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March 2015

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



The Cardboard Valise: 03/31/15

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The Cardboard Valise by Ben Katchor comes beautifully packaged with its own cardboard handles. When unfolded, the book itself resembles a valise.

Inside is the story of an island chain of nations, popular with tourists. The main island is known for its ruins of a giant complex of restrooms. Imagine if all that was left of California's tourist industry were the remains of its Caltrans built rest stop toilets.

The story opens with a man taking a trip to this remote island and having more of an experience than he expected. Through his journey it is revealed how much this island is an artifice put on to please the misconceptions of the tourists.

There's not much in the way of a linear plot. It's more a collection of comic strip vignettes that provide commentary on the tourist trade in third world nations.

Three stars

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Smells Like Pirate: 03/30/15

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Smells Like Pirate by Suzanne Selfors is the third book in a series about a treasuring hunting boy and a dog with a very special nose. It also happens to be the first one I've read but I plan to read the others.

Homer and his dog are called back to the city under false pretenses. While there he's surprisingly elected the president of L.O.S.T. — the treasure hunting society he was only just allowed to join. The reasons given are strikingly similar to the ones Merganzer D. Whippet gives when releasing ownership of the hotel to Leo in Floors.

In the midst of all this, a rival club is started, FOUND. And the two club presidents end up in a race to find some lost lost pirate treasure. The wackiness of the treasure hunt, coupled with the strange world building allow for a large enough suspension of disbelief for Homer et al to have their adventures without any pesky questions arising.

But this isn't just a goofy romping caper; there's danger too, something that often doesn't manifest in books of this ilk. In the previous books, characters close to Homer were killed. Now those responsible are after Homer and his rival, Lorelei.

Finally, this is a great book that is neither a "boy" book nor a "girl" book. It offers strong, well built characters of both genders who are uniquely capable in finding the treasure.

Five stars

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The Book of Gin: 03/29/15

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I like reading books about specific things — the wackier the better. Previous favorites include: And a Bottle of Run by Wayne Curtis, The Phone Book by Ammon Shea, Attention All Shipping by Charlie Connelly, and so forth. My latest narrow topic book is The Book of Gin by Richard Barrett.

Beyond knowing how to make a gimlet, I went into this book knowing very little. The book offers a history of distillation as well as some theories behind the origin of gin (bot the spirit and its name).

Later sections deal with specific distillation techniques, the prohibition era, the rise and fall of cocktail parties, and finally the return of higher end gins. The most interesting take away from the final chapters was that we're drinking high quality gin than what our parents did.

The Book of Gin needed a similar hook to And a Bottle of Rum. If the historical points were tied to a drink recipe, I think the over all flow would have been more focused. The early chapters — the ones where the facts are less certain — tend to meander and the later ones really need fleshing out.

Three stars

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And the Tide Comes in...: 03/28/15

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And the Tide Comes In... by Merryl Alber and Mihran Turley is about a young girl showing her cousin around their nearby Georgia coastal salt marsh.

Their tour of the marsh extends over the course of a couple of days. What they see and where they can go is determined by the tides, the weather, and the time of day.

As the cousin learns about and explores the marsh she is introduced to the intertidal ecosystems: the creatures who live in the mud, the plants that can live in both salt and fresh water, the birds and the mammals who call that area home.

My daughter and I read this book together. Although the flora and fauna are different, the ecosystem is still close to our own Bay Area salt marshes. The book gave us an opportunity to talk about how the tides affect our local coastline.

Five stars

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The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems: 03/27/15

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The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems by Lauren Myracle is a spin off from the Winnie Years series. Ty, who was introduced as a baby now has his own short chapter book series.

Ty is eagerly looking forward to the field-trip to the local aquarium to see the penguins. He knows he has to follow the rule and he knows that some of his classmates won't follow them.

A whole set of contrived circumstances prevent Ty from seeing the beloved penguins. Another set of equally contrived (and mind boggling) circumstances allow him to sneak away from his class and steal a penguin.

