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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bindi Babes by Narinder Dhami

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

The Forbidden Stone by Tony Abbott

Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook which failed for me. I didn't like the story and the reading by the curiously-named MacLeod Andrews was bad. The story started out just fine for the first chapter or so, but after that it devolved into tedious and stupid activities in which an irresponsible father trails four kids with him to Europe (and elsewhere, evidently) into dangerous situations, and then fails to go to the police, fails to get his kids out of danger, and in general just is a moron. These dimwits contaminate crime scenes and tamper with clues which could have led to a perceived suicide being seen by the police for the murder it was. I quickly decided this was too stupid to live. The fact that it's the start of a series is only one more reason to reject the mercenary heart of it.

It's a ridiculous Dan Brown-style story where some idiot leaves a trail marked by asinine cryptic clues for Becca, Darrel, Lily, and Wade, when all he had to do was make a phone call and tell his friend, or better yet, the police, what the deal was. Failing that, then at least post it on the Internet so the "shadowy" villains have no reason at all to chase your kids threateningly. It was profoundly dumb. I hope middle-graders are smart enough to see how silly this all is, and I feel sorry for those who are not, but of course, without this level of stupidity, there couldn't be a six book series, and neither the author nor the publisher would get rich off the allowances of middle-graders, would they now?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bunnicula Strikes Again by James Howe

Rating: WARTY!

I never read the original Bunnicula, and I never will! This was evidently, thinks I, volume two, but in fact turned out to be volume six! I made it about half way through before giving up on it. All is not lost though, because this print book will go to a local library which has limited funds, so others will benefit from it! I hope!

The joke here is that the rabbit is a vampire, but not for blood - for veggie juice, sucking vegetables dry. It's hilarious - as far as the concept goes, and I can't speak for the entertainment value of volume one, but this felt like five volumes too many, and is a major reason why I don't typically like series! They're boring, and by nature are derivative and repetitive. That doesn't work for me. In this case, this one didn't go anywhere. I read fifty percent of this and quite literally nothing happened. It was a tedious diary of a kid and his dog lying around, running downstairs, running upstairs, spying on the cat, and lying around. Yawn. A good portion of it was references to, and recapping of, volume one, which is just cheating in my book, but it is a hallmark of series.

Based on fifty percent of this, I can't recommend it. It wasn't in the least bit entertaining.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Memory Maze by Gordon Korman

Rating: WARTY!

Audiobooks are hit and miss with me since I experiment with them more. This was a miss. I got to 20% in and gave up on it. The story was ludicrous, which might have made it an unintentionally funny read, but it was far too boring for that, and the boredom was in no way helped by Ramón de Ocampo's reading, which turned me right off. I would have had a hard time listening to it even if the novel had been thoroughly engrossing. It was far too John Green for my taste and the voices were not rendered well.

The story, which is number two (and felt like it) in a series, is about Jackson Opus, who is a master hypnotist. This was a refreshingly original super power to have, but then the author had to ascribe every single historical event to the use of hypnotism and it became laughable - and not in a fun way. Even Abe Lincoln was dragged into it at one point, and I remember thinking, it didn't help save his life, did it? I don't mind stories like this being woven into history, but when the author starts to tie literally every important event into it, it smacks of sheer amateurism and becomes far too stupid to take seriously, or even jokingly for that matter.

I flatly refuse to read any novel which has a main character named Jack, which is the most tedious go-to action adventure name ever to be over-used in literature. Even if the blurb makes the novel sound interesting, it goes right back on the shelf if one of the main characters is named Jack. I think I'm gong to have to add Jax and Jackson to that banned list now. Rather than take action, these people would much prefer to let others bear the brunt and pay the price while they hide out. They're far happier scratching their heads and whining about how Jax needs to become more powerful, but never have him practice anything. They would rather let the bad guy do whatever he wants without taking any steps to out him, and expose him. They're idiots.

