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April 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



I See Kitty: 04/30/16

I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec

I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec is a picture book about a little girl who falls in love with a kitten and tries and tries to convince her parents to let her adopt it.

There's a lot the same humor as her Cat vs Human but tone down for children. The emphasis is moved from the crazy euphoria some cat owners feels to a more warm and fuzzy bonding between human and cat.

Can I keep her?

My daughter and I enjoyed the book together. She was a big part of our keeping Tortuga kitten for more than the two weeks she needed to be bottle weaned. She, a kindergartner, and Tortuga, a month old kitten, bonded the instant they first met. Tortuga was just a gray fluff ball at the bottom of a big box. My daughter just wanted to hold her and help her feel safe and loved.

Daughter holding Tortuga kitten
My daughter holding five week old Tortuga.

Five stars

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Wandering Son: Volume 2: 04/29/16

Wandering Son: Volume 2 by Shimura Takako

Wandering Son: Volume 2 by Shimura Takako is a book I wish I had taken the time to review sooner while the details were fresher in my mind. Unfortunately I read it in the middle of the CYBILs as a break from having to think critically about dozens of newly published books.

In the second volume, just as Shuichi and his friend are getting more comfortable in their true selves but not enough so to dress as they want to in front of their families. This causes some trouble, especially after Shuichi's sister finds out and worse, after the boy she's crushing on falls for Shuichi instead.

I remember holding my breath while reading a lot of tense scenes, hoping for the best but expecting the worst for Shuichi. Usually the scene played out somewhere in the middle.

Five stars

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The Long Utopia: 04/28/16

The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett

The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is the fourth of the Long Earth books. Most of the book is set on one particular Earth in the high numbers far from Datum. Something is weird about this particular Earth. Something weirder than any of the Joker planets. Something that is setting the natural steppers on edge.

If the Long Earth books are taken as science fiction genre road trips, then the fact that steppers naturally go either West or East is just one of the tropes. But taken in the context as a science fiction series, the bi-directionality of stepping is limited and artificial. This volume offers the idea that it is possible to step North and South as well (and I suppose in other directions too) but human imagination still fixated on the idea of the road or the curve of Datum Earth still thinks first in terms of East or West.

All of these Long Earth books are written like long versions of the original Discworld books, with episodic scenes that are loosely connected and do eventually come together to give a sense of a story. At least these books, though, do have chapter breaks, something most of the Discworld books don't have.

Out of all the episodic moments, one story line will stick in the craw more than others. For me, it is the mysterious doings in the half built basement of the Swap House. Basements, and more generally, holes, in horror are portals to other places. They are passageways to the Underworld, to Hades, to Hell, to other awful dimensions. Here too. And they are a way in for creatures who are hell bent, if you'll excuse the pun, on exploiting this Earth to its fullest potential.

The way these extra terrestrial creatures are described and they way they seem to affect the natural steppers reminds me most of the creatures dug up in the abandoned Underground line in Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth for those who saw it in the U.S.).

Really and truly, I wish The Long Utopia had settled down to just telling the story of the invasion of this High Earth. It was the most compelling of the plot threads. Unfortunately precious pages are wasted on the origin story of stepping and of Joshua Valente. You know what, I really don't care how stepping came to be or why his family is so good at it. This far into the series it's rather a moot point.

Although Terry Pratchett died in 2015, there is a fifth book in the series coming out later this year called The Long Cosmos. I am going to hazard a guess that it will be the last of the series unless Baxter decides to keep going.

Four stars

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Fight Club: 04/27/16

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk ... go on. Get it out of your system. Even if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I'm sure you know the rules. So just give into temptation and recite them.

This book has been sitting in the aisles of my to be read list for a while. Not really on the wishlist, just sort of hovering there in the same way that Tyler Durden hovers in the periphery of narrator's consciousness.

I decided to finally read the book after having seen the film with my son. I already knew the twist so I wasn't really expecting much, if you will. But there in the middle of this crazy, rude, violent, dysfunctional story was a deconstruction of many of the road trip tropes I've been tracking down.

The Narrator crunches numbers for a car manufacturer, weighing the numbers of accidents against other factors to see if there will be enough of a financial hit to warrant a recall. His job also takes across the country on a large number of red eye flights. It doesn't matter because he has insomnia (something that would make him the perfect companion for a road trip). Although he knows cars he almost never travels by them himself, save for one scene near the end where he's forced to play chicken with some of the club's more fanatical devotees.

Here's a character who works on the production of cars and travels all over the country but doesn't drive. He's interested in the destruction of cars. He's interested in accidental deaths. He even wishes for his own destruction and even witnesses the total destruction of everything he holds dear when his Ikea furnished apartment explodes.

If he were a proper road trip narrator, his story would be linear. It would start in Chicago and it would go logically along a predetermined path. The adventures would be tied to the road chosen and the members on the trip.

Here, though, we know from the very start of the book that this won't be the case. The Narrator tells of his insomnia and his numerous flights. Rather, he tells of them in terms of where he wakes up. It's a mishmash of airports that criss cross the United States until arriving in the sort of spot one would normally expect a road trip to head (the beach).

Disjointed travels. Disjointed thinking. Disjointed narrative. Disjointed Narrator. Everything laid out in one messy, vibrating f(l)ight plan.

Four stars

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Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety: 04/26/16

Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber

Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber is a history of cross-dressing with the focus being primarily on the 20th century. I originally read it for a class on gender rolls in films on both sides of the camera (the portrayal of gender and the roll gender plays in the viewing experience). This time I read it to see how the idea put forward in the book play out in a greater social and cultural context.

