Thursday, May 21, 2020

Cat and Rat by Melinda Thompson, Melissa Ferrell, Doug Oglesby


Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated sweetly by Doug Oglesby, this is part of a series of books aimed at beginning readers, and this one focuses on short vowel sounds. The book set has 100 or so pages divided into eleven books, and begins with a rat trying to steal a piece of cheese. I'm very fond of rats, not so much cats, so I admit to a serious bias here! I have my own The Little Rattuses™ series which is a about halfway through its run before I move on to something else.

Having seen some of those ambitious subway rats on various videos taking a whole slice of pizza with it, I have to say that this is a very fair rat! It's not taking the whole chunk of cheese, just a small piece. Unfortunately, the cat happens to see this. Rats aren't known for their negotiating skills (except in my series!), but everything seems to work out well in the end for all parties.

The second book focuses on the verb 'see' and follows the story again, repeating that word and inviting the child to see everything in each picture. The third set repeats and amplifies this, but focuses on the rat - see the rat! You can't not see a rat. I found this amusing because just yesterday I was watching an episode of the TV series House, a series which has now run its course, but which was popular and usually entertaining in its time. It featured a rat in part of the story. It was clearly a domesticated rat - not a wild one at all - which was to be expected of course.

Anyway, having seen the rat, we move to book four where we see the cat. Book five introduces a new verb, 'can' and book six focuses on person: 'you'. Book 7, focuses on the verb 'look' and the preposition 'at'. Book 9 covers 'and', Book 10 'stop', book 11 'that', and in each book the sentence structure becomes a teensy bit more complex, slowly leading the child into full sentences, questions, observations, and story-telling. "Can the rat stop the cat? Look and see" and so on.

The books are highly structured and repetitive, which helps a child put everything into a clear context, and not just learn the word, but really understand what it means. My kids are way beyond these books now, and this is my first experience of this style of 'book-leaning', so I can't speak from personal experience of using this method, but to me it seems smart and logical, and I commend this as a worthy read.


Egyptomaniacs by Nicky Nielsen


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
"the tri-factor of ancient Egyptian mysticism and the occult." I think maybe the author meant 'trifecta'? Very strictly-speaking, trifecta isn't the correct term and there are three factors listed before this phrase, but the way the phrase is worded seems to make trifecta a better fit that tri-factor, which is not commonly-used terminiology.

Like many people, no doubt, I've long had an interest in ancient Egypt. I've written a middle-grade humorous novel about a young Cleopatra (Cleoprankster), and there was a section in one of my mature sci-fi novels (Tears in Time) set in ancient Egypt. I also plan on writing at least one more set wholly in ancient Egypt, but trust me when I say I am far from an expert and wouldn't even try to pretend I was. I have read many books on the subject, enjoyed many documentaries, and often enjoy fictional films about it. I was thrilled to be given the chance to view this one and then to review it, and I did not regret it.

I have to say up front that I am always suspicious of authors who put their credentials along with their name on the cover. Often this means they're charlatans, especially if they're talking about new diet regimes! You don't get authors like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins putting 'Dr' in front of their name or 'PhD' after it, but in this case it's fine because the author, originally from Denmark is, to quote his bio page from the University of Manchester, "...a Lecturer in Egyptology teaching both traditional undergraduate units as well as distance learning. He is also the programme director on the MA Egyptology programme." He did his PhD research at the University of Liverpool investigating subsistence strategies and craft production at the Ramesside fortress site of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, obtaining his PhD in 2016. This guy knows what he's talking about!

The book is pithy, with a light tone, but a serious intent. It pulls no punches and suffers no fools, and I love that kind of writing! I especially loved the way he took down the "pyramidology" and "ancient alien visitors" garbage. This kind of scientific fraud and appalling ignorance, which nearly always (but not exclusively) seems to come from the right wing curiously enough, is particularly harmful at times like these when we have a serious and deadly virus literally rampaging across the globe and idiot hucksters standing up and recommending unproven 'miracle drug cures' and 'the injecting of household disinfectants to clean out the virus' - and that's just the president of one country.

But I digress. Egyptian obsession, as the author details, goes back way beyond our current era, and it keeps renewing itself every few years as some new discovery triggers a resurgence of interest. The fact is, again as the author makes clear, that the actual reality of ancient Egypt is fantastical and enthralling enough. Making up fake stories about it, like the ridiculous mummy's curse of Tutankhamen, and inane claims like the one that the pyramids of Gizeh were built to store grain by the Biblical Joseph is not only unnecessary, it's an insulting lie that doesn't even gild the lily.

The author covers these topics from the building of the pyramids and the growth of Egyptian culture and power, right up through modern day. The text is wide-ranging, covering not only scholarly works, but also how this work is viewed in the media and by the entertainment industry. There are eight chapters:

  1. The Classical Experience of Ancient Egypt
  2. Cabinets of Curiosity
  3. Death on the Nile
  4. A Tragic Case of the -isms
  5. Tutmania and the Media
  6. The Mummy, The Mummy, and The Mummy Again
  7. Ancient Aliens
  8. Who Owns Ancient Egypt?

Not all was plain sailing. This book was only available to a reviewer like me through an ebook, and once again the publisher kow-towed to the monolithic, almost monopolistic power of Amazon, and once again Amazon turned the printed word to Kindling. I flatly refuse to do any sort of business with Amazon. I do not care if it costs me sales. I would rather have peace of mind that I am not supporting the Amazon business model in any way, shape or form.

The text itself wasn't so bad, but unless your work is essentially nothing more than plan vanilla text, Amazon will slice, dice, and julienne it. Amazon hates pretty. It hates organized and neat. It hates drop-caps, for example, and will instead drop your text to the next line. In fact, it will quite randomly put a new line in and drop your text to the next line whether you intended it or not at any point in the book. Some of the text was blood-red for reasons I've never been able to figure out, but I've seen this frequently in Kindle books.

There are photographs included in the back of this book which surprisingly survived the process remarkably well, although I think Amazon ditched at least one of them. I was unaware of the pictures until I finished the book, so I'd already looked-up some of these images online where I could find them. This is mostly tied to the section discussing artistic portrayals of ancient Egypt.

The book had an extensive notes and references section and an index, although none of this was clickable - you can't, for example, go to the note from the text, nor can you return to the text from the note, be warned. Same applies to the index. I'm guessing this book was never intended to be an ebook and was simply dumped into that format for reviewers. It's never a good idea to treat reviewers so cavalierly! It might come back to bite you!

The content list is a mess; it's completely unformatted, with some chapters being clickable (although once you click to a chapter there's no way to click back to the content list, which you may wish to do since the list is so closely printed that you could well tap the wrong chapter and wish to go back and start over. The chapter titles are all on separate lines except for five and six which are jammed together on the same line (Chapter 5 Chapter 6).

Chapter 8 is the only chapter title that is clickable, but it doesn't take you to chapter eight! I never read epilogues and prologues so it wasn't an issue for me that they're not clickable, but the text heading for each chapter wasn't listed with the chapter header ('Chapter 1' and so on)! It was listed separately after all the chapter numbers had been listed - and some of those were clickable! Very confusing. Amazon are idiots. I'm sorry, but they are.

