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September 2016

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

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Canadian Book Challenge: 2023-2024

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Diversity report for September 2016: 09/30/16

A panel from Volume 2 of Gem and Holograms

In August I reported on my progress to read more diversely. If this book blog is to serve all readers, I need to read beyond my own situation, and be more critical of the representation I see in books by white authors. There is growing discussion of representation vs appropriation (see my review of Ghosts, posting tomorrow).

Last month I reported that twenty-one percent of the books I had read featured diverse characters or were written by diverse authors. Among the reviews posted, I did slightly better with twenty-three percent. This month my reading stayed pretty much steady at twenty-two percent but my reviewing jumped up to twenty-eight percent.

Diversity Bar Graph

Diversity Pie Charts

One thing I'm becoming more aware of is the ethnicity of the author. As part of the own voices movement I'm trying to be more cognizant of the person behind the book. Here I am not looking to fill a quota. Rather I want to be more observant as a reader.

As diversity and own voices are both ongoing, important discussions in publishing, book blogging, and librarianship, I will continue to strive to be as current as possible with my review turnaround.

Review Gap Bar Graph

Review Gap Pie Charts

In that regard, the vast majority of the reviews I still have to post are from books I've read in the last eleven months, with the reviews remaining to post being clustered around November, June, and September. November's cluster represents the reading I did for last year's CYBILS and I'm sure to see a similar cluster in October and November of this year. Therefore, one goal for the coming month should be to clear out the reviews from last year's CYBILS reading.

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The Master of Jalna: 09/30/16

The Master of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche The Master of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche is either the fourth (publication order) or the tenth (chronological order) of the Whiteoaks of Jalna series. It's also probably the last book I'm going to attempt.

After the death of the centenarian matriarch, the Whiteoak men inherited the estate, with Finch getting the bulk of grandma's fortune. Well by book four they've made a pig's breakfast of things.

In all fairness, there is a worldwide economic depression and Canada, sharing the same great plains as the United States, suffered similar losses in GNP from the dust bowl years. But much of Jalna's downfall is from piss poor management on the part of the Whiteoaks.

Instead of focusing on the harsh reality that the younger generation has systematically mismanaged the farm, drained it of its funds, and been forced to sell off parts of it, the plot narrows in on the family dysfunction. I really really really really really really don't like any of them enough to care who ends up cheating on whom.

One star

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The Detective's Assistant: 09/29/16

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan is inspired by the career Kate Warne as the first female detective for the Pinkerton agency. To make the book more approachable for tweens, the book includes a fictional niece, Nell.

Through Nell the reader gets a chance to experience first hand Kate's most famous cases. Nell learns how to wear disguises and crack codes. She learns how to gain the confidence of people around her to gather important information.

Tucked into the book are some coded messages. While Kate Warne did work with coded messages and intercepted them from criminals, I'm not sure they were always as simplistic as they are in this book. The ones here can be solved with minimal work. For those disinclined to solve them, there is a solution in the back of the book.

As I've said before, I'm not sure a book aimed at child readers needs a child protagonist. While Nell's story of being an orphan and being shipped to the city to live with a very modern aunt is a compelling story, it gets in the way of Kate's own accomplishments. Her groundbreaking work is put against the context of the grumpy and eccentric aunt.

Three stars

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The Geek Feminist Revolution: 09/28/16

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley is a collection of essays on being anyone but a straight, white, CIS gendered male geek — whether a fan or a producer of content.

The book started off strong, with thoughts on the problematic tropes in fiction and science fiction. The introduction is a biting critique of the systematic erasure of women from geekdom — from fandom. It's a critique of rape culture, of hyper masculine stories, the male voyeur, and the atmosphere that lets the backlash against the most recent Ghostbusters (and the actors) possible and in some circles, normal.

After the introduction, the book settles into an outline of Hurley's career especially the early days where she received rejection letter after rejection letter. These chapters made an interesting counterpoint to Stephen King's On Writing. In comparison, King's early career seems like a cakewalk and most of the setbacks being self destruction ones.

But the book doesn't keep up that initial pace. As the essays become more personal there is less time spent for analysis and critique. I was really hoping for more because she has a wonderful, unpretentious, raw way of writing when she's tearing apart a text.

Then the book just sort of peters out. The later essays are more obviously taken from her blogs. They've been rewritten and there is a promise for greater explanation in the endnotes. Except the ebook doesn't include them. They're listed in the table of contents but are left out of the actual book.

For a book with Revolution in the title, there's not enough of a call to action. There's no blue print here. There's a memoir and some textual analysis. A unifying thread of what to do next given the evidence provided by memoir and analysis would have made this book perfect.

Three stars

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The Sleepover: 09/27/16

The Sleepover by Jen Malone

The Sleepover by Jen Malone is about Meghan's first sleepover. She's twelve and she wants to show how grown up she is by agreeing to attend her friend's EPIC sleepover birthday party.

