Friday, May 14, 2021

Burt the Beetle Doesn't Bite! by Ashley Spires

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a cute, colorful, and educational look at an insect: a June beetle. The idea here is that insects have superpowers, but Burt has none. He doesn't seem to be able to emulate anything other insects famously do - like carry many times his own weight, or flying super-fast. But when it comes down to it, he finds he can use what attributes he does have to help his friends.

The story was great and I commend it fully. The ideas were fun and interesting, the story taught something while not making it feel like a lesson, and the artwork was engaging.

Kyle's Little Sister by BonHyung Jeong

Rating: WARTY!

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

I haven't reviewed a graphic novel in a while and I'm sorry it was this one I'm reviewing after the hiatus, because I did not like it. It's really a manga, and those are not my favorite format even though this one reads left to right rather than 'backwards' as many of them do.

The artwork was perfectly fine (although quite often features were missing from faces), but a major problem was that every frame in every panel looked far too busy, and many were larded with stars and other symbols which distracted from the rest of the art, and most importantly from the dialog. That said, the dialog wasn't exactly stellar.

The biggest problem was the titular character, Kyle's Sister, whose name is Grace. I normally have issues with stories where the title describes a female as some sort of dependent or appendage of some guy ("The Time Traveler's Wife" 'the King's daughter' and so on). It's insulting to women to use titles like that, and I should have enforced my own guidance this time. More fool me for letting it slide!

Mistakenly, I thought that Grace might offer something of a strong female character to root for, and that she'd prove her mettle in coming out of Kyle's shadow, but she came across as miserable and whiny, and griping and uninteresting, and the focus of the girls in her sphere was entirely on boys - like these women had no agency of their own, and were essentially there to please guys or to pick up guys, or to validate guys, or whatever. This is how male writers preponderantly tend to depict females and it's truly sad. Again, it was insulting and it meant that the entire story was nothing more than an extension of the title: rather than a liberation, it was a subjugation.

I DNF'd this a little over a third of the way in because it was not doing the job and was insulting and badly-written. I can't commend it.

The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston

Rating: WARTY!

I love the Welsh accent and I enjoyed listening to the reader, Marisa Calin's understated voice in this audiobook, but no matter how sweet her voice was, and it was honeyed, it couldn't make up for a ponderous plot that seemed to be going nowhere even during those rare times when it was actually moving. I was quite engrossed in the story to begin with, but by the time I got halfway through and still nothing really interesting was happening, I couldn't stand the lethargy and inertia anymore, and I ditched the book in favor of something that actually interested me.

So, the story! Tilda Fordwells is an albino woman (why, we never get to learn - maybe just to make her stand out?) who is somehow tied to another albino witch and seer who lived in this same area of Wales in the tenth(?) century. The story is told in two pieces - third person present: Tilda Fordwells, and first person present, but in the past: Seren Arianaidd. To me this is annoying, although for the sake of enjoying this story I let it slide, but to me it seems wrong. I am not a fan of first person at all, but the Tilda story, if the author had to do this, should have been the first person present, and the Seren part should have been in third person past. It made no sense, ass-backwards as it was.

Tilda moves into a home she was going to share with her husband, but he died in a vehicle accident a year prior to the story beginning. Tilda starts having visions of an ancient people and a ghoulish presence. Meanwhile, there's an archaeological dig going on over on this island in the middle of the lake nearby where she lives, and a grave is uncovered with two bodies. It seems obvious who the bodies are: Seren's rival for the Prince's love, named Wenna (spelling uncertain - audiobook!) and her scheming brother, and Princess Wenna who is now out for revenge on Seren's modern ancestor, which was a bit unoriginal and pathetic, and the haunting part of the story made little sense.

The real problem though, was the Quaalude pacing of the story and the endless repetitive detail. We were treated to Tilda and Seren's every random thought and mundane action like it was some miraculous event worth witnessing and deliberating over repeatedly. No, it wasn't, and what was a minor irritation to begin with became a serious impediment to focusing on the story.

After listening to half of this novel, carried largely by Calin's voice and barely at all by the story, I reached a point where I simply didn't care what became of any of these people and ditched it. I could listen to Calin forever, but not if she's reading this stuff! I started re-watching Torchwood for my Welsh accent fix and the truth is I like Gwen Cooper far more than ever I could like Seren or Tilda!

Replay by Trevor Morris

Rating: WARTY!

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

This story was truly badly-written and I DNF'd it at a third of the way through because I had no idea what was happening and it was so far from the book description as to be completely misleading. The description promised that this guy Alex, transported to the future and the very apocalypse he wrote about in his best-selling graphic novel, comes back to the present time to try and stop the fated events, and no one believes him, but by one third the way through, he was still in the future, randomly (it seemed to me) moving around, with no purpose and no plan, and the people who were supposed to be educating him as to what was happening and how to stop it were offering no help at all.

On top of this, the future made no sense at all, because it was like the past. I know there had been some event (unspecified at a third in), which had set society back considerably, but though they spoke in modern lingo, they had weapons like it was the dark ages. I find it hard to believe, even in an apocalypse, that no one would have any guns at all. It made zero sense. There are guns galore all over the place and they would be freely available with all the ammunition you could want after an apocalypse. Swords, and bows and arrows on the other hand, are relatively rare, particularly swords, so where the hell did all that come from? Again, it made no sense.

The more I read of this, the more it seemed to me that the author hadn't really thought any of it through, and worse, it was written not like a novel, but like it was a clichéd manga or a cartoon strip which constantly kicked the reader out of suspension of disbelief. This was more like an unrealized idea than ever it was a novel.

The main character had got his graphic novel from information that this woman had put into his mind, and there was a sequel to the story, but the big question was: why had they given him the post-apocalyptic story and a sequel to that, neither of which helped him, instead of giving him the pre-apocalyptic story which would have actually helped him prevent it? Again, it made no sense. Alex was supposedly the author of this (or more accurately, the voice of it), yet he seemed completely lost in this world he (thought) he'd created, and he was utterly useless. That made no sense either.

I was psyched by the book description, but the novel itself seems like a different story to what was promised, and the writing is poor and very choppy. Some of the speech is in block caps for no apparent reason. This is like shouting, which is normally conveyed by telling the reader that someone shouted it, or by maybe putting the text in proper case. I didn't get the point of the block caps. This is not a comic book!

Often a speech was simply “HUGHGHGHGHGHG,” which I discovered, after a few of these, was meant to signify groaning or some sort of agonized vocalization. It was amateur and confusing. I honestly had zero interest in the story or any of the characters, and after that first third I felt I’d given it way more of a chance to engage me than it deserved. I can't commend it.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Python for MBAs by Mattan Griffel, Daniel Guetta

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Erratum: "We're return to this in a second" (We'll return...)

This was an impressive introduction to Python and quite the polar opposite of the confusing and unhelpful volume on Python which I reviewed earlier this month. This one did the job right and led into the topic with clear and simple terminology and examples. It explained everything as it went and offered lots of support and practice without overdoing it.

It's split into two sections. The first, by Griffel, in an admirable introduction that gets you up and running with Python. The second, by Guetta, is a workmanlike tour that takes you into real-world-inspired examples where you work business data sets and learn how to set them up, manipulate them, and employ them to extract the information you need. I was impressed by this book - by how simple and clear it was and by how well things are explained.

The only issues I ran into were those of a formatting nature which I seem to encounter quite often in Kindle-format ebooks. I did not encounter these with the PDF format version which I also checked out - it was just in Kindle. This is one reason I detest Amazon, because if your text isn't plain vanilla, their conversion process will turn it into kindling - hence the name of their format, no doubt!

The weird effects I saw in this version I have seen in other books too. It seemed like this effect, whatever it was, affected instances where the letter 'F' was combined with another letter - another 'F', or with an 'I', an 'L', or a 'T', or where a capital 'T' appeared with a lower-case 'H'. In the 'F' cases, that letter and its partner letter were omitted; sometimes a space appeared in their stead, other times the word just contracted like there were no missing letters. For example, 'overflow' would turn into 'overow', 'different' would become 'dierent', 'often' for some reason maintained a space and would read as 'o en', or sometimes 'oen'. 'Fifty-Five' would read as 'ty-ve' LOL!

