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

Saturday, October 14, 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, so 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 India woman who offered to help Addie, but who singularly fails.

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 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 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 and becomes 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' and justice is never served on that dick, but John is just as bad save for being more subtle in his prejudices and dick-ness and he gets no comeuppance either so I guess that's fair. The story is a mess and not eve a hot mess since it's set in winter. I think it stunk, and I cannot recommend it.






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.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Artsy Mistake Mystery by Sylvia McNicoll


Rating: WARTY!

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

The review copy had some major issues, but I worked around these and this does not factor into my negative review of this book. Yes, negative. I'm sorry and I wish the author all the best in this series, but it wasn't quite there for me, even when I viewed it through middle-grade lenses. While I'm not a series fan, I think this one has potential, but this volume (the middle of three in the series s far as I know) just didn't get it done for me.

This book is told from the perspective of Stephen Noble, who walks dogs to help out his father's business. If we were to categorize his parents by traditional 'roles', then Stephen's father was more like a mom and his mom more like a dad given his dad's interest in knitting and other traditionally female pursuits, and his mom's traveling for her job, but this felt to me to be more like a novelty add-in for effect than a serious attempt at depicting equality or parents outside of traditional roles, but they were relatively minor characters, so this really wasn't a big deal.

Stephen's best friend is Renée Kobai. As is usual in these stories, I found the side-kick - Renée - to be far more interesting than ever Stephen was. The problem with Stephen (apart from his foolish willingness to do highly risky if not downright dangerous things, such as trying to follow suspected criminals at midnight) was his obsession with these two dogs, Ping and Pong. It was honestly really irritating, and the number of times the dogs are mentioned was nauseating. I kept asking, "Is this about these two dogs or about art theft?!" because it honestly felt like the plot was taking a back seat to the minutiae of the dogs walking, and sniffing, and barking, and whatever.

The story was supposed to be about the inexplicable disappearance of various items of 'outdoor art' such as the mailbox of Stephen's next-door-neighbor, which was designed to look like a house, and the vanishing decorative fish from the fence around Stephen and Renée's school. The problem was that there never really was any plot!

The story sort of meandered around without any real detective work being done, and it was so obsessed with these two dogs, which Stephen seemed to be walking full time non-stop, that I rapidly lost interest - and I actually like dogs! After about the fifty percent mark I began skimming the story, reading bits here and there, and it was not improving. By seventy-five percent I'd lost even a pretense of interest in it and wanted to move onto something which would actually keep my attention, and not annoy me! I'm sorry, but life is too short for this kind of a novel to occupy any significant amount of it.

There were instances of children lying to adults and getting away with it, and for no good reason. I know children do lie, but to promote this as a real option in life is a mistake in a children's novel, especially when there are no consequences for it.

Worse than this though, at one point Stephen tells us, "I think I've seen enough rescue videos that I can use CPR to bring him back to life if I have to." This is a serious no-no. You cannot do CPR unless you are properly trained, and to suggest to children that you can see it in a video and then just leap in and do it, is excusable, especially in a children's book! You can do serious harm to someone if you try CPR without knowing properly what you are supposed to do, and this alone should disqualify this book from a positive rating. I found it dispiriting that no other reviewers seemed to find a problem with this.

The writing aside, there were serious technical problems with the crappy Kindle app version of this novel and the problems were the same whether I looked at this on my phone or on a tablet computer. Almost every instance of the letters 'T' and 'H' like in 'they' and 'this' and so on, were missing. Also every instance of two 'F's together, like in the word 'off', were missing, so the word was just the letter 'O'. Also missing were combinations of 'F' and 'L', and 'F' and 'I'!. It was weird.

I encountered something like this in another book which I read in Kindle's crappy app a long time ago. Why it happens, I do not know. There must be some glitch when converting to Kindle, I guess, but Kindle's app is substandard anyway in my opinion. I'd much rather read in Bluefire reader, Adobe Digital Editions, or the Nook app, all of which put Kindle to shame. Here are some examples of the missing letters:

  • "the moment her older brother, Attila, takes o for class" (takes off for class)
  • "It'll be the rst one I make" (first one I make)
  • "ey scramble ahead of me like mismatched horses pulling a carriage: Ping, a scruy pony;" (they scramble...scruffy pony)
  • "make the dogs walk to the le of me" (left of me)
  • "He is out walking his ve Yorkie" (No idea what that's supposed to be!)
  • "is junk slows us down" (this junk)
  • "with some kind of ller." (filler)
  • "e sunlight glints o the diamond stud in her nose as she pulls the ugliest wall plaque I've ever seen from someone's pile of junk. It's a large grey sh, mouth open, pointy teeth drawn, mounted on a at slab of glossy wood. Maybe Ping is growling at the sh, not the girl."
  • "e sh is bent as though it's wriggling in a stream." (the fish)
  • She looks from the sh to me. "Oh, not for me. e plaque is for my prof. ey're redecorating the sta lounge."

One of these was unintentionally hilarious, and might well be deemed so by middle grade boys at least: "I don't want to be caught with sh in my pants." It was meant to be (I'm assuming!) "I don't want to be caught with fish in my pants." All this talk of fish, by the way, was from a set of carved wooden sharks that like the dogs, frankly featured too largely in the story.

Had the novel been better, these problems were ignorable (it's surprising how much sense you can make of a sentence which is missing letters!), but as it was, they simply added to the negative overall impression I was already getting from the story itself, so I cannot recommend it.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding A Fiendish Arrangement by Alexandra Bracken


Rating: WARTY!

