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Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8

xxxHolic Volume 17: 10/31/14

cover artxxxHolic Volume 17 by CLAMP takes place a few years after the last volume. Time though seems to have stopped within the bounds of the shop, now helmed by Watanuki. The longer he stays, the more like Yûko he becomes, wearing her kimonos, smoking her pipe and drinking her sake.

The big case, though, comes with a big surprise in the return of an old enemy. Watanuki though is well prepared and manages to get down to business with her.

As Watanuki must stay in the shop to keep the shop from reverting back to an empty field, he can only travel through dreams. Like the last issues with Yûko where Watanuki couldn't tell dream from reality, now he uses dreams to shape reality. When that isn't possible, Domeki acts as his gopher.

Although the series is winding up, there's no big battle. It's a nice break from the typical series wrap up. Sure, Domeki is an archer but none of the previous volumes have been about fighting. They have always been the quiet half of the Tsubasa / xxxHolic story. I don't know how it's going to end but I see it doing it quietly, with perhaps Domeki and Himuari making personal sacrifices.



Five stars

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Socksquatch: 10/30/14

cover artSocksquatch by Frank W. Dormer is a monster in need of a sock. He may be big and furry but he's got a cold foot. None of his other monster friends (Wayne the Wolfman and Frank the monster) can help him.

Help comes in an unlikely package... a damsel in distress. I love how the usual monster kidnapping a damsel trope stops mid plot point to focus on the much sillier cold foot problem.

Socksquatch uses easy words and short sentences. The monster's dialog reminds me a bit of the Got Milk commercials except he's saying "Got Sock?"

Dormer's comic illustrations go well with the story. The long limbs, use of stripes the odd juxtaposition of colors bring to mind Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride.



Four stars

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The Loud Book!: 10/29/14

cover artThe Loud Book! by Deborah Underwood is the follow up to The Quiet Book. It celebrates and explores all sorts of different loud things: good and bad and in between.

Using minimal words and told mostly through the adorable illustrations of animals doing different things over the course of a day, or perhaps a weekend, the book looks at different loud noises. There's the good noise, of a run struck home. And there's the bad noise of that baseball breaking a nearby window. There are fireworks and unexpected burps.

It's the sort of book that cries to be read aloud and acted out. By the time I was done reading it, my kids were up and wiggling, jumping and being very silly.



Five stars

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Can I Play Too?: 10/28/14

cover artIn Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems, Gerald and Piggie make a new friend who wants to play with them. They want to play ball. The problem, though, is that their new friend is a snake.

Snake ends up enduring the brunt of this book's slap stick comedy. There's a lot of physical humor which will either make you and your children giggle, or it won't. There's not much else keeping it going beyond the physicality.

I've read negative reviews of the book because of the humor directed at Snake who is physically in capable of playing ball. I have to admit I didn't see that potential reaction when my children read the book to me. We were too drawn up in the Warner Bros, Tex Avery, style violent humor.

I think though, that this book can be used in a positive way. After reading the book, discuss with the child (or class) better ways that Gerald and Piggie could have approached Snake's request to play with them. What are some games Snake could play with them that didn't involve either being hit in the head with a ball or actually being thrown instead of the ball?



Four stars

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Gracias / Thanks: 10/27/14

cover artGracias / Thanks by Pat Mora won the 2010 Golden Kite Award. It's the story of a boy from a multiracial family and his experiences growing up. I was first introduced to this book in the materials for children ages 5 to 8 class I took in Spring 2011.

Told in both Spanish and English, Gracias / Thanks, is a list of things a boy is grateful for. The list includes family, friends, nature, and other things from his daily life. John Parra's playful acrylic paintings capture the joy the boy experiences through out the book. After reading the book, children could be asked to list what they are thankful for.

Gracias / Thanks is a very happy book. It's all about taking joy in the little details of life: the sun, the crickets, friends and family.



Four stars

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How to be a Baby ... By Me, the Big Sister: 10/26/14

cover artA picture book that my son and daughter both agree is funny is How To be A Baby . . . By Me, The Big Sister by Sally Lloyd-Jones. It's one of my daughter's finds at the library.

The Big Sister goes through all the ways her baby brother is different than she is. Each page has something that babies do that big kids have out grown or things that big kids can do that babies don't know how to do. Eventually as the brother grows, she warms to him and they are shown playing together.

For each of these "babies can / can't do this" topics my son and daughter had to debate the validity of the Big Sister's observations. When they weren't sure, they asked me to weigh in. It was fun to compare their experiences with the book's version.



