Twitter Tumblr FlickrFacebookContact me
This Month Previous Articles Author Title Source Age Genre Series Format Inclusivity LGBTA Portfolio

January 2016

Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8



The Cricket in Times Square: 01/31/16

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

The five star rating for The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden is out of nostalgia. In that I can still remember the warm fuzzy feeling the book gave me when I first read it all these years later.

When I was entering 4th grade I did so out of the mercy of my teachers and with the promise on my part that I would shape up. I was one of those kids who had tested in first grade as gifted (borderline genius) and that meant I was pulled from track of friends into a different one, meaning we could only see each other during recess and after school. As you can imagine, the whole gifted thing, didn't go over so well. Sure, it's nice to be considered smart and all, but now I was stuck in a class I didn't want to be in.

The other problem I had was reading. I could read The Hobbit from cover to cover in kindergarten but was given the same set of whole readers that all the other kids were. "See Spot run. Run Spot, run." The teacher would read them out loud to us and then ask us to read them back to her. They were so simplistic that I had them memorized after one reading. Meaning, that for books that had words in them that I didn't honestly know how to read, I didn't actually learn how to read them.

By the end of third grade, a bad attitude towards my new classmates, and coasting on my ability to memorize, had taken me as far as it possibly could. I was given the month between third and fourth grade (I attended a year round school) to do a packet of homework given to me by my teacher (who would be my teacher the next grade too).

I spent the month of July reading and writing books reports. Every book I read I turned into a book report. Of course now I run a book blog as a hobby but this was my first time truly tracking my reading and truly trying to read since kindergarten.

One of the books I loved during this marathon of reading was The Cricket in Times Square. The illustrations were by Garth Williams whose artwork I enjoyed from the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (a series my mother had read me).

Tucker, Harry and Chester

Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat have a happy life in the Times Square subway station in Manhattan. They live near the newsstand run by Mario and his parents. The newsstand is failing and Tucker and Harry want to help. In the midst of this, Mario finds a cricket who has accidentally ridden the trains in from Connecticut.

Mario believes Chester is a sign of good luck. His mother sees him as yet more vermin here to ruin the newsstand. Tucker and Harry, eager, to help Mario and cheer up Chester, end up creating more trouble for the family.

For the most part, The Cricket in Times Square remains delightful. But it's not as perfect as I recall it being. Mario while looking for help in caring for his cricket, meets Mr. Fong. He is Chinese and lives and works in Chinatown. But his accent is more Japanese (when rendered as "Engrish") than Chinese. There are other odd inconsistencies that aren't adequately explained, leaving me to belief that Selden was working off of a muddled set of stereotypes, than actually bothering to build a proper character for Mr. Fong. It's frustrating both because it's racist and because Fong is the one positive adult role model in Mario's life at the time (as his parents are too busy and stressed about the newsstand).

Were I reading The Cricket in Times Square for the first time, I would probably only give it three stars.

Four stars

Comments (2)


Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet: 01/30/16

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet by Nick Bruel

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet by Nick Bruel is the newest of the hybrid graphic novels. This time Kitty is acting up because she doesn't feel well. Her owners take her to the hospital for a check-up.

All of these longer books teach an aspect of taking care of a cat, even a high strung one. As you can imagine a cat who doesn't feel well probably doesn't want to be put into a box and taken for a car ride. (And a really deathly ill cat won't put up any sort of fight, something that is painful to see.)

The first act of the book, then, is the getting Kitty to the vet. Her owners have to wear Kevlar, heavy towels, and bubble wrap to get her into the box. They apparently don't know about scruffing (something the vet teaches them in the second act). They also apparently don't know how to act calm around a cat before putting them into the box.

The best person I know at this (beyond our vet) is my own daughter (who plans on being a small animal vet). She just has this calming aura about her and her body language that puts animals at ease.

But then there's the final act which starts with Kitty going to the feline pearly gates and being given a chance to redeem herself by doing one act of genuine kindness to Puppy. One star off for the unnecessary religious imagery.

What should have been there instead is a more up front approach to the fact that anesthesia can be dangerous to pets but is sometimes necessary. Kitty's diagnosis is downplayed, pushed aside for the whole cat heaven vs puppy heaven (where bad cats are sent to be chew toys) tangent.

Four stars

Comments (0)


The Zoo at the Edge of the World: 01/29/16

The Zoo at the Edge of the World by Eric Kahn Gale

The Zoo at the Edge of the World by Eric Kahn Gale is set in British Guiana at the time when the western world was taking an interest in creating zoos. For the wealthiest the safari or similar was the way to go.

Marlin Rackham lives with his father and brother at the mouth of river on the edge of the wild, untamed forest. They run a hotel with a combined zoo and circus where locally caught animals are made to perform for the guests' entertainment. Marlin, though smarter than his older brother, has a stuttering problem. Out in the middle of nowhere with a show business family, Marlin's treated like an idiot.