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

I wavered on this book from liking parts to disliking other parts, and back and forth, and in the end, it was the end which decided me, because it was there that the novel hit the sourest note, because there is no ending! In the final analysis, all this book is, is the prologue for a series. I can't abide that and I cannot support it. "Dreadful Tale" is an appropriate title for this, it turns out.

I know that series are lucrative for publishers and writers if they can lure a reading public into becoming OCD over one, but I do not play that game. It's one of the reasons I detest series as a general rule, and for an author to cynically say "Here's an entire book," and then to end it on a cliffhanger so you "have" to buy the next to find out what happens is inexcusable. Do not read this in the belief that you will get a complete and full story here. You will not.

This is book one of a "The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding" series, and if I'd known that, I would never have requested to review this one, but there was no hint whatsoever on net Galley that it was not a self-contained story. Shame on you Net Galley and on Disney Hyperion for not being honest and up front with readers and for demanding nigh on eleven dollars for an incomplete story. And what's with the ebook costing exactly the same as the print version?! What trees are worth nothing these days? That's a truly sad and sorry way to look at Earth.

For me series are too easy, unimaginative, derivative, and abusive of the reader. I'd rather follow a road less traveled than feel like I'm covering the same ground I already visited.

The other thing this author got away with is first person. I'm even less of a fan of first person than I am of series, if for no other reasons than that it's such a selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed voice, and it's so limiting in that nothing can happen in the story unless the narrator is present, which often results in absurdly artificial, unlikely, and clunky events occurring in order to get the narrator on the scene.

I don't know why authors are so obsessed with limiting themselves in this fashion. It was not such a nauseating voice here, so I appreciated the author for that, but even she admits she made the wrong choice of voice because she has to devote several chapters to third person voice to detail activities where Prosper is not the main actor, and they clunked down jarringly. They were so bad that I skimmed and skipped those. They contributed nothing to an overly long story and would have made for a more intelligent read had they been omitted altogether.

The story is of Prosperity Redding, your usual trope boy raised in ignorance of his true value to the story, and without parents (he has parents, they're just not on the scene), and raised by apparently cruel relatives, although I have to grant that those clichéd cruel relatives don't usually want to stab the main character with an iron knife as they do here!

"Uncle" Barnabas comes to the rescue, spiriting Prosper, as he prefers to be called, away just before that iron knife strikes, to hide out in a haunted house. Yes, it's haunted both for real, and as a funhouse - a scary one, for tourists - and it's here that Prosper learns the truth - or part of it at least.

It turns out that Prosper has a demon inside him and if it cannot be got out before his thirteenth birthday, two weeks hence, it will ruin his entire family. This demon is the price his family paid for the prosperity (yes!) it has enjoyed over the years - centuries even, and all would have been well had some great grandpa not reneged on the deal. Now Prosper's relatives (all except Barnabas, and "cousin" Nell who predictably happens to be Prosper's age and equally predictably doesn't like him), believe the only way to fix - or at least defer - the disaster, is to kill Prosper before he turns thirteen, so he believes. Meanwhile, Alastor the demon (not his real name, hint hint) is inside Prosper and growing stronger by the day.

There were one or two writing issues (other than cliffhangers and first person!) which took away some of the little joy of this I did have. These are very possibly things the intended age range might not notice (unless they're my kids, of course! I think they would notice these things, but then they grew up with me, and they're also edging out of middle-grade at this point).

"Told whom?" was the first clunker I read. Writers seem to think they have to inject correct English into their stories and 'whom' is such a big offender that it's become a pet peeve of mine. This is what Prosper says to correct Nell when she says, "For who?" Quite frankly I think this word is antiquated and pretentious, and needs to be dropped from the language altogether, but that's just me.

The truth is though, that no one actually uses it in conversation, especially not kids, so in the context of this story, this bit clanged like the liberty bell. It's highly unlikely any middle-grade kid, even one from a rich family, would correct someone on the use of 'whom', especially when that kid has not been set up a priori as an English language fanatic, so this was a fail: an example of an author lecturing her readers through her character instead of letting the character be themselves.

Here's another: "Her skin was a warm bronze, a shade or two lighter than her black hair." This made for an odd read. I think I see what the author is trying to say here, but strictly speaking, a shade or two lighter than black would mean that she has gray skin! Shade relates to how much black in is a color I think this could have been worded better - maybe describing the skin as a dark bronze or something like that, but I don't think you can describe hair in terms of skin color or vice-versa when one is black and the other is bronze, which is a distinctly brown color. If she'd had brown hair that would be a different thing.

Another one was: "Uncle Barnabas's face with pink around the edges at that." This sounds like it should read "...went pink around the edges." The last one I can recall noting was: "The spines were all shades of leather, brown, black, blue, and soft from being handled so much" this felt like it needed a colon after 'shades of leather'.

The demon is introduced as being evil and bent upon revenge, yet he behaves like a naughty friend to Prosper, chiding him on one hand and then rather benignly helping him to do something on the other. This was a complete contradiction given that the demon feeds on Prosper's discomfort and sadness. Why would he help prosper to do something that would make him feel better? It made no sense to me! It seemed obvious that eventually Alastor and Prosper would become friends, or at least partners, although given that this is merely a prologue, I can't say for sure if that's what will happen.

Neither did it make any sense as to why none of this family knew that to control a demon, you need its real name! That's so out there in folklore that everyone knows it, even in the real world where demons are pure fiction, so people who have been dealing with a demonic threat all their lives, and who have libraries of books about demons, had no excuse for not knowing it.

