May 24, 2014

[Book Review] Tooth Trouble (Ready, Freddy! #1) by Abby Klein

Tooth Trouble is my first experience with both the Ready, Freddy! series and Abby Klein's work in general, and after reading the short chapter book, I'd say I'm neither really impressed nor disappointed. It's rather mediocre kidlit, I suppose; some kids and parents will love it, some won't. Shrug.

The two big complaints that I had were things most people, I expect, will hardly notice. One, the kids really enjoy YELLING SUDDENLY IN ALL CAPS, which drives me friggin' nuts. Two, various Random Things (insults, especially) were often unnecessarily capitalized for little reason. I found it quite annoying, honestly.

Other than that, I'd say the story itself is like a (lesser, honestly) male-protagonist version of Junie B. Jones. If you're one of those parents who decries Junie and her friends as foul-mouthed, aggressive, brats (and I'm not joking; I've seen quite a few surprisingly impassioned denouncements of Junie B. Jones in the past), you're gonna hate this series. Junie and her friends say some childish things to one another, but Freddy and his gang run wild with the taunting. Which, I'd like to point out to the pearl-clutchers, is how many (I'd say most) children actually speak to one another.

So if you're looking for a "first tooth" book, either because your child has lost his or her first tooth or, like Freddy, he or she is upset s/he hasn't, Tooth Trouble might be a good read for you. Alternately, if you think your child would enjoy the Junie B. Jones books, but you find yourself dealing with the "girls have cooties" response, Ready, Freddy! might be a good alternative (especially if you can use it as a stepping-stone to Junie B. Jones--and more egalitarian reading tastes--later).

As for me, I can't say I'm sorry to have been born the decade before these were published; at least with Tooth Trouble, I'm not yet getting the sense that I missed out on anything significant by not reading these as a child. But, of course, I'm certainly not going to swear off the series, and I'll likely come back to it at some point. Possibly soon, depending on what's available at my library.

And who knows? Maybe Klein will surprise me in the sequels.

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May 23, 2014

[Book Review] A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager

A copy of this book was provided free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Tale of Two Mommies is the F/F counterpart of Vanita Oelschlager's other picture book about same-sex parents, A Tale of Two Daddies. It's just as adorable as that story, showcasing a loving non-traditional relationship as seen through the eyes of their child. It's told in rhyming questions and answers, with the young son of the couple responding to two other curious children during a trip to the beach.

If you're looking for a picture book about female/female parenting couples, A Tale of Two Mommies is a fine choice. The illustrations are adorable and the story is quite simple but a great way to introduce a young child to the concept of same-sex relationships.

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May 21, 2014

[Book Review] Rayne Shines by Bonnie Ferrante

Rayne is bored with life, until a new family moves in next door. Why do they look so happy? Rayne wants to know their secret. Rayne Shines is a humorous and thought-provoking picture book for ages five to seven.

A copy of this book was provided free by the author in exchange for an honest review.

As a person who tends to fall into the "cynic" camp, I was a bit hesitant about Rayne Shines. The story follows a young frog whose family's outlook on life is always negative until she befriend a new neighbor who brings her around to positive thinking. My worry was that the story would be heavy-handed in its message, as are most of the moralistic picture books I read (I'm looking at you, Berenstain Bears); to be perfectly honest, I was expecting a simple story about a cynic who changes her ways rather easily and without much authentic character development so that the book can teach its moral.

Happily, Rayne Shines was a pleasant surprise. Instead of Rayne meeting Sunny, her neighbor, and instantly changing her mindset after a glimpse of the other girl's lifestyle, the book manages to transition Rayne and her family from negative to positive in a way that's reasonably organic and gradual, given how short the story is. Meanwhile, the "negativity versus positivity" issue is fairly well represented; instead of taking a traditional "pessimists versus optimists" angle, it manifests more as a moral of relaxing the urge to preemptive judge experiences and letting oneself have fun. I have to say, I much prefer that approach to a more straightforward and reductive "well, just look on the bright side!" story.

