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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

Comics Squad: Recess!: 11/30/14

cover artComics Squad: Recess! edited by Jennifer L. Holm is an anthology of comics for elementary school aged readers. The book contains 8 comics including the popular ones like Babymouse, Squish, and Lunch Lady.

As with the afore mentioned comics, this anthology also relies on the single color design, orange as it so happens. Be prepared to read everything in an eye searing orange.

If you can do that, you'll find eight short comics all centered on the topic of recess. For Babymouse, that means being thwarted by her own bad luck, bad attitude, and bad decision making. For another it means becoming a ninja. And there's a chance to find magic nuts.

It is what it is. If you're a fan of these comics, you'll like this collection. Readers new to comics but curious enough to try small samples might inspired to pick up the actual series. But for most everyone, it's probably safe to just pass on this book.



Three stars

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Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble: 11/29/14

cover artBad Kitty Drawn to Trouble by Nick Bruel is the latest of the Bad Kitty graphic novels. This one is a bit different because Bad Kitty is made aware of her creator in an effort to teach children how to write fiction.

Bruel begins the book by teaching how to draw Bad Kitty. There are spaces next to each step for a child to try his or her hand it. In my copy, those spaces are filled with my daughter's attempts.

It is from the drawing process that Bad Kitty eventually springs to life. And from there she begins to demand a place to be. Like in Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, Warner Bros., 1953)

And through the artistic torture of Bad Kitty (wrong sets, bizarre situations, etc), Bruel teaches the basics of story telling. He includes a term I haven't seen in how to write books aimed at children — the MacGuffin. Interestingly, although it's a film term, the script writing teacher I had at UCLA, didn't use the term in his lectures.

Anyway, the MacGuffin isn't usually usually used as a way for the audience to torture the protagonist as it is in Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble, but it is sometimes personified. The best example of this personification is in the two part "Chicago Holiday" episodes that aired on November 10 and 17, 1994 of season one of Due South. While Fraser is trying to keep the Ambassador's daughter out of trouble (that she keeps putting herself into), Ray is trying to track down a list of names that will break a case open. They've been written on the inside of a matchbook which goes on its own crisscrossing journey of Chicago. Two of those characters are named MacGuffin: Mrs. MacGuffin, of hotel housekeeping, who takes the matchbook from the Ambassador's room and tosses it down the garbage shoot, and the store manager's name whose name tag in reverse reads "Mg. Uffin".

Mrs. MacGuffin carting off the actual MacGuffin ("Chicago Holiday, Part 1", Due South)

(Niffug, G. M., admiring himself in the mirror after picking up the MacGuffin)

In the acknowledgements section, Nick Bruel doesn't include Due South, but he does point children to both Duck Amuck and it's sequel Rabbit Rampage (Chuck Jones, Warner Bros., 1955), and the grand-daddy of them all, Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay (1914)

This is a fun book for both children and parents, one that might inspire lots of video watching by both, and hopefully some story telling / story writing too.



Five stars

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xxxHOLiC: Rei Volume 1: 11/28/14

cover artTo my delight and surprise, CLAMP has started a new manga series in the xxxHolic universe. xxxHolic: Rei Volume 1 by CLAMP is somewhere in the middle of the old series before Yuko's disappearance, though it shares the same name (Rei) as the ending few volumes.

The shop is visited on alternating days by women who claim to be each other's best friend. They have identical phone charms where one is clean and the other is beat up. One of the women bears scars eerily familiar to those of the phone charm.

Anyone familiar with CLAMP's work, and especially's Watanuki's story, will recognize the theme of linked destinies — or more precisely, linked hitsuzen. But there's a twist where one's state of mind, or state of heart, determines the path a curse takes, and it's now how you'd expect.



Five stars

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Little Bo in London: 11/27/14

cover artLittle Bo in London by Julie Andrews Edwards is the conclusion to the Little Bo series. The yacht is headed to its next destination when it's boarded by pirates!

Little Bo and the other cats are to the rescue. The news of the capture of these pirates and the rescue of the the lord and lady gets all the way home to Queen Elizabeth II.

And she is why Little Bo and friends are on their way back to England. Though Bo has some misadventures in Buckingham Palace, at the paws of the royal corgis, the book is mostly a chance for Bo to learn what happened to the rest of her family. It's happy endings all around, and all loose threads tied up.

This is a picture book series that I've read exclusively through the library. I think some day I'd like to own the whole set to re-read and see how the story progresses in one go.



