Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beyond the Green by Sharlee Glenn


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Not to be confused with Beyond the Glenn by Sharlee Green (I'm kidding!), this book was pretty darned good. It addresses a controversial issue of which the author has had some direct experience judged from her note at the end. I rarely read author's notes, and never read introductions, prefaces, prologues, and so on, but this note was interesting.

In 1978 a law was passed regarding how American Indian children in need of foster care should be treated. As usual, white folk had in the past assumed that they knew best, and simply taken Native American children into white Christian foster care giving no consideration even as to whether there were any native American relatives who could do the job, let alone others, and no consideration at all was given to Indian tradition or culture. It concerns me that this law applied only to Native Americans and gave no consideration to other cultures or even races, such as black or Asian. It seems to me that what's good for the cultural goose is also good for the ethnic gander, but that's outside the scope of this novel so I won't get into that here.

The middle-grade novel, set in 1979, evidently in some way mirrors what happened in the author's life, and is told from the perspective of a young Mormon girl, Britta Twitchell, whose family fosters a native American child from the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah for about four years. Rather than use the child's native American Ute name, they inappropriately named her Dorinda, and then shortened that to Dori. The child's actual name is the much more beautiful Chipeta. Her mother, Irene Uncarow, is an alcoholic, but she has recovered now and wants her daughter back. This causes Britta, the main character, to react very negatively, and start scheming to prevent her 'sister' from being abducted by this alien woman - at least that's the kind of viewpoint Britta has.

Her reaction is rather extreme, beginning with kidnaping Chipeta herself and running away, and later scheming to ruin Irene's sobriety so she can't reclaim her daughter. But Britta isn't dumb, she's just young and naïve, and she grows and learns lessons from her ill-conceived plans. The book isn't dumb either: it tells a real and moving story with interesting and complex characters and it does not shy away from talking about prejudice and alcoholism. There is always something happening, and it's not predictable - except in that you know that Britta's mind is very active and she will for certain cook-up another wild-ass plan before long.

The only issue I had with it was that it was a bit heavy on religion, but then this was a Mormon family. There was a minor instance of fat-shaming by Britta, but again, young kids are not known for their diplomacy. It's a different thing for a character to say something than it is for an author to say the same thing. Some people don't get that about novels! What a character says isn't necessarily what an author thinks!

For example, at one point Britta describes a loved aunt thus; "I pretty much idolized Aunt Mariah. She was pretty and spunky and smart." Normally I'd be all over something like that - placing prettiness above all else when it comes to describing women, as though that's the most important thing a woman has to offer, way before smarts, courage, integrity, independence, or whatever. I've seen far too many authors do that - including female authors, and it's shameful, but in this case it's the character, Britta, who is saying that. That's a different thing altogether, although having said that, it wouldn't have harmed this story to have had Britta rank 'spunky and smart' before 'pretty'!

But overall I really liked this story a lot. It's a great introduction for middle-grade children to the potential problems inherent in a family of one culture taking charge of a child from another. Anything that serves to open minds and enlighten children that different doesn't equate with bad or scary is to be recommended, and I recommend this as a worthy read.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Boy from Tomorrow by Camille DeAngelis


Rating: WORTHY!

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

I loved this novel! Josephine and Cassandra are sisters living in Edwardstown, New York State, in 1915. Their mother is a medium who may or may not be genuine, but she is also a cruel and vengeful schemer who thinks nothing of forcing her younger daughter, Cassie, to eat a whole pudding that she naughtily sampled, even if it makes her sick. She thinks nothing of confining the rebellious Cassie to a cupboard for an entire day for speaking back to her, not even lettign ehr out for a bathroom visit. The two daughters are kept cut-off from society and are essentially prisoners.

A century away from this drama, Alec, who happens to be pretty much the same age as Josie, together with his divorced mother, moves into that same address, and through an antique Ouija board which Alec discovers in the house, he somehow miraculously makes contact with Josie, and they become friends. Unfortunately, Josie's mother learns of her Ouija board assignations and seeks to tap Alec's future information for her own ends, holding Josie hostage to force him to meet her demands.

The story is told in third person (thank you, Camille DeAngelis, you are a goddess amongst YA and middle-grade authors!), and it alternates from Alec's perspective to Josie's, and back again with each chapter and without losing moment or engagement. Despite its length, it makes for a fast and easy read, brings the reader in from the start, and holds them captive rather like poor Cassie and Josie are captive, but by a lot more pleasant means! I really enjoyed this book it was original entertaining, and a breath of fresh air. I highly recommend it.


Friday, April 6, 2018

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo


Rating: WORTHY!

