Review: Creative Beginnings in Machine Embroidery

Creative Beginnings in Machine Embroidery: Innovative Ideas for Expert ResultsCreative Beginnings in Machine Embroidery
by Patty Albin

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Creative Beginnings in Machine Embroidery / 1-57120-327-3

I've had my new Brother PE700II Embroidery Machine for less than two months now, so I've still got a lot to learn about embroidery. I purchased this book, along with several others, in the hopes of learning how to get the most out of my new machine. I can state, unequivocally, that of the eight books I ordered, this is the shortest, most shallow one of the batch.

The length of this book is almost insulting. It's one thing to know from the Amazon product page that it's only 63 pages - it's another thing to receive the book in the mail on the same day as your Good Housekeeping magazine and PC Gamer magazine and realize that this book is thinner than both of those magazines. It's an even bigger slap in the face when you open the book and see the large fonts, the liberally unused white space, and the plethora of "isn't this a pretty quilt" pictures that comprise nearly the entire book.

Content-wise, there is *nothing* here that isn't covered better and in more depth elsewhere. The whole book, in fact, feels like a cheap and hasty cash-in attempt, which is pretty darn ironic considering that the *FIRST PAGE* starts off with a massively scolding section about how it's totally wrong and inappropriate to borrow an embroidery pattern from a friend because that's an abuse of the copyright. Fair enough, but I wish someone would tell author Patty Albin that throwing together a completely shallow, cookie-cutter "Sewing 101" book and slapping the word "Creative" anywhere in the title name is false-freaking-advertising. There's an *entire page* dedicated in this book to power strips and surge protectors - complete with TWO pictures of surge protectors! There's another *entire page* concerning electric battery backups! The section on irons (yes, there's a *section* on irons) includes a big, full-color picture of an iron... with the super-helpful caption "A good iron is invaluable." Gee, thanks, Patty - I never would have guessed that from my Sewing 101 and Quilting 101 books. Can we talk about embroidery now? Specifically, creative beginnings in such?

Once you plow past the first half of the book, there's a decent (but unforgivably short) section on stabilizers. And, yeah, you definitely need to know about those in embroidery, but "All About Machine Arts" covers stabilizers in WAY more depth and detail... and it's not even an exclusive embroidery book. In fact, I'll just save some time here and point out that *everything* in "Creative Beginnings" is covered in more depth, better detail, and better pictures in "All About Machine Arts" - so if you own that book, you don't need this one. And if you don't own "All About Machine Arts", I recommend it over this book - it's not flawless, but it's extremely helpful, and has more varied and useful projects than this watered-down waste of money that actually thinks advice like "You don't always need a reason or occasion to make a quilt. You can make one just because it's fun," is somehow revolutionary or worth paying for.

If this book had come with the usual array of embroidery designs on CD (usually 50! or 75! designs that actually turn out to be 17 designs, slightly modified each time to triple the final count, but what-can-you-do), I might have been slightly less harsh on it, but the whole book just feels like a complete slap in the face. I can see why the publishers haven't agreed to use the "look inside this book" feature on Amazon - if I'd browsed through this book at all before hand, I wouldn't have bought it. I strongly recommend you pass on this one - I can honestly say I learned *nothing* from this book, and - as I said before - I've been embroidering for all of two months now, so I'm hardly an expert who knows all the tricks.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Seductive Poison

Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's TempleSeductive Poison
by Deborah Layton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seductive Poison / 0-385-48984-6

I purchased "Seductive Poison" after watching the intense "Jonestown" documentary. I was fascinated by the story, and hoped to learn more about it - and the memoirs of the intelligent ex-member Deborah Layton, interviewed in the documentary, seemed to be the best place to start.

"Seductive Poison" tells the story of Deborah's life, from her rebellious teenage years, her indoctrination into the church at a time when she needed guidance and stability, and her eventual escape from Jonestown. Her attempts to warn the outside world of the terrible conditions of Jonestown - where back-breaking labor was mandatory, sleep was all but forbidden, and torture was a constant reality - and to try to rescue the inhabitants of Jonestown were the stimulus behind Congressman Ryan's ill-fated visit. Deborah speaks heart-breakingly of the mass suicides, explaining that suicide was preferable to being shot in an impossible escape attempt... and death was preferable to the living nightmare that Jonestown had become.

I am grateful to Layton for her unflinching account of her life inside Jim Jones' cult. There is a wealth of detail here, and it is frightening and fascinating to learn that Jones was not simply a 'good man' corrupted over time by power or madness; even from the beginning, he was controlling and domineering, insisting that members leave school, donate property, and break up families in order to be nearer to him. I was disappointed slightly to find that there is not a very good feel here for WHY some of Jones' more outrageous behavior was believed and condoned - we must accept that his followers were intelligent, normal people, and yet it seems odd that they should, on the face of things, appear so gullible. Case in point, when Jim's "second-in-command" Carolyn goes missing for a little over nine months and returns with an infant - blonde and pale-skinned, despite the fact that the baby was "supposedly" the product of a brutal rape in a Mexican prison. And what are we to make of the fact that Jones insisted that all men (except him) were homosexuals? Why did he have so many married male followers who chose to believe this? Deborah, unfortunately, cannot shed a great deal of light on why an intelligent adult would choose to believe such things - she was brought into the church as an inexperienced, bewildered seventeen year old. She does explain that the constant lack of sleep (even in the early days of the church), the admonitions to speak or think critically, and the fear of losing your friends and loved ones (people who left the church were shunned) helped pave the way to unthinkingly accepting all that Jones said or did.

Possibly the most infuriating aspect of this book is not the actions of Jones, but rather the actions and inactions of the American officials charged with protecting Layton and her fellow members. US consul Dick McCoy stands out in particular, as if even half of Layton's narrative is true, the man comes off as being either criminally stupid or just plain criminal. The consulate does the absolute bare minimum to help Layton escape back to America, completely fails to visit Jonestown on their regularly scheduled basis - including failing to return to Jonestown for MONTHS after Layton's statement of the terrible conditions there, and steadfastly urges Layton to refrain from going to the press. Layton is surprisingly kind to the consulate, willing to chalk their behavior up to sheer idiocy and incompetence, but considering that the consulate was apparently aware of the fact that Jones was smuggling in guns and thought it was a joking matter, I'm more apt to wonder if some money wasn't changing hands. Even so, bribery can't explain the sheer apathy Deborah faces back in the states, with congressmen lazily asking her "why didn't you just leave" and apparently not grasping the fact that one cannot "just leave" a madman armed with guns, brainwashed guards, and the ability to torture and kill all your loved ones. Even brave Congressman Ryan fails to understand the depth of the situation and apparently does not genuinely believe Layton's concerns - that if anyone goes to Jonestown, they will be killed by Jim Jones and his terrified guards.

The lesson of "Seductive Poison" is that friends and family do not join 'cults' - they join organizations, churches, and peace movements that draw them in with lofty ideals, allow them to make friends and bonds within the group, and then prey upon them by making them feel that leaving the group will entail leaving all their loved ones within the group behind. I would also add that any organization that feels it knows better for you that YOU do and wishes to pressure and order you to conform (like when Jones urges students to drop out of high school in order to be closer to the church) is an organization that is using you for its own means, rather than allowing you to flourish with their support and advice.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: The Concubine's Daughter

The Concubine's Daughter: A NovelThe Concubine's Daughter
by Pai Kit Fai

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Concubine's Daughter / 978-0-312-35521-0

I was excited about "The Concubine's Daughter" because the teaser write-up compared it to one of my favorite novels in recent memory, "Memoirs of a Geisha". Unfortunately, "The Concubine's Daughter" is not, in my opinion, anything like "Memoirs of a Geisha", and the best comparison I can offer is that it feels like a bare-bones, watered-down attempt at an Amy Tan novel.

"Memoirs of a Geisha", for all its faults, was populated by human beings, not caricatures. It was a realistic world, not a world of fantasy - where fathers sold their daughters, yes, but sold them because they would otherwise starve to death. Women were hateful and competitive towards each other, true, but with a good purpose and reason - they had been placed into a society where competition determined who lived and who died. In short, characters were complex and motives were ambiguous.

