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December 2016

Rating System

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

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8



The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs: 12/31/16

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby is about a ginger and white kitten who learns how to be a ships' cat. Jacob was actually born aboard ship but is traded to another one when the captain's daughter convinces him to let her have a cat.

The story's similar in tone to Milo and Otis, but aboard ship. In that regard, it's perhaps a bit like the the Little Bo series by Julie Andrews Edwards.

It's a cute story, good for kids who like cats and like adventures. It's not exactly original but it's entertaining.

Three stars

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Lost Cat: 12/30/16

Lost Cat by Caroline Paul

Lost Cat by Caroline Paul opens with the author describing her survival of a plane crash. Shortly after that her cat goes missing. As you can imagine, being immobilized and traumatized by a terrible accident, she's devastated that her cat has wandered off.

When the cat eventually comes back, she and her girl friend decide to figure out where the cat went to. They use a variety of technology including a digital camera affixed to the cat's collar, a GPS tracking device.

When our cat was lost
The experience that inspired me to read the book.

All of this from the initial accident to the missing cat and their detective work is presented as a graphic memoir, similar to the work of Lucy Knisley. The memoir is set in a San Francisco neighborhood as illustrated as the world of the lost cat.

Map of SF from the point of view of cat owners

The book is a charming memoir of life with cats and how attached we become to our pets, even the independently minded ones.

Five stars

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The Story of Diva and Flea: 12/29/16

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems is set in Paris near the Eiffel Tower. Diva's a pampered dog who lives in the yard and first story of an apartment. Flea is a stray cat, a self described flaneur, who happens upon Diva's garden.

Flea shows Diva the joys of flaneuring and Diva shows Flea the joys of living in a garden. Their adventures around the block and in the apartment are beautifully illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi.

It's a short book that's reminiscent of other stories set in Paris: Madeline for the Diva's building, Gay Purr-ee, and Aristocats. There is some language play in both French and English so the book could be fun to read aloud.

Five stars

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Shadowshaper: 12/28/16

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older is an urban fantasy set in Brooklyn. A long time neighborhood mural has started to fade. Cassandra Clare is planning to spend her summer repainting the mural and making some art of her own. That is until the figures in the mural start to move and she's made aware of her powers as a shadowshaper.

After books and books and books of urban fantasy rehashing the Celtic folklore of the Seelie and Unseelie courts going to war and dragging humanity into the fray, Shadowshaper was a breath of fresh air. This book draws on Latin American and Afro Caribbean stories.

Cassandra's world is filled with realistically diverse characters and a recognizably rendered neighborhood. My favorite supporting character is the archivist who helps Cassandra. I would read a novel with her as the main character.

Five stars

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Just My Luck: 12/27/16

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern takes the inability to ride a bicycle and turns it into a long weird metaphor about autism and brain damage. Benny Brown is in fourth grade and it's not turning out how he's been promised it would. His father's recovering from an aneurism, his brother is autistic, and the great teacher he was promised turns out to be forgetful and distracted.

Early on the book focuses almost exclusively on Benny's feelings of guilt for his father's condition. They had been practicing bike riding when the first attack happened. Benny feels that if he hadn't messed up with riding a bike when he was younger and could ride one now his father wouldn't have been in a position to end up in the hospital. Realistically though the aneurism would have no matter what the dad was doing.

The more interesting piece of the story, frankly, is the oddly behaving teacher. From how he's described I figured he was also suffering from some sort of mental decline — early onset Alzheimers or some other form of dementia. The answer isn't something else and gives Benny a chance to come out of his months long feeling of being nothing but bad luck for those around him.

The plot is tidy but Benny never really came to life for me. The characters are there playing their roles — but they aren't living them.

Two stars

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Valley of Kings: 12/26/16

Valley of Kings by Michael Northrop

Valley of Kings by Michael Northrop is the third book in the five part Tombquest series. Alex and Ren are in Egypt to look for powerful lost spells to help them defeat the Death Walkers.

