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

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid


Rating: WARTY!

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

The blurb promised this to be "A gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup." It was not. Once again we see 'beauty' rear its ugly head in a novel about a woman, like beauty is all a woman has to offer. It's not.

I know we live in a shallow and very visual world, but beauty shouldn't even be on the table when you're considering someone's qualities, not even in a novel unless the novel is specifically about someone's looks. I don't care if a character calls someone 'beautiful' or focuses shallowly on looks because there are people like that in real life, but in the book blurb? It's not helping things in a #MeToo era - and from a female author too.

I know you can't hold an author responsible for the book blurb unless they self-publish, but seriously? The main character here was supposed to be a sensational star, but the word 'talented' failed to trump 'beauty'? 'Charismatic' never made it? Enigmatic? Anyone? Bueller?

I decided to overlook that because it was only the blurb and I'm intrigued by this subject, but inside the book was just as bad as the outside if for different reasons, and it was far from being gripping and well into boring territory. Neither of the two main characters, Daisy Jones or Billy Dunne, were remotely interesting to me.

The first problem as that all attempt at writing an actual novel was abandoned, thereby giving the lie to the qualifier 'A novel' on the cover. There was no descriptive prose here setting location or atmosphere, or anything for that matter. It's not even a script.

There were only character names and their spoken words, like we were getting one side of a very sparse interview, which made it more unrealistic. If those words had been compelling and entertaining, or had offered something revealing, or even new and original, that might have been something, but there was nothing here that hasn't been done before.

That she "... devoured Daisy Jones & The Six in a day, falling head over heels for it..." might speak volumes about Reese Witherspoon, but it leaves me completely unmoved. This is the actor who April 2013, was arrested for disorderly conduct in Atlanta after her husband, was pulled over and arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence.

Witherspoon played the crass "Do you know who I am?" card, and was obnoxious to a police officer who was admirably and patiently doing his job in keeping the streets safe. I haven't liked her since. No recommendation from someone who has behaved so inexcusably badly under the influence is going to influence me. I think it was a poor and frankly a rather desperate choice to use a quote from her in a book blurb.

Anyway, what all this (in the novel) meant was that we knew nothing about these fictional characters at all, and what that meant for me was that I did not care about them or why they broke up, or what happened to them subsequently. Consequently I stopped reading this about a third of the way through and I did not miss it at all when I put it down. On the contrary, I felt relief that I didn't have to read any more and could move on to the next title which inevitably had to be better. Based on what I read and the overall style and format of this novel, I cannot commend it as a worthy read nor am I interested in reading anything else by this author when there are so many others out there worthy of reading.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Soar, Adam, Soar by Rick Prashaw


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This is a very personal account of a family event that has much wider implications. I'd like to say it was told well, but I can't, because it was disjointed and disorganized and sometimes hard to keep track of where we were at, but even so I consider it a worthy read because it's an important story. It's also a very tragic story, and while all deaths like this are heart-breaking, it's hard to become emotionally involved when it's not someone with whom I am personally familiar. I can become emotionally moved by the greater story though, of endless people who are persecuted and brutalized for their perceived 'non-conformance' to so-called 'norms' of one sort or another, in this case, gender.

Adam Prashaw was not brutalized, as some have been, with violence and rejection by peers or parents, but he was knocked around by two things: the system, which does not make it easy for a person born in the wrong body to correct that situation, and by the fact that Adam also suffered from epilepsy, and it was this which killed him at an appallingly young age by dint of the fact that he drowned in a hot tub in the few minutes while his friends were absent, succumbing to a seizure which everyone thought and hoped had been cured by brain surgery only a few months before.

Obviously there are lessons to be learned here, such as that epilepsy, like alcoholism, is never really cured and we must be vigilant over those who have it to prevent accidents like this one from happening, but the lesson that's taught here is that of making the most of your life, even if that life is destined to be short - something none of us can know except in the hindsight of those we leave behind.

There are teaching opportunities which I felt were missed in this book, and this was one issue I had with it. One of them was the tragic accident at the hot tub. Another, for example was where at one point we were introduced to two women who would help Adam through this transition: "Pivotal this year are his first meetings with his counsellor, Nichelle Bradley, and his doctor, Jennifer Douek." These are both females and I felt it would have been nice to know more about how such people become attached to these cases, and whether gender plays any part, and if so, why?

If Adam were transitioning from male to female (the opposite of what he was actually doing) would these have been men, or is the gender simply random - this is just how the counsellor and doctor happened to be? Does it matter? A little talk about that would have been interesting to me, because I think it could matter if these particular two professions are overwhelmingly populated with gender-bias. On the other hand, if it makes no difference, it would have been nice to hear that.

I have to note again that this is a very personal account, so perhaps it's expecting too much, but to me such things are interesting and I felt that a little more commentary would have enriched the reading, but this wasn't the only thing which caught my attention. The book is far more about feelings and relationships, and a father's experiences than ever it is about the practical trials and experiences of a person going through gender reassignment, so perhaps we shouldn't expect a tutorial. It's also about how little time Adam got to enjoy the new him. Being a parent myself, I don't ever want to know what it's like to lose a child, so I can appreciate what this parent/author went through. I just wish it had been easier to follow and that Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process had not mangled the text as it reliably does.

The book was available for review in PDF format which was not mangled at all, but which was too small to read on my phone, which is where I read most of my ebook material. I don't fault an author for that except in that it cannot be repeated often enough that if you're going to publish a Kindle ebook, you cannot have anything fancy in the text at all - not even italics, because sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Amazon will frag your text. Italics generally do fine except that the last character, if it's something like a lowercase 'd' or an exclamation point, will be beheaded by the non-italic text following it. Guaranteed every time. An author needs to check for how much Amazon has screwed-up their text in the ebook version, because I have seen this repeatedly in Amazon books, and not just in advance review copies. Errors are rife in Kindle format, which is one reason I refuse to publish through Amazon.

In this particular case, text inserts/boxes were rendered part of the text, cutting into the middle of sentences in the main body of the book, so those are a complete non-no, as are drop-caps and other fancy additions. Images can be problematical. Amazon made a jigsaw out of the front cover image in this book and I've seen that before, but the images inside the book were generally fine except that they did not always merge into the text properly, leaving a largely blank screen here and there, either preceding the picture or in its wake.

Here's a quote that illustrates this text julienne à la Amazon: "The doctors wanted to completely remove the piece, which Bekkaa October 22, 2012 "The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." -Eleanor Roosevelt appeared to be triggering..." Good luck making sense of that. It incorporates the page header and a text box (I believe) all in one. Never use page headers or page numbering for an Amazon ebook. I've never seen this kind of mangling in any reading app other than Amazon's crappy Kindle app.

Here's a footnote in the middle of a sentence: "There were mood 1. Now known as a 'focal impaired awareness seizures,' these start in one area of the brain and negatively affect sensory perception. Other symptoms may include automatic behaviour. Such seizures generally last between one and two minutes. swings, too..." Here's another example of the garbling: "a work colleague, and her partner, David White, a United ChurchAdam minister; they happened to be visiting at the time.July 25, 2015 The chaplain prays for Adam with us. He touchThunderstorm!!! es my son." It's character coleslaw, and Amazon does it best.

The author is quite religious and it's commendable he had such an open attitude towards Adam's predicament. Far too many believers are entirely reprehensible in their position, but not this one. I didn't find his references to religion annoying though, being an unbeliever myself. At one point I read, "Adam is surrounded by love, God's and ours. This is all good." This was shortly before he was declared dead without ever recovering consciousness after his drowning. Clearly, as Al Pacino's character declares in Devil's Advocate 'God is an absentee landlord'.

