June 12, 2023

Review: The Jane Austen Escape Room Book

The Jane Austen Escape Room BookIllustrated by Marjolein Bastin
Available now from Andrews McMeel Publishing
Review copy

Marjolein Bastin, known for her art featuring nature, has previously illustrated all of Jane Austen's novels. Now, her art is used to create a puzzle book featuring characters from Pride and Prejudice. (The original edition is under copyright by a German company; I could find no credit for the author of the text.) I've experienced many Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, and as someone who loves puzzles, this one intrigued me.

The title refers to an escape room, and many of the puzzles are similar to an escape room's in nature, such as holding paper up to a light to see a hidden message. However, no one needs to escape a room in the story. Instead, Elizabeth Bennett must escape a ploy to ruin her reputation. Can she discover who tried to ruin her and why, and convince Mr. Darcy to still consider marriage?

The text doesn't try very hard to sound like Austen, except for some dialogue. It also doesn't use paragraph breaks between speakers, which I hated as a stylistic choice. But the text is fine for setting up the puzzles, and sometimes contains clues.

The puzzles vary in difficultly. There's one that requires solving a simple subtraction problem at the easy end. On the difficult end I would put one of the more complicated math problems or the more involved cipher on the newspaper. There's at least one puzzle that isn't difficult but is tedious, involving choosing the right set of three recipes from a group of eight. Printing them in various handwriting-style fonts, with the recipes arranged at all angles looks beautiful, but is a pain to read.

If someone does have too much trouble, the answers are always given at the beginning of the next puzzle. There is also a solutions section in the back, as well as a newspaper page with more hints.

My largest issue with this book is the layout. Some puzzles have additional material in the back. These are all perforated pages that can be pulled out of the book, although only one of them actually needs to be pulled out to be solved, so I'm not sure of the purpose of doing them this way. You have to figure out on your own to flip to the back ... which also requires flipping past the solutions while trying not to look. Worse though is that the extra hints are included between the ending and the solutions. I had no idea they were there until I was done with the book. The introduction mentions referring to an appendix, but I thought that meant the same section as the extra material. Due to placement, I don't think they'd be very helpful to many puzzlers.

The art in The Jane Austen Escape Room is beautiful, and I enjoyed looking at it. But I didn't love the puzzles. Sometimes I would've preferred more instructions, because I was often left thinking, "Surely, I'm meant to do more than just look at this clearly labeled map?" (No, that was all I needed to do.) My favorite puzzle was actually the final seating chart one. There are only 18 puzzles, so I could get far more puzzles for my money in a puzzle book without the Jane Austen framing. The framing was cute, but executed fairly indifferently. I feel like this book won't quite satisfy Austen or puzzle fans, beautiful though it is.

June 7, 2023

Review: Silver Alert

Silver Alert
Available now from Algonquin Books
Review copy

I never go on a road trip without books. Silver Alert seemed like a perfect choice, the story of an octogenarian and his ailing wife's manicurist going on a wild joyride. Little did I know that their joyride wouldn't start until over halfway into the novel. This is not a road book at all.

Silver Alert is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, switching between the points of view of Herb and Renee/Dee Dee. Herb is an old womanizer with multiple terrible kids. His younger wife has severe dementia, and he's struggling to care for her while denying that he needs care himself. Enter Dee Dee, a seemingly naive young manicurist who clearly isn't licensed, but can actually help calm Susan down and make her happy. Dee Dee is dealing with her own struggles, living in a trailer park with a friend who is getting involved with the wrong guy, while Dee Dee herself gets involved with a rich young poet.

While Silver Alert is written in a breezy style that makes it an easy read, it does deal with heavy subject matter. There's the loss of control over one's own life before death, of course. But there's also Dee Dee's past, which deals with sex trafficking and child abuse. The problem is that Dee Dee's character never felt believable to me. She supposedly has a seventh grade education, but is written more like she only has a third or fourth grade education. It made me wonder if Lee Smith initially wrote the abuse starting earlier, then decided that was too dark. More than that, Dee Dee is immensely trusting, including the men in the story. 

Conversely, I find Herb's voice very believable. I've seen dementia up close, and feel like Lee Smith has as well. There's little touches, like Herb having very little thought-to-mouth filter that make his developing mental state clear, even while he's in denial. Him not wanting to deal with intense medical treatment at his age (for a diagnosis he tries to keep secret from his family) also makes sense. Dee Dee being entirely unwary of this man when we've heard his leering thoughts and even his family is aware that he'd make a move on her despite the age difference didn't ring half as true.

