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July 2016

Rating System

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

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Buttons and Bones: 07/31/16

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris is the 14th book in the Needlecraft series. Lars and Jill have bought a cabin in the woods with Betsy's help. On their first night there with the kids they discover a long buried secret in a trapdoor hidden under two layers of flooring.

Here we have a cold case dating back to WWII. It's stale by seven decades. Finding anyone who remembers anything about the cabin and its history will be hard.

After the problematic set up of Blackwork it was refreshing to get back to a mystery that wasn't built on characters suddenly being superstitious. Here instead is a classic mystery where questions need answers, clues need discovery, and the entire puzzle needs to be put together.

Five stars





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Far from Fair: 07/30/16

Far from Fair by Elana K. Arnold

Far from Fair by Elana K. Arnold is a complex novel about family sacrifice wrapped up in a road trip narrative. Odette is making a list of THINGS THAT AREN'T FAIR because her whole life is being turned upside down. Her parents have sold their house, sold most of the family possessions and stuffed the remaining things into an ugly brown RV. Odette's Mom says that she and her brother will be "living their education" (p. 62).

In my research into the road narrative, the prototypical road trip is one starting from New York and following the old Lincoln Highway route (more or less) and ending in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Or it starts from Chicago and follows the old Route 66, one that probably many an American name the entire route, thanks to the song of the same name.

In this mindset, there is little thought given to anyone interested in going anywhere other than California, and certainly it would be anathema for a Californian to want to leave to head anywhere else, unless they were in a rural portion of the state and wishing to reach the promised land San Francisco, Los Angeles (Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, or San Diego (Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White).

For those Californians that do wish to leave the state for a road trip, the assumption is that the route will be taken in reverse to either Chicago or to New York (Across the Continent by The Lincoln Highway by Effie Price Gladding).

For those of us living in California and partaking in road trips, the natural flow of things isn't East, it's North into Oregon and Washington. Heading East requires a lot of back tracking to first get to an interstate that crosses the mountains or by passes them through one of the southern valleys. The options are I8 (for San Diegans), I10 or I40 (for Angelinos) or I80 for the Bay Area.

Far From Fair takes the natural flow, I5 through the San Joaquin Valley over to the 101 in North Bay to the Oregon Coast to avoid Grants Pass. Sure it has the Grapevine but the Grapevine for Californians is like a rite of passage.

As Odette and her family travel north, she's given time to ruminate on her new reality. She starts angry. She has all these emotions that as a tween she's struggling to process. She knows that her father made a noble sacrifice to save the jobs of three lesser paid employees but she doesn't understand why she should be happy at this sudden upheaval.

Each new location, though, each mile between her old life and her new life gives lessens the initial blow and gives her newfound perspective. With nothing else to do but watch the road and the changing landscape, Odette is transformed by the road.

And then in the final act, the road trip takes a pause on a small island in Puget Sound, Orcas Island. Here is the reason behind her father's sudden decision. It is ultimately a chance for Odette's family to say goodbye to her grandmother. So wrapped up in the metaphor of road trip to list of injustices that I wasn't expecting a story about cancer and the right to die (a law now also on the books in California as of June 9th, 2016).

Like Polly Horvath's Vacation, the book has an open ended conclusion. Elana K. Arnold doesn't tell us if Odette and her family chose to stay on Orca's Island or to continue their trek in the RV. In my imagination, they split the difference: taking over the shop but keeping the RV for trips later on.

Five stars

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Photography of Natural Things: 07/29/16

Photography of Natural Things by Freeman Patterson

Photography of Natural Things by Freeman Patterson is a collection of essays on how to capture meaningful and beautiful photographs of nature.

For the most part, this book offers practical advice for how to engage with nature through the act of photography. One doesn't have to go to the remotest of places to find subjects. There is nature to be found in the city and in one's home.

But when it comes time to talk equipment, there's an unfortunate arrogance. There's an impatience for anyone who doesn't have what he considers the base essentials for photography. Forget digital too (although this part could be a result of the book being a decade old).

My other quibble with the book is the lack of plates. It's a book on nature photography and it has only a dozen photographs. Most of the subjects the author discusses in his essays aren't represented!

Three stars





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The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway: 07/27/16

The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway by Karal Ann Marling

The Colossus of Roads by Karal Ann Marling is a short and intimate study of the oversized roadside attractions in the author's home state (as well as some surrounding states). One of the classic road trip tropes is the stopping at all these different oddly shaped buildings to see them, photograph them, and buy postcards of them. Nowadays that would also include taking selfies with them.

What I hadn't appreciated before reading Marling's book was how regional these structures are. There are a few in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, mostly along the older US Highway routes, rather than the Interstates but nothing in the density of the Great Plains.

The star of these colossi is of course, Paul Bunyan. He of the tall tales is a standard subject of the roadside attraction, so much so that among the handful of ones I can think of near me, he and Babe are there more than once. California has a pair at the Trees of Mystery and Oregon has another in Portland. Interestingly both of our west coast examples are taller than the one featured in Marling's book. Paul Bunyan is even included in the opening animation for Gravity Falls.

While I enjoyed the very localized history of the roadside attraction, I'm still testing the waters to see if there is enough here to make it a serious part of my project. By this I mean, there seems to be very little in the way of serious analysis or history of these attractions. The books I've read (with the exception of The Colossus of Roads) are more like A to Z guides to them (where they are and what they offer) or are lengthy interviews with the people who live near them.

Three stars

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The Land of Forgotten Girls: 07/26/16

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly is set in New Orleans. Sol and Ming, young Filipinas, live with their stepmother, after being abandoned by their father. Originally they lived with their mother and sister until their tragic deaths five years ago.

