Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu


Rating: WORTHY!

Rachel Walker is a seventeen-year-old who has been raised all her life in a Christian cult. I'd argue that all religions are cults, but some are far worse than others. The author apparently rooted this story in what is known as the "Quiver-Full" cult which is merely, from what I can tell, a religious movement that sees children as a blessing from their god and so wants 'their women' to have as many children as possible to the forfeiture of everything else in life.

Whether there are any of the coercive/oppressive elements in that cult that are depicted here, I can't say since I know very little about it, but since (as I understand it) the author did work with some escapees from the cult, then I'm quite willing to take her word for it, knowing how oppressive religion can truly be when it gets its way, and goes unchallenged and unregulated.

Rachel's family is very large, and her mother just had a miscarriage and is not handling it well, feeling like she's a failure for not increasing the tally of her offspring. She retreats to her bed for some considerable time, leaving Rachel, as the oldest unmarried daughter, to step in and assume mom's role in raising her siblings, cooking, cleaning, helping her father run his tree-trimming business, and helping her younger brothers and sisters with their schooling. This starts to wear on her and make her a bit resentful even as she tries to put it into the perspective in which she's been raised: that she's a woman and this is her duty.

Rachel has led a very sheltered existence, although she was not sheltered from the appalling mental abuse. She knows little of the real world, having been taught only that it's a godless, sinful place, so she is very naïve and backward when it comes to life outside her claustrophobic community, even as she shows herself to be a smart and curious young woman.

She's a believer though, and she tries to meet all the expectations put upon her by the Calvary Christian Church: thinking pure thoughts, dressing modestly, obeying parents, being always cheerful, praying, Bible reading, and on and on. The more she feels put upon though, the less she feels like this is what she wants in life, and it scares her that very soon she's going to be married-off to someone and expected to churn out children.

Her only respite from this oppression is her access to her father's computer, ostensibly so she can help him with his accounts, his work schedule, and maintain his website, but really so she can also look up things to educate herself. This is where her 'downfall' begins, because she's aware of a young woman named Lauren who left the community, and is now shunned by it, yet Lauren came back to this small town where Rachel lives. She did not rejoin the religious community however, and Rachel is curious about her.

She starts to focus on Lauren more and more, wondering what happened to her, and why she came back yet did not come back to the fold, and pondering if she might have answers to Rachel's ever-growing list of questions about her own life. Rachel discovers that Lauren has a web site and begins reading her story, eventually emailing her and beginning a hesitant dialog.

Despite her academic smarts, Rachel isn't that smart in other things, and eventually she's found out. Threatened with the horrifying prospect of being sent to the brutal 'Journey of Faith' brainwashing isolation camp, Rachel decides to leave the community, and her escape is made possible by Lauren who immediately comes to her aid. Lauren puts Rachel up in her modest apartment - sleeping on the couch - and Rachel tries to get her life in order.

I did not like the debut novel this author wrote, so I was a bit skeptical of this one, but it sounded interesting. Even as I began reading it, I wasn't sure I would finish it, but it drew me in, and I ended up liking it, despite some issues with it so overall, I recommend it as a worthy read.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Quantum by Dean De Servienti


Rating: WARTY!

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

The first problem I encountered with this was that it's the first of a trilogy, which means it's really not a novel, but a prologue. The funny thing about that was that there is an author's note, an introduction, AND a prologue in this volume. Now that is serious and hilarious overkill. I do not read introductions, prefaces, prologues, author's notes, or any of that stuff. If you want me to read it, put it in the main text. Anything else is as antique as it is pretentious.

Despite this being a trilogy overture, I decided to take a chance on it anyway because it sounded interesting, but in keeping with its tripartite roots, it moved too slowly for me and didn't offer me much reward no matter how much I let slide. This is why I so rarely find series of any value. The first volume was boring - at least the fifty percent of it that I read - and it should not have been. I can't see myself being remotely interested in reading three volumes if they're anything like the portion I read of this one.

The second problem is that there are far too many characters introduced far too quickly. All this means is that we never get to know a single one of them in any depth, and so we have no one with whom to identify or for whom to root. This is another problem for me. I am not a fan of novels which jump around like this, especially when it's after as little as a single paragraph as often happens here. It moves so rapidly from one person to another, and one locale to another that it's likely to induce whiplash in many readers! It also pretentiously announces each paragraph with a dateline, like this is somehow crucial information. It's not, so why the pretension? Who reads datelines anyway?

This is translated from the Italian (as far as I know), so I readily admit something may have been lost in translation, but I doubt so much could have been lost that a brilliant novel in the native language would have been rendered so uninteresting in English. What bugged me most about this though, is that it was set in the USA. Italy has so much to offer - why betray that and set your novel in the US? Was it to avariciously pander to an insular US audience which evidently can't stand to read a novel unless it's native? And I don't mean Native American! I felt it would have been more interesting had it been set elsewhere, and Italy would have been a fine place to set this.

The most amusing thing was that Kindle's crappy app on my phone, which is the medium I read most of this in (and the formatting was, for once, fine) told me on page one that there were six minutes left in the book! Right, Amazon! Seriously, you still need to do some work on your crappy Kindle app. You're pulling down enough profit from your massive global conglomerate, so I know it's not that you can't afford to hire top line programmers; is it just that you're too cheap to hire them? Or are you purposefully trying to force people to buy a Kindle device?

The story opened amusingly: "Rome was beautiful in spite of the annoying wind that had been buffeting the city for the past couple of days." How might wind make it unattractive? Was Rome farting?! I liked Rome when I visited, but felt it was rather dirty - more-so than London is typically asserted to be, but that was a while ago. I don't know what it's like now, but I promise you the wind cannot make it ugly, so this struck me as a truly odd way of expressing a sentiment. Another translation problem? I can't say.

There were other such issues. One of them was that the artifact they found was six inches in diameter, yet it's referred to as a cane and a walking stick?! Again, this might have been a problem with translation, but with that repetition, it didn't seem so. I think it's funny that the artifact is described as sparkling, yet one guy assumes it's made from gold. Again, a problem with the translation? I don't know.

The truly bizarre thing is that I read, "Whatever metal it's made of isn't known to us." I'm sorry, but this is bullshit. We know all the metals in the universe. They're in the periodic table, and scientists can reliably project what others may be found. There are almost none beyond Uranium that are remotely stable. They can be created in the lab, but are so loosely wrapped that they exist for only minuscule fractions of a second, so this 'unknown metal' which often appears in sci-fi, is nonsensical.

The author would have made more sense and impressed me more if he'd talked about an unknown alloy instead of an unknown metal. I would have been more impressed still if he'd gone for one of the unstable metals and reported that it had somehow been rendered stable in this artifact (but then it might still have been radioactive), or if he had gone with one of the projected stable metals which are way off the end of the current periodic table. There's supposed to be one somewhere in the vicinity of Unbinilium. It hasn't been found yet and may not exist, but something like that would have been sweet to read about instead of this amateurish 'unknown metal'.

The story itself made no sense. The idea is that medical volunteers in the Sudan find a metallic cylinder, which was evidently embedded in rocks a quarter billion years old. Instead of asking permission from the powers-that-be in the country, they simply assert white man's privilege and steal the thing, transporting it to the west like the Sudanese have no business with it at all, and no say in the matter. They're black and African so why would any white scientists care at all? That can and has happened, but the fact that there isn't one single voice of dissension recording how utterly wrong that is bothered me intensely, and spoiled this right from the beginning.

The next absurdity is that the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) cease all disputes and come together as one, Israel sending the Mossad after this object. why? There is no reason whatsoever given for this intense religious interest, and for why it is only those three, like there are no other important religions on the planet! Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Falun Gong, and Sikhism are all larger than Judaism, so this seemed like an utterly arbitrary choice.

Anyway, all of the scientists contact their families and tell them not to try to contact them (!), and then they disappear. They're accompanied by and protected by a guy named Yoshi, who has a really interesting and overly intimate (but not sexual) relationship with his sister. Those two intrigued me more than anything else in this story, though they 'skeeved out' at least one reviewer I read, but they were switched-out with other characters almost interchangeably, so we never even got to learn why those two were like they were, although this may have been revealed in the second half of this first volume which I did not read. Life is too short!

So overall, based on the half of the volume I read, I cannot recommend this. It's too dissipated: all over the place and completely unrealistic, and it offered nothing to hold my interest.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mind Virus by Charles Kowalski


Rating: WARTY!
Mind Virus by Charles Kowalski

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher. I'm sorry I could not give it a better review, but the pledge is to be honest, so here it is!

There is at least four books titled 'Mind Virus' or something very similar, so the title is not unique, but this one sounded interesting to me. While it started out well enough, the more I read of it, the more it felt like a diatribe about atheists than ever it was a novel telling an engrossing story.

