Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review - El Deafo

El Deafo
by Cece Bell
illustrated by Cece Bell & David Lasky
Date: 2014
Publisher: Amulet Books
Reading level: MG
Book type: graphic novel/memoir
Pages: 248
Format: e-book
Source: library

Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful--and very awkward--hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear--sometimes things she shouldn't--but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become "El Deafo, Listener for All." And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she's longed for.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't know how I've gone this long without reading a whole graphic novel, but I have. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked up this little book at the library. But there was a Newbery Honor sticker on the front, so I figured it might be worth a shot. And guess what? It totally was.

As the author explains in an interesting note at the back of the book, this is a somewhat fictionalized memoir based on her experiences growing up wearing a super-bulky hearing aid called the Phonic Ear. I don't remember ever seeing any kids with this device, but the author is a few years older than me; I guess it was a little before my time. But I can see how having to wear such a thing could be embarrassing, and make a kid feel like they're so different from everyone else... at a time when all they really want to do is belong.

I thought the scenarios that Bell presented were well chosen. And the characters (mostly kids from the ages of 4 to about 10) rang really true. We find out how Cece lost her hearing, and then see her get various hearing aids--including, eventually, the Phonic Ear. We see her struggle to make friends, and the way certain kids treat her because of her deafness, and her feelings as she tries to make sense of it all. Throughout the book, we're treated to the cutest illustrations of anthropomorphized cartoon rabbits who play the roles of Cece, her family and friends, her classmates, and her teachers. We get an idea of what it might've been like to deal with the complications of such a clunky piece of technology, as well as its benefits. As Cece discovers her "superpower", she imagines herself as El Deafo, a superhero with superhuman hearing. The whole thing is sweet and touching, and I found myself really rooting for Cece as I was pulled along through the story. Will her crush talk to her? Will her best friend ever talk to her again? Will that girl stop talking to her in a weird, loud voice?

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book for teaching empathy and understanding. It's easy (and quick) to read, but based on the subject matter, I'd probably recommend it for middle grade and up, even though the main character is a bit younger than that.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Illustration: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 ladybugs

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review - The Pocketbook of Sunshine and Rain

The Pocketbook of Sunshine and Rain
by Nenia Campbell
Date: 2017
Publisher: Nenia Campbell
Reading level: A
Book type: poetry collection
Pages: 59
Format: e-book

be my sonata, my cantata, my love
sing me something sweet
but not too sweet
(or i may grow deaf to our harmony
as we decrescendo into silence)

This personal book of poetry focuses on that tricky phenomenon that escapes all of us: what it means to be human and alive.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Poetry is hard to review. It's so subjective. I don't read a lot of it, so I'm not sure how qualified I am to critique it. But I do know that I enjoy reading words put together in unique and interesting ways. With poetry, you can use all the lovely words you want without ending up sounding too... well, purple. (I guess that's why the term is "purple prose", not "purple poetry".)

This is a nice little collection that can be read in an afternoon (if you're not excruciatingly slow like I am). I highlighted a few of the poems as I went through, simply because the words struck a chord, or I liked a certain turn of phrase. There weren't any poems I really disliked, although there were a few that I didn't completely understand. (I also came across a few words that didn't seem to make sense. With poetry, though, it's sometimes hard to know if it was intentional and I just missed the point.)

Overall, a nice collection of poems. Lovely words. Lovely thoughts. Worth a look if you enjoy a bit of verse every now and then.

Quotable moment:

out go my words on paper wings
they fly off on their own
and if they do not find their way
will they come limping home?

Plot: n/a
Characters: n/a
Pace: n/a
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5 ladybugs

Review - Ada Twist, Scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist
by Andrea Beaty
illustrated by David Roberts
Date: 2016
Publisher: Abrams Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

Scientist Ada has a boundless imagination and has always been hopelessly curious. Why are there pointy things stuck to a rose? Why are there hairs growing inside your nose? When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it’s up to her to find the source. What would you do with a problem like this? Not afraid of failure, Ada embarks on a fact-finding mission and conducts scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is a nice rhyming picture book with very cute illustrations. I felt a little uncomfortable while reading it, though, as it seemed to portray a girl with a developmental delay. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, except that it wasn't really addressed, and the parents didn't do anything other than adapt to her behaviour (even though that meant she caused hundreds of dollars of damage to the hallway). I'm not sure that's a great message.

I loved seeing the characters of colour, and encouraging girls to take an interest in science is admirable. The illustrations are top-notch and absolutely adorable. Unfortunately, the text let the book down. There wasn't much story, really.