Later there was another quote along these lines: "Everything that led to the day that Adam died and the day that John received his heart were destined to be, whether I like that or not ... It was meant to be." And the author adds, "I agree. A divine plan." I don't see anything divine in killing a young man so others can have his body parts. If God really wanted to do his job, he would not have let Adam drown, and he would have miraculously cured the heart and kidneys of those whose lives were improved through Adam's premature death and commendable organ donation. Otherwise what's the point of having a god if he does nothing to help, prayers are not answered, and evil all-too-often prevails? I personally have no time for a worthless god like that.

The authors comments were at times hard to understand. I read at one point, "AS ADAM'S GENDER transition and epilepsy collide full force toward the end of 2015, there is a remarkable change in him. An adult is emerging, a guy with a stronger voice." Well, he's 22 years old at this point, so I am not sure what was going through the author's mind. I know there's that old sawhorse that a child is always a child to a parent no matter how old the 'child' actually is, but I have never felt that way with regard to my own offspring. I see nor reason for that attitude. At some point they grow up and it's insulting to keep reducing them to kids when they're teenagers or young adults. The author wrote later, that he did "hug a few kids whom I recognize. They are all 'kids' to me, although most, like Adam, are now adults." This was after fussing over getting Adam's name right - the male name not the female name he was assigned at birth along with the wrong body. It felt hypocritical to me.

But in context of the overall story, these felt like relatively minor beefs, and not that important in the grand scheme of the story the author was trying to convey, so I was willing to let that slide, and all in all I commend this as a worthy read and an important book even though I have to add that I've read clearer and more educational accounts of a gender transition than this one.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Kiss My Math by Danica McKellar


Rating: WORTHY!

This is book two in an evident series and I was curious about it since it has a distinctly female bent to it. I know nothing about Danica McKellar, so it was interesting to discover she has some math cred. She certainly knows what she's talking about (as far as I could tell, although be warned, my math sucks). I didn't agree with all of her teaching methods (calling integers mintegers because they taste good?!), but often her approach helped make sense of what she was teaching, so this was on balance a good thing. I mean, who knew that y was such a square? My money was on X which has a distinctly square shape to it, but minus X, it leaves only y. Why? Read the book to find out.

I recommend this as a fresh and young approach to math for anyone who is interested (and all of us should be). Math underlies everything. It really is the language of the universe, but closer to home, it helped the author avoid overpaying for something the clerk had rung up wrongly - something she might not have noticed had she not been idly doing math in her head while waiting in line - so there are real practical benefits to it, as she points out often.

McKellar lays it all out in short sections covering different topics from fraction calculations to variable values and exponentials, beginning with an easy walk-through examples, explanations, and hints and tips, followed by some 'homework' (the answers are included, don't worry!). In fact, the page was often a bit too busy for my taste, but today's generation of sound-biters, snap chatters and other twits might appreciate that approach. I commend this as a great effort to get young women interested in math, We need female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. They're criminally underrepresented and anything which can lure more into those professions is to be welcomed.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Phase Two by Chris Wyatt


Rating: WORTHY!

This is an audio retelling of the wildly successful movie Guardians of the Galaxy that came out in 2014. Read pretty decently by Chris Patton, it was pretty much a word-for word copy of the script, with some minimal description tossed in, but unlike the movie, it isn't even PG-13 rating - it's more like a Disney animated film rating, so all questionable comments and references are omitted or re-worded. Other than that it's a pleasant listen for anyone interested in the Marvel universe.

I'm not sure there's anyone out there who is even moderately media-aware who doesn't have an idea what this movie was about, but if there is, then briefly, the story is an origin story of the formation of the Guardians, from a rag-tag band of misfits, disaffected revenge seekers, con-artists and thieves, into a genuine family of caring team-mates who don't actually save the galaxy (that comes in volume two!) but who do save a planet and defeat a brutal psychopath known as Ronan the Accuser.

The story starts with the young Peter Quill, so terrified by his mother's impending death that he won't hold her hand. Instead he runs out of the hospital only to be 'beamed up' into a space craft. The story then resumes twenty years later with that same Peter, now a mature (or maybe not) man who calls himself Star Lord, and who is on a mission to recover an artifact, which he tries to sell outside of the outlaw group who captured him all those years ago. His mission fails.

Oh, he gets the artifact, but he's captured when he tries to offload it, and he's tossed into a brutal space prison with three other villains, two of whom are the bounty-hunting team of Rocket and Groot. Groot is an alien species superficially resembling a tree, but who has legs and arms and the ability to speak and regenerate, although all he ever says is "I am Groot" in various tones which represent what he really means. Rocket, created by Marvel writers based on an old Beatles song (Rocky Raccoon) is a genetically-modified talking raccoon, whose experimental test designation was 'Subject: 89P13'. Now he's highly inventive, agile, scheming, and dangerous.

The third party is Gamora, another alien who was adopted by super villain (or is he?!) Thanos, whose self-appointed mission is to wipe out a random half of the universe in order to provide better living conditions for the other half. He adopted Gamora after killing her parents, and she became his trained assassin, but she's now decided to betray him to bring his murderous scheme to a halt.

These four meet the final member of their team in the prison. He's Drax 'the destroyer' (although he looks nothing like a navy ship...) who has a personal vendetta against Thanos and Ronan because they killed his family and he wants to kill Gamora, but Peter talks him out of it and the five of them join up to sell this artifact that Peter recovered, which turns out to be one of the six Infinity Stones which have been in existence from the start of the universe. Thanos wants them to complete his mission, Ronan steals it to pursue his own mission, and the Guardians are the only people who can stop him!

No one ever explained, neither in the movie nor in this novelization, why it is that Thanos isn't smart enough to know that with all six Infinity Stones, he can remake the universe however he wants without killing anyone! I guess he doesn't have the stones.... It's a pity one of these stones wasn't called the Smart Stone - with the ability to make people think critically and rationally.

So, fun stuff and a lot of laughs. The audio doesn't have the same magnetism and charisma of the movie, but it's a decent substitute and I commend it.


The Circle by Dave Eggers


Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook I picked up after seeing the movie of the same name based on this book, and which starred Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. The movie was rather improbable, but close enough to reality to be entertaining. The book, read by Dion Graham, was less than thrilling. It was far too wordy. People often claim the movie isn't as good as the novel for a given story, but I frequently find the opposite: that the novel is sometimes too rambling and the movie script writers have seen this and cut through the author's self-indulgent crap to create a much better story that flows and moves, and doesn't get lost in itself.

This getting lost was the problem here as the author went rambling on and on about things which contributed nothing to the story and which failed to move it, which in turn failed to move me. I DNF'd this in short order. You might argue that if I'd picked this up before the movie, I might have enjoyed it better and disliked the movie, but I really don't think so. A boring novel is objectively a boring novel, and the proof of that pudding lies in the fact that even though I listened this quite recently, I can barely remember any of it now. It made that little of an impression on me. Consequently my advice is to skip this novel and watch the movie instead.

It's not a great movie and I doubt I'll want to watch it again, but watching it once graphically illustrates the dangers of putting too much personal information out there. The Circle is both the book title and the name of the social media organization that this young woman, Mae Holland, believes is a career high. It's quite clearly F-book - a forum that lets members put out endless personal crap for the world to see, whether it wants to see it or not.

This business of publicizing oneself, which I've never bought into, is taken to extremes here, with The Circle being more of a cult than anything else, and with the advent of this miniature camera system, called See-Change, which can be stuck anywhere, and which transmits sound and picture by some unspecified means (using an unspecified energy source!) in real time to your device would have some positive benefits, but it's also rife for abuse and no one seems to call that out.

The movie diverts from the novel in some places while following it in others, and I think it's to the good that it diverts. I liked the representation of the Annie character in the movie better than the novel, and Mae was a jerk in the novel from what I could tell - not so in the movie, but since I DNF'd this I can't comment more on it than what's here. That said, I didn't like what I heard and cannot commend this based on my experience of it.


A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan


Rating: WORTHY!

