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December 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



Sophie's Fish: 12/30/15

Sophie's Fish by A.E. Cannon

Sophie's Fish by A.E. Cannon is about an easy sounding pet sitting job. Sophie's going on vacation and she asks her bestie, Jake, to watch her pet fish. Jake's never pet sit before but he says yes but secretly he's worried.

Jake asks all the right questions and some odd ones too. You never can be too careful when watching a beloved pet! After all the worrying and imagination running wild, Jake finally get's to meet his charge.

With any sort of shaggy dog, or in this case, fish, story, there's sure to be a whopper of an ending. Sophie's fish isn't just any fish in a bowl. Read the book to find out what makes him stand out!

Four stars

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Paper Things: 12/30/15

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a middle grade story of a girl trying to transfer into an elite middle school for gifted students. Beyond the usual stress of maintaining excellent grades, filling out the paperwork, and making a good impression on the admissions team, Ari also has to deal with being homeless.

I don't know how many novels about homelessness there are. For any age level, this is the first one I've read. According to a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in thirty children experienced homelessness in 2013 (Newsweek, 2014). Yet when homelessness is reported, it's usually in regards to drug addiction and the lack of mental health funding in this country.

Ari could have a home if she decides to stay with her guardian, a woman picked by her mother before her death. But Ari believes that family should stick together, so she decides to leave a known home for the uncertainty of living with her older brother.

With constantly being on the move the only thing Ari can take with her besides her homework (which does get left behind, sometimes, too) is her collection of paper things. These are paper dolls she's collected from various catalogs. It's her way of imagining a better life and is something she can keep tucked away.

As a child I too made my own paper dolls from catalogs. With catalogs being less of a thing, in paper at least, I wonder if this detail was more a bit of nostalgia leaking in. Regardless, they were an apt metaphor for how fragile life is.

Four stars

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Art & Max: 12/29/15

Art & Max by David Wiesner

Art & Max by David Wiesner is about a pair of reptile friends, both who love art. One, Art, is a great painter and the other, Max, is an enthusiast.

Things, though, go awry when Max suggests that Art paint him. He means his portrait but Art takes him literally. Most of the book then is Art trying to undo his mistake, leading to bizarre and humorous results.

Art & Max strikes me as the most mainstream of David Wiesner books. It has a fairly straightforward plot and illustrations. It is a gentle introduction to Wiesner's books. I hope it encourages children to try out his older and more surreal books.

Five stars

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Eric: 12/28/15

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Eric by Terry Pratchett is the 9th Discworld book and the 4th to feature Rincewind. In it, young Eric, a resident of the Disc's version of Tenochtitlan, does his best to make a Faustian deal. Except instead of getting the worst of the worst demons, he ends up summoning Rincewind.

Rincewind by dint of not being a demon, is definitely the worst of the worst, but not in a good way. Coming along for the ride is the ever faithful luggage.

Eric ends up being a ridiculous mashup of Faust, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (or similar), and an H. Rider Haggard adventure. It's a short and completely silly novel. Eric is more or less another Rincewind road trip that serves to flesh out the Disc while entertaining the reader.

Five stars

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Ava and Taco Cat: 12/27/15

The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams by Rhonda Hayter

Ava and Taco Cat by Carol Weston is the sequel to Ava and Pip. Ava and her family all have palindromic names. When a stray cat comes into the veterinary clinic where her mother works, Ava sees a chance to add to their family with a cat she wants to call Taco.

Taco, though, is incredibly shy. Pip, Ava's sister, is also very shy so Ava uses what she learned while helping her sister to help Taco. Many children's books about getting a pet focus on the typical responsibilities of caring for one: feeding, cleaning up after them, exercise.

It's a rare book that will frankly cover the extra work involved in adopting or fostering a special needs pet, such as Taco. The possibility of needing to re-home Taco is there from the very beginning and at one point it looks like that will actually happen.

For any child who is considering working with pets, Ava and Taco Cat is a must have, must read book. I'm giving a copy to my daughter as she wants to be a veterinarian.

Five stars

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The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams: 12/26/15

The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams by Rhonda Hayter

The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams by Rhonda Hayter is a modern day Bewitched but from a tweenager's point of view. Abbie goes to a mortal (or to use the Harry Potter term, muggle) school where she has to keep her kindergartner brother from using his magic willy nilly. Her father is a doctor, a la Dr. Bombay, and he's desperate to find a cure for witch flu before an epidemic hits.

In the middle of Abbie's regular life chaos, comes an unusual kitten. Now as any Bewitched fan knows, that kitten is probably someone transformed (by will or by curse). Sure enough, this one is too and the story he has to tell is one that turns Abbie's life upside down.

It's a fun book and a nice break from the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter (and inspired) books. Likewise, the witches in Abbie's world aren't as single minded as many American born stories that follow the Charmed formula (wiccans vs warlocks). These instead are people who have magic and are otherwise as diverse as the regular folks they sometimes chose to live amongst.

Four stars

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The Gods of Second Chances: 12/25/15

The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne

The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne is set in Anchorage, Alaska. Ray Bancroft is a fisherman who makes a little extra by taking out tourists for sport fishing. He's raising his grand-daughter by himself as his daughter has run off years ago.