Five stars

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Matched: 11/26/14

cover artMatched by Ally Condie is the first of the Matched trilogy. Cassia at age 17 is ready for the matching ceremony and lucky enough to have it fall on her actual birthday. Most teens are matched to other teens living in different cities but Cassia's match ends up being her best friend, who is also present at the ceremony. Just as she's settling into the perfect fairytale ending ever, the picture in her matching info packet changes, to show another boy she knows, and one due to a family crime can never be matched.

That opening scene sets up a near future society familiar to any regular reader of speculative or dystopian fiction. It's set squarely with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. As the society seems to be functioning at the start of the book — with a fairly high acceptance rate — I'd say the book is closer to Levin than Orwell.

The Society's stated goal (whether true or not) is to provide the best possible life for all its citizens through the management of personal data. Cassia is on track to be a Sorter — one of the Society who take the data and make decisions based on it. She's very good at it — efficient and observant. And as she has the eyes of the Society for a very important position, she gets glimpses into the seedier underpinnings of it.

And it was through the Sorting plot that I fell in love with the book. See, I'm a sorter too, of a sort. The Society is basically a curated one, a civilization created and run by over zealous librarians who uniformly decided on the 100 best songs, 100 best poems, 100 best novels, 100 best movies and how best to use metadata to manage people.



Five stars

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The Curse of the Thrax: 11/25/14

cover artThe Curse of the Thrax by Mark Murphy is the first of the Bloodsword Trilogy. It's a mixture of high fantasy and post apocalyptic science fiction. Jaykriss's warrior father has died while fighting a dragon, so the teenager decides to take up the cause. In the process he learns the world is not at all what he expected.

So the young warrior to be taking up his father's sword is a pretty standard start to a fantasy trilogy. Or sometimes the young warrior is in search of his parents (Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander) or young warriors in search of their offspring (The Mallorean by David Eddings). Or in the case of Adventure Time, a mixture of both.

When I started reading I was expecting something more along the lines of Lloyd Alexander and David Eddings. I wasn't expecting something that blended the far future, a modern day city, and magic. So while it doesn't involve sentient candy creatures or stretching talking dogs, it does share similar world building and certainly appealed to this rabid fan.

The world that Jaykriss has to quest through is based on a real city and for anyone familiar with the area might recognize it from the included map. For those not immediately sure, Jaykriss learns the historical name before the close of the book. I'm curious to see if in the later books more explanation is given to how the changes came about.



Four stars

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The Coldest Girl in Coldtown: 11/24/14

cover artThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black is a standalone horror set in a world where vampires have infected a sizable chunk of the population and in the United States, walled cities have been set up as permanent quarantines. Into this mix we have Tana who wakes up after a bender of a party to find she's one of a very small number of survivors after vampires crashed the party and went on a killing spree. Fearing she's probably been infected and will turn cold (a step in the direction full-on vampirism) she sets out for the nearest coldtown, with a vampire as her bounty.

Here's where I'm torn and disappointed. The mechanism for how vampirism works was a unique twist. Rather than just being demonic possession type thing that results in an undying hunger for human blood, it's more of a virus that's gotten out of hand. Yes, the virus did originally come from vampires, but the transformation process is less instant and more painful. Also, the world building is noteworthy — entire areas being walled off with checkpoints and only the slimmest chance of escape. These are ghettos for eternity, for those who have turned, and death sentences for those who don't.

But then there's the temptation to have le sexy vampire and making him something epic, mythic, rebellious, and dangerous. Oh fuck, it's another Lestat. Why oh why did The Coldest Girl in Coldtown have to waste pages and pages and pages on le sob story of Gavriel's back story. I wasn't reading it for him. I don't care how important he is to the whole damn vampire experience; Tara should have staked him immediately so the story could get back to the interesting stuff.

Except, I should have seen it coming, because even early on before Gavriel derailed the plot, it seemed hung up on bizarre and inane details. During the drive to the coldtown, there's about a dozen references to Tara driving a black Crown Victoria. It's a detail that's screaming to be a Chekhov's gun, except that once we get to the coldtown, the car is abandoned. Potential call backs are wasted in lieu of Buffy and Angel fanfic. Barf.



Three stars

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1.4: 11/23/14

cover artPublished in the United States as The Future We Left Behind, 1.4 by Mike A. Lancaster is the sequel to 0.4. The events of the original human upgrade described by Kyle Straker on his cassette tapes are years in the past.

Peter Vincent, the son of a man who designed a robotic bee after the original bees died. He lives in a world where everything can be personalized through the threads living inside everyone. People can record and live blog with just a thought. They can change how the world looks to them.

At the fringe of all of this are the Strakerites, the ones who don't or can't embrace the technology. Through a high school friendship, Peter has his eyes opened to their way of life, and possibly a more sinister truth, both past and future.