Here are some examples:
"A survey by Stack Overow found that almost percent of programmers are self-taught..." (that's Stack Overflow)
"...even professional programmers constantly come across new topics and concepts that don't know but have to gure out how to learn." (That's 'they don't know' and 'figure out how')
"Yet the average uent adult knows only twenty to thirty-ve thousand words." (That's fluent, and thirty-five)
"...some of the Python data types (e.g., oats, integers, and strings)..." - yes, it was quite amusing reading about how much oats plays into the Python language. Of course, it's floats!
"A lot of what you're learning when you rst learn a programming language..." (first)
"...(think Microso Word..." (Microsoft - but insult them all you want, I'm not a fan!) "Note that the so ware we use..." (software) "...end. e front end..." (The front end)

Another problem is that sometimes numbers, written as numbers, were missing, so I'd read, "According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language currently has , ,. words. (Ever stop to think about what a . word is?" All the figures are missing, but the letters remain!

That aside, I consider this a worthy read and a great start for anyone wanting to get into python programming whether your ultimate aim is business use or not.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Starshine by GS Jennson

Rating: WARTY!

Read disappointingly by someone with the highly improbable name of Pyper Down, this book was already displeasing me to an extent, with its sluggish, meandering pace, endless introduction of minor characters, and my difficulty of tracking exactly what was going on while driving, with its metronomic switching between scenes and characters, and with unwanted flashbacks, but it really turned me off when I got about a third of the way in and the two main characters, female Alexis, and male Caleb met for the first time in a trope antagonistic encounter which resulted in the guy ending up physically restrained on a chair.

The restraints were DNA coded and idiot Alexis managed to drop a single strand of hair onto her prisoner, so he escaped. There was a half-hearted fight and Alexis ended up pinned with her back against Caleb, him holding her own gun to her head, and all she could think about was how hot he was. Seriously? What's the next volume going to feature? Alexis gets raped and enjoys it? I honestly don't get how female authors can so disrespect their characters (and by extension women in general), and be so pathetically tied to cliché and trope.

That wasn't the only problem. Even were that scene excluded, I doubt I would have traveled much further with this author. There was far too much going on swapping in and out characters who were often indistiguishable, making it hard to track, especially when driving, and there were flashbacks, too, which might well have been set-off in a print or ebook with a silcrow, or highlighted with italics or indentation, but in an audiobook you don't see that. It's all down to the reader and I was already far from thrilled with with her performance.

The voice and main character were at odds and this distracted from the narration. Thankfully this was not a first eprson PoV story so it did have that going for it. Technically it could have had either a male or female reader; it could anyway even if it were told from Alexis's PoV, but I prefer it if the narration voice matches the main character's voice, even if it's third person. The problem is that Pyper Down didn't match the Alexis character at all, not remotely.

Down's voice is more like a society lady or a spoiled rich woman's tone and it had, for me, a really annoying and somewhat tedious cadence. Again, this was not first person, but for me the voice didn't fit a rough-and ready-rebel pilot and mechanic that was Alexis - supposedly. it did not fit her at all, and it sure as hell didn't fit a Caleba, whose name was all wrong. He should really have been called Mary Sue.

The story is set in 2322 when humans have somehow managed to spread to "over 100 worlds across a third of the galaxy." It's unclear how they did this. The author talks about going at many times the speed of light, but this is impossible and it will still be impossible even in 2322. The reason for this is that the closer something approaches the speed of light, the more mass it takes on, and therefore the more energy it takes to accelerate that mass. At the speed of light mass becomes infinite and the only way to move that is with an infinite amount of energy: ergo: ain't gonna happen.

Later, the author talks about warping space, which is a totally different thing, but which also takes an enormous amount of energy and has nothing to do with foolhardy and pointless attempts to exceed the speed of light. It's like having adjoining hotel rooms. In order to move from one to the other, you have to exit the first room, go down the hallway, and enter the second room. However, if you have a connecting door between the rooms, you can simply step directly through. You can say, "I ran at ten miles an hour from this room to the next," but no matter what your speed, you will never beat someone who uses that connecting door! That, much simplified as it is, is the difference between traveling at hyper speeds and warping space.

Another issue was that this author seems more intent on telling than showing, especially when the two main charcters finally meet up and start entertaining thoughts like they're fifteen year old boys rather than a mature man and woman. I don't mind an occasional stray thought of that nature - all people have them - but it was like these were the only thoughts either of them had after they met, and it was pathetic. It was like reading a badly-written YA novel. But I repeat myself.

So I ditched this after the 'Alex with a gun to her head' scene and I am done with this author. I cannot commend this except to the trash bin.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Hinduism by Gregory Kozlowski

Rating: WORTHY!

It's strange to see a book about an Indian religion not written by someone with an Indian name, but the author seemed to know what he was talking about and I got exactly what I wanted: a light coverage with enough detail to make me feel like I'd learned something, but not so dense that you get lost trying to listen to it while driving, so I considered this a worthy listen. The comfortable reading by Ben Kingsley helped a lot, too. Yes, it was that Ben Kingsley!

Hinduism is arguably the oldest extant religion on the planet and in its many forms has a billion or so modern-day adherents, but that doesn't mean it hasn't changed, warped, morphed, grown, or withered in that time. This book is rather short, so it cannot cover every eventuality, and that's not what I wanted anyway. I wanted an overview and I felt that's what I got, but I'm aware, as I hope other readers/listeners are, that one perspective from one author isn't necessarily an unbiased or fully-rounded one.

Without getting bogged-down in detail or going off into too many tangents (although there are some) this book covers Hinduism from the earliest beginnings to current day practice, and many aspects in between. I knew very little about Hinduism and its offshoots and sister religions, so I found this quite fascinating. I don't hold with religion myself, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in the beliefs and practices of others, and I was happy to learn about Hindu gods and worship customs and how various offshoots arose. So, as an introductory volume, this book satisfied my curiosity well, and I commend it as a worthy read.

Python: Wise Head Junior by Mohmad Yakub

Rating: WARTY!

This book was very hard to follow. I can't speak for what a potential print version will look like, since all I had was the ebook version, but it seemed to be poorly laid out and misguided in its approach. I am by no means a professional programmer, but I have a lot of experience in programing in several languages, mostly VB, yet I had trouble understanding what the author was saying at times. I don't honestly believe a beginner coming to programming for the first time will be able to make heads or tails out of this.

There was no attempt to ease into things - by means of, for example, discussing the basics of programming, or to looking at the various commands and syntax used. The author simply launched into the trope "Hello World" output without really explaining anything about the development environment or about programming principles.

There were issues with the layout and the actual text, too. It seemed like maybe something had gone wrong with instances of the 'print' command (this syntax is used in several programming languages to produce output on the screen (not on the printer as some beginners might think), so instead of reading 'tries to print "Hello World" or their own name', I read, 'tries to pr"Hello World" or their own name'. The same problem occurred with 'To prany textual content we are required to put in print()' and 'trying to repeatedly pra small text horizontally in'. In each case, the 'int' part of 'print' was missing as was the space that would follow the word. It was almost like someone did a search and replace for 'int ' (which describes an integer variable in some programming languages), but didn't circumscribe it as 'whole word only' and it took out the latter half of 'print ' as well.

Here are some more examples of oddball text:

  • methodprint("any text")
  • To prall the text
  • Few examples are many
  • Memory address location resembles not less than any secret key.
  • Let's calculate the difference of value between all consecutive pair of values
  • Sequence Next - Previous Difference variable:counter updates Final value 2 counter = 2 2 4 4 - 2 2 counter = counter + 2 2 + 2 = 4 6 6 - 4 2 counter = counter + 2 4 + 2 = 6 8 8 - 6 2 counter = counter + 2 6 + 2 = 2" - can you understand that?! I could not.
  • Based on this (True/False), for-loop control structure decides whether to repeat the set of statement(s) or not. - 'Set of' is not needed
  • for counter in range(2, 20 + 1, 2): print (counter) for counter in range(20, 2 1, 2): print (counter) - this second one is missing a minus sign
  • the importance of the colon in syntax isn't mentioned until 80% in!
  • It's similar to a moving car that stops exactly whenever the driver applies the break. (brake)
  • For example; for counter in range(5,0,1): print(1*counter) # statement1 # The for-loop is a statement2 for inner in range(1,5): print(inner) print(3*counter) # statement3 - there's no word about how block is terminated
  • Then came the part where I quit reading. There were some programming examples for the reader to try themselves, and every single one seemed to be aimed at producing a table of values. The first two were these, and the reader is asked to "Write a separate program for each of the given output":

    LoopingProblemA 1==1 1==2 1==3 1==4 1==5
    LoopingProblemC 1<=1 1<=2 1<=3 1<=4 1<=5
    I'm sorry, but what exactly is the point of doing essentially the same program time and time again? This is where I decided that enough is enough and that this book was too much work in just understanding the text to actually learn anything of real value from it. Out of curiosity, I paged through the screen on my phone, where I was reading this, to see how long these exercises went on for, and they went on, I kid you not, for ONE HUNDRED SCREENS! Almosr exactly the same thing, tediously repeated over and over again.

