Sunday, March 18, 2018

Little Pierrot Amongst the Stars by Alberto Varanda

Rating: WARTY!

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

I reviewed Little Pierrot Get the Moon favorably back in August of 2017, but I cannot say the same for this volume. It's in the same format, comprised of sepia-toned sketches that are, in this case very disjointed, more-so than in the first volume. Many of them made no sense to me. Some of them seemed like a response to something which had gone before, but which wasn't included in the book! Nearly all of them were not interesting or amusing. The artwork was of the same high standard, but overall, this seemed like a completely different book compared with the first one I reviewed. Of course, it is a different book, but it's so different that it seemed totally unrelated to the first book.

I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this volume.

Bettie Page Vol 1 by David Avallone, Colton Worley, Craig Cermak, Esau Figueroa, Bane Duncan Wade, Sarah Fletcher, Brittany Pezzillo

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This took me by surprise, and pleasantly so because it wasn't at all what I expected. Frankly I'm not sure what I expected except that I hoped it would be fun - and it was. It was a great romp and put the renowned Bettie Page in a spotlight I'm willing to bet she was never in before - that of government agent! bettie was a real life pin-up girl, probably the last of the truly "innocent" models there was; her pictures were very cheeky but seemingly to outside eyes to be all in good fun. At least, she seems from her expressions in her images to be having a rare old time.

But this novelization isn't about that at all. All of that is just background to her 'real' life, in which she helps fight pinkos and weirdos in New York and Los Angeles. The story collects a four part serial story and a bonus one-off story together into one volume. Bettie doesn't plan this career, it simply befalls her as her modeling plans take an unanticipated wrong turn at the start of the story. Everything else is more like a comedy of errors, with Bettie being in the wrong place at the wrong time until she takes charge of her own fate and starts making things happen instead of having them happen to her.

The story is right on - with a nice line of fifties banter, and the artwork is wonderfully evocative - except for once or twice when the blue-eyed Bettie is shown with brown eyes or even green eyes at one point! She's also depicted as being a little more lanky and boney than the more normally -proportioned real-life Bettie who was only five-two and comfortably rounded without being overweight.

No one obsessed about not being skinny enough back them - at least not as commonly as we encounter it today because women were not conditioned to feel inadequate in the way our modern society seems intent upon rendering them (when it can!). It would have been nice to have seen this reflected better in the drawings and not just on the 'covers'.

Virtually all models were short and normally proportioned back then! As were actresses: Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe for example, were the same height as Bettie and no more "hourglass" than was she, and no one consider what today would be described as 'chubby' knees, as being out of place, nor was body hair for that matter. How far we've slid down the wrong chute since then!

ost of the fifties pop-culture references were right one as well, as far as I could tell, except for one mention of Ian Fleming. The story was set in 1951, and Fleming was unknown at that time since he had not yet penned his first James Bond adventure. He didn’t write Casino Royale until 1952 and it wasn’t published until 1953. It wasn’t published in the USA until 1954! The only other problem i spotted was on page 89 (as depicted on the tablet reader - the comic pages themselves are not numbered) where I read “The exist to be ruled." I'm guessing that should have been “They exist to be ruled”

There was the welcome but unlikely addition of a black female police officer. It was welcome to see a person of color in this story, but there were no female police officers in the USA 1951 to my knowledge. Atlanta did, believe it or not, have black male cops as early as 1948, but even then, they weren’t allowed to patrol white neighborhoods or work in police headquarters! We've come a long way but nowhere near far enough.

So, overall, I loved this story and look forward to reading more. I recommend this as a fun and original adventure series with a strong and fascinating female lead.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

Rating: WARTY!

I literally could not get beyond the first couple of chapters of this. It entirely rubbed me the wrong way from the start and the prospect of reading the rest of it after that just turned me off. As if the writing wasn't bad enough, the story is told in first person. Apparently it draws heavily on her experience with Hunter Thompson, and I have no respect for him either. If that is the case, then one has to wonder why she wrote this fictional account rather than a real one.

The story is of this fresh college grad Alley Russo (yes, spelled like blind alley!), a girl who wants a chance to work as an assistant to a purportedly renowned writer who is really an arrogant and a self-absorbed dick. This guy was so hard-edged that he was unbelievable as a character - hard-living, hard smoking, hard-drinking, hard to take seriously in fact. He began by humiliating this girl, who has so little self respect that she takes everything that's dished to her.

I picked this up because I thought it would be about the writing, but it really isn't at all; it's about this weak sop of a girl subjugating herself to an immoral slave-driver with the ridiculous name of Walker Reade, and foolishly thinking this is going to help her writing career. The sad fact is that she's willing to do literally anything to further her writing aspirations - except actually sit down and write! I have no respect whatsoever for her and none for this novel.

I was especially turned off it when I read a Kirkus quote. The quote merely said, "Fascinating" which could have meant anything! The Kirkus review could have said "It's fascinating how stupid this story is", but my guess is that it didn't. The problem is that Kirkus never has a bad word to say about a novel so their reviews are completely meaningless. Anyone who quotes them in support of a book is a moron, period.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Harry's Lovely Spring Day by Nathan GK, Janelle Dimmett

Rating: WORTHY!

This is an out-and-out old-fashioned romantic fairy-tale starring Harry the Mouse who lives in a box on a street in what looks a lot like a French town, although the author is British and the artist American! Janelle Dimmett's illustrations are painstakingly detailed, even down to individual leaves drawn on trees!

I enjoyed Harry's Spooky Surprise by NGK, not to be confused with scientist GK Nathan, so it was perhaps to be expected that this one would also pass muster. Harry is helped by passer-by Katie the mouse when his house is blow away in a storm. Those refrigerator boxes are not what they used to be since Trump's steel tariff, are they?! LOL!

Anyway, Katie kindly donates her umbrella top Harry to help him out. She doesn't need it, she claims, because she's off to the country to live where it evidently never rains! She hops on the bus and away she goes (mice can hop really, impressively high!). Harry decides he must find her and thank her and well, romance happens!

Told in simple rhyming couplets, the story is quite charming, and will doubtlessly and endlessly entertain young kids. I read in an author interview about the concept of paying it forward, although Harry actually isn't paying anything forward here, he's really just taking advantage of a kindness - but not in a mean way. He is thankful Katie and that's important too. But for readers and kids, the story doesn't have to end when the book does. Kids and their grown-ups can take the story on, discussing how it might unfold if Harry had donated his newly-acquired umbrella to someone else, and so on!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

Rating: WARTY!

This novel is a product of its time and in some ways shouldn't be judged based on modern standards, but this review is not about how children in 1900 will perceive the 'modern fairytale', but how children and parents in the 21st century will, and I have to say up front that the book is long, tedious in parts and worst of all, decidedly gory. It's also - unsurprisingly - clueless when held up against our modern sensibilities. I did not like it and I cannot recommend it.

This is a print book that I got on close-out at a book store. It's a classic, heavy, solid tome, with glossy pages and illustrations, so it's a nicely put-together book overall, but the illustrations are bizarre; they make all the characters look like zombies on drugs! Austin-based artist Michael Sieben illustrated this book, but I have to say how disappointed I was with the colored drawings. They were ugly and unappealing. There were also pages where a quote from the text was strewn across the double-page, writ-large like it had been hand-printed in block caps. Who did these and what the point was I have no idea, but they contributed nothing positive to the overall appearance of this edition.

Prior to this reading, the only knowledge I had of this story was from the movie, which in its own time really wasn't a huge success (it took a decade to break even!) and which had multiple problems in filming and abundant continuity issues in the finished product. The movie only really took off once it began to be shown on TV, and while the two (book and movie) are the same in broad general terms, some of the details are quite different in the book as compared with the 1939 movie. I read somewhere that there are some forty differences which I guess isn't so surprising given Hollywood.

What jumped out at me is that there is no interaction between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West in the early part of the book. That was all added to the movie to create dramatic tension. Nor did Dorothy meet Glinda until the end of the novel. She met merely the Good Witch of the North at the beginning (Glinda was actually the good witch of the south), who gave her a mark on her forehead by means of a kiss, that protected her rather like the Mark of Cain!