Normally I shy away from sequels that essentially revisit the same story. But Peter Vincent's voice is so different from Kyle's that it was fascinating to get inside the mind of someone who is a Human.4, and the son of someone famous, thus giving him privilege and access to things that Kyle didn't.

Lancaster's next book .wav looks at mind control through subliminal messages in music. Sounds like fun. It's being released in 2015.



Five stars

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Over The Wall: 11/22/14

cover artOver The Wall by Peter Wartman is a nearly wordless graphic novel about a girl going in search of her brother in the monster infested ruins of an ancient city.

The city, protected both by a wall and magic, serves as a reminder of dark times. It's also a place where children are initiated into adulthood. They are sent on a quest over the wall. If they return, they are welcomed as adults. If they don't, then the city swallows them up as a sacrifice.

The girl, years away presumably from her initiation decides to go after her brother. She knows he will probably not remember her. She also knows that if she lingers, she will lose her own memory.

Her unexpected trip over the wall reveals the dark history of the city and the reasons behind mankind's expulsion from it. The brother and sister also manage to find an unlikely ally.

It's quick but memorable read, relying primarily on the strength of its illustrations to carry the story. The artwork is nearly monochrome, bold splotches of color and thick lines.



Four stars

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Neurocomic: 11/21/14

cover artNeurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella is a meta nonfiction about the inner workings of the brain. The book follows a man who is sucked into a human brain through a magical portal. His one and only goal is to get back to the beach and to the woman he was meeting.

Each part of the brain is drawn as a combination of the actual physical landscape and a metaphysical one. The metaphysical landscape builds on the way in which that part functions, the background for its name, and how it creates perception. These landscapes while not as gag oriented as the "Monster from the Id" episode of Phineas and Ferb, they are emotionally similar.

A panel from Neurocomic
A panel from Neurocomic

A panel from Neurocomic
A still from "Monster of the Id" of Phineas and Ferb

As the reader follows the adventure through the cerebral landscape, he or she will learn how the brain works and perhaps get a healthy appreciation for the use of metafiction to educate.



Five stars

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Blood Rites: 11/20/14

cover artBlood Rites by Jim Butcher is the sixth of the Dresden Files books. Dresden has a new job, going under cover at a porn studio. Someone or something is killing off the cast in violent ways.

So here's the thing, like many detective mysteries, it's expected that the novel will have a number of twists and turns, false leads, and red herrings. If the trail of clues isn't blatantly obvious, then the book will require concentration. Though these are also urban fantasies, Butcher's books require from me, more concentration than say Diane Mott Davidson's catering series. It's not that one is better written than the other, it's more a matter of clicking better with the characters, I think.

Anyway, I started reading Blood Rites just before I started a very intense, full time, but short term library inventory job. Between the commute time, the hours on the job, and other responsibilities, my days were twelve or thirteen hours long. I was coming home too exhausted to read for enjoyment. While I enjoyed (and tore through) the first third of the book, the next third passed by my eyes in a disjointed haze. Then the job was over (well done, efficiently executed) and I was able to finish the book with the same enthusiasm as I had started it.

BUT, with the middle blurred, I can't just blindly give it a top rating. Or even a very sensible review. The porn industry with supernatural creatures is certainly a natural blending of the two genres but it's a part of society that's completely off my usual radar (the only porn I've watched, I watched in film school).

My problem with the porn, isn't one of Puritan shame. Instead, it's a reaction to Dresden's discomfort. In previous books, he's constantly distracted by the female form — often distastefully so. It's hard to believe that someone so easily distracted would be unaware of the porn industry. Can't you see Dresden and Bob flipping through at least some magazines together? Or maybe that's just me.



Three stars

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Ghostbusters, Volume 8: Mass Hysteria! Part 1: 11/19/14

cover artGhostbusters, Volume 8: Mass Hysteria! Part 1 by Erik Burnham is the start of the next arc, but it might as well be the perfect description for the reaction to an unsavory and misogynistic component to the Ghostbusters fandom — a set I will hereby dub the "fake geek fanboys."

So before delving into Erik Burnham's latest offering, which continues to be excellent, thought provoking, yet entertaining, let me take a moment to talk about the recently announced Ghostbusters 3 to be directed by Paul Feig and written by Katie Dippold, and featuring a yet-to-announced all female lead cast. Just scroll down to read the comments and you'll see that many of the comments sporting white, male avatars are the ones saying the most negative, racist or misogynistic.

Here are some of my "favorites":

That last comment, "Ghostbusters was in no way a chick flick to begin with," is the at the heart of this backlash by the fake geek fanboys. They just can't accept that women might be fans of the show or that women can't fight ghosts. I bet they haven't even read any of the recent comics, especially The New Ghostbusters where the team was three women and one man, with the team lead by Janine.