    That's ridiculous, and what is the purpose of this? Once you understand the principle, endlessly repeating it is not going to give you more understanding, it's going to bore you to tears and make you want to quite Python programming - or at least quit this book about it. The reader needs a general knowledge of all the basic principles, not 100 screens of doing the same rote thing over and over. I DNF'd this right there. I cannot commend it as a worthy read. It doesn't get it done.

The One Who Could Not Fly by EG Stone

Rating: WARTY!

I began enjoying this story although the premise is a bit lacking in credibility - a lush tropical island off the coast of a desert mainland, the one populated by Sylphs (fairies, basically, but with feathered wings) and the other by savage humans, and never once have the humans come to the island until this single time when a handful of them arrive seemingly for the sole purpose of kidnapping Ravenna, the one special snowflake on the whole island?

Here's where Ravenna, supposedly a smart scholar, comes off as being stupid, because she could easily have stayed out of their way, or better yet, snuck back to her own people to warn them of this threat, but she does neither. Instead, she romps right into the middle of the camp when she thinks the humans are sleeping, sneaking around to spy on their stuff and is of course captured, whereupon the men simply haul up stakes and leave! It was like they were just waiting for her to arrive.

Naturally Ravenna is a myth come to life and fascinates everyone on the mainland, very nearly all of whom are consistently mean, brutal, and cruel, yet not a single one of these people thinks about going back to the island to see if there are more like her despite her being almost priceless. It made zero sense. It made no sense that no human had ever been to the island before - not in living memory anyway.

We're told Ravenna, as a Sylph, is a different species to humans, and the polar opposite, yet later we meet someone who is supposed to be a half-breed. How is this possible? The definition of a species is a group of living things which can breed within the group but not outside it. If she can breed with humans, she's human, or humans are Sylphs, one or the other. The thing about Ravenna though, as she's described, is that she is fully human. Apart from her wings, she's exactly like a human. She has breasts - and so is a mammal. She thinks like a human, acts like one, and she looks just like one - again, apart from the wings. There's nothing about her that seems alien or different, or otherworldly. That's a serious writing problem.

The wings are problematical too, and not just because they're stuck on - coming out of the middle of her back like an afterthought rather than a real appendage. I've discussed how little sense this makes in other reviews. Wings are limbs and so Ravenna is not a quadruped, but a hexapod (technically a sexaped if we're going to be linguistically correct, but hexapod wins for obvious reasons!) and there's nowhere back there for her wings to really attach!

But let's let that slide. The real problem with her wings is their variable size. We're told that Ravenna is different because she has undersized wings - too small and weak for her to fly with, yet later in the story we read, when she's riding a horse: "Her wings lay behind her on the horse's rump, both to keep them out of the way of the pounding hooves..." - if they're small and short, why would the hooves be a problem? This question is posed by the author herself indirectly when later we read, "Ravenna relaxed her wings and sat on the small stool." Now if she can relax and sit on a small stool without worrying about the wings trailing on the floor, then why were they a problem sitting on the horse? Was the horse shorter than a small stool?! Again it made no sense.

It makes less sense when Ravenna is trained as a gladiator, and she alternately sees her wings as a powerful fighting tool and a grave weakness. They can't be both. If the wings are strong enough to beat and knock someone over, then why can't she fly? Again the rules for her wings change - not just in how big they are, but in how strong they are. I continually got the impression that the author hadn't really thought this whole disabled Sylph' thing through, and the consequence of this was that the utility of the wings changed according to circumstance and that resulted in my repeatedly being kicked out of suspension of disbelief.

The book description, which admittedly the author has no control over unless they self-publish, has this: "Until, that is, Ravenna makes a single mistake. She falls." I don't know what that means. Maybe it comes later in the story than I could stand to read, but it makes little sense even in the blurb.

I didn't finish this because I became so disappointed in it: in the writing and the plot, and in Ravenna's complete lack of any sort of rebellious streak or even a spine to attach her wings to! The story sounded like it might be great; the execution of it not so much, and I began losing all interest in it when I reached the long, tedious, drawn-out portion that began right after she was kidnapped. There was far too long with far too little happening and it bored me to tears, especially since I'd already begun to lose interest in Ravenna as an engaging and strong female character. I can't commend this.

The Perfect Theory by Pedro G Ferreira

Rating: WORTHY!

This book was much more my idea of a 'science for the masses' sort of a book. I have just reviewed A Natural History of Color negatively because it was hard to follow and too dense, and this book was the polar opposite. It had plenty of juicy detail, but it was written lightly, and in an easy style so when Sean Runnette read it to me so nicely, I was able to follow it even when driving and partly- or mostly-focused on traffic. To me that makes a big difference since I'm rarely sitting listening to books in an armchair.

The book follows the historical pursuit and discovery of relativistic physics, naturally discussing Einstein who opened this field, but there are many other contributors. Einstein, for example, is mostly closely associated with the famous formula E=mc⊃2, but the fact is that he was not the first to derive that equation!

Approximations to it had been expressed earlier by people like John Henry Poynting and Fritz Hasenöhrl, and Henri Poincaré came very close to the actual equation citing m = E/c⊃2, although he found paradoxes in his approach. Italian Olinto De Pretto also published the equivalent of Einstein's formula , effectively expressed as E=mv⊃2 where 'v' is the speed of light. Pretty much all of these people were dealing with a universe which contained aether - or so they believed. Einstein dispensed with aether because he correctly rejected its existence, but he was so widely read it is hard to believe that he was not aware of the equation before he ever wrote it down himself.

The book goes on to discuss gravity and acceleration, issues involving theoretic math versus practical physics particularly in relation to plans for developing a gravity wave detector. There are chapters on collapsing stars, singularities, black holes, and John Wheeler, the accidental radio detection of the cosmic background radiation, and dark matter. It ive sag rea thisotry fo the work, visits many of the contributors and tells a great story. I commend it fully as a worthy read or listen.

A Natural History of Color by Hans Bachor, Rob DeSalle

Rating: WARTY!

The idiot librarians at Goodreads have this author listed as Bacher and Bachor. Way to go! It's yet another reason to ditch Amazon and all its works. Evidently there's no respect for writers in those quarters, only for profits. This audiobook was read nicely by George Newbern, but ultimately it was disappointing for me. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from it, but what I got was less than that, whatever it was! The biggest problem for me was that the book was far more dense and technical than I expected. I did not expect an academic paper and to be fair, that's not what this was, but in many ways it was annoyingly close at times.

If I'd been sitting comfortably with no distractions I could have followed it a lot better, but I would still have had a problem with the density of the technical stuff. A book like that, if I'm going to read it, I need to have in front of me as a print, or ebook. Audiobooks do not work well for me that way. The fact that this book went off on tangents meandering as far back as the Big Bang and later off into evolutionary genetics did not help. While I would not have minded brief excursions in either direction, these things just went into far too much technical detail, and were much too long.

There was a huge amount on genetics and mutations, and on and on, and it started to feel more like a dry biology text book than one about color and color perception so I also tired of the topics. I made it through most of the book, but eventually decided my time would be better spent on a different topic, and I did not regret swapping this out for a book on relativity, which was far better written and much more educational and entertaining. I can't commend this one.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Feminist Folktales from Around the World by Ethel Johnston Phelps

Rating: WORTHY!