In fact, the movie makes no sense in having Glinda appear and outright lie to Dorothy that she has to see the Wizard in order to get home! You may recall that Glinda tells her later that she's always had the power by clicking her heels Nazi style. Why would a good witch lie to keep her from going home? The book doesn't have this problem.

There's very little interaction with the munchkins either (and no singing!). Dorothy is off along the yellow brick road pretty briskly. One thing I did note is that during their journey, the scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Woodman really step-up, thereby disproving their supposed brainless, cowardly, and heartless traits by the things they do to help get their party to Emerald City.

A better writer than Lyman Frank Baum would have gathered these threads together at the end of the story and had the wizard point this out instead of having him hand out worthless baubles. The wizard claims to be a good man (and a bad wizard) but he's actually a deceitful con-artist who does nothing for his adopted people and gets away with it.

I was really surprised by how gory the book is. I know this was penned in an era of wild and crazy fairytales and he was writing a modern version of those (so he claimed), but I think it's far too much for young kids even in this era of overly violent video games, TV, and movies. Sensibilities were different over a hundred years ago in a time when fairy stories were having witches eat children, but Baum did not need to go that route, but he made the deliberate choice to do so

The Tin Woodman, for example is described as being that way because he was once a flesh and blood person, but the evil witch, by means of enchanting his axe, cut off in turn, his arms, his legs, his head, and finally cleaved his body in twain. Each time he lost a body part, the local tinsmith replaced the missing part, but not his heart. I can see why they wouldn't want to go into any detail about all that in the movie!

In turn, the Tin Woodman shows no qualms about cutting off the head of a wildcat chasing mice (thereby proving he does have a heart). He defends Dorothy from the wicked witch in defeating forty wolves by means of simply cutting off their heads one by one. Dorothy, waking up to a pile of headless wolves, shows no reaction whatsoever. No wonder wolves are scarce in California! Yes! Unsurprisingly, Oz is southern California. Dorothy crossed a desert from Kansas to get there - where else would it be?!

That sam,e night, the scarecrow defends her from evil crows also dispatched by the witch only to be dispatched themselves by means of his wrenching their necks one by one. The cowardly lion proves he isn't cowardly by scaring off the witch's henchmen. The scarecrow proves he isn't brainless by devising several means to help them on their journey. Contrarily, his movie-self proves he is brainless by screwing up his lines and getting the Pythagorean theorem wrong!

One amusing thing to me was that tin doesn't rust like iron does. It oxidizes of course, as most metals do, but it's quite resistant to this, so the tin man, were he were truly made from tin, likely wouldn't rust and seize-up as he's depicted as doing in the story. This isn't really important in the grand scheme of the story though, which moves along at a brisk pace when it isn't sitting in the doldrums inexplicably. It drags on at the end though when it ought to wind up smartly.

The real problem is that it's not very inventive, nor is it very interesting, except for me in noting the differences between it and the movie version! The writing is a bit leaden in tone, and too grown up. It's very politically incorrect being a product of the nineteenth century, so parents might want to consider whether they want their kids reading something so violent, so unappreciative of nature, and with little to redeem it.

Dorothy is hardly the modern girl. She's like a character from your typical modern YA story: helpless, weepy, and needy, and really never takes charge. She's very selfish and ungrateful, and hardly a strong female character, nor is she a resourceful one. She defeats both evil witches, yes, but not through smarts and bravery (or even by good looks!), but by pure accident in each case. In the first instance, her house falls on the witch and kills her, and in the second, she simply throws a convenient bucket of water at the witch and melts her!

Why a witch susceptible to water damage would keep buckets of water lying around her establishment is an unresolved mystery, Clearly Baum didn't think his wiring through at all, but that's a common problem with writers. Hopefully it's all clear now why I cannot recommend this. There were too many issues with it, and there are far better stories about intelligent and self-possesed young women to be had. I'd recommend looking for those in place of this one. The Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen have told a few.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

Rating: WARTY!

Set at the time when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, this novel is number 18 in the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Mertz, PhD in Egyptology, but not in writing exciting adventures or thrilling prose. I wasn't aware of this being another in a series I'd already dismissed, since I'd effectively wiped my memory of the previous read!

One of the biggest problems with it was yet another author's inability to grasp that first person voice is worst person voice and should not be used in any novel unless there was a damned good reason for it. Her mistake was revealed here repeatedly by her habit of switching from first person to third person by quoting from some document which was evidently one of the family's other member's record of events. It didn't work and was truly annoying. When will these idiot writers learn to ditch first person altogether unless they can actually justify it and make it work?

This one I stayed with longer than the previous one and found some parts of it interesting and amusing, but ultimately the plot turned out to be as dry as Egyptian sand, and the story went on and on way too long, destroying the warmer feelings I'd harbored for it earlier, and since I found this ultimately to be a tedious read (read; listen!), I shall not be pursuing any more novels by Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Michaels!

I thought the story might have something to do with the truly amazing discovery of "king Tut's" tomb, but it really didn't. It was to do with some plot to overthrow a government and there were so many red herrings that it stunk of mummified fish, os the thing I was most interested in was merely set decoration. There really was nothing much about the tomb discovery. The rest of the novel was the retarded family rambling on and on about various matters which in part in the beginning was amusing but which became ever more boring the longer the novel went on.

One of the few things which actually made this listenable for me was the reading of Barbara Rosenblatt, who did an amazing job of voice characterization, and of the reading in general. I can see why she's won so many awards for it. Se had equal facility for both male and female voices and did a fine job overall. Sadly, the novel wasn't up to her high standards, and I cannot recommend it!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

Rating: WARTY!

I watched a couple of Chelsea Handler's TV shows and while they were mildly entertaining, they were not enough to make me want to keep on watching. I picked up this book out of curiosity since it was on close-out, but when I read it, I was far less impressed with this than with the TV show. I now have absolutely zero interest in this woman!

The biographical stories were boring and juvenile and presented like she was the only one that anything remotely like this had ever happened to. I had no interest in what she wrote and took quickly to skimming and finding less and less to engage me the further I went into it. In short order, I gave up on it entirely.

Does anyone really want to read about her OCD with masturbation at the age of eight? Do we really find it funny that someone pulled a prank on her that she'd killed a dog? I have zero interest in any of this juvenile stupid behavior and I cannot recommend this, not remotely, not even if you're actually a dog-handler from Chelsea in London.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rating: WORTHY!

Jewell Parker Rhodes is an award-winning author and this is my first reading of anything by her. Her novel Ninth Ward, the first book in her "Louisiana Girls" trilogy, won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

This novel walks lock-step with the Black Lives Matter movement by telling the story of a twelve year old black child who was shot by a white cop. The circumstances of the death are almost a re-telling of the shooting death of Tamir Rice in November 2014. That was the same year that Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald were also shot in August and October.

This is too many controversial shootings in so short a period of time and without question something needs desperately to change. This book, I believe, can constitute a first step in the right direction especially given that it appears to be aimed at a middle-grade readership.

Jerome is the kid shot in the back by a white police officer after he was playing with a toy gun from which the orange tip had been removed making it look much more like a real gun. The story is told from Jerome's perspective now that he has become one of the ghost boys: dead black kids who have suffered a similar fate to him. Among the membership of this ghostly group is Emmett Till. The book is a little disjointed and sometimes a bit hard to follow because it jumps back and forth too much between Jerome 'ghost' and Jerome 'alive and well' in flashbacks.

Sarah is the daughter of the cop who, let's face it, murdered Jerome. I guess technically it was 'involuntary manslaughter' since he didn’t go out there with malice aforethought, intent upon killing him, although the cop seemed to be arguing for 'voluntary manslaughter' because he was farcically claiming it was in self-defense.

I thought it was grossly unfair to show him 'getting away with it', but this seems to happen unsurprisingly, disturbingly often. The stark contrast between Jerome's impoverished life, his poorly-appointed school, and the bullying he suffers every day, and Sarah's privileged white kid existence is starkly drawn. He and Sarah bond (a little too quickly to be frank, but then this is a short novel!), and Sarah gets an education. Jerome does too.

