Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts

Sunday, March 18, 2018

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

Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

Vlad the Impaler by Sid Jacobson, Ernie Colón

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Wonderful Baron Doppelgänger Device by Eric Bower

Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins

Rating: WARTY!

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

I requested to review this novel because I was truly intrigued by the premise. I have to report that it got off to a bit of a rocky start with me, then I began to get into it, then it hit a slack patch before taking off again, so it was a bit of a roller-caster ride, but when you're a writer, you have to go with what your gut tells you (or your editor if you don't self-publish! LOL!) so each to her own, I guess. In the end though, I found myself becoming more and more disappointed in it and I can't recommend this.

People say you can't really review a novel if you don't read it all, but I think that's nonsense. Several times I considered DNF-ing this because I was so disappointed in it and did not consider it worth continuing. Instead I read on, hoping it would turn around. It didn't. If I had quit at thirty percent or fifty percent, or seventy five percent, my gut instinct about it would still have been right, yet once again I plugged along to the end only to discover that nothing changed for the better, especially not my mindset. This novel is apparently the start of a series and I have zero interest in following it. Let me tell you why.

To begin with, I have to report that this is one of the most overused novel titles. There are many other novels with this same or with a very similar title including: Daughter of the Storm by Jeanne Williams, Daughters of the Storm by Aola Vandergriff, Daughters of the Storm by Elizabeth Buchan, Daughters of The Summer Storm by Frances Patton Statham, Daughter of Air and Storm by Sherryl King-Wilds, Daughter of Storms by Louise Cooper, The Daughter of the Stormed by Catherine Cuomo, and so on. I recommend authors finding truly original titles for their novels even if the title they end up with isn't their first choice.

The book is volume one in the "Blood and Gold" series, and I should confess I'm not a fan of series books. I like novels that have an ending and "book ones" tend to be nothing more than a prologue to a chain of books that can be so derivative and unimaginative that they're simply boring. I avoid prologues, introductions, forewords, and prefaces like the plague, so it took some thinking before I elected to take a look at this. Like I said, the blurb was compelling, but I have a love-hate relationship with blurbs at best, and I really dislike novels that have no kind of end point at all.

I was not a fan of the blood and guts (or gold!) opening, but the story took-off after that in a more pleasing fashion at least for a while, introducing the five sisters. In some ways it felt like this was a fantasy rewrite of Pride and Prejudice. We have the five sisters and a somewhat ineffectual father (in this case because he's taken ill). There's no real mother interfering. For Elizabeth Bennet, we have Bluebell (all the daughters are named after angiosperms), but Bluebell is nowhere near as perspicacious as Lizzie Bennet. Nor as amusing.

In this story, she's the feisty elder daughter, renowned and feared for her blade (rather than her wit as was the case in P&P), but it would seem that this warrior rep, thinking only of killing and sword-fighting is literally all she has going for her. She was very one-note and this began to gall in short order. She was next in line for the throne, but she certainly was not monarch material at all, not even in a blood-thirsty world like this. Nor was she military material, proving herself a poor strategist and a very average warrior.

It wouldn't have been so bad had she merited her renown, but she did not. She was stupid and incompetent. In two fights she had after the opening - fights when she was alone facing four attackers - she gave a really poor account of herself and had to be rescued by her magical sister both times. So no, she was not even a great warrior, and I had to ask how on Earth did she ever get this reputation that we were reminded of repeatedly, when she was so bad at what she did?

Next came the Jane Bennet of the family, known in this story as Rose. She has been married-off to Wengest, king of Nettlechester to secure an alliance. This author likes to name countries with names which sound like English cities, for some reason. The author is Australian and I am predisposed to look favorably on Australiana, but I wasn't fond of these names. The seemed unrealistic. Rose was once enamored of Wengest, but now is in love (so she claims) with his nephew Heath, and she pursues him like a love-sick teenager instead of behaving like a mature monarch. She was truly sickening in her stupidity and her selfish bitch-in-heat behavior. This did not come off as a great and tragic love story as perhaps the author intended, but as hack high-school love-triangle nonsense.

