Mini Review: Sweet by Emmy Laybourne

Sweet
Emmy Laybourne

Feiwel & Friends
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Releases June 2, 2015
288 pages
YA / Horror-ish / Weird

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*People would kill to be thin.*

Solu’s luxurious celebrity-filled “Cruise to Lose” is billed as “the biggest cruise since the Titanic,” and if the new diet sweetener works as promised—dropping five percent of a person’s body weight in just days—it really could be the answer to the world’s obesity problem. But Laurel is starting to regret accepting her friend Viv’s invitation. She’s already completely embarrassed herself in front of celebrity host, Tom Forelli (otherwise known as the hottest guy ever!) and she’s too seasick to even try the sweetener. And that’s before Viv and all the other passengers start acting really strange.

*But will they die for it, too?*

Tom Forelli knows that he should be grateful for this job and the opportunity to shed his childhood “Baby Tom-Tom” image. His publicists have even set up a ‘romance’ with a sexy reality star. But as things on the ship start to get a bit wild, he finds himself drawn to a different girl. And when his celebrity hosting gig turns into an expose on the shocking side effects of Solu, it’s Laurel that he’s determined to save.

Last week Emmy stopped by Working for the Mandroid to discuss how Sweet had a horror bent to it along with dabbling in several other subgenres, like comedy, romance and commentary on the weirdness of society’s obsession with thinness. While the variety in genre ideas makes Sweet a unique book, it also prevented me from diving into the weirdness. By not deciding what direction to take the narrative and instead trying to smash together several different types of genre tropes, Sweet ended up being a little half-baked to me.

It never goes full horror even when things start getting gory. It’s more goofy horror that’s heavy on the blood, but really light on chills or fear. It never caused me to laugh out loud, but rather the humor occasionally got a half-cocked eyebrow out of me. The social commentary never came close to hitting the heights of Beauty Queens, instead leaving me kind of sad and maybe even mildly offended at times. Only Laurel ever becomes much more than a flat character, though looking back all I can really tell you about her is that she plays classical guitar, comes from a loving, body accepting family, and really likes boots.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR THINGS THAT DON’T HAPPEN

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Mini Review: Kill Me Softy by Sarah Cross

Kill Me Softly
Sarah Cross

Released April 10, 2012
EgmontUSA
336 pages
YA / Faerie Tale Retelling / Fantasy

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Mirabelle's past is shrouded in secrecy, from her parents' tragic deaths to her guardians' half-truths about why she can't return to her birthplace, Beau Rivage. Desperate to see the town, Mira runs away a week before her sixteenth birthday—and discovers a world she never could have imagined.

In Beau Rivage, nothing is what it seems—the strangely pale girl with a morbid interest in apples, the obnoxious playboy who's a beast to everyone he meets, and the chivalrous guy who has a thing for damsels in distress. Here, fairy tales come to life, curses are awakened, and ancient stories are played out again and again.

But fairy tales aren't pretty things, and they don't always end in happily ever after. Mira has a role to play, a fairy tale destiny to embrace or resist. As she struggles to take control of her fate, Mira is drawn into the lives of two brothers with fairy tale curses of their own . . . brothers who share a dark secret. And she'll find that love, just like fairy tales, can have sharp edges and hidden thorns.

This book is problematic. Mira is a highly problematic (or highly naive) protagonist who, can’t see obvious if it beat her in the face. The romance in Kill Me Softly is cringe-worthy at best, and the book should probably have trigger warnings all over it.

And yet I still enjoyed it enough to finish. I partly blame Sarah Cross’s very easy to digest writing style and interesting take on faerie tale mythology. It also helps that the characters surrounding Mira are far more interesting and fun to spend time with than Mira herself.

Kill Me Softly is a weird take on the Sleeping Beauty mythos. Mira grew up far away from Beau Rivage with her God Mothers, who were over protective and kept stories of her parents and birth place close to the vest. So of course, Mira decides to run away to celebrate her 16th birthday searching for her parents’ graves in Beau Rivage. When an older 20-something hotel magnate swoops in to help her then promptly starts putting moves on her, this is obviously a dream come true. When she faints and finds herself unconscious for several hours after making out with said way-too-old-for-her 20-something Romeo, she brushes it off as a weird coincidence. Turns out faerie tales in Beau Rivage are real in a weird sort of way and she’s caught in between two potentially deadly ones.

Mira, as I said, is incredibly dumb. Her relationship with Felix is creepy from moment one, full of near-statutory rape scenarios that also might potentially end in her death. No words of warning or acknowledgement of Felix’s utter creep factor sways her from being instantly in love with him and thinking he is the nicest, most generous person in the world. It’s beyond creepy and I can’t very well understand how I still liked this book despite it.