But Alastor was a fail. He was such a pompous and prolix punk that that he was far more of a joke than ever he was a demonic presence. To me, Alastor never came across as being anywhere near as evil and vengeful as he was supposed to be. This was a problem with the plotting. Maybe middle graders won't concern themselves with it, but I know my kids would find him as much of a joke as I did.

There was also the issue in any magic story which is: why are there any restrictions and rules? We're told that in order to get the demon out, certain materials need to be gathered, yet despite Nell being a quite accomplished witch she isn't able to magic up the ingredients?

Admittedly, one requirement is a bit out of the ordinary. She needs toes; real human toes, but it's never clear until the end if it's the actual toe, or just the toe bone. This apparently needed to be ordered abroad? That made no sense. Why not just magic them out of a grave - or go dig them up?

I've encountered this problem repeatedly in books where magic is part of the world: there's either no explanation offered as to why something can't be 'magicked', or there's some arbitrary rule "explaining" why the magic won't work. At least in this story we got a cute explanation as to why the spells always rhymed: they were easier to remember that way! That was a bit of a cheat since they were so simple that you'd have to be a moron not to remember them, but it was a cute idea, and I liked the cheekiness of it even though it evoked the schlockiness of the Charmed TV series which I actually couldn't stand.

I really liked Nell as a character. I find I often do this: prefer the side-kick or the friend to the main character. Nell would be worth reading about, but I wasn't keen at all on Prosper or Alastor. maybe middle-graders will like this, but I can't rate it positively when there were so many problems with it.

Note that there were some formatting issues with the ebook, with the text not filling the whole screen in some parts - like there were hard carriage returns in it, but this was an ARC, co perhaps those issues have been resolved in the actual published version

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Iron-Hearted Violet by Kelly Burnhill


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a truly great fairy-tale which did precisely what I always advocate - take the road less traveled. There's nothing worse than a cookie-cutter novel which tells you the same story and in the same way you already heard it a thousand times before. Kelly Burnhill gets this.

In a mirror world, which was a bit annoying because it wasn't explained until the end of the story, lives Princess Violet, who is not beautiful - not at a shallow skin depth anyway, but who is gorgeous inside, with her mom and dad. She's a tomboy and a tear-away, and feels not quite like a 'real' princess because she's been shamed by all those fairy-tales which have a princess who is typically defined to skin-depth and has nothing else to offer but her heart to whichever wandering jackass claims it. Yes, Disney, I'm looking at you! Although even Disney seems to be getting the message of late.

When Violet and her buddy Demetrius discover a sinister painting hidden in the depths of the castle, and her mom dies shortly after yet another stillborn baby, while her dad is off hunting dragons, things start going south badly. The kingdom is suddenly at war, and The Nybbas in the painting promises Violet she can be beautiful and have everything she wants if only she will listen to him. Dad returns with the dragon he captured for studying, but everything seems to be falling irreparably apart!

The story did start dragging a bit in the last third. At over four hundred pages, it was about 25% too long, and should have been edited better, but that aside, this was an awesome story and I fully recommend it. The only real problem I had was with Iacopo Bruno's illustrations, which once again bore little relationship to the text of the story.

How an artist can be so blind and disrespectful to an author, or how an author can be so uncritical is a mystery. Maybe she had no choice and was saddled with this by the publisher. I don't know, but if that was the case then the question becomes that of how a publisher can be so utterly clueless! This kind of complete disconnect is why I flatly refuse to go with Big Publishing™.

Let me detail a few of the problems with the illustrations. We're quite clearly told that Violet has mismatched eyes, not just in that one is a different color to the other, but that her eyes are literally different sizes. She also has wiry hair and bad skin. None of this is visible in any of the illustrations. She looks ultra cute in all of them with fine hair, great skin and tediously ordinary eyes!

After Violet is transformed, she's essentially exactly thew same as she was before the transformation! So where is the contrast? There was none. Yes, her hair is longer, but the artist even screwed that up. The author makes it quite clear in the text that Violet's feet have shrunk and her hair grown to Rapunzel proportions. Not a single one of the illustrations shows these changes. To me, this means the artist is quite simply stupid or incompetent. I'm sorry, but what other conclusion is there? That he's a lousy coward maybe, and doesn't have the courage to illustrate this the way the author wrote it, thereby undermining the very message the author is trying to send? Or did the author chicken out? There really is no excuse for sabotaging the writing like this and whoever is responsible should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

On a related topic, there was one part of the text where Violet and Demetrius crawled through a small gap in a wall. The text makes it quite clear that they're reduced to crawling, yet the illustration shows them walking through the gap like it's a regular doorway! In another instance, the text says a door handle made a mark in the plaster when it was thrown open angrily, but illustration shows the door with rope handles! Rope is hardly likely to make a mark in the plaster! So I score a zero for the illustrations.

Even the map which is included inside the front and back covers makes little sense, not only in relation to the story, but also with regard to the map itself. I mean why does a trade route not visit any cities, for example?! Given this, why even mark it when it has nothing to do with the story?

There were writing issues, too. I mean, did this castle really have plaster for the door handle not to make a mark in? Such a thing is highly doubtful given the context of the story and the state of the castle in general, but it's a relatively minor issue. More problematic is a description of a horse being "So black he was nearly blue." Excuse me? So dark blue he was nearly black makes sense, but it's idiotic to put it this way.

