Showing posts with label ebook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ebook. Show all posts

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Outlaw by Edward W Robertson

Rating: WARTY!

This was a sci-fi novel which is evidently part of the 'Rebel Stars' series and I should really have paid attention to that - not just that it was a series starter, and therefore I probably wouldn't like it, but also that name of the series which struck me as half-baked and overdone at the same time. I also should have been warned off by the blurb, which, despite this novel being published in 2014, starts out, "in the year 2010, an alien virus nearly wiped out the human race." Funny, but I don't recall that happening!

This is the second story by this author that I've read and I've been pleased with neither of them sdo I guess I'm done reading his material from this point on. He doesn't plot well, and so this idea in this particular story of an alien virus was poorly planned. No such virus is likely to harm humans because viruses, parasites, and bacteria evolve and specialize, so unless this alien virus evolved alongside humans, how is it going to even begin to affect us? Was it genetically engineered? There's no word on that, and the events of the novel tale place a millennium after the virus, so how is it relevant? Maybe it all 'falls together' later, but I didn't have the patience to read that far. To me it just felt like his signature style: poorly thought-out plotting. If you're going to write sci-fi, you really ought to have some knowledge of science!

As I mentioned, the story jumps from the wipe-out to a thousand years hence when humanity ("mankind" according to the genderist blurb, not 'humankind'), has recovered from this virus, so why even introduce the virus in the first place? Aren't we immune to it now? And if it's a thousand years with no return of the virus and no aliens in sight, then why is everyone so jumpy thinking aliens are lurking around every corner? That would be like us, in 2019, living in fear of Attila the Hun. And how are you going to shoot that alien virus anyway, if it returns? LOL!

The novel was a tedious read and after these people got into two bar fights in the first few pages, I decided I had better things to do with my time than plow through this anymore. I can't commend it except as trash-ready garbage.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ambassador Seeing Red by Patty Jansen

Rating: WARTY!

Once again a novel where the blurb makes it sound interesting, but the practice of reading it was an exercise in tedium. I really must quit reading the first book of a series in the hope it might be worth the journey before we get to the end, especially if it's in first person because that's nearly always a grave mistake. The main character here, Cory Wilson, seemed so self-obsessed and self-important, and so profoundly stupid, that I was ready to barf, and I gave up on this tedious tome in short order.

It's supposed to be all on this guy to stop an Interstellar war. Ri-ight. I had no faith in him doing a damned thing, especially not in volume one of a series that I now discover has at least ten volumes. That tells me this author has no idea how to concisely tell a story and is more in love with her own writing than actually getting on with it and having a start, a middle, and an ending. No thanks. Here's hoping the aliens win! At least they, so the author, without a whit of irony, tells us, know how to get to the point!

Being a Super Trans Ally by Phoenix Schneider, Sherry Paris

Rating: WARTY!

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

I'm predisposed to favor books of this nature whether fiction or, in this case, non-fiction, so it's hard for me to rate one badly and I feel bad about doing so, but I can't in good conscience rate this one favorably for a variety of reasons, and they're all to do with how the book is presented, not with what the book's aims are.

The blurb on Net Galley did advise me that the book was aimed at 10+, but it felt like it was middle-grade or early young adult through and through with nothing for grown-ups. I had to wonder how this would get into the hands of those youngsters if it has to get past parents first, and they're offered no incentive to buy it. It also felt like it was preaching to the choir, and I'm unconvinced of the utility of, or demand for, such a book. I hope it works, I really do, but I remain unconvinced.

This is clearly designed as a print book and it's evident that zero thought has been given to the ebook version, assuming there ever is one. Unfortunately, the ebook version is all I get to review, and I have to wonder at the wisdom of a publisher who puts out a review copy in ebook form for a book that seems designed solely for the reader to write in their own ideas or, as is frequently the case here, their own answers to questions. I'd expected to get answers, not to have them demanded of me! Why expect me to have the answers when I'm reading the book for the very purpose of getting those answers?!

And yes, the blurb did advise that this is an interactive workbook "packed full of activities such as self-reflective questions, journal prompts and role plays," but I thought this was aimed at education, and I'm not convinced that it will work in that regard since all we seem to be learning here is our own feelings and behaviors for better or for worse, and not what those behaviors really ought to be and how they can be modified.

The blurb did also say "If you care about making your home, school and community a safer and more accepting place for people of all genders, then this book is for you!" I do care very much about that, but I can't help but wonder where in it lies the information and education that will help a person achieve that goal if all we're doing as a reader is filling in our own opinions and feelings in the blanks and getting little in the way of feedback and advice.

On a technical note, the formatting of this review ebook was really poor. The content page was 'tappable' and by that I mean you could touch a chapter heading for a specific chapter and it would take you there, but it offered no means to return to the content page from that chapter if you accidentally tapped the wrong one. The problem is that it's so very easy to tap the wrong one given how jumbled together the chapter headings were, and how hard they are to read, being split over more than one line, with one chapter heading tacking onto the end of the previous one on the same line. Some of it was a jumble, with part of the chapter title not tappable, the rest of it tappable, some of it colored gray, some blue, some red. In short, it was an unappealing mess.

I should note here that my first experience of this was on my phone, which is where I normally read books and typically do not have problems with them unless they're Kindles. This is where I experienced these problems, and it was because of them, that I downloaded this ARC into both Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and Bluefire Reader (BFR), and I also looked at this on the iPad in the Crappy Kindle App (CKA) to get a wider perspective.

While the layout of the book was much better in both the ADE and the BFR, there were other issues, including the fact that the content list was no longer tappable. It wouldn't take you to the chapter by tapping on it, so what you gain on the carousel you lose on the swings, or whatever that phrase is; however, on the Kindle app, the problems remained pretty much exactly the same as they were on the phone, notwithstanding the greater screen real estate to play with. So once again Amazon's CKA is a major fail.

I blame this on Amazon's sucky Kindle conversion process which will mangle your book if it has the temerity to offer anything other than plain vanilla text up for sacrifice to the Great God Amazon, and that's what seems to have happened here. I've seen this kind of a disaster frequently in Kindle books, which is why I don't buy them anymore. This is one reason I refuse to do business with Amazon, but that said, it really is incumbent upon publishers and authors to check these things if they want to ensure their reader gets a good experience. Clearly this wasn't done in this case, and I am at a loss as to how we can give a decent review of a book that looks and functions (or fails to do so) in e-format, nothing like it's intended to look in print format. A PDF for this particular book would have been a much better choice.

With regard to the content of the book, I had issues with that, too! Part of it was, as I said, that it wasn't designed to be an ebook, so there were questions, each with an underscored space included to write in the answer, which clearly doesn't work in an ebook. The problem with the questions was that they were jumbled together too just like the content list was. I read ebooks on my phone in portrait format, and that didn't work, but even in landscape mode, there were still formatting issues, with bullet points failing to align, and so on.

For example, in the section titled "Puzzle of Important terms" about 9% of the way in, there was a crossword which is guaranteed to be a trashed after Kindle has done with it. I had no idea how this was supposed to be laid out (until I looked in ADE and BFR), but there was a list of numbers from one to ten, and these began with one and two on the same line, followed by three and four on the next line, then the rest of the numbers through ten each on an individual line after that; then came the crossword clues. There was no actual crossword grid at all. I assumed the numbers had been from a grid that Kindle predictably failed to reproduce on both the phone and the iPad, and I was right.

There were other formatting issues. For example, about 41% into the book, the non-words OKTA NOYB began to appear in the text randomly. At least they appeared that way to me on the phone. They were too mangled to make sense of there, so it wasn't until I looked in ADE and BFR that I realized they were acronyms which I'd never encountered before!

Initially, I'd thought this was some sort of formatting that Kindle had screwed up, but I could not for the life of me figure out what it was supposed to be. My best guess had been that this was meant to be Yes/No (and that wasn't a bad guess!), but it resulted in sentences like: "Do you wear a jockstrap or a sports bra when you OKTA NOYB play sports?" which made no sense if the Yes/No was in the middle of the sentence. This was the case on both the phone and the iPad Kindle app.

I had no idea what that particular question was supposed to resolve, especially when when we're told just a screen or so later that it's never OK to ask what's between a person's legs (Duhh!). Isn't eh jockstrap quesiton precisely asking that same question, just with different words? It sounded very hypocritical to me. This brought me to the next issue I had with this book, but let me have a quick word about the ADE and BFR editions first.