And yet I did. The world building, more age appropriate characters like Blue, Viv, and Freddie, and the conclusion made me look over the horribly problematic elements of this book to the point that I read the sequel (which was much, much better). I can’t forgive the problematic elements enough to recommend this book though, so skip it and go straight to Tear You Apart. You won’t miss much other than an overwhelming need to take hot showers and scrub the ick factor off of your brain.

 

Anybody else read a book that was clearly problematic and yet still enjoyed it? How did you process the disconnect? Help me out in the comments!

Mini Review: The Glass Arrow by Kristin Simmons

The Glass Arrow
Kristen Simmons

Tor Teen
Released February 10, 2015
336 pages
YA / Dystopia

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The Handmaid’s Tale meets Blood Red Road in Glass Arrow, the story of Aya, who lives with a small group of women on the run from the men who hunt them, men who want to auction off breeding rights to the highest bidder.

In a world where females are scarce and are hunted, then bought and sold at market for their breeding rights, 15-year old Aya has learned how to hide. With a ragtag bunch of other women and girls, she has successfully avoided capture and eked out a nomadic but free existence in the mountains. But when Aya’s luck runs out and she’s caught by a group of businessmen on a hunting expedition, fighting to survive takes on a whole new meaning.

If I wanted to make this the shortest review in Working for the Mandroid history I would just say: Kristen Simmons had some big ideas that she couldn’t execute in an interesting, thought-provoking or compelling way, so the whole story reads a bit like fable that has a hard time getting to the point.

But I guess I should go into it a little more. The Glass Arrow is okay with okay characters and a nothing special plot that’s trying to be a feminist text for a budding feminist, but instead it can’t decide whether to remain subtly political so that it doesn’t get in the way of the action or put the feminism issues front in center. The entire novel becomes a stuttering narrative with a somewhat bland protagonist that just left me bored more often than not.

A love interest is shoehorned in, plot conveniences are relied on and highly telegraphed and the resolution of the novel is small. I don’t know if this is the beginning of a series that plans to explore larger issues in the extreme patriarchal society Simmons's has created, but The Glass Arrow doesn’t dive enough into the societal issues to become much of a feminist story. It definitely didn’t have the realism aspect of a novel like The Handmaid’s Tale, which was realistic enough to make me fearful of the potential realities reflected in that book. Instead The Glass Arrow reads like a half-developed idea that could have used some more brainstorming before it was plotted out.

Mini Review: Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini

Trail by Fire
Josephine Angelini

Feiwel & Friends
I received a copy from the publisher in return for an honest review:
Released September 2, 2014
374 pages
YA / Magic / Witches

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This world is trying to kill Lily Proctor. Her life-threatening allergies keep her from enjoying experiences that others in her hometown of Salem take for granted, which is why she is determined to enjoy her first high school party with her best friend and longtime crush, Tristan. But after a humiliating incident in front of half her graduating class, Lily wishes she could just disappear.

Suddenly, Lily is in a different Salem—one overrun with horrifying creatures and ruled by powerful women called Crucibles. Strongest and cruelest of them all is Lillian . . . Lily's other self in this alternate universe.

What makes Lily weak at home is what makes her extraordinary in New Salem. In this confusing world, Lily is torn between responsibilities she can't hope to shoulder alone and a love she never expected.

Trial by Fire is an interesting mash up between science fiction and more traditional witch fantasy. Lily Proctor is seemingly allergic to everything in this world, constantly having to fear going into anaphylactic shock and possibly dying just for going out and experiencing life. When she’s invited to a party by her best friend who she has long since had a crush on, she tempts fate only for fate to punch her in the face repeatedly. Embarrassment after embarrassment eventually leaves her hating everyone and wishing that she could be anywhere else.

Then she wakes up to find herself anywhere else and she just wants to go home. Funny how things work that way, huh?

After landing in an alternate version of her world where a coven of witches rule the government and monstrous science experiments haunt the vast forests, Lily discovers that what makes her allergic to everything in her world acts as a conduit to magic in this one. She, of course, meets a boy who can train her and protect her from this crazy unfamiliar land until she’s able to help his cause in defeating the evil witches, who just so happen to be led by Lily’s doppelganger from this world.

I really enjoyed the alternate Salem that Angelini developed along with the complex magic system she embeds within it. She’s conceptualized the magic system around physics, making the rules tied to science as much as you can when creating magic. Instead of just hand-waving the differences between Lily’s world and this alternate magical one, Angelini tries to ground the entire thing in realty and it works without getting in the way of the fun.

