Monday, February 19, 2018

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fat tome of a graphic novel and it's the author's debut. It grew out of a single comic strip posted on the web for the woefully misnamed Ada Lovelace day, and then morphed into a webcomic and finally a print version which is what I read.

The author did an awesome job in both in the drawings (line drawings black on white with some shading) and in the text. It was highly educational, and highly amusing. Be warned that since this story is rooted in reality (if given to soaring flights of fantasy once the real historical details have been established), there are extensive footnotes on almost every page. I thought these might be really annoying, but they were not, and I simply skipped the ones which didn't interest me, so it was fine. I found myself skipping very few as it happened. There are also chapter end notes, and two appendices.

It tells the story of Ada King, née Byron, daughter of Lord Byron, and Charles Babbage. Ada is best known as Lady Lovelace; she was actually the Countess of Lovelace, which was a title derived from her marriage. 'Lovelace' was never her last name. She is also known as the world's first computer programmer and as a sterling mathematician. She died of cancer at age 36, curiously the same age as her father was when he died.

The book tells the story of the childhood and formative years of these two people, of their meeting, and of their collaboration working on Babbage's Difference Engine (a mechanical calculating machine) and his Analytical Engine - a next generation machine. The amusing thing is that Babbage never built either of his engines despite getting some seventeen thousand pounds in government grants for his work on it. This equates to very roughly one and a half millions dollars today!

He did have a small working portion of the Difference Engine, and extensively detailed plans for building the whole thing. He seems to have lost interest in it when he conceived of the Analytical Engine and in that instance, he seems to have spent so much time on refining it, that he never got around to building it! The difference Engine at least, actually worked, We know this because one was built based on Babbage's plans and drawings, and was completed in 1991. A second was built in 2016.

Babbage wished to automate the laborious process of creating tables of numbers which were in common use for a variety of functions. His plans proved that he succeeded - at least in planning such a machine! Ada, Countess Lovelace collaborated with him extensively. This story tells those factual details at the beginning, but then moves into a parallel universe where the story takes on a turn for the fantastical and pretends that they actually built Babbage's machine and used it to fight crime.

If you have any ambition at all to write a steampunk novel, I highly recommend this book to get you in the right frame of mind, and to help you appreciate the wealth of talent in Britain over this time period. One of the most thrilling things about their era is that it was loaded with people who are household names today. Scientists such as Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin, for example, writers such as Charles Dickens. Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Mary Evans better known to us as George Eliot, and engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It's quite stunning to think that all of these people - and very many more - were alive over the early to middle years of the nineteenth century, and that Countess Lovelace and Charles Babbage met and knew very many of them.

I recommend this book


Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J Tiwary, Andrew C Robinson, Kyle Baker


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great graphic novel, beautifully drawn and colored, and with an intelligent text which never wandered far from the truth, about the life of Brian Epstein, the man who put the Beatles on the world map and one who was described by Paul McCartney in these terms: If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was manager Brian Epstein (but he also said that of George Martin!).

That said, it's really about Brian Epstein in relationship to the Beatles before his death (suicide or accidental remains an open question, I think) at the age of thirty-two in late August of 1967. We learn nothing of his childhood or early life. We meet him shortly before he meets them. Brian was gay in a time when it was literally illegal in Britain (the punishment for which was to be locked away with a bunch of guys. Was it really a punishment then? Yes it was. Neve underestimate how violently fearful people can become of others whom they consider different.

Brian Epstein had a problem with drugs which he used to overcome his tiredness and stress, and irresponsible doctors doled them out especially when he became wealthy and successful as the Beatles's manager. It was these which took him away, but before then, he found the Beatles playing in The Cavern, a hugely successful band on a local level but largely unknown outside of Liverpool and Hamburg. He fell in love with them and promoted them into superstardom.

The people closely associated with the band are almost as famous as the band themselves. The story of them being turned down by several record companies is legendary. Guitar playing bands are on their way out, the idiots at one record company told Brian Eventually a novelty record company, a small piece of a bigger corporation, and which was run by George Martin, and known for its comedy records, finally took them on and the rest is legend and history.

One the Beatles became uproariously, insanely popular and had stopped touring; there was not a lot for Brian Epstein to do, and perhaps it was this which pulled the last plank from under him. Gay in a item when hatred was even greater than it is now, lonely, feeling less than useful, perhaps he really did want it over with, or perhaps he just wanted his pain to go away. But he died and something in the Beatles died also. They broke up not so very long long afterwards.

I highly recommend this graphic novel It's as gorgeous as Brian Epstein was.

Scarlett by Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a kick-ass novel from the off, with a good, intelligent story and beautiful artwork. It's a bit bloody here and there, and the eponymous main character (modeled on a woman named Iva) is inevitably sexualized, but it's not overly done thankfully. I favorably reviewed Bendis's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3: Guardians Disassembled back in June of 2016.

The story is set in Portland, Oregon, and is a bit controversial in its subject matter since it suggests that, contrary to the tale we were told in the TV series Grimm, some of the Portland PD isn't so much going after mythical creatures, as it is after drug money for personal use. Why Portland gets picked on, I don't know. Maybe these guys live there?! Maybe Portland has a drug problem? I dunno.

Scarlett is a young woman whose boyfriend is killed by corrupt police looking to notch-up another drug dealer taken out, but her boyfriend was never a dealer; he wasn't even into drugs other than maybe a little weed (this is blog spot, not blogs pot after all!), but he's dead, and Scarlett isn't going to stand for it. She starts taking out she corrupt cops herself and becomes an almost legendary figure.

She varies her MO. We first meet her in a dark alley being approached by a cop who evidently thinks she's a sex worker. When he tries to get a freebie from her, he gets a death sentence instead, and Scarlett finds six hundred bucks on him which she, despite some doubts, takes as evidence that he's dirty.

After this we get her backstory which for a change wasn't boring me (I normally dislike flashbacks), and then the story takes off, always moving somewhere. My only disappointment in it is that this is only book one, so now I have to find others in this series! I recommend this one.


The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King


Rating: WARTY!

I don't think Ive ever had a month quite as bad as this for finding one read after another to be disappointing. Only one out of sixteen reads so far?! To be fair a lot of those were audiobooks in which I take a lot more risk than I do with other formats, so I tend to see more failures there than anywhere. This one was no better. I'm expecting things to pick up int eh next few reviews, however, so hang in there!

I've long given up on Stephen King, but a friend recommended this one and I decided to try it since it was so short (at least as compared with King's standard overblown, massively-bloated tomes), but once again he failed to move me. This was an audiobook read quite delightfully by Anne Heche as it happens. I'm a fan of hers, but even she could not overcome the improbable material. The main character is nine years old, but she's written as a far more mature character than that and it simply didn't ring true, so I lost suspension of disbelief right from the off. Worse: the story was rambling and uninteresting, and overcooked with artificial ingredients that will make you sick. It did me anyway.

The story is that Trisha gets lost on the Appalachian trail when she wanders off the track to take a leak. Her lousy mom is so busy childishly arguing with her petulant older brother that neither of them notices that she's gone. Trisha inevitably gets lost, and instead of working logically (as her far too mature brain ought to have) she makes things ever worse for herself by wandering further and further from the track, never once considering backtracking, until she blunders accidentally back onto a main road where a hunter fortunately doesn't shoot her but gets her to safety. And in one of the most sickly endings ever, estranged mom and dad magically get back together again. Barf.

This could have been a decent story in better hands, but it's all been done before. King could have chosen to write it a little differently, but you know he can't write a story that doesn't involve bogey men, so there is one chasing Trisha that's entirely a product of her own mind, which admittedly isn't absurdly mature, but it is tiresomely childish. We're expected to believe that her vast passion for baseball (not actually hers as it happens, but King's - yawn) is what saves her and keeps her going. Ho hum.

It's a tedious, tedious, asinine, and thoroughly unrealistic story that you know is coming from the brain of a man in his fifties which isn;t remotely like the brain of a nine-year-old girl. I'd expect a story like this from a first time amateur who was out of good ideas for a novel, but not from a seasoned writer. I'd even go so far as to say if this had been submitted as a first novel by an unknown, it would, rightly or wrongly, never have been published.

After the first sixth of the novel I began skimming and it didn't improve. This one had these utterly pointless and asinine drum and cymbal riffs at the start of each chapter for no evident reason. Why audiobook publishers feel an utterly braindead need to inject music into a story I have no idea, but it pisses me off. The author never wrote this music! What is it doing here? I hate it when they add music to novels which the author never had anything to do with. If an author of King's power and influence cannot keep it out of one of his novels, then what hope is there for any of us except to avoid Big Publishing™ like the plague?

