October Reading Summary: 10/31/16
October marks completion of two reading goals. October has me focused on reading for the CYBILS — I'm a middle grade fiction panelist again. There are one hundred and seven books nominated. I've read twenty seven so far, meaning November is going to be super focused on CYBILs reading, above all other books.
The first goal was to read three hundred books as tracked on Goodreads. I crossed that one on October 19th and have since read thirteen more. Keeping in mind the CYBILS book, I could easily clear four hundred by the end of the year.
Frankly though, the reading a certain number of books goal is easy. I know how much I can read in a given span of time. In the last few years I've taken it easy (for me) with reading. I suspect that my 2017 reading goal will also be three hundred books.
My second goal, the one I've been more worried about is the reading and reviewing of one book a week — or fifty-two books — published in 2016. Even before getting started on the CYBILS reading (which includes books published from October 2015 - September 2016), I've already surpassed my goal. I've read eighty-five and I've reviewed sixty. I have another fourteen scheduled through the November and I suspect I'll have more for December.
Along with being more current with my reading and reviewing, I've been trying to keep less time between reading a book (published in any year) and the time I post a review (should I decide to review it). The last couple of months my farthest point on the long tail of review posting was a book read in 2012. I posted that review on the sixth.
My biggest backlog of reviews is from June of this year with twenty-two books. Looking by year, 2016 accounts for two thirds of the reviews I want to post but haven't yet.
That brings me to the most important reading goal — an on going work in progress — to read more inclusively. I made small improvements in both reading and reviewing. The reading jumped from twenty-two percent to twenty-nine percent. Inclusive reviews are up one percent to twenty-eight percent. Ideally I would like to get the percentages up to fifty in both reading and reviewing. I also hope to keep current in 2017 — so ideally my inclusive reading will be current.
And Then You Dye: 10/31/16
And Then You Dye by Monica Ferris is the sixteenth of the Needlecraft mysteries. Betsy hosts a class on dying yarn. What initially sounds like good natured ribbing between like minded attendees turns angry. Shortly after the class the teacher is found murdered in her home.
Many of the recent books have been set outside of Excelsior but this one is back to the series's roots, literally and figuratively. Much of the plot hinges on the sorts of materials the deceased was using for her dyes, including the accusation that she was steeling them from friends and neighbors.
The book also has one of the longest running red herrings I've seen in a mystery. Since I've managed to figure out other plots in this series fairly quickly I just went with the herring and took it as "obvious plot is obvious." Until it wasn't and that was a nice surprise.
Cloud and Wallfish: 10/30/16
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet is set in East Berlin in 1989. Normally East Berlin stories are taken from the perspective of East Germans trying to escape. It's always a preposition of your choice to the wall (over, under, through). It can be through a tunnel, it can be through the sewers, in a hot air balloon. But getting out is always the point.
Granted, the wall was a terrible thing. It disrupted lives. It cut families in two. It was a forty year mess. But people lived there and there must be other stories besides those who try to leave and either succeed or fail.
Cloud and Wallfish is about a regular kid with a bit of a stutter but a good ear for language who is suddenly taken from school by his family, given a new name (and a new birthdate) and relocated to East Berlin. His mother is there to study how the East Berlin schools approach learning difficulties while his dad is there to write a novel.
Meanwhile, Noah — now Jonah — is trying to follow the rules his parents have given him. They are to keep him (and them) safe. But they don't tell him what they are keeping safe from. They leave him to guess and to assume, which means he makes mistakes (and gets some things right too).
The German word for whale is Walfish, which to Noah (who never really accepts his new name), becomes Noah's nickname. The girl who lives in the apartment below Noah gives it to him. Her name is Claudia, which to him sounds like Cloud.
Claudia is the one person Noah really connects with. But for reasons that neither understands, the two children are kept apart for much of the book. Claudia happens to be my favorite type of characters — the one who says things that sound off the wall but are grounded in reality. Understanding how she interprets things leads to understanding the truth behind the story.
Cloud and Wallfish would work well in a classroom setting. It's a compelling story but it's also educational. Each chapter ends with a nondiagetic bit of historical information explaining things mentioned in the chapter.
Knit One, Kill Two: 10/29/16
There is a trope in cozy mysteries where the would be sleuth is lured to a new life and a new calling by the murder of a relative living in a distant small town or village. Said murder of course ends up being caught thanks to the vigilance of this newly arrived relative, and then circumstances beyond said relative's control ends up forcing or otherwise convincing them to relocated permanently.
Knit One, Kill Two by Maggie Sefton is the start of the Knitting Mystery series. It begins with the death of Kelly Flynn's aunt. She is then befriended by all of her aunt's knitting buddies and is compelled to learn how to knit herself.
This book at first glance is very much like the start of the Needlecraft series, Crewel World by Monica Ferris. The differences are that the aunt wasn't the owner the knitting shop, though she was somehow tied up in its lease.
I have a feeling that the details are going to continue to slip as they often do in these cozy series where the emphasis is on narrative drive and not on the overall world building. These fictional towns are like TARDISes on a city wide scale, forever changing and reconfiguring whatever's within their city bounds, being as big or as small on the inside as is needed for each particular book.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds is about a boy finding a better life for himself through track. Castle, who calls himself Ghost, is coming out of a rough patch — he and his mother had to flee their home to avoid an abusive father / husband. Money is tight and Ghost feels out of place. His one joy in life is the $1 bag of salted sunflower seeds he picks up from the corner store.
All that begins to change, to expand into something more when Ghost choses to eat his sunflowers at a park where a team of kids his age are running. In an act of bravado, Ghost convinces the coach to let him run a race too and ends up on the team even though tryouts are over.