Unfortunately Egypt is in chaos — magical chaos. Getting to the Valley of the Kings is a trial. No way is easy or safe.

The closer they get, the worse things become. The Valley of Kings, while it does pretty much shut down for the summer season, now it's physically closed off. It's hotter than hot, supernaturally hot. The why behind this deadly phenomena is the big mystery of this volume.

Fortunately for Alex and Ren, they have help from some unlikely sources: namely the mummified cat they met in The Amulet Keepers. There's also a celebrity cameo — Tutankhamen. Here he's portrayed a bit like the pharaoh in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014).

If this volume isn't enough King Tut for you, check out these great stories:

  1. Diary of the Boy King Tutankhamen by June Reig
  2. Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters
  3. Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life by P.J. Hoover

Five stars

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A Curious Tale of the In-Between: 12/25/16

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano is a tale of a girl who lives at an old folks home. She calls her caretakers her aunts. They knew her mother and they know how she died. They don't want Pram to know.

Pram, having been born at the brink of her mother's death, is close to the border between the living and the dead. Like Hiyori of Noragami, Pram can see and speak with spirits. She has a friend, the ghost of a boy who drowned, who serves as her guide.

But someone like Pram is a valuable, tasty asset in the spirit world. As she's a child, she's vulnerable. She, unlike young Tiffany Aching, Pram doesn't have first sight and second thoughts.

Since Pram wasn't extraordinary beyond her ghost talking ability, the basic threat is pretty much by the numbers. Readers new to this sort of story will be pulled in but there's not enough here for fans of the genre.

Three stars

 

 

 

 

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The Journey of the Penguin: 12/24/16

The Journey of the Penguin by Emiliano Ponzi

The Journey of the Penguin by Emiliano Ponzi is a wordless picture book about a penguin trying to find his way in the world. It's 1935 when he leaves Antartica.

His adventure takes him to New York for job interviews and auditions. He meets a variety of different authors: Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, and Dorthy Parker. Ultimately he manages to land the big part in his audition and the rest, as they say, is history.

While for children this is the story of a penguin in the big city, for adults, this is a delightful, quiet homage to Penguin Books which began publishing in 1935. Adults might recognize the nods to some of the publishing houses's previous book designs.

Five stars

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Cat vs Human: Another Dose of Catnip: 12/23/16

Cat vs Human: Another Dose of Catnip by Yasmine Surovec

Cat vs Human: Another Dose of Catnip by Yasmine Surovec is the second compilation of her webcomic with 120 reproduced from the website and another twenty created especially for the book.

Although I initially started read the book because of the webcomic, I now get the books for my daughter. Yasmine Surovec's books are perfect for her because they are graphic memoirs about cats so it's the perfect combination of autobiography, cats, graphic novels, and humor.

Feed Me

Basically like her previous book, this is more biting (and scratching and pooping) humor about the insanity of living with cats. Cats are these demanding, messy, dangerous predators that are so damn cute that we keep them as pets.

Five stars

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Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom: 12/22/16

Frazzled by Booki Vivat

The connection of a reader to a book is a personal thing. I wish I could say I was immune from that — as a librarian and a long time book blogger. I'm not. I don't think anyone is.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat is one of those books I felt an instant connection with. It's not because I'm a middle child (there are only two of us and I'm the eldest by seven years). It's not because I'm in middle school (I went to a junior high about thirty years ago).

Instead, I"m coming to this book as parent (not of a middle child, I only have two). My youngest loves to draw. She loves to draw comics and I've been trying to encourage her to start a web comic. So far her drawings are for herself, us, and her two best friends. Her drawings look a lot like Book Vivat's — that sort of enthusiastic, almost chibi-style.

Abbie Wu, the protagonist, writes about her misadventures in middle school. Since she doesn't have a hobby or a plan for her future, she doesn't pick an elective. So she's given study hall at the edge of campus in a strange building with a strange teacher. She thinks she's with misfits and ne're-do-wells.