As this book appears to be aiming for realistic fiction with a moral bent, I'm gobsmacked at how much our so called perfect child gets away with. That his older siblings hide what he's done and despite the narratives assurances that his sisters are RESPONSIBLE, they don't involve the parents or make sure Ty understands the whole heap of trouble his idiotic behavior has caused.

Two stars

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Billy Bishop Goes to War: 03/26/15

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Billy Bishop Goes to War by John MacLachlan Gray is the March 2015 bonus title for the Canadian Reads Challenge. Plays are funny things to read in that they are really and truly meant to be seen as performances. Actors read plays to learn their lines and become their characters — but reading one as written literature is something else entirely.

My father who did a bunch of acting in college owns a collection of the best contemporary plays (plays that were popular in the first half the 20th century). There was a time when we'd go camping at Green Valley Falls as a family and somehow one of those volumes of plays would end up in the reading material pile for that weekend. One night out of desperation (called teenage boredom) I cracked open the volume and read Arsenic and Old Lace (1943) by Joseph Kesselring. It was magnificent.

Now Billy Bishop Goes to War is a very different beast, in that it's written for a very limited cast (as in two people playing multiple roles). The person cast as Billy Bishop must be versatile enough to play the bulk of the cast, as it's Billy's recounting of his time in WWI. Rather than just telling the audience who he met and what they told him, Billy becomes those people.

If I were to compare Billy Bishop Goes to War to another stage production, I'd say it's most like Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray (which is both a memoir and a monologue). Except with the WWI setting and the poking fun at the British aristocracy and their disdain for colonials (Canadians and anyone else from the Commonwealth), there's also a heavy helping of Blackadder Goes Forth.

As the introduction states, Billy Bishop is really two plays. Which play that is performed depends on the age of the actor playing Billy. If he's a young man, the play is done one way (and is longer, by the way). If he's an old man, the play is shorted to jump him right to the point of being a Canadian pilot hero. If you take in the large amount of wiggle room given to the piano player / narrator role, namely in how the songs (or in some cases, what music) are performed, then it can be any number of plays, following one of two branches.

That's not to say this sort of variation is unique to Billy Bishop Goes to War. It's not. Think of Shakespeare. His plays are done in modern settings, or gender swapped, or as musicals. But a lot of this interpretation is left to director or to the version being performed (Kiss Me Kate instead of Taming of the Shrew for instance). For Billy Bishop Goes to War, all the variations are left on the page and are left to the performers to pick and chose from.

Three stars

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Which Way Back?: Featuring Luna, Chip & Inkie: 03/25/15

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British Columbia runs a television channel called the Knowledge Network. It's PBS and there's a lot of crossover in programming (as many of our children's programming is made in collaboration with Canada) On the day after Boxing Day while stuck in the Harbour Towers doing laundry, my daughter and I watched hours of this channel: a documentary on the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park, Peg + Cat, Mr. Maker, a documentary on knitting, and some other stuff that slips my mind. In between segments there were little informal things with the children's programming mascots: Luna, Chip, and Inky.

View of Victoria from the hotel. Photo © 2014 Sarah Sammis

Luna is an owl. Chip is a beaver. Inky is an octopus. And with all our television watching we learned they have a book, Which Way Back? by Michael Mayes. My daughter and I were immediately smitten. As it was our last full day in Canada, we put in an order with our local bookshop.

The three friends decide to take a picnic. They have so much fun exploring the forest that they get lost. Most of the book focuses on each friend harnessing his or her own unique talents in a collaborative effort to get home.

Lost poster from the book.

The artwork is simple in form and cheery in color, except for the forest when their imaginations run wild. While perhaps not the most brilliant book about friends pulling together in a crises either of us have read, it remains a sentimental favorite — a way to remember the end of our first family trip to Canada.

Four stars

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There's an Owl in the Shower: 03/24/15

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There's an Owl in the Shower by Jean Craighead George was published five years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally put the Northern Spotted Owl on the threatened species list. The result was a well-needed restriction on logging in old growth forests, further forcing change in logging practices.