As part of the fun, the birthday girl has a hypnotist over. It all seems like harmless fun until Meghan and friends wake up the next morning. The birthday girl is missing and the house is completely trashed. Not only that, but ducklings from the school biology classroom are in the bathtub. No one remembers a thing.

I'm going to leave the ridiculousness of that plot aside for the moment. Had it only been a day-after-sleepover Memento, then it would have been a goofy read. By the plot alone it's just a tween version of Ten Things We Did without the crazy sex obsession.

But there's Meghan's status as a sheltered child of over protective parents. The big example of how sheltered she is, is her negative reaction to American Boy which is credited to Kayne West. No. It features him. It's not about him and how he disrespects women. It's sung by Estelle – the woman who has also been voicing Garnet in Steven Universe and she sings the opening to We Bare Bears. She is someone these girls would have known and would have respected.

That one big glaring detail made it obvious how out of synch the rest of the story is with modern day pre-teens. Meghan and her friends are there to the middle school caper of trying to undo everything they've done last night, without the benefit of remembering. As they are too young to have been drunk (a la The Hangover), they must have been hypnotized, even though Meghan remembers the hypnotist.

In contrast to Meghan, I offer Lane Kim from The Gilmore Girls as a believably (albeit taken to extremes sometimes) sheltered child. Her mother wants her to marry a Korean boy who is on the path to becoming a doctor and is a devout Christian. She has a very strict curfew, is limited in the things she can watch and listen to, and yet, manages to collect a huge and diverse CD collection, all of which would horrify her mother. The more a child is told not to do something the more that child will do everything in their power to do it just to spite the parents. If it's that forbidden, it must be good. Thus it's impossible to believe that for twelve years Meghan's parents have been completely successful and monitoring everything she sees, hears, and does.

Meghan's participation in the pranks under hypnotism is there as a way to set up the most ridiculous of situations. Because that's what this book is trying to be: a sitcom. But it's built on informed attributes and a shaky foundation of situational humor.

Two stars

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Underground Airlines: 09/26/16

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is more of a thought experiment than a novel. It supposes an alternate time line where slavery is still institutionalized in four states in the South and the relationship between the South and the Union is along the lines of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The protagonist is a black man working in deep undercover as a bounty hunter of slaves making their way to Canada.

The title and nifty cover art are both misnomers as there is no flight based underground escape system. The "railroad" motif has really been supplanted with trucking, rather than flying. Both instead are there just to let the reader know that it's set in the present day — with airplanes, cellphones, GPS tracking, the internet, etc.

As the main character, who calls himself Victor (along with Brother and a few other names), is a black man in a nation that still has institutionalized slavery and more overt racism than we admit here in this reality, the book's itinerant plot falls into the traveling while Black road narrative.

As the author isn't Black, Victor's experiences are as much thought experiments as the book as a whole. Victor's troubles on the road, whether in White neighborhoods in the North or Black ones, or in either in the South, read like a check list from the Travelguide.

Three stars

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Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses: 09/25/16

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly Dean

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly and James Dean is the first Pete the Cat book to be written by the illustrator, rather than musician Eric Litwin. Pete's having a tough day, nothing is going right. So a friend gives him a pair of magic sunglasses to cheer him up and he passes along the good deed to others in need.

The original Pete the Cat books have a strong, rather obvious message of rolling with whatever life throws at you. It's not that Pete is a heartless cat, rather he's just very self assured and happy. Seeing Pete on an off day already sets this book off on the wrong note, as it were.

In the first book, Pete the Cat, I Love my White Shoes, Pete's beautiful new shoes end up splashing through all sorts of things and turning all sorts of colors as he goes through his day. He doesn't need help to overcome the shock of potentially ruining his shoes. Instead he laughs it off with a "Goodness, No!" and carries on his merry way.

Here though Pete seems to have forgotten that mantra. All sorts of little annoyances (like the weather) are getting him down and he needs his rose tinted Ray Bans to perk up and then once cheered up, goes on to share them with other animals in similar distress. I see Pete as such a happy cat that he'd be the one making up the story of the sunglasses being magic to cheer up his friends.

It's a minor quibble, I realize, but it was something both my daughter and I picked up on while reading Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses.

Three stars

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To Catch a Cheat: 09/24/16

To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson

To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson is the sequel to the Great Greene Heist. Jackson Greene and his friends are in trouble for flooding the school. It's all been caught on video. Jackson, though, knows they didn't do it and he aims to trap the real culprits.

The gist of this plot is that some other student (or students) has the knowhow and the technology to fake a video. To complicate things, there's also a plot involving a student who wants help cheating on an upcoming final. Of course, Jackson, being the great conman of the school, is roped into this caper.

Eventually the two plots come together in a Rockford Files worthy con job but it takes too long to get there. As with the first book, there are multiple points of view. They're supposed to be giving all the sides of the story but Jackson is the most interesting character.