I can remember feeling frustrated the first time I read this. Like so many modern art forms — especially the ones that fall into the realm of "popular cultural" are controlled and analyzed by a very small portion of the overall population: cis-gendered straight white males (whom I will call here the "dude-bros"). From that population, there's a loud, over-sexed, over-privileged subset that believes the entire world and all cultural things they enjoy are made for their own enjoyment, with no consideration of how anyone else might experience the same things.

So when it comes to analyzing anyone else (which is pretty much, everyone else), any divergence from the "normal parameters" as outlined by the dude-bros is often time analyzed within the constructs created by said dude-bros, or by people mostly interested in understanding them. For film viewing, that results in most films being seen in terms of a "male gaze" which is a sexual one. The idea is this: movies need male protagonists so dude-bros can identify with them and live out sexual fantasies through seeing what the cinematic dude-bro does to or with the women on screen. Even if the protagonist doesn't touch any of the on screen women, the dude-bros in the audience are given a peep show.

Thus the argument goes, the corollary to the male gaze, must be that women who watch films must identify with the women, and desire to be as gazed upon as their cinematic counterparts. The rest of the film industry plays into this ridiculous notion with actresses being asked only about their dresses and make-up at big events, while the male actors are asked about their careers.

Now of course, this book isn't about an antiquated and sexist / misogynistic view of how films work. Instead, it's about people who don't play into the normal gender roles in how they dress or present themselves. But here's where I had problems with the book this time — in the way cross-dressing is still discussed within a cis-gendered framework.

Basically this book is only looking at people who use clothing of their non-birth gender for a very limited number of reasons. Women dress like men to pass as men and gain otherwise unattainable power. Men do it for sexual gratification. Because men are always about sex. And women always want to be men. There is no discussion of non-binary or trans people who have reasons well beyond such simplistic notions as sex or power.

Three stars

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By Book or By Crook: 04/25/16

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates is the start of the Lighthouse Library mystery series. Lucy has changed jobs, from working with rare books in Harvard's library, to being an assistant librarian at Bodie Island's public library, built in the old lighthouse.

This little lighthouse at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is playing host to some rare editions of Jane Austen's works. On the night of the big reveal of this collection, one of the books goes missing and one of the guests ends up dead.

One of the oddest things about this series' set up is that Lucy lives above the library. It gives her access to the action, namely the person intent on stealing the Austen books. It also makes her a suspect. But I can find no real world example of a librarian, especially such a new employee, being allowed to live in an apartment that shares space with the library.

Ignoring the odd set up, the rest of the mystery reminds me of a caper version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Although there is a murder victim, the disappearing books, in order of publication, remind me of the way the victims in the remote island estate die, one by one, in a predetermined order.

Five stars

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Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic: 04/24/16

Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon

Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon is the second of the Hamster Princess books. Harriet now free of her curse is no longer invulnerable but she still prefers being a hero for hire than princess at home.

This time Harriet's adventures are a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. As the original story doesn't specify the names of the princesses, Vernon fills in the blanks by giving them the names of months of the year. The king is reimagined as a man obsessed with order including color coordinating. The rooms of his castle are all done in colored themes — a blue room, an orange room, a pink room, a particularly bright magenta room. He's in the process of having his massive library reorganized by color (they're working on the greens).

The basic logistics of the story are unchanged from the brothers Grimm source. But the plot holes in the story (like how is there an underground forest and castle) are filled in nicely. Moles.

The feminist spark and humor from the first book is back. Although Harriet isn't invulnerable, she's still brave and smart. She still believes that people should have a chance to make their own choices. She still doesn't like adults manipulating children for their own uses.

Of Mice and Magic is by far my favorite version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I am now eagerly awaiting the third book, Ratpunzel.

You can see my live blogging on Tumblr here.

Five stars

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Bohemians: 04/23/16

Bohemians by Paul Buhle

Bohemians edited by Paul Buhle is a comic anthology history of the bohemian movement. The book covers about a hundred year time period and about dozen or so important figures.

The artists, musicians, performers, and writers covered are individually fascinating. Seeing how they influenced each other and the movement is also fascinating.

But the presentation falls flat. Each section is done by a different artist. Transitioning from one style to another style of art and story telling while trying to take in copious amounts of information is tricky at best. Here though, there is so much text that the artwork is crowded out.

I struggled to read this book despite my interest in the subject. It managed maybe two pages at a go, sometimes less.

Two stars

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Catching Fire: 04/22/16

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Now I'm posting a review of a book that's been reviewed to death. The whole series has been reviewed to death. Yes, I'm behind the times in reading the series. I did actually buy them as they came out but I was busy reading other things. My natural response to extremely popular things is to wait until they aren't so extremely popular. So if you've read the series once or multiple times, feel free to skip this one and come back tomorrow. I won't mind.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins is the sequel to The Hunger Games. Katniss is discovering that being a winner of the games is more dangerous than the games. Now as the newest celebrities, Katniss and Peeta have every moment of their lives tracked, recorded, and planned by the government, all in the name of entertainment.

The first book jumped immediately into the big bad games. Katniss volunteers, trains, travels, primps, and then spends the majority of the book trying to stay alive in the games. Although it's obvious from the get go that she'll be back in the games this time, the pacing is entirely different. If anything, the games are an afterthought.

Instead most of the time is spent on press junkets. Katniss and Peetra go back and forth across the country at the beck and call of President Snow. These trips give Katniss (and thus, us) a chance to see the rest of the country to get a sense of where everything is and what's going on.

Now anyone on the booklr end of Tumblr knows that President Snow ends up being a BFD, especially in the film adaptations. He's also a popular "man you love to hate" type villain. But if you stop to think about where he is in the timeline of his authoritarian country, you know he can't possibly wield the sort of power he apparently has. Which in turn, makes Mocking Jay's course of events fairly predictable too if you know anything about the rise and fall of dictatorships.

