helpless before her own issues. Instead of making her looks strong and heroic, this rendered her weak and dumb.

That doesn't mean she could have magically cured herself, but it does mean she ought to have been a somewhat different character than she was. That said, since she never exhibited any illness - we are always told about it, never shown it as it happens, I guess she had no need to try to figure ways to fight it! That is, of course, a huge problem with first person: nothing can happen unless Josh witnesses it personally or is told about it in long expository paragraphs. Rather than bring her to the fore and make her stand out, this pushed Ashleigh into the background, turning her role into a walk on part instead of making it a starring one in Josh's self-obsessed home movie of his life.

The idea here is that Josh is called 'Bugboy' because he has some sort of hip problem which means he cannot walk normally, walking instead with his legs splayed to the side somewhat. This is described cruelly by fellow students as walking like an insect, hence his nickname. It's painful for him to walk very far we're told, but we're never told anything about what medical treatment he's getting, if any, or advice he's been given about exercise or therapy aimed at working to improve his condition (if any).

I know this was set some thirty years or more prior to the guy telling us about it, but medicine was not exactly in the dark ages in the late eighties, and this lack of attention to treatment of his condition makes it look almost like he's faking it for attention. He's not, of course, but that's one impression this writing can give.

The 'Brazil-nut-eyed' part of the title comes from the fact that Ashleigh has large eyes but Brazil nuts speak more of color than of size and of hardness, which doesn't describe her eyes at all, so the title made no sense. The misheard lyrics to Madonna's La Isla Bonita describing a girl with 'eyes like potatoes' is much more evocative (if not what she actually sang!). Even calling her pecan-eyes or better yet, walnut-eyes would have sounded better to my mind.

Ashleigh comes one day unannounced to sit at the 'defectives' table in the school cafeteria. The occupants of this table describe themselves as defectives because they all have one issue or another and they found themselves drawn together not because they necessarily wanted to hang out with all the others, but because they were rejected by everyone else.

This was a bit hard to believe, but possible, I guess. It's really been overdone though in teen exploitation movies and comedies. 'Bags' has bags under his eyes and was asthmatic (or something like it - their various conditions were left startlingly vague). Stuttsman (eye-roll) had a stutter. Veronica had a bright red "birthmark" on one cheek. Samantha had a limp. The real defect here though, was that all of these purported defectives were sweet, friendly, smart, thoughtful people who all became successful in later life, while everyone else was a cruel tyrant and ultimately a loser. So were were expected to believe. It was not realistic.

What was truly hard to believe was why Ashleigh joined them. It was never really explained. Yes, we were told (not shown) that she felt defective because of her mental insecurities, but this was never convincing and unlike the others, we never heard stories about her being rejected by anyone. She seemed perfectly capable of latching on to anyone and befriending them, so this failed for me.

it was equally a fail that none of the school bullies got any sort of comeuppance, but the story ended rather hurriedly and rather haphazardly, so I guess this was just let go like too many other things. The story never felt wrapped up for me. For example, while we learn a bit about the other 'defectives' in later life, we hear almost nothing about Josh. it felt odd, like it has been vacuumed ans scrubbed clean of anything interesting. even his career choice was predictable and unsurprising.

I am not a fan of baseball, so the endless detailed references to baseball including whole paragraphs and groups of paragraphs made me numb, and I skipped them unread. Some to the text which didn't even mention baseball was like this too, so the story became even more disjointed than it already was with jumping so many boring paragraphs. Maybe baseball fans will love this, but many others will not.

If you think this is a love story it isn't. Maybe you think then, that it's a story about friendship, but if that's what it was, then the friendship itself was decidedly odd and one-sided. It could have been the kind of story where the friendship grew naturally into a romance, but it never went there; quite the opposite in fact.

