On leveled reading — or leveled reading didn't make me a life long reader: 06/30/16
Lolly's Crassroom on the Horn Book site has a post about the troubles with leveled reading: "Does leveled reading create life-long readers?" The tl:dr answer is probably not and it might even discourage children from becoming life long readers.
The blog post brought back memories of my elementary school years. I had brushes with leveled reading in kindergarten and again in fifth and sixth grade. I don't believe either experience contributed to my later love of reading. I certainly wasn't a reader (save for a couple favorites) in elementary school.
In kindergarten, I had a teacher who firmly believed in the old Dick and Jane books, the ones my parents were taught on. I remember she had a stack of books that involved a giraffe and depending on which level the book was, the giraffe had more and more interesting (if any of these pre-reader books are ever interesting) adventures. But regardless of the difficulty of the words, each book was only about ten pages and super easy to memorize. I skated through kindergarten and rose to the top of the reading levels on my ability to memorize the books based on the cover art.
That's not to say I couldn't read the books. I wasn't illiterate, although I suspect I learned more about reading at home than I did in kindergarten or first grade. First grade I don't remember reading anything in class. That teacher was really into what we'd call STEM now. I remember doing lots and lots of simple science experiments (like taste testing apples and sorting them by skin color).
Second grade I remember the teacher reading to us. If we sat still during the grade two appropriate books (no matter how stupid they were) then we got to hold her pet snake. I sat still because I liked the snake. She read us only from Yearling like How to Eat Fried Worms and Freckle Juice. They weren't my thing but she was CONVINCED all second graders liked these books.
Third grade I don't remember reading in class. That was the year that geography was introduced. I think I spent the whole year learning how to read and draw maps. I drew treasure maps, city maps, train maps, etc etc. I rediscovered my love of The Hobbit because of the maps and moon writing.
Fourth grade I was pretty much on probation because of sliding grades in third due to too much map making and not a whole hell of anything else. Because I'd done an intensive work load (essentially everything I had screwed up or ignored in third grade) in the course of the month vacation we had in summer (the joys of a year round school). Fourth grade was lots and lots of math. Mr. V. believed anyone could do any level of math and let us work at our own pace through his twenty year old text books. I worked through all of them.
Then came fifth and sixth grade where I had the same teacher twice. Mrs. Sullivan had the testing system to see which level we were reading at. I think she expected me to come out near
the bottom because of what she'd heard from Mrs. Buttler (my third grade teacher and one of my fourth grade teachers). I came out near the top which meant I put into a group of scifi geeks who had decided to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.
It took me until my teens to really fall for Jules Verne's books. Sure, I'd seen the Disney movie and I could sing by heart the opening song, A Whale of a Tale, but the Nautilus, other than being a weirdly steampunk (not a word back then) submarine named after an equally weird (but cool) mollusk, was otherwise a black box. I didn't picture it in my head except for Nemo's pipe organ (because I was learning how to play our family Hammond organ — so old it had vacuum tubes). The uber geeks though completely obsessed over the damn submarine, building a scale model of it and ornately detailed blue prints. I felt like I had nothing to contribute to the group discussion of the book. I went home in tears.
So I was given "easier" books to read, the wretched Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. These damn things I had memorized from endless vacation bible sessions. I really didn't want to read them again. So I forced myself through them as quickly as I could and got moved back into the top group. Now the geeks were obsessing over Call of the Wild by Jack London. Again, not my first choice of book back then. I didn't really appreciate him until I moved to the Bay Area.
I didn't really become a life long reader until junior high. By that point leveled reading was a thing of the past. I found what worked for me to get excited about books (it wasn't knowing if it was my level) and I went on a long binge of reading things at random (as in picking books from shelves while my eyes were closed).
My teenage reading habits, though, will be a post for another day.
Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady: 06/30/16
Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady by L.A. Meyer is the second of the Bloody Jack series. Jacky, found to be female, has been removed from her ship and put in the charge of a finishing school in Boston.
Jacky's situation, save for her being an orphan of unknown (to the people who put her there) class and origin, is very much like Princess Pony Head's enforced enrollment at St. Olga's Reform School ("St Olga's School for Wayward Princesses," season one of Star vs the Forces of Evil) Except that's it set in Colonial Massachusetts, a very Puritan, and thus, very conservative place.
Like the first book, it has some pacing issues. It seems too much time is spent setting up the situation before getting to the meat and potatoes of the plot. Yes, Jacky's now in an awful reform school and yes she'll never fit in. Sure, she's better suited as one of the staff than one of the students, but even that's not the point of the book.
The really story, which takes itself forever to unravel, is three fold. One: the minister who is the patron of the school is a dangerous pervert. Two: one of the servant girls at the school was raped and murdered. Three: The minister has his eyes on Jacky and one of them will end up dead. Given that there are twelve books so far in the series, you can guess who wins.
So the main point here to the book, I guess, is how much it sucked to be a woman in Puritan society. It's an extended shore leave to demonstrate why Jacky loves the sea so much and why she's more comfortable dressing as a man.
But as a pirate adventure book, it was lacking.
Digital Photographer's Handbook: 06/29/16
Digital Photographer's Handbook by Tom Ang promises "up to the minute information on the latest technology and equipment" for digital photography. First and foremost no book can be up to the minute. Hell, no blog can be up to the minute. So taking the hyperbole out of the equation, the book is about modern techniques and equipment for digital photography.
Except. Digital camera technology isn't a mysterious black box. Regardless of the type of camera the gist is the same: light goes in, hits a sensor, image data is recorded and saved.