I do think that people can maintain their innocence and naivety even through terrible situations. I get the appeal of throwing an old and grouchy character together with a young and optimistic one. But Silver Alert didn't work for me. It wanted to bring up tough subjects but not have them actually affect the characters. Thankfully, it was a quick read.

July 16, 2022

Review: Women in History: 300 Word Search Puzzles

Women in History: 300 Word Search PuzzlesConstructed by Rebecca Falcon
Available now from Chartwell Books
Review copy

I love a good word search puzzle to keep myself entertained. They're simpler than a crossword or sudoku (to me), but still keep me engaged while I'm working them. The theme of Women in History instantly had me giving this word search book a chance.

At $11, it is more expensive than the word search books I see in the grocery store checkout. I can tell this book has a more premium format, with thick paper and a spine that is able to lay flat so that the book doesn't close on my current puzzle.

The 300 puzzles in this book are arranged into three levels: easy (up-down or left-right only), moderate (up-down, down-up, left-right, right-left), and difficult (the only level with diagonal). On the easy levels, you find the names of women, grouped by theme. In the moderate, the puzzles focus on the accomplishments of singular women. The difficult puzzles focus on women's contributions to society.

Personally, the difficult puzzles are my favorite. I like finding words diagonally, so for me it was extremely disappointing that wasn't even an option for most of the puzzles. Overall, these are fairly simple puzzles, with not many words to find per puzzle. The puzzles are well-constructed, but a bit easy. The premium feel makes it seem like this book should be more advanced, for the serious word searcher, but most of the puzzles are super quick and basic.

Women in History does have a major editing error. Quite a few of the puzzles and clues aren't printed together - the clues on one page belong to the puzzle on the page before. This affects about 1/12 of the book.

This word search book has a great theme and would make a decent gift, but I wish the editing issue had been caught and that the puzzles were harder.

October 25, 2021

Review: Aloha

Art by Tere Gott
Available now from Tere Gott
Review copy

Chilean artist Tere Gott frequently posts her art on Instagram, and the coloring-book pictures in Aloha are super Instagram friendly. There are succulents, yoga, and more. The theme of Aloha is the beach, but not all of the images are directly beach related. My favorite page features a UFO.

This coloring book includes 22 images and is $45. Yes, that is pricey. However, this is an oversized coloring book. The book itself is 17.4 x 11.8 inches and each page is perforated. These posters are pretty easy to frame in an 17 x 11" frame, which is an easy size to find since it is a common size for digital printing. 

In addition, the sheets are 0.5 lb duplex paper, meaning that they're thick and backed so that there is no bleedthrough, even if the page isn't removed before coloring. (The cover lies completely flat when opened.) Markers, watercolors, and more can be used on these pages. 

This is an incredibly designed coloring book. The designs are simple, though some of the detail work is difficult with mediums like watercolors. Most of the backgrounds are plain, allowing for personal creativity.

Aloha is an incredibly designed coloring book. I'd love to see more coloring books in this style.

October 21, 2021

Review: Banana Fox and the Secret Sour Society

Banana Fox and the Secret Sour SocietyWritten and illustrated by James Kochalka
Available now from Graphix
Review copy

Popular children's graphic novelist James Kochalka starts a new series with Banana Fox and the Secret Sour society. The titular Banana Fox is a detective who loves bananas, receiving adulation from his fan club, and saying, "Wowie pow!" He's aided by Sharyanna, or Flashlight, a kid who he meets at the beginning of the story and who is the much better detective.

The story of the Secret Sour Society is appealingly silly. There's mind-controlling soda and a giant turtle and plenty of fun things. Some of Kochalka's work has crossover appeal, but this one is aimed squarely at young readers. The art adds excellent context to help younger readers understand the text, in addition to being fun on its own. Kochalka's art is deceptively simple. He doesn't crowd the page, but there is plenty of dynamic movement to guide the eye.

 I found Banana Fox himself tedious. But that's fine. Six-, seven-, and eight-year-old kids will love Banana Fox and the Secret Sour Society and there's no inappropriate content. Nothing wrong with kids reading stories they find fun.


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