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October 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



How Much Is a Million?: 10/31/15

How Much Is a Million? by David M. Schwartz: It's a good introduction to orders of magnitude.

In April 2011, David M. Schwartz and I sat at the same table at a lunch organized by Pam of Bookalicious (and now a literary agent). Over the course of the lunch, he and my son got to talking about math and that led into his picture book, How Much is a Million?

The book introduces the concept of one million to children. It uses children standing on shoulders, the time needed to count to a million, the number of goldfish and finally the stars in the book, to illustrate a million — and to extend on to larger numbers like a billion and a trillion.

For children interested in numbers, How Much is a Million is a good introduction to orders of magnitude.

Five stars

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Ghost Hawk: 10/30/15

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper: The inclusion of John and the other Puritans shows just how token Little Hawk and the rest of his people are to this book.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper I purchased on an impulse, on the knowledge that I have enjoyed many of Cooper's books in the past. I wish I had taken more time before making this decision.

Little Hawk is sent out into the winter forest to fast and find his manitou. If he survives the season and has a vision he will return to the village a man. When he returns, though, most of the village is dead from a disease introduced by the nearby white village.

On the flip side, there's little John Wakely, a Puritan colonist. He too has recently lost his father but he knows the local natives are friendly. So he and Little Hawk are destined to become BFFs.

Before I even got to the Puritan part of the story, I hated the book. Cooper at her best still only manages clunky dialogue. Her children are rarely genuine sounding but they're usually in the middle of some fantastical adventure that it doesn't matter if the dialog is a little dry.

Here though, the story's presented as historical fiction. Clearly even with the research she did, she's out of her element, which is shown in the stilted, overly formal voice she gives for Little Hawk. He never thinks in contractions. If one word will do to describe something, he'll use three. Nearly every sentence in Little Hawk's section are written as a three part list of actions, separated by commas, with an extra bit of a reaction separated by an em-dash. It's about as exciting as reading a book report or a laundry list.

The inclusion of John and the other Puritans shows just how token Little Hawk and the rest of his people are to this book. The prospect of having to suffer through another story of misunderstood Puritans just trying to survive in their newfound eden was more than I could bear.

One star

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Science Fiction: 10/28/15

Science Fiction by Joe Ollmann: The graphic novel chronicles his slow but steady descent into madness and obsession over learning everything he can about alien abduction.

Science Fiction by Joe Ollmann is a graphic novel about alien abduction, repressed memories, and a strained relationship. Mark is a science teacher, set in his routine at home and at school. That is, until he decides to rent a cheesy science fiction horror movie. It convinces him, or perhaps awakens memories, that he was abducted by aliens.

The graphic novel chronicles his slow but steady descent into madness and obsession over learning everything he can about alien abduction. Meanwhile his girlfriend is trying to hold together their home and their relationship. The school, while understanding at first, begins to make reasonable demands for status updates, return to work dates, etc.

All in all it's a fascinating psychological study with an open ending. Though there's a gag page at the back of the book implying that there maybe be aliens involved, the actual story closes with Mark at a crossroads. Does he get back to work or does he continue his research? Does Sue stay with him or move out?

Five stars

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Monster High: 10/27/15

Monster High by Lisi Harrison: Melody Carver has to adjust to the less than Hip Master High.

Monster High by Lisi Harrison is the first of the Monster High series. The Carver family has moved to Salem, Oregon from Los Angeles, California. Melody Carver has to adjust to the less than Hip Master High. Meanwhile, Frankie (a modern day Frankenstein's monster) is eager to start high school, if she can just hide the fact she's RAD (regular attribute dodger).

I was hoping to love this book and read the series to its conclusion. But there were just too many things that irked me. First and foremost, there's Melody and her sister, Candace who are portrayed as shallow, brand obsessed wealthy teens. The VAST majority of people living in and around Los Angeles can't afford the stuff they were wining about. Next: for suburb of Salem that was supposedly built to protect monsters, they sure continue to live in fear of "normi"s.

There's a better version of this sort of story, and frankly, I'm shocked to be posting this. But here it is: Casper's Scare School, a 3D animated cartoon that ran for two seasons about Casper the friendly ghost being sent to boarding school to learn how to be scary, and realizing that most of the other monster kids are just as friendly with "fleshies" as he is.

Two stars

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No: 10/26/15

No by Claudia Rueda: A cute story about a bear who doesn't want to listen.