There are four basic types of digital cameras:
Beyond the camera bodies there are of course different kinds of lenses, if you have a camera that can take lenses. Although nowadays, there's even a lens attachment for your smart phone which is somewhere between silly and awesome. Lenses come in a variety of forms too: wide angle, mid range, long focus, telephoto, and tilt (for those tilt shift cityscapes where everything looks miniature).
There are also a variety lens filters, especially good for shooting through haze or catching details in water when there's a lot of glare.
Finally, there are methods for keeping your camera steady when doing low light or long exposure shooting. The standard option is the tripod. But in places where a tripod won't work, there's also the beanbag.
The rest of photography is a steady dance of trial and error. You learn the quirks of your camera (and trust me, identical camera models will have separate quirks), your own personal taste for composition, time of day, gamma, etc. You'll start simply by putting everything on automatic and maybe trying different built in settings or filters. Maybe you'll be happy with that and never branch out to manual. Or you'll eventually crave something different — something more personal, and you'll start learning how to do things for yourself with your camera.
And that's where I gristle at Digital Photographer's Handbook. It treats digital photography as a technology problem, not an art form that uses technology. It has recipes for avoiding problems, with example photographs of "mistakes." These good vs bad photographs are, of course, the author's own opinion of what makes a good photograph.
But they might not be your opinion of what makes a good photograph. Some of them certainly weren't my idea of a what goes into a good photograph.
Will this book teach you the basics of picking the camera that will best for you? Yes. Will it teach you some options for digital manipulation on the computer? Yes, although that section is more prone to becoming out of date than the camera and lens sections.
If you truly want to go beyond treating your camera like a high tech device and treat it like a tool for art, I suggest reading two other books instead:
The Long Quiche Goodbye: 06/28/16
The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames is the first of the Cheese Shop mystery series. Charlotte Bessette has returned to her home town after a bad break-up and has opened a cheese shop as her mother's reelection for mayor is in full swing. At her shop's grand opening, a man ends up dead, murdered with one of her fancy cheese knives.
New series always start slowly. They have to introduce an entire new cast of characters. They have to build the world too, often a small out of the way town, or for a larger city, a quirky neighborhood.
In the case of the cozy, there's also the establishment of the quirk de series. The protagonist, usually a woman, will have some skill or hobby that while not part of law enforcement is still perfect for solving not one but any mystery (usually a murder) that comes her town's way.
Here, it's Providence, Ohio. To make town more quirky, it's near an Amish village. The skill is cheesemongery. The characters beyond the cheesemonger are the grandmother, who is the mayor, a shop employee who has ties to the Amish community, and there's a villain who might as well be your typical antagonist from a certain type of children's cartoon: the wealthy girl with the accent that's a mix between Valley Girl and posh.
There's wasn't much else to this mystery. I can't say I really warmed to Providence. Actually, I can't really say I came away knowing anything about Providence beyond where it is. Mostly though I was distracted by the grandmother's mayoral campaign, Charlotte's family's penchant for French stock phrases, and the worst most annoying nemesis who has the trifecta of being the widow of the murdered man, the competition for mayor, and the proud dispenser of red herrings.
The best part of the book, then, was the cheese. I learned about some local to me delicious cheeses. Among those, my new favorite is the Humboldt Fog.
Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork: 06/27/16
Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork by Simon Majumdar was on the new books shelf with a couple other road trip books. As it seemed relevant to my on-going iconography of the road trip project, I checked it out. The long story short, is it wasn't.
Now if I were a cable subscriber, I'd recognize the author as a "Food Network celebrity." I don't, though, he does spend a large portion of the book gleefully reminding his dear reader of that fact. So rather than this book being a road trip book, it's a catalog of fancy meals eaten at successful restaurants from all over the United States, combined with memories of how the author and the chef or owner first met and how the restaurant got started.
Maybe a travelog can jump around locations willy nilly. A road trip, though, cannot. A road trip follows the road and the landscape and the gradient of changing ingredients as the traveler gets ever further from home.
So while the author strove to learn more about his adopted home through its food, if he did, it's not evidenced in this book. Yes, he ate a bunch of different regional dishes. Yes, he interviewed (or re-interviewed) a bunch of successful restaurant owners and chefs. But he did this out of context. The result is a dull laundry list of food and conversations.
What are my thoughts on audiobooks?: 06/27/16
This morning I received a question via Twitter regarding my thoughts on audiobooks. As I stared at it for a second, still not quite awake, because it's summer and my place doesn't have AC, so getting a good night's sleep is difficult, I decided to leave the question alone before posting a shore and inane response. I could have said, "I like them!" and left it at that.
But after breakfast, coffee, and some painting (I'm on a tight deadline for an RFQ that's due during my family road trip) I realized I had a lot more to say than just "I like them."
Under the format tab of my navigation, I do have an audiobook list. Over the course of about three years, I reviewed 123 audiobooks. The last review I posted was in December, 2013. After an intense love affair with audiobooks, I suddenly stopped listening to them. There are a couple factors: I got a new car, my cataloging job ended, I rediscovered my love of music, and I started reading ebooks.
Before delving deeper into my short, hot love affair with audiobooks, let me step back and put my librarian hat on. Books are for reading and every reader has a book— a paraphrase of the Rangathan's rules of library science. Audiobooks make reading more accessible. Audiobooks are there for people who can't for one reason or another, read. They give readers another way of enjoying a book or to squeeze some extra reading time into their busy schedules (during commute time or during a family car trip). They can also be entertaining.
There are many different kinds of audiobooks. There are those read by a single performer. There are those read by an ensemble of readers, where each character has a unique voice and the book has a narrator. There are those with music and those without. There are also those read by their authors.