This story had "Jax" and his family hiding out a hundred miles from home, living like paupers just to stay safe from the evil villain. Some hero huh?! He's using the cheesiest name imaginable as a non-disguise. His old name was Opus, so his new name is Magnus? Really? No one is ever going to think it's him. He's supposed to be keeping a low profile, but he enters a chess tournament and wins. This kid is a moron. I don't want to read about morons, not even if it's supposed to be funny. Because it's not! That's for parodies, not for original fiction!

The leader of the good guys has abandoned all his followers to support Jax, and his followers are being bumped-off. All they had to do here was to get on a rooftop with an AK 47 and take out this guy, but of course they can't do the realistic and intelligent thing (in the context of this fictional story in order to save the world from this ruthlessly evil guy). No instead, they have to play fair and it makes the story stilted and artificial and just plain ridiculous.

The big problem here is hypnotism of course, because it can make victims do anything, and then forget they've done it, yet nowhere did I hear of either Jax or his powerful hypnotist guru (who is also hiding) talking or even thinking about how to nullify the hypnotic effect. Jax never gives an ounce of thought to how to beat the guy. Of course as soon as the guy is beaten, that's the end of a cash cow for this author and this publisher, so where's the incentive to tell a realistic story and bring it to a satisfying conclusion? It's far easier to drag this same story out than to come up with something new, original, and inventive. This is another reason why I typically, and with few exceptions, detest series. They're far too derivative, repetitive, vacuous and vapid.

I have better things to read!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bad Machinery the Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison

Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this review is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Bad Machinery is exactly what it says! It's totally bad-ass and hugely hilarious. But let's not confuse the case of team spirit with a case of liquor! These kids are only middle grade after all. This book, one of a series, is set in a Grammar school in England, and it's a locale with which I am intimately familiar having attended one myself. The story is set in Yorkshire, where my parents were born and raised, and I grew up next door, in Derbyshire. Non-Brits may need some remedial assistance on the lingo, but most of it isn't hard to understand. The graphic novel is evidently composed of webcomic dailies.

I adored this story. Every one of the characters is one I wish I had known at my own school, but alas and a lack of them was what plagued me there. Charlotte Grote, Jack Finch, Linton Baxter, Mildred Haversham, Shauna Wickle, and Sonny Craven are the weird, whacky, and charming students dealing with assorted life crises in their own peculiar ways. Sometimes their agendas conflict and other times they align.

The big deal is that a Russian owner of the local soccer club is trying to demolish houses to build a new stadium in their place, but this Russky seems to have pissed-off the mother of all bad luck, as becomes apparent when a satellite crashes onto the football pitch in the middle of a game, and assorted other disasters befall him. Plus Mrs Biscuits is also Russian, but not interested in rushing anywhere. She refuses to move from her home which sits, of course, right in the way of the Russian's plans to raze the land and raise a stadium. Two of the girls decide to make her the subject of a school project.

Each character has their own cross to bear. Shauna's, for example, is her slightly dysfunctional younger brother whose favorite non-word is BORB. Linton is plagued by his overly attentive mother and his fear that the beautiful new soccer stadium may never materialize. Sonny's father misses his own brutal grammar school days which appear to have been the inspiration for Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns, specifically the episode titled Tomkinson's Schooldays. Jack suffers an older sister who attends the same school and dispenses remarkable advice like, "It's a good idea to shave off your eyebrows" and "be sure to wear eye-shadow for gym." I fell in love with Charlotte though, disgusting as that is, since I'm old enough to be her father, but her sense of humor completely slayed me. She is the queen of bizarre observations and off-the-wall comments such as when she wants to discuss the procedure for extracting mothballs from moths.

The story meanders delightfully and abstrusely towards a satisfying conclusion. The art isn't spectacular, but it's serviceable and it got the job done for me. I haven't read any others in this series, but I fully intend to correct that oversight, first chance I get!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Meet Kaya by Janet Shaw, Bill Farnsworth, Susan McAliley

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Wolf Keepers by Elise Broach

Rating: WARTY!

"He had a teasing look on her face" She had a pleasing look?!
"She tried a different tact" tack?!