Also problematic is that at one point we're told that the king has only two days to get ready for a war, and then nothing happens, but later, there is a bustle of activity aimed at this very readiness, none of which had a remote chance of being completed in two days! And yeah, all the "my loves" and "darlings', especially those from the story-teller, were frankly creepy.

So yes, there were some writing issues that the author really needed to have nailed down. These are somewhat less important in children's stories since they tend to be less exacting, but some children might notice things like that. Do such children deserve less because they're children? Not in my books!

That said, I really liked this novel and consider it a very worthy read, so I recommend it to adults and children alike, and particularly to writers who want to break the mold, as this author has done so definitively here.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Black Star, Bright Dawn by Scott O'Dell


Rating: WARTY!

This is one of the most misguided, patronizing novels I've ever not read - which is to say I listened to it on audiobook, and DNF'd it two-thirds the way through because it was awful. The author consistently refers to the people as Eskimo, which some Alaskans do not mind, but it would have been much better to have actually made the characters a specific people. Eskimo is insulting because it blankets a variety of peoples like snow, classing them as all the same and employing a potentially insulting term to do so.

Bright Dawn is the main character. Black Star is her dog. Yes we get the English names, never the native language names - not for her or for anything in this entire story except this annoying and patronized stereotype of primitive superstition called Oleg.

The characters are shown raping and pillaging for a living - helping themselves to nature like they not only own it, but it's also an endless supply, and not even giving thanks for it. They're portrayed pretty much like this is all that all of them know. it's insulting, and the callous disregard for animals, including the dogs who get no reward when their human owners "win" the race - which the dogs have actually done. I can see working dogs being used in daily life, but to force them to run over a thousand miles at risk of injury and death for no reason other than human ego is pathetic.

There are moose attacks in the Iditarod. Moose are solitary and not 'bad tempered' - they're just very territorial and defensive. They're not human. They don't have human behaviors or motives. They're deer and they weight up to 1,800 pounds, not merely 700). The attack on Bright Dawn is ridiculous. That's when I quit reading it. The lack of respect for the natural world, and the portrayal of the dogs savaging the moose without a word of sorrow on its behalf was inexcusable. They were invading its territory, it was not invading theirs.

This story was about as pathetic as you can get, and while Jessica Almasy did a decent job reading it, the material was the problem here, not the reading.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Soccerland by Beth Choat


Rating: WARTY!

I got to page 44 of this and gave up because it was so badly written, and so trite and predictable.

Middle-grader Flora Dupre gets a chance to try out for the Under-15 USA Girls’ Soccer Team. She's the best player in her school, but her school is small. On her way to the flight for the trip to the academy, and before we've even seen her put one boot to one ball, she predictably meets a cute boy and that's when I ditched this book because quite clearly the author's focus here is on pairing-off the girl, not on having her play soccer.

I am so sick to death of every girl's story demanding that they can't stand on their own two feet and need a boy to validate them. The book was supposed to be about a girl's soccer dreams, not wet dreams. It's written by a female sports reporter, but even this could not overcome the sheep-herding instinct of female authors who are owned by Big Publishing™ umbrella to insist a girl isn't complete without a boy, to insist she can't be as healthily-obsessed about a sport as a boy can be, to insist that she's lacking something and needs this guy for a shoulder to cry on when the inevitable, predictable set-back comes. This stinks. Read my Seasoning if you really want a book about a girl who plays sports and needs no outside validation form anyone. That's why I wrote it.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook checked out for the library on spec and which didn't work out for me, but it's worth listening to so many to find the handful of gems amongst them. You never know where the next captivating book will come from, or for that matter, the next inspiration for a new story of your own.

The problem with this novel is that there is a huge difference between someone being on the autistic spectrum (Caitlin has Asperger’s) and some person being simply a blithering idiot, and for me this author went the wrong way. Caitlin is telling this from her own perspective which rarely woks for me and it failed here. The author tries to get is on her side by removing her mom and her older brother Devon from the picture, Devon having died in a school shooting, but for me this was nothing but an arbitrary choice, made for no other reason than to stick Caitlin in it, and it delivered nothing to the story, which far from being engrossing and drawing me in, felt tediously amateur, overly simplistic, and boring.

I think it would have made for a much better story had Devon not been a dead angel, but a living demon, who is emotionally abusive to Caitlin. There would be a story that had meat on its bones, but this one was all bones, and the bones were dry as dust, as well as being pedagogic and preachy. I cannot recommend it.


Molly Moon's Hypnotic Time Travel Adventure by Georgia Byng


Rating: WARTY!

This is the third in the Molly Moon series and also - due to some confusion about titles, the first I read - or rather listened to since I go the audio book read very charmingly by Clare Higgins (who you may remember as Ma Costa in The Golden Compass movie). I was not very impressed with the story, unfortunately. The plot is that Molly Moon is kidnapped several times at different stages of her timeline, by a villainous Indian whose purpose was never clear to me, although I did DNF this, so I may well have missed it.

The Indian employed a lackey who was the one who actually kidnapped Molly. The lackey wanted to get back to the fountain of time or whatever it was, which he thought would restore his youth and looks (time travel apparently turns people into lizards, if they overdo it). The problem was that the entire story was one long repetitive slew of time jumps, which was interesting at first, because it was quite engagingly described, and one example of hypnotism was really quite beautifully done, but after the story kept repeating endless time jumps, and with Molly's dog being kidnapped to forced Molly's compliance, and then she getting it back and then it begin kidnapped again, it was tedious, to say nothing of confusing. I may have missed this, too, but I never did understand why they needed Molly.