No by Claudia Rueda is about a little bear who isn't ready to hibernate. Like his polar bear counterpart in Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson, this little bear goes out to discover winter.

No is a nice little book for protective parents to read with their curious children. While the mother bear knows her little one needs to go sleep for the winter, she lets him discover it by himself. It's that message of self discovery (when its feasible and safe) that makes No such a nice little book.

Four stars

 

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In the Night Kitchen: 10/25/15

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak: An oft-banned book, controversial not for its message but for its nudity.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak is a 1971 Caldecott honor book and number 24 on the American Library Association's most frequently banned or challenged books. The book is about a boy named Mickey who hears a noise in the kitchen at night and while investigating, has a surreal battle with three bakers and is nearly baked into a cake.

Because of its controversy and its imagery, In the Night Kitchen has become one of those books that is used in some college courses (though none that I've taken). I am including links to reviews that go into greater depth. The short and simple is that it's taking a horrific piece of recent history (the Holocaust) and turning into a deeply personal picture book.

For children of the 1970s or now who may not yet have heard of the Holocaust, the Hitleresque bakers and the man sized oven would just be fantastical illustrations. Only coming back to it as an older reader, would the impact be most felt.

But it's not the Holocaust references that have caused the trouble. No — it's Mickey's nudity. I guess children seeing an anatomically correct depiction of nudity in a picture book will have their brains forever broken or something. From the few children I know who've either read it themselves or had it read to them, none have commented on the nudity or even seemed to care about it.

Three stars

Other posts and reviews:

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Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 10: 10/24/15

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle 10 by CLAMP: The Ashura / Yasha arc, while heavy duty, is one of my favorites in the series so far.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle Volume 10 by CLAMP ends the story involving Ashura-o and Yasha-o and takes the travelers to a new world, Piffle, that will lighten the mood after so many heavy revelations.

The Ashura / Yasha arc, while heavy duty, is one of my favorites in the series so far. There's an element of time travel to it, and an example of how a single snap decision can change everything. The translation notes for this section are especially interesting.

Yuko makes an appearance. Apparently the travels between the worlds have been orchestrated by outside forces. She has put a stop to that. The travelers will now be on their own and will be in more potential danger than ever before. I always get a pang of excitement when the Dimensional Witch appears. I'm more a fan of xxxHolic than I am of Tsubasa.

The Piffle World involves a series of races. The prize is the ultimate power source. As you can imagine, it's one of Sakura's feathers. The race brings together all sorts of CLAMP characters from various series, enough of them that even Syaoran and the others notice. It's a fun arc and one where Sakura really gets a chance to shine. The races remind me a bit of the French / Japanese anime Oban Star-Racers.

Four stars

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The Fog Diver: 10/23/15

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross: Thirteen year old Chess is a tetherboy on Captain Hazel's 	salvage raft.

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross is a near future dystopian environmental disaster adventure story. Thirteen year old Chess is a tetherboy on Captain Hazel's salvage raft, a dirigible that floats above an ever present, man-made fog that protects animals but kills humans. That is except for Chess who was infected by the fog as an infant and now appears to be immune to it.

What Chess and the others want more than anything is to escape the clutches of Lord Kodoc, a ruthless man who patrols the land and skies of the slums. He wants to capture children like Chess so that he can find a way to control the fog.

The Fog Diver was a winning combination for me from the get go. First, it takes the old salvage stories of the likes of Joseph C. Lincoln, Partners of the Tide, for instance, and brings them into a near future setting. It has a natural disaster caused by technology, in this case, nanobots, which brings to mind the excellent cartoon series, Generator Rex. Finally, it's set in a mountainous and cut off area similar to where the author lives (and I once lived), Santa Barbara. Though the area isn't specifically named it was fun to mentally populate the below the fog stuff with places I used to haunt.

The time line for this book is such that some of the people involved in the original disaster are still alive but are old enough to be the grandparents and great-grandparents of Chess's generation. Chess's father, for instance, kept a scrap book of things he could find about life before the fog and those things include pop culture tidbits from now to about 1970. Chess's dad, though, must have been too young to have clear memories of life before as the stories he's passed down to Chess are mangled.

Depending on who is reading this book, those jumbled up pop culture references might go right over the head of the reader. For others though they'll be fun tidbits. I'm old enough to have gotten all of them but my son and daughter who haven't been raised exclusively on the geek culture of the 1970s and 1980s probably wouldn't. The book, is however, written for their age level and has plenty of adventure and good characterization to keep them turning the pages too.

