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September 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

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13 rue Thérèse: 09/30/15

13 rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro is the story of a man brought into study a box of mementos collected through both world wars.

13 rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro is the story of a man brought into study a box of mementos collected through both world wars. The man in turn imagines a the life of the woman whose things are contained within. And that then leads him to a present day relationship with the very person who gave him the ephemera.

Oh this could have, should have been my kind of book. But the imagined life of Louise Brunet didn't work from the very get go. Her scenes are written in a very stilted homage to French literary greats like Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert. Except our modern day author doesn't otherwise write in their styles. It's not a smooth transition from old and new styles of writing either. It's awkward, painful and oft times dull.

The book also includes color photographs of the things described. There's an associated website listed to see them in higher resolution, giving this book an unfortunate Scholastic Books mystery feel (39 Clues and more recently TombQuest). Sure, there's a social media aspect to reading now but it's just a natural evolution of the in person book clubs and other word of mouth ways people have shared their favorite books since the rise of the novel.

Two stars

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Shackleton's Journey: 09/29/15

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill: a folio sized graphic novel account of the crossing of Antartica.

For the 2014 CYBILs, I read two different graphic novel accounts of Shackleton's last expedition to Antarctica. Separately, they both seemed to miss key points. Together, though, the presented a more complete picture. I wish they were actually combined as an anthology, rather than being separate competing points of view.

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill is presented as a folio sized picture book but was still included in the graphic novel section for the CYBILs. It's 80 pages, so roughly twice the length of a normal picture book, but still on the short side for a graphic novel.

Shackleton's expedition included a lot of men and a lot of dogs. Both books include mini caricatures of each man and dog. For an oversized book, I expected better, more detailed portraits. Instead, we get thumbnail sketches that are even less detailed than those in Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi.

Earnest Shackleton
actual size is about 1/3 in. tall

What the book does better, though, is explaining Shackleton's goals, and his strengths as a leader. While the Bertozzi book goes into loving detail about the ship and what was actually done on the journey and during the time they were stuck on the ice, he doesn't try to get into Shackleton's head. Rather, he ends up painting Shackleton as selfish and incompetent.

Some key points that I only got after reading Grill's account is what the goal of exhibition was (crossing Antarctica) and how many people survived (all of them). But I wish the available space of the pages had been put to better use. The illustrations are sadly sparse.

Four stars

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Meeting Cezanne: 09/28/15

Meeting Cezanne by Michael Morpurgo: The boy does meet an artist, a man who wishes he was as talented as Cezanne.

Meeting Cezanne by Michael Morpurgo is the story of a boy sent to the French countryside to stay with his aunt. His mother sends him with tales of how Cezanne painted there and how the countryside must be heaven on earth given the beauty of the artist's works.

The boy does meet an artist, a man who wishes he was as talented as Cezanne. The artist and boy become friends on this summer trip and the boy is given a drawing as a memory of their time together.

It's only at the end that artist's identity is revealed. It's a nice detail too that the illustrator remembered that the artist in question had more than one style of drawing.

Four stars

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Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse: 09/27/15

Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann: the emphasis is put on the technological advancements needed to make heavier than air travel possible.

Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann is a picture book / graphic novel hybrid about the early history of aviation. Except, it's from a mouse's point of view. Lindbergh the mouse wants to escape the dangerous street life in Germany and move to America (where all the streets are paved with cheese — oops, wrong mouse).

Lindbergh vs a cat

I read Kuhlmann's book right on the heels of having finished Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. Both books cover early aviation history but I ended up liking the picture book version more. When there's a history of a new technology there's a temptation to focus on the people behind the invention. Often they're treated as heroes and in something as complex as aviation (it wasn't just the Wright Brothers, no matter what your elementary school text book said), it ends up reading like the overheard conversations at a frat party. All those strong personalities competing for attention!

An owl watches the progress with the airplane.

In the case of Lindbergh, obviously the credit can't really be given to a mouse. So rather than focus on his genius, the emphasis is put on the technological advancements needed to make heavier than air travel possible.

Five stars

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The Harlem Hellfighters: 09/26/15

The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks: Brook's words provide the history. White's artwork provide the context and the emotion.

The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White is a graphic novel account of 369th infantry regiment and their heroic part in WWI.

In WWI, the United States was reluctant to put it mildly to engage in the war that had erupted in Europe. The Civil War was still fresh in memory and now Europeans were dying by the thousands with the same tools of modern warfare.

As it became clear that the United States would have to join, men joined up. The 369th infantry was the Black unit and although the unspoken idea among the white leadership was that they'd be the porters for the war, they were trained in combat. They were also as patriotic and brave as any other unit — perhaps braver when taking in account the racism they faced at home and the inferior equipment they were given to train with.