The Rackhams are under increasing pressure to turn a profit as overseas investors in the form of British aristocrats are trying to develop the river and the zoo is on prime land. Marlin being apart from the wheeling and dealing and left pretty much to his own devices, has the opportunity to befriend the nobleman's daughter. Together they form an unusual alliance that could just help to save the family business.

Things change though when a jaguar is captured and an employee goes missing. And this book being set in South America embraces the art of magical realism. Soon Marlin's mind is opened up to the world of the animals around him. Like Blythe Baxter, he suddenly finds himself able to understand animals.

If you can imagine a tween mash up of Heart of Darkness and The Littlest Pet Shop, that's what The Zoo at the Edge of the World is.

Five stars

Comments (0)


(In a Sense) Lost and Found: 01/28/16

(In a Sense) Lost and Found by Roman Muradov

(In a Sense) Lost and Found by Roman Muradov is a graphic novel about being a new adult. A young woman wakes up one day and realizes her innocence has been stolen. She leaves her protective father to search the big city for it and discovers her own place in it.

How her innocence is stolen isn't exactly spelled out, being left instead to the reader's interpretation. At the darkest end, it could mean someone comes into her room and physically violates her. It could more symbolically mean that she has woken up with her own desires that aren't in alignment with her conservative upbringing. Or maybe she's just not emotionally ready for having the adult feelings and thoughts she now finds herself with.

Shadows on the wall.

Regardless of the reason behind her troubled awakening, Premise feels the urge to leave home (as most adult children do). She has been compelled to explore the world around her and find her own place and her own thoughts.

For many new adults, self discovery is in the consumption of culture — the bookstore, the library, movies. Along with the stories, there's hopefully a mentor — someone who has been through the same journey and can recognize the early confusion and can offer non judgmental guidance.

The keychain buzzes

How the specifics of this story unwrap is up to personal interpretation. There aren't any obvious sign posts. Just like life, the narrative path of this book is left to you.

Five stars

Comments (0)


Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part One: 01/27/16

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part One by Gene Luen Yang

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part One by Gene Luen Yang looks at the lingering effects of the magic done on Zuko's mother for all those years. Meanwhile, there is growing resistance to the plans to build Republic City and to Zuko being the new Fire Lord.

At first it seems like everything is going well at last for Zuko. He's found his mother. He's brining her hand her children home to the palace. They are joking around and catching up on numerous lost years but trouble always seems to follow Zuko.

Uncle Iroh to the rescue.Zuko gets word that there's a plot against him and his family, so special measures need to be taken to get them to safety. The plan involves Uncle Iroh and his submarine. Yes; Iroh has a submarine.

An interesting side plot that is back burnered a bit is the reaction of Zuko's half siblings to their mother now that she has a face they've never seen. They are utterly terrified of her, complaining that she is ice cold both to touch and emotionally. Her perhaps imperfect transformation is played up more in Part Two and I hope is the big plot point in Part Three.

Five stars

Comments (0)


Hyperactive: 01/26/16

Hyperactive by Scott Christian Sava

Hyperactive by Scott Christian Sava is about 12 year old Joey Caram suddenly becoming very very fast. He can do his homework between commercial breaks, run faster than 100 miles per hour, and clean his room in 4 seconds.

His parents decide this condition can't possibly be normal and take Joey to be checked out. That gets the attention of a local pharmaceutical company who want to use Joey in their dastardly experiments.

To me it reads like a Bewitched plot. Imagine if one of McMann and Tate's unscrupulous clients got wind of one of Tabitha's special magic induced talents and decided to exploit her for their bottom line. Of course Darrin and Samantha (and her many relatives) would intervene but it would take some doing and there would be some near misses. That's what happens here.

Three stars

Comments (0)


City of Pearl: 01/25/16

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss is the first in the six book Wess'har Wars series. Cavanagh's Star has three sentient species laying claim to parts of it. A military unit is sent on what's essentially a one way trip from Earth to assess the situation and make sure Earth's claims are solid.

The current humans living on Cavangh's Star live under ground. They are a religious group, somewhat akin to the Missionaries on Earth who have gone into the desserts and jungles to "win converts."

With all the slow world building, there's the linger threat of war coming. The three groups are ready to explode and there might be a fourth pulling the strings. The maneuvering is interesting but it's dragged down by the theology.

Seeing another lengthy commitment like the Song of Fire and Ice series, I decided to pass on the rest of the series. I can see each new volume being more of a chore to read than the previous one.

Two stars

Comments (0)


On missed reviews: 01/25/16

On missed reviews

In 2009 I started receiving ARCs and other review copies from publishers. To make room for my reading for fun, I ended up reading close to 500 books a year. At the highest I I read 623 in 2011. Even with publishing a book review or summery once a day, I max out with 365 (or 366 on a leap year) book reviews. Two posts a day is more than I care to do.

