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The Lucky Little Labrador Goes to School (2012): …but not for characterization

C. J. Smiles, The Lucky Little Labrador Goes to School (Happily Books, 2012)


That diploma and a quarter… won’t even get you a bus ride anymore. photo credit: my copy

One of the cardinal rules of children’s book writing is to not talk down to your audience. Not only does it show a disrespect for them, but you’d be surprised at how well kids can see through that sort of thing. Smiles’ book has an example that is both more abstract and more subtle than usual, which kind of makes me want to grudgingly admire it while still running it down. In this case, it’s a character; Kevin’s mother is as two-dimensional as they come, nerve-wrackingly shrill until that one moment of revelation when all the sudden her personality changes completely. Ever seen that happen in real life? Nope, me neither. And we don’t do any service to kids telling them it happens, any more than we do service to adults when that sort of thing happens in bad TV shows and movies. The underlying story is a decent one, but the devil, as usual, is in the details. **

Vault Reviews, September 2014, Part 1

[this post should have gone up Monday, were it not for the holiday, and then Things Happened(TM) Tuesday and Wednesday to stop me from having the time to work on these… today was almost as bad, but I did it piecemeal… the movie list changes should be up later as well. Part 2, however, will have to wait for tomorrow.]


Pee Chang Nang (The Screen at Kamchanod) (Songsak Mongkolthong, 2007)

A large face looms over a filmgoing crowd on the movie poster.

Warning: projecting images onto a large face may cause blurriness.
photo credit:

I will allow for the idea that my reaction to this movie, which I am hypothesizing was due mostly to the time (after a 2AM dosing of dilaudid) and place (I was in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition) I saw it, may have actually been the reaction the filmmakers were looking for here. Because my fragmentary memories of the movie, complete with washed-out jungle shots and fuzzy figures, actually kind of mirror the movie’s plot (a ghost story about, basically, the backwoods Thai version of a drive-in theater). If so, it’s a bit unfortunate that the trippiness factor may have worked a little too well on me, because fragments were all I remembered, so I rewatched it a couple of months ago…and once again, I’m only getting fragments when I try to bring it up in my head. My experience with movies like this is that the fact that there are fragments means there is a decent possibility that after a number of rewatches over the next decade or so, I may end up coming to love this movie and sing its praises whenever possible (I hated both Suspiria and Begotten the first time I saw each for exactly this reason, and now both are among my favorite movies); we’re a year and a half into it since my first seeing it, though, and I’m not there yet. If I do get there, I’ll write a new, longer review for it and tell you it requires multiple viewings to really get…but for now, it’s an “if you don’t have anything better to do…” movie. **

Trailer. (The full film, unsubbed, is available at Youtube.)

* * *

Splintered (Simeon Halligan, 2010)

Our heroine peers through a hole in the wall on the movie poster.

Heeeeeeeeere’s EYESORE!
photo credit:

You have seen this movie at least a dozen times. Innocent, or maybe not so innocent but she’s certainly done nothing to deserve this, girl is abducted by someone or something and imprisoned. There is someone close by who may or may not be able to help her, but is useful for passing information through to the captive (and, by extension, to the viewers). There is a Big Reveal about the killer, and often whether the viewer is left with a good taste in his or her mouth about the movie turns on whether that Big Reveal works. (I’m not sure it did here, I don’t think this movie could have been saved one way or the other.) It’s a well-established framework that lazy scriptwriters insert characters into for an almost instantly-completed movie. The end result, given that you are using a well-established framework, is utterly predictable and very rarely worth your time. Such is the case with Splintered. *


* * *

Nude Nuns with Big Guns (Joseph Guzman, 2010)

The title's nun, not nude, stands ready for a firefight on the movie poster.

Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. A lot.
photo credit:

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started watching a movie called Nude Nuns with Big Guns. It would be kind of hard not to; the title is about as descriptive as they come. And if you go into it expecting nothing but nude nuns with big guns, you’re in for a good time. That said, when I see a title like that, I see the weight of history behind it. Nunsploitation is a time-honored genre in a number of cultures ranging from Japan to Mexico (Italy, of course, is the godafather, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the genre—Visconti’s 1969 The Nun of Monza seems to have been the first true nunsploitation movie as we know the genre today), and I would have felt a lot better about it had I gotten the idea that co-writers Guzman and Robert James Hayes felt any sort of affection for, let alone connection with, such nunsploitation treasures as Alucarda. Instead, this feels like they found out the genre was A Thing by reading an article about it and said “hey, we can make a movie about this!” without bothering to find out, say, what’s cliché, what works and what doesn’t, whether nuns serve in monasteries (they don’t), you know, the small things. As a result, the picture is mildly amusing for a bit, but gets old quick. **

* * *

Seux (Female Tiger) (director unknown, date unknown)

photo credit:

We can’t show it to you because the Internet fails us (maybe I’ll grab a title screen when I get home).

