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November 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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Tommy Can't Stop!: 11/29/15

Tommy Can't Stop! by Tim Federle

Tommy Can't Stop! by Tim Federle is about a young boy who has energy to spare. Tommy's a kid on the go. He basically flings himself through life, wearing out his family.

His family tries everything and every sport to wear him out. He's just not interested. Thankfully Tommy's sister finds a solution — dance!

Given all the dance books aimed at girls — I mean really, how many ballerina books do there need to be? — it's refreshing to have ballet given as a solution to an overly rambunctious boy. There are, of course, men in ballet. Those men were once boys and they probably didn't discover ballet as adults.

Five stars

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Flora and the Flamingo: 11/29/15

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Before I started on my review of Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle, I stopped to look up the popularity of the name Flora. It seems that Flora is becoming a popular name for protagonists in children's fiction. I was curious to see if that rise in popularity reflected a return of popularity of the name. In the United States, it doesn't, though it's in the top 1000 in Scotland and Quebec and the top 100 in Hungary per the Baby Name Wizard site. I suppose, then, Flora is the new Harriet, a name that in fiction sounds cool but isn't currently on most people's radar.

The other reason I was curious is that one of my grandmothers was named Flora, though most everyone called her Flossie. Within her lifetime and the decade and a half since her death, I can't recall running across any other Floras either as people or as characters. Until now.

OK — so back to Flora and the Flamingo. I think it should probably be called Flamingo and Flora since clearly the flamingo is the main character. Here is a flamingo who loves to do something that's a cross between ballet and yoga.

And then there's flora who is completely enraptured by the flamingo as demonstrated by her pink leotard, pink tights, and pink flippers. For every pose that the flamingo takes, with an unfolding of a page, we can see Flora doing her best to imitate the flamingo.

The first few poses show the flamingo rather frustrated with Flora. There's a squint to her eye and a maybe a frown in that beak. But slowly but surely the flamingo begins to warm to Flora's enthusiasm.

There are two others Flora and the Penguin (2014) and Flora and the Peacock (2016).

Five stars

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Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 1: 1970s-1981: 11/28/15

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 1: 1970s-1981 by Ed Piskor

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 1: 1970s-1981 by Ed Piskor came across my radar via a post I saw online. I'm not entirely sure where and I didn't think to note it down when I decided to read the book. I do recall thinking that I like nonfiction presented in a graphic novel or comic format and I knew next to nothing about hip hop. So it seemed like a perfect fit for me.

It was.

Here's the thing about hip hop, it's as old as I am. But it grew up in boroughs of New York and spread to similar urban settings. I grew up in a San Diego suburb. Hip hop wasn't even mentioned as a musical form or a cultural phenomena where I lived until it was about a decade old and I don't recall anything positive being said about it either.

That tells you how lily white my neck of the woods was back then.

Piskor's comic (originally done as a two volume graphic novel and is now a monthly comic) starts at the earliest mentions of hip hop and rapping and traces the forces most influential in the artform. He does it chronologically rather than by celebrity, so people come and go. It gives it a more historical feel to it, as if we're reading illustrated history, rather than a celebrity biography.

For the first volume it's fascinating to see both the performers and the big music producers not seeing any future or financial potential in hip hop, even though each performance drew larger crowds than the previous ones. Performances early on where free and performers were spending oodles of their own money on equipment and old records for their scratch material and loops.

Yet there were fans willing to pay for recordings of performances. And eventually the industry grew up from self made records, purchased airtime, to big name labels finally taking notice.

We call it RAPTURE

Now for people like me who grew up outside of the realm of hip hop, the big breakaway hit was Blondie's Rapture which came out in 1980. It was #48 on MTV's debut day. But here's the thing, I didn't have cable. The youtube video is my first time of actually seeing the video which features now-familiar-to-me faces thanks to Ed Piskor's book.

In fact, the first time I heard Rapture wasn't until 1983 when 9IX switched to an alternative music format which included Blondie's rapture in regular rotation.

Thankfully Piskor's book includes a list of important songs for those of us clueless readers. Also, thankfully, my local library's Freegal Music accounts provides easy and free access to the songs I've missed out on.

This is good. Very good!

Five stars

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Finding Someplace: 11/27/15

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick is one of many recent tween novels about Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath in New Orleans. Katrina blew ashore on the last weekend of August, 2005. Poor planning on the part of numerous officials all the way up the chain of command combined with a highway system there that doesn't offer many ways of egress, resulted in thousands trapped through the worst flooding in the city in decades.

New Orleans is a tropical place. Water plus heat quickly adds up to unhealthy, unsanitary conditions. The 9th Ward, a primarily Black neighborhood, took the brunt of the flooding and the death toll. Lives were lost. Homes were either flattened or flooded (and over run with black mold and had to be razed), and thousands were displaced. A hyper-conservative and racist government delayed the rescue and recovery response, and later, the FEMA rebuilding.

All of that is in the history books but it's the setting of Finding Someplace. Rather than dwelling on those terrible things, rather than sensationalizing them, the book focuses on a tightly night microcosm of the Ninth Ward.

The main character is a girl turning thirteen. Reesie has a big party planned. She doesn't have time for a hurricane. But her skin starts to prickle when her mother, a nurse, is told to expect extra shifts, and her father, a police officer, is also put on overtime. Though her parents try to arrange a ride for Reesie out of the city the roads in are closed. She is stuck without a way out and must rely on her neighbors during the storm.