Next is Ash, who is the equivalent of Mary Bennet. She joins us as a resident in a type of convent, but she soon leaves to go home when she learns her father is ill. She has some sort of magical gift which evolves somewhat as the story unfolds. I enjoyed that to begin with, but in the end it also became tedious, because it really went nowhere. Ash constantly whined about this gift and where she felt it might lead. She meets an undermagician who tells her she is also an undermagician, but at no point was it ever really explained what an undermagician is or how one might differ from an actual magician. She and Bluebell were by far the most interesting characters to me, so it was sad that both of them became ever more annoying and dislikable the further I got into the story.

After Ash come of course, the troublesome twosome: Ivy and Willow. They're the equivalent of Kitty and Lydia, with Ivy being the ridiculously promiscuous Lydia, and Willow the dissatisfied, complaining Kitty. Ivy pretty much wants to jump the bones of anything in pants. She was a caricature of Rose who at least was only idiotically fixated on one guy. Willow is secretly an adherent of an anti-feminist religion, for reasons which are never actually revealed. She's hoping to convert her father so if he dies he can enter the sunlit afterlife instead of the dark place. Or something along those lines. Neither of these girls seemed remotely realistic.

There are two villains, Hakon, a rival warlord, and Wylm, the stepbrother of the girls. Both of these felt like caricatures at best and jokes at worst. Fearing what will happen if the king dies and Bluebell becomes queen, Wylm sets off on a quest to find Hakon at the same time as Bluebell orders her father moved away from home to seek help for the supernatural illness which she believes is killing him, so we have two parallel road trips in place. Here is where thing really fell apart and suspension of disbelief with it. Bluebell precipitately takes her father, along with two other soldiers, and all of her sisters on this trip. We've already been told how dangerous the countryside is, with raiders (who always seem to find Bluebell), yet we have only herself and two soldiers protecting a sick king and four other women? And no one is left in charge at the palace? It made zero sense.

It made less sense, having brought them along, to let the sisters split-up later, dividing the party. Bluebell sends Ivy, of all people, to return Rose's daughter to her father. She sends one of her two soldiers with Ivy. That soldier then disappears and we never hear of him again. Where did he go? Why did he never return to Bluebell? And why not send Rose, the child's mother, with the child? It made absolutely no sense whatsoever, except to keep the adulterous Rose with her lover and send the promiscuous Ivy to Rose's husband. There were realistic, organic ways in which this could have been achieved, but they were not employed. In short it made no sense whatsoever, especially since Rose later leaves - alone - to follow her child. Wait, isn't the countryside dangerous? Aren't there roving bands of raiders that the kings army never seems to be interested in hunting down? Yet Rose is going to make a journey of several days alone? Again, suspension of disbelief collapsed.

There was no reason at all to have these girls all go on the trip. There was no reason not to take a garrison of soldiers from the castle along with them. There was no organic reason for Rose to go with Ash and Bluebell to find this "undermagician" who might be able to help their father, as opposed to her taking her daughter back home, so this part of the story felt so stage-managed that it really turned me off the writing. It was such an artificial attempt to keep Rose near Heath and send Ivy to Wengest that it was really laughable. It was very poorly-plotted.

Bluebell is depicted as being with a group of soldiers at the very start of the story, and these guys also disappear from the story. They never follow Bluebell back to the castle despite the country being in a crisis because of the sick king. What happened to them? Where were they when Bluebell needed them? The original departure of Rose from her husband with her daughter made as little sense. It made sense that Rose would want to visit her ailing father and perhaps that she would take her daughter with her, but we're told that "There are bandits on these roads. Violent bandits." and we've already seen them, so why is King Wengest trusting his wife and only offspring to an escort of only one soldier?

Again, it's because that one soldier was Heath, her lover! It made no practical sense to let his wife and her daughter, his only immediate offspring, and also his nephew, his only heir to the throne, travel with absolutely no armed guard. Again it failed to suspend disbelief. The author seemed so intent upon following a rigid course in relating this tale - in this case because it would bring these two together - that she never seems to have thought about the absurdity of such a situation in the context of her own story, and authenticity was sacrificed again.

On a technical note, drop caps aren't a favorite of mine and they usually don't work well in Amazon's crappy Kindle app. They were better on the iPad than on my android phone, and not so bad on an iPhone, but Kindle usually mangles any attempt at fancy text or fancy formatting, so it's best avoided. Here it wasn't too bad, but there were odd-looking chapter beginnings, such as when the 'T' in "The sun rose..." was dropped and enlarged, and sat squarely against the 'W' that began the next line so it looked like it read, "He sun in the Twest." It was amusing, but it should never have happened. It's an issue of which authors and publishers need to be aware when publishing ebooks and trying to make them look like their print versions. It simply doesn't work in the lousy Kindle app. It just doesn't! Keep the text simple for Kindle; it's all it can handle.