On top of this, the story sounded faintly racist to me, as the Indian bad guy was given this absurd affliction of spoonerism, which rapidly became annoying to me. Obviously the story isn't aimed at me, it's aimed at middle-grade readers, so they may have a different take on it to what I did, but I can't recommend this one.


Molly Moon Stops the World by Georgia Byng


Rating: WARTY!

This is the second in the Molly Moon series and also - due to some confusion about titles, the one I read after I read the third one. I haven’t read the first, and I decided I really don’t want to, not after reading the second and in particular, the third. Technically I listened to these rather than read them, charmed by the hypnotic voice of Clare Higgins who does a better job reading than the author did writing.

In the first volume, Molly learns how to hypnotize people and turns it to her advantage before “retiring” from her successful, if fraught, career on stage, and taking over control of the orphanage where she was raised, making it a decent place for kids to live. In this volume, Molly inexplicably decides she ought to try hypnotizing inanimate objects and by doing do, discovers that she can atop time, freezing everything – living and inanimate alike – except herself, who can then moves through this frozen world with impunity. Of course this attracts attention from someone else who also has this power, and thus the adventure begins.

The problem with these books is that they're so repetitive, and this turned me off them. I did skip to the last disk in the set and was quite charmed by the writing during a part of the ending, but overall, I can't recommend this. Less discriminating readers of the appropriate age range might have better luck.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur


Rating: WARTY!

I honestly have no idea what this story was about - I mean, what was the aim here? What did the author hope to achieve? The author's name is hilarious because Suzanne means Lily, so her name is Lily The Flower! I loved that. It was the best thing about his whole book. Normally I don't talk about covers, but I have to say this is yet another example of Big Publishing™ getting its hands on your work and ruining it. The cover artist clearly had no clue what was going on in the book because the front cover represents nothing between it and the back cover.

The best thing I can say about it is that it was short, otherwise I would have ditched it as a DNF. It was aimed at middle-graders, so perhaps I'm not in the best position to judge it, but I honestly cannot see what they would get out of it that I did not. One of my kids is middle-grade, though, and the other is just out, and I can promise you that neither of them would have the slightest interest in this book, not even as short as it was.

Yes, it was another audiobook experiment, and it failed, but this is why I go out on a limb with audiobooks - for the one in a handful that really impresses me, and one which I might never have experienced had I not got the audio version of it. The one that makes it worth listening to poor ones like this. The reader didn't do an awful job exactly, but there were two issues I had with Christy Carlson Romano. The first is that she sounded way to old to be reading a first person story by a twelve-year old since she's in her mid-twenties. At the risk of being pounded for suggesting a return to child labor, is it such a bad idea to get a real twelve- (13-? 14-? 15-?) year-old to read these and let the kids earn some cash?

The second thing is that despite her her age, Romano sounded like a Disney princess and this really put me off the story. The sad thing is though, that even had I adored the reader and her treatment of it, I still would not have liked the story, because nothing happened. There was no drama, not even close, nor where there thrills, spills, chills, or excitement.

The whole plot, that we have this twelve-year-old Mathilde Joss going to war sounded interesting to me, but it was completely misleading because she joins military intelligence in one of those absolutely pointless and unsupported non-plots that far too many middle-grade novels employ - it just is. accept it we don't have to justify it. Well, guess what? You do! And Lily the Flower didn't. She didn't even try, so we had absolutely no reason whatsoever for the military hiring these kids except that this is a book aimed at middle-graders and the author says "This is the way it is!".

Mathilde lives in a fictional parallel universe in the land of Sofarende, which is under attack from Tyssia, but this world is exactly the same as ours, except that they don't have radar for reasons unexplained, so they have to use kids to magically predict where the bombers (asininely called "aerials" here for no good reason other than to make them seem alien) will come and bomb next. I kid you not.

Mathilde is yanked into this world, leaving her friend Megs behind, because megs failed the admission test and Mathilde did not, yet later, Megs shows up anyway without any explanation! None of these kids are allowed any further contact with their parents - again without any explanation or rationale.

The weird thing is that it takes twenty-five percent of the novel before Mathilde even gets to this secret base where the non-action takes place. Her task is to talk with a prisoner, but none of their conversations have any value, or bearing on the story, and none of them are remotely interesting or help advance the war effort. In short, it's a completely pointless exercise. So she learns that war is horrible and it's better not to start them, like there's a middle-grader anywhere on the planet who doesn't already know this? If this book was supposed to teach about the horrors of war, it was a major fail.

Then the novel weirdly fizzles out at the end with the kids being taken from the base, and sent abroad for no apparent reason (except maybe the area they were in, which they'd been repeatedly assured was well away from the fighting, was being invaded? How was that even possible, when areas nearer the front, where Mathilde had come from, were safe? None of this made any sense at all, and not a single one of these kids seemed at all home-sick or traumatized by what they were going through! It wasn't remotely realistic.

The story just fades away at the end, with Mathilde on a boat, alone, since she got lost (that's how intelligent she is!) and that's it. Is this the start of a series? If so the intro sucked and I don't want to follow it. Is it a stand alone? If so, it sucked, and I wasted several hours listening to it when I could have been hearing something worth listening to. That's four hours of my valuable and limited time of which this author has robbed me! But then I may well have robbed people too, with my books, so it all balances out in the end.