Five stars

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Fleabrain Loves Franny: 10/22/15

Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin: Franny has to live with the reality of just missing a vaccine that could have prevented the disease that has so disrupted her life.

Book themes come in clusters. Right now it's new children's books inspired by old children's books. Right now it's A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte's Web constantly showing up as fictional children's favorite books.

Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin is set in the same year that Charlotte's Web is published. Franny Katzenback is recovering from polio and doesn't want to face a life of paralysis. She escapes from her reality through a book one of the nurses reads to her — Charlotte's Web.

Meanwhile, there is a flea who sees Franny's plight and decides to take on the role of Charlotte. His goal is to help Franny through her recovery. In a rather Edward Eagar or Mary Norton fashion, he grants Franny's wishes, though not as she intends them.

As a side plot there's the research by Salk on the polio vaccine. Franny has to live with the reality of just missing a vaccine that could have prevented the disease that has so disrupted her life.

Five stars

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Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle: 10/29/15

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen: TGabriel loves riddles, word games, codes, and other puzzles.

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen is an urban fantasy about a boy learning his family's connection to a society of magical ravens. But there's a heavy price to pay and previous members of his family have gone missing because of it.

Besides being told from Gabriel's point of view, there are also the ravens who are frankly avian embodiments of the worst of American racism. Basically ravens have developed a coded language based on riddles to hide their xenophobia.

Of course our hero Gabriel loves riddles, word games, codes, and other puzzles. Mind you he doesn't have any other social skills so he's the perfect patsy for these "brave" ravens. Really, for a kid who we are told over and over again is really smart, really isn't. Beware, dear reader, of informed attributes.

But the thing that finally did me in and earned this book a "did not finish" one star was its tone. Though the book is 384 pages, it's written at a level more appropriate not for middle graders but for second graders. This book might as well be Junie B. Jones's idiot cousin meets some ravens.

One star

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Blue Mountain: 10/21/15

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt: Tuk for all his short life has had visions of a mysterious Blue Mountain that to his bighorn sheep clan is the promised land.

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt is told in the style of a creation story but the heroes in question are bighorn sheep. Ultimately it is about the repopulation of Glacier National Park along the Montana / Alberta border.

Tuk for all his short life has had visions of a mysterious Blue Mountain that to his bighorn sheep clan is the promised land. In reality they are facing starvation from excessive logging, farming and development, disease from domestic sheep, and death from hunters, automobiles, and predators facing similar challenges.

Blue Mountain would be a good follow up novel in classrooms that are teaching Jack London's Call of the Wild. Readers are introduced to the struggles bighorn sheep face as Tuk and the others make their journey.

Three stars

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Sleep Like a Tiger: 10/20/15

Sleep Like a Tiger by Mary Logue: The twins need to compromise when it comes time to move to toddler beds.

I swear Sleep Like a Tiger by Mary Logue was written for me, or my inner child at least. A little girl struggles to sleep and her patient parents answer her questions about how different creatures sleep. Eventually she puts together all the lessons of the different animals to find her own best way to sleep.

As a child, and frankly well into my teens, I would spend the long sleepless nights pretending to sleep like different creatures or people or in different places. I've always been a bit of an insomniac, stuck there in bed with just my imagination.

Along with the girl's questions are beautiful illustrations showing her sleeping beside the different animals. The illustrations combine perfectly with the lyrical text to create something magical and memorable. It was a 2013 Caldecott Honor book.

Five stars

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The Twins' Blanket: 10/19/15

The Twins' Blanket by Hyewon Yum: The twins need to compromise when it comes time to move to toddler beds.

The Twins' Blanket by Hyewon Yum is a tween graphic novel about a polar bear learning how to live on his own. Though drawn in a style inviting to younger readers, it is still a frank portrayal of polar bear life.

While munching through dozens of eggs, The Twins' Blanket meets an elderly polar bear. Reluctantly he decides to mentor The Twins' Blanket. But his life lessons are harsh — all polar bear mothers abandon their cubs eventually and violent — how to hunt.

The Twins' Blanket also learns how to live among humans. He learns about the easy to obtain but nasty garbage at the dump. He learns how to tip over tourist buses for snacks. And for his effort, his mentor is captured and sentenced to death.

There is a "happy" ending but it works on the premise that The Twins' Blanket is able to move beyond his solitary nature and convince other bears to join him. It's sort of the Happy Feet ending (minus the dance number). It's the one place where The Twins' Blanket and the others are the most anthropomorphic.