There are exceptions to this preference though. The best way to listen to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is with the original ensemble cast as it was originally a radio play. That the radio play happens to sound just like an audiobook with a few extra bells and whistles (and the most excellent Journey of the Sorcerer by the Eagles as its theme music and chapter / episode breaks).
But after three years, my life — my daily routine changed. The first big change was that we purchased a new car. The old car had many problems but it did have a five disc holder, making audiobooks the easiest thing to listen to in the car. The current car only has a single CD holder. The new car, though, has an amazing audio system and came with satellite radio and bluetooth synching to my phone. Great audio and easy access to my large collection of music made music listening more fun in the car.
I could of course put audiobooks on there too but I've had problems in the past with the audiobook tracks clogging up the playlists and accidentally randomizing. There's nothing quite like driving down the highway while the book is read out of order! As far as car trips go, both my children are older now and more set in their ways as to what kinds of books they like. They are now happier reading ebooks on their iPads than listening as a family to an audiobook.
Extraordinary Jane: 06/26/16
Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison is the story of a bichon frisé who lives with a circus. All the other dogs there are extraordinarily talented. But she's just Jane and she feels left out. She's worried that the ring leader will stop loving her if she can't learn a trick.
The circus is rendered in bright, primary colors, with the dogs doing all numbers of amazing tricks. Imagine cirque du chien. And there is Jane trying her best to pick up a trick and failing. There's a good mix of humor and pathos here.
Families are about unconditional love. As they should be. What Jane gets to learn is that she's a valued member of the family, not because she can do tricks, but because she's Jane.
I don't only post reviews: 06/25/16
For ten years now I have kept my promise of a book review each and every day. That's 365 or 366 posts every year. But sometimes there's more to talk about than just telling you about what I've read.
Sometimes I need to keep you updated on changes to the site. It could be improvements, new features, a redesign, or a new archive. Although I went cold turkey on accepting review copies in April 2015, I still receive a steady flow of offers. I always refer to my post: Why I'm no longer accepting review copies in my answer.
Then there are questions like, how do you read as much as you do? Or, how do you find the time to do what you do?
Since I like and need to refer back to articles I've written, I realized there is a need for an archive of my articles. So I've made one and added it the top navigation of the site.
In making the archive, I rediscovered a bunch of fun posts I made in the early days of this book blog. There were top ten lists and there were in depth but slightly cheeky readings of classic books, like Don Quixote, Swann's Way, and Ulysses. I'm planning to do a new series soon with the uncensored version of From Here to Eternity.
The Numberlys: 06/25/16
The Numberlys by William Joyce is a picture book about numeracy and literacy. Life for the numbers is orderly, regimented, and predictable. It's also dull as dishwater.
So the five intrepid heroes decide to do some civic disobedience. They take hammers and other tools to the numbers around them, to change them into something different.
Out of the chaos of creative expression comes a new way of expressing things: letters and thus words. With them comes color, names, and self expression.
Stylistically it's a gorgeous book. As dystopian, it's decent homage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I think it will appeal to children who have learned their numbers one to ten and are ready to learn their letters or maybe try their hand at reading.
But there's the nagging feeling that it's implying math is boring. That is an unfortunate side effect of this book. Math isn't boring. It isn't cut and dry, black and white. It requires the same sort of creativity as music or poetry to really make it work.
The Great American Whatever: 06/24/16
The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle opens with Quinn being dragged to the hardware store by his best friend to purchase a new AC. Quinn and his mother are barely functioning after the death of his sister and the abandonment of his father.
Quinn spends a lot of the first act bemoaning his name. I can only guess that his parents were fans of the 1990s show, Sliders and I chose to imagine this Hollywood film obsessed teen looking like Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell).
Anyway, Quinn begins to realize that he needs to come up with a plan for his life. He also meets a college student, Amir, who looks like a great summer fling. Quinn along with all his other worries, is also bummed that he's a sixteen year old virgin.
Given all the other things going on in his life, I find worrying about one's sex life the least probable. It's not that he can't or shouldn't fall in love, but his reasoning for pushing for it feels more like plot device than character development.
One thing that almost always bugs me in fiction is the inclusion of writing by the fictional characters. It very rarely reads like something different than how the author writes and it always serves as an interruption to the flow of the narrative.
Quinn's story is peppered with film script excerpts. In the context of the book, he uses these snippets as a coping method for when he's nervous, embarrassed, or depressed. We don't need to suffer through all his film script thinking to know this fact. I ended up either skimming or skipping these sections.
Lab Girl: 06/23/16
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a memoir about being a botanist and a woman in a male dominated field. Jahren weaves together stories of her life with observation about plants and trees.
Jahren has studied at the University of Minnesota, Berkeley, and worked at Georgia State, Johns Hopkins, and is currently at the University of Hawaii. Besides her research, her one constant has been her lab partner, Bill, a man she "didn't so much meet" as "identify" (p. 127).
I was mostly reading for the botany, for the interesting, unusual, or memorable stories of what makes plants tick. Much of the book though is dedicated to Jahren's working relationship and friendship with Bill.
Through thick and thin, including having no budget and being homeless, Bill has continued working along side Jahren. I'm not sure what his motivation is for sticking around.
There's a lot of brutal honesty about how tough research is, not the getting it done, but the finding the budget, the time for personal care and even eating, in the constant push to show progress, get results, apply for grants, etc.
But ultimately from this book I wanted more about plants. It's in the chapters about plants and trees that Jahren's writing comes alive. She's clearly passionate about her field.
The Marvels: 06/22/16
The Marvels by Brian Selznick is the latest hybrid of wordless picture book and traditional novel. This time it follows young Joseph who in 1990 runs away from his boarding school to live with an uncle he's never met. While there, he uncovers the story of Billy Marvel, a boy he believes washed overboard from a ship only to be rescued and later starts a family of thespians.