Sol, the eldest, wishes to make a better life for herself and her sister. She works with the stories their mother told and crafts her own as she slowly but surely manages to make friends.

The story of Sol and Ming is a rather quiet one. It's told through a collection of episodes. Sol befriends a girl after accidentally beaning her in the head with a pinecone. There's the Beast who guards the junkyard. The is the elderly Chinese lady who lives upstairs who understands English but choses not to speak it.

In a way it reminds me of a tween version of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Sol and Ming, though, have no one coming for them.

Five stars






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Painting with a Lens: 07/25/16

Painting with a Lens by Rod Deutschmann

Painting with a Lens by Rod Deutschmann and Robin Deutschmann is another of the many photography books I've read recently as a way to hone my craft. This one teaches photographers how to stop relying on the automatic settings and explore the options available through manual shooting.

I've been a photographer most of my life, learning with my grandmother's cameras and moving on to my own. Since 2012, I've been using an Olympus Pen Micro 4/3 camera, my first time having a camera with interchangeable lenses and the freedom to really explore a wide range of photographic techniques previously difficult or impossible with point and shoot cameras.

I have to admit that early on in Painting with a Lens I was seriously considering throwing the book across the room. I didn't because it was a library book and I really do want to improve my photography. There are lots of good tips here but they should be taken with a sense of humor.

Why the negative reaction? The Deutschmanns have an abrasive tone of voice. Many how-to books start by the author bragging about their superiority and expertise. When technology's involved (say camera equipment, for instance), the bragging can get extremely unpleasant fast. This comes in the form of: my set up and my method is the ONLY way to do it properly; If you don't follow my way, you are a poser and should be ashamed.

In photography the "correct method" divides along a line of: strictly in camera (with specific set up, usually a specific type of camera and tripod) vs. a fast and loose approach (handheld, automatic or presets, with lots of photo editing on the computer). Old books also get into the film vs. digital fight with supporters in equal amounts on either side of the argument.

The Deutschmanns are firmly, unapologetically in the "manual camera only" camp, though they are interestingly, not strictly pro-tripod. They suggest carrying a variety of beanbags to hold the camera against things available on location (walls, rocks, etc). Where I take exception to their advice is on the "no touch up in the computer" part of their thesis. Whether it's on a computer or in the darkroom, photographers have been fiddling with their results in the printing to paper stage for as long as there have been cameras. It is part of the creative process.

Once I got over arguing about post-processing with the book (which is silly because books don't talk back), I settled down to read the rest of the book to see if there was some useful (to me) advice.

There was: the importance of working in a fully manual mode. In all honesty, until I read Painting with a Lens, I hadn't made any attempts to turn of auto focus. I had been playing with apertures, shutter speeds, and white balance in camera, but not actually focusing my photos myself. In the nearly three years I'd had my PEN, I hadn't figured out how to turn off autofocus. So, I made that my new goal.

Oh my goodness. The world opened anew for me. I could finally see with my camera the way I wanted to. It was an empowering and frightening experience.

Three stars

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Twenty Yawns: 07/24/16

Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley

Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley is the about the long unwinding after an exciting day out. Lucy and her parents have been to the beach. They had a fun time and at the end of the day it's time to go home.

Lucy's parents, worn out from a full day of play in the salt sea air, fall asleep easily. Lucy, on the other hand, young and still at that age where everything is amazing, can't get to sleep.

The back half of the book, then, and the portion with most of the titular yawns, is about Lucy's night time adventures in the house as she struggles to get to sleep. Although the setting is different, I could immediately relate to Lucy's problem.

When I was about her age my parents took me to Idyllwild, one of the mountain communities within an easy drive from San Diego. After a full day of playing in the snow, exploring the Strawberry Creek, being allowed to drink hot chocolate with whip cream on top, etc., I could not get to sleep even after my parents were sound asleep. I could see the day's events playing before my eyes like a hologram. If I had been home, rather than in a rented a-frame cabin, I would have done as Lucy does, and gathered up all my favorite toys to bring back to bed.

Though not mentioned as a plot point in the text, the illustrations show Lucy as biracial.

Five stars





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Umbrella: 07/23/16

Umbrella by Taro Yashima

Umbrella by Taro Yashima is a charming story about a young girl eager to try out her new rain boots and umbrella. The only problem is that she has to wait for the weather to change.

It does of course finally rain and Momo gets to wear her boots and carry her umbrella. She has to be careful with the umbrella and carry it just so, just as her parents have taught her. She's nervous and excited. She doesn't want to break or lose her umbrella but she also wants to be the big girl her parents say she is and use it!

This is a story about anticipation and excitement, patience and persistence, and finally responsibility.

I read it because the story is now included in the 4th grade ELA text books. My daughter read it in that form and was eager to re-read it in its original form.

Four stars





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Blackwork: 07/22/16

Blackwork by Monica Ferris

Blackwork by Monica Ferris is the thirteenth book in the Needlecraft Mystery series. One of Betsy's Monday Brunch club is a practicing Wiccan and while that's never been a problem before, someone has started spreading rumors about her practicing black magic. Then a frienemy of hers is found dead in his his locked room and everyone wants to believe that Leona Cunningham, brewery owner and Wiccan, put a curse on him.

The vitriol spewed over Leona's religion seemed out of place for the characters caught up in it. Sure Betsy is a regular church goer as are a number of her friends but the church as described doesn't seem like the place that would foster such paranoia.