If the sound disaffects had been baseball calls and cheers or something like that, I could have at least understood it even as I detested it, but drum riffs? cowbells? Cymbal zings? It made zero sense to me. Please, audiobook publishers, get a clue! It's about the writer and what they've written, not about your dumbass audiobook producer's frustration with his or her complete lack of musical talent. It's an insult to try to tart up a good story with irritating bells and whistles, and it makes a tiresome story like this one so much more obnoxious. In the end it was one more Big Fail by Big Publishing™ and I flatly refuse to recommend this disaster.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fun book. It started out great and just when I thought the author was giving me a tiresomely trope school-bully story, she changed her game and twisted things around, and overall I really enjoyed it, despite an oddly-rushed a somewhat lackluster ending.

The main character is Piper McCloud, who was born late to her simply country-folk parents and who, from a very early age, exhibited her lighter-than-air abilities. This did not go down well. Her dad had little to say about anything, and mom managed to keep Piper indoors, and keep suspicious and gossipy neighbors away, homeschooling her daughter, but Piper really wanted to explore her ability even though she also tried to keep it secret at her mom's behest. It nevertheless got out and soon the government was showing up offering to take this troublesome child off her mother's hands to a place where there are many children like Piper, and where Piper will get a good education. She certainly does.

The children at the school are very regimented, and are not allowed to use their abilities, which is quite the opposite of what Piper had been expecting. The smooth-talking Doctor Hellion has evidently fed Piper a bill of goods, but while Piper may be down, she's not out and she's going to be up and at 'em first chance she gets. The novel is a bit long and at some points annoying. Also it's lacking somewhat in logic, in particular that all of these children would be sent off by their parents to a place unseen and completely unknown, including its location, and that no parents would raise a stink about their kids disappearing and losing contact with them?

I was surprised no other reviewers raised this issue - not of the reviews I read anyway, not even the negative ones. It's even more curious given that there were other objections raised, such as that the novel pokes fun at religion, like somehow religion is not to be talked about in any negative light? Bullshit! It's not a crime to write fiction about religion whether positive or negative. But I didn't see it as poking fun at anything; it was simply showing Piper in a certain milieu from which she longed to escape. Religion was a very minor part of it and not even the most important one - just like life, in fact!

The other issue was about grown-up themes which clearly never impinge upon children's lives and all children of Piper's age are too dumb to understand them anyway, Right? Again, bullshit. I found these objections rather curious and narrow-minded. They seemed to forget that this is purest fiction. It's not a documentary. It's not a biography. It's not a prescription for how to raise children. It's merely fiction for children. Get over yourselves!

For me the most curious thing was that in the acknowledgements, the author writes of the first thankee: "My Dear husband, Wayne, who has stood by and watched me muddle through this process." I'm not sure that's much of a compliment. At best it's back-handed. From a writer it's poorly worded! If she means he has stood by her, then that's one thing, but if she means what she wrote, then he wasn't much help, was he? What you say matters, How you say it matters more! Every writer should know this, especially one with this author's experience. But aside from these quibbles, I recommend this novel as a worthy read.


Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell


Rating: WARTY!

Read beautifully by Jane Collingwood, this audiobook still failed to impress me. It began well enough, but it's one of those books which tells parallel stories, one in the present, the other in the past. Normally I do not go for this type of story but this one sounded like it might be interesting and after my first exposure to this author, I was eager for more and requested two more of her books on audio from the library. I was not excited by either one as it happened.

The story was interesting to begin with, but quickly moved from the main character's childhood to her adulthood, where it became significantly less interesting. There were one or two times when the historical portion was most interesting, and an occasion or two when it paled in comparison with the present, but in the end, both two stories became tedious and predictable, and were quite literally going nowhere.

I was also turned off by the amount of drinking and smoking going on in this book. It was disgusting and turned me off the characters. I sincerely hope that Britain isn't the chimney fire depicted here. It was gross. In the end my distaste applies to the whole book it was not entertaining, and it could have been. I felt it was a waste of my time and worse, a waste of a novel. It's a pity we can't bill the authors for the time we waste reading novels that don't truly transport us, isn't it? It would lead to a much better quality of novel than we all too often get, I assure you!


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell


Rating: WARTY!

Another experimental audiobook, but this time slightly less experimental (at least that's what I hoped!), since I really liked the first novel I encountered from this author, The Girls in the Garden, which actually had been an experiment. While that novel was fresh and entertaining, with interesting characters and a plot that moved, this novel just bored the pants off me from the very start from its very tone. Part of the blame for that has to be laid at the door of Karina Fernandez, the reader, whose voice was rather annoying to listen to, but she couldn't have managed that without the author's contribution! I could have managed to cope with her voice had what she been reading been more interesting.

The book isn't even like a novel, it's like being trapped on a bus or on the subway by someone choosing you to sit next to, and who then insists upon you hearing their entire life story and doesn't care that you were trying to read something infinitely more interesting than anything they had to say to you!

Sometimes a character like that can be interesting, especially for a writer to listen to, but that wasn't the case here. It was an endless tedious rant about family and kids and who had how many and who was born first and who did what and thought what and none of it was remotely entertaining or intriguing. I cannot recommend this. Lisa Jewell has one more chance with me. I'll let you know how that goes; hopefully it will be later rather than sooner.


Goodnight Baby Moon by James Mitchem, Clare Patane


Rating: WARTY!

This was a lot of book for little content. The Moon lights up, but not very well, and the light doesn't translate to any of the interior pages, which were quite dark in coloring (illustrations by Clare Patane, who quite obviously did the bulk of the work involved in creating this story), so I had to wonder what the purpose was, plus the button isn't amenable to little fingers pressing it, so a young child might have trouble lighting that Moon.

That said, the story inside, which was very short and light on text, was quite charming, aiming at showing a child that things which go away (like the Moon appears to), always come back, so it offered reassurance and a touchstone for children who might have separation anxiety.

For me, this story could have been done better, and the lighting didn't seem like it was worth the extra expense and bulk. This was quite a fat and heavy book for a young child to manipulate, and you would not want such a child gnawing on this book because of the electrics and battery. If you can afford to pay for mostly show and not much tell, then go ahead, but for me this seems like it might be an unworthy burden on a family paying all the attendant bills a young child brings with her. In that light (pun intended!), I'm not going to recommend this one, even given how charming and useful the story was.

I think you'd be better off showing your child the real phases of the real Moon. You could take a series of pictures and tell your own story to the same effect and make it a much more engrossing and enveloping story for the child. A better story is that the Moon doesn't actually go away and come back - it's there all the time even when you can't see it! This might offer much more reassurance for a young child than this book does.


Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose


Rating: WARTY!

This is the last thing by Francine Prose I will ever read. I think three audiobooks was enough to give her more than a fair shot at proving she knew what she was talking about in her Reading for Writers book of advice about how to write novels by combing the so-called classics for clues. I wasn't impressed with that, but I decided to try out some of her own fiction to see how well she follows her own advice. She actually doesn't. At all! She writes caricatures and stereotypes; she writes flat uninteresting characters in dreary prose; she writes boring, and tedious and depressing. The book - the parts I could stand to read - felt more like fluff than a story.

As usual the hyperbolic book blurb completely misrepresents the novel. It's actually not a story. Instead it's related through news items, diary entries, letters, and so on, which really turns me off a book. I detest the dear diary parts in particular because they're never, ever, ever written like a real person would write a diary entry. If you're not going to do it that way, then write the damned thing as a story because that's what you're doing anyway, moron, so why the pretentious pretense? This book was racist, celebrates white privilege, and favored the Nazi PoV, which is never a good thing. I have no idea what the writer thought she was doing, but whatever it is, it isn't anything I'm interested in reading, and I am now completely done with this author, permanently


Mister Monkey by Francine Prose


Rating: WARTY!

This was one of the most tedious and clueless books I've ever not read - by that I mean I listened to as much of the audiobook as I could stomach and ditched it pretty quickly. I got into this after reading a book written by this author and titled "Reading for Writers" which purported to teach a writer how to write by paying attention to the so-called classics as though all those authors literally agonized over every word they typed, so I decided to try out her own novels and see how well she does. I wasn't impressed. Not at all.

I'm sure some of those writers did agonize, and perhaps some modern writers still do, but agony doth not a great writer make. My gut feeling is that most of those antique writers simply wrote, correcting now and then of course, but otherwise never giving the writing process very much thought. The reason they did this is that they had a real story to tell about real (if fictional) people who genuinely moved these authors to write, so it required little agony to put it down on paper and little soul-searching. They were all about the story, not about analyzing it to death as we do today, and thereby destroying it in the process. And more than likely they did not dwell on it anally in hindsight like so-called professors of literature do. We could learn a lot from them, but it's not the education that this author thinks we should be getting in my opinion.