Now I'm down to reading around 300 books a year, or slightly less than a book a day. As I still have a storm surge of books and reviews from those years where I was reading nearly twice as much as I needed, I still maintain around a six month buffer of reviews written. Were I to stop reading or writing reviews today, I'd still be able to post new content until July 6, 2016.

With a buffer and with other things that come up, sometimes reviews get lost in the process. Take for instance, Legends of Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke. It's the second book in the three book graphic novel series and the first one I ever read. I read it as part of the 2012 CYBILS. I loved it but I wanted to read the first one to get some context for the story of mistaken identity.

I have in my notes that at some time I did in fact, write a review. But I've had two computer failures between then and now. It was a time when I could only afford freebies from my in-laws and there were reasons they had upgraded before giving them to me! So somewhere in the chaos of failing technology and massive amounts of reading, that review (and a couple others as far as I can tell) went missing.

There was a time when I would drop every thing and re-read the missing books so I could re-write the reviews. Then I'd push a scheduled review aside and post the missed review. Now though, I'm not as concerned about reviewing everything I read, even if it means not reviewing the second book in a trilogy.

Rather, I'm trying to provide reader's advisory across a variety of genres, written for a variety of ages. I'm trying to cover newly published books, older backlist books, books with diverse characters and stories, books that are thought provoking, books to inspire conversations.

Comments (0)


How to Catch a Cat: 01/24/16

How to Catch a Cat by Rebecca M. Hale

How to Catch a Cat by Rebecca M. Hale is the sixth in the Cats and Curios series. It's also a departure from the previous books in that it contains lengthy historical flashbacks.

In the present, it's 2013 during the America's Cup. Meanwhile the knitting needle serial killer is back. Her rampage is tied up to a similar set of deaths that happened during the San Carlos's discovery of la Boca del Puerto de San Francisco (aka the Golden Gate) in 1775.

Granted the ship was considered cursed by its crew and it certainly had numerous mishaps, but none as described here in How to Catch a Cat. Now I know, I should just take the book as a work of fiction but in the past a big part of the series's charm has been its attention to historical detail. Now that's tossed aside for the convenience of telling a parallel plot against the past and present.

I found the historical flashbacks too distracting so I ultimately gave up on reading them and settled instead on just the present day mystery. Here I was riveted with Oscar's death, perhaps at the hand of the serial killer, the hilarity of the host of the America's cup being called "The Baron" and at the interim mayor of San Francisco being desperate to get a bigger piece of the regatta.

In the real world, the 2013 America's Cup was a flop. As an ex-San Diegan who remembers America's cups of yore, I spent much of the summer shaking my head, giggling and pointing (except when there was a tragic death). San Francisco was ill prepared and the main sponsor learned a harsh lesson that a regatta isn't the same thing as a computer conference!

If you take away the flashbacks to the San Carlos, the present day mystery is basically a novella. The same information, especially about the type of murder weapon the killer was using, could have been imparted in the chit-chatty history lessons of the previous books. It could have even been tied to one of the niece's many walks about town with her cats. That I would have lapped up.

Three stars

Comments (0)


Bird: 01/23/16

Bird by Crystal Chan

Bird by Crystal Chan is a midwest story of a girl trying to over come a family tragedy and a lingering belief in curses. Jewel is the surviving daughter of a family that once had two children. Her older brother, "Bird", jumped to his death on the day she was born. Her grandfather and father believe he was compelled to do so by a guppy.

Now there is a new boy in town who shares her brother's given name, John. He is the spark in Jewel's otherwise sheltered life and to her grandfather, an unwanted, possibly bad, influence. This John might even be a guppy in disguise come to lure her off the same mountain.

So Jewel's story here is one of finding that tenuous balance between her now internalized guilt, sorrow, and resentment over her brother's death, and bringing in a new friend to her life, even if it means risking the disproval of her family or worse, the embarrassment of showing him her dysfunctional family.

Although her family believes in curses and guppies, Bird is grounded in reality and that struggled between past and present. For a similar story where there is a magical realism edge, I recommend The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee (aka My Life as an Alphabet) by Barry Jonsberg (review coming in February).

Four stars

Comments (0)


Oz: The Emerald City of Oz: 01/22/16

Oz: The Emerald City of Oz by Eric Shanower

Oz: The Emerald City of Oz by L. Frank Baum and Eric Shanower is the last of the Marvel comic adaptations of the Oz books. It's a perfect place to end a series as it's the point that Baum originally tried to end it. He closed the book with a note from Dorothy, claiming to his fans (as so many authors do) that his characters were real:

YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ANYTHING MORE ABOUT OZ, BECAUSE WE ARE NOW CUT OFF FOREVER FROM ALL THE REST OF THE WORLD. BUT TOTO AND I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU AND ALL THE OTHER CHILDREN WHO LOVE US.