I suppose a single sided, first person version of this book would be half the length. It would be a long novella, at 125 pages or so. But it would be tight story.

Two stars

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The Pharos Gate: 09/23/16

The Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock

Thirteen years after Morning Star, there's a new ending to the Griffin and Sabine epistolary series. This book contains the "lost correspondence" of the two before they vanished, only to have traces of their across the globe romance discovered by lovers whose relationship oddly parallels Griffin and Sabine's.

As revealed in previous books, the two pen pals, live in parallel dimensions where somehow their postcards and letters can transcend the dimensional barrier. There's the practical, studio artist Londoner, Griffin, and the flighty, daydreamer, wild girl, Sabine.

Sabine, though, is being pursued by a mysterious man hell bent on keeping her from meeting up with Griffin. For whatever reason, the stars have aligned, and Alexandria, Egypt, is the place where the two can finally see each other in person.

But here's the thing. Anyone who has read and can remember Morning Star knows what's going to happen. The letters here are just nostalgia. It's an attempt to recapture the magical 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

The craftsmanship is missing too in these letters. The previous books used nicer paper. There was more detail in the postcards and their stamps. Each item felt real — like something that could or had actually come through the mail. Reading the books required the gentle gingerness of an archival record.

This time, the paper is almost uniformly glossy. The text is fuzzy like it's been laser printed, rather than typeset. The obvious artifice takes one out of the experience.

Three stars

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Dark Days: 09/22/16

Dark Days by James Ponti

Dark Days by James Ponti is the conclusion of the Dead City trilogy. Before you do anything, though, do not, under any circumstances read the book blurb. It is full of spoilers. Major spoilers.

Molly and friends are hoping for Natalie to recover from her harrowing battle with Marek at the close of Blue Moon. Meanwhile, Omega's been disbanded and there's a new squad of undead police officers in the NYPD.

One of the things I adore about the Dead City trilogy is that the rules for zombies are well thought out and consistent. The geology of Manhattan made the original undead, and can under the right set of circumstances, make new zombies. Zombies, of course, can also make more zombies through the usual means. However, all zombies must stay near the Manhattan schist to stay healthy. As the zombies have a slow evolution into madness (and brain eating mayhem) they don't feel compelled to eat and turn the living population. As they also have to stay on Manhattan to stay undead, the zombie problem is further contained.

That's not to say that some corrupt zombies, such as Marek, aren't interested in completely controlling the city (and either turning the living population or just killing it off). That's not to say that the zombies aren't a threat, but they are and underworld threat in the literal and crime sense.

So Dark Days isn't a solution to the zombie problem. Zombies aren't vanquished at the end, but a crime boss is. The how and why of that is the fun of this final volume.

Five stars

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Borrowed Crime: 09/21/16

Borrowed Crime by Laurie Cass

Borrowed Crime by Laurie Cass is the the third of the Bookmobile Cat Mysteries. The clock is ticking on the bookmobile and then the worst thing happens, her volunteer is killed while they are out on the road. Was it a hunting accident or murder?

I'm currently reading two library themed cozy series. This one and one set in a lighthouse. If I were to guess which one is written by someone who is (or has been) a librarian, I would guess the author of this series. Minnie as the second in command of the library wears so many hats and has so many opposing pressures to keep the library and bookmobile running the way she knows the guests want it to run. But those controlling the purse strings aren't as easily persuaded.

Add into the mix a rural area with poorly maintained roads, rough seasonal weather, and hunters with guns, and you have a setting that also works against the smooth running of a library where one is so desperately needed.

Here then there were two different plot threads that kept me glued to the book: was the murder a case of mistaken identity, and what was going to happen to the bookmobile? Now since I knew there were two more book in the series, I figured there had to be some sort of future for the bookmobile but it was still a nail-biter.

This volume also introduces the threat of the obsessed patron. That's an unfortunate part of working in public service. Libraries have to (and should be) open to everyone. Sometimes though there's one who finds the library their only go-to. Sometimes they become dangerously obsessed with an employee. It's rare but it does happen and it's certainly fodder for a cozy mystery.

Five stars

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Ghostbusters: Get Real: 09/20/16

Ghostbusters: Get Real by Erik Burnham

Ghostbusters: Get Real by Erik Burnham is the next in the Ghostbusters comic book series. I really thought in 2014 that I had read my last of these. He seemed to be busy working on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series and while I like them too I just wasn't interested in picking up a new series.

While going through my series index I decided to see what else Burnham had been working on. After more than a year off from reading his work I decided I had a hankering for something else. I saw Real Ghostbusters comic. As the siblings Animaniac would say, "Hello, nurse!"

Had it just been The Real Ghostbusters, it would have been enough. Inside, though, it's more than that. The God Proteus, escaped from his metal statuary prison in Manhattan is seeking to know his attackers better. His attempt to do his usual magic on the Real Ghostbusters is thwarted by a local witch who wants to help them. His spell combined with hers ends up sending the crew to meet their modern day alternatives.