Five stars

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Let's Say Hi to Friends Who Fly!: 10/25/14

cover artLet's Say Hi to Friends Who Fly! by Mo Willems is part of his new series of emergent reader books staring Cat the cat. As annoying as a name that might seem, repetition has been shown to help some beginning readers (Lynch-Brown, Tomlinson, & Short, 2010). These books are aimed at that subset of readers.

Cat the cat is at the playground and wants to introduce, you, the reader, to his friends who fly. There's Bat the Bat, Bee the bee, Bird the bird and so forth. As the book progresses, things start to get a little silly to reward first time readers for their efforts.

When my daughter was first learning to read at the start of 2011, the Cat the cat books were perfect for her. She liked them enough that we still sometimes call Caligula cat, "Cat the cat." The books gave her the confidence in her reading to move onto the funnier but more complicated Elephant and Piggie series (also by Mo Willems).



Four stars

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Ink: 10/24/14

cover artInk by Amanda Sun is the start of a new young adult series set in Japan. Katie Greene has been forced by the death of her mother to move to Shizouka, Japan to live with her aunt. She'd rather be in Canada with her grandparents, instead, she's stuck with cram school, a language she can barely speak or read. It's a major case of culture shock.

Things go awry for Katie when she forgets to change her shoes before heading home. Embarrassed she has to rush back into the locker room where she over hears an argument. Not sure what to do, she ends up in the middle of it all, and sees the boy's drawings move.

Thus Ink transforms from a YA romance into something more akin to YA urban fantasy with a horror undertone. Katie, rather than running from the things she has seen, is drawn to them. She seeks out the boy, Tomohiro, desperate to know his story.

Although Ink is Canadian fiction set in Japan, it reads like a Japanese light novel. It's full of the tropes that populate anime and manga. It was an entertaining, quick read — perfect for my BART commute to and from work. The sequel is Rain and it's on my to be read list.



Five stars

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Show Way: 10/23/14

cover artShow Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a picture book autobiography in which Woodson tracks her family history and her talent for story telling and art back to an unnamed female relative who was a slave.

First through learning the stars and then through the art of quilting and story telling, the women pass down the route to freedom. Even after the Civil War and emancipation, World Wars, the Depression, and Civil Rights, Woodson's family continues to pass along the Show Way quilts and the accompanying stories.

The book flows through Soonie, of one Jacqueline Woodson's ancestors and it goes through Woodson's own daughter. As a woman who remembers fondly the stories my grandmother told me of the women in the family who came before us, I felt a kinship with this story. I am eager to share it with my daughter. The copy I read was one I was cataloging at work.



Five stars

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Julia, Child: 10/22/14

cover artJulia Child is synonymous with American cooked French Cuisine. The real ulia Child after WWII until her death in 2004 made a career for herself cooking French cuisine and teaching others how to it through her television shows and her books.

Now imagine, if you will, if she had started cooking as a child. That's exactly what Julia, Child by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad does. Julia and her friend Simca, who could be fashioned after Julia's mentor, Simone Beck, love food and love to cook. They begin to teach themselves the fine art of French cooking.

For Julia and Simca, the entire experience is fun — from finding the recipes, to making them, to eating them. Even if things go wrong or things don't taste right, they still have fun. The adults in their lives, though, don't see French cuisine as something that's fun. It's serious business, something to be slaved over and eaten carefully. So for the two friends, it becomes a challenge to them to teach the adults the way to cook.

(Bet you thought I was going to say joy of cooking.)



Five stars

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The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius: 10/21/14

cover artThe Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg is a middle grades biography of potter, George E. Ohr, whose unique style of pottery didn't gain recognition until well after his death.

Ohr who was born and raised in Biloxi to German immigrant parents had trained originally to be a blacksmith, thus following in the family business. But a friendship with Joseph Fortune Meyer, a local potter, was the inspiration Ohr needed to switch career paths.

Like Picasso, Ohr was driven to life long experimentation with his chosen art, both in terms of glazes and in the shapes of his works. Over all his style is very organic, the pieces often appearing melted or deformed, a style that wouldn't catch on until the 1960s and 1970s, four decades after his death.

Part of Ohr's problem with finding an audience for his work during his lifetime may well have been his over reliance on showmanship and his own ego. Yes, his work is good and yes, it was revolutionary but sometimes baby steps are the way to go.

There were a couple instances that the book outlines where he was given the opportunity to show some or his work or to sell some of it. But he was an all or nothing sort of guy. A little exposure could have lead to better exposure during his life time.