Four stars

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Waluk: 10/18/15

Waluk by Emilo Ruiz: a graphic novel about a polar bear

Waluk by Emilo Ruiz is a tween graphic novel about a polar bear learning how to live on his own. Though drawn in a style inviting to younger readers, it is still a frank portrayal of polar bear life.

While munching through dozens of eggs, Waluk meets an elderly polar bear. Reluctantly he decides to mentor Waluk. But his life lessons are harsh — all polar bear mothers abandon their cubs eventually and violent — how to hunt.

Waluk also learns how to live among humans. He learns about the easy to obtain but nasty garbage at the dump. He learns how to tip over tourist buses for snacks. And for his effort, his mentor is captured and sentenced to death.

There is a "happy" ending but it works on the premise that Waluk is able to move beyond his solitary nature and convince other bears to join him. It's sort of the Happy Feet ending (minus the dance number). It's the one place where Waluk and the others are the most anthropomorphic.

Four stars

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Level Up: 10/17/15

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang: Helicopter parenting from beyond the grave.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang is about a young man on track to get his MD, except he'd rather play video games. And then his dad dies and things get weird; he's suddenly under the protection of four greeting card spawned spirits.

Dennis Ouyang doesn't want to be a gastroenterologist but his mother does. With his father dead, he's expected to honor his father's dream. His parents have worked tirelessly to provide for him and the career that's guaranteed to give him stability and the money he needs to live comfortably. It's the dream that Dennis's father gave up to be a parent.

So while the book is about the worst of helicopter parents, it's also a very silly, anime inspired comedy about the trouble of living with overly helpful spirits. Level Up is one of those books that the entire family ended up reading and enjoying.

Five stars

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The Cute Girl Network: 10/16/15

The Cute Girl Network by M.K. Reed:The relationship between Jane and Jack is a nice twist on the third law of library science: every book it's reader.

The Cute Girl Network by M.K. Reed is a graphic novel about the budding relationship between a skateboarder named Jane, a soup vender named Jack. Jack's ex-girlfriends, self dubbed "the cute girl network" decide to save Jane from her fate of unhappiness if she continues to date Jack.

The relationship between Jane and Jack is a nice twist on the third law of library science: every book it's reader. There's somebody out there for anyone. We learn about Jack's oddities through both the Cute Girl Network and through Jane's interactions with him.

Jack is forgetful, prone to doing bizarre things, likes weird things, etc. But Jane isn't a "typical" woman either (if such a thing exists). She likes skateboarding, cult films, gross out humor, etc. The Cute Girl Network sees Jane as one of their own only because Jane is a woman and because Jack is interested in her. Sure, that's two points of similarity, but it's not enough and throughout they just can't wrap their collective heads around that fact.

Skateboarding

The cute girl network reminds me a lot of a younger version of the "Bermuda Triangle of Gibbs" from N.C.I.S.. After Gibbs's first wife and daughter were murdered he went through a series of bad relationships and his exes are there in the background to criticize and warn off any future potential exes (and seem to be doing a pretty good job of it).

But what they deem unacceptable for being too weird or too disgusting, Jane sees as endearing or funny. For instance, he keeps his cellphone in his underwear because it falls out of his pockets or he doesn't have pockets. They can't get past the eew factor of it being underwear but Jane just laughs it off as one of his many memorable quirks.

Memorable quirks

The relationship between Jane and Jack also reminds me of the Harry Chapman song, "Shooting Star," though I don't think Jack is as broken as the man in the song. Jack is unusual and maybe not 100% normal but he's well meaning and functional. He is taking care of himself. He is paying his bills. He can hold down a job. Jack probably won't ever be a multi-figure executive but not everyone needs to be and not everyone wants or needs that in a companion!

Five stars

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Seconds: 10/15/15

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley: An appealing story of mushrooms and time travel.

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley is a graphic novel about a chef and restaurant owner who decides to take some magical short cuts to get the life she's always wanted. Katie runs a bustling restaurant, Seconds, but she wants to open up a new, larger restaurant in the center of town. It's a huge risk and she feels like she's being screwed over by karma and her contractor.

When Katie discovers some magic mushrooms that can give her a chance at a redo through time travel she starts unraveling her life one mushroom at a time.

Something.

