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February 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

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Canadian Book Challenge: 2023-2024

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Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible: 02/29/16

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon is the start of a new adventure fantasy series about a warrior princess who happens to be a hamster. The illustrations are done as comic book panels.

Harriet the Invincible is a retelling, a deconstruction, of the Sleeping Beauty story. Though her parents want to keep her safe and hidden, Harriet realizes that there's a huge loophole to the curse. If she's destined to fall prey to it on her birthday, she should by all rights be invincible before then.

Parenting is hard

Rather than feel sorry for herself, Harriet goes out into the world as a hero for hire. Her year abroad gives her the skills to fight the curse. In no other version of Sleeping Beauty I've read or seen has the cursed princess fought back. Sure, she's gone into hiding, she's begged for mercy, but ultimately shell falls under the spell and then needs rescuing by some wandering prince.

The second half of the book then is the what-if exploration of what happens to a curse when the victim fights back? How can the cursed save herself and everyone she loves? It's a great adventure story that I've read with children and adults. Everyone regardless of age or gender has loved it.

The second book, Of Mice and Magic comes out in 2016.

Five stars

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The Terrible Two Get Worse: 02/28/16

The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett

The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett and Jory John is the sequel to The Terrible Two. Niles and Miles feeling triumphant over the great cow stunt of last year decide to make this year at school even better.

Unfortunately their first prank gets Principal Barkin on permanent leave and his replacement can't be phased by pranking. Much like Nick in Frindle, Principal Barking Sr. knows the power of words to control behavior. Despite the best efforts of Niles and Miles they can't get him to acknowledge a single one of their pranks.

Principal Barkin Sez

If the first book was all about Miles finding his place in the new school and coming head to head with a rival prankster, then book two is all about Niles, his once rival, having to cope with having everything he's worked for taken away.

Meanwhile, we get to see into the interesting family dynamic of the Barkins. Though Principal Barkin the Younger loves his job his method is completely different and more sympathetic than Principal Barkin the Elder. For a multigenerational family completely focused on being that town's elementary school principal it's also fascinating to see the Younger desperately trying to fill the void through hobbies.

I don't know if there will be a third one but if there were, I would read it. I suspect there won't be unless the pranking is taken outside the school. The Barkins now know too much about Niles and Miles.

Five stars

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Freddy Goes to the North Pole: 02/27/16

Freddy Goes to the North Pole by Walter R. Brooks

Freddy Goes to the North Pole by Walter R. Brooks is the second of the Freddy the Pig books. It was originally titled More To and Again but was quickly given a more memorable and descriptive title.

The farm animals now famous from their road trip to Florida have parlayed that fame into a booming tour company for other animals. The only problem is that giving the same tours over and over again is quickly growning boring. The animals desire a little more adventure in their lives.

Freddy to spice things up suggests a tour to the North Pole. How hard could it possibly be to head north instead of south? Freddy and his core crew of animals take a group of four animals, expecting to return in six months. When a year passes and there is no word, the other animals mount a rescue expedition.

In the first book the animals' adventures were primarily derived from their reactions to the changing landscape. Florida is very different from the sort of New England or midwestern farm they are used to. This time, the adventures are well, more adventurous. By this, I mean, they rely more on the tropes of children's adventure stories. They thwart child abusers, pirates, icebergs, and ultimately meet Santa Claus.

I know, I know, it is after all Freddy Goes to the North Pole but I had a hard time swallowing the Santa Claus plot near the end of the book.

Sure, I'm complaining about the "realism" of a magical winter character in a book about talking animals who go on adventures and wear disguises. But there you go. The Santa plot just didn't gel more me, especially after such a perilous adventure!

Three stars

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Frindle: 02/26/16

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Frindle by Andrew Clements is a short chapter book recommended to me by my son when he was first discovering pleasure reading. That was back in the day when I was still wrapped up in my commitments to ARCs and egalleys, and so I missed reading the book when my son was still excited by it.

Nick Allen is going into 5th grade and a class taught by the strictest teacher in all the district. She is a stickler for grammar, words, and definitions. He tries his usual delaying tactic by asking a rhetorical question at the start of the first day of class except she turns the question back to him, requesting that he write a paper on the origin of words.

Nick could have ignore her and not done the report. It would have been a way for him to admit defeat and for Mrs. Granger to get the class back on track. Except, he doesn't. He does the report and he takes it seriously, and he tries to use it to his advantage.

Frindle is about testing authority and taking changes. A dictionary is a list of words with standardized spellings and recorded definitions. In English we don't have a governing body for our language, though the dictionary publishers like Oxford and Merriam Webster come close in that they decide which words to commit to print.

But language, as Nick discovers through Mrs. Granger's project, is organic. And it changes as inspiration strikes. Someone needs to describe something and if the word doesn't exist or they don't know the word, they make something up. If that made up word fills a niche and conveys meaning, it gets adopted by others.

Nick tries his own word experiment, deciding on a whim to call a pen a frindle. He gets his classmates to play along. The experiment takes on a life of its own spreading well beyond the classroom, the school, and into the town.

I can see why my son loved this book. I have always taught my children to respect authority to a point but to recognize when those in positions of authority are going to far. Throughout most of this book, Nick's experiment is played up as a lack of respect for Mrs. Granger's authority in the classroom. But it's not. Mrs. Granger's desire for her students to respect the dictionary wasn't there to force them into being language automatons. Instead, it was a desire for them to understand how to use it as a tool.

Mrs. Granger isn't the bad guy in this book, though she does play the role of antagonist. The final chapter outlines her quiet role in Nick's life and her tacit support of his experiment.