Four stars

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Better Nate Than Ever: 10/20/14

cover artBetter Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle is 42nd street reimagined for the younger set. Nate Foster lives Jankburg, PA, which might as well be the middle the of nowhere. Nate and his friend Libby, adore all things Broadway. They know Broadway's history and trivia in the same way that my father knows American film history from the 1930s-1950s. When there's a casting call for an upcoming E.T. the Musical (can you imagine such a monster?), Libby helps Nate run away from home long enough to try out.

Nate isn't the typical stage brat. He hasn't been taking lessons all his life. He's not especially physically fit. He's actually the age of the lead character (and they tend to cast younger). He's an overweight, mensch of teen who is gaga for Broadway and he hopes he can win a spot in the production on his enthusiasm alone.

Following Nate through his grueling adventures in Manhattan helped me remember how much I adore the American musical. As a kid, my parents took me and my brother to local productions of the classics on a semi-regular basis. As an adult, I haven't kept up. Part of that is a lack of disposable income and a lack of time. But there's still the old movie versions, and those I've been watching. Turns out my son is rather fond of 42nd Street too.

The trip to New York is also a bit of an awakening to Nate. Although Manhattan is a huge culture shock, it's also a welcoming place. It's also a place where Nate begins to realize he might be gay. But as Nate reminds everyone in first chapter or so of the book, his sexuality isn't up for discussion and is basically his business alone.

Reading this book as a parent of a boy about Nate's age, I love the message of letting children (specially newly minted teens) take risks. Yes, Nate's parents don't know at first what he's doing. And yes, he has consequences for his actions, but they do warm to his plan as he's clearly got potential and he's clearly passionate about his future in musical theater.



Five stars

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Sketchtravel: 10/19/14

cover artSketchtravel by Gerald Guerlais is a beautiful reproduction of an actual sketchbook that traveled for five years and was shared by 72 artists.

The idea was simple: one artist could draw on any page her or she wanted and draw any subject. Then the book would be handed off to the next artist at some agreed upon meeting place. This process took the sketchbook, carried in a specially designed wooden box, 35,000 miles.

Interestingly, as the artists weren't told to draw on the page that corresponded to the order in which they were given the book, the book itself has a nonlinear narrative — if these drawings can be said to be a narrative. Thankfully, all of the drawings include the date when they were drawn, the name of the artist, and a short description or paragraph by the artist about the experience.

As time progressed, it seems the drawings became more and more elaborate. More often the later ones also include the book, done in red, as a character in the sketch. What had started as almost off the cuff dare to see if a pair of artist friends could get artists they admired to draw for them became something revered. Even the most well known of artists who come late in the project report a feeling of not being worthy of such a grand project. Meanwhile, among the earliest artists, there's a sense of regret at not predicting how important the book would become — and an almost universal wish to go back and redo the early drawings.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in sketching or in collaborative work. Would it be interesting to see what other professions could create?



Five stars

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The Complete Guide to Digital Photography (2nd edition): 10/18/14

cover artAs I've mentioned before, photography is one of my life long hobbies. It's an art form I picked up from my grandmother, who long before I knew her, had her own dark room. The technology of recording photographs has evolved through a variety of different media, now to digital. A combination of digital bringing down the price of technology and being an adult with access to more money has finally given me the chance to explore some of the types of photography I've wanted to do since childhood.

But it's only been two years since I've seriously started to pursue digital photography as an art form more so than a I hobby and I still feel like a newbie. So I've been reading up on the subject when I can, mostly through my local public library.

A recent book that caught my eye was The Complete Guide to Digital Photography (2nd edition) by Michael Freeman. It's sort of an encyclopedia of all things digital photography (for better or worse). For someone starting out from scratch with a camera, looking to buy some equipment and software, it's a good start. For someone who has already started and has learned a thing or two, the book is more hit or miss.

For my needs and background, I found the first third of the book, namely, the discussion on different types of digital cameras and their pros and cons, the most useful. Before reading the book, I had already settled on a 3/4 micro digital camera. Freeman's book covers the development of this camera type and the technologic compromises made to make it affordable, lightweight but still capable of using different lenses.

The final third which covers post production wasn't my cup of tea, mostly because I have more experience with the post production side of photography than the I do with the fancy equipment side of the equation. Also, I've recently moved away from doing a lot of the Photoshop specific stuff, preferring instead to try to get closer to what I want at the camera end.



Four stars

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Fangirl: 10/17/14

cover artFangirl by Rainbow Rowell is about that trying first year of college, away from home, trying to be an adult, trying to take on new responsibilities while holding onto old hobbies. Cath and her twin sister, Wren, are Freshman in the same college but they aren't roommates. For Wren, it's freedom; for Cath, it's like being shipwrecked.