Borden, the son of an unemployed logger, finds an owl chick and takes him home. The owl is a spotted owl, but at such a young age, spotted owls can be easily misidentified. Borden and his father take in the owl and begin to raise it — against federal and state regulations.

There's a lot of anger among the main characters and a lot of threatened violence — against the environmentalists and the owls themselves. Though understandable, the characterization seemed heavy handed many times. Craighead George's characters are usually more subtly crafted but here she seems to have been in a hurry to get through the book.

Four stars

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So You Want to Blog: 03/24/15

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1: Pick your platform

It doesn't matter which one. There are plenty to chose from. Do your homework and find one that you will feel comfortable using. There is no right one to use. If you're not comfortable with it you won't be able to troubleshoot problems — and trust me, problems will crop up from time to time. 2: Pick your topic

It can be very specific: a certain genre of books, a cooking recipes from one place in the world, a web comic you've been itching to draw. Or it can be broader: book reviews, food blog, funny stuff you like to draw. Or it can have no topic whatsoever save for being written by you. If you decide to use a narrow topic, know your topic. If you goof up, someone out there will call you on it. You don't have to be perfect or all knowing, but people will notice if you just make shit up (unless that's the point of your blog)

3. Where you get your content

If you talk about stuff that other people make (say books, or clothing, or computer games, etc) eventually the people who make those things will take notice. Publicists might even offer samples for you to review. While it's certainly exciting to get access to the latest and greatest new thing before the rest of the world, these sort of offers often have strings attached that aren't there for traditional review outlets (magazines, television shows, newspapers). For whatever reason, publicists (etc) seem to think it's acceptable to make blogs jump through hoops to stay on their good side.

Here's the thing: you don't have to. More importantly: you can say no and still have an excellent blog.

4. Don't plagiarize

Sure, computers make copy and paste super easy. That doesn't mean you should do it. If you want to quote something, cite your source and if it's online, link to it. Sure, blogs look better with artwork: photos or illustrations. Sure, Google has an image search. That doesn't mean those images are free for you to use willy-nilly.

If you need an image, the easiest way to do it, take your own. Cell phone cameras are pretty good and you can upload them directly to your blog. Or invest in a nice point and shoot camera. Or if neither of those are an option, make use of the Creative Commons licensed material available on sites like Flickr. For instance, here's the search for books you can use on your blog.

5. Fair use

Learn how and when fair use comes into play. A classic example is book cover art. If you're reviewing a book, you can include the book cover.

6. Have fun

If you're doing this for fun, keep it fun. Remember that is a hobby. You're blog will still be there when you get back from vacation.

Comments (4)

One Cool Friend: 03/23/15

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One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo is another story of a boy and a penguin. There seem to be an avalanche of these books. They all go like this: child goes on a field trip to an aquarium and for one reason or another ends up bringing a penguin home where he has to hide said penguin from his family.

It's one of many recent books involving someone smuggling a penguin home. Who started this trend? Sure penguins have been popular in children's movies in the last couple decades, but there the penguins are characters, not things to be smuggled home!

Now this takes the clichéd story and gives it a funny twist at the end. For that genre savviness, I'm rating the book above the others I've read. David Small's adorable drawings help too. He gives the boy a rather Buster Keaton-ish flare.

Three stars

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Bluebird: 03/22/15

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Bob Staake has written and illustrated a ton of picture books but Bluebird is the only the second one I've read. I chose it specifically for the cover art comprised of basic geometric shapes, a limited pallet and a strikingly blue bird nearly center.

In this wordless picture book, a bluebird catches a boy's attention as he's at school in an urban center. The bird is the only source of saturated color, in an environment otherwise colored by cement, glass and steel.

The boy ends up spending a day of joyful frolicking in the forest or maybe Central Park with his bluebird friend. He's given a chance to reconnect with nature but it comes at a price. Here again is small animal, small child, and bully equation.