So what the fake geek fanboys are saying is that their fandom is the only fandom and anyone who isn't like them has no valid voice when it comes to being fans of Ghostbusters.

While the initial, rather sophomoric, sex-joke laden movie set off the franchise, it was the peripheral stuff — the non-sex gags that built the world and gave it enough life (or afterlife) to not only spark a sequel but to spark the cartoon series and the comics. Why not revisit the world without trying to recreate the original characters? How is this any different than reimagining Shakespeare or relaunching a comic book series with a completely new backstory?

Okay... deep breath. We're not here to watch the fake geek fanboys thrash around. We're here because of Ghostbusters, Volume 8: Mass Hysteria! Part 1, which ironically revisits the first story to see where they all are now. It begins with Dana Barrett once again being the target of another paranormal attack. Interestingly, she doesn't go running to the boys for help — she goes to Janine because Janine is more discrete.

Take a moment to breath this is: the main source of sex gags from the first movie doesn't want to be harassed by the male Ghostbusters. From a quirky but frat boy comedy has evolved into a world where stories can be told that not only pass the Bechdel test, actually embraces it.



Five stars

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The Tenth Circle: 11/18/14

cover artThe Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult is an issue novel about rape. Except it's so heavy handed that the book is laughable and groan-worthy instead of being insightful.

Trixie Stone is fourteen and the perfect daughter of the perfect man, a comic book artist raised in Alaska on Inuit reservation (meaning he's extra-special spiritual™). Before anything goes wrong, though, this perfect family is on the rocks, because the wife is carrying on an affair.

And that's where the problem starts, I suppose. It appears that both mother and daughter are attracted to the bad boys. Trixie, being too young, doesn't know how to handle herself or boys yet. But she's a teenager and full of RAGING hormones and she can't wait any longer.

The set up for the book is this: Trixie lies to her parents, saying she's going to be staying over at her friend's house. Instead they go to a big party where Trixie purposely gets drunk to the point where her inhibitions are gone so that she can have sex without regret. Except that midway through she changes her mind and her bad boy potential boyfriend doesn't stop when she asks him to.

So at first glance we have a straight up novel about the consequences of underage drinking, changing minds, and date rape. No problem. The book should be relevant.

But the plot gets lost in a heap of unnecessary literary window dressing. First there is the mother's scholarship on Dante's Inferno (hence the title). Rape of her daughter is a worse hell than anything thing Dante envisioned. Then there is the father returning to his Inuit upbringing (while still being a privileged white dude because I guess it would be too much to make him an actual Inuit). And finally there is the father working through his pain through his comics, which are included at the end of certain chapters (they aren't very good).

If that combination wasn't enough, the accused rapist is found dead about midway through the book, thus spinning this already unbelievable book into pure crazy land. If I were reading this book as a rape survivor or as a parent of one, I'd be furious after reading this shlock.



Two stars

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: 11/17/14

cover artHaruki Murakami is one of those authors whose books I adore even though they are sometimes very uncomfortable to read. He populates his worlds withs with broken, perverted, evil, awful people. In the case of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a missing cat begins a plot that's a mix between The Graduate and the the legend of Orpheus and Persephone.

Or maybe instead of Orpheus, I should say, "The Thieving Magpie" as that is the piece of classical music that Murakami uses to set the tone of the book. If you're not familiar with Rossini's piece, take a moment to look it up; you've actually heard it if you've watched cartoons from the first half of the 20th century. Disney and Warner Bros. both used it a number of shorts.

But in all seriousness, when a character in a Murakami book or story mentions a classical piece of music, if you're not immediately familiar with it, put the book aside and listen to the music. Classical music is a huge part of Murakami's world and character building.

OK — now that we're back on track, the book opens with Toru Okada, a house husband, boiling up spaghetti and wondering if he should go look for his missing cat. Before he can finish making his lunch or make up his mind, he gets a strange phone call from a woman calling herself Malta.

Malta brings up rule #2 of reading a Murakami book: strange phone calls are harbingers of change and trouble. Malta's conversation — in fact most of Toru's early relationship with her, brings to mind the first half of Adam Sandler's Punch Drunk Love.

Although Malta is a prostitute, she isn't trying to extort money out of Toru. No Murakami character is that obvious or single minded. Instead, she and her sister, are the spirit guides for Toru. She tells him that he will never find the missing cat until things are sorted with his wife.

As with 1Q84, choices made by the main characters result in a split between worlds and a journey between them. Here, though, the route is through the underworld (both literally and figuratively). Toru must travel through both versions to rescue his wife and find their cat.