Note that I also checked this out in the Bluefire Reader and Adobe Digital Editions versions, which are far better formatted but much less easy to read on a phone which is where I do most of my reading since I always have it with me. The problem with the PDF version though is that it's an exact copy of how the print version will look and people who know me will also know that I do not approve of the wasted space on these semi-academic print books.

Trees are the only entity on Earth which is actively engaged full time in combating the greenhouse gases causing climate change, so hacking them down to produce books is a thoroughly bad idea, and worse, not respecting the dead trees by leaving acres of white space on every page in a print book is a disgrace in my opinion. Naturally no one wants the entire page to be obliterated with densely-packed text! Readability alone requires some sort of intelligent formatting, but it's still not necessary to have massive margins and extra insert pages identifying part this and part that. Please! Respect the trees before it's too late for all of us.

Those are technical issues though that can be fixed, like, for example, the fact that the book description on Net Galley has the book title wrong! The title on the cover and the title of the page are correct, but the description thinks that the book title is: "Pyramidiots: How We Became Obsessed With Ancient Egypt." I prefer the actual title to that one. As far as the content of the text is concerned though, there's nothing wrong with it. I loved this book and I commend it unreservedly except for the Amazon edition!


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Electric War by Mike Winchell


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great audiobook read by Greg Tremblay. It appears to have no connection with the movie The Current War starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult. While they both cover roughly the same ground, they tell rather different stories, with the movie predictably focusing more on flash and drama, and the book going into some interesting detail without belaboring anything.

The story covers each of the main three men described in the subtitle: Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse, giving each a brief biography from birth until they came into the public light in the so-called "Race to Light the World," and then going into more detail about the interactions between the three of them as the contest between Edison's stubborn insistence upon the inadequate direct current as a power source on the one side, and Tesla and Westinghouse's goal of powering life with alternating current on the other side. Edison lost.

I've never been a big fan of Edison and did not come out of this liking him any more than I did to begin with, which is to say not much. I already liked Tesla, and I knew little about Westinghouse, but I grew to like and respect his abilities and conduct, except for the one instance where he really screwed Tesla out of a living. Tesla had generously agreed to give up his contract which was making him very wealthy, when Westinghouse was struggling financially, but Westinghouse never came back with a substitute offer when he was back on a sounder financial footing, despite Tesla once again helping him when it came to the Niagara falls project. Tesla's life was very sad and he deserved better than he got.

The book is educational and interesting and I commend it as a worthy read.


Sunday, May 17, 2020

Geist by Philippa Ballantine


Rating: WARTY!

I could not get into this. I made it through three chapters and it was unfurling so painfully slowly that I looked at it and the thought of suffering three hundred pages of this was too much. The author seems to be channeling Stephen King, but the fact is that if the only way you have to make your characters pop is to detail their life history even unto the third and fourth generation, then I'm sorry but you're doing it pedantically wrong.

The book description tells us that "The undead are here and only the Deacons stand in their way," but it really doesn't tell us a damned thing about who or what deacons are, how they get to be in such a position, and what they actually do. Everything is so unnecessarily mysterious and after three chapters of that, I was tired of not knowing anything./p>

These deacons are supposed to be "guardians against ghost possession," but the author never showed us what a deacon would do with one of these ghosts, or undead or whatever-the-hell-they-are. Instead we're introduced to the anomaly of a host of them without ever being shown what the norm is, so it really means nothing because we have nothing with which to compare it! This is the first book in a series, naturally, and that's the first problem because it means the author thinks she has four books at least to tell this story.

She really doesn't. If she fails to tell an engaging story in volume one, no one in their right mind is going to want to read further. So it sure doesn't mean that she can coast through the first volume without doing any work. I can't commend this based on what I suffered through.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, Mae Besom


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the other book I read by the artist Besom and writer Yamada. In this one, the story is again about a young kid who has this idea. It looks weird, and people point at it and make fun, claiming it will never go anywhere, but no matter what he does, the kid can't seem to shake it and this idea not only stays with him, it starts following him around everywhere!

I can relate to this big time! Once a story idea get into my head I have a hard time letting it go. Sometimes the idea is so bizarre, it's probably better to let it go, but if I did that with everything, I'd never have written Cloud Fighters or Cleoprankster. Of course there are also times when the idea just catches me in the right mood at the right time and I drop everything and run with it. Not that that typically gets me anywhere, but the exercise is good for me!

Printed in large format hardcover and with great big illustrations, this was another fine read from this pair, and I commend it.


What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada, Mae Besom


Rating: WORTHY!

It's time to look at a couple of print books I discovered (although I'm sure others discovered them before I!) that really were quite charming. Beautifully illustrated by Besom and written with passion by Yamada, the story here is about this young kid who espies a chance fluttering around him, but he's too afraid to take it.

Nervous, unsure, fearing of failure, he lets it go, and even though other chances come by, he grows very reticent to have anything to do with them, but then he begins to fear something worse: that no chance may fly his way again, so he resolves to grab the next one in both hands. What happens? Well, I guess you'd have to read the book to find out!

Printed in large format hardcover and with great big illustrations, this was a fine read and I commend it.


Gringo Love by Marie-Eve Carrier-Moisan, William Flynn, Débora Santos


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Subtitled "Stories of Sex Tourism in Brazil" this was written by William Flynn and illustrated by Débora Santos, and based on the research of Marie-Eve Carrier-Moisan. Published by the University of Toronto Press, this was a look at the delicate politics of 'women of the night' in city of Natal in northeast Brazil, who interact with European tourists in interesting ways that lie all around the blurry line of outright prostitution.

The book was based on real people and interviews the researcher had done with them, and although it was a graphic novel it actually wasn't graphic in a sexual sense; it merely depicted the kind of lives these women led and their aims and dreams. Is it worth noting that this did not pass the Bechdel-Wallace test when the aim of the book was expressly to discuss sex tourism? It's hardly a surprise that it failed, but I have to say that it would have been nice to have learned more about what these women aimed to get out of these relationships. It was touched on but only, it seemed, in passing.

The story is supported by extensive notes and references and contained a glossary of the Brazilian terms used by people in this life. The author of the story visited twice, one in the mid-oughts, and then more recently about six years ago, and the changes were marked. She couldn't even find many of the women who she'd talked to originally since they'd moved on or moved away.

The relationship between the sex tourists and the local women was an intricate dance and not all women viewed it in the same way or pursued it with the same steps and rhythms. There is a constant beat though, and that is the desire and need to escape the poverty trap far too many of these women are born into. Selling sex, or more reservedly, entering into a mutually profitable relationship with the male visitors wherein the guys get sex with able and attractive women and the women receive money or gifts in return, is a way these women have of raising themselves up.

Some of them look toward marrying a visitor, others look to saving money and getting a college education, and changing their life that way. But constantly in the background was the desire of some locals - mostly the ones who live in the alto district as opposed to the girls, who live in the Ville ghettos - to stamp out the sex tourism. The problem is that the protestors seemed to pursue this not only hypocritically, but mindlessly. They had no plan as to how to help the impoverished women once their rewards from their own enterprising endeavors petered out. This is why these protests are ultimately doomed to fail in my opinion.

