Sunday, July 15, 2018

Review - Brother. Prince. Snake.

Brother. Prince. Snake.
by Cecil Castellucci
Date: 2012
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: YA
Book type: short story
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

A retelling of the Prince Lindwurm fairy tale, Brother Prince Snake is a story of love, sibling rivalry, and how a monster became King.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I came across this obscure fairy tale just a few days ago on Sarah Beth Durst's page of... well, obscure fairy tales. (If you haven't checked those out, I highly recommend it. The commentary is hilarious.) The story has a sort of "Beauty and the Beast" vibe with some of its themes... although the poor girl in this one has to overlook a lot more than just some fur and horns; this Prince Lindwurm guy sounds totally disgusting.

But he's actually not, at least not in Castellucci's version of the story, which is told by the creature himself. This character has a heart and a soul, even if nobody can see it past his hideous physical appearance. While I thought it would be difficult to relate to a woman-eating monster, his gentle heart and his love for reading won me over. I mean, sure, he's basically a snake with wings (which makes me wonder about the jacket he was wearing at one point), but he's intelligent and compassionate, and who wouldn't love a guy who'll stay up all night talking about books?

As with many of the Tor short stories, there are a few typos, but the rest of the writing is pretty good. And the pace is great. Sometimes when I'm reading one of these, the 32 pages seem more like 320; that wasn't the case here. I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the story clipped along.

Overall, this is one of the stronger Tor short stories I've read. If you like fairy tales, you might enjoy this one, too.

Quotable moment:

"When I see a book, my heart races as though I'm in love," Irinia said.

"It makes me sad that not every book is good," I said. "Not every book can be loved."

"But when I pull a book off a shelf, and examine it, turning it this way and that, inspecting the cover, flipping through the pages and glancing at the words as they flash by, a thought here and a sentence there and I know that there is potential between those pages for love. Even if in my opinion the book is bad, someone else may find it good. Isn't that like love?"

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 ladybugs



Saturday, July 14, 2018

Review - Love

Love
by Matt de la Peña
illustrated by Loren Long
Date: 2018
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

From Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña and bestselling illustrator Loren Long comes a story about the strongest bond there is and the diverse and powerful ways it connects us all.

"In the beginning there is light
and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed
and the sound of their voices is love.
...
A cab driver plays love softly on his radio
while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city
and everything smells new, and it smells like life."

In this heartfelt celebration of love, Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña and bestselling illustrator Loren Long depict the many ways we experience this universal bond, which carries us from the day we are born throughout the years of our childhood and beyond. With a lyrical text that's soothing and inspiring, this tender tale is a needed comfort and a new classic that will resonate with readers of every age.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

You know how, if you say a word over and over again for long enough, it starts to lose its meaning? Unfortunately, I think that's what happened here. In this book everything is love, and while on some level that might be true, it's a message that would probably ring hollow when your parents are fighting or your building is burning down or you have a nightmare after seeing something awful on TV. Equating all of those things with love didn't make much sense to me as an adult, and I'm not sure it would make much sense to kids, either.

However, the artwork in this one is just lovely. I really like Long's illustration style (I encountered it before in Barack Obama's delightful picture book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters). The cast of characters is culturally, economically, and socially diverse, and the charming pictures save what would otherwise be a confusing and confused narrative.

Have a look at this one for the illustrations, but don't expect too much from the writing.

Quotable moment:

In a crowded concrete park,
you toddle toward summer sprinklers
while older kids skip rope
and run up the slide, and soon
you are running among them,
and the echo of your laughter is love.

Premise: 3/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 4/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall: 3.33 out of 5

Review - Mighty Moby

Mighty Moby
by Barbara DaCosta
illustrated by Ed Young
Date: 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

A Moby Dick-inspired picture book adventure unlike any you've ever seen--with a surprise ending--from Caldecott Medal-winning artist Ed Young.

Deep in the dark ocean, Mighty Moby lurks. Up above the ocean waves, a one-legged captain pursues the whale he clashed with long ago.

Mighty Moby and the captain are soon locked in another battle... but things aren't always what they seem.

Caldecott Medalist Ed Young brings us a dynamically interactive story with a surprise twist that will have you rocking along to the waves of the ocean.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, that was a waste of a few minutes. From the rough mixed-media artwork to the boring text (some of which you can't even read well because of where and how it's formatted), this book left me kind of cold. The "twist" didn't impress me, either.

Unless you're hoping to get your children to read Moby Dick at some point, you probably won't find much of interest here. Neither will kids, I suspect.

Quotable moment:

The sailors sat
scared and silent,
as the whaleboats rocked
upon the rolling waves,

when came

a rumbling

a rushing

an
earthquake
rising
from
the
deep--
THE
WHALE!

Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 1.83 out of 5

Review - Somewhere Else

Somewhere Else
by Gus Gordon
Date: 2017
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

George has absolutely no interest in exploring the world. None at all.

He's far too busy enjoying his home life and baking delicious pastries. Or so he tells all his friends when they invite him along on their wonderful adventures.

But when George's friend Pascal digs a little deeper, the real reason George refuses to travel away from home is finally revealed...

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is a cute story about a bird (a duck?) named George Laurent who likes to bake, so much so that he's always too busy to fly anywhere like all the other birds. The story was simple, but sweet, and I liked the secondary character, Pascal Lombard. He's a bear, so he doesn't fly anywhere, but he still yearns to travel.

The artwork is really neat in this one. It's a combination of illustration and collage, with much of the material seeming to have come from old catalogues.

The writing is okay... until about 3/4 of the way through, and then the author--for some reason--thought it would be a good idea to have a character "smile" their dialogue. Not only is this incorrect (and impossible, as a smile is silent), but it's also one of my biggest pet peeves. I hate seeing this sort of thing in children's books especially; the last thing we need is yet another generation thinking this error is acceptable.

Overall, though, this was a cute story with unique artwork, and I quite enjoyed it.

Quotable moment:

As the seasons passed by, everyone stopped asking
George if he wanted to go somewhere else with them.
He was far too busy, it seemed.


Premise: 4/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 5/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 4 out of 5

Review - Little Humans

Little Humans
by Brandon Stanton
Date: 2014
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 36
Format: e-book
Source: library

Street photographer and storyteller extraordinaire Brandon Stanton is the creator of the wildly popular blog "Humans of New York." He is also the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Humans of New York.

To create Little Humans, he's combined an original narrative with some of his favorite children's photos from the blog, in addition to all-new exclusive portraits. The result is a hip, heartwarming ode to little humans everywhere.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm not sure what the point of this children's book is supposed to be. Yes, the photos are lovely, but the book could've benefited from a stronger narrative to tie everything together. As it is, it's so weak that kids will probably only enjoy this book if they like looking at photos of other kids. The rhymes are clumsy and inconsistent, and I can't really take a book seriously when it throws in a misspelling like "alright".

Overall, this one is pretty forgettable. For a more interesting book that features photos of real children, try to find Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley's Children Just Like Me instead.