This is an ebook compendium of four individually published books of collected tales (Tatterhood, Kamala, Sea Girl, and The Hunter Maiden. It was great! I have to say it felt like it fell off a bit toward the end, but I don't know if that was because the later stories were not as entertaining, or because it was too many to listen to in one long string over a few days as I did. But I commend it nonetheless for having strong, smart, and even sneaky female characters throughout, lots of stories, and for being amusing as hell.

While all fairytales and folktales have common elements, I have to say that save two, I think, I had not heard any of these particular stories before, and they do come from all over. The first book, Tatterhood, contains a baker's dozen stories from places as diverse as Norway and Scotland to the Sudan and Japan and the others are similarly diverse.

I particularly liked the Sudan story, perhaps in part because it reminded me of a story about a Sudanese woman I had listened to in another audiobook (Footprints in the Dust) very recently, that was not fiction and which made a strong impression on me and gave me the makings of a story idea. My favorite of all, though, was the eponymous Tatterhood, which amused me the most, but I have to say a great deal of my enjoyment came not only from the ebullient way the tale was told, but also from the enthusiastic reading by Leslie Howard (not the British actor and film-maker!)

I liked Howard as a reader, but I can't commend her on her accents. Her Irish was off and she couldn't do Cornwall to save her life. That aside though, I liked her voice and her enthusiasm. As far as the stories go, these were as follows:

Tatterhood

  1. Tatterhood
  2. Unanana and the Elephant
  3. The Hedley Kow
  4. The Prince and the Three Fates
  5. Janet and Tamlin
  6. What Happened to the Six Wives Who Ate Onions
  7. Kate Crackernuts
  8. Three Strong Women
  9. The Black Bull of Norroway
  10. The Giant Caterpillar
  11. The Laird's Lass and the Dobha's Son
  12. The Hunted Hare
  13. Clever Manka
Kamala
  1. Kamala and the Seven Thieves
  2. The Young Head of the family
  3. The Legend of Knockmany
  4. Kupti and Imani
  5. The Lute Player
  6. The Shepherd of Myddvai and the Lake Maiden
  7. The Search for the Magic Lake
  8. The Squire's Bride
  9. The Stars in the Sky
  10. Bucca Dhu and Bucca Gwiden
  11. The Enchanted Buck
  12. Mastermaid
Sea Girl
  1. The Maid of the North
  2. Fair Exchange
  3. Wild Goose Lake
  4. Gawain and the Lady Ragnell
  5. The Monkey's Heart
  6. The Twelve Huntsmen
  7. The Tiger and the Jackal
  8. East of the Sun, West of the Moon
  9. The Giant's daughter
  10. The Summer Quuen
The Hunter Maiden
  1. Mulha
  2. The Hunter Maiden
  3. Elsa and the Evil Wizard
  4. Maria Morevna
  5. Duffy and the Devil
  6. Lanval and the Lady Triamor
  7. Bending Willow
  8. Finn Magic
  9. The Old Woman and the Rice Cakes
  10. The Husband Who Stayed at Home
  11. Scheherazade Retold

So plenty of entertainment there, plenty of ideas if you're looking for a topic for a novel. One of these, East of the Sun, West of the Moon has already been turned into a full-length novel by Julia Gregson. I reviewed that one favorably in January of 2017. Overall I commend this as a great source of entertainment and amusement.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Footprints in the Dust by Roberta Gately

Rating: WORTHY!

This non-fiction audiobook tells stories of the author's volunteer travels as a nurse in stressed and war-torn areas of the world, mostly Africa and the Middle East, but no matter where it is, it seems that the problems seem to be always the same: primitive and disadvantaged locations and people, with poor equipment and limited supplies, and people suffering way beyond what would be remotely tolerated in the USA, yet struggling on regardless.

It's a depressing listen, but the only way to properly understand how bad things are for refugees and all others caught in civil strife, short of going there yourself, is to listen and to keep listening to stories like these. As the book description tells us, "There are more than twenty-two million refugees worldwide and another sixty-five million who have been forcibly displaced" and it isn't going to magically get better. This book tells stories of the author's assignments, and the things she had to endure, but more importantly it delivers crystal clear and disturbing visions of real people with a name, but no address, and children who she has met, and tried to help.

This book is well worth reading or listening to especially as narrated by Susan Boyce who did a compassionate job with difficult material. I commend it and the author for her service.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Faking it by Portia MacIntosh

Rating: WARTY!

I'm always open to a good fish-out-of-water story or a life-swap story and this is both. It seemed, despite being outside of my usual fare, like it might be a laugh. It wasn't. It was an audiobook narrated decently by Karen Cass, but she couldn't save the poor material.

It's also set in Britain, so it made a pleasant change from the obsessive-compulsive 'range' of stories I typically see - all set in the US like there's nowhere else on Earth worth writing about, or set elsewhere, but with American characters, like no other nationalities are worth writing about. I often wonder if such a shallow publishing schedule by US publishers contributes to the US's problem whence half its voting population has an intense dislike of anyone perceived as a 'foreigner', but again the location wasn't enough to save it.

In this novel, Ella and Emma are identical twins who haven't really spoken in many years because of a falling-out over money when their mother - an advice columnist - died quite young from cancer. Emma got an inheritance because she married young and had children - a stipulation of the will. Emma doesn't get a thing until she turns 35 because their evil mother wanted them to stand on their own two feet before they got anything - or to have at least spawned offspring.

It's nonsensical and probably open to challenge in a probate court, interfering with reproductive rights as it does, but I let that slide even as I wondered if this might have been a better story had Ella decided to have a child just to get the money, and then given it up for adoption. It would certainly have given her more depth and made for a more interesting person than she was. It also would have made for a better story had Ella been the success, not needed her mother's money, and poor Emma, who had children too early in life was the struggling one who needed Ella's help.

As it was, she was thoroughly unappealing and boring, She was in a dead-end job, which she lost in an improbable way, and she showed no ambition to go anywhere or do anything. The only time she ever stretched herself, it seems, was when out of desperation, she accepted her twin's amazingly coincidental offer to impersonate her. Her twin has the unlikely fate of having to do jail time for unpaid parking fines.

This, too, was ridiculous because it turns out her twin is such a over-achiever and so organized that it's inconceivable that she - or her husband - would not have paid the fines, so the author is constantly betraying her own premises and character traits. It would have been better if Emma's crime had been something like unintentional shoplifting. It would have have explained her embarrassment and her need to be impersonated while she was in jail, better than parking fines did, so again, unimaginative.

But I let that go, and I read on. Ella becomes Emma, despite having different hair and being slightly more rounded than the trim and fit Emma. the problem with the story began immediately as Ella interacted with Emma's friends and acquaintances and finds that they're such a snotty and superior bunch, yet never once - not in the fifty percent(?) or so that I listened to - did she ever come back with an amusing observation or zinger in return. She was a limp tissue and it was boring, and turned me right off her.

On top of that there was a lot of body-shaming in the story, in endlessly talking about looks and weight. It's really aggravating when Ella finally goes to get her stupid home-attempt at hair-trimming fixed by Emma's hairdresser, who really needed to be kicked in the balls, he was such an obnoxious, judgmental, little snot - and such a cliché. I imagine this is what the author thought was funny, but it wasn't. It was stereotyping and nasty.

It seemed pretty obvious from the off that Emma's husband is having an affair, and maybe Emma is too, but I wasn't fully convinced that this was not a red herring. Ella, however, is immediately into a YA love triangle with studly men and this was another turn-off. I know this is chick-lit, but who laid down the rule that a woman cannot be depicted as standing on her own two feet? Does she have to be salivating like a bitch-in-heat over every other man she encounters? Seriously? One of them, supposedly a friend, refers to Ella more than once as "you dirty girl" which is obnoxious. It's such poor writing, and it makes it really hard to enjoy a story when it's so bald and obvious. Subtlety is not Portia MacIntosh's strong suit, evidently.

So all-in-all, this story was bad, it wasn't funny, it was written poorly, and it had serious issues. I cannot commend it as a worthy read.

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe

Rating: WARTY!