Finding Someplace isn't about death, though. It's about survival and recovery against extraordinary odds. The events of the actual hurricane take up about a third of the book. The second third is Reesie trying to stay true to herself while living in a new city where she doesn't fit in and everything she does seems to get her in trouble. The last third is Reesie and her family finally facing what it will take to move back to New Orleans.

So while Hurricane Katrina is the setting and while Reesie's story is inspired by the author's own experiences, the book is more about the human spirit (the good and the bad). It shows more clearly than most any other disaster book I've read, how terrible people can be to each other, especially when large populations are forced to leave their homes. The "welcoming" towns are so often not actually welcoming.

I would recommend using the book as a way to get children talking about other crises, such as the Syrian refugees crises.

Five stars

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My Name Is Maria Isabel: 11/26/15

My Name Is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada

My Name Is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada is a short chapter book about a young Puerto Rican girl who has moved to a new school and suffers both from homesickness and a loss of identity.

Maria Isabel's new teacher already has two students named Maria and decides a third will be too many. She decides to rename Maria Isobel, Mary Lopez. It's such a huge change that Maria never answers when she's called and she loses all interest in school, further alienating herself from her new teacher and classmates.

My Name Is Maria Isabel is Maria's journey to find a balance between her family life and her school life and to regain control over who she is at all times. It's also a gentle reminder to educators to be respectful to their students and to avoid trying to mold all students into convenient forms.

Five stars

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Displacement: A Travelogue: 11/25/15

Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley

Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley is a graphic novel memoir about the author chaperoning her elderly grandparents on a cruise. They are going as part of a group tour with their retirement home. Her grandparents though are suffering from dementia and other ailments meaning they can't easily travel on their own even though they want to, so she went along to make sure they made it to the ship and survived the experience.

I read the book because I went through a similar experience, though as a child. For my sixth grade graduation I was invited by my grandmother to accompany her and my grandfather on an Alaskan cruise run by his adult day care center. He was in the late stages of Parkinson's at the time and it was likely to be their last trip together. At the time I thought I was just being rewarded for successfully finishing elementary school but in light of Displacement and the experience of adulthood now, I can see that I was really brought along as help for my grandmother who had her own health issues to deal with on top of my grandfather's.

Outer vs inner self

As I was a child and not in any way responsible for my grandparents, I had more fun and was less stressed out than how Lucy depicts herself.

That said, I did still experience many of the same disconnects of being on a trip designed for families and healthy couples, as a child accompanying a bunch of elderly people with their ill partners who either had Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

Things I had in common with Lucy: sleeping in total darkness (no porthole, though I was sharing with my grandparents); a grandfather who wet his pants; a grandmother who bruised easily; and Baked Alaska.

Baked Alaska

You can see my live blogging of the book on Tumblr.

Five stars

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When You Reach Me: 11/24/15

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is one of those books that needed to wait for the perfect time for me to read it. I impulse bought it at my son's Scholastic book fair when he was in first or second grade. He's now going into eighth.

And that's a big part of When You Reach Me — time. There's Miranda's mother who is trying to beat the clock on The $100,000 Pyramid. There is Miranda's own fascination with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. And there are the letters that come and seem to know things from Miranda's future.

It's also about friendship and trust. After Miranda's best friend, Sal, is punched by the neighborhood bully, he withdraws from their friendship. Miranda left on her own is forced to make new friends. Much of this book is about that adjustment and the things she does with them.

How it all fits together is the fun bit of the story. Readers familiar with A Wrinkle in Time might jump to the correct conclusions first but knowing that book isn't a prerequisite for enjoying When You Reach Me

Five stars

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George: 11/23/15

George by Alex Gino

George by Alex Gino was originally titled Girl George but the publisher lobbed off the first word in an ironic demonstration of transgender erasure. The book is about a fourth grader who calls herself Melissa. Her problem, though, is she was born with a penis and the name George.

Let me start by saying I like Melissa and eventually I came to like her overly masculine brother. He's set up to be the BIG BAD but he doesn't take the bait. The older brother is a belching, pornography consuming, stinky, loud mouthed, stereotypical boy of the types you see in sitcoms (such as Home Improvement).

Melissa wants to be the exact opposite and has saved up her allowance money to purchase the types of teenage beauty magazines that make me cringe. She wants long hair, long dresses, makeup and jewelry.

The catalyst for Melissa to finally start making her true identity public is her otaku love of Charlotte's Web (yes, another in a long line of these recent homages). Her class is putting on a play based on the book and Melissa desperately wants to be Charlotte. Her problem, though, is that as a "boy" she's not given an opportunity to try out for any of the "girl" parts.

Now this boy vs girl parts in a play also shows up in Gracefully, Grayson, another story of a transgender youth. In both cases, it's expected for boys to play boy parts and girl to play girl parts and the drama comes to a head when the protagonist is forced to out themselves in order to participate in the way they feel most comfortable with.

It is the use of the rigidly structured play that I have the most trouble with George. Although I grew up in a fairly conservative, homogenous, and frankly, homophobic neighborhood, a child wanting to play a character of a differently perceived gender wouldn't have caused this much uproar. We did tons of plays all the way through elementary school and everyone was allowed to try out and play every character.

