Saturday, July 29, 2017

Riding the Rails (Errol Lincoln Uys)

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression
Errol Lincoln Uys
T. E. Winter and Sons
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: During the 1930's, hundreds of thousands of American boys and girls criss-crossed the country aboard trains. Some sought adventure. Some sought jobs. Some merely sought a way to survive another day in the middle of a country devastated by the Great Depression and the crop-destroying Dust Bowl. These are the stories of just a few survivors of those days, a time that brought despair and hope, shame and pride - and, for most, an enduring connection to the country and its people.

REVIEW: When most modern people think of hoboes, they think of the old cartoon caricature of the scraggly-bearded drunkard with the handkerchief bundle on a stick, a lazy ne'er-do-well vagrant and beggar. In truth, most hoboes were anything but lazy, fighting daily struggles for survival against starvation and law enforcement as they traveled in search of jobs that were as likely to be mirages (or, worse, traps) as real opportunities. Their motivations for riding the rails were as diverse as the people they encountered. This book switches between first-person narratives by those who lived as hoboes and chapters that establish their existence in the greater context of history: the figures and facts that led to this mass migration of underage Americans, what they were leaving and what they found, and how the programs of Roosevelt's New Deal (particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps) helped pull them, and the nation, back together. It lost a half-star for the presentation, which seemed haphazard and failed to present its material as effectively as it could have. Still, these are stories that deserve to be told. On the whole, it's a decent portrait of a bygone age, with moments and lessons and truths that are still relevant in today's world.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Eridahn (Robert F. Young)

Robert F. Young
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Jim Carpenter may time travel for a living, but he's ultimately a glorified truck driver, navigating a camouflaged reptivehicle around in the Age of Dinosaurs while recording holopictures. The discovery of a fossilized modern human in the Cretaceous sends him back to ancient North America to investigate - where he stumbles across something impossible. Two human children, a boy and a girl, have been treed by a dinosaur. Skip and Deirdre claim to be the prince and princess of Mars, victims of a terrorist kidnapping. (Well, at least Skip claims that; Deirdre, as future queen, does not speak to anyone but royalty.) Whether he believes them or not, Jim can't leave them alone in the past - especially not when the terrorists come hunting for their escaped hostages.

REVIEW: An older title, it looked like a quick adventure. That's about what it is. The characters aren't especially deep, and the storytelling's rather clunky at times, with long, unnatural stretches of exposition as Jim tells tales of modern Earth and the children relate information about ancient Mars. Though not pitched at kids - nothing explicit, but there is a disturbing rape attempt as a terrorist lusts after the eleven-year-old princess - it has the kind of imagery that would linger in a young imagination: camping out and roasting marshmallows under a Cretaceous starscape, the remote-controlled robotic vehicle "Sam" (which is essentially a sidekick in everything but self-awareness), the lost Martian colony on Earth and descriptions of a "desentimentalized" Martian culture, and more. But then there's that rape thing, part of an overall sexist subtext, not to mention a rather disturbing vibe that develops between thirty-odd-year-old Jim and young Deirdre, beginning when he addresses the princess of a major planetary royal house (if not of his planet) by the over-affectionate (not to mention subtly dismissive) moniker "Pumpkin" throughout the tale. (Avoiding spoilers, that vibe takes a downright unsettling twist toward the end.) I also rolled my eyes a bit at the rather extraneous inclusion of a mysterious master alien race, the Ku, whose existence was both a plot device to explain modern humans on Mars and a way to separate us from natural evolution. (I'd say anyone who reads science fiction should be able to cope with evolution, and not require an "intelligent design" rationalization for humanity, but unfortunately I know better these days. While I don't know for sure that's why the Ku were wedged into this story, I wouldn't bet against it... but, I digress.) Those flaws aside, it reads fast and has a fair degree of action. It's not a standout title, but a passable little adventure that delivers just what it promises, if nothing more.

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A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
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The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma (Diane Fox)

The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma
Diane Fox, illustrations by Christyan Fox
Scholastic Press
Fiction, CH Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As Cat tries to read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Dog insists it must be a superhero tale.

REVIEW: This book offers some fun tweaks on the fairy tale. Cat struggles to get through the story while Dog interrupts with questions about Red's "superpowers" and nitpicks the Wolf's villainous scheme. While somewhat amusing, I felt it could've done a little more with the gimmick, and there seemed to be a lot of white space on the pages, making the tale feel thinner than it was. Not a bad read, though.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Neanderthal Seeks Human (Penny Reid)

Neanderthal Seeks Human: A Smart Romance
(The Knitting in the City series, Volume 1)
Penny Reid
Fiction, Comedy/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Janie's just had the worst day of her adult life. First, she broke up with her boyfriend - the only boyfriend she's ever had - after finding out he'd cheated on her. Then she lost her job. And the bathroom stall was even out of toilet paper. But perhaps the worst part of it is how she won't be able to sneak peeks at her favorite lobby security guard, whom she and her friends have dubbed Sir Handsome McHotpants.
Or so she thinks...
It turns out Sir Handsome has a name: Quinn. He also has a line on a new job, a far better one than she lost. Her friends in the knitting club insist the man must be flirting with her. But she knows better; Janie's just too awkward, prone to spouting random trivia instead of meaningful conversation, to attract anyone remotely normal, let alone someone on his end of the dating pool. She's like a Neanderthal trying to blend in with humans, always a step out of sync. Is Quinn her shot to have it all, or is he really too good to be true?