Quotable moment:

Little humans can put on a show,
to make you proud of what they know!

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

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall: 3.14 out of 5

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review - In a Small Kingdom

In a Small Kingdom
by Tomie dePaola
illustrated by Doug Salati
Date: 2018
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

In a small kingdom along an ancient road, a bell rings out. The beloved king has died, leaving his magnificent and powerful Imperial Robe to his heir, the young prince.

But when the prince’s jealous older half-brother steals the Imperial Robe, slashing it to bits, the prince can no longer rule—and the small kingdom is in great danger. Now the young prince must find another source of power and of strength—and he finds it in a surprising place.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Minor Spoilers! To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

I know I read a lot of Tomie dePaola books when I was a small child, but I don't really remember any of them. When I saw this relatively recent title at the library, I thought I'd give it a try.

The story is simple (maybe a little too simple) and the themes are... well, nice, but I felt like something was lacking. The book reads like a fairytale, and yet the resolution is too easy. The villain runs away before he can be caught, never to be seen or heard from again. I would've liked to see a little more development of that part of the story; as it is, it's pretty unsatisfying.

The illustrations were just okay, and they needed to be really great to make up for the thin story. Overall, this book was mediocre and not very memorable.

Quotable moment:

The young prince's older half brother seethed with jealousy. "The old king was my father too," he said to himself. "How dare he choose my half brother to be king?"

In an instant the angry half brother knew what he would do. Without the Robe, the young prince cannot rule, he thought. He is too young, too weak. But I am not.

Premise: 3/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.5 out of 5

Review - A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
by Marlon Bundo & Jill Twiss
illustrated by EG Keller
Date: 2018
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

100% of Last Week Tonight's proceeds will be donated to The Trevor Project and AIDS United.

HBO's Emmy-winning Last Week Tonight with John Oliver presents a picture book about a Very Special boy bunny who falls in love with another boy bunny.

Meet Marlon Bundo, a lonely bunny who lives with his Grampa, Mike Pence - the Vice President of the United States. But on this Very Special Day, Marlon's life is about to change forever...

With its message of tolerance and advocacy, this charming children's book explores issues of same sex marriage and democracy. Sweet, funny, and beautifully illustrated, this book is dedicated to every bunny who has ever felt different.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This picture book is wonderful. I wasn't sure what to expect from a book supposedly written by Mike Pence's pet rabbit, but Marlon Bundo is a sweet bunny with a big heart.

The story is a simple message of love and tolerance. The characters--from Marlon Bundo and his diverse set of friends to the obnoxious Stink Bug--are great. The illustrations are cute. There are some laugh-out-loud moments that kids and adults alike will probably enjoy. And I loved the last lines; they're a reminder not to give up hope.

Highly recommended!

Quotable moment:

I live with Mom, Grandma, and Grampa in an old, stuffy house on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. That's because my Grampa is the Vice President. His name is Mike Pence.

But this story isn't going to be about him, because he isn't very fun. This story is about me, because I'm very, very fun.

Premise: 5/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 4/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall: 4.5 out of 5

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review - Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom (Frazzled #1)
by Booki Vivat
Date: 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: graphic novel
Pages: 240
Format: e-book
Source: library

Meet Abbie Wu! She’s about to start middle school and she’s totally in crisis.

Abbie Wu is in crisis—and not just because she’s stuck in a family that doesn’t quite get her or because the lunch ladies at school are totally corrupt or because everyone seems to have a “Thing” except her. Abbie Wu is in crisis always.

Heavily illustrated and embarrassingly honest, Frazzled dives right into the mind of this hilariously neurotic middle school girl as she tries to figure out who she is, where she belongs, and how to survive the everyday disasters of growing up. With Abbie’s flair for the dramatic and natural tendency to freak out, middle school has never seemed so nerve-racking!

Packed with hilarious black-and-white illustrations and doodles throughout, Frazzled takes readers through Abbie Wu’s hysterical middle school adventures.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I wasn't sure I was going to like this book when I started it. After all, I can't really relate to the middle school experience. I seem to have missed it! When I was in fifth grade, the K-6 school I attended made some changes that would see the sixth graders at the junior high (originally 7-8) the next year. But then I moved over the summer... to a place where elementary school was K-7. I should've gone into junior high (8-10) after that, but the year I finished grade seven, the schools combined the junior and senior highs (8-12), dumping us poor grade eights at the bottom of a very tall ladder. We endured a year of listening to the chants of, "Grade eights suck!" at every single assembly, in front of all the teachers (this was in the days before anyone cared much about bullying), and when we finally made it to grade nine, we thought the worst was over. Nope. "Grade nines suck!" echoed through the first assembly of the year.

It kind of reminded me of what happened to Abbie in this book. For whatever reason, the eighth graders at her middle school felt threatened by the incoming younger students, and took out their frustrations in the only way that was permissible: by making lunch miserable for anyone below the eighth grade. So... this is completely unrealistic (you can't tell me that you wouldn't have at least one irate parent calling in about the underhanded bullying by the older kids and the lunch ladies, which basically forced the younger kids to eat crap), but it was kind of necessary to drive the story, which revolves around Abbie finding her Thing.

I wasn't crazy about Abbie at all points during the story, but it was mostly where she felt contrived that I didn't like her as much. She whines about ending up in Study Hall for her elective, but her refusing to choose an elective is what put her there in the first place! (Of course, she needs to be in Study Hall so that she can find her Thing, so I get why it was done. Still, I didn't enjoy reading about someone complain, when she was only in that situation because of her own choices.)

The artwork kind of grew on me. At first, I thought it was too simple. I mean, it looked a lot like the doodles in my own notebooks from school! But I think it really worked here because the illustrations looked like something a middle-schooler might have scrawled during a particularly boring class.

This book would probably be enjoyed more by people who are in the midst of (or who have had) a middle-school experience, but even without that perspective, I still enjoyed it. Although the story was a bit light on plot, I liked the characters and the tone. I think I might like reading more about Abbie Wu and her melodramatic observations about the Middles.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.63 out of 5 ladybugs

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Review - Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes
by Hena Khan
illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Date: 2018
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

From a crescent moon to a square garden to an octagonal fountain, this breathtaking picture book celebrates the shapes--and traditions--of the Muslim world. Sure to inspire questions and observations about world religions and cultures, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets is equally at home in a classroom reading circle and on a parent's lap being read to a child.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is a beautiful little book that I happened to see at the library. At first, I thought it might be aimed at toddlers (considering that it's a "book of shapes"), but it would probably be a little better suited to children who are a bit older.

The illustrations are really gorgeous, incorporating a diverse cast of Muslim characters from all over the world, along with shapes and patterns and arabesques that give the book a unique flavour. If I had one complaint, it was that I didn't realize there was a glossary at the back, and I was confused throughout much of my first reading because there were a lot of words I didn't understand. Because of that, I thought that the book might only be suitable for Muslim children whose parents could explain these words. But after I found the glossary, I went back and read the book again, and it all made sense.