In all this, what has my attention? Ah, that would be the mysterious District 13. It, we've been told, was wiped off the map after it rebelled. What if it wasn't? Sure, that's a common trope in this genre. Think of the world outside of the enclosed cities of Logan's Run, for example.

I will be reading the final book to see if things continue to play by the expected tropes.

Four stars

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One Book in the Grave: 04/21/16

One Book in the Grave by Kate Carlisle

One Book in the Grave by Kate Carlisle is the fifth in the Bibliophile Mystery series. Brooklyn is hired to rebind a copy of Beauty and the Beast only to realize on seeing it that it's stolen property. She surfacing of this book leads to murder and questions about a friend who died years ago.

I originally started reading this series for the book binding aspect. When the main character is allowed to focus on her job there's a lot of fascinating technical information woven into the stories. More and more though it seems that the emphasis is switching away from Brooklyn's skills as a binder and book restorer to her former life in a Sonoma hippy commune.

The problem is the hippy communes were short lived and pretty much over by my earliest childhood. I'm in my 40s. Brooklyn is otherwise written as if she's in her 30s but the technological and cultural mise-en-scene of this series is contemporary, meaning it's put in the second decade of the twenty-first century. If that is the case, Brooklyn should be somewhere between five to ten years older than I am.

Now there's the case of the bad guys in this book. Brooklyn seems to bring out the worst in her colleagues. I don't know if book bindery is really this cut throat a profession. Really, it seems like Brooklyn has her own personal Team Rocket chasing her down and it's getting tiresome.

Two stars

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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home: 04/20/16

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente is the conclusion to the Fairyland series. In the last few pages of The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, much was revealed and the oddball book was firmly entangled into September's arc.

Although I had kept current with September's books, I forgot about the series long enough to miss the initial release of book four. It was in the announcement of pre-orders for the final volume that I finally purchased and read Hawthorne's piece in the adventures.

In that regard, reading the end of Fairyland was more like binge watching on Netflix, than in following a series as it is slowly and lovingly created and released. The book, though, is written expecting the loyal reader to have spent a year away from Fairyland and in need of refreshing. Therefore the first fifty pages or so are spent on recapping "last time in Fairyland."

Fairyland, like Oz, seems to chew through leaders at an unusual pace. In Oz, it's whomever can take the Emerald City and get into the palace gets to be ruler. At least, that is so until Ozma who seems to be as eternal a ruler as Princess Bubblegum. Fairyland, though, goes through rulers at such a quick pace that the land has evolved a system for picking a new one.

The method as the title implies, is a race. Rather it's more of a madcap caper with a dash a treasure hunt. Imagine if you will, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World blended with the original 39 Clues series but set in Fairyland. Or if you will, imagine Through the Looking Glass if Alice's moves across the world sized chessboard were a race instead.

But before the race can begin, a very bewildered September, now back to her original age at the time she last left for Fairyland, must re-learn all of the monarchs that came before her. She must also re-learn the rules of being monarch while picking how her new, because her old form counted as a different monarch.

As with anything in Fairyland, everything, even the race itself, is more metaphorical than literal. In that regard, the race is run and won in part by how well the participant relates to Fairyland. Strength of conviction in one's interpretation of Fairyland is the most important aspect of the race.

Thematically book five is a combination of Road to Oz and the Emerald City of Oz. Heroines who routinely visit a magical land eventually have to decide whether to live in their original world or their adopted magical one. With the four colored winds and the land being able to awaken anything that visits, it's no surprise that Fairyland would follow rules similar to those of Oz. September takes on the color of the ruling city state (and briefly tries ruling) as Dorothy becomes a Princess of Oz. Saturday becomes a Munchin or an honorary Scarecrow (who also briefly ruled Oz).

My three stars, then, are for the pacing issues at the beginning, and the neat and tidy way that every character, no matter how minor, is given one last scene. September's fate in Fairyland as predicted in the first book is finally revealed and it's a satisfying compromise given how she has grown across the series.

Three stars

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Desolation Angels: 04/19/16

Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac is a follow up to Dharma Bums and in a way, an unwinding of On the Road. I read it for two reasons: one for fun (as I enjoy Kerouac's writing) and for my on-going road narrative project.

While most of my road trip narrative project is a look at the transference of semantics from the physical construction of the road: road signs, road markings, tourist stops, gas stations, motels, etc to the narrational. How we tell and how we read road narratives is derived from our understanding of the physical road. It is this immersion in the road that contributes to the foreign traveler's misinterpretation of the road trip narrative.

On side pocket of my research is Supernatural, a show that in the first couple seasons drew directly from On the Road as demonstrated by the brothers being named Sam (for Sal) and Dean. Along the way, of course, the series has evolved and moved away from the preplanned paranormal homage to Kerouac's most famous book.

They've since picked up a number of regular characters, including a third lead, Castiel, a misguided angel now on a perpetual road trip. Given his duster and other retro clothing choices, he's built as a character out of a road trip story from the golden era of the genre — back when cars were new and the Interstate highway was still a pipe dream.

Given all the hardships Castiel (and his vessel) have been through, he is the embodiment of a desolation angel. You can see why I had to read this book to see if there was something of it in the later seasons of Supernatural. The short of it is yes and no.

The book is divided into four parts: the loneliness on Desolation Peak looking for enlightenment; the meeting up with friends in San Francisco; travels down to Mexico; and finally, travels back home to New York. In terms of Castiel's evolution as a character, it's a similar path: the righteous believer praying for closeness to god (and ultimately giving up his life to be the vessel for an angel); the hooking up with other earthbound angels and going a bit crazy with them; hitting the road to be a hunter with Sam and Dean; and the returning home to Heaven (albeit it temporarily) as the new God.