In "The Concubine's Daughter", however, there is no ambiguity and no shades of gray - characters are completely good or completely evil with no middle ground and, indeed, often without any reason. Within the first chapter, the scene is set - an aging, wealthy farmer has bought himself a fourth wife from a once-rich family. The qualities he desires in a wife are simple - he is a sadist and is attracted to the girl because her family and personal bearing are proud and haughty and he cannot wait to dominate and humiliate her in the bedroom. On their wedding night, he orders his other three wives to hold the girl down while he beats and rapes her, and he takes great pleasure in his attempts to "fill the b_____ with sons".

When the hoped-for son turns out to be a daughter, he attempts to strangle the child and bury her in his field, as he has done with all his other daughters (except for the first one, who was brutally gang-raped and murdered at age 10, for no apparent reason except that the author must have had some kind of per-chapter 'rape quota'), and as "everyone else" in the village regularly does, and this deserves a closer look. I'm not Chinese and I've never even been to China, but I question the assertion that strangling all baby girls was just something that everyone in the village did, all the time. Even assuming that no one noticed that such a practice would mean no brides for the village sons when they came of age, even assuming that there wasn't a single sentimental father among the lot of them, it seems strange that a completely agrarian village of farmers would value females so little, when the bulk of the field work and all of the house work was being performed by the women of the house - after all, *someone* has to tend the fields while the master's sons are learning to read, and if not daughters, then who? There aren't any slaves to be seen, and servants have to be fed, clothed, and paid at least as much as children, so this "kill all girls" thing seems incredibly unlikely on a number of levels. I can certainly believe that some - perhaps most - of the baby girls would be murdered in a given society with certain dynamics, but to insist that *all* the men kill *all* the girls seems ridiculous and feels like further attempt on the part of the author to make all the men out to be evil demons rather than people, particularly when the "nice" men enter the novel and turn out to all rather suspiciously be at least partly European in birth.

The reason I compare "The Concubine's Daughter" to an amateurish attempt at an Amy Tan knockoff is that all the prerequisites are there: a multi-generational tale of mothers and daughters, covered with a strong layer of oppression from society in general and sadistic men in particular. The women are rarely better than the men - they mostly hate each other with very little reason, and beat children for fun. The first story feels lifted from "The Joy Luck Club" - the daughter's life and position are secured by a well-timed suicide by her mother, coupled with a strong dash of superstition from the patriarch of the family and a desire to avoid a life-long curse. All the raw emotion and interesting characters have been stripped out, though, and events rarely seem to make much sense, such as having a young girl persistently trapped in sexual slavery in a brothel and yet always managing to remain a virgin, which is a common "have my cake and eat it too" mistake with authors. Also here is the cardinal sin of the precocious fairy child that is more civilized, wise, and grown-up than her age and circumstances would allow - five year old girls who spend their entire life locked in a small shed do not tidy house and sweep the corners, let alone know how to speak or interact with people - how could they?

I really can't recommend this novel as providing any kind of deep insight into the culture it is claiming to portray.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Cauldron (Aliens, Book 12)

Aliens: Cauldron: Adrift in Space, Terror is Born AgainCauldron (Aliens, Book 12)
by Diane Carey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Aliens Novels: Book 12, Cauldron / 978-1-59582-113-3

I usually leave my summary recommendation until the end of my reviews, but this time I'll save time by placing it at the top: This is one of the worst books I've ever read, and it is my exceedingly strong recommendation that you not waste any of your money, or indeed any of your time on this horrendously bad novel.

After the pile of cliche and melodrama that was Carey's previous addition to the aliens series ("DNA War"), I didn't expect high art from "Cauldron", but this book greatly surpassed all my expectations that it would be awful. Although I had expected a heaping pile of cliche, melodrama, and anachronism (Carey habitually fails to comprehend that science fiction writing should have a different tone than a dime store detective novel), covered by a layer of boring "tell-don't-show" exposition and massive editing issues, it seems that I was being uncreative in my predictions and should also have anticipated that Carey would use this latest medium as a breathtakingly narcissistic diversion into her personal hobbies and interests.

"Cauldron" is largely composed of what Carey *wanted* to write about, as opposed to what she was *paid* to write about, which practically speaking boils down thus: this is a book about historic ships, and NOT a book about aliens. That someone signed off on this complete slap in the face of the aliens' readership is another crime entirely, but I have never seen such shoddy writing and complete disregard for the given subject material as Carey shows here. The "About the Author" note states that she's an enthusiast of historic ships, which you'll have already guessed long before you make it to the end note, because hardly a page goes by where she doesn't go off on a completely random tangent in order to spout factoids about ancient ships.

Allow me to elucidate: The main spaceship on which we open - and keep in mind this is supposed to be the distant future, long after humans have colonized other planets and the nuclear war has ravaged earth and most of the history books, for that matter - the main spaceship boasts a gigantic mural on its side of (and I can't believe I'm writing this) the Monitor and the Merrimac locked in battle. You know, the iron-clad ships that fought each other in the American civil war? *That* Monitor and Merrimac? If you don't remember much about the Monitor and Merrimac from school, don't despair - Carey spends several pages devoted to the history of those ships and, indeed, all American civil war era ships in general. Hey, you know those new state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter airplanes that American is currently developing? You know how those are being fitted out with murals of Hannibal's mighty Carthaginian war elephants? Of course not! Because that would be indescribably stupid! Oh, yeah, and the space ships of the future have 'stevedores' and 'bosuns' and probably those stupid high-pitched whistles, just because Carey enjoys using those words and describing the historical context behind them... over and over and OVER again...

A lot of "Cauldron" is written like Carey is vaguely aware that science fiction genre exists, and may have even seen a sci-fi movie once or twice in her life (NOT an aliens movie, though, obviously), but the overall concept is still completely foreign. I'm just going to make a blanket statement for all hack sci-fi writers, free of charge: In the distant space-faring future, there should NOT be references to a current "America", "Romania", or "Australia" (*especially* not in the aliens-verse, where Australia-the-continent was completely nuked, and Australia-the-government didn't survive the process). There should NOT be a Dutch-American immigrant on board with English so broken that she says things like "Dat's all dere is toot" (a direct quote, I swear, and roughly translating to "That's all there is to it," in case the context isn't clear). And while I'm the biggest Monty Python fan you can hope to find, you should NOT blatantly shoe-horn in Monty Python jokes into your sci-fi book ("What is the capital of Assyria? The correct answer is 'I don't know that', followed by a scream." I swear this is another direct quote from this novel.), and you *especially* shouldn't shoe-horn in the same joke TWICE, just in case the reader didn't notice your immense cleverness the first time around. And if you have a hobby like, oh, historic ships, or quilting, or chainsaw juggling, it shouldn't take up so much of the book that it completely obscures the main plot and indeed the actual REAL items of interest (i.e. the aliens) aren't even seen until well into the second half of the book.

The "About the Author" note also indicates that when Carey isn't mangling the aliens series, she churns out Star Trek novels by the dozens apparently and while this further confirms my theory that the sci-fi franchises I love must all be in the hands of gibbering lunatics and middle management, I will admit that I can kind-of-sort-of see some of this working for a Star Trek novel. Star Trek is a backwards-gazing science fiction universe, partly because it's a series that deals with the evolution of the human spirit over history, but mostly because TV sets are expensive and every set piece from the 'ancient' 20th century means that the week's episode made it in on-time and under-budget. A movie like "Aliens", however, is a *completely* different world and thematic style, and assuming that a successful Star Trek sci-fi writer will automatically be a good Aliens sci-fi writer is like saying that a Dragonball Z writer could churn out the plot of "Nausicaa" in a given afternoon - being in the same overall genre doesn't mean that the two have ANYTHING in common.

To bring this tirade to an end and sum it all up in a pithy one-line: Authors should not muck up established book franchises in order to indulge their personal and irrelevant hobbies.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Choose the Sex of Your Baby

Choose the Sex of Your BabyChoose the Sex of Your Baby
by Hazel Phillips

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Choose the Sex of Your Baby / 978-0-7475-3313-9

The crux of this book boils down to the theory that there are girl-making sperm (XS here, for short) and boy-making sperm (YS) and that the XS are built for endurance whereas the YS are built for speed. So, therefore, if you want to choose the sex of your baby, you should game the system in favor towards the sperm you want. This 'gaming' of the system takes place in several rudimentary ways, but most notably:

1. Timing of intercourse to favor XS (before ovulation) or YS (on or after ovulation).
2. Changing total sperm count (down for XS, up for YS) via temperature control (heat decreases count, cold increases count).