Of course all of this goes to hell in a hand basket (no surprise there, given the set up). There's an accident with a tourist who doesn't want to take instructions. The wayward daughter suddenly reappears. And melodrama abounds.

The parts I enjoyed most were those dealing with the difficulties of being a fisherman and later with the lawsuit that springs up. Here the details are crisp and in tune with the surroundings. A novel about Alaska fishing that isn't about someone form the lower 48 coming up north with some romantic ideals was refreshing.

But then there's the whole "family is everything" side plot (plots, really). And it doesn't ring as true. For someone who is a widower, a father of a daughter, and now the grandfather of a granddaughter, he seems ridiculously clueless.

It's not that men and women are all that different, but in this book, they somehow are. And when he's after all this time of living around women, faced with the "unpleasant" task of buying supplies for his granddaughter's period, we're somehow expected to pat him on the back. Oh please.

Two stars

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5 Centimeters per Second: 12/24/15

5 Centimeters per Second by Makoto Shinkai

5 Centimeters per Second by Makoto Shinkai is a two part manga about a friendship that could have been so much more but is allowed to peter out.

Tono Takaki and Shinohara Akari are best friends in grammar school and might even become a couple when they get older. Unfortunately that's not be because one of them moves. No matter of cajoling or begging can let them commute to a school on the train.

They try correspondence but shyness and other things get in the way, as they do. And so slowly but surely they grow apart. There's one last ditch effort to meet via train and everything hinges on it.

5 Centimeters per Second reminds me most of two books: Blankets by Craig Thompson and a picture book, You and Me by Susan Verde. One is directly about an intense relationship that falls apart after a long distance journey. The other is a what if, playing on all the ways their friendship could have ended before it even began.

Five stars

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Aground on St. Thomas: 12/23/15

Aground on St. Thomas by Rebecca M. Hale

Aground on St. Thomas by Rebecca M. Hale is the third of the Mystery on the Islands series. Chronologically I think it's actually the first as the author describes herself being stuck en route to St. John due to the U.S. federal government shutting down the island as they try to round up the local government on bribery charges.

Typically Hale's books skirt closer to actual events so that caricatures of local people in power are recognizable. Here, though, the story of the FBI take over seems spun out of whole cloth. More precisely, the mystery is completely fictional but it's set during a recognizable time with recognizable supporting characters.

Here though with an ensemble cast made up of leaders of the U.S. Virgin Islands, there's a greater need or temptation to make stuff up. This isn't a complaint on my part, just an observation of a change in writing style.

Among the cast there are two stand outs, the Mojito Man, who was inspired by an actual person the author met on one of her flights, and the Bishop of St Thomas who is obviously not a bishop but still recognizable to those in the know.

What this book reminds me of most is a gigantic shell game. There are so many characters in play and most of them are disguised as others or changing disguises as the need suits them. Keeping track of who's who is a big part of reading this book.

Four stars

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Gaijin: American Prisoner of War: 12/22/15

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner is a graphic novel account of life in a Japanese interment camp during WWII. Koji Miyamoto has a Japanese born father and an American born, white mother. In San Francisco, that's no big deal, until Pearl Harbor.

Koji is caught up in the wild speculation, thinking that maybe his father was part of the attack, even though he knows he was in Japan to care for a sick relative. Meanwhile he and his mother are forced to surrender everything and be relocated to an internment camp.

Koji falls into the wrong crowd there, joining a camp gang to be their scapegoat, something he doesn't realize until almost too late. Meanwhile there are other, positive role models who offer him a quieter path to wait for the world to regain its senses.

In the Afterword there is a brief explanation of the inspiration behind the book.

Five stars

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The Salamander Spell: 12/21/15

The Salamander Spell by E.D. Baker

The Salamander Spell by E.D. Baker is the 5th of the Frog Princess series. It's a prequel that shows the days leading up to the family curse changing Princess Emerelda's grandmother. It's also about how Emerelda's mother, Chartreuse became queen and how unexpectedly, Grassina discovers that she is in fact, the Green Witch.

But here's the thing. Grassina's story has been peppered throughout the previous three books. Book three, Once Upon a Curse even sends Emerelda back in time to discover the roots of the curse first hand.

Basically by now I'm done with Grassina and Heywood. I don't care about how he got cursed because I know enough about the family back story to fill in the blanks myself.

Two stars

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25 Roses: 12/20/15

25 Roses by Stephanie Faris

Valentine's Day was a popular topic this year in middle grade fiction. It seems like an odd choice to me as that's the age when kids are too old to bring cards and candies for an entire class but too young to be really dating anyone. This is the age of receiving those awkward cards from grandparents who like to send a card for every single holiday.

25 Roses by Stephanie Faris is centered on a fundraising event at a middle school. Different grades compete in the selling and delivering chocolate roses to students. The idea is that someone buys a chocolate rose for someone else and writes a note that the recipient can read when the roses are passed out.

The rose buying falls into three categories: roses for couples, roses for the popular kids, and self bought roses for those who don't want to feel left out. Left behind are the quiet kids who are too shy to interact with others and lacking even the self confidence to buy themselves a rose.