Ignoring the idiotic Halloween themed set up, Ryan's death in a closed room is an interesting, albeit, recognizable mystery. Closed room mysteries are the meat and potatoes of the genre. The question then becomes what was put in the room before he got there and how does it work to leave little or no trace of itself?

Basically this book's main flaw is its holiday theming. Get enough books in a series and there's always the temptation (publisher's demands?) for holiday themed plots. Sure, a holiday themed book can be put on display at the appropriate time in bookstores and libraries. But these holiday themed books more often than not feel forced.

Blackwork is one of those books that except for the witchcraft paranoia leading up to Halloween, doesn't need to be set at any particular time of the year. Betsy working on the fall festival committee could be doing this in almost any of the books in this series. Even the title isn't specific to Halloween; it's a type of very careful stitchery done against a contrasting (typically, though blue on blue is apparently also acceptable) background. It's something that would be stylish any time of the year.

Four stars

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No Ghouls Allowed: 07/21/16

No Ghouls Allowed by Victoria Laurie

No Ghouls Allowed by Victoria Laurie is the ninth Ghost Hunter book. M.J. and Gilley head back home to Valdosta, Georgia because M.J.'s dad has gotten engaged. While there, though, a vicious spirit begins tormenting her family and specifically targeting M.J.

Things get even worse when a skeleton is discovered hidden inside the walls of one of the home M.J.'s future mother in law is having renovated. Anyone who enters runs the risk of being a target or being possessed.

This is my favorite in the series since Ghouls, Ghouls, Ghouls. The cold case and its ramifications for M.J.'s family is both fascinating and gut wrenching. The ghosts this time are genuinely scary, making No Ghouls Allowed a great horror mystery.

Five stars





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The Missing Ink: 07/20/16

The Missing Ink by Karen E. Olson

The Missing Ink by Karen E. Olson is the first of the Tattoo Shop mystery series. I think it's been on my wishlist since 2011. It was recommended to me by a post on Dollycas's Thoughts a blog I used to follow. Thanks to my library now offering access to a wide range of ebooks through two different services, I was finally able to dive in.

Brett Kavanaugh is a classically trained artist with a specialty in Impressionism. She's turned her talents to being a tattoo artist and she runs her own parlor. She's dragged into a murder investigation when a client goes missing.

Of course she's tied to a high powered family one with influence in Vegas. Kavanaugh's knowledge of tattoos and tattoo artists in the area and her ties to the LVPD makes it impossible for her to leave things alone.

In terms of location or main character it's not my typical cozy. Las Vegas just isn't on my radar. Gambling isn't my thing. And although I'm a librarian, I don't sport any tattoos. Nonetheless the book was fun enough to warrant checking out the second book in the series. There are four books total so changes are very good that I'll read it to completion.

Four stars





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The Isle: 07/19/16

The Isle by Jordana Frankel

The Isle by Jordana Frankel is the sequel to The Ward. Ren and Aven have survived their ordeal in the Ward but now they are separated. Aven, having been cured by hidden spring has engendered the ire of both the governor and the Tètai, the guardians of the spring.

In The Ward the chapters are marked by the day and time, counting down to the amount of time Aven has left given the severity of her illness. This book does the same but there isn't the immediate need to race against the clock. Yes, the different sides are circling around the spring but they could have just as easily reached a stalemate. The countdown is one of narrative convenience than necessity.

The story this time is told from alternating points of view: Ren and Aven's. In the first book we come to know Ren intimately. She is the first person narrator. Here because Aven is recovered she gets her own first person perspective chapters. This does allow the narrative to cover more ground but narrationally, it's unnecessary.

You can read the book as written. Or you can skip Aven's chapters as everything that happens in them is relayed into Ren's. The Isle despite the parallel chapter structure is still Ren's story.

I read The Isle as a follow-up to The Ward because of it's location and it's dystopian rendering of New York and Jersey City as drowned cities. In a world where the starting points of the classic road trip narrative are underwater, there can be no escape. The city becomes a prison.

The means of egress from the Ward to the Isle where the wealthy live away from the brack and the threat of the virus (though it does exist here too) is through the old tunnels once used by cars or once used to carry water. But crossing the water to the old mainland isn't really much of a road trip and there's little sense of a world that exists beyond these two flooded cities.

As there is no outside threat to these two cities, The Ward and The Isle can't really count as "the road not taken" stories. The threat instead is a one that was manmade, one that took advantage of a natural disaster to put an already vulnerable population in a situation they could not escape from. It was population and resource control.

Three stars

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Playing Pokémon Go as a parent: 07/18/16


Pokémon Go was released in the United States on July 7th. It's essentially a re-skinned Ingress. Everything that was a BFD in Ingress is now either a Poké Stop or Gym. Although I never played Ingress, my husband did and I'm familiar enough with the map to know where to look while playing (at least locally).

At the time we were nearing the end of our nine day road trip through the American southwest. We were in Flagstaff, relaxing before our drive to Lake Havasu — a rare point in our trip where we could leave late in the morning. Capturing virtual creatures on an actual road trip seemed counterintuitive, so I waited to install it until we got home.

My initial plan to play it was to add it hikes where I know the route well and have gotten bored of photographing the same areas. I thought that chasing and hunting for Pokémon would encourage me to go further. But I ran into a couple snags with that plan.

First and foremost, I really hate walking around with my phone out all the time. Now I could have set it to allow push notifications but I don't want my phone going off at all hours just because a Pokémon spawned.