This novel told such a good story and was so well written that I did not want to find fault with it, and I really couldn't except in two areas. The first of these is very minor: there was one quoted speech which was missing a closing quote mark at location 1788 in Amazon's crappy Kindle app where Sarah says 'He's got awards for bravery. Saving lives' The speech continues as a separate quote on the next line. Matching quotes is the bane of all writers' lives. Isn't there an app for that?!

The other complaint is a bit more involved. The author was (and rightly in my opinion) trying to strike a fine balance between the wrong of this child being killed and the right of trying to find a non-violent and understanding way to resolve this ongoing crisis. I felt that certain avenues went sadly unexplored though.

Later in the story, Sarah creates a website, and on it she lists certain facts about this inexcusable slaughter, such as "Did you know black people are shot by cops two and a half times more than white people? But they’re only twelve percent of the population." That to me was a somewhat misleading statistic not because it's not true, but because it's taken out of much larger and very important context. This story doesn't delve deep enough because the issue is far more complex than is depicted here but again this is middle-grade level, so we can't expect everything!

It’s the same problem when Jerome asks a little later if this disaster we see going on every day is because of slavery, and I think there was a missed teaching opportunity here. I think that keeping it this simple doesn't do justice to the middle-graders who are reading this, because while, yes, slavery was a tragic blunder that still echoes today, it’s not the proximate cause.

Black people are shot by cops more often because black people come into contact with cops in taut situations more often than whites, but this higher homicide rate in the black community isn't because they're black, it’s because black people are far more likely to come from impoverished and otherwise deprived backgrounds than are any other race. This in turn leads people into criminal - or at least questionable - activities and that in turn leads them into interactions with police.

Only a complete moron would make assumptions based on a person's skin color (or gender, or religion, and so on). Such assumptions are proven wrong over and over again as more unarmed black people are shot by whites, including by cops, but I don't believe this has to do with slavery.

I believe it has to do with fear induced by misunderstandings and to be frank, sometimes helped along by a certain amount of 'attitude' in the black community about entitlement and privilege, and misplaced notions of respect. The bottom line is that respect has to be earned! You don't get to have it simply because you're person A, or have religion X or skin color Y. And you sure don't deserve it if you have to demand it aggressively from people you don't even know and who certainly do not know you, nor would they want to if you have too much bad attitude! Racism cuts both ways

There was another issue which was unexplored here, which was the gun. This story exactly paralleled the Tamir Rice tragedy. Jerome was playing with a toy gun which had had the orange muzzle cover removed so that it looked real. In a side-by-side comparison, it's easy to tell the fake, but a cop doesn't have that privilege. In a tense situation, when their life may be at dire risk, taking time to accurately determine what you're dealing with could mean the difference between living and dying.

I was sorry the author didn't bring up that fraught issue and the utter stupidity of toy manufacturers in making toy guns look so much like the real thing, especially when the farcical orange barrel tip can be readily removed. Can we not make the whole gun fluorescent orange? Can parents not simply make the assertive decision never to buy realistic-looking weapons for their children? None of the issue of parental responsibility in raising kids to be smarter than Jerome was, or of Jerome's foolish behavior came into the picture and this was a sad omission.

People of all stripes need to be more restrained, more humble, more accommodating, and more forgiving. It would have been nice to have seen these issues explored in more depth in this book. I think the middle-grade reading community can handle complex issues, and I think it does just as much of a disservice to those who have lost their lives to fear and mistrust, and to misunderstanding, and yes, to outright racism, to take a view that's as shallow as skin-deep racism is.

All of that said, I really enjoyed this novel I considered it to be thoughtful and well-written, and to tell a worthy story. I recommend it as a great introduction for young readers to a badly-needed understanding and a long overdue calm and rational dialog.

Vlad the Impaler by Sid Jacobson, Ernie Colón

Rating: WARTY!

This graphic novel purports to tell the history of Vlad Dracula, Vlad III, Vlad Țepeș, or Vlad the Impaler, however you want to think of him. Rather than tell an accurate story, the graphic novel delights instead in purveying endless images of graphic violence, bloodletting, and Vlad as a rapist impaling young women - as often unwilling as willing - with his penis.

There is no doubt he was a violent man, but these were very violent times, so the issue is not whether he was violent, but whether he was more violent than those who surrounded him, and I think this is an open question. Was he a rapist? There's no evidence of it to my knowledge, so again, neither better nor worse than his peers.

Impalement, for example, was not his invention! It was common in the Ottoman Empire (right into the 20th century). Vlad was in league with the Ottomans for much of his life and learned all he knew about warfare from them. He knew no other life. This doesn't excuse him, but it does explain him and demonstrate that he was simply continuing well-established, if horrific, traditions rather than creating his own.

While the broad strokes of this story are accurate, the details are pure fiction, and embellished fiction at that. This book contributes nothing either in interesting story-telling or in great imagery. It's really just pornography, and not even in a sexual sense. I cannot recommend it. As an alternative to this I would recommend And I Darken by Kiersten White which tells a story about Vlad's sister Lada and his brother Radu, which isn't a graphic novel, but which is equally fictional, and which does offer a much more interesting story. I reviewed that one favorably in October 2017.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Reborn by Mark Millar, Greg Capullo, Jonathon Glapion, FCO Plascencia

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a graphic novel I got from my local library which has these days quite the selection. In amongst all the comics aimed at pleasing the Marvel and DC movie crowds as well as comic book aficionados, there are some gems that are not so mainstream even though they may have been penned by mainstream writers and artists. This is one of those.

The writer is a Scot named Mark Millar who has written quite a few graphic novels that I've enjoyed, many of which have been great successes, and some of which have been made into movies including one which starred Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman (Wanted) and another which starred Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, and Michael Caine (Kingsman). Millar tends to lean towards writing of the fantastic and the so out there it's almost but not quite parody.

Reborn is a story relating that when people die in our world they're born again into a different fantasy world. Of course in this world there is a sharp divide between good and evil. Decent people are reborn into a world of light and friendship, whereas bad people are born to the dark side which is of course intent upon encroaching onto the light side.

In the story, this really old woman named Bonnie dies and finds herself in this other world as her thirty-year-old younger self who is supposed to be some sort of savior of this new world. She meets her father, who had died on Earth when she herself was young. He is also quite young in this world. She learns of others who are reborn at the same age they died, and yet others who are born younger or older. None of it seems to make any sense. One of her dear friends is bitter because she died after her husband, but by the time she died and came to this world, her husband had grown old and died here as well.

Animals are also born into this world, and some of them seem to have appeared with the ability to speak, including this girl's cat which has gone over to the dark side because it's resentful of being neutered. Also present is her dog which cannot speak and which is the size of a small horse. The dog is reminiscent of the luck dragon in The Neverending Story movie, but it's not quite that awful. I am by no means a fan of having cute animals in stories, but here it wasn't so bad.

The savior girl has no powers and no knowledge of why she should be the chosen one, although she seems to grow powers as time passes. The problem is that when Bonnie discovers that her husband, who had died years before and whom she has long pined for, is also here, but has been taken prisoner by the dark side because they want to lure her into a trap, she abandons her world-saving role to go find him.

The story in some ways is most reminiscent of Lord of the Rings with the hobbit (in this case Bonnie) crossing from the shire to Mordor with her magic sword in hand. There's even a tower, but no eye glares balefully from its twin spires. The leader of the dark side is predictably a Lord - in this case Lord Golgotha. At first I thought he would turn out to be her husband, but later I decided Golgotha is probably her mother or maybe the sniper from the opening panels. Whether I was right or wrong (I'm usually wrong in these guesses!) you'll have to read this to find out! I recommend it as a worthy read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sunstone Vol 4 by Stjepan Šejić

Rating: WARTY!

I really have very little to say about this! I got both volumes 3 & 4 from the library at the same time, thinking they might be interesting but after I read volume 3 I was so disappointed that I had no real interest in reading this one. In the end, I skimmed the whole thing stopping here and there to read a section, and it was just as uninteresting as the earlier volume.

