December 17, 2020

Review: The Wakanda Files: A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond

The Wakanda Files

By Troy Benjamin
Available now from Epic Ink
Review copy

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I eagerly dived into The Wakanda Files: A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond. The conceit of The Wakanda Files is that Shuri has ordered the publication of Wakanda's intelligence files regarding the Avengers technology. Through this conceit, various aspects of all the MCU movies so far are explored.

Illustration of Maya Hansen's badge

There's also a fun gimmick. The Wakanda Files also includes a Kimoyo bead–shaped UV light. Some pages have Shuri's commentary written on them, which can be revealed by the UV light. It is a pretty small beam that needs to be held close to the page, but the words can be read even in full light. I also like that effort was put into ensuring the small Kimoyo bead light wouldn't be lost. It magnetically attaches between two other Kimoyo beads, and a clear plastic slip case ensures that everything is kept together.

Troy Benjamin's writing is pretty workmanlike, given the point of view of the text, but it does pay attention to detail. It is also accompanied by cool illustrations and renders made by a variety of artists and studios, including a pull-out on the Iron Man suit.

Blurred screenshots of the Hulk

However, The Wakanda Files does have one big failing. When it includes photos from the movies, it applies a heavy Gaussian blur over them. It looks terrible, especially when those photos are huge and cover half a page or more. I suppose the intention was to make them look like the illustrations, but they don't. They just look back. This is a huge detraction in an expensive table book meant to be nice to thumb through.

This odd decision keeps me from recommending The Wakanda Files. The text isn't interesting enough to make up for the horrible quality photos.

December 13, 2020

Review: The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box

The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box

By Tracey Hecht
Illustrated by Kate Liebman
Available now from Fabled Films Press
Review copy

The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box looks something like a subscription box (and I do know there are similar ones for books). Inside is the first hardcover chapter book in The Nocturnals series, The Mysterious Abductions, The Nocturnals Activity Book, and a plush of Dawn the fox. There's also a bookmark. The book and plush can be purchased separately, but the activity book is unique to the box.

The Dawn plush is extremely cute. Mine arrived with the fur needing some fluffing, but that's typical for shipped stuffed animals. The neckerchief she's wearing comes right from the first chapters of the book, a detail that will delight kids who are sticklers from accuracy. It is stitched on, but a parent can cut it off if desired.

The Nocturnals Activity Book is a black and white and has several different versions of a few activities rather than several different activities. There are word searches, crosswords, matching animals to facts, and some arts and crafts. The cut-out sections are printed so that no activity on the reverse side is destroyed. There is a bingo that needs multiple players, kiwi birds that can be cut out to play hockey (like in the book), masks of the main characters, and hearts that can be made into the main characters faces. The activity book notes it is for fourth and fifth graders, but I would say a third grader could definitely do the activities, especially since the crossword includes a word bank. (Weirdly, words are repeated between the crosswords.)

The centerpiece, of course, is the book itself. The Mysterious Abductions is the tale of three nocturnal creatures: Tobin the pangolin, Bismark the sugar glider, and Dawn the fox. They come together to form a brigade to protect their fellow animals. Their first case involves a series of strange disappearances.

The chapters in the book are short and filled with action, propelling a young reader along. There are lessons about teamwork and standing up to bullies. The characters themselves mostly have surface traits. Dawn is the stalwart leader, and has an intriguing past with a coyote. Tobin is steady. Bismark is an insecure show-off.

Kate Liebman's sugar glider

Bismark, unfortunately, is the most talkative of the Nocturnals and the worst part of the book. His dialogue is super annoying, speaking in triplicate and peppering his speech with languages such as Spanish and French. I think it is supposed to be a fun way to introduce common non-English phrases to kids, but it irritated me, especially coming from Bismark. He hits on Dawn constantly, even though she shows no interest in him. This sort of lothario used to be a stock comedy character, but it isn't cute, especially in a kid's book.

Also, in a series with a running message against bullying, Bismark is one of the biggest bullies of them all. Throughout their adventure, the brigade meet up with other nocturnal animals who join the team to help out. In The Mysterious Abductions, this includes a trio of bats. Bismark insults them constantly, including calling them dingbats and mocking the way they speak in threes (look whose talking). Weirdly, no one seems to have an issue with how he speaks to their allies. 

The narrative even seems to agree with him at one point, when Dawn notes, "But upon inspecting the creatures before her, she understood what he meant. The fur on their chests was matted and mangy, and their rickety wings were covered in scrapes. (37)" There's no reason for the bats to be in such poor shape, and the other animals aren't treated so rudely or remarkably dirty. Bats are cool! I found their treatment egregious and contrary to the book's message.

Kate Liebman's art is featured in full color at the beginning of each chapter. Some of it is cute, in a slightly askew way. Some off-putting.

I think this activity box is a super cute idea to turn the first book in a series into a gift. But I don't think I can recommend this series.