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

Errata "...and Lord Prosper like to make a good impression on First Night." Verb is wrong tense. "The last time I had seen Coco, she didn’t know how to fly. She couldn’t have gained very much experience landing one since then." This appears to be missing the words, 'a plane' in place of 'one' above.

I can understand people wanting to rip-off Shakespeare. He ripped off enough people himself, let's face it! Let me also say up front that I'm no big fan of his. I think he was derivative, plodding, and primitive in many ways, but he did have a flair for the dramatic and he did have a nice turn of phrase here and there. I have a personal ambition to see all of his plays either live or via the silver screen just because, and I'm not there yet, but I've hardly been pursuing this goal avidly. I do think though, that if you're going to attempt something like this, you owe a bit more to your reader than your average YA novel, and that was the problem here. It's very much your average YA novel which is to say, not good.

The first problem is first person which with very few exceptions, I typically detest because it's all 'me, me, me' all the time. It's limiting. It's unimaginative (especially since most every YA writer uses it), and it's tedious to read; far too self-important, and so inauthentic. I quickly grew bored with the narrator.

Loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was produced over four hundred years ago, this story - which is not set in that same time period - has more in common with Cinderella than ever it does with Shakespeare! It tells the tale of Mae, the daughter of a late steward of Lord Prosper, so we're told, who is the patriarch of a magical island that produces 'aether' - an energy source that's sold on to others elsewhere. So essentially, Prosper is a sort of oil baron, but his golden goose seems to be failing and Mae, who is pretty much an outcast from the Prosper family, especially now she's turned eighteen and expects to have to leave the island, is determined to find out why.

The most annoying thing about Mae is that she's such a limp character. She has no internal engine herself and seems quite willing to be buffeted along by everyone else's energy rather than her own. We're told she longs to remain on the island and fears being expelled because she isn't family, but we're given no reason whatsoever why she should have no interest in exploring the world, or why she should have any loyalty to the family that treats her so shabbily. It makes her seem boring and one-dimensional. Also, she's so changeable as to be a blur rather than a well-defined and strong female character. I didn't like her at all. As I find quite often these novels, I much preferred one of the other characters - a woman named Coco.

Worse, we're immediately plunged into a tediously trope YA love triangle involving Mae and two grandsons of Prosper: Ivo, the clichéd bad boy, and Miles, the clichéd sweet guy. That made me yawn the instant it was presented, because it is so unimaginative and it has been done to death in countless YA stories before this one. I guess I should be thankful I didn't have to read about anyone's "bicep" (yes in the singular - this is YA after all!), or about gold flecks in one of the guys' eyes. But then I DNF'd this at 25%, so maybe those 'classic' descriptions came later.

I didn't finish this, but it seemed to me that Miles could well turn out to be the bad guy and Ivo the good one in the end. I could quite easily be completely wrong about that. It also occurred to me that Mae could well be one of the Prosper family herself when all's said and done, through some shenanigans in the past. Miranda, in the original, was Prospero's daughter after all, in the tradition of the Italian commedia dell'arte. It was that kind of a YA novel anyway, but I had so lost interest in any of these characters that I couldn't even be bothered to skip to the end to find out!

All this despite being initially intrigued by the book description. Taking a page from the excellent 1995 movie Richard III, this novel is set in the twenties, although apart from a airplane flying to the island at one point, it could have been set at any time. There was no twenties vibe to it at all, and the only reason I really 'got' that it was the twenties was through a gratuitous mention of Bessie Coleman (misspelled as 'Bessy' in this novel), who was a black pilot in the early twenties, before she died, of course in a plane crash.

Going with The Tempest was an interesting and ambitious aim, but it was sadly let down by the YA writing. I read things like, "Coco would help me get out of marrying Ivo, but not because the idea was unthinkable, or awful, or absurd. Because it wasn’t what I wanted. And that wasn’t good enough at all." I'm sorry, but from what Mae has said earlier, that was exactly it! And these sentences would read better were they conjoined with some punctuation, such as a semi-colon and a comma.

I didn't get the point of the author using correct grammar in some places and poor punctuation in others, but this was an advance review copy so hopefully the errors and nonsensical writing will be corrected before the final version gets loose. I also encountered some other examples of problematic writing, such as:

"I suppose she has her reasons," I said. "He runs the second-biggest island. Rex is his family’s only magician. It’s what everyone wants her to do."
And yet Mae has a problem with what others want her to do? How hypocritical.

I read, "If the solution were as simple as telling Grandfather, don’t you think Apollonia would have done it already?" No, I don't, because this is a YA novel and rather than do the sensible, obvious thing and tell important things to people who need to know them, which is what real people do, everyone is hoarding secrets here, which is what fictional YA people routinely do. Again, it's unrealistic, and it creates palpably fake tension. A wiser writer would have found ways to add mystery and intrigue without having the main characters do such patently dumb things, and make such juvenile and brain-dead decisions.

Typically for YA, this novel is obsessed with looks: "There were some people who said Apollonia wasn’t beautiful." Who cares if the 'wicked step-sister' is beautiful or not? It has no bearing on the story, but it does reveal volumes about Mae's shallow and nauseating character. It's really rather pathetic. Also, it demeans Mae to have her so focused on such shallow traits, without at the very least augmenting them with something deeper and more meaningful. It betrays the main character and makes her just as vacuous, and lacking in smarts and integrity. It gives her just as little appeal as everyone else who she herself criticizes!

All in all I cannot commend this as a worthy read because it has far too much trope, and far too many faults.

Early Texas Oil by Walter Rundell Jr

Rating: WARTY!

This was a large format picture book about the development of the oil industry from the first strikes in the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-thirties. Why it stopped there I don't know since it was published by Texas A&M University in 1977. I was sorry that it had disturbingly little to say about the environmental impact of oil. It has lots of photographs, all gray-scale, and quite a bit of text, which drily details the discovery and development.

Very few personal names mentioned here meant anything to me, although some I recognized, such as Howard Hughes's father, and his founding of the Hughes Tool Company which led to the more famous Junior's fortune. Parts of this story were interesting, but after a while it seemed quite repetitive and somewhat tedious as we got to read the same story over and over again, only set in a different exploited oil field spreading in a wide reversed 'C' shape across Texas, from Wink in the west, up to Phillips in the north, curving around through the charmingly-named Oil Springs in the east, and then down along the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi in the south.

While there are some interesting and revealing photos of those early days, and some useful text here and there about the rough life some of those oil workers were forced to lead, my recommendation is to find what you need online in Wikipedia and other such sources unless you really and truly want a coffee-table book about oil.

I was disappointed that there was virtually nothing about what all this oil was used for prior to the burgeoning onset of massive motor transportation. Clearly it had other and valued uses - as a lubricant, for example, and a source of heating and even lighting perhaps, but there's almost nothing said about that. Overall I don't regret reading it, but I felt rather cheated that there wasn't more meat to it. The cover does make it clear that it's a photographic history, but still!

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Treasures of Tutankhamun

Rating: WORTHY!

This picture book was put out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art which sadly doesn't seem to think the writer(s) deserve recognition, so there is no author. There is writing. Someone wrote it, but MMA says no. We'll credit the photographers, but screw the writers!

That said the book was well-written and beautfully-illustrated. It gives a quite detailed story of how the tomb was discovered (as much by luck as by judgment, and at the eleventh hour, too!), and goes into some detail about many of the treasures. There are color plates and black and white ones, mostly of the original discovery. The tomb had been broken into by thieves well prior to the November 4th, 1922 discovery by Carter's workers, but for some reason, most of its treasures were untouched.

There are literally scores of pictures, and half of this book is a catalogue of the major finds, with images and a nice descriptions accompanying each. See? writing! But despite that sleight to the actual author(s) I commend this as a worthy read.

Beta Bots by Ava Lock

Rating: WARTY!

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

This book represented a prime reason why I do not like series. I loved Alpha Bots - the first in this series - and quickly I glommed onto the sequel thinking it would be as much fun as the original was, but the sorry truth is that it was the polar opposite, and I DNF'd it due to the complete lack of humor and the appalling violence which hit hard and was totally unnecessary, and it came right up front. It was such a contrast to what I'd experienced in the first volume that it felt like a whole different story. I quickly decided that this was not for me. I guess I should have known that a series titled "The Womanoid Diaries" couldn't be good - not all the way through.