Five stars

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A Birthday Cake for George Washington: 02/25/16

A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram

A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram was briefly in print from January 5th to January 17th, 2016. With that in mind, this post isn't exactly a review, but a collection of my thoughts on the book, the protest against it, and Scholastic's decision to pull it.

It's a brief introduction to Hercules, a chef and slave of George Washington. The premise to the story is that he and the rest of the kitchen crew are putting together a birthday feast for the president. There's a hitch though, the kitchen has run out of sugar. After lots of stressing, Hercules remembers that he can substitute honey for sugar. The cake is baked. The feast is made. And George Washington's birthday party goes off without a hitch.

The initial backlash to the book stems from the illustrator's decision to show Hercules and the other slaves smiling. There's always someone on a page with a dopey smiling as if the stress of making a huge birthday feast for their master is nothing at all.

But the problems with the story are more deep seeded than just smiling slaves and the dude-bro hug by George Washington on the back cover. First there's the buried lede — namely that Hercules and Delia and all the other black people in this book are slaves. They were owned either by George Washington or his wife. The idea that children need to be protected from harsh reality of our nation's history is naive and insulting to children.

Next there's Delia. There's no historical evidence (as acknowledged by the afterword) that Delia ever worked with her father in the kitchen or was ever taken to Philadelphia. I suppose she is there to bring children into the story. A picture book aimed at children doesn't need to have a child protagonist or narrator. Children are just as interested in learning about real adults as they are about seeing themselves in the books they read. It would have been more poignant and more honest to have her narrate the story from Virginia.

Then there's Hercules, who was the head cook in Philadelphia. A person with that amount of responsibility would have a vast mental recipe book and acceptable substitutions. Honey has a substitute for sugar is a traditional one, a long standing one. Honey as a sweetener has a longer history than refined or brown sugar. By having Hercules forget this simple fact is an insult to his capability as a chef.

The next problem is sugar's ties to slavery. Africans from the west coast were enslaved to run the sugar plantations in West Indies. If the missing ingredient had to be sugar, why not include a note about that?

Finally there's the timing of the story, George Washington's birthday. Hercules eventually escaped and it happened to be on George Washington's birthday. Now that would have been an interesting story. What if the book had been "No birthday cake for George Washington" because Hercules has managed to escape?

This story, though written and illustrated by women of color, has still garnered a feeding frenzy of protests. Scholastic a publisher specializing in children's books has created a wholesome and inclusive reputation for itself. A big part of their business is done through their book clubs and book fairs in schools throughout the country. They therefore have to play it conservatively and as a business who wants to welcome in any school anywhere, can't afford to have a controversial book on hand.

My guess is the book was published with the idea it would be an acceptable response to A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It was published in January 2015 by Schwartz and Wade, a division of Random House. As it's a larger, more diversified publishing house, it can afford to keep an equally controversial book published.

As a librarian, I am disappointed that Scholastic pulled its book so quickly. Yes, it's flawed. Yes it continues in a long tradition of painting George and Martha Washington as untouchable heroes, but it could still be used as dialog starter. It can be used in context with other books to teach about slavery, about George Washington (the good and the bad), about Hercules, about Pennsylvania's slavery laws, about how slaves were punished if they made a mistake in the kitchen, etc. Removing the book is a way to shut down the conversation before it's even gotten a chance to get started.

Two stars

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Monstrous Regiment: 02/24/16

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett is the 31st Discworld book and the third of the "Industrial Revolution" sequence. It's one of the few that isn't set in Ankh Moorpork and only features the usual characters as minor characters near the end.

Polly Perks, an innkeeper's daughter in Borogravia cuts her hair, puts on a man's uniform and goes to war to rescue her brother. She figures a good swagger and a well placed pair of socks will be all she needs to pass.

Though written as an iron curtain parody, today it reads more like an examination of what's going on in North Korea. Borgravians have been convinced by the Empress (or her propaganda machine) that they are being invaded. In actuality, they are a closed border kingdom that has been trying unsuccessfully to expand its border through invasion. They are suffering famine, economic depression, and high mortality.

For Polly, though, her focus is on being a good enough soldier so that she can rescue her brother. What she doesn't realize at first is that she's not the only woman in the regiment.

I know that it's not really a secret that Polly's not the lone woman of the group but it's still fun to watch her make this discovery (over and over and over again). I have to admit that some of the discoveries surprised me too!

Five stars

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Unstoppable Octobia May: 02/23/16

Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G. Flake

Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G. Flake is a wonderful historical fiction that starts off as a paranormal mystery and goes off in a completely different but satisfying direction. Octobia May lives with her aunt in her boarding house. She has a heart condition that forces her to stay close to home.

Being close to home gives her time to observe her aunt's tenants. Among them, there's an old man she's convinced is a vampire. She knows she must be ever alert to avoid falling prey to him. Vampires, though, are bound by certain rules. Evil humans, though, aren't.

Although I really wanted Octobia to be right and the old man to be a vampire, I appreciate the rug being pulled out from beneath both of us. What's at hand is something not at all magical and based entirely in the weird, unfortunate, preference for lighter skin that permeates the black community.

While Octobia May's story seems to be a stand alone, I would love to see her grow up and tackle new problems. She is presented as a believable, head strong, self reliant girl who will grow up to be a remarkable force in her community and in anything she applies herself to.