Haruyuki Arita is a pretty good stand in for what I looked like that first day playing Pokémon Go

Haruyuki Arita is a pretty good stand in for what I looked like that first day playing Pokémon Go

Augmented reality always makes me think of the anime series (and light novels), Excel World. And like the main character, I am short and round. In the reality part of augmented reality, I stick out. At least I don't have to yell "Burst Link!" to make the game go.

The next big problem, is that my youngest is too young to have her own Apple ID. So her iPad is linked to my account. So the instant I installed it on my phone, the App Store told her about it. Like Ingress, Pokémon Go requires a cell signal and GPS connection. Her iPad has neither and she was crushed.

And then it hit me. She's nearly ten and I'm not. Why not play with her? I suggested to her that I be Brock (or Mama Brock as she has dubbed me) and she be Ash (or Asharriet as she dubbed the player character). Like Brock, I promised to provide snacks, keep her out of trouble, and transportation.

Hunting Pokémon at Sulphur Creek.

I thought we might be weird, a mother daughter Pokémon team. Maybe in some places we are, but here in the East Bay, we are normal. Since we've started playing we've seen six or so other parent/child teams.

    Family teams we've seen:
  • Mother, Father, and twin sons. One parent with each boy and their device (most likely the parents' cell phones)
  • older woman and high school aged girl, sharing a cell enabled iPad
  • Father and daughter walking to the library while hunting on his phone
  • Father and son hunting at the park

Pokémon Go offers us something extra to do at the local parks. My daughter wants to go hiking with me now even when there aren't puddles to jump in. She also gets to hunt from the passenger seat while I'm driving (en route to other events, not just to play).

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Cocaine Blues: 07/18/16

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood is the first of the Phryne Fisher mystery series, inspiration for the excellent Australian TV series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.

The book opens with Phryne solving a snatch and grab at a party she's attending before setting sail for Australia. The Great War has decimated her family suddenly elevating her scoundrel of a father to gentry. With Phyrne's newfound fortune she decides to head home and away from her father as quickly as possible.

Enjoying the excitement and satisfaction of solving a case, Phryne considers becoming a lady detective. I suspect though it was initially an idle thought until she finds herself thrust into a number of mysteries shortly after disembarking.

There are actually three mysteries: a friend who is probably being poisoned, a rapist doing dangerous abortions, and a turf war over cocaine imports. Now in the TV version, the emphasis is on the poisoning, beginning with the husband dropping dead in the bath. Here, the poisoning plot is tertiary to everything else which I found distracting since it was the part of the plot I remembered best.

The other big difference between the two is Dorothy, aka Dot, the young Catholic woman Phryne ends up employing as a personal assistant. Dot in the book, while still devout and chaste, is not the scared mouse she's portrayed as in the first episode. There's an idiotic scene in the TV show where Dot can't pick up the phone to answer because she's afraid of the electricity. It struck me then as out of character and now I can see that it was created for the TV show to tie together Dot's introduction to Phryne with the poisoning plot.

Anyway, it's a short, quick, and enjoyable read. I think it helps to see the series first to get a sense of the different characters as the book throws a lot at your in a very short number of pages.

Five stars

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The Friendship Riddle: 07/17/16

The Friendship Riddle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

The Friendship Riddle by Megan Frazer Blakemore is the story of a long forgotten scavenger hunt rediscovered by accident. Ruth Mudd-O'Flaherty is pretty much a loner at school, one of only two kids with same sex parents. She has two mothers and her ex-best-friend, Charlotte, has two fathers.

Charlotte has broken off their friendship because she feels like it's been forced by circumstances. She feels like their parents have forced them together into a friendship and she wants to go out on her own and make different friends.

Ruth, though hurt, also agrees with Charlotte. So she tries to play it cool as a lone wolf at the school now. She can't completely cut herself off from Charlotte as she and her fathers live in an apartment over the library.

Anyway, it's in the middle of all these hurt feelings that Ruth finds a clue in an old book. It's the distraction she so desperately needs and it takes her on a journey through her small town and it's history.

Typically in these sorts of treasure hunts, the clues, even when long forgotten, end up being found in order and where they were originally left. Also, frustratingly, the hunt, though it goes all over the place, usually ends up right at the beginning. Here, though, none of that is true. A big part of this book is the figuring out of how many clues there are, what order they go in, what they mean as a whole, and ultimately who left them.

It was also nice to see Ruth and Charlotte patch up their friendship into something more genuine through their collaboration on the treasure hunt. Charlotte with her easy access to the library had also found a clue and was on her own way through the puzzle. Better yet, it was seeing the girls make a wider range of friends, all who were interested in solving this old puzzle.

Five stars

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Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy: 07/16/16

Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught

Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught knows mental illness first hand. Her mother is bipolar and isn't managing it well. When the neighbor's house burns down, the locals suspect that Footer's mom is responsible.

Footer, though, suspects something else is afoot. With her few close friends she looks into the cause of the fire and the possible disappearance of two children living in the house. See the authorities believe they died in the fire. Footer though believes something else happened.

But then there's the nagging feelings of self doubt. What if everyone is just being nice to keep the crazy girl happy? What if Footer is destined to be as crazy as her mother?

I read this book on the heels of having seen the excellent New Zealand film Housebound. Footer Davis's story is a tween version set in the South. But the gist is the same: there are people taking advantage of a person's mental illness (and another one's perceived mental illness) to do bad things. Meanwhile, another person (or persons) is hiding in plain sight.

Three stars

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The Underwater Welder: 07/15/16

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is a graphic novel horror story of the Twilight Zone variety. Jack Joseph is happiest when he's underwater, working as a welder. The land, a remote village in Nova Scotia holds too many troubling memories, and the worry that he'll repeat the same mistakes as his father.