DOROTHY GALE

Dorothy Gale has been living in the Emerald City as a princess, friend, girl Friday of Ozma. But to truly feel at home, she wants her Aunt and Uncle. As the Oz books are an early form of urban fantasy, travel between the worlds is doable to those who know. It's not a one way trip. So Ozma finds them and invites them to move to the Emerald City.

Meanwhile, the Nome King is plotting his revenge. He's still fuming over Ozma's invasion of his kingdom and her escape. He plans to bring the war to her doorstep through a clever underground assault.

Nome King

The Emerald City of Oz uses suspense to drive the plot forward. Dorothy and her family are sent out of the capitol so she can show them their new home. By book six, Dorothy has a LONG track record as a hero. She and her chicken, Bill, have already defeated the Nome King once. Ozma fell into his trap and now the entire Emerald City is at risk with Dorothy's absence!

Thus we have a parallel structure story. On the surface we have Dorothy's tour of Oz, one done in leisure, quite in contrast to her frenetic search for the Wizard during her first journey. Below, we have the Nome King's army marching across the wastelands towards Oz.

Dorothy

Oz is a marvelous land of political cartoons and puns brought to life. The gender discussion continues both through Ozma and through Bill and family. He pokes fun at power, religion, and war.

The original book is available online through Project Gutenberg.

Four stars

Comments (0)


Midnight Blue: 01/21/16

Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk

In my review of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, I described how I thought there was a parallel universe in my neighborhood. In Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk, there really is one and its accessible by hot air balloon.

Bonnie lives with her mother and her over protective (abusively so) grandmother. Her neighbor offers her an escape via self made hot air balloon the color of midnight. She expects to fly over the town and maybe into the next one over. Instead she flies straight up and into a world populated by people she knows but are completely different.

The world Bonnie lands in, while a peaceful and friendly place, is a claustrophobic one. If anything, it's like a pocket universe, like the ones explored in some of the episodes of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) or in the final episode of Phineas and Ferb, or even Storybrooke in the early days of Once Upon a Time.

Much of the book is Bonnie decided if she wants to live by the rules of her new home or find a way back. In doing so, she also encounters hints to her own past, suggesting that her family might be refugees from this alternate world, or somehow cursed by it.

It took me a while to get into the book, especially some re-reading of the first couple chapters. I needed to read the first chapters three times, once when I started, once about midway through the book because I'd forgotten how things fit together, and once again at the end because now I could see how tightly everything was woven.

Five stars

Comments (0)


Books and Food: 01/20/16

Books and Food

While reading Relish by Lucy Knisley (review coming), I realized that a bunch of my favorite books, both fiction and nonfiction have been themed around food. I'm not talking cook books, rather books where food is a central theme.

My food themed reading falls into a couple categories: memoirs, histories, genre fiction.

The memoirs are often written around a single type of food: candy, cheese, etc. The memoir starts in early childhood with the discovery of the food, the teenage obsession with it, young adulthood learning to live with it away from family, and finally a modern day reflection on where they are with their relationship with that food.

The histories also often focus on a single food: rum, olive oil, brisket. These are ones that take something commonplace and expand our knowledge of them through careful examination. How did this food become part of our lives? Where is it produced now? What regionalism are associated with it?

Most of my genre fiction that is food themed is part of a series. The largest one is the Goldy Bear Catering series by Diane Mott Davidson as I've read and reviewed every book in the series. The others are mostly stand-alones where food plays a big role: soup in A Tale of Despereaux, the ability to taste emotions and history in food (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender).

Anyway, since I've read so many and have a number more to review soon, I figured it was a sign that I should break out my food books into their own list.

View the list

Comments (0)


A Whole New Ballgame: 01/20/16

A Whole New Ballgame by Phil Bildner

A Whole New Ballgame by Phil Bildner is about a pair of best friends excited to play basketball in PE at their school now that they're fifth graders. Everything though gets thrown out of whack when there's a new fifth grade teacher who is also the new PE coach. Worse yet, he wants to get the school competing in the local league.

You'd think that getting to play against other schools would be bonus for two basketball obsessed kids, but it isn't. Rip happens to on the autistic spectrum. He may love basketball but he might not be ready for an actual competition. Red, though, has Rip's back and works with the new teacher and with Rip's parents to find solutions that work for both boys.

I entered this book with concerns. First and foremost, basketball isn't my thing and sport themed books can be tightly focused on winning the "big game" or similar. Here though, basketball is part of the boys' world but not the entirety of it.

Likewise, Rip's autism is part of his character, but not all of it. Nor is it played up to make this book all about it. Finally, Red is Black with dreadlocks but again that's not called out. Nor is it played that it should be normal for Red like basketball solely because he's Black. Rather, he likes basketball because of his long standing friendship with Rip. It's an interest that has grown organically.

A second book is planned for release later in 2016. It's called Rookie of the Year.