It's not that Ghost wants to be there but he has nothing better to do. He's been getting in trouble for acting out (something to be expected from a kid down on his luck and being bullied for it). What Ghost doesn't expect is that his new teammates will grow to consider him on of their own.
A few years back the local school district started a "Made in Hayward" program to encourage academic excellence from its student body. The project includes a number of different ways for children and teens to push themselves. It was easy to imagine Ghost as one of the kids here and I think the book would do well here in a classroom setting.
Avenging the Owl: 10/27/16
In 1995 at the hight of the spotted owl crisis in Northern California and southern Oregon, Jean Craighead George wrote There's an Owl in the Shower about a logger who attempts to kill a spotted owl but ends up nursing it back to health despite his outrage over how the owls are disrupting his livelihood.
Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart is in a sense an update. Solo Hahn and his family have moved to Eugene from Redondo Beach. His father is here for his health. He's here too to write the great American novel. To keep the family together, Solo and his mother have given up everything.
Solo still reeling from the move, now finds himself in trouble with the authorities. He was caring for a kitten and it was snatched up by a great horned owl. A punishment for his actions he's being forced to do community service at the local raptor rehabilitation center. The scenes most focused on Solo's rehabilitation through community service are the most realistic and the reason why I kept reading.
There are a few weak points in the side plots. First there is the neighboring family, and specifically a boy named Eric. Eric happens to have Downs Syndrome. For two thirds of the book Eric is written as any of the other characters in Solo's circle except that he speaks in short sentences. Then near the climax of the book, Eric's English takes a turn for the wonky, becoming oddly agrammatical.
The second is Solo's running internal monolog. Like Quinn in The Great American Whatever, Solo fancies himself a screenwriter. So all the "important" scenes are rendered as screenplay. In both cases these inserts are distracting and detract from the flow of the story.
Despite its flaws, it's still overall a well told story. It would work well in a classroom setting.
Cy Whittaker's Place: 10/26/16
Cy Whittaker's Place by Joseph C. Lincoln is the seventh of forty-seven books the author wrote about Cape Cod. Lincoln's fictional version of coastal Massachusetts is similar in scope and tone to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
As Lincoln populated his towns with a mixture of people he must have remembered from his childhood (the 1870s-1880s) his books often have an older, pre-Twentieth century feel to them. Cy Whittaker's Place, though, is very much set in the present day with telephones, automobiles, and electricity, though much of that hasn't come yet to the sleepy sand dunes of Bayport. 1908 was the year when the Model T was first introduced, and while cars had been around for about twenty years, the T was the one that was cheap enough and robust enough to be driven off road. So here we see a slice of a New England town before cars would begin the steady take over.
A recurring theme in Lincoln's books is of the gruff elder taking in a castaway — whether a distant relative, a complete stranger, or an orphan. In this case, it's a young girl named Emily, who arrives on a rainy night after the death of her mother. She's been given instructions to seek out the home of Cyrus Whittaker, who as it happens, is only just returned himself after years at sea. He had been gone so long that the township had assumed his house was abandoned.
Some of the adults who are suddenly found in the care of children balk at the idea and take the remainder of the book to recover from their initial feelings of shock and anger. Not Cy. Sure, he's embarrassed at first as he's completely unprepared. At Emily's, quickly nicknamed bos'n's, arrival, he's barely set up to care for himself in his old house.
What follows for most of the remainder of the book is the growing relationship between Bos'n and Uncle Cy. It's really rather like a Cape Cod Anne of Green Gables (also published in 1908) except that Bos'n at no point has to prove herself or her worth to earn Cy's unconditional love as a foster father.
Then in the last act, Cy Whittaker's Place takes a strikingly modern turn with the introduction of a custody battle. Just as the adopted daughter in A Light Between Oceans can't stay a secret from the rest of the world, Bos'n's father surfaces. After such a sentimental second act, I wasn't expecting to have the rug pulled out from under me.
Lincoln's books often walk a sentimental path but not always in the same way that the Discworld books are often humorous but not always. In this case, the sentimentality is thrust aside to show how the disruptive and frightening custody battles can be for children. A close blood relative isn't always the best caregiver. A retired, confirmed bachelor with a host of friends can be a better extended family than a distant and suddenly returned parent.
It is in this last act that we see the rest of country — specifically Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. We see how modern travel (rail and car) become vital tools in a race against the court.
Cy Whittaker's Place is the ninth book I've read. I haven't read them in any particular order and for the most part they work as standalone volumes. Characters do reappear and drift through books, with one protagonists coming back as supporting cast. One time antagonists are given the chance to redeem themselves or at least tell their story. All of them have entertained and manage to stay relevant all these decades later.
Paper Wishes: 10/25/16
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban is about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, told from the point of view of ten year old Manami of Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Manami and her family and all the other Japanese Americans (primarily farmers) on the island are sent by train to Manzanar. At the start of the move, an army officer forces Manami to abandon her puppy, Yujiin. Along with losing her dog, she loses her voice.
With a protagonist, the narrator of the novel, voiceless, the story settles into a tell don't show. The narrative also suffers from that oddly formal English that books fall into when the language patterns of another language is rendered in English. Here it's the way Manami refers to her family. Why not just use the transliterated Japanese words instead? Okasan, Otosan, Nisan, and so forth?
But those two things are minor quibbles in an otherwise interesting Manzanar story. What sets this one apart is the cultural differences between California (primarily San Francisco and Central California) Japanese Americans and the Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans. Before starting the book I knew nothing about the Japanese population on Bainbridge Island or the fact that they ended up requesting transfer to a different internment camp because of on-going strife with the California population.