Read with gusto and love by Jenna Lamia, this was an adorable audiobook story. It was literally short and sweet and very amusing. The three main characters were brilliantly-drawn and admirably entertaining. The author's name was so familiar to me that I thought I'd read something by her before, but I can't find any record of it, so this is evidently my first encounter. I plan on it not being the last. This was a pleasant find. I tend to experiment a lot more with audiobooks than other formats, and many of them fail because of that. Once in a while a gem like this comes along and makes all of the unsatisfactory assaults on my ears bearable!

Raymie isn't a Nightingale, she's a Clarke. Nightingale is the book about Florence (of the lamp, not of Tuscany, which is really Firenza) which Raymie was taking to read to a resident of a retirement home (Raymie has to do good deeds). Raymie is missing her father, who ran off with a dental hygienist, and she figures if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition (which requires good deeds and baton-twirling), her father would see her picture in the paper and be so proud of her, and miss her so much that he would immediately return home and all would be well.

Raymie has a lot to learn about guys.

Also competing in the contest is Louisiana Elefante, daughter of the Flying Elefantes, the famous trapeze artists, now deceased. Louisiana has 'swampy lungs', and is living with her kleptomaniac grandmother. They are so poor that Louisiana is counting on winning the contest to shore-up their finances.

Beverly Tapinski has no intention of winning the contest. She hates these contests so much that she's dedicated to sabotaging this one. The only reason these three girls meet is that they all show up for baton-twirling lessons as taught by the irascible Ida Knee who is the antithesis of long-suffering. The girls don't really get along too well to begin with, but inevitably they get into bizarre and amusing mishaps and scrapes, and are drawn into a tight trio who call themselves The Rancheros (it's Louisiana's idea). That's all I'm going to tell you. Like I said, the story is short and it's fun, so what have you to lose? Very little time if you don't like it. I loved it and I recommend it.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Graphix Goes to School by various authors


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a cute, small format, and amusing little graphic collection of stories related to school. It's mostly an advertising flyer (or a sampler, if you like) for full length comics, but that's not a bad thing when you get an amusing story (at least amusing if you're middle grade or thereabouts!), and it's a good way to find comics that might interest and entertain you. Graphix is an imprint of Scholastic, and I have no affiliation with either, fyi!

There is less than seventy pages and eleven stories all told (so to speak!), so they're very short:

  1. Dream Jumper: Permanent Detention by Greg Grunberg, Lucas Turnbloom, Guy Major is a poor kid trapped in a dreamworld (or maybe a nightmare world...) of detention until he's busted out by a friend. It has a certain element of gross-out, but it's not too bad. Graphics and color are nice.
  2. Amulet Stonekeeper School by Kazu Kiribuishi is semi serious fantasy tale about kids with magical amulets. Who can ask for more?! Nicely drawn
  3. Bird & Squirrel by James Burks is about bird and squirrel - what did you expect?! Very stylistic illustration which might be useful for young kids to copy.
  4. Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L Holm and Matthew Holm is how I spent my summer kind of a story and it's a doozy. Artwork scrappy but effective.
  5. Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson features kids and aliens in a satellite school. Nice art.
  6. Twist and Pout by Jimmy Gownley is about a shy kid at a school dance. Simplistically, but nicely drawn.
  7. Newsprints by Ru Xu is about a first day at a new school and has great art.
  8. Nnewts (yes I spelled it right!) by Doug TenNapel is not so well illustrated but tells a fun tale of a school for...yep, you guessed it - newts! Talking newts. We've all been there.
  9. Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack. What more is there to say? Maybe that the art is quite good?
  10. The King of Kazoo by Norm Feuti is am amusingly and startlingly illustrated story of a strange people. Really intriguing art.
  11. Ghosts! by Raina Telgemeier is an intro to a new comic (or at least new at the time this was published) about a new girl at school who seems to be quite pleased that it's not haunted. But she could be mistaken.... Art is simply but not awful.

So all in all I think this is a fun read, and a chance to maybe find something you might like to follow on a longer-length more permanent basis. As such, I recommend it.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Unbound by Ann E Burg


Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook telling a story of slavery from the first person perspective of a young girl. The subtitle claims it's "A Novel in Verse" but it's actually not, thankfully. It was read by an actor with the interesting name of Bahni (pronounced Bonney) Turpin, and while her own voice was not bad at all, the first person voice of the story really turned me off, because it seemed so inauthentic.

I know authors do this to try and present a sense of immediacy and to bring a reader in, but for me, it typically pushes me out. Once in a while I find a FPV story that I can stand to read, but far more often than not, they're obnoxious. This was especially true in this case where the girl was being forced to leave her family and take up residence in 'The Big House' as a domestic slave. She was one of the most whiny, self-centered, and air-headed characters I've ever read about.