The art was great as before, although as before the female characters were all the same character with different hair and clothes! There was at least one character of color I noticed, so that was a minor improvement, but the 'story' was simply the same thing over again - shallow, one-note, and uninteresting with the author relying entirely on the sexual and the kinky to focus the reader's interest, and it failed in my case.

I'm not the kind of person who finds a negligée on a store mannequin remotely interesting. Put it on a woman in whom I have no vested interest, and I might find it mildly distracting, but put it on a woman I already find fascinating and who might merely be a choice voice in an audiobook, and it's a different story. The same thing applies here. I need a story. I need to be interested in the women. Putting leather on them doesn't make me interested. Shallowness turns me off. This novel was far too larded with both, and all this author could offer was a gossamer fabric with no body of work underneath it. It's nowhere near enough!

As I mentioned in my review of volume three, this was such a disappointment because I had loved Šejić's work in a volume of Death Vigil and a volume of Rat Queens both of which I reviewed favorably here. I cannot offer the same for this.

Sunstone Vol 3 by Stjepan Šejić

Rating: WARTY!

I picked this up on spec from the local library because it looked interesting and the artwork was awesome, but on closer inspection - and reading - it turned out to be much ado about doting, and BDSM came to mean Boring Detail, Sapping Mindfulness. I wasn't impressed at all. This was a disappointment because I loved Šejić's work on a volume of Death Vigil and a volume of Rat Queens both of which I reviewed favorably here.

I have not read either of the first two of this five volume set, so I can't speak to how those were or what kind of lead-in they were to these two volumes. I can say that this story was not interesting. I think the author is far more in love with the idea of portraying women in kinky clothing than ever he was in telling a story of two lesbian women who happened to share an interest in Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission (or sado-masochism if it's okay with you, Mistress Acronym).

The artwork was gorgeous and several leagues ahead of the all-too-common comic book flat color, flat image style. It was nuanced and shaded and had a lot of character, but ironically, having used that word, the big problem was that every single female character looked exactly the same! They were all thin lipped, long nosed, and lithe, willowy and skinny. In contrast the guys depicted in the story (although few and far between), had at least some characteristics to differentiate them, although all of them seemed to sport facial hair. This did make a refreshing change from most other comic books where precious few guys have facial hair, but it was taking the pendulum too far in the opposite direction! Worse, there were absolutely no people of color present whatsoever.

The biggest problem with this volume though, was the complete lack of a story. There's a thing known as the Bechdel-Wallace-Woolf test wherein a story, film, or show is said to fail unless it features at least a couple of women (preferably named characters) who talk to each other about something other than guys. I think there should be a similar test about stories where characters seem to have a problem talking to each other about anything that's not the core topic - in this case BDSM. It should include a component about the level of obsession with the core topic, too.

The two main women in this story were almost tunnel-vision, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else - on the topic in question. In short, they were simply not realistic to say nothing of a total failure in the rounded and interesting people department. Though an outside life was hinted at (one was supposed to be a writer, the other a lawyer, yet none of this was actually depicted), they actually had no life at all outside of their sexual interludes! Worse, they failed to treat even those interactions like they were actually a real part of their lives. Instead, they were disproportionately excited, surprised, drooling and wanting, to a level that was simply idiotic. It made it all fake and far more like cheap pornography than erotica.

In the end this story was not at all about how they were falling in love and building a relationship, but about how much the author-artist loved to draw shallow characters in leather and latex. The problem was that this was all the story was about. This was so clearly a guy's take on this topic that it failed to entertain or engross me at all. I don't mind reading about people's quirks and kinks, whether or a sexual or of any other nature, but when that's all the writer has to offer and there's really no actual story in sight, it's tiresome. I cannot recommend this one at all.

Atom Land by Jon Butterworth

Rating: WARTY!

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

This is Jon Butterworth's second book on physics. I have not read his other book. The author is a Professor of Physics at University College London and also works at CERN on the ATLAS particle detector experiment. This was one of two large hadron collider experiments which were instrumental in discovering the long-sought-after Higgs Boson.

I have to say up-front that I was very disappointed in this book. For me, it confused things far more than it clarified them, which is unfortunate. I'm not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, and I have only a lay-person's understanding of the topics covered here, but I have read extensively on these subjects, so I know my way around them in general terms. I was hoping for more clarity or new learning here, and I felt I got neither. The author used the metaphor of exploring oceans and islands to pursue the investigation of forms of energy and sub-atomic particles, but it didn't work and it felt much more like a shallow tourist trip where it's all about superficiality and gewgaws, rather than an actual exploratory voyage during which we really learn something about the venue we're visiting.

But before I really get started on content, I find myself once more having to say something about formatting. This book is laid out as a typical academic-style text, with very wide margins, lots of white space, and lots of extra pages up front that strictly aren't necessary. The publisher determines how a book should look, and supplicants to the publishing world are required to conform whether the antiquated rules make sense in a modern world or not.

For me, the bottom line is that we cannot afford to sacrifice so many trees in a world where climate change is running rampant and may be irreversible. We need trees alive, not crushed and sparsely printed on. Naturally in an ebook, this is irrelevant except in that bulkier books eat up more energy in transmission over the Internet, but for a large print run, this slaughter of forests has to stop, or at least be contained. Wasting so much paper is unacceptable.

This book had an extensive contents which served no purpose at all because it contained no links to the actual chapters nor did the chapters contain a reverse link to get back to the contents. Neither was there an index in the back. I assume there was no index because ebooks are searchable and therefore an index and a contents are really irrelevant. Who reads a contents page? Maybe some do, but I never do. I don't read prologues, forewords, introductions, or prefaces, either. If you want people to know what's in the book, make the back cover blurb serve a real purpose and put a brief contents list on that cover!

The real problem here though was the margins which ate up (by my estimation) at least a quarter of each page in white space. The chapter title pages wasted more, and each book section wasted yet more by having its own title page. I'm sure authors and publishers think this makes a book look pretty but you know what? Trees are far prettier than any book I've ever seen or heard of. The book could probably have been two hundred pages instead of three hundred, had more judicious margins and a slightly wiser use of overall space been employed. I can't sanction that kind of wastefulness in formatting.

Another issue was that while the publisher very wisely did not publish this using Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which mangles anything but the plainest of text, the book was published in a format which lent itself poorly to being read on a smart phone, because every page insists upon presenting itself as a complete page. Like an atom, it's not easily broken down into smaller component parts and the entire page is too small, especially with those margins, to be read comfortably on a phone screen. It's really designed for a tablet computer which is far less easy to tote around than is my phone.

On the phone, the reader is constantly having to stretch the page to fill the screen. Shrinking those large margins made it intelligible, but that also rendered it 'unswipeable': you can't swipe to the next page, so you have to reduce the page back to original size - sometimes requiring two shrinking efforts to achieve this properly - swipe it, enlarge it, read it, shrink it, rinse and repeat. It makes for an irritating reading experience at best.

The real problem or joy of any book though is the content (as opposed to contents!). Does it do the job? For me this did not because there were so many confusing metaphors here that it really muddied the water rather than clarified it. It was like comparing the pristine Inverness river of the thirteen century with the disgustingly polluted Thames of the Victorian era.

As I mentioned, the metaphor of sea-travel and island visits is employed here, and the book even includes maps of them of these locations, but this struck me as completely fatuous and an entirely wrong-headed approach. Illustrations of some of the concepts he was discussing would definitely have clarified things, but none of those are to be found anywhere. Instead, we have fake maps of fictional seas and islands that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject under discussion. To me this was ill-advised.

It didn't help that the author continually jumped around like he was in Brownian motion between one topic an another. First we sail to this island, then we sail back to where we started, then we take a train journey, then we re-board the ship and sail to another island, oh look at that island over there, but here we are at this island instead. It made for a nonsensical text in which the reader struggled to follow the topic instead of being helped along by a favorable breeze as it were.