Brook's words provide the history. White's artwork provide the context and the emotion. I recommend reading this book alongside Strange Fruit Volume 1 by Joel Christian Gill.

Five stars

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The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend: 09/25/15

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat: They're off to England.

Hello! I am Beekle. I am your imaginary friend.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat is a picture book about a marshmallow shaped imaginary creature who wants nothing more than to be paired with a child.

But poor Beekle sits and sits waiting for someone to imagine him. Everyone else seems to find a home and he's still there, waiting. What's an unimaginary friend to do?


He takes matters in his own hands. If a child won't imagine him, then he will go introduce himself to potential children.

It's a good message to encourage children to try things out themselves, rather than always waiting things to be done for them.

Five stars

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Lord and Lady Bunny—Almost Royalty!: 09/24/15

Lord and Lady Bunny—Almost Royalty! by Polly Horvath: They're off to England.

Lord and Lady Bunny—Almost Royalty! by Polly Horvath is the sequel to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire. Mrs. Bunny has decided that she's done being a detective and wants to strive for something grander — being queen of the rabbits. Meanwhile, Madeline's still struggling with her family. She wants to save up for college but her parents keep spending her money!

Remarkably the solution to both of these problems is a cruise to the UK. More remarkably, the two parties end up on the same ship, though in two very different classes. Cruising brings out the worst in some and that certainly holds true for Mrs. Bunny and Madeline's mother.

There are some hilarious moments both on the ship and in England but the biting edge to the humor of the first book isn't present. My two favorite parts are when Madeline's family accidentally gets stuck in the British Museum due to a problem understanding someone's accent, and later the book signing that pits Polly Horvath aka "the translator" against J. K. Rowling aka "Old What's Her Name."

Four stars

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Oz: Ozma of Oz: 09/23/15

Oz: Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower: It's all about Bill.

Oz: Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower is the third in a six book graphic novel adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novels. To understand why his version is so wonderful, one must see it in the context of the original and its other adaptations.

Ozma was first introduced in The Marvelous Land of Oz in 1904. She inherited a power vacuum left behind when the not-so-honest wizard of Oz left in his hot air balloon. In the third Oz book, Ozma of Oz, Ozma has settled in to her position as ruler of Oz, and now she's about to meet her match when Dorothy returns.

Now Dorothy's return to Oz in the books, while still often an adventure in itself, is set up as a normal part of her life. She is an adventurer and someone Oz can rely on in times of need. Oz is a magical land surrounded by desert and outside the earthly bounds but can be traveled to by near death experiences or by magical means.

In 1985 Disney released Return to Oz which draws from Ozma of Oz but has this strange need give a "reason" for Dorothy to want to return to Oz. They set up this entire insane asylum plot rather than let Dorothy's aunt and uncle to accept on faith that she had been somewhere and come back.

Remember in the 1939 MGM musical, Dorothy awakes from her adventure to realize she had seen fantastical stand-ins for the people she knew — the woman who hated Toto became the Wicked Witch of the West; ranch hands became the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion; and so forth. Oz adaptations seem incapable of ignoring the MGM movie (meaning the Wicked Witch always has to green skin, even though she doesn't in the book). If Dorothy's trip to Oz was a Jungian one as MGM implies and if it is the starting point for the 1985 film, then there can't just be a direct route to Oz.

A year after Disney purchased Marvel, Marvel began releasing a series of graphic novel adaptations of the Oz books. I swear these books are in part an apology for the whole psychological crap stuffed into Return to Oz. These books which cover the first six books, are a wonderful subversive homage to the originals.

So, if Dorothy didn't get to Oz through a psychotic break, how did she get there? In the same way that Gulliver got to Lilliput — shipwreck. Well, actually she's just tossed overboard during a bad storm and is washed ashore with one of the farm's chickens. She and Uncle Henry were en route to Australia for his health. She was along because she "was quite an experienced traveler .... so she wasn't easily frightened, whatever happened...." (p. 15) When the ship runs afoul of an ocean storm, Dorothy goes on deck to make sure her uncle isn't in danger. That's how she ends up once again risking her life and ending up whisked again to Oz.

Except Oz isn't the only magical land at the edge of death. It's just one kingdom. Dorothy ends up on the wrong side of the border just as the Nome King is planning to invade Oz. Oz should be ripe for the picking given the years long dictatorship by the Wizard and now with a child on the throne.

So on the one hand, Ozma of Oz is about Dorothy once again apart from her family, trying to get home. Now though, she has to find Oz before she can find someone who can then send her home. On the other, it's the first glimpse of Oz as a kingdom and our first look at it while it's at war.

Though it's primarily a story of one girl trying to find her way home, and another one trying to save her country, it's also an examination of gender, feminism, war, and colonialism set in a post apocalyptic wasteland.