The novels blurb claims that the author "unearths a startling chapter of American history -- the remarkable story of runaways who sought sanctuary in the wilds of the Great Dismal Swamp," but this is an outright lie. If anyone unearthed it apart from the historians, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. I wonder if the author of this novel ever read that? She certainly doesn't acknowledge it if she did.

Slavery was an unforgivable abomination perpetrated by a smug, laughably 'superior', and self-righteous Christian population on a group of people they considered less than human, but there's nothing we can do to go back and right those appalling wrongs. All we can do for those people is to never forget them and to never let it happen again, but the truth is there are more pressing immediate problems which a wallow in the past will not fix. These problems are here and now, and they can be solved, but as long as our eyes are focused on history, they're not going to turn and take a hard look at where they should be aimed: current-day problems, some of which are echoes of the very history people are so distracted by. This book touched upon three issues that can be thought of very loosely as slavery or as coming out of slavery and which can be solved.

The first is racial issues still going on today which have deep roots in what happened when brutal men literally bought Africans from other Africans and floated them across an entire ocean to work these victims to death in plantations owned by Christian folk. The reason I mention their faith is because this book mentions "The Good Lord" irritatingly often.

It should have said "Good God!" as an exclamation of disbelief, because this god did absolutely nothing whatsoever to stop this abduction and brutality. It did no more than it did for the ancient Hebrews when they were hauled off into slavery, which was diddly-squat. Why anyone would put faith in such a worthless absentee god like that has long been a mystery to me, but this book idiotically keeps on having these people put their faith in what was - to them, hailing as they did from Africa - a completely alien god!

These Christians were claiming to be delivering these 'heathens' into the Christian faith, these were the heathens who were living (near enough for humans!) in complete harmony with nature, and who were being dragged across the Atlantic to live in a Christian community which was systematically raping the land it had stolen from American Indians who had been also largely living in harmony with nature! Go figure.

The second problem was entirely connected with that business (I use the term advisedly) of the raping o' the land. The problem back then was rich, armed white folks taking advantage of poor black folks. Now it's the insanely wealthy one percent taking advantage of the entire planet. The problem has become worse and it's become diversified: there's no race involved in this, only greed, as in 'how much more money can we make by exploiting more people' or 'by exploiting people more'?

The third problem is these people who are mostly though not exclusively white men, but they're not oppressing only people of color, they're oppressing all of us, but in particular people of color and women, who are seen as chattel by far too many of these men. This also where the #MeToo movement and the term 'glass ceiling' came from.

The real problem with this novel though is the poor writing. I know it's a novel for children, but does that mean that everything must be pedantically spelled-out and the slave owners be rendered as one-dimensional caricatures? The girl herself is ham-fistedly named Grace, and she causes all of her own troubles because she cannot control her mouth and she simply will not listen to advice. This is what brings all her troubles down not just on her, but also on her family. So they had to live in a swamp, Well, we were evicted from our swamp. We had to go and live in a cardboard box in't middle o' motorway! Each morning we had to get up and lick road clean wi't tung!

That was an excerpt from Monty Python's "The Four Swampmen." You know, I don't expect an author of a novel like this to portray slave owners in a warm light, or even have much imagination, but was it really necessary to render the owner's wife as a pinch-faced cartoon character? Subtlety (and creativity for that matter) appears nowhere in this author's lexicon quite evidently, so in that same vein let me say that this novel sucks, and I don't recommend it. After listening to only the beginning portion, I wanted Grace to sink into that blessèd swamp.


Friday, March 9, 2018

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes


Rating: WORTHY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Wandmaker by Ed Masessa


Rating: WARTY!

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

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.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Ghoulish Song by William Alexander


Rating: WARTY!

This was another boring audiobook experiment. I didn't realize it at the time but it's number two in a series, and that pretty much describes it. There was nothing on the CD case to indicate this was a series - as usual. I think series should have a warning sign on them like cigarette packs do. I think this one was read by the author, but I don't recall for sure, because it's been a while since I listened to it. I'm a big advocate of authors reading their own books, but whoever it was reading this, it wasn't great. Neither was the story.

It started out well-enough, but seemed to become lost somewhere along the way, and I became bored with it. It's a very dark story for young kids to be reading or worse, listening to in a stranger's voice. It's set in Zombay - an invention of the author's. A girl named Kaile is forced to bribe some goblins after her parents insult them. She does such a good job of debasing herself that she's given a bone flute which initially pleases her since she's into music, but it causes Kaile to become detached from her shadow, which is widely taken as a sign that she's dead. This is the kind of material we're dealing with. Her dumb-ass family refuses to countenance her now that she's 'dead', and the story goes downhill from there.

Her conversations with her separated shadow are mildly amusing, but they were nowhere near enough to save the story for me, so I cannot recommend this.


The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer


Rating: WARTY!