I can't test the whole document since I don't have the text, but out of curiosity I typed in this one tiny section which struck me as being obtuse:

The sprays, or jets, of hadrons will be collimated roughly in the direction of the initial quark and antiquark. The energies and directions of the initial quark and antiquark can be calculated in QCD, and the calculation agrees well with measurements of the jets.
This scored marginally over a forty four in Flesch reading ease, where a score for comfortable reading would be sixty or seventy. Low scores are bad! The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12.5 which indicates a person who has started college (beyond twelfth grade in the US means graduated high-school - or post-GCE-A-level student in Britain). Although this was hardly a random sample, I believe it's representative since it isn't atypical of how this book is written, so be warned that the reading level isn't exactly aimed at the general populace! I think this is a flaw perhaps induced by having only scientist colleagues read the text? I don't know.

By the time this book reached chapter 19, roughly halfway through, and very accurately titled 'The Weak Force', and went rambling on about W and Z particles, once again without really explaining anything, but instead comparing the whole thing to an airline, I had pretty much lost all interest in this book. This chapter seemed to be one of the most confusing and therefore the weakest in the chapter list so it was aptly named, but maybe this was simply because I was so tired of these meaningless meandering and overblown metaphors that I really had no heart left in it at all, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Even when we got down to the actual topic under discussion, the text really didn't do very much to educate or illuminate. As I mentioned, it was like a tourist version where we see the sights, but learn little to nothing of local color and history. We got a scientist's name tossed in here and there, but nothing in depth about the subject before we were whisked-off to the next. Every topic got the same short shrift no matter how easy or hard a topic it might have been to explain.

For example at one point (page 127 of the book, page 145 of the screen page count, which is an indicator of how many fluff pages there were at the start of this book), there was a brief discussion of the elements and how well-bound (or otherwise) they are, with iron standing out as tightly-wrapped no-nonsense kind of a fellow, but nowhere in this section was there any sort of discussion as to exactly why iron, of all the elements, is like this! There were hints all around it but nothing as solid as iron itself is.

Why is iron such a problem in star formation and development such that when a star starts making iron in its belly, it's doomed? Iron is like the legendary black spot in pirate lore, predicting your demise if you get it, but we learn nothing of exactly why this is so. We're told only that this is why iron is so common. I had expected, in a book like this, that there would be something to learn here, but it seems that either there isn't or the author thinks it not worth sharing, and we were never party to which of those options it was. To me this was a starting point: begin with trusty old iron, talk about the elements, and use those discussions of elements and their properties to launch the other topics covered here.

Another such issue was when the text started in on the color of quarks. Color when used in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with what you see on the TV or movie screen, or in images on your camera. It's an idiosyncrasy of science which Richard Feynman detested. Red, green and blue are used to describe various quarks, but their opposites are not cyan, magenta and yellow! Instead, they're woodenly named: anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue! There was an opportunity for humor there which was missed a in a community which seems fine with quarks named strange and charm! In physics, the color of a sub-atomic particle has to do with the charge of the particle, not with color, but beyond that I have no idea what it really means and this book utterly fails to explain it, or even broach it. This to me was emblematic of the overall skimpy approach employed here. I'm surprised the ship didn't run aground in such shallow seas.

The fact that topics got short shrift - or more à propos, set adrift, as opposed to being anchored solidly in something people have an instinctive grasp of, really sums up the problem: I expected a lot more from this than I got, and it was a truly disappointing experience. I wish the author all the best in his career, both academic and literary, but I cannot recommend this book.

The Crystal Key by Robert William Gronewold

Rating: WARTY!

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

This book was overall decently well-written from a technical perspective and it started out quite engaging, but as I read on, I found it more and more slipping into the worn-out mold of young adult fiction: the perky best friend who is either gay or a female. In this case it was a female named Margo who was obsessed, of course, with fashion. There was the trope of the girl (in this case the oddly-named Felicity Bough) finding her new and great magical power and then being thrown into the threat or clutches of evil. There was the tiresome love-triangle with the reliable trustworthy boy-next-door versus the so-gritty-he's-really-animated-sandpaper bad boy who rescues her. That's what actually turned me off the story. Not so much the ultra-predictable bad boy as the fact that this girl who was initially shown to be so strong, was rescued and thereby was rendered into nothing more than a simpering acolyte of the thoroughly nauseating bad boy.

Evidently like other reviewers, I initially thought this was a graphic novel. It is not. It's a ~400 page tome of pure text, which is way too long. The story revolves around a world which is evidently ours but projected into a future where evil has become so pervasive that even the sun has gone out. What keeps the planet alive are these inexplicable well-springs of light which fountain-up from various places on the planet, But, just like in The Never-Ending Story movie, the dark is encroaching upon the planet piece-by-piece and no one seems to be interested in doing anything about it.

This world is predictably exactly like the USA, except for the magic and the asinine transportation, which seems (for no reason I was given in the fifty percent of this novel that I read) to be based on animals. Cars are tigers and stallions, buses are bears, cargo transportation is elephants, and so on. I was rather surprised not to see the cat bus from the anime Totoro. These are not real animals, but machines named after them and which apparently have some animal traits, but the description was so vague as to leave these things a mystery. They do evidently have wheels, so I didn't get the animal reference at all. None of this made any sense to me; it wasn't entertaining or amusing. Quite the opposite: it increasingly became an irritant in short order.

Someone at Chapterhouse Publishing needed to read this because there were multiple problems with the text. In general it was not awful by any means, and spelling and grammar were fine as a general rule, but there were some bizarre oddities which ought to have been caught by an editor if not by the author himself. For example, on page 48 I read "...then is shot down and dived...." I assume the author meant, 'then it shot down'. A little later I encountered, "...verdant shade of green" on page 73. Verdant actually means green, so this is a tautology. On page 117, I read "...plain stone brick wall...." It's either brick or it's stone; the two are not the same. This is maybe a case where the author started out using one and changed to the other, but forgot to delete the one they were trading out for the other. We've all done that!

On page 128 there was a mistake of using clamored instead of clambered as in "...clamored over the old blocks....' Clamor is to make a noise, whereas clamber is to climb over. I suppose one could say that clambering over the rocks was causing a clamor, but it really doesn't make a lot of sense to do that. On the next page I read, "...who knew what something bigger could do." which ended in a period instead of a question mark. I encountered a common error on page 134, where I read "She tread quietly...." The past tense of tread is 'trod', not tread, and certainly not 'treaded' which I've actually read in more than one novel.

On page 153, I read, "...two large trees that created the top of the hill" I don't get what that's supposed to mean. The trees don't create the top of the hill; they might sit atop it or surmount it. They might even furnish it, but they don't create it. In a part of the novel where Felicity is sitting in a machine I read "...two throttles sat upright ready for steering." Nope! Throttles control speed. They don't control steering, unless the direction is also controlled by the thrust, but since this was a land vehicle, not a water or space vessel, that seemed unlikely, especially since Felicity didn't know how to drive it. Finally on page 156, I read, "I'm hungry too," this speech was followed by the word 'returned' I think it was intended to be 'he returned', as in he spoke back to her. I'm guessing by how often I was discovering these that they didn't end on that page, but that's what I found in as far as I wanted to read in this novel.

In terms of overall formatting, I once again find myself having to beg authors and publishers to have some consideration for trees. This book had very wide margins on all four edges, constituting, by my rough estimate, some twenty-five percent of the page. If the book is issued only in electronic format, this isn't such an issue (although longer novels eat up more energy to transmit over the Internet), but for a book that might go to a long print run, serious consideration needs to be given to how many trees you're going to slaughter in this era of runaway climate change. No one wants to read a novel where the text is jammed together over the entire page, but if the margins had been even slightly less generous, the book would have been shorter and eaten up less paper.

Chapter one didn't actually begin until page fifteen and it ended on page 400. Some of those fifteen pages could have been also dispensed with, instead of rigidly and blindly conforming to antiquated publishing rules created when no one gave a damn about trees and climate change. I found it ironic that the encroaching evil upon which this author discourses is actually upon us (albeit in a different form from the one he writes of), and yet publishers and authors perpetuate their blithe (or blithering) blindness to it.