I have the newest translated Murakami on my reading list. I plan to get to it within weeks, rather than years because I know it won't disappoint.



Five stars

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The Undertaking of Lily Chen: 11/16/14

cover artThe Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff is a graphic novel about a brother trying to arrange a ghost marriage for his recently departed brother. Tradition states that an unmarried man needs a wife to be happy in the afterlife, and that means digging up a woman's corpse. The only problem, Deshi Li is grossed out by the whole process.

Meanwhile, there's a young woman who is stuck in a terrible family situation, with an abusive father, who wants nothing more than to escape and head for Beijing. She takes advantage of the situation, hitching a ride with Deshi. Lily is the type of beautiful woman Deshi images his brother marrying, except that she's alive.

For Lily, this mad dash is a means of escape and the adventure of a lifetime. For Deshi, it's a race against time. He knows his mother is at home sewing the wedding clothes for his brother and his corpse bride. It's also an escape from the man Deshi hired to help him find a bride (before he changed his mind).

The artwork for this graphic novel is bright and surreal. Even in the most mundane of scenes, there's the lingering threat of death, mixed together with a pallet one would see on circus posters. At first I found the disconnect between story and artistic style, too disconcerting. But as I got further into the story, I began to see how the artwork was working to build character. The dark, brooding colors are for Deshi and his unsavory task. The bright, goofy illustrations are for Lily and her enthusiasm for the future.



Four stars

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The Wrenchies: 11/15/14

cover artThe Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple is a time travel, dystopian YA graphic novel. It blends magic and science and comic book tropes to create a world destroyed and over run by monsters. Only the children are able to fight back.

With the retro, 1950s or early 1960s backstory to The Wrenchies combined with the horrific events that lead up to the present day, I'm reminded of early Stephen King, "The Body" or It. Things get out of hand when a pair of boys go into a storm drain and are attacked by an unspeakable evil.

The background art for The Wrenchies is stunning. It's crowded with details that need second and third looks. When a new location is introduced, especially in the far future, there's usually a single page devoted entirely to it, like an establishing shot. They remind me of the sorts of picture books I loved as a kid that featured cut aways of day to day things (like skyscrapers, hospitals, factories, etc.)

But stunning set design wasn't enough to get me fully engrossed in this book. The plot itself is nonlinear (fairly normal for a time travel story) and frenetic. With a huge ensemble cast all fighting for panel time, combined with the cuts back and forth, as well as some incredibly disgusting scenes involving a combination of extreme violence and the typical rotting decay of horror, I lost interest in trying to sort of the time line.

The gross out factors of the book seem to be there mostly for padding. Cut most of them out, and the remaining story is a much tighter, still non-linear tale of self sacrifice and time travel.



Three stars

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Below: 11/14/14

cover artBelow by Meg McKinlay is the story of a town that is gearing up to celebrate its relocation and the creation of a lake (due to the intentional flooding of the old town). Twelve years on, the town is facing a new drought and pieces of the old town have begun to surface at the back of their man made lake. As a Californian watching my state go through its own worst drought in years and seeing old things surfacing as the water recedes, I can say this book struck home.

Cassie who was born the day the town was flooded feels compelled to investigate the true story behind the town's flooding, feeling that something is off on the way everyone seems to remember it. Her best way to do that is through the old town itself, which means swimming in the out of bounds area.

The story of Old Lower Grange rings true. Many towns have been relocated and the old buildings flooded as populations grow and with them the need for water. Near where I live, there is Shasta Lake which sits above Kennett when the Pit, McCloud and Sacramento Rivers were damed in 1948. More recently near San Diego, Olivenhain Dam was built and flooded out a valley near Escondido. Looking at Google Maps, you can see a road that leads right up to the water's edge (and under it).

Suffice it to say, I loved this book. I loved how the true story behind the town's flooding was revealed over the course of the summer. Cassie and her friend who are both outsiders in that they are just too young to have known the old town but are too old to feel a part of the new town were the perfect pair to uncover the ways their lives were forever changed by the flooding.



Five stars

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Ghostbusters, Volume 7: Happy Horror Days!: 11/13/14

cover artGhostbusters, Volume 7: Happy Horror Days! by Erik Burnham has an end of the year holiday theme — roughly speaking, Halloween, Christmas, and New Year's. But it's a more interesting take on all three of these times than the typical holiday themed book. The traditions drawn from are regional, culturally based, and thankfully non-derivative.