In ADE when I searched for OKTA, I found several hits, but when I tapped on it to go to the page (it said it was on p93), I was transported to what was purportedly p98, and there was nothing there in the ADE edition. I could not move from that page either, no matter which way I swiped! I was stuck on a page 98 no man's (woman's, or other gender's) land! I did not have this problem in BFR, which was the only app I consulted which both offered decent formatting and let me examine what these acronyms actually were!

BFR is typically my goto app for books with unusual formatting, although I've had issues even with that with some books, so I tend to bounce back and forth between it and ADE. Given that Adobe developed Portable Document Format, I was surprised to find a PDF file did not work in their own reader! Note that I was able to swipe to page 98 and beyond - I just wasn't able to get anywhere when I alighted there as a result of a search hit.

Like I said, while the book is written for a very young audience, I'd been expecting at least some of it to be aimed at a more mature readership, including parents, but there was nothing, nor was it inclusive of people who already know things, but still wish to learn more. That's what I felt was missing. The book blithely takes the position that everyone is in dire ignorance about these topics, and so it felt a bit insulting, but if it is indeed aimed at people who know literally nothing other than standard binary genders, then where was the educational portion designed to bring them into the fold of the knowledgeable and thereby useful? Had I been less enlightened and less patient with this particular topic than I am, I would have quit this book long before I actually did.

The book felt much more like it was a survey of the readers feelings about the LGBTQIA community than ever it was a book offering useful advice on how to interact with that community. That's why I feel it was of little help to people in my position, who know plenty about the non-binary world we live in, but would still like to learn more, and without being made to feel we're in grade school while learning it! If this book truly is aimed at people who are just dipping their toes into learning about this world, and especially young people, then I imagine it would overwhelm them because there are so many questions flying at you and no sort of advice or help or hints or tips or definitions (until the glossary at the back).

My first experience of this book was during a drive in to work, and I was using Apple's VoiceOver technology, which is designed to assist people with visual impairments when using their phone. I do not have such limitations, but VoiceOver renders your ebook app quite well as an audiobook if you open it when the book is on the screen. It has issues, but like I said, it's very passable.

Unfortunately, VoiceOver is not an audiobook app, so it reads literally everything that is on the screen, including the punctuation at random times, so when this book listed every letter of the alphabet with 26 underscores after each letter, which were designed in the print version, as a set of lines to fill in as many LGBTQIA words as you could think of which began with each letter, the VoiceOver read the letter A, and followed that with "26 underscores" and then the next letter, and followed that with "26 underscores," and so on through the entire alphabet. It was beyond tedious to listen to!

Had I been reading it myself, I could have skipped that section, but there was no way to skip it while driving. I had to listen to it all - and to the same kind of thing with every other question that came before and after it! I had this same experience with every set of underscores, every multiple-choice question where the options were all run together, and on and on, where the VoiceOver read the thing without pause or inflection that it turned into gibberish. For ten minutes.

Had I known it was going to be entirely a quiz book, I would never have set VoiceOver loose on it, but I had no idea, and I was stuck with this for a half hour! Be warned! LOL! This is relevant, because it underscores the fact that it is largely a quiz book. It's not an information or advice book, and I just didn't get how asking me about my knowledge of these issues was educating me in how to be a better partner/advocate/supporter, or whatever, of those who need this support. I can imagine some people at least becoming frustrated with this repeatedly pointing out to them - via their inability to answer these questions perhaps - how ignorant they are, and dissuading them from reading any further.

The bottom line was that I was looking for something else, and perhaps that's my fault for not intuiting better from the blurb how little this would be of benefit to me in my quest, but I don't feel like the blame is all mine. If you offer a book with the stated goal of helping those who "care about making your home, school and community a safer and more accepting place for people of all genders," then I think it's incumbent upon you to ensure that you provide useful information, not grill me endlessly about how I feel!

That could be a part of it (although I disapprove of that technique personally), but it can't be all of it, because that tells me only about me, not about what I need to offer to those who need this support. I didn't want to read a book about me. I'm not that interesting! 'Being a Super Trans Ally' has the acronym BASTA, which amusingly is the Spanish word for 'enough', and I'm afraid I didn't feel that this was anywhere near enough.

For these reasons I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Mindful Artist: Sumi-e Painting by Virginia Lloyd-Davies

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I love the idea of painting, although I do none of it myself these days. I don't have the time! This book, written by a woman named Virginia who lives in Virginia, but who has studied with the masters in the East and the West, struck me as particularly interesting because it is also about mindfulness and Asian art. I imagine all art is about mindfulness in one way or another, but this book focuses on it particularly, and it has a lot to say about technique too, so I concluded that it will be of immense value to anyone who wants seriously to get into this art form - and likely of interest to other artists too, regardless of which style they favor.

On a technical note, I have to say that the book doesn't work well on an iPad which means that the publisher wasn't very mindful about how it would look in other formats! Unless you have the large-format tablet, the text is far too small to read comfortably, meaning I had to enlarge the page and read, then slide the page around to the reach next section; then shrink it to swipe to the next page. This didn't always work well and was quite annoying - not at all conducive to mindfulness! Then there were problems in moving to the next page, requiring several swipes sometimes before it would slide over, so I wouldn't advise getting the ebook version - and unfortunately that's the only kind of book a reviewer like me gets to read! Maybe it's not available in ebook format? I dunno, but if that's the case it makes me wonder why it's issued for review in such a format! I now claim the record for using the word 'format' more times in a single review than any other reviewer! Yeay!

Amazon's website was predictably hopeless when it came to learning the print book's dimensions. I have no idea why so many publishers and authors sell-out to such an abusive behemoth. Obviously they claim that it's where everyone goes, but it is we who voluntarily give that power to Amazon. They wouldn't have it if we didn't kiss Billionaire Bezos's ass so passionately and routinely. But Waterstone's tells me the book is about 11" (2.96cm) tall. My iPad is only 7"x5" so the height of the book in landscape mode was less than half the actual print height. From this, I imagine the print version is a lot more legible! And now I'm exhaisted. I have to go lie down. Kidding. The book was 65 pages in ebook form, but it's twice that in print because both the Adobe Digital Editions app and the Bluefire reader app were counting each double-page spread as one page. Had the book been published in ebook form as single pages. It would probably have been more legible on my iPad at least.

So enough with the technical. Let's look at content! This was much less frustrating and much more relaxing! The art was beautiful, and delicate, and inspiring, and eye-catching - everything you expect from traditional Asian art. The author took us through selecting brushes and paints, and other materials and the kind of environment you might want to find to paint in. One issue I, as a vegetarian, had with the brushes was that the author recommends animal hair. For me, it would be hard to be mindful when painting with a brush that had animal hair in it because I'd be wondering where that animal was, and how the brush manufacturer got that hair. If it came from a slaughterhouse, I doubt that would make me feel good about using it to paint with! But maybe that's just me!

That aside, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness that had gone into this book, and the useful information with which it was replete. It had all kinds of suggestions from the type of paper to the type of brush, to how the ink was prepared and loaded onto the brush. Following this was page after page of beautiful art, with hints, tips, and step-by-step instructions on how to get there from here.

I was impressed and I commend this book as a useful tool for anyone who is into painting.

The Djin Wars by Christine Pope

Rating: WARTY!

This one sounded interesting from the blurb and started out well, so it encouraged me to keep going. That's always nice in a book!

It begins with this woman, Jessica Monroe, who is a teaching assistant, starting to hear about a disease that seems contagious. It's on both coasts of the USA, but not in Albuquerque where she lives. It quickly shows up there though, and the mortality rate is extremely high. She sees her brother, her mother, and her father all die quickly from it. She seems very ill-informed about how to deal with an extremely high fever, giving her mother ibuprofen and putting damp cloths on her head when her temperature was 106 degrees and she should be putting her into an ice bath!

But it seems like there's nothing even hospitals can do, and once her family is dead, and the power goes out in her parents' home that same night, she decides to drive over to her uncle's house the next morning to see if they're alive. Apparently she's unaware that you can call people on your cell phone! LOL! Maybe the cell phone service is out now too, but the fact that the author didn't even mention it and somehow rule it out was a bit of a writing miss, I think. Jessica seems to have no friends, either, because she's not thought a single thing about calling any of them, nor has anyone called her.