You take Cremer with your coffee? Not me! Read decently by Leslie Bellair, this story still failed for me. Another audiobook experiment, it started out quite well, but soon started to sound tedious, and although I did not know at the time that this was a series, now that I know it is, I'm glad I didn't waste my time listening to this until the 'end' only to find it didn't actually have an end; instead, I'd have to go read the rest of this series to get the whole story. No thanks!

Essentially what this is, is the American revolutionary war transferred to the steam punk age, and there's little steam punk in it or at least here wasn't in the portion I listened to. The British Empire is once again the villain here, because it's a purported "global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery" according to the blurb. This could actually describe the present day USA!

In the story, Charlotte, who we're told is sixteen but who behaves more like an eleven year old, is living with a bunch of 0other refugees in a forest. Periodically, big brass collector machines which seem to have been modeled somewhat on the Martian machines from the 2005 War of the Worlds movie, come into the wilds to grab stray children. Charlotte helps one of these kids, escaping from the machine and hiding out in her secret layer with the rest of her crew

Now why do these impressive machines grab children? Surely it can't be for slave labor since they have these wonderful machines, now can it?! Oh wait, it is for slave labor! Fail! This made zero sense, but even that I was willing to let slide, until I started hearing about what Charlotte had to put up with in the camp. There was this utter jerk of a kid named (predictably) Jack who shamelessly harassed Charlotte, who was the sister of his best friend. Pathetic. I'm not going to read crap like that.

There was the occasional stroke of humor in it, but only when one of the youngsters cussed in British, such as "Bloody hell" or when Charlotte announced she was going to bed because she was "Knackered", but those moments were far too brief and scarce. Overall, this novel left me steamed and punk'd.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sadia by Colleen Nelson


Rating: WORTHY!

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

The story is about displaced and immigrant Middle-East young Muslim girls in Canada. Sadia Ahmadi is fifteen years old. She and her family left Syria when her father got a teaching post at a University in Winnipeg, which is the capital city of Manitoba, a Canadian province. Winnipeg sits some seventy miles north of the North Dakota-Minnesota state line. It's cold up there at this time of year! it's 5° Fahrenheit, or minus fifteen Celsius as I write this! The average low in January is minus twenty one! Even in August it doesn't breach eighty (25°C), and it's down to the fifties (12°C) at night. Call me a wuss, but that's way too cold for me! You have to be tough to live in Canada!

By moving when they did, Sadia's family missed the Syrian civil war. Sadia has some mixed feelings about the move and her new homeland, but she gets a real education as to how lucky she is when Amira Nasser, a refugee, ends up at Sadia's school having left everything behind in Syria to escape the not-so-civil war. Now she's in a strange land with different customs and language and she's expected to integrate and learn. Sadia is assigned by her school (Laura Secord High School) to help her get up to speed. Laura Secord is (or was) a real person - a Canadian hero of the 1812 war.

But the story isn't about Amira; neither is it about Sadia's best friend Nazreen Hussani who originally hailed from Egypt. Instead, these two are rather employed to represent the trope angel and the devil sitting on Sadia's shoulders. Amira is very much a traditional Muslim girl. Nazreen is a rebel who removes her hijab and conservative clothing as soon as she gets to school, replacing them only before she leaves to head home. Sadia has issues with this and while she tries to maintain their friendship, she also feels increasing tension, dissent, and distance between herself and Nazreen. She feels pulled between these two extremes, yet tries to find her own path.

The thing which seems to erode the rough edges, and bring all these girls together is basketball. It is Sadia's passion. She has the chance to be on a co-ed team which enters a small tournament. Everything seems to be going great until the finals, when one of the teams objects to Sadia wearing what is a suitable outfit for a strict Muslim girl to play a sport in public, but which the opposing team finds objectionable, and which we're told is contrary to the official rules of the game.

On a point of order, it really isn't. The problem is that there is a slow turn-around time for professional publishing houses - a lag between the author finishing a novel and it being published. I don't know when the author wrote this or how long it was between her signing-off on the finished copy and the publishing date (which is this month) but as it happens, the rules in basketball got changed early last year in Canada to allow religious headwear (with certain restrictions), so I chose to assume that events in this novel took place before that date! Full disclosure here: the publisher, Dundurn, is the largest Canadian-owned publisher, and I am on their auto approved list on Net Galley, for which I am grateful since I tend to like what they publish.

Just as importantly, a young girl named Amina Mohamed of the Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg came up with a design for headwear that meets both Muslim restrictions and basketball regulations. In the novel, it's Nazreen who comes up with this idea. There's no acknowledgement to Amina, so I'm wondering if this book was locked-down before that item got into the news. Perhaps in future editions, the author can acknowledge Amina Mohamed's accomplishment.