Five stars

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The Aviary: 02/22/16

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell

I am the type of reader who easily falls into ruts. I might decide to work my way through a particular series, or a favorite author, or a shelf of to be read books I've carefully selected. Combine that organized reading with the off the cuff, impulse reads that I check out from the library (their new book display is always so tempting), and reading I usually end up doing near the end of the year for the Cybils, its easy for other authors to fall through the cracks.

To combat some of that forgetfulness, I'm now trying to read books by authors I enjoyed earlier in my life. Remembering those favorites is actually pretty easy as I can refer to my book diary, a list of books read (with star ratings, no less), that I've kept since the summer of 1987.

Kathleen O'Dell is one of those authors I neglected to revisit until this year. In fact the first book I checked out with my newly acquired library card (having just recently moved) was Ophie Out of Oz. I was curious which Oz Ophie was newly out of. Turns out it was Baum's Oz and not Australia.

The Aviary is historical fiction set in Maine at the end of the nineteenth century. Clara Dooley lives with her mother and an elderly lady, Mrs. Glendover, in the crumbling remains of a once gorgeous mansion. Besides Mrs. Glendover, there is an aviary full of tropical but ornery birds. Clara's been told she has a weak heart and therefore must stay in doors, helping her mother run the house.

Clara is tempted to ignore all warnings when a new family moves next door and a girl about her age does everything she can to make friends. Here is a girl unawares of the local story that haunts the Glendover house (something which Clara, herself is only vaguely aware of save to know that the neighbors don't trust Mrs. Glendover because of it).

With Mrs. Glendover's death, Clara is given the freedom to investigate the truth behind the house and the reason for the creepy aviary. Here is where a very good book becomes as awesome book. It involves magic, mysticism and mystery.

Five stars

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Steal the Sky: 02/21/16

Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe

Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe is the start of the The Scorched Continent series. It's an airship adventure and the intersection of science fiction and fantasy.

Detan Honding and his cohort Tibs are in Aransa, an oasis city near a volcano known for its selium, a lighter than air material that keeps the airships aloft but also helps the doppels (who prefer the term illusionists) change their appearance. They are there to pull off the heist of the century, the taking of an exiled commandant's airship.

Does this heist go down as planned? No, of course not. That would make for a short and boring book. Instead, Detan and Tibs find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery and a potential coup. There is a rogue doppel taking the face of important people in the city.

There's a ton of world building, character building, and plot in this 450 page book, more than I could ever cover in a typical short review. All together this first installment reminds me of the excellent animé series, Xam'd.

Five stars

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Noragami Volume 02: 02/20/16

Noragami Volume 02 by Adachitoka

Noragami Volume 2 by Adachitoka focuses on the troubled past of Yukine / Sekki and his on-going conflicted feelings. Hiyori meanwhile is trying to hold everything together, having set aside her own desire to have her problem fixed.

Yato is still trying to gain followers but he can't if Sekki is hurting. A god and his vessel are linked. Sekki's transgressions directly affect Yato. Behind Sekki's bad behavior is a tragic story of bullying and death, one that is frighteningly familiar to the bad mojo affecting the city and preying on the local schools.

Sekki being a rebellious teenager.

By Volume 2 the anime and manga pretty much split ways. The anime is much cheerier than the manga. There's more examination into the toxicity of group dynamics especially in the form of bullying and hazing. As this is a paranormal manga, the reason behind these toxic situations is something otherworldly.

Four stars

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A Haunting Dream: 02/19/16

A Haunting Dream by Joyce Lavene

A Haunting Dream by Joyce Lavene and Jim Lavene is the fourth of the Missing Pieces Mystery series. Dae up for re-election for mayor of Duck but has to contend with the arrival of Kevin's ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, a child has been kidnapped and Dae's getting psychic messages from her, something that's never happened to her before.

In past books Dae's psychic ability has been related to lost things and people's last thoughts when either losing the item or when dying if that thing was near them at the time of death. In the last book, A Spirited Gift, Dae's talent was expanded to include the ability to talk to ghosts.

So now we have a kidnapping of a child who may or may not be dead, an ex-girlfriend who is emotionally damaged from her experience as a psychic, and more fallout from Dae learning the identity of her father. All of this super charged emotional baggage moved the book from the cozy category to the thriller or even horror genre.

I'm frankly not a fan of the love lives of the protagonist, whoever he or she may be. I think that's why I'm such a Sherlock Holmes fan because the cases are always the main focus. Sure there's Irene Adler and depending on the non-canon ones, there sometimes hints at a relationship between Holmes and Watson, or there's Mary Russell (in Laurie R. King's series). It seems in more recent cozies that the main character, especially if it's a woman, must have a love interest and with a love interest comes the love triangle and all sorts of other filler nonsense.

Three stars

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Noragami Volume 01: 02/18/16

Noragami Volume 01 by Adachitoka

Noragami by Adachitoka (a mangaka duo) is a manga series that appears to be on-going in Japan and is slowly being translated and imported to the States. The translations are as of February 23rd, up to volume 11. There is also an anime.

When you are at your lowest point and are desperate for a miracle you might just see a phone number offering just that. If you call it and have ¥5 to pay, you can have a wish granted by Yato, a god who looks like a teenage boy and like Om, is desperate for followers.

Sometimes though there are people who walk between the world of the living and spirit world. Even if they're not depressed, disturbed, or near death, they can still see glimpses of the spirits who are amongst the living. One of these is Hiyori, a teenage girl who under times of stress has out of body experiences, as represented by a tail that connects her soul to her corporeal body.

Hiyori pushes Yato out the way of an on coming bus
These OBEs begin when she mistakenly saves Yato from a bus and gets struck herself.