She's started hearing this voice in her head that seems to appear randomly, telling her not very useful things, and she thinks she's imagining it, but she doesn't seem to be getting sick. The voice could have easily told her what it was up to and where it was directing her to, but it never did, meaning that yet another female writer has put her female character into the hands of a manipulative and domineering guy, for no good reason, and had her sappy female character goes along with it like a zombie. I'm sorry, but no. Pope the author seems to have as little respect for women as does Pope the Vatican guy and his church.

That next morning, with the power out, she looks out of her window to see the automated sprinkler system working across the street. I guess the author didn't think about how that would work with the power out. Another example of poor writing. Jessica sees the neighbor's dog out in their yard and adopts it - without even checking to see if the neighbors are alive - and sets off to visit her uncle.

So yeah, there were multiple issues with the writing, but I was curious about the story for a while. Before I knew more, I'd assumed it's called djin wars because there are jinn involved in the story and that's what the voice is that she's hearing, but how that would pan out given that it's supposed to be a romantic series, remained to be seen. I was merely hopeful to begin with that the writing quality wouldn't slip and Jessica wouldn't become too damned sappy, but my faith in such things is low and that's what killed this in the end. That and the poor writing, and Jessica's gullibility and stupidity. I don't mind an author's faux pas here and there. We're all prone to that, but if the story is good I can overlook those. I can't overlook really stupid so-called romance stories, and that's why I can't commend this. I'm done with this author. Next please....

Witchnapped in Westerham by Dionne Lister

Rating: WARTY!

This was your standard loss-leading opening volume in what the author hopes will become a successful series, and I wish her best of luck with that, but I wasn't impressed enough to want to continue - not even with this first volume, which I DNF'd. To be fair, I rarely do find a series like that - one I feel I can really get into.

Plus, some oddities. At one point I read, "We passed through the centre of town; shingles, dark brick, and chimneys abounded." Except that there are no 'shingles' in Britain unless you're talking about the skin inflammation. Or a pebbly beach. There are roof tiles. That said, it's been a while since I lived there, so maybe that's changed. Americanisms are creeping in everywhere. It just struck me as a sore thumb rather than a shingle though, but not in itself a book killer. It is a reminder in general for writers to be sure we're getting it right if we're writing about a country we may not have visited.

I've been experimenting with this novel! It's possible to have ebooks read to you as audiobooks, but the technology for this isn't exactly top of the line, much less cutting edge. Why businesses like Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Apple don't try to get ahead of Kindle by introducing this technology as a free feature I do not know. Apple has pretty much given up on books, and B&N has pretty much given up on customers, but while I haven't yet given up on B&N like I did on Amazon, I am very disappointed in them. Kobo hasn't done anything to piss me off...yet!

But I digress. There are two methods I've found to bypass the stupidity and lethargy of the ebook vendors though, and have your phone read a book to you. One is to use an app like Air Read, which is free, but has a very robotic voice. It's quite amusing actually, and entertains with mispronunciations even when the book fails to entertain. It's a bit plodding, but it works decently well and I like it. The problem is that Air Read doesn't work inside apps like iBooks, Kobo, or Nook; it will read to you only those books which you load into the app, and as anyone knows who has tried to download a book they supposedly own from B&N for example, you cannot do it! The truth is that you do not own that book. In reality, Barnes and Noble does and there is no way in hell they will let you have it so you can use Air Read or apps like that, to read it to you. To read those proprietary books in those proprietary apps, you will need an app like Apple's Voice Over (or VoiceOver), or whatever Android's equivalent of it is.

The problem with Voice Over is that reads quite literally everything on the screen, including all your icons and buttons, so you do not want to launch it unless you're already inside the book you want it to read. Then all you do is ask Siri to turn on Voice Over, and swipe two fingers from the top of the screen to the bottom in the ebook, and it will read it to you. In Apple's iBook, which has a continuous scroll setting, this was sufficient to have the book read to me as long as I wanted. The Voice Over did not stop. In Nook, the Voiceover stopped unpredictably. At first I was thinking this was only at a chapter end, and perhaps a blank part of the screen at the end of a chapter was sufficient to halt it, but then it began halting randomly - and just as randomly, on occasion, resuming reading for no apparent reason. It works better in Kobo's app, but stills tops at the end of a chapter if there is a space between that and the succeeding chapter.

This random halting was doubly-annoying because on the road I was driving, I was haltered by four red lights in succession, Obviously the city is utterly clueless about synchronizing lights and thereby saving gasoline. But during this time, the Voice Over worked flawlessly. After I started getting green lights, that's when it began misbehaving so I had no chance to take a few seconds to fix it while stopped at the light! LOL! Thus my trip to the iBooks site to get the same novel - for free fortunately, from there, to test it out in their app. It worked flawlessly. But be warned, Voice Over comes at a price to your sanity. Do not ever turn off your phone - I mean completely off, with Voice Over turned on, otherwise you will have a nightmare getting back in.

On my iPhone, you can't reboot the phone and fingerprint in; it won't work. You have to tap in a six-digit code. When Voice Over is on, it won't accept the code, it will just read it back to you as you hit each key! LOL! To bypass this, you have to quickly double-tap, wait a split second, then tap a third time to actually enter the code - this for each of the six digits! Way to go Apple. To be fair, this isn't designed for me or for reading ebooks - it's presumably designed for vision-impaired people so there are doubtless reasons it works the way it does, but for me, for my purposes, it was intensely frustrating until I found my way around its foibles.

Also to stop the app, you need to tap once on your ebook, and let Voice Over read that one line, then quickly request Siri to turn off Voice Over. I say quickly because if you're sluggish, then Voice Over will start reading what you asked Siri to do (which appears on your screen). This is beyond stupid in my opinion, because Siri will start listening to Voice Over and trying to do what it wants. It's a nightmare, and Apple doesn't really care anymore, not since Steve Jobs died.

But I digress. On the face of it this novel sounded interesting - an Aussie witch who doesn't know she's a witch because her powers don't kick in - for some unexplained reason - until she turns 24. On her birthday she discovers that her beloved brother, who lives in England with his British wife, has gone missing, and also that she's a witch, as is her brother and her brother's wife. This is conveyed to her by a complete stranger who shows up at her door unannounced. This was my first problem with this novel - the main character's gullibility. Obviously in this case what the visitor, Angelica, was telling her was the truth, but in reality no one in their right mind would immediately swallow a complete stranger's story like that without making some effort to verify it! Rather than do this, Lily drops everything, and takes a flight to London from Sidney with this stranger!

There are some people, and I think it was astronomer Carl Sagan who started this meme, who believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Regardless of whoever originated that, once Sagan said it, everyone started chanting it like parrots, but I think that assertion is bullshit. Extraordinary claims require the same evidence as any other claim - sufficient to show that there's a valid basis to the claim; no more, no less! But Lily evidently subscribes to the school which demands zero evidence for extraordinary claims. This made it particularly ridiculous later when at the airport. Let me explain.

Lily is a wedding photographer with dreams of becoming something more, and at a wedding the night before, she had seen something very peculiar through her camera lens. The bride's father had turned transparent, but only when looked at through the lens of the camera. Later she learned that the bride's father had died that next morning. She saw this same transparency thing with a random guy at the airport, and realized that perhaps she could see impending death, yet rather than ask Angelica who was supposed to be something of a tutor to Lily as her witch powers came in, Lily chose to keep this to herself! This despite trusting this same woman to the point of leaving her life in Australia and flying to Britain on no more than Angelica's say-so! I found that to be an extraordinarily hypocritical situation!

The next extraordinary thing was that James had been missing for a week, yet this sister, Millicent, whom Lily was supposed to really like, had failed to even so much as call Lily to let her know her bother had disappeared? How lacking in credibility is that? Note that Lily and James's parents (and no, Lily and James's last name isn't Potter) had disappeared many years before, so they aren't in the picture, and of course Lily and James are the last of their family line.