The cafeteria — where she's been promised better food than she ever had in elementary school. Except it's only for the eighth graders! She has to stand in another line with most of the school and the bullies are getting the best of the food from that line, leaving her and her friends with yucky stuff.

Abbie finds her place in middle school by trying to tackle the cafeteria food problem. Her first and second attempts don't go as planned but it closes with her finding a new calling — running for class president.

Here's another point where a personal connection makes a plot twist all the more on point. My oldest just finished middle school. The last thing he did was get his school to add a snack period and lunch break on half days. Before that, kids on Wednesdays didn't get any chance to eat until school let out at 1PM. He wrote up a proposal that included a revised class schedule. The teachers and staff who were also hungry by the end of the day liked the idea and his schedule only added an extra half hour to the day, just enough so that everyone could get lunch and snack.

So I have great hope for Abbie. She's going to revolutionize her middle school and leave it a better place. If we get to follow along with her with a second book, I'll be there!

Five stars

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Darned if You Do: 12/21/16

Darned if You Do by Monica Ferris

Darned if You Do by Monica Ferris is the eighteenth Needlecraft Mystery book. A freak thunderstorm in September sets in play a series of events that results in the murder of hoarder.

Tom "Take" Riordan is trapped under the bough of his neighbor's tree. In order to be rescued his sanctuary of treasures must be violated by firefighters and paramedics. His hospitalization requires that his only living relative, a cousin, be called in to help with the clean up and repairs of the house.

As this series has progressed, more and more time has been spent on local stories, rather than on the sleuthing. This book follows that example, spending half its pages on the history of Tom Riordan and the clean up of his house.

Having not read the blurb, I seriously expected the clean up at Tom's house to result in an old cold case. When the bricks around the foundation were repeated described as bulging, I was sure there would be a corpse under there along with all the junk, but that would have made the book too much like Buttons and Bones.

Instead, the book goes in the direction of the things in Tom's house being the inspiration for his murder. In this regard, the book is like Thai Die except that everyone knows right away what's missing. What they don't know is why it's so important.

I happened to be reading this book during a serious two week cleaning of our home. We're not hoarders but we do live in a place with inadequate storage space. We were in the process of redoing the floors in a quarter of our tiny place, as well as replacing every single window. Both projects required lots of clearance. To manage that we have to ditch stuff and clean like crazy.

Five stars

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The Doldrums: 12/20/16

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is a tween fantasy adventure. Archer B. Hemsley is growing up in his grandparents home left to his parents after they've gone missing, last seen floating on an iceberg. Adelaide L. Belmont, meanwhile, has to retool her life after a freak accident has left her with a wooden leg, unable to dance ballet.

Archer wants to go on an adventure, to do anything but live in his museum house with his over protective parents. Though the book seems to promise that with an elaborate plan of booking passage on the day of the school field trip, the book goes in a different direction completely. Describing the twists and turns would involve too many spoilers to share here.

The book is beautifully illustrated with interiors of the Hemsley home or of Belmont's life in France. The illustrations combined with the description of this museum like brownstone and the missing adventurous grandparents give the book a thematic feeling similar to the Ottoline books by Chris Riddell.

Four stars

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Framed!: 12/19/16

Framed! by James Ponti

Framed! by James Ponti is the first in the TOAST middle grade mystery series. TOAST stands for Theory of All Small Things — a form of inductive reasoning similar to what Sherlock Holmes is known for.

Florian Bates is newly moved to Washington, DC. His parents work at the National Gallery so he and his new friend, Margaret, are able to spot some things amiss — things that help track down the identity of an art thief.

For the most part, this book is a fun mystery — part caper, part Sherlockian pastiche. For the caper part — the art theft — I'm reminded of the season two episode, "A Steele at Any Price" of Remington Steele.

The other mystery occupying Florian's time is the identity of Margaret's parents. She was left as an infant at a firehouse and she wants to know if Florian's TOAST technique can work.