The two of them never kissed, never really held hands, never had any sort of real intimate moments, and never talked about their feelings for one another even as a friendship. The whole relationship came off as cold and clinical at best, and as Ashleigh cynically using Josh at worst. It felt like the two were hanging out together not because of any attraction to each other for whatever reason, but because of a repulsion from everyone else, or because both of them had fallen down a well, and were stuck together until one or both of them could get out somehow.

There was neither love nor romance, which is fine for me because that is so overdone in books like this that it's tedious to read, but that said, the friendship didn't really go anywhere and it was, I felt, betrayed by Ashleigh towards the end when she started keeping secrets from Josh, her (we're told, not shown) best friend.

In short this story did not work in my opinion. It felt a bit like the 1991 movie My Girl with the genders reversed, and it did not impress me any more than that did, so I cannot recommend it as a worthy read. The Newbery people might like it, but from me that's not a recommendation.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Dash by Kirby Larson


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a pretty decent read for a younger reader, but perhaps a bit immature and bland for a middle-grader or older. There's very little in it for the adult reader, but since it's not aimed at an adult audience I can't fault it for that, so I consider it a worthy read for the intended audience.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, a date which will live in infamy according to then president Roosevelt, he signed an exec order which brought infamy to the US, and shamefully so. The order eventually resulted in over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps. Curiously, in Hawaii, where many more Japanese Americans lived, little more than a tenth of those people were also interned. The man who was charged with accomplishing this, John DeWitt, the Army general in command of the coast, is portrayed as a decent person in this story but in reality, his inflammatory racist view was "A Jap's a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not."

The fact that this was indeed pure racism is proved by the fact that there was no large-scale wholesale incarceration of residents of German or Italian ancestry. It was America once again over-reacting to a bad and embarrassing defeat, taking the ball and going home. Meanwhile, in Japan there were over 2,000 civilians of allied nations. These people were also interned and very little (to my knowledge) has been written about them and very little is ever heard of their experiences. Bernice Archer has written a book about it, The Internment of Western Civilians Under the Japanese published in 2004. The Japanese treated Japanese Americans as Japanese Nationals, although American citizens of Japanese ancestry were urged to return to the US.

In this story, young Mitsi Kashino and her family are transported to an isolated camp, but she must leave behind her pet dog, Dash. The story, as I said, is a bit tame and bland, which given the audience for which it was written is understandable in some ways, but not in others, since this was written as recently as 2014. I think kids can handle more truth than the author does, evidently. It fails in that it does not give any real feeling of the horror or even of the foul injustice of these events, which is why I think it's suitable for a younger audience. I think older children will need more than this offers, but I consider it a worthy read for the young.


Ivy Takes Care by Rosemary Wells


Rating: WORTHY!

This, in a way, was an odd sort of a novel in that it was set in 1949, yet had a very modern sensibility to it because it was written quite recently. It's short and highly amusing, and it proved to be an audiobook experiment which was a great success.

Ivy's on summer break from school and has an argument with her best friend Annie before that friend leaves for summer camp, so she's a bit down. She wants to buy a friendship ring, but money is tight and Ivy's family, unlike Annie's, isn't well-off (although they do seem to be able to afford Hershey's Kisses, so I guess they're not so completely impoverished that there's nothing available for a treat now and then).

Ivy's solution is to put up posters around the town offering her animal care services. She's soon signed up to look after a horse named Chestnut, which is in need of some exercise while the owners are on vacation, and then a dog named Inca, whose owner had to leave it behind temporarily, and finally a racehorse named Andromeda, and this one somewhat troubled. Ivy herself is troubled by Billy Joe Butterworth, a pain-in-the-nectar of Ivy's summer, and a busybody neighbor to boot, who has his nose into everything and has no concept of personal space whatsoever.