The back story of Jack and his father is revealed in scenes that are hard to distinguish as flash backs or as time travel. All of them center on a pocket watch Jack finds as he's working his last job before taking time off for paternity leave.

The pocket watch forces Jack to relive and remember the last time he saw his father. His father's fate relates directly to Jack's fears that he will abandon his wife and child in the same way.

Road signs in the abandoned town.

Although the book is set in a remote village and off shore this graphic novel through the geography of the village fits beautifully into the "road not taken" type of road narrative. Jack is imprisoned by circumstances (emotional, paranormal, and physical) in his town. Leaving is not an option and when he does try to literally run away, he is prevented by the main street looping in on itself (just as it does in Pleasantville (1998).

The only way to personal freedom is to face the fears head on. In Bone Gap, Finn's option is to cross through the cornfield. For Jack, it means diving, which is about as off road as you can possibly go.

Five stars

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The Inn Between: 07/14/16

The Inn Between by Marina Cohen

The Inn Between by Marina Cohen is about best friends having one last adventure together before they have to say goodbye. Quinn has been invited to travel along with her best friend, Kara, and her family, as they move to California. Quinn is still reeling from her sister's disappearance and she's not ready to let her friend go, so on their road trip, Quinn and Kara have tied their friendship bracelets together.

The trip should have taken seventeen hours. Rule number one of long distance driving is don't drive past the point of exhaustion. It doesn't matter if you have two drivers or a car full of drivers. Those not driving won't be well rested. A car is rarely a comfortable place to sleep.

A couple times my husband and I have done the drive to Portland, Oregon in a single day — a trip that is twelve hours from our door to our favorite hotel, with an hour break for a meal at the halfway point. By about hour nine we always regret our decision. So my first thought here is what in the blue blazes are Kara's parents thinking?

Just outside the California border, things start going weird. Even cars need time to cool down. An over worked car and an over tired driver is a terrible combination. At the point where no one feels they can go any further, they spot an old hotel (think the house behind the Bates Motel) cleverly, although not so subtly, named the Inn Between.

The Inn is staffed by two people with obvious names to anyone familiar with Greek mythology. Although the big picture of what's going on is obvious, the fun is in the details, both in the creepy atmosphere of the inn and in the way different characters are affected by their time there.

Five stars

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Across the Continent by The Lincoln Highway: 07/13/16

Across the Continent by The Lincoln Highway by Effie Price Gladding

Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway by Effie Price Gladding is among a handful of early modern-day road trip memoirs. Effie and her husband traveled first in a long circle of California and then across the continent on the Lincoln Highway, a road which is now taken up by a number of other routes including HWY 30, I80, I580 and others.

I read the book primarily for the Lincoln Highway connection as the first named intercontinental highway. Having a California tour as well gives an interesting view of road tripping from a California point of view.

Though none of the roads that have made California famous for its car centered culture are in this memoir, the standard stopping points are. Imagine if you will, an unnumbered dot-to-dot where the historical solution is something unrecognizable even if the dots are connected in the same order.

As a Californian, I found this Garden State resident's observations fascinating. She had things she liked: the informal practicality of the people she met, the organic farms, the all-night eateries, and the beautiful landscapes. She also had things she didn't like: green tea, the hills, and the heat.

Her comments on the Bay Area were especially fascinating, showing how little the area has changed (despite every generation bemoaning how much it has). Her observation of the post earthquake gentrification: "They have done all this on borrowed money and loaded themselves with heavy mortgages, trusting to the future and to fat years to pay off their indebtedness" sounds remarkably like the post Loma Prieta reconstruction and the current real estate madness. Meanwhile the East Bay she describes as the bedrooms of San Francisco.

Of all the major cities that one drives through to go from the Bay Area to Southern California, Los Angeles is the most notably different. Rather it is notable for its near absence. Gladding's road trip happened just as the east coast and midwest film studios were converging on Los Angeles as their new head quarters. Though Hollywood existed as a sleepy community in the hills separating Los Angeles from Burbank. The Hollywoodland sign was five years away from construction.

In the hilly incline from Ventura County to Los Angeles County along present day HWY 101, there is a constant push back and forth between Ventura and Los Angeles as metropolitan entities. Back in Gladding's day, there were numerous smaller (though still respectably sized) towns that are now only distant memories remembered by street names that traverse the areas where they once were.

Then down in San Diego my interest piqued again because Gladding describes a trip to Julian. Julian is the apple capital of California. It's a funny little town that is easy to miss with an obsession for apples and a reputation for being wickedly haunted. Sometimes I've even heard it described as Brigadoon, being a town that only materializes to the rest of the world when its apples are in season.

In Gladding's time, Julian was still apple obsessed and still hard to find but not haunted because it was too new.

On our way to Julian, a few miles from the little town, by mistake we turned left instead of right and had a long wandering through a great mountain country. The roads were narrow, twilight was coming on, and we found ourselves in a seemingly endless forest. (p. 69)

But most interestingly was her loving description of staying at the Robinson Hotel, aka the Gold Rush Hotel. Mr. Robinson, one of the two grudge ghosts of Julian doesn't sound like grudge ghost material the way the author describes him. Maybe he just doesn't like the fact that his hotel has been renamed?

I know I've rambled on about the California portion of Gladding's memoir, but it does take up half the book and is the part I am personally most familiar with. The remainder of the book then is the actual Lincoln Highway trip.

The Lincoln Highway as described in the book of the same title by Michael Wallis was never a straight forward, well defined highway. It had numerous detours and diversions especially in areas of dispute. It seems that it was matter of pride among Lincoln Highway travelers to take as many of the detours as possible.