I'm not a huge fan of the classics. Do people care about the classics because they're really that great, or because we're force-fed these things in schools and colleges and by pretentious, bombastic critics until they can't think for themselves? There is a massive gulf between the writers who make money from their writing by producing novels which sell well, and the classic emulators who win awards, but about whom no one really cares that much unless they're forced to by college courses and school teachers, and by pretentious "must-read" or "Top 25" lists that try to brow-beat people into reading this book instead of that one for no other reason than that the creator of the list thinks their own opinion is akin to divine guidance.

If you're teaching people who actually want to write modern novels, then you need to read modern novels, not antique and obsolete ones, and you need to consider why it is that people buy this one and not that one. You need to ask why must we be forced to study the work of authors who made little to nothing on what they wrote and who are now being taken advantage of not because they were necessarily brilliant, but merely because they're no longer due any copyright fees, when each and every writer really does not want to be the next classic writer, but the first 'themselves'. They want to write. They need to write, and for my money what they should do is read lots and lots of the genre(s) in which they're interested, and then - in their own voice and using their own characters and plots - write something in that vein. Forget dusty professors who make a comfortable living not from their writing, but from a sinecure. They're not to be trusted.

For the sake of argument, let's pretend the classics do have miraculous things to teach us. This now begs the question: if that method is so great, why does the author of that how-to book not take her own advice? This novel was poorly-written, and it was filled with abusive stereotypes. This seems to be the author's MO, and it was insulting to everything from the chimpanzee (which it constantly and ignorantly referred to as a monkey) to the reader, whom it insults by this novel's very existence.

The author bewails the fact the game hunters shot the chimpanzee's parents, but she describes the locale as a paradoxically-named game preserve, not a wildlife conservation park! That doesn't make it right that the chimps were shot, but neither is it surprising when it's a game preserve that animals die unnecessarily. And no, chimps don't have cute little family units with mom, dad, and 2.2 children like humans do, so why did it matter that mom and dad ape were shot? Mom, yes! Dad? Not so much in a chimp's world. For all her blather about choosing your words, she completely failed here to choose her words wisely.

The title describes a play which is being put on by a bunch of appallingly cardboard and stereotypical actors. It's told from several rather confusing perspectives, and none of them were interesting to me. And blurb-writer? No, the narrative isn't madcap, it's boring. Get that much right, please. I cannot recommend this.



My New American Life by Francine Prose


Rating: WARTY!

Having read (or more accurately, listened to) as much as I could bear of Francine Prose's "Reading for Writers" which purports to teach people to write through fawning over the so-called classic writers, I decided to try some of this author's own fiction and see how she stacked-up against her own advice, and she was so far from it that I found it amusing. I got three of her audiobooks from the library and found all three to be let me say, less than satisfying. I tried to come into the first one neutrally, intending to give it a fair shot (maybe this author writes a lot better than she teaches?), but she quickly disabused me of any such notion.

This author seems like she cannot write about everyday lives and make them interesting. It's like she lacks confidence in her own writing and so has to call on the melodramatic fringe to perk it up a bit. The problem is that she seems able only to trade in stereotypes and caricatures and even about those, it seems she can tell only the most uninteresting stories in the most boring prose. Her writing style is that of poor fan fiction: he said, she said, he said, she said, ad nauseam. It's like that for paragraph after paragraph, unvaried. It is horrible writing.

That an author like this gets to be a professor who purports to teach others to write is a travesty. She doesn't seem to realize there are words other than 'said' which can be employed when ascribing speech to someone, or better yet, that there are many times when you don't actually have to specify who is speaking! Or you can indicate who is speaking by adding an action here and there. Has she not even learned that much from the classics? I mean, I wouldn't abuse this non-ascription as much as Jane Austen did because it can be confusing, but please, no endless 'he said, she said' tedium! Change it up a bit for pity's sake!

This story purports to relate "what it means to be American" but it has nothing to do with being American. Instead, like too many other such stories about the 'huddled masses', this one is all about creating insulting ethnic stereotypes, in this case aimed at the Albanians. This is a derogatory and condescending view of what it means to be an Albanian. According to this author all Albanians are the same: they think the same, dress the same, eat the same, behave the same, and a good many of them are gangsters, if we're to believe this Prose.

A disturbing number of these stories, and this one is no different, seem to be about illegal immigrants. Lula is one such person. She's a mid-twenties Albanian who is involved with gangsters she calls her brothers or cousins, but who aren't related to her. She tries to help one of them who is an out-and-out jerk, and she's too stupid to see how wrong this is and how much she could jeopardize her own future by dishonestly misrepresenting him. In the end she gets rewards she has not earned. Immigrants like Lula, no country needs.

This story was boring, and had no redeeming features. The cast was unlikable and tedious to read about. I cannot recommend this story, and I cannot understand how anyone who writes like this can profess to be a teacher of how to write novels or even someone who can tell good literature from trash.


Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik


Rating: WARTY!

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

This novel is complete fiction. It may sound strange to describe a novel (which is by definition fiction) in that way, but this one, it turned out, was purporting to tell the life story of real life Persian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad (فروغ فرخزاد‎). Normally such a thing is done in a biography, and one does exist for this poet, but evidently the author thinks that wasn't quite good enough.

I read, "IT WAS HERE, IN A VILLAGE at the foot of Mount Damavand whose name in English means “closed gates,” that my story with Parviz and also with poetry truly began." This was at the beginning of chapter four! It immediately begged the question: if this is where the story began, why aren't we starting it there instead of wasting my time with three wholly-invented chapters that were meaningless and - by the author's own admission - irrelevant?

To write a novel about such a person you would have to know them intimately. And preferably have their permission. And be bereft of ideas for truly original work! Only two of these options would seem to hold in this case. Since Forugh died in a car accident two days after Revolution Day in 1967, she's not alive to object, and the author felt completely free to make up her own version of this poor woman's life, and not just the major events, but every minor event down to intimate conversations, putting words into her mouth, and thoughts in her head. If someone did this to me after I died and I learned of it from beyond the grave, I would feel violated and insulted. Of course it's not likely to happen to me, but if it does, I hope my estate will sue whoever did this to me!

I didn't realize, when I requested this for review, that this was about a real person otherwise I would not have wished to read it. I honestly thought it was pure fiction, and it sounded interesting, which only goes to prove that I'm not perfect - something I've been saying all along. No doubt my fictional post-mortem novelizer will fix that for me though! Personally I'd far rather read an actual biography where (we hope and assume) events are told as truthfully as possible without fictionalizing them, than a purely made-up story that brings nothing new to the table and doesn't even make for an interesting read.

Apparently this author decided Forough's life was far too mundane to make good reading, and her poetry of course just wasn't a good enough legacy, so she was in dire need of a make-over, and not even Persian style. Since this author hasn't been in Iran since she was five years old, we get it American style, where everything is jazzed-up, emotionalized, overcooked and dramatized way beyond reality - and second-hand. At least thats what it felt like, reading this.

There were also undercooked parts such as the crass description of the main character's appearance by means of having them look at themselves in a mirror: "I pulled the chador over my head and then stood studying my reflection. The girl in the mirror was thin, with pale skin and thick bangs that refused to lay flat under the veil." This amateur method is so overdone in novels that it ought to be banned. If that's the limitation of your ability to reveal your character, then you really need to do some deep thinking about your commitment to writing.

Even her death is made out to be heroic, and in this novel it's a complete lie. Forugh died swerving to avoid a school bus, not in a car chase. Whether she was going too fast or not paying attention, we don't know. No one speculates about that; they say only that she avoided a school bus, thereby making her into a hero, not an unsafe driver. No one is willing to let her alone. Everyone wants a piece of her body. Even this author who claims to admire her so much cannot resist exhuming her and trying to put her stamp on the cannon.

In real life a person's every action does not carry a forewarning about future events. Nothing hangs on a tiny thought. No big events are foreshadowed by trivial happenstance. Yet here everything was amateurishly highlighted in college-student blue and magnified as though it were a critical piece in a flawless edifice. Everything is more brutal and more tragic, like reality simply isn't enough. Maybe for American readers it isn't.

The novel is predictably in first person, and the 'author' of it even speaks to us from the grave - literally. This made me laugh, and that's entirely the wrong emotion to have over a woman like Forugh Farrokhzad, who was abused more than enough in her lifetime, but now has to suffer being a cheap fictional character. This novel is wrong in so many ways, you could write a novel about it.

I cannot in good faith recommend a novel like this which to me is at best parasitic. The poor woman is barely cold in her grave and already the buzzards have gathered. It surprised me not at all when I learned later that the author teaches a creative writing program, but how creative is it really, to pick over a corpse?


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson


Rating: WARTY!