This was a fascinating study and a novel representation of the results, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, even while feeling depressed that once again, we're seeing economic disparity causing serious problems that are not being intelligently addressed. I commend this as a worthy read.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Felix After the Rain by Dunja Jogan, Olivia Hellewell


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Written sensitively by Slovenian author Dunja Jogan who also illustrated this book, and translated into English by Olivia Hellewell, this is a story about carrying too much baggage, represented literally by poor Felix, who has this huge dark suitcase he feels forced to carry around with him, and every time something goes wrong, the weight of it gets worse, but as he travels, and worries he might not be able to pursue his dreams while dragging this heavy weight around with him, he learns that he can let his baggage go. It's a beautifully told story and finely illustrated, and I commend it as a worthy read.


The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a middle-grade novel set in Britain. I'm normally a bit biased toward such novels, and this one started out for me in great style, with Abi from one family, and Louis and Max from another being brought together into one big family when Abi's father Theo marries the boys' mother Polly. They move into a larger house, which has a lot of character and Abi finds that her immersion in novels becomes a little too literal. She'd be reading Kon-Tiki and the book would end up wet, with the water tasting of salt. She'd be reading about an Arctic adventure and almost get frostbite.

That would have been adventure enough, but there was also other stuff going on that seemed unconnected with Abi's experiences - like the large cat that young Louis encounters, or the paranoia that Max experiences, alongside his interest in this French art student who occasionally babysits. On top of that, Polly's work calls her away from home for a couple of weeks (I'm not sure why the author wanted her out of the way), and Theo it seems is hardly home, so the kids are left to their own devices a lot. At once there seemed to be both too much going on and not enough.

The story was going in so many different directions that things were becoming confused, and also being skipped: like how these kids were getting along given that one of them was entirely unrelated to the other two, and how little information is imparted about the books they're reading. The kids seemed to have no inner life, and the novel reached a stagnation point about halfway in. I began quickly to lose interest in it. It did not improve and I gave up on it at seventy percent out of sheer boredom.

Again, it wasn't written for me, and middle-graders might get more out of it than did I, but I've read and enjoyed many middle-grade level books and found them highly entertaining. This one wasn't in that category, and while I wish the author all the best in her career, I can't commend this particular novel as a worthy read.

Birds of a Feather by Vanita Oelschlager


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is described as "A Book of Idioms and Silly Pictures" and it certainly is! It takes some phrases that are so commonly used that people don't even think about them anymore, and takes them quite literally, so the dog, for example, really is barking up the wrong tree and the cat is quite happy about that! Ants in your pants doesn't make anyone happy, and goosebumps are just embarrassing!

I've enjoyed nearly all of the Vanita Oelschlager books that I've read, so I was happy to see this one available for review and I didn't regret it. It was fun, engaging, amusingly illustrated, and goofy enough to be entertaining as well as a little bit educational. I commend it as a worthy read.


But I Need Your Help Now! by Bryan Smith, Lisa M Griffin


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Illustrated in fine style by Lisa M Griffin, this book aims to teach younger children how to appropriately attract attention when they encounter a problem or need help. Young Isaac is in the second grade, and evidently his parents somehow failed him somewhere along the line, because he can't seem to determine how properly to attract attention when he needs it. Part of his problem is that e has trouble judging how critical a situation is. Naturally, everything is important to him, and when he's struggling at school with a math problem, he just yells out. Later he causes a problem at a store, but at school the next day when there's a real emergency, he tries following the patient procedures he was reminded of the previous day and still gets it wrong!

It's just not Isaac's day, but he learns. Each new situation is examined in Bryan Smith's steady text, and the appropriate course of behavior is highlighted. It turns out there isn't a fixed rule, and you have to make judgments on the fly! This is why it can be so trying for young children. Isaac finally begins to learn these important truths. The book explains simply and patiently and takes the reader through permutations, each of which is designed to teach a little something, adding up to a big something: an improvement in a child's behavior.

I first foolishly tried reading this on my phone where I read most of my books, but it was only available on the Kindle app. Why publishers of children's illustrated books make this insane choice, I do not know. Amazon's crappy ebook conversion process produces not a Kindle book, but Kindling! It mangles anything and everything that isn't plain vanilla text. This is one of many reasons why I personally boycott Amazon. Pictures are often cut up into shreds, but in this case, even on an iPad where there was more screen real estate, the Kindle app screwed-up everything. The pictures appeared with no text in them, and blank speech balloons, and the text was assembled above and below the image. Not all of the text is there. At one point I read, "Make eye contact, raise appropriate - approach." Raise appropriate what? I didn't find out that until I read the book in the Bluefire Reader app on my iPad, where it was rendered perfectly.

I commend this as a worthy read in everything except Kindle format!


The Secret Explorers and the Lost Whales by SJ King


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

The secret explorers are a group of young children who investigate the natural world and help right wrongs. It's a series, so not all the kids go on every mission. They each have specialties and are selected because of what they can bring to making the mission a success. In this one, my first encounter with this series, Connor and Roshni are the underwater crew investigating why a pod of humpbacks seem to have lost their way. In process of pursuing the investigation, they encounter problems and issues that need to be worked through, and learn things about ocean life.

I was disappointed in this book for two reasons. While I appreciate its aim of trying to engage young people in developing an awareness of the natural world and the human-caused problems it faces, the natural world really needs to be left alone. The problem isn't the natural world, it's decades of human callous indifference to it that has caused the problems, and this is where efforts need to be applied. A Band-Aid and an aspirin isn't going to work where major heart surgery is urgently required. And you know, there's not a lot of point in saving one pod of whales if the Japanese or American Indians are going to hunt and kill them anyway.

The other problem I had with this ebook is that it simply did not work. I'm talking technically here. The book hung up on me around fifty percent in and crashed the entire app. I tried it in two different apps: Bluefire Reader, and Adobe Digital Editions. Both of these normally work perfectly, but this book failed at the same point in both apps, which tells me it's the publication, not the app. Just now, before I finalized this review, I tried it once more on both of those apps and the book wouldn't even open in ADR. It hung up the app. In BFR, it opened, but immediately hung the app.<.p>

I don't know if it's the intention to put this out as an ebook, or if that's simply how review copies were distributed (for my sins, I'm not the sort of reviewer who gets the hardback copy!), but given the poor quality of the e-copy, which prevented me reading half of it, and my misgivings about the priorities being set in this story, I can't commend it as a worthy read. Your mileage may differ.


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Radical Wordsworth by Jonathan Bate


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
"He said that he would soon be was on his way to Coleorton." 'soon be was' is obviously wrong!

Published for the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth, this was a tome in which I felt very much at home because I grew up in and around many of the places mentioned here. I can only publish my review on the 210thanniversary of the poet's youngest son's birth, a child also named William, but that'll do, right?!

While I'm not much of a fan of poetry despite having published a book of verse and short stories myself, I am interested in the creative lives of artists, and also in life as it was lived by people in more primitive times. This book amply fed my interest on both scores. It was exhaustively researched, but not exhausting to read because the author knew when to share his research and when not to flood the reader in a showy, but unhelpful fashion.

Wordsworth was close friends with poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he of "Ancyent Marinere" fame, as well as a contemporary of many other well-known writers, such as Robert Southey, who Wordsworth, in later life, succeeded as poet laureate. The biography covers Wordsworth's entire life, his extensive travel, both in walking tours of England, and Scotland, and in his travels in Europe.