Too often for me, Lily's behavior was dumb. Sometimes the writing itself was dumb. In England, Lily finally met this group of witches with whom her brother used to work before he disappeared, but Lily finds them an unprepossessing lot. The only one she likes is Millicent. This initially made me think maybe Millicent had something to do with James's disappearance. What happened next though was that one of the unprepossessing witches took Lily to one side and made a deal with her - she would tell her something relevant if Lily agreed to undergo a magical bond with this witch never to tell the secret on pain of a choking death! Gullible Lily agrees almost at once.

The big secret was simply that Millicent and James had had an argument before he disappeared. I'm like, what the hell? Why would that be a huge secret? Why would this witch want Lily bonded so powerfully never to reveal it? So now I'm suspicious of that witch instead of Millicent. But that kind of absurdist melodramatic writing really turned me off, which is why I decided I would listen to this book only for the ride home after work that day before I ditched it, unless of course it really turned itself around. Given that I was then about halfway through it, I had zero faith that it would, but at least in this way I would get the chance to start on a brand new ebook coming in to work on Monday morning!

Well, it didn't, so...ditched! I can't commend this crap based on the dumb-ass portion of it that I listened to.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Lake Ephemeral by Victoria Strauss

Rating: WARTY!

Famous author name, infamous writing! This is a Strauss waltz, but it waltzed off into boredom. It's a seriously weird story - but while it began as quite entertaining, it petered out a log way in and made me resent reading it at all.

It was set in Australia which made a very pleasant change from every YA story taking place in the USA as though there is no other country on the planet - or at least no other country worth telling stories about! Sara Finn has been an orphan since she was left by a woman at the age of five, who told the orphanage staff that the child's mother was dead. When Sara turns twelve, she's suddenly advised that her mother is alive and someone is going to transport her 'home' to the comfortable living she had enjoyed until she was 'kidnapped'. It's pretty obvious that the woman who dropped her off in the first place actually was her mother who was attempting to save her from whatever is happening back a the compound, so no mystery there at all.

This marked the first of some annoying 'glossing-over' episodes which haunted this story: things which happen way too conveniently, or coincidentally, or even inexplicably to be taken seriously. I was willing to let them go because I was enjoying the story, but eventually they began to trip the story up because they were too common, and other readers may have less patience with that than I did. I can't pretend they didn't cause my enjoyment to snag every once in a while. Be warned that I'm going to give spoilers here because I want to cover these problems with the writing. My issue with this first episode is that there's nothing whatsoever done by the orphanage to protect Sara - whose name, it turns out, is actually Seraphin, not Sara Finn - from the possible falsity of this new information. They do nothing at all to verify that this story they've been fed by a strange man is true - they just let Sera go! Maybe they're just more trusting in Australia?!

Anyway, she arrives at the compound and is told that her mother is sick and she cannot see her, and Sera accepts this without question and indeed shows no desire whatsoever to see her mother. If she'd been presented as a morose and troubled child, then maybe she wouldn't react normally, but she's not that kind of child. She's there quite some time before she evinces any sort of need to visit with her mother. These people won't even let her look in on mom. That whole business struck me as inauthentic. I don't know of any regular child who wouldn't make a fuss about seeing her mom after being forcibly kept apart for such a long time.

After this follows a strange time at the compound. Schooling is haphazard at best and the half-dozen or so children are pretty much allowed to run wild and even be mean or cruel to one another with little discipline, Sera learns that her father died after being trapped by one of these huge carnivorous plants that tend to grow in this particular locale. Sera also accidentally kills a girl who lives there while the kids are playing a game that this girl devised. The police are not called and no one seems to find anything wrong with that. It's kind of like being in China when you're under 13 years old and you kill someone. There really are no dire consequences for that, and there were none here. Finally, Sera decides she wants to see her mom! Subsequently she and mom plan an escape, but in the pouring rain while they were being hunted by the other people at the compound, the two of them fall from a roof.

Apparently her mother died from this fall, and Sera was put into one of these coffin plants which, it turns out, will preserve life if the victim doesn't struggle. The plant gives nutrients to the victim while sucking the victim's blood for its own uses. This is all 'explained' in some flashback mumbo jumbo which I skipped. But the thing is that after the fall from the roof, when she wakes up, Sera finds that five years have passed. The plant has kept her alive while her body healed, but she has also aged appropriately - and conveniently, and by that I mean not just her body but her mind!

I pass on this next spoiler because it leads directly to another problem with authenticity. Despite being in some sort of suspended animation for five years in this plant, when Sera gets out of it, and manages to escape, she finds her muscles haven't atrophied at all. That doesn't happen. If the author had said something about muscle therapy during those five years, or about the plant doing something to keep her in shape, that might have helped gloss over it, but she didn't, so we're left with another lapse in suspension of disbelief instead.

Now she and this guy named Kite whom she knew from when she was twelve, who has also aged of course, finally flee the compound, trying to make their way to Europe to get to the bottom of the origin of this place they both just escaped from. Very conveniently, just when they need to take an airplane flight, they happen to run into a party from the school Sera used to attend before she was sent back to the compound, and lo and behold, one of the people on the trip is her best friend from back then, who is with her boyfriend! Neither of them want to go on this trip and both of them are willing to give up their passports and tickets so Sera and her friend can take their places. This was really way the hell too convenient, but by this time I was curious as to where this was all leading so once again I let that slide.

I wish I hadn't. Normally I'm not this generous with novels, especially YA novels, but this one was different - and not set in the US, and not a sappy love story, so I was willing to grant it a bit more leeway, but these were all problems that could have been solved by better writing, and the fact is that things simply didn't improve. The longer I read, the more frustrated I became with the writing, until I simply gave up out of sheer frustration quite close to the end because i was so tired of the dragging story and the sloppy writing. I can't commend a book that was way too long and so haphazardly written.

The Knight's Secret by Jeffrey Bardwell

Rating: WARTY!

This author has an amusingly appropriate name, incorporating 'bard' as it does, for someone who is writing a courtly romance - and by romance I mean it in the old-fashioned sense, but it's written from the female perspective and in first person and I don't think this author can carry it. I'm not someone who thinks guys shouldn't write first person girl stories or vice versa, but the more I read of this one, the more it started to sound like a guy's idea of what or how a woman should be rather than what a woman might really be, and it felt rather hollow and inauthentic because of that. Plus he seems to be confusing the granddaughter with the grandfather far too much.

Let me explain. The fantasy plot takes place in a pseudo-medieval milieu featuring knights and swords, but it's told using modern idiom, which I think loses the period a little. It's set in a world where the heroic Sir Corbin, the Hero of Jerkum Pass (so we're told to a tedious extent) is looking forward to a reunion with his old army buddies where he will give a speech and get a financial consideration, through which he'll be able to move his family from the increasingly village where they live, to a place safer for his daughter, who is a mage.

Since his stint in the military, times have changed and now, despite their help during the great war, the emperor is turning against mages and a pogrom is coming. Unfortunately, before he can attend this reunion, Sir Corbin dies. His remaining family: granddaughter Elsa, and her dad and mom, who is Sir Corbin's daughter, find themselves increasingly - and for no apparent reason - becoming pariahs. This felt entirely inauthentic to me, but it's no more than has been done in many other stories (and therein lies the problem). The only solution seems to be for Elsa, under a magical disguise, to impersonate her grandfather and go to the reunion in his place, get the much-needed money, and enable the family to relocate to a more hospitable locale.

Elsa's mother, a mage who acts as the village doctor (for which the village resents her apparently - and inexplicably) uses her magic to create a façade of her own father over the top of her daughter, but it feels outwardly real, such that if someone touches her chest, for example, they will feel a man's chest, not a woman's. The problem with this is that it's just a superficial change, so I understood, but the author began writing the story subsequently as though her grandfather's very soul and spirit were somehow possessing the girl. Plus the girl came-off as being quite young at the start of the story, yet later, she seems a lot older, so it was confusing as to exactly how old she was exactly! If she was so much older, then how come she wasn't married?

It's not that I'm saying a young girl must get married, but given the background to the story, it's the kind of world where that seems like it's a given, and if she isn't married or promised to someone, then there has to be a good reason for it. The problem is that the fact that she was single was never discussed, like it wasn't an issue precisely because she was so young. If there was some other reason for it, then it ought to have been brought up, but the way this is written, it's like the author never even considered the implication of the world he was building, or it never crossed his mind that single girls might marry in his world. The thing is that if she was unmarried because she was so young, and even knowing all of her grandfather's war stories, how come she was able to carry off this impersonation of an much older guy so convincingly to everyone, including people who knew her grandfather intimately?