In previous volumes it's been implied (or perhaps, my misinterpretation) that the Real Ghostbusters are the past of the current Ghostbusters. It was the 1980s and they dressed differently and wore their hair in a more flamboyant style. Burnham toys with that idea by showing the original World Trade Center towers in one of the panels.

But time and space are part of a bigger matrix and in the multiverse, there are many other Ghostbuster versions.

While the two teams of Ghostbusters go face to face and try to figure out what the hell has happened, Proteus is hunting through all the dimensions to find his prey.

It was a fun, unexpected delight to read. I hope there will be future volumes with either cast or both again.

Five stars

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Death at Victoria Dock: 09/19/16

Death at Victoria Dock by Kerry Greenwood

Death at Victoria Dock by Kerry Greenwood is the fourth of the Phryne Fisher mysteries and the fourth as well in the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries television series (having swapped places with The Green Mill Murder).

The books always seem to have two mysteries: one domestic and one criminal. Phryne is usually hired by a woman to solve a case closely tied to her home or her place of work. The mystery is usually along the lines of a missing, injured, or ill person. Meanwhile, she usually through her personal exploits, gets involved in something nefarious: quite typically a death that ends up being a murder.

In the television series, these two mysteries are painfully forced together into one over arching plot making it so that Phryne only manages to solve the criminal case because of her intimate knowledge of the domestic case. This turns historical fiction with mystery trappings into a very stilted cozy where the historical setting is its gimmick. The books though the share the same characters and settings are much different in tone and except for their length, I wouldn't even try to consider them cozies.

Take for instance the opening scene of Death at Victoria Dock.

In the television show Phryne is at the dock at night to have a clandestine meeting with the dock's owner over the disappearance of his daughter. He believes her going missing is directly related to the labor strife the local anarchists are stirring up at the dock. On the way home this notion is born out when Phryne is recognized leaving the office and is shot at. An anarchist protester is caught in the cross fire.

In the book Phryne is by the docks because it is a short cut home. She is driving home late at night because that's when a young liberated woman has her fun. She's a night owl. She likes to drink, dance, and pick up beautiful men. The man shot is running from another man. She stops to help not because she works for his employer but because she horrified at the violence of the act.

It is also this volume that finally introduces Constable Hugh Collins. Here's the thing. He does not work for Detective Jack Robinson. He works for the docks. That is his beat. Here's another big difference, he's just as Catholic as Dot is. This whole idiotic problem with their budding romance over ties to one sect or another is made up for the television series to force some unneeded sexual tension between the two "pure" characters.

Three stars

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Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil: 09/18/16

Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil by Philip Reeve

Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil by Philip Reeve is a Fourth Doctor story, written for the 50th anniversary. It features Leela as the companion, with a brief, off screen, cameo by K9. There is also a nod to the Tenth Doctor.

In "Time of Angels" (series 5 of the reboot), part of the adventure takes place on the Byzantium, a spaceship that contains a forest used for creating oxygen during deep space journeys. In The Roots of Evil the Doctor and Leela encounter a world made entirely of wood, an overgrown singular tree that has become the entire world for the many generations dependents of one of these ships.

They also, though, have a long standing anti-Time Lord culture, specifically, anti-Doctor. His arrival has sparked a civil war between those who want him executed and those who wish to move on from that long standing sentence.

There's a bit of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey reason behind the sentencing and the mutation of the spaceship. The wheres and the whys are a big part of the fun of this short story.

Five stars

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The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race: 09/17/16

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race by Maxwell Eaton III

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race by Maxwell Eaton III is the sixth in a series I very much enjoy. It's one of those graphic novels that's perfect to read over lunch. They're short and funny.

This adventure is an island race that promises a house boat for a grand prize. The set up those, for those old enough to remember, is a combination of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963) and an episode of The Rockford Files, where Rockford and his crew have to out con a conman.

But in all fairness, the Crazy Critter con man isn't nearly as competent as the average Rockford baddie. He's constantly complaining "That's not supposed to happen!"

That's not supposed to happen!

This series is as predictable as Babymouse, Lunch Lady, or Squish. You either like the shtick or you don't. In this case, I like it.

Five stars

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The River: 09/16/16

The River by Alessandro Sanna

The River by Alessandro Sanna is a picture book about the changing nature of a river over the course of time and distance. It's original title is Fiume Lento: un viaggio lungo il Po, or Lazy River: a trip along the Po.

Fiume Po meanders eastward through Italy, near Turin, Milan, Fèrrara, Piacenza, and Comacchio. Sanna's lovely watercolors show it's a very picturesque river.

The journey begins in Autumn and ends in early summer, covering all the seasons, times of day, weather, and colors of the pallet.