Overall, this is a great little picture book for teaching children about the art and architecture of Islam. I'd definitely recommend this one!

Quotable moment:

Oval is the table
where we break our fast.
When the sun sets,
it's iftar time at last.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.86 out of 5

Friday, July 6, 2018

Review - Swing It, Sunny

Swing It, Sunny (Sunny #2)
by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm
Date: 2017
Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Reading level: MG
Book type: graphic novel
Pages: 224
Format: e-book
Source: library

Summer's over and it's time for Sunny Lewin to enter the strange and unfriendly hallways of... middle school. When her Gramps calls her from Florida to ask how she's doing, she always tells him she's fine. But the truth? Sunny is NOT having the best time.

Not only is the whole middle school thing confusing... but life at home is confusing, too. Sunny misses her brother Dale, who's been sent to boarding school. But when Dale comes back, she STILL misses him... because he's changed.

Luckily Sunny's got her best friend and a mysterious new neighbor on her side... because she is NOT going let all this confusion get her down. Instead, she's going to remain Sunny-side up!

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, that was just as underwhelming as the first book in the series.

I know this is middle grade, so you can't get too far into the darker themes, but I really don't get Sunny's brother. Something nasty has to be going on behind the scenes, because he's so messed up. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about things like secret abuse, or something going on in that family. It's implied that he's a delinquent "just because", and while that might be the way it sometimes is in real life, in fiction it just seems like lazy storytelling. (I don't think that synopsis is particularly accurate, either. Other than his haircut, Dale is pretty much the same troubled teenager he always was. I was hoping for a bit more character development there.)

Aside from that, the plot is non-existent. It's just a bunch of random scenes loosely connected by Sunny's feelings about missing her brother. She meets a new neighbour, learns to play with batons, and laughs at her little brother eating sand. That's about it. It's very sparse, and it comes to a halt so abruptly that I didn't realize for a moment that the book had ended. The resolution was pat. The actual ending was abrupt.

I didn't enjoy this one any more than the first book in the series. I think I'm done with Sunny.

Plot: 1/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Illustration: 2/5
Originality: 1/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 1.86 out of 5 ladybugs

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review - Artificial Condition

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2)
by Martha Wells
Date: 2018
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: prose novella
Pages: 176
Format: e-book
Source: library

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself "Murderbot".

But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don't want to know what the "A" stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks...

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm so glad my library got this e-book, because I just couldn't bring myself to pay full price for a novella, no matter how much I love the main character. Murderbot is back, with its unique voice and wry observations about humanity. This time, though, it's joined by another artificial intelligence named ART, who is probably my second favourite character in this installment.

As a sequel, this story is fine, but it's kind of lacking in action, especially compared to the first book. Murderbot takes on three young clients who hire it as a security consultant for a trip to a mining planet; but it has ulterior motives, since it wants to get to the planet itself and investigate what really happened when it supposedly lost its mind and slaughtered a whole bunch of humans.

The revelations about the massacre weren't all that interesting, and I have to wonder if that's the end of that thread or if there's more to it. At the end of the installment, Murderbot's off to carry out another plan (which we as readers have no knowledge of), and I'm curious to find out what will happen next.

Murderbot is a good enough character that I still enjoyed this, but I hope there's a little more action in the third and fourth books. And I hope we get to see ART again at some point! (It's really not as much of an "A" as Murderbot seems to think.)

Quotable moment:

Granted, it would have been hard to show realistic SecUnits in visual media, which would involve depicting hours of standing around in brain-numbing boredom, while your nervous clients tried to pretend you weren't there. But there weren't any depictions of SecUnits in books, either. I guess you can't tell a story from the point of view of something that you don't think has a point of view.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.63 out of 5 ladybugs


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review - Pashmina

Pashmina
by Nidhi Chanani
Date: 2017
Publisher: First Second
Reading level: YA
Book type: graphic novel
Pages: 182
Format: e-book
Source: library

Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions―the topic of India is permanently closed.

For Pri, her mother's homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew.

In this heartwarming graphic novel debut, Nidhi Chanani weaves a tale about the hardship and self-discovery that is born from juggling two cultures and two worlds.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is a weird little book. I don't mind elements of magic in contemporary stories, but this book has a few problems that prevented me from enjoying it more.

The main issue I had was that I'm not sure who the audience is. The main character is probably around 16 (she's learning to drive, and it's mentioned that her mother was her age when she got pregnant), and there are some definite heavier issues dealt with in the story (family drama, a sick baby, abandonment, poverty). However, the pashmina element of the story was ridiculous and juvenile.

So Priyanka finds a pashmina (basically an embroidered scarf) in her mother's things. When she puts it on, she's transported in her mind to India (these sections were done in full colour, while the main narrative was black and white; I liked the contrast). I don't have a problem with this, except for the fact that she's guided around this fictional India by a talking elephant and peacock. That just felt really juvenile, and after finishing, I'm still not sure what the point of those characters was. They made me feel like I'd stepped sideways into a middle-grade title every time the switch happened. And then we discover that the pashmina itself is a lying, manipulative piece of cloth, showing the wearer an idealized version of their future, not necessarily the truth. While it's a nice notion to have the pashmina show women their potential, I think it would've been even better if it had been realistic; as it was, the accessory came across as an overselling manipulator. (I never thought I'd have to say something like that about a scarf!)

The Indian culture that was included (the fashion, food, words, and family relationships) was all done fairly well. I didn't really like Priyanka as a character, but that was probably because I had a hard time connecting with her. I'm not sure she was developed that well. A big part of the story was--or should have been--her drawing her comic books, but it wasn't really emphasized as much as it could've been (especially in the beginning) if it was that big a part of her life. Where it was included, I wasn't impressed. At one point, her teacher suggests she enter a contest. She says no. So he enters for her! I was appalled. If she said no, she might've had a very good reason; entering her comic without consent just seemed a bit creepy... especially considering the crush Priyanka had on said teacher.

Overall, it wasn't the worst graphic novel I've read, but it wasn't the best, either. The cultural elements are good, but they're not quite enough to carry the story, and the juvenile talking animals and magical manipulative pashmina rubbed me the wrong way.

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Illustration: 3/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5 ladybugs

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Review - M. F. K.

M.F.K.: Book One
by Nilah Magruder
Date: 2017
Publisher: Insight Comics
Reading level: YA
Book type: graphic novel
Pages: 128
Format: e-book
Source: library

A fantastic adventure following the story of Abbie, a deaf girl with a mysterious power, who is traveling across a vast desert to scatter her mother's ashes.

In a world of sleeping gods, a broken government, and a fragile peace held in the hands of the corrupt, one youth must find the strength to stand up against evil and save humanity.

This story is not about that youth.

It's about Abbie, who just wants to get to the mountain range called the Potter's Spine, scatter her mother's ashes, and then live out her life in sweet, blissful solitude. Unfortunately, everyone she meets wants to whine at her about their woes, tag along on her quest, arrest her for no reason, or blow her to bits.