This is the second in The Reckoners series: Steelheart, Mitosis, Firefight and Calamity. Mitosis is a short pointless story available for free online. I read Steelheart and rated it as a worthy read even though I had issues with it. I'm not a series fan, and I picked this one up used, 'on spec' not knowing if I would like it or not, and in the end, I grew bored with it; with the tiresome first person voice, with the tedious bad metaphors which the author apparently thinks are hilarious, and with the total lack of anything happening for hugely-long periods. The novel takes so painfully long to get anywhere at all that it became tedious to read. I took time away from it to read a couple of library books and when I got back to it, I did not have the heart or the interest to read any more of it.

The story is removed from the abysmally named Newcago where Steelheart reigned, to New York City which is equally irritatingly renamed and where a different "epic" - which is what the super villains are called - reigns. She is known to the professor - an epic who avoids going bad by using his powers not for himself, but through others for good. So the author basically tells the same story over again, but switches everything around to pretend it;s really different, which is all an author can do in a series, isn't it? So, new location, but still a large North American city. This one instead of being covered in steel, is covered in water for no good reason other than that the author couldn't use metal again, right?! Instead of the villain being male, it's female. Oh wow, what a change up! Instead of it being personal for the main character, this time it's personal for the professor.

In short, there's literally nothing new here, and on top of that it was slow as molasses in mid-winter Alaska. I cannot recommend this and I am so tired fo series now that I feel like I never want to try even the first volume of another one.


A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony


Rating: WARTY!

I got interested in this novel when someone told me the main character, Bink, marries a woman who goes through phases: she's either ugly and really smart or she's beautiful and really stupid. I was curious as to how a story like that panned out. It turned out to be a little more complicated than I as told (isn't it always?!). She actually went through a monthly phase matching the Moon's cycle. As Fanchon, she was unattractive, but very smart. As Wynne, she was outstandingly attractive (all this is by Bink's standards, whatever those are), but very stupid. As Dee, the in-between phase, she was considered average in both departments. The phases cycled into one another by small amounts, and although Bink had met each of these, he had not seen them for long enough at a time to realize they were the same person. So who, really was dumber?

This was published in 1977, but there were problems I had with it almost from the off. The entire value of woman in this novel seemed to be focused around whether or not they were attractive. On page six, Bink is described as "smart, strong, and handsome." The page before, his fiancé is described as "beautiful, and intelligent, and talented. My question is, why are Bink's looks placed last in his trio of traits, but in hers, beauty is placed first? It's genderist and inappropriate, and this turned me off the book. No one has to read books like this when there are so many out there which are so much better written and which do not reduce women to object d'art.

Once I'd seen how women were rated in the Piers Anthony school of thought, I lost all interest in how the Dee trio panned out with their changing smarts and appearance and I quit reading this novel. I can't recommend it.


Sociable by Rebecca Harrington


Rating: WARTY!

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

This novel was very short and not appealing to me at all. I started out not liking it, began to like it when I got a little bit in, when the main character had a career change, but then went right off it when I realized that nothing really had changed, nor was it going to. The main character, with the unlikely name of Elinor, shades of Hill House, was one of the most drab and uninteresting people I've ever had to read about. She showed no sense of self-worth, no intelligence, no motivation, and was quite willing to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with a complete jerk of a guy for no reason whatsoever. She wasn't even smart enough to know she was in an abusive relationship nor did any of her friends care enough for her to warn her off it. In short she was an idiot and showed no sign of ever improving. How she ever hoped to be a real journalist is a mystery.

The story was all dot com, but paradoxically was so starkly newspaper black and white as to be a caricature of itself. There was not one single decent guy depicted in this entire novel that I saw - although I freely admit I read only half of it, skimmed another quarter, read the end and then gave up on it completely. The end was entirely dissatisfying. If I were to judge solely from this novel, which I won't, I'd be forced to conclude that the author hates guys! Either that or she doesn't know how to write decent male characters or even gray-area character, but paradoxically the women were such drab people in this story that they were colorless. And everyone was so one dimensional that I honestly believe it I had the print version of this, and turned it sideways, I would not be able to see it any more, and I'd be fine with that.

The story is essentially of Elinor getting a new job writing those idiot dumb-ass lists that far too many websites post. She apparently excels at this mindless task while her boyfriend, who doesn't give a shit about her (which begs the unanswered question as to he's even with her in the first place) is an having an affair right under her nose, gets this purportedly prestigious job and then finds it's not as great as he thought. He leaves Elinor and then wants to come back to her and Elinor doesn't take him back because she's too stupid to even realize that's what he's after!

That's it! That's the entire story and it drags on and on page after page with one moron after another trooping through the meandering paragraphs. Some parts were flashbacks, but they were so badly written that I had a hard time telling when they were done and we were back in the present. I detest flashbacks. This was an awful story and I resent even the relatively small amount of time I spent reading what I did of it. here;s badly written: "The headphones were giant white conical spheres." What, exactly, is a conical sphere?! I cannot recommend this, not even as soporific reading, because it is so irritating it wouldn't actually put you to sleep.


Fresh Ink by various authors


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was an anthology put together by Lamar Giles under the Random House Children's Crown Books for Young Readers imprint, but the themes here seemed rather adult, so I'm wondering if young adult might have been better than 'young children's' - to me that's misleading. Worse than this there are os many books out there titled "Fresh Ink" that it's a bit sad the publisher could not have come up with something better and less over-used.

Overall I was not impressed by this. Out of thirteen stories only two were really enjoyable and one was a maybe, but the rest were not interesting, and overall the stories belied the anthology title - there really wasn't anything fresh here at all. Maybe the stories were newly-written, but that doesn't mean they're fresh, and most of the themes featured here have already been done to death. They need really fresh ink to keep these themes alive, and sadly, this wasn't it.

The range of authors was in one way commendably diverse, but the problem with that is that all of these authors are USA authors! Only Melissa de la Cruz and Nicola Yoon were not born here and they apparently got here as soon as they could, and every story was set in the USA, like no other country in the world matters. I found this to be a big indictment of the 'fresh' claim: it really was very much same old, same old, and this made me sad. There's little point in talking about diversity and inclusiveness, and "#ownvoices" when it's all USA all the time, like there is nowhere else in the world worth writing about or setting stories in. It makes the whole enterprise hypocritical.

The blurb on Goodreads and on Net Galley says, "Careful--you are holding fresh ink. And not hot-off-the-press, still-drying-in-your-hands ink. Instead, you are holding twelve stories with endings that are still being written--whose next chapters are up to you." but this is disingenuous bullshit! All of these stories are copyrighted to their authors. You start writing 'chapter two' of any one of these and you will be sued.

The story titles are listed below with my comments on each. I'd heard of only three of these authors before through reading their work, so this felt like a good opportunity to 'meet' the others and see what they can do.