But poor formatting, especially when it's as mild as this was, can be overlooked if the story is engaging, This one was not. The silly sisters were tiresome, annoying, predictable, and not in the least bit credible as characters. None of them appealed to me as characters. I had no one to root for, and I honestly didn't remotely care what happened to any character in this story. They were all one dimensional, and therefore just not interesting. The author needs to kill off Willow, Ivy, and Rose, give some depth to Ash and Bluebell, and also keep the story tighter, more realistic, and shorter, and maybe it will work, but I have no faith in this series at all after reading this prologue. While I wish the author a fair dinkum career, because I think she has the makings of a good novelist, I can't say 'good on ya sheila!' for this novel, and I cannot recommend it.

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.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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

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

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?

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.


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!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

Rating: WARTY!

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

I was taken by surprise by this book because for a good portion of it, I was feeling quite positive about it. it was no in first person, which was wonderful, and I was able to skip the boldly-marked prologue, so that was fine, but the last section really went downhill fast and spoiled the whole novel for me. I can't reward a novel that just goes from A to B. For me it must go from A to Z, and this one fell short of that, but it's not the destination alone; it's also how we get there. In the end, I felt this one went nowhere good even though there were some pretty sights on the way downhill.

I was particularly disappointed because the novel engaged me from the start and it presented a world which, while familiar in many respects, in others it was pleasantly different. It raised hopes only to dash them at the finish line. Set in 1917 in the US, it's a world where magic is real, but everything else is very much the same as we remember it historically. except that women are the standouts and leaders in one field of endeavor: a magical one. This unfortunately was misleading, as I shall get to in a moment.

Before I start though, I find myself once again having to say a word for our poor trees. If this novel went to a large print run with its three-quarter-inch margins all around, it would kill a lot more trees than it would were the margins more conservative. I continue to find it astounding in this day and age how many authors and publishers seem to truly hate trees, but I seem to be in a minority position, which is depressing quite frankly.

Moving on. The magic is called sigilry, because it's done by writing sigils, which are magical signs that provide the user with some sort of an ability to overcome nature. The most common of the supernatural powers is that of flying, and rather fast, too. Some sigilrists have been clocked at over 500 mph. One thing the magic cannot do is tell you how the word is pronounced! I always say it with a hard G, but it's also pronounced with a soft G. Google translate doesn't help, because the English version is pronounced hard, but the Latin version from which it derives is pronounced soft! I guess it doesn't matter. The Latin is sigillum, meaning a seal - as in seal of office, not in the bewhiskered, flipper toting, dog-like mammal that lives in the ocean.

Robert Weekes is an eighteen year old who lives with his mom, Major Emmaline Weekes, who is a renowned sigilrist who acts like a medic: going to the aid of people - and animals - helping them out, but Boober's mom is getting old, Robert is known in his family as Boober, which is unfortunate, not only in how it sounds but in why the author chose such a name. It seemed pointless to me since it's barely used.

Anyway, Robert wants to join the US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service, which is also unfortunate because men are at best frowned upon in this world of magic. At worst, they're reviled. I found this gender reversal to be interesting because it mirrored the bias against women in the real world, which has eased somewhat of late, but which is still a big problem, and especially so in what have been traditionally regarded as male preserves.

Robert ends up being one of only three students at Radcliffe college - yes, that Radcliffe, the one of Jennifer Cavilleri. It's quite a change since he comes from a very rural part of Montana, but he has two sisters and his father died when he was young so he isn't unused to being surrounded by women. The interesting thing then, is not the fish-out-of-water you might expect, but the reaction to these men from the women, which mirrors what you might have expected from men towards women in the same circumstance.

It was here that I began to find weaknesses in the story. It was tempting to ponder how a female author might have written this, but given how many ham-fisted stories I've read, I'm not convinced they would have done better. Yes female YA authors, I'm looking at you. The girls here seemed far too hostile. That's not to say women cannot be feisty, hostile, and even violent, but it seemed a little out of character for these students to exhibit such flagrant disrespect and such a violent attitude. Women are not men in reverse and this story seemed to behave as though they were. I found that very sad.

