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November reading and looking towards the last month: 11/30/16
Last week I posted my plans for reading in 2017 which includes a whole bunch of what if contingency plans based on the very likely possibly that I will be moving to Canada. Now it's time to reflect on what I accomplished in November.
I must admit that blogging wise this month I've been pretty much on autopilot. First it was because of the sheer amount of focus first round CYBILs requires. Second though was the election results and with it the news that I'm now probably moving to Canada. I say probably because we've gone through these almost big moves before and only once out of four previous ones have we actually moved.
The point though is I've not been in a very good metal space right now. Usually in the last month of year I'm cramming to finish everything I've meant to read but haven't gotten to or haven't finished — those books I've been lingering over for months. This time I'm looking more at a blank slate. The CYBILs reading for me is pretty much done except for re-reading key passages of books that come up for short list discussion. I don't really have much else out from the library and won't be getting more since the last two weeks of the month will be travel — to Canada (though not to where we might be moving). This is normal Canada stuff — seeing relatives, being tourists and experiencing both Vancouvers (the city and the island).
Now looking back at a completed reviewing goal of 52 books published this year I see the silliness of it. Memory is so fickle. My memory of what I've read lasts for about a year. So I have a fairly good picture of what I've read this year and how I felt disappointed about what I'd accomplished last year. But I keep lists and have been tracking the currency of my reviews since 2008. Three of those eight years i accomplished this year's goal. Two of those years I came very close to doing so, meaning that in more than half of those years I was reviewing at least one currently published book a week.
Looking at the first year I started tracking books reviewed by year published, I see my last full year of reviewing ARCs. It was a year when I was running giveaways and scheduling two or three ARC reviews every week. I was basically saying yes to everything because I felt like I should. By December I was burned out, but it took me until mid 2009 to finally realize I didn't have to rely on ARCs for content.
My lowest number comes in 2011, when I was burned out by scheduling my reading and my reviewing. Yes, I'd stopped taking ARCs except for NetGalley (and even that I no longer accept). I had a ton of reviews written and a ton more to write and there was such a back log of things to talk about that there was no wiggly room to react to current events or even my current mood. So I went with the complete opposite approach — randomizing what I posted from the list of things I had already written. Totally random doesn't make for coherent or engaging content either but it was what I needed to push through a slump.
Looking at the other part of the puzzle — the making sure reviews don't stagnate before I get the posted, I'm down to two reviews to post from 2013: Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain by Valeri Gorbachev and Pippi Moves In by Astrid Lindgren; these are both scheduled for December. I have nine books read in 2014 that still need reviews posted. The remainder are from 2015 and 2016.
With 182 books read in 2015 and 2016 to review and only 31 more days to post in this year most of these will be still waiting for posting going into 2017. Of those books, I have twenty-two books published this year that I've read. At least ten of those reviews will make it into December's posts but now I'm coming to the point of having to decide which ones to highlight now and which to save until next year.
And finally, reading inclusively. I can say that the CYBILs nominees are more diverse than I've seen in previous years. Reading wise, then I've had one of my best months, with two-thirds of my reading being about someone other than a male able bodied cis-het protagonist.
Reviews, though, fell short. Only 19% (or seven reviews out of thirty) were of inclusive books. Part of this is a result of trying to get through my backlog of reviews. Part of it though was being on autopilot.
It's a Tiger: 11/30/16
It's a Tiger! by David La Rochelle and Jeremy Tankard is about a boy fleeing a tiger. No matter where he goes, there is the tiger! Can he ever escape?
On every other spread, there's a hide and seek game. Maybe it's a tail. Maybe it's a suspicious shadow. Whatever it is, sure enough by the next spread, it's a tiger!
The progression of the story from the expected jingle scene through more and more absurd locations (like on board a fishing trawler) reminds me of Fortunately by Remi Charlip (which includes a similar tiger chase at one point).
How to Avoid Extinction: 11/29/16
How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora is about the cathartic nature of the American road trip. Leo's grandparents had been planning a trip to Utah to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. The grandfather died before they could make the trip and now the date of the trip is coming up and Leo knows his grandmother is hurting.
Leo has also heard the whispers that his grandmother might be suffering from dementia. When his cousin begins to encourage the grandmother to take the road trip, Leo does the only thing he can thing of — goes with them.
Though the trip is different — Allentown to Utah — the sentiment was familiar on a very personal level. A few years after my grandmother died, my grandmother got itch to go on one last road trip. She hadn't traveled farther than the next city over for the entirety of his illness. My brother and I ended up with her on a road trip through Arizona over spring break.
For Leo, the trip is a meditation on life and death. The dinosaurs help him put his grandfather's life into perspective. Sure it swings a bit maudlin at first but it's part of the grieving process.