Journeys are hard on the social recluses of the world.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

That synopsis has got to be one of the most misleading I've ever read. It's not a fantastic adventure. I don't think I'd even call it an adventure. It was a confused mishmash that I couldn't wait to finish.

First, the art. Let's start with the cover. It's also misleading. That's a scene that must take place long before the story begins, because when we meet Abbie, her moa (the birdlike creature) is almost dead. We don't know what happened. Abbie's wounded, and it's never explained how. From there, the artwork really messed with my head. We'd jump from beautiful illustrations to sketches that looked almost like they were done by an untalented child. I almost wonder if they were placeholders and just got forgotten about during the editing process. If the whole book had been illustrated in a consistent style, I might've had a more favourable reaction to it.

The characters ranged from annoying to disgusting. Abbie herself is a bit of a mystery. She's deaf, but it plays zero role in the story. She has a hearing aid that basically erases any sort of disability, so I'm not sure why her deafness was included, other than for diversity points. Jaime, a boy who helps rescue Abbie from a sandstorm, is an irksome little twit. He also comes from a family of abusers. I don't think the author intended for it to come across like that, but they were awful. His parents abandoned him, and it's excused by saying they had to chase their own path (or some such nonsense). His grandfather and aunt are both physically abusive. It's written/drawn for laughs, but I didn't find it funny. The aunt is downright scary; I thought she was going to turn into some supernatural demon a few times. The mayor is a wimpy coward for the sake of moving the plot forward; someone that spineless wouldn't retain power for long in real life. The villains were ridiculous, and it doesn't help when they have boring names like Derek and are drawn as comical stereotypes. The main villain can't even get his own origin story straight; he mentions getting his supernatural powers from devas, and then goes on a spiel about how he's the way he is because of science. (I thought maybe the people in this story regarded the devas as part of science, but then Jaime's aunt equates them to religion... so that was confusing.)

There was very little plot to speak of. I guess there's another installment after this one, but I definitely won't be bothering. There was little enough here, other than a whole bunch of action panels with onomatopoeia and inconsistent drawings. We don't know much more about the world than we did before we started. (Is it supposed to be Earth after some calamity? If not, why does Abbie wear a pair of familiar red sneakers? Why does everyone have recognizable, rather than made-up, names?) There are some tantalizing hints about certain things, but not enough to make me want to slog through another installment of annoying characters and lagging plot.

I'm not impressed.

Plot: 1/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Illustration: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.88 out of 5 ladybugs

Review - The Witch of Duva

The Witch of Duva (Grishaverse #0.5)
by Leigh Bardugo
Date: 2011
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: YA
Book type: short story
Pages: 15
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls... or so the story goes. But it’s just possible that the danger may be a little bit closer to home. This story is a companion folk tale to Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel, Shadow and Bone.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is the second of the companion stories I've read that are set in the world of the Grisha, the other one being The Demon in the Wood. Unlike that story, which is more of a prequel/origin story to the Grisha trilogy, The Witch of Duva is a standalone folk tale that could be read without any knowledge of the other books and stories.

I can't really find much to complain about. Although parts were graphic and disturbing, that's often the nature of stories like this. Those parts made perfect sense in the plot, though, and added a sense of urgency and peril. There's a definite Russian flavour to the story, with hints of Baba Yaga, but I also thought of Hansel and Gretel while I was reading. I can't really say much more about the plot without giving anything away.

I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Bardugo's writing. Perhaps this will get me motivated to check out Six of Crows.

Quotable moment:

Some wondered if the girls might have just walked into the wood, lured there by their hunger. There were smells that wafted off the trees when the wind blew a certain way, impossible scents of lamb dumplings or sour cherry babka. Nadya had smelled them herself, sitting on the porch beside her mother, trying to get her to take another spoonful of broth. She would smell roasting pumpkin, walnuts, brown sugar, and find her feet carrying her down the stairs toward the waiting shadows, where the trees shuffled and sighed as if ready to part for her.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 ladybugs


Review - The Tallest Doll in New York City

The Tallest Doll in New York City
by Maria Dahvana Headley
Date: 2014
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 8
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

Nebula Award-nominated author Maria Dahvana Headley has always loved Damon Runyon's stylized faux-reporting on New York City. This is her version of a Runyon tale—this one dealing with the architectural guys and dolls of New York City—and a valentine to all the beautiful buildings she knows.

It's Valentine's Day, 1938, and the Chrysler Building's tired of waiting on the corner of Forty-second and Lex for a certain edifice to notice her. Here's the story of what might happen if two of New York's greatest creations met on a day built for romance.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

What the...?!

This was totally surreal and, for me, kind of stupid. I'm guessing the author was trying to imitate a particular style, but it really didn't work for me. I found the narrator (a human waiter in the Cloud Club in the Chrysler Building) to be insipid and underdeveloped. The language--though probably historically accurate--was also irritating; the objectification of women by continually calling them "dolls" throughout the story grated on my nerves after a while. (Would the average person really have used that word that much, or was this written too much from the perspective of a modern author trying desperately to evoke a sense of time and place?) The writing style itself also bothered me. It was all in present tense, even when recounting past events; it made for some confusing bits.

I guess the idea of a couple of buildings who've stared at each other for years finally pulling themselves off their foundations to go have sex in the ocean on Valentine's Day might be kind of a cute idea... but only if you're really good at suspending disbelief. This was just too far out there for me, and I didn't really care about what was happening... to either the buildings or the human characters within.

At least this story is extremely short.

Quotable moment:

We joke about working in the body of the best broad in New York City, but no one on the waitstaff ever thinks that the Chrysler might have a will of her own. She’s beautiful, what with her multistory crown, her skin pale blue in daylight and rose-colored with city lights at night. Her gown’s printed with arcs and swoops, and beaded with tiny drops of General Electric.

Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 ladybugs


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review - Borderline

Borderline (The Arcadia Project #1)
by Mishell Baker
Date: 2016
Publisher: Saga Press
Reading level: NA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 401
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she's sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she'll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble's disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.

No pressure.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Major Spoilers! To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

What a rollercoaster! I went from really enjoying this book to feeling a little bored to being so angry I had trouble concentrating on the last quarter; after that, however, things started to fall apart anyway, and the four-star read I thought this was going to be was rapidly losing my enthusiasm.

This book started off great, with solid writing and intriguing characters. I haven't read a book where the main character has Borderline Personality Disorder (at least, not a book where it was explicitly stated), so that was an interesting twist. Millie being a double leg amputee also added a new dimension to the story, since it threw up some physical roadblocks. I loved the diversity of the characters; not only do they come from various cultural backgrounds, but most of them also had mental illnesses as well. The plot seemed to be strong: there's a missing Seelie nobleman, and Millie's been plucked out of a mental health facility--for reasons unknown to her at the time--to help find him.