The writing of Desolation Angels is more free form poetry than prose. Kerouac goes for run on sentences divided by em dashes. It takes a while to get used to this approach to story telling but after awhile it all flows together. It's perhaps a bit like reading scripture, though of a completely secular nature.

While I didn't fall into the book with the same enthusiasm as I did with On the Road or Dharma Bums, I am glad I read it. I have notes taken for my project and will be posting them on Tumblr in the near future.

Three stars

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Hunters of Chaos: 04/18/16

Hunters of Chaos by Crystal Velasquez

Hunters of Chaos by Crystal Velasquez is the start of a new YA series about four teenage girls who have the abilities to shape shift into large cats. They are up against the Brotherhood of Chaos to keep the world safe.

The story is told from the point of view of Ana, a girl of Mayan decent. She knows her heritage and she's proud of it. She loves her aunt and uncle dearly and is shocked when they suddenly tell her that she's being sent to New Mexico to attend an all girls school called Temple.

In these types of books, the new student, the "fish out of water" often faces teasing or bullying for most of the book until he or she has some revelation or finally manages to befriend an ally. While Ana does face some of that, including a roommate who clearly doesn't want her as a roommate, she also quickly makes friends with a core group of girls, which later includes one of the bullies, Lin, a Chinese diplomat's daughter.

Besides Lin, there is also Shani and Doli. Shani is Egyptian and Doli is Diné, meaning she's a local girl. Their friend coincides with earthquakes and the discovery of a new temple. Because of its location, it's assumed to be Anasazi, the "old ones" who inhabited the area before the Dineacute or Hopi. Things are clearly, though, off about it being Anasazi.

Now while the Diné have beliefs about transformation, it's not seen as a good thing. It's just the opposite, seen as unnatural, and out of balance with mankind's place in nature.

So I admit to being skeptical when Doli was included in the group, even though she of all the characters, was the most obvious one to be part of it. Skinwalkers or Yee n'aldooshi always manage to show up in stories written about Diné by non-Diné. Doli, while having the ability to turn into a Puma (like Maya in The Gathering by Kelley Armstrong), she is far more dubious about her newfound powers. That Velasquez includes a disease in Doli's reaction is a huge step forward for most of these stories.

Why these particular girls have these transformative powers isn't answered. It isn't fate or a family legacy, though in Ana's case, it's implied her mother might have had the ability too. Instead the emphasis is on what they decide to do with their supernatural powers and how they come to terms with it.

Five stars

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Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: 04/17/16

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl is the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wonka and Charlie take a detour of their fantastic elevator ride to pick up Charlie's grandparents, and their bed. They then zoom into space and have some extraordinary adventures.

Although I'm very familiar with the first book, I never read the second book as a child. My husband remembers reading it as a kid and not liking it. I know, I know, I know, and yet I never listen. I should never pass judgment on a book based solely on someone close to me.

In my review of Chocolate Factory I suggested that Willy Wonka might be a time lord. Perhaps in the first book he wasn't quite yet. Doctor Who had only been on the air for a year. By Great Glass Elevator, the show was in it's ninth series and it's third doctor.

    By the Third Doctor, a few rules had been established for the show.
  • First: the Doctor travels in a TARDIS which when its chameleon circuit is working can take any shape but as they age, the circuit gets stuck.
  • Second: besides traveling through time, the Doctor also travels through space.
  • Third: There are monsters in space who have their eyes set on Earth.
  • Fourth: The Doctor is the self proclaimed protector of Earth.
  • Fifth: The Doctor can regenerate into a new body when grievously injured.
  • Sixth: It's bigger on the inside.
  • Seventh: The Doctor despite his apparent gruffness, likes having companions to adventure with.
  • Eighth: The TARDIS is flown by pushing buttons and moving levers.

Now let's look at the elevator. In the first book, it's shown to be a vehicle that doesn't just go up and down, instead it can go wherever the rider needs it to go. It can even fly (just as the TARDIS can). In this book, it's also capable of flight into space. It's also capable of holding Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, his four grandparents and their giant bed.

If the elevator can travel into space it might as well be a space ship. As aliens can come in all shapes and sizes, so do their ships. A TARDIS (or elevator) should be flexible enough to dock with anything. "My Elevator could link up with a crocodile if it had to. Just leave it to me, my boy!" (p. 18)

So what do they find in space besides an American space station? Knids! "These Vermicious Knids are the terror of the Universe. They travel through space in great swarms, landing in other stars and planets and destroying everything they find." (p. 55)

As we've seen in the relaunched Doctor Who show, the Doctor has earned a reputation among the hostiles of space. Though humanity for the most part sees the Doctor as a savior, others see him as a war criminal or even the monster under the bed. Wonka seems to have a similar reputation outside of Earth where he's only known for sweets and being a bit of a loner. Willy Wonka is compared to a doctor (perhaps the Doctor):

Let me get you a doctor. I know just the man.
For a Knid with a nasty disease.
He's a butcher by trade which is not a bad plan,
And he charges quite reasonable fees.

Ah! Here he is now! Doc, you really are kind
To travel so far into space.
There's your patient, the Knid with the purple behind!
Do you think it's a desperate case?

The entire second adventure with Willy and Charlie is like this. Anyone who has watched enough Doctor Who, will recognize scenes from the old and the new. The book is old enough now to have probably inspired some of today's Doctor Who writers.