My other complaint with George is more of a reaction to the small but growing number of these books that I've read, and I will touch on this concern of mine in more detail in a separate post. The problem with books about transgender characters is that male and female are played to their stereotypical extremes. Melissa and her brother are set up as polar opposites from the very beginning of the book. Siblings are usually more like each other than they are like their parents even if one is male and one is female.

But George is such a short book and so focused on Melissa's troubles at school with the play that there isn't time to explore why her brother acts the way he does. Nor does Melissa give an explanation as to why she believes she has to act a certain way as part of being a girl. I wish these character traits for both siblings had been addressed, rather than leaving it as given that boys are a certain way and girls are a different way, even when trapped inside a body that looks male.

Three stars

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Sophie Scott Goes South: 11/22/15

Sophie Scott Goes South by Alison Lester

Sophie Scott Goes South by Alison Lester is a fictional picture book based on an actual trip that the author took to Antartica on a research vessel.

As we're a hundred years out from the initial explorations of Antartica there's been a renewed interest in books about the expeditions. Now Sophie Scott Goes South is at the head of the trend, maybe it's the trend setter. But it does share the same hallmarks: mini-portraits of the crew, cutaways of the ship, descriptions of the equipment, etc.

drawing of the crew drawing of the crew
drawing of the crew drawing of the crew

While the basic plot is Sophie Scott goes to Antartica on her father's ship and learns about antarctic exploration, each page is crammed with little doodles that provide further explanation. There are also photographs from the author's actual trip, though the majority of the book is written to be Sophie's journal and her drawings.

There's a layer by layer look at how to dress for Antarctica with Sophie as the model:

drawing of Sophie and her clothing

And at the bottom of the same page, a carefully drawn diagram of all the different types of icebergs one might see:

iceberg drawing

And it's that attention to detail that makes Sophie Scott Goes South my favorite of all the recent Antartica books I've read.

Five stars

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Fish In A Tree: 11/21/15

Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a tween novel about a sixth grader doing everything she can to hide the fact that she can't read. Ally would rather disrupt class than admit that she can't make sense of the words on the page. So far, her teachers have only seen her as an out of control child who belongs in the principal's office, rather than a frustrated and embarrassed child who is an undiagnosed dyslexic.

Fortunately for Ally, her newest teacher, Mr. Daniels, recognizes the techniques she's been using. He slowly but surely tries to win her trust and get her the tutoring she needs to finally start reading with some confidence.

But... this book has problems.

The dyslexia itself is problematic. Ally eventually learns that her brother is also pretty much functionally illiterate. It's hinted that her mother might also have problems. The family has an obvious history of problems reading and yet they never talk about it? I bring this up because dyslexia runs in my family too. My grandmother, my father, and my brother. Whether or not my nephews will have the problem is yet to be seen. But it's not some elephant in the room secret. Those of us who don't have the problem have worked hard to make sure that those who do were given the support and tutoring to learn how to read and how to function with other problems that crop up (like getting directions mixed up).

Then there's the trouble reading. She's completely unable to even recognize letters. With dyslexia you can learn your alphabet. You can read simple sentences. Accuracy takes time. You have to read slowly. When reading faster or when nervous that's when things start to get jumbled. Letters transpose themselves or seem to jiggle. Reading out loud is when the problems are most obvious and most embarrassing.

Regarding it being a man coming to Ally's rescue, I'm going to let that one pass. Dyslexia does affect more males than females. It's entirely possible that he is also dyslexic. It would be nice if that detail had been mentioned, though.

Now the teasing. The new kid isn't the one who is teased. Teasing builds up over time. The same kids are picked on year after year. If Ally really is changing schools every year, she'd be invisible.

Then there's the military brat thing. If Ally's father really was enlisted, chances are they'd be living on base. If they're living off base, there should still be other kids in Ally's situation. Instead, she seems to be living in some out of the way cafe. If Ally were working poor instead of military brat and she were forced to move from town to town. Being working poor would also explain why the mother and brother have so little time to help Ally or even talk to her about her problems in school.

My final thoughts are that it's a good start but it's also a rough one.

Three stars

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The Farmer and the Clown: 11/20/15

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee is a 2015 Charlotte Huck Honor Book. It's a wordless picture book story of a farmer who offers his home to a young clown who has fallen off the back of a circus train.

It's a heartwarming book about doing the right thing, the forging of new friendships, and happy reunions. It's all told through subdued illustrations done in earth tones, save for the clown's red hat.

Two panels from the book

Like the Rust series by Royden Lepp, this is a farm that is mostly dirt. And in both cases, those with little to nothing to spare, still take in those who need help — whether it's a former child soldier cyborg, or a stranded clown child.

Five stars

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Return to Augie Hobble: 11/18/15

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith is the illustrator's debut into writing tween fiction. It's set along an abandoned piece of US 66 in New Mexico at a struggling family run amusement park, done as a low budget Disneyland.

In terms of location, it's probably most like Cliff's, an an amusement park in Albuquerque. In terms of how it's described, though, it's more like the defunct Santa's Village in Alpine, California with nods to Disneyland before the building of the California Adventure.

Anyway, Augie lives there with his father and mother and he's eagerly awaiting his best friend's return from the yearly family trip. Except his friend doesn't return. Augie learns that he died of an acute reaction to peanuts he accidentally ate on the trip. Augie is convinced that he has killed his friend, having slipped his friend a cookie before the trip.