Five stars

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Threadbare: 09/15/16

Threadbare by Monica Ferris

Threadbare by Monica Ferris is the fifteenth book in the Needlecraft Mystery series. Two homeless women are discovered frozen to death and one of them was carrying a scrap of Hardanger embroidery. Betsy is once again roped into discovering what links the two women together beyond their homelessness.

For fans of the series who love the book for the inclusion her needlecraft store, this one is a departure. Betsy does a lot of traveling by train and an abortive attempt to travel by airplane.

There's also a lot of time spent on Godwin learning how to play golf. Which I guess, if you're a fan of either golf or Godwin, you'll be interested. If you're not, then these scenes might get in the way of the mystery for you.

Despite the numerous departures from form, I found myself drawn right into the mystery. Somehow the series always seems strongest when set in the winter time. Ferris is really good at describing the weather conditions and since it's something I don't experience here in the Bay Area it adds some extra excitement to the plot.

Five stars

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Murder on the Ballarat Train: 09/14/16

Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood is the third of the Phryne Fisher mysteries and the inspiration for the second of the television series. It's also the point where I've been convinced that I much prefer book Phryne to television Phryne.

Though the books are short, each one coming at around 175 pages, they are more detail oriented than the episodes. For instance, this book opens with Phyrne woken to the bitter smell of chloroform which has penetrated the entire first class car of the Ballarat Train. A woman is found with a rag of it to her face and burns from the chemical.

In the TV episode, the woman recovers within minutes and is carefully whisked away by Phyrne before Jack Robinson can interrogate her. While, yes, she does end up going home with Phryne it's a much more drawn out series of events. She spends about half of the book recovering from being chloroformed.

And that brings up the next big difference between book and TV. While both are set in and around Melbourne and the series is filmed in Melbourne, I suspect the TV producers have only limited access to places.

So rather than going to the place described, they go somewhere that can pass for it. Which means they can take short cuts and places are compressed for plot convenience. Meaning, that when the train to Ballarat is attacked and the woman's mother is murdered, somehow the train is within Jack Robinson's jurisdiction. It's also an easy trip for Mr. Butler to bring Phryne her car. Ballan, where the train stops for the night, is about 40 miles from Melbourne, not too far by modern standards but in the 1920s when highways were first being paved, 40 miles was a goodly distance in deed.

Then there's Phryne herself. Although she's still portrayed as a sexually liberated woman, she is more prim on TV than she is in the books. In The Train to Ballarat there is a young man on the rowing team. In the book there are two chapters dedicated to Phryne "interrogating" him from her bed. In the TV episode she says she couldn't possibly sleep with him while she's on a case!

Five stars

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The Light Between Oceans: 09/13/16

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman is set on a lonely island off the coast of Western Australia. A lighthouse keeper and his wife want nothing more than to start a family but they are cursed with miscarriages and a stillbirth.

And then a storm brings a ship aground and there's only one survivor, a baby not much older than their stillborn son. They decide to keep her and raise her and their own. What unfolds after are the consequences of that decision.

Beautiful language. Painfully melodramatic scenes. But obvious plot is obvious. Of course there's going to be consequences. Of course they're going to want to show off their little girl. Of course someone's going to recognize her.

There are no surprises here, just tear jerking writing. It's well crafted but it's not a unique story. It's not even a deconstruction of a story.

Three stars

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Bera the One-Headed Troll: 09/12/16

Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard

Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard is the story of the search for a hero. The funny thing about heroes, is that they are made in the process of deciding to do something about a problem, rather than letting it resolve itself. But our culture, and apparently Troll culture too, has set up a certain type of individual as hero material against all other options.

Bera the troll is a pumpkin grower by trade. She lives on an enchanted island. Her routine is built around the ebb and flow of the pumpkin patch and the turning of the seasons and the tides. When a human baby washes ashore, Bera decides to do something.

Deciding to do something puts Bera on the start of an adventure through Troll history and the lands far from her pumpkin patch. Trolls age slowly but they do age. Even hero trolls.

What Bera ultimate learns is twofold. First, anyone can be a hero. Second, family is what you make yourself. In her case, that means ultimately deciding to adopt her human charge.

The best part of Bera the One-Headed Troll is the diversity of Trolls. Trolls, while they all share the problem of turning to stone in direct sunlight, they have different jobs, different body types (including numbers of heads). Some are old and some are young.

Five stars

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Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat: 09/11/16

Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen

Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen is a short, strange, and memorable children's book. There are two versions of it. One is a straight up chapter book of about fifty pages. The second is the same tale but written out as a play, perfect for a school performance.

As a piece of prose, Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat wouldn't be very memorable. The title says it all — almost all. It's a situation comedy, a coming together of six boys in a bathroom during a storm watch. The different chapters (or scenes) are separated by loud speaker announcements on the rain in the next county over.