Take the animes Tanaka-kun is Always Listless and World God Only Knows and mix them together. Garnish with an elderly beaver and you get Slacker by Gordon Korman.
Cameron Boxer loves his basement. He loves spending his free time playing video games. He wants to beat the annoying Evil McKillPeople who always takes him and his teammates down. What he doesn't want to do is socialize with kids after school. He certainly doesn't want to join a club. Except, that his parents are forcing him to.
All that changes when Cameron doesn't hear his mother telling him to turn off the oven in ten minutes. With dinner ruined, the front door destroyed by the fire fighters, and the kitchen blackened with smoke, Cameron's parents give him an ultimatum — join a club at school or no more video games.
Now so far, Cameron's been like Keima of World God Only Knows but he also has a stubborn listless streak. He doesn't want to put in the extra work of joining a club. He doesn't want to take time away from video games, from the upcoming tournament. So he and his two besties create a fake club and give it a vague name.
And that's when things get really silly. As you can imagine, things quickly take on a life of their own, to the point that the middle school ends up in a head to head rivalry with the most popular club at the high school.
In the background of all of this, is Elvis, the last beaver in their town. The younger, healthier ones have all moved down stream away from the recent highway construction. All that's left is Elvis who can't really figure out how to beaver by himself.
Elvis is there as a symbol of what the town is about to lose. Like so many other small towns, Cameron's town is about to be bypassed by the highway. They have an off ramp now but it's in dire need of repair. The state, though, has decided there isn't enough traffic here to warrant a repair, so they're going to demolish it, forcing everyone to take a longer detour through a longer, suburban shopping outlet area down the road.
Now a freeway off ramp destruction seems like something from the 1960s or 1970s, but it still does happen. Ten years ago the removal of an off ramp near where I live was put into a freeway improvement plan. Two years later the off ramp was removed, forcing traffic to either exit one stop earlier or one stop later. In this case it was a minor inconvenience, one that we've all learned to live with, but for the people of Sycamore, it will mean the closure of stores and possibly the slow, painful death of the town.
Despite Cameron's initial reluctance to do any extracurricular activities, he does step up when his club grows. Cameron and his friends learn that they can have fun doing things other than playing video games.
Waiting for Augusta: 10/23/16
Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson is a road trip story of a boy who can hear the voice of his dead father. His father's dying wish was to have his ashes scattered on the eighteenth green at Augusta. Ultimately, though, it's the appearance of a traveling girl, Noni, who gets him on the road.
At first glance this book seems like a simple tale of a pair of almost teenagers heading on a road trip: one to lay a father at rest, the other to find her father. But this book is more. The true story is lurking in the songs that Noni sings and in the tropes of the road.
Like Dayton Duncan, Noni has a set of rules to travel by. Her rules include:
These rules both set the tone of the book and give insight into Noni.
Next there is their methods of travel. They go by bus: the modern day (as of 1972, the setting of this book) method for those without a car. Then they go by farm truck, stolen from a farmhouse. Then they go by train. When that fails, they are forced to walk.
Each method of travel peels back another layer of the mystery that is Noni. Each method inspires another song and another story. Pay attention!
From Noni's first introduction, I was reminded of Nora, a character from the manga / anime, Norgami. As Noni's interest in hobo culture (something that was forty years in the past from the context of the novel) is revealed I was reminded of "That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch, first published in 1958. Then there is "The Passerby" episode of The Twilight Zone. All these thoughts were swirling in my head so that halfway through the book I had figured out the delightful twist to this book.
Sea Change: 10/22/16
In the United States when a character needs to get away from things or parents need a place to put their kid during a family crisis, people go to a farm on the plains or a cattle ranch in the southwest. In Canadian literature it seems to be Nova Scotia.
In Sea Change by Frank Viva, Eliot finds himself with his great-uncle in Point Aconi, Nova Scotia. His first day or so there is disastrous. He's no use when they go fishing. He can't jump off the boat to swim with the neighbors. The only thing he seems good at is shoveling chum.
But he slowly starts to fit in and the great-uncle begins to see some of himself in Eliot. It's one of those quiet summer stories about how a place changes a person and how a stranger can change a place.
But — the artwork and typography hinder the telling of the story. Viva uses primary colors and a naive style to draw his figures. Eliot and the others look like they were drawn on single takes with a digital pen tool as executed with bar of soap shaped mouse.
On nearly every page, along with the illustrations, are textual treatments. The words are made to incorporate into the illustrations — sort of as a freeform poetry. But again, the text is for the most part, rigid, just rotated or resized, resulting in a distraction, rather than a visual support for the story.
The Sculptor: 10/21/16
From looking at the cover you'd think that The Sculptor by Scott McCloud would be a graphic novel update of Pygmalion. It's not. It's about art, self worth, and leaving a mark on the world.
David Smith is failing at supporting himself through his arts. He is the last surviving member of his family, having lost everyone else to illness or accident or some other tragedy.
He is visited by the ghost of his uncle and given a choice. He can live out his life as something other than a sculptor with a wife, kids, and a small house in upstate New York. He would be happy but unknown beyond his immediate family. Or he can have the ultimate power over stone and metal to create any sort of sculpture he wants but he'll die in 180 days. He choses art over life and happiness.
While he's going through a fugue of creativity, including some incredible public sculpture bombs, the world around him begins to count down to his death. His mortality is there, affecting the entire city.
Of course his other possible future comes crashing into the fate he has picked. He meets a woman. They fall in love. They almost start a family. But this book is a tragedy, a self made one.