In road trip stories there are those who take to the open road, leaving the big city for the small towns, or to make a cross country trek from one metropolis to another by way of numerous small destinations along the way. Augie's amusement park was once a destination when US 66 was the mother road and had its own theme song. Then in 1957 it was bypassed by I40 and decommissioned in 1985.

The death of Augie's friend is tied up in the metaphor of the sudden ways things can change and the stubborn way reminders of the past hold on as the rest crumbles around them. Augie who lives in a place on the border between the modern and the forgotten, is open to seeing the worlds between. In this regard he's like Hiyori from Noragami or Richard Mayhew from Neverwhere.

A collection of Augie's Polaroids.

I think the book will appeal to readers who are fans of Gravity Falls. The amusement park is similar to Grunkle Stan's Mystery Shack. Likewise, there are some supernatural goings on in and around the park that Augie feels compelled to investigate. Augie's method of recording these events, though, is an old Polaroid camera that "takes cool pictures that look like Instagram." (p. 23)

As Lane Smith is an illustrator, he includes numerous examples of Augie's Polaroid photographs which add to the road trip charm of this otherworldly book.

Five stars

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Last Message: 11/18/15

Last Message by Shane Peacock

Last Message by Shane Peacock is the last book in a collection of related books, kind of like The 39 Clues series but without the marketing arm of Scholastic. Both series start the same: a wealthy relative dies and the resulting will provides instructions for a treasure hunt.

In the case of The 39 Clues series, all the relatives are given the same set of clues. Starting with The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan, the series follows Amy and Dan, the youngest and least experienced of the teams. Here, though, each book focuses on a different grandchild and a different set of clues. Thus it's not important to read the entire set nor is it important to read them in any particular order.

Adam, the youngest grandson, is a Canadian living in Buffalo, New York. His note tells him to go to a small village near Marseilles, France. His journey will lead him to learn about Vincent Van Gough, the cave paintings of Lascaux, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. The history lessons here are done with such earnestness that they're not as fun as the best of the 39 Clues. They read more like heavy handed after school specials.

The one saving grace of Last Message is Adam's perpetual frustration at being confused by everyone for being an American. No matter the situation he's constantly assumed to be American. Perhaps, it's his own bad behavior that contributes to the confusion. He steals, he breaks into places, he tries bribery. Though, in the end, someone tosses a brick of common sense at his head and he finally realizes what an ass he's been.

Two stars

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A Murderous Yarn: 11/17/15

A Murderous Yarn by Monica Ferris

A Murderous Yarn by Monica Ferris is the fifth in the Needlecraft mystery series and one of my personal favorites. Betsy who has embraced her new town wholeheartedly by now is volunteering her time with an antique car tour. Although the blurb says it's a race, and Lars, one of Betsy's friends drives like is, it really isn't, and the difference between races and tours are fully explained.

At the halfway point to the follow up tour, one of the drivers is found dead and possibly run over by his vehicle. It turns out his wife had been with Betsy all day, having found the drive too rough and the day to hot in her period costume.

Now this is a cozy where the who and the how done it is pretty easy to figure out for the observant reader. That said, it was still a blast to read for all of it's antique car details. The cars covered aren't the usual lot (Model T, Model A, Buick Touring Car). These are older, long since defunct companies, with Lars's Stanley Steamer being the most well known of the lot.

Five stars

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The Vacation: 11/16/15

The Vacation by Polly Horvath

Polly Horvath is originally from Kalamazoo Michigan but now lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her books reflect her move and her adoption of a new country and home.

The Vacation by Polly Horvath begins in Critz, Virginia and ends somewhere in the United States, on some highway, mid road trip. It begins with Henry being left in the care of his aunts, Pigg and Magnolia, after his parents go to somewhere in Africa as part of a Mormon mission (even though neither of them are Mormons).

That's a rough start to a book and one that Horvath probably wouldn't have chosen were she to write the book now. Horvath's books, especially her most recent ones, are precise and detailed, even — no especially — especially when there are talking rabbits or other wacky characters. To just hand wave and say Africa is an unfortunate bit of sloppiness in order to get the parents out of the story without killing them.

Nor is The Vacation a straight up road trip either. Henry and his aunts don't hop into the family car the instant the parents leave. Instead, there's a grueling couple of weeks where Mag is desperately ill. The road trip springs from Mag's desire to convalesce and reclaim life. First stop is Virginia Beach.

If Virginia Beach was to be the civilized vacation, the type where one goes to a resort to take in the sun, maybe read a book, and people watch, then the trip that comes after is the exact opposite.

It's really only after Virginia Beach that The Vacation takes on the tone that I so love of the later Horvath novels. The road has an affect on travelers, transforming them with each mile. The motels with their wacky variations on a theme affect further changes. And it is in this transformation that Pigg and Mag come out of their shells and truly shine as characters.

There are too many different types of adventures to outline here without divulging plot and spoilers. I'm including a rough map, if you're curious.

Screen shot of a rough itinerary created on Google Maps in June, 2015

If you'd like to follow along more closely with Mag, Pigg, and Henry, I logged my favorite quotes and thoughts on Tumblr.

Four stars

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Don Eddy: The Art of Paradox: 11/15/15

Don Eddy: The Art of Paradox by Donald B. Kuspit

In 1988 a colored pencil drawing of a Western style saddle I had done was selected along with about 100 other student artworks for display at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The next room over had a display of photorealistic artwork. One of the artists included in that traveling show was Don Eddy. At the time Eddy was known for his paintings of chrome bumpers, families standing in front of cars, and shop window displays where the outside reflections vie for the viewers' attention.