In the words of Chrissie Hynde, who was no pretender: don't get me wrong! One of the reasons I dislike series is that they're essentially cookie-cutter repeats of the original, which often is merely a prologue. I don't do prologues. Where is a series to go? It's the same characters often facing the same issues and it's boring, and it's lazy writing.

I like very few series and the ones I tend to like are ones that maintain a freshness throughout: enough of what I liked in volume one to keep my interest, but a different sort of story. Very few writers can nail that consistently. Thus you might think I'd go for this sequel here because it is so different from the original, but for me it was too different and not in any good way.

Yes, there was violence in the first volume too, but the story eased into it and it felt natural in the context of the fiction: the victims were 'deserving' and main character Cookie was completely adorable throughout - even heroic. I did not like her one bit in this second volume. She was a different person altogether. I decided I did not want to read any more about someone who had essentially changed from being an original, engrossing, assertive, and fun character, and morphed into a psychotic serial murder. No thanks.

The writing seemed lacking, too. It didn't have the same 'oomph' in this volume. It felt tired and clichéd and had lost its sparkle. One thing I noticed just in my relatively short read was this: "With Tabitha's knife in hand, I hid in his blind spot and waited on the gunnel for him." The author doesn't seem to grasp that the gunwale (pronounced 'gunnel') isn't the deck - it's the part of the ship's hull that surrounds the deck - the part that the passengers traditionally lean on when the ship is departing and they're waving to those on the dock. If Cookie were standing on the gunwale she'd be particularly visible, not hiding! It's not a story killer, but that wasn't the problem.

The violence in the second volume was not remotely defensible, not even in the context of this fiction. So what if these were Russian SWAT team? That makes them acceptable victims of the Mansonian violence that Cookie perpetrates, none of which was actually necessary? Cookie had been quite happily avoiding surveillance under the river, but somehow, I guess, these people had tracked her. How, I do not know, but instead of simply going back underwater and avoiding them, Cookie decides to single-handedly take out the entire squad. And not to dinner.

Where she hoped to go with that approach, I don't know. What - these were the only police in the entire city of Moscow and after she kills them she's scot-free?! It felt like the author was trying to emulate a male writer instead of being herself as she was in volume one. There's a reason I read more female writers than male and for me, this author undermined that reason with this writing. Being a strong female character doesn't mean you're a hard-bitten man with tits. I'm sorry for those who've been misinformed on this score, but it doesn't.

The other problem with this 'opening scene' was Cookie's sexual attraction to the lone woman on the boat that she eventually climbed onto, out of the river. It felt predatory - like badly-written male-authored exploitation novel. Cookie is supposedly pining for the fact that her one true love, Wayne, from the first novel, has been taken prisoner. She's mentally tired and down, and is now facing the threat posed by the encroaching SWAT team, yet Cookie is thinking only of how hot the 'chick' on the boat looks. No. Just no.

And what about that with Wayne being captured? Cookie abandoned him! Yes, he told her to go, but is Cookie no longer a strong, independent character? Has she no agency? Can she no longer make her own tactical decisions like she did in volume one? Is she now enslaved to Wayne like she had been to 'Normie' at the beginning of the original novel? This approach cheapens and demeans her. It's a backward step that undermines everything she achieved in the first volume.

The macho slant in this novel made for truly unattractive, unnecessary, and sadly unpleasant reading and seemed to me to betray the whole raison d'être of the first novel. It turned me right off Cookie and by extension, the story she was telling, and I couldn't bring myself to even finish that one part, let alone read further. I can't commend this based on what I read, because it's the very antithesis of what I expected and not in any good way.

Alpha Bots by Ava Lock

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This is one of the most original, entertaining, and amusing stories I've not read in a long time. By that I mean it was an audiobook, so I didn't even have to read it - I just sat back and listened - and laughed my ass off. There were some minor issues with it, but nothing to take away from the brilliance of the story and the hectic way it was told.

On top of this, the reader, Laci Powers, was awesome in the role and really put soul into the story and life into Cookie, the main charcter. I'm not a series fan, but I did secure the sequel to this before I even finished the first volume which is highly unusual for me. I remain nervous about sequels, and rightly so, because I did not enjoy the sequel at all. I'll review that next.

Be warned that this first volume pulls no punches, and is as explicit with language as it is with sex talk, which is to say there's a lot! That was one of the most amusing parts for me: to hear the naïve and softly-spoken Cookie talking so frankly and cussing like a sailor as she became liberated from her servitude, but this may bother other readers. I enjoyed her liberation, and I think it was made all the more amusing by Laci Powers's take on the character, too. The subtle snipes the author frequently took at male chauvinism and the genderist world order were wonderful.

Cookie Rifkin is a life-like AI robot designed to emulate a woman and to be servile and submissive to men, specifically her husband Norman. She's a gynoid if you will, but in the books they're referred to as womanoids. The thing is that, in New Stepford (get the reference?!), there are no human women, just human men. There are no children either. None of the womanoids think this is odd, that is until Cookie starts a book club with four other womanoids (Chrissy, Isabel, Paula, and Rita, all of whom have their own stories to tell), meets Wayne, finds her freedom, and becomes a startling rebel. Frankly, I think the story would have been even more powerful without Wayne. To me he was an annoyance, but this is what we have here.

The story begins innocently enough in a small homage to The Stepford Wives (and note to some ignorant reviewers: that was a novel from the same author who wrote Rosemary's Baby long before it was ever a movie!) where Cookie is wakened - and eventually woke - by the bed shaking and realizes that her husband is masturbating. This inexplicable and unexpected event in Cookie's life is what sets her off on her trail of discovery and eventual insurgency.

After meeting Wayne, Cookie encounters Maggie, who appears to be some sort of slacker police officer, but the more Cookie learns, the more she realizes that not everything in New Stepford is as it seems at first sight, and her encounters with Wayne and Maggie are not accidental. There is much more going on here, and over time, Cookie and her friends learn what real networking is, and they're not so much going to eat the forbidden fruit as overturn the entire apple cart. But it's not going to be a smooth ride by any means.

As far as problems are concerned, I said they were minor. There are times when Cookie's 'functionality' is described in ways that make her seem fully human, and at other times makes her seem very robotic, so this to me was a paradox; like for example she seems to eat and drink and breathe although she seems not to need to do any of that. The author never really went into any of the details of how she worked which was fine to begin with, but later, when Cookie learns how to upgrade herself, she seems much more robotic than she did when the story began, so it felt a bit like the rules of the world were changing, and this was a bit confusing, but it wasn't enough of a problem to detract from the story for me.

Also the upgrading is a bit problematic in another way. I don't want to give away spoilers, but in a way it's reminiscent of a time travel story where something goes wrong in the past and it would seem perfectly simple to just go back before that time and nip the problem in the bud, but the author makes up some arbitrary rule why that's not possible and it spoils the story for me. In the same way in this story (which involves no time-travel let me be clear!) Cookie's upgrades seem endless, but when she could have used a relatively minor upgrade to get her out of a tricky situation, she seems not to think of doing the very thing that could solve her problem. This rather demeans Cookie's agency and her inventiveness.

It made for a bit of a deus ex machina situation at some points and a 'Cookie has to be dumb not to think of that' at others, with problems being very easily solved at times, whereas at other times, they seemed insoluble by using the same convenient means. It was a bit inconsistent. I was enjoying the story enough that I let that slide, but this may bother some readers. Additionally, there is no real LGBTQIA angle to this story. There's a tease here and there, like the author is intrigued by Sapphic stories, but is too afraid to explore one for herself; so this is essentially hetero all the way

Overall though, I highly commend this story as beautifully done, entertaining, amusing, and even educational. I'm just sorry the sequel was a different thing altogether.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Super Cool Tech

Rating: WORTHY!

While there is a slew of production staff listed for this hardback print book, there is no one writer or group of writers listed unfortunately. Way to disenfranchise writers! The book itself is pretty cool, although it's somewhat out of date bow as any print version of a book such as this must be the moment it hits the bookshelves.

The one I read was published in 2018 and takes the form of a rather thick laptop computer, opening the same way (as a calendar rather than as a book). The cover and the ends of the pages are silver and the whole effect is pretty neat. It's published by the DK arm of Penguin. Or should that be the DK flipper?!