So the effect this book had on me was to make me laugh at how pathetic it was, not to make me consider war and suffering. It fails in everything it might be trying to do, but maybe I'm being a bit presumptuous there, because it was so wishy-washy in whatever it was trying to do was being done so badly that I can't honestly be sure it was trying to do anything.

It actually felt more like I was reading excerpts from a longer and better book, and these were the parts the author had torn out in disgust because they were so bland and uninteresting, and because they actually held up the plot of the real book, which is still out there somewhere, going unread. So no, I can't recommend it! My standards won't let me!


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How Oliver Olson Changed the World, by Claudia Mills


Rating: WORTHY!

Following up on The Trouble With Ants by Claudia Mills, which I liked, I found this short and sweet audiobook at the library. Oliver Olson's parents need some therapy because what they're doing borders on child abuse. They're so over-protective as parents that they barely let Oliver do a thing for himself. He has to eat boring "healthy" snacks, and they won't let him watch cartoons (presumably because they're too violent or silly.

The thing is though, that they're inconsistent. They help him so much with his homework that it really doesn't benefit him because he's not allowed to think for himself, and they give no consideration whatsoever, in this healthy lifestyle they're promoting, to how much they are damaging him with stress by placing all these restrictions on him, denying him a pet, and not letting him cut loose once in a while.

Healthy food is fine. I have no problem with that, but if it's so unappetizing that kids are turned off it, rather than setting them up for a healthy life, you're turning them from it. You need to cut them some slack once in a while and try to make sure the healthy part of the diet is as attractive (if not more so!) than the junk food they inevitably get their hands on. Fortunately, events conspire to rescue Oliver from this strait-jacket of a life in which he's confined, before he grows up to become a serial killer or a sociopath.

The biggest complaint I would have about the book is that Oliver is inexplicably well-balanced despite all he endures, and he's rather too mature for his age. As for the audiobook, the biggest complaint about that is Johnny Heller. I am not a fan of this guy's book-reading at all, but he's the go-to guy for countless stories, which means he keeps getting stories offered to him without the audio book people giving any consideration to letting new voices in, or even to whether this guy's voice is really the best for the story.

Frankly his voice just annoys me, and it did particularly in this story because, while it is told from the PoV of Oliver, there are four main female characters who feature prominently in it, and it just seemed genderist to me to have a guy read it when four-fifths of it revolves around females and female influences.

That said, it was entertaining and amusing. Oliver's class in school is studying the solar system (and the author does a fine job in supplying information about it without seeming like she's lecturing). The school is having a sleepover so they can study the planets through a telescope and also watch a space adventure movie (which shall remain nameless since I've grown to detest it lately!), but of course Oliver's parents refuse to let him sleep over because they can't be there to watch him and make sure he brushes his teeth, like a single night without brushing will necessitate dentures first thing in the morning!

Oliver's parents pretty much take over his course assignment: to create a diorama of the solar system, but a girl comes to his rescue. Crystal Harding, known best to Oliver for talking too much in school, somehow manages to set the two of them up as diorama team, working together, and Oliver is then stuck with the task of weaning his parents off the project.

He achieves this with a studiousness, patience, and calm which is as commendable as it is rather unbelievable, given how he's been raised. This, in turn, sets him on the path to freedom form his "shut-in" world and improves his overall outlook on life. It's a great ending, a well-written and amusing story, and very short, but just the right length for this story. I recommend this one, and this writer as someone worth keeping an eye on for any new output.


Friday, May 5, 2017

Someone Was Watching by David Patneaude


Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook that almost made it under the wire, but the more of this review I wrote the worse it seemed to me! Jeff Woodman's reading was very good, but the material lacked credibility or seemed like it was being artificially manipulated for the scare-effect. Consequently, the scares felt very much like they were tacked on...well, tackily, instead of being organically and intelligently incorporated into the story. The novel redeemed itself somewhat with the ending, but overall while initially thinking it's a worthy read for middle-graders, I found myself changing my mind, and I'll explain why.

The story begins three months after the young daughter, Molly, of this Wisconsin family has disappeared while they were picnicking in a park by a river. Everyone blames themselves for it, although the parents were shamefully lacking in attention. Chris, the thirteen-year-old son had gone off by himself, deliberately avoiding taking Molly with him, hence his guilt. Molly disappeared, of course, and the assumption by everyone is that she drowned, even though three months on, no body has been found.

This was my first beef: that a possible abduction had not once been considered. It felt completely unrealistic and makes the police look stupid. If it had been considered and dismissed for some reason, that would be one thing, but it never was, so for me, this was poor writing. This bad writing continues as the family therapist advises a trip to the same park where Molly went missing - for closure. The absurdism here comes from the abrupt turn-around in everyone's attitude: things miraculously - and unbelievably - change. They changed far too much, far too quickly, in fact, to have any credibility, and this is further highlighted by events that same evening.

As part of this therapy, they watch the video Chris shot that day (this was a 1993 novel, so no smart phones were to hand, nor was there any of today's digital technology typically available). Something bothers Chris about the video and keeps him awake. When he watches it again, he notices the arrival of the local ice cream van, but instead of sitting in the park with the music playing, selling ice cream, the van quickly goes quiet, stays only for a minute, and then leaves. This makes Chris suspicious, but for me, again, it was a a bit of a stretch. Maybe middle-graders won't care, but for me there should have been a bit more. just a bit.

Chris brings his suspicions to the attention of his parents, who summarily dismiss them all! This is the same family which, quite literally the day before, were dysfunctional to a painful degree, unable to come to terms with Molly being lost, yet now, they summarily dismiss what Chris says, and all but forbid him to talk about it.