Another weakness was that even though this is a story about a man trying to make it in a women's world as it were, the story is largely about the men, and the world at large is still very much a world of men: men in charge, men making decisions, men being called to fight in the 1914-18 war in Europe, men of violence opposed to the sigilrists. Having read through the early chapters, I quickly began to feel that it was a mistake to have it set up the way it was. The impact of the female sigilry was really undermined by the rest of the world being a male preserve. A female trying to make it in this world would have made a much more rational story, but I kept hoping something would happen that would make all this make sense. Unfortunately it did not; quite the opposite, in fact.

Robert gets a girlfriend, and a sterling one in my opinion (and not the one you might think he will become involved with), but despite her accomplishments she seems very much like a secondary character and that saddened me. Why make her such a great and nuanced character and then under-use her? The book is about Robert, admittedly, but it started to feel like even he was as bad as the rest of the men in excluding women, what with his little male clique. I as hoping he would grow and learn, but he did not, and nowhere was this more stark than in that last ten percent. And worse, why make him a man if he's not going to react as many men do when provoked? It made no sense.

I don't want to give away too many details, but the fact is that he quite simply turned his back on someone who had been a loyal and trustworthy friend, who had stood by him through thick and thin, encouraged him and had his back, and he callously betrayed all of that out of pure selfishness. This completely changed my opinion of him and made me dislike him immense. I don't know if the author thought he was creating some sort of Hemingway-eque figure in Robert's unflinching manliness; all it did for me was to convince me that Robert was a complete dick.

In addition to this rather unrealistic conflict between the men and women at Radcliffe, there's a larger, more deadly conflict out in the rest of the country and I'm not referring to World War One. Many people, men and women, but mostly men, are opposed to women having this kind of power. They conflate it with witchcraft and militate against it, in some cases violently, and sometimes the sigilrists fight back with the same deadly aim., although that part of the story went nowhere and just fizzled out. Even here, we hear only of the conflict in the US though and while in a sense, this does match the reality of the isolationist stance of the US prior to both world wars, it means also that we learn nothing of this world outside the US borders (aside from references to the war).

In the case of one sigilrist, we learn of her outstanding exploits in that war, but I think this is another weak spot. It's common to many novels written by US authors - no matter how wild and supernatural the story is. We never get a perspective on the world at large. It's like the author is boxed in and can see only the US. It's a very provincial view which cannot see consequences or reverberations that might pass beyond the US borders, nor can it detect any influences or feedback from outside. I find that to be a sad and blinkered position, but like I said, it tends to be all we get in too many novels written by US authors.

So for me the novel was uneven, but even so, I was prepared to follow it to the end. The ironical thing is that had I DNF'd it, I might have given it a positive rating just as I give negative ones to bad novels which I DNF, but no one DNFs a novel they're deriving some sort of entertainment value from (and a from many reviews I've read, a disturbingly large number of readers punish themselves by actually finishing novels they didn't like!). I kept reading because I was curious where the author was going to take this when he seemed to have no endgame in sight. Was this merely the first in a series? The ending brought the whole edifice crashing down, and it was this collapse which made it easier to see fault-lines that I might have chosen to overlook had the ending made sense.

I think this author is a good writer and has a few tales to tell, but in this one case, to see the 'hero' of the story turn his back on people who have helped him, break promises, and leave loved ones in grave danger to pursue his own selfish interests just turned me right off the entire story. Worse, for a novel so centered on a female art form, there really are no strong female characters in this story, We read of past exploits speaking of female strength and heroism, but nowhere is it really apparent during the course of the actual story. This was sad to begin with, but it was exacerbated criminally in the end, through seeing one of the strongest of these devolve into a simpering, wheedling jellyfish, creeping back to a man who had callously spurned her. She deserved a far better ending than she got. Because of these reasons, I cannot in good faith rate this positively.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

Rating: WARTY!

Sofonisba Anguissola was a real person who lived during the time of Michelangelo and in fact studied under him for a short time. She was a gifted artist who deserves much better than this author gives her. The prime mover in Sofonisba's life was art yet here, the author reduces her to a love-sick YA character, stupid with anguished love for Tibiero Calcagni, a fictional sculptor she purportedly knew from Michelangelo's studio.