Normally I applaud an author who takes the road less traveled, so I was initially thrilled with the off-the-beaten-track approach, but the story devolved into trope, and in the end, bogged-down in the diatribe, and it really forget to tell us anything interesting, engaging, or worse: actually credible.

Call me warped, but it was amusing to me that I lost faith in a book about faith. It's also sad, because it had been interesting and engaging in the beginning. The plot is too improbable, though. Instead of religious terrorism, the story is about atheist terrorism! Now this is unlikely, but it's possible, and I applaud the author for taking a different tack, but the more I read of the novel, the more it felt like there was an agenda here other than telling a story, with the author not-so-subtly sniping at atheists every few pages. The villain was such an absurd caricature that he was just not credible, and he doesn't talk like any atheist I'm familiar with.

The story begins with a series of terrorist attacks on religious locations using a virus which, despite our being repeatedly told is horrific and deadly, never actually does any real harm because the hero rushes in and inevitably stops the attack at the eleventh hour. It was a bit too much, and tedious in how repetitive it became.

The trope of a retired veteran being recalled to the intelligence services to combat the threat is way overdone in stories these days. If you're going that route, you need to have a very good reason why an outsider has to be brought back in; that is, why the resources they have at the CIA (in this case) are insufficient, yet no real reason was offered here.

The "hero"'s name is Robin Fox, no doubt named after Robin Lane Fox, a well-known atheist and academic, and he almost immediately begins globe-trotting. Instead of keeping authorities informed of the threat and letting them handle it, he abandons all communication at the end, and personally takes charge, actually physically chasing terrorists and bringing them to book, so he was something of a one-trick pony, and it felt far too incredible that he was the only one who could do this: see the threat, spot the interloper, and defuse it at the last minute. Once or twice maybe, but every single time, and single-handed? It didn't work for me because it was so unrealistic.

The method of the attacks in each case was so improbably contrived that it was not only unlikely to succeed, but it was contrived in a way which was tailor-made for Fox to defeat it. He was always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to foil the attack.

In one case, the method was to use linseed oil to make a garment erupt in flames, and then to have the nearby fire extinguisher 'impregnated' with the virus, so it was spread as someone tried to put out the flames. This was so absurd that I actually laughed. I agree that linseed oil is dangerous in a pile of soaked rags, but to have it in the material of a garment is not likely to have the same effect, and the smell would be highly noticeable. No one would put on a garment which smelled badly of putty!

And why go to all that trouble? Too much can go wrong. If the practice was to use linseed oil (also known as flax seed oil, FYI) to polish the pews, which seemed a bit of a stretch, then why not simply put the virus in that, or spray it from the gallery during the service? It made no sense to me to set it up in such a risky and Heath Robinson fashion, and it made me feel like the author had become so enwrapped in presenting a "cool scenario" that he failed to look critically and objectively at what he was writing. This took me right out of the story.

There was too much trope and stereotyping in the novel, which ultimately defeated the 'off the beaten track' approach which I'd initially admired and rooted for. For example, we get an Irish MI5 officer whose name is Liam Donovan. He had a, wait for it, red beard, and red hair. This could not have been more of a condescending cliché if he'd been named Paddy O'Brien, had worn shoes with curling toes, a green felt hat, and carried a shillelagh.

The atheist terrorists leave a trail of clues to their next attacks like this is a Nancy Drew story. These clues are ones which only Robin Goodfellow can solve of course, and each clue consistently got him there in time to save the day. Why would a terrorist leave clues? There's a halfhearted attempt to explain it as a conceit on the part of the obsessively posing and monologuing terrorist leader, but it failed. I don't have a problem with the good guys doing the footwork and making the breaks for themselves, but to have neat clues laid out, Dan Brown style, and have the hero swoop in and solve them all so effortlessly and in the nick of time, was too much to swallow.

The author has the atheists worshiping at the altar of Charles Darwin, but no atheist does that, and all of the atheists I've encountered understand evolution very well. They would never talk of it as the Nazis did, for example, as winnowing out the weak links to make the race stronger, in the way that the over-the-top villain mindlessly monologues about.

As a point of order, it's the creationists who slander Darwin by misrepresenting what he said and who make endless attempts at character assassination on him, like if they discredit him, then the Theory of Evolution fails. Atheists are not that stupid and never would misrepresent his work. Plus they have better things to do with their time!

Atheism isn't about a belief system or about worshiping at the altar of the sciences; it's simply a lack of belief due to a lack of viable evidence, and that's all there is to it. Yes, there are some atheist campaigners like Richard Dawkins, but most of us don't care about religion enough to waste much time even thinking about it; we're too busy getting on with our lives, content to let religion fail under its own unsupportable weight.

Yes, we find it foolish, and often in equal parts amusing and annoying, but that's about it. Yes, if it tries to encroach on our rights or control our lives we will fight back (but not with bombs or viruses!). Other than that we really don't care if people want to believe in fairy tales. It's their choice.

So this book felt like it misrepresented atheists, but that wasn't the worst fault by any means. I would have bought into the plot of atheist terrorists if they hadn't been so painfully paper-thin and caricatured. That, the boring and poorly plotted story, along with an improbable terrorist and an even more absurd protagonist who was so self-righteous and infallible that it left no possibility of suspense for the reader at all, were what brought this down for me.

I began skimming this novel around page 270 (out of some 330 pages) and I quit at around page 300 when it devolved even more absurdly into secret passageways and booby traps. I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot recommend this novel.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock


Rating: WORTHY!

This amazingly-named novel, from an author I now intend to read more of, is about a teen-aged girl in a religious cult (not an evil one, just a misguided one as they all ultimately are). Starbird has grown up leading a rather sheltered life, but she gets the chance to go out into the world and this is her story.

All of the characters have bizarre names. Starbird's brother is called Douglas Fir. Apparently the cult went through eras of selecting names from particular inspirational sources, so the founding members are all named after planets in our solar system. The leader is called Earth, and the name is always capitalized, but he's disappeared. He went out on some sabbatical, and no one heard from him since.

Starbird ends-up working with a girl named Venus Lake (daughter of Venus Ocean) in a restaurant owned by the cult. Venus is not a founding member but since her mother, who was a founder, died in childbirth, they gave her name to her daughter. Yes, it's that kind of weird. It was really hard to get into for the first couple of pages, but then it started making sense and I really liked it, which is a good feeling form a new novel by an author I was not familiar with. It's the best part of a novel, right? Before you've become disappointed in it and ditch or, or worse, before you read it avidly and then are disappointed that it's over! LOL! The manic world of novel addicts.

That;s not to say it was perfect. I had a problem with, in the space of 6 pages in chapter 9, meeting two guys and two girls. In each case the guy is described in terms of his hair, while in each case the girl is described in terms of how pretty or attractive she is. Fortunately, this was the only instance of this I encountered, so I let it slide, but this business of typing females by how pretty they are has to stop. I'm getting so tired of it that I'm ready to start rating novels based solely on that, if it's indulged in to absurd lengths, regardless of how well-written or otherwise the novel is.

Women have other qualities and the people who should perhaps most realize this are female writers, yet so many of them sell-out their characters with this genderist bullshit that it's nauseating. As I said, the author went on to show admirably how these women had other qualities and she backed-off on the skin-deep garbage, so I let it slide this time.

I can understand it if a character, in the novel reduces a woman to her looks alone; this happens in real life, but these descriptions came directly from the author, not from one of the characters. In each case the woman is reduced to her looks and in doing this, the author is very much announcing that women who are not considered attractive need not apply, because when it comes to women, looks are all that matter. I don't subscribe to that and I wish that a lot fewer female authors did, particularly in the YA genre.

That caveat aside, and because it was so limited in this novel, I do consider this a worthy read.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown


Rating: WARTY!

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

'A hanging' ought to be the collective noun for witches. It would remind us of what has happened to so many women who were not even witches. This book could have set that right at least a little, but in the end it was a disappointment. The very title is an issue since it's in the form of "The 's Sister/Daughter/Wife." I admit that such titles are provocative, but when you get right down to it, all they really achieve is the reduction of a woman to a mere male appendage of some kind, and it's appallingly insulting when you think about it. I think this is the last novel with such a title that I shall read, no matter how interesting the blurb might make it.

I think there was a story to be told here about a fictional sister of a real historical person, but the telling of it in this way did not work for me. Others might draw different conclusions, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me confess here (you don't even need to torture me!) that I am not a fan of first person voice stories at all. They're decidedly unrealistic and I cannot for the life of me understand why authors, particularly female and particularly in the YA genre, are so addicted to them.

I think it awfully sad that female authors are implying, by so dedicatedly employing this method, that women have so little confidence and feel so unheard in novels that they have to make their stories "all about me" just to get anyone to pay them any attention. As an avid reader, I certainly don't believe that and yet I've encountered very few first person voice novels that were satisfying. First person is far too self-centered, and it typically makes me dislike the narrator because it’s all, "Hey focus on me! See what I'm doing now! It's time for some more about me! Lookit me! It’s all about Meeee!" and I honestly cannot can't stand it, with very few exceptions.

