Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird (Chris Carter, series creator)

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird
Based on The X-Files series
Chris Carter, series creator, illustrations by Kim Smith
Quirk Books
Fiction, CH Media Tie-in/Picture Book/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Young Dana and her friend Fox are having a camp-out in her back yard when Fox's imagination runs away with him... or are there really aliens out there?

REVIEW: As a former X-phile, I was curious about this title, and finally cornered it during some down time at work. Unfortunately, I just don't think it quite works on a number of levels.
First off, there's the title, which is not only a spoiler, but irrelevant for most of the story. (It's such a disconnect that one is basically just tapping one's fingers waiting for the title to make sense... and when it does, it's not so much an "aha" moment as a vague sigh.) Secondly, there's the concept of retconning Mulder and Scully into childhood pals. This could've been a fun homage, with numerous opportunities for nods to the original series, but nothing much stood out. Plus, young Dana and Fox are reading X-Files stories in their tent, which really warps a concept that already retcons characters. Either this was a very subtle nod to the show (which once had characters watching Chris Carter's Millennium series before doing a crossover), or this thing wasn't even trying to be anything but a quick cash-in on the reboot (or re-reboot, given that a second "special" season is airing soon.) Then there's the matter of using an early-reader picture book to tie into a series that was definitely not for the picture book audience. (What next, a pop-up book with a pull tab for the Flukeman to tear out a victim's liver? A See-and-Say toy for monsters?) I know there are people who happily let their toddlers and kindergartners watch Outlander and Game of Thrones, but it still feels like brand confusion to me, especially as there doesn't seem to be much here for the adult X-phile reading this to their kids. But even setting all that aside... something about the storyline, simple as it is, just doesn't quite play out right to me - a feeling definitely not helped by a title that tips its hand before the reader even picks it up.
In the end, what could've been an amusing little outing for 'philes of all ages ends up feeling flat and forced. But I suppose all's fair if it earns more money for the franchise owners...

You Might Also Enjoy:
The X-Files: Fight the Future (Chris Carter, adapted by Elizabeth Hand) - My Review
This Book Is Not About Dragons (Shelley Moore Thomas) - My Review
The X-Files: Season 1- Amazon DVD link

Monday, December 11, 2017

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery (Pseudonymous Bosch)

Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery
The Secret series, Book 6
Pseudonymous Bosch
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, MG Mystery/Writing
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Writing books is hard work, even when a talking rabbit does your typing. After five volumes of his popular Secret series, author Pseudonymous Bosch is tapped out. So he's going to let you, the reader, take the reins on this one. He'll give you a basic setup and some pointers, plus a few genre options, but this book's going to be all yours.
Are you ready?
Too bad - the story's already started...

REVIEW: When I downloaded this book on Overdrive, I was unaware that it was technically the last book on Bosch's humorous middle-grade Secret series, which I've seen at the library but haven't yet read; a few elements here constitute spoilers. However, it works fairly well as a standalone title.
Write This Book is a nice twist on writing books, somewhere between an ongoing exercise, a commentary on the process, and a story in its own right, all infused with a strong sense of humor. For the most part, the balance works; he starts by giving the reader/writer a few characters and a mystery (with notes on how to start a story), then guides the reader through the process of crafting the plot and finishing, emphasizing that things can (and will) be refined in future rewrites and the important thing is to keep writing. For genres, he offers a choice between noir mystery, fantasy, and gothic horror, a unique demonstration on how genre may color the story, but it generally does not dictate it: the same basic idea can work in many settings and genres. Bosch's style lies somewhere between improvisation ("pantsing," or writing by the seat of one's pants) and organization (outlining), leaning towards the former; he likens it to cooking, where one gathers one's ingredients (ideas and inspirations and references) before one starts but isn't strictly bound by a recipe. It's a nice method, loose enough to make readers feel excited about exploring a story, and not like they're trudging through yet another graded assignment - plus it shows that, despite what English teachers like to say, there are many published authors who aren't strict outliners or bound by other "rules" (three-act structure, snowflake method, etc.)
Bosch and his typist bunny, Quiche, frequently appear in the pages via doodles and cartoons, an ongoing rivalry with an unexpected climax. He offers many procrastination break ideas that will probably amuse experienced writers at least as much as, if not more than, newcomers. (One of these advises one to reread one's manuscript, decide it's crud and rip it up, then realize it's not so bad and painstakingly tape it back together, then make sure nobody knows how crazy you are.) The clever voice walks a fine line between amusing and annoying, mostly staying on the former side.
All in all, despite being unfamiliar with the Secret series, I found this an entertaining read, especially for writers. It earned an extra half-mark for evoking a few laugh-out-loud moments.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett) - My Review
Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Spilling Ink (Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter) - My Review

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bad Kitty (Nick Bruel)

Bad Kitty
The Bad Kitty series, Book 1
Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kitty didn't mean to be bad. She's usually quite good. But then the family runs out of her favorite food. An alphabetic diet of asparagus through zucchinis leads to alphabetic revenge, as Kitty takes misbehavior to a whole new level...