I have to vote a 'no' for this one, I'm sorry to report. While the novel itself wasn't written badly and contained some interesting story-telling, the overall message of irresponsibility and misbehavior by these kids, and of withholding important information from parents, for which there were no consequences, really turned me off this. I don't think it's the kind of thing a middle-grader should be reading. Worse than this, I felt it portrayed people of color in an unflattering light and the young girl as easily led. I won't go so far as to say it's racist and genderist, but to me it sure felt that way from time to time.

The basic story features Lizzie Durango, who is the daughter of a senior zoo keeper if not the head of the zoo itself. I didn't quite get exactly what her father's role was. If the book mentioned it, I missed it, but he lives with Lizzie in a house on the zoo grounds. Lizzie never knew her mother, who died shortly after Lizzie was born. Her father never remarried.

Lizzie has the run of the zoo during the summer, and free food at the concession stands. This was one of the problems for me. There seemed to be no supervision, and Lizzie was essentially eating junk food all day, every day. This tells me her father was more concerned about the animals than he was his own daughter! He was an irresponsible parent. As far as it went, this is fine because in real life there are irresponsible parents. What bothered me here is that this issue was never addressed, and he was never brought to book for his behavior.

Lizzie is keeping a notebook on activities at the zoo as a summer project for school, but this was another issue. I never did get why the notebook was so important, because while it occupied a lot of the story-telling, it featured so little in events and had nothing to do with the plot. I had thought it might contain useful information that became important later in the story, but this never happened, so why there was such a focus on it escapes me. It was tied to a side-story about John Muir, but this story never really went anywhere and I didn't see the point of it. Worse than this, Lizzie's personal behavior seemed completely at odds with her adoration of John Muir. He was a very responsible and far-sighted naturalist, whereas Lizzie was about as short-sighted and inconsiderate as you can get.

One day Lizzie encounters Tyler Briggs, a kid her own age, who is a runaway from a foster home, and who is living behind the elephant enclosure at the zoo. The two kids begin to bond although no good reason is offered for why they should. One of Lizzie's favorite exhibits is the new wolf enclosure where rescued wolves live. There's also a minor side-story about her bonding with the wolf-pack leader, but this doesn't really go anywhere either and is betrayed on one occasion. It made no sense to me, but anyway, the wolves are apparently becoming sick and dying one by one, but it turns out that it's not quite that simple. There are, Tyler tells Lizzie, odd activities in the zoo at night, especially around the wolf enclosure. One night the two of them spy on these activities, and they discover that someone is tampering with the wolves.

So far, so good, but it was right around this point that the story went completely downhill for me. None of it made sense from here on out, but I can't go into very much detail without giving away huge spoilers which makes it really difficult to explain why I disliked this story so much. Let me just say that the plan for the wolves is that they will be rehabilitated and released into the wild at some point which makes the behavior of a certain zoo employee meaningless, and undermines the whole reason why Lizzie and Tyler end up alone in the Yosemite National Park. I've visited Yosemite, all too briefly, and I loved it. I became pleasantly lost among the redwoods for an afternoon and it was great. Lizzie and Tyler do not have such a pleasant experience.

My problem with Tyler was how selfish and inconsiderate he was. Again, this was never resolved and he was never held accountable for his entirely irrational behavior. As soon as he showed up, the independent and confident Lizzie became his pawn. Every time there was a conflict she was depicted as bowing to his wishes. It made her look like a stereotypical "weak and compliant woman." It also made Tyler look like a complete jerk, and a little tyrant. Curiously, no parallel was drawn between Tyler's behavior and the wolf-pack leader's behavior, and there was definitely one to be drawn!

Tyler never made any sense to me because we were never offered any kind of decent reason for why he absconded from his foster home, where (contrary to what he consistently leads Lizzie to believe) he is loved and missed. This made me believe Tyler was unreliable and an outright liar at times. This is hardly the kind of person I'd want my young child to hang out with. The fact that Lizzie clings to him from day one, almost obsessing over him, made me nervous and made me feel she really wasn't very smart after all. It also felt wrong because Tyler could have been portrayed in a much better light, yet he was not. I don't know why.