Lily grows quickly into a dominant character that is driven more by her own will even when she’s placed into the hands of caretakers after landing in an unfamiliar world. She doesn’t make too many stupid choices to assert herself either, which is a rare occasion in a story like this. She’s cautious, but headstrong and incredibly determined to do what’s right even when it’s hard.

This is a solid introduction to a world of magic that leans heavily on a pseudo-scientific basis. There’s a lot hinted at, especially regarding motivations, that aren’t fully explored, so many doors are left wide open for subsequent sequels. Angelini created an interesting world with plenty of world-building rules that make the characters and surroundings jump off the page and breathe. I’m normally not one for witches, but this is a series I’ll be following.

Mini Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman

William Morrow Books
Released June 18, 2013
181 pages
Fantasy / Faerie Tale-esque / Kid Friendly Sort Of

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Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

I am a Neil Gaiman fan girl. I won’t ever try to deny that. Gaiman single-handedly destroyed my preconceived notions of modern fantasy literate as an adolescent. Neverwhere is the first book that comes to mind when asked what my favorite book is. Sandman was my gateway into mature comics. Neil Gaiman may be my hero.

So I’m not entirely sure why it took me so long to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Perhaps I knew that, once finished, I might not be getting new Gaiman words in my hands anytime soon. Maybe I was a little scared that the magic might have disappeared. Whatever it was, this book sat on my shelf for a little too long until it became the monthly book for my book club. I eagerly dived in and wasn’t disappointment.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a children’s tale with an adult wrapper. If you removed the first and last chapters, this could easily be a scary tale to read to children, all about witches and mysterious girls and creepy monsters from alternate realms. For most of the book, the narrator is a small boy, looking at a very strange time in his life in retrospect now that he’s a middle aged man. Whatever perspective you’d expect from a story told by a grown man is non-existent. This book is told as though it’s happening out right to the point that I forgot about the framework around the story being from the point of view of an adult.

Our main character is never named. He’s just a regular boy growing up in a house with his parents and his sister when one day, the family wakes up to find their boarder missing. This starts a bizarre adventure into a twilight world that only the boy seems to see. He meets Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, three slightly strange women that live at the end of the lane. Together they help him ward off evil and turn his life back to normal though not without some serious consequences.

This is a modern faerie tale, a quick read with a bit of a moral underneath the surface. It’s imaginative and written in that classic Neil Gaiman way that’s full of metaphors that seem to live off the page. It’s an incredibly quick read at 181 pages and it’s nothing complicated. This was a great palate cleanser after the number of YA books I’ve read that started blurring together without having to dive into an dense or serious literature. While it might not be a book that sticks with me like Neverwhere, Sandman or Stardust, it’s definitely a book I look forward to revisiting once my nephew is a little bit older and not quite so scared of his own shadow.

Mini Review: The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

The Fourth Bear
Jasper Fforde

Viking Adult
Released August 3, 2006
382 pages
Fantasy / Twisted Faerie Tales / Psychotic Gingerbread Men

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Jack Spratt and Mary Mary return in their second adventure from the inimitable Jasper Fforde

Five years ago, Viking introduced Jasper Fforde and his upsidedown, inside-out literary crime masterpieces. And as they move from Thursday Next to Jack Spratt's Nursery Crimes, his audience is insatiable and growing. Now, with The Fourth Bear, Jack Spratt and Mary Mary take on their most dangerous case so far as a murderous cookie stalks the streets of Reading.

The Gingerbread Man, psychopath, sadist, genius, and killer, is on the loose. But it isn't Jack Spratt's case. He and Mary Mary have been demoted to Missing Persons following Jack's poor judgment involving the poisoning of Mr. Bun the baker. Missing Persons looks like a boring assignment until a chance encounter leads them into the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta 'Goldy' Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Mole. Last to see her alive? The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen's wood.

But all is not what it seems. How could the bears' porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time? Why did Mr. and Mrs. Bear sleep in separate beds? Was there a fourth bear? And if there was, who was he, and why did he try to disguise Goldy's death as a freak accident?

Jack answers all these questions and a few others besides, rescues Mary Mary from almost certain death, and finally meets the Fourth Bear and the Gingerbread Man face-to-face.

I have a theory about Jasper Fforde and that’s why this is just a mini review. My theory – and this is backed up only by the empirical data taken from my book club – is that if you A) have an English degree, B) love meta things, or C) Have spent a lot of time critically examining the structure, constructs and tropes just because you like to, you will love Jasper Fforde. It helps if you also enjoy British humor and strange takes on classic characters. I easily check off all those items, so it’s no wonder that Fforde is my go-to guy when I want a silly, ridiculous book, and The Fourth Bear didn’t disappoint.