This is San Francisco: 10/20/16
This is San Francisco by Miroslav Sasek is the 4th book in the "This is" series published from 1959 - 1970. In 1962 when it was a new book my mother and her parents were living in the heart of the modern day Silicon Valley. But it was 8 years away from PARC and the earliest days of the silicon computer chip.
In the 1960s my grandfather would get a ride to the train station, what nowadays is CalTrain but was a different company then, and would commute into the Financial District of San Francisco. The modern day interstates were being built but the two big ones into the city were HWY 1 and HWY 101. Most of HWY 1 was widened and later renamed I280. Driving into the City though wasn't a good idea then and still isn't. Just like now, if you don't want to spent a small fortune on parking fees and most of your day in traffic, you take the train.
Sasek's book is a folio sized tour of the most notable parts of San Francisco. These are the places you go as a tourist. These are the places you navigate by as landmarks if you're on foot. The most notable change isn't in the missing landmarks (most of them are still there) but in the changing cars (no more fins) and the changing fashions (the lingering influence on the hippy culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s).
The series was reissued in the early 2000s by Universe with annotations on what has changed. For This is San Francisco there are three, yes only three, annotations. That's how little San Francisco, at least its most notable features, have changed. The two biggest changes are the removal of the I480 and the redesign of the Bay Bridge, both because of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Sweet Venom: 10/19/16
Sweet Venom by Tera Lynn Childs is the first of the Medusa Girls trilogy. It's set in San Francisco, in the same universe as Oh. My. Gods.
After Medusa was killed protecting the world from monsters, a truce was made between the gods and the monsters to allow a small crevice for a single monster to enter at a given time. That crack is now in San Francisco, and Gretchen, a her descendent is protecting the City from them while still attending high school.
Meanwhile, Grace, and her family, have moved to the City because her father got a promotion. She's at an elite private school and happy have so many options for electives. She also has a bully. And she's started to see things — foul smelling monsters.
Although this book is set completely within the confines of San Francisco, it fits into the "road not taken" sub genre of the road narrative. We have Gretchen with a fast, black car, similar to Baby but a Mustang, who drives as well as Sal does when he works as a parking-lot attendant. (On the Road p. 6) But her paranormal powers and her commitment to keeping the monsters in check, keep her trapped in a city where cars a burden.
Grace, meanwhile, as a recent transplant to the City, is trying to live the happily ever after at the end of a road trip. She defines all of her early experiences in San Francisco against the vehicles she rides in. When she later meets Gretchen under extraordinary circumstances, it is her car that she is most interested in, not realizing yet that Gretchen is just as trapped as she is.
That said, this is San Francisco rendered by someone unfamiliar with the City. Yes, California is known for its large cities and massive knots of freeways. San Francisco, though, is constrained by two factors: geography, geology, and urban planning. San Francisco sits on the top of a peninsula, taking up 46.87 square miles. Although described by Grace's introductory chapter as having "millions of people", in reality it had as of 2013 837,442 residents. Likewise, while it does have skyscrapers in the Financial District, most of San Francisco has strict height and density restrictions for building.
As the author is from Minnesota, I decided to make a chart comparing San Francisco to Minneapolis:
As you can see, it's a toss up between which is bigger.
Despite this San Francisco being completely fictional, I enjoyed the book tremendously. The book ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, so that's another reason to keep on reading!
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel: 10/18/16
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas is about an Iranian teenager trying to be as American as possible in a new school, before, during and just after the revolution and hostage crisis. Zomorod Yousefzadeh and her parents have moved to Newport Beach from Compton because her father's gotten a promotion. They're trying to live the American dream but have plans to go home to Iran but that of course changes as the plot unfolds.
Meanwhile, though, Zomorod is making in a new school and has given herself a new name — Cindy after her favorite of the Brady Bunch. Unfortunately for her, one of her neighbors is also Cindy, whom she dubs, "Original Cindy." While that friendship isn't what our Cindy is hoping for, it's a stepping stone for other ones, including a friend who convinces her to join the Girl Scouts.
Cindy's new home is a condominium complex, one that comes with binder full of rules. As we also live in a condominium complex, one where some own (like we do) and some rent (like our neighbors), I found Cindy's asides about the rules on point and hilarious.
The Iranian revolution details will make this book a good choice for inclusion in the classroom. Important historic dates are included in the chapter titles.
Save Me a Seat: 10/17/16
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan takes place over the course of the first week of school. It's told in alternating points of view: Ravi and Joe's. The chapters are divided by the day of the week and the meal served in the cafeteria that day — Joe's way of counting time and coping with the stresses of school.
Besides it being the start of a new year, it's the start of a new school and a new life for Ravi Suryanarayanan. He and his family have moved here from Bangalore where he was a star student at Vidya Mandir school. Here in Hamilton, New Jersey, he's finding that he's having trouble fitting in — his teacher thinks he needs ESL and tutoring in math.
Joe Sylvester's been dubbed Puddy Tat by the class bully. Besides the unfortunate last name, he has trouble concentrating in class. He has to wear earplugs to keep the sound to a level that won't overwhelm him. Now he's being used by the bully as a prop against Ravi.
This is one story where the alternating points of view are crucial. The promised friendship between the boys is established in the final chapter through a class exercise. By providing both sides of the story, we can see how the last chapter will play out.
Save Me a Seat is a quieter, more realistic Terrible Two. It shows how easily children can be misunderstood at school and how well meaning adults can miss crucial things.
Full of Beans: 10/16/16
Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm is a historical fiction set in Key West, Florida during the Great Depression. Holm draws from her family history to create a charming and authentic story of a gang of friends.