Five stars

Comments (0)


Lovely: Ladies of Animation: 01/19/16

Lovely: Ladies of Animation by Lorelay Bove

Lovely: Ladies of Animation by Lorelay Bove (et al) is collection of essays by six women currently working in animation. As it's a folio, there's lots of room for beautifully reproduced samples of each artists' work.

The essays are pretty much free form covering whatever the artist thought was most important. What this means is that to an uninitiated reader — one not already familiar with the artist — will learn only a small piece of her career and artistic background.

There's an appendix that includes brief biographies of each author. That's helpful but it would have been better placed in an introduction or perhaps as introductory paragraphs before each essay.

Four stars

Comments (0)


FBP Federal Bureau of Physics: Vol. 2: Wish You Were Here: 01/18/16

FBP Federal Bureau of Physics: Vol. 2: Wish You Were Here by Simon Oliver

FBP Federal Bureau of Physics: Vol. 2: Wish You Were Here by Simon Oliver is the second in the Federal Bureau of Physics series. This omnibus covers issues 8-13 of the comic. In Paradigm Shift the world of the FBP is set up and we're given a couple example cases. The first book was pretty much world building and paranormal hijinks. It's a colorful, psychedelic police procedural, somewhere between Dragnet and The X-Files.

Now we move to the characters and into their back stories. Except, in a world where entropy goes haywire, it's possible to literally go into a character's persona through the creation of an artificial, pocket universe, built and fueled by the psyche of its participants. Thus we've entered the world of VR-5 (for anyone who remembers that awesome but short lived TV series).

Even though Simon Oliver tells you what's going on, it's not always easy to separate the real from the pocket. And, there are hints dropped that the pocket universe might be more connected to the real world than anyone thinks. It's not Vegas — things that happen in the pocket universe might not actually stay there.

The bright colors and bold style continues from the first book. I love the crazy pallet thats made up of purple, cyan, magenta, yellow and green.

I have the third omnibus Audeamus, which I will be reading and reviewing soon.

Five stars

Comments (0)


Little Blue and Little Yellow: 01/17/16

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni is an open ended picture book. At it's most basic level it's about color mixing. It's also though about friendship, love, family, and prejudice.

Blue and Yellow are friends. They play every day together. One day they get a bit too rough and tumble and end up mixing together, thus both becoming green. They go home to their parents are heartbroken to see that their parents no longer recognize them!

Littlest kids will come away learning that blue and yellow make green, blue and red make purple, red and yellow make green, and all together make brown.

Older readers will see beyond the color mixing. Anyone whose been in a relationship will know that knowing a person intimately will have profound personal affects. The two become more alike. Families don't always agree and they can reject their children rather than accept the new person. Parents who do welcome the new person in, are also affected by the relationship, though not as strongly or directly.

Sapphire and Ruby embrace in a scene from Steven Universe.

When re-reading this book now as an adult, I was reminded of a modern rendition of this metaphor of mixing colors for a relationship. I'm talking about Garnet, a character on Steven Universe who happens to be a fusion of two other gems: Ruby and Sapphire. She is a relationship just as Green is a relationship of Blue and Yellow.

Four stars

Comments (0)


Blue on Blue: 01/16/16

Blue on Blue by Dianne White

Blue on Blue by Dianne White is a picture book about an approaching rainstorm. Done as as series of colorful engravings and simple word pairs, the book outlines how the changing colors of the sky herald the changing weather.

At the sidelines of this story is a family enjoying a bright sunny day and using the bright blue warmth to line dry their laundry. That quickly changes though as the clouds roll in and the first big drops begin to fall. Soon the sky is lit up with sheets of lightning.

For children living in the rolling countryside these summer storms will be familiar and the book could be used to talk about storms and personal experiences. For children growing up in places where summer is the dry season, the book can be used to experience the quixotic nature of summer rains.

Three stars

Comments (0)


Dream On, Amber: 01/15/16

Dream On, Amber by Emma Shevah

The British have a LONG history of diary writing and perhaps as long a history of reading each other's diaries. The most famous (infamous?) of the diary keepers is Samuel Pepys. In terms of fiction, though, I see two more recent books as the progenitors of the on-going flood of diary themed books coming out of the UK: The Secret Life of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend (1982) and Bridge Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding (1996).

From Bridget Jones we get the parodies of the genre, namely the delightfully wacky Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (1999).

Where the Georgia Nicolson series are YA, spanning the very youngest of YA to about the middle of it, age wise, Dream On, Amber by Emma Shevah is middle grade and were it to continue as a series, would probably end at the young end of YA. That, though, is just idle speculation on my part! Like all these books, Amber's misadventures in school and at home are written down as a diary entries.

Lucy from Servant x ServiceAt the moment, Dream On, Amber is a middle grade novel about a English girl of Italian and Japanese heritage. Her full name is Ambra Alessandra Leola Kimiko Miyamato (whose long name brings to mind Lucy of the many names from the delightful Servant x Service manga (and 13 episode animé 2013). But just call Ambra, Amber.