Each time ivy is unsure of her ability to rise to the situation, she masters it and finds smart and inventive ways to overcome obstacles. I liked the pace and tone of this story, and it's unusual setting: the Red Star Guest Ranch, in Nevada, where divorcing husbands or wives need to stay for six weeks in order to satisfy a statutory requirement and have their marriage dissolved, hassle-free. It was unusual to find something like this in a children's story, and it lent a depth and humor to it that really emboldened the story and contrasted beautifully with Ivy's innocence and sweetness. I loved Ivy, who is a real charmer and a strong female character. I recommend this one.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Squawk of the Were-Chicken by Richard J Kendrick


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This book was hilarious and I recommend it, although for me it went on a little bit too long to be perfect. It was beautifully written and full of characterization, quirks, fun, amusing asides, and an actual mystery. It was also weird, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It was weird in the sense that it seemed to straddle two completely different time periods simultaneously: the rustic of the Jane Austen, and the modern. For example, while bicycles were apparently new inventions, screenplays were not, so it made for a rather mind-boggling read, the reader never quite knowing what to expect.

As I mentioned, it felt rather long for a book which appears to be aimed at a middle-grade audience. Despite being amused and entertained by it, I have to say I was often wondering why it was taking me so long to get through it! I read it frequently and I'm not a slow reader, but I always seemed to be making awfully slow progress through it which was frankly off-putting. This drag effect was offset by the interesting story.

The relationship between the two main characters, Deidre, who leads us through this tale, and Fyfe, who is her sidekick, is choice and beautifully done. The two of them are an item and either don't know it yet, or are in serious denial, but it was a pleasure to read of their interactions. They were not the only two characters though, and rather than have a pair of startlingly realized actors playing against a backdrop of an otherwise bland ensemble, this world was full of equally engrossing and quite complex people, particularly the eccentric were-chicken investigator.

Even minor characters contributed fruitfully, as in when I read this, which made me laugh out loud despite not being a fan of fart jokes or stories:

Of course, then there'd been tea. And, apparently, the Master Seamstress was just about the only person Deidre had ever met that was completely impervious to Fyfe. In retrospect, maybe Deidre should have figured on that. She had once told Deidre, rather cryptically, to 'never trust a fart, dear.'
That felt so off the wall to me that I really did laugh out loud.

Deidre lives in a quiet village which nevertheless has a thriving market. Almost all of the activity in the village seems to revolve around making and selling things, and most of those things seem to revolve around wheat, chickens, and eggs, but which came first, I can't say. Deidre has no interest in that. Instead, she's focused on inventing, and by that I mean engineering, and she's really focused on that. Her father is supposedly trying to get her the position of smallest cog at the clock shop, a venue she loves, even as she detests its owner.

So she occupies her time inventing things, usually with disastrous consequences, and then trying to figure out how to solve the problem or whether she should move onto something else. The latter option tends to win, because her mind is all over the place. Into this orderly, if messy life, comes a kleptomaniacal were-chicken. Or is it merely someone impersonating a chicken? And whence cometh the bravery if they're impersonating a chicken? That last question may be irrelevant and/or ill-considered, but only Deidre and Fyfe can find the answer - and determined they are to do so.

There was a minor writing issue with this, and since my blog is more about writing than it is about reviewing, I want to add this in, if a bit belatedly. I read:

Deidre trailed after the two men as they trudged across the stricken yard, treading rather more carefully than they did so that she wouldn't trip.
Now you can argue it's fine the way it is, because it's clear what's intended here, and I accept that, but I believe it could have been written better, and thereby have avoided the question of who it was who trod more carefully: the two men or Deidre! How about:
As they trudged across the stricken yard, Deidre trailed after the two men, treading rather more carefully than they did so that she wouldn't trip.
Small change, big difference, No reader in their right mind is going to ditch your novel for one or two infractions of this nature, but suppose you've made a dozen through inattention? This is why reading helps - to clue you in to how other writers tackle it and to what's acceptable and what's nonsensical. It's why re-reading your own work often before publishing is a tedious but worthwhile expenditure of your time!

I really liked this novel and I recommend it although as I said, it may be a bit long (and even a bit mature in reading style) for many middle-grade readers. Although the author has an annoying habit of omitting question marks from clearly interrogative sentences, the writing overall was excellent and appreciated, and even Amazon's crappy Kindle app couldn't ruin it for me!