All of this is told in a coherent, fast paced, compelling fashion. There's just one annoying detail — the extended flashback. The whole thing starts with Florian being kidnapped by a Safeway. And then rather than telling us how he escapes or if he needs rescuing, we're treated to the rest of this story — of him moving to DC, meeting Margaret, the art theft, the FBI, and so forth.

There's absolutely nothing about the rest of the book that needs a kidnapping as a hook. Florian is a well written, believable character — someone who is smart but not weirdly so. A lot of his smarts come from a wide variety of experiences. Margaret, is just as well written and smart in her own but different than Florian way. Their meeting flows organically into her learning how to do TOAST and to them uncovering the art theft and to Florian later recognizing his kidnapper. It does not need a flashback.

Four stars

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The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle: 12/18/16

The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle by Denis Markell

The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle by Laura DiSilverio is the second book in the Book Club Mystery series. Amy-Faye's book club has picked up Murder on the Orient Express to read and it ends up having an eerie similarity to a murder at her brother's brew pub.

When a new series gets started, it's easy for it to fall into the trap of killing off each of the main character's close acquaintances. Sure, they're plot convenient but it does start to make the protagonist look either like a very lucky serial killer or a typhoid Mary.

Here the murder is wrapped up in familial circumstance. Amy-Fae is helping out her brother. She is filling in because she wants her brother's new place to succeed. That is her sole connection to the murder but it is enough for her to want to get involved, especially after her brother is accused.

Every cozy series has a shtick. This one's is the tie-in with the book club's choice. Being familiar with the plot of that book helps to play along with Amy-Faye's investigating.

The next in the series is The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala.

Four stars

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Click Here to Start: 12/17/16

Click Here to Start by Denis Markell

Click Here to Start by Denis Markell is a wonderful mixture of mystery, history, and gaming theory. It's a bit like PopCo for middle graders.

Ted Gerson is a Japanese-American boy who loves locked room games. He's one of the best at solving those types of puzzles. When his great uncle dies, he leaves behind a real world locked door treasure hunt for his nephew.

Ted's uncle lived in Hawaii, lived through Pearl Harbor, and served in the army in the European campaign. Usually in middle grade fiction when there's a Japanese American family and World War II, the story centers on the internment of Japanese Americans. Click Here reminds everyone that Hawaii — the place with the largest population of Japanese, didn't inter anyone.

In the present day, Ted's treasure hunt at first looks like a massive clean up job. The uncle was a bit of a hoarder. His apartment is full of weird stuff intermingled with garbage. To a mind honed on dozens of locked room puzzle games, Ted sees a pattern to the collection. He sees clues.

If this were just a treasure hunt that served as a meditation on how one's things reflect one's life, it would have been a quiet, memorable read. Ted finds himself in the midst of a video game brought to life with real world villains who want the treasure for themselves.

Fans of Framed by James Ponti will enjoy Click Here to Start.

Five stars

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Be Light Like a Bird: 12/16/16

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder

Plane crashes seem to be a recurring theme of my reading this year. Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder begins with the death of Wren's father. He had been learning how to pilot a Learjet when the cabin depressurized. He and the instructor suffocated and froze long before the plane crashed over the Atlantic Ocean.

Immediately the inclusion of the Learjet detail put me in skeptical mode. You don't just start learning how to fly a plane by learning how to fly twin turbine jet — not as a civilian anyway. Besides being a complicated process, it's also expensive.

It's the expensive part of the pilot's license equation that sets the rest of this book into motion. Namely, Wren's father wasn't paying the bills so that he could squirrel away money to learn how to fly a Learjet. Wren and her mom can't afford the back payments on the mortgage and are forced to leave their home.

After numerous starts and stop along the way, they end up in a boarder town on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It's there that Wren finds her bearings, finds a way to grieve, and a way to make this new place her home.

Although the book has been well received from early reviewers I just never got over the initial set up. Why not have him die in a business trip crash? There could have been other ways he was squirreling away the family nest egg.