The story itself, though, was well-told and moving. It did bring to the fore the issues Muslims have when trying to live in Western society and stay true to their faith: the restrictions, the difficulties, the prejudices and the outright racism in some cases. I'm not religious at all, so some of these issues struck me as trivial, but that's certainly not how they feel to people who are invested in faith, so I let that go, but what did bother me is that there are deeper issues which the author did not explore. The most outrageous of these is the appalling gender bias that seems to go hand-in-hand with far too many organized religions (and not a few disorganized ones as well, for that matter).

If the purpose of covering a woman's body is to prevent inciting passions, then it seems to me to be doomed from the off, because when a woman is completely covered, doesn't that in a way inflame an embarrassing number of the male half of the population with curiosity and desire to know what's under there? Of course you could argue that no matter how a woman dresses, but this is actually the other half of this problem: while all the pressure is placed upon women to tone down their dress (whether it's Muslim dress or even western dress as it happens), none is placed upon men to tone down their behavior and it was this which the Quran addressed first!

The whole idea of covering a woman up isn't only an insult to the woman, it's also an insult to the men in its implicit assertion that they're so lacking in self-control that women need to be hidden under blankets lest their very appearance cause the men to become serial rapists. That whole idea is absurdist and wrong-headed to me and says far more about the men who promote these ideas than ever it does about the women who have suffered and continue to suffer under this oppressive and cruel patriarchal hegemony.

The Quran is quite explicit in terms of modesty, but this requirement did not so much address clothing as partition between the genders, and it does not apply solely to women! It applies to men, too, yet in this story, we find no issues raised over the boys, only over the girls. I thought this ought to have been delved into a little. What;s good for the goose is worth taking a gander!

Why must girls wear a head covering (which technically is a khimar, 'hijab' having a more general meaning) and not the boys? I think there is some mileage to be had there, especially when telling a story of this nature. On a related, but slightly different topic, one of the things Nazreen did in her little rebellion against conformity was to wear (when she did wear them!) very colorful Khumur (the plural of khimar).

Personally, I have no problem with what women wear (or don't wear!), it's their choice, but I can't help wonder how making a Khimar more attractive meets the stated purpose of the garment in the first place, which as I understand it, is to promote a modest appearance. Isn't it less modest to make yourself stand out? Indeed, in western society, wearing a Khimar in the first place is rare enough that it makes a woman stand out more than if she went bare-headed, so this seems to me to be in conflict with the whole purpose of a head covering if it's to detract from attention! That's all I'm going to say on that topic, although I certainly reserve the right to go into it in some future novel of mine!

On a minor technical issue, and prefacing this by saying that I'm not a basketball fan and I certainly don't pretend to be an expert on rules: as far as I know in regular play, once a basket is sunk, the ball goes to the other team! There's no rebound to be had and you certainly can't try to score again. So when we read that Jillian scored a trhee-pointer and then "Allan grabbed the rebound to shoot again" I had to ask: what rebound? There's no rebound from a sunk basket! And even if there were, you can't just grab the ball and shoot again! The possession devolves to the defending team. I'm thinking that the author was conflating regular play here with taking a free throw during which - if the ball rebounds - a player can grab it and take a shot. But like I said, it's a minor issue and we all manage to let a few of those get by if we're honest!

So in conclusion, the novel felt maybe a little young for high school, but then the students were only on the cusp of the high school experience, so perhaps I'm being too judgmental there. Or maybe just mental! I felt there were some issues with this as I've mentioned, more in the omission than the commission, but overall, the novel was a worthy read and I recommend it, especially for the intended age range.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Leatherback Blues by Karen Hood-Caddy


Rating: WARTY!

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

Subtitled "The Wild Place Adventure Series" this is evidently the first of a wildlife series for middle-grade readers. I'm not a big fan of series, and while there are some exceptions, this did not make the list. I started out liking this one, but ended up feeling like it did not achieve its goal. That said, I'm not the audience for this, but I have two kids who are just out of that age range and I can't see either of them wanting to read this, although they are far from a scientific sample!

There were several issues which led me to my conclusion which I shall get to. To begin with, overall it offered a decent start to the plot, and the writing isn't bad at all, except for the section where I read, "...the smell of wet, moist things coming back to life." Things are not usually wet and moist! But any writer can say odd things, which is why proof-reading is such a tedious but necessary chore. And what we wrote sounded so goodwhen we first wrote it, didn't it?!

The book is very animal-centric (which I personally enjoy), but sometimes that was overdone, as I shall mention shortly. Despite this, it seemed to 'fall off the wagon' after a while and become much more about the main female character than ever it was about leatherback turtles, which seemed to defeat the purpose. The thing I liked at first was that it avoided giving the animals magical powers or human qualities, or having them talk (which I personally detest unless it's in an out-and-out fantasy story), but it even jumped those rails before long, and this is what ultimately turned me off it.