As with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstuck this is a huge book. Inside though, there's about four hundred pages of illustrations with no explanation, followed by a very short and slow to get started story, followed by another chunk of illustrations. The illustrations and text seem to be getting less and less integrated with each new volume and the over all contrapuntal narrative is suffering for this.
Eight years ago when Hugo was released, Selznick's dark sketches mimicking the old silent films of the frères Lumiere and, of course, Georges Méliès, were revolutionary. They were also the perfect way of telling a big piece of Hugo Cabret's story.
Wonderstruck also benefits from the Selznick's illustrations as they again stand in for silence, this time the silence of the world as perceived by the deaf characters.
The Marvels doesn't have as obvious a metaphor to require this hybridization of full page illustrations with text. Only until near the end of Joseph's story (the text part) is the point of the Marvels story revealed. This time, the illustrations are fictional. They are stand-ins for a series of drawings Uncle Albert has done, casting his lover in a heroic role.
As I've mentioned before, I generally dislike inclusions of work done by the fictional characters because whether they are done as illustrations, text, poetry, or something else, they very rarely are done in a style that matches the voice of that character. Basically they fail to be distinct from the author's narrator voice.
So it's just an amazing coincidence (cough cough) that Albert draws exactly like Brian Selznick even though his inspiration is a deeply personal one.
I'm also disappointed that there seems to be no growth in Selznick's art. He settled upon something that works in Hugo, adapted it slightly for Wonderstruck and did nothing further when creating the artwork for The Marvels. What was once revolutionary is now, stale. What should be fantastical depictions of Billy Marvel's misadventures at sea and his rise to fame back in London and his lasting legacy should be vibrant. These pictures should jump off the page.
But they don't. They are tied down to their pages by heavy cross hatching and dark gray borders. The strokes are all uniform. The lighting is all uniform. There is no drama and no fire (even when fire is portrayed).
The Shepherd's Crown: 06/21/16
The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett is the 41st and final Discworld book. Pratchett's daughter has stated many times that no one else will be given the opportunity to write books set in Discworld. After having now read the closing book I can see why she is so adamant. This book is the perfect closing for an epic series spanning 30 years.
Tiffany Aching who we first met as a plucky and determined young girl in Wee Free Men now reaches adulthood with adult responsibilities, the sorts of which some witches will never achieve in their lifetimes. And with responsibility comes the lesson that one must delegate. Of course when you're young you don't feel like can ask for help because you have to prove yourself, and you don't want to let anyone down. Tiffany falls repeatedly into that trap as so many of us do.
The Faery Queen also returns. Her part of the story is one I've read many times before, most recently in the American Fairy trilogy by Sarah Zettel, and Lilith Saintcrow's Trailer Park Fae. Except, of course, this version is grounded beautiful in the lore and environs of the Disc, and especially the Chalk.
And then they're Geoffrey who wants to be a witch. As laid out since the beginning of the series, men become wizards and women become witches. Although in Equal Rites a woman became a wizard, a man becoming a witch wasn't covered until now. I really wish in the end, Geoffrey had been given the title witch by the women he worked with. He proved himself as capable as Tiffany had at his age, and in someways, even more so, but they opt to make up a new title for him. That's my one and only quibble with this otherwise excellent concluding volume.
Everything's Amazing [sort of]: 06/20/16
Everything's Amazing [sort of] by Liz Pichon is the third of the Tom Gates series. It's writing in a mostly doodle format, very much like the Diary of a Whimpy Kid books, or Doodebug by Karen Romano Young.
I read this book in the context of the 2015-6 CYBILs for the middle grade fiction category. Keep in mind this book was going up against more text heavy, plot rich volumes. Really this book would have been better suited in the graphic novel category since it's more illustration than text.
Tom Gates is excited about entering his dog in a show, the upcoming School Disco, and of course, his birthday. His granny, though, wants to cook, and that's aparently a very bad thing. But it's a lot to throw at an unitiated person.
Take my rating with a grain of salt. This one star rating means I decided not to finish it. At a later date I will revist the series, starting with the first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates.
Dear Hank Williams: 06/19/16
Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt is an epistolary middle grade novel. Tate P. Ellerbee has a new teacher who wants the class to hone their letter writing skills. She has Japanese pen pals picked out for each child except it's 1948 rural Louisiana.
Frankly even as late as the 1980s there was anti-Japanese sentiment even in liberal California. How difficult it is to undo the affects of war, real or imagined.
Tate like many of her classmates ignores her teacher's request and picks out her own pen pal. While most children chose a friend or a relative, Tate decides to send fan mail to her favorite singer, Hank Williams.
So it is what it is. Fictional fan mail to Hank Williams. Descriptions of small town life in Alabama. Observations on race and racism. Slice of post WWII life.
It'll either be your thing or it won't.
On reading ebooks and digital fatigue: 06/18/16
EBook sales have been tracked since 2009. In a recent article in Publisher's Weekly (As E-Book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows by Jim Milliot, June 17, 2016) it's noted that ebook sales have declined in the last two years from a high of 36% of all units sold to 32%.
In the seven years that ebook sales have been tracked, I've read approximately 90 ebooks out of the 3315 books total I've read. Most of those books were egalleys read in 2009-2011. Things changed in 2015 when I realized I could get access to a bunch of older cozies I had meant to read as ebooks from my library. It was a great introduction to ebooks and a perfect way for me to get hooked. I need to give credit to whomever at my library (or their catalog vender) who started adding links to ebooks they access to.