It wasn't just that, either. The writing wasn't so great in parts. At one point I read, "Who had been fooling whom that night?" This is wonderful grammatically speaking, but the problem is exactly that: it was speaking - and no one actually speaks like that in real life unless they're boorishly pretentious. I've repeatedly seen writers do this because they can't help themselves. My advice is to get the emdash out of your ass and loosen up! At another point I read, "still out brothers and sisters." Now there is some gender-bending going on in this book, but I think this should read 'still our'!

On top of all that, we're told nothing of Elsa's sex life and left to assume that she had none, precisely because she was so young, yet under the guise of her grandfather, she runs into Maven, a mage and an old flame of her grandfather's, and she falls into bed with her and has sex without even a second thought or a whiff of distaste or fascination, or anything else! How can that be, unless Elsa is highly-sexually experienced and has had many lovers, and not just men? It felt completely wrong to include this scene and not address any of this. Worse, there was a second encounter between them later in the book that just went on and on and on, tediously so. Again, without a word of the fact that this was an apparently young and inexperienced girl having sex with a much older woman, and not only not thinking twice about it, but not thinking a single thing about it. It was just thoughtless and poor writing.

It was like once Elsa had donned the disguise and left her village behind, the author dispensed with the fact that she was in fact a young female through and through and simply went with her being a rather elderly man. It was lazy at best. Even that might have been manageable if the author had gone somewhere with the story, but once in the city, all progress stopped. It became tedious to read, and the story, other than revealing that there was a conspiracy to destroy mages, which we already knew, the story literally went nowhere, unless you count going round in circles as progress. I don't. All we got was repeated chants about the Hero of Jerkum Pass of which I was thoroughly tired of reading by then, and talk of this big speech, without getting any closer to actually hearing the speech. When I got to seventy percent and nothing had changed, I ditched this, resenting the time I'd wasted reading it. I cannot commend something as cluelessly-written as this, and I plan on never reading anything else by this author.

Murder Above the Fold by Regina Welling, Erin Lynn

Rating: WARTY!

This is one of those detective novels I usually laugh at and deride - especially when it has a dumb-ass title like this one does. I flatly refuse to read any such book that has the word 'sleuth' anywhere in the blurb and this one didn't, but it may as well have for what it was. My mistake was in thinking that this might be different in that it was a pair of witches that were the amateur investigators. I was curious as to how this would work. Couldn't they just do some witchcraft to determine who the perp is?! The trick in writing a novel like this is that you have to put in some valid reason(s) why they couldn't do precisely that (which would have meant a very short and boring series!). The problem is that these authors failed to do so and simply left the question begging. That's a really poor way to treat your readers.

So what I got was the absurdity of two quite powerful witches doing the detecting job precisely like someone who isn't a witch would do it - apart from a sprinkle of pixie dust here and there (apparently pixie dust can detect traces of blood, but it also destroys those traces). So I have to wonder what is the point of making them witches in the first place? Having done that, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have Witch One say, "I wish we could wave a wand and solve this" and have Witch Two retort, "Now Esmeralda, you know perfectly well that when a person kills another person, their true self is horribly warped by the violence done to their soul. Because of that, we can't see who it was, so we have to solve this the old fashioned way!" or words along those lines (and perhaps not quite so baldly!), but these two authors either were too clueless to see there was a major plot hole, or they simply didn't care. Either way, their readers deserve better.

To write about these characturds being very able witches and then have them pottering around without being able to lift a wand to solve the murder is just silly. The author has made the witches 250 years old, too, so there's that issue! Why she chose to do that I do not know, but the issue here is the same one that those asinine young adult vampire novels suffer. Someone who has been around for a quarter of a millennium isn't actually forty or fifty even if they look like they are. Such a person would not remotely behave like a person of that age (or be interested in a boring teenage slip of a girl unless he was into child pornography), yet these two authors write about the antique witches like they're really the age they appear to be. That's like saying a fifty-year-old would have the mentality of a ten year old. It doesn't work. Neither does the claim that witches age until twenty-five and then their ageing slows dramatically, which 'explains' how they continue to look young. Fine, if that's the way it is, but to say that's how it is and not even pretend you have a valid reason for that is just lazy writing. Why 25? Why does it slow? These authors don't give a shit.

Worse than this, we have these biddies in the story tampering with evidence. This happens all-too-often in this kind of story, going all the way back to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. He frequently keeps the police from solving a crime by withholding evidence. He won't even share his suspicions - all because he's an arrogant little tool who thinks he's better than anyone, and evidently deems it more important that he gets the celebrity value of solving the crime than it is to bring the criminal to book with all haste and by any means necessary. In reality, such a 'sleuth' would be arrested for obstructing justice!

In this story, the first notable thing that happens after the body is discovered is that their pixie dust destroys the blood evidence, but before that, they failed to report a scrap of torn fabric they found which is from the victim's clothing. As soon as they found that scrap stuck in a door jamb, they immediately leapt to the conclusion that the dead woman had been murdered! The discovery of the blood came afterwards. These things are precisely why I have a problem with these 'amateur sleuthing' series. I'd thought adding witches to the brew might make it readable, but I was wrong. It actually made it worse! I quit this nonsensical story right after the destruction of evidence.

I don't object to amateur detectives, not in principal, but I do object to sloppy-writing where things are just taken for granted, evidence is destroyed or withheld, and the 'sleuths' simply don't care about collaborating. That's just simplistic, stupid and lazy, which is why I rarely even look at this kind of a series. I certainly cannot commend this one based on how poorly-written the opening chapters were.

Choices by Tessa Vidal

Rating: WARTY!

This is volume one in what will evidently be a loosely-connected series called Cherished Choices. It's not a series I will be following after reading about a third of this tired volume.

The story is of Caroline Bullard and Rayna Taylor. Both of them have rather pretentiously changed their names. Caroline, now a Hollywood celebrity goes by Caro Ballad, and Rayna, now a dog trainer for celebrities, goes by Shell Tate. Why either of them changed their name I have no idea and the author doesn't help by offering an explanation in the novel, either. The idiot blurb writer claims that "Down-to-earth Shell refuses to hide who she is or where she came from" - so why the name change? Clearly, and as per frigging usual, the blurb writer never actually read this novel.

Anyway, after one brief fling in a hotel room, paid for by Shell's criminal twin brother as a birthday present while he was off robbing a casino, the two lovers were rent apart and renting apartments in LA, Caro being sent off to Hollywood, where she became an actor, and Shell somehow getting into into dog training. It's a pretty flimsy set up, and for reasons which are touched-on, but hardly really supported in the writing, they neither of them contacted the other even after Caro got out from underneath her mother's 'imprisonment', until Caro ends up somehow with a pound dog - a Chow that I highly suspect Shell's brother has kidnapped for the very purpose of getting these two back together again. But who cares, really?

Naturally she needs a dog trainer and of course it's Shell who gets the gig, and the two of them are instantly into bed the first time they meet - without either of them saying a word about sexual histories. It was right there that I gave this the heave-ho. I know these are supposed to be spicy romances, but sex isn't romance and anyone who jumps into bed on the first meeting without having any idea of what diseases their partner might let loose between the sheets is a moron, period. I don't waste my time reading novels about morons. I'm done with this novel, this series, and this author.

London calling by Claire Lydon

Rating: WARTY!

This was a lesbian romance novel of the genre where more typically, the story is along the lines of a woman finding out her fiancé is a jerk and fleeing back to her tiny home town where of course she meets the love of her life. In a similar vein, this story has Jess discover that Karen is being unfaithful to her and she quits Sydney, Australia to return to London, England for no really good reason other than that the author is probably British. I swore I'd never read one of these, but this one felt different enough (she's fleeing a female, not a male, and going to a large city, not a small village: that makes it different, right?!) that I decided to give it a try and at first I thought it was a good choice, because the story was interesting and amusing, and featured two of my favorite places: Australia and Britain. But over time and despite enjoying the humor, I began to lose interest.

Around a quarter of the way in, Jess did a really low-life kind of thing which made me dislike her. She'd gone to a dinner party given by a close friend who had invited a single lesbian to be a potential blind date for Jess, and the latter really found her very attractive. Her only beef, it would seem, was that this woman, Ange, had a really high-pitched voice and laugh, and it turned Jess off. She knew there would be no future for them, but still she leapt into bed and had unprotected sex with Ange. That felt not only shallow, but dangerous.