The Halloween, or more broadly, late October, early November, holiday section is comprised of two stories. The first happens on Devil's Night (October 30th) and the usual pranking is taken up a notch by the arrival of a malicious ghost named Stinky Jack. The second event comes during Día de los Muertos, an offers a chance for the Ghostbusters to contemplate whether or not all ghosts need to be "busted" even as an obviously malicious entity is trying to pervert a family event to its own devious purposes.

The next two, roughly Christmas and New Years looks to the winter traditions and the ways in which "Santa Claus" has lost a lot of his sting over the generations. Here there is a return of Sinterklass who is more vengeance demon than rolly, polly, jolly old man.

After two volumes that were very character centered, Happy Horror Days was a welcome departure. These events are more typical Ghostbuster adventures (like from the Real Ghostbusters series).



Five stars

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The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing: 11/12/14

cover artThe Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage is the sequel to Three Times Lucky but the first one I've read. That said, it stands alone just fine with plenty of time given on reintroducing characters, setting, and basic plot dynamics.

At the edge of Tupelo Landing, there's an Inn, abandoned since the 1930s. To save some history and keep an annoying busybody from moving in, Miss Lana makes the winning bid at the auction. There's just one problem — the place comes with its very own ghost.

Mo and her best friend Dale are on the case, deciding to meet and greet the ghost and see if an arrangement can be made. They also want to interview him or her for their history project — a guaranteed A.

Now where's a book with the perfect mix of elements to get my attention. For the mystery lover, there's the amateur detectives. For the horror fan, there's the hotel with buried and tragic history. For the paranormal fan, there's the ghost. For the history fan, there's a prohibition era story. And it all comes together into a quirky but charming tale set in a small, fictional North Carolina town.



Five stars

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Amulet 6: Escape From Lucien: 11/11/14

cover artThere was a two year gap between Amulet 5: Prince of Elves and Amulet 6: Escape from Lucien by Kazu Kibuishi because he was busy redesigning the Harry Potter covers. Well, the wait was worth it.

Brother and sister are separated. Navin and his cohorts are on a mission to Lucien for a beacon to aid in the war against the Elf King. Meanwhile, Emily follows Max into the Void to face the source of the stones' power.

I admit that with a two year gap between volumes, it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. Kibuishi does like to throw the action right at the beginning and once the initial chaos was over, I was able to reconnect with characters and remember who they were and what they were all trying to do.

Or rather, I remember them in the early days — my first reading of the series. I remember the siblings and their robots. I remember when the mother was ill and the elf prince was on a rampage like Prince Zuko in the early seasons of Avatar, the Last Airbender.

But as all good series should, the characters have evolved from their original character sheets. They have worked through their initial problems to see the larger picture. Now it's time for Max to face his past and accept his crimes, and for the Elf Prince to address the evils done by his father.



Five stars

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Burma Chronicles: 11/10/14

cover artBurma Chronicles by Guy Delisle is one from a series of graphic novel memoirs of his time in a particular part of the world while his wife is on assignment for Doctors without Borders. Burma Chronicles (originally Chroniques burmanes) covers the time spent living in Myanmar.

While his wife works at the clinic, he spends his time between raising their infant son and writing (and drawing) his memoir. The book is divided into small vignettes of panel comics on a given topic — finding a home, learning the language, living with the heat, etc.

Mixed in with the mundane, there are also observations on the political and economic situation. They live just around the corner from a political prisoner. As foreigners they are not allowed anywhere near her home.

Interestingly, though, Delisle also chronicles how easy it is to become complacent. He shows himself in one vignette filled with plans to participate (for instance, getting up each dawn to feed the monks) or to rebel (trying to see the political prisoner). But each time, though, the vignette ends with "Next morning" and he's either sleeping in or doing something else — the grand plans long forgotten.

Although I found some of the pacing a little slow, it was fascinating enough that I plan to track down other travelogues in this series.



Four stars

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The Shadow Hero: 11/09/14

cover artThe Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew is the reimagined backstory for The Green Turtle, a WWII era superhero by Chu Hing. Never heard of him, don't worry, the back of the book includes the history of the comic and the authors' reasons for telling the Turtle's story the way they did.

Hank is a Chinese American living in a Chinatown of a fictional city that bears a passing resemblance and name to San Francisco. Hank enjoys helping his mother and father run their grocery store but he'd rather not be under the "protection" of the local gang boss. When his mother is rescued by the local superhero, she gets new and loftier ideas for Hank's future.

There are two kinds of superheroes: those who have powers because of a tragic accident, and those who have special fighting skills, augmented by gadgetry. Hank's mother will do everything in her power to turn her son into a superhero, of one variety or another.