They prefer the name Bill

While Dorothy ends up proving herself worthy of being Ozma's champion in this book, there's a second hero who is sometimes overlooked — Bill the chicken. Dorothy, being uncomfortable with non-binary expression, nicknames Bill, Billina. Bill, understandably upset by this turn of events but still needing Dorothy's companionship in this hostile environment, begrudgingly agrees to the moniker.

Bill tells it like it is.

Shanower and illustrator Scottie Young, though, take Bill's part in the book and uses it as the wedge to expand the social commentary already present. Much of that is done through facial expressions and body language — which is saying a lot since Bill is after all, poultry.

Through Bill, Shanower and Young subtly return to Ozma's never spoken again life as a boy before being returned to the throne. In all fairness, Baum never does re-address Ozma's life as Tip either but that can be taken as an unspoken message that Ozma is now a woman because she says so and that alone should be enough. For Bill who refuses to fully transition from one gender extreme to another just for the convenience of uncomfortable travel companions, there's room to examine gender expression.

Five stars

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Ash: 09/22/15

Ash by Malinda Lo: A loose retelling of Cinderella.

Ash by Malinda Lo is a YA alternate retelling of Cinderella. After the death of her mother, her father leaves for the nearby city on business. Things are forever changed when he returns with a wife and two step daughters.

That's the extent of the similarities Ash's story shares with the fairytale. Ash had a healthy childhood with loving parents, and a mother who taught her self confidence and the local lore. Her mother was a witch and was aware of the faeries who inhabit the forests.

Ash watches from the sidelines as her step-mother and step-sisters burn through her inheritance and and try to rise up the ranks. It's suggested that the step-mother might be a black widow, a detail that makes her actions all the more understandable and sinister.

But what makes Ash something truly special is Lo's world building. Through the stories the king's huntress tells we learn about the kingdom, it's history, mythology, and magic. Better yet, Ash is given an alternative from the typical happily ever after ending that's tied to the perfect dress and dancing with a prince.

Ash finds love and a way to escape her oppressive home life through her friendship with the huntress. Rather than turning Ash's sexual awakening into a source of angst or melodrama, Lo gives her the confidence and brains to make this work for her.

Five stars

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Quest: 09/21/15

Quest by Aaron Becker: The girl and boy team up again, this time to help an imprisoned king and his kingdom from invasion.

Quest by Aaron Becker is the sequel to wordless picture book, Journey. The girl and boy team up again, this time to help an imprisoned king and his kingdom from invasion.

The king is kidnapped

In the previous book there were two colors of markers (which look like chalk to me, but the blurb says marker): red and purple. Now with the king's help, they will unlock the remainder of the rainbow.

As rainbows are really circular, so is this quest. By following the clues, the girl and boy will travel through the rainbow and return where they started, but armed with the tools they need to over throw the invasion force.

The circular nature of quests and road trips

It's a beautifully drawn adventure story that parents can use to help children practice their colors.

Five stars

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Rain: 09/20/15

Rain by Amanda Sun: Katie Greene has decided to stay until she can sort things out with her kami friends.

Rain by Amanda Sun is the sequel to Ink. Katie Greene has decided to stay until she can sort things out with her kami friends.

Thinking she can take a breather and just enjoy being with her friends at a summer festival, things quickly get out of hand. Some of the fireworks aren't fireworks at all — they're made of ink. Her beautiful borrowed kimono is now covered in ink stains.

Rain falls into the second book in a trilogy trap. In the first book, the uninitiated main character learns the world doesn't work as first thought. Then they learn that they have special powers or abilities or a blood right to it. By the second book, the character knows the big dark secrets, is initiated into the cult or whatever, and is now trying to get back to a "normal" life.

To get everything moving towards an epic battle in the concluding volume, the second book often ends up having lots of random bad stuff, ever escalating right at the protagonists, even at the sacrifice of pacing within the book if it were to be read as a stand alone.

Katie ends up tossed from one hair raising adventure to another, all the while trying to help her friends and sort out her enemies. Reading Rain was more of a chore than Ink. Katie in this book has a lot in common with Sam from season two of Supernatural and for many of the same reasons.

I'm hoping Katie will be able to settle into her powers for the third book.

Three stars

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Thursdays with the Crown: 09/19/15

Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George: What is the truth behind the beloved castle?

Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George is the third Castle Glower book. Celie, Rolf, his girl friend Lilah, and her brother Lulath are transported with the castle to its homeland. They need to figure out where they are and how to get home. Celie also wants to understand what's wrong with her beloved castle.

There are three parts to this book: exploration, discovery of other people, the flight home. Celie and the others end up hearing two completely different stories about the castle and the land they've been sent to. The land itself provides yet another version.