Once in a while an author can carry it, but here it did not work. In terms of realism, it’s highly unlikely that a young girl growing up in a large family of boys, even one as relatively well-off as this one was, would be well-enough educated to be able to write, and especially not a story like this (which is supposed to be her diary or journal, but which reads nothing like one).

Girls did not get much of an education if any, not even in the nobility, and the Hopkins family was hardly nobility. It was deemed that an education would be harmful to a girl's marriage prospects, so it was neglected (beyond the basic housekeeping, sewing, etc.). Because of this, Alice's literacy was hard to swallow. It was inauthentic. On top of this, her voice did not suggest the mid-seventeenth century at all. The mentality was far too modern, and no one has that kind of recollection of events down to detailed conversations, so it just felt wrong from the start, and kept throwing me out of suspension of disbelief.

There's another problem with this voice and the author illustrates this one handsomely for us here. When you trap yourself in first person, your character has to be there and everywhere - otherwise how can she tell us what’s happening? Almost the only alternative to this is the info dump, where she learns what’s going on by having someone tell her in a story-halting binge, or where she reads something which feels so fake, because the only purpose it serves is to clue us in to what she's missed.

The equally clunky alternative to this is to have the character end-up in a position to listen in on something she's not meant to hear. Typically this is far too convenient or contrived, and it feels fake and thoroughly unnatural. In this case, at a meeting of men, we get Alice dragged in there for no good reason, and it felt so obvious and so fake that it really kicked me out of suspension of disbelief. Again. These kinds of men certainly would not want a woman in on their meetings. They had no use for women whatsoever.

Did Matthew Hopkins have a sister? It’s unlikely. His father had six children, but we know the names only of the four eldest. The author argues that at least one of the other two could have been a girl, and uses the lack of mention as evidence: since girls were not counted for anything back then other than as housekeepers and baby mills (an argument which, of course, undermines her entire sister story!). But if the two youngest had died, then they also would have merited no mention even had they been boys. It's unlikely in a family of six that all of them survived infancy in that era. Mortality was appalling.

But fine, if you want to say one was a girl, then let's go with that and ask how she got her name. The name 'Alice' for the main character is chosen for a reason, and it would be a spoiler to reveal it, but it doesn’t work. The Hopkins boys were all named after apostles, the other three (older) brothers being called James, John, and Thomas. Where then would this family come up with a non-Biblical name like Alice? It stands out like a sore thumb, and for me wasn't worth the ending which is too cute by far to be taken seriously.

For a story which promises witchcraft and horror, this one kills the thrills by moving achingly slowly, with rambling reminiscences and flashbacks. These are not to my taste at all. For me, all a flashback does is bring the story to a screeching halt, and I never appreciate that, especially not when it's a reminder that a writer seems to be trying to hit plot points and a story outline, rather than relate a realistic and organic tale of a person's experiences (fictional as they are) as they happened.

Flashbacks have such an amateur feel to them that they ruin suspension of disbelief. No one in real life sits lost in pages flashback or reminiscence (unless they're mentally ill) - not for as long as characters all-too-often do in such stories. It's an amateur conceit really ruined the pace for me. I took to skipping all the flashbacks because they contributed nothing to the story and actually impeded it as far as I could see.

It was a third of the way through the story before we ever got to what Hopkins was doing! Up until that point it was all about Alice, and she was not an appealing character at all. She was tedious, and in very short order, I had lost all interest in her and in what she was thinking or doing. For some reason she became obsessed with a list of witch's names and we had to go through that list over and over again. I took to skipping those passages, too, because they were simply annoying and led nowhere. I had read some reviews that said the story picked up around the halfway point, but I didn't find this to be the case. For me, it continued to be lackluster the entire length of the novel.

Of course not a one of these women was a witch, neither in the pagan sense nor in the absurd evil caster-of-spells sense. They were simply tragic victims of Hopkins's religious fanaticism, and the worst thing about this novel is that we got nothing of that from this story. Just as with his sister, Matthew was completely bland and unmemorable. He's presented as a simple, flat character who offers nothing original or entertaining. He has no emotional depth.

He ought to be a firebrand and a dynamo, but he's a limp rag, and it made for a boring story. He was larded with far too dramatic a past and it completely overshadowed his present whilst contributing nothing materially to it, so instead of an emotional story about the horrible slaying of scores of innocent women, we got a bland family melodrama, and I found it insulting to the memory of those women who were slaughtered on the altar of religious psychosis.

Matthew Hopkins was a real person about whom we know very little, and would probably know next-to-nothing were it not for the eighteen months or so when he became Britain's most prolific serial killer, hiding his vindictive blood-lust beneath the guise of a Christian witch-finder as he acted on the clear Biblical injunction, which fortunately everyone outside of Africa ignores today - of not suffering a witch to live.

He terrorized East Anglia - that butt rump of a bulge on Britain's south eastern shore - running from village to village, and being paid by the local parishes to cleanse their territory of witches. The Bible has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? It’s the most execrable terrorist manifesto ever written, and we could have had all of this in this novel: the empty message of a god's unconditional love contrasted with the brutal Biblical injunctions to kill, slaughter and eradicate, but we got none of that. For me that was the saddest aspect of all.

On top if this there were portions of the story which seemed to start up dramatically, like an avocado pit on a plant pot, only to die inexplicably without going anywhere. There was a suggestion of the supernatural quite early in the book which never went anywhere, as though the author forgot about it, or had second thoughts. Alice's pregnancy (a left-over from her deceased husband) was an obsession for much of the start of the book and then it fizzled out. At one point I was starting to suspect that Matthew had had Alice's husband killed. I admit that if this suspicion turned out to be true, then I missed the revelation because I was, I confess, skimming the last forty percent of the novel just to get it over with.

As I said, so little is known of Hopkins's life that you can make up pretty much any story you want about him and get away with it. The saddest thing about this novel was not a hanging of witches, which ought to have been front and center, but of a tragically wasted opportunity - one squandered on unimportant trivia in the life of a fictional women when there were so many very real women, all of them murdered by Hopkins, who are begging to have their story told, and yet were denied that opportunity by this author. I cannot recommend this at novel all.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Awakening by Lisa M Lilly


Rating: WARTY!

Unfortunately, this is volume one of the inevitable "Awakening" series, which I have no intention of following, even though this volume wasn't entirely disastrous. The fact is that I'm allergic to most series! Why writers suffer this inexplicable chronic verbosity these days and cannot seem to confine themselves to the covers of one book to tell a story is a complete mystery to me. Well not quite complete. Obviously it's mercenary and driven by publishers (and writers) wanting to milk a story for all they can, even when the udder is running dry or turning out sour milk, and the hell with the readers.

I mean, why sell your readers one pair of covers when you can milk them for three or more? Three is where this series is at as of this writing, but I'm done with this one volume. Series are by definition derivative and uninventive and that's not me, especially if they're rather uninspired and a bit lackluster, as this one was. If I'd realized that it was part of a series I would probably have decided against getting this at all. As it happens, this story wasn't so bad that I immediately wanted to ditch it, but it had problems which did not inspire me to pursue it.

In some ways I can understand it, in an era where Amazon seems determined to make all writers charge the same price for a three-hundred page novel that iTunes charges for a thee minute song. Running to a series seems like the only way for most writers to make any money, but to me it's still a cheat - an easy and lazy out. I do like a well-written good v. evil story, but unfortunately they're so few in number that they're hard to find. I didn't find one here.

This story features Tara Spencer, a mature young adult, who discovers she's pregnant, yet she's never had sex. Her boyfriend. Jeremy, ditches her because 'she's been unfaithful'. Apparently he doesn't know her very well, and he's a hypocrite anyway because he's already having an affair on the side since Tara wouldn't have sex with him! I honestly don't get Tara. She was raised Catholic but it didn't take. She's at least doubting, and at best lapsed. I say at best, because I'm not a believer. I think religion is nonsensical and organized religion is predatory and coercive. It has nothing to do with the love of any god. Like a book series, organized religion is all about making money.

So Tara is evidently either the new virgin Mary or she's the mother of the antichrist, but since she's not really a Catholic any more, this business of her remaining a virgin, while there's nothing wrong with it at all, felt to me like it wasn't justified very well by the author, and especially so since her supposed forbear Miriam (commonly known as Mary in the West) was not actually a virgin. The Hebrew word used to describe her means 'young woman' - there's a separate word for virgin, but this is never used in connection with Mary. The virgin lie is nothing more than a ruse employed in a long history of Catholicism's abuse and oppression of women and the twisting of belief for its own mercenary ends.

The sad thing from Tara's PoV is that the only person who believes her is some oddball guy named Cyril Woods (I disown all relationship to this guy. I'll explain later!), who is a believer and is resolved to protect her. At first she doesn't trust him, but he proves as good as his word and Tara is left with no choice but to turn to him since she's getting zero support from anyone else, not her best friend (who happens to be Jeremy's sister) and not her parents, although her older brother is on her side, as is her doctor, Dr. Lei.