If these story had been shorter, less 'maiden in distress', and the bad boy third leg of the tired love triangle been dispensed with, this would have been a lot better. In faith, methinks it too low for a high praise, too long for a short praise and too little inventive for an imaginative praise. Only this commendation I can afford it: that were it other than it is, it is unhandsome; and being no other but as it is, I cannot recommend it.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Promethea by Alan Moore, JH Williams

Rating: WARTY!

This is a graphic novel I picked up from the library because it looked interesting. It's the fifth and final issue in the Apocalyptic series (this compendium collects individual issues 26 - 32), which I knew up front, so I have only myself to blame for this mistake! I have not read any of the other four and I'm actually pleased I missed them because this novel sucked majorly.

The story is about some powerful goddess coming back angrily and determined to destroy Earth, although she does a really poor job of it because she actually improves things, This part was interesting because she changed the flat, solid color 2D images into something a lot more realistic: 3D-looking subtly-shaded views of scenery and people, Some images were simply photographs which had been 'cartoonised'. None of that could make a really confused, boring, and meaningless story come to life though.

As one reviewer amusing put it, it looks like Moore finished up the last section on acid, but to me it seemed more like the artist was the one doing the drugs. The artwork was a mess of pastel psychedelia, and the text was in white and some other colors and impossible to read against the heliotrope background. I honestly didn't even try. I'd been ready to give up on this many pages before this last section, and it was the perfect excuse to simply drop it. Not literally, since it was a library book, but I truly did wish I could have dropped it right into the recycling. Cardboard coffee cup holders would have been a better use of these poor trees than this was. What a bloated, self-indulgent, self-absorbed exercise in masturbation it truly was! Don't miss it! Avoid it like the plague.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg

Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook which was read really sweetly by Kenya Brome, but while I would listen to her read a different story, I don't think I would want to read another story by this author because I was so very disappointed in this one. I think it had such potential, but the real story, of this young boy Elias on the run from a potential lynch mob, was completely subsumed under this farcical fluff story of a community garden being sabotaged by these rampaging butterbeans, and how this guy named Bump Dawson, and African American, was being blamed for it.

Set in 1963 in Mississippi, the story tells of a racially-divided community with black folk living literally on the wrong side of the tracks, which I felt was a bit much. They are of course criminally subjugated in every way, but things get stirred-up for the worse when the old man of the "Big House" where Bump and Addy (the twelve year old narrator) work, dies of old age. He leaves some land to the community and specifies in his will that it should be shared by whites and "negroes" but of course the white powers that be - the sheriff and mayor - aren't about to let no "uppity" black folk have a share in anything if they can help it.

It's decided that a garden should be planted with vegetables, and the black folk can work it and the vegetables shared. It's not specified whether the non-white community would get anything out of this. What happens though is that someone plants butterbeans all over the garden. There are two kinds of butter beans (or lima beans as they're also known). One type grows as a bush. The type in this story are supposed to be grown on frames. Since these beans were scattered all over the plot and had nothing to climb on, they supposedly grew wild vines which strangled everything else, ruining all the other things that had been planted.

To me, this was a stretch at best, because it assumes that not one single person other than the villain of the piece ever went to look at how the crops were progressing, and no one went to water it or pull weeds. The villain was a white guy who owned a grocery store, and who sabotaged the community garden because he thought it would take business away from his store, but it was Bump Dawson who was put on trial for it. Had this been the whole story and nothing but the story, that would have been one thing, but it wasn't.

Prior to the butter bean fiasco, a pair of white kids, heroes of the local football team, had been bullying Addy, and her older brother had flown off the handle, beaning one of the bullies with a glass jar containing a preserve or something. I forget exactly. That could have killed this kid. Fortunately it didn't, but being as it was - a black kid assaulting a white kid in 1963 Mississippi, there would be a lynching more than likely, so Addy's brother Elias goes on the lam, and the author tries to pretend he drowned, but it's obvious he didn't.

To me, this was the focal point right here, but the author derailed that one completely, ruining what could have been a great story, with this overly melodramatic butter bean garbage. So for me the story failed. It cheapened and trivialized Elias's story which was much more interesting. Yes, he was provoked, but his reaction had been foolishly out of proportion. He could have been charged with attempted murder, and by the end of the story he escaped justice. Not that there was justice to be found for black folks back then, and precious little even today in far too many cases.

I know this story was aimed at middle-grade kids, but it was a very one-dimensional story and racist in some ways in that white people were all lumped together under the banner 'white folk' who all supposedly had the same traits: all white folk do this or all white folk think that. That kind of bigotry was no better than what the African Americans had to deal with on a daily basis, so for these reasons, I cannot rate this as a worthy read.

There are better stories out there than this, and I wish authors wouldn't cheapen the tragedy of an appalling and shamefully racist past and a present that is in many ways still as bad, by churning out bland stories which bring nothing new to the table and worse, which turn people off even reading such stories because of this constant harping on the topic by writers who really need to tell stories that move and motivate instead of putting people to sleep or making their ears glaze over by regurgitating the same old stuff that's already been done to death, without even the courtesy of adding something new.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Wandmaker by Ed Masessa

Rating: WARTY!

This is very much in the mold of Harry Potter. The main character is Henry Leach and I've decided not to read another young magician novel in which the main character has a first name beginning with H and ending with Y. The wands on the cover look suspiciously like props from the Harry Potter movies, but we can't blame the author for that - except to blame him for trusting Big Publishing™ instead of publishing it himself and making his own cover! This was an audiobook and I wasn't particularly impressed with the reader, but it was really the story which wasn't engaging me at all.

Henry is supposed to hail from a long line of wand-makers on both his parents' sides of the family, so he has special powers, we're led to believe, but he came across as being something of an idiot to me. His mother is not in the picture for reasons which were never gone into in the portion I listened to (which was less than half). The world-building wasn't great, so I felt lost much of the time, but part of this could well be because I became bored and irritated and skipped parts of the story; however, even when I was listening to it sequentially and with interest at the beginning, it still failed to give me a good feel for the world, and how Henry came to be where he was in it.

The secondary characters were singularly unimpressive. His kid sister Brianna was such a dedicated brat that she was entirely unlikeable, as was his father, who seemed to have an evil streak in him. Apparently he goes missing later in the story so this is a good thing. Henry's mentor, Coralis (which name sounds like some sort of software app) was simply tedious, although this may have had a lot to do with the reader of the audiobook.

In short I could not get into this and have absolutely no desire to follow a series about this character. I cannot recommend it based on what I listened to, but this is par for the course for many audiobooks since I tend to experiment more with them.

Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment. The blurb sounded wonderful, but the story, not so much. Read pretty decently by Kirsten Porter, the story was supposed to be a sequel to Hattie Big Sky about little orphan Hattie who inherits a homestead. I never read the original, but in this sequel, we learn of Hattie Inez Brooks that "Nothing can squash her desire to write for a big city newspaper." Except the author, who never lets her near a story. Hattie never reports on anything (at least not in the portions that I listened to). She claims she wants to report; she moves to San Francisco purportedly to pursue her desire; she reads newspapers, but nowhere did she ever pursue a story. It was pathetic.

This is one good reason why I rarely like series! The story falls apart! I can't speak for the first volume, but I understand it told the story of sixteen-year-old Hattie taking over a homestead that was bequeathed to her, and making a go of it. It sounds like a Mary Sue prequel, but given that opening story, how she changed from fighting for that, to completely abandoning both it and her love so easily is a complete mystery.

I didn't even realize this was a sequel at first, and if I had known there was a volume one and it had won a Newbery, I would have avoided it and this one like the plague. This second volume was pretty pathetic and exactly what I would expect from a Newbery author. Newbery is a stamp of approval for bland and tedious. I would feel insulted if I were ever offered one and I would turn it down.