Despite the enjoyable sex, in the morning, Jess's negative feelings about Ange's voice reasserted themselves and Ange was not so stupid that she couldn't see that something was seriously off, but Jess never explained what the problem was, so Ange was left feeling like crap, like she'd been used, and beating a hasty retreat. To me though that seemed really shallow of Jess, and a shitty way to treat Ange. I like to project forward when reading and wondering where this will go, and it occurred to me that since Ange is a lawyer, there was justice to be had here! LOL!

I was wondering if the author would have Jess do something wrong and end up in a civil law court, and discover that Ange is the plaintiff's lawyer! Despite having a degree, Jess was working, at least temporarily, at a café, so it would be entirely possible for her to spill hot coffee on a patron and get sued. Strictly speaking, Ange ought to recuse herself in such a case, but it would sure make for an interesting read if the coffee spill happened and she didn't recuse.

Or, Ange could commit suicide, and come back and haunt Jess, but this wasn't a horror story. More realistically, I began to wonder if this was more of a slow, smoldering revenge story. Jess's philandering ex, whom Jess has learned was dumped by her new girlfriend in the same way this woman, Karen, had dumped Jess, sends her an almost laughably contrite email to let her know that she's coming to London (again for no apparent reason), and would like to at least see her as a friend. Meanwhile, Jess has met Lucy and fallen immediately into bed with her. Jess is at high risk of an STD at this point, given her complete lack of concern over her sexual health - and more importantly over the unknown sexual health of her partners, both of whom fell right into bed with her without even one single word of discussion about diseases.

Now I get that this is supposed to be a rom-com (of sorts) and no one wants to read a boring discourse on STD's in such a novel, but the fact is that STD's are rising scarily. Chlamydia constitutes almost fifty percent of new STD diagnoses in England, with genital warts, gonorrhea, and genital herpes not so far behind. The USA - and I imagine every other so-called developed country - is pretty much in the same boat. These diseases are sexist in the sense that they tend to have more impact on women than on men, so I imagine that real-world lesbians, as opposed to fictional ones, have enough concern about this that, unlike Jess, they don't hurtle into bed on the first date with every new partner they get.

All I can say is that I seriously hope the UK lesbian community is not remotely represented by Jess's behavior. It certainly would not have hurt the author to mention this at least in passing as a way of educating the public and offering a nod to realism in her work, but I guess she doesn't give a shit about women's sexual health, as judged from her writing.

It was this poor attitude, and Jess's appalling behavior which began to turn me off this novel, and this wasn't improved by continued reading. By two-thirds the way through, when Karen reared her ugly head, and Jess went into conniptions about her impending visit, I began to dislike her even more. I knew this novel was heading for the inevitable train-wreck of sorts, before Jess and Lucy finally get it together for their happy ending, but I seriously started losing interest in reading any more about someone like Jess who frequently comes across as not too smart and worse, rather selfish and uncaring (she always makes sure she gets off before her partner, for example, and seems mostly unconcerned whether her partner even gets off at all).

Plus the novel was so diffuse. There was endless fluff included that really contributed nothing to the story and which could have been trimmed or ditched without the story losing anything. As it was, it frequently stalled and lost momentum and that was as annoying as it was dispiriting. When finally Jess and Ange meet up at a shamefully drunken hen party and Ange is commendably conciliatory, Jess still can't even bring herself to say a simple "I'm sorry!" and that was the final straw for me. What a lowlife she truly is. I ditched her then, as should Lucy, Ange, and anyone else Jess looks at with that spark of selfish lust in her eye, lest they come down with some horrible disease - and by disease, I don't mean jess herself.

Based on the two-thirds or so that I read of this I cannot commend it as a worthy read.

Greta and the Giants by Zoë Tucker, Zoe Persico

Rating: WORTHY!

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

I had some mixed feelings about this book jumping on the Greta Thunberg bandwagon. Greta herself is all about action, not about accolades, Recently she turned down an award of some fifty thousand dollars because that's not what she's about - although I do have to confess I don't get why she didn't accept it and donate the money to some organization that's doing something about the climate! But it was her choice, not mine, and I have to express some concern about those who might want to co-opt her good will and momentum, and try to profit from it.

There's nothing in this book to indicate whether Greta is even aware of it, let alone approves of it, since all we get is: "inspired by Greta Thunberg's stand to save the world." But in the end I decided a book like this will do more good than bad, and since it aims to get a useful message out there, and since 3% of the cover price is going to, which is an international environmental organization aiming to do something concrete about climate change, I have to hope that this book has the same good and selfless intentions that Greta has.

The story, written by Zoë Tucker is short, and to the point. The book is gorgeously illustrated by Zoe Persico in full glorious color. The giants are of course the fossil fuel industry and poor Greta is trying to save the woodlands and its denizens from the destructive encroachment of the industrial world. It makes for a useful teaching tool for the young.

Me and the Japanese Beauty Standards by Tomomi Tsuchio

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a very short and rather heartbreaking book to read. It's not so much a self-help book as a memoir of a resilient woman who successfully made her way through the stumbling blocks that life tossed at her and came out on the other side just fine. It does offer some nuggets of advice here and there on the way through, so it's a useful teaching tool for anyone who is on that same journey. When I first began to read this, the opening sentence threw me for a loop. It said, "When you were a neighborhood children appearance?" Say what?! I remember thinking, if the whole book is like this, I'm in trouble and so is the author, but after that one sentence, it was fine. The author, aka T-mo, sure as hell speaks English far better than I will ever speak Japanese!

To me it was interesting to learn that an Asian society like Japan - typically considered a polite one by we in the west - isn't any kinder than we are in when it comes to childhood bullying and body-shaming. Because the author did not conform to the 'norm' she was made to suffer for it by being called names. While she never let this get her down, such an onslaught of abusiveness, even when relatively mild, will without a doubt play tricks on the mind and leave its mark. That's a stain on the soul that can be hard to erase, but this author did it. You can too.

All of my negatives on this book were about production issues, not about the actual content. Talking of which though, the content list was messed up. On my phone in the Kindle app, each entry stretched over two lines, making it look truly messy. It was all in light blue text except for the photo credits at the end, which was in red for some reason.

There was a foreword and an introduction, both of which I skipped as I routinely do in every book I read that contains them. I have no time for stuff like that, or for prefaces and prologues. For me, if you want me to read it, put it right there in chapter one, otherwise I don't consider it important enough to spend time on, but this isn't a problem with the book per se, it's just a personal preference.

There's a section around 92% in that lists some reminders the author wanted to reiterate. These were formatted oddly, I suspect through Amazon Kindle's crappy conversion process into their proprietary format, which will mangle anything that's not plain vanilla text. The section was supposed to be a bulleted list, I guess, but rather than bullets, the list had little question marks each contained in its own tiny square! The third item in this list (beginning 'Eat, move, and find...') was in red text, whereas all the others were normal. Dunno what was up with that. Again, I blame Kindle.

Some of the gray-scale photographs included were split (again, I assume by Kindle's crappy conversion process) into two or more sections. Why Amazon doesn't fix this ongoing issue I do not know. This is one of several reasons why I refuse to do business with them. The last photo, which would have looked quite charming, was split into two sections, and the bottom half - so to speak! - had a black line through it, thereby ruining the impact of the photo.

That photo though pretty much summed up the issue. In my opinion - and not that I consider myself a judge by any means - there is literally not a damned thing wrong with the author's physical appearance, but this just goes to show how much ridiculous pressure is put on women by our society to conform to certain so-called 'norms' and physical templates that are all-too-often not set up by the women they exclude, but by old white men telling women how they should look, what they should put on their faces, and what they should wear. Here's a quote from my just released novel Shiftless in Galveston:

The CEOs of L'Oréal and Procter & Gamble were old white guys these days. Even Estée Lauder isn't a woman any more. As for Johnson & Johnson, it's right there in the company name. "It ought to be called Penis & Penis!" Crystina had joked.
Anyone who doesn't follow those rules endures what the author evidently endured and I'm sorry that she - or anyone else, male or female or anywhere in between for that matter - had to go through this.

