Saturday, January 31, 2015

January Site Update

The previous six reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Little Red Writing (Joan Holub)

Little Red Writing
Joan Holub, illustrations by Melissa Sweet
Chronicle Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The pencil Little Red sets out to write a story for class, bringing a basket of words... but will they help her escape the big bad pencil sharpener, the Wolf 3000?

REVIEW: A fun little tale, it starts out as a simple introduction to how to write a story. Red discovers that just walking around is boring, but a jungle of dense descriptions is even worse. I'd hoped it would continue in that vein, but eventually it segues into the expected Red Riding Hood tale - only this Red's not quite as helpless as the original. Several pencil-based puns and word plays liven up the illustrations. While I would've rather it stuck to the original concept, it's a decent enough story, with a few pointers for would-be writers.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Misadventures of Maude March (Audrey Couloumbis)

The Misadventures of Maude March
(The Maude March series, Book 1)
Audrey Couloumbis
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In mid-1800's Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sisters Sallie and Maude find themselves orphaned twice over - first when their parents sickened and died, and second when a stray bullet strikes their Aunt Ruthie through the heart. Maude being only 16 and Sallie 11, they can hardly survive on their own, but when they turn to the Reverend Peasley for help, they wind up as little more than slaves in his household. After the reverend orders Maude to marry an elderly parishioner (leaving Sallie with the Peasleys and their spoiled children), they've had enough. Their Uncle Arlen set out years ago for Independence, Missouri to start a new life, and the girls decide to follow.
An avid reader of dimer adventure tales, young Sallie is convinced she knows all there is to know about roughing it on the range. Even disguising themselves as boys and taking the reverend's old plow horse and buggy pony (adequate compensation for their labors in the Peasley household, they figure) seems more exciting than larcenous. But she's about to learn the hard way that real adventures aren't nearly so neat, especially when a series of mishaps leads her own sister to be branded a wanted woman.

REVIEW: With a strong, fast start, this looked like a fun Western adventure. Sallie starts out hopelessly naive, blindly believing every word of the improbable adventure tales she devours. Older Maude is more jaded and reserved, often downright moody, but is little more prepared for the realities of life and range riding. Along the way, they meet up with Marion, the inadvertent inspiration for one of Sallie's storybook heroes, who isn't nearly so heroic in the flesh; it was his bullet that accidentally killed Ruthie, and his bank robbery that helps make "Mad" Maude's reputation in the papers. I'd hoped that the trip to Independence would grow the March siblings up some - especially Maude, whose moodiness makes her inscrutable at best and downright unlikable at worst. On that front, I was disappointed. Sallie tries to emulate her heroes to be a range rider, but keeps doing stupid things, even after realizing that she can't rely on her favorite adventures to make her into someone she just isn't. The disappearing/reappearing Marion also remains annoyingly ambiguous throughout the book; I never could quite get a bead on his motivations, as they seemed to change from scene to scene. And Maude stubbornly continues being Maude, being sullen and snappish to everyone, even those trying to help. I kept thinking how Mary "Jack" Faber from L. A. Meyer's Bloody Jack stories would run rings around these people in a survival situation. As for the story, it often feels random, as an improbable series of coincidences creates and perpetuates Maude's undeserved reputation... often with few real-world consequences aside from Maude's tantrums whenever she sees her name in print. One of the underlying themes of the story is how one shouldn't blindly believe everything one hears or reads, and how reputations - like those dime novels and many newspapers - aren't always the best way to judge the truth, yet the characters overall lacked the internal integrity to rise above those reputations. Maude in particular made me want to reach into the story and shake her senseless. The ending feels flat, possibly because it isn't the end of the March sisters' story but rather a brief pause in their journey. I liked some of the writing, and there are a few memorable scenes - Maude and Sallie dealing with a too-active dead rattlesnake in particular stands out in my memory - but overall I found The Misadventures of Maude March a letdown.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Crown of Serpents (Michael Karpovage)

Crown of Serpents
(The Tununda Mysteries series, Book 1)
Michael Karpovage
Karpovage Creative, Inc.
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: After seeing too much action in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jake Tununda figured that a job as historical researcher would be a pleasant change of pace. It would also give him a chance to reconnect with his Native American heritage. But old habits die hard. When he heard about a lost and injured man in Cranberry Marsh, he headed in to help - and finds himself up to his neck in a story winding back hundreds of years, through the founding of the Confederacy of the Five Civilized Tribes and the American Revolution, and straight to an ancient relic with untold powers... and a modern-day madman ready to unleash those powers on the world.