Take for instance Wonka's rejuvenation (dare is say, regeneration) of Charlie's grandparents. He gives them medicine to give them back their youth. One has to wonder if "The Girl Who Died" isn't a wee bit of a nod to Wonka's formula (which also has consequences which he doesn't think about until after administering it).

Four stars

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The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel: 04/16/16

The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel by Patti Laboucane-Benson

The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel by Patti Laboucane-Benson is a story of personal healing among gang-affiliated incarcerated First Nations men in Canada.

The story follows a young man named Pete who is trying to keep himself and his younger brother safe. They live with their mother and her drunk and abusive boyfriend. A fight ends up with the boyfriend dead and Pete in jail.

In prison, Pete is given the opportunity to join a therapy group tailored to men in his situation. The program, though requires him to move to a different prison and to be on his best behavior. Feeling he has nothing to lose he says yes.

Most of the rest of the book is the group therapy sessions where the true plight of people like Pete is outlined. The drinking, the forceable removal of children from families by white authorities, the abuse (physical and sexual), and the high numbers of incarcerations.

The story is based on the author's own experience and research of working with men like Pete.

Five stars

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Summer Showers: 04/15/16

Summer Showers by Kate Hannigan

Summer Showers by Kate Hannigan is the sequel to Cupcake Cousins. It's the next summer and now the families are planning a baby shower for last year's newlyweds.

In the first book the cousins who love baking couldn't get anything right. They either mixed up ingredients or had their work sabotaged by "Sweet William" or the dog or other bad luck. Fortunately none of that happens to them this time.

Instead, the bad cooking luck falls on the older pair of cousins. Why they suddenly want to bake is never explained. It seems to be a excuse to replay scenes from the first book but with different characters.

The fun bit this time is the way the family comes together to save the restaurant and gallery. It's a bit off the main road and it just doesn't get enough in the way of regulars or tourists. They hope to boost the regular visitors by winning a cooking contest at the annual fair.

I don't know if a third one is planned but I will read it if there is.

Four stars

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Sherlock Bones 1: 04/14/16

Sherlock Bones 1 by Yuma Ando

Sherlock Bones 1 by Yuma Ando is the first of a seven book manga series inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's detective. Imagine if you will, that Sherlock Holmes was real and has been reincarnated into the body of a dog. Further imagine that Sherlock can talk to the reincarnation of Watson, this time a school aged Japanese kid.

My main problem with the book is the main character's lacking suspension of disbelief. I'm more willing to go with the dog's version of things than Takeru is. When Takeru isn't questioning everything "Sherdog" as he's dubbed his pet, the two of them can act as detective and assistant.

Sherlock show's his abilities first with an apparent innocent fender bender. When does a driver want to admit culpability straight away in a crash? When he has something worse to hide. Sherlock knows this and through his ability to communicate with Takeru is able to solve a worse crime.

It was a fun and relatively quick read but I'm not itching to read more.

Three stars

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Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story: 04/13/16

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters is a graphic novel format memoir about the early days of the author's relationship with Cati. She is HIV+ and so is her son.

Fred falls over

Fred though enjoyed her company and was willing to educate himself about HIV and continue a relationship, including a sexual one with Cati. Meanwhile, he also took on a role as a father figure for her son, including going to doctor's appointments and hospital trips.

Talking sex with the doctor

It's a charming story about a real couple with real flaws, real fears, and the sense of humor to work through tough times. The trips to Cati's doctor to talk about sex are especially well done.

Four stars

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Little Robot: 04/12/16

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

Little Robot by Ben Hatke is a graphic novel tale that reads a bit like a warm snuggly mash up of Lilo and Stitch and the Rust series by Royden Lepp.

A little girl crawls out of a window and walks along a dirt path that leads to an old dump or perhaps an illegal dumping site. There finds a robot who has fallen off the back of a truck on the road above. Through some combination of curiosity, ingenuity, and luck she manages to activate the robot.

The girl walking through the dump.

In the early chapters she's trying to teach him how to work and how to talk. If he breaks something, she tries to fix it. When he appears lonely, she tries to make friends for him. Her first attempts aren't successful, though.

Later she has to step up to help protect her new friend from retrieval robots. If they have nefarious reasons isn't never stated but these robots do play the role of the antagonists in this otherwise quiet and charming book. Initially I read the book for entertainment. Ben Hatke remains a popular author both with children and with awards committees. Even if he weren't the author, I would have still be drawn to it, seeing a young girl of color sitting on a hillside with a robot at her side, and a wrench in her bag.

Little Robot in a car

What I didn't expect was for the book to fit in beautifully with my road narrative project. The meeting of the girl and robot is in the context of a junkyard along a dirt road. The girl finds parts to fix the robot, and later, build more robots (with help), from the discards in the dump. Later the abandoned cars provide solace and safety for the robot. In thinking in terms of Kenneth R. Schneider's Autokind vs Mankind the robot is the embodiment of micro mobility. The robot factory and the retrieval bots coming from an ultra clean, human-free environment are the near future nightmare of the self-driving and self-replicating vehicle, as seen in both Schneider's work and the shorter but equally memorable children's parable, The Endless Pavement by Jacqueline Jackson.

In the world of Little Robot, humanity is relegated to homes along the border of a junkyard. They meet and play amongst their discards. They hide from the robots. The robots meanwhile "live" in ultra modern buildings, drive along well maintained roads, and take advantage of the suburban dream.

Five stars

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 04/11/16

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is a book I decided to revisit after having seen the statue of Roald Dahl in Cardiff, Wales. Dahl was born in Llandaff, a neighborhood of Cardiff about two miles from his statue on the waterfront.

Dahl had actually moved to New York by the time he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but Cardiff is there in the unnamed city where Charlie lives and the shuttered chocolate factor is housed. There's probably a bit of Victorian Birmingham in this fictional factory town as that's the birth place of Cadbury, the United Kingdom's best known chocolate producer (and one that uses a very Willy Wonka color scheme on it's website).