Initially I read this book for the 2015-6 CYBILs but it fits perfectly into my road narrative project. I will be going back and analyzing my copy more thoroughly on Tumblr.
Just Like Me: 11/28/16
Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh is set at a religious summer camp where three adopted girls have a falling out when put into a cabin with a very competitive girl. Julia, the narrator, has been brought together with Avery and Becca, two other girls who were adopted from the same orphanage in China that she was.
Avery and Becca are more connected with their Chinese heritage, though they have turned it into a uniquely American experience — much as eating Cheetos with chopsticks. Julia, meanwhile, feels no connection to her past except for an old photograph she has of herself sitting on the steps of the orphanage — a photo that every child adopted from there has a version of.
Mostly though the book is about the girls being stuck in a horrible cabin and being forced to compete against other cabins for prizes. I've seen this plot before so it must be a thing somewhere. The only summer camp I went to was a Girl Scout Camp where the idea is togetherness, not competition.
It's hard for the three Chinese "sisters" to come together as friends while being in a summer camp competition. It's made worse by a very high strung girl who I kept picturing as Paris Geller from The Gilmore Girls.
The set up reminds me of a pair of coworkers who were hired at the same time. Both were from the midwest and both were adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage — though not the same one. The adoption story, here, is based on the author's experience as a mother of an adopted child which she explains in an afterword.
As the inspiration for the story is so personal, I wanted to know more of the back story of how Julia came to meet (or re-meet) Avery and Becca. So much of that initial meeting in the United States is left unsaid that I wondered if Just Like Me was a sequel but it doesn't seem to be.
The Lost Compass: 11/27/16
The Lost Compass by Joel N. Ross is the sequel to The Fog Diver. Chess and his crew mates have found a safe haven in Port Oro. All that's threatened though with Kodoc closing in on the compass that controls the Fog.
Port Oro is built in the mountains near an abandoned city — one big enough that their town is built (in part) on the top stories of old skyscrapers. Nearby in the city is the map that leads to the compass but it's down in the depths of a subway and no tether kid has survived to bring the location back. Now it's Chess's chance to go after the map.
In my review of The Fog Diver I suggested that Kodoc's domain is in the mountains near Santa Barbara based on the description and the author's location. Part of the logic of that was the ubiquitous fog, nicknamed "Phil's Fog Monster." What better place to inspire a tale of evil, nanobot driven fog?
Chess's time in the fog city is described with enough detail to paint a very distinct mental picture. Since finishing the book I've been puzzling over where the clues led. In California there aren't many subways. In fact there are two: the Los Angeles Metro and Bay Area Rapid Transit.
BART primarily goes for 1970s kitsch and I've never seen a city map as an art installation in any of the stations. Also, BART primarily runs through the valleys and while there are mountains most aren't as tall as the ones near Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, with a longer history of rail (although it did tear most of it out in the 1960s, only to put it back in the 1990s-2000s). Los Angeles also has a long history of public art installations and all of their stations are themed and decorated. A little online searching and I found Chess's map at the 1st and Soto station on the Gold Line. Gold in Spanish is oro. The map mural was conceived by Nobuho Nagasawa and implemented by Michael Ballard.
And what's due north of that Gold Line station? The Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It all fits.
These meandering thoughts — this obsession on tracking down Chess's quest show how much fun I had reading The Lost Compass. Although Chess's quest is successful, there's still a whole world left to explore and perhaps more fog to vanquish. I don't know if there are any more books planned in this series — these two are a tight and complete narrative. But I would welcome a chance to explore other parts of the world. Or read a prequel.
If not — I look forward to whatever the next adventure is.
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story: 11/26/16
September marked the fifteenth anniversary of the of hijacking attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the failed attempt that was taken down over a field in Pennsylvania. It marked a turning point in U.S. policy, driven primarily by extreme conservatives who are using the national and religious identities of the hijackers to justify racial profiling and other racist bullshit.
More people have now died as a result to our reaction to the attacks than did in the attacks. That's not to diminish the shock everyone felt that morning or the incredible, unthinkable losses that families experienced as a result of that day.
In the year or so following the attack the first books about the event, or inspired by it, appeared. Those initial ones were primarily self published. Now that the event is long enough ago to be before this generation of children were born, the big named publishers are releasing books for middle grade readers
Because of the early hour of the attack — 8 AM Eastern Day Light, for much of the country the event was already over by the time everyone woke up. Those in the western and Pacific states woke to find the other half of the country reeling.
So that brings us to Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. It's set up like a disaster book — two days before the event, from the perspective of middle grade aged children who are traveling by airplane for one reason or another. Now anyone who reads disaster stories knows that the usually one or more of these introduced characters dies over the course of the disaster — not everyone, of course, as there has to be a hero (or two).