The protagonist of the story lets us know at the first announcement that the weather never amounts to anything but they are always told to seek shelter. At the start of this book, the announcement came just minutes before the final bell of the day, meaning that most children have gone home but those whose teachers were sticklers for following the bell and those that were otherwise delayed, are now stuck until the all clear.

But then there's the play, which as the author says, any six kids can perform, is a different beast all together. The play is written to last about seventeen minutes — perfect for a school play, especially if multiple classes are putting on performances in the same event.

As the play requires exactly one set (a multi-stall bathroom) and some way of broadcasting the announcements (which could be done with the school's actual PA system to add authenticity), the emphasis moves to the interactions of the six kids and the one big prop (the stuffed cat).

A single set play puts me happily in the mindset of a classic of wacky characters and situations, namely Arsenic and Old Lace which as a play takes place entirely in the sitting room of the boarding house. Of course, this play doesn't have any bodies in the basement or someone convinced he's Teddy Roosevelt, but it still has a similar, wacky vibe.

Four stars

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Retribution Falls: 09/10/16

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Every book has its own natural pace for reading. Some can read in an hour. Some in a day. Some over a weekend. Most books I read take about a week to complete. But there are some for one reason or another that need to be taken in slow mode, taking a month or more.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding is one of those slow books. I needed four months with it, reading only a few pages a day to soak in the rich mixture of adventure, world building, intrigue, derring-do, and general mayhem. It's the first in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series and I have the second one on hand to spend another four months with (if needed).

Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay with a crew of oddballs with sketchy backgrounds. He'd prefer to make his living taking jobs no one else wants but he hasn't been planning on piracy. That is until their last job goes horribly wrong and he and his crew are wanted men.

The bulk of the book is mad dash of trying to stay ahead of the authorities, trying to sort out what has really happened, and learning the reasons the crew all joined up. It's 461 pages that feel like 900 pages because no word and no phrase is wasted. It's high adventure that requires a close attention to detail.

Three stars

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For Today I Am a Boy: 09/09/16

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu is the story of transgender woman growing up in a strict Chinese-Canadian home and not being given the chance to realize she has any other options beyond ignoring her feelings and living as Peter.

Most of the book, then is a rather uncomfortable read of growing up in a Toronto suburb. Her father is strict and desires that all his children be as Canadian (and white) as possible. Her mother secretly wants to hold onto her Chinese heritage and uses her work as a way to escape from his strict supervision.

Meanwhile, Peter (for that is the name she uses until the very last chapter) watches as each of her sisters grow up and move out. The sisters get about as much plot time as Peter does, making for a rather disjointed story.

If anything, this book is more about how suffocating suburban life can be. If you're anything other than a white middle class family, the suburban life is even worse. There's no escape. There's no one else like you nearby. There's no chance to learn of other opportunities or life outside of this carefully constructed, artificial community.

If this were an American novel about a Chinese-American transgender woman growing up, it would be set somewhere like San Dimas. Where Montreal ends up being the salvation for Peter, here it would San Francisco — not because of the Castro, but for its restaurants.

Peter's self made escape is her work in restaurants. She works his way up, first in her home town, and then in Montreal. It's also through the restaurant that she finally meets people like herself. But it takes years. This isn't a coming out story that happens in a course of a single event. This is one by trial and error and the messiness of life.

Three stars

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Lowriders to the Center of the Earth: 09/08/16

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper with illustrations by Raúl the Third is the sequel to Lowriders in Space. Lupe, el Chavo, and Eliro go on a road trip in search of their missing cat, Genie after an earthquake shakes things up.

In terms of the modern day road trip — post industrial revolution — an earthquake can signal the beginning of an urban fantasy adventure. While the title implies a Jules Verne inspired adventure, this one is more akin to Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (the one where a California earthquakes leads Dorothy to an underground method to entering Oz).

But this is a Chicano road trip and the imagery is straight out of Mexican folklore. In that regard, the story brings to mind The Book of Life, though with a very different underworld — one that has been corrupted by a god too consumed for his love of bones.

Page showing the journey through the maize maze

The way to the underworld, though, lies at the other end of a corn maze (or maize maze as one of the characters quips). And this inclusion of corn as supernatural gate keeper brings me right back to Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. In the sub-genre of the "road not taken" corn has become a stand in for the enchanted forest of the old tales of traveling through Faerie where one must stay on the path to avoid becoming lost and forever trapped. Corn, though, is both a sentinel and prison. It is more of an active participant than any of the enchanted woods, and it's something I need to investigate further.

Another delightful detail to this adventure is the inclusion of La Llorena. Now normally she is not someone you want to stop for along the road. She certainly wasn't in the pilot episode of Supernatural. But these three heroes are so focused on their missing cat that they give her a ride with no worries beyond her incessant crying and her desire to cuddle el Chavo like he's a baby. Her inclusion is a necessary trope that is delightfully turned on its head at the conclusion of the their adventure. She despite her feline appearance, is the shaggy dog of this road trip.