This part of the book is mostly a gradient of things slowly transitioning from West Coast to East Coast, unfamiliar to familiar. It's also about the difficulties of driving cross country when both car and interstate highway were still new concepts. Gladding's original car lasted only to Denver, the remainder of the trip being done with an entirely new one.

Five stars

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Bone Gap: 07/12/16

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is about a pair of brothers trying to make a living in a tiny farm town in Illinois. First their mother left for Oregon. Then Sean's girl friend, Roza was kidnapped. Except no one in Bone Gap believes Finn and he can't describe the person he saw.

Bone Gap is described as a road into town, surrounded on all sides by corn. The corn itself a living prison wall. It serves the same purpose as the Hall of Egress in the Adventure Time with Finn and Jake season seven episode of the same title. It serves to keep the residents of Bone Gap prisoners of their own town, even if they don't recognize their situation.

Finn, who I couldn't help but picture as Jeremy Shada (the voice of Finn in Adventure Time, is aware of Bone Gap's sinister side because he's witnessed two people leave. His mother went willingly, Roza did not. But Bone Gap is good at making people forget.

What I didn't expect when I started the book was how it would so beautifully fit into the "urban vs. rural" part of my road narrative project.

There is a subset of stories I've decided to call "The Road Not Taken" where the threat to a town is from the outside visitors. These stories are often supernatural horror with an outside force being magical or demonic, as is the case in Roza's kidnapping.

Often as well, there is one character, the protagonist, who is aware of the visitors' true nature and is able to see things that allow them to take advantage of the supernatural goings on in the village. That's certainly the case here with Finn and the corn of Bone Gap.

Five stars

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Baby Driver: A Story About Myself: 07/11/16

Baby Driver: A Story About Myself by Jan Kerouac

Baby Driver: A Story About Myself by Jan Kerouac is a roman à clef about her life in the shadow of her famous and absent Beat Generation father. For someone who swears she never read one of his books, she certainly managed to write like him.

There are differences, of course, but those are more from her lower level of privilege. These stem from living in near poverty as a child, her dependency on men as a young woman, and her time spent in a mental institute.

There's also a difference in generation, of course.

Jack (Jean-Louis Lebris de Ké) had his early childhood in the Roaring Twenties, his teenage years in the Great Depression, and his first decade of adulthood during WWII. He is of the same generation as my grandparents, a generation pulled in multiple directions first by the early memories of the excesses of childhood, the let down of struggling to make ends meet and the romanticism of hoboing for those who could no longer hold it together at home. Then there's the violence of the war. All draws to a close with children and a post war boom.

Jan, though, was of the Baby Boom generation, and at the young end of it. She was a child for most of the Vietnam war and as a woman she was even more removed from the events. She did though have access to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll part of that era and Baby Driver covers her discovery of all of that (and something not seen in Jack's works, the consequences).

I read Baby Driver as part of my road narrative project. While Jan's book isn't a road trip in the traditional sense, it does feature some travel as narrative segues: a bus ride to New York, driving her Cadillac around in New Mexico, her travel down to Mexico. Her book was included in a short list of important road narrative books by women in Road Frames: The American Highway Narrative by Kris Lackey.

I also, though, wanted to see if Jan's book has any bearing on Supernatural. Yes, I think it does, though not in any of the major threads. Throughout the series Sam and Dean have crossed paths with a number of women who become part of their extended family. They, though, are not as blessed (or cursed) by the supernatural powers that be, and therefore suffer far greater consequences for their trouble.

"Don't You Forget About Me" (Season 11, Episode 12) builds on "The Things We Left Behind" (Season 10, Episode 9) where Castiel finds his vessel's daughter now living in a group home, clearly suffering from how the family has been torn asunder by the hosting of a angel. Now she's living with Sheriff Jody Mills and another girl Jody has taken in. It should be a normal, quiet life, except that there always remains lingering aftereffects for their time with Sam, Dean, and Castiel.

Being a woman brings risks in the road trip narrative. Even staying on the road, following the path, as told in every fairy story ever, comes with dangers if one is an adult female. Girls seem to be more impervious to the dangers but that rubs off once they hit adulthood.

Three stars

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Kissing in America: 07/10/16

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb is about embracing the road trip when being afraid to travel. Eva and her mother are still reeling two years after her father was on a plane that went missing over the Atlantic.

Eva though has met the teenage son of the local bakery. He drives the bakery van and is learning how to write poetry. It seems like the perfect romance until he's forced to move across the country.

So now she has a boyfriend on the other side of the continent and no easy way to get there. Her salvation seems to be a game show. Not her, but her best friend with Eva as the life line.

In terms of the road trip narrative, this is a transcontinental bus trip, one where the trip is a means of escape (the confines of the big city), a means of facing one's fears (death by transportation), and a quest (true love).

But there's just so much going on here — too many threads. First there's the grieving over the father's death. That all by itself is a big chunk of emotional baggage. That by itself could have been a book.

Then there's the boyfriend who doesn't do the internet and only wants to write letters. The move from friendship to love to planning a cross country trip under uncertain circumstances seems incredibly rushed.

Ultimately the book felt like a grab bag of plot twists, character types, and circumstances. It was too much of a hodgepodge for me.

Two stars

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Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave: 07/09/16

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White was inspired by the author's own experience of accidentally being left behind at a gas station by her parents. She decided to turn that moment in her life into a what-if novel.

Liberty and Billie had been living with their mother but after her sudden death, they've been handed over to their absent father. He's a photographer and spends most of his time living out of an RV. He let them out to use the bathroom at a convenience store in Arizona and drove off with out them.