Beans lives with his mother and brother on Conch street. One day after a failed attempt to sell collected cans for a profit, he sees a stranger painting a picture of the neighborhood. The oddity of that is all that is enough to spark a friendship.
Turns out the man is from the Federal Relief Administration and he's here to revitalize Key West. The goal is to turn it into a tourist destination. To Beans and his friends, that plan is the screwiest one they've ever heard.
Beans and his friends are gobsmacked that their run down, dirty, bug infested, too hot in the summertime, could become something that rich tourists would want to visit. Often road narrative books are about the highway abandoning a town; this is the opposite. This is the highway embracing a town and revisiting
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life: 10/15/16
Wendy Mass's books always end up deeper than they first seem. Even the most straightforward sounding plots end up having numerous layers. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is no exception. The titular character is on a quest to learn more about his father but he's stuck doing community service at the same time and he can feel the clock ticking down to this birthday — the time he's supposed to learn what advice his father had left for him.
Jeremy is a boy of habits. He likes to collect mutant candy (and I can't help wonder if they're from Logan's factory). It's not that Logan's parents are sloppy with their candy making operation, it's just that oddballs do slip through.
Jeremy also doesn't like to leave his neighborhood. He may live in a big city (New York) with access to loads of mass transit, but he prefers to stick to the familiar places. All told, Jeremy reminds me of Joe Sylvester from Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan's Save Me a Seat.
Jeremy, though, does have a friend who sticks with him through thick and thin. She also, knows how to help him push personal boundaries and try new things. That's especially true after a beautiful wooden box is delivered to Jeremy with a note saying that all the of his father's advice is locked inside with an apology that the keys have been lost.
That set up is the start of a caper — namely the misadventures to unlock the box. Lizzy's lateral thinking is great for tracking down clues for the keys. But it also lands them both in trouble — and with mandatory community service.
Wendy Mass writes realistic fiction. Her worlds sometimes skin along edge of the plausible but when a book is set in New York with a man who has ties to Great Depression and doesn't seem to age even though his former clients obviously have, it's hard not to jump to supernatural conclusions. I should point out I was also finishing up James Ponti's Dead City trilogy at the time — so zombies in New York were at the front of my imagination.
But this book is a caper — a straight up caper — that uses the treasure hunt for the keys to reflect on life, death, and superstitions. Through their community service, Jeremey learns he's not the only one in this massive city who feels most comfortable in his own familiar blocks and with his own routines. He also learns that the city and by extension life itself is up to the beholder — every person has their own experience and their own philosophy.
It's a quietly compelling book.
Cat With a Clue: 10/14/16
Cat With a Clue by Laurie Cass is the fifth in the Bookmobile Cat mystery series. At the close of Pouncing on Murder, it looked like Minnie would be the new library director. She, though, has decided to stay in her current position and let someone else come in. While the interview process is going on, though, she has to contend with unprecedented mayhem in the library: murder, burglary, and sabotage.
The mystery here is two fold: what is the motive behind these crimes and then who could be driven to commit these crimes. Although the why and who are different, Cat with a Clue reminds me of Darned if You Do by Monica Ferris.
As a library volunteer the problems the Friends have struck home. While you'd think that libraries would be secure, the reality is that someone at the Friends has access to get in, whether it's a key or a passcode. The Friends are a vulnerability and a strength — it's how it has to be for the support relationship to work.
Minnie's decision to not interview for the directorship bothered me more than the crimes. She's written as such a great librarian. Her coworkers want her in charge. She's be great in charge. But she either doesn't trust herself or just doesn't want that much responsibility. Like her coworkers I'm stressed out about the future of the library (even though it's fictional)!
Radio Girls: 10/13/16
For the past four months, Maisie and Hilda have been my lunchtime companions. I had a copy of Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford on my iPhone and I read it leisurely over lunch, taking in a chapter or sometimes two nearly every day. I chose the book because the title immediately brought to mind fond memories of when I was working remotely with clients in Texas and had to get up early. My day began with the BBC weather report and ended with the broadcast chiming of midnight.
The book is a historical fiction profile of Hilda Matheson, the director of Talks (until her resignation in 1931). Matheson, though, is seen through the eyes of her personal secretary, Maisie Musgrave. Maisie is Canadian by way of New York — though she hates being mistaken for an American.
Through Maisie's earliest days as a typist through working directly with Hilda we learn about the BBC and the early days of broadcasting. Once upon a time the BBC wasn't the world respected powerhouse that it is now. In its youth it had to tread carefully to avoid offending people and to avoid treading on the toes print media.
It's not just about the business of radio or of reporting the news. It's also about how a person can grow given enough encouragement and freedom. Of course having a well educated, revolutionary mentor helps too. While Maisie doesn't strive to be Hilda, she does emulate her as she finds her own strengths as a BBC Talks person.
In the background of Maisie's growth, there is the Depression, the opening up of the vote to all British women, and the rise of the SS in Germany. In this regard, Stratford's novel is eerily relevant against a contentious presidential election with the Republication nominee having ties to Russia, the rampant racism and xenophobia, and the misogynistic reaction to a woman being the Democratic nominee.
Viva Frida: 10/12/16
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales is a 2015 Caldecott Honor and Pura Belpré winner for illustrations. It's a picture book celebration of the life, art, and philosophy of Frida Kahlo.
Tim O'Meara photographed a Frida doll and other toys and models to illustrate Yuyi Morales's words. The final illustrations, go from straight up model photography to multimedia collage.
Visually it's a stunning and memorable book. Textually it's very simple. Really it should be read as a starting point to introduce children to Frida Kahlo. By itself it's not going to teach much beyond giving the impression that she was artist.