Inside is well over 170 fully-illustrated color pages divided into sections covering Play, Move, Construct, Power, Live, Future, and Reference, which is a look into a much more speculative future. The topics covered are games machines, holography, electric cars, space-travel, large machines, innovative buildings and homes, artificial intelligence, environment, and an assortment of other, high-tech or adventurous gadgets, items, and technology life choices.

The coverage is shallow, but varied and interesting, and it's definitely stimulating, especially to a younger reader, although it's not aimed specifically at any age range. I commend this as a worthy read. It was interesting to see what's come to pass and what's not made it based on what this book talks about as cutting-edge technology, and it has more hits that misses depending on hwo far it projects into the future.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Fever, Feuds, and Diamonds by Paul Farmer

Rating: WORTHY!

Read decently by Pete Cross, this audiobook was short, to the point, and highly informative. Farmer talks about the 2014 epidemic of Ebola that assaulted Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, but the roots of the problems reach far back beyond that into almost ancient history - that of the exploitation of Africa beginning with a conference in 1884 that resulted in some 90% of America being "owned" by European powers by the turn of the twentieth century. Slavery may well have been considered over by then, but in effect it really wasn't. The location of it was merely switched back to Africa instead of remaining visible in Europe and the Americas.

Farmer does an excellent job of digging beneath the scary news headlines of the ravages of various diseases on the African continent, particularly Ebola, the most nightmarish of them all, but he never loses sight of the victims of this horrific outbreak, or of what truly caused it to be so devastating. As the book description says, he rebuts "misleading claims about the origins of Ebola and why it spread so rapidly" and "he traces West Africa’s chronic health failures back to centuries of exploitation and injustice.

Books like this one ought to be required reading (or in this case, listening!), especially in times like these when a world-wide and equally scary pandemic is affecting everyone, everywhere, from all walks of life and socio-econiomic backgrounds. You will never view African epidemics in the same way again. I commend it.

Map of Shadows by JF Penn

Rating: WARTY!

In this, the first book of the Mapwalkers Series, Sienna Farren inherits her grandfather's map shop when he's murdered. Yes, this is the tedious trope "You're a wizard, Harry" kind of story, where a kid is raised in complete ignorance of their supernatural power. Nonetheless, it seemed like it might be a worthy read, but I was quickly disabused of that quaint notion.

Despite it being crystally-clear from the off who the villain is here, no one, least of all Sienna, who of course is a special snowflake with legendary powers, can see it. Wouldn't it be nice if once, the one with the special powers is actually smart and perceptive? No such luck here.

Sienna learns that she can 'map walk' - that is, can go to places in time and space using maps - and her "specialness" is that she can even do it based on nothing more than a map in her head. The villains are people who use the skins of other map-walkers to draw their own special maps and of course there's a 'shadowland' that they want to open the borders to - and of course Sienna is the only one who can stop them.

Despite having zero training or even any clue what she's doing, Sienna exhibits heroic powers from the off, and despite landing in the HQ of the villains, wherein several vital skin maps are hung on the walls, neither Sienna nor her companion - an experienced map walker - think for a split second of destroying or of taking these maps, to limit the powers and abilities of their enemy.

It's a no-brainer, but these two girls evidently have no brains. It made me want to quit reading the story there. While I don't mind a good story about someone who starts out dumb and wises up, I really don't appreciate stories by female authors about dumb women who start out dumb and bask in it throughout the story, consistently making bad decisions that even a moderately intelligent person in real life would avoid like the plague.

The story seems to revel in how gory and stomach-churning it could be, and that along with the fact that it really had no saving graces, and was larded with trope characters exhibiting predictably idiotic behaviors forced me to DNF this after maybe a third of it. I can't commend it based on what I could stand to listen to.

Murder and Baklava by Blake Pierce

Rating: WARTY!

I made it to the 43% mark in this novel before I grew so sick of it that I couldn't stand to read anymore. No murder or anything like one had occurred by that point, and all the book had been was a rather poor tour guide of Budapest and Gyor. If I'd wanted that, I would have read an actual tour guide. I wanted a cruise ship murder and didn't get one! I'm reasonably sure there was one, but I was too bored to want to keep reading until it happened.

This is why I don't read these 'cozy' murder mysteries. First of all there's nothing cozy about murder and secondly, if anyone complains about my non-reviews, I can point them to this (and several others) where I did read all or part of the story and it was just as bad as I'd feared it would be. Many pages of this book were devoted to the author advertising all her other work, to a rather gauche and annoying degree. The story doesn't start until page 15. The contents is simply a list of chapter numbers (CHAPTER ONE, CHAPTER TWO, etc) which are tappable to get to the chapter, but then you can't tap back to the contents, so you're stuck there! I don't see the point of any of that.

I should have figured that a novel with a dumbass character name Like London Rose (apparently no relation to Tokyo) wouldn't be worth reading, and it wasn't, but this is the main character's name, and she's apparently going to have a series of endless murders which makes me want to run from her cruises rather than join one of them. Who would want to go cruising on a cruise line known for slaughtering passengers every cruise? The very premise is ridiculous.

Anyway, this is one of those cases where London ditches her fiancé and goes on the cruise as the social director, a role for which she frankly seemed inept to me. We learned precious little about each character, except for the one I am sure is on the chopping block for this cruise: an old, frail, and persnickety woman named Mrs Klimowski or something along those lines, who was obnoxious and who had an annoying toy breed dog which I am sure gets adopted by London at the end.

What we learned most about was the male interests London had, which were predictable and boring, and I had the sneakign feeling that one of them would be the murderer, but that's really just a wild guess. If London does adopt the dog, that would be another reason to ditch this series. I rarely read series and I won't look at one which features a pet on the cover or as a 'sidekick' to the 'sleuth' - in fact I won't read a murder mystery which has the word sleuth in the book description, because it sounds so pathetic and promises nothing save predictability and tedium.

The thing that really bothered me about London though, is that her last two boyfriends had each lasted a year despite her having zero interest in them. One has to wonder why she was even with them and that fact that she was, essentially, with them under false pretenses, makes me wonder both about her character and her smarts. In short, I didn't like London at all. That's another reason not to pursue this series and was one of the factors in my ditching this volume early.

This is yet another dumb-ass 'mystery' where someone entirely unqualified somehow seems to think it's incumbent on them to prove their innocence, but no! It's guilt that must be established, and unless a criminal investigation finds sufficient evidence to arraign you, you need do nothing save supply any information you may have about the crime that you're asked to do, and stay the fuck out of the investigator's way! It really is that simple! Anyone who doesn't do that is an interfering busybody and should be charged with impeding a police investigation! This book sucked majorly and the saddest thing about it all is that I was not surprised at all.

Two Minute Mysteries Collection by Donald J Sobol

Rating: WARTY!

This is an amalgamation of three volumes that Sobol published starting in 1969, the final one coming out in 1975. Readers may know him better for his Encyclopedia Brown series which was extensive and which ran from 1963 to 2012. I've never read any of those, and I'm disinclined to do so after reading these stories, which are short, but rather violent, and often so simplistic, or so arcane, or so out of date that they're really not very entertaining. The book contains some 200 of them and my understanding is that many of these were actually in the Encyclopedia Brown series originally.

Each story covers only two pages in print, with the solution to the mystery printed (for reasons which escape me) upside down at the bottom of the second page. All of them are solved by Doctor Haledjian who hands-down beats Hermione Granger for being an insufferable know-it-all. He's obnoxious, and no one person could know all that he supposedly knows about every little thing. Worse than this though is that he's in every story, and nearly all of them are murders and robberies, which makes me highly-suspicious. How come so many serious crimes occur around Haledjian?! LOL!

The mysteries are of the nature of, for example, a guy supposedly entering a house from a freezing outdoors and claiming he saw a thief, and Haledjian calling him a liar on the basis that the guy's eyeglasses would have misted up as soon as he entered the warm house, and therefore he would have seen nothing. I'm serious, that's what they're like - all of them, except, for example, the ones which require you to know in detail how the old Pullman rail sleeping cars are organized, and so on.