Five stars

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Blackbird Fly: 09/07/16

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly is about a middle school girl trying to find her place when she's bullied at school and coddled at home. Apple and her mother live in Louisiana, having moved there from the Philippines when she was little.

Apple feels American but her mother wants her to keep her culture. The bullies in her school, though, toss every Asian stereotype on her, including calling her a dog eater. On top of that, they've put her on the Dog Log, a list of ugly girls at the school.

Apple's solace in all that is her father's music, an old tape of the Beatles. She desperately wants a guitar and she desperately wants to learn how to play their music. If I weren't a parent, I'd find this part of the book unbelievable. Except I know through my own children (including my daughter who is also learning how to play their songs) that among the youngest end of the millennials, the Beatles are incredibly popular.

The bullying feels raw and real, though the Dog Log is something I'd expect from high school. Middle school with only two grades has so much turn over there's not time for something like that list to gain such a hold that incoming students would dread it.

Four stars

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Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 3: 1983-1984: 09/06/16

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 3: 1983-1984 by Ed Piskor

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 3: 1983-1984 by Ed Piskor covers the bit of hip hop that I'm actually familiar with. It's 13 years into the new genre and it's exploded out of the Five Burroughs and onto radio, record stores, and now onto the powerhouse of cable in the mid 1980s: MTV.

In 1983-4, I was in 4th and 5th grade. I had a hand-me-down radio in my bedroom and that gave me the power to explore music on my own. Also by dint of my location in the house I had the best radio reception. Being able to turn a dial and listen to things that caught my attention without parental intervention was amazing and liberating.

One of the stations I discovered (on a school bus) was the Mighty 690, an AM station that at one time played a mixture of punk, hip hop, new wave, and stuff that's now called alternative. Mighty 690 became a talk and sports channel and the DJs moved over to FM to 91X. It was there that I heard many of the crossover artists mentioned in Piskor's earlier volumes, as well as one from this one: Run DMC.

Run DMC on MTV

Run DMC as Piskor notes had the distinction of being the first black rap video on MTV. Rapture by Blondie was the first. Though I grew up in a household without cable and rarely watched MTV when I was at my grandmother's, I did see Irwin Corey's introduction to Run DMC's Rock Box.

I may have been growing up in suburbia but even I could see how insulting and patronizing his attempt to explain the shocking sounds of rap to poor, easily shocked, mainstream Americans. What that intro really served as was a stalling tactic for parents to shut off the TV before that "awful inner city music" corrupted their children, as some of my friends' parents did.

My grandmother, though, would not tuck with such behavior. She was more of the, watch, read, listen to anything, just don't use it as an excuse to get into trouble. Maybe too it was her working class background, but she never seemed to mind whatever I decided to watch or listen to at her house. Usually she sat down to watch with me (including the Rock Box video, and later, The Wall).

This three volume graphic novel history of hip hop has been both entertaining and educational. I've found that I actually rather like hip hop.

Five stars

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Gone Crazy in Alabama: 09/05/16

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia is the third and final of the Gaither Sisters books. While I own all three, I haven't had a chance to read PS Be Eleven yet. I had to read the books out of order because the third book was nominated for 2015-6 CYBILs. I might, therefore, go back and re-read, re-review this book after reading the second one.

For this final installation, the Gaither sisters are being sent to their relatives in Alabama. Though they've been here before, it's the first time since their eye opening exerpience in Oakland the summer before.

It's 1969 and the Klan is still strong here. The girls, usually praised and encouraged for their outspokeness are forced to be seen and not heard. It's for their own safety, especially when the people running the town are all members of the Klan.

In the background there is a long standing family feud between their grandmother and their great aunt. Apparently their great grandfather was two timing and managed to start two very different family lines across the river from each other. The long standing resentment between the two factions is more complicated than that, but unraveling the truth behind the feelings is a big part of the story.

This book felt more episodic than the first one. Again as I haven't read the middle volume I don't know yet if it's natural progression of the Gaither sisters' story. As a stand alone, though, it doesn't feel as coherent a narrative as the first one.

Three stars

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Blue Highways: 09/04/16

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon is an account of his road trip around the edges of the continental United States in 1980. I recently re-read this book as part of my research on the road trip narrative.

When I first read it, I was snowed in at a cabin in Pine Cove, California. I wanted to be anywhere but that cabin and Heat-Moon's road trip was my armchair escape. Heat-Moon's trip was also one of escape and of self-discovery — a way to find his place as a person of mixed ancestry.

a map of the route

The title refers to the author's decision to steer clear of the interstates whenever possible. He wanted to see the smallest towns, the ones with odd names. He didn't want to suffer the "tyranny of the freeway" (p. 43). As noted in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Time Square to the Golden Gate by Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williamson, Heat-Moon's journey is in the proud tradition of the shunpikers — those who stay off the big roads in order to truly experience the great American road trip.