I had no idea he'd been such a rebel in his time, and especially no idea that the British government sent a spy to keep an eye on this radical - something which Wordsworth evidently found amusing. It also covers his close relationship with his sister Dorothy, who herself was no slouch with a pen. She's not the only female writer mentioned and some of those mentioned in passing in this book were interesting enough to me that I'm looking to find some of their material to read.

Call me mercenary, but personally I would have liked to have learned a little more about how Wordsworth paid his way in life. He received a substantial settlement on debt owed his family from the First Earl of Lonsdale, to the tune of some £4,000 which was a substantial sum back then. It ain't exactly chicken feed now! This money permitted Wordsworth to marry, but it didn't seem like it was enough of itself to keep him going throughout his life and permit raising several children.

He earned some money from his writing, but not as much as you might think, not when we learn for example, that when "The Lyrical Ballads was published by Longman and company in May 1807, in an edition of 1,000 copies, 230 of them were remaindered." He obviously did all right for himself, but he was hardly a sell-out artist. In passing, Lonsdale was of the lineage which lent its name to the boxing award - commonly known as the Lonsdale Belt, although it was the fifth Earl - much later in the lineage, who inaugurated the belt, not the one who paid Wordsworth.

Wordsworth did publish other work of course, and later in life he had official 'jobs' to do, which undoubtedly helped him financially, even as his writing star seemed to fade, but I found myself periodically wondering throughout my reading of this, how he could afford to keep moving his household, and to travel so much in Europe. How did he finance it?! Maybe he was very frugal?

That complaint aside though, it was fascinating to read of his adventures in France right in the midst of the revolution, and of his desire to be a journalist until a journalist friend of his was decapitated! He also spent time in Germany, and he engaged in a lot of walking tours in Britain. These stimulated his creative juices and inspired and fed a lot of his poems.

I was rather disturbed to read that "Back in 1803, William had left Mary, recuperating well from the birth of their first child, and gone on a Scottish tour in the company of Dorothy and Coleridge." That seems a bit callous, especially in an era where children died young quite often. Three of Wordsworth's children predeceased he and his wife, and two of those were very young when they died. I guess parental attitudes were different back then, with the female of the pair very much expected to stay home and care for the children while the male did whatever he wanted. I'd confess I'd hoped for more from Wordsworth!

But these are minor questions that crossed my warped and fervid mind as I read this. Overall, I was quite thrilled with it and enjoyed it very much. I commend it as a worthy read.


Monday, May 11, 2020

The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass by Adan Jerreat-Poole


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Adan Jerreat-Poole is, I believe, Canadian which may account for some of her "English" spellings of words in this novel - words like 'sombre' and 'glamours'. This shows my ignorance because I'd always thought that Canadians used American spellings. However, it's always good to read outside of one's comfort zone, especially since far too many novels published in the USA seem to take the position that it's the only country in the world and nothing of interest happens anywhere else! I beg to differ!

I liked this novel because it was operating outside the box and far from the beaten path. Far too many novels play it safe - clone someone else's work and turn it into a trilogy. I blame publishers for pushing this boring approach and writers for kow-towing to it. I love the ones which don't comply!

The story here is that Eli (not sure how it's pronounced: E-lie? Ellie?) is less of a person than an object - an assassin 'robot' almost, constructed by witches out of organic bits and inorganic bobs. She can pass through the vortex between the witches' world and the human world, and her 'job' is to take out ghosts. And I don't mean date them!

These ghosts are not the incorporeal remains of a dead human. They're wispy beings which are almost zombie-like in some respects, and which typically occupy a human body. They can't be seen by humans, and the witch powers-that-be detest them. Eli's maker, a witch who is growing in power and influence, hands out her assignments proudly because Eli is the best assassin. She has seven special knives that help her do her work to perfection, and she has never failed. Until she does. That's when things change.

It takes a while for Eli, who constantly grows and evolves throughout this story, to figure out exactly why the ghosts are a problem for the witches, and all the time she is learning and seeing her world in very broader strokes. She discovers she's in a much different world from the one she'd thought she was in. In pursuing her last assassination - the one mission that's doomed to fail - Eli encounters two people: Tav, a non-binary person who is a biker, and Cam, a gay cab driver. These two become close to her - the first people in the human world she's ever been drawn to.

I've seen some reviews of this novel that praise it for including genderqueer characters, but in some ways it's rather overdone here. It's not a problem that they're included, but that they risk overwhelming the story to the exclusion of all others. At times it starts to feel like there are only gender-queer people in this world.

To me, the way to fix a problem where the pendulum has been pushed too far and for too long in one direction isn't to push it forcibly and equally back in the opposite direction, but to weld it firmly in the middle so no one is cruelly excluded or artificially included ever again. As it happens, in this story it wasn't too intrusive despite Eli being apparently non-cis as well. Perhaps I didn't mind so much because I really liked Eli as a character. She's definitely one of my strong-female character icons.

I enjoyed the story and read it quickly. I liked the originality. I enjoyed the different take on witches and ghosts and the magnificent world-building. This was a tour-de-force of inventive thinking outside the box and it was a most welcome read. There were some technical issues no doubt caused by Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process. I'm not the kind of reviewer who gets to read a hardback print version, so I got the e-version and there was the trademark Kindle mangling in evidence here.

One classic example of this is the embedding of the page header (alternating title and author on even and odd pages) right into the text, so I would read, for example: "She clenched her hands. THE GIRL OF HAWTHORN AND GLASS Took a breath in." The way I avoid this in my own published work is never to include page headers or footers (including page numbers) in the version I'm using for ebooks. I don't even use the headers in the print book version. What, is your reader going to forget what they're reading? I have a little more faith in readers than that.

The book also contained some abstract images that were included between chapters and sometimes as section separators in the text. These images were apparently broken-up and turned into Kindling by Amazon as well, although without having seen the original images, it's hard to tell. In other instances of generic Kindle mangling, the text was missing a line break between speech from different characters, so I'd read it all on one line:
"Hey, it usually works like a charm." "I'll bet." Eli rolled her eyes."

And one final observation: I'm sure that even in Canada, there's a difference between staunch and stanch. I read, "Tav staunched the bleeding" but unless Tav was making Cam bleed in a loyal and committed manner, she didn't staunch it. She stanched it. I've seen this error increasingly in YA novels and I find it sad. The error was repeated later as "one hand staunching the flow of blood." Nope! Stanching! There was one lone error in spelling that I noticed: "you will owe use a thousand glamours," which I think should have read 'us' rather than 'use'. Presumably that sort of thing will be corrected before this is published officially.

But we've all been there and I'm not going to downgrade such a stellar book for some minor issues. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I commend it as a worthy read. I look forward to the next offering from this author.


The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith


Rating: WARTY!

Several years ago I tried reading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by this author and did not get along with it. I guess I picked up this book at the same time form the same close-out shelf! It's been sitting gathering dust and I finally decided to give it a try-out, without holding out too much hope. This book is part of a long series, so I guess it has a readership, but after sampling about a tenth of it, I can safely say that readership does not include me. I'm done with this series and this author.