There is an incident with Tiberio, and the book doesn't make clear what happened. Some reviewers believe they had sex, but I am not convinced that they did. Whatever happened, Sofonisba is upset by it and feels shamed, but instead of moving on, she agonizes over this for half the freaking book (which is as far as I could stand to read)! It’s tedious. Tiberio is Michelangelo's boy toy (I'm guessing - I don't know for sure) and you were merely a diversion, Sofi. Move on!

She is put into the service of the French wife of the Spanish king as an art tutor. He is in his thirties and she is barely into her teens. That story could have been interesting, but we’re supposed to be getting Sofinisba's story which is also an interesting one. The author seems to have forgotten this and rather than talk about Sofonisba and her art, she depicts the artist as merely an observer, relating the story of the Spanish triangle between Don Juan, the king, and his wife. It’s boring. Most love triangles are, especially in YA literature.

The book blurb is misleading, as usual. It says, "...after a scandal involving one of Michelangelo's students, she flees Rome and fears she has doomed herself and her family," but this greatly exaggerates what happened. The blurb also tells us that "Sofi yearns only to paint," but this is an outright lie since she's rarely shown painting or even thinking about painting. The way the story is told here, the only real yearning Sofi experiences is over Tiberio.

Set in the mid 1500's, the story is superficially about this remarkable and talented painter struggling to make herself known for her art in a very masculine world where women were tightly constrained everywhere. The story could have been equally remarkable, but this author destroyed it. We got no sense of frustration or struggle from Sofonisba and precious little of her art as she's reduced to being a documentarian of the life at the Spanish court.

That life is tediously repetitive. The foppish young men at court are laughable. The main character in the book could have been anyone, including the chamber maid, and the story would have been largely the same. Don't look here for art; there's precious little of it, neither in the narrow sense of Sofinisba's life ambition, nor in the larger sense of the word. Artless is more accurate.

We're told that women are not allowed to paint nudes but there is a nude (Minerva Dressing) painted by artist Lavinia Fontana in 1613. Fontana was influenced by Anguissola, so whether things changed in the fifty years between this novel's setting, and Fontana's painting or the author just got it wrong, I don’t know. Fontana does seem to be the first female artist to paint female nudes, so maybe she was a cutting edge girl, in which case, a well-written story about her would be worth reading, and certainly better than this one! I cannot recommend this novel.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

Rating: WARTY!

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

I have to say right up front that I was very disappointed in this novel which could have offered so much more than it did. It's based loosely on the lives of two very real people: Gladys Louise Smith, known to history as Mary Pickford, legendary star of the silent screen, and Marion Benson Owens, who wrote as 'Frances Marion' and was also one of Hollywood's leading ladies when it came to screen-writing.

One immediate problem was that while Frances Marion was a renowned screen-writer, she wasn't the only one. Between 1911 and 1925, about 50% of all copyrighted films had female screen-writers, but you would never learn that from this novel. Because she fails to give all those others their due, the novel presents Frances Marion as being far more of a lone pioneer than she actually was.

There were scores of female writers, such as Anita Loos and June Mathis, and undoubtedly many others who contributed greatly, but went unsung because they were 'only female writers' or script editors. We don't learn of these, not even in passing, so a chance to champion women writers in general was shockingly squandered here. It was Anita Loos who became a staff scriptwriter for DW Griffith, for example, whereas Marion worked for Lois Weber, who taught her the trade. Loos is mentioned only three times in passing, Mathis not at all, despite the latter being the highest paid female executive in Hollywood at the age of only 35, and dying just five years later.

The single-minded presentation of these two characters in this novel as champions of female power and creativity in the early days of Hollywood robs far too many other, deserving women of credit for their achievements and as such is more of an anti-feminist story - effectively undermining many strong female characters and robbing them of their due. That's soured even more by the fact that it also fails to support even its two main characters, by trivializing and minimizing their struggle to get where they were, and pitting them against each other far too often.

The story is further weakened by the author's mistake of choosing first person voice. She admits her mistake by alternating between first person when Marion is telling her story and third person when we read of Pickford's story. I could hear a loud clunk every time I moved to the next chapter. What this does is make Marion look spoiled and self-centered and Pickford look like an afterthought. The story is told as one huge flashback, which makes it worse because the start of the flashback is already historical, so we have it further removed from the reader, and then within the flashback we get yet more flashback to Pickford's childhood!