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Soldier, Sister Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood


Rating: WARTY!

This book, I have to say up front, was a fail for me. Superficially it pretends to be a tribute to Lori Piestewa, who was a member of the Hopi tribe and was also, at the age of 23, the first woman in the US military to be killed in combat in the Iraq War in March 2003, but there is very little in this novel about the military.

Teshina ("Tess") isn't Hopi, she's a 14-year-old American Indian/White woman who lives on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Her sister joins the National Guard and is subsequently called up for service in Iraq. That's pretty much the last we hear of her, and then the story is nothing more than a young girl dealing with young girl issues with a Native American twist. And a horse.

This felt like a bait-and-switch from the start, and to me it represented more of a disservice to Specialist Piestewa - who though not in a combat unit as such, distinguished herself in action, and subsequently died as a result of a head injury - than ever it was a tribute. Piestewa and the other woman of color in that action, Shoshana Johnson, got the short end of the stick as compared with the fictional farce the military made out of the other female survivor, the white Jessica Lynch.

I had to keep asking myself what this book was about because it went in so many directions that it never really arrived anywhere. Was it about native Americans in the US military? No. Was it about American Indian culture? Well, a little bit. Was it about the relationship between Tess and Gaby, her sister? Somewhat, but not so much. Tess was manic about her sister, bouncing around unrealistically between so many emotions that it was a joke. At one point she'd be angry, at another accepting, and then unaccountably angry again. I get that people do have mixed emotions, but this honestly felt poorly written and inauthentic.

Tess was left to take care of her sister's persnickety horse, and we're bitch-slapped silly with so much crap about understanding the animal that it left the bounds of the real and entered the realm of the supernatural. Yes, you can understand animals, and approach them the right way or the wrong way, and yes of course they're sensitive and have feelings, but this narrative went way overboard for no apparent reason other than that it was an American Indian story.

This same issue arose over Tess's experiences with her grandmother who was patronizingly portrayed as having almost shaman-like qualities, and Zen Buddhist composure. It felt so overdone that it was insulting, and her advice to Tess about handling inappropriate comments was hardly brilliant. The only real way to deal with bullying is to stamp it out. Ignoring it and laughing it off will not do that.

Tess's biggest issue seemed to be the fact that her parents evidently did a lousy job of raising her, so that she's stuck with this question of "who am I?" given her mixed heritage - a question they obviously had not helped her with, but here's a better question: why does it matter? Why was this story not about a young woman accepting that she is who she is and the hell with anyone who won't accept her on her own terms? This business of trying to pigeon-hole her seemed ill-advised to me, and was one in a long list of tropes and clichés, including bullying, that we had here, but with nothing new added to the mix.

The blurb on Goodreads says that "Lori Piestewa...is the first Native American woman in US history to die in combat" and I call horseshit on that one. Try Running Eagle of the Piegan Blackfeet, or Kaúxuma Núpika of the Kootenai, and there were undoubtedly many others whose names we will never know. Don't mess with American Indian women! The writer of that blurb needs an education. I know the author didn't write it, so I am not including that in my review of her novel, but that already had quite sufficient problems for me to rate it negatively. I cannot recommend this story at all.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This story is set in Kenya, a nation of almost fifty million people, mostly Bantu and Nilote, but an assortment of many others, too. It sits on the east coast, right below the spike that's known as the Horn of Africa. Kenya is home to Turkana Boy, a 1.6-million-year-old Homo erectus fossil. It's also home to the third largest AIDS population in Africa, but it's one that of late, has seen some success in battling this deadly infection.

This was a depressing story about the appalling AIDS epidemic in Africa which hosts about 15% of the world's population, but is home to almost seventy percent of the world's AIDs victims. This story makes that cold statistic real in both mind and heart as it tells of the life of young Auma, a child who was not thought likely to survive birth, but who grew smart, strong, and ambitious. She wants to be a doctor, and sees her performance at track as a ticket to getting the education she needs to follow her dream, but the powers that be want to see her neutered by being married off at fifteen.