As far as this book goes I commend it as a worthy read.

Robin's Lake Road by CL Avery

Rating: WARTY!

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

This story I can't commend because it felt so inauthentic through and through. It's a lesbian romance and a first love combined, but the characters behaved more like they were middle grade than seniors in high-school, and there was this idea running through the first 25% of the novel (which is all I could manage to read) that suggested nobody in this novel had even so much as imagined a same sex romance, let alone recognized the existence of the queer population in the world around them, on the Internet, and in the news.

Even in Oklahoma, the gay world is known! As recently as 2014, a ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in the not-so OK state, so you'd have to be shamefully ignorant of your world to not have this idea of diversity of sexual preference and gender identity in your head just from politics, let lone what's in the news and the media. You wouldn't know that from reading this novel though! It was so unrealistic that I couldn't take it seriously.

The story begins with Asher Sullivan who is so ready to graduate and attend a prestigious arts college. She’s concerned that she's never been in love, but things begin to change at a school event. The problem with the event is that Asher doesn't want to be there, yet she stays, and no reason is offered for it. She has to go to begin with to set up her photographic exhibition, but after that, she could have left immediately and no one would have even noticed one missing student, let alone said anything to her about it, yet she stays, and it quickly becomes obvious that the only reason she did was so this other event could happen to her. It was staged, artificial, and unrealistic.

The event is when she meets Robin O’Leary, and again, this felt so fake as to be off-putting. Robin is a talented singer and she's a newcomer to the school, so for Asher to not really have registered the arrival of a sort of minor 'celebrity' in their midst is ridiculous, especially when she's supposed to be a senior photographer for the school. Even if she's not that sort of person, not part of the in-crowd and not interested, she would have had to at least have some idea of who this person was, and seen her in the hallway or at lunch, but no! What this tells me is that Asher is one of the most blinkered main characters I've ever encountered, and I lost all interest in reading anything more about her because she was presented as a completely boring person.

She wasn't an effective character to begin with because after the overture about her going to study photography at this college (if she can get in) and her setting up the pictures at the school event, that's it! Photography essentially disappears from the story! Not only is it not a topic, with nothing photographic going on, and it's not even talked about, but Asher never even spares a single thought about photography. She never has a camera with her and it never even crosses her mind to register, say, how beautiful something is that she observes as she goes about her business, or how the light is, or how a person or object looks in that light. Naturally you don't want a story to be weighed down with nothing but that, but if you tell me photography is going to be her life, then I expect it to be a part of her life already. To rob your character of that is to gut her. And that's how Asher appeared. She had nothing whatsoever in her life save for her lust for all things Robin and it made her one note and shallow.

Even after Asher and Robin have become something of an item, it never once crosses Asher's mind to photograph Robin! Asher has to be pushed into an offer of taking Robin's portrait by her own best friend, which is just ridiculous. What this tells me is that Asher isn't a photographer at all and photography is just a thing that's been crudely hung on her character in a weak attempt to give her some depth. It doesn't work, and someone so lacking in wherewithal abotu her chosen subject, is never going to get into any prestigious college. My guess was that the portrait thing would turn out to be a make-out session because it seemed so obvious a move, but I wasn't interested enough in either character to want to read about it.

The means by which she and Robin get together has no basis at all. As the book blurb says, they're at opposite ends of the social spectrum, yet Robin seems unaccountably transfixed by Asher from the start, and no reason at all is given for this, not in words or in actions. It felt fake from the start, and when we're offered no sound and realistic basis for the relationship to begin with, who really cares what becomes of it? I didn't, and I can't commend this as a worthy read.

Forced in Between by Alexandra Ispas

Rating: WARTY!

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

This was an odd story to which I'm sorry to report I cannot give a positive review. The author is really quite young, and I think that might be the reason why main problem with it is that while it's superficially a book written for adult readers, it reads more like a book for middle-grade or younger because of the writing style. I think the author has talent and a future in writing if she works at it, and my advice to the author before she embarks upon another novel, is to read some good novels on the same topic that she aims to write about, and learn from them with regard to writing style, as well as dialog and descriptive writing.

The story is sci-fi and the plot is of an ongoing war between what I assume is humans, and an alien race, but details of the war are really non-existent. I'm not much of a fan of huge backstories and certainly not of info-dumps, but the problem here is that we get no backstory at all, so the basis for the war, or how long it's been going on, is a mystery. Perhaps this was intentional, but still I feel something could have been offered. These are students, remember, in a classroom environment, so this is the perfect venue to offer information about the war and its causes and so on, as well as about the aliens, during the normal course of the day's studies, but we get nothing of the sort.

The real problem though is that this story isn't about the war at all. It's about these students training to fight it, and even then we get more of a melodrama about the students interacting on a personal level than ever we do about training, or any information about when these students are likely to graduate. Despite the focus being on the students, we learn very little about them at all. They felt more like chess pieces being moved around the story by the author rather than real, self-motivated characters with agendas of their own. Because of this I found I did not care about any of them, much less what would become of them. This was part of the reason I did not wish to read on.

Even that isn't the oddest problem. To me, the oddest problem was why these students, who at one point undergo aerial bombardment from the aliens - all without anyone fighting back! - are practicing sword fighting! When are they ever going to sword-fight the aliens? There is some unarmed combat, which is fine, but almost no training in weapons, or tactics, or leadership. These students are being prepared for failure, not for becoming soldiers. Again, maybe it's what the author intends, but I read through some fifty percent of this book, and nothing changed. If the author had at least shown us the students in a class during the earlier part of the novel, learning about alien physiology and psychology, this could have been used to prepare us for what happened later, but this was another opportunity that was missed.

At one point there is this thing going on about this secret weapon, which (the description was vague) appears to be a set of little disks that can project holograms, such that when they're laid on the ground, the disks make it look like there is a person there above it. During the aerial attack, students are out there placing these holo-disks and I had to ask to what purpose? It assumes the aliens have vision exactly like ours and that they can be fooled by static holograms, 'killing' those instead of killing real people. This also assumes that the aliens don't have any other technology than their eyes and their eyes work just like ours. It assumes they wouldn't seek to thermally-image targets - so they can see that it's literally a warm body and not an empty shell of light. Militaries do some dumb things, but I can't believe this would be a real project thought-up by the military when they could be spending that same huge budget on advanced weaponry. It's not the way any military works.

The other oddity is that the main character, Jennifer, is the only woman in the entire academy, yet no one ever really remarks on this. Why is she the only one there? In fifty percent of a novel I expect to get some answers about that, but none were forthcoming. The thing about Jennifer is that she makes close contact with an alien but never reports it. She seems predisposed to believe what the alien tells her rather than suspect this alien might be a spy. Clearly the intention is that the alien is friendly, but we're not offered any good reason why we should buy into this idea, and it seems particularly ironic that we should be expected to believe the aliens are benign right after they have bombed the crap out of a site that's not even a military base per se, but a school. How friendly can they be?

Those were the most egregious problems with this novel. In short, it made little sense, it moved ponderously slowly, it was written in a rather juvenile voice, and I never found myself becoming even interested in, much less invested in any of the characters. I've tried not to be cruel in this review because the author is young and I believe she has talent, but I would be doing her a disservice were I not to tell it like it is. I can't commend this novel, but I do hope the author continues her writing trajectory and sticks with it. I honestly believe there are successful places she can go with her writing.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Destruction by Justin Edison

Rating: WARTY!

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

I was interested in this novel despite it being not the sort of novel I tend to like: the idea of interstellar war I find rather laughable. I think aliens would have better things to do with their time and resources, so it's really hard to find a good novel, let alone a series of this genre, and by good I mean not only engaging, but also realistic. I was hoping this would be different, and what intrigued me was the idea of the female sniper, June Vereeth who is the main character. In the last analysis though, I didn't like it, and I'll tell you why.

Note first that this is volume 2 of a series - again something I am not much a fan of (both series and volume 2's!), but at least I went into this knowing it was a series and that this was not the first volume, since this one is billed as ' Woman at War Book II' (that's Roman two, not eleven or "Aye-aye, Captain." It's nice that a publisher announces this right there on the front cover. Far too many do not, and I find that intensely irritating.