The sad thing about this is that we don't get anywhere near enough of her growth and formative years, so we really don't have a handle on who she is 'today' - that is in the most recent flashback. The same problem applies with Marion. Its as though the author is embarrassed by Pickford's history, or is in far too much of a rush to get back to the original flashback where we can fan-girl over Marion again. Frankly, it's a mess. There was a certain sloppiness to it too, such as at one point where I read that Mary Pickford's mom's name was Charlotte Pickford! No, Mary Pickford’s mom had Mary Pickford’s real name: Charlotte Smith! Sheesh!

I know this is not a biography, but it reads more like a biography than ever it does a novel, so there is no drama on the one hand, while there is little to stir positive emotions and much to stir negative ones on the other. I found myself wishing it was a biography so I could at least feel comfortable with what I was reading. The impression I had from all this, rightly or wrongly, was that the author had relied heavily on Marion's memoir, and very little on pure novel-writing and other research.

I found it rather curious that in a story purportedly about two women in Hollywood, who were interested in establishing themselves, and who had things to say and obstacles to surmount, we bypass those obstacles with startling ease. Problematic childhood? Grow up fast! Bad marriages? Dissolved with a slash of the pen! Anti-female sentiments in Hollywood, skirt them!

Nowhere, for example, does the author really address the fact that neither woman could be herself. Both of them changed their name. In Marion's case we're told that this is a conscious and personal choice, but it felt too easy, and she says not a word about Pickford's feelings on changing hers. We know that a stage producer made her change it during her brief stint on Broadway in one of his plays, but not why she evidently chose not to change it back afterwards. It felt like who they really were didn't matter to the author, so why should it matter to me?

My overall view of this story was that there was more missing from it than there was in it, and that's never a good feeling to have. This is why I gave up reading this at about fifty percent in. It simply was not engaging enough or powerful enough to keep me interested. I'm going to read a biography instead, and I'd recommend doing that before I'd recommend reading this. Frances Marion wrote Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood, a memoir, and Cari Beauchamp wrote Without Lying Down, a biography of Frances Marion. Peggy Dymond Leavey wrote Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, and Ben Walker wrote The Life & Death of Mary Pickford. There are also bios at wikipedia and IMDB.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Theatrics by Neil Gibson, Leonardo Gonzalez, Jan Wijngaard

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Set in the 1920's in New York City, this graphic novel by Neil Gibson tells the story of Rudy Burns who is a playboy of an actor who one night is mugged behind a bar and ends up not looking pretty any more. Out of hospital at last, he arrogantly turns own a paltry role that's offered to him, and quickly finds himself out of work and unsought-after for his looks any more. Even his well-to-do girlfriend has found someone else, although her rejection has nothing to do with his appearance. Shades of Mickey Rourke, for want of employment elsewhere, Rudy takes up boxing.

I am not a series fan and I'm frankly not sure where a series based on this premise could successfully take itself, but for this first installment, I found that I liked the novel for the story. It turned an unlikable protagonist into a pitiable one and brought my interest in. I also liked it for the free-flowing graphic content by Leonardo Gonzalez and for the vibrant colors by Jan Wijngaard.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins

Rating: WARTY!

This book might appeal to the intended age range, but for me it was poorly done, and makes American Indians look like antiquated idiots. That said, it was set in 1849, when everyone by today's standards seems antiquated, but the story itself simply made no sense.

Addie is twelve, and lives in Essex, Massachusetts, where shipbuilding is the line of work every boy wants to get into. Girls have no choice about their lives, and this never changes for Addie. Her father took off to join the California gold rush and almost as soon as he's gone, her mother and infant brother take sick with "the flux" and both die. This is where we join the story.

With Anna fearful of being sent into servitude, she conceals her family's death and steals a coffin for burying them, from the local undertaker. This is the first problem because this is not an insubstantial theft, and had it been investigated, which it undoubtedly would have been, it would have led directly to the girl who dragged the pine box to her home, yet she gets away with it!

Unfortunately, her continued rejection of the town's people's offers to come visit her mother eventually reveals the truth. Rather than stick around, Addie flees into the woods, looking for 'Nokummus' (the Wampanoag word for grandmother, aka Nokomes), an American Indian woman who offered to help Addie, but who singularly fails to do so.