REVIEW: An ex-Army hero, an Indiana Jones-style plot, an evil casino magnate and his thugs... I knew this was going to be a testosterone-heavy thriller when I downloaded it. I didn't know that there would be almost nothing else worth reading. The story barely gets started before a clunky infodump tangles up the plot, setting a pace that would continue throughout the novel. Karpovage delves in to Native American history and the atrocities committed by both natives and white men before, during, and after the American Revolution, requiring several plot-stopping explanations (some of which repeat themselves, almost verbatim) to convey. He also spares little effort extolling the Freemasons (of which, not surprisingly, he is a member). The rest of the story squeezes in around the edges, in bursts of action and gunfire and false leads. There is no room left over to establish likable, or even interesting characters, so the cast is made up of paper-thin stock stereotypes: the sexy yet initially hard-nosed lady cop, the evil would-be emperor Nero, the sadistic thugs, the wise old native woman. Even Jake himself has no more structural integrity than is required to aim a rifle and ogle the cop. His belief in the powers of the legendary Crown wax and wane unpredictably, often in the space of a single scene... as does his overall knowledge. One key plot point pivots on a Freemason secret code... one which, being a Mason himself, he should at least have some passing knowledge of, even if he isn't intimately familiar with its translation... which, fortunately, Google is. Meanwhile, the writing reads like a cut-rate translation, with several misused words and phrases. (The evil Nero proudly displays a bust of his "descendant," born a few hundred years ago. At another point, a character confesses that she "bit off more than I thought I could handle." The novel also repeatedly uses the obsolete spelling "broach" - now more often used as a verb - instead of "brooch," the decorative item intended. Just a sampling of the issues, major and minor, that kept distracting me from the story as I read.) Karpovage also evidently has a hatred of the simple word "said," as his characters incessantly giggle, hiss, interject, point out, and otherwise deliver dialog in improbable and annoying ways. Often, the narrative lingers over pointless stretches of people driving or otherwise dithering away time, then jumps over the bits where they actually do something interesting. The story itself swims along down a river of testosterone, with Jake glaring, spitting, punching, and shooting his way to answers, and Nero (and/or his thugs) cackling, cursing, hitting, and shooting in retaliation. Eventually, it ends. While there were glimmers of promise in the premise and in Karpovage's handling of Native American issues, both ancient and modern, in the end I just plain didn't like this story or the way it was told.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli)

The Prince
Niccolo Machiavelli
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Politics/War
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Niccolo Machiavelli, a lawyer and diplomat of 15th-century Florence, is best remembered for his writings on politics and power. This book outlines the nature of principalities, and the methods of obtaining, securing, and expanding one's holdings.

REVIEW: This was another public domain download, part of my ongoing, if spotty, efforts to expand my horizons and patch the numerous knowledge holes in my undereducated brain. The writing, as one might expect, is a bit thick even in translation, riddled with references that only a scholar of Italian history would fully appreciate. Still, it presents interesting and timeless insights into those who have or aspire to power; the methods may change, but human psychology stays the same, and the same strengths and weaknesses Machiavelli observed still play out in the world today. I do wish this edition had included a few maps, or more footnotes explaining military and political nuances that the author took for granted, but which are far from obvious to the modern casual reader. Overall, though, it's not a bad study.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct (Mo Willems)

Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct
Mo Willems
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Edwina is helpful. Edwina is friendly. Edwina bakes chocolate chip cookies. Edwina is also a dinosaur, and that means she should be extinct. Young Reginald tries his best to convince the townsfolk that Edwina shouldn't be here, but nobody will listen - nobody except maybe Edwina herself.

REVIEW: Another quick read during down time at work... This fun little story tweaks those pedantic know-it-alls everyone is too familiar with, even grown-ups. As nice as Edwina is, as much as everyone loves her and her chocolate chip cookies, Reginald just cannot stand not being right. It's a silly tale, with a nice moral about how being right isn't always the most important thing in life.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West (Candy Moulton)

The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West
(The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life series)
Candy Moulton
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, History/Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The classic Wild West, the rough world of America's expanding frontier, only lasted about sixty years, from 1840 through the turn of the century. Yet the romance and imagery of the period resonates to this day, inspiring writers with tales of outlaws and sheriffs and cattle drives across harsh, untamed landscapes. But the visions many of us are familiar with from TV shows and movies (and even some books) are riddled with inaccuracies; the ten-gallon hat didn't show up until after 1900, and most saloons had normal doors rather than the "bat wing" style popularized by Hollywood. It was also a period of dynamic changes, as the frontier of the 1840's was a drastically different place than it was in the 1890's, not to mention regional variations in the vast swath of land encompassed by the term "the West." In this book, Moulton offers an authentic view of the time period, from major events (wars and treaties and mineral strikes) to humble details of daily life.

REVIEW: This looked like an interesting read, food for thought and grist for the ever-churning mill of half-baked stories in my head. As a guide for writers, I had hoped it would inject some life and inspiration into the subject. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes as dull as a textbook, a dry recitation of facts and timelines. It could've used more pictures and maps, too, as mere verbal descriptions weren't enough to help me visualize terrain or building styles or other subjects. An extensive and thorough bibliography, including additional reading and research suggestions at the end of each section, earns it an extra half-star on the reference front. The information itself seems to be sound; I'd just hoped for more spark in a book aimed at writers.

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