I got this book from the library, and I'm glad I did because now I just consider it a waste of my time and not a waste of my money! It's about King Midas's daughter. Initially it had sounded interesting to me, but when I began reading it, I wasn't impressed with it and didn't see any point in continuing. The first problem is that it was first person which is far from my favorite and nearly always a grave mistake by an author. The tone was completely off-putting.

The story is based on the Greek legend of King Midas, who supposedly was granted a wish by the god Dionysius, that whatever he touched would turn to gold. The wish was granted, but Midas quickly realized it was a curse. He could not eat food or drink because whatever he touched turned to gold. Midas is said to have had a son, and in some versions of the story a daughter instead, but the old legend says nothing of having a daughter whom he turned to gold or of his being cured.

That part of the story comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne who published it in his A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys in 1852 which included this legend and which Hawthorne augmented by having the King turn his daughter to gold. The King then begged Dionysius to remove this 'gift' and was told to wash in the Pactolus river, which would reverse the curse. This book feeds on that and has the curse be only partially removed from the daughter, leaving her human and of flesh, but having her skin colored gold à La Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. In the part I read, there is little description of her so it's not clear if every bit of her is gold or just her skin and hair (I mean, are her eyes gold? Her tongue?).

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The girl is supposedly considered ugly by suitors, except for the one who meets her at the start of the story, whose title is listed as Duke. I'm sorry? This is ancient Greece and they have Dukes, archdukes and Lords? Where did that come from? Is it merely so there can be an equivalent of Lord Voldemort or Lord Vader? What's this Greek Lord called? Lord V-something no doubt. It was this asinine story-telling which completely spoiled the story for me and I had no desire to read past this point, my opinion of this author rock bottom, as in the bottom of the deepest gold mine in South Africa.

In fact it was at this point that I discovered that the author teaches creative writing, and it all became clear. I have never seen a good story come from someone who teaches creative writing or who has graduated from such a program. I don't know what the problem is with that, but it very effectively kills good story-telling. It was worse than this, though. On the author's web page (at least at the time of writing this review), the author asks the reader why they should preorder her book! The five largely selfish answers she gives are very nearly all about making her money:

  1. Publishers often make decisions about an author getting a second book deal based on preorder numbers.
  2. The more preorders, the more copies of the book they'll typically print, which means they'll then usually increase marketing budgets to sell all those books.
  3. All preorder sales hit on the same day, meaning an author could potentially make lists like the New York Times bestseller list because all those sales count for the same week.
  4. You'll usually get a cheaper price. Preorders are usually discounted the earlier you order.
  5. You'll make an author's day! I can't tell you how happy I was when a friend told me she'd preordered 10 copies of my book!

Could this be any more avaricious and self-serving? Don't buy my book because it's any good: buy it because I'll get richer from increased sales? No thanks! I actively dis-commend this novel and I have less-then-zero respect for this author.


Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a largely well-written and highly amusing take on Pride and Prejudice. In a modern version of this novel, and to stay true to the repressive, controlling atmosphere and public censure women were forced to endure in Austen's time, you would have to set the story in a religiously-strict locale, and in this case it’s Pakistan that was chosen. The story is set in 2000 and 2001, and with a lot of character name changes, largely follows the outline of Austen's story. I found it entertaining, but I have some observations to make on the 'translation' into modern times and exotic locales.

I think in general the novel was very well done, with some good decisions made about how to translate various characters and situations into modern times. If I had one initial complaint that popped out at me during the reading, it would be the rather annoying self-awareness the novel seems to exhibit with regard to it being a riff on an Austen Novel.

Austen's works are mentioned frequently enough that it was bordering on becoming a parody at times, and the pretension in name-dropping of what are too-often considered 'the classics' in novels was irritating to me. There is an endless stream of novel references which, whenever I'm reading a novel that does this, typically feels to me like a tool used amateurishly as a lazy substitute for actually doing the work of showing that your character is intelligent and educated, and I'm never impressed by it.

That this was set in a non-English-speaking country. Believe it or not, there are very many such countries, and American writers seem scared to death of choosing any as a setting for their work, so kudos to this author for being as fearless as she is inventive, but given this I found it somewhat annoying in its frequent use of foreign terms and phrases.

I don't mind the phrases in moderation; it’s a pleasant change. What I do mind is the ritualistic compulsion on the part of the author to immediately stick a translation after the foreign phrase. This really trips up the story for me because rather than adding some atmosphere and a bit of color and verisimilitude, it merely suggests to me that the author is trying to sound clever.

Personally, I find it far better to include such words and phrases infrequently, and give them without a translation, allowing the context and your reader's smarts provide an understanding for them. Have a little faith in your readers! As it was, it could have been used less and as such would have been less irritating to me, and less disturbing of my suspension of disbelief.

Maybe it's just me, but a good example of this is where I read (and before you read on, be warned there is some bad language in this novel!), “How many times should I tell you not to not say behen chod, sisterfucker. It’s so insulting to women. Use your own gender and say bhai chod, brotherfucker.” To me it’s insulting that the author would think I cannot extrapolate from this context that the second phrase is masculine, so that she feels she needs to spell it out to me. She really doesn't! There were many instances of a similar nature.

An issue I've seen often with writers is when they're so focused on the text they're producing that they forget that this isn't supposed to be simply words on a page. It’s supposed to be a story of people living their lives, interacting, speaking...and hearing! So unless the main character's mom was routinely reading English newspapers (she may have been but there is nothing in the novel to indicate that she understood a word of English much less could read it), then only way she would know any given English word is from hearing it used, perhaps on TV.

The thing is that if you hear it used, you do not routinely mispronounce it as though you had read it somewhere! Even if you do misunderstand it, the whole process is different when it runs through an auditory process than when it runs through a visual one! So from the nervous nelly of a mom here we got a lot of mispronunciation-cum-malapropism such as "Pinkie, say ‘Tetley’ again. What did I tell you, Goga, ‘Tut-lee!’." We also got, for example, "Prince Chaarless and Lady Dayna." I don't see how you can get that unless you understand English reasonably well and are also dyslexic in English, neither of which applied to Mrs Binat! So, suspension of disbelief issue here!

Another example of this was where one particular character's name was deliberately mispronounced by one of the siblings in this story's equivalent of the Bennet family, so that it became "Fart Bhai." Fart is an English word, not a Pakistani one, so that name would not have sounded insulting or like a young boy's bathroom joke in any Pakistani language. Pakistan doesn't have one main language, but several. There are five which are spoken commonly. In Pashto fart is 'goez', in Urdu it’s 'puskee', and in Punjabi, in which district I assume this action is set, fart is 'garama', as far as I can determine using online resources. None of these sound like the English version of the word, so this joke made little sense.

A similar situation arose when the author had Wikaam (Wickham) set his price for marrying Lady (Lydia). In the Austen original, he doesn't actually set a price, but an amount is bandied around as a minimum, and this is £10,000. In today's money, that would be about £300,000, or almost $400,000 (depending on current exchange rate). So Lady is highly undervalued here! The amount stated in this novel $100,000 which is only about £76,000.

I found this most curious because Pakistani currency isn't dollars; it's rupees, one hundred of which are worth (at the exchange rate when I wrote this), only seventy-five cents. So very, very roughly one rupee equals one cent. An equivalent evaluation for Wickaam, in Pakistani coinage, of taking on Lady would be something like fifty three million rupees!

Perhaps the author thought that sounded far too high to western ears? I don't know. As the author it is of course her choice, but it seemed odd to me to use dollars instead of rupees or pounds (given how often Britain is referenced in the story). This was obviously written for an American audience! I just pass this on to highlight how complex it can be to try 'translating' an old story for modern ears, especially if the setting changes.

And now a writing issue! The author chose the interesting solution of adjusting the character's names to fit what I must assume are Pakistani naming conventions. The De Bourgh family for example became 'dey Bagh', and George Wikham became Jeorgeullah Wikaam. Elizabeth Bennet was Alysba Binat, and Darcy became Darsee. Curiously this rule was not applied to the location in which the story was set!