As it turns out, Nokummus is quite literally Addie's grandmother, but we have to wade through countless tedious pages as Addie flees home in mid-winter, camps out in a lean-to near a shipyard, and all but freezes and starves despite her supposedly having experience of camping with her father. I can't help but ask, since Nokummus was known in Essex and several people knew she was Addie's grandmother, what the hell was the whole story about? Why did this woman not come and live with Addie when her father left town, so everything was okay?

Rather than help her granddaughter, this clueless, selfish, dangerous woman left Addie to her own devices until she was almost dead, then "rescued" her and took her off to a deserted island just off shore, apparently for no other reason than to have Addie find her daughter's grave. Nokummus had thirteen years to find that grave! What the hell was she doing in all that time? Sitting on her idle ass, doubtlessly.

She takes Addie in (and I mean that in every conceivable sense), and poisons her by feeding her some bark gruel so Addie vomits profusely, then hallucinates, and finally and wakes up after a two-day bender, deludedly thinking she's communed with the spirits. After this, Nokummus finally lets Addie return home, and moves in with her! The selfish bitch couldn't have done this in the first place and gone on this grave-search next summer? What a bunch of pinto dung!

Nothing is resolved. Addie never moves to the Wampanoag tribal lands to become their powwaw. Her father doesn't even return by the end of the novel so all the 'waiting, hoping. crying' for him is a complete red herring. Her best friend John proves himself as big of a jackass as the school bully who picks on Addie because she's a 'halfbreed'. Justice is never served on that dick, but John is just as bad save for being more subtle in his prejudices and dickishness, and he gets no comeuppance either so I guess that's fair. The story is a mess and not even a hot mess since it's set in winter. I think it stunk and I think it's insulting to and belittling of American Indians, and I cannot recommend it.

The Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment. It sounded interesting from the blurb: a girl who idolizes Ingrid Bergman growing up in the era of McCarthyism, and from a cloying Catholic background, discovers, hey, guess what? No body is perfect!

Things start coming apart in her perfect life when her idiot parents decide she's subject to bad influences at her prestigious Hollywood school and hypocritically send her to a Catholic girl's school where she's going to be brainwashed that there's a loving, long-suffering god who quite cheerfully condemns people who piss him off to hellish suffering for all eternity. Yep.

Her father is a Hollywood publicist who happens to be in charge of Bergman's account, so when it comes to light that she's having an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, and later is having a child by him, the witch-hunt starts, aided and abetted by this same Catholic church which on the one had teaches people to love their neighbor and turn the other cheek, but on the other slaps people it dislikes in the face with a tirade of abuse, recrimination, and rejection. They still do this today. Hypocrites.

The truth is that this 'scandal' lasted only four years before Bergman was working for Hollywood studios again. Just four years after that she was presenting an academy award in Hollywood, so this 'end of the world' scenario in which Jessica - the first person narrator - is wallowing is a bit overdone.

Worse than that, it makes Jessica look like a moron that she is so slow to see consequences of actions and how things will play out, despite spending some considerable time with her new best friend at the Catholic school, who knows precisely how things will pan out and spends their friendship trying to educate Jessica, who never seems to learn to shed her blinkers.

I started out not being sure, then starting to like it, then going off it, then warming to it, then completely going off it at about the halfway point when it became clear that Jessica was an idiot and showed no sign of improvement. It's yet another first person fail, and worse than this, the story is framed as a flashback so the entire story is a flashback apart from current day (that is current day in the story) bookends. I do not like first person, and I do not like flashbacks, so this was a double fail for me, although Erin Spencer did a decent job reading it.

There were some serious writing issues for a seasoned author or a professional editor to let slip by. I read at one point that Jessica was perusing an "Article entitled..." No! There was no entitlement here. The article was titled not entitled! At another point she wrote: "verdant green lawn." Since 'verdant' means green grass, it's tautologous and a good author should know this. 'Verdant lawn' works, as does 'green lawn', but not both! The part of the story where Jessica is required to see Sister Theresa, the head of her school, is larded with heavy-handed foreshadowing. I expect better from an experienced writer.

Jessica wasn't really a likeable person. I read at one point: "he was a year younger and an inch shorter" which made her sound arrogant, elitist, and bigoted. How appalling is it that she should think like this? Too appalling for me. I didn't want to read any more about her, because I didn't care how her life turned out.

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce

Rating: WARTY!