We learn of her harsh schooling, and her living conditions which are primitive to us, but sadly all-too-normal for too many African children. Auma never loses her way, though. She is determined and steadfast, even when AIDS, which the locals euphemistically and with rather gallows humor label 'Slim', comes calling at her door, first taking her father and then seeing her mother fall ill.

It's good that Auma has the stamina of an athlete, because this isn't a US TV show where everything is wonderfully wrapped-up in thirty minutes, and all familial spats are resolved with joyful outcomes. This is Africa - a terra incognita to us spoiled-rotten westerners, and Auma's story is about the real world, not about the cozy fictional one with which we proudly cosset our so-called civilized selves.

I noted that some other reviewers have set this story in the 1980's, but (and I admit I may have missed it) I got no sense of when this took place at all from the actual writing. There are no temporal markers in the small village of Koromo: neither cell-phone nor landline, neither flat-screen TV nor any sort of TV or radio. There's no electricity, no running water, unless you count running down to the river and then boiling the water you bring back. There is no sense of an outside world because the world was the village to these people and very few left it.

They did talk about AIDS and HIV though, and those names did not come into use until the mid-1980s, and would doubtlessly not have been in common use in Africa until later, despite HIV first arising there. So saying this was set in the 1980's seemed to place it a bit too early to me, especially since there are, in Auma's story, medications available even in Kenya, to help combat the effects of AIDs.

The amazingly-named author, who is an associate professor at Shippensburg University (she has a doctorate from Tennessee State) grew up in Kenya, and she talks of paying for school education. Since 2003, education in public schools in Kenya has been free and compulsory, so it would seem that the story takes place sometime in the nineties at a rough guess, but in the end it really doesn't matter, because the problem is the same regardless of when the story actually takes place.

In terms of the presentation, this was another ARC provided via Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which is probably the worst medium (aside from mailing a hand-written copy! LOL!) for presenting a review copy, I urge publishers not to use Kindle format, but instead to go with PDF or with Nook format, both of which are significantly superior to Amazon's sub-standard system.

Overall, the layout of the book was good, but true to form, Kindle screwed-up the image which was used as a section divider in this novel. Instead of it being a small rectangle between sections of text, it occupied a whole screen on my phone. It did better in the Kindle app on an iPad, although why there is a difference between the two, I cannot say - except that they are both using the same crappy Kindle app!

The other instance of Kindle's poor formatting was where I read this: "Good morning, Class Seven," Mrs. Okumu greeted us." The children responded, "Good morning," but the one 'Good morning' was superimposed atop the other instead of being on the next line! I've never seen that before. I have no idea how it even happened. But like I said, these are not problems with the writing or the plot, so they weren't an insurmountable chore to deal with (and certainly not in comparison with what Auma had to go through!). It was a reminder of how Kindle simply isn't up to handling graphics of any kind and in some instances, plain text! That's not on the writer or on the story though, so it doesn't affect this review.

The only writing issue I encountered was a trivial one, but it did stand out to me. At one point I read "My legs burst forward, dashing to save Mama from Akuku. I sped ahead, my heels kicking up fresh dirt." The problem with this is that your heels don't touch the dirt when you're sprinting! Like I said, trivial, but everything is worth expending some thought on when you're a writer. Overall though, this is a worthy read and (I have to say this!) I urge everyone to read it and weep.

I liked this story and recommend it as essential reading. We can't forget about this. We can't forget that while we wallow in pampered luxury, there are others - far too many others - who struggle every day. Even without the disease, Auma's existence was precarious and heart-breaking. The disease was like a bully playing cruelly on an already deprived life, yet Auma never broke under the weight of this brutal burden she carried. This story is well-worth reading and ought to be required reading.