When I saw Eddy's name pop up in one of the art chapters of The Automobile and American Culture I decided to revisit his artwork. The book my local library had was Don Eddy: The Art of Paradox by Donald B. Kuspit. Please note that my negative reaction isn't to the artist's body of work, it's to how it's presented in this book.

Eddy describes his work as a celebration of the "mystery of being." The Art of the Paradox tries to explain what that means and to me misses the mark. Which, granted, is probably extreme chutzpah on my part as the author has made a career out of art criticism and teaching art history, but there you go!

On seeing Eddy's work in person the first time, I was actively painting in oils and was attempting to learn how to do dancing light on fabrics and metals that John Singleton Copley accomplished. To make silken fabrics or reflective surfaces really "pop" at different levels of scrutiny it takes a lot of carefully placed lines of color — some very close in hue and tone to their neighbors, and some complimentary. It's not something one can just slap on there in a Bob Ross fashion (though his methods for mountain landscapes are awesome).

If Copley's pieces have a level 10 attention to detail, then Eddy's are off the scale. The amount of work to make something appear hyper realistic results in something that were it photographed even in a medium or large format would still come up short compared to Eddy's pieces. In doing so, he's taking the viewer outside the natural world where reality is taken for granted and asked people to stop for a moment to do an ontological double-take. What are the elements of our modern life and how do they play with our perceptions?

My problem with Kuspit's analysis is that it's too reliant on a religious experience or awakening. To me it's more about being forced to realize that the world doesn't look like I remember it. Details are heightened in things remembered and blurred in things forgotten. By making everything with more details than a lens can capture and with everything hyper focused, one is forced in a piece of art to decided what the important details are because everything is presented with the same demand to attention.

Two stars

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In the Driver's Seat: 11/14/15

In the Driver's Seat by Cynthia Golomb Dettelbach

In the Driver's Seat by Cynthia Golomb Dettelbach is a look at gender and the automobile. It was referenced in one of the essays in The Automobile and American Culture. As there seems to be fewer highway and automobile books written by women than men, I added it to my list.

At most interest to me were the discussions of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both are clear inspiration points for the long running television series, Supernatural, a series I'm now being able to decode with road trip tropes both old and new. Even their names: Sam and Dean are exactly one letter off from the characters in On the Road (Sal and Dean). When adding in the idea that "...Kerouac often casts Sal as Ishmael to Dean's Ahab" (p. 36) the early seasons of Supernatural began to click into place.

Dettelbach makes a convincing argument for ON THE ROAD being an homage to MOBY-DICK. That in turns makes SUPERNATURAL and homage to MOBY-DICK.

The connection between the show and Kerouac's book is real and there are many references within the series and are listed on the Wiki. What struck me as extremely relevant was the inherited ties to Moby Dick because the theme of obsession over the unobtainable is an on-going one of so many road trip stories. When I come to the literary analysis part of my project (beyond the off the cuff connections I've been making during my reading and live blogging) I will have to think of the texts in terms of Melville's novel.

Later chapters in the book become incredibly personal, becoming more of a memoir than an analysis of gender or culture and the automobile. The author was the only daughter in a family full of boys in a rural area where there were strict gender role expectations, including that women did not drive (save for helping out on the farm) and boys were expected to smash up at least one car in their youth.

These chapters are a single point glimpse of a car as a rope in a gender tug of war. For her and for women like her, the car was a means of freedom and escape. For the men in her life it was a sign of their growing masculinity and a means of maintaining power over others.

Here is a point where the rural and suburban come into direct opposition. For the suburban woman of the 1950s and onward, a car was a necessity. If a family could only afford one car, typically the woman (especially if she was the homemaker) would keep control of the car, dropping the husband off at nearby public transit each morning. For the truly urban woman, one living either married or single, in the city, there was no family automobile as parking was expensive and traffic was so bad that riding public transit or walking was just a more efficient option.

As with all my road trip research, I live blogged my reading on Tumblr.

Three stars

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A Spirited Gift: 11/13/15

A Spirited Gift by Joyce Lavene

A Spirited Gift by Joyce Lavene is the third of the Missing Pieces Mystery series. Mayor Dae is hosting a regional mayors conference at the Blue Whale Inn. Unfortunate timing has brought a rare hurricane up to North Carolina and with it, death.

There's something about big storms that stir up unrest in the living and in, Dae's case, the dead. The book blurb says who died but I recommend not reading it as it's presented as a well-written, suspenseful bit of discovery.

Besides the modern day murder, Dae has to contend with her own history. She has been reconnected with her absentee father and has been befriended by a pesky ghost pirate who wants his long since besmirched reputation restored.

Now I know what you're thinking. He's a pirate; he deserves whatever reputation he has. Not so! His part of the plot is similar to that of the logger ghost in the "Northwest Mansion Mystery" episode of Gravity Falls.

Four stars

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Ghoul Interrupted: 11/12/15

Ghoul Interrupted by Victoria Laurie

Ghoul Interrupted by Victoria Laurie is the sixth of the Ghost Hunter Mystery series. MJ and her crew detour to New Mexico to help Heath's family fight an evil spirit who is targeting them.