The two key elements to the original comic that need explaining: the hero's unusually pink skin (pinker than any of the obviously white supporting characters) and his apparent invulnerability to bullets (but nothing else). Yang and Liew suggest that the skin color comes from one of Hank's mother's bad ideas, and the bullet thing being a gift from the Chinese turtle god who has been helping Hank's family for a while.

Hank becomes a reluctant hero, at first at the pushing of his overly enthusiastic mother, and then in response to the crime and corruption he sees around him. While family tragedy plays a part in his growth as a character, a la Peter Parker / Spider-man, Hank's story is grounded in a love for his neighborhood, his mother, and his city.



Five stars

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Birdmen: 11/08/14

cover artBirdmen by Lawrence Goldstone takes an in depth look at the people who made heavier than air flight possible. When I was a child, the answer to this question was simple: The Wright brothers, and it all started with the Kitty Hawk flight in 1903. Technological advances are rarely that simple. They are typically messy, competitive, and even litigious.

Modern day airplanes are exquisite corpses built on the technological advancements that different inventors and companies have made. Birdmen focuses on the individual pieces of the puzzle of flight. Besides the Wrights, there was Curtiss, Baldwin (inventor of the parachute), Chanute, Langley and others.

While there is some biographical information too the life stories take a back seat to the discussion of their research. For anyone interested in the mechanics of flight, the business of being on the leading edge of technology, and the fine art of getting and keeping government contracts. On the flip side is the heavy price of lawsuits, the never ending need to boost one's brand, the growing need for capital, and the ever expanding competition.

For the Wright Bros. business, the desire to stay privately owned, with tight control over patents and publicity, and trouble adapting to an ever changing business model. Ultimately the things that put the Wrights on the top in the beginning, were the same ones that brought an unfortunate end to the company.

My one complaint with the book is that it seems to drag near the end. To fill the book out beyond 400 pages, the book includes some brief biographies of early superstar flyers. While I am also interested in the likes of Harriet Quimby and John Moisant, I was reading Birdmen for the business and engineering stories.



Four stars

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Maddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch: 11/07/14

cover artMaddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch by Eric Orchard is a graphic novel about a girl going to extraordinary lengths to save her parents from a curse. Maddy Kettle's parents were booksellers until the Thimblewitch turned them into mice. Now Maddy wants to find the witch and force her to turn them back.

As Maddy travels the land to find a solution to her problem she encounters all number of people. The people and sentient creatures she meets are reminiscent to the types of beings Dorothy encountered and later befriended (for the most part) on her various journeys through, and later, life in, Oz.

Having a strong, competent female as the lead in a fantasy comic is good. Having her be part of a story where there is no clear, villain, is even better. Maddy, by being observant, patient but tenacious, is able to save not only her parents, but many of the other characters she meets.



Four stars

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Sea of Shadows: Age of Legends: 11/06/14

cover artSea of Shadows: Age of Legends by Kelley Armstrong is the first of a new trilogy. This time it's a high fantasy set in the land that seems inspired by Ainu and Japanese legends. Moria and Ashyn as twins have been destined to serve their village as keeper and seeker. The keeper maintains the stories and traditions; the seeker finds the dead and the spirits. Both are paired with an animal guide and the guides are the ones who ultimately decide if twins are worthy of the task.

Over the winter, those who have broken the laws of the village are cast out, sent to the forest to fend for themselves. It's basically a death sentence. If they do survive, they are invited back into the fold. This time though, when Ashyn goes out to retrieve the bodies and put the souls to rest, something happens.

Thus Armstrong sets up a small scale apocalypse, driving the survivors towards the capital. Both sisters are forced to make uncomfortable decisions while trying to stay true to their calling. After so many of her urban YA fantasies where teens suddenly have powers and suddenly the adults around them are EVIL and they have to escape and they can't trust anyone. And oh the sexual tension!

Sea of Shadows is thankfully different. Yes, there are evil adults but it's not quite the conspiracy. Also, the sisters have been training all their lives so even if they aren't much different in age from their urban cohorts, they act older and with more confidence. Thus the focus of the story is on the world building, rather than angsty teens being angsty teens — with powers.



Five stars

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If This Be Sin: 11/05/14

cover artIf This Be Sin by Hazel Newlevant is a short graphic novel (or a longish comic) about queer women expressing themselves through music. For some it's dancing. For others it's performing. For others it's composing and performing.

There are three stories: one about Gladys Bentley, blues singer from the Harlem Renaissance, one about a dance competition, and one about the strife between Prince and Wendy and Lisa — a lesbian couple who co-wrote and performed a number of his early songs.