Unfortunately, that's pretty much the entirety of the book's content. The rest of the ~200 pages are taken up with one or more of the following:

a. Anecdotal evidence, often coupled with glowing letters of praise for Ms. Phillips.
b. Questionable science, which can forgiven because this is a very old book - a reprint of an old book, to be exact - but that doesn't make it particularly helpful for the here and now.
c. Exhortations to carefully plan family size and to not get too depressed if the timing method doesn't yield the desired results.

I am disappointed in this book largely because I really don't care to wade through over 100 pages of letters with anecdotal evidence - I'd prefer a smaller book if Ms. Phillips really doesn't have much more to say on her theory. She admits to knowing almost nothing in terms of the science behind her theory - just that it 'makes sense' - and she has only personally used her method once herself, so the anecdotal evidence from friends, family, and people who wrote in from reading the book is pretty much all she has to hang her hat on. Unfortunately, anecdotal letter evidence is a poor indicator of success, as any first-year psychology student could tell you, because it's a self-selected group - for every one person who wrote in happily, there could have been ten people for whom the method didn't work who didn't bother to write in because it wasn't worth their time and effort.

Once you strip away all the letters and anecdotal evidence, you're left with the fairly short theory outlined above. To be fair, Ms. Phillips does go a little farther into detail, including ovulation charts and examples of good XS/YS days, but I was hoping for a more fleshed out theory than was provided. If the timing method works perfectly, then I suppose there is no point in asking for more theories or details, but at the same time, it is reasonable that the couple might want to maximize their chances as much as possible. Why no serious discussion, then, of diet and the changes it might have on sperm count in the man or acidity levels in the woman? Ms. Phillips barely touches on a potential diet for the woman (Calcium and Magnesium for girl babies, Sodium and Potassium for boy babies), but the section is less than two pages long and feels very shallow. Because this is an older book, she also touches on the subject of douching and while she does recommend against it, she fails to note that douching can be dangerous because it removes beneficial bacteria. I don't really fault the book for this omission, but I did want to mention it here as many gender-choosing books mention douches without mentioning the dangerous side-effects.

In sum, this book is something of a one-trick pony and while the timing method may very well work perfectly, it would be preferable, in my opinion, to include a touch of actual science instead of reams of self-selected anecdotes. As is, most of this information can be found online at this point, so I really wouldn't recommend spending your money on this book - check it out at the library, if you must.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: DNA War (Aliens, Book 11)

Aliens: DNA War (Aliens (Dark Horse))DNA War (Aliens, Book 11)
by Diane Carey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Aliens Novels: Book 11, DNA War / 978-1-59582-032-7

In my review for "Original Sin", I noted that all its predecessors in the aliens series have relied on one of two overused plots points to drive the story - either (1) mad scientist experiment gone wrong or (2) military cannon fodder stomping into a nest to retrieve a MacGuffin - and I congratulated "Original Sin" for being a bright and shining exception to this rule by providing an original plot line. Unfortunately, "DNA War" falls back on old habits, returning us to a tired mad scientist plot line for something like the eight time now, with the only 'innovative' additions being a complete disregard for established alien canon and a narrative style that seems better suited to a B-movie hard luck detective.

The complete disregard for the previous aliens books is disconcerting - aliens are now a mysterious and largely unknown threat, as opposed to those-buggers-who-nearly-wiped-out-humanity for which every schoolchild has at least a passing knowledge and a healthy respect. Possibly the author-imposed cluelessness is supposed to forestall the inevitable "why are the protagonists being such idiots?" question as the moronic crew stumble about blindly getting into danger, but author Carey can't figure out how much she wants to commit to the widespread amnesia. For example, the crew seem vaguely aware of the chest-bursting aspect of alien births, and they are also aware of the existence of aliens on the planet, but when confronted with a large number of human corpses with exploded rib cages, they wonder loudly and at great length whether the scientists 'went crazy' and murdered each other. So if the break from canon was done to forestall the crew from looking like idiots, we're looking at a pretty epic failure in that regard.

While we're on the subject of non-canon, now is really not the time in the series to introduce flying face-huggers, let alone to claim that alien warriors travel by curling into a ball and rolling about the countryside like a particularly deadly cheese wheel. The point at which hordes of aliens combined into a giant 'death ball' to roll over the countryside was the point at which I felt that we had not merely abandoned realism, but had actively tied it up and tossed it over a cliff. Carey has also heard just enough chemistry to be dangerous and has decided that the incredibly dangerous alien acid can be instantly neutralized by any old "can of base" that might be lying around. (This isn't the only soft-science to be had - the marine ship also carries a crew of genocidal robots programmed to wipe a planet clean of any creature whose DNA isn't native to the planet, a weak plot device to construe the robots as being just as much a danger to the humans as to the aliens.)

While I'm not ignorant of the fact that with a novel franchise, the author du jour may not have a massive amount of control over, say, the fact that the cookie-cutter plot has been massively overdone already or the alien details are incredibly stupid, the one thing the author does have control over is the quality of writing. Here is where "DNA War" really disappoints - fundamentally, Carey just does not seem able to write well, even to the point of basic sentence construction. Her subjects and verbs don't merely fail to agree, they're actively locked into a vicious custody dispute over the objects and prepositions. And while it's not uncommon for the characters in an aliens novel to be pulled from the science fiction horror stereotypes bag, Carey's characters are so over-stereotyped that I'd suspect a clever and subversive parody if the rest of the writing was good enough to support such a charitable interpretation.

To wit, the plot revolves around a tough, rugged, manly, wiry, B-movie detective stereotype heading to a planet infested with aliens in order to retrieve his mother who is oh-so-subtly-named 'Jocasta'. But it's okay, because he doesn't *really* have an Oedipus complex - his obsession with his mother is one of love AND hate rather than just love. Author Carey subscribes to what I call the "Jim Butcher school of writing", and thus protagonist Rory can't help but break the narrative constantly to look directly at the reader and remind us how tough, awesome, scrappy, and unbelievably cool he is. He's a man's man, who doesn't play by the rules, and he isn't above such 'clever' narration as "The idea was to bring him to justice. Instead, I cut his arms off and let him bleed to death. Oops."

Anyway, Jocasta and her gang of scrappy scientists have come out to this planet to observe the aliens. They've been here for awhile, although Carey can't decide quite how long - for instance, she says that the aliens were discovered on the planet three years ago and that's when Jocasta's team was dispatched. However, it takes about a year and a half to travel to the planet, so apparently Jocasta was sent off and about the time she ARRIVED at the planet, the mission was declared overdue and a rescue team was sent off the next day. Whatever, the point is: son Rory has a court order telling the scientists to stop their research and clear out and, faced with a court order and several marines with very large guns, the scientists naturally decide to sit down and have incredibly long-winded discussions about the morality of exterminating aliens. It's all riveting stuff, particularly with Jocasta strutting around cackling loudly and wearing a shirt saying "I am an evil, murdering psychopath". Before stuff can hit the fan, a local alien war breaks out, the practical upshot of which is that the aliens won't kill or impregnate the humans until after the alien war is settled and to the victor will go the spoils, allowing the humans to walk unmolested amongst the aliens at critical points in the storyline. And if that little twist strikes you as so remarkably coincidental as to put the most blatant Deus Ex Machina to shame, you're not the only one.

Despite the incredibly bad plot and cringe worthy writing, "DNA War" does manage to be slightly entertaining at times, at least more so than the snore-fest "Music of the Spears", which I still consider to be the worst of the aliens series so far. But I simply don't recommend "DNA War" - only the most die-hard fans will be willing to wade through the terrible writing, but the die-hard fans are the ones who will be most offended by the exchange of alien canon for silly gimmicks.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with ChildrenThe Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children
by Keith McGowan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children / 978-0-8050-8668-3

I love redone fairy tales of all kinds, from the whimsical to the dark, and I love children's books in general, so this book seemed like a no-brainer for me. Unfortunately, however, I simply did not enjoy reading this book, though I cannot say for certain whether a much younger audience might find the novel more palatable.