This book had precisely three same problems the other one did in that it rambled incessantly, it insisted on using the full name of every character every single time they were mentioned, which was tedious, and the story simply didn't pull me in at all, so I gave up. The thin plot revolves around Mma Ramotswe worrying over her fiancé, Mr. JLB Matekoni not having set the date for their marriage yet, along with Mma Makutsi, Ramotswe's assistant, wanting a husband, on top of which, a rival detective agency has opened doors for business. It's not enough. I can't commend this based on the admittedly limited sampling of it I could stand to suffer.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar, Daniel Duncan


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a middle-grade book that amused the heck out of me just from the description. Written highly tongue-in-cheek by Tidhar, and with spot-illustrations by Duncan, this tale of a city in the grip of prohibition - of candy - had me smirking so much that it was painful to the face. Things have gone sour, with no chocolate, no licorice, no chewy toffee to be had! The new mayor banned it all three years ago and so of course, an elaborate smuggling operation has sprung up, with all the attendant bribery and corruption.

Not that any of this affects the main character, the honest and upstanding Nelle Faulker, a 12-year-old private detective who is out of work now school is out for the summer and no cases have been coming her way lately. She's a smartie and is sitting in her office (a shed in her back yard) when who should stop by, but Eddie de Menthe, one of the biggest candy-smugglers in town. Eddie has a serious problem - he's lost his teddy-bear.

Nelle takes the case, and even though she smells a rat - or is it a chocolate bunny? - in her sweet innocence, she has no idea what she's getting herself into. Has Nelle been taken for an all-day sucker? No! Trust me when I say she's no marshmallow. She has encounters with the other two big candy smugglers in town: The Sweetie Pies, and Waffles Mackenzie. She also learns of the Big Five Families, and becomes concerned when Eddie disappears like sherbet dip from a punctured bag!

What's going on here? What's the secret of the shut-down chocolate factory and where did the owner Mr Farnsworth vanish to? Why was Nelle's office turned over? What were they looking for? Who is behind all this? Can the cops even be trusted? Will Mayor Thornton get re-elected and continue the candy ban? Just in passing, Thornton's is a brand of particularly delicious toffee in Britain. And most important of all: just what does it mean to be a gum shoe in a candy-apple world?!

All of this and more is answered as this sly romp takes us through the gangster world where the author treats the story just seriously enough to make it even more amusing, and where Nelle proves herself to be one tough cookie. She's as sticky as salt-water taffy when it comes to a case, and she's definitely one of my strong female heroes. I can't say it was a sweet read without getting into trouble with Mayor Thornton, but I will say this book gives a reader lots to chew on, and I commend it highly.


The Truth-Teller's Tale by Sharon Shinn


Rating: WARTY!

You know there was nothing outright bad about this novel, but there was nothing great about it either, and in the end, that was the problem. It was bland to the point of pointlessness. I read it very nearly all the way through - all except for the last few pages and by then I had begun to seriously resent the time I'd wasted on this when I could have been reading something more memorable and engaging. As it was, it was not even really a story; it was just a meandering ramble that really had nowhere to go, but downhill.

The problem was that it so quickly became perfectly obvious exactly what was going to happen, who the mysterious visitors were, and where everyone would end up. If you're going to tell such an obvious story, then you at least need to spice it up a bit with some misdirection and red herrings. The author never did. I don't know if she was foolish enough to believe that no-one could see the glaringly obvious truth (in a novel where 'truth teller' is part of the title!), or if she understood that and simply didn't care, but the fact that it was so painfully obvious to the reader, and yet not a single one of the three main female characters even had a clue, tells me that this author evidently delights in writing about truly stupid female characters. Why female authors do this to their characters I do not know, but it happens a lot and it always pisses me off.

The story is set in a sort of medieval world where there are three kinds of gifted people, all of whom seem to be female for some reason. One of these kinds is the wish-granter. She has the power (so-called) to grant any wish, but since we later learn that she has no power to choose which wishes are granted and which are not, it rather neuters her power, and renders it completely random.

The other two kinds of people are represented by the mirror twins who are the main characters. That is, they are identical if one is seen directly, and the other seen in a mirror reflection. The have the palindromic names of Adele and Eleda - something that was again obvious from the start, and while the reader has the advantage of seeing the names in print which makes it a bit easier than if we'd simply heard them, it's not impossible to figure it out. Yet no one ever does! Maybe it's just that the whole city is stupid?

One of the twins is compelled always to tell the truth. She has the power to discern truth about a person and typically cannot prevent herself from speaking it. The other has the seemingly pointless power of never revealing a secret. It's quite literally impossible for her to tell a secret that's been shared with her Again, that power seems a bit dumb, but because she is so similar to her sister, there is the quirk that sometimes someone who thinks they're sharing a secret that will never be passed on, makes a mistake and speaks it to the truth-teller. This plays such a small part in the story that it seems pointless, but it does again illustrate how dumb these people are.

That was the whole problem with this: the pointlessness of it. There really wasn't a story here to tell. There was never any adventure, never anything at risk, never any great revelation, never anything unpredictable, never any thrill or danger, and never any real romance or heartbreak for that matter. It was bland to the point of being tasteless and I cannot commend it as a worthy read. It's the middle book in a trilogy. I hadn't read the first, and it's not necessary; they're stand-alones it would seem, but I'm done. I have no desire to read any more of this trilogy or or any other Sharon Shinn novel. This is the second work of hers that I've been disappointed with and the thought of reading anything else by her now just leaves me cold.


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Greta Thunberg by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Anke Weckmann


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I've adored Greta Thunberg (the 'h' is silent) ever since I first heard about her, and this book tells a fine and inspiring story of the difference a lone young girl can make if she has a cause and some determination.

At the age of fifteen - just two short years ago - and after learning about the sad state of the environment, Greta began a lone vigil outside the Swedish parliament with a sign, 'Skolstrejk för klimatet' (School strike for climate), and her vigil caught on, becoming a major movement.

She reached a point of notoriety where she was able to cross the Atlantic on wind and solar-powered boats (she refuses to fly because of climate impact) and speak to world leaders about how climate change was going to impact hers and future generations.

This book is a great introduction to what one person can do and to what might happen if we all don't do something. I commend it as a worthy read.


Jesse Owens by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Anna Katharina Jansen


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Jesse Owens was someone deserving of the sobriquet 'legend' but somehow, he was forgotten far too soon to enjoy it. had he been white, that might not have happened, but had he been white, his blazing trail across the athletic world would carry far less weight than it does.

Something this book doesn't make clear is that his actual name was James Cleveland Owens. He went by 'JC', but when he was inducted into his new school, the person writing down the names didn't understand him and thought he was saying 'Jesse'. The name stayed with him ever since.

He grew up in a large family - ten children, which is far too many for poor parents to support, but had he never been born he could never have made the impact he did. He was notable for his running speed even at an early age, and his gym teacher was so impressed with him that he allowed him special training privileges so he could fit his athletics in alongside his work - work that was necessary to help support his family.

He became renowned in his own lifetime after he set three world records and tied another at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, something that's been described as "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport" and which has never been repeated by anyone.

Perhaps his biggest triumph was sticking it to Adolf Hitler at the 1938 Olympics. While the dictator of the Aryan race, who considered black people to be inferior, sat and watched, Owens won four gold medals. Hitler couldn't even take pride in the fact that in an early case of sponsorship, Owens was wearing German running shoes made by the founder of the Adidas athletics-wear company!

This was an intriguing and educational book for young kids, and I commend it fully.