So here we have a city that is basically in an every dwindling stasis, trapped in the time just after Willy Wonka shut the gates of the factory. In this city we have a boy stuck with his father, mother, and their parents, all barely making ends meet in a single room shack, with the grandparents sharing the one and only bed. Their diet consists mostly of cabbage, save for once a year when Charlie gets some birthday chocolate.

Then out of the blue, Willy Wonka reappears and offers to open his factory to tours to anyone who finds one of five golden tickets (an event that has become cliched now in tween fantasy). Charlie, of course, does end up with one, even though it seems impossible given how in frequently he gets to eat sweets. The news breathes new life into the family and Charlie's grandfather decides to go with him to tour the factory.

Willy Wonka is a hard to peg character. But in the sequel it's implied that he might very well be a time lord. Let's think about that in terms of the factory. Perhaps Wonka didn't lock himself away, depressed over something. Perhaps he just meant to step out in his TARDIS for a bit of fun or something but ended being late, as the Doctor often is. Imagine a town that had grown reliant on his presence, suddenly being without. Perhaps, then, on realizing his mistake, he decides to right the wrong and prevent it from happening again, in the extravagant, slightly zanny way that time lords seem to function.

In the meantime, we have four families from around the world and one local ringer. Any semi regular Doctor Who fan knows that when the Doctor comes into the middle of something, the group of people he rescues, or somehow befriends, will end up facing dire things and quite possibly injury if not death, save for the lucky ones who happen to live long enough for the Doctor to learn from his mistakes.

Of course after all is said and done and the most troublesome of the children have been eliminated, one way or another, and even after Charlie and his grandfather nearly get themselves eliminated by not following the rules, they're still given the ultimate reward of becoming Willy's proteges. And off they fly in the TARDIS disguised here as a glass elevator, and the hook for book two.

I know this book is among his best know. It's had two film adaptations, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005. In all its forms, the factory is memorable. It's magical in faerie sort of way: stay on the path and don't eat any food. If you stray from the path or eat any food, you can't leave. Willy Wonka isn't of this world. That much is certain.

Three stars

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Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft: 04/10/16

Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill

Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill is the first of a six volume graphic novel horror series. These are the omnibus versions of a the comic that I'm reading. It's inspired by H.P. Lovecraft but set in the present.

After a brutal murder, the surviving family members leave California for their ancestral home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. The family home is a Gothic mansion. In horror parlance it's somewhere between a Seven Gables and the Bates House.

With a nod to Ringu there's a dangerous spirit in an abandoned well. It will do anything to get out. The house itself has safeguards built in that the new generation doesn't understand. For example, there's a certain door a certain way.

When there's a serial killer in horror and the main characters have been directly affected by his actions, there's no way that his killing spree will fade into the background. That's true here. It's cliche but there it is. It's also thankfully resolved (more or less) by the end of this volume.

I have the remaining volumes on my TBR and will get to them as time permits.

Three stars

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Good-Bye, Chunky Rice: 04/09/16

Good-Bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson

Good-Bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson is a darker, edgier version of the same tale told in Ollie and Claire by Tiffany Strelitz Haber. It's the age old tale of best friends, one who is a homebody and one who has wanderlust. Their relationship is put to the ultimate test when the restless one decides to leave.

Here the one with wanderlust is a turtle named Chunky Rice. The homebody is a mouse named Dandel. Sometimes, though, the friend who stays behind comes to second guess the decision and wishes he'd gone along in the first place. So much of this story is the near misses as Dandel tries repeatedly to find Chunky Rice, while Chunky Rice tries to come to terms with his new life on the sea.

There are other characters and plots too, all themed around second guessing BIG decisions. Though it appears to be a simplistic book at first glance because of the cartoonish drawings, it really isn't. There's a lot going on and there's plenty to think about.

Four stars

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Bat and Rat: 04/08/16

Bat and Rat by Patrick Jennings

Bat and Rat by Patrick Jennings is a picture book about a pair of friends who live in the same apartment building and perform together in a band.

These nocturnal friends love doing everything together. They like ice cream, trips to China town, riding the subway, and creating new songs together.

Except their latest son isn't working out. Creative differences are getting in the way of things. If they can't reconcile things, their friendship might be over!

Thankfully Jennings provides a happy ending for Bat and Rat. Charming story with illustrations to match.

Four stars

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Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret: 04/07/16

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is one of those inescapable books if you're a girl about to hit puberty. Even if you don't want to read it, you'll be expected to. Even if you didn't like it, other women will assume you did.

The book was written at a time when there just weren't many books addressing what puberty is like for girls and parents were perhaps still not willing to discuss puberty to their girls. So there was a lot of misinformation out there and high rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs and growing up was a huge scary thing.

The book was aimed at the young end of the Baby Boomers (1943-1964) by a member of the Silent Generation (1925-1942). By the time I was reaching "that age" it was the early days of the Millennial generation and I as one of the oldest of Generation X didn't relate to either my generation or my parents' generation.

As an almost teenager, I found the only way to avoid being given a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was to say I had read it. To avoid having to make shit up when I'd inevitably be asked about my "favorite part" or whatever, I had to actually read the thing. So what I did is I hid in the least traveled aisle of the public library and I sped read it over the course of about an hour.

With Judy Blume having published her last novel last year and all the now middle aged (or older) women going gaga over the news, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is being dragged out in nostalgic thrall. I decided to re-read it (this time as an ebook) to see if it was any better, and to prepare in case my daughter decided to read it (she is of course welcome to).