One sad thing about this story is how little the author knows about religion or about nursing - as in taking care of the ill, not feeding babies. When Tara faints and is in the hospital, we read, "Dr. Lei, white coat open over her gray pin-striped pants suit, stopped in around nine. She told Tara she was on an IV with nutrition and hydration and took Tara's pulse." No, the nurses would be doing this - orientating the patient and filling her in on her treatment plan. Doctors don't do this, and they sure don't come in and take the patient's pulse! They read the nurses notes. Often the nurses are telling the doctors what to do, if they're new interns, for example.

Dr Lei isn't an intern, of course, she's a seasoned doctor and she'd know that wandering in and taking her patient's pulse isn't going to tell her anything. She would have read the patient's 'chart' (file) before she went into the room, so this is just the kind of thing a writer puts into a story when they really have no idea what doctors and nurses do, and are too lazy to research it. It might pass by most people, but to me it was a glaring lack of fidelity, with nurses once again being criminally under-served by a writer.

My other main issue with this was the religious one. I said religion is nonsensical, but this kind of story, while fiction, is so true to life that it's laughable. The Bible predicts (and the prediction long ago ran out) the arrival of this "Antichrist" and foretells what will happen, yet every story about the Antichrist has the believers trying to short-circuit this Biblically ordained series of events in direct contradiction of their god's wishes! LOL! They're always trying to kill the mother or kill the child in direct contravention of the sixth commandment - you shall not murder.

The sad thing is that organized religion has so little control over its adherents that this is exactly what fanatical Christians would do in real life. It's not only a measure of how delusional and misguided they are, it's also one of how shockingly little faith they truly have in their god. The fact is that they're making it up as they go, as has always been done in all religions, and there are virtually no modern Christians who honestly follow Jesus. They follow Paul who has more effectively derailed the Jesus movement than anyone before or since. These people are Paulians, not Christians.

If they truly were Christians, they would follow Judaism! LOL! Jesus never was a Christian. He was a Jew. He followed the Judaic religion, and he stated quite clearly that he had not come to change one jot or tittle of the law. It was Paul, the fanatic who had some serious mental issues, who did all of that, and everyone fell for it. Jesus (if you believe he existed - I don't - not in the way Christians believe) also stated that he came only for the children of the House of Israel, so he'd have no interest whatsoever in gentiles, which makes this story false from the start: why would the Antichrist appear in the USA? And why now?

Nearly all modern writers, particularly in the US, and even more particularly in the young adult genre do this kind of thing routinely because they can't imagine any story of worth taking place outside of their own back yard, so blinkered are they. Nor do they explain why this appearance is taking place in this particular year or with this particular individual. It's a sad and provincial tunnel-vision which creates farces like this, and I have little respect for such writers even when the story isn't a disaster. No, if the Antichrist were not pure fiction, he (it's almost never a she in the three big monotheistic religions) would appear in Israel. Personally I'm rooting for the Antichrist because I detest the way organized religion is going! LOL!

The novel took a decided turn for the worst when this guy Cyril says to Tara, "...that you've had the strength of character to stay a virgin despite a sex-saturated world," like this is some sort of badge of honor. Excuse me? No, if a woman wants to have sex (and she's not dumb about it) then she's perfectly entitled to. It has nothing whatsoever to do with strength of character, because the obverse of that view is that if she had sex it would mean she was weak and easily manipulated. It offers her no voice in her own sexuality. It's her choice, dipshit, not yours!

The fact that Tara has nothing to say about this patriarchal attitude of this patronizing busybody lessened her in my view, too, especially since she's not so subtly starting to get the hots for him. It was then that I realized that if this was the way this book is going - weak woman rescued by shining knight and falling hopelessly in love with him, then I really didn't want to read any more of it because that story has been done to death, and making her pregnant with the Messiah/Antichrist doesn't accomplish a thing by way of improvement!

When are book blurb writers going to treat people with respect? The blurb for this one asks, tediously, " Will Tara find answers before it's too late?" How pathetic is that? I detest book blurbs that ask this stupid question. Of course she will! Is she going to fail to find answers? No! Is the writer going to kill off this character? I'd respect her if she did, but no, that's not going to happen - not when there's a potentially lucrative series in prospect! Quit putting dumbass questions in your blurbs, morons! And for the record, I disrecommend this novel.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Ms Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona


Rating: WORTHY!

Admirably written by the talented G Willow Wilson, and nicely and amusingly illustrated by Adrian Alphona, the Ms. Marvel book is actually the first in the series - finally! I can't believe graphic novel writers make it so hard to figure out which collected volume is the first you should read. Is it such a problem to put a big "#1" of the front cover? LOL! It's a good story though, so I want to read more in this series. I think I've now read the first three (but who can say?!), and really liked one and three; two, not so much. Finally I got to learn how Kamala Khan got her super power - and it was by the oddball method of becoming enveloped in an unexplained fog which wafted through the city!

Working on an idea for a super hero novel (not graphic, just text!) myself, I've started thinking about the existing ones a little bit more closely. Becoming empowered by a fog struck me as decidedly odd, because everyone in the city (this is set in Jersey City; Marvel seems obsessed with the east coast for some reason) was likewise exposed, yet only Kamala seems to have developed any super powers from it. Why? This goes not only unexplained, but unexplored. I found it sad that she wasn't curious about why she alone was blessed or cursed. Thinking about other heroes, only one immediately comes to mind - although I'm sure there are more - who developed his power in a way parallel to Kamala, and The Hulk really goes unexplained too, so this is nothing new.

I mean, how did Bruce Banner change, and no one else exposed to gamma rays did? Maybe it's because no one had the exposure he did, yet we're all exposed to gamma rays from space - fortunately not to a high degree. The fact remained that it was he who survived and developed his...condition. Spider-man is a similar case, but though many are bitten by spiders, none that I know of have been bitten by a radioactive spider! Superman doesn't count because he isn't special - anyone from Krypton would have his powers if they came to Earth, as his story shows. Batman and Iron Man are self-made, so they're responsible for their "power". Thor is just like Superman in many regards, so nothing to be learned there. Wonder Woman is also in that category. Green Lantern got his power because he was chosen and imbued with it, just as was Captain America, although in a different manner. Again, anyone in theory could have had their power. So we're back to Kamala being special in an undefined way which few other heroes are. Unless of course she was chosen somehow, but we're left with these unanswered questions, which make her very intriguing to me.

Moving on from the receipt of the power, we immediately get to the story of how she recognized it and learned to live and work with it, which I thought was really well done in this book. It felt real, and natural and organic, and it made for a fun and engaging story, especially since it's tied, in many ways, to her Muslim upbringing, her distance from her traditional parents - and from her school-friends, and her desire to be "normal" yet be able to use her gift to help others. I loved this story and recommend it as a great start to the series. I was unimpressed by volume two, especially the artwork. Volume three was a much more impressive and very amusing volume. I review both of those separately elsewhere on my blog.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Cresswell Plot by Eliza Wass


Rating: WORTHY!

This novel, which I was thrilled to receive as an advance review copy and for which I thank the publisher and author, was very entertaining, despite being told in worst person voice, aka first-person, which is a voice I normally detest. The voice is one of the family patriarch's daughters, a fifteen year old, and it turned out to be a rare case where the author does it well. There are three sisters and three brothers in this strict religious family, under the thumb of the overbearing - some would argue totally psycho - master, aka father, who has written his own addendum to the Bible from which the kids are forced to read each night. Like some deluded Noah, this Dad has convinced his family that they are the only righteous family, perhaps in the world, and that they will all go to Heaven if they follow his teachings. Each sister will become the bride of one of the brothers: Castley will marry Caspar, Delvive will marry one of her triplet siblings named Hannan, and Jerusalem will marry the rather rebellious Mortimer.

Yes dad is sick. So is mom, but in her case it's physical, and she also has deformed legs, because when she fell (or was she pushed?) downstairs, family practice was to avoid doctors and let their god fix broken legs. Predictably, the god failed. Now she can barely move on her own. The kids are hardly any better. At least they can move around freely, and they are forced to attend public school (where they're considered freaks) after an intervention, but other than that, at home they are kept as virtual prisoners - and sometimes literal prisoners. If they misbehave, there is always the drainage ditch with a lockable grill over it, in the woods behind the house. Nearly all of them are intimately familiar with it.

It's predictably Castley who begins to rebel, and the disturbing question becomes: will these kids get out of this alive? Or will they end up 'in Heaven' sooner than they expected? The story is disturbing as we see the children struggle to make sense of life after being thoroughly warped by the very person - their father - whom they ought to be able to trust for guidance and protection.