The original story takes place in and around Meryton, but the story in this book is set in Dilipabad, which is a fictional Pakistani location as far as I know. Dileep is a boy's name meaning 'King of the solar Race', and 'abad' means these days, very roughly, 'city of' so it would translate as the City of the King of the Solar race, but I have no idea what that's supposed to mean! In the Punjab district of Pakistan, there is a town called Multan, a name which sounds similar to Meryton, and which is not far from Lahore. I don't know why the author didn't simply use that, but again, it’s her choice.

The author's technique with names though, had the advantage of helping to keep everyone's straight, although I confess I got lost from time to time. I think if I'd done this, I'd have been tempted to go a different way, but maybe this worked better. I’d have been more inclined to look at what the English name meant and use the local translation of that, so that Lydia, which means 'beautiful one' would translate to Sudara (close enough!), which is actually a pretty cool name, but that means Elizabeth (oath of god) translates to Paramēśura dī sahu which really doesn't work! So maybe this author's choice was the wiser one?!

But enough with the writing issues and criticism. As I said at the beginning, I found this story engrossing and entertaining, and it kept me swiping the screen and tempting me away from my own writing projects too often, so this was definitely a worthy read. It even helped, indirectly, by reminding me of the original story, to clarify and gel some ideas of my own in connection with my upcoming redux of Pride and Prejudice - which I haven't even started yet but which I have now decided is up next after the current project, and which I promise is not set in modern times, nor is it set in Pakistan!

So I am greatful to have read this for that alone, but it was much more than that to me. It offered more than a literary stimulant; it was a good sotry, well told, and made more interesting to me for the very fact that it was so different from the traditional retellings of this which have become multifarious as well as nefarious and are typically boring and uninventive at best, or badly done at worst. I am grateful this wasn't such a story and I fully commend it - and look forward to this author's next offering.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell


Rating: WARTY!

This was a wildly optimistic audio book experiment given that I'd already tried Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and DNF'd it because it was an unmitigated disaster. I found myself forced to adopt the same approach here because this was simply not getting it done. Essentially it's a bit of a rip-off of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan which was published in 2006 and is a much better read.

Rowell seems to be an uninventive writer who loves to tell rather than show, and who seems to think that stereotypes are daring. No, they're really not, but they do win awards evidently, which is probably why I'll never win one. The first problem is that the basic story is antique: a boy and a girl hate each other, but fall in love? Been there done that to death.

The second problem with this is that it's written as dual narratives which suck. The only kind thing I can say about that was that at least it wasn't in first person. The third problem is that the author doesn't even pretend she can write such a novel about modern youth, so she sets this in the eighties so she can write it about her own youth. Yawn.

The chapters are all called either 'Eleanor' or 'Park' and each is read by one of the two readers: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra, and they lay out the perspective from the PoV of each main character so the author can tell you rather than show you what's happening. They meet on a school bus which is populated with stereotypes: jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, and so on. It's painfully tedious; there's nothing new, and I cannot commend it. I'm permanently off reading anything further by this author.


Monday, October 1, 2018

Invincible Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Stefano Caselli, Kate Niemczyk, Taki Soma, Kiichi Mizushima, Marte Gracia, Israel Silva


Rating: WORTHY!

So I read the second volume of the Ironheart graphic novel - this is the one featuring a female (a young female - she's only fifteen, but already a brilliant student at MIT). I had some minor issues with this volume. It's supposed to be about this girl who is replacing Ironman, so I was disappointed to discover that the title made no mention whatsoever of Ironheart!

The first volume at least had the title as "Invincible Iron Man Ironheart" which was bad enough (it made no sense for one thing), but volume two excludes the Ironheart bit altogether, like the comic isn't even about her! WTF, Marvel? There really is no point in promoting a female super hero if all you're going to do with her is render her as an appendage of the previous male hero to hold that title. It defeats the purpose, you know? For goodness sake let her fly solo. And don't treat your readers like idiots who would have no clue that Ironheart is a female incarnation of Iron Man without you spelling it out on the cover - because clearly you have no faith in the cover illustrations accomplishing that aim! LOL!

That aside, the overall story wasn't too bad, although it lapsed a bit here and there. Tony Stark's AI presence is nothing but an annoyance to me. If it was amusing, that would be something, but it isn't, and having so many types of speech balloon (one for Riri suited-up, one for her out of suit, one for Tony, one for Friday?) means it's a mess. Clean it up!

At one point I actually wondered if I'd be able to give this a favorable rating, but then it picked up and it saved itself enough that I'm willing to pursue this at least as far as volume three. One of my problems with it, and this applies to more than this one comic, is Marvel's lack of imagination in creating new villains. DC is just as bad. Let's resurrect the Joker again why don't we? Never mind how many times we killed him off, let's really keep digging back into the ancient past and bring out the same villains over and over instead of going to the trouble of using our imagination and creativity. Barf. The Joker is a joke. The Riddler is ridiculous. Catwoman is a pussy and the Penguin is for the birds. Find a new shtick!

This volume did change it up a bit in that the two main villains were females, but they were female versions (in effect) of male villains. Instead of the endlessly returning Doctor Doom, we got a female clone: a psychotic despot who was queen of Latveria of all places. Seriously? Get a new shtick, Marvel. At least, as temporary queen of Latveria, after defeating this idiot non-entity of a villain, Ironheart shone. Later Ironheart went up against Lady Octopus (and to her credit made fun of her title - this was one of the things which amused me and brought the novel back into my favor.

I'm happy to say that despite the lack of any female writing input, the art wasn't appallingly genderist, perhaps due to the presence of Kate Niemczyk and Taki Soma on the team, but it's still not enough. I am still hoping for better, but for now this isn't too bad.


Invincible Iron Man Ironheart by Brian Michael Bendis, Stefano Caselli, Marte Gracia


Rating: WORTHY!

I tend not to read many super hero comics because they often rub me up the wrong way and the poses the artists put the characters into all-too-often seem utterly unnatural when they're not uninventive, and the sexualization, particularly of females is not acceptable to me. Plus the dialog is a bit lame - especially when the heroes are exchanging smart-ass remarks in the middle of a fight. It's thoroughly unrealistic - even given the premise that superheroes exist - so it's not my cup of gamma ray-infused kryptonite, but once in a while I do read one for better or for worse. This one was for better as it happens, although there is still much to be done here.

This one threatened to annoy me from the cover alone because despite it being about Iron Man's replacement (in this comic world Iron Man is dead - at least as much as any super hero or villain is ever dead in these things), the female who is taking over still doesn't get top billing, although her 'real' name curiously appears on the cover at the bottom of the page. Normally I pay little attention to covers because the author has little or nothing to do with them and the artist typically hasn't even read the novel, as judged by how irrelevant or clueless the cover art is, but in graphic novels it's different: the cover does matter.

J Scott Campbell's risible (if it were not so serious) 2016 cover that caused such a controversy when it was revealed is almost as inexcusable as his being in total brain-dead denial about what an inappropriate cover it was. Marvel seems to have learned a lesson from that, but there are more they still need to learn - like hiring an artist who is a black woman maybe to draw Ironheart instead of yet another white dude? Was Nilah Magruder not available? Yona Harvey? Anyone? Ferrous Jewels?! There have to be scores of young black female artists who would love a shot at this. Afua Richardson? Taneka Stotts? It's important - it just needs to become important to the comic book corporations: not important to say, but important to actually do!

And what's with the name Ironheart? It was the name of a Japanese soft-porn knock-off of Iron Man and the content was certainly not appropriate to link to a fifteen-year-old black woman who's set to become a hero. What was wrong with Iron Girl? Was it ever considered? Tony Stark is cleared to be an Iron Man, but Riri isn't cleared to be a girl? Well, I guess not according to J Scott Campbell she isn't!