Cath has come to college to hone her skills as a writer. She's a rabid fan of the Simon Snow fantasy series (think Harry Potter). She's been writing a popular fan fiction called Carry on Simon. Except the fan fiction gets in the way of her school work, and ends up being a way for her to find a new boyfriend (gag!).

The main problem here is that Cath is a DULL protagonist. She's painfully shy and completely obsessed with her fanfic (which isn't very good, but then neither is the source material). And then there's her new boyfriend who is written like the classic "good boy" player who preys on young women for his own sexual kicks. I really hoped that he'd be revealed as a cad but sadly, he ends up being the new boyfriend.

Then there are the LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG passages of Carry on Simon that do nothing for the book except to remind me just how much I hate Harry Potter and I why I tend to avoid the most rabid of the fandom.

Tucked away in all that vapid prose is an interesting story of a father succumbing to his own mental illness now that his daughters are in college. The father who is mostly shown through missed phone messages and brief flashbacks is the most tragic of the characters. I really wanted to read more about him and much less about either Cath or Wren. I could completely without any of the Simon Snow excerpts or Cath's fan fiction.



Three stars

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xxxHolic Volume 16: 10/16/14

cover artxxxHolic Volume 16 by CLAMP marks the start of the Rô series. Yûko is gone and Watanuki in hopes to find her and perhaps shock of her disappearance, has decided to stay in the shop to keep it running.

Watanuki's existence, and perhaps the shop's continued existence, are tied together. As long as he stays within the confines of the shop he won't age and the shop won't disappear. He therefore needs help from Dômeki and his other friends met over the course of the previous volumes.

Throughout the series, Yûko imparted the importance of personal decisions in the flow of life. Further more Yûko reminds Watanuki that hitsuzen ( describes the coincidences of life, not fate. It seems now that Watanuki is trying to avoid both decision making and hitsuzen. He's in a self imposed stasis. He says he's doing it to find away to restore Yûko but it's more likely that he's paralyzed by grief and fear.



Five stars

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Voltron Force Volume 4: Rise of the Beast King: 10/15/14

cover artVoltron Force Volume 4: Rise of the Beast King by Brian Smith brings together bits and pieces of the opening story arc of both Go Lion (the source material) and Voltron the dubbed and edited import to forge a new creation story for Voltron. In Go Lion Voltron was split asunder by the Goddess of the universe for his extreme hubris and his blood lust. In Voltron, the robot was split apart by Haggar the witch.

Here though, it's implied that Haggar might have been taking credit for the work of Goddess of the Universe. She was able to do get away with this because the heart and soul of the robot, the Beast King, was banished to farthest reaches of the universe. As long as he wasn't there to give the robot life, the robot could be flown and controlled by sum of its parts and the willpower of its pilots.

I have to admit that there's still part of me that would just like the story to credit Allura's father for building the lions. I can see his war machine efforts ruining the economy of Aris making the on going attacks by Xarkon and now Lotor's forces all the more devastating.

But it we have to go with the original story's explanation that Voltron was some how a sentient robot of mass destruction — more like the Iron Man, it's nice to see an on-going threat to things returning to the way they were. It also makes the Voltron Force a genuinely scary thing, rather than a lily white force for good.



Five stars

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Ghostbusters, Volume 6: Trains, Brains, and Ghostly Remains: 10/14/14

cover artGhostbusters, Volume 6: Trains, Brains, and Ghostly Remains by Erik Burnham explores the circumstances and consequences of Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter's return. While they were gone, the five boroughs of New York got rather comfy working with the New Ghostbusters (because they are easier to boss around and are cheeper to hire). Meanwhile, Janine, is perfectly happy to go back to manning the front desk, except that the supernatural powers that be have their eyes set on her.

It's the Janine plot that's especially interesting. Why was she drawn to this ridiculous job, given that the Ghostbusters go from feast to famine on a regular basis. It's apparently in her blood, and not in a good way. She's not Raven but she does have some supernatural ties, ones that might end up costing Janine her life.

Rescuing Janine from a situation she put herself in, though her own interpretation of ancient and mystical rules, requires the work of the two Egons. Well, it's actual Egon and Janine's English professor boyfriend, Rodger. I call him the other Egon because he's drawn to resemble Egon from The Real Ghostbusters.