Already, the use of that trope makes me dislike this book. It's divisive and manipulative. Of course children died in the attacks — there were some on all the planes.
Of course, this being a middle grade fiction, all of the main characters are having their own personal drama with friends or family. The tragedy of the day will after everything has heated up with them, make them realize how petty their grievances. In the end, because they survive (and their loved ones do too), they are stronger, better people for it.
The Little Island: 11/25/16
The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown was published in 1946 under her pen name, Golden MacDonald. Like the more recent The Sea, the Storm, and the Mangrove Tangle by Lynne Cherry, it's the tale of a small body of land and the effects of time on it.
The island goes through the seasons, at lone at first. And then she's visited by lobsters and gulls, and later by a kitten. Although the kitten isn't named, I couldn't help but see it as a young version of Sneakers from Sneakers, the Seaside Cat.
Upon the kitten's arrival, the book takes a metaphysical bent. The kitten and the island together ponder the nature of time, life, and the passing of the seasons. For me, it's a more poignant and thought provoking book than her most famous, Goodnight Moon.
Counting Thyme: 11/24/16
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin is the third middle grade cancer story I've read this year. In this case, it's about an older sister having her entire life disrupted because her brother has a rare nerve cancer. The family has relocated to New York so that he can be in a drug trial.
It seems that in middle grade fiction there are two ways to tell a cancer story: either the family is forced to move because of it or the main character's world is transformed by it.
While I found the family dynamic compelling in Counting Thyme the narrative set up was too much of a hurdle. I'm coming to this book a Californian currently contemplating a cross continental move with an entirely healthy family.
There is a conceit among East Coasters that New York is the be-all and end-all of all things. In this case New York is the ONLY place running clinical trials for pediatric cancer patients. Again, as a Californian, I know that's not the case. There are trials in San Diego, Los Angeles, Davis, and San Francisco.
Of course parents would do anything in their power to get treatment for their child. But let's look at the reality of this situation — San Diegans moving nearly three thousand miles for a trial with an already ill child. A more likely scenario for San Diegans is they would find a trial in state and be put up in a Ronald MacDonald House — rather than that rat trap of an ex-flop house described in the novel.
What I'm saying is, a personal tragedy in a family doesn't have to equate to a cross-country move. A small move, likewise, can be just as disrupting to children as a big one. They will still be taken out of school. They will still be in an area they don't know as well. They will still miss their friends.
So in the case of Thyme and her family, if the story is to be set in New York for the write what you know aspect — then have her start nearby. Have her start in Upstate New York, or in New Jersey, or on Long Island.
The Amazing World of Gumball Vol. 1: Fairy Tale Trouble: 11/23/16
The Amazing World of Gumball Vol. 1: Fairy Tale Trouble by Ben Bocquelet is the start of a new series of graphic novels inspired by the animated series of the same name. The Watersons are at the Ren-faire at Elmore High.
Of course the Watersons manage to mess things up. Gumball and Darwin take it on themselves to prove a magic trick is nothing more than slight of hand. What they don't realize (and they really should given the weirdness that is Elmore) is that the magician really does have magic. The slight of hand is just a hobby.
Everyone at the Ren-Faire find themselves now in a fairy tale world brought there by the magician's curse. Being a fair person, though, the Waterson children are given the means for a quest to break the curse.
The book is cute and short and in keeping with the wacky humor of the television series. It's not quite as meta as the television series but if this graphic novel series continues long enough, I suspect it will find its way of being as metafictional as its source material.
Reading goals for 2017: 11/22/16
As the year winds down it's time to assess the year's reading and to make plans for next years. What I read next year will depend heavily on what I end up doing next year. There is the distinct possibility that next year will bring tons of change for me and my family. The last big disruptions were in 2004 when we moved to our current home and in 1999 when we decided to move to the Bay Area from South Pasadena.
The most unsettling piece of next year's puzzle is that it's not just us in the equation. My in laws are serious discussing a move meaning an end to twenty-five years of tradition. In all the time I've known them and been part of the family, they've been working on and re-working their house. It is a thing of beauty and next year it will most likely be someone else's.
So my reading and blogging goals — if they can even be called that in such uncertainty — will be moulded by what's happening at home. Of course that's always true to some extent but this coming year the effects will be more noticeable.
Last year I made a goal to read and review at least 52 currently published books and I've surpassed that goal. I've found this project to be both rewarding and exhausting. With the CYBILS in full swing right now, I'm finding the constant reading of 2016 published books exhausting and I'm looking forward to a break.
That said, I do plan to continue with staying current in my reading, of course with the goal soon being to read and review books published in 2017. I will keep goal at 52, but I expect the number might end up being less because of the personal and familiar upheaval.
Realistically speaking there will be two halves to my 2017 reading. There will be the first six months were my focus will have to be on physical books I've purchased and don't intend on keeping. I have already weeded the majority of the books I don't want to keep (or read). Now comes the ones I know I want to weed after reading them.