This was a very slim and very uninteresting volume. I am sure it would have been quite the ticket in the later eighteen hundreds, when Bierce was at his most prolific (not that these particular stories were published in Bierce's lifetime, but by today's standards, they leave a lot to be desired and I cannot recommend them.

I didn't read them all because they were not interesting to me, but the ones I did read all seemed to be the same story re-dressed with a few changed details and trotted out as something new. One trick pony describes it well, I think.

There were too many of them which were rooted in darkness and icy chills blowing hither and thither, and on purportedly scary footsteps, strange marital discord, vague descriptions of bad things happening, and one line conclusions. It really became too tedious to read them after the first three or so.

I found myself skimming a couple more and gave up on it as a bad job about half way through. Maybe other readers will have a different experience, but this was definitely not for me, despite my liking An Occurrence at Owl Creek, which was why I picked this up in the first place. Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914 whilst covering the revolution there, and was never seen or heard from again. I think his own story told as fiction would be a lot more interesting than this collection was!

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Rating: WORTHY!

Jane Austen is batting a .6 with me at this stage. I really liked Pride and Prejudice, not so much Emma or Sense and Sensibility, but then I enjoyed Lady Susan and I loved Northanger Abbey! What a lot of people do not seem to get about this novel is that Jane wrote it when she was just 28, and still very much a playful youngster in many ways. It was her first real novel that we know of, but it was put aside as she worked on others. Though she began re-writing it later in life when she was more than a decade older, she died before she could finish it.

The story revolves around Catherine Morland, in her late teens, and fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to Bath (evidently one of Austen's favorite locales) by the Allen family. It's there that she meets two men, the thoroughly detestable James Thorpe, and the delightful Henry Tilney. While Thorpe pursues the naïvely oblivious Catherine, she finds herself very interested in Henry and his sister Eleanor.

In parallel, James has a sister Isabella. They are the children of Mrs Allen's school friend Mrs Thorpe, and Catherine feels quite happy to be befriended by Isabella who seems to be interested in Catherine's brother John - that is until she discovers he has no money when she, like Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, transfers her affection to the older brother - in this case, of Henry Tilney. Captain Tilney, not to be confused with his father, General Tilney, is only interested in bedding Isabella, who is in the final analysis every bit the ingénue that Catherine is. Once he's had his wicked way with the girl, she is of no further interest to him whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Catherine manages to get an invitation to Northanger, the Tilney residence. Catherine is a huge fan of Gothic novels, and Ann Radcliffe's potboiler, The Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned often. Arriving at Northanger, she is expecting a haunted castle with secret passages, but everything turns out to be mundane - the locked chest contains nothing more exciting than a shopping list, and General Tilney did not murder his wife.

Henry Tilney is a lot less miffed with Catherine in the book than he was depicted as being in the 2007 movie starring the exquisite Felicity Jones and the exemplary JJ Feild, but as also in the movie, the novel depicts a lighter, happier time with General Tilney absent, but when he returns, he makes Eleanor kick Catherine out the next morning to travel home the seventy miles alone, which was shocking and even scandalous for the time, but by this time Catherine has matured enough that she's equal to the burden.

It turns out that the thoroughly James Thorpe (much roe so in the novel than in the movie), who had been unreasonably assuming Catherine would marry him, only to be set straight by her, has lied to General Tilney about her, and whereas the latter had been led initially to believe that she was all-but an heiress, he now believes her to be pretty much a pauper and a liar.

Henry bless him, defies his father and makes sure that Catherine knows (as does Darcy with Lizzie!), that his affections have not changed which (as was the case with Lizzie). This pleases Catherine immensely. Despite initially cutting-off his son, General Tilney later relents, especially when he realizes that Catherine has been misrepresented by Thorpe.

There are a lot of parallels in this book with the later-written Pride and Prejudice. You can see them in the dissolute soldier (Captain Tiney v. Wickham), the rich suitor (Tilney v Darcy), the break and remake between the two lovers, the frivolous young girls (Isabella v. Lydia) and so on. Maybe Northanger Abbey is, in a way, a dry-run for the later and better loved novel, but I think that Northanger Abbey stands on its own. I liked it because it seems to reveal a younger and more delightfully playful author than do her later works. I dearly wish there had been more novels from Austen from this era. She could have shown today's YA authors a thing or two, but I shall be content with this on treasure.