I think my first problem with this book is that... well, I just don't think I'm a mystery fan. If you enjoy books where the main character spends the majority of her time making her way around Los Angeles interviewing people and picking up clues, great! I realize that's just how the genre is sometimes, but for me, I found the pace and lack of action kind of slow and boring. There wasn't much more Millie could do with her physical limitations (lots of chases on foot were out), so I get that this was how it had to be.

As interesting as the characters were, there was a lot that was held back about them, which brings me to another complaint. We didn't really see them fleshed out as much as I expected, and in fact, some of them are now dead, leaving certain questions unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable). We never did find out the story behind Gloria's murders, and Teo--probably my favourite in the whole book--was left as a frustrating blank. I actually thought--based on some comments that I thought were clues--that he might've been trans or something. Imagine my disappointment when, not only was that not the case, but we didn't find out much about him at all before his death that seemed to come out of nowhere and affect his co-workers about as much as the death of a houseplant. By that point, I'd also realized that these people--supposedly unmedicated--weren't showing any signs of mental illness. It's almost as if the author forgot that was the whole hook behind the Arcadia Project. In theory, yes, they're all mentally ill. But aside from Teo's bad driving--which won't exactly get you a diagnosis--he showed few signs of having Bipolar Disorder. Gloria was a supposed murderer who got off on an insanity plea... but aside from being kind of a two-faced bitch, I wasn't sure what her actual diagnosis was supposed to be. Tjuan was the only one who really showed any symptoms, and even then, his paranoia often came across as more surly than pathological.

So... something also happened at around three-quarters of the way through the book that made it really difficult for me to continue. I won't get into it because the issue is not relevant to the book (and, having zero relevance to the plot, shouldn't even have been in there), but it absolutely incensed me. This whole book is, in some ways, an essay about acceptance, and yet the author felt the need to throw a cheap shot at a marginalized group. Why? I don't know. Virtue signalling, maybe. I found it distasteful and cruel. Just because our society still accepts throwing shade at this particular group doesn't mean it's right or kind.

After that, I had a hard time concentrating on the story... but things started to fall apart anyway. The author's memory about her own main character seemed to be spotty, and she had her double leg amputee (who has one above-knee and one below-knee amputation) doing things like jumping to her feet or crouching on the ground, when she'd spent most of the book hobbling around with a cane and at one point even having a hard time getting up after being thrown to the ground. Characters started to do things that were... well, kind of out of character. Teo's move to the dark side--when he'd already been established as a stickler for the rules--didn't make any sense. Berenbaum's back-and-forth didn't convince me, either. Then there were some ridiculous scenes with people communicating non-verbally with each other over the villain's shoulder... and the villain somehow not noticing! I'm also not sure why Gloria died from falling into the well. Especially since Rivenholt and Claybriar didn't, and... Let's just say the magic explanations had some holes.

Overall, it's not a terrible book if you don't mind the more leisurely pace of a mystery. The urban fantasy elements were neat, and the characters--at least in the beginning--were interesting. But since it fell apart so badly for me in the last quarter, it coloured my opinion of the whole thing. And with the character I liked most now dead, there's really no reason for me to read on.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Minus one star for offensive content.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 ladybugs


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review - All We Have Left

All We Have Left
by Wendy Mills
Date: 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 368
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Now:
Sixteen-year-old Jesse is used to living with the echoes of the past. Her older brother died in the September 11th attacks, and her dad since has filled their home with anger and grief. When Jesse gets caught up with the wrong crowd, one momentary hate-fueled decision turns her life upside down. The only way to make amends is to face the past, starting Jesse on a journey that will reveal the truth about how her brother died.

Then:
In 2001, sixteen-year-old Alia is proud to be Muslim... it's being a teenager that she finds difficult. After being grounded for a stupid mistake, Alia decides to confront her father at his Manhattan office, putting her in danger she never could have imagined. When the planes collide into the Twin Towers, Alia is trapped inside one of the buildings. In the final hours, she meets a boy who will change everything for her as the flames rage around them...

Interweaving stories from past and present, All We Have Left brings one of the most important days in our recent history to life, showing that love and hope will always triumph.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Major Spoilers! To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. Some parts were good, but other parts left me really questioning the author's choices. This is one of those books that's probably going to be viewed very differently by different generations. My reading experience--being old enough to remember September 11--is going to be very different from the reading experience of the target audience, many of whom had yet to be born when the events happened.

One of my clearest memories from that day--and that's mentioned in the book multiple times--is the clear blue of the sky that morning. I lived on the opposite side of the continent, but our weather that day was almost exactly the same. It brought an eerie closeness to the whole situation, and it almost felt like the same thing could happen here at any moment. My mom and I took a break from the horrors on a never-ending loop on TV (pretty much every station that day was covering the events) and went down to the beach, where we watched diverted plane after diverted plane come in from over the Pacific, making a wide curve to land in Vancouver. The sight alone was unnerving, after seeing the tilt of the planes that we'd watched crash into the towers hundreds of times already.

I think that there's probably a mild element of PTSD for those of us who were old enough to remember that day. Just reading certain passages of this book--people jumping from the towers, the towers falling--was enough to raise my heart rate uncomfortably. (There seems to have been some sort of social consensus not to keep showing the worst images of that day. Unfortunately, millions of people saw footage on September 11 that we'll never get out of our minds.) Of course, this book likely wouldn't have the same effect on a teenager who's only learned about the events after the fact. So... just a warning to the older folks who might be reading this: it may bring up some disturbing memories.

As for the story itself, it was a mixed bag. Much of it felt contrived. What I mean by that is that I could almost hear the author's mental processes as I was reading it. "Okay. So... this needs to happen. What can I do that will put the character in X position so that Y will happen?" This led to a lot of the plot points feeling unnatural. I wanted everything to flow more organically, rather than be shoehorned into place.

The characters didn't help in this respect. To begin with, both main characters are rather bland. I just couldn't connect with them, or feel much about them. Being potentially doomed isn't really a character trait. Also a problem was the fact that Jesse (a girl... which I didn't figure out until I went back and read the synopsis; I don't know why her name uses the male spelling) and Alia, though from very different backgrounds, sounded pretty much the same. I could tell which POV I was in, because the setting was so different, but if the two of them had been in the same room, I wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. (When they are in the same room in the last chapters, I kept getting mixed up about who was talking.) Another problem was when the narration would lapse into this poetic sort of voice that didn't really fit with how teenagers talk. It might've worked better in a third-person POV to get around that problem.

