The Altered History of Willow Sparks by Tara O’Conner

While I enjoyed the art, I have to admit that this felt very much like I’ve read this story before: there were no hooks, no world building, and no real character development. Girl gets magical book, changes her world with bad repercussions, and then stops using the book when she realizes she has it pretty decent already. Cue mean girls, bullying, typical nerdy but faithful/good best friend and this feels like a rejected script for a Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode.

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Story: Willow feels like an oddball – bullied by the pretty/popular, overlooked and unattractive with short hair and pimples, and just wanting to get through high school. When she stumbles upon a secret room in the library with strange books in them, she finds one with her name and her history in it. So she takes a chance and rewrites her future in the book – alienating her best friend and making her feel horrible about herself for being shallow. But the book has a way to protect itself from overuse – and Willow is going to have to face the consequences.

So yes, there’s nothing new here. Mean but pretty girl spends most of the day harassing the nerds (including Willow and her friend Georgia). In the city library, there’s an unexplained secret room with unexplained books, in which Willow miraculously finds hers despite there being thousands in there, one for every person in the entire city. We don’t get any backstory or world building – we don’t even get to see what Willow writes in her book. She just shows up with no pimples, better clothes, and the cool guy is suddenly hitting on her. It felt so underwritten and underwhelming.

The characters were high school cliches – pretty b****, shallow and stupid sycophant of the pretty B, cute but stupid popular guy, and nerdy best friend who is incredibly nice and well grounded despite the bullying. The lack of imagination in the characters, that they didn’t really grow through the series (except perhaps remorseful at the end), and that there really weren’t any lasting repercussions were rather disappointing. In a way, Willow got to have her cake and eat it too and everything works out at the end.

The art is decent and the style changes shown at the end as the story evolved over the years were interesting. The story was easy to follow and wasn’t overly dialogue heavy. But it didn’t help elevate the characters above being caricatures, either. It was all so painfully earnest.

In all, it’s a book I read and will honestly soon forget. I was left wanting more depth in the story and nuance in the characters. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings by Sarah Graley

This feels very much like a Matt Groening piece – it has all the manic hallmarks and bug eyed shenanigans that I expect from Simpsons or Life in Hell. But this is a Life in Hell updated for the Seatttle/portland mentality and without the pithy social commentary. Both protagonists are dumb, plucky, and frenetic; don’t expect a lot of depth and just enjoy the silly ride.

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Story: Becka has a crush on a classmate – when following her one day to invite her to a party, she ends up learning Kim has a side job as a grim reaper (hey, a girl has to earn money, right?). Becka is at first excited but gradually begins to hate the unpredictability of the job. Can Kim win her back while still fighting off ghouls and zombies?

The plot operates like a sitcom – situations are set up to cause a demented comedy rather than to actually create a story. So most of the first chapter is Kim showing off grim reaping without actually doing any reaping. The second story is Kim preventing Becka from being reaped – and fighting off a zombie horde sent to take out Becka. Because one should never cross the rather silly Grim Reapers Inc, obvs.

The art is cute in all its bug-eyed wonder. The cover image gives a good indication of what you will find inside. It’s a lot of over-emoting and over-the-top antics in order to gain laughs. A dumbing down of the Simpsons, to be honest. That can work or not depending on your mentality going in and how much you enjoy very stylized sequential art. A lot of the scenery reminded me of my last visit to a Voodoo Donuts restaurant in downtown Portland – take that as you will.

In all, it was cute and original but also a bit too silly and manic. I would have liked some pithy commentary or another hook other than the hyper active rude humor. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick

Chain of Command is a well written military sci fi with a heavy emphasis on military. Taking cues from a notable World War II battle, it’s clear the author has done his homework in both the military lingo/attitude as well as the physics of space battles. But as with so many of these types of books, the science often bogs down the story and there is a lot of explaining/description/pontification on the physics or on the military aspects – enough to sometimes drown the characterizations and plot.

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Story: Sam Bitka is a reservist doing his time in the Navy when the unthinkable happens – a surprise attack on human forces by alien allies. As the casualties mount, Bitka will have to deal with incompetent superiors, timid subordinates, and aliens who may have developed a technology that will change the tide of battle in their favor. As he rises in position, the situation becomes worse and worse for those serving on his ship, the Puebla.

I have to first start with the frustration – that once again all superiors in the navy are useless – either incompetent or hollow attention/position seekers. It was a bit frustrating, especially since our protagonist is the typical middle aged man with a good heart and conscience having to deal with a bad situation/superiors. For once, I’d love to see a competent and non political admiral in a position of power in a military sci fi book. The rare admirable admiral.

As well, we have the usual NCOs providing our offices with the real lowdown on how to run a ship. If there is a Sargeant or Petty Officer in a military sci fi, they are going to always be underappreciated and always perform under pressure when the captains and admirals buckle. It gets a bit old, to be honest, but it is what it is.