These sorts of plots always put me in revenge fantasy mode. They always have — even back when I was a child. Here especially, there is no redemption and no growth on the part of the bullies. They come, they destroy, and then the magic forest mojo happens for the boy's benefit.

Where are the books where the victims learn to stand up for themselves before tragedy happens?

Three stars

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Chicken Cheeks: 03/21/15

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Chicken Cheeks by Michael Ian Black and humorously illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is a series of animal backsides, along with a thesaurus's worth of ways of saying butt.

The rear end of a hen. Photography © 2013 Sarah Sammis

One by one, the animals have climbed up on top of each other. They are reaching up, up, UP! At the tippy top of this tall tree they are scaling is a tempting bee hive dripping with honey.

As Winnie the Pooh told Christopher Robin, "I think the bees are getting suspicious." And you know how bees sting, right?

Let's just say my daughter and I HOWLED with laughter all the way through. It's a ridiculous and sophomoric book and so much fun to read.

Five stars

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Cherries and Cherry Pits: 03/20/15

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Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams is another of picture books included in my daughter's text book. She likes to check out the original books to see the illustrations, as the text book only includes a few of them.

The narrator of the book lives in an apartment with Bidemmi, a girl who loves to draw. The narrator brings her different colors to see what she will do with them. Bidemmi as she draws always tells a story to go with what she's creating.

Cherries and Cherry Pits is Bidemmi's story about eating cherries on the subway and saving the best pits to plant. Her plant grows into a proper tree and soon she can share fresh cherries with all the people in the apartment building and surrounding neighborhood block.

There's an element of magical realism to the story too. Although everything is told as Bidemmi draws it, when her story ends, there's a picture of what appears to be her story come to fruition. Whether her story is autobiography or whether the cherry tree has grown through the magic of story telling, though, is left to the reader's imagination.

Four stars

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The Watermelon Seed: 03/19/15

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The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli is about a watermelon loving crocodile who is afraid of what will happen if he accidentally swallows a seed. So of course he does and he spends the rest of the book fretting until he realizes nothing is going to happen.

The appeal of this book is Pizzoli's artwork. The crocodile, who bears a striking resemblance to Lyle of Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber is done in lime green, against the cheery contrast of the bright pink watermelon.

With the large, illustrations and overwrought emotions, this book would make a good addition to a school or library story time session.

Four stars

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Diners, Bowling Alleys, And Trailer Parks: 03/18/15

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Diners, Bowling Alleys, And Trailer Parks by Andrew Hurley is a history of three recent American cultural icons. Each section is approximately one hundred pages.

The section on diners first outlines the definition of the classic diner — a portable (like an old Air Stream trailer), prefab building designed for providing an easy to set up restaurant in otherwise hard to reach areas (say just outside of a factory, or off a major highway). It then outlines their history and rise and fall in popularity.

The most interesting part of the diner section, though, was the discussion on diners being an east of the Mississippi thing (with a few making it to the Rockies). West of the Rockies were instead influenced by Los Angeles's contribution — the drive-in and drive-thru, with the drive-thru ultimately winning out (for the most part).

The trailer park section I mostly skimmed. The idea behind the trailer park was basically an extension of the diner idea — making ownership of a building more plausible by keeping the cost down through the use of prefab and by separating the ownership of the land from the building. Much of the manufacturing lessons learned from pre-fabbing the diners were applied to the trailer homes. While diners are pretty much a thing of the past, trailer homes have found a solid niche through out the nation.

The section, though, that I chose the book for was the on bowling alleys. In 2011 my family and I took up bowling. There's a local alley from the 1950s heyday of bowling, a rare survivor of the massive closures that happened in the 1990s when the companies that run most of these bowling alleys tried to introduce bowling into Asia.

The book, though, includes history from the days when bowling was a ninepin game (instead of ten) and how the tenth pin was added to get around anti-gambling laws. There's information on the inclusion of women, and later children in the game and how automation was part of the push to "clean up" the game and make it more family friendly.