"The Witch's Guide" carries with it a strong whiff of the amateur about it. Author McGowan seems to be aware of the wildly popular "A Series of Unfortunate Events" series, and it feels like he is attempting to recreate the dry, direct narrative that marks that series so uniquely and indelibly. There is a world of difference however, in a direct narrator who is distanced and sympathetic, and direct narrator who is immediate and antagonistic (i.e., the witch). The directness of the narrator in SoUE creates a gulf of time, loneliness, and isolation between the reader and the orphans. The directness of the narrator in TWGtCwC merely seems to serve as an expository device to keep the story chugging along.

Fairy tale re-tellings should not, as a general rule, have self-awareness of the tale they are supposedly re-telling. There are exceptions to this rule, but by and large it is a fourth wall that the author really should not break. Having the 'father' (who is actually not the father in an incredibly convoluted sequence of identity theft that seems only necessary to validate why a 'father' would abandon his children...thereby completely undermining all the insistence in the opening paragraphs that real parents give up their children to be eaten all the time) and the 'mother' turn out to somehow be the great-great-great-grandchildren of the "real" father and mother (er, step-mother) of Hansel and Gretel is silly and unnecessary. I understand that McGowan is trying to affix his story in the 'real' world, but the point at which one can find Hansel and Gretel on Ancestry dot com is the point at which I've lost all interest because the issue creates more questions than it can possibly answer.

I say that "The Witch's Guide" feels amateurish because it seems to feverishly blunder about with no clear indication of where it wants to go. Details are strewn randomly about, some having minor plot relevance (Sol's failed invention ends up being plot relevant...sort of) and others apparently having to do with characterization but never really going anywhere. McGowan provides a sympathetic adult foil to the witch, but hamstrings her with some half-baked explanation of a curse, all of which fails to resolve into anything plot relevant - she doesn't help the children, nor does the apparent resolution of her curse have any significance.

About the time McGowan figures out that the witch can't handle a world-wide operation like this on her own, he shoehorns in another expositionary diary entry explaining how she has a number of goblin helpers just...because... and most of them are librarians or teachers. None of which makes much sense, because the conceit of a goblin librarian handing over a child to be eaten undermines the earlier insistence that the witch only accepts children through "the proper channels", i.e. their parents. You'd think a parent evil enough to toss their child to a witch to be eaten would be capable of just dropping the kid at the house for a 'piano lesson' or other contrived reason, rather than needing a librarian intermediary.

All in all, "The Witch's Guide" just feels rushed and unpolished. I think some time with a good editor might have made the plot more readable, but it seems from the foreword that the editor was so taken away with the idea that she apparently wouldn't let anyone touch her new 'baby' with the necessary red editing pen. Children may find this book novel and distracting, but it's a very quick read and lacks the staying power to be worth the price. I'd recommend waiting for a library copy.

Final note to parents, there is some lightly risque humor where Connie gets drugged on magical herbs; this scene culminates in her "pretend[ing] to be a dog peeing" and "acting like a dog on all fours, she sniffed near Swift's behind".

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Weetamoo, Heart of the Pocassets

Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts, 1653 (The Royal Diaries)Weetamoo, Heart of the Pocassets
by Patricia Clark Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Weetamoo, Heart of the Pocassets / 0-439-12910-9

It's incredibly refreshing, after so many Royal Diaries, to be treated to a view of a culture that sees nothing unusual about a female ruler. It is further refreshing to catch glimpses of a culture that strongly values instilling virtue and wisdom in their young future rulers, as well as a strong respect for the land and animals whose survival they depend upon.

Although Weetamoo is caught between a world of change as the European immigrants continue to encroach on their lands and ruin their farms and grazing areas, this book does not focus exclusively on the tensions between the natives and immigrants, for which I am grateful. Instead, the book attempts to convey a faithful rendition of Weetamoo's childhood and coming-of-age, as she seeks to grow up and become a wise leader for her people. There is a fine and believable balance between childish attempts to prove herself and mature reflections on the nature of growing up and the life around her. Weetamoo does struggle with the new cultural challenges she faces - is it possible to use the immigrants' iron cooking pots and alphabet and still remain truly Pocasset? Or would the use of these tools compromise her cultural integrity? For that matter, she wonders, would the widespread use of such tools weaken her people, with an alphabet that no longer demands fine memories and shared storytelling? Weetamoo does not know the answer.

Not that all the immigrants seem to be trouble. Weetamoo meets an immigrant woman who kindly shares a sprig of lavender with the 'little savage' and Weetamoo returns the favor by showing her which plants will keep mosquitoes away. This and other exchanges reinforce Weetamoo's confusion - clearly, there is no right answer for how to deal with the immigrants as they are just as much a collection of individuals as the natives are.

I think what I liked best about "Weetamoo" is that the adults are wise enough to treat the young princes and princesses with increasing levels of respect and responsibility, rather than just keeping them in the shadows until the old ruler drops dead one day, and then expecting the new ruler to come up to speed in an hour, a method the elaborate European kingdoms seemed so keen on, leading to tragedy a la "Marie Antoinette" more often than not. Perhaps there's something about keeping the ruler so close to the land and the people, where a major mistake makes starvation and death intimately imminent that keeps a people sensible in how to raise rulers. Or perhaps not. Either way, this cultural glimpse into our native history is welcome and a wonderful read for both adults and children.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Sondok, Princess of the Moon and Stars

Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595 (The Royal Diaries)Sondok, Princess of the Moon and Stars
by Sheri Holman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sondak, Princess of the Moon / 0-439-16586-5

Possibly more than any other girl in the Royal Diary series, Sondok has to struggle daily with the sexism inherent in her culture and the culture around her. Although her father has named her his heir (in the absence of any male children), many of the surrounding countries are horrified at the notion and vow war and disaster should a woman ascend the throne. And Sondok's own father seems frustratingly ambivalent in his decision - valuing her for her wisdom one moment, then forbidding her from learning anything beyond "women's pursuits" in the next.

In this regard, Sondok's father is weak and remarkably frustrating. When a foreign ambassador arrives from China, Sondok's father goes widely overboard in an attempt to court the powerful kingdom for an alliance and allows the ambassador almost complete control of the kingdom. Sondok is forbidden to pursue her love of astronomy (a strictly male discipline), her best friend is sentenced to death for choosing the life of a monk over that of a courtier, and her loving and loyal mother is banished for failing to provide a male heir. When the ambitious ambassador is finally revealed as being far more trouble than he is worth, Sondok's father realizes the error of his ways too late - too late to recall his wonderful wife, too late to restore some of Sondok's innocence and trust.

If I have one criticism of this excellent book, it is that I wish it had gone a few steps farther. Though Sondok does come to realize to trust herself and stop trying to please those who will never accept her anyway, because of her gender, she still laments the leaving of the cruel ambassador because she had 'learned so much' from him, whereas I felt that the only thing left to learn from him was self loathing and doubt.

Parents should note that this book involves a certain amount of magic, in the form of starry visions, and feverish dancing rituals in which a god speaks through the form of a shaman priestess.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Love Thy Neighbor

Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Greenmarsh, Massachusetts, 1774 (Dear America)Love Thy Neighbor
by Ann Turner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love Thy Neighbor / 0-439-15308-5

When I saw that "Love Thy Neighbor" was out of print, I was a little concerned that the writing quality might not be as high as usual for the Dear America series, but it seems that I need not have worried. Indeed, if there is a reason for the book being out of print now, I suspect it is because most Americans would prefer to hear about the Patriot side of the revolutionary war rather than the Tory side. But "Love Thy Neighbor" is less concerned with presenting the Tory case and more concerned with questioning whether friends and neighbors can't still get along, even in the face of major ideological differences.

Modern readers will probably be shocked and surprised to read about the open hostility that Prudence and her fictional Tory family suffer as tensions mount towards the American Revolutionary War. After all, most of us in recent memory can recall disagreeing with a family member or neighbor about, say, the current war in Iraq, without having to then worry that someone is going to drop by the house later that evening to pour hot tar over dad and roll him in feathers. And yet when Prudence and her family continue to be loyal to the king of England, this is precisely what they do fear will happen, even to the point of having to leave their family home to emigrate to a safer area.