In a typical year my reading is primarily library books. Given that I have a summer deadline (potentially) for weeding my collection, my focus will shift to my personal collection. For the 2017 published books, I suspect most of those will be ebooks for the portability, although there might be some library books tucked in there too.
In October my road trip research fell to just 3% of my over all reviewing. In the early months of 2016 I purchased and downloaded a bunch of books. They will be part of my personal collection reading as they are here now. However, the reading to weed project will have to take precedence.
The Canadian Book Challenge will remain an important reading prompt for me. We're almost halfway through the tenth annual challenge. I've actually already technically finished having read more than thirteen books. As all of this personal and familiar upheaval is directly related to Canada, reading about Canada will become all the more important. I suspect more of my Canadian reading will be nonfiction instead of my usual YA and middle grade fiction.
Inclusive reading will of course still be on my radar. Among the books in my personal collection I have a sizable number that I need to read. For future inclusive reading, again I suspect much of it will be in ebook form until things settle down. Eventually I'll return to my library habit but it may very well be at a different library in a different country.
For the last bunch of years I've set my reading goal at 300. I honestly don't know how 2017 will stack up for time to read. There are just too many unknowns right now. With insufficient data, I'm leaving the goal at 300. If it looks like I won't make that goal after a better understanding of the situation mid year, I'll revise my number downwards.
While not a reading goal, per se, you might be wondering about the book blog and my Tumblr sites. I have no plans to discontinue blogging. 2017 will mark the twentieth anniversary of my main website. Mind you it's only been a blog for last thirteen years, and a book blog since 2006. If for some reason my current ISP has a problem with me becoming an international customer (if that happens), then I will move to a new ISP. The address might change but the content will all be there.
Graveyard Slot: 11/22/16
Graveyard Slot by Michelle Schusterman is the sequel to Dead Air. Kat and her father and the crew of Passport to Paranormal are in Brazil to record a seance for an upcoming episode.
Kat meanwhile is dealing with problems back home — her mother has gotten engaged and wants her in the wedding. The problem is that she has a very different vision of how her daughter should look, dress, and act than what Kat is comfortable with. Kat in the absence of her mother has come to realize that she prefers jeans to dresses and short hair to long. At the dress fittings for the wedding her mother has been trying to undo all of Kat's personal expression.
Going into a potential paranormal situation while feeling upset and stressed is never a good thing. Kat never manages to get her bearings in Brazil and her friendship with Oscar is stretched to the breaking point. Worse yet, she appears to be under the watch of a vengeful spirit. Could it be Ana from a previous episode following her to Brazil, or a local spirit?
For Supernatural fans, readers will recognize some of the themes introduced in "Hell House." Going back further, of course, there is Terry Pratchett's Hog Father and Death — two manifestations of human belief. Kat now has to deal with her own fears brought to life.
My one bit of confusion with this second story is the abruptness of the ending. The first book was two very well formed ghostly capers. This book wasn't as tied to the filming of Passport to Paranormal and it floundered in its setup. It takes Kat too much of the book to figure out what's going on, leaving only a couple pages to resolve everything.
Thus the ending is unsatisfying. It feels like there are pages missing. It's one of the rare times that I find myself actually wanting an epilog.
That said, I'm hoping for a third book.
Hip Hop Family Tree Book 4: 1984-1985: 11/21/16
Hip Hop Family Tree Book 4: 1984-1985 by Ed Piskor brings the history of hip hop into the era where even I, living in white suburban San Diego, had begun hearing about the genre of music. Mind you, it was already about 15 years old, but to us it was new, revolutionary, and ofttimes scary.
It was also the time that California was becoming a producer of hip hop, another reason why it was no long off the radar. This was the year that Will Smith (aka Fresh Prince), Salt-N-Pepa, and the Beastie Boys all became celebrities.
The first two volumes were more of an education for me. Now by volume 4, I'm reading almost strictly for fun. I've come to realize that in general, I like hip hop. I like the sampling. I like the humor. I like the rap battles.
As with each of these volumes, Piskor's enthusiasm for the subject rubs off. I always end up buying something covered in the book. This time it was a copy of the film Beat Street.
The Soprano's Last Song: 11/20/16
The Soprano's Last Song by Irene Adler is the second of the Sherlock, Lupin & Io series. After their adventures in the South of France, the three had promised to meet up again in London after Irene's family is settled. All that goes pear shaped when Lupin's father is arrested for the kidnapping of an opera singer and the murder of a composer's secretary.
Much of this book then should be focused on trying to clear Theophraste's name and of course find the missing opera singer. Unfortunately it has some pacing problems. Along with the mysteries at hand, there is the on-going war in France and the continued melodrama within the ranks of Irene's family: dropped hints that she's not their daughter, her mother's failing health, etc.