December 9, 2020

Review: The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns

The First Free Women

Translated by Matty Weingast
Foreword by Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi
Available now from Shambhala
Review copy

The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns is a new translation of selected poems from the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, a Buddhist religious text from about 80 BCE, written shortly after the life of Buddha. The women who wrote it had once been rich, poor, mothers, daughters, wives, sex workers, but all came to walk the Path and become Buddhist Nuns.

I have not read any prior translations of this text, though I am now curious about picking some up to compare the renditions. Weingast's goal, as laid out in his introduction, is not to provide an academic translation, but one that maintains the poetry of the originals for a contemporary audience. I appreciate that he is up front that this is a translation that takes liberties. He did consult the Buddhist Nun Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi (who wrote the foreword) in his work.

Though The First Free Women is a slim volume of less than 200 pages and most of the poems fill a mere fraction of the page, this work took me several nights to read. These are poems that spoke to me, and made me think. Few sophisticated literary techniques are used, but poetry can be plainspoken and still ignite the mind with its ambiguities.

I am not Buddhist, but I feel there was still much for me to find within these pages. These women are focused on their religious journey - how they came to it, whether they questioned it, their advice - but each poem offers a fascinating glimpse into their lives.

Weingast's introduction notes that Buddhist Nuns still aren't accorded the respect of Buddhist Monks and that they have had to fight for ordainment that sometimes isn't recognized. I do not know who could read these words and think women less than men. But I know the world, and I do not doubt it.

The First Free Women is a fascinating read, and I am quite glad it found me.

December 5, 2020

Review: Anti/Hero


By Kate Karyus Quinn and Demitria Lunetta
Illustrated by Maca Gil
Available now from DC Comics
Review copy

DC Comics might annoy me frequently, but they are killing it with their DC Kids line. Anti/Hero introduces two young heroines from East Gotham who are set up to appear in further adventures, either other graphic novels or comics, though Anti/Hero does tell a complete story.

Piper Pájaro has super strength and is determined to use it to be a superhero. Unfortunately, she has a reputation with the cops as the Wrecking Ball due to the accidental damage she causes. Piper is also struggling with her school life since she has trouble paying attention to school work. Sloane MacBrute is a thief known as Gray, armed with drones and working for local crime lord the Bear to help pay her mother's medical bills. At school she whizzes though assignments but struggles in gym. But both girls need academic and athletic skills to make it through a competition Bruce Wayne is holding - one that would reunite Piper with her scientist parents and allow Sloane to work with real scientists.

When the girls get in an altercation over a super-secret device, they find themselves switching places. Stuck in each other's shoes, they're forced to empathize with each other's struggles. The girls also find that they can learn from each other and be stronger together. The overall arc of the plot and character growth isn't surprising, but that doesn't mean it isn't appealing. (And there is one reveal that made me gasp!) Piper and Sloane are both great kids with wonderful families, and I loved spending time in their world.

I find it amazing that this is illustrator Maca Gil's first published work. The action is easy to follow and the character designs are fantastic. Piper is as bubbly as her personality, while Sloane is more sleek and as angular as her defensive personality. I could almost believe there are two artists as well as two writers. Sarah Stern's bright colors are the perfect compliment to Gil's art. Wes Abbott's lettering is easy to read and suits the feel of the book, too.

I think young readers will devour Anti/Hero and be eager to read more.

December 1, 2020

Review: The Bitterwine Oath

The Bitterwine Oath

By Hannah West
Available now from Holiday House
Review copy

I haven't been keeping up with new YA releases the way I used to just a few years ago, but I've paid attention to know that witches are one of the current hot trends. The Bitterwine Oath slots right in, as the story of a young woman in her last summer before college who learns that she has magic and falls in love.

I read the entirety of The Bitterwine Oath on a lazy Sunday morning, a milieu that suited it well. Natalie Colter lives in San Solano, Texas, the home to a century-old massacre and a copycat massacre enacted fifty years after the first. It being the second fifty-year anniversary, everyone in town is on edge that it might happen again. Nat has even more scrutiny to worry about than most, since one of her ancestors was the leader of the group that caused the original massacre. Of course, she's also worried about the return of Levi Langford, who kissed her and then left for college.

I loved the atmosphere of The Bitterwine Oath. It captures small-town Texas well. I could tell that author Hannah West lives in Texas by the way the characters spoke, and I appreciated that she didn't go overboard with the folksiness. I also liked how West portrayed the way the local church is woven through almost everything happens in the town, and that the witches balance their beliefs around their powers with their Christian beliefs. It felt realistic - aside from magic being real.

As is tradition in these stories, Nat is kept ignorant of her power until it is almost too late, and she is actually the most powerful witch of all. (At least, among those still alive.) But she was kept ignorant for a reason, one that makes her mistrust the other witches and try to seek out her own path. Of course, the clock is ticking, and twelve men's lives hang in the balance. Nat has to decide whether to bow to tradition or strike out.

There's nothing too unpredictable or unfamiliar in The Bitterwine Oath. I was entertained that the male love interest was the one always getting himself in danger when he tried to charge in to find answers. Still, I found it fun. I liked the setting, and I thought Nat and Levi were sweet together. I'm sure fans of witchy YA urban fantasy will enjoy The Bitterwine Oath.


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