Perhaps some of this fervor can be accredited to the fact that these people tended to be more personally affected by war - all or most of the men in the family would go off to fight and die, the livestock and farms would fall into disrepair, and lives would be disrupted for years to come. Something like that could explain why people took so personally, to a violent degree, these differences in loyalties and opinions. And yet, one could just as easily expect a stronger degree of sympathy, knowing that neighborly love might just be one of the few things that might endure this crisis - and, to be fair, a small number of the characters in this book do realize that. Prudence's mother continues to provide her skills as a midwife to most anyone who needs her; a young boy at school sticks up for the Tories because he detests unfairness.

In some ways, I think this novel could be considered one of the most important in the Dear America series, because it provides a unique and sympathetic outlook from the 'wrong' side - the side that would have preferred we remain a loyal colony of Britain. It is good to read a differing opinion from what we are commonly fed as children in the history books and to realize that even if we disagree, we can respect each other.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Matamba

Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595 (The Royal Diaries)Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Matamba
by Patricia C. McKissack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nzingha, Warrior Queen / 0-439-11210-9

The only thing frustrating about the Royal Diary and Dear America series is that most of the books are still only available in hardcover... and at a hardcover price. "Nzingha" is definitely a good addition to the Royal Diary series, but at approximately 90 pages for the entire novel, it feels almost criminally short. Of course, this tends to happen most with the novels constructed for historical figures whose childhood details are largely lost to history, but it still feels like some fleshing out could have been accomplished here and there.

Although "Nzingha" is short, it is definitely a worthwhile, entertaining, and educational read. Nzingha is a royal princess in a country where women are no longer allowed to rule, but her bravery, courage, wisdom, and skill all so surpass that of her brother that her people cannot help but take note of this strong princess in such troubled times. As the Portuguese continue to press forward from their shores, Nzingha struggles with the best way to study and confront her enemy. She receives schooling from a captured Portuguese priest, by the order of her father, but she remains deeply concerned that what the priest might have to teach them might change the makeup of their society, and not necessarily for the better.

I recommend "Nzingha" as a worthwhile read, but it may be more worth your money to try to find it at a library rather than to buy it outright.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Original Sin (Aliens, Book 10)

Aliens: Original SinOriginal Sin (Aliens, Book 10)
by Michael Jan Friedman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aliens Novels: Book 10, Original Sin / 1-59582-015-9

In my review of "Berserker", I lamented the fact that none of the aliens novels so far have strayed from the two basic plot lines of (1) mad scientist lets experiments get out of hand and (2) trained troops infiltrate hive in search of MacGuffin. I noted that in both these cases, it's difficult to sympathize with the victims because no matter how likable they are, they really should have known better than to muck with aliens. I've actually, in fact, been pretty surprised that none of the novels so far have taken place from an "innocent colony infiltrated by unexpected alien/egg" perspective, which would seem to practically write itself. Fortunately, along comes "Original Sin" to answer my request and in a thoroughly original and compelling manner.

"Original Sin" is the first of the aliens novels to key directly off of the film series, and it does so by following the survivors of "Alien Resurrection". Now, I liked the "Alien Resurrection" movie far more than most (although I did not think highly of the novelization of the same), but I would be the first to note that some of the characters in the film were not fleshed out thoroughly beyond basic, familiar stereotypes. Freidman has addressed that particular problem right out of the gate and wastes no time fleshing out the characters and motivations of the survivors, all against a backdrop of interesting action and constant narrative movement.

This deserves a mention: "Original Sin" is one of the best written aliens novels from a perspective of exposition-versus-action. Friedman seems to instinctively understand how to start with a bang, where to insert quick characterization within the action, and when to pull back the throttle slightly and feed a little more exposition to the reader. And after over thirteen of these novels (nine novels and four film novelizations), I deeply appreciate this talent.

The motivations of the survivors are elegantly simple - Ripley and Call are driven to protect humans and eradicate aliens; the rest of them are simply hoping that an eradication of the alien race will allow them to sleep well again at night. In order to provide a more deadly antagonist, Friedman has invented a shadowy organization (a bit more subtle than the usual W/Y setup) intent on growing and utilizing the aliens for their own nefarious ends. How much the reader will go along with this will depend, I think, on how much you need the aliens novels to fit a canon, but again, after thirteen of these novels, the series seems badly in need of 'mixing it up' a bit. Similarly, the alien species in "Original Sin" have been genetically tampered with, largely to provide a bigger challenge to Ripley/Eight.

Despite its unorthodox plot elements, I regard "Original Sin" as one of the best in the series.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: The Child Thief

The Child ThiefThe Child Thief
by Brom

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Child Thief / 978-0-061-67133-3

I usually save the 'parental warnings' in my reviews until the end, but "The Child Thief", as compelling and fascinating as it is, nonetheless requires some upfront warnings. If you are thinking of buying this novel for a child, perhaps on the grounds that it is a Peter Pan story and therefore child-friendly, be warned that this is an incredibly dark and violent novel. I'm not exaggerating when I say that nine out of every ten pages contains a depiction of rape, child molestation, violence, murder, torture, or several instances of the F-word. I certainly wouldn't say that no child or teenager on earth would be able to appreciate this novel, but I do strongly advise that you read this book yourself, beforehand, to determine whether this level of violence will be disturbing to the intended recipient.

With that out of the way, let me say that I am quick to condemn books that rely on violence, sex, and profanity in an attempt to divert the reader's attention from the fact that there is no actual plot. "The Child Thief" is not one such novel - every incidence of violence within this novel acts in service to the plot, and the end result is an incredibly compelling story that is both a re-imagining of the classic Peter Pan tale, but also remarkably true to the original in many of the details (lest we forget that Barrie's version contained quite a bit of death and murder behind the scenes).

"The Child Thief" is already being compared to novels like Maguire's "Wicked", but the comparison is somewhat flimsy to my mind. Where Maguire took an evil character and re-imagined her as good (or at least 'misunderstood'), Brom has taken a traditionally good character and re-imagined him not as 'evil', but rather as 'complex'. Although Peter Pan is still an enigmatic mystery, as always, Brom has brought a humanity and complexity to the character that will haunt any reader.

Brom has taken the premise that Peter Pan steals children away to Neverland and has expanded the concept to fit within our dark reality. Here, Peter Pan does not steal away babies who fall out of their prams - he steals away children who are victims of abuse, neglect, molestation, and all the other such evils of our world that children should never have to endure. But the Neverland that Peter promises to lead these victimized children to is not an escape in the classic sense - it is supremely dangerous, and no longer in the exciting "but-we-always-escape-in-the-end" kind of danger that the Disneyesque Neverland fostered. The neglected children (here "Devils" instead of "Lost Boys", since girls are just as welcome here) are given a family and an emotionally safe haven, but every moment of their days are spent in training, in the hopes that once they leave the confines of their home they will not die immediately in this hostile world.

Along with the native monsters of Neverland, the pirates and the Captain are here, transformed by the magic of Neverland into monstrous perversions of humanity, yet Brom does not merely rely on a good-versus-evil trite tale, and here is what sets "The Child Thief" apart from the usual "re-imagining a classic character" stories. Every person and entity in "The Child Thief" is a complex character, full of good and evil impulses. The pirates capture, torture, and murder the lost children, yes, but they genuinely do not wish to be in Neverland and hope that their efforts will lead them to an escape of some kind. Peter does rescue lost and frightened children, and most of them are abjectly grateful for it, but he is recruiting children with lies and trickery to serve as cannon fodder for a war that has waged hundreds of years. There is no doubt that Peter loves the children he recruits, yet his love for them does not stop him from using them until their deaths.

Brom has woven a masterful tale here, with both the real world and the Neverland/Albion world realistically rendered, with both the good and the bad. There is not a single character in this novel which could be described as flat or two-dimensional; even the most minor and ancillary characters are vivid, complex, and contain their own unique mix of perspectives and motivations. I would label "The Child Thief" as a masterpiece for this careful characterization alone, but it is worth repeating, again, that this novel is probably the definition of a morally ambiguous novel and I don't think everyone will derive the same enjoyment out of it. For that reason, if I had to compare "The Child Thief" to another contemporary novel, I would compare it to Pullman's "His Dark Materials Trilogy", for I was equally entranced with Pullman's ability to bring moral complexity to his fictional universe, and with his ability to humanize two child-murdering villains as nevertheless loving parents, in spite of their monstrous evil.