This absolute gem of a book was a lucky find via Tumblr when pre-order publicity panels were posted. I'm normally more cautious about pre-ordering books, especially from new-to-me authors or new-to-me publishers, but the Tumblr post came at the time I was re-reading Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber, so I was in the right mood to read a graphic novel that covered the same topic (and in the case of Glady Bentley, the same person).

I tore through my copy the day it arrived. It's short, intense, and beautifully drawn.



Five stars

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Hilda and the Black Hound: 11/04/14

cover artHilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson is the forth of the Hildafolk series. Hilda and her mother are still living in the city and are trying to set down roots. For Hilda, that means joining the scouting group her mother was once part of.

But for a girl who can see spirits and other magical creatures there are lots of distractions. The two newest ones are a large black hound that's terrorizing the city, and a homeless house elf who swears he was framed.

And here's where book four rises above the others, by taking full advantage of the graphic novel format. House spirits reside in the spaces between — those spaces in a home that just aren't usable (under the bed, behind the dresser, etc). Those spaces are graphically tied to the edges of each panel, and as Hilda learns to travel between then, she is given the ability to travel between panels, thus opening up the format.

Hilda's friendship with the house spirit and the on going news of a black hound attacking people the in city are beautifully interwoven. It's a tight plot made better through the artwork.



Five stars

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Etiquette & Espionage: 11/03/14

cover artEtiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger is the first of the Finishing School series, a YA fantasy set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate. Tomboy Sophronia Temminnick would rather ride the dumbwaiter than practice all the deportment expected of a young lady in Victorian England.

Mrs. Temminnick thankfully has a way out for both of them, a finishing school. Before even reaching the school, Sophronia's life gets incredibly interesting — as the carriage is beset upon by bandits. And then school ends up being in a dirigible!

Sophronia being one of the new girls and being a bit of a misfit, is primed to ask the right questions and make the right friends. She gets to know everyone on the ship, including those who keep it afloat. She figures out secrets before anyone else because she's not hindered by the rules of deportment.

The best part of this book is Sophronia's age. She's too young and too isolated to be in a relationship. No relationship means no filler with romance or sex, and that means a shorter, more focused book that highlights the best parts of the world: the steampunk technology, the paranormal creatures.

The next ones in the series are Curtsies & Conspiracies, Waiscoats & Weaponry, and Manners & Mutiny (2015).



Four stars

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El Deafo: 11/02/14

cover artEl Deafo by Cece Bell is a memoir told in graphic novel format. The book is about her early childhood and time in elementary school. Bell uses adorable rabbits to tell her tale of being the only deaf kid in school and in the neighborhood.

When Cece was a toddler she contracted meningitis and lost her hearing in the process — her first clue to the fact being that no one asked her if she wanted ice cream, even though her roommate was always given some.

Rather than making her memoir one of tragic loss, she recounts her childhood through elementary school as the backstory for a superhero — El Deafo — with super hearing abilities. Because Cece draws herself (and everyone else) as a rabbit, her ears are big enough to highlight the various hearing aids she's given to use.

The best hearing aid, both for being able to hear the teacher in class, and for her super hero abilities, is the Phonic Ear. It's a microphone transmitter that sends to the receiver she wears. If the teacher forgets to take it off, then Cece can hear everything the teacher does (like take breaks in the teachers' lounge, eating, or even using the toilet)!

Young Cece, above all, wanted to be accepted by her classmates on her own terms. That journey involved learning how to lip read (and realizing all the frustrating situations where lip reading doesn't work), and enjoying TV in the days before closed captioning was commonplace, and annoying people who want to use her deafness to boost their own feelings of self worth.

Anyway, I could go on for hours about how much my daughter and I love this book. She and I literally had a few tugs-of-war over the book to see who would get to it next. Likewise, every person I've shown the book has enjoyed reading it. It's just one of those universal coming of age stories that is relatable to everyone through its use of humor.



Five stars

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Madlenka: 11/01/14

cover artMadlenka by Peter Sis is the story of a young girl who lives in New York City, possibly on the same block as St. John's Park. She has awoken to her first wiggly tooth and decides to share her news with all her neighbors.

As Madlenka walks around the block to greet her neighbors her imagination transports her to magical places based somewhat on her actual location. Being a kid in New York, she has an ethnically diverse set of neighbors. They are from places like India, Tibet, South America, Germany, and so forth. Each neighbor gives a chance for Sis to introduce facts about another part of the world.

The artwork that accompanies the text is magical. It's not realistic by any sense but it captures Madlenka's enthusiasm and imagination perfectly. There are also pages with cutouts to allow part of the next page's artwork to show through. Also, there are some larger pages to unfold revealing panoramas during some of the dream sequences.



Five stars

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