  • Eraser Tattoo by Jason Reynolds
    This story was a poor lead-in for me because it led me nowhere. I'd never heard of this author, so I was interested to see if I liked the story, but it turned out to be a maudlin meandering tale of a young couple who were going to be separated by distance. It felt like fluff to me - like nothing. People split up all the time, so if you're going to relate a story about it, you'd better bring something new to the table: a twist, a new angle, something. There was nothing new revealed here, nothing fresh. I guess there could have been, but a story like this needs to be handled better than it was. I found it boring. The title sounds almost sci-fi, but the eraser tattoo is quite literally a tattoo made from rubbing an eraser on your skin - and painfully so. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that, so from the off these two people struck me as morons and they never changed that opinion. I honestly wondered if this one had been included only because the title of the anthology suggests tattooing, and this is the only story which features it? If I'd known that the author had won the 2016 Kirkus Prize, for As Brave As You I might have skipped this story altogether. Kirkus never met a story they didn't like, which means their reviews are utterly worthless except in their utility in warning me off books I will not like.
  • Meet Cute by Malinda Lo
    After reading Ash and Huntress Malinda Lo was way up there in my esteem, and I was looking forward to reading this more than any other story here. Once again she came through for me with a sweet, gentle easy story about two girls who happily meet by accident at a comic con. While I do recognize the story potential inherent in such scenarios, I'm not a fan of comic cons or of that culture, so for her to bring a story out of that which impressed and pleased me was even more commendable. When I say the story was easy, I mean it was easy on the mind. The story itself was layered and complex with delicious subtle undercurrents. I always felt the ending had to be a happy one, but the author kept it up in the air naturally enough that it made me feel a small sense of panic that it would not. The two girls will not forget that particular comic con in a hurry.
  • Don’t Pass Me By by Eric Gansworth
    This was a story about the American Indian experience which has been an appalling one, and which is still going on far too long, but I didn't think that this was a very good way to relate it. It did make a point about how schools are designed for white folk, as evidenced in the predominantly white (or worse, pink!) appearance of characters in biology books, but aside from that it could have been a story about anyone undergoing acceptance problems, yet it wasn't! By that I mean I think this story would have popped a lot more if there had been two people enduring the same passive bullying and rejection, one of which was American Indian, the other of which was differentiated in some other way. As it was, it was just so-so and I'm not convinced it will achieve its aim which makes me sad to report.
  • Be Cool for Once by Aminah Mae Safi
    This story was ostensibly about a Muslim experience, as exhibited in this case by Shirin, but the story really could have been about anyone in her position Muslim or not, so it failed to make a good impression on me as such a story, and the writing never rose above your standard YA girl main character story. It seemed to have no focus, being much more of a generic story about two girls going to a concert and one of them having a crush on a boy than ever it did about what it felt like to be Muslim, and maybe isolated and different. You could have quite literally put any person in the place of Shirin, anyone who had some sort of issue, male or female, and pretty much told the same story word for word. It's been done! There's nothing fresh here. Because of this, it actually rendered Shirin more 'the same' than ever it did different, and I don't mean that in any positive way. I mean it was not a fresh story, and it didn't cut to the real chase, but instead meandered into some sort of ersatz chase that stood in for and thereby negated the real story that could have been told here.
  • Tags by Walter Dean Myers
    I did not like this one at all. It was written lazily, like it was a movie script, but with speech only, and no scene setting or 'stage' directions at all, and was so boring that I quit reading after a couple of pages. Big fail.
  • Why I Learned to Cook By Sara Farizan
    This was about a girl, Yasaman, who is Persian and a lesbian. She's come out to her family, but not to her grandmother because she doesn't know how grandma will take this news, but she eventually gets around to inviting Hannah, her girlfriend, over to grandmas and it worked out of course. This story I did not find objectionable, but that was the best I could say about it because it really was nothing I haven't read before. If you're going to do a coming out story you need a fresher edge than this one offered. If the story had been set in Iran, that would have made a difference, but the author played it safe. You're not going to hit any balls out of the stadium if you're afraid to really swing that bat.
  • A Stranger at the Bochinche by Daniel José Older
    This oen was really short and so rambling that I honestly glazed-over and could not take in the story assuming there was one to be had. I'm not sure what it was trying to say, but whatever it was, if anything, was lost on me.
  • A Boy’s Duty by Sharon G Flake
    I've read three novels by Sharon Flake and liked two of them, so she was batting a .666 coming into this, but now she's down to .500 because I did not like this one. It was about racism in World War Two, and an idiot kid who seemed to delight in pissing people off. There was nothing here to interest or impress me.
  • One Voice: A Something in Between Story by Melissa de la Cruz
    While I really liked the TV version of this author's Witches of East End, I did not like her original novel, nor did I like one other novel of hers (Frozen) that I read, so I was not expecting to like this, and my expectations were met. This story was like a dear diary with somewhat disconnected episodes in this girl's life. The message was about racism, but if the message is the medium, then the medium was tedium not freedom. It was so boring that the message was blurred beyond recognition which is truly sad.
  • Paladin Samurai by Gene Luen Yang, Illustrations by Thien Pham
    This was a graphic novel which was poorly illustrated (and even more poorly exhibited in Amazon's crappy Kindle app). It wasn't well told at all, which is why I gave up on it after reading two or three pages. I really didn't care about these characters or what happened to them.
  • Catch, Pull, Drive by Schuyler Bailar
    Schuyler (pronounced like Skyler) Bailar is a ftm transgender athlete, and this story felt like a memoir, because he's a swimmer who has been through this change, but it also felt dishonest because it did not reflect what he went through. While a change like this always brings difficulties, he seems to have had the support of coaches and teammates. This story is just the opposite and that doesn't mean there aren't people who suffer through this process; I'm sure there are because we are a long way from where we need to be, but for someone who has come through this change relatively unscathed, this story felt disingenuous. If he'd told his own story, even fictionalized as this was, it would have resonated far more with me, because not every story is negative and because we need an honest balance.
  • Super Human by Nicola Yoon
    This one actually did feel like fresh ink because it took an old problem and one which is still with us, and it needed a new twist. This did the trick, which is why I liked it. The story is of Syrita, who has been chosen to talk with a super hero known only as X, who has been stellar in the past but who is now not willing to be heroic any more. It wasn't clear from the story whether he was planning on simply retiring and letting the world go to hell by simply withholding his help, or if he would actually go over to the dark side and start wreaking revenge on a society he feels (with some reason) is chronically unjust. In the end, the real super hero here is Syrita, who proves to have a lot more faith in him than he does in society! The only flaw in this story was “And those dark black eyes” which is nonsensical. Either one would work, but black is dark do you don't need both!

So I was not impressed overall, and I can't recommend this collection. There are one or two gems in it and if it's worth it to you to buy this load of crude ore in the hope of finding a gem or two in it, then you may like it, but I definitely wouldn't like to buy this, only to find that most of the stories don't really offer what the title suggests they will.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

'Til Death Do Us Part by "Amanda Quick"


Rating: WARTY!

Amanda Quick is the pen name of Jayne Ann Krentz, an American author who doesn't do too bad of a job on Victorian London, but there are one or two fails. In Victorian times there were no such things as Crime Lords for one thing! The reader doesn't do too bad of a job either. Her name is Louise Jane Underwood. Apart from not knowing that the British pronounce the word 'process' with a rounded 'O' like in 'hose', not with a short 'o'; like in 'ostracize', she doesn't do too bad of a job. The story was quite engaging to begin with, but began to pale after a while, and I ended up not happy with it at all. I think I'm done with "Amanda Quick" now. This is the second title under that name I've not liked.

Once again there is a Big Publishing™ fail here. The cover for the audiobook shows a woman in a Victorian-style, bright yellow dress running away from the viewer across a meadow. This cover bears no relationship whatsoever to anything that happens in the story! LOL! This is one of the perils of letting Big Publishing™. My advice is to take charge of your novel. Why do book cover illustrators/photographers/designers never, ever, ever read the books they are creating the cover for? Why does the author not set them straight? I guess the publisher doesn't give the author much of a choice, and if an established author like Krentz has no such pull, then what hope is there for the rest of us? This is why I self-publish. I refuse to let an old-school publisher ruin anything I write.

This is one of the author's stand-alone novels. Maybe the name Amanda Quick is related to quick turn-out? She has a bunch of these stories. Starting in 1990 she churned out about two a year for half-a-dozen years or so. The titles should tell you all you need to know about the subject matter: Seduction, Surrender, Scandal, Rendezvous, Ravished, Reckless, Dangerous, Deception, Desire, Mistress, Mystique, Mischief, Affair. I got these titles out of Wikipedia and I wish I had read that before I picked up this novel! I have not seen the covers for those novels, but I imagine the covers are of some buxom woman in a bosom-baring pose, probably wearing a Victorian outfit with some dominant, self-absorbed, narcissistic, manly man ravishing her. He's probably bare-chested. The covers will be in pastel colors. Yuk!

The story, published a couple of years ago, was fortunately not one of those sickly things. In general was quite engaging to begin with, but it went downhill as soon as romance reared its ugly head. The romance was ham-fisted and so dominated by the male side of it that it was nauseating. I think the novel could have done with omitting it altogether or certainly muting it, but that would not have fixed everything that was wrong with this novel. The problem with it their 'romantic' encounters for me was the violent terms used to describe it, and the callousness of Trent's approach to Calista. It was sickening to listen to, and sounded not remotely Victorian at any point.

Calista Langley is in her late twenties and she runs an introduction service to enable wealthy Victorians to meet people who might be like them in that they seek companionship and perhaps romance. She vets her clients to keep out the riff-raff and fortune hunters. I think this was actually a pretty good idea for something to build a novel around: take something modern and set it in the past. Unfortunately the author didn't stick with that. Instead there came murder and dominating males, and it went to hell in a hansom cab.

Lately Calista's life has been upset by the fact that someone has been sending her memento mori: objects associated with death and funerals, and which have been engraved with her initials. She has no idea where they're coming from though the answer seems obvious to the reader. All we;re told is that they're from a stalker who at one point makes use of a kind of dumb-waiter that was installed in Calista's house, and of which she seems to be ignorant. It was a bit far-fetched that someone could sneak into the house unobserved, use this contraption unheard, and leave something in Calista's bedroom. It made her look stupid - and how would the intruder even know about the dumb waiter? It was dumb!