There are many questions here, not least of which is why the authorities, knowing these kids are at risk having intervened once, do not intervene more. The kids routinely show up at school with bruises and the Cresswell's neighbor (and what's his story? It might surprise you) is keeping a very close eye on them. It beggars belief that things could have become so bad and continued in this way for so long unchecked. It's also a mystery where the kid's names came from given how strict and Biblical this family's patriarch is. Castley? Delvive? Those names are not Biblical! But that aside, Castley's story is moving and worth listening to. She's a smart and strong female character and I enjoyed her story even as it made me cringe and squirm. I recommend this as a worthy read.


Friday, February 5, 2016

VALIS by Philip K Dick


Rating: WARTY!

I guess I'm done reading Philip Dick novels at this point. I've enjoyed movies and TV shows based on his works, but I can't seem to find much in his novels that I like, except for a graphic version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Even when I've liked the movie or TV show, I tend to find the novel uninteresting. VALIS (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System) was volume one in a planned trilogy which was never completed due to the author not being smart enough to go to the ER when his doctor advised him to do so.

I could not stand this novel. It began promisingly enough, but then became bogged down under Dick's juvenile rants about religion and philosophy and there was no story being told. I quit about twenty percent in, and I cannot recommend this dreary and pretentious book of boredom based on the portion I endured. Tom Weiner's droll voice didn't help with the narration, either.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Still There? A Little Zen for Little Ones by Sanjay Nambiar


Rating: WARTY!

In a retelling of an old zen Buddhist story, we read here of two boys with improbably, amusingly, large heads, who encounter a girl in the school yard. She's lost an earring and isn't dealing. She seemed to think that stomping and yelling was the best way to find her earring, and in actual fact, she was right! One of the boys thought the best thing to do was get down and dirty and search for it. The other boy didn't, but once the earring was found and the girl stomped off without even thanking her helper, the boy who didn't help was annoyed! The girl was rewarded with her earring. The two boys were rewarded with nothing, but wasted time and dirtied clothes and hands.

It seems like the lesson we're supposed to learn here is that it doesn't do to cry over spilled milk (it's actually much better to clean it up before it stains and stinks!). There are several lessons to be learned here though, and we're offered only one, which is that when you perform an act of kindness for someone, do not expect a reward. I agree with this. You set yourself up if you expect something in return, and the quality of your life is lessened by the act of wanting. The girl didn't specifically ask him for help of this particular boy. The boy volunteered. As a lawyer (Buddhist or otherwise!) might say, there was no contract entered into here. The boys should not expect anything in return, not even thanks, and therefore shouldn't by adversely affected when none come. Nor should the unhelpful boy be upset by the helping boy's attitude.

I think that the author missed a great opportunity though, to look at other lessons here. He focused on only one perspective, which doesn't seem very zen to me. There's a better story here. For all I know this is the one which inspired this children's version.

It would have been a better story had we looked at each perspective in turn, and then looked at how things could have been better all around. Of course, in real life, you rarely get an opportunity like that, but in real life, there is a concept of justice and equity. It doesn't do to let those who are selfish, ungrateful, fraudulent, arrogant, or endlessly demanding. It is better to teach them the error of their ways - or to at least try. Only one lesson was learned here where several could have been. None of the other lessons were considered, which lessen the lesson! In a way, this is a very selfish lesson to teach a child. This was a very short story so there was room for lots more.

In some ways, this book is the polar opposite of one I reviewed favorably back in 2014. In that book, not focusing on the now was the point which was extolled. In this book, it seems to be just the opposite! Now that's zen! But I can't recommend this story as it stands. There's no still there, there!


Friday, November 27, 2015

The Heretic's Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease


Rating: WORTHY!

Having got through and enjoyed Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII not long ago, this one sounded like it might be entertaining. The version I listened to was the audio book read by Davina Porter. She did an acceptable job.

Set at the time when Henry 8 was trying to talk the Pope into letting him marry Anne Boleyn (which turned into a disaster for both, but did spawn Elizabeth 1), this novel focuses on booksellers who are purveying the English translation of the Bible, something which the idiot Pope had declared illegal. They took their censorship seriously back then, and death awaited anyone who flouted the Catholic global dictatorship.

Unfortunately, this novel moved way too slowly for me, and dithered and dallied when I wanted to get on with the story. There is no logical or rational reason why historical fiction should routinely run to four, five, six, seven, eight hundred pages! What it is which drives authors to do this, I think, is that they hate to waste all the research they did and consequently feel like they have to cram it in somewhere. Worse than this, they feel they have to draft-in every historical person they can think of from the period, which is nothing more than tediously pretentious name-dropping and turns me right off a novel. It's like a kid's time travel movie where they run into famous people like Benjamin Franklin (it's always Franklin isn't it?!). It's celebrity worshiping gibberish and it simply doesn't work.

I've raised this issue before of book titles which take the form "The _______'s Daughter" or "The _______'s Wife." On the one hand, I agree that they're quite provocative titles, carrying as they do a suggestion of rebellion or at least misbehavior. On the other hand they seem to me to be insulting titles, implying as they do that the woman in question is no more than a possession of the man. I've reviewed about four such novels prior to this one, and they were batting a .500. Now the balance is tipped negatively and I think I am no longer inclined to pick up any more such titles, lackluster as they've been!

What finally killed this particular one for me was the (relatively) modern language and idiom. It kept kicking me out of the story. I think it would have been tedious to have read this in the same English which Shakespeare knew, or in which the King James Bible was written, but there had to be a happier compromise than this one. In the end, I couldn't get into it and I can't recommend it based on the portion I covered.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

I Am Malala: by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb


Rating: WORTHY!

If I have to relate Malala Yousafzai's story here, then clearly you're not going to get it at all. This is a story which should be known already so this review talks about issues related tot he book, not the book itself, which I consider to be a worthy read. I've been wanting to read this book for a while, so when I saw it in the library I snatched it up at once. I'm so glad I did.

This book isn't perfect, nor should it be. It's a young woman's account of a very personal and tragic story of oppression and attempted assassination. After I had read it and was ready to review it favorably, I went onto Goodreads and looked at the negative reviews, curious to see an opposing PoV. Initially I was surprised that there were so many, but then I found myself asking, "Why am I surprised?" This girl's entire life has consisted of one awful wall of suppression and oppression by religious elements, so why would it be a surprise that these very same elements seek to treat her the same way as she continues to speak out against that oppression?

In truth, I think the real surprise came from the ignorance of the negative reviews, and not only from religious elements. There were were many negative reviews from those who had no religious ax to grind, but which instead sought to blame her youth, or her co-author, for a bad book, claiming things were lost in translation, or whatever. There was no translation! Did these people not read the same book I read? Malala Yousafzai was and is fluent in not only her native Pashto, but also in the commonly spoken Urdu, and in English. She has better English than a lot of adult Americans. She's a straight-A student in an English school in Birmingham, (love the Brum dialect!), and it's demeaning and insulting to talk about language difficulties or about things being lost in translation, or about her youth and 'inexperience'. She had no problem putting her thoughts down in English or in writing this book, and it's ignorant at best, and downright mean and petty at worst to suggest otherwise.

I am not usually complementary about co-authors and ghost writers, but I think the only contribution Christine Lamb made was in helping to set Yousafzai's thoughts and views into a cogent narrative, and also in setting her personal story into an intelligible historical framework. I think she did an admirable job, but Yousafzai's story was her story - no one else's. Lamb is the foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times, but her credentials are, as wikipedia has it, that "Her first major interview was with Benazir Bhutto in London in 1987 where subsequently she was then invited to her wedding in Pakistan later that year. From here, she began her life as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, journeying through Kashmir and along the frontiers of neighbouring Afghanistan..." In short, she knows her stuff, and she knows the region.

There are those who claim that Yousafzai is dissing Pakistan, but they obviously read this book with blinkers on. There are others who claim Islam is not as harsh on women as Yousafzai portrays it (although she actually doesn't cast it in a bad light - merely those who would use their religion as a means to suppress and control others). The facts argue otherwise. UNICEF notes that out of 24 nations with less than 60% female primary enrolment rates, 17 were Islamic nations; more than half the adult population is illiterate in several Islamic countries, and the proportion reaches 70% among Muslim women. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact.

Yousafzai was a Muslim child who was shot because she refused to bow down before the false god of the Taliban. She did not revile Pakistan. She did revile those people who sought to destroy the country she loved and to oppress people in general and women in particular, based on nothing more than a self-serving and absurdly narrow view of Islam. The Koran wishes women to be educated about religion, not educated in general. The Prophet Muhammad praised the women of Medina for their pursuit of knowledge: "How splendid were the women of the Ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith." Not learned as such, only learned in the faith, but the fact remains that there's more to education than just religion. This misbegotten desire to suppress women and keep them in the back seat will fail. People like Malala Yousafzai, Hala Alsalman, Asma Jahangir, Baroness Uddin, Lira Bajramaj, Arfa Karim, Mishal Husain, Aliya Mustafina, Adeeba Malik, Razia Sultan, Hassiba Boulmerka, Azadeh Moaveni, Al-Malika al-Ḥurra Arwa al-Sulayhi, Samera Ibrahim Islam, Hayat Sindi, Raha Moharrak, Sayeeda Warsi, Durriya Shafiq, Shazia Mirza and hundreds of others, far too many to list, in all walks of life, have and will push Muslim women to the forefront of nations, Islamic or otherwise, whether men like it or not.