Three stars

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Water in the Park: 03/17/15

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Water in the Park by Emily Jenkins is picture book about a day in the life of a city park. As the day begins, the park opens and different types of people and their pets come to use it.

Besides the passage of time, the book is tied to water and how it's used in the park. Dogs swim in the pond, kids play in the water, later it rains and so forth.

For kids who are interested in how things work or what goes on in their home town, Water in the Park is a good addition. It fits well with Richard Scarry's What People Do All Day.

Five stars

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The Tiny Seed: 03/16/15

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The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle is a book I used to read to my son when he was in preschool. My daughter had other favorites, so it wasn't in our regular rotation for her at that age. Now in elementary school, the story was included in her second grade reader. When she comes across a story in school that she likes, she and I check out a copy from the library to read together at home.

In the case of The Tiny Seed we ended up reading the book together during a downpour that had us trapped at the library. California's in the middle of a terrible drought but in March we had a few whopper storms. This was one of them.

The Tiny Seed is about the flight of a number of seeds blown from a large red sunflower. As the seeds travel the world, more and more of them fall prey to the elements. The last few seeds make it to a fertile patch of ground but only the little seed survives through winter, struggling to push its way up to the surface in time for spring.

The seed's travels introduce children to different environments, the passage of time, and the life cycle of plant.

Four stars

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Ball: 03/15/15

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Ball by Mary Sullivan is a book suited for transitioning readers. It's about a dog who loves to play ball and the little girl who is his primary play mate.

Ball is mostly a day in the life of an energetic house dog. The day begins with breakfast and some ball playing. Then the girl goes to school and the grown ups go to work. The dog is left without someone to play ball with.

Everything in that time alone becomes a reminder of the ball playing the dog and girl could be doing if only she were home. For every visual reminder, there's the dog saying "Ball!"

Ball for its reliance on primarily one word is very much like Ed Vere's Banana!. But this one is very clearly aimed at children who have or like dogs.

Three stars

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A Big Guy Took My Ball!: 03/14/15

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A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems is the nineteenth Elephant and Piggie book. Piggie has a ball she wants to use to play with Gerald, except now she can't. A "big guy" (bully) has taken it from her!

The draw for me and my children has been the humor and the emphasis on situational humor. If there's a prop, it's used in a nonsensical way until the internal logic of the story is finally revealed.

Here, though, the humor seems to be set aside for a very special episode. Piggie, gasp, has a run in with a, gasp, bully. And the only thing to do is get Gerald, who is bigger than she is, to fix things.

Oh there are so many squicky things with this. First of all, it puts Piggie into the damsel in distress role, something she has never-ever been in before and hopefully will never-ever be in again. Second, it makes Gerald, who is a complete pacifist, into someone potentially frightening.

Now of course, the bully doesn't end up being a bully, just a whale on the playground. But that in turn brings up the fat person as bully or villain stereotype. Why? Bullies come in all sizes and big kids are bullied for their size too.

Ugh. I want a re-do on this book.

Two stars

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They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth: 03/13/15

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They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth by Daniel Hernandez is his recollection of the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, 2011 in Arizona, and the aftermath of the event. Hernandez, who had been working as an intern for Giffords was the first to her side after the shooting and is credited with saving her life for his quick response at rendering first aid.

Hernandez who had already decided politics was his career path before the shooting was suddenly thrust into the limelight. His life, his family's life, and his school life (as he was still in college at the time) were suddenly swamped by the media.

It's an interesting look at what happens when the media takes hold of a new story. Imagine what it must be like for very public figures — heads of state, celebrities, and so forth.

Mixed in with that is also Hernandez's thoughts on being Latino and gay. While that's certainly part of his life and perhaps how he will approach politics in the future, it was the media feeding frenzy that kept me reading.