Into her sphere comes Nestor - a dick with whom she was involved some time before, but who left her for a more wealthy conquest with whom he is now displeased and who he wants bumped-off so he can get her fortune for himself. After a year, and out of the blue, he now wants Calista back in his life as his mistress, but she rejects him. What she ever saw in him goes unexplained, and iot makes her look even more stupid than she already did. Also arriving is author Trent Hastings who is at first predictably antagonistic to Calista, and then who predictably 'magically' falls in love with her and she with him. That part of the story was genuinely puke-worthy. He "heroically" helps her with the investigation, but essentially takes over her life. he has a sister whom he dominates and infantilizes in the same way that Calista's brother, predictably named Andrew for his excessive androgen level dominates her.

In Britain, and evidently unbeknownst to this author, there is a river named Trent. No one named their child Trent. It's not even in in the top 200 names, and neither are Calista nor Eudora, although Andrew is. Eudora is like the one thousandth most popular name for 1890. Please, a little more thought for your character names! There are lots of names to chose from that are unusual now, but which were popular back then.

The blurb says, "Desperate for help and fearing that the police will be of no assistance, Calista turns to Trent Hastings, a reclusive author of popular crime novels" but the reticence about involving the police made zero sense. Of course from the perspective of writing the novel it left everything to be done by Calista and her author acquaintance, but it stood out as being poorly addressed to me.

If you don't want the police to be a part of your story, fine, but please do better than a wheedling excuse as to why they cannot be involved! At least go to them and have them reject your position for some reason or come up with an intelligent reason why going to them at all will not work. Don't simply refuse to resort to them citing a lack of evidence when the evidence is steadily mounting in your favor. It made little sense, especially when Calista's home is being broken into and the two of them are being attacked by a murderer. It made no sense to avoid reporting these things and made Calista and Trent look dumb and clueless.

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Although I started out liking this novel, it is for these reasons that i decided it was in the end, not a worthy read. I cannot recommend this one, and I am done with this author!


Honey Moon Not Your Valentine by Sofi Benitez, Joyce Magnin, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This is the third and last of this series I shall ever read! I liked this much better than the previous two, and I think that's because it really didn't feature Harry Moon, but his sister with the unfortunate name of Honey Moon. I liked her a lot better than him - at least she did something, but her behavior tended towards the mean and the cowardly, and instead of making the right protestations, she made the wrong ones, but like her brother, she never seemed to learn anything, least of all how dumb she was.

The book had its amusing moments, but otherwise was really nothing new, and it presented children with the wrong options, I thought. The entire story was of Honey Moon's completely misguided attempts to get out of a Valentine's Day dance, and int his it suffered precisely the main problem that the previous "Harry the magician" series suffered: if only people would talk to each other instead of acting like idiots and flying off the handle, then most of their problems would never arise. How hard is it to advise children to talk to one another - and to responsible adults? No magic required!

Again the book featured bullying, but never once was it suggested the children do the right thing - go tell a grown up, preferably a teacher if this happens at school! It's really that simple. Instead of addressing Honey's problem, the so-called man of the house quotes the Bible to Honey: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink." The idea is to show kindness, but he conveniently fails to quote the sentence which follows that in Romans 12:20 though: "In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

It's hardly a kindness to shame someone so much that they feel like this, and most of the time it will not work. One again the Bible is the last place to go to get good advice for modern times, but it is a great place for reading about bullying and rejoicing in brutality. The whole point of this advice was to show kindness to those who bully you. Well, good luck with that half-assed plan. No, the way to deal with bullying at school is to REPORT IT! For goodness sakes, REPORT IT! If you want to show kindness to bullies, then advise them that if they do not stop, you will report it, and if they do not stop, then REPORT IT! It's that simple.

Once again the illustrations - all of white folks as usual, and yes you can judge this book by its cover - were done by Christina Weidman, but either she never read this novel, or the author did a poor job in describing Honey Moon to her. In the text, Honey's hair is described thus: "Her wild brown curls waved crazily in all directions." A couple of pages later it's described as a "wild mane," and later still as "long curly hair," so the take-home message is long, wild and curly, yet her hair is consistently illustrated pretty much as kempt, short, and straight: pretty much a bob! Even when she's depicted climbing out of a box of basketballs in which she'd tried to hide, her hair is straight, and very nearly perfectly arranged.

Again the book was formatted with unnecessarily wide-margins, and widely-spaced paragraphs so I'm getting the distinct impression that neither the authors nor the publisher has any love of trees. This, too, is a really poor message to send to children and overall, I cannot recommend this volume either.


Harry Moon Snow Day Color Edition by Mark Andrew Poe, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was yet another book in the Harry Moon wizard series and I liked this even less than I did the first. The situation has not changed. There is a derivative Harry the wizard boy living in a derivative town (Sleepy Hollow, yawn), permanently stuck in a derivate Halloween, and being harassed by trope stupid, but brutal villains. Again the illustrations are by Christina Weidman and again they depict whites only.

The villains work for the mayor, Kligore, whose motivation is entirely unclear. Why he is evil goes unexplained. What he hopes to gain from it goes unexplained. Why he keeps the town permanently at Halloween goes unexplained. Why no one outside the town even notices Sleepy Hollow is permanently at Halloween goes unexplained. Why the senior magician in situ never does anything to stop the mayor's evil goes unexplained. Why no adults or police in town ever even so much as try anything to stop the mayor's evil goes unexplained. Why Harry, supposedly the derivative last great white hope for salvation (in which other magical Harry book series did I read that now?) never ever ever performs any magic, nor seems to learn anything new goes unexplained. In short, the novel made even less sense than the prologue novel did.

The only difference between this and the previous one is that Harry is somehow now quite famous in town (for reasons which went entirely unexplained). Because the mayor is allergic to cats (despite employing a humanoid one as a minion!), he forgets to control the weather (why he must do this each night goes as unexplained as why he even wishes to do it), and again for reasons unexplained, it snows. So snow day! School is out! All the kids want to play in the snow, but the mayor's minions are ordered to stop them having any fun. Why on this day they're not supposed to have fun when on every other day the mayor apparently has no problem with kids having fun goes unexplained.

The villains, including the mayor's two sons, dress in white track suits and wear ski masks, and they patrol the town brutalizing - quite literally - the young children who are out sledding. They scare the kids, break the sleds, and yet no police ever show up! No one even calls the police and the parents of the town do quite literally nothing to stop it. Not a single parent even has anything to say about this terrorism. These violent and merciless kids are encasing blocks of ice in snow and throwing them at other kids' heads. Yet they face no justice whatsoever by the story's end.

Never once does the majestic white wizard Harry ever bring out his wand - because that would be inappropriate! What? This book was unnecessarily violent, entirely unjust, and was a wizard book in which the great wizard boy never does any magic, not even to save young kids from being hurt. In short, Harry is just as evil in passively letting this happen and not reporting it, as any of the mayor's minions! It's entirely inappropriate for young children to read, even though it is evidently written for the young end of middle-grade. Apparently the message being purveyed here is that bullying is wrong, but doing anything to stop it is also wrong!

The magic on the extremely rare occasions we do get a fleeting glimpse of it in these books is of the original Harry-the-wizard sort: mindlessly simplistic, except that instead of chanting two Latin words and waving a stick, they chant an English rhyme and wave a stick. There is no cost to anyone for using this magic, yet even though it is so simple and inexplicably cost-free, Harry still cannot bring himself to do it, not even to save young kids. Not even to save his friends. I'm sorry, but no!

Again, with its wide margins and widely-spaced paragraphs, this book is quite literally a waste of paper, and I cannot recommend it.


Harry Moon First Light by Mark Andrew Poe, Barry Napier, Christina Weidman


Rating: WARTY!

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

This was one of three middle-grade novels I got from Net Galley all on the topic of Harry Moon (two of them) and his sister, Honey Moon. I know these are aimed at middle-grade and not at me, but I still can't rate this one positively even in that light because it did not tell a great story and it was so derivative as to be quite sickening. Do not confuse this series with The Dream Life Of Harry Moon: A Novel by Meg Stewart, or with Harry Moons fyra faser by Thomas Sullivan, or with The Last Breath: A Harry Moon Novel by David Graves, or with The Phases of Harry Moon by Thomas Sullivan! Harry Moon is quite a popular name for story tellers.

So the derivative parts? Well, to begin with, the boy wizard's name is Harry. He has an older magical mentor who fortunately wasn't called Albus, but who does carry a wand and wears rather eccentric clothes. Harry of course didn't know until this opening novel what magical powers he had. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, which is as over-used when it comes to paranormal events as Salem for witches. Nothing original there. Harry has a large talking rabbit for a friend, reminiscent of the 1950 movie Harvey. Finally there's a gang of boorish bullies and an evil villain, none of whom faces any consequences. There was nothing original here.