Now while it's exciting to get a Janine backstory, having her take (even for a brief moment) the role of damsel in distress is frankly distressing. It's just not in her character sheet. Janine does not need rescuing and the fact that it had to be from an ancient deity, tells you just how sturdy and street smart a person she is.

And then there's the potential love triangle of Egon and Roger. Let's just not go there. Janine in this version (and more or less in the movies, too) isn't interested in Egon. That her boyfriend bears a passing resemblance to the odd ball character sheet that was the cartoon Egon is more for the fans than for Janine. Let's hopefully leave the love triangle out of the plot; she's not the protagonist in a YA paranormal romance.



Four stars

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Divergent: 10/13/14

cover artDivergent by Veronica Roth is, as am I sure you know, the first of the Divergent series. As there are already thousands of blog posts about the book and series, I'm going to veer off from my usual review formula.

The book is set in Chicago — the remains, anyway, of the city after some cataclysmic event destroyed the nation as we know it. Although there's some back story, the big explanations are left to the imagination. The city is divided up by different factions and at a certain age, teenagers are give a test which helps them decide if they stay with their birth faction or if they switch. Then there are the divergent ones and our heroine, Beatrice Prior (aka Tris) is one of them.

And I'm one of them too. See divergent was the term schools used to describe those square peg in the round hole type students. Divergent was the catch all for the students weren't special ed but weren't exactly normal ed either. I was given the divergent tag after passing the school's IQ test with flying colors (but that's a different story for a different post). At the time, I took the label "divergent" as a badge of honor. In Tris's world, it's something to hide, even if secretly she's proud of her status.

Jeremy and Candace as Four and TrisHer being different isn't quite the point of the book. Instead, it's about her learning the ropes of her newly chosen faction, Dauntless. They're the all black wearing, warrior caste, who live in some old gravel pit or something and basically take turns trying to kill each other.

The problem is, as Tris starts earning her keep and the heart of her trainer, Four, I couldn't help but find similarities between Divergent and Phineas and Ferb Beyond the Second Dimension. Tris becomes Candace and Four becomes Jeremy. Just go with it.

The sad fact is, I prefer the Phineas and Ferb movie to Divergent. But I have Insurgent and Allegiant in a lovely box set, and I do plan to read them.



Three stars

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Japanese Aesthetics and Anime: The Influence of Tradition: 10/12/14

cover artJapanese Aesthetics and Anime: The Influence of Tradition by Dani Cavallaro is a slim but extremely focused volume on the history, culture, and iconography of anime. I read it because I have a life-long love/hate relationship with anime. Although I've watched probably as much anime as I have American animation, my knowledge of the history of it remains spotty at best.

Anime, like animation around the world, has its roots in the early days of Japanese filmmaking. That said, though, anime didn't really take off until the advent of television (whereas in the United States, television was almost the death knell for the art until it was radically changed by Hanna-Barbera).

I've watched a ton of anime from the 1970s and early 1980s (either untranslated on a local access channel, or badly dubbed / imported on after school syndication). In college I was re-introduced to anime through my then-boyfriend's neighbor, and to a lesser degree, through my film studies degree (Akira is not the be-all and end-all of the art form, thanks). After college and into the early 2000s, I didn't watch much due to the demands of work, parenting and a, a lack of disposable income, and just basic access problems. With the advent of streaming media and services like CrunchyRoll, Funimation, AnimeNetwork, and to a lesser degree, Netflix, access to anime is easy and affordable (though still not complete — but that probably won't ever happen).

In the last five years of watching probably more anime than domestic television, I've come to recognize certain tropes, motifs, and progressions of storytelling with in genres and among studios. But with huge gaps in my watching and of course, the language barrier, I feel like there's so much more I'm missing.

I chose Japanese Aesthetics and Anime: The Influence of Tradition after a Google search brought up some interesting passages in the book. I had actually been looking for a connection between the French New Wave and an anime series we were watching at the time. While the previewed text didn't immediately answer that question, it did an intriguing passage that implied Bladerunner was more influential in the Japanese anime circles, than it was a commercial success here. For anyone who's seen Bubblegum Crisis, that connection is apparent, but according to this book, it was an almost across the board influence.

While Japanese Aesthetics and Anime: The Influence of Tradition isn't an academic book (even if it sounds like one with that title), it is a solid introduction to anime with plenty of title suggestions for people who want to fill in the gaps of what they might have missed. There is even speculation that the author might not even exist (and non de plums are more troublesome for credibility in nonfiction, though certainly "anonymous" has published quite a few). This book isn't film theory; it's more like an A to Z of anime, with an focus on titles that best highlight certain Japanese aesthetic trends.