Tyler was African American and at first I was glad to see a story including main characters who were not white, but as I read more about him, I began to wonder why he was painted so negatively, and so stereotypically: broken home, drug-addicted mom, crowded foster home, and so on. It felt wrong. To me the story would have been better had the roles been reversed, and Tyler had been the one living with his dad in the zoo whereas Lizzie was the street kid. To me that would have felt less like it was profiling, you know?

But Lizzie had her own host of problems, the biggest one of which was how completely irresponsible she is. She's initially presented as smart and well-behaved, and as someone who really cares about the animals in the zoo, but her behavior reflects none of this. Instead of advising her father that there is a runaway kid in the zoo, she aids and abets Tyler, never pursuing any concern over how worried his foster family might be about him, or how at risk he is living on the street. She exhibits this same behavior with regard to the zoo animals.

When she learns exactly what's going on, she should have reported it to her father. That's the kind of person she's initially presented to us as being: responsible and caring, and protective of the animals, but instead she acts out of character and takes things into her own hands, which is how she ends up stranded at the National Park, lured into making the trip there by Tyler. When she wants to go to the village and call her father, Tyler once again selfishly browbeats her into going with him, and she buckles to his will. I really didn't like Tyler's lordly attitude and despicable behavior to begin with, and at this point I started really disliking Lizzie's, too.

The ending, where Tyler is accepted despite having been the lure which put Lizzie at severe risk in the park, felt false. Yes, Lizzie had bonded with him for some reason, but her father's complete and ready capitulation seemed entirely unlike a parent, especially after her painful misbehavior. She paid no penalty whatsoever and neither did Tyler. There was no moral to this story! There are ways this novel could have been written which would have avoided all of these pitfalls and still told an adventurous and exciting story. I was really sorry these were not explored. I can't recommend a novel which fails to avoid so many traps and which fails to give any rational and reasonable resolution to so much poor behavior. Perhaps the children at whom this is aimed will not be so critical, but I can be, and this kind of a story is where I draw the line.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan, John Parke Davis

Rating: WARTY!

Like the other library print book I looked at recently, I can't really review this one because I made it through only the first four chapters before giving up. They story switched back and forth (or even froth as I originally typed it! LOL!) between the two main characters and it wasn't making a whole lot of sense, much less as it drawing me in. One character, the guy, was named Fin, which turned me right off. 'Fin' is almost as bad as 'Jack' for an adventuring character name and the lack of originality in choosing either of those names frankly nauseates me. I flatly refuse to read any novel where the main character is called Jack on principle, no matter how tempting it sounds. The girl is named Marrill, which is almost equally obnoxious.

This is supposedly a middle-grade book, but the page count is well over four hundred - much too long for a middle-grade book unless the book is exceptional and really has something to offer, and this one didn't feel that way to me. It's also odd that it's so long, because it's not a one book story! It's part of a series, and I sure don't do series unless they're exceptional, so this one loses on that score, too. This authors need to seriously redact their work! OTOH, maybe this is what happens when you try to co-author a novel: it bloats!

As if that's not bad enough, Fin is an orphan who is in search of his mom, and there's a bumbling wizard. Yuk! It sounds vaguely reminiscent of the Terry Gilliam Movie Time Bandits, but it's not Gilliam and it shows. So, based on what little I looked at, I can't recommend it. But also based on what little I looked at, this review may be useless to you and if so I apologize, but I could not get into this book at all, and life is too short to spend pursing things that don't instantly delight you as a reader!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders

Rating: WORTHY!

This was an audio book red amazingly by Jayne Entwistle, a professional narrator and (almost literally) one-time actor, who does great British voice because she's...British! She lives in the US now.

The story is a magical one in more ways than one. Lily and Oscar Spoffard move into a property their family inherits. It used to be the location of a very successful chocolate manufacturer and retailer which purveyed chocolates to royalty, until two of the talented Spoffard triplets were murdered by the other in 1938.