So, I listened to two of the five disks, skimmed the third, and then listened to portions of the last one, so I think I got a pretty fair sampling of it, and nothing changed. The story should have been titled 'Flaccid Ever After', or 'Mary Sue Goes to San Francisco' since everything she dreams of seems to fall into her lap without her having to strive for a single thing. And this is after she callously ditches her love for her career. Kirby Larson is known for her children's books. I positively reviewed one of these, titled Dash in September of 2017, but listening to this, it was easy to see why she's known for writing for children and not for adults.

I got the impression that the author had done a lot of research, but instead of using that as background for her story, she was so thrilled with herself over how much she knew about the era that she wanted to lecture the reader about it, and so instead of actually telling Hattie's story, the author spent almost the entire time showing off her research. Instead of a story, we got a series of info dumps, and the whole thing was a sorry mess. I cannot recommend this based on my experience of it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

Rating: WORTHY!

This book was a bunch of bull - young bulls growing up with the idea of fighting in the bullring in Spain - except for Ferdinand that is, who much preferred to sit in the shade under a tree, enjoying the flowers. I must confess I was truly curious to see where the author took this and so I read on!

When the ring managers showed up to pick fresh young bulls to go up against the toreadors and matadors, all the bulls except Ferdinand played their game and were ready to run and fight. Ferdinand was under his tree, that is until something seriously disturbed him, and then the managers were very interested in how feisty he was, and took them with him. But in the ring, all Ferdinand wanted to do was to sit and enjoy the flowers tossed down into the ring by the spectators.

This was a fun and colorful book with a great ending, and a positive message. It's okay not to ask "How high?" when someone orders you to jump! It's okay to stop and smell the roses! I recommend it.

Red Car Green Car by Mara van der Meer, Penny Worms, Amy Oliver, Adria Meserve

Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated in fine young-child fashion with bright primary colors, and beautifully created and worded, this book looked to me like a great and fun book for very young children. There are things to pull on that change the color of the car you're looking at, and lots of sturdy pages to chew to turn happily. The book looked well-made and seems to me like it will occupy a kid for some time. It kept me occupied anyway! Certainly it will take long enough to grab a quick break and a soothing cup of tea. I recommend it!

The Wonderful Baron Doppelgänger Device by Eric Bower

Rating: WARTY!

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

I have to say up front that I was disappointed in this novel aimed at middle-graders. Maybe a portion of middle-graders will like it, and obviously I am not its audience, but I've read a lot of middle grade novels and found very many of them amusing and/or engaging in other ways. This one didn't resonate with me from the start. It's apparently number three of a series (The Bizarre Baron Inventions) and I'm not a series fan at all, but from what I can tell, it can be read as a standalone, which is how I came into it.

The first problem I encountered was with the formatting, although this isn't what garnered it a less than enthusiastic review in my case. This book, like many such books I've reviewed, fell prey to Amazon's crappy Kindle app, which simply isn't up to the job of fairly representing books unless those books have pretty much been stripped of everything that renders them as anything more than totally bland. Kindle format cannot even handle routine formatting, let alone specialty items like drop caps. Spacing between sections is random at best, and the formatting of this book in the Kindle was atrocious on my iPhone.

In the contents (why is there even a contents page - it's a novel for goodness sake?!), chapter two was run right into the end of chapter one, rather than appear on a new line. Chapter three was randomly indented on the next line. Chapter four was not a link, so you couldn't tap it to actually go to chapter four, whereas other chapters were links, but only a part of the chapter title was actually a URL. So - the usual Kindle disaster.

There wasn't a return tap either - to get back to the contents from the chapter title. Given that ebooks have bookmarks and a search function, I see no point in a contents page! It’s a brain-dead feature of the ebook system which makes zero sense and was obviously designed by a committee. It’s even more pointless if it doesn't work and Amazon seems determined to undermine it with its Kindle system anyway.

The book looked much better in Bluefire Reader in a different format, but even there, there were problems. It was all but unreadable on a smart phone because the pages were represented as a whole entity, which was far too small to read comfortably (at least for me who does not possess the eyes of a falcon!). You could stretch the pages to make them larger and more readable, but then you couldn't swipe to the next page without shrinking the page back to its original size first, so this made for an irritatingly ritualistic reading experience risking carpal tunnel syndrome just from continually stretching, shrinking, and swiping!

I am sure that on a tablet this would work much better, but for me, a phone is usually more convenient and I always have it with me, so I read the Kindle version and tried to ignore chapter titles that had random caps in them, such as chapter 2 which was titled " wHy would a Horse wanT sequIns on ITs HaT?" You see it appears to be only certain characters which are capitalized - the H and the T in this case, so maybe it's not so random. Why this occurs though, I do not know. I have seen it annoyingly often in Kindle.

The Bluefire view presumably represented how the print book would look, but for me this had problems too. In the electronic version, abusing trees by having too much white space isn't an issue, although a longer book does require somewhat more energy to transmit, so there's an issue of energy abuse.

As far as the print version goes, as judged from the Bluefire Reader, the margins, top, bottom, left, and right are super wide, and the chapter title pages have such huge chapter titles that the actual text doesn't start until the last third of the page. There are also illustrations which do little to augment the text and could have been omitted. More on these later. I calculated that there is about a third of each page (and more on the chapter title pages) which is white space.

The fact is that we cannot afford to abuse trees like this in an era of rampant climate change. Each printed book releases almost nine pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and printing books topples over thirty million trees every year. An e-reader is also harsh on the environment, but once you read a couple of dozen books on it, you’re getting ahead of the print curve. An electronic book takes three times fewer raw materials and uses seven times less water, but even so, the design of your book can make a huge difference.

No one wants to read a print book where the text is so jammed together that it's hard to read, but in this case, instead of blindly following rote rules of one inch margins on all sides (or whatever), making the margins smaller would have shortened the novel significantly, and for a large print run, saved more than a few trees and many pounds of CO2. It's worth thinking about if you care about the planet.

The novel is 237 pages (judged by page numbering in the Bluefire Reader), but it actually starts on page nine and finishes on page 234, so it's really about 225 pages. Tightening the margins and reducing the number of empty pages at the beginning of the novel could have brought this book down to well under two hundred pages (and even with the book-end fluff pages).

Authors and publishers need to seriously consider what they're doing to the environment. To my knowledge there are no fixed rules about how a book should look except what individual publishers 'prefer' so this should be a no-brainer: environment first, formatting second. Save trees, save energy on print runs, and guess what? Save money in producing the novel!

Another formatting issue was that the page headers (the author's name at left, the book title at right) which looked fine in the Bluefire version, were interposed with the text in the Kindle version. For example, one page had this text over three lines:
...said P. "I
erIC bower 29
heard you tell my wife that...
As you can see, the Eric Bower and page number are in the middle of a sentence, and the 'IC' in Eric is randomly capitalized. Why is it even necessary to put the author's name and book title as headers? Do authors and publishers think the reader has such a short-term memory that they need to be reminded every page what they're reading and who wrote it? Again, it's antiquated, hide-bound tradition and nothing more. It serves no purpose.

Back to the image issue I mentioned: completely and predictably mangled the images. They looked even worse on my phone because I keep the screen black, and the text white to save on the battery (it takes more power to keep the screen white and the text black), so the images (on a white background) always look out of place, but it gets worse! On page 21 of the Bluefire version, there is a line drawing of an airplane. This was chopped into segments which were then distributed over seven - count 'em seven! - screens in the Kindle app on my phone! Consequently, the image was largely unintelligible.

The same thing happened to an image of a car. Curiously, the 'monkey in the plumed hat' image, which appeared shortly after the airplane image, was not completely Julienned, but it was split over three screens, and there were black lines across it so it looked like Kindle was thinking about making a jigsaw out of it, but never quite got around to it!

Finally the story itself: it honestly felt just too silly and improbable for me. It seemed less like a story than it was a series of skits jumbled together, and it was larded with so much asininity and so many meandering asides that it was hard to follow the story (and in this I am graciously assuming there was one). It was too silly to read. I reached about forty percent and had to give up on it because it was simply not entertaining and the story appeared to be going nowhere.