The historical setting in this one got to be too much of a distraction from the basic two part mystery. It's not that I don't want these three to be living in their world but I also don't need Irene proving her timeline of events to me every few pages either.
Imagine a World: 11/19/16
Imagine a World by Rob Gonsalves is the fourth of the Imagine a... series of picture books. I stumbled upon this volume after looking up the previous books to show to my son. We have been enjoying the Winter 2016 anime series, Flip Flappers which references surreal art in its background design. The yard and park around the school remind me of Gonsalves's work.
Imagine my surprise when I saw he had a new book out after ten years! That it happened to come out last year before I started actively tracking new releases was a bit of a disappointment (on my part).
The one missing element from the book are the words of Sarah Thompson. In the first three, Gonsalves's paintings were used as illustrations for her poetry. Now we have the artist's words presented in a format similar to her poetry. On the one hand, the book lacks the poetic punch of the earlier ones, on the other, the paintings feel like a more coherent presentation.
In form, Gonsalves's paintings are like M. C. Escher's tessellations. Except Gonsalves takes the concept back into the real world. He sets two realistic and related situations at opposite ends of his work and then through the actions of his characters and through the tessellation to move from one world to the other.
Take for instance the cover, which is repeated in the middle of the book. It goes with the caption: "Imagine a world... where patience, practice, and balanced steps make you a master of walking on air." At first glance it shows a line of children pretending to tight rope walk on ropes tied between the lampposts along the edge of a lake path. The path is paved with red brick. But in the foreground, the child in the blue jacket and jeans is expertly tight rope walking over a red roofed European village — one that brings to mind the work of (albeit it a more upbeat version) of Caravaggio's surreal cityscapes).
The book is a delightful addition to the series. I suppose next will be Imagine a Universe or similar, should the series continue.
Fenway and Hattie: 11/18/16
Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe is the start of a new upper elementary school series about a dog and his girl. Fenway is confused by his entire world changing. His apartment home is gone and now he and his humans are living in a strange new building with lava floors and infinite dog parks.
With a move comes the fear of losing everything — friends, family, familiar places, routines. For a dog it must be even more confusing. While Fenway tries to stay upbeat, it's clear he's feeling a little lost.
Fenway and Hattie is the third dog narrated book I've read this year. Of this trio, I'd say it's most like how I'd imagine a dog thinking — especially a Jack Russell terrier. Fenway has names for all the people in his life: Food Lady (Hattie's mother) and Fetch Man (Hattie's father) and of course his favorite Short Human (Hattie). It was hard not to imagine Fenway's voice as a high pitched Dug.
The second book, Fenway and Hattie and the Evil Bunny Gang comes out January 24, 2017.
The Dragon That Lived Under Manhattan: 11/17/16
The Dragon That Lived Under Manhattan by E.W. Hildick is about a knight who comes to Manhattan to rescue a dragon he believes is trapped under the streets. He's helped by a boy who has made a wish to meet a real knight and through just the right set of circumstances has been able to have his wish granted.
I found the book while looking for titles to add to my "Under Manhattan" list of fiction (books, TV, films) that take place beneath the surface of New York (discounting typical under ground usage, like riding the subways). There is a beast (Beauty and the Beast, 1990s TV), ghosts (Ghostbusters 2, turtles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), zombies (Blue Moon), man-sized insects (Mimic), but I'd never heard of a dragon before. Chronologically, though, The Dragon that Lived Under Manhattan comes first, being published in 1970.
Interestingly the dragon's territory is very similar to that of the insects in Mimic. The old pneumatic line is too tempting a locale to leave alone. It's just sitting down there in a hazy splendor awaiting rediscovery either in real life or in the collective imagination.
Ottoline and the Purple Fox: 11/16/16
Chris Riddell is one of my favorite author-illustrators. Here in the United States he's most known as the illustrator of The Edge Chronicle books by Paul Stewart. He's also (in most of the world, but oddly not here) the illustrator of many of Neil Gaiman's books.
Nine years ago, Riddell started a delightful series in the tradition of Pippi Longstocking — Ottoline. She's the daughter of explorers who are almost never home but have put together a supportive community of helpers for their daughter so that she can live at home in their flat in the Pepper Pot building.
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (2007) and Ottoline Goes to School (2008) were published in the United States. My kids and I devoured them. I don't know how many times we read those two volumes. And then the Ottoline supply dried up here. Thank goodness for the internet making importing books easier, so that we could read >Ottoline at Sea.
After six years, I figured we had seen the last of Ottoline — giving her a nice trilogy. Until late September of this year when I saw a tweet from Chris Riddell announcing the publication date of Ottoline and the Purple Fox on October second. After a brief moment of nearly hyperventilating, I put in an order to get it imported. It like Ottoline at Sea is still not easily available here.