Empty Places: 10/11/16
Empty Places by Kathy Cannon Wiechman is set in a fictional mining town in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932. Adabel and her siblings are trying to survive the Great Depression and their abusive, alcoholic father.
Adabel can deal with the dwindling food sources and her increasingly erratic father. What has her on edge is how she can't remember her mother — the woman she's named for. Ada left her family a few years back and while Adabel's siblings all seem to have at least one memory of her, she has none.
The empty places are the spots where Adabel should remember and can't — moments of time — moments of love — that are just gone. This book then follows over the course of a about a year where Adabel tries to track down what happened to her mother so she can fill in those empty places.
All of this is set against the danger and poverty of the coal mining in Appalachia. The author includes an afterword, bibliography, and historical photographs. I also suggest listening to the song, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" to set the mood.
Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later): 10/10/16
Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard is based on an actual event, where a hat was blown into a duck pond and needed rescuing by a dog named Gretchen. It's one of those human moments that make the perfect seed for a special story.
Aunt Flossie has a vast collection of hats. All colors. All styles. All of them come with a story. She lets her nieces and nephews wear them when they come to visit. And afterwards they help her make crab cakes.
On a particularly special day they go to the park. Aunt Flossie wears a favorite hat but the wind blows it into the pond. No one can get it out but everyone knows how sentimentally special the hat is. Thank goodness for a dog who loves to swim!
I read the book for purely sentimental reasons. I had a grandmother nicknamed named Flossie by her siblings who also had a variety of interesting collections. While my Flossie wasn't a hat collector, a trip to her house usually involved playing with her old stuff, hearing a story to go with the treasures we found. The day ended with her making a snack or feeding us something she had made the day before. While she didn't make crab cakes, she did make an amazing shrimp cocktail.
Pretty in Ink: 10/09/16
Pretty in Ink by Karen E. Olson is the second of the Tattoo Shop mysteries. Brett Kavanaugh is watching her friend's performance as one of the Strip's newest drag queens when the performance is interrupted, her friend is attacked and hospitalized. Unfortunately Britney Brassieres doesn't survive.
Brett is drawn in again by a tattoo. Knowledge of local artists leads her down a dangerous path involving shady parlors, car chases, break ins, etc. etc.
There's a lot of action, a sea of red herrings, and enough cliff hangers to make a cliff diver happy. It's a fast paced read but not one that after all the excitement has stuck with me. I was too wrapped up in turning pages to really soak it all in.
Bigmama's by Donald Crews is a picture book memoir of his childhood summers at his grandparent's farm in Cottonwood Florida. He rode the train there with his three siblings and mother. The home was old with no indoor plumbing, numerous farm animals to care fore, and lots and lots of places to explore.
As the focus is on his nostalgic feelings of anticipation and excitement, the historical context is left in the background. On the train they sit in the colored car, for instance. The lack of modern conveniences in Bigmama's farm (even 1950s /1960s versions) are another sign.
But mostly this book is about the joy of family coming together. It's about smiling children. It about grandparents cooking for their family. The smiling here, then, is genuine.
The Last Monster: 10/07/16
The Last Monster by Ginger Garrett is like a cross between The Morose Mononokean and The Gilmore Girls. Sofia has been put in the care of the world's monsters while she is trying to get her life back. She's spent nearly a year in the hospital recovering from bone cancer.
Though a metaphor for the way illness or injury changes a person, the monsters are in the context of Sofia's world, real. Sofia is a hero because she choses to care, even for the things that scare her. These creatures, even ones that eat children, need her help and she gives it.
Every monster hunter needs a bestiary, whether that hunter is there to exorcise, heal, kill, or befriend said monsters. Sam and Dean (Supernatural) have their father's journal and later the library of the Men of Letters; Natsume has the book of friends, and Sofia has Xeno's bestiary, inhabited by the lost student of Aristotle himself. In that regard, I couldn't help but picture him as a Grecian Sir Glossaryck of Terms (from Star vs the Forces of Evil).
The Last Monster is a compelling read. It's one of those rare gems that insisted on being read in a single sitting. But there's enough tucked between the pages to warrant a second and third read.
Clarice Bean, Guess Who's Babysitting?: 10/06/16
Clarice Bean, Guess Who's Babysitting? by Lauren Child leaves Clarice and her siblings in charge of irresponsible Uncle Ted as Mum and Dad leave the country to deal with a family emergency in New York. It's the sequel to Clarice Bean, That's Me!
I mostly know Child's work through the Charlie and Lola series. The artwork here is very similar and Clarice could easily be a distant cousin of those two. Clarice reports the ins and outs of the week with Uncle Ted. Things don't to as planned — and her parents are big on planning. But they make it through the week no worse for the wear.
It's a fun read — although I'm decidedly more a Charlie and Lola fan. I still enjoyed seeing Child's playful illustrations.
The Firefly Code: 10/05/16
The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer Blakemore is a tween science fiction about a group of long time friends having their friendship turned upside down by the arrival of a new family to their street. Ilana and her family are from Calliope in California, a sister city to Old Harmonie. Both are company towns owned and run by Krita.
A well written dystopian novel has a sense of place and a sense of history. Dystopia is an exercise in extrapolation — taking a present day problem and seeing how it could affect society down the line.
These Kritopias are basically near future company towns like the old mining or factory towns built to provide shelter for workers and their families and to keep as much of the company profit in the company coffers. Krita wants to keep trade secrets and scientific discoveries to itself by providing homes, food, education, health services, and augmentations to its citizenry.