But "all magic comes with a price, dearie" as Rumplestilskin loves to remind us in Once Upon a Time. And pay Katie does with her life spiraling more and more out of control. Sure, she gets her man, gets her new restaurant, but she loses herself, her friends, and her mind.

Waking up to unexpected results.

Seconds brings together story elements from a number of my favorite stories. First there's the Princess and the Frog, the Disney version, except instead of Tiana being swept into the curse, she brings it upon herself. Next there's Steins;Gate where time travel is a slippery slope and a difficult thing to undo. Finally there's the Hildafolk series, where it's a house spirit who brings all this trouble upon Katie because she doesn't follow the old traditions.

Five stars

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Dreaming Spies: 10/14/15

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King: Russell and Sherlock go to Japan.

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King is the thirteenth Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery. Actually it's two mysteries in one: one set in Japan between The Game and Locked Doors, and one set back in England immediately following Locked Doors.

En route to Japan, Holmes (in disguise as Mr. Russell) and Russell, meet a mysterious young Japanese woman. Meanwhile, they are aware of a blackmail plot happening aboard ship. And there might have been a murder, as a passenger has gone missing. The key to unwrapping these mysteries seems to lie in the hands of their new friend, Hiruki.

The adventure this time has three parts: the ship, Japan, and back home in England. The strongest part of the book is the England part where Russell is in her element, books, libraries, and forgeries. I really wish more time had spent in this part of the story.

Instead, though, most of the time is spent in Japan, following Batosa's pilgrimage route, and later riding by train to Tokyo. The biggest problem is just in the extended juggling act of outlining how exotic Japan is (compared to English and American sensibilities) while showing cultural sensitivity (of the "look, I did my homework" variety). And yet there are numerous times that the Japanese "Engrish" shows up, Japanese food is criticized, and so forth. On their pilgrimage, Russell and Holmes make complete asses of themselves and seem perplexed that the people they meet are less than forthcoming with offers of help.

And then to outdo the most ridiculous fan service type anime ever, Holmes and Russell get to learn the reason for the pilgrimage and finally meet their client. And get this, they do it in a mixed gender onsen. Seriously?! OK, sure, Churchill met people whilst in the bath, but, a future emperor meeting complete strangers from a distant land (even ones with such international reputations) while at an onsen?

And then... the crown prince, after Russell has time to clear the purple lines of doom / embarrassment from her face, speaks in Engrish. Why can't he just be given normally written dialog with a slight aside about his accent?

For a better exchange of Japanese and European cultures and culture shock, I recommend the animé Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth. It's the story of a young girl from Japan being apprenticed to a glass blower in Paris. It takes place a few years before Dreaming Spies but gets the period feel of Japan's interest in western culture better.

So really and truly, the book would have done a better presentation of Japan of 90 years ago by glossing over the actual trip through the country and putting the focus on the shenanigans on the ship, and the post mortem at Oxford. The only truly necessary scene in Japan is the one at the ball where Russell and Holmes fail utterly and completely. The book, frankly, should have started there and then gone back to the ship and then forward to England.

Four stars

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Framed in Lace: 10/13/15

Framed in Lace by Monica Ferris: Whose body was found on the long sunk ferry?

Cozy mysteries are one of the first kinds of books I really dove into once the reading bug had finally bitten me as a teenager. Part of that is from borrowing my mother's books and part of it is growing up watching police procedural series with my grandfather. I was a steady consumer of the genre until my early thirties.

And then the time I spent reading them for fun was taken up by bedtime stories, reading books I'd borrowed from friends or acquired through BookCrossing, and ARCs. What free time I did have for reading, I didn't want to commit to a series of any sort.

In the midst of all that "assigned" reading, one of the BookCrossing books was Crewel World, the first in the Needlecraft series by Monica Ferris. I enjoyed it, released it, and went back to my piles and piles of books.

I'm done with all of those obligations (save for the occasional bedtime story) and can focus again on my own reading tastes and schedules. The first cozy I chose to revisit the genre was Framed in Lace by Monica Ferris.

Still reeling from her sister's murder, Betsy has decided to stick around Excelsior and keep the needlecraft store open. She has her staff and a small group of friends willing to help her learn the store.

Meanwhile, the local historical society is pulling a sunken ferry out of the lake to restore it, just as they'd done with another ferry sunk at the end of WWII. This one though surfaces with a skeleton. The only clue to the skeleton's ID is a scrap of lace.