Our protagonist is, of course, a humble man thrust into greatness and rising to the occasion. He’ll ferret out the enemy plans, find surprise attacks, and always put his men in a position to outfox or outhink the enemy. All the while, he’ll have to fight the stupidity of his superiors or backstabbing by peers. Ironically, the only people of power who do well are the women – they are able to understand the politics and rise above them. That, in itself, can be a bit of a cliche but better that than have them be sex/lust objects as in a John Ringo novel.

The plot moves well when not focusing on the science too much. The author looks to have taken great pains to really research his subject and though that slavishness to historical detail is appreciated, it can also bog down the story a bit too often. But some fun twists and turns as well as the joy of seeing our main character triumph make for an engaging story. Because our lead is so humble and good, it’s impossible not to root for him.

In all, I enjoyed Chain of Command. Yes, there were a few military sci fi cliches in there and we could have used more nuanced characters. But I don’t think there’s much else to complain about, especially since we have a solid ending. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Perhaps the best subtitle for Plane Crash is the science of Aviation Disasters. Because unlike most books on the subject, this one is highly technical. To his credit, the author does attempt to explain all the mathematical formulae and phsyics as best he can – but this is never going to be a layman’s book on plane crashes. Rather, the author breaks down plane crash types, the physics behind them, and how the problem as addressed and then remedied. His scientific analysis is complemented by observations of pilot Captain Robert Hedges.

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The book is organized by the phases of flight and the accidents that were most interesting: Takeoff!, Takeoff (never mind), Controlling the plane, Vanished!, Practice makes perfect, Turbulence, The 168-Ton Glider, Approach, Landing. Epilogue. In each of this sections, he starts with a seminal plane crash, dissects it along with flight physics/math, and then discusses other crashes that were similar.

As an example, the first chapter starts with the crash of MK Airlines 62 in 1990 in Canada. It was notable for being a takeoff crash – the plane supposedly never left the ground. In going through the clues, discussions are created of takeoff angles, berms, pressure bulkhead locations, angle of attack, airflow, air deflection, ground pressure idle, acceleration knots, EPR amounts, runway length, locations of tail strikes from the doomed plane, take off weight calculations, runway gradients, Vr rotation speed, takeoff safety speed, etc. It gives you sentences such as:

“The correct takeoff speeds for the Halifax accident flight were V1 = 150
knots, VR = 162 knots, and V2 = 172 knots. The incorrect speeds, used for
a plane that weighing 250,000 lbs less than the actual takeoff weight of
780,000 lbs, were V1 = 128 knots, VR = 128 knots, and V2 = 137 knots.”

or

“The density of air is sensitive to changes in altitude and temperature.
The density of “standard air” (59°F at sea level) is 0.076474 lbs/foot3, about
2 lbs per cubic yard. Two extremes might be Anchorage (elevation 151 feet)
at −40°F (0.094 lbs/foot3) and Denver (elevation 5,431) at 100°F (0.0577 lbs/
foot3)—a swing of ±24%.”

That’s a lot of math! But the book is incredibly thorough and it is quite amazing in its depth and breadth of the subject. Anyone interested in aviation will likely find this compelling since the author treats very scientific subject manner in a smooth and matter-of-fact way.

But those looking for information on airline accidents (e.g., fans of “Mayday/Air Crash Investigators”) will be daunted by the sheer amount of technical information. This isn’t a breakdown of a crash so much as a breakdown of how planes fly and where they fail. There’s far too much technical to make a cohesive ‘story’ and this is more about understanding planes rather than understanding plane crashes in particular. That’s not a bad thing.

Plane Crash is extremely well written in that I am not a technical person nor did I study physics or math for my degree yet I found nearly all of the book to be readable (though I skipped over the breakdowns of the mathematical formulae and the more technical aspects of flight since they were not of interest to me). And this greatly increases my respect for all that goes into sleuthing the reasons why a plane crashed and how to prevent such accidents from happening again. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

 

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Whisper by Lynette Noni

Reading Whisper was one of the most frustrating experiences: it started intruiguingly enough but then greatly went down hill with each subsequent chapter. A simple unreliable narrator first person tale that might have been edgy turned into a low grade YA cliche-fest, hitting nearly every trope on the genre tree in its free fall descent. Worse, this felt like a rewrite of an already popular novel: Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me. Because of the hoary plot machinations, cardboard characters, and simplistic and unrealistic story, I’d have to say this is for very unsophisticated readers only. For me, I can’t turn off my brain enough nor forget the solid YA reads that only pale Whisper in comparison.

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Story: Jane Doe is in a facility and refusing to speak. She is abused and it becomes clear that the experiments on her are not bearing fruit – and she will be terminated. As a last ditch effort, a new ‘handler’ is assigned to her – a young, handsome, and kind young man who eventually draws her out of her silence. But she will soon find that she has an extremely rare, powerful, and dangerous ability – one that will make her attractive to both sides of a battle over the future of special teens with abilities.