In prior reviews I've complained that Heath was too generic of a Native American. This book makes up for some of that by placing him within the context of a fictional Zuni clan. (So why there's a totem pole on the cover is anyone's guess!)

The Zuni are best known for their pottery. Pottery plays a big part in Ghoul Interrupted. Specifically, the family's urn is missing and it's believed that a family member stole it when she left the Pueblo. That belief has left lingering feelings of resentment, especially in the most traditional members.

As you can imagine, Heath returning to the Pueblo with his white girlfriend and her entourage doesn't go over well. That she also claims to be in contact with the spirit of Sam Whitefeather, Heath's grandfather and a respected member of the Pueblo.

In the midst of all of this, there's what can best be described in Supernatural terms as a Hell hound. It's a large, animal shaped spirit that can manipulate electricity, and can leave scratch marks about the size of a polar bear's claws.

My knowledge of the Zuni is limited. I think that made me question details in the book more than I should have. For instance, there's a scene where Gil and MJ break into the local library to find information on the Whitefeathers (with guidance from a living elder willing to help but unable to do so publicly). To me it seemed like a stretch but there really is a Zuni Public Library that does in fact house a Zuni special collections. If the Whitefeathers needed a place to keep their history, that would be the place to put it.

In the end the mystery has a Supernatural type solution. Where Tony Hillerman's mysteries always boil down to evil people taking advantage of local superstitions, this book takes those superstitions literally.

Four stars

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Unraveled Sleeve: 11/11/15

Unraveled Sleeve by Monica Ferris

Unraveled Sleeve by Monica Ferris is the 4th of the Needlecraft mystery series. The three murders Betsy has had to solve have taken their toll. She isn't sleeping and Jill is worried. She convinces Betsy to go with her to a Stitch-In at the Naniboujou Lodge in East Cook.

Good intentions though don't always pan out. Completely exhausted, and frankly, half asleep Betsy, stumbles upon yet another body. But this time, her powers of observation are questioned when the body she believes she has seen is missing. The set up is thus a blending of The Spanish Prisoner and Gaslamp but this is the fourth in a long series of cozy mysteries, so a complete change in direction isn't to be expected.

Unraveled Sleeve is set in a remote location and most of the story takes place within the bounds of the lodge and the surrounding woods. As it is such a small area, the mystery set up is similar to that of a classic locked room story.

After the discovery of the body I half expected the book to follow in the direction of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Thankfully, it didn't. Nor was there a freak storm to keep everyone isolated and driven insane as in The Shining.

After the rather intense, action packed plot of A Stitch in Time, Unraveled Sleeve was a nice break. To the genre and trope savvy, the course of events isn't that hard to figure out. That said, it's still a satisfying read.

Four stars

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Woundabout: 11/10/15

Woundabout by Lev A.C. Rosen

Woundabout by Lev A.C. Rosen is a delightful tween urban fantasy story about a brother and sister being forced to move in with their aunt after the death of their parents in an explosion at the family capybara farm.

When I say parents, you might be imagining a dead mother and a death father. Here, though, it's two fathers: Pop and Dad. It's a minor but important detail. In so many same sex parenting stories the emphasis is put on the family being different or the children feeling weird or being treated weird for their family situation. Here, though, the family situation is treated as completely normal by how downplayed it is. The standard orphan trope is used to start off the book with a pair of illustrations: one showing two men and the children standing before the entrance to the farm, and another of just the two men smiling at the camera. It's a short and sweet way of saying the children's loss is as heart-wrenching as any other child's would be in a similar situation regardless of who the parents were.

Two photographs from the book

Woundabout, then, is the eponymous focus of the story. It is a town run by a mayor who expects everyone to have a routine and for no one to ask questions. Woundabout is one of those places where every long term resident knows what's going on but no one dares to speak a word or admit to the knowledge.

Woundabout is stuck in its routine and it needs fresh eyes and fresh hearts to breath some life into the city. It reminds me Storybrooke in the first season of Once Upon a Time except that the residents aren't under a memory curse. In that regard the town is like Santaroga, of Frank Herbert's Santaroga Barrier.

Besides the siblings now living in Woundabout, there is another pair living just outside the town. They live with the mother and father on an organic vegetable farm. They're interesting because they have access to an otherwise closed community, something most of these secretive towns don't allow. Also important, though, is that the sister is confined to a wheelchair due to an injury sustained on the farm.

The sister is perhaps the most important character in the entire book because she is happy and has been able to move on beyond the huge upset in her life. She by herself is dangerous to the status quo of Woundabout but the accident at the Capybara farm is the catalyst needed to finally bring change to a town stuck in time.

Five stars

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A Stitch in Time: 11/09/15

A Stitch in Time by Monica Ferris

A Stitch in Time by Monica Ferris is the third of the Needlecraft Mysteries. It's nearly Christmas time and Betsy has her hands full. She just wants to survive the Christmas rush and be done with the year. Unfortunately the local church has found an old tapestry that's stirring up bad memories for a lot of the town and Betsy's thrust right into the middle of it.

Betsy's inclusion into the mystery was once again quite incidental and accidental. She's not like Jessica Fletcher (even though the blurb says she is). She doesn't go looking to help. She really just wants to learn how to run her store and hone her skills in a variety of different needlecraft styles.

This time though Betsy's inclusion by those who believe she can help (either for her ties to the needlecraft community, or for her previous luck in solving crimes) is putting her in danger. She ends up hospitalized.