In summary, I would deeply recommend "The Child Thief" to anyone who enjoys morally ambiguous tales with complex, three-dimensional characters. If you won't be offended by the incredibly violent and profane nature of the writing, and if you won't be upset by the characterization of a beloved childhood story character as something much less perfect and much more human, then "The Child Thief" is definitely worth looking into.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: The Midnight Charter

The Midnight CharterThe Midnight Charter
by David Whitley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Midnight Charter / 978-1-596-43381-6

Possibly the most intriguing thing about "Midnight Charter" is the city setting itself. The city of Agora is a closed world, with tall walls preventing any entry or exit to the outside world. Within the city, there is no money - only an elaborate barter system where everything is available for trade, including the emotions of the poor and desperate. The system is, however, inherently unstable - how does one hoard wealth and power in a barter-based economy (particularly one that doesn't seem to have non-perishable food goods)? The paintings that one invests in today may be worthless tomorrow with the changing of the fashions; the perfumes that one bought in bulk yesterday may spoil in the heat and become rancid.

Inside this world, two orphans struggle to make their way - Mark, by working within the system in an attempt to survive and thrive, and Lily, by working subversively against the system with a revolutionary alms-house in which the poor and desperate may eat food for *free*, a radical and possibly illegal idea.

Whitley is an intelligent author and regards his readers as such. The world-building occurs at a pleasant pace, without obscuring the story or placing it on hold. Plot twists are revealed in a sensible manner, without overdone build-up or silly, contrived coincidences to propel the plot. I particularly enjoy Whitley's clever use of names ("Agora" for a city afraid of the outside world, "Laud" for a character whose living is made praising his clients, "Lily" and "Lilith" as two very different names for a complex character, and so forth) as well as his remarkable restraint and subtlety in never, ever pointing out how clever his names are.

The only thing that displeased me about "Midnight Charter" is the lack of resolution, or at least the manner of the ending chapters. While I may not be pleased to be left hanging for an obvious attempt at a sequel, I recognize that every series must have a first installment, and I don't hold that against the book. Rather, I was frustrated with the somewhat rushed feel of the final chapters, with an expositionary "please-explain-what-all-has-been-happening" extended scene lifted right out of "The Matrix Reloaded" a la 'The Architect' and a final page that almost screams for a movie tie-in, with the perfect zooming out to the credits as the heroes gaze about their surroundings in awe and bewilderment. I deeply dislike "Here is your choice" set-ups in books and movies where the protagonists simply accept the simplistic framing handed to them without at least considering alternatives. Having said all that, these complaints are extremely minor, and I will definitely be procuring the sequel just as soon as it gets written.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion

The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion: A Week-by-Week Guide to Everything You Need To Do for a Healthy PregnancyThe Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion
by Robin Elise Weiss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion / 978-1-592-33358-5

I've been digging through a lot of pregnancy books lately, in preparation for a hoped-for conception in the relatively near future, so I was excited to receive The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion. I was also a little overwhelmed, however - weighing in at 320 pages, this is not a book to skim through quickly and it took me a long time to finish reading it.

This book isn't really meant for sit-down reading, though. It's a week-by-week guide of your pregnancy, with each weekly chapter opening with a full page color photo of another pregnant woman at this weekly stage so that you can see what your body might likely resemble at this point. (I was pleased to note that the women are all pleasantly 'normal' looking - perhaps pregnancy books are the last vestige against needing to airbrush everyone into anorexic states.) The weekly chapter includes all kinds of data, accompanied by bright and gorgeous photographs, detailing what the baby looks like so far, what development hurdles it has passed, what symptoms you are likely to be feeling, what exercises and preparations are a good idea at this point (one of the weeks immediately prior to delivery advises loading up the MP3 player with tunes to listen to in the hospital, and trying to generally relax and not stress too much), and much more.

Some people have compared this book to a "coffee table book", albeit an exquisitely beautiful, informative, and extensive coffee table book, and I can see where they're coming from with that opinion. This book isn't as perfectly comprehensive as some "complete" pregnancy books, tending to speak in generalities as opposed to "here is everything that anyone has ever experienced and it may happen to you" subject matter material that definitely has its place in pregnancy literature. And the week-by-week layout obviously conflicts with a subject-matter oriented layout that allows you to find out everything about, say, morning sickness from the first week to the last. I think that's probably why the book was finally labeled a "companion" - this won't be your one-stop source for all things pregnancy related, but as a daily resource (not unlike a journal), it's invaluable. And since most women rarely stop at just one book for pregnancy, it's okay that this book does one thing well instead of all things broadly. Topping out at over 300 pages, as mentioned previously, this is not a light-weight introduction to pregnancy and it's definitely a book that I will consult frequently and repeatedly when the time comes, which is more than I can probably say for some of the more "comprehensive subject matter" books which tend to be of less use for daily application.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Berserker (Aliens, Book 9)

Berserker (Aliens)Berserker (Aliens, Book 9)
by Paul Mendoza

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aliens Novels: Book 9, Berserker / 0-553-57731-X

At some point during "Berserker", I realized that I've now read nine aliens novels as well as the four film novelizations, and I've still yet to read an account involving an isolated colony or ship having to suddenly deal with an unexpected infestation in their midst (indeed, this was really my only complaint with "Aliens", that we weren't treated to knowing what, exactly, had happened to the colony during those missing days).

This seemingly small point is, in my opinion, an insight into the deep flaws in the aliens novel series as a whole. Nearly every single novel so far has followed one of two plot lines: (1) a mad scientist is experimenting on aliens when things go inevitably sour and all the janitors and lower-level scientists have to clear out in a hurry, or (2) a group of fighters heads into an alien nest or infestation to exterminate them or retrieve a MacGuffin. While these are by no means bad plot lines, what this means from a practical reader's perspective is that when the blood inevitably starts flying, it's hard to feel too sorry for the blokes getting slaughtered because, really, they should have known better than to muck around with aliens. In other words, we have no true victims, undeserving of their fate.

The other problem with these limited two plot lines, of course, is that the authors have to increasingly stretch for new reasons as to why anyone would keep going into these nests to be slaughtered after it has been proven, time and again, how deadly this species is (and this problem also feeds into the "had it coming" issue because, really, any other species would have learned its lesson by now).

Perry has attempted to handle this problem by constructing a reality in which the occasional alien infestation is just a matter of life and the W/Y company has put together crack pest control teams that can be dispatched to clean out infestations as they pop up. So it's sort of like working for Orkin, except the on-the-job fatality is pretty darned high. You'd have to be pretty stupid or pretty desperate to take a job like this, so the crack teams are composed of convicts and felons who are motivated by a one-to-one ratio of nests cleaned to years left to serve.

This doesn't really solve the problem, though. Ignoring the fact that an outraged public probably wouldn't be too happy with Charles Manson exchanging 40 years for 40 alien raids, and skimming over the fact that this isn't exactly social rehabilitation, we are still left with the issue of why the team doesn't just quit when a routine situation rapidly turns suicidal for shady Company reasons. And even assuming they can't quit (which Perry stresses that they can), they're convicts on a freighter with a crew of six and no guards or guns. So the characters come off as particularly thick when they know that they're headed into a highly unusual suicide mission and they have no motivation to continue, and yet they continue anyway.

Having said all that, this isn't a bad aliens book. The plot premise is thin, but less thin than many of its predecessors. The middle of the book is, in fact, quite solid - it's just the beginning and ending that bother me. Perry seems to have trouble characterizing the people in her stories and spends the first few chapters rushing over uninteresting character details. She seems aware of this, but her solution is to just hurry through and get it over with as fast as possible. Once everyone is properly fleshed out into two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, the story settles down and things go relatively smoothly. The Beserker team is an interesting idea, particularly the part with the "bait", but the whole man-in-the-suit premise doesn't work well in a world with synthetics and seems like a gimmick to just make the Company as evil as possible for no real reason. This is the major problem, in fact, with the ending - resolution is tossed away in favor of an anti-industrial subtext that just comes off cheaply.