Young Robin Green works with her father (when not in school!) in a wildlife rescue center. Her father is a vet. Her mother died a while back and Robin is still understandably feeling it, but she's trying to cope, despite having self-doubts and confidence crises from time to time, unlike her sister Zo-Zo, who is super self-possessed much to Robin's chagrin. Robin also has a younger brother nicknamed Squirm, who loves bugs of all kinds, of course.

I didn't get the young boys name at all (or Zo-Zo's for that matter), but I let that go. What I found really lacking credibility was that so many things happened in so short a time, including the bear with its head in a bucket which they encountered on their way to the airport, and which took things too far for me, especially when Robin flew off after it without a thought for safety. This is not a good thing to teach young kids.

Any animal can be dangerous, especially if it's sick or frightened, and wild animals definitely are dangerous, especially a bear. Fortunately her father had a convenient tranquilizer gun and even more conveniently, a shot prepared beforehand for the exact size and weight of the bear in question; frankly it was a bit too fortuitous for credibility, and hoping kids in the intended age grange for reading this won't notice is not only risky, it's a bit insulting to the kids.

It was like the author wanted to include everything she possibly could in the story, but adding so much stuff robbed each individual event of any chance it had of being a special moment. It became instead mundane, and the animal encounter suffered from this conveyor-belt approach in my opinion. One example of this kind of thing was in how the baby turtles were described, There was nothing about their outsize flippers (comparative to their baby body size) which s what I find one of the most hilarious and completely adorable things about them.

Worse, there was nothing about the many predators which seek out these 'turtle runs' and which eat their fill of the largely helpless hatchlings as they scatter across the sand in a desperate rush for the comparative safety of the ocean. That was a bad mistake. It's not only humans which imperil turtles and it never helps to sugar-coat a story like this.

Robin finds herself with an unlikely opportunity to visit Costa Rica and help save these leatherbacks which are under threat from egg-poachers. Again I found this a little bit too fortuitous, and I could not let it go because it suggested that the Costa Ricans had no interest in helping leatherbacks, and/or there are no adults or kids there who could or would help, or who were able to design websites or contribute in some way. It felt too much like the insulting trope of the 'white man coming to the rescue of the native'.

Leatherbacks are the fourth largest reptile currently extant on our little planet, after the crocodilians. They're not considered endangered, but they're rated vulnerable, which is a threatened status only one stop down from endangered. To me, it's tragic to see how the little turtles, in their mad rush to reach the ocean and safety, are preyed-upon mercilessly by seagulls and other such predatory birds, as well as by crabs, and then other competing life in the ocean. Sometimes nature sucks even while it's being perfectly natural, doesn’t it?

The problem is that Robin is a bit of a wuss and even while she's excited by the trip, she isn't looking forward to the humidity and heat in Costa Rica. She's also unaccountably perturbed by the presence of scorpions, which is peculiar since there are scorpions in Canada believe it or not.

It’s only one species, the boreal scorpion, and as a threat, it’s more like a spider - small and not commonly known to sting humans. Neither Canadian nor Costa Rican scorpions are deadly. But the fact that Robin was supposedly a bit of a wildlife expert yet had this huge fear of scorpions like they were rare and exotic made no sense. The fact that Squirm, supposedly an expert on insects and arachnids, didn't remind Robin of the native scorpion undermined his credibility too.

At one point the book refers to people who are "Chinese or Asian" seemingly forgetting that Chinese are Asians, as are Indians. I mention this because it struck me as odd that the two should be separated, like there's no connection between them, but it’s important in one respect because the Asian predation of turtle eggs has pretty much driven nesting populations there to extinction. Good luck with keeping your jellyfish populations in check you guys now you've killed-off a major predator of them! They will pay the price for their stupidity, selfishness and short-sightedness in Southeast Asia.

Another minor quibble was a discussion of "poisonous insects." Some insects may well be poisonous if eaten, but I think what was intended here was to discuss if they were venomous. There is a difference! There's also a difference between kids talking of snakes and insects being "poisonous," which many people habitually do, and the narrator of the story using the wrong terminology! The one is likely, the other is not a good idea.

The point where Robin's dead mother magically started appearing to her turned me off this story completely, and I think it was a mistake to take this route. It ran the story into fantasy land, thereby undermining all the factual and 'hard science' material which had gone before. Dead moms do not reappear, and I think it sets a bad, and even scary precedent to make kids think that a parent who died would come back to help them, and an especially bad one to suggest she will rescue them by making an animal, in this case a snake, act out of character by biting a kidnapper for no good reason. The kidnapping itself lacked credibility or that matter.