Four stars

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The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: 03/12/15

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"The President Has Been Shot!": The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson was released to correspond with the fiftieth anniversary of the event. Aimed at a young adult audience, it has two parts: a brief biography of Kennedy and then a very thorough blue print of the assassination and immediate aftermath.

Kennedy is the last United States president to have been assassinated. The others are Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. More recently there was an attempt on Reagan. Put another way, one in every eleven presidencies have ended with an assassination. If ill health in brought into play, the rate of death among presidents is even higher. But Lincoln and Kennedy of the four get the most attention and their deaths are often treated as more tragic than the other two.

John F. Kennedy (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Kennedy family) is introduced in the first part of the book. This biography takes up approximately a third of the page count, but it sets the wrong tone — one that would have resonated with YA readers when those readers were part of the Baby Boom generation. It tries to set up Kennedy as a tragic hero, destined both to be president and to be a martyr. Kennedy was born into privilege. Sure, being Catholic was counted against him at the time but he was not an everyman who rose power and greatness.

The Camelot crap is VERY STALE marketing PR. Look at it this way: Kennedy died TEN YEARS before Iw as born. He is not (and never was) as emotionally relevant to my generation and we were only a decade or so removed from his presidency. Now take todays YA readership. They are more like twenty or thirty years removed. Setting JFK up as a manifest hero doesn't come across as a convincing argument. All it does is get int he way of an otherwise fascinating breakdown of a security hole that could have been prevented with a little foresight.

So, unless you want to wallow in a sappy introduction, skip to the well written second part. It avoids all the nonsense of conspiracy theories and shows clearly how one homegrown gun freak who wanted to make a name for himself was able to by being in the right place at the right time. The assassination was a perfect storm of security holes combined with one person with just enough rifle practice to pull off a lucky pair of shots.

Three stars

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Transcendental: 03/11/15

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Transcendental by James Edwin Gunn is rightfully self described as a Canterbury Tales space opera. As a group of travelers are trapped together on a ship bound for an unknown destination on a pilgrimage, they take turns telling their life stories.

Beyond the Chaucer connection, Transcendental most reminds me of Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Both are confined settings, with unusual characters all brought to the same place for related reasons. Both books involve these characters becoming trapped together, either by a snow storm, or by an out of control space ship. Both involve the characters taking turns telling stories relating to the current situation (history of the house or the reason for the pilgrimage).

While I enjoyed the present day story — that being the space opera in the ship, I found the numerous background stories tedious at times. Gunn's aliens are as varied as Hal Clement's were but they lacked, for me at least, the authenticity of voice as Clement's. Not all of them, mind you, but enough of them to get me into heavy skimming mode more than I would have liked.

Four stars

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Cast Away on the Letter A: 03/10/15

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Cast Away on the Letter A by Fred is an English translation of the second Philemon book, Le Naufragé du "A" (1972). It was nominated as part of the 2014-15 CYBILs.

I have to think that Philemon's adventure to a strange deserted island may have had some influence on the film adaptation of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. In Judi Barrett's book, Chewandswallow's location is never stated (though it's implied that it's in a giant's stomach). For the film, to ground it more in reality and on Earth, it's placed at the "A" of the Atlantic ocean.

Now in Philemon's case, he's taken there via a message in a bottle found in his family's well. This method of travel between worlds is certainly not unique. Well travel happens quite a bit: in And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss (though there it's mostly fish), in the ABC series, Once Upon a Time (as a nod to Snow White's wishing well), in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (as a means to reach the underworld), among others. In Philemon's case, his well reminds me of a cross between the Mulberry Street puddle and Wackyland (where the Warner Bros. Dodo lives).

Cast Away on the Letter A is an accidental fantasy, one where the main character ends up somewhere else and wants nothing more than to find his way home again. Like September in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Philemon must traverse the entire island (or islands, as the case may be) to find his way home.

When I first read this comic I picked up on the retro feel of the artwork but I didn't realize it was a year older than I am. Certainly stylistically it bears resemblance to the Tin Tin comics. I think now that I know more about the book's origins and it's placement in the series, I will go back and read Philemon's adventures in order.