I've seen better reviews on some of the author's other books like Rosie Revere, Engineer. I might have to give that one a try.

Premise: 1/5
Meter: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 2.29 out of 5

Monday, November 6, 2017

Review - The Universes Inside the Lighthouse

The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (Balky Point Adventures #1)
by Pam Stucky
Date: 2014
Publisher: Wishing Rock Press
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 221
Format: e-book

Two teenagers on a summer vacation on an unassuming island ...
A mysterious girl who appears in photographs taken decades apart ...
A science lab set up in a place that exists both nowhere and everywhere ...
A storage closet that is far more than it seems ...
A parallel Earth, exactly like our own ...
A universe made up entirely of ghosts ...
An entity that is taking over innocent lives and infiltrating the universes ...

Adventure, mystery, travel through space and time to find a man who seeks to rip the universes apart. Reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time with just a dash of Doctor Who ...

and it all begins ... inside the lighthouse.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Wow. This was bad. So, so bad. I'm exhausted after struggling through this, and I don't even feel like writing a review. But I'm fed up with awful books with misleadingly high Goodreads ratings. I'm tired of wasting my time on stuff that should be good, but isn't.

The first problem with this book is that it doesn't know who its audience is. It's billed as "MG/YA sci-fi", but I don't think it would appeal to either age group. The characters are supposed to be 17 and 18, so they're driving around and letting their hormones make them all angsty. On the other hand, they act young. Some act so young, in fact, that I assumed they had an intellectual disability.

The main character (or so I thought, until near the end when the point of view jumped around to the point of distraction) is Emma, a girl whose defining characteristic is having a crush on Ben. She's also an introvert. That's literally the only character development we get for most of the story, which made Emma an excruciatingly boring character. Charlie is Emma's twin brother. He's old enough to go lusting after girls, but chants things like, "Aliens, aliens, aliens," when he discovers the identity of his new friends. And he doesn't just do this once. I guess it was supposed to be a character trait or quirk, but it just made him come across as someone with some sort of disorder. Ben is the guy Emma's lusting after. He's walking arrogance who has dark hair and... yep. That's about it. (The physical descriptions for many of the characters were either non-existent, or came way too late; we found out at 85% that Charlie had green eyes.) Eve is one of the "aliens", but she looks human, and of course she's blonde and beautiful and Ben and Charlie are both attracted to her, which leads to jealousy on Emma's part. (Although, when Charlie finds out that Eve isn't human, it leads to a kind of icky reaction where he pulls his arm away from her and asks if she's even really even a girl, as if the only thing that matters is what's hidden under her clothes.) Eve's father, Milo, is kind of a blank, although I winced when he made an inappropriate comment about his daughter's body odour in front of her new friends. Dr. Waldo is a sterotypical absent-minded professor who speaks in run-on sentences and has overly expressive body language. The villain's name is Vik, and he's pretty much what you'd expect from a bad villain: black hair, black clothes, perma-sneer, and a bad habit of talking about his evil plans in front of the protagonist.

Another problem was the way the characters--as well as the whole book--were written. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but then I realized that it reminded me of old kids' novels from the 1950s. Some of the word choices made the characters sound like they were in their 80s. And Emma and Charlie calling each other "dork" didn't help; do teenagers today even use that word? The characters could go from sounding like a child to a grandparent within a paragraph. It was really awkward. Also awkward were the emotions. They didn't fit half the time. Sometimes they were too strong, sometimes they were too weak, and sometimes they were just plain wrong, given the situation. Another thing that reminded me of those older books was the subtle sexism. The women had to organize the potluck. A woman came over to watch her husband fix a leak (because, apparently, women can't do plumbing themselves). Eve swooned into Ben's arms after an emotional outburst. No. It's the 21st century. I don't want to read that kind of crap.

For a book about travelling through multiple universes, the story is actually super boring. I think the main idea was that the teens were trying to stop Vik from destroying the method of travel throughout the universes. But you could be forgiven for not noticing. There were so many info-dumps, so many perseverating ramblings about things that had nothing to do with the story (like the names of the planets in a parallel solar system). I could definitely see where the author drew inspiration for parts of the story. The Void reminded me of the Dementors from the Harry Potter series, and the story about the planet that had been affected by The Void reminded me a lot of the movie Serenity. And yet, the rest was strangely unimaginative. At one point, the teens end up on another planet with "primitive natives", and we don't even find out anything about them (other than the fact that they can apparently change gender... but I suspect that was just a typo). Later, two eat a meal on Eve's home planet, and they eat... steak and salad. With sporks. With all the infinite possibilities, why are they eating a Western meal with a familiar utensil? There's too much of a reliance on stereotypes, which leads to the book feeling even younger (I'm thinking of the ghost planet in particular, where everyone wears flowing dresses, glides around, and talks like this: "Helloooooooo!").