But there's more going on here than that. The third triplet is evidently in search of the magical chocolate molds used by his brothers, and now Lily and Oscar are tied up in the adventure, especially after they're recruited by a little known division of MI6 (the Brit equivalent of the CIA), they begin to learn their family history and of the magic that can be passed own in families - maybe to them?

The story wasn't perfect (but then which is?!). The terrorists didn't seem to end up caught, and the magical abilities the children were supposed to have never materialized in any overt form, but apart from that, the story was chock(olate) full of LOL moments, and the talking immortal cat (Demerara - great name for a cat) and the similarly endowed rat (Spike!) were hilarious. Spike was actually my favorite character, but then I have a soft spot for rats. Lily was a close second. I'd have been proud to have had a daughter like her. I thought Ms Entwistle overdid the cat's voice a touch, but overall I loved her characterizations. Her voice was to die for dahlings! I thought the story was great, and very entertaining. I shall be looking for more from this author.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Rosco the Rascal Visits the Pumpkin Patch by Shana Gorian

Rating: WORTHY!

Just in time for Halloween and in plenty of time for Thanksgiving, this is a middle-grade chapter book with some illustrations set around this time of year (assuming you're reading this in late October and you're in the northern hemisphere!). It has its roots in a real dog owned by the author, but the story is fictional. It's part of a series, and you can get another one in the series free by signing up for the author's mailing list.

Rosco (which I keep wanting to add an 'e' to so it looks less like a corporate name!) is in the McKendrick family, which consists of mom, dad, and two children, ten year old James, and seven-year-old Mandy. In this adventure, they visit the pumpkin patch where dad wants to procure a giant pumpkin to carve for Halloween. Rosco is a bit naughty at times, but it all comes from his desire to have fun and run-off excess energy. To be fair, he also has some very positive traits, though. He's very protective of children, and both his naughtiness and his protectiveness play a role in this story, as they enjoy the outdoors, take part in activities on the pumpkin farm, and get lost in the corn maze - which turns out to be fortunate for an even younger child who's in there, also lost. And very afraid. And hurt.

I'm not a big fan of "intelligent" dog and cat stories because in my sad experience the authors make them so human that they're no longer dogs or cats, so really, what's the point? In this case, though, I loved the way the author seems to get inside the dog's head, making it appear very human in a very doglike way, without turning it into a completely unbelievable human substitute. The story wasn't written for my age range, but even so it was fun, interesting, realistic, believable, and very entertaining. It carried positive messages and had a warm and happy ending. I recommend this for kids of all ages.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Fish Called Blackbeard by Gillian Rogerson

Rating: WORTHY!

This was another charming young children's/middle-grade book from an author who is growing on me! Note that this is a text book - no pictures here - so while you can read it to young children, there's nothing for them to look at. Lilly desperately wants a pet, and her only hope is to win a goldfish at the fairground even if it uses up all her allowance. She finally wins with her last shot, she picks the more active of the two remaining fish. She notes a black ring around the fish's eye, she decides to name it Blackbeard after the pirate.

So far so good. But the thing is, she discovers the fish can talk, and when she talks to it, she discovers he's depressed. The other fish at the fairground was Blackbeard's girlfriend and now he's heartbroken to be separated from her! Can Lilly help her new friend? This story reveals all! I liked it. Written lightly and amusingly, it was different, fun, and inventive. It's exactly what you need to stimulate a young person's mind, and I recommend it.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Watch Out For The Bears! by Gillian Rogerson

Rating: WORTHY!

This was an amazingly entertaining story about the son of the man who looks after the weather. One day the weather keeper has to go out and he leaves his son, Tom, in charge of the weather huts where the weather is of course kept locked away from the bears. Everyone knows about bears and weather. Most of the time we grin and bear it, right? There is a very brief section at the end of this book where the author talks about how she came up with the idea for this story, and I found that as entertaining as the story itself. It sounds very much like the way I come up with oddball ideas for stories! And the way you need to as well, if you want to be an original and inventive writer! She sounds like a fun and interesting person.