Four stars

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Blair's Attic: 10/11/14

cover artBlair's Attic by Joseph C. Lincoln is all about memory and unreliable narrators. It's also a reminder to me that my memory is as fallible as anyone else's. When I think of my first time reading this book, I can distinctly picture myself in the weird triangle shaped bedroom I had as a newly wed. I picture book as one of the many SRLF volumes I had checked out to give the storage books a chance at freedom. And while UCLA does have a copy in SRLF there is no record of me reading the book at that time or that place in my handwritten book diary (now in its third volume).

All I can think, then, is that my initial annoyance with the book, shares an emotional tie with other memories of annoying reads whilst a newly wed. Or maybe instead, it's a nostalgic feeling of getting back to reading old books. I don't know, but this false memory lingers.

The book itself is unusual for a Joseph C. Lincoln in that it's told in first person and from multiple points of view. Together these four narratives span the decades from the 1880s to the 1920s and are inspired by popular horror of the time — Dracula (1897) and the like.

The first narrator, the long-time housekeeper at the Blair house, is an avid reader and a fan of horror books. Her obsession with horror and Gothic romances sets the tone of Blair's Attic. Of course now as a modern-day reader, I can't help but also compare it to The Blair Witch Project, though witchcraft isn't exactly mentioned within the context of the story.

The gist of the plot is one of a curse following a shipwreck. Cap'n Blair's friend was at helm and all souls were lost. The salvage consisting of treasures from Japan and China is put into storage after Blair's death and there they remain until Blair's daughter decides to renovate the house before her marriage (the modern day part of the story in the 1920s). It is during these renovations that the curse manifests itself and a man ends up dead.

When I first read Blair's Attic in 2004, I was still relatively new to Lincoln's oeuvre. I mistakenly thought of him as a quaint writer of dialect pieces and nothing more. Yes — his characters do use dialect but it's done in terms of character building and not as a way to seem old-timey or some such. Coming back to this book with a decade's worth of reading, I'll warrant that Lincoln was as world savvy as Samuel Clemens / Mark Twain, and chose to use dialect for similar reasons.

Within the four narratives: the housekeeper, the fiancé, the daughter, and again the housekeeper, there is a mystery involving an old shipwreck, a missing treasure, a possible curse, and all the other things of a really good episode of Scooby Doo. It's not a finely crafted mystery (as mysteries weren't Lincoln's genre of choice) but it is still a satisfying one.



Five stars

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Sisters: 10/10/14

cover artSisters by Raina Telgemeier is a follow up to her orthodontic memoir, Smile. Although it has the same people at about the same age, this book is a different part of her story — one about being a big sister and the frustration that can come with that.

The relationship between Raina and her sister, Amara, (and later, their younger brother) is framed with a trip to Colorado for a family reunion. As they drive there are flash backs to Raina's expectations of being a big sister — vs the reality of it. Though sisters, they are very different people. Amara is not the instant playmate she'd hoped for. Even when she grows older, she's still not the playmate.

From the children's point of view there's the competitions — like who can have the better pet? Who can draw the better picture? So on and so forth. Even the best behaved, happiest of siblings will still compete or find some other way to push each other's buttons.

And there's the snake that Amara loves and Raina's scared of. The snake is probably my favorite part of this book because my brother and I have our own snake story.

Our snake was a San Francisco garter snake, found in a friend's yard and given to us in a plastic terrarium. My mother like Raina wanted nothing to do with the snake. We were supposed to keep the snake outside until we could find a proper home for it (being any home not ours). But we brought it inside to the upstairs bathroom because that seemed like a better idea.

cover art
(Photo by Vabbley)

The snake escaped.

After Mom stopped yelling, we were grounded.

A week later after we were sure it was dead, I found the snake while cleaning the bathroom. The snake had crawled under the fuzzy toilet seat cover we had on the lid. He was happily asleep and minding his own business. I'm glad I found him instead of my mom. Otherwise, there would have been another round of groundings and the snake probably would have ended up dead. So the snake plot from start to finish — especially the finish, had me roaring with laughter.



Five stars

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Confessions of a Shopaholic: 10/09/14

cover artAlthough I've enjoyed Sophie Kinsella's standalone books, Remember Me? and Twenties Girl, I've been reluctant to try her Shopaholic series. The thing is, I'm not into shopping, fashion, designers or big name brands, and reading a series about a twenty-something who is, just sounded tedious. But, a Twitter friend recommended the book to me and I respect the recommendations of friends above my own knee jerk reaction.