The writing and editing were pretty bad. The writing was unsophisticated and disjointed. Conversations were especially hard to follow, since often questions would be asked but not answered... until pages later, when someone would bring the topic back up, as if it had never been left in the first place. It made me wonder if the book had been really badly edited, with new passages clumsily added, but I don't really feel like this book was edited at all. There were so many punctuation errors, and even duplicate words, especially toward the back half of the book. And, overall, the book's message is preachy, and kind of insulting to introverts. I wasn't impressed.

What little enjoyment I got out of this one was unintentional, and mostly from how bad it was. You can see how bored my brain was when it saw the following passage as dirty:

A young, dark-haired man stood in the empty space where there once was a door, covered in debris and dust from the explosion, a satisfied grin on his face, a giant weapon in his hands.

Am I the only one who found that funny? Probably. I was punchy and tired, though, from slogging through the utterly drab plot, so I guess I was looking for entertainment wherever I could find it.

Quotable moment:

Glen opened the door.

There stood the aliens.

"Eve!" said Ben and Charlie.

"Milo?" said Emma.

Amy Renee, who had joined her husband at the door, looked from the people standing in the doorway to her children and back. "So you're the aliens then?" she said matter-of-factly, as though people claiming to be aliens appeared on her doorstep every day. "I'm not so sure I should let you in."

Premise: 2/5
Plot: 1/5
Characters: 0/5
Pace: 0/5
Writing: 1/5
Editing: 0/5
Originality: 0/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 0.63 out of 5 ladybugs

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review - The Adventures of Benny

The Adventures of Benny
by Steve Shreve
Date: 2006
Publisher: TwoLions
Reading level: C
Book type: short stories
Pages: 162
Format: e-book

As Benny goes on five adventures that take him from the woods behind his house to the pyramids of Egypt, he comes face to face with a host of bad guys—pirates, a mummy, and even his very own Booger-Man! And what about all those monkeys?

Join Benny on these wild adventures as he confronts all things hilarious and grotesque. Black-and-white art on every spread of the book will appeal to reluctant readers as well as fans of comics, graphic novels, and illustrated novels.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

In spite of being divided into chapters, The Adventures of Benny is really just a collection of (mostly) unrelated stories about a boy named Benny and his... well, adventures. The book reads really young, and though I don't have a problem with reading children's books in general, this one probably isn't going to appeal to most adults. Kids (especially boys) would probably love it, though.

"Chapter 1: Bigfoot or The Value of a Smelly Friend" - This first story had sort of a fairy-tale feel to it, with a crafty wolf and the threat of being boiled up in a stew for dinner.

"Chapter 2: The Mummy or Another Great Use for Toilet Paper" - Okay, I'll admit, I kind of laughed at King Butthankhamen (aka King Butt). It was a pretty silly story, but kind of entertaining.

"Chapter 3: Pirates or The Truth About Life on the High Seas" - This is probably the weakest story. Aside from the cute pirate names, there wasn't a lot of plot.

"Chapter 4: The Booger-Man or A Good Argument for Not Picking Your Nose" - This one was obviously written out of frustration over living with a booger-wiping kid, but it's still kind of amusing. Especially the part about the dog.

"Chapter 5: Monkey Island or The Advantage of Opposable Thumbs" - This story I also thought was a bit weak, and not quite as funny as some of the others. It sort of ties into something that happened in the first story, but it stands on its own, as well.

All in all, it was just an okay collection of stories. There are some good one-liners that made me laugh, and the illustrations are really cute (they're probably the best part of the whole book). I don't think I'd recommend this one to adults the way I might recommend some other children's books, but for kids themselves, it's solid and fairly well written.

Quotable moment:

Benny looked over at Bigfoot.

"You don't have a nose," said Benny. "How do you smell?"

"Terrible," replied Bigfoot.

"I see," said Benny. "Well, that's a relief. I thought the baloney sandwich had gone bad."