Jean-Michel Basquiat by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Luciana Lozano


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I've read a good many of these mini-biographies for children, and enjoyed nearly all of them. This one is no exception. It tells the story of this renowned American artist of artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent.

Illustrated nicely by Lozano, the book covers the growth of the artist from his early days drawing at the age of four, through his introduction to human anatomy via a book he read when he was sick one time, to his rebels years, and his later collaborations with Andy Warhol. Even someone who died tragically young can have a lasting influence on what comes later.


Mountains by Charlotte Guillain, Chris Madden


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

It's unfortunate to be reviewing this when a soldier is missing, not many miles from here at Fort Hood, who shares a very similar last name to the author. The book though is nothing to do with the military. It takes an interesting idea and runs with it with great success.

The perspective of the environment and wildlife as viewed from the summit and environs of some of the world's most impressive mountain ranges is a good one, and it's pleasing to see that this book doesn't forget, as so many do, that there is, believe it or not, a vast world outside of the borders of the USA.

Illustrated beautifully by Madden, the book begins in the Himalayas, a name taken from the Sanskrit meaning simply, the abode of snow. We learn as we visit each new locale, how it quite literally arose, and what lives there, and how magical the engagingly differing coloration is between the animal life, the plant life, the water sources, and even the very rocks themselves. We also learn what climate change is doing to all this planetary glory.

From there we move to Iceland, land of ice and fire, and thence to the Alps, home of a poisonous salamander! We zoom across to the Andes, which are on the end of the Wristies...just kidding. But we do visit the Andes and say "Hi!" to the vividly pink flamingos and the superior-looking if slightly lazy appearing vizcacha. From there it's on to Japan and the majestic Mount Fuji.

Afterward we visit the Rockies and the amazing assortment of birds as well as the beautiful blue of a glacial lake. If you find this stunning, then prepare to be over-stunned when we end up at the rainbow rocks of northwest China, which is, I have to say, is perhaps the only environment that the artist does not do justice to. Although, to be honest you'd have to be a candy manufacturer to really do justice to the amazing rainbow rocks.

The book was entertaining, educational, beautifully written and illustrated, and a fine introduction to these widely-varying slices of life and environments on Earth. There's also a heart-rending appeal at the end from the author to protect our mountains. While the mountains are solid and seem in no need to protection from anyone, the environments they support are fragile. I hope everyone feels the way the author does, or will soon come to do so. I commend this as a worthy read.


Saturday, May 2, 2020

Love Your Body by Jessica Sanders, Carol Rosetti


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a great book about body positivity for young women. The illustrations by Rosetti were exquisite and the text was positive, affirming, and smart. I would have liked to have seen something about exercise and diet in here, but it really didn't go that far. And by diet, I do not mean idiotic and ultimately useless schemes to 'lose pounds'. I mean nothing more than healthy eating.

One of the most crucial things about body positivity is taking positive care of your body regardless of how you feel about it or what shape it's in when you decide you're finally going to take charge of your life. An important part of loving yourself is taking care of yourself and I wish more books of this nature would make that point more forcefully.

That's my only complaint though. That and maybe a warning about mega-corporations owned by old white men who think they are somehow gifted arbiters of how young women ought to look, dress, shave, think, and make-up their faces!

Everything else about this book I loved! The illustrations made it clear that everyone was included, no matter their height, weight, skin color, religious beliefs, body shape, or physical abilities. It offered useful suggestions on how to approach those negative thoughts we all have from time to time, and ways to combat them, and it offered some contact information in the back in case you need it. But the real message here is that you got this! You're in charge. You can do it. And I believe that. I commend this book as a worthy read.


Mini Chibi Art Class by Yoai


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Chibi is Japanese slang for 'short' and it can be both endearing when used with a loved one, or an insult when used inappropriately, so be careful how you employ the term! Here it's used to signify a particular type of art which appears in Japanese manga.

This book sets out to teach the techniques and in my opinion it succeeds. It begins with a brief survey of art materials, and gets quickly onto the basics - designing your character's pose and setting out proportions, and capturing motion. Later it covers lighting and blending colors.

It covers facial features: eyes, nose, mouth, as well as hair design, before leading into specific character creations one for each month of the year!) which you can follow along and draw your own version. It covers even more fantasy-like characters under 'chibi beasties' and it has a section on clothes, props, and accessories.

This was a great book with some really good art, and invaluable instruction for anyone who wants to get into this kind of illustration. I commend it as a worthy read.


Learn to Draw (Almost) Anything in 6 Easy Steps by Rich Davis


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a great little book for anyone who's nervous about even getting started with drawing. This literally does what it says and will show you how to get up and running in drawing simple cartoon figures of (almost) anything. The figures are so simplified and laid out in such easy steps that anyone can do it.

The sections cover dogs, cats, cows, turtles zebras, dinosaurs, birds, fish, flowers, buildings, machines and people, so there's something for every situation, and once you get the hang of these, you can doubtlessly invent your own techniques for anything that's not covered here. I commend this as a useful tool and a worthy read.


Drawing and Painting Expressive Little Faces by Amarilys Henderson


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a pretty neat book solely dedicated to drawing and coloring faces and hair. I loved the title! The faces are varied, amusing, and interesting. They're not photo-realistic, nor are they caricatures or cartoonish. They're somewhere in between, and the book shows how to create them and what techniques to use.

It begins with materials - paint, ink, pencils, brushes and paper, and moves on to a consideration of facial shapes and proportions, and where to place the features, and not only for a face looking squarely at the viewer, but for faces at assorted angles. There are several pages devoted to eyes and eyebrows, and how to place the highlight in the eye. There are several more pages on noses and mouths, and more on developing facial expressions. In short there's a lot to learn and nothing missed, with lots of tips and good advice along the way.

I commend this as a useful and worthy read.


Craft Lab for Kids by Stephanie Corfee


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was another fun crafts/art book for young kids, with over fifty projects in it, ranging from from a secret fake book treasure stash, to faux embossed leather cuffs, marbled paper note-cards, photo-transfer memory box, shrink plastic charm bracelet, jiggly soap, sleep mask, hand-tied art journal, painted positivity pebbles, pressed flower stickers, DIY stress balls and apple backyard bird-feeder.

Each section gives step-by-step instructions each with a photographic illustration on how to perform that step. More complex work, such as the mini-wall weaving have even more detail, so you can't go wrong. The book was interesting, literally packed with ideas, and quite engaging. I commend it as a worthy read.


Backward Science by Clive Gifford, Anne Wilson


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

The title to this book is rather misleading in two ways because for one, there's nothing backward about it really. There are almost thirty sections which deal with advances in science or, mostly, with inventions. They begin with asking what life was like before the discovery, and how the change came about and was developed. The other way is that it's less about science per se, than it is about invention.

The chapters are short but fascinating, and they cover a wide variety of topics, from smart phones and DNA profiling, to assembly lines and gunpowder, and textiles and steam trains. The book doesn't shy away from naming the inventors, so we see, unusually, several women mentioned as well as some people of color. Unfortunately people of color do not appear in the illustrations very much. Those consist mostly of white folk. I'm not sure why.

Some of the inventors might not seem familiar to you, for example if you think that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb (nope!), or that William Hoover invented the vacuum cleaner. Nope. Had the original inventor of a practical home vacuum cleaner not sold everything to Hoover, we might well be spangling the rug today, not hoovering it!