Celie and the others need to piece together the truth from all the versions in order to find their way home. If they can't, they're likely to end up either prisoners or casualties.

While I normally love this type of story, I found the pacing lagging, especially at the beginning. The adventure and mystery is hindered by Lulath's dialect. Lulath and his sister are from a far away and their foreignness is emphasized through their goofy grammar and weird idioms. The problem is, Lulath actually has the most relevant experience to the situation they've now found themselves in. So we have to sit through page after page of his goofy pseudo-accent.

Why does Lulath sound like Balki?

A little of these fake accents go a long way, especially in a novel where all of the characters are now foreigners in a land they've never seen. Why don't any of the people they meet on their adventure have an accent? Why is it just Lulath who talks weird? And why does he have to sound so much like Balki from Perfect Strangers?

I'm only taking one star off for the pacing and idiom problems because the rest of the novel is so strong. While the first two books were rather fluffy adventures about a magical castle and a baby griffon. This one takes the back story we've been given and explodes it open. It also poses a bunch of tough, uncomfortable questions. This book covers similar themes to the Fullmetal Alchemist manga series by Hiromu Arakawa. Gower is a kingdom built on a foundation of genocide — a real world, harsh reality detail, that I've never seen in a fantasy book aimed at elementary school aged readers.

Four stars

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Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 09: 09/18/15

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 09 by CLAMP: The big bad, Wong-Fei and company, continues to scheme.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 09 by CLAMP ends the Ashura and Yasha story. It's also the furthest I've gotten in the anime.

For me, Volume 9 was a high point in the series, that I've read so far. I like the time travel aspect and the consequences of Syaoran's actions, namely in the ability to change the world of Shara.

There's also an interesting parallel with the RĂ´ part of xxxHolic. The battle on the moon is a static one, the two sides stuck in battle because of one of the two sides refuses to acknowledge that things have changed.

The big bad, Wong-Fei and company, continues to scheme. While I'm sure this subplot will blossom into something big eventually, right now it feels more like a distraction than actual advancement in the story.

Four stars

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Bricks, bricks and more bricks: 09/18/15

In which Sarah ponders the colors of bricks

In California our buildings are primarily wood and stucco for homes and metal and glass for larger buildings. Bricks are a thing of the past, relegated to older, pre-earthquake code structures. Bricks are maybe decorative facades and sometimes chimneys. Or they're used for BBQ pits and garden walls. Maybe just maybe they're included in some shopping district's sidewalks to give a sense of class to area.

In the United Kingdom, a place where earthquakes are a thing for disaster movies and not a real life threat, bricks are everywhere. I have never seen so many bricks in one place before. My last brick heavy trip was to Rochester, New York but compared to the UK, they have just a paltry number.

If Sherlock Holmes were dropped blind folded into a city or village street, he could probably tell exactly where he was by the color and shape of the bricks. London, especially the older areas, has black bricks. Some of that is probably centuries of smoke leaving its mark. Even now with the skies cleaned up and the rolling smudgy fogs described so well at the start of Bleak House, the damage is done. Other areas though, with clearly newer construction, seem to have their bricks painted black to match the nearby sooty patina.

That's not to say London doesn't have light colored bricks. The interiors do. The newer areas do. So do the protected areas.

The father down the railway line one gets, though, the lighter the bricks become. Right next to the rails (and yes the railway walls are brick) remain black but the buildings above the railway are built with lighter colors of brick. In Cambridge, the newer bricks are sort of a goldenrod color, while the older bricks are a ruddy orange. That which isn't brick, is stone and the stonework is of similar color.

Cardiff, I remember being mostly white brick and white stone but looking at my photographs, I see some stunning red examples. The building across the street from our hotel, for example, is the classic brick red. It's so bright it's practically screaming to be looked at.

I think if I had an entire summer to just meander through the UK with my camera, I'd be spending much of it documenting the large variety of brickwork.

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Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist: 09/17/15

Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist by Tim Federle: More cocktails, this time for parents who hate parenting.

Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist by Tim Federle is a follow up to Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist. This volume, presented as a board book for new parents, offers some drinking tips for frazzled parents.

I know it's all in fun and games. It's certainly in the same spirit as other children's books for parents, such as Go the Fuck to Sleep and You Seriously Have to Fucking Eat by Adam Mansbach. Those types of books don't really appeal to me. Part of it is, I'm well beyond the nightly picture book reading, and I happen to like reading picture books for pleasure.

Part of my reaction certainly is to the feeling that drinking and parenting don't go together. New parents are up at all hours anyway. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Alcohol in that is a dangerous mix. I'm not saying it doesn't happen and I'm not saying that new parent's shouldn't drink, but I'm hoping that those parents have a designated parent.