So there's Margaret who has recently been moved from the big city to a New Jersey suburb because her parents want to get her away from her over protective, very Jewish, grandmother. Margaret who hasn't hit puberty is brought into the fold of the Cutie Mark Crusaders (with apologies to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where they discuss boys, makeup, and await their first menses. Oh GAG ME.

Meanwhile, Margaret's parents are trying to raise her an atheist as many blended marriages do. But Margaret falling to peer pressure and her grandmother's continued influence, because Grandma Jo-Jo (apologies to The Amazing World of Gumball won't be denied her granddaughter).

All these later still find the idea of starting a menstruation club bizarre — even in the context of adorable magical ponies. Maybe girls do things differently in New Jersey. In California, girls who hit puberty first were teased for their bra straps and their sanitary products. That teasing basically lasted from upper elementary to high school. By high school everyone had hit puberty so there wasn't anyone left to tease. Likewise, boys weren't discussed. Those who ended up in relationships did so on their own time. We were too busy instead dividing ourselves up in cliques based on what music we liked.

Now looking at my own daughter, questions seemed to be out in the open. If she has a question, she asks it and I answer it. There are no euphemisms. No whispering. No blushing. Maybe that will change when she actually hits puberty but I doubt it.

The Cutie Mark crusaders from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
A modern take on the same story told through ponies.

Two stars

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Cupcake Cousins: 04/06/16

Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan

Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan has a diverse, blended family where their diversity isn't called out and isn't the point of the book. Instead, it's about a pair of upper elementary aged cousins who love to cook and desperately want to help cater their aunt's wedding.

The aunt, though, has a caterer who lives next door to the summer home where the wedding will be held. There just isn't a need for the girls' help and when they do try to help they end up making some boneheaded mistakes because the ingredients aren't properly labeled in the kitchen.

For the most part I enjoyed the book and I am on the library's hold list for the second book, Summer Showers. I do, however, have a problem with the cliché of confusing sugar with salt. Assuming these girls have as many recipes memorized as they are described as having done, they should know by sight the textural difference between salt and sugar. Even if they can't tell that way, the two smell different. Finally, of course, they taste different.

That quibble aside, though, I do love their blended family and their recipes sound good. I'm eager to follow along on further adventures inside and outside of the kitchen.

Four stars

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Trailer Park Fae: 04/05/16

Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow

Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow is the start of Gallow and Ragged series. Whatever I put here probably won't do justice for the book. I read it, or maybe, freebased it, whilst in the middle of the worst flu I've had in a good long while.

Let me also say that the set up of the story is very similar to The Ward series by Jordana Frankel. There is a plague. There are warring factions (well, anytime you have fae you have the Seelie and Unseelie at battle or at best an uncomfortable stalemate). There is a young woman who has the cure or knowledge of it who is under everyone's scrutiny. There is an older man forced into exile for knowing to much. What's different here is that the woman and the man are half sidhe. There is a place where the tainted go to at least put on the pretense that the illness has't reached the ruling class. Here, that place is a trailer park in the human world.

I read this book as part of my road narrative project. At the one end of the road trip spectrum there is the wealthy man in his sports car driving the interstates and staying at the best motels, except for when he ventures onto the blue highways and the small town diners to experience life among the rural for his own entertainment. At the other end of the road narrative there is the person desperately saving up money to escape from the trailer park in the middle of nowhere to move to a better life in the big city. Neither one of these stories is representative of an over all truth about the road and the American experience. Rather they are two extremes of tropes that have developed over the years.

In a typical children's urban fantasy (Oz or Fairyland, for example), the protagonist, often a young girl, leaves or is taken from, her rural home. While she may have desperately wanted to leave the rural life behind, once she finds herself somewhere else she just as desperately wants to return. If her story is part of a multi-part series, then her experiences in the magical land cloud her judgment upon returning home so much so that she will find ways of returning to the magical land, eventually deciding to settle there, and in some cases, convincing her family to relocate there as well.

Obviously the Gallow and Ragged series isn't a children's series. First and foremost that is shown from its focus not on the trailer park but on the Summer Court. While the language is poetic (there is something about Fairyland that engenders poetic turns of phrase) the effects of the plague are visible, lingering in the peripheral vision.

Secondly, the trailer park, while dirty, broken, greasy, and basically all the things that the Summer Court shouldn't be, is seen as an escape from the dangers that also lie wait. It's old and broken but "still good" as Stitch would say. It isn't perfect and it doesn't have to be.

I have the second book in the series to get into soon. It's Roadside Magic. There's also a third coming out later in the year called Wasteland King.

Three stars

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Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine: 04/04/16

Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine by Monica Kulling

Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine by Monica Kulling is part of the Great Ideas Series, a collection of nonfiction picture books that profile inventors of everyday objects.

If you've ever been ice skating, played hockey, or watched an event at an ice rink, you've seen the thing that's driven out on the ice to smooth out the surface. You know what it's called. It's a Zamboni.

It's a Zamboni

But what do you know about Frank Zamboni, the man behind the machine and the company? If you're like me, the answer is zilch. Clean Sweep in about sixty pages lays out a biography of Frank and his brother and the history of their company as it evolved from ice production, skating rink, to ice resurfacing machines.

Five stars

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Autokind Vs. Mankind: 04/03/16

Autokind Vs. Mankind by Kenneth R. Schneider

Autokind Vs. Mankind by Kenneth R. Schneider is another stern look at the effects of automobile culture on the American way of life at the start of the gas crisis. The interstate highway system seemed like an unstoppable force and suburban sprawl was choking the countryside.

Like The Endless Pavement by Jacqueline Jackson, Schneider's book contains warnings and condemnations about our willy nilly embrace of the automobile and all its auxiliary machinery (roads, gas stations, factories, mechanics, tire production, motels, fast food, etc.)