I apologize for not knowing a blessed thing about Female Tiger. IMDB doesn’t, either, and I can find nothing at all about it on the Internet. The copy I have, which is obviously a bootleg (though I didn’t know that at the time), is unsubbed, which would make it tough for me to tell you much about the movie without guessing. That said, this is not a movie you’re going to be watching for its plot niceties. Female Tiger is a Thai softcore film. I wasn’t aware any culture but America had a market for these silly things, but there you have it. And because of that, you’re probably far less interested in the story, which seems to have something to do with the male lead—who has more sex than your sister on prom night during the film (and probably with more partners, even)—being some sort of supernatural (or possessed) guy who can hex insanely beautiful women into sleeping with him, and far more interested in the many, many scenes that involve said male lead getting it on with a small legion of said insanely beautiful women. And for that, well, who needs subtitles? Easily findable at places that stock Thai VCDs, and if it’s the kind of thing you’re into, well, you could do a lot worse (and have with every American softcore movie I’ve seen since Black Emmanuelle). ** ½

Trailer? …yeah, no.

* * *

Dok (The Pot) (Tae-gon Kim, 2008)

The child, during the ritual, is shown  on the movie poster.

Upside down. Pot you’re turnin’ me. Inside out. And round and round.
photo credit: IMDB

I really wanted to like The Pot, one of those bottom-of-the-sorted-queue movies that Netflix’s description made sound relatively interesting. As is often the case, however, Netflix’s description missed the mark by a relatively wide margin. Instead of the promised creepy ghost story, this seems (either because of bad script, bad editing, bad subtitles, or some combination of the above, it’s not that easy to keep track of what’s going on here) to be some sort of evangelical-Christian movie about a kid gone wrong corrupting her family (until, of course, deus ex machina). I’d say more about it but, honestly, why bother? Most of what you need to know is contained in the phrase “the Netflix description is wrong.” **

* * *

Paul Bright, Grumpy Badger’s Christmas (Good Books, 2009)

Badger, grumpy, stands amonst a bunch of other woodland animals on the book's cover.

“The Gophers made it to the Sun Bowl. AGAIN.”
photo credit:

Everyone in the woodland valley is looking forward to Christmas except grumpy badger. Which makes sense if you’re an adult given that badgers hibernate during the winter. Problem is, people keep knocking on his door and disturbing his rest. He keeps getting grumpier and grumpier until he finally falls asleep and realizes that he’s done something horribly wrong, after which everyone kisses and makes up. I am—to put it mildly—not a fan of Christmas, but this one does hold up to the kinds or readings and re-readings it got in December, and for the Bean’s general attention level, this is a pretty long book, and he eats it up. And hey, I love badgers, and everyone loves a good party (oops, spoiler alert). *** ½

* * *

Michael Twinn, Great Pal Puppy (Child’s Play, 1996)

The bookk, shaped to look like a puppy, has a cover that only hints at the horrible illustrations inside.

Are you scared yet?
photo credit:

The dog's obviously prehensile eye stalks stare at you from the bottom of its cheeks in this terrifying picture.

photo credit: me me me

This is one of a series of oversized board books focusing on various animals. Most of them are just badly-written, at least the ones we’ve come across over the past couple of years, but Great Pal Puppy ups the ante with a terrifying, anatomically-impossible illustration on the second page that looks far less like a puppy than one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones descending from above to devour your soul. You’ll want to take a good long look at this one before adding it to your permanent collection; the kid may be fine with it, but you might be traumatizing yourself for life looking at that monster on Page 2. *

* * *

Jamie Lee Curtis, My Mommy Hung the Moon (Joanna Cotler Books, 2010)

The narrator and his mother cuddle under a full moon on the book's cover.

…and then hung Laurie Strode from it, broken and bleeding…
photo credit: Amazon

I wasn’t terribly fond of this one, and while we had it out of the library for a three-week span, the Bean never actually asked for it the way he does with the books he really enjoys, and he is obsessed with all things moon. The rhyme is thudding, the language is simplistic (I know that seems an odd thing to complain about in a pre-lit book, but contrast it to, say, Victoria Adler’s books and you can easily see the difference). Nothing about it distinguishes it from a hundred other pre-lit books we’ve been through and sent back to the library with no intention of ever getting them out again. **

* * *

Mrs. James Ward Thorne, European Rooms in Miniature (Art Institute of Chicago, 1948)

A very busy wallpaper pattern adorns the cover of the book.