The story shows Riri - who is purportedly a genius, creating her own suit and starting out as a self-made woman, finally being mentored by Tony Stark's AI, and befriending Pepper Potts who is also a super hero now. The story was upbeat, fun and enjoyable, but there's much more to this incarnation of the Iron Hero. I enjoyed this comic and felt that Riri had a voice worth hearing, but maybe others will disagree. Pre-orders for this comic series slowly fell after issue one. I can't help but wonder if this was because the female wasn't quite so sexualized after that outcry or maybe it was something else. Maybe the writing isn't there. Maybe the plotting isn't, but I intend to read more of this story and see where it goes. I commend this issue at least.


Quantum Mechanics by Jeff Weigel


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was one of the most entertaining graphic novels I've read in a while. Free-wheeling, fast moving, full of heart and invention, and original story, engrossing, and not a human in sight! I don't know if it's aimed at younger readers, but I found it perfectly fine and I'm definitely not a younger reader, but it will serve them too, especially girls who already really know they can do anything, but perhaps need an occasional bit of encouragement to keep them reminded so they don't get remaindered! I'm always an advocate of US writers getting away from the idea that the 'US is the only country worth writing about'. It;s such a trope and this story isn't only outside the US, it's quite literally out of this world.

It's about these two alien girls, one of whom is orphaned. The other lives close by with her mom and dad. Dad is a mechanic and they live on an asteroid surrounded by a mess of defunct spacecraft. The two girls are always trying to fix up something they can fly and all-too-often lack the pristine parts they need to do the work properly, leaving them with less than desirable results, but they're optimistic and inventive, and they never give up.

Into this sweet life comes an old acquaintance of their dad's asking for help in repairing his spacecraft - the Quasar Torrent - a request dad flatly refuses. His daughter decides this is a nifty way to make some cash and buy new parts for their own projects, so Rox and Zam offer to fix the problem only to discover, when the work is done, that they're no longer on the asteroid and are now part of a pirate crew in space - kidnapped!

As their tenure aboard as resident mechanics continues, and they fix all sorts of problems and befriend the easy-going crew, they realize there's more to this pirate life than they'd thought, and they also realize their captain isn't a nice guy at all. Plus, there are stowaways aboard!

Zam and Rox manage to juggle all these issues while keeping their sense of humor and upping their skill set, and a great story with a sweet ending is the result. The story is intelligent and fun, and the artwork is wonderful. I fully commend this as a worthy read (with a great title!)


Monday, September 3, 2018

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Nathan Fairbairn


Rating: WORTHY!

Last volume! A worthy read. Scott finally confronts Gideon, who is much less of a mystery figure in the book than he is in the movie. Ramona has vanished and Scott is so stupid that he thinks she has gone to Gideon despite clear indications to the contrary. Unlike in the movie, she never does go off with Gideon and is entrapped by him only in her mind. Also unlike the movie, and I'm sorry for this, Knives Chau never does become a ninja maiden and fight against Gideon alongside Scott. I think the movie makers made a wise choice in that departure because that scene was awesome.

The character interactions were much warmer and more realistic (and still amusing) in this volume and in volume five, and it made for a deeper and better story. Again, Kim Pine was outstanding. Again Ramona wasn't quite and scintillating as she was in the movie. It felt like some things were not wrapped up here, but that didn't really spoil it. Anyway, after moping over Ramona for the first half of the book, Scott decides to confront Gideon at the opening of his new club and the inevitable battle begins. Scott is killed, but he has gained for himself another life during his previous episodes, and comes back to life, better than ever.

Ramona and Scott don't go off into the sunset at the end, but they do go off into the subspace world which works even better. I commend this as a worthy read.


Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Nathan Fairbairn


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the penultimate volume of the Scott Pilgrim hexalogy and after having not really liked the middle two so much, I'm happy to report that the trailing bookend pair were pretty good. They were a little bit different and had more soul to them, and they were more entertaining. The artwork as usual was as usual.

In volume five, he faces off against the Japanese twins, who keep sending robots to attack him. This is completely different from the movie, and is actually more entertaining. The movie was a bit repetitive itself in this regard because the battle with the twins was really nothing more than an amplified version of his battle with Todd Ingram, whereas in the book, it's necessarily more extended and more inventive.

Also, the intriguing Kim really starts coming into her own, not least of which is for noticing - and photographing - the fact that Ramona has a glow, which I was sorry to learn never actually was explained. Anyway, that aside, I commend volume five as a worthy read.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Nathan Fairbairn


Rating: WARTY!

On to volume four, which was just as much of a disappointment as volume three, and for the same reasons: one note story, nothing fresh on the table, repetition of the motifs from previous stories.

Thee was a mild improvement which came from this short section where Knives's dad comes after Scott with a sword and ends up killing off one of the exes which is left entirely out of the movie, but that was about it. Everything else was humdrum. Even Ramona! Even that section was a bit stereotyping in that her Asian father is portrayed as a sword-weilding vengeance seeker.

I was thinking about this Ramona issue, too, and I think one of my problems with this was that Ramona was portrayed so perfectly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the movie that the graphic novel version of her looks rather threadbare in comparison. She has her moments but she cannot hold any sort of decent candle to the movie Ramona.

Another problem I had with this was that it was more exploitative than previous volumes: a lot of female characters were drawn seemingly for purely carnal purposes than I recall from the earlier outings, including Knives, whom we're told is still seventeen. It's like on the one hand the author wants to represent her as an innocent child in need of protection, but on the other he has no problem depicting her in a bikini on a beach for no purpose other than to show her ass (which appears more than once in this volume).

So, I was not impressed with this one either, and I cannot commend it.


Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Nathan Fairbirn


Rating: WARTY!

Now it's my sad duty to report on two failures by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Volumes three and four of this series. Starting with volume three. This is one reason why I dislike series as a general rule because they are frequently so derivative and lazy and it's hard to be genuinely creative when all you;re really doing is telling the same old story over and over again which is all too often what series end up doing.

I came to this by way of the movie which I'd been in two minds about watching for some time, but I discussed it with myself and we came to an agreement: I wouldn't spoil the movie if I agreed to give it a fair shot. I watched the movie with my kids and it was hilarious, so then I decided to go to the source and read the graphic novels.

There are six and I didn't realize that the movie encompassed all of them. Given what had happened with the first volume, it quickly became evident that some serious departures from the books must have occurred over the remaining five volumes and sure enough, this was the case. I was hoping this meant more fun, but starting with volume two, the graphic novels and the movie parted ways increasingly while still telling the same overall story.

The problem was that while the movie told a cogent and succinct story, the graphic novels were all over the place and I could see why much of it had been cut out of the movie. I could also see that if you really liked the graphic novels, and then moved on to the movie, you might not like it so well, or vice-versa.

I positively reviewed the first two volumes. Volume one was like watching the movie - which had been taken almost frame for frame and word for word from the comic. Volume two departed somewhat but was still a worthy read. After that it has gone downhill, based on my experience of volumes three and four, I'm sorry to report. It would seem like there's not a lot new that can be added given that the author has locked Scott into fighting every one of Ramona's evil exes.

Volume three is entirely about Scott's run in with Ted Ingram, Envy's band-mate and boyfriend, aka The Vegan. There's also a lot of fluff tossed in which did not entertain me. The story continues with the flags added to characters, like telling us that Knives Chau is seventeen, or tallying up how much Scott won for beating an opponent, or what kind of an outfit he's wearing, or telling Ramona he loves her. These are things we already know and it was simply irritating to read those this time around. It wasn't inventive any more, and it brought nothing fresh to the table.

So the hot potato of volumes one and two was now a wrinkled, drying, sprouting and slightly smelly potato that cannot be improved, no even by frying, and overall I can't commend this as a worthy read. If you're addicted to the series or if you haven't seen the movie and want to find out how it play out, then go ahead by all means, but it left me disappointed.


Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fun graphic novel in nicely-drawn grayscale, about this girl, Anya Borzakovskaya, a Russian émigré who lives with her kid brother and her mother, and is trying not to feel like the odd one out at this private school she attends, trying to play down her origins, losing her accent, trying to fit in. She even refuses her mother's сырники (syrniki, a sweet cheese fritter. I had to look that up after first translating the Russian!) because she thinks she's overweight. She really isn’t, but shamefully slick advertising has brainwashed far too many girls into thinking they are.

I couldn’t quite follow how she ended-up going home in the dark though a deserted field, but she did. And she fell into a well. Fortunately, all was well, because despite the depth of it, she landed at the bottom without breaking or spraining anything. The problem is that it’s a deserted area and there's no one around except these bones, which bring forth the ghost of the girl, Emily, who once owned the bones. This is Anya's ghost.

When Anya finally is discovered and gets out, Emily, whose ghost has been tied to her bones for ninety years, somehow manages to follow her. At first this freaks out Anya, but after she discovers that Emily is useful, she becomes somewhat less fraught with misgivings. Emily can’t be seen by anyone else, and so is able to crib answers from other students during a test and relay them to Anya, for example. Having spent a lot of her free time reading fashion magazines in Anya's bedroom, Emily is also able to advise Anya on how to dress to kill, and put on make-up for a party she wouldn’t normally have attended.

It would seem that all was well with this new relationship in Anya's life, but when Anya starts talking about putting the ghost to rest, Emily deflects the matter repeatedly. Anya is a strong female character though and pursues the quest unbeknownst to Emily, co-opting the aid of another Russian émigré, a boy whom Anya had had little time for until now. What she learns from her investigation is disturbing, leading to a disturbing confrontation with Emily.

I really enjoyed this story. It was in some ways reminiscent of others I've read or seen in movies, but nonetheless fresh and very entertaining. The artwork was sweet, sand the main character, Anya, was admirable and very cute. I definitely would read something else by this author, and especially if it featuring this same character.


Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves


Rating: WARTY!

After reading about a third of this I came to the conclusion that while librarians may be experts on the concept and management of books, this doesn't necessarily translate to the content of a book. For a novel written by a librarian, this book was lacking far too much. It made no sense, was poorly written, and was larded with cliché.

The story is your usual teen trope: a new girl in a new town having acceptance problems. The author throws in the supernatural, but instead of this making the story better, it made it far worse. It didn't help that said teen, Hanna, wasn't remotely likeable. She was living with her aunt, but decided to hit her aunt over the head with a bottle, and leave, thinking her aunt was more than likely dead, to move to small town Texas, where her mother lives. This was a good move since both of these women were quite evidently sociopaths at best, and belonged together.

Hanna hears her dead father talking to her until she starts back on her meds, having negotiated with her mom a two week stay of eviction to prove she can make friends in her new school. Thus far there had been nothing remotely plausible in this story, but that was about to improve. Soon there would be nothing conceivably plausible.

Despite the school being possessed by some parasite that resides in the windows and can turn a living being into glass while sucking the life force and all organic tissue from them, not one single person: not her mother, not her teachers, nor her classmates, tell her a single thing about what's going on, nor do they offer a single warning to her, or a single piece of advice on how to protect herself. I'm sorry but no. The author has made the typical YA writer's blinkered assumption that every single person is exactly the same, has the same feelings and motives and will treat a newcomer to the school in exactly the same cruel manner. I've come to expect this from your average female YA writer; I made the mistake of expecting more from a librarian.

Worse than this, this supernatural crap has been going on at this school for months, yet not a single alarm has been raised about kids dying or going missing. No one from out of town has any idea there's something seriously wrong with this town?

There's also something seriously wrong with the majority of YA authors. A few of them are brilliant, but far too many of them seem to be incapable of creativity or imagination and end up taking the road of least effort, cloning everything everyone else has already written, and applying the same brain-dead ham-fisted techniques of authorship to it. YA is the most blundering, dead-end, mindless, derivative, festering swamp of unoriginality and cluelessness, rivalled only by chick-lit café and/or bakery 'sleuthing' genre (I flatly refuse to read any novel that carries the word 'sleuth' on the cover), and by the chick-lit 'poor spineless rejected girl flees back to her home town and meets Mr Ri-ight like that's going to happen, and he'll save her because he's a manly man and she's just a poor weak woman' garbage genre.

This particular example of all that's wrong with YA has the 'girl hating the guy that you know for a fact she's going to be swooning over in short order' trope. It has the 'no one tells her shit' trope; it has the 'throw the girl together with the guy she supposedly hates' trope. Frankly, it would be easier to list the tropes it doesn't have so I'll stop there. The thing which finally made me throw this book out before it made me throw my breakfast out of my stomach was when the girl and the guy were thrown together after she encountered the evil thing in the glass.

So this guy invites himself to her home afterwards, and she tells him he can't come in, but he pushes his way in anyway and she has no problem with that. At least now they both have the chance to sit down and finally discuss everything that's been going on, right? Nope. Not a word. He explains nothing and she's far too brain-dead to ask any intelligent questions. This novel SUCKED, period.


Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Inappropriate as it may be, I fell in love with Louisiana Elefante when I read of her in this author's Raymie Nightingale which I also fell in love with back in April 2018 when I listened to it on audio and loved the amazingly-named Jamie Lamia's reading of it. So yeah, you can call me biased going into this one!

I snapped this one up as soon as I saw it on Net Galley, and did not regret it one bit! And this is despite the author's winning the Association for Library Service to Children's Newbery Medal (Twice!), which normally turns me right off both an author and her oeuvre. Good thing I didn't know about the Newbery before I read these books, right?! I hadn't read either of this author's Newbery winners (The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses prior to this, but afterwards I did read that latter novel and was predictably unimpressed with it!

I tend to side with Anita Silvey, John Beach, and Lucy Calkins on this Newbery medal, but maybe for different reasons. The medal is overwhelmingly genderist: two-thirds of both honorees and winners are female. You can argue that most children's writers are female, and even try to argue that since women are underrepresented in books in general, both as authors and recognition winners, this bias only helps to redress a sad imbalance, but that imbalance goes deeper.

If most children's authors are women (and it's surprisingly hard to get solid statistics on that!), then why are books for children so overwhelmingly about white boys? Something's rotten in the state of bookmark! But on a personal reading level, Newbery books have almost consistently bored the pants off me, fortunately not literally, but this is why I won't read 'em, and why (unlikely as it would be!) I'd turn down a Newbery if one was offered to me.

But I digress! I'm not a fan of series, unless they're particularly well done, and few are. They're more often a lazy and mercenary rip-off of the original novel, but this is a spin-off, not a series, which to me is a different thing altogether. Louisiana, one of the trio of 'Rancheros' in Raymie Nightingale, and I have to add, my favorite of the three, is on her own in this story with no support network of friends, only her aging, eccentric, and it has to be said, kleptomaniac grandmother. Her parents were the Flying Elefantes: renowned acrobats who died when Louisiana was very young. I guess this one time they failed to fly.

Ever since then, Louisiana has lived with her grandmother who is a bit bats, or maybe not. In this story, grandmother wakes Louisiana up at three in the morning to say they have to go, and they take-off down the highway with virtually no money, charming someone out of a can of gas here, and a treatment of her grandmother's bad teeth there, and so on. Louisiana has to sing at a funeral to pay for their motel room.

The story is slightly tongue-in-cheek and eccentric and highly entertaining. Louisiana's perspective on life is completely charming. I have been seeking out more by this author even as I read this particular one. Normally if a book is described as quirky, or words to that effect, or has 'wacky' characters in it, I avoid it like the plague, but this story is just my cup of tea. Louisiana is captivating and her thought-processes refreshing. She is at once innocent and wise, naïve and jaded, and the combination is irresistible. I commend this, even if it does end up winning a Newbery!


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater


Rating: WARTY!