Overall: 2.9 out of 5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review - Dream Me

Dream Me
by Kathryn Berla
Date: 2017
Publisher: Amberjack Publishing
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 270
Format: e-book

Every night Babe dreams of a boy she’s never met before named Zat. But Zat is no ordinary daydream. He’s actually a human from the distant future, who has travelled back in time to be with Babe in the only way that he can be—in her dreams. But the dreams leave Babe more and more tired and pained each morning. Zat is determined to help her, even if it means never sharing dreams with her again.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers. If you want to read a version with the spoilers hidden, head on over to Goodreads and read it there.

I feel insulted. After 270 pages of implausibility sprinkled with what I can only describe as mansplaining, I'm miffed. No, I'm downright annoyed.

If this book had lived up to its synopsis, that would be one thing. But it didn't. It failed. Boy, did it fail! Where do I even begin?

To begin with, the premise of a far-future human coming back to inhabit the dreams of a present-day teenage girl is a bit far-fetched. If you're going to try to pull that off, you need to do more than... well, this. Zat is not just "a human from the distant future". In fact, I wouldn't even call him a human at all. He's some sort of reptilian creature who's evolved from humans. That would take a long time, right? Right. Zat comes from five billion years in the future. The Earth is devoid of trees (it's never explained how anything lives without oxygen), the "humans" sleep all day so they don't use up too many resources, and... well, I can't really explain much more about that future because the world-building was stupendously weak. Aside from the fact that their houses are like cubes and there are vipers lurking in the dark, we don't know much about this future world. Except that it's dying because the sun is expanding. People are in a scramble to get off the planet. You'd think that with, you know, five billion years of warning, they wouldn't have left everything to the last minute.

But that's not the only problem with Zat and his part of the story. Instead of getting off the planet with the rest of his family, he decides to go back in time. Time-travel technology was supposedly invented before space travel technology (okay...) and was then abandoned in favour of the latter. One guy tried to travel back in time, and because the results were ambiguous, they abandoned the whole idea. And then Zat decides to try it. He basically stalks Babe for a while before he takes up residence in her dreams. With his body in the future dead, the only way he can exist is in her dream state. She gets headaches when she dreams of him, which of course he feels guilty about (insert suitable YA angst here... even though this is a guy who has access to five billion years of written history, so surely he would've known something like this could happen). Oh, yeah. About that knowledge thing. It's never explained, either. At one point he says that all of humanity's knowledge is "implanted" into them. Babe assumes it's a chip. But it's never explained. How you'd get five billion years' worth of history on an implantable chip is beyond me, but that's what the author decided to go with. Curiously, Zat only seems to read 19th- and 20th-century classics. Wordsworth. Hemingway. I guess we've peaked.

This book might have worked as a short story. All the nonsense about tennis and the pervert at the country club could've been cut. It didn't add anything to the plot. In fact, it took away from the main plot. When I read a book with sci-fi or fantasy elements like this, I don't want to spend the majority of the book hobbling through descriptions of the weather or what the characters are eating.

Then there are the characters. The book begins with Zat, so you'd assume he's a main character. Despite being a point-of-view character, he's not really a main character at all. The main character is Babe, whose parents named her after some female golfer, perhaps not realizing that naming your child after a term of endearment is infantilizing. When Babe, a modern-day teenager, mentioned a peer named Marvin, I threw up my hands in despair. How hard is it to look up popular baby names for the year 2000? I can pretty much guarantee that "Marvin" won't be on any of those lists.

Babe is one of the most insufferable characters I've read in a while. She's got this reverse snobbery thing going on, where she looks down at people who have more money or status and automatically assumes they're bad people. It was so blatant that I was hoping it would be addressed at some point. She continually judged a girl named Mattie Lynn, pegging her as a queen bee (and possibly a mean girl), when there was nothing to really give that impression. All I got out of Mattie Lynn was an overachiever who perhaps didn't recognize her privilege, but who wasn't necessarily cruel. Babe comes across as someone who whines and views herself as misunderstood... and yet she's constantly making the same snap judgments about others that she presumably doesn't want made about her. In short, she's kind of a hypocrite.

The writing in this book was just terrible. The grammar was off. The dialogue punctuation was wrong more than half the time. The tenses were weird. The book has three different points of view: Zat, Babe, and Babe's blog. Babe's blog is weird in that it's written in the present tense, while her "live" sections are written in the past tense. One of the commenters on her blog pointed this out, and she just dismissed it. (I almost got the feeling that an editor pointed this out to the author and, being too lazy to change it, she just tried to make it appear like a stylistic choice.) The prose veered into shades of purple at times, leading to some unintentionally funny descriptions of gelatinous skin and "creamy brown" hair. And, like I mentioned before, there was this condescending tone that crept in at times. Certain things that didn't need to be explained were mansplained to death. Babe herself takes things very literally at times, leading to some stupidity. (She ponders the meaning of terms like "fire ant", "sleepy town", and "vixen", wondering about miniature fire-breathing dragons, a town where everyone sleeps a lot, and an actual fox, respectively. Did I mention that this girl with her stunning vocabulary wants to be a writer?) And then there are things that are not explained at all, that the author assumes all readers will understand, like tennis terms.