Old Harmonie also serves in the road narrative as a road not taken town. To the diehard citizens, and that of course, includes most of the children born and raised there, the outside world is a scary place full of disease and other dangers. Though not enclosed in a bio-dome, Old Harmonie is enough of a closed system to create a false sense of safety by exaggerating the dangers beyond its borders.
As I outlined in the Road Not Taken essay, these closed societies are disrupted either by the arrival of someone new or the departure of someone old. The Firefly Code remarkably has both. First and foremost it has the arrival of Iliana and her family. Later it has the children deciding to leave with her for reasons revealed over the course of the book.
The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer Blakemore has the appeal of television shows like Eureka, another company town with a scientific research bent, and Stranger Things, minus the threat of an extra-dimensional predator. There are literary nods to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and more recently, The Rules by Stacey Kade and 0.4 by Mike Lancaster.
In regards to the title, it's a little pun on all the different kinds of code at play in Firefly Five's lives. There is DNA and one's own genetic makeup which every child is shown upon their thirteenth birthday. There is computer programing and robotics, two things the company does — and two things that influence the way Mori sees the world. Then, of course, there is the sort of code of friendship that childhood friends come up with. Their decision and strife over the integration of Ilana into their group is very similar to Eleven's experience.
The book has an open ended conclusion. As a standalone, the ending gives plenty of room for classroom discussion or essay writing. I not so secretly hope it's a hook for a sequel. I want to see what happens to Mori and her friends as they hit the open road. I want to explore more of the world, especially the world outside of Old Harmonie.
Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard: 10/04/16
Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier is a stand alone meta-fantasy that's billed as a sequel to Peter Nimble. If anything, it's more of a special guest appearance by Peter as this book is in no way his story, even if Auxier attempts sometimes to make it so.
Sophie Quire lives with her father in their bookshop. She has taken over for her mother as the store's book mender. She lives in a village where yearly there's a bonfire to burn the ridiculous things that the town magistrate has decided are keeping the townsfolk back. This year he's settled on fiction — story books.
On the eve of the bonfire, Sophie's approached by Peter and Sir Tode about repairing an old book. The blurb has us believe that the book is told from Peter's point of view — that this is his adventure. It isn't. The majority of the scenes including the reintroduction of him and Sir Tode is done from Sophie's point of view.
Interestingly, Peter doesn't come off as sympathetic or noble or tragic as he did in his book. He's petty, moody, selfish, and all around annoying. As a master thief, though, he is a means to and end for Sophie to complete her quest — namely rescuing the Book of Who (the book Peter gave her) and the other three: What, Where and Why. She basically tolerates him to get to her goal.
Sophie Quire we find out pretty quickly is a storyguard. She is a keeper of the Book of Who, one of a four volume encyclopedia that updates in real time. Being one gives her the ability to interact with books in a way similar to fans of Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende. If Sophie fails at her quest, her world, namely the fictional one imagined by Auxier, will be obliterated in the pyre.
Sophie's adventures though aren't entirely through a reimagined Fantasia. There are nods as well to Narnia (of the earliest ones in publication order, rather than the abysmal Revelations inspired ending), to the Disc (specifically The Light Fantastic), and Howl's Moving Castle (the film more so than the novel).
For the most part I enjoyed following along with Sophie. Near the end though her adventures get interrupted by chapters with the villains or with chapters focusing on Peter. One chapter in particular annoyed me to no end as it's from Peter's point of view during one of the last big epic battles where everything is at stake. Instead on focusing on how good Sophie is at outwitting her opponents and how she uses brains over brawn, we're privy to lengthy scenes where Peter is doubting himself and needs to be cheered along. Apparently, just like Tinkerbell, Peter is only a good thief if we truly believe in him. BARF.
So I'm taking one star off of an otherwise delightful read because of Peter. He's just there to sell the book. He's there because the men involved in this creation didn't think a fantasy novel could sell with a girl as the hero. Peter is irrelevant and distracting. Anyone could have delivered the book to Sophie to get the plot rolling. Frankly, given the book's magical nature, it could have delivered itself to her.
Absolutely Truly: 10/03/16
I've mentioned before that Charlotte's Web has been a popular theme for children's literature in recent years. George by Alex Gino uses it as a starting point to discuss gender identity. Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin uses it as a historical setting and as a way of discussing polio. Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick, uses it, among others, as a way to set the stage for a book themed scavenger hunt that becomes the obsession of newly moved Truly Lovejoy.
Truly, her siblings, and her parents have moved to Pumpkin Falls, NH to take over the family bookshop. Her father was injured by an IED and hasn't been able to find work back in Texas, so this book store offer is a way for the family back east to be supportive.
Although she feels a bit out of her element, starting school in winter during the first full freeze of the river in ages (a big deal for the town), Truly decides to make the best of things. While helping her family do inventory on the store, Truly finds a first edition of Charlotte's Web. Tucked inside is an envelope that leads Truly and her new friends on a treasure hunt throughout the town.
For anyone who loves a good bookish treasure hunt mystery, Absolutely Truly and The Friendship Riddle by Megan Frazer Blakemore are must reads.
No matter how diligent I am with my review writing and posting. No matter how much I enjoyed a book and how convinced I am that I will write and post a review straight away, there's always one that slips between the cracks. Honey by Sarah Weeks is unfortunately one of those books. I read it in one delightful afternoon and now months later, I've come to realize I never wrote about it!
There are two main characters here: a girl and a dog. Melody, a tweenager loves her father and is worried now that he seems to have fallen in love with a women she doesn't know and hasn't met. Then there's Mo, a dog, who dreams of a kind woman who is the face and voice of his forever home, if only he can find her.