Three stars

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Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 25: 03/09/15

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Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 25 by Hiromu Arakawa is the continuation of the fight started in Volume 24. If you read manga for the battles, you will love this issue. If you prefer humor and character development, this one is a disappointment in another wise strong series.

In and amongst the battle with the unstoppable and incredibly arrogant King Bradley (Wrath) and the Armstrongs being forced to fight together, there are two updates to the plot of note: Al is given a chance to return to his body and Mustang being forced to stand in for a missing sacrifice.

But mostly though the book is pages and pages of fights. Some long time characters pay the ultimate price. There's a lot of swooping sorts and massive transformations through alchemy. I found it all too much and improbable.

Three stars

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Tune: Vanishing Point: 03/08/15

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Tune: Vanishing Point by Derek Kirk Kim is the first of the Tune graphic novel series. It's about a young man in art school who decides to drop out an go his own when he's convinced he's learned everything he needs to have a kick-ass graphic design career.

Of course Andy promptly finds that it takes a lot more than a few classes and a student's portfolio to get a job, let alone a career! So after months of living at home his parents give him an ultimatum: find a job or move out.

The rest of Vanishing Point is the fallout of that demand. Sure, he finds a job but it's something right out of the Twilight Zone. He ends up being a Zoo attraction, on an alien world, in a different dimension, in a near perfect replica of his parents' home.

So there's a lot of schadenfreude at work here. Andy's set up at the biggest, most obnoxious poser ever. Then we get to sit back and watch him get it in the teeth as his world is turned upside down and inside out.

Four stars

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Nothing But the Truth: 03/07/15

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Nothing but the Truth by Avi follows the unfolding events after a teacher has a boy suspended for humming along with the Star Spangled Banner every morning in homeroom. Through "documentary evidence", namely transcripts, letters and interviews, Avi presents the points of view of the different involved characters: the 9th grader, the English teacher, the Principal, and so forth.

My mother in law worked for twenty years as a high school math teacher. She describes teenagers as elementary school children in adult bodies. Clearly that's the case here with Philip Malloy. Being transferred from a rather liberal homeroom where the request for quiet isn't enforced, to a very strict room where I suspect an accidentally dropped pencil during the music would be cause of a trip to the office, is a rather disconcerting proposition for a teenager or for anyone.

Coming in midway through a year and not being party to the initial introduction of this homeroom's rules is surely a recipe for disaster. Add in the boy's age and it's only natural that he would continue to hum even when asked not to.

From the parents' point of view — the rule seems rather arbitrary and there's no way a punishment can be fairly executed if different teachers have different rules for how to behave during the national anthem. If I were Philip's parents, I would probably react in a similar fashion and continue to go up the school district's chain of command.

The teacher, too, is probably burned out. And she probably resents not having a consistently followed rule either. The principal probably has never addressed the staff on acceptable behavior during the anthem. That leaves her world against the students. When things get blown out of proportion because the principal doesn't react sensibly, it's unfortunate but realistic that it would be the teacher who takes the fall. It's a frustrating and painful read only because everyone's own stubbornness plays into the over all tragedy of a student's career nearly derailed and a teacher's otherwise good career forced to end under such unfortunate circumstances.

Three stars

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Bits & Pieces: 03/05/15

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Bits & Pieces by Judy Schachner is the sequel to Grannyman. Tink, the kitten from the first book is now the elderly cat. His family have gotten a new kitten (who bears a striking resemblance to her famous kitten / Chihuahua, Skippyjon Jones).

While Tink the elderly is fine with his end of life role as the "grannyman", he begins to realize through his new charge, that there are things from like he's missing. First and foremost, he wants an adventure outside.

Tink's interest in the outside — without the desire to truly roam as a younger cat would, reminds me terribly of Caligula cat. Though she spent most of her life (save for a brief stint as an indoor / outdoor kitten) as an indoor cat, she began to rediscover the outdoors through our balcony garden.