REVIEW: We had some down time at work, so I read this while waiting for things to pick up again. Kitty really is pushed over the edge, given the nauseatingly healthy (and meatless) options she's presented with. (I was also impressed that Bruel found a fruit for X.) Her revenge is hilarious... as is the family's attempts to make amends with more appealing food (including such options as a whole buffalo burrito, elephant eggs, and a donkey named Dave.) Appeased, Kitty then repeats the alphabet making amends. An amusing read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch for You (Lee Harris) - My Review
Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan) - My Review
Dragon Love Tacos (Adam Rubin) - My Review

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mort(e) (Robert Repino)

The War with No Name series, Book 1
Robert Repino
Fiction, Sci-Fi

DESCRIPTION: Sebastian used to want nothing more than his patch of sun on the carpet, a bowl of food, and his neighbor dog-friend Sheba. But he was an ordinary cat in extraordinary times. After millennia of patient plotting, the ant queen Hymenoptera Unus has begun the war to eradicate humanity as an invasive species. First, she bred giant, tank-sized Alpha ants. Then, she initiated the Change, a combination of airborne hormones and ultrasonic signals that transformed many of the birds and the beasts into upright-walking sapient soldiers in her global army... everything from wolves and bobcats to rats and pets.
And thus, one day, Sebastian found himself aiming a shotgun at his former "master."
Shedding his "slave" name and becoming Mort(e), he became a hero in the elite Red Sphinx under the ruthless Changed bobcat Culdesac... but always, in the back of his mind, he remembers that patch of sun and the canine friend he shared it with, a friend he hadn't seen since his former master shot at her moments before his own Change. And nothing - not time, not war, not the dreaded human bioweapon EMSAH, not even the ant queen herself - can stop him from his search.

REVIEW: The cover hype frequently invokes Orwell's classic allegory Animal Farm, the tale of the pig-led revolution in the barnyard that led a barn of deluded animals into a dark future of oppression and betrayal. That is about the closest comparison I can think of, one reinforced by numerous nods in the narrative. (There's even a Changed lieutenant pig who took the name Bonaparte, because Napoleon had been taken "many times over.") Unfortunately, while Orwell kept his allegory focused on his message, Repino tries to build a broader world - one that devolves into a commentary on the merits of Abrahamic religions in a Message at least as heavy-handed (or heavy-pawed, or -hooved) as Orwell's, often moreso. Sebastian-turned-Mort(e) becomes an empty mouthpiece of this message, as do the other characters, intriguing as they may have started.  The internal logic of the piece falls apart under its weight, the suspension of disbelief cracking under animals that seemed far too human and self-aware in some ways and too naive and easily bamboozled in others. For instance, it's painfully obvious what the real source of the bioweapon EMSAH is almost from the moment it appears, but the thought doesn't even occur to otherwise-intelligent beings. By the end, I was almost literally grinding my teeth as the "inspirational" Message grew increasingly incandescent, throwing even more holes and flaws into sharper relief - holes I would've flown over happily had my belief remained suspended, but which crashed and burned long before the finale. What's left without that suspension? A collection of half-developed characters and often-gory images, trampled under their own Message.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Animal Farm (George Orwell) - My Review
Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift) - My Review
The Hunt for Elsewhere (Beatrice Vine) - My Review

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Walk the Earth a Stranger (Rae Carson)

Walk the Earth a Stranger
The Gold Seer trilogy, Book 1
Rae Carson
Greenwillow Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Historical Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Leah Westfall has worked her whole life helping her parents on their Georgia land claim, her ability to sense gold helping them scrape a living even as the local mines run dry. Word of a strike in California has many in town buzzing, but Leah has no plans to follow... until her parents are murdered, their stash stolen, and a greedy uncle takes over the land. He knows her secret, and has "plans" for her - plans she wants no part of, especially not when she realizes he pulled the trigger. Dressing as a boy, she heads out after a friend who set off for the Californian gold fields. It's a harrowing journey by land and river... and, though she'll be crossing the whole continent, she may not be running far enough to escape Uncle Hiram's reach.

REVIEW: Walk the Earth a Stranger, start of a trilogy, establishes a strong yet imperfect heroine in an era of both promise and despair, the decade before the Civil War; though her family doesn't keep slaves, she's surrounded by those who think nothing of owning a human being, reinforcing an underlying theme about personal freedoms and how far one must go to secure them. Carson brings the long journey to life with many details, some of them unpleasant, yet part of the pioneer experience. Leah (who travels as "Lee" for much of the book) faces all manner of challenges, but persists, even as she struggles to keep her gold sense hidden. It's a minor enough quirk that it almost could've been written out of the book with little change, though her abilities do come into play at a few key points. Through the whole journey, Leah learns how to trust, finding family and friends where she least expects them. It's a decent tale, occasionally unpredictable, and the characters are real enough to care about, if not always particularly deep. The ending feels a little flat and rushed, though; part of me wonders if this wasn't originally intended to be a standalone, and the conclusion had to be rewritten to accomodate sequels. Even if it's not a 24-karat story, Walk the Earth a Stranger has a nice glitter about it, making for a good read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman) - My Review
Boston Jane (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinor Pruitt Stewart) - My Review