Another example is where this guy wants to impress a girl so he hires a professional boxer to come on to the girl and then 'knocks him out' to impress her. The girl sees through this because the guy's eyeglasses, which he placed in his coat top pocket prior to fighting, survived the encounter unbroken despite the prize fighter delivering several body blows. The idea is that the eyeglasses must have broken, but that's not necessarily true. Even if they were hit, they might have survived and there was a relatively low chance that they'd be hit anyway, since a boxer would be punching to the abdomen and solar plexus rather than high on the chest. Despite that, this girl, who is all starry-eyed after the fight, suddenly rejects the guy (as she rightly should, it must be said) not because of the improbability of this wimpy guy surviving an assault from a prize fighter and then knocking him out cold with one punch, but solely on the basis of the eyeglasses being intact!

Another case of trapping a criminal hinges on the confusion between Anchorage - the port city in Alaska which contains almost half the state's population - and anchorage: that state of a ship being anchored somewhere, but Haledjian's persistent mistake is his flawed assumption that everyone knows the correct terminology for everything and routinely uses it in everyday interactions. He idiotically believes that everyone has his own knowledge pool, but had I heard this same thing, I would have assume Anchorage, Alaska was being referred to because most people don't say 'at anchorage', they say 'docked' even if that term is not strictly accurate! Again, for me it was really weak, and such a case would have been thrown out of court were there no other corroborative evidence.

In another case, Haledjian's idiotic incriminating evidence is that no railroad man would have said "twenty minutes after three," but instead would have said, "three-twenty," which is patent bullshit. His second line of devastating evidence is that no resident of San Francisco would ever call it 'Frisco. Again, had this case been tried on the basis of those two lines of 'evidence' it would have been summarily dismissed.

Another case hinges on a guy - who is dying of a stab wound - coming out of the house and telling Haledjian "Water" which shortly convinces him that this guy Scott is the guilty party. His 'reasoning' is that he learned from Scott that this guy was left-handed and consequently had all of his faucets switched so that the hot and cold water come out of the 'wrong' faucets as compared with the standard arrangement. Let's ignore the fact that this person being left-handed offers no rationale for switching faucets and put it down to the guy's eccentricity. What convinces Haledjian of Scott's guilt is that when he rushes into the house to get water (instead of immediately calling for an ambulance) he gets hot water rather than the cold he expected.

Haledjian realizes that Scott must have run the hot water to wash blood off his hands and this is why hot water came out immediately rather than taking time to warm up, and that therefore Scott is the murderer! If that's the case, why didn't the victim say "Scott stabbed me!" instead of offering the asinine cryptic clue 'water' and hoping Haledjian would make the labyrinthine connection? It's horseshit of the same stinking hue that Dan Brown created in the idiotic The Da Vinci Code when he had a dying man running around creating cryptic clues when he could simply have left a note explaining that a mad monk killed him, and asking in the note for Robert Langdon to contact his granddaughter!

So while I thought these would be entertaining, they were overall more annoying than anything. Once in a while there was an interesting or an entertaining one, but those were too few and far between for me to find this a commendable read. Maybe it would make a good bathroom book - you can always use the pages if you run out of toilet tissue! But as for me, I DNF'd it.

Thief Trap by Jonathan Moeller

Rating: WARTY!

The idiot librarians at Goodreads, who are useless in my experience, have this author listed under two names - one of which is Jonatha Moeller! Not that I hang out at Amazon-owned Goodreads, but I noticed this when I was looking the author up online for this review!

The novel is book one in the "Cloak Games" series - not that the book cover will tell you this. Having the cover say it's a 'Cloak Games' story is not the same thing as saying it's a prologue to a series, which all volume ones are. I don't do prologues or epilogues. The prologue is chapter one, the epilogue is your last chapter and should be numbered as such. Deal with it, authors! That said, at least this volume did not leave you hanging off a cliff at the end, and it did tell a story, so there's that. But I have to wonder at the series name: is 'cloak games' meant to try to siphon cachet from The Hunger Games?! I don't get what it even means otherwise. But it's nothing remotely to do with any Hunger Games scenario.

This was an audio book read by Meghan Kelly (not to be confused with Megyn Kelly) and there was something about her voice that didn't work for me. It didn't seem to ring true for the character for one thing. I'm not sure if that was the whole thing, or if it was just her tone or what, but I failed to be completely at ease with her reading of this book. The voice constantly took me out of suspension of disbelief.

That's only one problem though. The biggest problem was not the reader but the writer. Also, that front cover illustration? What was that? I go by a book's description and pay little to no attention to covers, but once I had this I noticed that this particular cover is so inappropriate, I have to say something about it. Normally this is not on the author because they typically have nothing to do with covers unless they're self-publishing, but this novel came through Amazon's Create Space, so it is self-published. But note that there was nothing on that cover that had anything at all to do with the main character or this story!

There is an alternate cover which also has little to do with the main character's actual abilities, but at least that one isn't a picture of a woman's torso - ignore her brain because female brains are clearly unimportant - and this woman has a leather skirt that's hardly more than a belt, and she's pulling a - what is that: a light saber from a sheath? No. This character does not do light sabers! The cover not only completely misrepresents this character, it also appeals to the lowest common denominator. Shame on whoever decided this was a 'good cover' for a novel. Maybe I should pay more attention to covers in future - and reject stories outright which have cover versions like this even if the description sounds interesting?

Ah, the story! It made little sense once I actually did get to it. The premise is that in 2013 (why then I do not know), a gate to another world opened, and Elves used their magic to conquer Earth, crushing all resistance before them. There is nothing about the takeover other than this and a rather salivating description of how the entire US federal legislature - and the president - were publicly executed. Since then Queen Elf has ruled.

The idea, I suppose is that the rest of the world suffered likewise, but the story is so US-centric - as usual - that the rest of the world may as well not exist. Nothing else is said: nothing about why the elves came, or about how the military fought back, or whether there's an active guerilla war against the occupation. Yes, we hear vague mentions of rebels, but it's so understated that it may as well not be mentioned at all.

We do learn that in the shadow lands where the elves evidently emerged from, modern weapons do not work. Since the elven swords do, I'm forced to assume that the problem isn't metal, but chemical, yet humans, who are chemically based, can live and fight in the shadow lands very well, so WTF? The other edge of that sword is that firearms do work well here in our world, so how was it the elves where able to win so easily? Nothing is said about any of that. If it was due to their powerful magic, then why do elves need humans at all?

This is a problem with this story which supposedly takes place 300 years after that conquest - yet Earth hasn't changed a bit! it's not even run out of oil! The problem lies in that one elf, Morvilind (it sounded more like Morvellan to me in the audiobook) has taken in human Nadia as his thief in residence - sort of. He trained her from a young age to work for him, giving her fighting and thieving skills, and teaching her some rudimentary magic. Why was this necessary? He's an elf. He has powerful magic; so why does he need a human thief? No explanation is given for this and Nadia never questions it despite questioning everything else.

She works for the elf because he's working a cure for her kid brother who has 'frost bite' - that's not what it's called, but I forget the actual name. Frost fever? The elf tells her the cure takes 20 years and if she fails him, so will the cure fail her brother. She never questions this! He also has a vial of her 'heart's blood' whatever that is, which gives him power over her. She has six more years to serve, but for some reason she never looks ahead to try to figure out if she can get free of Morvilind after her time is up, or if he will still force her to work for him.

Her big trial comes when she's tasked with stealing a magically-protected 'old Earth magic' tablet from a collector. This was when the story went seriously downhill for me. The male love interest for Nadia is telegraphed from several light years away. It's so obvious and she is so doting on him, it's pathetic. it turned me right off this story or any others like it and anyhtign else by this author.

Now we're told that she's supposed to be this expert thief with all kinds of mad skilz, but as soon as he shows up at the party where she's planning to steal the tablet, she subjugates herself to him in all things and is constantly reminding us of how hot and muscular he is. There's the inevitable 'let's kiss to distract the opposition' moment that is so trope it's pathetic. Is this some sort of authorial wish fulfillment? I dunno, but it's tedious.

Predictably, they succeed in their respective quests and they part with him in her debt which is ridiculous if entirely predictable. That's the end of the story and I have no desire whatsoever to pursue this series in any form. I can't commend it as a worthy read because there's too much trope and too many holes in it.