In this fourth volume, Ottoline's life is opened up to new possibilities after she realizes that she needs to weed her parents' collection. There just isn't room in the expansive flat for everything they've sent home from their adventures. As someone who lives in a place with no storage, I'm perpetually weeding. I'm in the middle of another book weeding project.
In the process of taking out the garbage, she meets up with a purple fox who gives night time tours of the animal life of the city. The bear in the laundry room of the Pepper Pot isn't the only hidden animal. There are fashion gorillas on the roof and the need for a literal zebra crossing.
But it's not just about a beautiful fox. It's also about new friendships. First there is the Lamppost Poet who has been leaving love letters across the city. And there's Ottoline's double — a girl and her hairy companion. Together they look remarkably like Ottoline and Mr. Munro.
This volume has the same quiet fantasy as the previous ones. Every book has a color theme and this one — despite the green cover — is purple. Purple to compliment the intricate pen and ink drawings.
You can see my live blogging of the book on my Tumblr.
The Drowning Spool: 11/15/16
The Drowning Spool by Monica Ferris is the seventeenth of the Needlecraft series. Betsy has a routine that involves morning exercise at the local pool. When it is closed for renovation, Betsy's put in the right place at the right time to be part of another murder investigation.
There's a new senior center, Watered Silk, that is offering to host the water aerobics while the other pool is being repaired. Although the building boasts modern day security features including 24/7 onsite guards and keycards, a young woman is found floating dead in the pool.
While it sounds like the typical set up for this series, nothing comes together quite right. The first hinderance is one of the residents of Watered Silk, a woman with Alzheimers who seems gleefully happy at her situation and uses her disease to misbehave as much as possible. She's not a believable character and she borders on unfortunate comic relief, something this series hasn't relied on before and hopefully won't again.
Then there's Water Silk itself. Whenever Alzheimer's is brought up, someone who either lives there or works there, blithely says how the worst patients are locked up for their protection. What? I really was expecting the crime to be centered on the poor management of this awful retirement home.
No instead the whole damn thing is obsessed over the sex life of an unmarried woman. It's not that sex shouldn't be part of the series, the topic has come up before. But usually it's done in a more mature manner. This time it reads like a throwback to a Mexican divorce episode of Perry Mason.
The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin: 11/14/16
The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin by Elinor Teele is a strange book about a pair of siblings trying to find their place in the world. Imagine if you will Six Feet Under combined with Big Fish but set in the middle grade fiction world of Here Be Monsters.
John Coggin and his little sister Page live with Great Aunt Beauregard. John has spent his whole life learning how to make coffins as part of Coggin Family Coffins. John though wants nothing more than to invent things — to build anything that isn't a coffin.
That's where the Big Fish part comes into play, and I'm thinking more of the film, rather than the interconnected set of short stories. Like Ed Bloom Sr., John and his sister leave home (in this case, run away) and join the circus.
The circus is one of a few stops in John and Page's itinerary, through a series of villages nearly as wacky as Ratbridge. As this is a bildungsroman, John must ultimately face his greatest fear and confront both the death of his parents and the abuse of Great Aunt Beauregard.
Other reviews call out the adults in the book for being unilaterally awful to the Coggins children. They aren't — save for the aunt who might as well be the sister of Gregory Anton (Gaslight, 1944). The other adults initial reactions are filtered through John's fear and embarrassment. Like Big Fish, though, the truth behind their apparent motivations are brought to light in the final chapters.
The Underdogs: 11/12/16
The Underdogs by Sara Hammel is at first glance a middle grade murder mystery told from the perspective of a bystander named Chelsea. It begins with the discovery of Annabel Harper floating in the pool at a country club.
It's clear pretty early on that Chelsea, though headstrong and opinionated, is an unreliable narrator. After the initial chapter, every subsequent chapter is either BEFORE or AFTER. Those chapter titles are another big clue to what's going on.
As the book progresses it becomes clear that the who killed Annabel isn't the payoff for this book. The twist, the one that no one will tell you in their reviews, is who is narrating the story. For anyone who doesn't get it — even through the end will have their question answered in an epilog.
The problem here is that the twist isn't much of a twist to anyone who reads enough cozies. There's a whole sub-genre dedicated to this type of twist. For the intended audience, though, the twist is probably more revolutionary.
Some Kind of Courage: 11/11/16
Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is about a boy trying to hold on to the one last thing dear to him — his horse. Joseph's parents and sister are dead and now the man he's been working for has sold off his horse to buy more alcohol.
Along the way Joseph runs into other people in similar situations. There's Ah-kee, a Chinese boy who has been separated from his family. There is a Wenatchi boy, just labeled as an "Indian" by Joseph who has broken his ankle and needs help back to his village.