The grade that sells the most roses wins a lock in prize at a local popular hang out. Mia's sister helped win the prize for her grade years ago. Now she feels the pressure to also win but also to one up her sister.

Mia's competitive nature and her soft heart for the quiet kids sparks a good idea that is horribly executed. She decides to buy roses for all the kids who never get roses. She signs the cards a "secret admirer." The only problem here is that not many kids actually sold roses, so it's hard for Mia to hide the fact that she bought them. Also the reactions of the kids who receive them isn't what she expected.

This book is about the fallout from Mia's gesture. It seems with this books the reactions of the adults never quite balance with reality. They either ignore everything or blow everything up into a big deal with major consequences. At worst, Mia's class should have been disqualified from the competition but instead it's treated like some major piece of bullying.

Mostly though it felt like a plot that belonged in a high school rather than a junior high or middle school. Mia and the others act older than they are cast.

Two stars

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Julius, the Baby of the World: 12/19/15

Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes

Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes is about Lilly's undying disgust for her baby brother. Their parents, though, are completely gaga for Julius, calling him the "baby of the world." Gag.

Of course in the end, Lilly realizes just how much Julius means to her but it takes a cousin calling him yucky to do that. He maybe an annoying, slobbery baby, but he's her slobbering baby brother. And only she can tease him that way. Or something.

I'm a big sister. My husband is a big brother. We have two children. So we know both ends of what it's like with the dynamics between older and younger children. It's natural to feel some jealousy and frustration and one's younger sibling but I have to agree with Lilly here. Her parents are being absolutely awful, showing very definite favorites for Julius.

For a better version of the same type of scene, I recommend Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett in which Tiffany Aching ends up rescuing her annoying younger brother who is annoying all on his own without parental meddling. Another good example is the movie Labyrinth in which Sarah has to rescue her brother from the Goblin king.

Three stars

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Reading goals for 2016: 12/19/15

Reading goals for next year

As the new year looms at the horizon, it's time to reflect on the course of the blog as it reflects the course of my reading and growth as a librarian. This blog has been and always will be a work in progress. The book reviews started as a way to track what I was reading with my children. Next came the reading challenges and BookCrossing: reviews as a way to prove I had read what I said I would. Then it became a way to highlight ARCs and review copies submitted by authors and publishers. Now it's more a matter of curation, exploration, and research.

Goal #1: Stay more current

Although I'm aware of new books that are published throughout the year, I'm terrible at keeping up. Even if I buy them brand new, I'm always three to six months behind in reading them. Add in the lag time for writing and posting reviews, and I'm often looking at October or November before I get my first book review up for the current year.

While I see the curation process as being a long tail one, with lots of "back catalog" material, I would like to participate more in the year's excitement. To help with the process, I hope to read one newly published book a week, or a minimum of 52 books in the year. I would also like to get all of those books reviewed within the same year, meaning that 1/7 of next years reviews would be of books published in 2016. In comparison, this year I've only managed to post 17 reviews from the 70 I've managed to read.

Goal #2: Read a more diverse selection of Canadian literature and nonfiction

The reading challenge I've stuck with is the Canadian Book Challenge run by John Mutford. I tend to stick to my favorite authors. I feel like I'm consistently reskimming the surface like a Zamboni. I need to actively seek out a wider variety of authors and subjects.

Goal #3: Read a more diverse selection of American literature and nonfiction

Same goal as above, just from my own country. As a book reviewer and librarian I want to be able to recommend good books by a diverse range of authors. This is something I've been working for the life of the blog but in the recent years of the the We Need Diverse Books campaign, it is even more important to be dedicated to highlighting the diversity available while continuing to encourage greater representation.

Goal #4: Read more ebooks.

Print is not dead. Print is not dying. Ebooks though have found their way into my life through three main ways: earlier books in a series long since weeded from the library, Google Book scans of some of the earliest road trip books for my research, and spur of the moment experimental reading.

Goal #5 Read more of the older books on my shelves at home and cull my collection.

I'm not a very sentimental reader. I don't hold on to my books after I'm done but I do buy them faster than I read them. I have about a three year's worth of reading on hand that slowly churns as I read and cull and purchase anew. I'd to get that working to be read collection down to more like one or two years. I live in a small place with three other voracious readers.

Reading vs reviewing

What I read and what I review aren't a one to one relationship. I do pre-write my reviews and post them by themes of my own devising. Not every book that I read as a part of these reading goals will be part of my 2016 reviews. You might seem them mentioned or quoted or otherwise live blogged on Tumblr, but not final reviews for each and every book.

I also want to shorten the length of times reviews linger on my computer. I have a bunch of really old ones that I need to get published. These might end up going on Tumblr directly. Who I was and where I was when I wrote them isn't who I am and where I am now. I won't, mass spam the blog though with them as that would go completely in the face of goal number one, namely, staying more current.

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Speak Easily: 12/18/15

Speak Easily by Clarence Budington Kelland

Speak Easily by Clarence Budington Kelland was originally serialized as "Footlights." Set contemporaneously in the early days of the Great Depression, it's the story of a life long learner of independent means being thrust into the middle of mob life.

Reading this book felt like I was reading a crib sheet for a dozen different plots set within Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Moorpork. As the edition I was reading was a British one, it's entirely possible he did read the book. I'm not saying that he stole from Kelland, rather that fans of Discworld looking to expand their horizons, should read Speak Easily.