So immediately there are two hits against this book:

  1. Humor at the sake of how difficult children can be (and making them sound universally unwanted)
  2. Recipes that promise quick inebriation (to make parenting more bearable)

The recipes themselves don't appeal to me either. The first book had lots (at least half of the recipes) that I wanted to try. This one looks cute but the recipes seem too forced to comply wit the nursery rhyme theme.

Two stars

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Bad Machinery 2: The Case of the Good Boy: 09/16/15

Bad Machinery 2: The Case of the Good Boy by John Allison: Bad Machinery 2: The Case of the Good Boy by John Allison: It is the second printed collection from the web comic.

The Case of the Good Boy by John Allison is the second printed collection of the Bad Machinery webcomic. It's also online on the Scary Go Round site.

I'm putting all those links first because I'm hoping you'll take the time and read the webcomic.

Anyway, these cases are a West Yorkshire version of the X Files or Supernatural, with mysteries being solved by students while still attending school and doing all the other stuff teenagers do.

In this one, toddlers and babies are going missing, taken by large dogs or wolves. Their disappearances correspond with a visiting carnival. There is a connection but not in the Something Wicked This Way Comes manner.

Two panels from Case of the Good Boy

Although the teens don't necessarily like having to babysit their younger siblings, they do genuinely like kids. They are as worried about their disappearances as the adults. They also have some paranormal experiences to draw on, making them more alert to possible solutions.

Why we like babies

Four stars

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Bumperhead: 09/15/15

Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernández: Bobby is a troubled youth drawn into the punk scene.

Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernández is a companion piece to Marble Head, a book I haven't yet read. Such is life, though. I rarely seem to read books in the intended or original order except by extremely careful planning.

Bobby is a troubled youth drawn into the punk scene. He has an absentee father, one who literally abandons him to restart a life in Mexico with a new wife and new kids.

Mostly it's a 1970s moving forward history of Bobby and his consumption of music and the spinning wheels of his life. He does have a friend who serves as a one man Greek chorus and oracle, with an iPad that can see the future.

It's a weird book that you have to be in the right mindset and mood to read.

Three stars

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The Croc Ate My Homework: A Pearls Before Swine Collection: 09/14/15

The Croc Ate My Homework: A Pearls Before Swine Collection by Stephan Pastis is collection of comics from the <i>Pearls Before Swine</i> strip chosen with younger readers in mind, apparently.

The Croc Ate My Homework by Stephan Pastis is a collection of comics from the Pearls Before Swine strip. These were apparently chosen for younger readers, relying on "off the wall puns" and "dark humor."

Basically by dark humor, they mean the Croc neighbors desperately wanting to eat their neighbors (the zebras, and later different animal types). But the Crocs are troublesome, at best. There Croc jokes are just a couple of jokes repeated non-stop. Joke the first: praying to God in broken English for a chance to eat the neighbor. Joke the second: educated child Croc being horribly embarrassed by violent, crude parents.

The Croc parents speak in a broken English that's disturbingly close to ebonics. They also have insatiable hunger for violence against their neighbor, a proper English speaking zebra (who as a black and white character, is perhaps an "Oreo"). It's basically every black male stereotype dressed up in animal skins to make these stereotypes "acceptable."

I did let my daughter read The Croc Ate My Homework. Most of the things I found objectionable went over her head. By the last third of the book, though, even she was picking up on the problems with the Crocs (without prompting from me).

Five stars

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This One Summer: 09/13/15

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is a graphic novel about a strained family trip.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is a graphic novel about a strained family trip. Every year Rose and her family go to Awago Beach. It's usually a chance for Rose to connect with her best friend Windy but this summer's different; Rose's parents aren fighting and it's taking a toll on her friendship with Windy.

Told in beautiful shades of blue, Rose's story is one that unfolds like a series of overheard conversations. They are the ones that are heard unexpectedly in awkwardly public places. They are the ones that teenagers hear and are finally old enough to understand. They are in the arguments shouted loud enough for neighbors to hear.

And then there are the quiet moments to take in the surroundings of Awago Beach. Were this a Japanese film, these spreads would be the pillow shots.

Five stars

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Aya: Love in Yop City: 09/12/15

Aya: Love in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet: is the conclusion of the once six part graphic novel series..

Aya: Love in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet is the conclusion of the once six part graphic novel series. It was combined in the English translation into two omnibus volumes.

In this last half of the series, Aya is having trouble at university because her professor is a lech. Meanwhile a young man, Innocent, has made the move to Paris in hopes of finding a new life. Personally I ended up being more invested in his story, than in Aya and her friends'.

I can see the temptation to import a series as two instead of six to get the story out there all at once. But from a reader's perspective, a little Aya goes a long way. The stories are based on real life memories of life in the Ivory Coast in the 1970s, so the plots and characters are complicated. There's a lot going on and even with the family trees at the beginning of each volume, there's still a lot to keep track off.