One of the big themes in middle grade fiction this year has been the missing parent. The parent has either divorced the other, died tragically, is otherwise unknown, or has run off for reasons unknown to the protagonist.

In Amber's case, it's her Japanese father who has presumably gone back to Japan when his marriage didn't work out. The specifics aren't given and frankly aren't relevant. He's alive but he's not an active part in his daughters' lives. Amber the oldest girl can just barely remember him and misses him. Her younger sister, though, has never met their father and doesn't really have a spot for him in her life. Why should she?

The younger sister, Bella, has a birthday coming up and Amber, deciding that she needs to have Dad in her life, beings to write letters to her kid sister, pretending to be him. Dad becomes a world famous spy, busy saving the world for the Japanese government. Bella takes to the challenge and starts writing back, making more and more demands of her heroic spy father.

While this could have been set up as a tragedy where both girls end up distraught over their missing father, it doesn't play out that way. Bella is not as young or impulsive, or weird as Georgia's sister. She's just playing the part cast for her in this letter writing panto. I really liked how the two girls ended up closer together at the end of this letter writing silliness.

What I didn't like is how Amber's delightful British tween voice is mangled by the well meaning American publisher who just can't fathom American readers being able to handle (gasp) British English. Trust me, kids can sort it out and the book would be ten times better if it were left unadulterated.

Please Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky (and all other US publishers / importers) the next time you bring a British kid's story over, LEAVE THE DAMN TEXT ALONE. Your readers of all ages will thank you.

Four stars

Comments (0)


The Forbidden Library: 01/14/16

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler is the start of a new tween urban fantasy series. Alice is sent to live with her uncle after her father is lost in a ship wreck. The uncle maintains a mysterious library and she is given numerous warnings about its danger.

Seriously, though, that sort of warning, especially in a story, means that of course, the forbidden areas must be explored. Add in a talking cat who speaks of evils being done and things that need fixing, and Alice just can't resist!

Imagine if the act of reading would literally transport one into the world of the book. Imagine if some books could be used as prisons for the worst of criminals. Now add in the usual shelving and cataloging chaos that creeps into libraries over time. The Uncle's library is especially old and especially disorganized, thus giving a means for a jailbreak.

This is a very visual book. It's aching for an animated adaptation. Some reviewers have suggested a Studio Ghibli film but I frankly think it would do well as a one cour anime series, with perhaps future books being their own separate cours.

Four stars

Comments (0)


Library Lil: 01/13/16

Library Lil by Suzanne Williams

When I switched careers, I didn't expect librarianship to be so good for my upper body strength. But it has been. So it was with that in mind that I picked up Library Lil by Suzanne Williams.

Library Lil has been a book reader her entire life. Now she's a librarian. On the way she's built up her strength, carrying piles and piles of books to and from the library.

So when a bully comes to town on his motorcycle, Lil is ready. It's not his burly size and not his ride that has her worried. It's that he hates reading, says it's for babies! Can Lil change his mind? You bet!

It's a cute book and one that my daughter and I were able to enjoy together.

Four stars

Comments (0)


Cutwork: 01/12/16

Cutwork by Monica Ferris

Cutwork by Monica Ferris is the seventh in the Needlecraft mystery series. It's a modern day murder, this time, one that happens during an artisan fair. This book is a departure from the usual Betsy POV, starting instead form the POV of multiple other characters including the police and the murderer.

A murderer's POV moves the book out of the cozy genre to horror-thriller. I understand an author wanting to try new things and experiment but here, it felt too much like a glossed over retelling of Psycho minus the whole Mother nonsense.

Where Norman Bates was a taxidermist, here the artists are carvers and welders. Where Marion Crane has embezzled money from her company to impress her lover, missing money from the dead artist and his on going financial woes serve as both clues and red herrings.

Although I wasn't keen on the Robert Bloch style of writing, I did get wrapped up in the details of the different artistic styles and the whole art scene in the area. Once Betsy gets fully involved in the mystery solving, the book settles down into a familiar and welcome territory.

Four stars

Comments (0)


Stargirl: 01/11/16

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is a tween story about a boy's (Leo) impressions of a girl who was briefly at his school. She was as bohemian as they come and she sported a memorable name: Stargirl. She gives notes to everyone, serenades people with her ukulele, and talks to a cactus.

After all the positive effects she's had on the school, she's still emotionally broken down and forced to normalized. Her grand experiment supported by friends, family, and neighbors, comes to an abrupt stop and she sees the error of her ways. Thus she returns to her given name just before moving away to a different school.

I don't normally give such a straight up plot review, but the book is rather disheartening. It's boy's nostalgic account of a girl's ambitions being crushed by the demands to fit in. He feels bad not because she's been forced to surrender, but because she's no longer the cool, unique, girl friend.

Closing image from Star vs the Forces of Evil

A far better version of the same set up is a goofy Disney XD cartoon series, Star vs. the Forces of Evil. The same types of characters are there and she does similar, off the wall, things for her own entertainment and in the name of friendship.