Blue Highways is a hybrid road trip. It starts neither somewhere truly urban (not one of the massive coastal cities such as Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Columbia, Missouri is a small city by their standards. Even by San Francisco, it's small. It's also located in the mid-west, a place that's passed-through in the journey from one coast to the other or from the city to the rural haven. Finally it's a circuitous route, one where the little dots on the map are the point, rather than the distractions.

The typical road trip story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is from the point of view of a white middle class male who in turn stops to visit with other white middle class people along the way. The United States in its narratives tends to whitewash. Heat-Moon's road trip did exactly the opposite; he sought out the stories not usually told.

That's not to say everyone he spoke to were minorities. He spoke to both sides, though his accounts of his white conversations are more charged and the inherent racism is glaringly obvious. It can't hide; it can't be swept under the carpet against the stories of oppression, racial profiling, poverty, danger.

As with all my other research reading, I live blogged my favorite quotes on Tumblr.

Four stars

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Nothing Up My Sleeve: 09/03/16

Nothing Up My Sleeve by Diana López

Nothing Up My Sleeve by Diana López is about three friends finding a new hobby, something that is theirs and theirs alone. They are Dominic, Loop, and Z and their hobby is magic.

In town there is a new (or new to them) magic shop that promises access to the Vault if a person either buys $100 worth of stuff or performs a magic trick for the store owner. Although one of the boys has access to infinite money because of a stepfather who is trying to buy his love, the other two don't. So they all opt for the perform a trick.

Access to the vault opens them up to the world of magic. There is enough variation in the art for each boy to find his niche. It also introduces them to Ariel, daughter of the store owner. She is already an accomplished magician well versed in the classics. She's also loud and proud of her skills, something the boys find very off putting.

The book is told from alternating points of view from the three boys. We see into their home life: the boy who is last in the family (even to the point of having the nickname "Z") and always gets hand-me-downs; the boy whose family is struggling to keep their business afloat and have little left for anything else; and the boy who has access to everything as long as he allows his stepfather to buy his love.

As Ariel was a big part of the story too, I would liked to get a few chapters from her perspective as well. How did she get into magic? What does she think of the three boys' chances? Does she do anything else besides help in the shop?

In the end it's a pretty by the numbers story of three underdogs making their way to a big regional competition. Whether they win or not isn't the point. The point is how the struggle to get there brings their families together and how the competition could threaten to break up the friendship.

Three stars

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Fred and Ted's Road Trip: 09/02/16

Fred and Ted's Road Trip by Peter Eastman

Fred and Ted's Road Trip by Peter Eastman is the latest in the Fred and Ted series of early readers. The first one, Big Dog, Little Dog was by P.D. Eastman and came out the year I was born. This latest one was written by his son and came out in 2011.

Fred is a big dog who loves green. Ted is a small dog who loves red. Their color coordination goes to their food, their clothing, and even their cars. The cars are part of the original story and I suspect the two even made a cameo in Eastman's 1961 Go, Dog. Go!.

Despite their differences, including in style of driving: fast vs slow, on road vs off road, etc, they decide to take a road trip. Actually it's their fourth trip together. Big Dog, Little Dog features an impromptu trip to the mountains where they have to break with their usual color coordination in order to get a good night's sleep.

I read this book for two reasons. The first is purely nostalgic in that I liked P.D. Eastman's books as a child. He was a good protege of Dr. Seuss, though a little less drawn to the non-sensical.

My second was, of course, for the road narrative project. How do the road narratives tropes translate to stories for the youngest of readers? Fred and Ted are first and foremost stories about opposites. They're also about friendship and learning to live with differences of personality and opinion.

Now in most road trip stories, the travelers share a vehicle, whether it's a car, an RV, a bus, or a panther. Even when going off road such as in Sean Gordon Murphy's graphic memoir Off Road.

Here though Fred and Ted insist on driving their own cars. In all fairness, they both like small, single person (or dog) sports cars. Here then the dogs' cars are extensions of themselves as characters, rather than a territory to be disputed, a separate character (such as "Baby" in Supernatural.

Four stars

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Free Fall: 09/01/16

Free Fall by David Wiesner Free Fall by David Wiesner is a mostly wordless picture book about the power of imagination and the adventures awaiting during dreamtime. After an introductory poem, the book unfolds as a series of beautifully rendered paintings of a boy falling deeper and deeper into his dreams, going from adventure to adventure.

Free Fall by David Wiesner

In the silence
of a dream
our adventures move
in seamless progression
as we conquer
our dragon,
uncharted lands,
to the highest pinnacle,
and float
in a sudden
free fall
to the new day.

slaying the dragon

The observant reader will recognize elements of the boy's room becoming the fantasy elements of his dreams. In this regard, Wiesner's paintings resemble Rob Gonsalves's used as illustrations in Sarah L. Thomson's Imagine a... a series.

Four stars

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