One problem, though, with library ebooks is that they disappear after three weeks unless I manage to renew them. They aren't always renewable as there's only one digital copy available and multiple people wanting to read it. That gives the ebook a ticking time bomb feel to it which after a while gets to be stressful.
The second problem is that the library usually doesn't have access to the newest titles in a series. If they do, there's guaranteed to be a 40 person hold list. By the time my name comes up for an opportunity to download the copy, I've moved on to something else and don't have the time to schedule an unexpected ebook into my reading.
Another facet of my ebook reading is my road trip narrative project. Google Books and the Internet Archive have a number of the earliest road trip books for free download. Mind you, they've been OCRed so they have errors and glitches but it's still better than not being able to find the book.
Going back to my numbers, approximately 3% of my total books read since 2009 are ebooks. But if you look at this year alone, where I've actively started downloading and purchasing ebooks, I've read 15 and purchased 36.
A Study in Charlotte: 06/18/16
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro is the first in the new YA mystery series, Charlotte Holmes. Imagine if the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in A Study in Scarlet had been the start of two family legacies and a long standing tradition of there always being a Watson to keep a Holmes grounded. That's the idea behind this series.
It's the present day. It's Sherringford, CT. James "Jamie" Watson doesn't want to be here on a rugby scholarship. He doesn't want to be near his estranged father, his new wife and his much younger half siblings. But he is.
And he certainly doesn't want to be in the same private school with Charlotte Holmes. She has a reputation for a temper, for drug use, and for a police record.
When a student ends up dead in a way that mimics one of the original Holmes mysteries, Jamie and Charlotte are compelled to work together. Although the title is a direct reference to the first mystery it isn't a blow by blow reconstruction of it. It's more of a world building experience, outlying the histories of these two families, and the back stories of the two main characters.
I'm curious to read the next installment, The Last of August (2017). I hope now that the two are basically friends we'll get a more involved mystery.
The Mystery of the Scarlet Rose: 06/17/16
The Mystery of the Scarlet Rose by Irene Adler (pseudonym of Alesandro Gatti) is the third book in the Sherlock, Lupin & Io series. Originally published in Italian as Il mistero della Rosa Scarletta, it chronicles the third case young Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin, and Irene Adler solve together.
It's hard to write that with a straight face. Not because I'm scoffing, rather because I'm grinning. Sherlock Holmes and Irene Alder were created by Arthur Conan Doyle and while they had an in canon relationship, she's mostly just referred to as "the woman" and she's barely a character, more of a footnote. Yet Doyle's characters have taken on lives of their own in numerous adaptations and new novels by all manners of writer. Though Watson is mostly credited with writing down Sherlock's adventures, other companions have done so to, such as Mary Russell (Laurie R. King), so why not Irene Adler?
Then there's Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief, created by Maurice Leblanc in 1907. He's inspired his own stories and the very long running Lupin III anime in Japan. I adore the many different versions of Lupin III, though my favorite is the one from the 1970s.
My point is, here's a new bit of fan fiction, a love story if you will, to two different series from the earliest days of the pulp novel. It's just one of those happy mashups that you just have to run with.
Someone is murdering wealthy merchants in the posh neighborhoods of London. Meanwhile, someone else is posted a strange looking chess puzzles in the newspaper. The three friends quickly realize that the puzzles and the crimes are related. They decide to set out and find the murderer before he or she can strike again.
I read book three for the CYBILs and have since gone back and read the first two. The puzzles are fun and on a par with what are in the original stories. I think this series will appeal both to readers new to the characters and to long time fans.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part Three: 06/16/16
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part Three by Gene Luen Yang is the conclusion about the kidnapping of the children from the Fire Kingdom. By now we know who is behind it but Zuko and Aang are at odds with how to deal with the situation.
At the heart of things is a family in turmoil. The aftermath of previous Fire Lord's campaign has left Zuko family torn. The worst of the aftermath is boiling over to affect Zuko's mother and half sister.
What I like about this trilogy is that even the villains' actions are understandable in the greater context. The children, while pawns, aren't mistreated (beyond being kidnapped, of course), and aren't ever in serious danger. The children are loved and won't be sacrificed for some ideological cause.
The next sequence starts in September with Avatar: The Last Airbender: North and South Part One
Red Knit Cap Girl: 06/15/16
Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop is the story of a young girl who wants to meet the moon. She takes the advice of the animals of the forest but nothing seems to work. It's only when she accepts the futility of her dream that she actually succeeds.
The illustrations are gorgeous. Here's a book that would have benefited from being wordless. The accompanying text just isn't as magical.
Sure it's a valuable message to children — that they can't always get what they want. And that what they do get might be better than what they think they want, but all of that is more effectively portrayed in the drawings.
The Locksmith issue 2: 06/14/16
The Locksmith issue 2 by Terrance Grace explores more of the connection between Lucero, the recently deceased, and the Detective. Just as Mulder's troubled past with his sister molds who he is as an FBI agent, so does the Detective's abusive childhood.
While the first issue set the tone and focused primarily on Lucero's unusual and gruesome death, this one turns its focus on the Detective and on the bigger picture, namely the Locksmith's place in the universe.
Things are starting to come together and we're getting plot beyond the world building and tone setting. Issue three is in the works and I'm curious to see what happens next!
Dead Air: 06/13/16
Dead Air by Michelle Schusterman is the first of the Kat Sinclair Files, a tween horror mystery seriers. Kat Sinclair joins her father on location in Europe to film two episodes of Passport to Paranormal. The show has had a rocky start and some believe it's cursed.
In format Dead Air is similar to the 39 Clues or the TombQuest series. Except, this one, isn't tied to an online game. It's just the start of a really awesome tween horror series. Which means the book can be self contained, full of well rounded characters, with a diverse cast.