Since Betsy runs the local needlecraft store, she's brought on as the resident expert. Of course, she's not, but she does know how to ask questions and how to find someone who is an expert.

This book worked a lot better for me than Crewel World. Betsy's now established as a character and her fish-out-water status doesn't need rehashing. Also, this mystery relies on two things I know first: local knowledge through canvassing, and the ease at which a typo can be propagated across records to the point of being taken as irrefutable fact.

Five stars

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Bob's Hungry Ghost: 10/12/15

Bob's Hungry Ghost by Genevieve Cote: How about a ghost for a pet?

Bob's Hungry Ghost by Geneviève Côté is the story of a boy who gets a ghost instead of a puppy for his birthday. Here is yet another book about a child and a "pet" that isn't a pet. These pets can be inanimate objects, like a book, a mechanical one (Clink), a mislabled one, or a dead one. For the pets that aren't even alive, the pet "owners" fail to treat them like living pets and pay the consequences of their "foolishness."

So here's Bob, all prepared for a puppy and he gets a ghost instead. Sure, the ghost looks cute but come on, it's not a puppy. If you've been preparing for a puppy and getting your home ready for one, a ghost just isn't even in the same book as a puppy. Maybe, I suppose, it could be, if it were a ghost puppy. In Bob's case, it's a ghost of indeterminate origin and shape.

Bob's ghost in a box

It's one thing to ignore a puppy, but a ghost? It's not like he's actively trying to exorcise it, or even antagonize it. But Bob's ghost decides to go poltergeist. Sure, pet books are a great way to teach children the importance of taking good care of their pets before even becoming pet owners.

But is Bob's Hungry Ghost about pet care or becoming a Hunter a la Sam and Dean Winchester?

Melanie Merchant, the ghost from Provenance (Episode 19 of Season 1 of Supernatural)
Melanie Merchant, the ghost from "Provenance" (Episode 19 of Season 1 of Supernatural).

Three stars

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My Pet Book: 10/11/15

My Pet Book by Bob Staake: Books are fun to read but as pets?

On of the go-to topics for picture books is the child who wants a pet but their parents won't allow one. The child has to do everything imaginable to prove their readiness as a potential pet caretaker. They also usually end up with an unusual pet.

In the case of My Pet Book by Bob Staake, the pet in question is a book. In this case, it's a boy and his pet book. He puts it on a leash and drags it around town. It becomes his main obsession — something to read where he goes, no matter what else is happening.

So of course the book gets left behind somewhere. The boy goes on a frantic hunt around town to get his book back. So the question with this book, is this a book about being a responsible pet owner, or a book to encourage children to like reading?

Three stars

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Too Many Tamales: 10/10/15

Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto: Don't wear jewelry while cooking.

Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto is about family and cooking tamales. Maria is helping make tamales for a family get together. Her mother has let her try on her wedding ring but Maria has to promise not to wear it while cooking!

After all the tamales are finished, Maria wants to wear the wedding ring again but it's missing! Assuming the worst, she and the other children set down to eating all the tamales until they find the ring.

You can imagine what happens next. But this story is also about family and it has a happy ending, although one with belly aches for the children.

Ed Martinez's paintings bring the children to life. Their expressions are exactly what you'd expect given the apparent gravity of the situation.

It was recommended to me by my daughter, who read it in school.

Four stars

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Where Are You, Blue Kangaroo: 10/09/15

Where Are You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark: Blue Kangaroo is missing at the zoo

Where Are You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark is about Lily who loves taking her favorite toy where ever she goes, but doesn't always remember to bring him home. Blue Kangaroo, though, is getting frustrated, thinking she might not return someday. So while at the zoo, Blue Kangaroo decides he might as well just stay put and find a new home with the local kangaroos, even though they aren't blue.

Although my daughter didn't take her favorite toys around town, she did care for a pretend foster animal, a stuffed tuxedo cat named Taco. He was part of the SPCA summer camp. Children who lose track of their toy fosters, will have to look for them in the "pound" (a box) and write an apology for their carelessness. Basically, they don't want these children to grow up to be pet owners who lose their pets for irresponsible actions.

Now in the case of Blue Kangaroo, his sudden ability to move about the zoo on his own accord seemed a bit, well, out of the blue. It's like the book can't decide if this scene is the climax or the punchline.

Three stars

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Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife: 10/08/15

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage: As the runt of a litter of thirteen to a mother who cares more about her next drink than her own children, Firmin must make his own way in the world.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage is a short meta fiction novel about a rat who grows up on books, moves in with an aspiring (but failing) author and has dreams of becoming both human and a published author.