Maybe the target audience will go for this, but my kids, who are now a bit older than this target audience admittedly, would not have found this engaging. Personally, I didn't like the main character at all. I felt that first person voice was the wrong voice for this story. It usually is the wrong voice, and is way over-used, but in this case it was made worse because he was just so annoyingly voluble and so repulsively full of himself, proud of his incompetence and trouble-making, and never once sorry for what he did to people.

In fact it was when he was all-but strutting with pride over dropping a fountain pen onto someone's head so that it became permanently stuck there, that I gave up on the novel. He never once exhibited remorse or guilt, and I'm sorry, but this is not the kind of thing you need to be teaching impressionable young boys. At this point it was just too dumb for me to continue and I gave up on it. I cannot recommend this novel based on what I read of it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling, Karen Baiker, Davin Cheng

Rating: WORTHY!

This is a Rudyard Kipling story adapted by Karen Baiker, and illustrated nicely by Davin Cheng. I reviewed Kipling's Just So Stories a long time ago on this blog, and this one was included in that book under the title How the Elephant Got His Trunk which is the subtitle of the present story. As this newer author and illustrator have shown here, there is probably a rich and free vein of children's stories to be mined there now that Kipling is out of copyright. I'm going to get on it right away. Kidding! I have too much on my plate as it is.

The story is that of an annoyingly curious young elephant who, as all elephants did back then of course, had a snub nose. He was constantly asking questions of his older relatives: the baboon (who is shown incongruously hanging from a tree for which baboons are not really well-known!), the giraffe, the hippo, but none of them can spare him any time, so he takes the advice of a very possibly maliciously-inclined bird, who advises him that his last question, 'what do crocodiles eat?', could best be answered by hiking over to the Limpopo river and asking a croc directly.

The elephant in his innocence thinks this is a brill idea and heads off forthwith. The croc advises him that he will not only be happy to tell him, he will show him what he's going to eat for dinner and snaps at the elephant. This was very probably the first sound bite. Or perhaps more likely, an unsound bite since the croc only manages to grab the elephant's nose. In the ensuing tug of war, the nose is stretched and stretched of course (you knew this was coming, didn't you?!).

Unlike his elders, the young elephant is happy to take the time to relate his story of how his nose grew so long. And there you have it! So while this isn't an original story, it is nicely told and beautifully illustrated, and it's in a nice, so I recommend it.

A Crack in the Sea by HM Bouwman

Rating: WARTY!

This audiobook was a sorry mess. It seemed like it might be a fun children's fantasy, but it turned out to be a lecture about slavery. Slavery was horrible, period. It should never have happened, but Christian people perpetrated these crimes on innocent Africans (the Bible supports slavery - or at the very least doesn't condemn it), and these obnoxious criminals set in motion issues we're still dealing with today, particularly in the USA.

The problem with a book like this is that slavery has been so done that there's nowhere else to go with it unless you offer a viable new perspective as the Black Panther movie did for example, and this novel did not. Just to harp on it again as this story does is a serious mistake in my opinion because all it does is make people's ears glaze over. The story is lost on the audience. It becomes background noise and it fails to shock or motivate as it should. That's not acceptable, and I think it would have been more à propos if the novel had dealt with modern ongoing issues, which admittedly are rooted in the slave trade, but which have much more relevance and currency today.

While there were some amusing parts and some interesting parts, overall this novel in the end was just a jumble of disconnected and ill-fitting parts which really spoiled the story for me. I grew bored with it quickly and started skimming, then I simply jumped to the end and listened to it for a little while, but I became bored even with it, and gave up on it. The basic story is that there are two worlds, and some slaves who either jumped overboard or were tossed overboard because they were sick, are rescued by magical characters and who walk line-astern, holding hands, on the seabed until they arrive in the second world. I think slaves deserved a better memorial than this.

In this second world there are islanders and rafters, and the Raft King wants to take his people back to the original world and repatriate them. In order to do this he kidnaps Pip, and adoptee child, who can talk to fish and whom the king believes can open the portal to the first world. Why he'd ever want to go back to such a cruel, brutal, and racist world is a complete mystery that isn't unraveled in any of the parts I listened to.

So once Pip is gone, his adoptee sister, Kinchen, wants to go after him. She's aided in this by a girl the Raft King left behind in an "exchange" for Pip. This story might have been fine had the author not continually derailed it by having some old dude tell stories which were frankly boring, about two other kids, Swimmer and the "Water Drinker who will become Venus" (or words to that effect). If I heard that last name once I heard it a gazillion times. It was mind-numbing. Apparently there were also two other siblings, refugees from Vietnam, Thanh and his sister Sang, but I never got to that part and frankly I am glad I didn't because it seems to me the author had no faith in her original story and felt she had to lard it up with two other stories. Bad idea, especially in a children's story.

I cannot recommend this mess.

Poetry for Kids: William Shakespeare by Marguerite Tassi, Mercè López

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy, for which to the publisher I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks!

This book was a little bit different from what I expected, but there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. For me, I thought it might be Shakespeare's words altered somewhat to facilitate children's reading, but in fact the text was untouched. What editor Marguerite Tassi (on the faculty of University of Nebraska-Kearney, and much published on many aspects of Shakespeare's work) did was to choose the pieces, include them unaltered in any way, but to add a short glossary after each to explain some of the more obscure or more readily misunderstood terms. Language use and meaning changes significantly in four hundred years!

There is also included some notes at the end on "What William was thinking," and an index. I read this on an iPad and what I would have liked to have seen was a means to get back to the contents page from a given excerpt. From that screen you can get to any item with a tap, but once you've shuffled off this mortal contents, you can't get back except by sliding the bar at the bottom of the page which oft trigger'd Apple's pop-up bar, and it was annoying. To link or not to link, that is the question!

Talented and Spanish-born artist Mercè López contributed illustrations for many of the excerpts. The illustrations, well-aimed at children, served to leaven what otherwise would have been a landscape solely of text and perhaps, because of that, a tragically undiscover'd country. It's a pity the editor doesn't hail from the same place as the illustrator, because then it could have been billed as 'Two Gentlewomen of Barcelona'. But it was not to be!

There are over thirty selections here, so there is no arguing over what was the most unkindest cut of all, because if they are mark'd to read, they are enough. Let us not wish for one choice more; the fewer options, the greater share of honour each derives! The excerpts were a fine selection in my amateur opinion, and made for some great reading if you're at all a fan of Shakespeare. The choice selection (There's a double meaning in that!) is as follows:

  • All the World’s a Stage from As You Like It
  • O, for a Muse of Fire from Henry V
  • We Were, Fair Queen from The Winter’s Tale
  • Over Hill, Over Dale from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Round About the Cauldron Go from Macbeth
  • Under the Greenwood Tree from As You Like It
  • Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (sonnet)
  • O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo? from Romeo and Juliet
  • Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent from Richard III
  • If Music Be the Food of Love from Twelfth Night
  • How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps Upon this Bank! from The Merchant of Venice
  • O, She Doth Teach the Torches to Burn Bright! from Romeo and Juliet
  • O Mistress Mine, Where Are You Roaming? from Twelfth Night
  • What Light Is Light, if Silvia Be Not Seen? from The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • But Soft, What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks? from Romeo and Juliet
  • My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun (sonnet)
  • The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds (sonnet)
  • Cowards Die Many Times Before Their Deaths from Julius Caesar
  • Once More Unto the Breach from Henry V
  • All Furnish’d, All in Arms from Henry IV, Part 1
  • The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strain’d from The Merchant of Venice
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears from Julius Caesar
  • All That Glitters Is Not Gold from The Merchant of Venice
  • That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold (sonnet)
  • To Be, or Not to Be, That Is the Question from Hamlet
  • Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks! from King Lear
  • To-morrow, and To-morrow, and To-morrow from Macbeth
  • Why, Man, He Doth Bestride the Narrow World from Julius Caesar
  • If We Shadows Have Offended from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Our Revels Now Are Ended from The Tempest

But soft, what a great way to get kids involved, especially if they can read and you can get them to get all dramatic and really speak these words from the heart with spirit and energy. O for a muse of fire! Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious reading by this daughter of Baltimore! I recommend this.