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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Books I Read: November - December 2016


Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by David Porath

I fell in love with this book immediately, which has never happened to me before. I am not an early adopter, and it's the onus of every book to entice me. Of course, by the time I know that, I'm usually victim to time sink fallacy. But look at this cover. It looks like all the books in the old Disney movies. You know, like in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty where a live-action book opens at the beginning and closes at "the end". Now I have a book like that. I can look like I'm reading an old timey volume of forgotten lore (quoth the raven). Look at me -- I'm gushing and I haven't even opened the book yet.


Inside is more than fifty stories of women who kicked ass and took names, folk tales you never heard of, tribal leaders, revolutionaries, women who outrode Paul Revere, outsmarted popes, outbattled kings, and outwitted empires. Each entry is about a page or two, so no princess outstays her welcome. They're like wikipedia entries, but don't duplicate the dry descriptions. Many include anecdotes and details that bring them to life as real people who existed. This is not a research/reference book. It's entertaining and informative like The Daily Show or CGPGrey or Extra Credits. The author adds a unique flavor/voice that gives away how much he loves this subject and how much he wants to share it.

Plus, each entry has a beautiful illustration of the lady therein, rendered as a kind of Dreamworks/Disney princess. Like each woman has her own movie poster. It even includes notes on how the art includes culture and tidbits not in the story.

Now this volume does have a fault: there are maturity ratings and content warnings for each story, ranging from one to five. But even the tamest wasn't appropriate for kids under ten (IMHO). In fact, just about all of them... well, this makes me sound like the most conservative of parents, but they acknowledge the existence of sex, use words like "plastered", and assume some historical knowledge. It's not that the content is vulgar or adult. It just brings up questions that I don't need to answers yet. Which makes it kind of strange that this book wants to highlight famous influential women, but the content is too old for when girls are their most influenced. Maybe they can release a PG version for the younglings? I want them to learn about these people too. The earlier the better.


Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I dunno. It's a basic quest story. The Peculiars need to get from Point A to Point B and they come up against obstacles in-between. The bulk of those obstacles take place in WWII London during the firebombings. It's hard to get invested in the characters again because they never stay in one place for long. There are no "quiet moments" where they talk about what they're feeling or their reactions or how they feel about each other. The kids bicker among themselves about where to go and what to do, but never about their relationships. They don't use their powers much, except for invisible kid, so I have trouble telling any of them apart.

It's more like exploring the "expanded universe" of peculiars. And this time around, the events are even more aimless. Like the author pulled out a photograph at random and had to write about it. As a result, this seems like random stuff that happened. Because by the end, it seems like it was all forced filler. No one has a plot arc and no one feels changed at the end. The bulk of what they learned is that World War II sucks (which I already knew).


The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

These are all the speeches, articles, blog entries, and forewords Neil Gaiman has written over the years. A lot of them were about stuff I know nothing about -- old authors that he admired, music I don't listen to, stories from his youth I'm too young to appreciate. It's not a memoir, it's a series of essays. Most of them are gushes about someone. There's nothing about the writing process or creation in here, except the "Make Good Art" speech which everyone knows.

And it's long. His writing style is unchanged -- full of comfort and warmth, like when Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time, and you know that this guy is one of the good ones. But I am not the kind of guy who has found solace in any of Gaiman's influencers -- Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Will Eisner, etc. There are a few memorable ones, but as a whole, this is only for the most diehard Gaiman fan.


Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

It's... all right. It's perfectly average. There are no groundbreaking ideas, no new techniques. It's aimed at a younger age group than YA (Percy Jackson, Underland Chronicles, et al). There's nothing controversial or gaspworthy inside. It's less about the robot and more about everything surrounding him. Like the AI that runs the school being super Big Brother. It's kind of like 1984 meets Double Dare.

There are some plot threads that taper off into nothingness, as if there were already sequels planned, which make me disgusted. I hate when marketers plan a series before anyone's seen it. The robot doesn't act much like a robot (I say that about every robot book, don't I?). There was a perfectly serviceable opportunity to present some interesting STEM topics here, like "what IS fuzzy logic?" "how does/could AI work?" WWW: Wake is a book that better explores these ideas, and I had no inclination to continue that series (too metaphysical).

I know I'm complaining more than praising, but the things that the book does right are basic and safe. Harmless. I could really only recommend this book if you've got nothing else that's flipping your cookie at the moment.
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