The only issue I have with the book is that the art style (as seen on the cover above) isn't appealing to me. Otherwise, though, Rayne Shines was a fairly entertaining way to spend a few minutes of my time; if you're looking for a picture book with a positivity moral and are interested in buying something Indie, Rayne Shines might be a good place to start.

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May 19, 2014

[Book Review] Changes for Caroline (American Girls: Caroline, #6) by Kathleen Ernst

Caroline receives a letter asking her to come and help on Uncle Aaron's new farm. Although she hates to leave her family, Caroline is pleased to see her cousin Lydia--and to meet Lydia's pretty cow and sweet baby calf! Determined to help out in any way she can, Caroline keeps watch when a thief starts sneaking around the farm. Then she makes an unexpected discovery--and learns that some things are not as simple as they seem. When Caroline returns home at last for an Independence Day celebration, she is treated to a wonderful surprise.

May 17, 2014

[Book Review] The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1) by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of the book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is Lemony Snicket's sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

May 16, 2014

[Book Review] Vampire Kisses (Vampire Kisses, #1) by Ellen Schreiber

In her small town, dubbed "Dullsville," sixteen-year-old Raven — a vampire-crazed goth-girl — is an outcast. But not for long...

The intriguing and rumored-to-be haunted mansion on top of Benson Hill has stood vacant and boarded-up for years. That is, until its mysteriously strange new occupants move in. Who are these creepy people — especially the handsome, dark, and elusive Alexander Sterling? Or rather, what are they? Could the town prattle actually ring true? Are they vampires? Raven, who secretly covets a vampire kiss, both at the risk of her own mortality and Alexander's loving trust, is dying to uncover the truth.

May 15, 2014

[Series DNF] Beast Quest

Beast Quest is a bestselling series of children's fantasy novels produced by Working Partners Ltd and written by several authors all using the house name Adam Blade. An editorial team at Working Partners first creates the storyline for each book and "then approach[es] a number of writers whose experience and style we think might suit the project and ask them to write a sample – usually the first three chapters of the book... The editorial team picks the sample with the voice that we think works best for the project."The main series had achieved 78 books published by mid-2013.
Quoth Wikipedia. And despite all the praise on The Great Wiki's Beast Quest page, this series sucks. Honestly, it's terrible. It's not the Harry Potter of high fantasy. It's not remotely "genius" in any sense of the word. And if it's really one of the most popular series in U.K. libraries, I feel truly sorry for kids in the United Kingdom. There are so many better books out there that it's a damn shame to have this tripe shilled out to young readers who could instead spend their time with Deltora Quest, The Secrets of Droon, Fairy Realm, etcetera.

Anyway, I haven't read all of dozens upon dozens of the Beast Quest books, nor do I intend to--hence the [Series DNF] up there. I've read more than enough to know that this series is not for me. Below is a list of what I managed to get through, and each of the covers is linked to the corresponding review. This DNF review is essentially a summary of those posts, but feel free to read the individual reviews if you'd like.

The series starts out on a higher point than I expected. As stated in my Ferno the Fire Dragon review, I had expected that Beast Quest would be a series about a young hero who traveled the land, slaying monsters as he went. And that's not what Beast Quest is about--well, not in those first six books, at least. Instead, the super duper special hero, Tom, and his utterly incompetent, token female sidekick, Elenna, go on a mission to save the Beasts of Avantia, six magical protectors of the fantasy kingdom of Avantia who have unfortunately been enslaved by an evil sorcerer called Malvel.

That alone should be enough to communicate that this is quite the derivative series. There is absolutely nothing new here, but as of Ferno the Fire Dragon, I certainly wasn't complaining about that. It looked like the story had potential to be a great "Baby's First Fantasy" series. And it did have that potential... but it quickly dashed it.