Kat herself is mixed race: Black father and White mother. She's struggling to define herself after her parents' separation. She's living with her dad and grandmother after her mom left to pursue her dreams of being a photographer. At the start of the book she has long, thick wavy hair, something her mother adores about her. But she wants shorter hair, something easier to care for. So she bobs her hair.
Then there's Oscar, the producer's nephew. Oscar is surly and a troublesome distraction. But he's not there to be the moody would be boyfriend. No. Thank goodness. He's coming to terms with being gay while worrying about his aunt's heart condition. Now Kat, her blog, and Oscar's rivalry, and the production companies history of accidents and other weird mojo would have been enough to make a riveting read. But there's also the question of ghosts. Was this series going to be a Scooby-Doo-esque one where it's adults dressing up as paranormal baddies or was it going to be a teen version of the Ghost Hunters series?
Actually it's sort of both. Or rather, it's like Scooby Doo in its Mystery Incorporated form with ghosts would could would be comfortable in the Victoria Laurie series. There's a lot packed into this first volume. I'm eagerly awaiting book 2: The Graveyard Slot.
Thai Die: 06/12/16
Thai Die by Monica Ferris is the twelfth of the Needlecraft Mysteries. Doris Valentine, a regular of the Monday Brunch, returns from a solo trip to Thailand. The trip has done her wonders and she's brought along souvenirs, including a standing Buddha wrapped in a nasty old rag. That one, though, she's brought back for a local antiques dealer.
Read enough cozies and this set up will send alarm bells blaring in the back of your head. It certainly did for me. The set up is nearly identical to Murder Under Cover (though in all fairness, Thai Die was published three years earlier, but I read second). There the item was a Kama Sutra and the rag was a scarf but the set up is otherwise the same.
Going into the same story, knowing what would be the motivation for the murder(s), I was very reluctant to continue reading. Thankfully here, the hook of the series — needlecraft — naturally draws the attention to the rag, rather than to the Buddha.
That said, the story felt more by the numbers than others in the Needlecraft Mysteries. Even if I hadn't recently read Murder Under Cover I would have still seen the plot coming. When something is smuggled in disguised as something that can be thrown away it naturally leads to a dangerous McGuffin driven plot. The real piece gets tossed away by the mule before the less important piece is delivered. The recipient so upset over the missing item goes on a murder spree, trying to track down the item. The growing body count threatens the well being of the protagonist and those close to them, so that they are forced to figure out what the murderer is really after and why.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City: 06/11/16
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle was published when I was first really getting into graphic novels. It was my second year as a CYBILs judge and I remember the debates about whether or not this book should be included. In the end, it wasn't, as it was written for an adult audience, even though it includes Delisle's children and could easily be read by teens.
Time passes and I just didn't get to the book but it's been sitting in the back of my mind. After reading Burma Chronicles and after wanting to pad my Canada book reading list, I decided to finally visit this book.
Guy Delisle is a Canadian comic book author and journalist who travels the world with this wife, a doctor for Doctors without Borders. As the spouse and caregiver for their children, he has a lot of time to explore the cities his wife is assigned to and these books are his reflections on the experience.
Delisle's book has first his attempt to settle in, his often abortive attempts explore the different parts of the city, then his worries as his wife is sent to Gaza, and his quiet relief when they are finally able to leave. As an atheist he remains fairly neutral on all the different cultures staking claim to the city and the surrounds.
You can see my live blogging of the book on Tumblr.
Ways to Disappear: 06/10/16
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey is the author's first novel after a number of poetry collections. Emma, a translator working in Pittsburgh, heads to Brazil when best selling author Beatriz Yagoda disappears. She was last seen smoking from up top a almond tree.
Emma's investigation takes her to Beatriz's home and to her family: a son and a daughter. The daughter while missing her mother, of course, doesn't want the help of a foreign interloper. The brother, meanwhile, can't get enough of her.
As the half assed investigation progresses we learn about Beatriz's novels, what she put into them of her personal life, and what she has kept secret. We learn that the wholesome Brazilian mother and wife as her publicist has portrayed her all these years has secrets and enemies.
But there's just not enough here. Rather, it's Beatriz Yagoda who is the most interesting character in the novel and she only really gets the first chapter. Emma, her American eyes and ears, is too timid and too respectful of her preconceived notions of Beatriz. Sure there is some tension between Emma's physical discomfort in being in a place she thinks she knows doesn't — it's just not enough.
It's a decent start though. If Novey writes a second novel, I will read it.
Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride: 06/09/16
Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley is about wedding planning and all the societal and familial baggage that goes with some an endeavor. It is told as all her previous memoirs, as a graphic novel. And I'll say up front that I loved every panel of it.
If my grandmother we still living, I would have given her a copy of this book. She worked for about fifteen years as a wedding coordinator, and came out of retirement to help plan mine (which she did primarily with soon to be spouse). For about five or so years I worked weekends and summers as her wedding coordinator assistant. I think I attended about a thousand weddings before I even had my first date.
My taken then on weddings is atypical of what the wedding industry thinks a bride-to-be's is or should be. It's not that I was jaded about the process but I had seen so many different versions of the same basic ceremony that I had no preconceived notion of what my ideal wedding would be or an internalized desire to have it just so.
Knisley being twelve years younger than I am spent her first decade as an adult during the time when there was a resurgence of feminist discourse. Add in the changing views of same sex marriage and the old school ideal wedding as sold by the wedding industry is a rather odd thing. Her memoir looks at some of the ingrained sexism of the ceremony as well as the funny way which otherwise long dead style trends just don't die in this industry.