But I digress. Tom is happy to take charge of the weather for the day and doesn't care about the bears. He's never even seen one. Unfortunately, when he went to check on the weather this, one of them was unlocked and the clouds were gone! There were bear prints! Tom has to track down those clouds or he'll get in trouble with his dad, and he does track them down, but unfortunately this marks the first of several adventures he has with those kleptomaniacal bears. Tom is industrious and very responsible though, so he pursues his task diligently and bears up well in the end. You knew he would, right?

The story was completely charming, and I enjoyed it immensely. I look forward to reading other stories by this author - several of which are free on Barnes & Noble and possibly other online outlets, even as you sit here wasting time looking at this review while those books go unattended! Get over there! Now!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber

Rating: WARTY!

This is one of those novels where an older writer writes for a younger age group without changing any of her personal preferences or prejudices! Thus she sounds dumb at best and stupid at worst. This is written in worst person voice, which is first person voice, a voice I detest, but it's actually twice as bad here, because we have two alternating stories and the first one, where the guy is rescued by the mermaid, is straight out of the Tom Hanks/Darryl Hannah movie Splash which preceded this novel by some two decades. It was juvenile even for the intended age range, and frankly I expect better from an author whose very name in German, means writer! I managed two chapters of this before I DNF'd this DNR.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Diary of a Wickedly Cool Witch by Kate Cullen

Rating: WARTY!

The blurb tells us that this story involves the titular character, Lily, taking on school bullies. Lily is some three hundred years old. The reason she appears to be twelve is that she is periodically reincarnated, yet she retains all her memories so while she was technically born only twelve years ago, she has the mind of a triple centenarian. Herein lay the first problem with this. Lily not only looks like a twelve-year-old, she thinks, feels, and acts like one. I don't know how middle-grade girls (at which this is aimed) would feel about this, but from my perspective the story was completely nonsensical and wildly inauthentic.

The blurb also says that this novel "touches on the notion of bullying, self-image, standing up for yourself, caring for your friends and being an individual" yet despite that, we have fat-shaming and age-shaming. How is that building anyone's self image or does the author want only willowy girls to read her books? It was disgusting and inexcusable. On top of that we get the 'girls hate math' stereotype.

Anachronism was rife. How come Lily knows the words to a thirty-year-old song by the police? Not because the middle-grade girl does (which is possible but unlikely), but because the author does. So now we have a three-hundred-year-old witch in a twelve-year-old body speaking in a thirty plus year-old/I don't know the author's age voice of Kate Cullen (not to be confused with Scots cyclist Katie Cullen, or with the other Australian Kate Cullen, writer of poetry and fantasy!).

There are many inconsistencies. Lily has psychic skills but she isn't a mind reader?! I know the two are not interchangeable, but if you have psychic skills you are definitely some sort of a mind reader! At another point she says, "I'm a witch not a psychologist," but after almost 300 years of experiencing humanity? You're both!

There are also writing inconsistencies. I read at one point "I think she snobbed me." I don't know if that was intended as a joking play on words or if the author simply put an 'o' instead of a 'u'. Maybe it's something Australians actually say (the author is Australian, so US readers should beware that there might be some minor language difficulties) That is the kind of thing an under-educated middle-grader might write, but it's not what a 300 year old would write. Finally there's the unintentional humor: "I try not to put the words cute and Dan in the same sentence." Um...she just did! Guess she's not trying very hard.

I can't recommend this. Maybe the girls at whom it's aimed will be less discriminating and view it differently from me, but I hope they actually aspire to read better-written novels than this.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Seventh Element by Wendy Mass

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook I tried as an experiment and it failed. These things happen more frequently with audio than other media because I take more risks on audio. The story was poor even for the juveniles at which it was aimed. I assumed from the behavior and language level of the characters that it was aimed at middle-graders, but it was juvenile even for them. My kids are just edging out of that zone and they would have had no interest whatsoever in this.