Chris and his school friend Patrick decided to investigate further, back in the small village near the park where the ice cream folk, Buddy and his wife Clover, have a shop. They discover that the ice-cream vendors have left long before the season is over, with the excuse that Clover's mom is ill. Conveniently, there's an envelope in the mailbox, revealing where they went, so rather than take all of this to the police, Chris and Pat decide to fly down to Florida to pursue them, and see if they really have Molly.

Once they arrive in the Florida location, they have some poorly tacked-on encounters which stand out rather sore-thumb-like, such as the police officer showing an unnatural interest in them in a restaurant, and three young thugs trying to shake them down in the street. Maybe middle-graders won't be so picky about the tacky, but for me it did not work. The rescue was better, but even there the boys were shown as idiots rather than heroes.

They do rescue Molly of course - that much was a given -but instead of going to the nearest house and asking for help (it would be very easy to tell a story about a man chasing them - since it was true!), they keep running and almost get caught before they - finally - make it to the police station, where the story pretty much ends. There was an epilogue but I'm no more interested in reading those than I am prologues.

So while the reading was good and parts of the story were engaging, for me, overall, it was a fail. I'm more picky than middle-graders, so maybe they won;t care, but I think this was a wasted opportunity to educate middle-graders about how to behave - and survive - (given the unlikely premise that they fly to Florida in the first place), and I think the author blew a great opportunity for the sake of cheap and gaudy thrills. I can't recommend this one.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee


Rating: WARTY!

This is a debut novel by an author who really didn't seem able to get into the mind of an eleven-year-old smart girl. So naturally this book has been nominated for awards which in turn spawned a trilogy when one book was far more than this particular subject ever merited. The problem is that the author is confusing genius with autism, and 'child-genius' with 'humorless adult'. Consequently she makes Millicent look like a moron rather than a genius, or to put it more charitably, she makes a girl who in reality would need some professional psychological help, look like she was dropped on her head at birth.

This is why I have absolutely zero respect for literary awards, and normally (when I have advance warning!), avoid like the plague anything which has won awards. Once in a very rare while such a book is worth reading, but in my sorry experience those books are a lot harder to find than the lousy ones, and the ones we typically are unfortunate enough to run across are for the most part pretentious and clueless drivel. For the awards people to constantly rate this garbage as merit-worthy only leads me to believe that they too, were dropped on their collective head as a baby.

The author makes the idiotic assumption that a kid stops being a kid if they're an especially smart kid. That's utter nonsense. They may see life through a sharper lens than most kids do, but they're still children with childish (in a benign sense) - impulses and drives. They still enjoy children's games and toys. They are not, simply from the fact of being more intelligent than most (in academic terms at least) an adult or humorless, or superior in a mean sense.

One of the most glaring problems with this book is that the main character has Spock syndrome. The Vulcan from Star Trek (original or reboot, it doesn't make that much difference) is supposedly of very high intelligence, but is routinely made to look like a clown because he simply (and inexplicably, given how much exposure he's had) cannot grasp human idiosyncrasies. In the same way, this novel is constantly telling us how smart Millie is, but what it's routinely showing us is how dumb and clueless she is. Worse, it's rendering her as borderline autistic in her rigid and utterly inexplicable inability to cope with human interaction. If she is autistic, that's one thing, and might have made a great story - one worthy of an award, but this author never suggests that. What she does is inexcusable. She presents Millie as lacking completely in not only social skills, but in any sort of clue as to how to develop them, yet she offers no reason - other than how "intelligent" she is for this deficit.

Millie's parents are the worst parents ever, since they seem utterly clueless in diagnosing Millie's condition. Fortunately it's a condition which exist only in the author's limited imagination. Millie is just one in a parade of one-dimensional characters, each representing an extreme of one sort or another, and the novel is so trite and so completely predictable that it's not only fails to offer an intriguing read, it also isn't even remotely realistic. These people are robotic, as simple and limited as the mechanical arms on an assembly line, each going through pre-programmed motions, and not a one of them capable of exceeding their programming, and living and breathing.

Millie meets Emily at the same time as she is forced into tutoring a boy she hates. Desperate to keep Emily as a friend, Millie elects to lie about her intelligence and gets herself into a situation that is unrealistic and which is dragged on for far too long. Predictably, Emily blows up, even though given what we've been told about her, this blow-up is out of character and comes off as false. It was at this point that I gave up reading this book, because I could see exactly how inauthentically it would continue to play out, and I lost all interest in it offering anything new, fresh, or credible.

Millie's extreme intelligence, despite that fact that we've repeatedly been shown that she can diagnose problems with the facility of a particularly sensitive and empathetic adult, is betrayed time and time again by the author as she makes her character fail in such diagnoses where it suits her, so that she disastrously assumes her mother's obvious pregnancy is a disease. The writing is amateur, rigid, inconsistent, and poorly done. I cannot recommend this. The only purpose it served for me was to once again provide a convincing example of how comprehensively blinkered are those people who give out literary awards.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Trouble With Ants by Claudia Mills


Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated by Katie Kath, this is evidently part of the "Nora Notebooks" series, but can be read as a standalone. I'm not a huge fan of series, but this one was harmless, and moreover, it placed a heavy emphasis on science, which is a wonderful thing in books for young girls and makes them far from harmless!