It's my policy never to read books with pretentious words like 'Chronicles' or Cycle' or 'Saga' in their title, but this one slipped under my radar. It wasn't until I was almost finished with the novel that I realized it was part of 'The Raven Cycle'. Yuk! The thing is that while I did initially enjoy this particular volume, it was painfully slow, and when I discovered it was not even going to reach a conclusion, I began losing faith in it.

After I listened to the weak ending, I could no longer support it positively. If the author had moved things along, she could have included the entire four book 'cycle' in one volume, I suspect, made a great story out of it, and saved trees into the bargain.

As for me, I will serve the word! I'm not going to indulge the rip-off attitude of 'why write one novel when you can spin it into three or four?' which seems to pervade the fiction world these days. This is nothing but a conspiracy among publishers to milk money from suckers, and I refuse to be a part of it, which is why I personally will never write a series. Yes, there are one or two series out there which are worth the reading, but in my opinion they are as rare as a series should be. Not everything needs to be a trilogy. And yes, YA authors, I'm talking to you!

This story is about a young woman with the curious name of Blue Sargent, who isn’t a psychic, while her two eccentric aunts and her mother all are. Father is of course absent from her life, because god forbid we should have a YA character who has both parents in the picture and an otherwise normal life!

We meet Blue when she's out by a derelict church (sitting on a ley line of course) watching the ghosts go by. Blue can’t see them, but she has the ability to amplify signals for her psychic mom to pick up. It’s never explained why they need to go there to see these ghosts which technically aren’t ghosts, but premonitions of those people who will die in the coming year.

Blue never sees anything until this year when she sees this one ghostly guy. When she confronts him and asks who he is, he answers "Gansey." Later, of course she meets him and her mother warns her off him. Blue is instructed that he will die if she kisses him! Who knew Blue was really Poison Ivy?!

She meets him later of course, along with his three close friends. They're all students of the prestigious and snobbish Aglionby school. I only know that's spelled right because it's on the back cover. I listened to this on audio read by Will Patton, one of my favorite actors, and who did a great job. On audio though, it sounded like Aglin-B, like Zyclon-B - one of the gases used in the death camps by Nazis in World War Two, so I could not take that name seriously as a school! Sorry! My imagination gets out of hand often which, as a writer, is actually a good thing!

Anyway, the first of these friends is the unimaginatively-named Ronan, who is such a cliché that I did not like his character at all. I am so tired of USA authors writing about Irish characters and Ireland with such a condescending and unimaginative tone. Ronan is a stereotypical Irish boy who fights - physically - with his domineering brother who is unimaginatively named Declan.

Adam is a retiring, impoverished boy who has to work other jobs to finance his time at the school, and whose father is a brutal jerk. Noah is even more retiring than Adam and there's a reason for this, we learn towards the end of the novel. Richard Gansey is obsessed with tracing ley lines, and even more obsessed with finding the body of a Welshman. So why look in Virginia instead of in Cymru?

Owain Glyn Dŵr, often anglicized as Owen Glendower, but pronounced more like Oh-wayne Glin Duhr, was the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, who came off poorly in his uprising against the English (early 15th century), and spent his twilight years in obscurity. Because of this, legends have grown up around him, including the one that he's not dead but sleeping, like King Arthur, who was actually more of a tribal leader than a king, and who will sleep until his nation needs him, whereupon he will awaken.

Well, that was categorically disproved when Arthur failed to wake up for either of the two World Wars, so I think we can retire that legend! I mean, honestly, of what use will a medieval tribal leader wearing a leather jerkin and carrying a spear be in modern warfare? Will he toss his spear at a Raptor drone?

The asinine conceit of this story is that Glyn Dŵr went to the Americas, despite those not being discovered (or more accurately, rediscovered) until almost a century after he died. Yes, the Vikings knew of the Americas, but it’s unlikely that this information would have found its way to Glyn Dŵr and even if it had, what incentive did he have to abandon his family and move there? None! Although I did develop a theory that Ronan is really Glyn Dŵr in disguise.

This is a problem with readers in the USA: far too many of them are so lamentably and irrevocably provincial that they seem quite loathe to embrace any story that's not set in their homeland. This is why Hollywood lifts so many foreign movies and recasts them in the USA, even if the recasting makes little sense to the story, so this whole Glyn Dŵr angle is nonsensical. You would think someone of Steifvater's stature would have the guts to step away from trope and safety and and set her own course, but I guess she's as unimaginative and chicken as far too many other YA authors.

Anyway, these five (Gansey & co, and Blue) discover a place on a ley line in the forest where time seems mixed up and where a body lies. Here's where the story went downhill because it became obvious all of a sudden who the murder was and what his relationship with the boys and (I believe) also with Blue was. I don't normally catch things like that so it had to be very obvious if even I saw it!

So they story moved slowly, wasn't exactly a mystery, and Blue was a little too subdued and passive for my taste for a female lead. I confess I did enjoy parts of the story as far as it went, but overall, I cannot commend it as a worthy read, and it was certainly not something I'm interested in pursuing into another volume.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D Sonnier


Rating: WARTY!

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

Errata:
"...she watched as her family prepare to leave the house." This really needed to have used 'prepared' rather than 'prepare'.
"When do you think they'll finally drag you into the family business, brother dear?" Arabella smiled. "Oh, I think not." John barked with laughter." The second speech doesn't follow from the first! If the 'when' was omitted from the first speech, it would make more sense.
"We've combed the library and its' not inconsiderable resources" no apostrophe is required on 'its'

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

I am not a huge fan of steampunk, but then this really isn't a steampunk story even though it superficially professes to be a mashup of witchcraft and steampunk. That juxtaposition is what interested me in the novel as it happens, but I had too many writing issues with it to love it, despite it starting out very strongly for me.

My blog is more about the writing of novels than the reading of them, but I explore writing through discussing my reading experiences and assessing the book accordingly, and this one felt very much like a book feels when an American writer tries to write a Victorian novel without really knowing the Victorian period very well - at least as it was experienced in Britain. An example of such an Americanism was "She'll be furious is what she'll be." That's a common format - repeating the same person and verb at the end as you've used at the start, but I don't see a well-bred Victorian family employing it in Britain!

I don't profess to be an expert by any means, but since there exist very many books from that period, fiction and otherwise, my advice to writers is to read a lot of them so you get a feel for the vernacular in use back then. That aside, I did enjoy reading this to start with. Unfortunately, it had too many issues, by far the worst of which was the disturbingly weak and bland female main character.

I adore books with strong females - and by that I do not mean they can arm-wrestle a guy to the ground (although that could be a trait they have!). No, I mean women who are self-possessed and self-motivated and who do not wilt every other paragraph. I don't care if they start out weak and grow strong or if they're strong from the off. I do care if they never grow, and never change no matter what provocation or incentive they have, and that was this character's problem.

I know it was set in Victorian times when women were all-too-often deemed weak and delicate, and some actually were, just as some are today, but there were some amazing women who lived in that era (the queen for one example) and who made their mark: such as Ada Lovelace, Annie Besant, Eleanor Coade, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, Millicent Fawcett. Dido Belle was another although she came long before the Victorian era. Radclyffe Hall was another although she came later.

The novel began strongly, but then slowly and inexorably went downhill. The main character was so weepy and showed no sign of growing a backbone, so around seventy percent in I couldn't stand to read about her any more. I did a search for the word 'sobbed' in this novel, and it showed up ten different times and each time it was the main character who was doing the sobbing! This was throughout the novel. I don't mind a girl (or a guy for that matter) breaking down once in a while, but this girl was doing it habitually, at the drop of a hat. It was nauseating to keep reading it. Parts of the novel were really great, but she was such a lackluster and limp woman who had showed no sign of ever growing, and I lost all interest in her and her story.