Hiyori wants Yato to figure out how to fix her on going problem. But he's got other things to worry about and frankly with today's economy ¥5 just isn't enough of a payment to cover that tricky of a request. But he's also a softie, fond of humans and like the Doctor often willing to help even when he has other things he'd rather be doing.

Now if you watch the anime, that's basically the gist of things. It's Hiyori, Yato, and a boy spirit named Yukine who serves as Yato's weapon, under the name Sekki. Mostly the anime deals with how Hiyori helps Yato be a more understanding being, and Yukine to work through his depression.

But it's the theme of depression that's basically missing from the anime series. Yato for all his arrogance and selfishness is willing to help the most desperate before they do something permanent like hurting or killing themselves or someone else.

Four stars

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Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray: 02/17/16

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray by Frank J. Barbiere

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray by Frank J. Barbiere collects the first five issues of the comic. Treasure hunter Fabian Gray finds the Dreamstone and through it is possessed with five literary ghosts.

Here's a series that many reviewers are panning for its lack of originality. Yet how many times do superhero origin stories get retold? About an umpty billion. This one is unoriginal in its reusing of tropes popularized by H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so forth.

In order to wield the power of the Dreamstone, Fabian must pass a test. It's of course administered by the very ghosts who will possess and enhance him. Of course this had been done before and of course he's going to pass. But that's just part of the expected plot. This series isn't shocking but it is trippy.

While it's not completely original, it's still entertaining (in a cheesy way).

Four stars

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Interstate 69: 02/16/16

Interstate 69 by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69 by Matt Dellinger is the history of the last of the interstate highways to be designed and (more or less) built. As planned it should run from Mexico to Canada by way of Texas through to Michigan.

As the last of the highways, it comes with a huge price tag and a ton of resistance and a federal government less willing and less able to just plow through via imminent domain. The highway was originally tied up in NAFTA but now it's the growing pushback by rural — or semi-rural — areas less in love with multilane highways to blindly accept one being built through their farms or towns.

Map of the original proposed Interstate system

When the original interstate system was designed in 1944 the emphasis was on connecting major cities with little or no regard to rural areas. The farmlands and the western states were snubbed. The Texas to Michigan corridor was on the western edge of the highest density of the highways but most of that corridor was too rural.

The book goes through state by state, starting at Michigan to follow the struggle of getting the Interstate built (or keeping it from being built, depending on the state). For each one Dellinger covers the major players who are either for or against the highway. Some of these chapters get a bit tangential straying far from the route to focus on name dropping.

Google Map of Indiana showing the gap in I69

At the publication of Interstate 69 in 2010 there were more gaps in the highway than there are now. That doesn't mean completion is guaranteed: Indiana is holding out, especially in the rural farmlands south of Indianapolis, but more of it has been built, enough to leave an interesting cartographical story of a work in progress on Google Maps.

To see more about this book, please see my notes on Tumblr.

Three stars

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The Endless Pavement: 02/15/16

The Endless Pavement by Jacqueline Jackson

The Endless Pavement by Jacqueline Jackson is a cautionary tale about the automobile, published during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-1974. It builds a world where cars are the caretakers of humanity, shuttling them around in circuitous routes away from the rough and tumble natural world.

Josette is an elementary school aged child who lives with her family in their self driving home — something like an intelligent RV. She spends her life like all children, in her rollabout, a small self driving carriage that behaves like the chairs in Wall-E but looks remarkably like a mini version of Google's self driving car. She divides her time between home and school, all of these buildings being self driving vehicles, following a pre programmed route across the remains of human civilization.

The Google self driving car

Like the Lorax, another book from the same era, addressing similar concerns, Josette glimpses something out of the ordinary, a struggling apple tree, forgotten or missed by the machines that keep nature away from people. Her curiosity over the tree, and her desire to eat an apple (something she's learned through forbidden lore), leads her on a dangerous path towards rebellion.

This illustrated poem presented as a children's book still has relevance now at a time when self driving cars are being tested and robots are being used for cleaning floors and mowing lawns, for instance. Our love affair with the multilane highway, though, is over, as evidenced in Interstate 69 by Matt Dellinger, so perhaps the worst of this dystopia won't come to pass.

Five stars

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FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 3: Audeamus: 02/14/16

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 3: Audeamus by Simon Oliver

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 3: Audeamus by Simon Oliver is the third omnibus in the short but extremely satisfying FBP comic. The first one was the set up. The second one was an example of how things can go weird. This one is the rats leaving the sinking ship.

In the "Bad Jubies" episode of Adventure Time with Finn and Jake a monster storm is approaching, one that threatens to wipe everything off the face of the land. It's a sentient blizzard tornado tsunami thing. While the storm is different, it's appearance and its danger is very close to the quantum tornados exploding all over the world.

A disaster story with an ensemble cast sets up a variety of interesting characters to knock them over, one by one, to see who will make it out the other end. A pair of characters rising to the top in all of this mayhem are a mother and daughter.

It's the daughter, Ina, though who is the standout. Children can be tricky to write, coming off as an unrealistic mixture of too nostalgic, too naive, and yet somehow a wunderkind in some other aspect. Ina thankfully doesn't get pulled into the first two categories, though she does seem to have an uncanny understanding of the breaking down physics.

As with the previous two books, FBP continues on with colorful artwork, crazy adventure, humorous moments, and a plot that would have been perfectly happy on Fringe.

Five stars

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The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee: 02/13/16

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg was originally published in Australia as My Life as an Alphabet which is frankly a better title given that each chapter is themed on a different letter of the alphabet as it relates to the main character's life.