Middle-grader Nora gets a new notebook and decides to devote the space to recording observations on her pet ants which she naturally (or unnaturally depending on your perspective!) keeps in an ant farm. Personally speaking, if all ants, wasps, hornets, and Africanized bees became extinct, that would work for me! Nora loves her ants though, and observes them every day. The problem, of course is that the ants die when separated from their queen, but Nora's ambition is to be the youngest girl ever to be published in a science journal, so she presses on with her research.

No one else gets her obsession though, so at school she has to contend with shrieks when she unveils her ant farm during show and tell, and she has to suffer the fake and fawning attention her classmates devote to one girl's addiction to making videos of her cat, dressed in assorted outfits. Making the girls be "girlie-girls" with this shrieking was a mistake, because it perpetuates stereotypes that need to become extinct also!

There is strife and trouble, problems with ants, problems with school; in short, the usual , but Nora maintains an objective view and deals with it all with wry comments and good humor, and everything works out in the end! Despite the stereotyping I mentioned earlier, I thought this story was charming, and I recommend it.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Book of Sight by Deborah Dunlevy


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
"inch by inch, certainty of death foremost in his mind, not daring to breath." - should be 'breathe'
"It had been wo weeks" - two weeks, presumably? Or maybe that unspecified number of weeks had been rather woeful?!
"Its hot pink color was already, and it was taking on the even brown tones of Dominic's hands." 'already fading'?

The problem with series, and one reason why I'm not really a fan (except for a few rare cases), is that they are by nature derivative and repetitive, and worse, they mistreat the reader by only offering a part of a story while still trying to charge you the full price! This series is going to run to at least four books. Worse than this, the first volume tends to be a prologue for the rest, rather than an actual story, and I don't do prologues. They're tedious and antiquated.

In this case I decided to make an exception in the hope that this one would be a different experience, but I had mixed feelings about this right from the start, and my worst fears were realized when it came to an abrupt ending (I don't read epilogues any more than I do prologues, but I doubt the epilogue moved the story very far!). The ending was abrupt and a cliff-hanger of a sort, which I never appreciate. So it was indeed a prologue, but that said, the story wasn't bad for the intended age range, so I consider it a worthy read for that group. For myself, I have no interest in pursuing this any further.

It started out routinely enough, and that was part of the problem: the trope kid (in this case, 14-year-old Alex) at a loose end of one kind or another with one or both parents absent. In this case it was both because, even though dad was present, in effect he was also absent since he was a poor father who neglected his child while he pursued his publication of his moderately successful comic book series. On the first day of her summer holiday from school, a weird-looking guy who claims he's some sort of delivery boy shows up at Alex's front door.

We're given a reason for Alex to be trusting enough to open the door because she thinks it's one of her father's graphic artist types, but the guy claims he's a messenger. He hands her a parcel and doesn't require a signature. He tells her it's a book, and then he leaves. The fact that none of this makes Alex even remotely suspicious (he requires no signature and knows what's in the parcel) tells me she's not too smart. I don't do books about dumb girls. There are far too many of them out there (YA authors I'm looking at you), so I'm hoping at that point that Alex gets smarter fast, but I'm not confident that she will. In the end she is a bit smarter, but the kids as a group are not very smart in their behaviors generally speaking.

At one point the author writes, "...which with characteristic creativity she had dubbed 'dad days'." I'm not sure if that's meant to be sarcastic, or if it's just badly written! Alex has shown no evidence that she has a sarcastic demeanor to this point, and that title certainly isn't creative. This is one of the reasons the book failed to properly resonate with me: there were parts I really liked, but other parts that fell flat. Also the book, while commendably not in first person voice, switches perspectives between kids and I didn't appreciate that approach. There's a lot of telling in place of showing, too. Again, kids for whom this is written may not notice or may not care about these things, whereas I tend to

There were one or two errors, but aside from that (which was no big deal for me as long as it was relatively rare!), what bothered me most was the trope. I mentioned the disaffected teen; next came the 'things appearing but disappearing as soon as you look away' trope which is tedious and way-the-hell overdone. In Alex's case it was the appearance of a tiny man after she had begun reading the book. She sees him, looks away, and looks back and he's gone. She does this twice. It's annoying! And so common in this kind of story that it's become a suspension-of-disbelief destroyer for me. There's also the trope two characters who dislike each other, but you know they're destined to be together. The sad thing is they're named Adam and Eve! I am not making this up - the author is! Yet despite this no one remarks on their names!

That aside, the book was intriguing and the way Alex struggled to read it and then suddenly got it, was a joy. The words appeared to be nonsense, but as she started pronouncing them, she was transported in some way to another world where a story unfolded about a king and four brothers and a magical jewel. Visons, ideas and dreams lead Alex to a place where four trees are grouped together. When she visits it, she discovers a marking on one of the trees, but then the trope male character predictably the same age as Alex shows up and I became annoyed again, because it seemed like the "required" (when it's not at all) romance is going to trample all over the story. In the end it didn't, so this fear never materialized and I thank the author for that!

In general the story was well-written, with a clunker or two here and there, such as when Adam is trying to locate a particular place in the vicinity. It's by a dried-up creek, yet when he approaches it, I read that there was "a dark green line on the other side of another grassy field. It had to be a creek." The thing is, if the creek was dried up, there would hardly be a dark green line marking it, since the vegetation would be dried up, too - as is confirmed when he gets closer.

That aside there was some good and commendable writing, particularly about team-work and getting along, and owning up to mistakes, which I really liked. Sometimes the teamwork aspect was overdone, but as I said, overall, I think this will do well for the intended age group. It's just not for my age group!