Besides being a warning against the excessive consumerism that the automobile industry engenders, it's also a call to action. Schnedier outlines a number of ways that cities can and should be redesigned to put mankind back in charge.

How to redesign the streets

Interestingly we're in a time now where freeway construction isn't given free rein anymore. San Francisco tore down I480, South Pasadena has been fighting against I710, and there's the on-going fight over I69 as shown in Interstate 69 by Matt Dellinger.

Were all of Schneider's dire predictions true? No. He saw a future of endless carhops and fast food replacing all family together time. He saw a growing American neurosis derived from the love/hate relationship with the automobile. He also saw a world where autokind was to the point of self replicating — where all the nation's output is focused on creating more automobiles or automobile related paraphernalia.

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

Four stars

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My Little Pony: Micro-Series: #3: Rarity: 04/02/16

My Little Pony: Micro-Series: #3: Rarity by Katie Cook

My Little Pony: Micro-Series: #3: Rarity by Katie Cook is one of three Friends Ship is Magic comics I read on a whim. I'm also a fan of the cartoon series which surprises me as I was never was a fan of any of the previous generations.

Lauren Faust's relaunch of the series sparked something unexpected. Yes, she set out to tell good stories with a wide range of female characters who were well beyond the pretty and pink of the previous iterations.

That spark, though, has exploded into a self aware, genre savvy, parody welcoming world that extends beyond the HUB cartoon. The rules for television and publishing are different and there is greater freedom in what can be included. That means these comics can explore stories and characters in ways that the cartoon cannot.

We can all imagine that Applejack's family cider is the hard variety, even though on TV it isn't. We know Rainbow Dash LOVES the cider and can totally imagine her letting her main down with a pint or two of the stuff. We can imagine Fluttershy attracting the annoying dude bros (oh, I guess those would be Bronies) and not being able to shoo them away. Right?

Ponied up at the bar.

Here the main character in question is Rarity. She is the local fashion designer and has her hoof on the pulse of all things haute couture. She likes the finer things in life and saves up for a luxury weekend at a spa in the country.

Next up, branding.

Except, it isn't. It's really more of a dude ranch run by burned out hippies. California was ground zero for a lot of the hippy culture and there are still pockets of it all these decades later. I guess the Ponies have their own hippy pockets too. Rarity at first is horrified but she finds a way to help and turn the failing commune into a vibrant, thriving community. Even if they don't always get what she's saying.

Rarity and the hippies.

Beyond the hippy references and other silliness, there are some wonderful metafiction moments. My favorite is the hippy horse who seems both genre aware and self aware.

These micro adventures are short, packed with jokes and visual puns, and very fun to read.

Five stars

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The road not taken: 04/01/16

Just like Twighlight Sparkle, I'm The road not taken.

I'm taking a detour with my road narrative reading to explore the tropes that arise out of the urban vs rural dichotomy. Most road trip stories aren't just a collection of arrivals and departures from big cities. Much of their time is spent on the rural roads, stopping in out of the way towns with populations ranging in the dozens.

Against the play of urban and rural, often one side comes out as good and the other as bad — protagonist and antagonist. Which side is good depends on the frame of reference. For urbanite on a road trip, the rural way station is the threatening, dark place waiting to do the unwary driver and passenger(s) harm.

When the focus is changed from the driver to the townspeople, the entire road narrative structure unfolds. The road stops being a honeytrap for travelers, instead being an unwanted but necessary connection to a wider and more dangerous world. The road brings in goods and services. The road offers escape for those who wish it but it also invites in dangerous beings.

One way in which evil descends on the rural township is the traveling carnival, whether it's a circus or a medicine show. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Mr. Dark's Pandemonium Carnival brings the worst nightmares to life and steels the very life force from its youth. In Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Finn must go against the unexpected early arrival of the carnival to rescue Roz. In The Boneshaker by Kate Milford and in the 1977 version of Pete's Dragon the towns are besieged by snake oil salesmen and their medicine shows.

Chart of what states the stories I mention are from: Illinois, Illinois, Missouri, and Maine.

The circus or traveling show as threat to the rural town is an interesting tangent in the road narrative tropes. I'm not sure yet how much I'll explore it, but I want to acknowledge it in case I see it reoccurring with frequency.

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Three Bears in a Boat: 04/01/16

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman is the story of a quest to replace a precious blue shell, broken during some sibling horseplay. The journey takes the bears: two brothers and a sister, across the sea to fantastical islands and through all sorts of adventures. They also meet a number of interesting seafaring bears who might look familiar to savvy parents.

But this book might be one that's better geared to the parents than their children. At least that's how it's played out whenever I've seen it read in a mixed setting. The parents seem to get the jokes and the kids seem stuck on the title. Three Bears in a Boat doesn't seem like much of a title. It's straightforward description. But to a well read adult, it brings to mind Jerome K. Jerome's hliarious memoir: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and of course Connie Willis's equally hilarious science fiction homage, To Say Nothing of the Dog. So for me, I immediately appended To Say Nothing of the Shell to the title as it's the story of an improbably adventure that takes them right back where they need to be to find a new shell.

Inside too, the artwork is again aimed at the adults who are most likely reading the book aloud. There are references to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn another to Three Men in a Boat, and a one to Moby-Dick.

It's not that children can't appreciate this book, it's just that they might need some guidance. Use the book as an introduction to the cultural references. This isn't a new problem, certainly but a really excellent story will take a layered approach so that the appeal won't hinge solely on one's cultural literacy. Here though, the cultural references don't stand up by themselves to intended audience.

Three stars

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