In the middle of all this we also learn more about her life in San Diego. Something I'd somehow not noticed before is that she's in her 40s, unusual for a cosy mystery protagonist. Usually they're in their 20s or 30s, or they are of dowager age if they're following the Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher model.

With the appearance of Betsy's ex, I was afraid the Needlecraft Mystery series would be exploring the same grounds as the Goldy Bear Catering series, where the ex husband is actually physically abusive. Thankfully, though, that's not the plot twist here.

Four stars

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The Bones of Paris: 11/08/15

The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King isis a thriller set in Paris during the 1920s.

The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King is the last thing on I read on NetGalley and a big part of my decision to stop taking eGalleys as reviews. I've been reading Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series from the very beginning. I've wanted to read her other books too and The Bones of Paris seemed like a good opportunity.

Stuyvesant is hired to help with a series of murders. The clock is ticking because another person has gone missing and is believed to be the next victim. Among the suspects are some of the pop culture icons of the 1920s.

Except, and this is a problem with ARCs in general, I didn't know until after I started reading it, that it was the second of the Harris Stuyvesant books. I still get weekly pitches for books that are part of a series that I'm only hearing about now through the pitch.

The appeal for me was the time and the setting: the 1920s and the Paris catacombs. I had just finished listening to The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan, the first of the original 39 Clues series. So the location was fresh in my mind and I wanted to see it in an adult mystery context.

My initial reaction was a rather claustrophobic one — a response both to the setting (though most of the book isn't actually in the catacombs) and to the presentation. Many ebooks formats for web browser reading lack proper margins and the text just doesn't flow like it does on a printed page. I realized a third of the way through that I needed to stop reading and wait to read it in its proper format after I read Touchstone.

The Mary Russell series is written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle — naturally. The Harris Stuyvesant books seem to be written in the style of Edgar Wallace — a more prolific British author than Doyle, but one with less staying power, it seems.

Four stars

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The Flying Squad: 11/07/15

The Flying Squad by Edgar Wallace isis a thriller set in London during the early days of the Flying Squad.

The Flying Squad by Edgar Wallace is a thriller set in London during the early days of the Flying Squad. The Flying Squad is a segment of the Specialist, Organised and Economic Crime Command.

But the Flying Squad in Wallace's novel play an ambiguous role that often teeters in the direction of the antagonist. The main character is a young woman who has been driven to a life of crime after her elderly neighbor disappears. She believes he was killed after being forced into helping the Flying Squad take down a ring of smugglers.

Meanwhile, the woman's on-again off-again boyfriend is a member of the Flying Squad and he's been put in charge of investigating the smuggler's disappearance. In the process, surprise, surprise, he discovers her links to a drug ring.

This book has a lot of loose strings. Plot threads drift in and out and it reads like one of Dickens's serials. I had a hard time finding a plot thread I wanted to follow to its conclusion.

Two stars

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The American Highway: 11/06/15

The American Highway by William Kaszynski is a flawed history of the interstate highway system.

The American Highway by William Kaszynski is a history of the building of the various highway systems that criss cross the United States like a spiderweb made of cement and asphalt. I read it for my road trip project, which you can follow on Tumblr.

The United States is a young enough but wealthy enough nation to have had the luxury of being able to build it's infrastructure as it expanded. Who builds the roads and who pays for them has changed over time from private venture paid for through tolls (the old turnpike system) to city and state governments with national grant monies (as the U.S. highways and interstates were built). There are of course modern day toll roads and bridges done to pay for construction costs, to regulate congestion, and provide for upkeep (or state budget holes in lean years).

Bicycle in 1890 via Southwest Minneapolis Patch

One of the driving forces behind paved road construction was bicycle. Bicycle riders from across the nation formed road betterment committees to get their urban roads paved with smooth surfaces that responded well in all weathers (rather than the stones, mud, and horse manure they normally had to contend with). These beautiful paved roadways though were also the perfect solution for the growing throngs of automobile owners. Soon the roadways were being built not to the benefit of the bicyclist, but to the demands of automobile driver.

Today the highways are just there. But they were built through trial and error. One of the driving forces behind the initial concept of an interstate was Carl Fisher (founder of the Lincoln Highway, Indy 500, and developer of big portions of Miami). But the early highways, like Lincoln, were really more pathfinders marked on signs through any number of types of road — as if someone had found some random dots and tried to connect them into a coherent picture. But it was enough of a proof of concept to encourage a massive scale creation of highways (the U.S. Routes) and a secondary improvement on concept (the U.S. Interstates).

American Highway is a good start at painting the big picture view of highway construction in the United States. At the finer detail level, though, it's flawed. For instance, the Lincoln Highway's evolution into a U.S. route has it ending at Astoria as if the Lincoln Highway was mapped one to one with U.S. Highway 30. It doesn't come close to doing that.

Three stars

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The Spider: 11/05/15

The Spider by Elise Gravel: a female spider who illustrates all the different spider facts.

The Spider by Elise Gravel is a picture book about spiders. Done in a cartoony style, it still introduces lots of spider facts in an engaging and entertaining way.

The main character is a female spider who illustrates all the different facts. Spiders are good at camouflage, can live underwater (but not in space), and sometimes carry their babies on their back.

Example panels from the book.

For children (and parents) who are skittish around spiders, The Spider is a non-threatening way to make spiders understandable, even cute. Sure, there are still poisonous ones out there, but most spiders we come across are harmless and useful.