As the runt of a litter of thirteen to a mother who cares more about her next drink than her own children, Firmin must make his own way in the world. Through the magic of the used book shop, he finds that the words on the paper that he's been eating have taught him the ways of the human world.

And so since the rat is living in a book store, surround by all the world's literature, he does a lot of name dropping. He waxes lovingly on the different books he's read, like one of those notorious name droppers at a cocktail party. I get it; books are wonderful, marvelous, magical things — but dropping titles as some sort of proof of that love — is well, trite.

This weird little rat tale is set against the razing of Scollay Square in Boston. For those familiar with the area and its history, there book will have extra meaning. But as Firmin was too busy proving to me (and failing) his love of books, I never really got a sense of the place or of his character — beyond finding him a very pretentious rodent.

For a better tale of books and bookstores, I recommend the memoir: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee.

Three stars

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Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love: 10/07/15

Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love by Kate Samworth: The popular idea in the early to mid 20th century was that children needed to learn how to tough it out on their own.

Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love by Jim Ottaviani is a graphic novel account of the psychology research done on the parent / child relationship and child self-esteem and mental health. At the forefront of this research was Harry Harlow who used rhesus monkeys (mothers and babies) to show the importance of physical contact to express love between parent and child.

The popular idea in the early to mid 20th century was that children needed to learn how to tough it out on their own. Parents were advised to avoid excessive physical contact with their children and to let babies cry it out. Babies and toddlers were kept in playpens and infants were primarily bottle fed. And a few years later, therapists reaped the benefits.

By the time I was born the pendulum was swinging more towards baby wearing, natural childbirth, and breast feeding, though those bits of advice hadn't yet become completely mainstream as they were by the time I had my children at the start of the 21st century.

We can see the start of this swing in the second season episode of Bewitched, "And Then There Were Three" where Tabitha is born. Although Samantha (at least while in the hospital) is willing to play by the parenting rules that the nurse, and husband Darrin, believe in. But Endora, her mother, is far too Bohemian, to believe such idiotic advice. She sets forth a series of misunderstandings by doing a very loving thing: picking up her crying grand-daughter from the nursery and taking her back to Samantha. Nowadays, infants stay with their mothers for most, if not all, of the postnatal stay in the hospital.

Wire Mothers from the early days where he was keeping his monkeys (and their isolation chambers) in a rickety old building just off campus. Later as his work got more attention he had to move out of the condemned building and into a proper lab. He also had to work under greater scrutiny.

The work was inhumane and controversial — no argument there. But I think it was a necessary evil to move away from the worst of the parenting advice bandied about when my grand parents were new parents. I'm glad that those men and women who ignored the parenting advice back then were eventually vindicated.

Four stars

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Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual: 10/06/15

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth: starts of strong and then goes lost in cliche.

My grandmother lived on the edge of Rose Canyon and took it upon herself to provide a safe haven for the wildlife that lived there too. Primarily that meant birds: mourning doves, house sparrows, house finches, and migrating birds. She had a twice daily ritual where she would put out food and water for the birds, including inside a self built aviary made from chain link fencing so that the little birds could eat in safety if the hawks and other raptors were circling.

Although bird diversity in her backyard wasn't very high and even though she knew all the species that visited by heart, she maintained a small library of birding reference books by the sliding glass doors. Of course these books had dozens of other types of birds from all over the area. To me these books seemed like catalogs of exotic, magical creatures.

It's that sense of wonder that Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth captures. Here is a build your own bird catalog. These are high end, luxury robotic pets for bird connoisseurs of the near future.

For children of the present, the book includes facts about birds and their variable anatomy: beaks, eyes, wings, bodies, feathers, tails, feet, etc.

The catalog is gorgeously illustrated with oil paintings that rival the color plates of my grandmother's old field guides. It's perfect for any budding birder or robot builder!

Five stars

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: 10/05/15

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: starts of strong and then goes lost in cliche.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the 2013 Stonewall Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. Ari and Dante are a pair of Mexican American teens who save for their hyphenated heritage couldn't be any more different if they tried. Yet a set of circumstances thrust them together and they become friends over the summer.

Ari is an angry teen with a brother in prison. He's over protected because of his brother's mistakes and he screams at the world for this sense of injustice. Dante's an only child of academics; his life is fairly liberal and very open. There's a lot of touching in Dante's family.