Something New also dives into the individual parts of planning a wedding and a reception and the points where individual expectations can cause strife. For Lucy and her mother a big argument brewed over the music at the reception. She and her fiancé; wanted recorded music. Her mother wanted live music.
For me and my fiancé; we knew we didn't want dancing. We hired his brother's music teacher who was part of a small chamber orchestra. They played live music that was a mixture of classical and folk. It was quiet and atmospheric and low key, perfect for us.
And that's ultimately the point of this memoir. The wedding ceremony and reception serves two purposes. First it gets through the legalities of two people becoming a new familial entity but with some pomp and circumstance. Second it's a party for the closest of friends and family. These two purposes can be at opposition to each other and that's where compromising comes in.
You can see my live blogging of favorite panels on Tumblr.
First Second recently announced that Lucy Knisley is working on her newest graphic novel memoir titled Kid Gloves.
Twenty nine years of being a reader: 06/08/16
Today marks the close of my 29th year of being a serious reader. I mean serious in the sense of tracking what I read. Keeping lists. Wanting to remember what I've read and when I read it. Last year I shared the tale of my handwritten diaries. This year I'll look more at my goals and how those have evolved over time.
Twenty years into the list keeping (June 2008), I decided to see how I was fairing. I had already long since covered my goal of reading more than 1000 books. That happened in my senior year of college (1995) with The Polish Tradition by Paul Super. So decided to extrapolate at my then current rate of reading to see how far I could get assuming I live to be 100. The number I came up was 15706.
Not quite 30 years in, I'm now at 7635. As you can see, I'm more than 12 years ahead of my initial estimate. It's not that I'm doing nothing but reading. I also volunteer in my community, I paint, I do the usual things a parent does. Reading is there for the times when I'm not doing other things.
This last year I read 335 books, down a little from the year before but in keeping with my GoodReads goal of 300 books a year.
The year opened with me finishing a re-read of Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Bloom. You'll see from the review date, that it took me ten months from finishing to posting the review. My last book for this year is Kraken by Wendy Williams. So maybe I'll get Kraken reviewed by spring next year.
Doctor Who: The Nameless City: 06/08/16
Doctor Who: The Nameless City by Michael Scott is the second novella in the 50th anniversary collection of Doctor Who stories. Time it's the Second Doctor and Jamie on an adventure.
Anyone who has read Lovecraft will recognize the title. While Lovecraft's ancient and evil city lies at the edge of an Arabian desert, the Doctor and Jamie find theirs at the edge of the known universe. It's probably out there with Milliways and the Me's Diner.
They get there as everyone does, with instructions in the Necronomicon, an evil book that only falls into certain hands. Given Jamie's repeat history of bumping into things, it's no surprise that he'd be the one set up to pass the book to the Doctor.
It's a fun story, good for fans who want a nostalgic and pulpy romp. There's not the same glimpses of the Doctor as a complete person, transcendent through time and regenerations as we did with A Big Hand for the Doctor by Eoin Colfer.
The Fourteenth Goldfish: 06/07/16
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm is about a family turned upside down when the grandfather shows up at the door, suddenly much younger. Eleven year old Ellie is still coming to terms with falling out of friendship with her bestie and the recent revelation that her ancient goldfish was actually the 14th in a long line of surreptitiously replaced fish. Now with her grandfather being physically not much older than she is but still acting like the old grouch he's always been is just too much.
So there is Ellie at the bottom of pecking order watching her single mother and her once elderly father duking it out. Grandpa Melvin doesn't like how his daughter runs the house, how she puts out the garbage, how she waters the lawn, etc. Ellie meanwhile just wants peace and quiet and can't find any.
While on the one hand The Fourteenth Goldfish is an X-Files like story of a man making himself younger in appearance (though not in attitude or prejudices), it's also an examination of the family dynamic. The parenting generation is often faced with the reality of also having to care for their aging parents. Even without rare jellyfish DNA, dementia and other diseases turn once capable parents into child-like adults.
Reading Up a Storm: 06/06/16
Reading Up a Storm by Eva Gates is the third of Lighthouse Library mystery series. In my review of Booked for Trouble, I expressed concerns about the believability of the set up for the series (a fictional re-imagining of an actual light house in North Carolina). Now I'm deciding the series is just fun to read and not to be taken too seriously.
Lucy Richardson, the onsite librarian, sees a ship in distress during a particularly bad thunder storm. She calls the coast guard, reports it, and figures that's it. Of course, this being a mystery series, that's not the end of it.
A man ends up dead at the rescue site, though not on the same day. A friend is accused. And Lucy is once again up to her armpits in suspects.
What made this volume especially fun was the way it poked good natured fun at some of my other favorite series. The lighthouse being a historical place has a reputation for being haunted, or near a haunted location. Bodie's proximity to Duck gives another opportunity.
Let me explain...
In Reading Up a Storm there's a character who is a self described spiritualist and ghost hunter, Louise-Jane. That's one letter off from another Southern born ghost hunter, namely Mary Jane Holliday (M.J.) from the Ghost Hunter mystery series. Later in the book, Lucy's investigation leads her up to Duck, the home of the Missing Pieces series by Joyce and Jim Lavene.
Those little nods to other series I've been following made this book more fun.
The Last Days of California: 06/05/16
The Last Days of California by Mary Miller could just as easily be called Grapes of Rapture. A family of four is making a last minute road trip from Alabama to California on the belief that the end of days are approaching in four days and only true believers who make the pilgrimage will be spared.
The book is narrated by the youngest daughter who knows secrets about the rest of her family but manages to keep them to herself. She knows her evangelist father is out of work. She knows her mother is unhappy. She knows her sister is pregnant.