All in all, if you're planning to read all the aliens novels, this is by no means one of the worst. It's an interesting read and a good take on the aliens universe, even if I continue to be disappointed in my search for a plot line where the aliens come to the humans, instead of the ham-handed vice versa. But if you're getting tired of the series, or planning to start new with this installation, your socks probably won't be blown off.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Liar

by Justine Larbalestier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Liar / 978-1-599-90305-7

It is a rare and marvelous thing to find a book like "Liar", dominated by an intriguingly unreliable narrator, obsessively lying her way through the story of her life. "Liar" starts out gently, lulling us into complacency. Narrator Micah confesses to us the lies she has told other people, but assures us that she does not lie to the reader. And, after a time, it's tempting to believe her. Her lies to other people are daring and outrageous (that she is really a boy, or that she is a hermaphrodite), but the story she tells us seems genuine and truthful. Her secret 'after-hours' boyfriend has died and everyone at the school is struggling to cope. Micah is struggling most of all because she has trouble dealing with the problem of missing someone with whom she didn't have a structured boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

Somewhere around the half-way mark, Micah starts confessing to a few minor lies she has told the reader during her narration. She confesses ashamedly, guiltily, and tells the truth, the real truth, and why she told those little lies along the way. As the reader, our hearts melt and we forgive her lies, only to be taken in again, and again. What is truth and what is a lie? We realize that we know nothing of Micah's story except what she tells us - we cannot confirm that the things she labels as "truth" and as "lies" are really what she says they are. And when Micah tells her most incredible secret of all, a secret that cannot possibly be true (or can it?) we are overwhelmed by the earnest sincerity of her tone, and the lavish, realistic details that she presses onto us.

In the end, we are forced to choose between believing Micah's impossible story - a belief we WANT to have, because her story allows her to be innocent, free, truthful, and have a happy ending - or we must distrust her and assume the more logical and yet the worst possible outcome to Micah and her story. Add onto that exquisite dilemma her final confession - her lies of omission - and we realize that all the details she has omitted as "not being integral to the story" quite likely change everything about what we have read. In the end, we are tormented with the knowledge that we can never know what has happened to Micah or her friends, but the torment is a sweet one.

Hopefully having not spoiled too much, here are some more mundane details that readers will want to consider. Micah is seventeen and speaks with extreme frankness on such topics as death, bodily decay, sex, menstruation, and murder. This book contains strong language infrequently, and also a depiction of a three-person kiss involving two young women and a young man. Not everyone is going to be ready to access this material, and not everyone will be mature enough to hold onto the slippery threads of Micah's lies - a lot of this book is going to depend on the mental age of the reader, so take that into account.

I strongly recommend this book for mature readers who are seeking an intriguing thriller storyline, told by a completely untrustworthy and yet completely likable narrator. Just do be aware that there is some harsh language and material along the way, in case you prefer to avoid that sort of thing.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Daughter of Kura

Daughter of Kura: A NovelDaughter of Kura
by Debra Austin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mother of Kura / 978-1-439-11266-3

According to the dust jacket for "Daughter of Kura", author Debra Austin is an amateur writer with an avid interest in paleontology. As a result, "Daughter of Kura" is a mix of interesting paleontological ideas and factoids, a rather basic and thin-worn plot, and poor overall characterizations. As such, although this is a decent first attempt at a novel, I think the bulk of the book's happy readers will be interested due to the niche appeal of pre-history literature.

A crippling factor in the poor character development is that author Austin is deeply concerned about writing only what we 'know' about these pre-historical races. In the epilogue, for instance, she explains that she refrained from giving the characters in the book a spoken language because we don't yet know whether they had the requisite voice boxes needed in order to speak and she didn't want the novel to be rendered inaccurate due to future discoveries. This timid "but I might be wrong later" approach is a terrible way to write a novel and means that after the basic "must have" characterizations are filled in, we are given nothing else about the characters. There are literally *no* physical descriptions about any of the characters in this book except that the head-woman is old, the villain has a shaved head, and the men have varying degrees of erections when they meet with the main character (male erections are featured prominently in whether or not she feels she can trust a man).

As a general rule of thumb, when a detail might be wrong, Austin therefore gives us none. After reading this 300+ page novel, I cannot tell you whether the characters wear clothes for either warmth or decoration, whether they bathe for either sanitation or vanity, whether or not they (or others in the area) have attempted to domesticate animals or tried to create their own groves of edible plants. I can't tell you whether the characters have purely decorative items like statues or 'mirrors' made from, I don't know, reflective turtle shells or something. I can't tell you if they wear beads or jewelry or have any kind of ornaments to indicate status. I can't even say with authority how much body hair they have, although it's suggested that they are hairier than us. How much hairier? Austin doesn't know, so neither do we. The practical upshot of this is that it is next to impossible to tell all the characters apart when the only thing we know about them is their name. Is 'Whistle' the mother of 'Snap', or was it 'Warble'? Was 'Hum' the older aunt or was that 'Bubble'? What is the gender of 'Rustle' or was it 'Ripple' or am I thinking of 'Rumble'? This complete lack of characterization means that each character is forgotten as rapidly as the turn of a page.

The plot, unfortunately, is as two-dimensional as the characters. The villain shows up early and might as well be twirling a mustache for all the subtlety he presents. (Snap knows he is evil because he doesn't have an erection when he first meets her, unlike all the other men.) After about 100+ pages of hemming and hawing, he pretty much takes over the village by proclaiming that a god exists (the Kurans have been atheists up to this point) and that this god sends orders directly to him and him alone. Also, people who stand in his way to power have a tendency to fall off of cliffs while hunting alone with him. I can't tell if the fact that no one finds this suspicious except the main character is because Austin is making the old mistake that "everyone must be dumb in order to facilitate the plot" or a new mistake along the lines of "everyone must be dumb because this is a pre-historical society".

The "religion and men are bad, atheism and women are good" mentality drives most of the plot, and I would have liked it if Austin had maybe taken a moment to point out that the underlying issue isn't necessarily religion, per se, but rather an egotistical, power-tripping murderer who is using religion as a club to consolidate power, but that distinction is never made. I find it strange and odd that a society that is surprisingly rigid and structured under the circumstances (for example, Whistle's mother is absolutely furious when Whistle breaks the rules and doesn't pick a mate at the yearly Bonding ceremony because her usual mate is a few days late to return in a world without clocks or GPS devices) would suddenly turn a complete about-face and change every one of their customs and practices on the say so of a complete stranger. I find it irksome that no one notices that people have a tendency to accidentally die when they are alone with the villain, as if they are all such innocent children of nature that the concept of murder is completely foreign to them. For that matter, it seems particularly odd that none of them have ever heard of religion or gods until the stranger shows up (where are the rudimentary thunder-gods and volcano-gods?) and it is doubly odd that the first god they come up with feels suspiciously close to a personal Christian god, given that they are always asking for close personal favors from this 'Great One'. I'm not an avid paleontological enthusiast, but I'm pretty sure that religion generally doesn't usually evolve from "atheism" to "loving spirit who loves you" in one generational leap.

If you're an avid reader of pre-history fiction, this book will probably grab your attention. I'm certainly willing to believe that it's one of the better ones in a niche market like this - the book has been carefully written and edited, and the plot and characters are passable if not stellar. Though I felt the plot was very predictable and the characters frustratingly dense, I didn't hate reading the book, but I probably won't read it again either. Check it out at a library first, would be my recommendation.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Alien Resurrection

Alien: Resurrection - The NovelizationAlien Resurrection
by A.C. Crispin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Alien Resurrection (Film Novelization) / 0-446-60229-9

I like all four aliens movies, including "Alien Resurrection". I felt that it was an interesting expansion of the aliens universe and I particularly liked the evolution of Ripley's character as Number Eight - a woman so emotionally shell-shocked and traumatized that she shuts down emotionally and stops fearing or caring as much as she once did. While "Alien Resurrection" wasn't really the movie continuation that I might have wanted, I appreciated what the writers were trying to do, even if it wasn't always terribly sophisticated.