This isn’t Fforde’s best book, but it still has all the meta craziness that makes The Eyre Affair and The Big Over Easy, you’ll probably like this book. It’s somehow manic and meandering at the same time as Jack Spratt tries to solve the problem of Goldilock’s death and explosions that seem to be killing all the award-winning cucumber farmers in Reading. Fforde plays with detective tropes, the main characters make references to plot devices and the third wall is more or less non-existent.

There is also an alien creature as a police officer. His native language is binary. He owns a spaceship in his garage. There are aliens in Britain and they work for the police. Honestly I think that alone will give someone unfamiliar with Fforde’s work a good enough idea of the craziness that are within the covers of this book.

This is not a book for children. There is a 7 foot tall psychotic gingerbread man running around trying to dismember people. If that sounds like something you want to know more about, then pick up this book. You’ll have a giggly good time.

CONTEST & Mini Review: Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects by Ken Denmead

Okay, so the book title in the title isn't technically the name of this book. The title of this book is super long though. Thanks to Gotham Books, we have a handy copy of Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share by Ken Denmead to giveaway. You can enter to win after the mini-review of the book below.

Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share
Ken Denmead

Gotham Books
Released May 4, 2010
244 pages
DIY / Geekness

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The ultimate DIY project guide for techie dads raising kids in their own geeky image, in the spirit of The Dangerous Book for Boys

Today's generation of dads grew up more tech-savvy than ever. Rather than joining the Little League team, many grew up playing computer games, Dungeons and Dragons, and watching Star Wars. Now with kids of their own, these digital-age dads are looking for fresh ways to share their love of science and technology, and help their kids develop a passion for learning and discovery.

Enter supergeek, and father of two, Ken Denmead. An engineer and editor of the incredibly popular GeekDad blog on wired.com, Ken has created the ultimate, idea-packed guide guaranteed to help dads and kids alike enjoy the magic of playtime together and tap into the infinite possibility of their imagination. With illustrations throughout, this book offers projects for all ages to suit any timeframe or budget. With Denmead's expert guidance, you and your child can:

•Fly a night-time kite ablaze with lights or launch a video camera with balloons

•Construct the "Best Slip n' Slide Ever," a guaranteed thrill ride

•Build a working lamp with LEGO bricks and CDs

•Create a customized comic strip or your own board game

•Transform any room into a spaceship

•Make geeky crafts like cyborg jack-o'-lanterns or Ethernet cuff links

Brimming with endlessly fun and futuristic tidbits on everything from gaming to gadgets, GeekDad helps every tech-savvy father unleash his inner kid-and bond with the next generation of brainiacs.

No one is ever going to mistake me for a Geek Dad or any other type of dad for that matter. I don’t have the biological equipment to warrant such a label. I don’t even have children, though I know a few. I can, however, be easily labeled a Geek with a capital G, so when Gotham Books offered me a copy of Ken Denmead’s Geek Dad, I was game to take a peek at it. I mean, anything a dad can do, a mom could do too, right?

Denmead is a columnist for Wired.com, where he has written several columns that I’ve found both insightful and entertaining. He strikes me more of a tech geek and has an engineering background, which means the crafts and projects in this book lean more towards the technical. There aren’t a lot of easy things to do in this book or at least not from my not-so-technical point of view. Many of the projects would also be pretty time consuming rather than a quick hour or two project to waste away a rainy afternoon. Even the projects Denmead lists as taking less than an hour seem like they would take much longer, though that could be because I don’t have an engineering background and would be fumbling around these things alongside the child.

With projects like “Cool LEGO Lighting from Repurposed Parts” and “Model Building with Cake”, this is a book focused on projects to do with older children, probably during that sweet spot where they’re old enough to handle sharp scissors or a knife on their own, but not so old they’ve become a teenager that doesn’t want to hang out with you. This probably isn’t the book of projects I’d want to do with my 4-year-old nephew.

That’s not to say this isn’t an awesome book. There are some really cool sounding ideas, just that it will be useful to a very specific audience. I’m going to have to hang on to the idea of using LEGOs and remote control cars to create a personal demolition derby or the instructions to create a cyborg jack-o-lantern just for myself because that’s pretty cool. This book is full of crazy ideas for patient parents with children really into building things or working with electronics, so it’s definitely on my list to pass on to my brother when his kids get several years older.

 

Enter to Win!

Gotham Book is awesome, so in celebration of Father’s Day this Sunday, they provided me a copy of Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share to give away to a lucky Working for the Mandroid reader. We’re going to keep this contest pretty straight forward. It’s open to anyone with a US mailing address who fulfill any of the criteria below. The contest will run until 12:01AM on Monday, June 23. One lucky winner will be pulled at random to win a shiny copy of Geek Dad.

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