The revised title comes from the main character's inability, or perhaps, unwillingness to use slang. Keeping in mind that this story also takes place during Prohibition, it's his malaprop for the speak easy.

Imagine if you will the two main characters of Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic merged together into one person. That's our protagonist. He's a life long student, kicked out of university, now carrying (albeit in a mental format) a phrase book into the inner city. Now give him Moist Von Lipwig's skill at making the impossible happen and put him in charge of a musical review as unlikely to succeed as the original envisioned play in The Producers.

Now imagine that plot turned into a film. Well, look no further than the 1932 adaptation staring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. And thanks to Youtube, you can watch it!

Five stars

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My favorite books published in 2015: 12/18/15

Favorite books published in 2015

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Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley - Fantagraphics - 161 pages - ISBN 9781606998106

Displacement is a graphic novel memoir about the cruise Lucy took with her elderly grandparents. She covers the emotional and physical difficulties of traveling with loved ones now living with dementia.

I love this book because it recapitulates my experience on an Alaska cruise with my grandmother, grandfather and his adult day care group comprised of adults living with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. I though had an easier time as it was only one grandparent suffering from dementia and I was young enough to not have many responsibilities in the care of my grandfather.

Review

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Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick - Henry Holt and Company - 224 pages - ISBN 9780805047165

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick is the story of a family divided and displaced by Hurricane Katrina. There are numerous Katrina stories out now, but this one hits home with the heartbreak anyone feels when displaced from their home especially if their home and neighborhood has been completely destroyed whether by nature or by war.

Review

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The Fog Diver by Joel Ross - Harper Collins - 332 pages - ISBN 9780062352934

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross is a near future post apocalyptic tween adventure story involving treasure hunting, scavenging, and dirigibles. A man made fog has taken over the earth, forcing mankind in to the mountains and into airships. Chess, a boy unaffected by the fog, makes his living as a diver, going down by wire into the remains of society to find treasures he and his shipmates can sell.

I know I'd love it form the cover and title alone. The author lives in Santa Barbara, a place known for its fog (nicknamed the Fog Monster). Though Chess's world isn't specifically named, it has a familiar feel to it.

Review

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Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon - Dial Books - 256 pages - ISBN 9780803739833

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon is the start of a new tween fantasy style. It's a hybrid graphic novel, meaning it is mostly text but has some illustrations done in a comic book style similar to the Lunch Lady series. Harriet is a princess who doesn't want to swoon at the knowledge that she's been cursed. She wants to do something about it. And she does, brilliantly.

Harriet the Invincible is a clever retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story with the sort of strong female lead I wish more books had. I haven't heard anyone else talking about this book but it's the one I'm giving to every book lover I know (including donating copies to my local elementary school library).

Review

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Little Robot by Ben Hatke - First Second - 144 pages - ISBN 9781626720800

Little Robot by Ben Hatke is the tale of a girl finding, fixing, and befriending a lost robot. Told as an almost wordless graphic novel, it's a possibly near future dystopia where mankind has been pushed aside by now sentient robots. The girl like every other human shown lives at the edge of a junkyard over run by trees. Farther away is an ultra clean factory run entirely by robots, producing more robots, for reasons unstated but decidedly nefarious.

Review

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Nimona by Noelle Stevenson - Harper Teen - 266 pages - ISBN 9780062278234

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson has earned its way onto a bunch of lists and rightfully so. Originally published as a webcomic, it's now out in glorious hardback. Nimona, the eponymous character is a shapeshifting young woman who wants to be a super villain's sidekick. Her super-villain of choice, though, might not be as evil as she would like. In the meantime, the good guys probably aren't as good as they would like you to believe.

Review

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Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith - Roaring Brook Press - 288 pages - ISBN 9781626720541

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. When Augie's best friend dies due to his peanut allergy, Augie begins to see supernatural things at the amusement park.

Review

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Rutabaga the Adventure Chef by Eric Colossal - Harry N. Abrams - 128 pages - ISBN 9781419713804

Rutabaga the Adventure Chef by Eric Colossal is the start of a tween graphic novel fantasy that should be getting more attention than it is. It's the story of a young chef who wants to travel the world to discover new ingredients and recipes. If that means cooking for adventurers, being a fry cook at an inn, or working for a king, than so be it. He'll cook for anyone and everyone and it will always taste good.

Review

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Woundabout by Lev A.C. Rosen - Little, Brown Books for Young Readers - 288 pages - ISBN 9780316370783

Woundabout by Lev A.C. Rosen is a modern day Gothic mystery about a pair of orphans sent to a strange town to live with their aunt. They are the only children in the entire village and strange things are afoot. Woundabout seems stuck in routine and tradition, afraid to move forward. The twins' presence might be just what the town needs.

Review

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You and Me by Susan Verde - Harry N Abrams - 32 pages - ISBN 9781419711978

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.

Review

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I'll Meet You There: 12/17/15

I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios

I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios is a classic inverse on the road trip novel. While city dwellers pass through rural areas on the blue highways to find themselves, those living on the bypassed routes are desperate for escape.