Add to the mix, the fact that I read the book as a library book. There's a certain pressure to read at a faster pace to get the book done before its due (even with renewals). The Aya books aren't ones I can skim.

Someday, I hope to get all the Aya at one time (meaning, I'll probably purchase my own copies) and read it slowly.

Three stars

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The Swallow: A Ghost Story: 09/11/15

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter: Rose and Polly's friendship brings up an old mystery.

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter is a tween historical fiction set in Toronto in 1963. A pair of row houses that share a wall and the view of the cemetery contain two very different families but two very similar girls. Except one of them can see ghosts and the other one is desperate too.

Polly has a huge family and is now forced to share her tiny bedroom with Sue the newest member. Rose is an only child who goes to a private school and is left in the care of an elderly but stern housekeeper. For both of them, the attic is their safe spot, a hideaway from the world. And it's the place where they meet, through a conversation between the shared wall.

Rose and Polly's friendship brings up an old mystery. Rose's ability see ghosts in a house that's been in the family for years mean's there's bound to be a ghost or two wanting her attention. There's breakfast ghost, the knitting ghost, and worst of all, the Door Jumper. The last one wants to hurt Polly.

This is a book that got me from the very first page. Throughout I could see it going in one of two ways but it ended up going a third. It's the type of books that you want to tear through but end up re-reading favorite passages. I ended up re-reading the first and last fifty pages twice just to fully appreciate how intricately everything fits together.

The book falls right smack in the middle of Anne of Green Gables for the wholesome friendship between two school aged girls and The Graveyard Book for its ghosts. The Swallow and Greenglass House by Kate Milford are my two go-to books for gifts and recommendations.

Five stars

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Sam and Dave Dig a Hole: 09/10/15

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett is a bit of a head scratcher.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett is a 2015 Caldecott honor book but it's one of those books that's a bit of a head scratcher. Before I explain why, let me tell you a story.

I grew up in a suburb of San Diego that was built on the tops of hills that define the contours of Rose Canyon. When the suburb was originally planned, there were lots of major boulevards designed to cut through the valleys and connect the neighborhood with its neighbors.

Many of those plans fell through as the Baby Boom's birth rate dwindled, leaving a primarily linear navigation scheme shaped around one large cross on the major directions of the compass. The other streets dwindled off it into small circles that lead to dead ends at canyon trails, cul du sacs, or looped in on themselves.

But there is one road that seemed like a magical short cut to bi-pass the traffic of the main drag through town. It started at the junior high and ended (after going in a straight line, or at least it appeared straight a half mile down the same road at the elementary school.

Straight lines, I knew, don't cross a second time. So to my juvenile mind, if my parents took the short cut and then took the long way home, we had to be in an alternate universe that just looked very similar. There was no other way to explain it.

It wasn't until I was older and I borrowed my Grandmother's Thomas Guide road atlas that I realized they were three roads: Radcliffe, Syracuse, and Stadium that have a couple gentle curves where they connect. As a passenger, distracted by drawing or reading, I just didn't notice the curves!

So back to Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Sam and Dave are bored and decide to dig a hole to look for something interesting. They go one way and then another, and then at angles and never manage to find anything. As readers we are privy to what they can't see through the dirt. We can see ever larger diamonds as they go.

The dog knows what's up

And then... and then... the bottom drops out, literally. Sam and Dave and their dog take a tumble and end up home.

Well... Sam and Dave were digging. So the curved road solution isn't really an option here, is it?

Now, take a look at the home a the start of the book and at the end of the book. What kinds of flowers are there? What kind of fruit tree? What kind of weather vane?

Here's the thing. The pay off is so subtle that most people (of all ages) miss the punchline until it's explained to them. And it's not enough of a trip to get people talking — not like the mind bending 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's two boys digging holes for pages and pages and pages. The set up, while cute on the first missed diamond, is boring!

So when the plot (such as it is) takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque, readers seem mostly relieved to be done with the book. Then if an initiated reader shows them the trick, the look at the first and last pages, and ooh and ahh, appreciatively. But that appreciation isn't enough to want to re-read the book right away.

Three stars

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Red Eye, Black Eye: 09/09/15

Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen captures the ups and downs of his trip.

Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen is a graphic novel memoir of a cross country bus road trip. K. Thor Jensen left the east coast on a 60 day, 10,000 mile journey via Greyhound after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

This graphic novel format memoir captures the ups and downs of his trip. As each trip was a matter of finding a couch he could crash on in a city served by the bus line, each meeting was a balance of who will be the weirdo: K. Thor or his host? The longer he traveled, the more often it was that he was the weirdo.