Ultimately, though, this was just unsatisfying. The ending is pat and unexplained. Where did the real Zat come from? Did he take over someone's body? Did his soul/energy become solid? Did Earl have a magic camera that took his photo and shot his body out like an instant Polaroid? We never find out the identities of the mysterious blog commenters like Sweetness (they were written to sound relevant to the story... but I guess they weren't). Babe comes across as a dull, stupid girl, and I couldn't care about her or her "problems" (Perry? Why should I care about this non-boyfriend?) at all.

I expect this sort of thing from self-published books, but this wasn't. I guess I need to be careful about small indie presses, too. All around, a disappointment and a waste of time. Now I know why so many people on Goodreads DNFed this one!

For a book with a somewhat similar premise but a far better execution, try Corinne Duyvis's Otherbound instead. (Keep in mind that I only gave that book 2 stars; the fact that I'm recommending a 2-star book at all should tell you how bad I thought Dream Me was.)

Quotable moment:

It's that special peaceful time just before sunset, when day and night reach equilibrium and the world stops to exhale. I'm never up early enough to know if the world inhales before sunrise.

Premise: 2/5
Plot: 0/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 1/5
Writing: 1/5
Editing: 0/5
Originality: 1/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 0.88 out of 5 ladybugs

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday - Ten Books I Wish We'd Read in School

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is a freebie with a back-to-school theme. I spent a lot of time in high school lamenting the books we had to read, and even more time afterward thinking, "Why couldn't we have read this instead?" (The answer was probably, "Because it's too feminine." We girls had to suck it up and read books about guys having adventures, and about other guys getting their dicks blown off--ahem, Hemingway--but god forbid any of the boys had to read about a girl who didn't get raped, wasn't an adulteress, didn't get murdered... You get the idea.) So here are ten books that I wish we could've read... instead of what we actually did read:

Ten Books I Wish We'd Read in School:

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery - I went to school in Canada for all but two years of my education... and yet, we never read one of the most well-known Canadian titles of all time!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling - Now, I'll be the first person to say that these books are not exactly great literature. However, the stories in the first few were fun, and they would've gone a long way to encouraging reluctant readers to read. Unfortunately, I was out of school by the time the first one was even published. (I also would've loved to see the backlash our conservative area would've kicked up; I'm sure it would've been rather hilarious. Witchcraft! Oh noes!)

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer - Actually, many of Nancy Farmer's books--especially those set in Africa--might be great in the classroom. But this one is so interesting as a sci-fi/dystopian story in a not-quite-familiar future with a main character who was born purely to be used by others. There are lots of interesting discussions that could be had about this book.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - One of my favourite novels of all time seems like it would be a good fit in a high school curriculum. The fact that it's a coming-of-age story about girls is probably the reason it's not used.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - I got a chance to read this in university. I don't know why it wasn't part of the high school curriculum. It's got mystery, secrets, and plenty of archaic social customs to discuss. Isn't that what English teachers love?

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - This book could've been a great tie-in to learning about slavery in the United States. It reminded me a bit of The Time Traveler's Wife... but with much higher stakes.

Matilda by Roald Dahl - Actually, pretty much any of Dahl's books would've been fun to read, but Matilda is one of my favourites. It's about a bookworm. How can you not love that? (Plus, comparing your own principal to the Trunchbull would make any school despot look like a benevolent ruler.)

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare - I had to read A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet in school. Of course, after that, I thought I hated Shakespeare. I read Much Ado About Nothing on my own a year or so after high school, and I loved it. I found it way more accessible, and it has some great lines and insults.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - Maybe some schools put this classic on their reading lists, but mine didn't. We really didn't read a lot of female authors at all. (Sense and Sensibility would've also been a nice one to read, but it probably reads too much like a straight romance for the classroom.)

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder - I found this book to be so interesting (but I'm a bit of a nerd). What might read like a dry textbook in the hands of another author was turned into an engaging story by Gaarder. I learned so much about philosophy and its history as I read this book... while also being entertained.

What are some books you wish you could've read in school?