Skylar Evans is a seventeen year old artist living somewhere along US 99 in California. This is farmland and the alternate route south when I5 is closed or too congested. Job opportunities are slim to none. She has a way out through an art degree at a San Francisco college if she can untangle herself from her mother who has turned to alcohol to self medicate her depression at the loss of her husband.

In that last summer at home Skylar comes to terms with her life in rural California and the ways others have either tried to escape or have decided to accept their situation.

Her biggest eye opener is a young man named Josh who has returned from Afghanistan minus a leg. He is trying to pretend everything is back to normal but Sklyar can see the way people look at him and his leg.

I'll Meet You There takes us through the monotony of rural life, especially in times of economic uncertainty. She spends her time working at the one motel in the town, one that is themed like the more famous Madonna Inn on US101 in San Luis Obispo, but done on the cheap. She also tries to get better jobs further out but that option is dependent on her having a working car, which she doesn't always have. Finally she has to come to terms that she can't continue taking care of her own mother, or that she should be expected to.

It's not the most uplifting of stories but it is a thought provoking one.

Three stars

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Book Scavenger: 12/15/15

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a middle grade mystery set in the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods of San Francisco. It combines local history, Edgar Allen Poe's "Gold Bug" story, and book swapping sites like BookCrossing and Paperback Swap.

Emily and her family are moving to San Francisco as part of her parents blog. They've decided to live in each of the fifty states and write about the experience. As they have jobs where they can telecommute, they have the freedom to move whenever the see fit. The moves, though, are wearing thin on Emily and her brother.

San Francisco, though, promises to be something special as it's the headquarters of an international book swapping site called Book Scavengers. Like BookCrossing, users leave specially marked books and track the travels of book through the website. Here, though, users leave clues to add a bit of a treasure hunt aspect to the site. Those who find books are rewarded points and rankings. Emily is a huge fan of game and is eager to explore the city that spawned it.

But for those living in San Francisco, there are also local games, announced on the radio, KFOG (as one can tell by the radio announcer describing listeners as "Fog Heads"). The most recent game, though, is put on hold when the creator the site, and local publishing mogul, Garrison Griswold, is found shot in a BART station.

As a local Bay Area resident (albeit, in the East Bay, rather than the City) with friends in the publishing industry, I was extremely skeptical at the close of the first chapter. See, Griswold is described without explanation (at first) as if he's a Willy Wonka cosplayer.

Well, turns, out that's intentional and he really is, in fact, a self styled "Willy Wonka of publishing." He's not some fanciful misconception of what a person in publishing is like. He has a back story with a solid time line, tied to the Beat Generation, that is revealed as Emily goes on her scavenger hunt.

In terms of structure, Emily's adventures in San Francisco and her learning of the city's history, and Griswold's part in it, is very much like Richard Mayhew's experiences in Neverwhere after he helps Door.

Emily's "Door" is her neighbor, James. He's her age and is the son of their building's landlady. He's a multi-generation Chinatown native. His family has lived in the same building for a century, something Emily with her itinerant lifestyle has a hard time comprehending. James is more San Francisco than San Francisco. He is her guide through the many layers of the City.

So although the first chapter was a bit rough for me, by the end I was completely swept away by the book. It's a beautiful blending of local history, the life and stories of Poe, Jack Kerouac, and other literary geekery.

A sequel has just been annouced for publication in January 2017. It will be called The Unbreakable Code.

Four stars

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The Flying Beaver Brothers: Birds vs. Bunnies: 12/15/15

The Flying Beaver Brothers: Birds vs. Bunnies by Maxwell Eaton III

The Flying Beaver Brothers: Birds vs. Bunnies by Maxwell Eaton III is the fourth in the series. The brothers Beaver have decided to head off on a well deserved vacation on a neighboring island. Unfortunately they land on one that's in the middle of a feud between the birds and the bunnies.

As with the other books in the series there's a giant machine based on something recognizable (like a giant fan). There are guarded bases and prisons. There is also usually a mastermind behind the plan.

Five stars

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Hanging by a Thread: 12/14/15

Hanging by a Thread by Monica Ferris

Hanging by a Thread by Monica Ferris is the sixth book in the Needlecraft mystery series. Betsy's roof needs repair and she hires a man embroiled in town-wide scandal. They believe he killed his lover and her husband. Betsy decides to look into the validity of those rumors so that he can get on with his life.

The other possibility in the mystery is murder suicide. The dead husband had a reputation for being jealous and clingy. But the husband had a perfect alibi for the wife's murder, corroborated by the rain that night. Meanwhile, the roofer also had an alibi for the husband's murder.

This mystery was one I had the right experience going into the book to figure out the logistics of the murders. None the less, Betsy and the other characters are well rounded and interesting enough to still make it a fun read.

I also appreciate that this series mixes up present day cases with cold cases. Often in these cozies, where early on a book comes out every six months to a year, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that the main character would be surrounded by this much homicide, especially if he or she isn't an officer of the law.

Five stars

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Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1: 12/13/15

Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1 by Eric Colossal

Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1 by Eric Colossal is one of the most delightful graphic novel adventures I've read recently. It's a tween book that reads like a mashup of Food Wars (minus the nudity) and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Rutabaga is an adventure chef. He loves the great outdoors but he's not interested in being a warrior. He wants to cook for them! He carries his entire kitchen on his back in an impressive pack frame.