The first half of the book is Ari being completely befuddled by Dante's happy go luck approach to life. Dante never wears shoes. He loves to draw. He's super close to his family. It's just all so perfect that it walks a fine line between saccharine and creepy.

And then book takes a right turn and for a variety of reasons the two are separated.

With physical and emotional pain to work through, Ari takes up alcohol. Dante, perhaps out of loneliness, and certainly out of boredom (because of course, all super smart kids get bored), takes up drugs.

And somewhere in all that mess, the boys realize they have feelings for each other.

The drugs and alcohol is a hot heaping pile of plot convenience, than actual character development. Yes, Ari's brother screwed up and yes, he's angry. But that shouldn't automatically damn Ari to alcoholism. Likewise, yes, Dante's family is very liberal and somewhat laissez faire with their parenting, but again, I don't see Dante suddenly turning to drugs. He's so creatively driven that he doesn't need drugs.

It's not that there shouldn't be books about underage drinking and drug use but here it felt like a means for creating tension and nothing else. It didn't feel organic. It didn't seem to fit the characters. It felt like a stalling tactic to keep the boys apart until closer to the end.

Three stars

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The Cats of Tanglewood Forest: 10/04/15

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint: Lillian Kindred saves the life of her aunt but pays the ultimate price by being bit by a poisonous snake.

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint and illustrated by Charles Vess is an updating and expansion of their A Circle of Cats, and is a companion piece to Seven Wild Sisters.

Lillian Kindred saves the life of her aunt but pays the ultimate price by being bit by a poisonous snake. Too surprised to die outright, her spirit lingers long enough to be transformed by the King of Cats into a calico kitten.

Lillian sees her reflection.

Much of the book is Lillian's quest to return to normal. Having read Seven Wild Sisters first, I knew that she would. I also knew that however she did it, would have a huge and fundamental effect on her. So the fun for me was in seeing what she did to get her old life back.

Five stars

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Pigmalion: 10/03/15

Pigmalion by Glenda Leznoff is a swine themed retelling of Pygmalion.

Pigmalion by Glenda Leznoff is a picture book adaptation of Pygmalion with some nods, of course, to My Fair Lady.

Juliet wants to be in the play that's being produced at the local theater but she suffers terribly from stage fright. None the less she has the lines memorizes and manages to befriend the director. Through some careful planning on his part and perseverance on her part, she's able to further learn the role of Eliza Piglittle.

It's a cute book but more aimed at the parents than the children. I supposer there could be some children out there who have seen My Fair Lady. I certainly had as a little kid. It could, though, be used as a way to introduce children both to the musical and the George Bernard Shaw play.

Four stars

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The Lost Boy: 10/02/15

The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth: Old things revealing old stories and creating new adventures is the recipe for a book I can't resist.

The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth is a graphic novel about a move to a new town and the discovery of a long lost mystery. Nate and his family are new in town and he's not happy to have been transplanted from his old neighborhood and friends. While unpacking his boxes, he finds an old tape recorder and a note remarkably addressed to him. Those two items lead him on a path of adventure, danger, and revelation.

I'm a sucker for old house mysteries. Old things revealing old stories and creating new adventures is the recipe for a book I can't resist. Add in an element of the supernatural and I'll probably end up reading in one or two sittings.

Two panels from Lost Boy

The Lost Boy does include the supernatural, though what kind of supernatural is left as part of the big mystery. There are shadowy figures, mysterious creatures, a wood that seems to pop up out of nothing. All of these things are tied to the old tapes that Nate feels compelled to listen to.

Animals amok

It was a fun, roller coaster of a book. I think fans of shows like Supernatural or Gravity Falls will enjoy The Lost Boy

Four stars

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You and Me: 10/01/15

You and Me by Susan Verde is a story of friendship and how bad luck can really be good luck.

You and Me by Susan Verde is the story of best friends and all the ways they could have missed meeting each other. For anyone in a long term relationship — whether a friendship or a romantic one, the what-ifs are big thing.

For my husband and me, the what ifs include one of us choosing a different college. Or one of us could have decided to stay through to the end of the initial presentation at orientation. Or I could have chosen a different boyfriend (I had a couple other suitors). Etc. etc.

The story plays out without explanation, looking at first glance as if the worst thing has happened — the friends have missed their meeting and the train is pulling away from the station with one on board and one still running to the train. But it's not like that. It's the story of new opportunities arising from missed connections.

Five stars

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