REVIEW: As contemporary "chick-lit" romances go, this one hits its marks with a fair bit of style and wit. Unfortunately, it never rises above the formula. Janie's a curvy knockout who is inexplicably convinced she's unattractive, largely due to issues with intimacy caused by an unhappy childhood (involving a runaway mother and one particularly crazy criminal sister, Jem, who turns up to mess with Janie's life just as she's on the brink of happiness.) She's actually fairly smart, but spends a fair bit of the book being deliberately obtuse; when even I, as clueless a human ever to have double-X chromosomes, recognizes a man flirting, it's downright aggravating to watch the supposedly intelligent main character keep brushing it off simply to further the story. Her ex-boyfriend's a cad, naturally, and a controlling cad at that... but, in some ways, it's a lateral move to Quinn. He, also, takes over much of her life. Even her best friend Elizabeth sees herself as Janie's keeper as much as a friend. At one point, Janie becomes aware that everyone's essentially coddling her - but, skirting spoilers, not much really comes of this revelation, and it's brushed away as a non-issue. While Janie's narrative voice has some fun moments, I grew frustrated with how she was constantly protected (and constantly deliberately ignoring things that were painfully obvious; really, she was too smart to be that stupid.) As for the knitting club, I'm not quite sure why it was a knitting club, save a creative use of needles and a yarn ball in the third act; Janie doesn't knit, and the girls aren't in the story enough to be more than vague attributes attached to names. Mostly, they exist to rally around Janie when she's down and squeal over romance and sexual conquests like something from a TV show. I guess I'd hoped for a little more originality all around, and a main character who would rise a little higher than the genre standards she was stuck with.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)

When You Reach Me
Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books
Fiction, MG Mystery/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Sixth-grader Miranda found the first note in a book. It made no sense, rambling about how she had to write a letter (but not yet) and saying someone was coming to save her friend's life. What friend? Her best friend since infancy, Sal, went all moody after a strange boy punched him in the street and doesn't talk to her anymore, and her new friends aren't really the same. And who could've written it? Her overworked single mother? Mom's boyfriend Richard? Strange kid Marcus? The "laughing man" who lives by the corner mailbox and rants at traffic? None of them could've gotten into her room to place the note, could they? Then another note arrives, containing information nobody could know. The strange coincidences begin adding up as Miranda's world turns on its head. Maybe someone is warning her of a danger - but what danger? And is it already too late?

REVIEW: This is one of the stranger stories I've read in some time. Clearly inspired by Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (Miranda's favorite book, which she talks about at  borderline-spoiler length), it's both a mystery and a science fiction tale. The scale may be small, centered around Miranda's city school and small apartment and circles of friends, enemies, and familiar strangers, but the ideas are large. By placing the tale in the late 1970's, Stead removes many of the modern trappings and conveniences that would collapse the sense of wonder; Miranda has no internet to turn to for answers, no cell phone tether, and no digital distraction to keep her from noticing the many small details that add up to something profound. The cast is full of nicely rounded, human characters whose quirks hint at complicated pasts. Their relationships undergo stress and rearrangement as events unfold. The plot starts a little slow, with the bigger ideas (the mystery of the notes and possible time travel connection) as mere background noise, but as things pick up that noise grows louder until it reaches a crescendo at the rapid climax. When it all comes together, it's not just about the strange elements but the bonds of friendship and power of love. I gave it an extra half-star for how all the little pieces click together at the end, and for the many little touches that made the story and its inhabitants feel so real.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Golden Son (Pierce Brown)

Golden Son
(The Red Rising trilogy, Book 2)
Pierce Brown
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once a lowly Red of the Martian mines, Darrow allowed himself to be utterly transformed by the Carvers of the terrorist group Sons of Ares, reforging him as a Gold: the corrupted ruling class of humanity's interplanetary empire, who slaughter the lesser Colors and the weaker of their own kind as some might casually swat a fly. Against the odds, he rose to the top of the class at the Mars Institute, securing an apprenticeship with the planetary governor (and murderer of his Red wife, revolutionary Eo), Augustus. But none can rise in Gold society without making a few enemies... and even the brightest star can wane.
Two years after victory, Darrow faces defeat and disgrace, engineered by jealous advisors and the family of an old enemy, Cassius of the house Bellona. Worse, he's been out of contact with the Sons of Ares, making him fear that he's been cut off, cast adrift in a world not his own. He's come too far to give up, though, and Eo's dream of a liberated Color-free society carries him onward... even if he must make deals with many devils, and confront his own failings as leader and man.