On a final note, and this goes to the story drifting into fantasy land: animals - reptiles included - cannot smell fear. The author avoided that pitfall by saying they can "sense fear. They knew fear made things weak." That first part is correct to an extent; the second part is the fantasy. Even telling kids that animals can smell/sense fear is a bad step to take because it makes the child fearful, and therefore much less likely to have a good interaction with the animal. Telling them instead that animals are very sensitive and kids need to be gentle and careful with how they approach them is much wiser.

Just to put the idea out there, like it's a 'smell fear' kind of magical thing is insulting to the animal and misses the much more important and interesting reality of how sensitive some animals truly are, and how entrallingly perceptive they can be. While I would add birds to this skill level, I would not include reptiles, amphibians, and fish in the mix because they do not have the kind of brain which mammals and birds do. Snakes are essentially rodent killing machines (amongst other prey); they have no mammalian traits and to lump all animals together is to mislead children and do an injustice to the animals for the fascinating skill sets that they do have.

One final issue has to do not with the plot or writing, but with the overall formatting of the book. To talk about rescuing animals and not include plants in the picture is a short-sighted approach since one depends so much on the other. It seemed hypocritical therefore to put out a wildlife book which makes such tree-abusing use of the printed page. In an ebook this doesn't matter since it's all lumped together (especially if you read it in Amazon's crappy Kindle app which seems to think formatting is a joke), but when I read this in Bluefire Reader, which gives a much better impression of how the printed page will look, you see that there are problems.

This book locked-up Bluefire Reader (BR), which reads PDFs! It completely disabled the app so you could not tap on anything and have it respond. The first time it did this was on page 100, so thinking I had a bad copy, I downloaded it again, and the second copy would not let me get past page 14! I downloaded it to my desktop on which is installed Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), and I found in this, I could type in some page numbers, and it would go there, but for others, such as pages around page 14, it would simply spin its wheels and not go anywhere for some time.

Eventually it settled on page 15 which is a prologue, which I routinely do not read anyway, but it took an inordinate amount of time to alight there, and to try and click the bar to go to the next page didn't work any better. Once I'd got past about page 17, then things seemed to work again until I got to page 94, when it locked up again. At this point I gave up experimenting, but something is definitely wrong with the PDF of this book! I've never had these problems with other books in ADE or BR that I can recall.

Another issue was the overall look of the page. On my desktop computer in ADE, the book measured 10 inches tall by 6.5 inches wide. The print area covered four inches by eight It doesn't matter what the exact measurements are in the printed book because I'm talking relative percentages here. These huge margins meant that the actual printed area was roughly fifty percent of the page and the rest was blank. That's an appalling waste of trees.

No one wants a book which is printed gutter to edge and top to bottom, with the printed lines all crowded together by any means! It has to be readable and catered to the age of the reading audience, but to waste around fifty percent of a page and thereby slaughter far more trees for a large print run than is 'necessary' is an appalling abuse, especially in a book which claims such an affinity for the natural world. Maybe other people do not care or even think about this, but I do, and it's become for me a criterion when it comes to rating books.

As I said, this is an advance review copy so hopefully the final edition will not have the issues I discussed above. In Kindle it worked fine, but the formatting, as usual with Kindle, sucked. The turtle logo at the start of each chapter occupied a full screen and it did not work as intended because it was just one more screen to swipe by before I could start reading the chapter.

I keep my Kindle app set with a black background and white text to save power, so the turtle logo, black on white really stood out, which made it more annoying! These are formatting issues and have nothing to do with the story itself except in the practical experience of reading it. I just wish that publishers would pay more attention to the overall reading experience in different media than they do.

So talking of overall, this was not a great reading experience either in the book itself or because of technical issues. Hopefully these will be resolved in the final edition, but based on the book content alone, I cannot rate this as a worthy read, although I wish the author all the best in her series. It has some very promising potential.


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Rating: WORTHY!

This was from another audiobook, another experiment that worked! I get a lot of misses with audiobooks because I experiment more with them, but the disappointments are worth it because of the gems I find now and then. This was one of the latter.

April is not too happy at having to live with her grandmother, but she finds ways to make it work. Befriending Melanie and her very young kid brother Marshall who wears a plush octopus around his neck, is a good move, especially since the two have a shared interest in ancient Egypt. Melanie has made quite sophisticated families out of paper dolls - people cut from magazines and newspapers - with entire family histories, but soon, the two of them are using an empty, slightly overgrown back yard next door, behind an antique store, as their playground.

In their eyes it's Egypt, and they concoct elaborate rituals and stories to play out, which they call the Egypt game, and they refer to themselves as Egyptians. They create props and costumes and hold sophisticated and serious ceremonies after the manner, as far as they can tell, of the original Egyptians. A third girl, Elizabeth, joins them and despite a falling-out one time, they're having the best time until there's a murder in the neighborhood. All games are on hold since all girls are grounded for safety. But before long play resumes, and just when things seem to be going well, two boys, Ken and Toby, show up.