It is through his kindness — something his mother taught him — that Joseph is able to succeed in retrieving his horse. He also manages to help his new friends so it's happy endings all around. Except of course for the fact that Joseph is still an orphan and homeless — but hey, he has his beloved horse!
The book is problematic. Neither Ah-kee nor the Wenatchi boy really get to become characters on their own. They are there to boost Joseph's status as a worthy hero and to help him achieve his goal of getting back his horse.
Demon Volume 1: 11/10/16
My introduction to Jason Shiga's off kilter graphic novels was Meanwhile, a unique take on the choose your own adventure type book. Demon is written for a more mature audience — ones who can take extreme forms of self harm, murder, and ridiculously out of place masturbation.
It all begins with Jimmy killing himself. And waking up and killing himself again. Over and over — like Groundhog Day if directed by Quentin Taratino. Jimmy eventually breaks the circle by getting hit by a truck. Well — sort us. He gets to wake up in a different place.
Around the time that Jimmy figures out he might be something other than a depressed man, the authorities get wind of him too. It is in their attempting to contain him, control him, that things get really out of control.
Demon is a paranormal, violent road trip like the long running Supernatural series but from a demon's point of view. How Jimmy became one, or if he's always been one, isn't answered in this book. Perhaps Book 2, which comes out in February 2017, will shed more light on the mystery.
The Magic Mirror: 11/09/16
The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long is a fantasy about a crippled foundling who is trying to discover the identity of a man in a magic mirror while trying to escape an unwanted arranged marriage to the village hunchback. Meanwhile, there's a missing princess.
Somewhere in all of these parallel storylines and grandiose language — is a stew of familiar plots. It seems to made up of a gender swapped Prince and the Pauper, with a smattering of Hamlet, some Chaucer, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Beauty and the Beast and on and on.
For all the complexity, there's not a lot here. The individual plot threads come together in a tangle of missed opportunities, rather than sewing a rich tapestry of adventure, magic, and heroism.
Ghostbusters International: 11/08/16
Ghostbusters International by Erik Burnham is the continuation of the Ghostbusters Comic. Like the first four issue road trip plot, the Ghostbusters are called away on a series of missions outside of New York City.
New York City despite it's relative youth compared to similarly sized cities in the Old World, is known to be haunted. London with its centuries of history should be known for ghosts, but given the city's pride in having a stiff upper lip, is probably perpetually nonplussed by the supernatural. Londoners, though, have a problem with extra-terrestrials. On the continent, though, there are two cities with enough gruesome history to warrant paranormal activity: Paris and Venice.
Their first adventure takes them to Venice and an abandoned island nearby. Islands are usually abandoned with good reason and in a world where ghostbusting is a viable career choice, there's bound to be some truth behind the curses and hauntings.
The second adventure takes them to Paris. Like the adventures in the art museum in the second film, this time it's mood slime in the Louvre. Unfortunately for these four, the ghosts don't automatically put everything back the way it was as they do for Erin, Abby, Jillian, and Patty!
There are lots of strings left dangling at the close of this book. Namely, there's the question of who is behind the sudden uptick in big scale hauntings in Europe. There are living people behind it and there is obviously a big demon or something nasty coming. There is also the mess that the Ghostbusters have left at each of their assignments and the consequences for them.
Carry On: 11/07/16
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is the companion piece to Fangirl which is an homage to the Harry Potter fandom and fan fiction.
Cath's abortive first year of college is filled in with lengthy passages of her fan fiction, Carry On, Simon, based on the promised final book in an eight book series. While I didn't like Cath's melodramatic fan fiction I was curious to see how the Simon and Bass story played out without Cath self destructing in college.
This is Simon and Baz's final year at the boarding school. Baz is missing and the ghost of Baz's mother has asked Simon to bring her murderer to justice. Baz's disappearance though is a convenient plot device to get Simon thinking about his roommate and nemesis as a person rather than the super villain he's destined to be.
Carry On takes a long time to get into gear. The first third of the book is divided up between multiple points of view beyond the two obvious ones: Simon and Baz. As with most multiple POV books, these extra first person points of view are unnecessary. They're filler. They're there just to build up dramatic tension.
Here's the thing. Everyone knows going into this book that Simon and Baz are going to end up together. There's no need draw things out. The stuttering at the beginning — the numerous short chapters from different points of view — all the worrying about what is yet to come is there to forestall the inevitable. This lurching first act feels like a tug of war between three personas: the original (but fictional) author, Gemma T. Leslie, the fictional fan-fiction author Cath, and finally, the real-world author, Rainbow Rowell.