I really didn't like Alia. She was kind of all over the place. Maybe the author was trying to paint her as a confused, unsure teenager, but she just came across as inconsistent to me. In one of her first scenes, she's refusing to take off her hijab to use it as a breathing mask when she's trapped in the smoke-filled, burning tower. But then we find out that she only started wearing the hijab that day! I just couldn't see how this stubborn and newfound adherence to her culture was more important than staying alive, and it rang a bit false for me. The other reason I really didn't like her was because she was too stupid to live, and she directly caused the death of Jesse's brother, Travis. She tried to run back upstairs to save her father, ignoring the firefighters who told her to leave. Her father wasn't even in the building, and how stupid and arrogant do you have to be to think you can rescue someone when firefighters can't? By the time she realized she'd been an idiot, it was too late. Travis stayed with her until the towers collapsed, when they could've made it out to safety. To make matters worse, she didn't seem to feel much guilt about it. Conveniently, there were terrorists to blame his death on. In the author's note, she states that Alia didn't survive in the first version of the story. I think I would've preferred that. Her survival--though based on a real survivor's story--seemed far-fetched (some things in real life are truly weirder than fiction... and therefore don't work in fiction) and kind of a slap in the face. She gets to live her wonderful life, getting everything she ever wanted... while Travis is dead because of her idiotic choices. If it was meant to be a story of hope, it failed for me on that account, because I was too pissed off at Alia for surviving.

Jesse's father was also a terrible character, and not just because he was a horrible person. His character arc was handled really badly. Yes, he's meant to be a sort of grief-twisted monster. He basically destroyed his family, blaming his son for something that the kid really couldn't have done much about. (Travis was with his grandfather when they were mugged. Gramps was stabbed, and Travis ran away because he was scared. His father called him a coward and basically disowned him. What on earth did he want his 17-year-old son to do? Get himself stabbed as well?) Then the father turned into a raging anti-Muslim bigot, and eventually disowned Jesse, too, when she made friends with a Muslim boy. All of this wouldn't be so bad... if not for how it was resolved. The last part of the book had so much telling, and hardly any showing. We're told that things are explained to Jesse's father, and he smartens up and stops being such a dick. We're told that Jesse's not quite ready to forgive him. We're told about how things are up in the air with Adam (Jesse's Muslim not-quite-boyfriend). There are huge swaths of dialogue that act like info-dumps. A lot of this is crammed into the last few pages, as if the author was getting tired and just wanted to wrap things up.

I can't really say I hated this book, because I didn't. My curiosity and the question of what was going to happen were enough to pull me through the story and keep reading. The story wasn't terrible, but it could've been handled differently. The characters were probably the weakest part for me, and unfortunately, if I don't care about--or like--the characters, I'm going to have a hard time caring about the story.

But, like I said, someone without all the memory baggage of that day might see this book in a completely different way. It's just that, when you're old enough to remember 9/11, you bring a lot of your own stuff to the reading, and expectations are likely to be high. The book better be damn good. For me, it didn't quite get there.

Quotable moment:

There's a bitterness in his voice I've never heard before, and I know that somehow he understands what it's like to feel anger that makes you feel powerful and powerless all at the same time.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3.13 out of 5 ladybugs


Monday, May 21, 2018

Review - Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson
Date: 1977
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 163
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie's house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't even know how to start reviewing this book. I didn't like it. It's hard when you read a beloved book and you just don't see what everyone else saw. Maybe this book's time has passed. I don't know. But I found it to be woefully dated, and problematic as a result.

Okay, I get that we're supposed to see that Jess and Leslie don't conform to gender norms. The problem? It's based on 1970s ideas of what gender should be. Which means that things that wouldn't make people bat an eye today were emphasized as a huge deal. Jess likes to draw. He's girly! Leslie rarely wears dresses and likes to run. She's boyish! The music teacher wears jeans and no lipstick. *gasp* What's wrong with her?! To make matters worse, when characters were portrayed as sticking to traditional gender norms, it was implied that it was a negative thing (you could see this especially with Jess's older sisters).

Then there was the sexism. Oh, boy. I know it was written in 1977, but it was still so grating. One of the worst parts was when the teacher talked about scuba diving as being an unusual hobby... for a girl. Combined with the misogyny that the little boys were throwing around on the playground, it made for an uncomfortable read.

Some aspects of the story and characters just don't work anymore. One of the ways (one of the only ways, really) that the author seemed to be able to think of to indicate that a character was bad was to make them fat... and then have others comment on it. Seriously, pretty much every insult was about someone's weight. The school bully (more on her in a moment) got called a cow and a hippo, and commentary was made about the size of her butt. Jess's sister Brenda got the same treatment, even having her weight commented on at one point by her six-year-old sister. (Full disclosure: I've never been overweight in my life. In fact, I've been skinny. So I've never had to deal with fat comments. If the amount of fat-shaming in this book was making me uncomfortable, I can't imagine how it would read to someone who struggles with their weight.)

There were also some things that just read as inappropriate. For example, I was totally weirded out when Jess's little sister accused him of staring at her when she was in her underwear... because he follows up with what's basically a pedophilic incest joke. (Why would an eleven-year-old boy know enough about that to joke about it? Yeesh.) Then there was the trip he took with his teacher. Alone. To another city. Where she buys him lunch and ice cream. Oh, yeah... and he had a terrible crush on her. I understand that this was written before the Mary Kay Letourneau era, but it's just one more thing that's going to have to be explained to younger readers as being not okay. Yes, in this instance, it was innocent. But there have been real-life cases where it wasn't. And then there was the scene where Jess shot milk straight into Leslie's mouth with no warning (other than a command to open her mouth) and no consent. This wouldn't fly in an era of food allergies, for one thing... but the whole scene was just gross. If I'd opened up the book and randomly stumbled across that page, based on the word choices and actions, I would've assumed it was erotica:

“Here,” he said. “Open your mouth.”
“Why?”
“Just open your mouth.” For once she obeyed. He sent a stream of warm milk straight into it.
“Jess Aarons!” The name was garbled and the milk dribbled down her chin as she spoke.
“Don’t open your mouth now. You’re wasting good milk.”
Leslie started to giggle, choking and coughing.
“Now if I could just learn to pitch a baseball that straight. Lemme try again.”
Leslie controlled her giggle, closed her eyes, and solemnly opened her mouth.
But now Jess was giggling, so that he couldn’t keep his hand steady.
“You dunce! You got me right in the ear.”

The bully (if you can call her that; bullying was apparently pretty tame in the 1970s and seemed to involve stealing hopscotch rocks and Twinkies) was also handled in an appalling way. We find out that she's a nasty girl because her father beats her. But then--and I don't know if I've ever been so disgusted with a book's message--it's implied that she did something wrong because the secret got out. It was shameful. It was supposed to stay hidden. In fact, the advice to this poor girl? Ignore the taunting from the other kids and they'll forget about it and everything will go back to normal. (Except she'll still be beaten at home... but that's okay, I guess.) The author even reiterated this advice in her author's note, as she recounted hearing from children who'd been "helped" by the book:

There was the child who found her family’s dark secrets were suddenly the gossip of all her classmates and only got through the most horrible time of her life by remembering Leslie’s advice to Janice Avery—to pretend she didn’t know what anybody had said or where they’d got such a crazy story and that everybody would forget about it in a week.

Yeah. "Such a crazy story" definitely needed to be forgotten so the bully's father could go back to beating her without having to worry about a visit from child services. What... the... hell?