We moved to our current place when she was nine but it wasn't until she was more like twelve that the late afternoon sunshine called to her. She spent much of her last years of life happily sleeping in flower pots on the balcony.

Five stars

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The Art of Flying: 03/05/15

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In The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman a pair of witches have a slight problem and they need someone to fix it. They have turned a swallow into a boy who now calls himself Martin, and he has no desire to be avian again.

Fortuna Dalliance, a neighbor to the Baldwin sisters, is roped into convincing Martin to go back to being a bird. If she can't do it within five days, he won't be able to, and there will be consequences for the witches.

There's a lot of wasted opportunity to explore how the rules of magic work, why transformative magic carries such a penalty and why the witches have picked a child of all people to do their dirty work. Instead the book just sort of lumbers along through the five days.

Instead of The Art of Flying, I suggest reading Bird by Rita Murphy.

Two stars

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I Spy With My Little Eye: 03/04/15

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As many of the other reviews of I Spy With My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs note, I Spy remains a popular game and a popular type of book. Add in dye cut circles through the cover and pages, and I knew the book would be a hit with my daughter.

I Spy With My Little Eye with the bold, bright, in your face frog on the cover, states up front what this book is all about. It's a color concept book that also teaches older children a little something about each brightly colored animal revealed first through the I spy circle and then with a turn of the page.

The book was an instant hit with my daughter. She read it to herself numerous times and then read to me. The ending, though, was an unexpected and welcome surprise. The dye cut goes all the way through to the back cover, thus inviting children to spy their own animals.

Four stars

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Wonderful Life With the Elements: 03/03/15

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Wonderful Life With the Elements by Bunpei Yorifuji is the most unusual and memorable introduction to the periodic table I've ever seen.

The periodic table to anyone new to chemistry seems a bit abstract, arbitrary and sometimes just weird. It's a funny shape, filled with lots of little boxes with letters and numbers. And somehow those little boxes store all sorts of information about the elements that make up the universe.

Previous books I've read on the subject either talk about the history of the table (The Disappearing Spoon), or are presented as an encyclopedia on how they are used (Nature's Building Blocks). Yorifuji, though, has found a way to personify the physical properties of the elements that dictate the layout of the table.

Yorifuji introduces first the different properties that the elements can have, their various functions, their charge, and so forth. For each of these character traits, he has a set traits (hairstyles, body masses, and, uniforms). Then he builds characters from these traits for each of the elements.

At first glance the book looks like a weird science manga. And I suppose in a way it is. But after reading through the book, the different relationships that elements share based on their placement in the table begin to take shape. For a visually inclined learner interested in chemistry, Wonderful Life With the Elements is a great resource.

Four stars

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My Cold Went On Vacation: 03/02/15

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My Cold Went On Vacation by Molly Rausch takes a look at the way colds spread from a very different sort of point of view. A boy catches a cold at school and while in bed, he spends his time thinking about all the places the cold will go after it's done visiting.

My daughter checked it out at a time when it seemed she and her friends (and the parents, of course) were sharing the same cold over and over again. She thought the idea of a cold getting tired of being stuck in the same neighborhood and wanting a vacation was hilarious.

Nora Krug's illustrations have a good gross out factor to add to the humor of this tale of the traveling germs. Lots of greens and blues and silly cartoony drawings.

Three stars

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Mean Soup: 03/01/15

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Mean Soup by Betsy Everitt is about a boy, Horace, having a very bad day. He's now in a bad mood and doesn't know what to do about it. His mother, though, has a solution — soup!

Rather than using cooking as a method for calming down, the mother fills a pot with water and screams into it. Then she has her son do the same thing. They also make faces and stick out their tongues.

So the message is basically let your feelings out in a way that won't harm anyone. You'll feel better and you won't hurt anyone.

The idea, though, of putting negative emotions into food makes me think of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I hope they didn't eat their soup — or they might be tasting all that anger.

Three stars

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