This book reminds me of all things like the tween version of Illywacker by Peter Carey with a seasoning of Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater. I know what you're thinking; I didn't like the Pinkwater book. Well, here's the same premise presented in a clever and humorous way that I do like.

Candice Phee is an odd ball. She is what my third grade teacher would have called "divergent." That's not to say she belongs in two factions at once or somehow failed the test run by post apocalyptic Chicago, but she's definitely not one of the "normal" kids. Fortunately she has a teacher who understands this and has given her extra time to do her A to Z "about me" assignment.

The assignment's supposed to be one sentence to maybe one paragraph per letter. You know like: A is for artist; I like to paint. My favorite medium is acrylic. B is for books; I run a book blog and am a librarian. And so forth. Except for Candice she needs chapters to fill each letter and, as you can imagine, the resulting work is the book I'm reviewing.

So the Illywhacker / Boy from Mars mash-up comes from the boy Candice befriends. He claims to be from an alternate universe. His story is this: he was climbing a tree, fell out, and somehow ended up switching places with this universe's version. Though his "parents" do notice a change in his personality they think it's from the head trauma he received. Now as someone who has read and seen Picnic and Hanging Rock and was a fan (up until the last season) of Fringe, I am willing to take the boy's word at face value. So, interestingly, is Candice and she decides to help him get home.

To say I loved this book would be an understatement. It's going on my very short lists of books I want to re-read multiple times.

Five stars

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Here Be Monsters!: 02/12/16

Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow

Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow is the omnibus edition of Pants Ahoy!, The Man in the Iron Socks, and Cheese Galore!. It was vaguely, loosely, sort of, the inspiration for the film Boxtrolls.

But let's set aside the Laika movie for a moment.

Here Be Monsters! is written and illustrated in a way that is reminiscent of the old Penny Dreadfuls. Set in Ratbridge (not Cheesebridge) in a post apocalyptic time after the EVENT at the cheese factory throughly changed things. Put another way, it could be a single city's experience post Mushroom War if Ratbridge were in the same universe as Adventure Time!

The how and why of what happened to Ratbridge isn't important but is eventually explained. It's presumably also the explanation to why there are boxtrolls, cabbage people, rabbit women, laundry rats, living cheeses.

Here Be Monsters! is also a deconstructed urban fantasy. In a typical urban fantasy, our hero lives in the city and somehow travels back and forth to the fantasy realm. Here, though, the book starts with a visitor from another world (a subterranean one), come to hunt for food and supplies for himself and his grandfather. Like a fairy, he has wings (though his are mechanical). Unfortunately his raid comes during an illegal cheese hunt and his flight catches their attention.

So yes, Arthur Trubshaw does live underground. But he's not been abandoned by his family, nor has he been kidnapped by boxtrolls. He has not been renamed Eggs. In fact, he stays in contact with his grandfather throughout the entire book, even at times when he can't return to their underground home.

This book is at times a ponderous one full of all sorts of things that just have be taken as is because the story's pacing doesn't give you time to come to terms with things before moving on. Cheese have legs, trolls wear boxes like hermit crabs, rats drive people so that they can run their laundry, women live like Amazons but underground and dressed like rabbits, and there are fresh water seacows who are literally cows who have learned how to swim.

Except for the boxtrolls, none of these fantasy elements made it into the Boxtrolls film. Rather than give Arthur his chance to explore a new-to-him world like Dorothy or Alice, and like them, help the locals take down a great evil, he is yanked from his family, his identity stolen, and his childhood re-written so that he now thinks he's a funny looking boxtroll named Eggs.

As in the film adaptation of Coraline, this film has a new companion character for Eggs né Arthur. Ratbridge, renamed Cheesebridge (a town with normal cheese but a cheese-based parliament) has a town leader (mayor?) and he has a daughter. She like Whybie is put into the film to explain how the world works to "Eggs" and to the audience.

In Coraline this change was necessary because so much of the action was within the realm of Coraline's thoughts. Here, though, Alan Snow goes for the show don't tell method of story telling (with lots and lots ink drawings too). There's no need for a new character to explain everything!

To say the film was a disappointment, would be an understatement. Normally I firmly believe in letting the film and book be different things. But (and how I hate buts) this film feels like it was written by someone who had only looked at the illustrations and then made up a story from whole-cloth.

Three stars

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Gracefully Grayson: 02/11/16

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky is another recent middle grade book about a transgender girl. Where Melissa, the main character in George already knows in her heart of hearts that she's a girl and hates her body, Grayson though older than Melissa by a couple years, seems more hesitant in expressing and exploring their gender identity.

It's really difficult to think of Grayson's story without thinking of Melissa's. And I'm struggling to rectify my own personal reactions to both books against what I know about the origins of the books. George's author is active in the LGBT community and Gracefully Grayson's isn't. While both books are fiction, George is probably a roman à clef and needs to be respected as such.

Both books get deep into their main character's heads. We get to see how strongly Melissa (known to the whole world except her inner self) as George, and Grayson (who will later be teased and renamed by a bully, "Gracie") feel about gender, gender identity, and their current situation. For Melissa, she's at the breaking point and she's desperate to be seen as the girl she knows she is. Grayson, though, isn't sure what they are, though they're certain they're not a boy.

Both books hinge their big reveal on a play with a female lead role. In Melissa's case the risk at performing is all hers. She's prevented from the get go by her teacher to even try out for the role but her best friend helps her do the role anyway. In Grayson's case, the risk falls on the theater teacher who it's hinted at might be gay. By letting Grayson take the lead role, he's seen as a predator and is forced out of his job at the school.