But an amazing goof.

Although the adventurers aren't impressed by Rutabaga at first, he always wins them over with his cooking. He quickly builds enough of a reputation that he's hired by a king to cook for his special (magical) pet.

Rutabaga can figure out what anyone eats.

While the emphasis is on cooking it's still full of adventure, humor, and memorable characters. Feast of Fury, the second volume in the series comes out in 2016.

Five stars

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Moonpenny Island: 12/12/15

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb is a middle grade novel about life on a small island on the American side of Lake Erie. Though her island is completely fictional, it's description and the surrounding cities make it easy to place near Middle Bass Island.

Flor is looking forward to being a sixth grader with her best friend in the small school on Moonpenny. Those dreams are shattered when her friend is shipped to the mainland for a larger public school. In Sylvie's place is the daughter of a geologist, here with her father to study trilobites. Flor's time spent with them gives her a chance to reexamine her own place on Moonpenny Island.

Moonpenny Island is a quiet book. It is an emotion blend of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books and Non Non Biyori, a manga and series about school life in rural Japan.

Four stars

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The Outside Dog: 12/11/15

The Outside Dog by Charlotte Pomerantz

The Outside Dog by Charlotte Pomerantz is a level 3 I Can Read book about a stray dog who finds an unlikely home. Marisol lives with her grandfather in a rural area. The grandfather likes order to his house and a dirty stray dog is the last thing he wants any part of.

None the less, there's a local stray who needs help and Marisol knows that helping him is the right thing to do. She's also desperate for a pet. Slowly but surely she gets her grandfather's permission to care for the dog.

Of course in the end, the grateful dog, now having found a home is able to help out his adopted family. It's a good introduction to caring for animals and fostering strays. Not everyone can open their homes to an animal in need but there are little things they can do.

This book was recommended to me by her daughter. She read it in school.

Four stars

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Omens: 12/10/15

Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Omens by Kelley Armstrong is the start of the Cainsville series. Olivia Taylor Jones is living a dream life as the daughter of a wealthy family in Chicago. She spends her time as a volunteer and active and is engaged to a handsome tech firm CEO. Everything is perfect until news breaks that she's actually the adopted daughter of convicted serial killers.

Now the very family that has loved her and raised her are shunning her. Her fiance wants his space and she's left to fend for her own against the onslaught of paparazzi.

Rather than hunker down, she decides to face her past head on. With very little in the way of pocket change, Olivia takes a taxi to rural Cainsville. Now in the road trip horror sub-genre, the person who arrives by taxi is certain to be either killed or assimilated by the town. In Olivia's case, she's already part of it, even if she can't remember being part. Her return is more like the swallows return to Capistrano.

As this is a multi-book series, there's not much in the way of overt paranormal shenanigans. But the town is being set up. It's a strange place where very few children grow up and those that do are eager to escape until they're old enough to miss the place. Again, there's a bit of a migratory animal feel to the set up; this time more like salmon who are born up stream but spend the bulk of their lives at sea, only to return to spawn and die.

There are also mysterious gargoyles hidden around the place. It wouldn't surprise me if the gargoyles have a paranormal purpose but here they are introduced as guardians of the town. A new one is added each time someone manages to correctly identify and count them. It's a slow and arduous process, one to be proud of, and one that Olivia seems naturally talented at.

It was the description of Cainsville that kept me reading more than anything else. I'm an absolutely sucker for these weird small town stories, especially the ones bordering on horror. Cainsville reminds me of other favorites, like Santaroga, Woundabout, and Stepford.

My one niggling complaint is the inclusion of Welsh phrases. Olivia keeps having them pop into her head and she's eventually told that they are important, magical phrases, but they're awfully close to a the sort of Welsh you see on roadsigns, in, well, Wales. There was one phrase in particular that used the word ffordd (road) that made me giggle. It's a word that's understandably everywhere in the cities: ffordd briefart (private road)and unffordd (one way) for instance.

None the less, I have book two, Visions on my TBR and am planning to keep going. There are currently three books, with two more in the works.

Four stars

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The Terrible Two: 12/09/15

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John with illustrations by Kevin Cornell is the start of a new series. It reads like a TV series that should be on Disney XD and this is a good thing.

Miles Murphy and his family are moving to a small town in the middle of nowhere that has more cattle than people. There are so many bovines that the school principal has a side gig as the local author of the Cow Facts book, something given to all new residents.

Now that set up right there is nod to the horror genre subset of the weird and dangerous rural town where the main character will either be killed or assimilated by the end of the book. Miles is our horror protagonist and Niles, his doppelgänger, is there to determine his fate. For much of this introductory volume, the focus is on the rivalry between newbie Miles, and long established, goodie two shoes in the disguise, Niles.

Interspersed with the chapters, though, are excerpts from the principal's book of cow facts. All of them are true, though some of them are obvious and played for humor.

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

Four stars

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Goodbye Stranger: 12/08/15

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead is a middle grade book told in three points of view: Bridge, Sherm, and an mysterious girl who is struggling to be noticed at school. There's a lot going on in this slim volume and I'm not convinced it works.