Maybe it's the heat or maybe it's something else, but Liberty decides going to the police isn't the best option. She wants to get in contact with their neighbor from San Diego, a close family friend who is like a surrogate aunt. She's not answering her phone and the girls can't stay out here in the heat.

So they make the decision to get home on their own by becoming stowaways. Most of the book covers their zig-zagging in the high dessert trying to get back to San Diego.

I chose this book originally for the what-if set up but continued reading as it was an interesting narrative for my road narrative project. Road trips are usually focused on people in control — people of means.

This is a story of vulnerable, scared, and grieving children. They make some stupid decisions in a desperate push to get back to the only place that feels like home to them. What this book shows is just how large and dangerous the open road can be. Not dangerous from the people driving, but from the elements themselves.

Five stars

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Monkey Beach: 07/08/16

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson is set in the Haisla town of Kitamaat. It's a remote community on an island roughly five hundred miles north of Vancouver, BC, and five hundred miles south of Juneau, AK. It's up a river far enough that from any of the cruise ships that pass by, it and and the river would be lost in the trees.

Lisamarie is a tomboy named for Elvis's daughter reminds me of an older and more jaded Lilo. But Lisamarie's life won't be interrupted or enriched by extraterrestrials, though she does hunt for b'gwus (Sasquatch).

The book is divided into four parts of varying length. Each part is a different time in Lisamarie's life. Big events happen in the spaces between these parts. We aren't privy to the drama, just the quiet aftermath.

I'm not a personal fan of the long chapter-less parts. These chunks, save for the last one, are too large to be chapters. There are enough pages within each one to lose one's train of thought. As this is a rather quiet book, more scene and tone than drama and action, I feel like most of the book washed over me.

Two stars

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Jem and The Holograms 1: 07/07/16

Jem and The Holograms 1 by Kelly Thompson

Jem (aka Jem and the Holograms) was a cartoon that ran from 1985-1988. In San Diego it was an after school, UHF type cartoon, airing on KUSI channel 51/9. Although, I as a teenage girl, was the target audience and I did watch every single episode, it was my brother (who was five when it premiered) who was the diehard fan.

After creating a booklr tumblr, I started noticing a huge fandom for the show and it was through them that I came to appreciate the cartoon. It was also through Tumblr that I learned of the new comic book series, updated for the present day. I had to read it! Apparently so did everyone else in Castro Valley and Fairview as there was a six month (I kid you not!) hold list on the first volume.

I decided to stick it out and read the library copy and if I liked it, I would purchase the remaining books as they came out. Turns out I didn't just like volume 1, I LOVED it. It's been updated for the present day with current (albeit recognizably with Jem and Misfits outlandish colors).

Jem and the Holograms have to be stopped

This first volume introduces all the key players and explains how Jem came to be Jerrica's alter ego and how the Holograms end up being the rivals of the Misfits. There are subplots, romance, and mayhem.

I'm eager to jump into volume 2 and 3.

Five stars

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The Ward: 07/06/16

The Ward by Jordana Frankel

The Ward by Jordana Frankel is a post-environmental disaster story set in the remains of Manhattan, now renamed the Ward. It's a mostly flooded island now where people live in the non-flooded floors and grow food on the rooftops. They are also suffering from a contagious and fatal disease called the Blight.

Ren is a teenaged drag racer who sidelines as a hunter of fresh water. At the start of a race she's given a tip about a new source of fresh that she'll be well rewarded for if she can find.

The hidden stream is semi-fictional, based on description of a stream that used to flow through Manhattan and whose name is remembered via the short Minetta Street and Minetta Lane.

Thematically the book is similar to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. I read it, though, as part of the "Under Manhattan" side project of my road narrative project. Manhattan as one of the metropolitan hubs is fairly anti personal car, favoring instead taxis, buses, and of course the subway. It's also flat enough (though very long) that it can be walked given good shoes and enough time.

Given the city's long history (by United States standards) and the way the subway system and the consolidation of the Five Boroughs created the modern New York City, there are numerous stories featuring the under layers of New York and specifically Manhattan. Even in a disaster story, Manhattan maintains layers and the subway will be there as a strange reminder of a previous civilization.

Manhattan though, being also previously New Amsterdam and before that inhabited by the Lenape. This provenance gives the island a literary mysticism. Sure, Washington DC has a similar history and has the bonus of being so well planned. It also has its ties to the Masons. But there's something about the unruly growth of Manhattan that engenders the fantastical tales of hidden societies, magical water, underground hauntings, mood slime, and so forth.

Four stars

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The Nameless City: 07/05/16

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks is the start of a new graphic novel series set in an ancient but vibrant city. Kaidu has come to the city to be with his father and to become a warrior. Rat is a city native, living on the streets with the help from the Named, the monks who somehow manage to keep all the different factions at peace. A subtle detail behind the Nameless City is that it's shaped like the peace sign.

A chance meeting between Kaidu and Rat leads to an unlikely friendship, one based initially on him sneaking food out to her and she teaching him how to navigate the city from the rooftops. The longer they spend together the more obvious it becomes that the thirty years of Dao rule might be coming to an end.

Some panels from Nameless City

This first volume has a lot going on. There's the world building of the city and the numerous cultures that all want it for it's location on the river. There is the character building of Kaidu, Rat, the leader of the Dao, Kaidu's father, and of course, the Named.

A city with an epic history can't be contained in a single volume. The Stone Heart comes out in April 2017.