In the end I liked Gracefully Grayson slightly more than George though both books seem flawed to me. Hinging everything on a play seems farfetched and clichéd. The binary divisions of girl and boy in George also seems extreme to me. I get that an old fashioned teacher might try to run her classroom like that but for every character in the book to also see the world as either boy or girl with no middle, no gray area, seems unrealistic and simplistic. It certainly doesn't match with my own experiences growing up or now as an adult, though I have noticed in some circles, the gendering of things and children has gotten more pronounced in the last couple decades!

Grayson, while fascinated by princesses and sparkly colors, is at least aware that clothing doesn't make one female — that gender is a personal and complex thing. They pay attention to the girls in their life, at school, in their family, that they meet in public, and realize that they don't all dress the same. They don't all wear skirts or dresses or makeup or have long hair, etc. They are people just like Grayson is. It's that's realization that a female gender identity doesn't automatically make a person act or dress a certain way that makes me like this book ever so slightly more than George.

The problem that both these books (and others I've read) is that transgender characters, or even more broadly, gender, is treated like a light switch. Flip the switch by changing a name, picking the right type of clothes, slathering yourself in the gender appropriate color, change your hair (either grow it out or cut it short) and you're suddenly at the other extreme as if that's the only option.

That's not to say that experience isn't a valid one. I just want something that covers the middle area, the dimmer switch approach, if you will. There need to be more of these stories to give room for more variety, more nuance. There should be other elements of diversity and representation in these books too. Invariably if the main character is transgender, they're also white and middle class.

Four stars

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A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat: 02/10/16

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins is a problematic book to put it mildly. At its most basic, it's about the evolution of cooking as told through the creation of a relatively simple recipe called a Blackberry Fool.

The book shows the same recipe being made by four different families in four different locations in four different eras. The first is 1710 Lyme England. The second is Charleston, South Carolina in 1810. The third is 1910 Boston, Massachusetts. The final scene is modern day (though I suppose on could say for convenience sake, 2010) San Diego, California.

It is the second scene that has caused the most uproar but it's frankly only the most obvious problem with this book. The team making the blackberry fool dessert that time are slaves. The mother and daughter shown happily cooking, bonding over the creation of a simple, delicious, and silly named dessert, are making the meal for the master and his family. Yet, they are shown smiling in a couple places, even when hiding in the pantry to eat what remains in the mixing bowl.

I was willing to give that part of the book a pass given the illustrator's post about her decisions on how to represent the 1810 scene but it's not the only problematic scene. Scenes one, and three all show mother/daughter teams cooking. The success of the dessert is dependent on the approval of the father and brothers. Scene three, of course, adds to that patriarchal bent, the power of a white master and his family.

The final scene is presented as the happily ever after. Now that we're in the present day we have modern conveniences. We have organic food. We have blended families and men who are willing to cook too. And now fathers and sons can share the joy that is the preparation of the blackberry fool. It's all sunshine and lollipops.

Scenes from the present day.And the more I think about these four scenes the more my eye starts to twitch. We are to pretend that all the world's problems have been solved because the women are liberated from the kitchen and men are now cooking! The problems of slavery are all gone as evidenced by the mixed marriage of a black woman to a white man (who bears a striking resemblance to the slave master, just with a beard this time).

If the story had really and truly been about how cooking evolves over time and how even the most simple of dishes change, then the story should have been kept as simple as possible. Show the same family in the same location making the same meal. All that would change is their clothing, the decorations in the kitchen, and the technology used to make the dish.

Two stars

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Amy and the Missing Puppy: 02/09/16

Amy and the Missing Puppy by Callie Barkley

Amy and the Missing Puppy by Callie Barkley is the start of the Critter Club series of beginning chapter books. It's spring break and Amy's distraught that she'll have a week without her best friends. She reluctantly agrees to work at her mother's veterinary clinic. When a mean lady's dog goes missing, Amy puts her Nancy Drew skills to work to find the puppy.

Series starters have a tough job, and that' made even more difficult for a book that's only 128 pages with a rather limited vocabulary. The goal of this first book is to establish the characters: Amy, her mother, and Amy's friends, and the setting: the clinic, the critter club (a homeless animal shelter Amy starts with her reward money), and Santa Vista, the town where all this takes place.

I think my initial reaction is to how obvious the set up is. To keep things moving, Amy is prone to being over emotional or ridiculously unobservant (when at other times she's a self-styled Nancy Drew). However, for early readers who are transitioning into longer books, these details won't be as glaring. Instead they will serve as a roadmap to understanding how mysteries work.

Three stars

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The Road (narrative project) So Far...: 02/08/16

The Road (narrative project) So Far...

It's been ten months now since I went cold turkey on ARCs and other review copies to free up time for my road narrative project. In that time I have mapped out my project in terms of questions I need to ask, topics I want to pursue, and of course, books I want to read (as well as television shows and movies I want to watch).

In these ten months I've read twenty eight books, or roughly three books a month. It's been a mixture of history, theory, philosophy, memoir, and fiction. So far, though, I've mostly read nonfiction because I was in the process of building my vocabulary from which to understand how the road itself affects the tropes of the road trip narrative.

At the moment my road narrative reading has slowed a bit because I'm reading fiction. Here I need to read with a more careful eye. A side project to the fiction is a reading of Supernatural against Jack Kerouac's books. On the Road is the source material (in a paranormal homage way) but I'm finding evidence that other books of his have influenced the series. The Supernatural tangent won't be the full part of the project but it's certainly one of the most fun parts.