This book was fun, knowledgeable, and nicely-illustrated by Wilson. I commend it as a worthy read.


Art Workshop for Children by Barbara Rucci, Betsy McKenna


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book's aim is "to Foster Original Thinking with more than 25 Process Art Experiences," 'process art' being the work itself rather than any specific end result. Art for art's sake, you might say. The book was smart and fun, with a lot of images to illustrate the text and some of the cutest quotes from the young children who participated in various activities.

The book begins before any children are on the scene, discussing the kind of area that works best for the artistry to take place in, and the kind of supplies and materials that might be needed or useful, including the indispensable art cart!

Next up is the detailing of the 25 or more art projects which include frame paintings, muffin tin prints, cotton swab mini watercolors, self portraits where you paint the kids face and then slap paper on it, peel it off, and see how it looks...I'm just making that up! There's not such thing in this book! It does cover self-portraits though, along with paper bag collage painting, still life with a donut (I am not making that one up!), paint mixing, folder paper art, cardboard box robots, milk carton houses, tree branch painting and a host of others.

The projects don't have a specific end point. They're about the doing, the experience, the learning. Of course there is an end result, but whether or not the result is what was aimed at is far less important than the journey there - working with the paint and materials and enjoying the trip.

This book was fun and educational, and it has some really good advice about process art, and kids just plan having fun in a stimulating and fruitful environment. I commend it.


Nasla's Dream by Cecile Roumiguiere, Simone Rea


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

When I was a kid, me and my younger brother slept in bunk beds, with him on the top one. One night I was lying awake when something dropped to the floor, and I reached to pick it up thinking it was one of his plush toys that had fallen down, but the thing reared up. It freaked me out until I realized it was the cat which had evidently been up there on his bunk and just jumped down. Way to weird out a young kid!

Nasla has a similar problem and she never does discover what it is, but in this book aimed at reassuring young children that the things which might give them some cause for fear at night are not really fearful at all, some equally strange things take place.

Lying in bed in the dark and decidedly not going to sleep, Nasla is concerned about this little yellow circle of light on top of her wardrobe, which is where she keeps her old toys now she's feeling grown up. So is this light coming from her elephant? Her broken hippo? Is it somehow caused by moonlight? The more Nasla contemplates it, the more fantastical are the images that go through her mind and her ideas about how she might ease not her own fears, but those of her toys.

Eventually, of course she does fall asleep and that's when we readers discover what it was. I enjoyed this book, and the imagery, artistry, and imagination that went into creating it. I commend it as a worthy read.


Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez, Seng Soun Ratanavanh


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Charmingly written by Galliez and illustrated beautifully by Ratanavanh, this children's book - apparently part of a series - has Miyuki finding her grandfather exercising with Tai Chi in the garden. Being an inquisitive child, she immediately peppers him with questions.

He answers them all patiently if not always directly, and when he moves on to meditation, Miyuki is anxious to join him - if only she can figure out what it is. Her grandfather patiently leads her through the garden looking at various things and contemplating them. In doing this he is showing her how he meditates rather than explaining it to her.

Miyuki's grandfather's idea of meditation is evidently not so much of the transcendental kind as it is of the kind promoted by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius when he wrote: "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" In doing this she learns a greater appreciation of the natural world and learns to look around her and discover for herself rather than simply seek pat answers from others.

I found this book delightful and relaxing, and I commend it as a worthy read for young children.


One Foot in the Grave by Jeaniene Frost


Rating: WARTY!

I'm not a big fan of vampire stories because they're largely all the same and larded with trope and cliché, and this novel is a classic example of why I find them typically lacking when it comes to engaging my mind.

This is volume 2 of the "Night Huntress" series. I'm not a series fan either, with very few exceptions, but this has been on my print book shelf for a while. I started reading it a long time ago and never finished it - and I could not for the life of me recall what it was about - never a good sign! I decided to give it one more try before ditching it, and I made it about a third the way through before I couldn't stand to read any more.

This had several strikes against it before I began. The first is that it's written in worst person voice - i.e. first person. A while back, I summarily removed all such books from my print collection because I was so sick and tired of reading first person novels. I kept this one only because I'd already stated reading it, and I wanted to try to finish it.

The other issue I had up front with this is the silly naming conventions for the novels. I see this repeatedly in series and it's a major turn-off for me. They typically have the main character sporting an idiotic name, and then they incorporate that name into every title. I deplore those books and avoid them on principle.

Again, this was already on my shelf and 'in progress' so to speak, so it didn't get purged on that score either, but it employs another version of that tiresome trope naming convention, determined to include the word 'grave' in the title no matter how ridiculous it makes the title seem. In this case, the first volume was Halfway to the Grave the third was At Grave's End. Neither of these are a thing. I guess the author and/or publisher think their readers are idiots and so they have to whack them over the head with the dumb titled which is just another way of saying, "Hey, idiot, this is another in my series."

The story features a "half-vampire" (whatever the hell that means) who goes by the tiresomely unoriginal name of 'Cat Crawfield'. Taking a page straight out of Marvel's "Blade" she was born of a woman who was pregnant when she was bitten, and now this resulting daughter has vampire traits without being an actual vampire. I guess that makes her, like the story itself, half undead. She works for the government, taking down vampires and is supposed to be the best there is, but this lie is revealed with most everything she does. If she's the best, I'd love to see the worst in a comedy novel.

The problem is that this is just another Twilight, with Cat/Isabella or whatever that girl's name was being in thrall to Edward - or in the case of this novel, 'Bones' as he's called. Seriously, what self-respecting woman would fall in love with a vampire, and especially one named Bones? Anyway, despite her supposed ferocity and detestation of vampires, she's completely and irremediably in love with a vampire herself, and she's so weak she cannot resist him for anything.

She even lied to her employers that he was dead. That's the kind of integrity she has. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw that motorbike she's sitting on in the cover illustration: the one that she never actually rides in the novel. Why would she even need a motorbike when she can apparently run at eighty miles about an hour? How the physics of that works I have no idea. Nor does the author, evidently. And of course, Cat is so weak that when she's "targeted for assassination, the only man who can help her is the vampire she left behind." Why isn't that a surprise?

I don't like female authors who make their female main characters dumb and weak so they can shoe-horn them into a trope a co-dependent relationship with a macho guy. It's insulting, and this story was just too damned dumb and clichéd for me. I can't commend it.


The Math(s) Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age by Conrad Wolfram


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

At one point in this book, the author writes, "When I started this journey, I thought there would be a huge amount of straight hostility. So far, I've found confusion predominates instead." Having read a substantial portion of it before giving up on it, I can only agree.

The book is written by the younger brother of the creator of the Mathematica software, and given that this very software is mentioned more than thirty times throughout the text, I had to wonder if this really is nothing more than an extended sales pitch for said software. The truth is that I honestly cannot say because despite the book being billed as "a groundbreaking book that exposes why math education is in crisis worldwide and how the only fix is a fundamentally new mainstream subject" I could not for the life of me, despite several searches throughout the book, discover what it is that the author proposes to replace traditional math teaching with.