REVIEW: The first book, Red Rising, was on the upper edge of Young Adult, as a teenage Darrow struggled to carve a place in Gold society while clinging to his Red heart and dreams. As intense and often violent as that one was, with numerous backstabbings and deaths, this one takes things to a whole new level. It isn't just fellow students who live and die around him, often by his word - it's entire ships of lowColors, whole families of Golds. Darrow thought he'd cut his teeth in the Institute, but that was just the first skirmish of the greater war, one which finds him still ill-prepared in many ways to survive, let alone win. The pace is relentless, full of names that had faded in memory since I read the first book; I recommend a reread of Book 1 if there's been a gap. Lacking the time for that (and the inclination, frankly; my reality is full enough of corrupt leadership flaunting their power and indulging in petty games regardless of civilian casualties), I was treading water for a good chunk of the book, and though I more or less oriented myself, I know there were many subtleties I likely missed for not having refreshed my memory. Darrow continues his impossible balancing act, trying to be Gold enough to gain enough power for his goals without losing himself in their games, which he knows he cannot win. His disadvantage - a Red upbringing, emphasizing family and friendship - becomes both a strength and a liability, making him enough of a wild card that he can be hard to predict... and offering enough of a weakness for enemies to exploit. With so little downtime between ambushes, attacks, and backstabs (which are as common as greetings among the Golds, and as casually engaged in), Golden Son makes for an often-harrowing read as it races toward a climactic ending... which, as a spoiler-free warning, is bleak enough that one might want to have Book 3 on hand before reaching it. Overstimulation and name confusion almost cost it a half-star, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. As disturbing as it is at times, it's nevertheless well written, and it serves its purpose in making me eager to find the third and final installment - if only on increasingly-dim hope of a brighter ending than the one found here.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (H. C. Chester and Lauren Oliver)

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head
(The Curiosity House series, Book 1)
H. C. Chester and Lauren Oliver
Fiction, MG Historical Fiction/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: As New York City slowly recovers from the Great Depression, many relics of yesteryear have fallen by the wayside, yet Dumfrey's Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders manages to endure. Here, visitors can witness wonders like the baseball-sized kidney stone and stuffed two-headed calf (whose second head requires regular repairs), and a stage show with some of the greatest human marvels in the world (or at least the city): Hugo the elephant man, Phoebe the fat lady, Andrew the alligator boy, and more, including four extraordinary children. Thomas can bend in impossible ways, more flexible than a snake. Sam's so strong he can barely open a door without destroying it. Phillipa can read minds... or, at least, mostly tell what someone's carrying in their pockets. And the girl Max's knives are as fast and accurate as any sharpshooter's bullet. The museum is their livelihood, but, more importantly, it's their home.
The day Mr. Dumfrey acquires the shrunken head should've been the start of a new era for the museum, a draw to restore dwindling crowds and fill draining coffers. But the death of an elderly visitor shortly after its debut leads to rumors of a curse - and hints that a murderer may be on the loose. To save Mr. Dumfrey from charges (and save their museum home), the four children set out looking for answers... but as more bodies turn up, the investigation itself becomes as dangerous as any curse.

REVIEW: I wanted a light read to balance a darker, more intense paperback, and Curiosity House grabbed my attention with an interesting premise, hearkening back to the old days of offbeat tourist trap attractions that have largely succumbed in modern times. It started out decently, if a little overloaded on characters and names who ultimately have very little to do but clutter up the museum. The kids tend to be exaggerated, moreso than even in other middle grade titles, but are decently drawn enough to care about and have unique personalities. The story moves at a decent pace as the investigation takes turns, hits dead ends, and has unexpected breakthroughs. Some time after the shrunken head's first tragedy, though, cracks start appearing. The kids become selectively obtuse as the authors practically slam certain clues in the reader's face that the characters conveniently ignore, to the point I started wondering just how simple they thought middle grade readers were. Distracting cliches - the foursome have to "pair off" (if not in a romantic sense yet, more of a feel-extra-aware-of-but-don't-quite-know-just-why sense), the girls tend to be more squealy and shrieky, etc. - start gnawing on the story. An underlying sense of unlikability bordering on malice becomes apparent; though I can't put my finger on just where or how, at some point I found myself realizing that there was something about the mindset and overall tone of things that ran at odds with the otherwise light premise, something that just set my teeth on edge enough to put me at arm's length. The Big Reveal shocks the characters, but not the reader, prompting a few eye-rolls. Then the story ends without real resolution or logic, mostly because this is Book 1 of a series and there have to be some sizeable threads left dangling to justify future books. By the end, not only did it feel like it never lived up to the originality and potential promised by the premise, but much of the charm of Dumfrey and his museum felt oddly tarnished, especially if you really think about the circumstances surrounding his collection of the kids. Younger readers might enjoy it more than I did, fascinated by the strange characters and the lost world of yesteryear's "dime museums" and spectacle attractions, though I wouldn't put it past some of them to pick up the same odd vibes I did, being unable to really enjoy it without quite knowing why.

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