Road Trip books read

  1. American Road: The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age by Pete Davies
  2. Autokind Vs. Mankind: An Analysis of Tyranny, a Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction by Kenneth R. Schneider
  3. The Big Roads by Earl Swift
  4. Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon
  5. The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway by Karal Ann Marling
  6. Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac
  7. The Endangered Species Road Trip: A Summer's Worth of Dingy Motels, Poison Oak, Ravenous Insects, and the Rarest Species in North America by Cameron MacDonald
  8. Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork by Simon Majumdar
  9. I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
  10. Icons of Popular Culture by Marshall Fishwick
  11. Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity by Phillip Wegner
  12. Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway by Matt Dellinger
  13. Kissing in America by Margo Rabb
  14. Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid
  15. The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate by Michael Wallis
  16. The New Yorker Book of True Love Cartoons by The New Yorker
  17. Off Road by Sean Murphy
  18. On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom by Dennis McNally
  19. Open Road by Phil Patton
  20. Out West: A Journey through Lewis and Clark's America by Dayton Duncan
  21. Paper Towns by John Green
  22. Pastoral Cities: Urban Ideals And The Symbolic Landscape Of America by James L. Machor
  23. The Power to Go by Merrill Denison
  24. Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith
  25. Road Frames: The American Highway Narrative by Kris Lackey
  26. Romance of the Road: The Literature of the American Highway by Ronald Primeau
  27. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White
  28. The Vacation by Polly Horvath

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The Underground City (aka Child of the Cavern): 02/08/16

The Underground City (aka Child of the Cavern) by Jules Verne

Indes Noirs by Jules Verne has had numerous titles in the English translation. Of all the options, my favorite is Child of the Cavern. The American edition I have from the close of the 18th century is a brown Alta edition, The Underground City.

Published in 1877, it's the tale of the Aberfoyle coal mine in Scotland being shuttered as the last of the coal runs out. A few stubborn, long time, multigenerational workers refuse to believe the mine is spent. When some of them go missing three years later a rescue party is sent into the mine and remarkable discoveries are made.

Like Melville's Moby-Dick, Verne spends many of the middle chapters ruminating on things relevant to the plot. There are chapters describing the geology of coal, the state of the coal mining industry in the late 1800s, the economy of coal, safety measures in coal mines, and the future of coal including predictions of depletion rates by country.

Both authors used their novels to extrapolate into the future, comment on the present, and consider how we had gotten to that present. Their padding is a way to speak their opinion, stuff that can be skipped over by those who are only reading for the adventure, but there for those willing to take the time and listen. I love both authors for their long, heavily detailed tangents.

Interestingly, the Underground City's climax bears a striking resemblance to the 1984 James Bond film, A View to a Kill. A splinter group from the original cavern dwellers decides to end the underground city by flooding it. They do this by exploding the cave roof right under the nearby loch, thus draining the loch. Someone was taking notes from this book when writing the draining of San Andreas Lake.

Five stars

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What a Ghoul Wants: 02/07/16

What a Ghoul Wants by Victoria Laurie

What a Ghoul Wants by Victoria Laurie is the 7th of the Ghost Hunter Mystery series. Now that the problem in New Mexico has been taken care of, MJ and crew are back in the UK to work on their television show. This time they're taken to a castle turned hotel that seems to have it out for its guests.

The castle in the book is Kidwella, in Northern Wales. There is a Kidwelly Castle in Kidwelly, Carmathenshire, Wales which bears a striking resemblance to the cover art. The fictional version is in better condition and it has a moat, whereas the real one is rather dilapidated and is near a river.

As a hotel, Kidwella is terrible. MJ and Gilly are given the wrong rooms and no one is manning the front desk in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, MJ thinks she sees a woman being hurt near her incorrect room and goes to call the police.

In the meantime, the night manager ends up murdered and the back of the hotel is put on lock down, partially for police activity and partially because it's haunted. In fact there are at least two ghosts with agendas, the Grim Widow, and her ghostly husband.

Unfortunately, the Kidwella Castle murders remind me more of Noel Coward's Murder by Death than say, Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House or even Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. With everyone being tossed into the moat, too, there was a bit of A Shot in the Dark. In that regard, it didn't terrify me as much as the demon creature from Ghoul Interrupted.

Four stars

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Under the Egg: 02/06/16

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald is set in New York City. Theodora Tenpenny's grandfather has recently died, leaving her and her mother to manage the meager remains of a once vast family fortune. Theo's mother isn't well and that leaves her with double duty of school and adult responsibilities, and a very quickly dwindling savings account. The Tenpennys keep chickens, grow their own vegetables, and purchase clothing from the charity shop.

One prized possession — of the sentimental variety — is a painting of an egg in the kitchen. There's a whole ritual involved with presenting an egg to it every morning. But all of this changes when Theo spills some rubbing alcohol on the Egg and finds another one underneath.

Originally afraid that her Grandfather stole the painting during his tenure as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Theo and her best friend set out to discover the painting's identity and its history.

I'm not going to go into any more of the book because the journey to discover the painting's provenance is marvelous. It's the right mixture of adventure, education, and mystery solving. Under the Egg will appeal to fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konisburg.

Five stars

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Fox's Garden: 02/05/16

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam is a wordless picture book about a fox seeking refuge for herself and her kits during a snow storm. She finds a safe and warm place in a greenhouse.