Bridge's story is about how she grows apart from her two best friends as they enter middle school. She, Emily, and Tabitha have been best friends for years. They used to all draw special characters on the top of their homework but now the other two have stopped and Bridge has gotten scolded by a teacher for doing something so childish in middle school. Clubs are somehow an extracurricular requirement in their school, but the girls can't decide which one to take. They end up in three different clubs.

Emily, or Em for short, has grown the most over the summer and is now in an intense relationship with an eighth grader. He and she begin a cellphone game of chicken where each one sends a picture of one of their body parts. You can see where this is going. Of course someone else interferes and soon both are drawn into a sexting scandal.

I suppose if there is one central theme it is teenage obsession. Emily and Patrick are obsessed with each other. Bridge is obsessed with understanding why she survived being hit by a car at the age of 8. Sherm meanwhile is obsessed with his absentee grandfather, forever questioning why he left. Finally there is the mystery girl who just wants to be noticed in time for Valentine's day.

I realize structurally this out of order, multiple POV narrative isn't much different than When You Reach Me but it just doesn't gel the same way. There's so much going on and none of it really seems connected until near the end. When it does come together it's rather anticlimactic and somewhat implausible.

All of this early teenage angst seems overdone. A Pew Research poll done in 2009 found that only 4% of teens of middle school age sent sexts. The sexting plot here seems like unnecessary handwringing — something that would be more relevant in a YA than a middle grade book.

Three stars

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A Place to Call Home: 12/07/15

A Place to Call Home by Judy Cox

A Place to Call Home by Alexis Deacon is a hybrid picture book and graphic novel. A group of Guinea pigs out grow their home in the junkyard and go in search of a new place to live.

The Guinea pigs explore a number of different potential homes. Along the way the pick up different items, all of them yellow. Ultimately, though, they find their home and it's in an unexpected place.

While the messages of working together, family and home are all important, the execution seemed disjointed. The numerous word bubbles clutter up the page and make it difficult to use for a read aloud. The book is thus better suited for older children to read, rather than one a parent would read to a child.

Four stars

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Monkey Truck: 12/06/15

Monkey Truck by Judy Cox

Monkey Truck by Michael Slack is about a strange monkey-truck hybrid who goes about the jungle helping out all his friends.

There's a definite appeal in the bright illustrations and the general wackiness of the situation. Imagine a monkey who is also a truck and runs on "banana gas."

Eventually the Monkey Truck gets the chance to not only help his friends, but save them. See, there's a tsunami coming and he has the engine and cargo space to save them all.

But that's also the problem with the book. I realize this book came out two months before the Japanese quake and tsunami but at the rate the library gets new books, the book showed up on the new shelf right after. That's part of why I've held on to this review for so long.

So rather than just enjoying the surreal goofiness of the art you can use the book to talk about natural disasters and how to prepare and how to survive them. Talk about the types of storms or events are likely in your area. Talk about what to do as preparation. Talk about evacuation if needed. Talk about emergency services.

Four stars

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FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift: 12/05/15

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift by Judy Cox

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift by Simon Oliver is the first omnibus (issues 1-7) of a new series. Imagine if weird phenomena had become so mainstream that there could no longer be government cover ups (à la The X-Files) and research was done in the public eye rather than in secret, hidden government towns (Eureka). Instead of the FBI investigating federal crimes, there's an FBP investigating and cleaning up odd pockets of physical disturbances (as in gravity wells, localized time loops, etc).

This first volume is mostly a series of short cases to introduce the characters, the FBP, and the rules of this world where the laws of physics as we know them no longer seem to apply. This volume is like the monster of week episodes of X-Files or the science gone whacky ones of Eureka.

Floating

For instance, a high school is having trouble because gravity has become lighter. Students would rather play in the bubble than attend class. Of course eventually the bubble will pop and anyone in it risks either plummeting to their deaths or having something land on top of them.

Then imagine if you sit down to watch the big game only to find that's over in the time it takes you to make a sandwich. How's that possible? Maybe your apartment building is in a time bubble.

Wouldn't you want the best protection for your family?

Finally imagine that the government has private competition in the form of insurance and sort of physics rent-a-cops. Can the FBP survive in such a cut-throat environment? Probably not. Of course that doesn't mean there isn't a volume 2 or 3 (I have both and will be reviewing them). But like so many of these comic book omnibi, plots change from book to book.

I really liked this first volume, though it did take a little bit to get used to setting and to the characters. The artwork is colorful, even by comics standards — I mean glaringly so. Sometimes there's so much color it looks a bit like there was a printing error. That aesthetic while it was the thing that drew me to read the first volume, it still took me aback sometimes. By volume two, I was really enjoying the crazy color shifts and was reminded of another older TV show, VR-5.

Four stars

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Deep Blue: 12/04/15

Deep Blue by Judy Cox

Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly is the first book in the Waterfire series. Serefina is the daughter of Queen Miromara and she's nearly of age. That means her life is full of lessons on deportment, leadership, song spells, and history. She also has the Dokimi ceremony, one that will show is she's worthy to inherit her mother's throne.