Just as in the movie Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, in this story, the calendar, but not the clock is somehow stopped at Halloween for reasons which were never explained, yet life went on perfectly normally, so I didn't get what it meant to say it was stuck at Halloween, or how that was supposed to work, and why people didn't see anything amiss with that, or why no one complained! It was like the town was somehow not connected with the rest of the world which evidently never noticed that Sleepy Hollow was nearly always out of sync with the rest of the country when it came not only to the date, but also the weather. Yet All Hallow's E'en was never actually celebrated! The whole thing seemed ill-conceived to me, and it simply didn't work.

Of course Harry has to come into his power, but just like the original Harry the magic boy, this Harry never really did anything with it when he got it. He never went after the villain, and he never used it to improve anyone's life, so it seemed quite pointless that he even had this power. Nor did it make sense that his wizard mentor had utterly failed to fix anything during his tenure either. What's the point of having magic if you never use it? What's the point of being a boy wizard in a story if there is never any wizardry - indeed Harry is pretty much warned against using it.

It made no sense and was a dissatisfying and really pointless read, especially when the blurb built it up so the reader expected weird things to happen when Harry began his paper route, but nothing really ever did. There was this thread of goodness running through the story which superficially seems like a good thing - we don't want kids going off down paths of evil and brutality, but where this failed was that there was no justice in this world! That's entirely the wrong message to send to kids.

It made little sense anyway, adhering to this Biblical moral code because following it blindly made Harry and his friends into perennial victims who got punished painfully, even brutally at times, and no adult ever stepped up to the plate to put an end to it or even to help the kids out. That's also entirely the wrong message to send. Talking of which, the illustrations in the novel were of a very simplistic cartoon-like nature and drawn and colored by Christine Weidman. From those, it would seem that there are only white folks in Sleepy Hollow. No characters of color are mentioned in the text, so it appears that no Latinos or African- or Asian-Amnerican people live there. Maybe all the smart folk have already left this dumb town? The only beings depicted with darker skin are the evil ones - not the mayor and his minions, but the ones referred to as the Quiet Ones: some sort of red-eyed humanoid creature. This actually struck me as rather racist.

On a related topic, I have to register a complaint about the abuse of trees here, not in Harry Moon's world, but here in the real world. In the ebook version this doesn't matter, although longer ebooks still use more energy to transmit to recipients, but in a print book, this much white space on the page is criminal. No on wants to see a novel which is all crammed text all over the page, granted, but to have such wide margins and such spaced text means a lot more trees have to die to produce a run of such books than would have been the case had the margins and paragraph-spacing been realistically conservative.

For all these reasons, I cannot in good faith recommend this novel.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb


Rating: WARTY!

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

If I had known that author was a graduate from a writing program, I would not have requested to read this novel, because whenever I have read such novels in the past, they've universally been sterile, poorly-written, and boring with thoroughly uninteresting characters. The authors of such novels seem to be so tightly focused on the writing that they completely forget that the story is where it's at, not the technical writing of it.

I'd much rather have an indifferently-written, or even poorly-written, novel that tells a really good story than one which is exquisitely written, yet tells a less than mediocre tale. The blurb did its job and made it sound interesting: "...a woman who carves out her share of the American Dream by living as a man." but whereas the blurb was all sound and fury, the actual novel signified nothing. The main character was thoroughly unlikeable and had no saving graces.

How you can make such a story boring is a mystery to me, but this author managed it. I gave up at forty percent in because my mind was going numb. The blurb describes this as "A vivid, brutal, razor-sharp debut..." but none of that is true. Instead, what we get is clinical (have you ever tried to read a doctor's handwriting?!) and unappealing tale which meanders and mumbles and which offered me nothing whatsoever. A lot of it was confusing. To continue the clinical metaphor, I always felt like I was in an operating room after the operation was over. The most interesting part of the process was already long gone, leaving nothing but a messy OR in dire need of sterilization.

It's set in 1946 in Trenton, New Jersey, and Mrs Kunstler kills her husband and assumes his identity. I'd forgotten about this by the time I got around to reading this novel, so it was like coming into it completely blind, and I have to tell you there was nothing in that first forty percent to really clarify exactly what the hell was going on. If I'd wanted a detective story, with me as the detective, I'd have written one myself!

I actually had to go back and read the blurb to figure out why I'd even requested this novel to review in the first place! That's how bad it was. I know authors don't get to write their own blurbs unless they self-publish, but when the story is told in the blurb, you gain noting by being all coy about it in the novel itself. I know that's ass-backwards, but it's the way the professional publishing business actually is: you write your story and then the publisher turns it into something else in the blurb and you get a dissatisfied readership as a result.

If "stylized prose" means tedious, then yeah, the blurb got it right. If by "gripping narrative" the blurb-writer meant that you grip the novel ever tighter out of sheer frustration and annoyance, then yeah, they got that right, too. But no, it was not remotely provocative. No, it was nothing like incisive. The hyperbole of the burb was laughable, but there was nothing funny about a novel that promises so much and then utterly fails to deliver even a semblance of a decent story. I cannot recommend this one at all when the same patient in better hands would have survived the surgery handsomely.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Captain Canuck Vol 1 Aleph by various writers and artists


Rating: WARTY!

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

Captain Canuck evidently has a long history, but I was truly disappointed in this outing, which collects issues 1 through 6 and which was my introduction to this character. I should have realized from the cover image that it was going to be confused and unrealistic. Giant savage mutant polar bears are very much in the realm of fantasy and the disrespect for the polar bear itself was nauseating. As the name of the graphic novel suggests, this is essentially a rip-off of Captain America with sufficient changes made to avoid a lawsuit from meg-conglomerate Disney, and it was not a very good rip-off.

The artwork and coloring was fine enough, but the writing and the overall story was really and truly confusing. Worse, it was all violence and gore with no humor or humanity in sight. Even having read fifty percent of this before I gave up in disgust, I have absolutely no idea what this story was supposed to be about. Chapter one started out strongly with a man who evidently has no super powers but is augmented by technology, going in to rescue people from a burning oil facility. He encounters what appear to be zombies and as you know, anything like zombie is inevitably violent and irrational. This is a tedious trope.

if the man had no super powers, but merely uses technology, this immediately begs the question as to why there's only one of him! Why not train several people like this and make a team? That story would have had a much better dynamic than this one did, but that question (why only one of them) wasn't even asked much less answered.

This was clearly a comic designed for print and not for electronic distribution which begs the questions as to why the review copies are electronic. I'm about ready to quit reviewing comics unless I can get a print version or unless the comic is specifically aimed at the ebook market. Publishers and comic book creators simply have not got their heads around the ebook concept, and graphic novel publishers who ought to be all over it seem slower than other forms of publication for reasons which escape me.

Thus pages 11 & 12 are a double page, but there's no obvious indication of this, so I'd started reading straight down the page before I realized it went over two pages. The amusing thing was that it made just as little sense whether you read down each page individually or read right across both pages and then down, which involved a lot of swiping back and forth on a tablet reader.

The fact that some panels seem to run off the edge of the page is no guide because on page 12 there's one that runs off the edge and looks like it might go to a second page, but it doesn't! Logic? You're not welcome in this layout! Readability? Thou art banishéd! The same kind of thing happened on other pages. Clearly the designers were so focused on trying to make the individual pages look so 'edgy' and 'kewl' that they completely forgot that actual people have to read it and make sense of it. If they so obviously don't care about the whole reading experience, much less about the electronic version of it, why should I care about what happens in their comic? Really?

The story quickly became lost in itself, with Captain Canuck blundering around blindly trying to find the people he was supposed to be rescuing, little progress made towards any actual story-telling. Their only escape seemed to be down a toxic waste chute, which begged he question, what toxic waste? This was an oil refinery, They're so mercenary in such places that there is no waste. They use literally everything for something to reap every buck they can from the oil, and while oil and gasoline are toxic, it's not the kind of toxic that was suggested here. And any word on the environmental impact of such a fire? Nope. Who cares about the environment? And this is Captain Canada in effect? That was a bad miss.

Chapter two was worse. We got a confused flashback which brought the story to a screeching halt and contributed nothing to it except to add a meandering and unnecessary backstory. I detest flashbacks for that very reason. I plowed on gamely for another couple of chapters until I was halfway through this, but gave up because the story wasn't getting any better and it wasn't remotely entertaining. I cannot in good faith recommend this.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saints and Misfits by SK Ali


Rating: WARTY!

I had mixed feeling about this throughout. On the one hand I liked a lot of the writing, but on the other, the plot and the main character were a real problem. In the end, the ending decided me against favoring this.

I read a few reviews of this to see if I was way off-base or on-point and it seems I was the latter, not the former. Although many people liked this, those of us who did not, seemed to have similar issues with it. My problem was not with the presentation of Muslims, because I don't have a fixed idea of what Islam is like or what any given Muslim might do.