I recommend this book as part of an ongoing education into tragedies caused in this modern world by organized religion.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

American Virgin: Around the World by Steven T Seagle


Rating: WORTHY!

The last volume, though titled "Around the World" also incorporated the final arc, titled "69". It follows Vanessa and Adam on their "world tour", beginning in Rio de Janeiro. Adam is dramatically brought almost literally face to breast with topless beaches, and is shocked initially to see Vanessa topless, but she educates him - the start of a long, slow process.

When Adam calls Cyndi, as he does frequently, now she has become his reality touch-stone, he interrupts her int he middle of her and Mel having sex. Why Cyndi would even answer the phone is a mystery! Why Mel isn't insulted that she does is an equal mystery.

From Rio, the couple travel to Japan and attend a penis festival. By this time you would think Adam has learned a few things, but evidently he has not. Initially he's shocked by the giant penis statues, but all too quickly turns his feelings around, so this part seemed completely fake to me, first his shock, and then his almost immediate acceptance.

Next up is Bangkok, where Adam books a hotel room for the two of them and it's Vanessa's turn to go overboard, but why she does is even less intelligible. In the end, she storms off to a hostel, abandoning Adam. Later, equally unintelligibly, they make up rather speedily, and all is well. Again this rang false for me. What saved this story for me, despite all this patchiness and falsity, was the other interactions between this couple, which were truly well-written and realistic, and which were endearing and engrossing. Adam gets a tatoo and while he's having that, he hallucinates a sexual encounter with Cass, which somehow convinces him that Vanessa is the one for him. This signifies the end of the Around the World Arc.

The 69 arc begins with Adam returning home with Vanessa and announcing, out of the blue, that they're married, but, we shortly learn, the marriage has not been consummated. At first I thought that this just meant that they were married spiritually, but not officially, but it quickly becomes clear that between this and the last arc, they did actually get officially married. Adam's mom reveals what a truly racist piece of work she is, ordering Adam to annul the marriage.

Meanwhile, fulfilling the last clause of their unofficial contract with Adam, his low-life, but evidently industrious step brothers announce they've found his real father in Cuba, so the entire family debarks, including Adam, Vanessa, Mel, and Cyndi, and manages to enter Cuba through some arrangements Mel has made. Reydel, it turns out, is now a priest who inexplicably still thinks the obnoxious Mamie is a beauty, and kisses her, giving her a heart attack, which Mel fixes by jolting her from the local power supply.

While she's recovering in hospital - availing herself of the free health care in Cuba - Mel kidnaps Adam and hustles him off to the Dominican Republic where the architect of his wife's murder now resides for reasons unexplained. Rather than shoot the bastard, Adam tries to make friends with the fiend. Inexplicably, the terrorist tells Adam there is a video of his fiancée in a nearby suitcase, which Adam dutifully opens. Why he would want such a video is a mystery, but when he opens the case, a bomb explodes yet Adam escapes without a scratch, other than a bloody nose. He isn't even deafened, yet we're expected to believe he's badly injured! The rescuers ask him his name and the last page shows him laying in their arms and a translucent version of him standing over his unconscious form. Whether this means he died or what, simply isn't explained.

So, this last arc was perhaps the weirdest of the entire series, and perhaps we would have learned more had the series not been canceled, but this was a truly odd way to finish it. Did he die? Who knows! It was ridiculous to artificially keep him virginal without any good reason, just so he could die in that state. It would have been more in keeping with the rather black-humored tone of the series to have had one more issue showing him being raped as one of the 79 virgins of the terrorist who died with him! Based just on the ending, I would rate this negatively, but based on this entire volume I have to rate this positively because until the very end, the story was really good in these last two arcs, and the art work was excellent, particularly some of the photo realistic filler pages between issues and the one full page image of Cyndi (which on reflection I think might have been in the previous volume). Overall, I rate this who series a worthy read. Be prepared for some potholes along the journey though!


American Virgin Wet by Steven T Seagle


Rating: WORTHY!

It's in this volume that Adam finally realizes he may have made a mistake in believing that Cass was his one true love. Ghost Cass says something that sets him off searching for the other five contestants in the beauty pageant where he first met Cass. IMO his mistake was looking there in the first place - at a pageant that's so obsessed with skin-deep appearance instead of looking a lot deeper, but that issue is one which isn't touched upon in this comic series at all, I'm sorry to say.

He hires his low-life step bothers at a thousand dollar a pop for each of the girls in that pageant that they turn up for him, and he visits them one by one. How he can, as a Christian, justify this squandering of money which could have helped the poor and fed the hungry is also not touched upon. For all his bluster, Adam is truly a piss-poor Christian in the romanticized and idealistic sense of the word, but he's a very good blind believer in the vengeful Old Testament style.

He meets on girl at one of his uncle's sex parties, and another who is pregnant and who starts to deliver the baby as he talks to her. That was amusing, and made a truly refreshing change from the stereotypical birth scenes, especially those on TV, where the guy panics and his wife is screaming in pain. Yes, there are some deliveries like that, but not every single delivery is like that by any means!

The extent of Cyndi's past is revealed in this arc, and also it becomes more and more clear that Mel and Cyndi are going to become an item, although there is still a surprise in store there. Adam finally meets one of the pageant girls, Vanessa Upton, who he honestly believes could be his soul-mate. On a whim, he takes off after her as she starts off on an impromptu low-budget tour of the world.

It was nice to read this volume because it was such a change from the previous one. The artwork was a joy -brighter and far more positive, far less tediously menacing than the previous volume, and more importantly, for me, the text took a turn for the better: all of the scenes where Adam and Vanessa interacted were a joy to read, and I was to discover that this joy only increased in the next volume. Definitely a worthy read!


American Virgin: Going Down by Steven T Seagle


Rating: WORTHY!

In the collected volume two of this series, and after their wild African adventure, Adam and Cyndi return home. In this story arc, I quit thinking Cass was still alive, and started thinking two other things: that there was something odd about Mel, their mercenary guide, and that Cyndi and Adam were going to end up an item by the end of the series. I was right about one of those two, but it turned out to be a double-blind, so there were two revelations, the second of which didn't make a heck of a lot of sense.

It's in this arc that we learn that Cyndi is even more interesting than she's already proven herself to be. She has a dark past and two sadly stereotypical thugs catch up with her, but fortunately Mel is there to save the day. I have to say that the depiction of these two guys struck me as rather racist and turned me off this volume somewhat. Also it felt like the story tried to hard to be controversial, so I didn't like this volume as well as I liked the first.

The highlight of this volume for me was Adam humping his dead girlfriend's coffin in a scene that could have come straight from Clerks (The Missing Scene), as depicted in a graphic novel I favorably reviewed back in November 2014.

At the funeral, Adam is proposition by a red-headed girl who wants to lose her virginity to him. I don't get what it is with this artist's obsession with red-headed girls in this series. Almost every significant female Adam meets is a red head in the first two volumes, although I admit that they thin-out rather more in later volumes. Shortly after the graveyard encounter, he another one redhead - a news reporter who gives no indication that she's really a biological male, yet Adam somehow picks up on this and incorporates it into a speech he gives later. I didn't get this either. It felt like this particular arc was simply trying extra hard to incorporate every known gender queer permutation just for the sake of it, rather like my idiosyncratic (2AABCGHILOPQSTU) category does!

The story quickly moves to Australia as Mel informs Adam this is where the actual beheader of his fiancée now is. There, they meet Clauda, a lesbian lush, and her brother Deacon, who is gay. Given that they're on the clock for this "mission" it makes no sense that they're dawdling on the beach catching rays except, of course, that it gives the authors a chance to bring in two more gender queer "types". This is and example of what I meant about the story going out of its way.

Adam in increasingly having visions of a naked Cass who seems to be alternately telling him to move on and to remain faithful to her, which makes no sense at all. It makes even less sense for Adam to go "undercover" and a flaming queer, dressed outrageously, in order to make contact with the beheader they seek. Adam is of course photographed leaving the place and the photo makes news headlines. It felt like this ought to have gone somewhere in the next issue, but it never did, so again it felt like it was included for no other reason than to check off one more gender "type" from the list rather than to contribute to or to serve the story.

The first part of Mel's secret is outed: he has a bone to pick with the terrorists over a dead loved one, but this makes the story even less sensible because it begs the question as to why Mel hasn't already dealt with this himself. Why does he need Adam? There was a feeble attempt at an explanation, but it didn't hold water. It relied on Mel needing Adam to track down where these guys were, but all the tracking is done by Mel, so this weak explanation failed.