Leo's equivalent is Marco. He's also Star's host, as here she's an extra dimensional exchange student. Though there's certainly chemistry between them it's strictly one of friendship. Star has her eyes on the synth playing emo kid and Marco has his on a skateboarding girl. That means their relationship and her character growth within the series don't hinge on how good of a girl friend she is.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


One Plus One Equals Blue: 01/10/16

One Plus One Equals Blue by Mary Jane Auch

One Plus One Equals Blue by M.J. (Mary Jane) Auch is a YA novel about synesthesia. There are two students who have it, one who is baffled by it, and one who has learned how to use it to her advantage.

Basil sees colors for numbers but there's overlap in his spectrum and he doesn't know how to cope. With his confusion and his sense of being different from everyone else, he's falling further and further behind in math and is becoming more withdrawn from friends.

Then a new girl shows up. Basil notices that she seems to have the same thing he does, except she's good at math. No, she's better than good. They strike up an uneasy friendship on the promise that she'll help him harness his synesthesia.

Meanwhile there's Basil's estranged actress mother who appears out of the blue. Basil doesn't want her messing up his chance at a friendship.

Three Stars

Comments (0)


Where the girls are: 01/09/16

Where the girls are

The January 8th issue of The Washington Post has an article wondering Why are there so few girls in children's books?. The article cites a 2011 Florida State University study that finds a huge gender bias in favor of male characters (human or otherwise) in children's literature.

To be honest, I've not tracked nor counted the number of female protagonists in the children's lit I've read and reviewed. My book blogging coincides with the birth of my youngest child, a daughter. Much of my children's book reviews especially early on were dictated by her interests and those have always skewed towards reading about a diverse range of female characters.

When she was first learning to talk she insisted on using she or everything except specific people or animals she knew for a fact to be male. It was an eye opening experience. In keeping with that, I did my best to find books with female characters and plots that interested her.

Thankfully our local public library does an excellent job of collection development and I had no problem in finding books to meet her needs.

So in response to the Post article, I've created a list of the books I've reviewed that contain a female (human or otherwise) protagonist. I'm not including books that have an ensemble cast or a boy and girl co-lead. This list does, though, include transgender leads who self identify as female.

This list though isn't meant to be a "girls' book" list. A girl as a protagonist doesn't prevent boys or anyone else to read the book.

View the list

Comments (0)


Saving Baby Doe: 01/09/16

Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante

Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante is a tween fiction about the repercussions faced by a boy, Lionel, and a girl, Anisa after they find a newborn at a construction site.

The boy is black and the girl is hispanic and both live in the projects. The girl injured herself in the construction site. So the police assume she's the mother and he's the father.

At the heart of this story is the assumptions people in power — people with privilege make about people without. As teens, they also face parents and other adults assuming the worst because they are worried that the worst will happen. These are parents who know the odds are stacked against themselves and their children and they are desperate to keep them safe.

Despite all of this, Lionel steps up to do what's right for the baby. At risk of his own wellbeing he does everything he can to make sure Baby Doe isn't abandoned.

Five Stars

Comments (0)


The Princess and the Pizza: 01/08/16

The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane Auch

The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch is a humorous retelling of the Princess and the Pea. Paulina though is not a typical princess. As many other blogs have already said, this is the book for anyone who needs a break from the usual fairytales.

Princess Paulina is trying to get back into royal circles after her father gives up the crown to become a woodworker. Unfortunately she no longer has the funds to do that. When she sees a contest being held to find the perfect wife for a nearby prince she decides to enter.

Paulina though quickly learns that she can do better without the prince. The stupid tests they give are rigged against her because she doesn't fit into their mould. And yet, she continues to pass all the tests. Along the way, she also manages to invent pizza.

The moral of the story is that young woman can be successful by themselves. They don't have to rely on marriage as an out. They can of course get married if they want to but it's not the only route to happiness. Finally, success doesn't mean being a princess or wealthy.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


Sock Monkey Boogie Woogie: A Friend Is Made: 01/07/16

Sock Monkey Boogie Woogie: A Friend Is Made by Cece Bell

One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my grandmother make sock monkeys out of my grandfather's old work socks. Nowadays it seems that sock monkeys come pre-made. They seem to have gone from being a rainy day project to something kitsch. I'm not even sure if the type of socks — two shades of gray with a red heel — are even still produced.

But Cece Bell is old enough to remember the days when one had to make her own sock monkey. In Sock Monkey Boogie Woogie: A Friend Is Made, a sock monkey needs a date for a party. He asks all the other toys but they all politely say no. What's a sock monkey to do?!

Well — make one, of course! And teach it how to dance. It is a dance party after all.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


Do You Know Dinosaurs?: 01/06/16

Do You Know Dinosaurs? by Alain M Bergeron

Do You Know Dinosaurs? by Alain M Bergeron is a Canadian comic from the Do You Know / Savais-tu? series. It introduces various different types of dinosaurs and puts them into situations for comedy to play out.