That said, I must confess that I gave up on it about 25% of the way in. The book really dragged. Instead of launching into the new ideas from the outset, the author requires that we spend fully a quarter of the book listening to him waffling on about the problem without really telling us anything. I agree with him that the math we teach these days has little to do with most people's real-world experience of or need for it. The simple solution to that is to teach less of it and more of what people do need!

The language of this book is a bit high level, too. I wasn't sure who the author's intended audience was supposed to be, but given the college-level language he uses, it's definitely not the stereotypical 'man (or woman) in the street'. I didn't have too much trouble understanding most of it, but the writing was very dense, and quite academic in tone. I listened to it (read by my iPhone's Voice Over software) on the commute to and from work each day, and on the morning I decided to give up on it, and the reason I quit was because I realized that I had not understood a single word he'd written in some twenty-five minutes of driving.

This was not because I was too focused on traffic. The streets are largely devoid of traffic when I drive in to work, and I typically have no problem driving safely and hearing what my book or novel of choice is all about as I drive. That morning was a huge fail in this regard, and it's solely because of the high-falutin' language he used.

I read scores of books of all types, and have college-level education, and while it was not wholly impenetrable, this book was far too dense for my taste. He could have eased this quite readily by employing more everyday language, but his attitude seemed to be "why use 'used' when you can write 'utilized'"?! I can't take anyone seriously who regularly writes 'utilized'. For a book that claims to be clearing the cobwebs out of mathematics, perhaps his first step should have been to clear the cobwebs out of his writing, and write at a level that's easy for your average reader to grasp? Just a thought!

Just so you know it's not only me, I pasted the first 600 or so words from the first chapter into an online readability app, and these were the results:

  • Flesch Reading Ease score: 39.1 (difficult to read)
  • Gunning Fog: 17.2: (difficult to read)
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 14.1 (College)
  • The Coleman-Liau Index: 13 (College)
  • The SMOG Index: 12.4: (Twelfth Grade)
  • Automated Readability Index: 15.6 (College graduate)
  • Linsear Write Formula : 17.3 (College Graduate and above)
So: not aimed at Jo Average! But it wasn't just the level of the language, it was the jargon employed. The word, 'computational' for example appears over 400 times. Here are a few examples, and no, I did not bookmark these at the time (driving!) I just went to random places in the book, and swiped a page or two in one direction or another, and sure enough there was a phrase right there. It's not hard to find them:

"Nor do they provide an appropriate structure for so doing, though in some cases they're complementary outcomes lists and can usefully coexist with outcomes for core computation."

"...that's nullifying the point of having a machine do it instead..."

"...indeed, that the rationale is not orchestrated for practical application distinguishes the discipline..."

"One of the drivers for this is the aforementioned problem of traditional outcomes listings being per maths tool, where our outcomes map instead reflects a distillation of substructure..."

"...not pre-abstracted calculation problem segments..."

"...with respect to a a (sic) core computational curriculum change..."

If only some of this had been rendered into more everyday language it would have improved readability immensely. But this was not the worst problem for me.

The real problem I had was that I really wanted to know what his alternative was, and beyond a vague idea that it seems to involve using computer software, I could glean no idea from the opening portion of the book, and nothing from skimming through and doing some reading in later sections to see if it's explained anywhere at all. I confess it's entirely possible, not having read the whole thing, that I could well have missed it, but I could not for the life of me find anywhere where the author says, 'this is what I propose' or words to that effect and lays out a summary of the new plan. The fact that this book has no contents page did not help in my forlorn quest to get to the 'core computation' (to use a phrase of the author's) and find out what he would like to see as the future of math education. To me that was a serious failing.

Given how tedious it was to read this, and how the author himself seemed curiously loathe to share his plan with the reader, I can't in good faith commend this as a worthy read. The problem seemed to be that he was preaching to the choir for the first quarter of the book. If the language had been simplified a bit, and he'd ditched that first 25% and launched right into it, assuming his readers were interested not in the sorry history of math education, but in discovering what his new proposal was, he would have made a better impression on me. But if his only plan is to sell the Mathematica software to every student at eighty bucks a year, then this seems a little self-serving to me. Maybe he had some other plan; I can't say because I couldn't find out what his plan was!


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Copy Boy by Shelley Blanton-Stroud


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I made it about fourth-fifths the way through this. In the end I was driven away from it for several reasons, not least of which was because the story seemed to drag, and it went frequently off at inexplicable tangents that always made me feel like I'd missed something, somewhere in the text.

It started out a bit confusing and a bit boring frankly, in a chapter that dragged on for twenty pages or so. To me it felt like that part ought to have been told in brief flashbacks or better, in brief flashes of memory of earlier events, triggered by things the main character sees and does in the present. I'd rather that than have had all these pages devoted to it. I'm not a fan of flashbacks at all, nor am I a fan of prologues, and this felt like a too-long prologue.

Despite this disappointment, I decided to press on because the premise of the story appealed to me, but though I stayed with it and it improved to begin with, it went downhill again, and then picked back up, and so on, so for much of the novel it felt like I was riding a reading roller-coaster in terms of how much the novel alternately engaged and bored me. I liked it best then the main character was interacting with "Sweetie" and "Rivka" the two girls Jane, aka Benny, lives with when she first arrives in San Francisco. This part of the story was far too quickly over with for me.

This frequent readjusting from one locale to another was part of the story, but it made it feel a bit disjointed, like it was more than one story about more than one person. Paradoxically, despite this, we got little sense that Jane had moved from the country to a big city. There was no real world-building to speak of, so the action could have taken place anywhere, and Jane adapted so readily to big city life and taking cabs, handling money, and drinking with the boys, and so on, that it felt completely unreal. Everything came far too easily for her.

Jane started out as a strong character, who was interesting and who was someone I wanted to root for, but at other times, and increasingly, she made stupid decisions for no good reason that I could see. She also had a lot of sheer luck in the investigation she was pursuing - far more than was reasonable, which stretched credibility too much for my taste. In the end she became an unpredictable loose cannon doing things which made no sense to me at all, and she quickly lost me as a fan. She came off as really flighty and I lost interest in reading any more about her.

For most of the story she's disguised as a young man and pursuing a career such a young man might pursue, and it seems like too quickly she forgets she's really a girl, so we get very little of her insights into how her life differs now compared with what it was before, and given her impoverished roots and the superficial change of gender on top of that, there were such huge differences between how she had grown up and how she was living now that it didn't make sense she would have so few observations to share about it. There was a major disjunction between the two lives she led, and her serious lack of any real reaction to it felt completely wrong.

Things in her life seemed to fall into place without any real effort on her part, and the story she pursues at the newspaper doesn't always make sense to the reader. At least it didn't to me. I mean, the overall story made sense, but the details of how she put it together seemed completely haphazard to me. It feels like successful leaps are being taken in her investigation without the author sharing much about how she makes those leaps. Either that or I wasn't following the story as well as I ought to have been for one reason or another.

Jane wasn't the only one whose life made little sense though. Both Sweetie and Rivka are two of the other characters who could have been really interesting, but their behavior didn't seem to follow any rational trajectory, and neither does Mac's. He's Jane's too-easy route into the newspaper business. Additionally we seem to have Robert Oppenheimer - the nuclear physicist - introduced into the story for no good reason! How or why that came to be I know not. In the end then, this story had too much and not enough and I could not enjoy it, so I cannot commend it as a worthy read.