It didn't help that this was book sixth in a series, I admit. Things were definitely missing, so you cannot read any one of these, I'd guess, as a stand-alone, but that wasn't why I failed this one. I didn't realize it was a series when I grabbed it in haste (obviously!) off the library shelf. This because I don't judge a book by its cover, given that authors have very little to nothing whatsoever to do with designing their cover unless they self-publish, so I do not linger on it and missed the tiny '6' up there under the massive series title. I really must start paying more attention before I flip the book for the back cover blurb! I don't normally read series for the very reasons exemplified here. Judged by the amount of fluff in this book, all six volumes could have been contained within one volume and it would have remained rather slim!

The novel had poor science, and it was silly and ill-conceived, and it was simply not worth my time. The title says it all. It was volume six, but it was the seventh element? Not well-planned!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Charlie Bingham Gets Clocked by Maggie M Larche

Rating: WORTHY!

I love books which have a title that makes it sounds like the author has done something perhaps she oughtn't! I mean did Maggie Larche really clock Charlie Bingham? That's what it says: Charlie Bingham gets clocked by Maggie M Larche! Seriously, this was a fun middle-grade book aimed at slightly mischievous, or perhaps slightly unlucky boys. Or perhaps both more likely. It's part of a Charlie Bingham series.

Charlie's friend Brad has a rather unruly pet lizard which secretes itself in his clothes when he heads out to school. Then it gets loose and hides in the teacher's old-fashioned alarm clock - the one with big bells on the top. Rather than reveal his reptilian pet is running around, Brad takes the clock and hides it in his backpack, intending to retrieve the lounging lizard later.

From this point on it's a bit like a game of pass the parcel, as they try to retrieve the lizard and return the alarm clock without being discovered! It doesn't go according to plan of course, and there are questions of trust and betrayal, but it all works out in the end. I liked it, and I think the intended age range will like it even more than I did, so I recommend this one for a fun romp for the intended age range.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Rivalry: Mystery at the Army-Navy Game by John Feinstein

Rating: WARTY!

This is a classic example of why I don't read series, and worse, this book is a complete lie if judged by the blurb. I know authors don't get to write their own blurbs unless they self publish, but the outright lie is a bit much even by blurb standards. I didn't realize this was number five in the "The Sports Beat" series. It read more like number two. If I'd known it was part of a series, I would never have read it - or in this case listened to the pedantic voice of the narrator (who was the author himself, so it's hardly a surprise that the reading was as bad as the writing).

I know it's not aimed at my age group, but the blurb outright lied about it: "John Feinstein has been praised as 'the best writer of sports books in America today' (The Boston Globe), and he proves it again in this fast-paced novel." If that's the case, if he's the best, there must be some lousy, lousy sports books out there. Either that or the Boston Globe is full of shift, to use a football term. No, this novel is anything but fast-paced. It begins with two flashbacks, so it's actually negatively paced! It's supposed to be about events during the Army Navy football game, but that game does not start until the final twenty percent of the novel! In the first third of it, literally nothing happened except that I got teed off (and not in a golfing capacity) by the incessant use of "Susan Carol" which is the first and middle name of one of the main characters. Seriously? No one ever calls her Susan or Sue? She should sue!

She's a fourteen-year-old female sports reporter for a big Washington newspaper. I'm not even going to get into the improbability of a teen female sports report in a major newspaper reporting on mens' sports - not that a fourteen-year-old female couldn't do it in theory, but that she would never be allowed to do it in practice in an adult men's world, and if she did do it she'd be jeered, insulted and abused incessantly by dickhead males. It happens all the time for a lot less than a female presuming to "trespass on male Astro-Turf."

As I mentioned, this story revolves around the annual Army and Navy game which is attended by the president and so Stevie and "Susan Carol" are following a Secret Service agent around. I get that this story is aimed at sports fans, but it's all sport (including the two flashbacks) and no mystery, no thrill, no cut to the chase, no fast-pace, and no thing to hold interest. You would get more thrills from reading a sports almanac or a stats book. I skimmed this one and missed the mystery - that's how pathetic it was, and I refuse to say anything good about a novel this badly written and this boring.