At first glance, Deep Blue is a straight up YA romance except that it's set under the sea in a vaguely Italian queendom. Serafina is a mermaid. Though she lives in the Mediterranean, and clearly in an area influenced by Italian language and culture, the merfolk culture extends around the globe through all the major oceans. Best yet, the different regions have their own cultures and languages.

If this had been just a court romance it would have been fine. It has a rich (albeit somewhat punrific) world with multiple cultures and a fully realized history. Right when Deep Blue should be settling into a love triangle involving Serafina, her betrothed and his moody best friend, it takes a sharp left turn.

Instead of Serafina being a pampered princess having her choice of romantic affairs, she's forced to flee for her life. She meets up with other mermaids also drawn into their own personal quests. Not everyone is fleeing from a palace coup, of course, but each one has her own compelling reason.

There's a lot of ground (water, really) covered once Serafina heeds the call. She meets up with a diverse group of women, including one who is blind and has traveled on her quest with a seeing eye fish. Isn't that marvelous?

There are four books so far in the series: Rogue Wave, Dark Tide, and a yet to be titled one. I have the second one on hand and am planning to read it soon.

Five stars

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Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 2: 1981-1983: 12/03/15

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 2: 1981-1983 by Judy Cox

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 2: 1981-1983 by Ed Piskor covers the years when Hip Hop was being noticed by the rest of the music industry. It was the time when Hip Hop was spreading beyond its initial boundaries and people were beginning to realize money could be made from the art form.

Much of volume 2 covers the filming of Wild Style (1983) which marks my introduction to Hip Hop and Rap. I remember seeing a news program or maybe a documentary on Lee Quinones's part in the film and his "career" as an artist (or defacer of public property as some were arguing). What I don't remember is if the movie or Hip Hop were mentioned in the thing I watched.

As the book is wrapping up with the completion of Wild Style, Ed Piskor points out other ways the early Hip Hop artists made their mark. First there was the exporting of the genre to Europe. In England the ridiculous but catchy song Buffalo Gals debuts. Reception of Buffalo Gals

Buffalo Gals is probably the second hip hop song I ever heard (with Blondie's Rapture being the first. I was home sick with chicken pocks and pretty delirious because of the fever I was running. Anyway, the song with its limited amount of lyrics, snappy beat, and silly mashup of square dancing (something they were still teaching in school when I was a kid) and rap was something that had me giggling and later singing.

Five stars

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Emily and the Strangers Volume 2: Breaking the Record: 12/02/15

Emily and the Strangers Volume 2: Breaking the Record by Judy Cox

Emily and the Strangers Volume 2: Breaking the Record picks up after Emily and her band have won the battle of the bands. Now it's time to sign their recording contract but Emily doesn't trust it.

Emily and the others are just happy to do their own music and enjoy the guitar they've won in the process. The record company though has started to make threats if they don't sign. They're also given a grand tour of the studio and shown all sorts of wondrous things.

But with all things artificial, it helps to look in the corners and away from where you're being directed to see the truth behind the artifice. Something is definitely afoot and there's some shady business that needs attending to.

Emma Peel  investigates in The Inner Tiger

Meanwhile, in a plot that seems like a mashup of "The Inner Tiger" from the 1967 series of The Avengers and the game Bread Kittens, the city is being overrun with deranged stray cats. Emily, who has a thing for cats, begins to piece together the truth behind the cats.

A scientist gets coffee

Emily and friends also find help from a scientist. She knows what's going on. It's nice to see a female scientist positively portrayed.

Five stars

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Ukulele Hayley: 12/01/15

Ukulele Hayley by Judy Cox

My daughter is very passionate about her arts and crafts. Although she often creates art for arts sake, sometimes she uses it as a way to get (meaning make) something she thinks we won't (or can't) get for her.

About a month before her eight birthday she started gathering together the pieces for a new big project. She brought to the living room: an old shoe box, a ruler, some fishing line, and packing tape. Out of talking to her about what she was doing (and to save the ruler which she and her brother need for homework from becoming part of an art project), I got her to ask for what she really wanted. She wanted a ukulele for her birthday.

I'm still not entirely sure where or how she decided she wanted to learn how to play a ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-lay-lee, as she loves to remind me). But she's not alone in the sentiment. Most of our family seems to have taken it up (or in the case of my father, re-taken it up).

For her birthday, rather than a bunch of small items, we made a trek out to a music store in Walnut Creek that specializes in ukuleles. There she picked a pink one and an electronic tuner. Later for Christmas she accessorized with a white case for her instrument.

Before she began lessons, my daughter decided to see what she could learn about the ukulele on her own. One of the books she found was a chapter book, Ukulele Hayley by Judy Cox.

Hayley is nervous about the upcoming talent show because she doesn't seem to have any talents that can be performed on stage. While looking for a way out of the show, she comes across an old ukulele at a garage sale. She convinces her parents to let her buy it and the school's music teacher helps her learn a short piece of music in time for the show.

It's a cute book and my daughter definitely connected with it. As someone who had to survive through the yearly talent show at school, I didn't find the book quite as endearing. I usually ended up as a stage hand, except for a couple times my jazz and gymnastics talented best friend wrangled us up for a group thing.

Daughter playing for our cats

So far my daughter hasn't performed for anyone save for us and our cats. Salmon cat seems especially fond of her playing.

Three stars

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