The following books five books were much the same. The stories weren't particularly interesting, but they still qualified as a good "starter" fantasy series--a way to introduce someone to the genre and its myriad tropes. My biggest complaint was that they were formulaic, summarizing the pattern in my Cypher the Mountain Giant review as,
Step One: During the prologue, a handful of brand-new characters are attacked by a Beast and narrowly survive. 
Step Two: Elenna and Tom reach the approximate area of the next Beast. Conveniently, they run into the survivors, who explain the hardships of the area and their encounter with the Beast. 
Step Three: Elenna and Tom start to turn around the lives of the unlucky locals, usually including the prologue's survivors; they'll likely have to deal with a quick crisis or two before they can set out to complete their main task. Why Elenna and Tom are the most competent two individuals in all of Avantia in spite of their pre-pubescent age, I couldn't tell you. 
Step Four: Elenna and Tom go to fight the Beast. Tom tends to do all of the work; Elenna either helps or is busy playing damsel in distress (and I really hope to see her get out of that rut in one of the upcoming books). 
Step Five: The Beast, now freed, gives Tom's shield a blessing of some kind, and the wizard Aduro shows up for pointless congratulations. The end.
 The original six-book series concluded with Epos the Winged Flame, and I was hopeful that the next series, Beast Quest: The Golden Armor, would step up its game, break formula, and bring something genuinely entertaining to the table.

It did not.

Zepha the Monster Squid marks the removal of the one aspect of Beast Quest that actually appealed to me: the aforementioned avoidance of the "kid kills monsters because monsters are Always Chaotic Evil" trope. The Golden Armor takes that trope and runs with it, with the next series, Beast Quest: The Dark Realm, following suit; I haven't read further, mostly because I don't expect that to change. And with this gone, my complaints came out in full force. These are omnipresent in almost every novel after Epos the Winged Flame.

The villain's actions make no sense, have no motive, and obviously happen for no reason other than to keep the story going. As I said in my Vipero the Snake Man review,
He's playing hide and seek with [Tom], scattering plot coupons across the land for Tom to find. He never cheats Tom or lies to him, and the very nature of his plan to give the Golden Armor of the Beast Master to six Beasts is defeatist. If Tom is the Master of the Beasts and has already defeated and rescued six enslaved Beasts, why the hell wouldn't Malvel know to do something a little more intelligent than to use Beasts against someone implied to be their new "Master"? [...] I can only assume that he's actively trying to help Tom. If I don't see some evil apprentice/"we can rule together" scheme come up sometime soon, I'm calling shenanigans.
His actions are so unbelievably contrived that after his first scheme in the original Beast Quest series, his motives simply don't make any sense beyond "give Tom someone to fight against". I mean, what is his goal? Is he trying to conquer Avantia? He could've done that while he had Ferno and the other Beasts under his control, but he didn't. Is he trying to destroy Avantia? The enslaved Beasts seemed to be doing a reasonably good job with that, and the artificial Beasts of The Golden Armor got in on that act, but the Beasts of The Dark Realm don't even go to Avantia. The only common themes of his plans are that A) he doesn't like the guardian Beasts, enslaving them in Beast Quest and kidnapping them in The Dark Realm and B) he doesn't like Tom, who he's antagonized and ultimately lost to all throughout the three series and three specials I read.

In short, he's a crappy villain--no motive, no accomplishments. Lame, lame, lame.