This book doesn't rely on a modern day henpecked paleontologist to set the stage as In the Beginning... by Arnaud Plumeri (review coming) does. It's just anthropomorphic dinos in the book. Despite that, it's a good balance of educational and entertaining.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns: 01/05/16

Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns by Jeanne Steig

Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns by Jeanne Steig is a retrospective of William Steig's artwork. William Steig began his career as a New Yorker cartoonist but is now probably best known for his Children's books (like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. His most famous book, now, is Shrek because of the films.

The title pretty much gives away his favorite themes: cats, dogs, men, women, ninnies, and clowns. His drawings consist of pen lines done in apparent long scribbles, where everything is connected. It's like watching a tangle of lines unfold themselves into something recognizable.

William Steig was constantly drawing and he had favorite themes. Jeanne, his widow, organized his works of art by theme. While perhaps useful to see how a specific type of drawing evolved over time, long chapters did become rather repetitive. I think it would have been more interesting to see the artwork evolve over time, rather than groups of the same thing.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


On Highway 61: 01/04/16

On Highway 61 by Dennis McNally

On Highway 61 by Dennis McNally is a history of Black music in the United States. The subheading is Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom which unfortunately seems to translate to white people "discovering" Black culture.

The United States has a terrible history when it comes to race relations. There's no way around that. History books are no better, putting the accomplishments of white men above all else.

I saw this book in the new books display at the library on the day I turned in the second volume of Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor. I've been trying to learn more about Hip Hop, Rap, and R& B because they're genres of music that have been pretty much off my personal radar. After a brief shuffle through the book, examining the many photographs and descriptions, I thought On Highway 61 might be a good book to connect the dots between the bits of music history I do know to the bits I'm learning about.

The book does cover rhapsody, blues, jazz and the men and women involved in the creation of these genres. But it's all done in the context of white men either inspiring the Black artists, or popularizing the music, or playing in black face (cringe). Basically the book seems way too focused on the white consumption of Black culture.

Three Stars

Comments (0)


Hippopposites: 01/03/16

Hippopposites by Janik Coat

Hippopposites by Janik Coat is a concept book that uses a simple and adorable hippopotamus to teach some basic opposites.

There are comparisons between small and large, clear and blurry, transparent and opaque, etc. As the book progresses, the opposites become sillier, including a front (the usual red hippo) and side (a thick black line).

This is a concept book that despite it's simplicity in design doesn't talk down to its audience. There's also enough humor and sophistication here to amuse the older reader too &mdash a parent, caregiver, or an older sibling who might be reading the book aloud.

Five Stars

Comments (0)


Photography: The Groundbreaking Moments: 01/02/16

Photography: The Groundbreaking Moments by Florian Heine

I have been trying to learn more about photography, I'e been a hobbyist photographer on and off since my childhood. I can remember playing with my grandmother's Polaroid when I was three. I received my first camera when I was seven.

Until recently I haven't had the equipment (or budget) to take the types of photography I've wanted to take. I've had to make do with point and shoot cameras an 4x6 prints done at the local photo shop.

Digital cameras, combined with Photoshop was the first step in producing the photographs I wanted to. Digital technology has now improved at the mid tier making it at long last possible for me to afford to equipment to take the highly detailed photographs I want to. RAW, also, gives me a digital darkroom equivalent.

Artists learning their craft study art history along with practicing their technique. So I have turned to my public library for a survey of photographic history books as well as books on specific photographers and their work.

Photography: The Groundbreaking Moments by Florian Heine is a survey of the history of photographers and the development of techniques and genres. The history part is the strongest piece. It discusses the process and problems of affixing an image both in negative and later in positives.

In the sections on various styles or genres of photography, there is at least one glaring error in the labeling of a photograph — Yosemite being labeled as Yellowstone. This easy to fact check error made me call into question all the other photographs included.

Four Stars

Comments (0)


Tumford the Terrible: 01/01/16

Tumford the Terrible by Nancy Tillman

Tumford the Terrible by Nancy Tillman is about a tuxedo cat, Tumford Stoutt. He is well loved and pampered but it is a bit of a handful (as most cats are). His family wants him to learn to say "Sorry."

The idea behind the book is to teach toddlers their manners. No problem. Picture books fill many niches, including teaching basic manners.

However — my daughter was unimpressed when we read it. With two tuxedo cats in our family, Harriet's going through a phase where she reads any book that features a tuxedo cat.

Tumford's black and white face on the cover was an instant enticement. The moniker, "terrible" is also intriguing. Cats have such a reputation for doing their own thing, that the title gives the expectation that the book will be about a mischievous cat and his misadventures. Tumford the Terrible is much tamer than that.

I Iz Sorry. I cant hear u.

Three Stars

Comments (0)