Most of the book is transcriptions of stories Jenson heard on his trip. Some are interesting. Some aren't. Some are disturbing. It's not a book for everyone.

Three stars

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Potential: 09/08/15

Potential by Ariel Schrag is a graphic memoir of the author's sexual awakening in ninth grade.

Potential by Ariel Schrag is a graphic memoir of the author's sexual awakening in ninth grade. Her high school comics were originally released the year after the year covered.

The school year is a string of different relationships, hoping to find that ONE that would help her define herself, her true "potential." But it doesn't go well for her. There's a lot of partying and skipping school and other idiotic teenage stuff.

I normally enjoy this type of graphic novel &mdash a school aged memoir by a woman. But this one never grabbed hold of me. Part of it was the emphasis on sex, smoking, and skipping school. While I certainly had crushes in 9th grade I wasn't living my day to day on the goal of getting some! Basically, she paints herself as very one sided so that her only personality traits are young, sex obessed lesbian. YAWN.

Finally there's the artwork. OK, I get that she was young when she drew these. But there's just not enough there to distinguish between the many different characters. The artwork here was more a distraction than a benefit to the memoir.

Two stars

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The Printmaker's Daughter: 09/07/15

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier: is set in 19th century Edo..

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier is set in 19th century Edo. Oei narrates her story of being a young woman working with her father, a print maker.

Edo is the former name of Tokyo. It was the seat of power from 1603 to 1868 and grew to be a thriving metropolis. It was a vibrant, bustling, crowded place but most of that excitement is missing from this novel.

Instead, Oei's narrative is halting and full of stuff to prove to us western readers that yes, she is in fact, a Japanese lady from late 19th century Edo. So she waxes on and on over details that are of exotic interest to westerns: geisa, kimono, tabi, okobo, etc. I just can't imagine Oei actually being that fascinated by "exotic" Japan as she's portrayed.

In the 50 or so pages I suffered through, there is no chance for Oei to just live in Edo and have her life's up and downs. No, she's there as a tour guide for some weird western preconceived notion of what Edo was like. The extremely silly and anachronistic anime, Oh Edo Rocket! is a better, more realistic presentation of life in Edo even with the entire moon alien plot!

One star

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The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures: 09/06/15

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens: TThe Rocketeer comic is more about flying, and money troubles, and a rocky relationship between Cliff and Betty.

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens is an omnibus of the Rocketeer comics that began their run in 1982. The comic was later adapted to the big screen in 1991. It was the film that first introduced me to the characters.

In 1982 I was at the right age that I would have eaten up this comic (and similar ones) if I'd had access to them. It's not that I wasn't allowed to read them, it's that I grew up in a suburb with a dwindling child population — a generation squished in between the last of the baby boomers and the bulk of the gen Xers. There was exactly one book store that I had easy access to and it didn't exactly cater to tweens. I frankly didn't even know comic books were still being produced — they seemed to be a long lost part of my parents' childhoods (along with baseball cards and sock hops).

I'm still not a comic book reader but I do like to read the collections (they're nicely bound and less prone to tearing). I'm also lucky now to live near libraries that actively stock comics, graphic novels, manga and similar things.

The Rocketeer I watched with my Grandmother (who in her youth had been an aficionada of the Saturday serial). The film is fun but it has some problems — too much emphasis on making Betty a damsel in distress. There's too much emphasis on making the Nazis the big bad (they were of course horrendous but in the 1980s and into the early 1990s there was a glut of Nazi bad guys in movies, either figuratively with the Star Wars franchise, or literally with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade among others. Part of this our 20/20 hindsight delusion to believe the United States gave a fuck about the atrocities happening in Europe but the reality is we didn't take notice until Pearl Harbor.

The Rocketeer comic is more about flying, and money troubles, and a rocky relationship between Cliff and Betty. Betty isn't the damsel in distress here. She has her own story that may or may not involve Cliff. That was refreshing.

A panel from the Rocketeer

There's a good mixture of humor and adventure too. It was a fun book to live blog, and you can see my progress on Tumblr.

Four stars

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The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Hot Air Baboons: 09/05/15

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Hot Air Baboons by Maxwell Eaton III: This time it's baboons and they have a too good to be true promise.

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Hot Air Baboons by Maxwell Eaton III is the fifth of the series. It opens with the brothers Beaver skiing only to suddenly be stuck in the mud where snow should be! Someone or something is flash melting the snow off the island's central mountain.

This time it's baboons and they have a too good to be true promise of providing the island with plenty of water by melting the snow and collecting it into a giant swimming pool at the base of the mountain. They only ask for a little bit of the collected water for use on their own island.

Of course nothing is ever that simple or that fair. The beavers have to put an end to all this rapid fire melting and save their island, and the water before it's too late.

It's another fun read. It's not as original as the first couple ones, but that's to be expected with so many books now in the series.