The film novelization breaks with tradition and is written by A.C. Crispin rather than Alan Dean Foster. If you're reading the novelizations in order, as I have, you will find the change in tone incredibly jarring, more so than even the shift in tone between the movies. Crispin's writing style contrasts badly with the crisp, clean writing of Foster. There's a heavy and frequent (almost every page) reliance on formatting tricks to take the place of actual human emotion and I would love to know the difference, between a sentence spoken in bold-face, a sentence spoken in all-CAPS, and a sentence spoken in both bold-face and all-CAPS. I half expected some sentences to end in an "!!1!", just for maximum emphasis. Lacking the grace and subtlety of the earlier novels, this one milks the facehugging scene for all it is worth, calling it blandly a "rape" and having the cyrotube victims "foul" themselves in fear. There are also multiple pages devoted to having the alien queen swim in human sewage, for no real relevant plot reason.

In doing all this, we lose all the subtlety and charm of the original series to instead go and wallow in the shocking and gross in the hopes of drumming up sales. And I realized, as I read this book, that this is the very thing that so many aliens fans have accused "Alien Resurrection" of all this time: of trading all the intelligence and psychology of the first movies for flashy effects, cheesy dialogue, and a script that seems determined to jam at least three moral lessons down our throat. To my surprise, the flawed film novelization highlighted these problems with far more glaring light than the movie ever did.

Not that the novelization does nothing right. There's a lot of inner monologue here, which is useful in a setting where Ripley is so taciturn - we can see the inner evolution of her thoughts in more detail, which is always a nice touch in a novelization. The genetic cross-over effect is explored more thoroughly here, explaining that just as Number Eight is now part-alien, so are the aliens now part-human, neatly explaining away some of the inconsistencies in alien behavior in the film. Some of the human characters are given more backstory (such as how the crew of the Betty first got together), but others criminally are not (what is Call's motivation for saving humanity, and why did she pick such a poor manner in which to do so?) considering that the backstory in such cases would be plot relevant.

In other ways, though, this novel makes me want to pull my hair out with some major inanities. Super-duper totally-Top-Secret massively-classified science experiments don't have "graduate students" working for the scientists. I mean, I know there's some kind of "all mad scientists have a graduate student interning for them" rule in science fiction, but please realize that this is probably not one of those cases. Also, when a modern scientist wants to justify a dangerous line of research, they do not wave their hands in the general direction of several hundred years ago and use the mistakes of the past to justify new mistakes in the future.

I really wanted to like this novel. I think that if it had been written by a different author, or perhaps tightened up a bit in the editing, it could have been fairly decent. But the dog-and-pony formatting tricks on every page, used to avoid having to show real human emotion (after all, you don't have to make a character believably agitated when you can just HAVE HIM TALK IN ALL CAPS), gets old after the first three pages, and the massive amount of "it just doesn't work that way" details like the government handing out high clearances to college kids for their summer internship just really jar the reader from the experience. The juvenile writing is a big problem and feels like the author thought "Fear Factor" "gross-out" details were the best way to make a compelling science fiction novel.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Alien 3

Alien 3: The NovelizationAlien 3
by Vincent Ward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alien 3 (Film Novelization) / 0-446-36216-6

I had the highest hopes for this "Alien 3" novel because I always felt that certain parts of the movie were confusing, and I hoped that this novel would clear up those points. In this respect, the book shines brightly - carefully explaining how the facehugger in the Sulaco caused the acid burn on Newt's cryo chamber, and why the electrical fire started and forced the chambers into the escape pod, an opening sequence that always left me a bit bewildered. The birth of the alien warrior is also explained more carefully than I felt it was in the movie - one of the worker animals used to recover the pod wreckage (in this case an ox, not a dog) was impregnated and the apparently lifeless corpse was dragged back to the prison's abattoir, where the alien was born in relative privacy. It is also carefully explained why Ripley didn't initially believe she was infected, how she knows the alien she is carrying is a queen when she does discover it, and why the queen doesn't emerge as quickly as the warriors do - little details that always bugged me when I'd watch the movie.

As far as overall quality, however, I have to say that the source movie is better, particularly in the area of character development. In the book, Ripley displays an unusual combination of squeamishness and vanity, refusing to shave her head until the lice problem becomes painfully manifest. That seems incredibly out of character for Ripley at this point in her life, and I'm grateful that the movie didn't belabor that point. Clemens, too, displays a strange oscillation of character, bouncing from impossibly patient and good-natured to rather pouty and belligerent for no apparent reason, and I preferred the unruffled, even calmness of the actor in the movie, which seems better suited to the situation. It's also not clear whether Clemens is still serving his sentence as a prisoner (Andrews claims he is, and the book reinforces this idea several times), or whether he is a free man who has chosen to stay on as the medical staff (as Clemens himself claims). The movie doesn't present this ambiguity and it feels less like a deliberate moral question on the status of Clemens and more like an accidental mistake in the script.

For good or ill, the Ripley in the novel takes great pains to confirm that the company does in fact want the alien alive, a point that is deliberately left vague in the movie until the final point of no return. In some ways this is good because it underscores that Ripley is an intelligent survivor who isn't the type to throw her life away based on mere hunches, but in other ways this change is bad because it strips away the anxiety that Ripley might be wrong, might be wasting her life in her final gesture. That Ripley might be wrong does not necessarily paint her as reckless so much as a woman driven by her conviction - she is willing to sacrifice her life for the certainty that the aliens are destroyed, rather than save her life and merely hope that the company will do the right thing. Of course, the movie cops out with Bishops final plea, showing us that Ripley has been right all along, but the book strips out even the possibility that Ripley might have doubts, and I'm not certain that addition is a good one.

I definitely recommend reading this novel if you are a fan of the series, particularly if you've read Foster's novelizations of the first two movies. Just be aware that there are some flaws here, but the explanation of some of the more mysterious parts of the movie make the read well worth it.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Review: Aliens

Aliens: A NovelizationAliens
by Alan Dean Foster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aliens (Film Novelization) / 0-446-30139-6

In as much as a film novelization is a fleshing out of a favorite film (not unlike the "deleted scenes" we get today in DVDs), "Aliens" is a complete success. Ripley's internal thoughts and feelings are explored in detail, and we come to understand better why she was willing to go on this mission to face her nightmares, how she felt about the marines she travels with, and her own evolving feelings of fear, determination, and protectiveness throughout the experience. The marines are presented here with more lavish care and subtlety than they sometimes receive in the movie - Foster insists on showing that there is substance underneath the movie bravado, and makes them seem more human and more competent than they appeared on film. Even the much-maligned Gorman is presented as less of an inevitable screw-up and more as a good-on-paper junior officer who freezes up tragically in a moment of extreme emotional duress, a realistic and appreciated detail. Burke, in contrast, seems to flirt with a fine line of sociopathy, and the novel character is so true to the way the actor played him, that the reader can actually hear the new novel lines delivered in the actor's voice. Nice little touches abound, such as when Burke and Gorman are kicking around possible alternative explanations for the loss of contact with the planet and Gorman expresses his hope that the colonists have just had a bout of mass religious hysteria resulting in a "collective pout".

Not that this novel is without flaws. Some of the dialogue is exceedingly hokey - I, for one, am glad that the movie's inquest scene did not contain Ripley making the pun that "Someone is covering their Ash!". Gah. Similarly, Foster's treatment of the Newt/Ripley dynamic is rather cloying, with way too much internal monologue on Ripley's part about how much to push Newt into trusting her. The movie definitely went the better route of minimalism and left much of the development between the woman and child privately unspoken. Fortunately, these flaws are rather minor and are swallowed up by the serious business of being hunted by aliens, which is superbly done.

Really, if I have a complaint about this novel, it's that there is nothing here that isn't in the movie, by which I mean that there are no "deleted scenes" here, only "extended scenes". I would have happily paid twice as much for this novel if it had included a chapter covering the missing time period between the facehugging of Newt's father and the arrival of the marines some three weeks later, but no dice - just like the movie, the novel hops entirely over that elephant in the room, which is a real shame because I suspect that the tale would be incredibly interesting. Perhaps Foster, as the novelist, wasn't allowed to add extraneous details like how the colony was taken - perhaps film novelists are forced to stick totally to the script they are given. In which case, this book is still a wonderful companion to the "Aliens" movie and I recommend it to all fans... but I still wish that it could have been more somehow.

~ Ana Mardoll

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