I know this book was used in schools, and while at one time it probably brought up some interesting discussions about death and grief, I think it might be too fraught with other issues for today's teachers to be able to get through all the ensuing discussions in a reasonable amount of time. I don't think I'd want my kids reading it without some real discussion about the problematic bits... and there are plenty.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 2.38 out of 5 ladybugs


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review - Nell

Nell
by Karen Hesse
Date: 2011
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 12
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

"I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead."

When the lines between fairy tale and reality blur, identity becomes fluid, and compassion can have unexpected costs. In "Nell,' a short story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," award-winning author Karen Hesse adds a haunting, supernatural twist to a classic tale.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, that was depressing. But what else are you going to get from a retelling of "The Little Match Girl"?

Still, the way this was told was beautiful, a story within a story. The imagery was rich and the main character's voice was engaging. It's short, but it still manages to bring a new, supernatural twist to the old story.

Quotable moment:

How her mouth watered with longing when she passed a rosy-cheeked boy eating a bun,

soiling his mitten with bakery grease,

dropping crumbs and bits of raisins in his wake,

ignoring the admonitions of his father,

who held on tightly to keep the boy from running into the people around him.

The match girl stopped walking and stood where the bun-eater had stood and drew in a deep breath,

devouring the scent of the sweet roll that still lingered in the cold air.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.86 out of 5 ladybugs


Friday, April 6, 2018

Review - All Systems Red

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1)
by Martha Wells
Date: 2017
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: prose novella
Pages: 156
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as "Murderbot." Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had this novella on my want-to-read list for a while, so when the opportunity to read it for free came up, I couldn't say no. I managed to blow through it in a few hours, which is unusual for me. But the pace was so fast and the story so intriguing that I couldn't stop for long without wanting to get back in and find out what happened next.

The strength of this book is really Murderbot itself. The story is told from its perspective, and it's an interesting one. It's so convinced it's just a machine, continually reminding others, and trying very hard (it seems) to convince itself of that fact. But it has emotions and attachments, little quirks that make it evident that it's not just a robot.

The pace was so quick, and the story managed to pack a lot of action into relatively few pages. I'm very glad that this is just the first book in a series, though, because the ending was kind of unsatisfying and a little confusing.

I can't wait to find out what happens next in Murderbot's life (and will the poor thing ever get a proper name?).

Quotable moment:

I yelled, "No!" which I'm not supposed to do; I'm always supposed to speak respectfully to the clients, even when they're about to accidentally commit suicide.

Premise: 5/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall Rating: 4.38 out of 5 ladybugs

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review - The Last Novelist

The Last Novelist
by Matthew Kressel
Date: 2017
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 27
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard) by Matthew Kressel is a science fiction story about a dying writer who is trying to finish one final novel on the distant planet he settles on for his demise. His encounter with a young girl triggers a last burst of creativity.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This short story certainly painted a lovely picture of a foreign world... but, at the same time, I feel vaguely unsettled. It looks like the author tried to incorporate many cultures (you can see it in the use of language--I easily picked out the Yiddish and Indian influences), but the overall feeling I got was sort of Caribbean, from the tropical setting and mention of steel drums to the way the native inhabitants of the planet spoke. Are they human? I'm assuming they're descended from humans; despite having six-fingered hands and violet eyes, there's no indication that they're alien. Which makes it kind of awkward when the little girl--Fish, as she calls herself--speaks like a stereotype:

"I's at my uncle's," she says. "But I's back now. Get up you loafing fool, 'cause we gots work to do!"

This leaves me feeling... I don't know. Am I reading cultural appropriation? Or are we to believe that this planet was colonized entirely by settlers of Caribbean descent?

Aside from that, the story was okay, if a little unsatisfying. The world-building was probably the best part, even if it was a bit uneven at times with the technology. I also wonder if some of the themes are just the author's fears. In this future, nobody reads books anymore, preferring instead to download experiences directly into their brains. I'm not sure this would ever happen (at least, not to the extent shown here), and besides, the narrator still values the written word. Are we to believe he's the only one in the entire universe who does? (Obviously not, as Fish really takes to pen and paper, so the fact that everyone else supposedly avoids reading is a little hard to believe.)

I didn't really like the characters. Reuth, the narrator, wasn't developed all that well. We know facts about him, but we don't really know much about what he's like (other than the fact that he thinks it's okay to litter in the sea). I liked Fish a little more, but only because she was more interesting. The only other character to speak of was Fish's mother, who was just there to serve as a protective figure.

All in all, I'd say the imagery was the strongest part of the book, the characters the weakest. The story was somewhere in the middle. I'm not sorry I read it, but it's not that memorable.

Quotable moment:

Fish surprises me on the beach that afternoon. "I don't get it," she says.

I look up from my pad, unexpectedly happy to see her. "What don't you get?"

"Why write novels at all? You could project your dreams into a neural."

"I could. But dreams are raw and unfiltered. And that always felt like cheating to me. With writing, you have to labor over your thoughts."

My words seem only to perplex her more. "But you could dictate your story. Why make it so hard?"

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 ladybugs


Friday, March 23, 2018

Review - That Game We Played During the War

That Game We Played During the War
by Carrie Vaughn
Date: 2016
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 16
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

The people of Gaant are telepaths. The people of Enith are not. The two countries have been at war for decades, but now peace has fallen, and Calla of Enith seeks to renew an unlikely friendship with Gaantish officer Valk over an even more unlikely game of chess, in Carrie Vaughn's novella That Game We Played During The War.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This story had an interesting premise that led me to want to know more. There are two groups, the Gaantish and the Enithi. The former is telepathic, the latter is not. They were fighting a war, though why they were doing so was never really explained.

The story basically describes a meeting between two people from opposite sides who met during the war, and now they've come together again and are playing chess. Of course, that's an interesting and complicated idea when one person knows the moves the other person is about to make! I'm still not sure if I missed something, but there seems to be more to the relationship between Calla and Valk than we're told.

This whole idea would be an interesting setup for a longer novel that might explain such questions as to why the war happened (nobody seemed to feel much like killing each other--taking prisoners appeared to be pretty common in lieu of killing--so it came off kind of like a big, stupid game with terrible consequences like famine), more of the mechanics of how the telepathic Gaantish society works, and maybe a clearer explanation of exactly what happened between the two characters here.

Overall, though, it was a fairly enjoyable story with some thought-provoking elements.

Quotable moment:

The Gaantish officer stared at her. Her hair under her cap was pulled back in a severe bun; her whole manner was very strict and proper. Her tabs said she was a second lieutenant—just out of training and the war ends, poor thing. Or lucky thing, depending on one's point of view. Calla wondered what the young lieutenant made of the mess of thoughts pouring from her. If she saw the sympathy or only the pity.

"You speak Gaantish," the lieutenant said bluntly.