Five stars

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The Lincoln Highway: 11/04/15

The Lincoln Highway by Michael Wallis is about the building of the Lincoln Highway and what remains of it.

The Lincoln Highway by Michael Wallis is a history and tour of the first United States transcontinental highway. The Lincoln Highway dates back to the summer of 1913 when the Lincoln Highway Association was founded. The route as originally designated when from Manhattan to the Presidio in San Francisco over routes that eventually became U.S. 30, U.S. 50, I-80 and I-580.

The Lincoln Highway Association, a modern day historical society that strives to preserve what remains of the route, to document it's history, and to map and rediscover the parts left to the elements, has an extensive Google Map that traces all the different routes the Lincoln Highway took before being deprecated for the U.S. highway and interstate systems.

Screen shot of the Lincoln Highway Google Map. (Taken May 19, 2015)

The reason I read the book, besides my on-going exploration of the language and stories of the road trip, was to learn a little something about the history of my own home. A stretch of road that I use on a daily basis (actually it's numerous roads, but the traffic flow goes smoothly along them) was at the earliest part, included in the Lincoln Highway route. There are even signs marking it in places.

The many nearby signs also show some of the route's fluctuation over time. Some of the Lincoln Highway near me sits under I-580 but some of it is still drivable on Palomares Road, Castro Valley Blvd, Center Street, Grove Avenue, the bridge crossing to B Street. And some of it has becoming fire trails and hiking trails next to I-580.

Shot of one of the access trails where the Lincoln Highway once led people into Castro Valley

The Lincoln Highway wasn't by any means a modern day freeway. Heck, "freeway" hadn't even been coined yet. It was a named route, pieced together by local and state agencies, with L markers painted by Boy Scouts and other local volunteer groups. Some parts were paved Portland cement. Some were paved with asphalt. Some were macadam roads. Some were gravel. Some were dirt. The route for the most part was a narrow, winding, often treacherous and surprising road.

There's so much that could be written about this road: its effect on different cities, it's fickleness, the way some cities have held on to it for dear life, and how others pushed it aside for bigger and better roads, etc. Instead, the author decided to drive the route (as best he could) and interview the most interesting people he met in each small hamlet.

The author's drive was in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and the book was published in 2007. By at 2015 reading, much of the information is out of date. For instance, the cat that for years was over the end of the tunnel leading into the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Highway, has been removed. It's removal happened shortly after the book was published and there are conflicting online accounts of just where exactly it went.

While certainly the Lincoln Highway pieces are still part of the American landscape and part of many peoples' daily lives, a recent history of a hundred year old route isn't exactly what I was looking for. I wanted something more weighted on history and sociology than on tourism.

I also live blogged my reading on Tumblr.

Two stars

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Blizzard: 11/03/15

Blizzard by John Rocco is about the blizzard of 1978.

Blizzard by John Rocco is a picture book memoir of blizzard of 1978. At the time the author was a child and the blizzard started while he was in school.

This is my story.

By the time he made it home (after being let go early because of the snow) it was obviously going to be a big one. Snow days can be fun but eventually they get to be a drag. Food runs low. People get tired to being trapped in doors. Hot cocoa stops tasting good.

And I thought it would never stop.

John Rocco integrates his text and his illustrations. It helps set the story to memory, making it one that sticks with you. I read it shortly after it came out and I'm still able to revisit.

Five stars

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Up, Tall and High: 11/02/15

Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long is a 2013 Theodore Seuss Geisel medal winner.

Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long at first glance looks like it's going to a concept book, especially since it includes some lift-the-flap action. But's it's really more of an early reader, akin to the ones Arnold Lobel wrote.

There are three short stories to illustrate the concepts of up, tall, and high. Now normally this sort of book would so via a series of illustrated opposites, such as in Hippopposites [LINK]. This one, though, turns expectations on its head for humorous results.

Up, Tall and High is a 2013 Theodore Seuss Geisel medal winner.

Four stars

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Magic Thinks Big: 11/01/15

Magic Thinks Big by Elisha Cooper: It's a story about a cat who needs to decide.

Magic Thinks Big by Elisha Cooper is a picture book that will ring true to any owner of an indoor / outdoor cat. Magic has all sorts of plans that involve outdoor adventures at the lake where he lives with his human family. He just needs to get a move on if he's going to accomplish anything.

We recently adopted a new cat, Salmon, who is still trying to figure out her place in the household. While she will never be a full outdoor cat, we do have a balcony garden where we let our accustomed cats go on hot days.

For Caligula, the balcony was never a potential escape route because she was too old to do any serious jumping. For Tortuga, the balcony did accidentally end up being an escape route when she fell off the railing while trying to get to the neighbor's balcony. She ended up spending ten days outside while we did our best to coax her home.

Now there's Salmon and we don't know how she'll react to being outside. We don't know if she's had experience outside. We know very little about her history, except that she was born in Marin and eventually found her way to the Dublin shelter. There's about a year of her life that is a complete mystery to us.

So far, though, she's reacted like Magic. She sits half in, half out of the house, staring intently at the garden. It clearly looks inviting but she's not sure yet if it's worth the effort of leaving the comfort of her new home.

Do you have an indoor/outdoor cat? Is she like Magic, unable to make a decision? Or does she run outside with wild abandon? Share your story in the comments.

Five stars

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