On the flight home, the plane carrying Adam and Cyndi skis off the runway - for no apparent reason - and drops into a swampy lagoon - hence this arc's title! This is where this arc ends. Despite a lot of issues, I still rate this positively. The artwork was less pleasant than the first volume and the script nowhere near as entertaining, but as part of Adam's sexual education, it did a passable job, so I consider it a worthy read as an integral part of this complete series.


Friday, August 28, 2015

American Virgin: Head by Steven T Seagle


Rating: WORTHY!

How strange to read a novel with the word 'virgin' in the title and discover that, for once, it's not a completely boring waste of my time! American Virgin is a series that looks at sex from the PoV of a Christian virginity pledger named Adam Chamberlain who is the unlikely spawn of two TV evangelists. He has a younger brother Kyle, and a sister Cyndi. How those two got such un-Biblical names is an unexplained mystery. Somewhat less of a mystery is that these two are as far from Kyle as it gets when it comes to liberal attitudes towards drugs (Kyle) and sex (Cyndi).

The entire series, before it was cancelled, follows five story arcs, and is a fast and easy read. The first collected volume is Head, and this is followed by Going Down, Wet, Around the World and finally, Sixty-Nine. I shall be reviewing at least the first four of these.

Kyle is kidnapped and subject to a lap-dance as part of his unexpected Bachelor party, but he escapes before anything untoward happens. Adam is saving himself for Cassandra, another pledger, who is evidently having a hard time refraining judged by his last phone conversation with her. The next he hears of Cass is on the news - she has evidently been kidnapped and beheaded by some rebel tribesmen. Adam loses it and flies to Africa with Cyndi pretty much accidentally in tow, to bring her body back, but all the time he's really looking for some payback. Not a very Christian outlook on life, is it?! Yes, thy have the "eye for an eye" Old Testament rule, but there is also the contradictory "turn the other cheek" New Testament rule, so what gives?! Sanity, probably.

I have to say right up front, that I didn't quite buy the claim that Cass is dead. There is a headless body of a white female, yes, but there's nothing else offered - such as fingerprints or DNA - to certify that this is indeed Cass's body. Admittedly it's not like headless white females commonly show up in Africa, but coupled with her suspicious comments on the phone to Adam earlier, I'm wondering if something else is going on here.

Adam's slow, slippery, seductive slide from his high horse to being an ass is a pleasure to watch. As the hypocrisy of the Biblical texts is highlighted starkly, Adam finds himself in possession of a men's "girlie" magazine, and exposed to an entirely different approach to life as he travels through various nations in Africa in search of the guy who killed his beloved.

I have to say that the number of African breasts on display here seems excessive to me. It makes the continent look like it's sooo last century. OTOH, Swaziland, a highly Christian nation, seems extraordinarily enlightened when it comes to topless women (that's not too be confused with beheaded women, BTW).

I liked this comic because although it went over the top somewhat, it did tell some important truths about the hypocrisy of religion. This is the third graphic novel I've read where Becky Cloonan did the art work (in this case the penciling), and she's batting 666 at this point. The work wasn't brilliant, but it was serviceable and the coloring was a fine job too. Your mileage may differ, but I consider this a worthy read.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Made with Love by Tricia Goyer and Sherri Gore


Title: Made with Love
Author: Tricia Goyer and Sherri Gore (no website found)
Publisher: Harvest House
Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
"she came buy" should be "she came by"p197
"flood ight" should be flood light" p205
"Lovina's lips sealed close" should be something like "Lovina's lips sealed closed" or "sealed shut' or better yet, just "sealed" period! p223
"her mixed emotions were clean on her face" should be "clear on her face" P223
"to tell they world" should be "to tell the world" p232
"so much to learn about each" should be "So much to learn about each other"
"swallowed down her emotion dared to look" arguably, emotion ought to be pluralized, but there definitely needs to be a comma between 'emotion' and 'dared' P243
"It help that your coworker is nice to look at too" should be "It helps..."
"A bolder grew in the pit of her stomach" should be "A boulder grew in the pit of her stomach"
"and would som day weigh them' should be "and would some day weigh them" p252
One recipe is missing a header
One recipe which has a header was missing the actual recipe

This is going to be a long review even by my standards, so brace ourself! This novel came to me as a review copy which isn't going to be released until August, yet the typescript I read was far from ready for prime time. There was a host (definitely not a heavenly host!) of issues with the copy I read. It has multiple spelling and grammatical errors, for one thing. I can see how some of these would slip by an inattentive reader, but any spell-checker would have caught, for example, the use of "flood ight" where it should have been 'flood light".

I don't see any excuse for putting out a review copy that hasn't at least had a 'one-more-time' spell-check run on it. I know that writers and publishers like to put out standard excuses for this - that the text is in flux and shouldn't be quoted, but how hard is it to run a spell check? Of course, that won't catch grammatical errors or real words used in the wrong place, such as "she came buy" where it should have read "she came by".

So the main problem with the technical reading of this particular novel was that it was sometimes hard to tell if something which read like an error to me was actually an error or if it was intentional. There was a lot of 'Amish speak' in the text. By this I don't mean German words tossed in such as 'ja' for 'yes' and 'wunderbar' for 'wonderful', and so on - although the odd thing there is that while 'ja' is used in place of 'Yes', 'nein' isn't used in place of 'No'! I found this strange. No, as far speaking goes for me, "It help to know" should be "It helps to know". The problem was that I couldn't be sure if this was an error or if it was intentional, meant to depict a mode of speech used by the Amish. I included it in my list of errata because I saw so many errors and I was therefore unwilling to give these the benefit of the doubt.

There was the occasional oddball sentence, too, such as this one on page 291: "Lovina cared for him. He knew she did. Now he just needed her to realize that for himself." It's that last sentence which doesn't make sense. Shouldn't he need her to realize that for herself?! But this book is all about male dominance. I can't get with any societal plan which puts half the population in the back seat, as this one does. The women are supposed to be modest and modestly dressed. The women are supposed to have their head covered with this "kapp" of theirs. The women are supposed to have their eyes down-cast and their hearts on marriage. The man is supposed to be the provider and master of the house. I don't subscribe to that, and this book was hard to read because of this kind of thing showing up every few pages.

Those issues aside, this wasn't too bad of a story as it started out, except that it had too much cliché, which surprised me given that this was set in an Amish community. I'm not a believer. I'm a born-again atheist, if you like. Like everyone else, I was an atheist when I was born right up until I got brain-washed by the Christian community, but the washing didn't take, and I became atheistic once again. Yes, I'm a dirty atheist! Everyone goes through that same process, but most of them do not regain their original skepticism and healthy rationality. Most of them adopt the religion into which they were born, without even giving it a thought.

Notwithstanding that background, this story actually sounded interesting to me, which I guess means the blurb did its job. The problem was that it turned out to be just like every other romance story out there! Take out the references to 'God' and the Amish portions of it and it was indistinguishable from scores of other romances. Leave in 'God' and even the Amish portions of it, and it was still indistinguishable from any other Christian romance. This saddened me because had it been your usual Christian romance, I never would have been interested in reading it. It was disappointing to find nothing new, original or different here.

The Amish community is an offshoot of the Mennonites. I've visited the Amana colonies in Iowa which a lot of people think are actually Amish, but in fact they're pietist. There are very many such splinter groups. I read once that there are some twenty thousand Christian sects, which just goes to show what a spectacular failure the Bible was in creating a community of like-minded worshipers!

Some of these splinter groups have a lot in common whilst others do not. I once went on a date with a Mennonite girl because of the very fact that her lifestyle interested me and she was an interesting person, but none of this makes me remotely an expert on this topic, which was why I thought it would be fun to read this. Not that you should take your education from fictional romances by any means, but it's still nice to learn what authors of various persuasions think and feel.

This story can be thought of as a cookbook with a free romance, or as a romance with free recipes. I haven't tried the recipes as of this writing, but some of them are seriously tempting. Bakery, specifically of pies, is at the heart of this story because it's the dream of the main character to open a pie shop. She believes it's her god's will that she open this shop! I'd have to seriously doubt that a creator of a universe, who evidently hasn't put in an appearance for at least two thousand years, really cares one way or the other about whether person A opens a pie shop or joins the circus, or whether team A wins or team B wins, but that's part of the premise here.

In this story, Lovina Miller lives with her Mem and Dat, and her four sisters, all of whom are single, and pretty if not beautiful. More on that score anon. Her dream is to open a pie shop in the little Florida Amish village to which her family has moved. It's amusingly named Pinecraft; amusingly because it sounds so much like Minecraft. Does Minecraft have an Amish mod? I doubt it, but you never know: there's a mod for pretty much everything!