Four stars

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Fullmetal Alchemist 27: 09/04/15

Fullmetal Alchemist 27 by Hiromu Arakawa: This is the quiet ending to an excellent manga series.

Fullmetal Alchemist 27 by Hiromu Arakawa marks the end of the series. The book has three parts: the final battle, the immediate aftermath of the war and a glimpse of Amestris in the future. Despite all the hardships and the losses of life (and limb), there is a happy ending.

There is also a chance for redemption for Ed and Al, Lin, and to my surprise, Selim. Those who survived even with fighting on the front lines, have come out of the war changed people. Arakawa decides, though, to focus her last chapters on the positive ways her characters have grown through their experiences.

Do Ed and Al get their bodies back? Mostly, but they are happy with what they have. Does Mustang become king? Briefly. Do any of the homunculi survive? Yes.

After all those volumes of near endless battle scenes, Volume 27 has a very quiet, unassuming ending. It was a nice way to wrap everything up and say a final goodbye to the characters.

Five stars

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Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 08: 09/03/15

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 08 by CLAMP: Although the first story is there mostly for comedic reasons, it does reiterate the theme of dream vs. reality..

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 08 by CLAMP has a journey to two different worlds: one which is a comedic interlude and the other which sets up the next big arc and reveals more about the villains.

Although the first story is there mostly for comedic reasons, it does reiterate the theme of dream vs. reality. There are cute fuzzy bunnies under attack from a whirlwind. It's Sakura's chance to shine.

Most of the book, though, is the introduction of the land of Shara where dual gods demand the attention of feuding groups. There is a troupe of performers, all women, who take in Sakura and Syaoran. Syaoran must dress the part to stay. Meanwhile Fai and Kurogane are found by a temple that houses the other god.

This plot demands extra attention when reading it (or when watching the anime). Yuko also intervenes, taking definite sides against the other dimensional witches (for lack of a better way of describing them). The most interesting thing to come out of it is that Mokona's travels from world to world haven't been as random as first thought.

For this book I suggest reading the translation notes. I would hope that you always read them, but if you don't normally, make an exception and read them. A lot of the nuances of the Land of Shara are explained there.

Four stars

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The Weapon from Beyond: 09/02/15

The Weapon from Beyond by Edmond Hamilton: he tried to kill me with a forklift.

The Weapon from Beyond by Edmond Hamilton is start of the Starwolf trilogy. The trilogy was the inspiration for the 1978 Japanese series Star Wolf (Sutaurufu). In turn, the series was dubbed and cut together into two TV movies, Fugitive Alien and Fugitive Alien 2. These two films were then re-edited and riffed as two different episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is this final version that I was first introduced to Edmond Hamilton's trilogy.

After many times of watching the MST3K versions with the many many Kens, I decided it was time to read the source material. I was curious to see if the original version was as nonsensical as the final iteration.

"Ken" turns out to be Morgan Chase, a Star Wolf, who ends up in the service of some mercenaries. They are after the "weapon from beyond" to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands, or perhaps to sell it to the highest bidder.

Most of the story is Morgan's reaction to meeting all sorts of different aliens. Except, they aren't exactly aliens. Turns out humanity has spread across the galaxy and evolved into different adaptations for survival. The Earthling version is the boring, less evolved version.

So basically the way the mercs, who are all humans because it's the only job out there for them, get the job done, is they disguise themselves as the other human subspecies. I guess that explains the blond wigs all the Kens were wearing?

Although there are two other books I don't think I'm going to continue with them. The adventures are too episodic and there's too much time spent on wondering about all the different cultures and the dangers of being an Earth human.

Two stars

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Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift, Part 3: 09/01/15

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift, Part 3: is the conclusion of the Rift trilogy.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift, Part 3 by Gene Luen Yang is the conclusion of the Rift trilogy. When last we left our intrepid heroes, most were trapped in a collapsing mineshaft. Saving them causes even further trouble, awakening an ancient warrior hell bent on destroying factory sitting on the site sacred to the Air Nomads.

Ang faces and uncomfortable situation where he may be forced to destroy the factory in order to save the workers, or face going against an ancient spirit and perhaps further upsetting the balance between the human and spirit word.


Toph meanwhile does her best to reconcile with her father. The tension between them hints at her future disconnect with her children which is addressed in the final season of The Legend of Korra.

Talented as I am, I can't compose poetry when I'm freaked out of my mind.

Along with the big picture story of the ever present struggle between tradition and progress, and the sacred and the secular, there's the humor that gives both series its humanity. There's a poet, one of Toph's proteges who is struggling with creativity.

Poor cabbage vendor.

And there's of course, our old friend the cabbage bender. As long as Ang's around he can't catch a break.

Five stars

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