Tied up in the Mo's memories, and the dad's dating, is the fact that Melody's mother died in childbirth. Honey was one of many upper elementary school aged books featuring a dead parent but by far my favorite. Melody has no sentimental attachment to her mother, as she is always reminding concerned people — she never knew her mother. Melody, instead, is worried by her dad's change in behavior.
Dad may be in love and he may be keeping things from Melody but it all has a happy ending. Melody, her dad, and Mo, all get their happily ever after.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier is a graphic novel about an older sister trying to come to terms with her younger sister's cystic fibrosis. Cat knows her sister will probably die young, but she's also upset at having her life turned upside down by a move. Over the next few months, Cat, though, makes friends and begins the process of finally accepting her sister's CF.
The book is written for middle graders. From the reader's I've spoken with (many who have been eagerly telling me to read Ghosts), they pick up on the cystic fibrosis as the central big plot. That a child their age or a little younger has to already be thinking about her own death is a BIG heavy thing. It's hitting them like Bridge to Terabithia.
But as a handful of reviewers have pointed out, how the book addresses Maya's condition, especially her death is steeped in cultural appropriation and cultural erasure. So before I go into the book's problems — let me give you the TLDR version. I am still recommending the book but I hope teachers / parents use the book as part of a lesson plan.
Like me, Raina Telgemeier is a Californian. She's a little younger than I am but we're close enough in age to have grown up in the same California culture. The good and bad of this book is that it's quicntenstially Californian — white, middle class, Californian. But there's a lot more to California that gets missed by the curriculum that favors the white, Christian version of things.
Let's look at the way Cat comes to terms with her sister's mortality — the ghosts that haunt the seaside town. Having ghosts befriend Maya and scare Cat because of what they symbolize, is fine. It makes narrative sense. But— there are plenty of different types of ghosts to pick.
Here in the Bay Area, cemeteries are right in the middle of town (the exception being San Francisco which moved them to Colma. Imagine, then, if Cat and Maya had moved to Colma, to be greeted by ghosts who were still feeling homesick for San Francisco. Along with that could be the earthquake, fire, plague and other bits and pieces of the City's history.
Instead, though, the fictional town, Bahía de la Luna, or "Moon Bay" has the remains of a Spanish mission. I must be one of only a handful of Californians who didn't have to do the dreaded Mission project in 4th grade — both my kids did as did my husband. My school, instead, decided to show us suburban kids what being bussed was liked. So I spent my fourth grade driving across town to Webster Elementary and later Gage Elementary.
Imagine, then, my shock as a parent when my oldest child had to create a replica of a mission for 4th grade. Although the California state curriculum says that children should learn about the changing history of their state, what happens instead is that kids (and parents) are roped into a Catholic church propaganda piece, rebuilding pro-missionary replicas of buildings that were the headquarters for the systematic destruction of native cultures up and down the future state of Alto California / lower 2/3 of present day California.
If the author had to do a mission project, she probably didn't have do anything beyond learn how it was built, when it was built, where it was built, and who founded it. There was probably no mention of the local people beyond converting them to Christianity and "educating" them. Given that atmosphere of the project it's natural to see how easily the native people are removed from this story.
Now as Cat and Maya's adopted home is "Moon Bay" it's clearly a nod to Half Moon Bay. Interestingly, there is no mission in Half Moon Bay. There's Mission Dolores in San Francisco and there's Mission San José in Fremont (which was rebuilt in the 1980s, meaning local kids are making replicas of a replica). That's not to say Half Moon Bay doesn't have a cemetery — it has the Odd Fellows Cemetery on RTE 92 as you come into town. It has a view of the ocean just like in the book and it would have saved the trouble of erasing the Ohlone by making the ghost story something different.
Although the ghosts are said to like it in Bahía de la Luna because of the wind and fog (the same reasons given for the move for Maya's health), their arrival en masse is tied to el Dia de Los Muertos. In this part of the story, Cat, named for la Calavera de la Catrina, a piece of political satire created by Manuel Manilla and popularized by José Guadalupe Posada and now somehow the de facto face the commercial side of el Dia de Los Muertos.
It's not to say that the holiday isn't celebrated in California — it most certainly is. But it's not an all night Jarritos drinking dance at a graveyard. Yes, there are craft booths for children (just as there are at vacation bible school). The crafts keep the little ones entertained and helps them learn about the holiday and its traditions. But it's a personal, family, and community thing. It's a time to reflect on the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, and to remember loved ones. The events are typically held in community centers or at local cemeteries, if there is a church associated with it.
So why the dancing skeletons? Well, that comes from a 1929 Disney Silly Symphony called The Dancing Skeletons. It has nothing to do with El Dia de Los Muertos. Nor does it have any thing to do with Halloween. It's just four skeletons having a jam session when they are awoken by a pair of fighting cats.
So is the inclusion of el Dia de Los Muertos an intrinsically bad thing? No. But it should be done with care and probably with some advice / editing from someone more familiar with the holiday. It shouldn't be tied up into actual naming of the characters, such as Cat, or the family that first introduces her to the town's celebration, the Calavera family. Yup. The skull family. If this were a Halloween themed story, I suppose Carlos Calavera would be named Jack Skellington.
Remember, the point of the book is to help children learn about cystic fibrosis and more generally about death. It's to teach children how to come to terms with death if a loved one is facing a terminal illness because children do sometimes die. The California mission setting, the inclusion of El Dia de Los Muertos, with the exclusion of the Ohlone (or a fictional native people stand in) is unnecessary and disappointing. They are there to provide a setting that it's California, but frankly this is a case where making a general story, set in any haunted seaside town would have been better.