In the Gemma T. Leslie series, the last book would have been titled Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance. Cath's epic long fan-fiction ending was titled Carry On, Simon. This book feels like a compromise between those two extremes, or a stalemate reached after a lengthy tug of war. By the end, the last hundred pages, give or take, though, reads like Rainbow Rowell getting out of both her characters' heads and just writing it the way she knows we all know it's going to turn out. Those are the best parts of the book.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate is bigger than what a single introductory sentence can describe. Jackson and his family are facing homelessness again. He can remember the last time they were but his sister doesn't.
Children in need — no, people in need — resort to their imagination. Imagination to find a happier place, imagination to think of a way out, imagination for fantasy. Sometimes it's an imaginary friend to talk to, to see guidance from. Now, what if that imaginary friend was real.
Crenshaw is Jackson's imaginary friend. He's a six foot tall, talking cat. He's not there to actually rescue Jackson from his problems. He's there to help him cope.
Crenshaw is what I'd call a pooka. He's a feline manifestation just as Harvey is a lagomorph manifestation. He's also a kinder and more gentle pooka, rather than being a creature who enjoys tormenting alcoholics.
The Beginner's Goodbye: 11/05/16
Anne Tyler is one of those authors on the periphery of my reading. Every book of hers I've read, I've loved but I can (and do) go years between reading her work, even though she has been constantly writing and publishing for about thirty years.
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler is the story of a man coming to grips with his wife's sudden and untimely death. Aaron, an unremarkable person except for mobility problems with and arm and a leg (which requires a brace) was married to a brilliant and outspoken woman.
They lived as happily married roommates, keeping to themselves at home and keeping busy with their careers. The chores were left mostly undone. A tree that needed removal, wasn't, and that ultimately came crashing down on the sunroom where Dorothy did her writing.
Dorothy was clearly Aaron's motivation to keep living. It's not that the book is about him contemplating suicide. Rather, it's about a person whose routine has been destroyed and is now just letting things wind down. He's lost what little motivation he had to take responsibility.
This book reminds me of:
The Blackthorn Key: 11/04/16
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands is a mystery set in 1665 London. Someone is killing the city's apothecaries. Apprentice Christopher Rowe witnessed the murder of his master. To save his future as an apothecary and save others, he has to bring the murderer to justice.
Mixed into this otherwise decent tween mystery are cryptic clues left by Master Benedict Blackthorn. The clues are of similar ilk to the puzzles included in the 39 Clues books and Robert Langdon books by Dan Brown.
The puzzles though here get in the way of the actual plot. Sure they're fun to decode but they take time away from a fascinating plot involving treason.
The sequel, Mark of the Plague was released in September, 2016.
Curse of the Arctic Star: 11/03/16
Curse of the Arctic Star by Carolyn Keene is the start of the relaunched Nancy Drew series, called the Nancy Drew diaries. It's set in the present with the same group of characters except that Nancy's now at college and her caseload is hers and hers alone, not her father tossing her bones.
In this first case, Nancy, George, and Bess have been invited by the Assistant Cruise Director of the Arctic Star, an Alaskan cruise ship. Someone's been making threats against the cruise and Becca wants the problem solved before anyone gets hurt.
Although a ship seems like a confined, closed set for a murder mystery, but cruise ships are like floating carnivals. Partially to set the scene to show how distracting a cruise can be, especially when one is staying in a luxury suite, but also to toss around a ton of red herrings, there's a lack of focus here. Nancy and friends spent most of their time playing tourist. The attacks that happen seem to come at random.
This first volume seems more dedicated to reestablishing characters than on being a mystery. The narrative is unfocused and sloppy in places.
Pouncing on Murder: 11/02/16
Pouncing on Murder by Laurie Cass is the fourth in the Bookmobile Cat mystery series. It's spring again and Minnie is trying to put together the library's first book fair. As someone who had planned an event (a much smaller one) at a library, I can attest to the amount of work it takes to get everything together on time.
She also excited about the start of maple syrup season, that is until her good friend and syrup harvester, Henry, is killed by a falling tree. Another friend is badly injured trying to rescue Henry.
This isn't exactly a typically laid out cozy. A third of the book is Minnie reacting to the tree falling. Another third is her trying to set up the event. That last third is the mystery itself. Nonetheless the book is fast a paced page tuner.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: 11/01/16
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley is the second book in the six book series. I'm going to be upfront and say I'm only reading this series because it counts towards the Canadian Books Challenge.
Scott Pilgrim is a terrible person. His relationship with Knives, I thought, was over with. But apparently not. She's back and she's jealous of Ramona. So while Scott has to battle Ramona's exes, she has to battle Knives.
The best part of the book was the setting of the battle between Ramona and Knives. It takes place in a library — an actual library. It's the Toronto Reference Library.
I'm still debating whether or not I should continue with the series. I've liked other works by the author but the one he's most known for, so far hasn't won me.