“Of course it would look lovely on the walls dear. In the basement.”
photo credit: ebay

Narcissa (Mrs. James Ward) Thorne’s first book on miniature architecture was this one, published in 1948 (I reviewed her 1962 follow-up, American Rooms in Miniature, last year). I just found out a number of these are still housed, as of this writing (29 January 2014) at the Art Institute of Chicago, and am now planning a roadtrip. The rooms themselves are, of course, exquisite, at least in the provided photographs; I imagine seeing them live would be an entirely different experience. Once again, the text is a bit on the dry side, though more enthusiasm comes through in this one than in American Rooms in Miniature; still, worth it for the pictures if you are at all interested in the subject matter. ***

* * *

Karen Katz, The Babies on the Bus (Henry Holt, 2011)

A number of Katz' signature babies crowd into the front of the bus on the cover of the book.

Shouldn’t you be able to reach the pedals before trying to drive?
photo credit: Amazon

Karen Katz lends her inimitable style to a rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus”, and the result is just as cute as you would expect. A few points off for not sticking to the original formula of the song, which never repeats any word in “the _____ on the bus”, but that’s a minor thing; this is a good’un and will find its way into storytime again and again. *** ½

Capsule Reviews, August 2014 (new)

Inkubus (Glenn Ciano, 2011)

Robert Englund taps his eye with a red knife on the DVD case.

This devil is out of the details. Way out.
photo credit: Ebay

Glenn Ciano’s debut film, Inkubus, is not all that great, though in hindsight it is leagues better than his followup, Infected. But then he’s starting from a pretty good place: casting Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm St.) as a demon who walks into a police station during the night shift and starts confessing to almost seven hundred years’ worth of crimes. Why this station? You’ll find out eventually, if you stick around long enough. Whether you will want to or not depends entirely how you feel about Robert Englund; this is his movie entirely, and if you feel he’s good enough to carry it, then you’ll probably like it. I was less impressed. * ½

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Capsule Reviews (vault): July, 2014

Peter D. Hipson, What Every Visual C++ 2 Programmer Should Know (Sams, 1994)

[originally posted 19Feb2002]

A "just the facts, ma'am" cover with the red title on a green background.

Even more dated now than when I wrote this review.
photo credit: ebay

What Every Visual C++ 2 Programmer Should Know is the perfect compliment to Gurewich and Gurewich’s Master Visual C++ 2. Both put out by Sams in the same year. Coincidence? Probably not. Everything the Gurewich book lacks is covered here. The detail and amount of code examples is lacking in comparison, but given the topics covered, that’s an excusable oversight.

What Every Visual C++ 2 Programmer Should Know looks at the more advanced features of Microsoft’s primary development platform: programming with Unicode, OLE, ODBC, multithreading, etc. It’s more a reference book than a how-to manual, but the user who’s followed and mastered the Gurewichs’ book should already have enough coding under his belt to integrate the information presented here without much trouble. The two books, taken together, provide the best introduction to Visual C++ 2 on the market, and are highly recommended for those still programming in DOS/Win3.x/Win95. *** ½

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Gone to Stud (1996): Barnyard Babes Bare All

Jane Glenn, Gone to Stud (J. A. Allen, 1996)

[originally posted 17Sep2001]

An artist's rendition of two horses ambling away from a wedding ceremony adorns the front cover of the book.

The happy couple report they will be honeymooning at Longchamps.
photo credit:

Glenn gives us a quick look at life on a stud farm from the other side of the breeding shed. It’s really a book for prospective owners—what to expect when your mare’s expecting, as it were. Glenn keeps things light and raises a chuckle now and again, and the book is engagingly illustrated (this may be guilt by association more than anything, but the illustrations reminded me quite a bit of those in the book Great Racing Disasters, which has the same tone to it). If it suffers, it does so by inconsistency of tone—the humor pops up now and again, but we’re never really signalled as to when it’s time to get serious—and also in the book’s brevity. At just over a hundred pages, Glenn barely touches on much of the day-to-day aspect of stud farm life and work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as going into too much detail would quickly bog down the average reader, and Glenn chose (wisely, one thinks) to err on the side of caution here. I’d like to see what she’d do with a kind of companion volume, more along the lines of anecdotes from farm life—the little things, both amusing and not, that shed light on the completely irrational love that makes us humans spend our lives thinking about, breeding, and racing Thoroughbred horses. ** ½

Baby Badger’s Wonderful Night (2011): The Woods Are Lovely, Dark, and Deep

Karen Saunders, Baby Badger’s Wonderful Night (Gullane, 2011)

Baby badger and his daddy look up at the sky on the book's cover.