This book is augmented with odds and ends like Lovina's list of things she needed to keep in mind, and Noah's Mem's skillet pear ginger pie, which is funny because someone is stealing pies, and it's probably not Lovina. The pie thefts never are resolved. It's also funny because in another novel I've been reading lately, pies are being stolen from the palace kitchen - by the princesses! Maybe they're stealing from here, too?!

Noah is obviously the guy who will become Lovina's love interest. This novel really isn't the remotest bit subtle. Noah is trying to find work for three boys who remind him of his own troublesome self when he was their age, but their reputation precedes them, and no one wants these boys around their property - except maybe Lovina who, it appears, might have finally managed to get her hands on a property she can turn into a pie shop.

For a book about faith, there was surprisingly little in evidence. For a people who base their lives on a book which dictates, 'judge not, lest ye be judged', there was a disturbing amount of judgment - of Noah and his troublesome teens in particular. Also for a community which follows a book which states, 'take no thought for tomorrow' there was a disturbing amount of capitalism going on! But no one ever made a case for religious belief being rational.

There was what amounts to an undercurrent of what might be very loosely thought of as "racism" or at best, part of that disturbing amount of judgment I mentioned. The Amish community considered all outsiders to be "Englischers", and this term was used often. It felt insulting. Believe it or not, there is actually a romance novel titled "The Amish and the Englischer". Englischer is meant not to describe English people, but anyone who isn't Amish/Mennonite. I know it's probably not intended in the way it felt to me, but it's still a case of "us" and "them" which is cultist, and which seems out of keeping with the purported Christian ideal of loving thy neighbor. It just struck me as odd and unnecessarily divisive.

This "us and them" mentality wasn't only exemplified just in the use of that word, either. At one point, a reporter comes to interview Lovina about her new pie shop. Now this reporter wasn't from the Amish newspaper The Budget but from a newspaper called the Sarasota Sun, but her attitude was weird, and unnecessarily combative.

She said something which I found extraordinarily blinkered and insulting: "It's stories like these our world need to hear. Stories to let people know that not every place is corrupt". Let's for a moment ignore the issue of poor grammar in that last sentence. This sentient strongly suggests that only the Amish (it's a great life in the Amish!) aren't corrupt, and everywhere else is a violent, criminal, low-life society, which is bigoted and insulting. Of course, there are people in the real world who are bigoted, so this in itself wasn't the problem, but was it necessary to put that insult into her speech? At the very least, it could have been worded more gently or less holier-than-thou.

This oddly blinkered view of life popped up throughout this story. For example there was one place where I read that food was a special part of Amish life, but this suggested that it isn't a special part of everyone's life, especially for gatherings, including church functions of other faiths. I found that very short-sighted to intimate that food has a special meaning to the Amish that no one else shares. It was this kind of thing that made me think that he author really needs to get out more - out of her confined community and see some of the world if she really thinks we're as bad as some of this writing suggests.

One of my pet peeves with writing is the obsessive compulsive use of the word 'beautiful' to describe a woman - and only the use of that word, like she has no other worthy qualities than deeper than skin, and this defines her and is her and is all she is or can ever hope to be. I object strongly to this and think it shameful that this is used and accepted in novels. It's especially shameful when used by a female author, and in this case even more so when used by a writer describing a community which is supposedly rooted in modesty and acceptance. I did a search for use of this term as applied to a woman's looks, and here's what I found:

  • Her beautiful face p52
  • A gentle confidence that made her beautiful p55
  • Unlike my beautiful sisters p93
  • Didn't she realize how beautiful she was? P179
  • You look beautiful p228
  • She'd never been told she was beautiful before p228
  • You are beautiful p229
  • Joy had a beautiful face p235
  • A beautiful young Amish woman p252
  • Knowing Noah found her beautiful p328

I think it's a disgrace to classify women like this. Yes, some women are beautiful - but the problem with that is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, so what defines it - well everything and nothing, everyone and no one. I have no problem with someone who is in love thinking their partner is beautiful! That's a given, regardless of how others may view that person, but to routinely describe every young female as beautiful is not only unrealistic, it's insulting to the majority of women who look perfectly fine, but who are not routinely classed as beautiful. And its completely out of place in a novel of this nature.

Personally I think this needs to stop. There's no reason whatsoever to habitually describe women in novels as beautiful unless it has some marked bearing on the story or on what happens in the story, or on what happens to the woman specifically. Otherwise why mention it if not to make every-day, regular woman feel like they're ugly and really ought to try harder to look acceptable - i.e. beautiful?

This is a pogrom perpetrated by the fashion industry, and the make-up conglomerations, and the dietary product industries, all of which are intent upon forcefully declaring that women are useless tubs of ugly lard if they are not willowy, and magnificently beautiful, utterly hairless, and dressed to the tens (the nines is so five minutes ago dahlink). This destructive behavior needs to be starkly highlighted for what it is: an abuse of women, not bought into and supported. This abuse is far more pernicious and destructive than ever pornography could be.

'Pretty' was another issue tied directly to this one: when it wasn't how beautiful they were, it was how pretty they were:

  • Smiled at the pretty dark-haired Amish woman P20
  • How could someone forget such a pretty face P20
  • Lovina was a pretty girl P29
  • The pretty woman who'd been checking out the warehouse P49
  • The pretty woman smiled P54
  • Pretty lashes P54
  • She's pretty P83
  • God had sent someone pretty P84
  • It was as pretty a name as any he'd heard P84
  • More time with that pretty Amish lady P84
  • Not her pretty smile P84
  • The pretty Amish woman P136
  • You are so pretty like your sister P235
  • Lovina's pretty sisters P271

Moving on. One thing I have honestly never understood about these communities is the fact that many of them have hit the pause button on technology, right at the point where they left their original homeland, in Germany, for the most part, and never hit 'play' again, so they don't have electricity, and they drive around in buggies. They eschew car ownership but have no problem traveling in taxis and buses? To me this makes no sense. Why freeze it at that specific point? Not all of them do; some have moved on to electricity, but still perceive technology as evil. If they wish to freeze their technological lives, why not go back to two thousand years ago and adopt Hebrew dress and customs and technology - such as it was then? Why wait almost two thousand years before hitting pause?

No god decided this. It was decided by people like Menno Simons, and Jakob Ammann, and their successors, but they lived four hundred years ago, so why not freeze it at dress and customs of their age? As this story relates, some communities have moved on, but not completely on - so electricity is fine, and cell phones are fine, but digital cameras are not? Phones are cameras these days, so I don't get this distinction either. There is no logic or rationale to these choices! It's entirely arbitrary, yet no one questions it. If they do, they're not forgiven; they're shunned and ostracized! None of this makes sense to me and I was no wiser on this topic after reading this novel, either.

But I digress! The romance isn't all plain sailing, of course. Indeed, I was as surprised as I was disturbed to discover that this romance was exactly the same as all other romances. The couple meet, they don't believe they like each other, but are amazed that they do. At least one of them has a secret. Friends or parents object to the relationship. Somehow, no matter how many weeks they have, there is never time to discuss the secret. The secret is revealed at the end, and everything is happily ever after.

So what did this story have to offer that a gazillion other romances don't have? Quite literally nothing! The Amish setting was interesting, but it really didn't make an ounce of difference to the romance in the same way that God didn't make an ounce of difference to what happened. There were no miracles here, no revelations, no magical presences. It was just a love story and if the Amish part and the references to god were all removed, it would still have been the same love story.

Noah Yoder has a troubled past, yet in the three months in which Lovina and Noah work together on a daily basis to get the pie shop up and running, they seem utterly unable, even once, to find an hour to discuss what his sordid little secret is! I found that utterly unbelievable. When the secret comes out it's not Earth-shattering. What he did was awful, but it wasn't something that hasn't happened to scores upon scores of irresponsible teenagers. No one died. No one was hurt, and Noah worked hard to fix what he did. Case closed. it was really a non event - a non-mystery especially given the spoilers that had gone before.

There's also a huge spoiler when they talk about purchasing the property to turn into a pie shop and then they take out no insurance on it. I'm sorry but faith doesn't cut it. You need insurance, period. It made them look really stupid to make such a big investment without insuring it and it telegraphed loudly what was going to happen later. Worse than this, there are building codes - even the Amish and Mennonites have to adhere to building codes. Where were the fire alarms? Where were the sprinklers? I guess Noah didn't learn anything after all.

It's tempting to say that the worst part about this whole story is the precipitous rush to judgment and their colossal loss of faith, but that isn't it. The worst part is the Disney princess ending which spoiled the whole story for me.

I know that some stories in real life do have fairy-tale endings, but this one was so over the top that it was completely unrealistic. It was arrogant, too, that only people of faith can help each other. I cannot - in good faith! - recommend this novel. The basic premise was good, but this story doesn't get it done. If you want a good story about baking, watch the Will Ferrell - Maggie Gyllenhall movie Stranger than Fiction. That gets it done and is a fun movie.