The story is set in Australia, Sydney, and features the usual cliches: speshul snowflake, superpowered teens, everyone falling all over her even though she’s always rude, handsome and cute boy put in position of power to ‘woo’ her, a rebellion, and a LOT of deus ex machina to set up romance situations and conflict/drama. To be honest, I didn’t believe any of it and the plot fell flat on its face as a result. E.g., how we have a Jane Doe that no one can identify in this day and age? And the plot twists after her identity is revealed were ludicrously unrealistic. Let’s not forget the ‘abilities’ that are random and only serve as smoking guns for later plot points to get our heroine saved or make her seem powerful. The whole book operates on such a shallow level that I find it hard to believe anyone at any age could suspend disbelief long enough to keep from constantly rolling eyes into painfulness.

The characters were similarly frustrating – from our ‘oh-so-perfect’ protective prince to our supposedly strong heroine. She’s mouthy and cold, he’s a sap. From the minute our heroine opened her mouth, she never shut up and nothing interesting, realistic, or appropriate for the situation ever was uttered. You’d think a girl who didn’t speak for two years and was deathly afraid of doing so, would be a bit more hesitant when she finally does so. But nope, words are cheap and so was the dialogue throughout.

Most problematic for me, however, was that I’ve read this story before in the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi. From unique girl in a closed off ward being tortured, to said heroine having a special, powerful, and deadly ability she’s terrified to use, to a best friend who is friendly and jokes a lot, to a whole group of kids hiding underground with special X-men like powers. Heck, even throw in a ‘prince in disguise’ whose name begins with War (Ward and Warner) who treats her horribly but can then prove later that they were really doing it to help/save/protect her. And yeah, you get the idea. The difference is that Mafi’s series had growth and nuance in the characters. With Whisper, the characters don’t grow so much as turn into a different person with no regard to their past issues or history. Because apparently two years of silence, torture, and privation can be immediately forgotten when there’s a cute boy around.

So while Whisper was not a terrible read, it was also frustrating in its lack of logic, simplicity, complete dearth of breadth or nuance, and relentless pursuit of running smack into every YA genre cliche wall it could find. If you think Twilight was high literature, this is the book for you. For all others, your tolerance of YA cliches will greatly affect your reading enjoyment. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

This yet-another (not that I’m complaining) Penric novella chronologically takes place a little bit of time after Penric and the Shaman. Similar to the Shaman story, this one also is a bit of a whodunnit though with a limited set of clues and possible suspects.

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For me this is the best novella in the series, primarily because it all takes place in a very concentrated area and moves at a slow, almost languid pace. I’ve never felt Penric is a big action hero and prefer the slower pace, almost “slice of life” quality in this one.

The more I read of the Penric series the more I like it. It has a pleasant feel to it and has a feel of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Ms. Bujold is accomplished an author enough not needing to prove anything anymore and writes with confidence and poise. There’s no exposition, no bizarre plot twists or excessive edginess – at this point of her career she can write for herself and this is a good thing.

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Elsewhere by Jay Faerber, Sumeyye Kesgin, Ron Riley

Elsewhere in tone and characterization owes much to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne. Simplistic villains operate in a pseudo medieval world into which our heroine is thrust. She’ll use modern wits to outsmart the brutes and save the day. In this case, Amelia Earhart is sent mysteriously to an alternate world, meets up with rebels, and easily defeats/outsmarts them.

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On Korvath, rebels Tavel and Cort are escaping the evil Lord Kragen when they chance upon a human named Amelia (Earhart) caught in a tree. They help free her and she joins them on the run. But she is desperate to find her navigator, Fred Noonan, who jumped out of the plane before her. Together, they will storm Evil Lord Kragen’s hold, free another human prisoner, and become embroiled in the politics of the world. All the while, Amelia searches for her friend Fred.

The art is good and I enjoyed it the most of the series. The panels are clean, there isn’t too much dialogue, and there is an exuberant, if simplistic, joy in the illustration work. Each page is full color but in hues of purple and bluey.

The story feels a bit trite and old fashioned. Some will enjoy that bit of nostalgia, though. It’s the type of book where the people are good or bad and everything operates on a fairly shallow level. The author has given us a few surprises (Amelia springs another human from the prison and his identity is cute, if somewhat obvious) and there is a big twist at the end that likely most will have seen coming.

Amelia is plucky and drawn to look around 18 years old rather than the more seasoned veteran that she is/was. As such, I almost wish we didn’t have a ‘famous’ person in that heroine role and instead just ran into more famous ‘disappeared’ individuals. I hope we find a reason why only the twentieth century luminaries seem to end up in this alternate world. Certainly, the fact that everyone speaks the same language is never explained and only glossed over as a ‘mystery’ that no one really seems interested in exploring.

Because this operates on a very shallow, almost childish, level of storytelling, I’m going to rate this in the middle. I don’t think young readers will know who Amelia or other other famous counterparts are – and I worry that older readers will find this a bit too derivative and simplistic. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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