I chose to listen to Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella as read by Emily Gray (the same narrator as Twenties Girl. It opens with a number of dire but cheerfully polite letters from the bank to Miss Rebecca Bloomwood. Although she's a financial reporter, she's completely clueless with her own personal finances. She's also too embarrassed to admit that she needs help both with her overdraft and with her addiction to shopping.

Rebecca needs to either spend less or make more. Ideally she needs to do both. The book humorously tracks her as she tries different schemes (including dating a billionaire). Nothing works out as planned but Rebecca does grow as a character and there is a happy ending.

It was a fun book, fun enough, that I went on to read the second book, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan.



Four stars

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University: 10/08/14

cover artUniversity by Bentley Little is a horror about an unseen menace turning a Southern California university (and its students / faculty) evil. I read the book because the university as described was a close approximation to UCLA and I tend to like horror stories where it's the actual structure is evil (The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson) or appears to be evil (The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson).

University though ditches the usual ambiance that structurally based horror stories have to instead use the tropes most often used for disaster stories. I suppose the one-word title, should have clued me in.

Within the first ten pages, people who are introduced and let to do mundane things that are related to a new semester starting, are then either killed or raped. As the book progresses, more and more, the option is rape, followed by death. It reads like a sick man's wet dream. There's nothing else here except men becoming more and more sexually charged and women being victimized in the name of "plot."



One star

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The Great EB: the Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: 10/07/14

cover artThe Great EB: the Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica by Herman Kogan is a late 1950s history of Encyclopaedia Britannica at a time when it was still a powerful among reference materials. Before looking at the then-current state of affairs of the encyclopedia, it goes through its creation and previous editions and how the reference evolved over time.

Reading the book after EB has announced it will no longer print editions, opting to go completely online, puts a different perspective on the book. Rather than the fits and starts of starting up an empire, the book reads like an explanation of the current (online only) state of affairs.

In the early days, nearly every edition drained all the resources of the people creating it. It invariably ran late and over budget. Each edition was "the last" edition. And a few decades down the line, a new person would get the crazy ida to make another edition.



Three stars

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The Long Mars: 10/06/14

cover artThe Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is the third of the Long Earth books. In the first book the gap was first discovered — a place where the Earth has been destroyed. In the second book, the gap is researched and developed into a new Cape Canaveral. Now the race is to explore and claim as much of the Long Mars as possible.

As Mars is still uncharted territory, beyond the probes sent up before Step Day, the natural steppers are recruited. It's a chance for Sally to reconnect with her father. As there is mounting evidence that Mars once had an environment that could have supported life (and may very well have), the Long Mars travels are a way to explore the many what-ifs that could have played out under different circumstances.

While there are nods to Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom series, the Martian landscapes are pure Pratchett and Baxter. Mars throughout remains an inhospitable environment to Earthlings, but there are some Mars version with thriving alien flora and fauna that remind me of Hal Clement at his best.

Back home on the Long Earth, there are a few other side plots. First, there is the continued fall out (literally) from the Yellowstone eruption. Next, there is a joint exploration between China and the United States. Finally, there's a plot about a new breed of humans, ones who are scary smart and seem to have more powers beyond the natural stepping the Joshua and Sally have. This last plot seems to be the stringer for a possible fourth book.

When The Long Mars was first announced, the title I saw floating around was The Long Childhood, clearly with the mutant plot being the highlighted one. That title would still work well for a fourth book if one is planned.



Five stars

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Death Masks: 10/05/14

cover artDeath Masks by Jim Butcher is the fifth of the Dresden Files books. After struggling to read the last couple it was refreshing to click with this one. The Shroud of Turin (tricky, relic that it is) has gone missing again and this time it's in Chicago.

While Dresden needs to find the shroud, he has different factions all after him and in order to succeed and survive, he needs to make alliances against his better judgment. One of his most unlikely allies is the teenager daughter of his friend, Michael.

In previous books, Michael's family was a big part of the turn off. They were there to be victims and diversions from the plot. This time, though, Molly is refreshing hilarious, and believable.

Then there is the return of Susan, the almost vampire. In the past she was played up for melodrama and unrequited love and all that. This time, she's back as an ally, albeit a somewhat untrustworthy one.

The mystery itself was engaging and entertaining. It had more of a caper slant to it, something that lets Butcher's sense of humor shine through. He's really good at putting Dresden into unlikely situations and seeing how they play out.



Five stars

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Unfed: 10/04/14

cover artUnfed by Kirsty McKay is the sequel to Undead. Bobby awakes in a hospital and is given a load of bull about what has happened to her cohorts and with the zombie plague. More troubling, is that her mother is apparently dead.