You are to me my poetry.
photo credit:

Baby badger is scared of the dark until his father takes him for a walk in the woods and shows him the wonders of the night. A sedate, beautifully-illustrated little book that should enchant both toddlers and the adults reading it to them. Holds up to repeated reading very well, and the Bean is a big fan of it (but then he’s a big fan of anything containing the moon these days, so take that as it comes). I quite like this one. *** ½

Happy Birthday, Moon (1982): Narcissus and Echo

Frank Asch, Happy Birthday, Moon (Aladdin, 1982)

Bear reaches up towards the moon on the book's cover.

I saw a moon once. It was big and round.
photo credit:

This one took the Bean some growing into, but nowadays he likes it a good deal, and we read it at storytime at least twice a week. It’s the story of a lonely bear who decides to get the moon a birthday present, goes to the mountains (in order to be closer to the moon), and then talks to the moon (actually, his echo), with the expected, and actually rather touching, results. Get it out of the library first to make sure your kid is in the right age range for it (I’d go maybe thirty months and above on this one), but as long as the kid cottons to it, you won’t have a bad time with it, either. ***

Sheep Take a Hike (1994): Beating a Dead Mutton

Nancy Shaw, Sheep Take a Hike (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

The intrepid sheep get ready for a day in the woods on the book's cover.

On the road again… just can’t wait to get on the road again…
photo credit:

The thing about Sheep in a Jeep, ultimately, that makes it work as well as it does, and it works very well indeed, is the language. It is basic, it is easily remembered by both adults and children alike, and it is very well-constructed and well-presented. There’s nothing in Sheep in a Jeep that feels like Shaw was stretching in order to fit the parameters of either the story she was telling or the educational goals she had set for herself. As a result, the story is a resounding success, and all of the other great things about the book are kind of icing on the cake. Sheep Take a Hike is the exact opposite. The illustrations are just as wonderful, maybe even more so, and the story is fun, but the language at the core of it is not as well constructed, nor as well presented, and more than once it feels exactly like Shaw was stretching in order to twist where she wanted to go in order to fit it into the parameters—both those mentioned above and the parameters that she’s set for herself in the first book (the two are very strongly similar rhythmically). As much as I hate to say it given that the original is one of the best children’s books ever written, this is a noticeably inferior product.

All that having been said, it’s still the same lovable band of sheep, and if you discount the language issues that will have readers stumbling in certain parts the first few times through (though one will adapt pretty quickly), there is still a good deal about this book to like, and I ran through most of it above. Here, the illustrations are the kicker, and they are, not surprisingly, wonderful. So I’m certainly not going to say “you don’t want to read this one to your kid”, especially if you (and said kid) love the first one. But get it out of the library first to see whether it’s going to stand up to the same repeated readings the initial book does. ** ½

If I Had a Dog (1984): It Wouldn’t Act Like This

Lilian Obligado, If I Had a Dog (Golden Press, 1984)

The book's narrator dreams about having a dog of his own on its cover.

The dreams a young boy dreams.
photo credit: ebay

I kind of liked this one for the first few pages, which are all about cute-dog-dom, but then it goes off into a flight of fantasy (basically about how this particular dog won’t do any of the annoying things all dogs do), but it never tips its hat to the reader that it is a fantasy. That might be acceptable in a book for older readers who understand dogs, but in a piece of pre-lit it seems like it will just confuse the kid. I wasn’t much of a fan of this one at all. **

Where the Red Fern Grows (1974): It Grows for Thee

Where the Red Fern Grows (Norman Tokar, 1974)

Billy, Dan, and Ann frolic on the movie poster.

Men Who Run with the Dogs.
photo credit: Wikipedia

I don’t keep a Best Books list the way I keep a Best Movies list (yet), but if I did, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows would be somewhere in the top ten. I don’t believe there’s a single book that requires multiple sittings to read that I have read more often than that one; I probably read it four or five times a year between discovering it in sixth grade (I had Summer of the Monkeys as an assignment in school, and so I decided to find out what else that guy had written) and, oh, 1990 or thereabouts. And yet somehow I had not only never seen the movie adaptation, but never even knew such a thing existed, until a few nights ago. So, with trepidation, I sat down to watch it. Now, I haven’t read the book for quite a while, and I tried to take into account that the book is never as good as the movie, but still, I found myself entirely unable to work up a lot of enthusiasm for it.

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