The boys had been curious about what the girls were up to when they snuck off after school, and spied on them! Rather than make trouble the boys want to join them! Again, it's game on, but then, one strange day, the statue to which they make their 'sacrifices' starts talking back to them!

I really liked this story. It was nicely-paced, interesting, entertaining, and made me want to listen. I recommend it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Turkey Monster Thanksgiving by Anne Warren Smith


Rating: WORTHY!

Nine-year-old Katie and school friend Claire, who is also Katie's across-the-street neighbor, both have in common that are short of a mom. Claire's father is, I believe, divorced. Katie's mom selfishly left the family to pursue a singing career in Nashville, although Katie apparently is apparently fine with that.

Claire is a bit uppity, so while Katie is looking forward to their usual Thanksgiving: eating her father's "famous" pizza in their pajamas, and then eating popcorn while watching the football on TV, Claire proudly announces that her family is going to throw a banquet for a score of people. Also her Thanksgiving decorations, which are spilling out onto the porch and the yard, are something else, especially the monster turkey which Claire's father plans to put onto the house roof, and which scares Katie's young brother.

Katie starts to feel like her plans are inadequate, and she begins to compete with Claire by making a list, checking it twice, and,...wait, wrong holiday! She does make a list of things to do, including making decorations and buying a bird ahead of time so it can be thawed and cooked, and also looking up recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes to prepare. She starts looking for people to invite to dinner as well, but in the end she can come up with only two, one of whom is a teacher and the other her dad's boss. It doesn't help her situation that she's lied to Claire about what kind of a Thanksgiving her family's will be like.

Now you know things will go astray here and they do (festooning the house with poison oak and setting the sweet potato dish on fire are never good ideas), but Katie stays true to her course even as she realizes and acknowledges that compromises must be made. She is an admirable and strong female character who has dreams, but who also has her feet firmly on the ground. I liked her and thought she was a good role-model for children of her age. I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it unreservedly.


Cloudia & Rex by Ulises Farinas, Erick Freitas, Daniel Irizarri


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a great story which I really enjoyed, although I have to say it was a bit confusing at times. The art was lovely and the story was different from the usual fare. I always appreciate that! For one thing, it presented African American females as protagonists. It was nice to see strong female characters of color, who are far too few in comic books, and strong, independent females who are equally rare. I would not recommend a graphic novel if that was all it had to offer, but I would sure be tempted! Fortunately this offered much more.

In the story, two young girls, the eponymous Cloudia and Rex, and their mother run into ancient gods who are seeking safety which can only be found in the mortal world. An antagonist named Tohil wishes to destroy those same gods and is hot on their heels.

Somehow the gods end-up being downloaded into Cloudia's phone, and some of their power transfers over to the girls. Rex is somewhat bratty, but she finds she can change into an assortment of animals. It's amusing and interesting to see what she does with that. Cloudia is a bit strident, but maybe she has reason when her life is screwed-up so badly and unexpectedly.

Daniel Irizarri's coloring is bold and pervasive, and it really stands out from the comic. It's almost overwhelming, actually, but overall the story was entertaining and the characters were fun, I recommend this one.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Curiosity House: The Screaming Statue by Lauren Oliver and HC Chester


Rating: WARTY!

I'm not sure about the HC Chester - whether that's a real person or some sort of fictional device - but I have avoided Lauren Oliver's books since she's never written one which has appealed to me enough to want to read it. Now I know why! This one did appeal until I started reading it; then I found it was definitely not to my taste at all, and I DNF'd it rather quickly. Yes, it's not aimed at me, but I have to wonder if those at whom it is aimed would like it. My own two kids who are broadly in that age range would not give it the time of day, I'm sure.

The book is part two of a series of loosely connected adventures, I believe, featuring the same mystery-solving kids, and I know this is what Big Publishing™ pushes authors into, and authors dream of getting that series sinecure so they don't have to think-up good ideas for stories anymore, but I am not a fan of those authors who chase easy cash, and I don't read series very much for the same reason I tend not to go for overly long novels: I'm very easily bored by a surfeit of sameness, and books like this are all about same-old, same-old: once you get through that introductory portion, whether it be the first twenty chapters or the first volume.

There are exceptions which are rare and treasured, but this was not one of them. I didn't like the charcters or find them interesting. It took way too long to actually find a mystery (I was still unsure what it was when I quit reading, but it seemed like maybe the 'murdered' wife wasn't actually dead at all). Maybe I'm wrong in that guess, but what I do guess right is that I'm done with Lauren Olvier now.