Each chapter is a day in their trip, starting in Texas. It's a blue highways journey through areas hit hard by the recession. Each place they stop is more down market from the last.
I read this book for my road narrative project. California, or more generically, the west coast, is often the goal of a road trip story. Here California is a literal promised land much as it was in Grapes of Wrath except that the book is only focused on the journey there, not on the consequences of arriving.
And as it's just the trip, which is obviously going to fail from the get-go, the book begins to drag. The narrator isn't invested enough in the purpose of the journey to sell it.
PopCo by Scarlett Thomas has been on my to be read wishlist since it was first published. I'm sure I heard about it on BookCrossing from one of my many British friends. In 2004, though, I was also swamped in a recent move, a new job, and a very active toddler. That year I managed (by my present day standards of reading) a meager 175 books and most of those were ones I read to my son.
In the twelve years since it came out, I've maintained my desire to read it, though the reason behind it has long since vanished into the miasma of forgotten memories. By the time I got around to reading Popco all I remembered about wanting to read it was that I loved the cover art and was intrigued by the title.
Yes, I could read the blurb. I could read reviews. But there's something fun about reading blind. I think that stems from all the old books I've purchased used and read without out the benefit of blurbs.
So, PopCo, where does one begin? At its most basic, it's about a game designer stuck at an all hands offsite retreat. She has deadlines for a new line of spy toys she's designing. Now she's at this idiotic retreat with all her coworkers, expected to upthink the company, branding, and to get into the head of their most difficult to design for customer: the teenage girl.
But it's more than that. There are long, fascinating passages about cryptography and cryptanalysis. There are how-tos for some of the best known, most used systems. Deeper down, there is the story of a coded pirate treasure map. And it's all tied together with her memories of being raised by her grandparents, a grandfather who was a hobby cryptanalyst and her grandmother, who worked alongside Alan Turing in WWII.
And that's still just the surface of the book. It's layers upon layers of social commentary that is still relevant, even if some of the details are now dated (such as there never being a computer who can win at Go, nor can there ever be robots that walk upright).
Romance of the Road: 06/03/16
Romance of the Road by Ronald Primeau is an examination of the road narrative, especially American ones from the 20th century. Primeau offers up a bunch of different reasons for the continuing fascination with road trips, both in taking them and reading about them (either real or fictional). All the different reasons, though, boil down to "the appeal is in... the carnivalesque disruption of the ordinary" (p. 15)
Of especial interest to me was Primeau's lengthy analysis of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a book I read during the hiatus of this road trip project. Keroauc's work is also the inspiration for the first season of Supernatural, a television series I am deconstructing as part of this project.
While the literary analysis in Romance of the Road is in depth and fascinating, there is at least one whopper of an incorrect fact in the history part of the book relating to the earliest days of automobile tours.
The earliest road trips were done for research (testing equipment), exploration, military transport, or public relations (advertising the new car). Some extreme enthusiasts built upon the these early expeditions to do their own record breaking feats — for instance touring an entire hemisphere or even the entire world.
When I say "around the world" you probably think "in eighty days." Now the next question. Who made that trip in Jules Verne's book? If you said "Phineas" you are incorrect; his name was Phileas Fogg. Clearly the author knew the Phineas / Phileas thing but in researching the early trips, found a quote about Gastone Steigler beginning a driving tour of Europe in which he's compared to Jules Verne creation, "Phineas Fogg" and then conflated that quote with one about the American couple Charles and Laura Glidden who spent eight years driving around the world for a grand total of 46,528 miles.
So reader beware. This book is great for literary analysis and sketchy at best for historical fact checking. You can follow my live blogging of the book on Tumblr.
American Road: 06/02/16
American Road by Pete Davies is a history of the first transcontinental drive of the United States from Washington DC to San Francisco. Along with the truck and automobile caravan is the story of the planning, funding, and building of the first interstate highways.
My interest in the American road trip is at the point of intersection between the road, the machine, the road markings, and popular culture. There are, of course, men and women behind the creation of these pieces but I am less interested in them as driving forces than I am in the ways their creations have affected the American narrative.
American Road though is focused almost entirely on the biggest names behind the history including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Fisher, and others. As a war hero and president, Eisenhower gets top billing even though his role here was more one of observer than leader.
If this book is to be taken at face value, then Eisenhower's participation in the transcontinental journey was part of a greater manifest destiny that could only, should only, result in the modern day freeway system that in part bears his name.
The reality is that the freeway design and building process is far more complex and involved than a single person (even a future president) being in the right place in the right time.
Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 2: Feasts of Fury: 06/01/16
Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 2: Feasts of Fury by Eric Colossal continues where the previous book left off. Rutabaga having helped the king with his magical creature is ready for adventure and leaves in search of new recipes and adventurers to cook for.
Anything can be a good recipe (assuming it's not poisoned) and Rutabaga is willing to try any recipe at least once, even if that involves cooking with spider webs. His skills as a cook also help him see what's wrong with the presentation of food (even if it's a fictional one). But sometimes even a brave cook gets into the fire too and gets to be the hero.
Plotwise, Feasts of Fury reminds me of a happy mixture of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (with nods to Shakespeare) and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (also with nods to Shakespeare), but with Rutabaga being the minor character suddenly thrust into the leading role. Rutabaga, though, with his bald head, big ears, and expressive eyes also brings to the role a certain Aang-ness (without the special avatar abilities, unless he's the avatar of adventure cooking).
Rutabaga's adventures and misadventures are tied together with hilarious reaction shots to whatever's going on, or to a failed recipe, or to hearing a really bad or stupid or dangerous idea.