Some of those who are Muslim seem to have a problem with Muslims who are represented in ways which are different from their own narrow idea of what a Muslim should be and how one should behave, but such people are forgetting that above and beyond everything else they may or may not be, Muslims are people just like the rest of us, and they do smart and dumb things, brave and cowardly things, rational and irrational things, exactly like the rest of us do! readers and writers who fail to grasp this are limiting themselves chronically.

There was a lot of bandying about the 'hashtag own voices' bullshit in the reviews I read, but this seemed like such a reflexive, if not knee=jerk, label that I laughed at it. It still comes down to the antique notion of 'write what you know'. If people wrote what they know, there'd be no science fiction, because we don't fly around the galaxy or time-travel. There are no magical super heroes. Stephen King never went into another dimension and met a gunslinger. John Grisham was doubtlessly an attorney, but he never was involved in the specific cases he wrote about, and his books really aren't about the practice of law. They'd be boring if they were. JK Rowling never was an eleven-year-old boy, much less a wizard. Suzanne Collins never entered a dystopian death match. Write what you know is nonsensical. My advice is to write what you can get away with and make it as real as you possibly can.

I do not have any time for religion and especially not for organized religion which is a bane of life on Earth. I don't care what people privately believe. It's none of my business as long as they're harming no-one and not trying to impose their beliefs on others, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good story about people of faith or about the 'battle' between good and evil. I was interested in reading this one not because it was written by an author who writes on Muslim topics in Canada, but because it was, I thought, a story about rape and I was curious as to how it was treated in the context of Islam.

It turned out that the Islam part was irrelevant; it was bait and switch. The story told here was no different from how the same novel would have been had the characters been Christian, Judaist, Hindu or atheist! So the Muslim context was in effect nothing more than a niqab flimsily covering what everyone knows is underneath anyway. And that segues into a definition of these outfits. What's a hijab? This is my understanding - which I admit may be flawed, but in general simple terms, a hijab is what we in the west would call a headscarf. So why even call it a hijab? Well, a hijab tends to actually incorporate a scarf which wraps round the neck.

A burka is full head-to-toe covering. Strictly speaking, a niqab is a face veil, but it's often viewed as a complete head and shoulders covering rather like what Ronan the Accuser wears in Guardians of the Galaxy as it happens. That overall ensemble may or may not cover the face, but the tendency is for the face to be covered leaving only the most alluring part of the face visible - the eyes, which to me is hypocritical, but then, as I said, I have no time for hidebound traditions. I think people who blindly follow a set of rules laid down fourteen hundred years ago, or two thousand years or more ago, are morons, and it seems a lot of religious adherents agree with me since the majority of people tend to practice a very relaxed version of their religion rather than the original, usually much more strict path.

For example, all Christians are hypocrites in that they claim to follow what Jesus taught, but very few actually do. I don't believe there ever was a Jesus Christ, miracle-working son of a god, but if there had been, he was a Jew, not a gentile, and he practiced Judaism, not Christianity! He taught Judaism, and he came only for those of the house of Israel. No Christians practice Judaism. None of them is really a follower of Jesus; they're followers of Paul, who very effectively derailed what Jesus purportedly taught. His name wasn't even Jesus for Christ's sake! It was Yeshua, so anyone praying in his name is calling on the wrong guy unless they're praying to Yeshua (which is what we in the unsubtle west call Joshua)!

But let's talk about this book. The main character is Janna Yusef. She's a young Muslim in school and she wears a hijab. To me the hijab is an abuse of women. The Koran, as I understand it (which may be wrong!) talks about modesty. That talk applies equally to men and women, yet today all the onus is of course on the women of Islam to cover themselves lest they excite and incite men. There is no onus on men to quit being such lustful dicks. It's all on the woman, and so conveniently is the blame should something go wrong. Repeatedly we see attacks on women for immodesty or for wanting an education; we never see attacks on men. This is a fundamental flaw and weakness not only in Islam, but in any religion where women are isngle-d out negatively, and it needs to stop.

So one problem with this novel (and to be fair with several other such novels I've read) is that this this author fails to explore any of that. Like her main character, she simply accepts status quo, aka subjugation and repression. That was one problem with the novel, but the Islam novels I've read accept it; none of the main characters even question it, much less rebel against it. That was a problem with Janna. She had an nice sense of humor, but she was such a limp character, and she never changed except for one brief irrational and completely out-of-character spell near the end, which was too little, too late, and therefore entirely ineffective. No justice was delivered because she was so retiring and subjugated. To me this was badly written.

So what happened to Janna? This was another problem for this novel. It is entirely unclear what happened until close to the end. Was she raped or was she merely threatened with a violation - which is bad enough, but nowhere near as bad as an actual rape? The novel doesn't make this clear until near the end, so Janna's reaction to it is entirely out of proportion, and it is nonsensical. Before I go on, let me make it clear that for me, it's the victim's choice how they react to something like this. Those who have been violated are entitled to react in any way they want, but that said, they also ought to bear in mind that if they're accepting, or at least passive and retiring after something like this, then they're encouraging the violator to repeat-offend, and this is a problem because if they get away with it once, there is a big compulsion to try it again and another woman becomes the victim.

For the longest time while reading this I was bothered by Janna's reaction - or more accurately, an almost complete lack of one, because on the one hand she was persistently referring to Farooq, the man who did this, as a monster and living in near-terror of him when he was around, yet she never reported it. On the other hand her terror disappeared when he was out of sight, and she was going about her life as though nothing bad had happened. She was even obsessing on another boy in school who was not a Muslim. This felt inauthentic to me.

I've never been raped or violated in that way, but I have had events in my life where I've felt threatened, and I tend not to be able to let those things go, especially not in the immediate aftermath. I still remember them and in (fortunately!) an increasingly mild way relive them. I assume that others - to a greater or lesser degree - go through a similar process. Perhaps other people are able to let things go better than I am, but I doubt everyone is, especially after an event like Janna experienced, so this almost complete lack of any kind of real traumatization on Janna's part was unrealistic in my book.

The only time she had any issues was when Farooq was in proximity. The rest of the time it was like nothing bad had happened, so we were bouncing back and forth: was she raped, which would explain why she saw him only as a monster, in which case why was she not more traumatized than she was? Why was she not angry? How could she become interested in another guy so quickly? Or was she merely threatened with rape, which would explain some of her behavior afterwards, but not all of it?

I think the author failed in not describing the event better. No one in their right mind wants 'juicy details' of something like this, and maybe she intended it to be ambiguous, but for what purpose? I saw no purpose to it. In my opinion this was a writing fail, so let me clear this up now and reveal that there was no rape. There was a serious violation in that Farooq pushed her down on the couch and was trying to put his hand under her sweater when he was interrupted, but that was it. That was bad enough, and it was unacceptable and should have been dealt with. It wasn't. Again, this was a writing fail.

So my problem with this was that it was really much ado about nothing. Not that what happened was nothing; it wasn't, but the way this was written meant the writer sadly treated it as nothing for the almost the entire length of the novel! It didn't work. Nor did it matter about the Islamic veneer. It really played no part in the story. It felt like it was just set decoration - those background objects in a movie which people tend to see but pay little attention to. So I didn't get why people focused on this, rather than the poor story-telling. It was serious misdirection. That's not to say you can't have a novel where Islam is just a background. We do need more like that: a quarter of the world's population is Islam, but you'd never know it if all you read was novels published in the USA by native authors!

From that perspective, there was another character, Sausun, who was far more interesting than ever Janna was, but we got nowhere near enough of her. There was another character named Tats who was also more interesting, but we got precious little of her, too. In fact, even 'Saint Sarah' was a more interesting character than Janna. Her wedding to Mohammed) which was in the very early planning stage in this novel) would have made a better story than this one.

Why the author didn't chose to write about one of these people instead of Janna is a mystery. So for me the novel was a fail for all these reasons, and despite the fact that, for a while, I was liking it. Having finished it now, and found that there was no justice and a lot of the side stories simply fizzled out, I cannot recommend it. The book would have been better and a lot shorter had those red herrings been ditched. It would have packed more punch had it stayed focused on the central issue, and had Janna been less of a limp biscuit.

This brings me back to the 'own voices' bullshit. I think this novel was in part a fail because it was written by a person who was intimately familiar with the Muslim faith. I think if a non-Muslim writer had written it, we would have had a better story, in the same way that say, a Hindu writer had written about a Christian character, or a Muslim written about an atheist. I think if you are a person of faith writing a story, even if your intended audience is others of your faith, you have a duty to think at least a little bit outside the box if you want to tell a really good story. Otherwise what's the point? A better Muslim writer would have seen that and given us a great story, so this one wasn't any such story and I was sorry of it, because it could have been so much better had it been written even just a little bit more wisely and with more clarity.