Five stars

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The Woman-Haters: 07/04/16

The Woman-Haters by Joseph C. Lincoln

The Woman-Haters by Joseph C. Lincoln is set along a fictional bit of the Cape Cod coastline, in a lighthouse and a nearby shack. The title is unusual for one of Lincoln's books and very dated. It's there to evoke similar feelings as The Odd Couple. Nowadays it might be called Confirmed Bachelors.

The author in the introduction describes the book as a yarn or a summer-farce comedy. Essentially it's a screwball comedy, but written twenty years before the term was coined to describe a certain type of romantic comedy by Hollywood.

Seth, the lighthouse keeper for the last five or so is in need of a new assistant. His last one was lazy and incompetent. Because of the remoteness and the time of year, it will be months before he can even contact the government to request a new one.

In the meantime, he spots a man washed up on shore, presumably fallen overboard from one of the many ships that pass by. The man who has fallen over board gives a cock and bull story about how he came to be washed ashore. It's clear though, that he had tried to drown himself and failed. Seth, though, sees an opportunity and let's "John Brown" work as his temporary assistant.

While they are getting to know each other, both men swear to avoid women at all costs. They are to stick to the task at hand, namely, running the lighthouse. They won't be flirting with women or in anyway engaging with them.

Of course the instant that sort of promise is made, there's bound to be a hiccup. This is after all, a romantic comedy, and the romance isn't between Seth and John (though they do make a cute and believable couple). Two women end up renting the shack normally rented by a male artist.

The gag is that Seth recognizes one of the women and John recognizes the other. They have both sworn to stay away from women but for reasons that are revealed at the end, they can't. It also turns out that they aren't the "women-haters" that they each claim to be.

There's a 2009 film, The Lightkeepers, based on the book but the film misses the mark in a bunch of places, focusing too much on Lincoln's use of Cape Cod vernacular, rather than on characterization. If you've seen the film, I recommend tracking down a copy of the book either in print or in ebook format and reading the source material. It's much funnier than the film.

Four stars

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Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief: 07/03/16

Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by John Steinbeck

Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by Maurice Leblanc is a collection of short stories featuring a crafty cat burglar, confidence man, and master of disguise. For the anime geek the name Lupin probably brings to mind Lupin III, an excellent and long running anime series (well, multiple series actually) created by Monkey Punch.

Lupin III!

Now being a fan of detective and caper fiction from the close of the 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century, I felt remise for not having read anything by Maurice Leblanc. This Penguin edition repacked as an ebook served the purpose of getting acquainted with the source material for Lupin III beautifully.

I also wanted to read the source material based on its inspiration for the Sherlock, Lupin & Io series by Irene Adler and Iacapo Bruno. The sixth story, "Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late" has a few plot gaps in it that are conveniently filled in by the existence of the Adler series. There's a scene where Sherlock and Lupin, both in disguise, instantly recognize each other. Sherlock has been hired to prevent Lupin from robbing an estate. Despite this recognition, both stick to their assumed characters.

Sherlock ultimately lets Lupin go. Originally as written this story is to show that Lupin can outsmart anyone, even the great London consulting detective. Taken in the context of Sherlock, Lupin & Io, it's not that Lupin outsmarts Sherlock, it's that they are equals and long time friends who have grown out of touch given their career choices. Sherlock in this context knows that Lupin isn't the sort of scoundrel he normally goes after and therefore let's him.

Now back to Monkey Punch and Lupin III. There's a current Lupin series airing. It's in its second season and it's set in Italy. If you're following it, I recommend reading this first collection of stories. In it you will see Lupin on the cruise ship. You will see the arrest of Lupin. You will see Lupin fall in love (but not get married). You will see lots and lots of near misses by this Lupin's "Pops" — though he never calls him Pops in the book, he does have many other terms of endearment for him.

Basically everything I love about the fan fiction versions of Lupin, be it Lupin III or Sherlock, Lupin, & Io is there in the original. Arsène Lupin really is as charismatic, impish, clever, and masterful at his craft as he is in later versions. All that is different is his clothing and the car he drives (when he drives).

Four stars

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The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: 07/02/16

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck is the author's attempt to modernize the tales of King Arthur. Steinbeck's favorite book as a child was Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur and he was inspired to do his own take on the famous tales.

Steinbeck wrote his version in England while he was working directly with Malory's manuscripts. And frankly, that's the problem. There's too much Malory and not enough Steinbeck. Steinbeck could write grandiose, epic retellings of famous stories, such as his reworking of the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden. But the Steinbeck touch isn't here.

Instead of Steinbeck blazing in and making Arthur a water baron or something in the central valley, his story is set in Camelot with modern English wrapped up in a clunky old fashioned grammar. Old grammar and new words can be melded together to create something new (Shakespeare for instance was a master of this) but I think Steinbeck was too much of a fan of Malory to make Arthur his own story.

Three stars





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Splat and the Cool School Trip: 07/01/16

Splat and the Cool School Trip by Rob Scotton

I read Splat and the Cool School Trip by Rob Scotton on the heels of the The Life Ty: Penguin Problems. Now it's Splat's turn to go on a field trip and obsess over penguins.

And ONCE again this is a field trip with RULES which are just there to let our dear hero have misadventures while his teacher is completely out of touch.

This time the rule is: don't bring your mice friends on the trip because they will scare the elephants. Seriously? The old moldy trope is being dragged out for a plot device in a modern day children's book?

So OF COURSE Splat's mouse friend stows away. Seriously — do zoos have discriminatory practices? Are zoos run by cats for the amusement of cats and the subjugation of other animals? Is the mouse stowing away a form of civil disobedience?

Three stars





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