The heroes are no better: Tom's a Gary Stu, and Elenna's a useless Load. In my Tusk the Mighty Mammoth, I complained that
Tom, who's literally the only person in Avantia who is capable of doing anything. Except, of course, he's a terrible Gary Stu and a pretty huge idiot on top of that. For one thing, he gains power-ups at the end of each book... but promptly forgets about them after acquiring them, and these are generally not useful except in extremely contrived circumstances. I mean, you'd think things like "inhuman strength" would come in useful, but Tom never actually demonstrates any after supposedly gaining that power. By this point, he has six Beast tokens/gifts, a suit of magical armor that he doesn't actually have to wear to benefit from, and four magical gems--all of which have given special powers that he very rarely (maybe once or twice in a six-book series) uses. In this book, he gets a hunk of amber from Tusk that makes him a better fighter, whatever that means. Instead of using these power-ups, however, he uses the magical powers of insane luck and Invincible Hero Syndrome.
 and added in my review of Spiros the Ghost Phoenix that
Elenna, the only recurring female character [at] this point, is continuously praised for helping uber-competent Tom (seriously, he can recklessly lob a sword through the air in the direction of his own friends and family, and his aim will be magically perfect, in spite of the fact that he's a preteen and shouldn't even be able to lift a full-sized sword yet), but she never actually does anything other than get in trouble. (Faux action girl is faux!)
Seriously, Elenna drives me fucking nuts. I would like to take a moment to compare her to Deltora Quest's Jasmine, but I can hardly bare to mention these two characters in the same sentence. Jasmine is an awesome female character. She's not "the chick sidekick". She's a genuine character with a personality and a past, and she's assertive, opinionated, flawed, and extremely useful to her fellow characters. She is what Elenna should have been. Instead we got a pathetic Damsel in Distress billed as an Action Girl, which I elaborated on in my Narga the Sea Monster review:
I continue to be incredibly annoyed with Elenna. She's downright infuriating... or perhaps it's simply the way the story treats her that's infuriating. Elenna must be praised at all times. Elenna must only offer moral support and ideas. Elenna must never be genuinely helpful unless she's acting as a Deus Ex Machina. When she makes baseless assumptions, of course she's correct (though this applies to Tom, as well). When she is hurt, captured, or endangered--and it happens in damn near every book--Elenna cannot rescue herself; it is up to Tom to save her, defeat the Beast, and compliment her on her helpfulness afterward. It's fucking insane. 
 And then there are the other heroes: Aduro the wizard and the six guardian Beasts of Avantia. As I mentioned in my Tusk the Mighty Mammoth review, "the only thing [Aduro]'s really managed to do so far in these three series is get himself captured by Malvel. And as for the Beasts, I covered them in the same review with
Then there's the Beasts. They're six huge, terrifying monsters tasked with protecting Avantia from the forces that seek to harm its citizens... but they don't actually do much. In Beast Quest, they were all enslaved by Malvel and forced to attack their own people. In The Golden Armor, they managed to be a bit helpful by teaming up with Tom to destroy Malvel's magically created Beasts. In The Dark Realm, they're quickly kidnapped and imprisoned by Malvel, making Tom enter Gorgonia to rescue them. In other words, they're super great at their jobs.

All of these characters are genuinely, distressingly terrible. Comparing them to the characters of Deltora Quest--a series that's intended for the same audience and has about the same length and reading level--makes for a truly upsetting experience. Rodda's work proves that Blade's series could have been downright awesome, but it simply wasn't. It just isn't good.

But my biggest complaint is not the characters. It's not even the highly repetitive nature of the stories. It's the damn morals.
Perhaps most infuriatingly, there is zero moral ambiguity. If you are on Tom's side, you are "good". If you are against Tom, you are "evil". And let me tell you, this series loves throwing around the word "evil". This is evil, that's evil, even Kaymon's howl just sounds evil, somehow. Things that kill, such as Kaymon the ambiguously enslaved Beast of Gorgonia, are definitely evil, according to Tom, which I suppose means he survives on air and bacteria-free water alone. Or, you know... maybe Tom's just calling anyone and everything that opposes him "evil". The Dark Realm and Kaymon specifically have brought a hint that perhaps there's going to be some moral ambiguity in future books, but I'm certainly not sticking around for possibilities at this point.
 That's from my Kaymon the Gorgon Hound review, and it was definitely the point at which I had given up on the series. There is literally nothing here that appeals to me, and while I can only imagine that the at least something has to change and develop--whether it's the characters or the plot or what the hell ever--over the next who knows how many books (and counting!?), I cannot possibly read another eighty plus Beast Quest books on a "maybe".

So... has anyone read any Beast Quest books past The Dark Realm? If you agree with or at least can see where I'm coming from with my complaints, are any of them rectified in later books? Does this series ever get interesting? Does the writing improve? Or is the publisher simply planning on chugging along with the formula until the audience inevitably loses interesting?

Is there any reason to ever give Beast Quest a second chance?

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