Calla was used to this reaction. "Yes. I spent a year at the prisoner camp at Ovorton. Couldn't help but learn it, really. It's a long story." She smiled blandly.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.57 out of 5 ladybugs

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - Bitter Grounds

Bitter Grounds
by Neil Gaiman
Date: 2003
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 17
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

Coffee, New Orleans & Zombies.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This was a tricky one. On the one hand, it's Neil Gaiman. I've read some of his other short stories, as well as Coraline, so I thought it would be safe to assume that this would be a quality story. On the other hand, the typos were so bad that I was continually being distracted and thrown right out of the flow as I tried to figure out what the sentences with messed-up punctuation or missing words were trying to say.

Aside from that, though, this is the sort of story that doesn't really work for me. It starts so late that we basically just get an ending, to both the story and the character arc. Who was this nameless narrator? Had he been zombified? If so, where/when? Before he got to New Orleans? What happened with Anderton and the tow truck driver? What was going on with the anthropologists? Were they just a bunch of weirdos, or were they tied into the zombie stuff, too? Was everyone?

Overall, I just feel like I read the last few pages of a book and am utterly confused as to what the thing was even about.

Quotable moment:

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving. If I could have physically passed away, just let it all go, like that, without doing anything, stepped out of life as easily as walking through a door, I would have done. But I was going to sleep at night and waking in the morning, disappointed to be there and resigned to existence.

Plot: 1/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.57 out of 5 ladybugs

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review - The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Tales from the Chocolate Heart #1)
by Stephanie Burgis
Date: 2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 253
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family's mountain cave... if only they'd let her leave it. Her family thinks she's too young to fly on her own, but she's determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she's transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she's the fiercest creature in these mountains--and now she's found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time... won't she?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was so cute and so much fun! I wish it had been around when I was younger (but I still enjoyed it very much as an adult).

Aventurine is a great character. She has a distinctive voice, and we never quite forget that she's a dragon trapped in a "puny human" body. I love the message about finding your passion--the thing that makes you so happy that you want to do it all the time--and being true to who you really are on the inside, even when that might be difficult. There's no romance in this book; instead, we get some great friendship and family themes. And the dragons themselves are wonderful characters; instead of mindless beasts, they're actually quite scholarly (did you know dragons debate philosophy and write epic poetry?) and they even think humans are the stupid ones!

I've barely seen this book mentioned, and it's a shame, because it's a well-written story with a good message, a fun plot, and unforgettable characters. It hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves.

Quotable moment:

When I passed a waffle stand two minutes later, I didn’t even let out the snarl of desperation that wanted to rip itself from my throat.

If all I had were five marks, I would not waste them. I was a fierce, powerful dragon despite my current body problems, and I could control myself, no matter what Mother or Jasper thought.

I just wished that all the horses I passed didn’t look so delicious.

Premise: 5/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4.25 out of 5 ladybugs

Friday, March 2, 2018

Review - My Life as a Bench

My Life as a Bench
by Jaq Hazell
Date: 2017
Publisher: Nowness Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 234
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

'There are so many benches lining the riverside, each and every one tragic in its own way.'

Ren Miller has died aged seventeen and yet her consciousness lives on, inhabiting her memorial bench by the River Thames in London.

Ren longs to be reunited with her boyfriend Gabe, but soon discovers why he has failed to visit. Devastated, she must learn to break through and talk to the living so she can reveal the truth about her tragic end.

Unique, haunting, and compelling, this is a story about love, friendship, a passion for music and what, if anything, remains after we've gone.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: spoilers - To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

I really didn't like this one. Here's the thing: I made a sort of reading resolution this year that I was going to stick to books from big publishers in 2018. I've become exhausted from reading self-pubbed and indie crap. Picking this book up was my own fault... but, to be fair, I assumed an award-winning novel would be written and edited well. I didn't realize that the awards this book won were for self-published and independent-press books.

I don't really have a problem with the premise. In fact, it's kind of interesting. But the way it was executed was not. Ren's spirit is basically trapped in a memorial bench on the banks of the river. She has no one to talk to, other than another bench spirit named Lionel, who conveniently goes silent every night so we can listen to Ren narrate her life for us. There are a couple of problems with this setup. One is the repetition. For much of the book, Ren repeats herself, and we have to listen to variations on her first days in London over and over again. So much of that could've been skimmed over even more (but that would've decreased the page count on what is already a short book... even if it doesn't feel like it when you're reading it). By the time Ren finally tells us the whole story, we're into about the last quarter of the book. Almost all of the action happens after that point, making it really uneven. The second problem with Lionel may be something that's just a limitation of the Kindle edition, but I'm not sure. See, when Ren and Lionel talk to each other, Ren's dialogue is in italics. Lionel's isn't. There are no quotation marks. The problem comes in because Lionel's dialogue is formatted the exact same way as the regular narration, so sometimes I couldn't tell for a moment whether Lionel was speaking or if we'd reverted back to the narration. I have to wonder if perhaps the paperback edition uses different fonts for Lionel and Ren, but this issue, combined with a few others, makes me suspect that it was just the author being artsy.

There were other stylistic choices that I wasn't fond of. In fact, by the end of the book, I was getting really pissed off. And I'm going to assume they're stylistic choices, because someone with an MA in Creative Writing should know better than to pull all the crap this author did. Between the silent actions that passed for dialogue tags (probably my biggest pet peeve) to this weird dialogue thing she did where two sentences would be tacked together with a tag, but the second sentence always started with a lowercase letter, I was about ready to DNF the whole thing out of frustration.

The story takes place in London, for the most part, so there's a lot of British slang. I was wishing for a glossary as I was reading, and I discovered one at the end. But most of the words I'd had trouble with weren't even in it! (I have a feeling the glossary was written more for British folks who might not've understood teenage slang. As a Canadian, I encountered lots of other words I wasn't sure about... but that most Brits would probably know.)

The story itself is ham-fisted and looks like it was trying to take advantage of the current discussions about race and discrimination. The problem is that it was done so badly that I didn't buy it. On the one hand, we've got Gabe, a mixed-race kid (he's half black, which we don't even find out until way into the story, even though it's important to the plot), who's accused of murdering Ren. Despite the fact that he's pretty much squeaky clean, everybody assumes he killed her, even though it goes completely against his character. When we finally find out what really happened, it comes so far out of left field that I still have a hard time believing that that's how it unfolded. Besides the fact that the real killer's motives weren't foreshadowed enough, Gabe basically got out of jail because of a psychic. That's... would that really happen? If the police were so racist as to assume Gabe was guilty simply because he was black and in the vicinity, would he really get off because a psychic said he didn't do it?

The ending was left full of questions. Where did Lionel go? Why is Ren's spirit still there? Is she really going to stay there for decades, just so she can visit with Gabe? And does she expect Gabe to stay loyal to her and never move on with his own life?

Overall, this was an interesting premise that could've been worked into a really cool story, but the way it was handled was boring, repetitive, unrealistic, and kind of annoying. This isn't a book I'd recommend... even if it has won some awards.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 1/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 1/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.63 out of 5 ladybugs