Artist Princess Camcam uses paper cutouts arranged in tableaux. Only the fox, her kits, and the boy who helps are treated with color. The rest are done in pencil, bringing the focus on the characters. Photographs of the scenes are available on the author's tumblr.

The fox and her kits

It's an absolutely charming book that struck a chord with my daughter and me. We live near an animal rescue organization and they recently took in a red fox. She was confiscated as an illegal pet and can't be released in the wild (California only has gray foxes). So interest in foxes sparked by her arrival prompted us to read Fox's Garden

Ruby the Fox

Five stars

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Art of Freddy: 02/04/16

Art of Freddy by Walter R. Brooks

Art of Freddy by Walter R. Brooks was published in 2002 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first Freddy the Pig book. The series grew to have twenty-five stories with Freddy and the other animals from Bean Farm.

As a kid I grew up with Freddy the Detective, book three in the series. It wasn't until my adulthood that I realized there were others too. I've since read Freddy Goes to Florida and Freddy Goes to the North Pole. I also own Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars (book 22).

Freddy the Pilot looking like Porco Roso

Freddy's stories involve him and the other animals doing anthropomorphic things, even dressing the part sometimes. Freddy has a number of costumes, sometimes even wearing disguises to do his detecting work. There's one book, Freddy the Pilot that is visually very similar to Studio Ghibli's Porco Roso.

Five stars

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Moby-Dick: An Ocean Primer: 02/03/16

Moby-Dick: An Ocean Primer by Jennifer Adams

Moby-Dick: Or the White Whale by Herman Melville has a reputation of being one of those books, the ones that are too long, too difficult, too obtuse for the average reader. It's a book that only literary geeks and stuffed shirts like. It's the book that everyone else pretends to read. Well, that's it's reputation, anyway.

And yet, it's also a book that's constantly referenced. The white whale, the sign of the ultimate in obsession personified, appears in all sorts of places, even in Futurama, for example. If not the whale, then Ahab. There's a little bit of Ahab in Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne), for instance.

The Captain

But Moby-Dick is actually a delightfully silly parody, a tongue in cheek exploration of the adventure genre, the whaling industry, with some homo-eroticism thrown in for good measure. It's one of those books that has gotten a bad reputation for being too serious and too difficult. A good illustrated version turns the ponderous novel into something close to a very long graphic novel.

And while it's one of my favorites of the classics, I wouldn't think it would translate well into a board book for the 0-2 years old set. And yet, Moby-Dick: An Ocean Primer by Jennifer Adams does exactly that and brilliantly.

I'm not sure if these classics as board books will inspire children to try the classics when they're older, but they are certainly fun to read as a parent.

In thinking about the distilled essence of Moby-Dick, there are some key scenes. There's Ishmael deciding to go to sea and hooking up with Ahab's crew. Basically it's the introduction of the dramatis personae.


Then there's the ship and the day to day business of whaling. There's a lot of time between hunts and a lot of time for Ishmael to think about the sea, and whales, and to argue about the details.

Some might see these chapters arguing about whether or not whales are fish and the ones describing all the different kinds of whales as padding. But they are part of the heart and soul of the novel. They are what turn an otherwise simplistic tale of a crew stuck with an insanely obsessive captain chasing a sperm whale that may or may not exist, into something special. (So if you do read the book, and want to actually enjoy it, read the filler chapters!)


So how does Jennifer Adams handle the "I speak whale" chapters? As any board book author would:

Finally, Moby-Dick wouldn't be Moby-Dick, without, well, Moby-Dick. As any horror aficionado knows, the character who insists that the monster is real is always right (or he comes to realize that he is in fact, the monster).

The whale

Five stars

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Nimona: 02/02/16

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is a graphic novel fantasy about good vs evil and the joy of being a sidekick. Lord Ballister Blackheart has been the local villain for years, going against Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin who looks like an escapee from a YA fantasy romance. Like Megamind and Metro Man, these two have their roles down to a well choreographed dance.

I'm a shark!

That is until Nimona sets herself up as Blackhart's protégé. She wants to take evil to the next level and she has the power to make that happen. See, she's a shape shifter with impulse control issues. Besides changing into things, she also like blowing things up, and poisoning people.

This isn't just an amoral fantasy romp. Although it seems that's what Nimona wants and what Blackhart is willing to permit, their actual motivations are slowly revealed. Blackhart it turns out, has a conscious and Nimona has a backstory, though she's such an unreliable narrator that it's hard at first to suss out just what it hers is.

Nimona is a nuanced story about right and wrong and questioning authority, and being true to oneself, all told with dead-pan humor. It's a fun read that demands a re-read. It amuses and makes you think.

I'm nobody's lab rat.

With it's blending of magic, science, and dystopian society, it's a good one for fans of Adventure Time.

Five stars

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The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami: 02/01/16

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl Strecher

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl Strecher is a collection of essays that analyze the themes of Murakami's oeuvre. Murakami's written thirteen novels and dozens of short stories. His best known novels in the States are Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood.

Since the publication of Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami's been building up a set of tropes and themes and a surreal landscape that crosses between this world and the other or underworld. As characters travel between the two, his books in my mind are urban fantasies, though they often have the feel of a psychological thriller or horror. Matthew Carl Strecher, though, is a scholar of Murakami's work and is able to trace how the author's recurring themes have come to be and where they might be headed.

As I've only read three novels, and one collection of short stories, I found some of the book, especially the earliest chapters, a bit of a slog. That's my problem, not the book's. If you're still relatively new to Murakami's writing, I suggest only reading the chapters that cover what you've read. This advice is especially true if you hate spoilers!

Four stars

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