People have on occasion chided me for DNF-ing a novel, but I see no point in forcing oneself to read something that simply doesn't get the job done. Life is far too short. Their argument that maybe things will turn around is weak and I've disproven it repeatedly. If the novel isn't getting it done by the time you're twenty percent in, you should quit right then. I almost quit around the half-way point, but decided to struggle on in hopes that it would improve because there had been parts I really enjoyed, but it did not improve. It steadily grew worse, and meanwhile I'd wasted more of my time pursuing it! I do not subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy; quitting is a smarter move than continuing to invest effort in something not worthy of your time.

The story is of the Sortileges, the leading witch family in Britain, and one which is highly-regarded beyond the immediate shores of the so-called Sceptered Isle. The Family is a large one - seven daughters and two sons. In this world, the daughters take precedence, because they are witches, and men take a back seat, contrary to 'mundane' society (read: muggles!) where it is of course the reverse, as real life history shows.

The main character is Arabella, a name I can't think of without being reminded of the rather catchy song from the old Peter Sellers movie based on a stage play: There's a Girl in My Soup (which I recommend for light-hearted fun and a few witty remarks, but you have to be something of an anglophile to get the best from it). The song runs along the lines of: "Arabella, Cinderella, what did she do? She turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of two! You know she should have done it way back at midnight. Why, oh why, can she never get it right!"

The biggest problem with Arabella, the trope seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, is that she wept constantly and never once stood up for herself. It was too much. Once in a while under stress, or from a major setback perhaps, it would have been fine, but it was every few pages and for the slightest of reasons.

That song I mentioned is particularly appropriate here, because Arabella can't get it right. She's a squib, to put it in Harry Potter terms. This is trope for this kind of story: the magical person with no magic who in the end turns out to be especially magical. It's a bit tired, and this particular story - the initially undiscovered mastery machinery - has been done before in The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker, a story which I really did enjoy.

The family is invited to a demonstration of a new calculating machine along the lines of Babbage's difference engine, but whereas his machine was a small one controlled by turning a crank the requisite number of times to do the calculation, Mr Westerfield's machine is quite the behemoth and runs on steam. Note that Babbage never built his final machine - only a smaller model of it because the government lost patience with him and stopped funding it.

The reason we know it works is that the machine was actually built in the 1980's in Australia using Babbage's original drawings and the machining techniques available in Babbage's time. The engine worked as specified. The name of Westerfield's machine looked like it was simply chosen because it had some superficial resonance with 'difference engine' but Babbage chose his name for a valid reason. I didn't get the impression that 'distinction engine' had any rationale behind it at all, so it stood out as an odd choice.

During the demo, Arabella discovers she can literally see the work in progress in the form of a glow in the machine's mechanisms, and she discovers that she can operate it using only thought. This is how she learns she actually does have a power, and it's also what brings her into conflict with Westerfield, although his antagonistic reaction to her is way over the top and her weasel reaction to him is, honestly, pathetic.

There was one part of the machine which Arabella cannot see any glow in, and it seemed obvious why this was so. Unfortunately, it made Arabella look a bit on the dumb side that she did not figure this out quickly, but the reason I mention this event is that there were a couple of writing issues with it.

The first of these is when the dignitaries are addressed to call the meeting to order and the guy says, "Ladies and gentlemen, members of Parliament, and noble witches," but he has the order wrong. If the witches are indeed as important as they're portrayed in this story, then they ought to addressed first. This is still the way it's done - prejudiced as it may be - with the monarchy, peerage, and nobility coming first, as in "My Lords, ladies, and gentlemen," for example.

It seems to me the witches would have been insulted to have been placed last, but no one says a word about it! This issue is further highlighted later in the story when Arabella's older brother John comes to tea and I read, "Arabella served tea and inquired after their father's health." Wait - in a witch family, the female serves tea? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I think the author means that she poured the tea, not served it, which a maid would have done, but even so, it undermined the earlier statements to the effect that women in witch families always took precedence.

The other issue I had in this section of the book was with the naming of the leading witch's daughters. One of the sons is called John, the other, Henry, both of which were very popular names back then and fitted right into the story, but not a single one of the daughters was given a name anywhere close to the usual names for girls in that time! Now you can argue that this is a different world, and these are witches, but if this is so, then how come the author doesn't mention it?

If one had been named Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay, or Jennet, as in Jennet Preston, or Mary, as in Mary Trembles, that would have worked, but none of the girls' names here invoked what you might consider to be a suitable name for a witch based on the names of those who were (of course insanely) deemed to be witches historically. Just FYI, the girls were named: Vivienne, Rowena, Jessamine, Josephine, Arabella, Amelia, and Elizabeth.

Apart from that latter one, these are quite simply not names that Victorian parents gave to their daughters, so this stood out like a sore thumb. Maybe the author chose them for a reason. To me, names matter a lot, and I always try to give my main characters meaningful names, such as Janine Majeski in Seasoning or Cora Graigh in Saurus. Cora's name pretty much told her entire story, if you knew what to look for, but if that wasn't the case in this novel, and they were merely names that sounded good to the author, then this rather betrayed the deeper story. At least that's how I felt about it!

The timeline of the novel is a little off. As set by the date of the great exhibition at Crystal Palace, the story takes place in 1851, but it conflates two periods of history which never coincided. The Irish potato famine was largely over by 1851, and the suffragette movement set English society alight toward the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, but it was barely an ember in 1851. Crystal palace is now better known as a soccer team than an exhibition, but that's the only part of this story's background that did take place in 1851!

The novel seems to be intended as a steampunk story - which is by definition an obfuscation of the timeline - so perhaps this conflation can be covered under that, but in another such conflation, at one point the author has the sisters playing croquet. The earliest record of croquet is 1856. That doesn't mean it could not have been around earlier, but it didn't become popular until the 1860s a decade after this story is set, so it seems hardly like this mundane game would have been played by Arabella's witch family in 1851, especially since the family snobbishly had no truck with the 'common people' (and Arabella saw no problem with this - another reason not to like her). In short, everything just felt off.

At one point I read John saying, "Arabella Helene Sortilege, I'm surprised to hear you lecturing me about respect when you've obviously snuck out of the house..." I had two issues with this. First of all 'snuck' is an Americanism, and while it may be used in Britain today (a lot of Americanisms are) it would never have left the lips of a person of breeding in 1851! Additionally, an older brother in England back then was hardly likely to use her full name. He would be much more likely to use a pet name - something from their childhood. There were other such lapses, such as "John leaned his elbows on the table" - no! Not in a well-bred family he didn't!

There's one more such incident. Amelia's boyfriend Harlan (again not a name likely to be found in 1850's Britain) says to Amelia: "join the Sisterhood today, chickadee...." No! Just no! The chickadee is a North American bird. It's unknown in Britain and unlikely to have even been heard of by most Brits back then. The closest thing to it is a tit, but he could hardly have described Amelia as 'my little tit' - although that would have been amusing had the guy been set up as socially inept. But no! A better choice would have been linnet. This is a British bird and was used as an endearment when talking of young women, back then. That was something I could let go, but then for inexplicable reasons, Arabella's mom starts referring to her using the same term, and honestly? It just sounded stupid.

Technically, the book is well-written in terms of grammar, spelling and such, but the formatting is odd. There is an extra carriage return between paragraphs which is a no-no for professional publishing and means that the book takes up far more space if it runs to a print edition than it would otherwise. My advice is to save a few trees in your print version using a thing called paragraph spacing (along with a smaller font and narrower margins). In the ebook, this doesn't matter so much except that a longer book uses more energy to transmit, so it's always wiser to keep it shorter if you can.

So for this large variety of reasons, I cannot rate this novel as a worthy read, but I am interested in this writer. I think she has imagination and talent, and I would definitely read the next thing she writes - assuming it's a genre that I have an interest in of course! I have zero interest in reading a Harlequin-style romance by any author for example, no matter how much I love them! So even though I cannot commend this one, I wish the author success in her endeavors. We need fresh young voices and she's in an excellent position to become one of them.