Among the many problems with a series is that unless you're binge-reading them after the series has been released in its entirety, you discover that the author is stuck between info-dumping to bring you up to date with events over previous volume(s), or leaving you in the dark. It seems very few authors can find the happy path between those two extremes. This author went the 'in the dark' route, so I was clueless about what had been in the first 'book'. I also had no idea if this was set in Earth's future and these people were descended from people on Earth and intermixing with - and in some cases fighting against aliens, or if everyone was human or none of them were.

That wouldn't have been so bad had there been some rationale and consistency in the story-telling, but it seemed like a bit of a jumble to me. Terms were tossed around, including names for possible alien species, with zero actual detail revealed, as though the reader was expected to know all about them. Perhaps the expectation was that those who wanted to review this would have read volume 1, but this is an ARC and there was no option to try volume 1 before I reviewed volume 2. I don't recall ever seeing volume 1 of this series on Net Galley, and this one interested me, so I tried it. That said, some guidance interleaved with the action in this book would have been appreciated; not that there was really any action in the portion I managed to read before I gave up in dissatisfaction.

As an example, we got long distances given in miles, but then short distances given in 'legs'. I have no idea what a leg was. Weights were given in 'bars' - again - no clue what that was supposed to represent, and there was no guidance on how to translate it, so in the end it was quite meaningless. If every measure had been given in alien terms, that would have been one thing, but to mix it like that with terms that aren't even in use today was just annoying to me. Maybe if I'd read volume 1 it would all have been clear, but I guess I'll never know. Since I'm done with this series, it doesn't really matter at this point. And no, I didn't go looking in the back of the book in case there was a glossary - I shouldn't have to!

What really turned me off the story though was the tediousness of the opening sequence, where soldiers were climbing these giant rock pillars. The pillars (so it seemed, although it wasn't exactly clear) were a natural formation of individual and extremely high rock columns with flat tops. In a highly unlikely event, an allied spacecraft had crashed on top of one of the pillars and these soldiers had been sent in to recover something from it. The job was rendered all-but impossible because the rocks were shrouded in fog which inexplicably never dissipated or blew away, so visibility was down to very little. Definitely not more than a few 'legs' - or maybe not! Who knows? Is moving over a short distance called 'pulling legs'?! To make things worse, the rocks were magnetic, which prevented anything electronic from working in their vicinity.

I'm sure the author thought he'd done everything to render this climb and tedious exploration of the tops of hundreds of these pillars inevitable, but he's missed a few things. One of these things was a magnetic survey. Yes, the rocks were magnetic, but so was the spacecraft, presumably, so any distortion in the more or less regular pattern of the rock formation might be a place where the ship had ended up. Another option that went unexplored was sonar. Signals beamed down from up above and the rebound recorded would have been able to map the rocks in sufficient detail to identify the one which contained the crashed craft and magnetic interference was irrelevant.

Perhaps landing atop the pillars using was an option. if a spacecraft could accidentally crash-land on top of one, a glider could sure make a controlled landing! It would have been no more risky than the climbing they were doing! Another option would have been to explore the foot of the pillar formation for debris from the crashed ship. Not every last piece of it was on the top of that one pillar. There has to be debris. That would have at least narrowed the search down.

The author had mentioned some brush down at the bottom, interfering with access, but I don't imagine that would have been an insurmountable obstacle. Setting fire to the brush would have lifted the fog! A final solution would be to have bombed the crap out of that entire area, to destroy the ship so the alien enemy couldn't recover it. Just mentioning these as not feasible for whatever reasons would have been a good idea, but to pretend like scaling the pillars was the only option was a bit short-sighted.

But sometimes the military does make really dumb decisions and it costs lives, so I was willing to go with that, but the story was so ponderous, and so repetitive with the long climb of that first pillar and then the traversing from one to another by stringing lines across the tops and shimmying along them. It was frankly a boring read. Worse than this, Vereeth was a sniper. Why send her to a place where there's no visibility? It made zero sense.

The disappointing part about her involvement was that she was supposed to be a trained soldier and yet she seemed appallingly weak, especially for this mission. Were there no other snipers available? Again this wasn't explored. The situation was exacerbated unacceptably once more by the story being told in the first person, so she came across as a chronic whiner, which turned me right off her. First person voice is worst person voice for precisely this reason (inter alia). For a number of very good reasons, it's typically a bad choice for telling a story - especially a young adult story, which this fortunately wasn't - and if I'd known beforehand that this was a first person voice novel, I would not have requested it for that reason alone.

So while I wish the author all the best with this series, for all of the reasons I've gone into, I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Proto Project by Bryan R Johnson

Rating: WARTY!

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

"We can't be a minute to soon or late." - should be 'too soon'

This book didn't sit well with me for an assortment of reasons. Opening it with the main character looking in a mirror is old hat, so when I read, "Jason Albert Pascal stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror" I was already starting-off on the wrong foot. Note that this novel isn't aimed at me; it's aimed at middle grade and I am far from that, but I've read many middle grade novels that have appealed to me. This wasn't one of them.

It's subtitled "A Sci-Fi Adventure of the Mind" and I'm honestly not sure what that meant because this was hard sci-fi, not fantasy or psychological, about two kids who come into possession of an advanced AI in the form of a tiny mechanical 'transformer' that can reshape itself from a walking pseudo-spider to a wristwatch look-alike and so on. It also changes color to exhibit mood. On top of that it's really dumb about some things and amazingly advanced about others. In short, it was too good to be true.

I've seen characters like this in movies and TV, such as Commander Data in Star Trek Next Generation, for example, who was quite simply absurd in his mix of complete naiveté about common situations, to his annoyingly trivial pursuit of others. It made no sense, and can only ens up making the AI look moronic.

Perhaps kids of the age-range this is aimed at will not see anything wrong with this, but for me, too cutesy pets and robots are nauseating. My own kids have grown beyond this age range, but I don't feel they would have been much into a story like this when they were younger. Not that I or they speak for anyone but ourselves, but on this matter of age range, another problem was that the kids seemed to express themselves way beyond their age and even beyond realism at times, employing terms like 'nefarious' for example, which struck me as inauthentic at best.

The biggest problem though was that once again the kids are doing all the investigating with little to authenticate it. Obviously in a story like this you don't want the kids calling the cops and then sitting around at home playing video games while the cops nab the bad guys! You have to get the kids out there and put them at some risk, but I don't think you can realistically do that any more without offering some sort of rationale as to why it is that they can't just call the police. We never did get such an explanation here; all we got was one kid's hunch about the FBI agent being a bit suspect, and then they were running with it.

I don't believe kids should be talked down to or written down to. Kids these days are more sophisticated than ever, having seen TV and movies about a whole variety of topics, including police investigations, science fiction, super heroes and on and on, where grown-up language and attitudes are expressed (and where nefarious isn't spoken even once!), so I think you have to give them a fair shot at a realistic story; however, this one had too many holes in it, with them being thrown into risky situations inorganically, and in one case where a parent actually puts them at risk.

That latter scenario came about when mom, the inventor of the AI, had built a second one in captivity, and used the communciation element to convey her whereabouts to her children. I had it ask why? Why risk putting them at risk? Why not use the communication opportunity to call in the police? If there had been a reason given why it must be this way, that would have been one thing, but it made no sense to have her put her kids any further at risk than they already were for no good reason.

A bit more social conscience wouldn't have been amiss either. For example, this AI must have had the most amazing battery ever invented, because it never recharged and it never ran low on energy! That kind of technology could revolutionize the world and free us from a lot of fossil fuel dependence, yet it was being used in what was little more at that point than a cute toy! Clearly no thought had been put into how this toy was supposed to function!

For one more example, I read early in the novel some speculation by the boy on what his mom was doing in her secret lab at work. He asked himself, "was she working on space tech to colonize another planet in the event of a global warming crisis?" Well, we're already in a global warming crisis, so no, it's not coming: it's here now, and kids need to be educated about this. But the way to fix it isn't to abandon Earth, it's to stop pumping CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and take urgent steps to scrub those gasses from the very air that we've ignorantly spent the last 200 years polluting with them! "In the event of" doesn't get it done. Not remotely.

I was disappointed in the educational opportunities that were missed here, and the flights of loose fancy that this novel indulged in. It was a sound basic plot, but for me nowhere near enough was done with it. I can't commend this as a worthy read based on the sixty percent of this I read before I decided to DNF it.