These books work for their remote, unknown (to the protagonist) locations. Before it was a restaurant and a tower. Now it's a hospital — one like she's never seen. To spice things up, the zombies have gotten smarter; this batch can figure out basic puzzles (including closed doors).

The big mystery here isn't what's causing the zombie outbreak — that we know. Now the question is, where's Smitty and what really happened to Bobby's mother. Thus this one is more of a treasure hunt with zombies.

As with the first one, the ending is rather open-ended. As of writing this review, I don't see any mention that a third is planned. As it stands now, the series closes on note similar to that of the ending of the original Italian Job, except that instead of gold threatening to dump our heroes off the Alps to their untimely deaths, it's zombies.

Were a third one published (maybe Un-Zed... haha), I would certainly read it. Were McKay to publish a completely unrelated book, I'd read that too. She has a way with mixing humor and the macabre.



Five stars

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The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye: 10/03/14

cover artThe Case of the Gypsy Good-bye by Nancy Springer is the conclusion to the Enola Holmes series. Enola has one last case to solve and with it comes the answer she's been searching for most: the whereabouts of her mother.

The middle three books are mainly focused on Enola's clients and one big mystery which she solves per title. The opening and closing books, though, are more about Enola, her brothers (Sherlock and Mycroft) and their mother. Now we get to find out what happened to her.

In that regard, although I remember LOVING the book from cover to cover, I can't really remember Enola's last case. I was so focused on her correspondence with her mother and tracking down those clues that the rest of the book is a complete blur.



Five stars

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Scarlett Fever: 10/02/14

cover artScarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson is the sequel to Suite Scarlett. Although Scarlett's special charge has checked out of the family hotel, she's still tied up in her adventures. Because she's now Mrs. Amberson's personal assistant.

Scarlett already had a brother who wanted to be an actor more than anything. That's now spiraling out of control and Mrs. Amberson isn't really helping matters.

It was in the madness that is acting both for stage and screen where I started to lose enthusiasm for Scarlett Fever. The friendship that worked so well within the well defined spaces of the hotel seemed to go awry with a larger stage.

Worst of all Scarlett was obsessing like Candace for Jeremy except her boy was a complete and utter jerk who saw her as a means to an end and nothing more. I get that people do this in real life but I wanted more for Scarlett who in the previous book had seemed so on top of things.



Three stars

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Jalna: 10/01/14

cover artSometime within my life time, there was a cultural shift from reading books in a series in publication order to reading them in narrative chronology. The first series I remember noticing the shift was with the Chronicles of Narnia. Now it's The Whiteoak Chronicles by Mazo de la Roche. Perhaps here the lesson is to avoid series with the name "chronicles."

When there's a series that was published over years, possibly decades, I would prefer to read the books in the order in which they were published even if the narrative chronology is out of order. So this means I'm starting the Whiteoak Chronicles with Jalna.

Jalna is the manor home of the Whiteoaks, with grandmother Adeline as the matriarch. She is planning for her 100th birthday and she's not sure about the directions her grandchildren are taking. It's situated in the countryside just south of Ontario, and the Whiteoaks like their quiet life.

Except for the youngest generation; it's their unrest that drives the book. The chapters unfold as character sketches that set up events more thoroughly explored in in The Whiteoaks of Jalna. There's Eden, the poet, who wants to make it big in New York. There's Finch, the perpetually restless. There's Remy, the one who takes being a Whiteoak the most seriously. There's Wakefield, the baby of the family.

There are two marriages in in this book, one Adeline approves of and one that she doesn't. Her disapproval of it, as well as her expectation that even married couples live at Jalna, spells disaster, as one can expect.

It's a rather quiet book. There's a lot more bite to its sequel, The Whiteoaks of Jalna.

Order of Publication Chronological Order
Jalna The Building of Jalna
Whiteoaks Morning at Jalna
Finch's Fortune Mary Wakefield
The Master of Jalna Young Renny
Young Renny Whiteoak Heritage
Whiteoak Harvest The Whiteoak Brothers
Whiteoak Heritage Jalna
Wakefield's Course Whiteoaks of Jalna
The Building of Jalna Finch's Fortune
Return to Jalna The Master of Jalna
Mary Wakefield Whiteoak Harvest
Renny's Daughter Wakefield's Course
Variable winds at Jalna Return to Jalna
The Whiteoak Brothers Renny's Daughter
Centenary at Jalna Variable winds at Jalna
Morning at Jalna Centenary at Jalna



Three stars

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