The father's death though is really just the impetus for the road trip and the reinvention of their lives. The process of getting to the last seventy or so pages is as obvious as a dot-to-dot.

Two stars

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Favorite series read in 2016: 12/15/16

Favorite books

As with my favorite reads from books published in 2016, I'm keeping with the top twelve format. To make the list, I picked one qualifying book from each month: from either book I read or a book I reviewed.

To qualify for this list, there needs to be more than two related books. New series where more volumes are confirmed are legit. If I've reviewed a book from the series, I will include a link to the most recent review, but it's not necessarily the newest book available in the series.

 

Twelve: The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale
cover art

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde
Review

I am a fan of Zorro and Shannon Hale's series is a cute homage to it. Here's a princess trying to keep her kingdom running, while keeping it safe from monsters. She has an alarm, a special costume, and a horse who fights alongside her.

What the series needs, though, is for the princess to open up to a trusted friend. She needs help in the hero business. She's going to wear herself and her horse out if she's not careful.

 

Eleven: Castle Glower by Jessica Day George
cover art

Fridays with the Wizards
Review

Castle Glower is an extra-dimensional structure with a long and bloody history. The first couple books just focus on the way the castle changes and reacts to the needs of the royal family. Interestingly, it also picks the next monarch.

 

Ten: Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton
cover art

39 Story Treehouse
Review coming

The current volume is the 65 Storey Treehouse. The series is published in Australia and very, agonizingly, slowly imported to the United States. As my daughter and I are such fans of this goofy graphic novel series, I broke down and imported the last one from the UK. If only the United States distributor would stop wasting time Americaning it. Really, kids can handle the alternate spelling of words.

 

Nine: Readaholics by Laura DiSilverio
cover art

The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle
Review coming

I love mystery series. They are my books to read during lunchtime, or when I want to unwind before bed. They're my travel books.

This series features a group of book lovers who read a book and then watch the movie. The murders they end up solving (unfortunately sometimes someone from their group dies) are always oddly on point with whatever they are reading.

Book two ends on a cliff hanger and I hope that means a third one is the works.

 

Eight: Jem and The Holograms by Kelly Thompson
cover art

Jem and The Holograms #1: Showtime
Review

I watched the cartoon with my brother in the 1980s. He was more of a fan than I was back then, but the Tumblr fandom got me excited for the comic books. I prefer my comics in omnibus format, so I'm now slowly reading through the series. I've read volume 2 and I have volume 3 but haven't gotten to it yet. That one will probably be a January read.

The characters are updated and there's some romance between the two bands. It's still true enough to the original while being able to tell its own story. There are lots of other Easter eggs in there — like homages to the My Little Pony comics.

 

Seven: Needlecraft Mysteries by Monica Ferris
cover art

And Then You Dye
Review

Although I didn't like the first book, finding it too maudlin, I revisited the series last year. I'm not up to date with the series. I'm reading Knit Your Own Murder on my iPhone.

What I like about the series as a whole is time passes at a reasonable rate (except, for Godwin who must be lying about his age by this point) and that the author tries different ways of setting up and solving the mysteries. There are also different locations — but they're all still near to Excelsior. I don't love every book but I appreciate the effort and the experimentation.

 

Six: Bookmobile Mysteries by Laurie Cass:
cover art

Cat with a Clue
Review

The Bookmobile series is about the assistant librarian at a rural library. She also happens to be the sole driver of the library's bookmobile. Her companion is a cat who makes feline observations on the state of things much like Koko and Yum Yum do in the Cat Who series.

 

 

Five: Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John
cover art

The Terrible Two Get Worse by Ed Piskor
Review

Imagine a pair of dueling pranksters and the mayhem they can cause at a school. Bringing in some cows and handy cow facts for good measure. The first two books were ridiculous and memorable and fun to re-read. The third one, The Terrible Two Go Wild comes out in January and I have it pre-ordered.

 

 

Four: Avatar: The Last Airbender by Gene Luen Yang
cover art

Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part One
Review

North and South is the current set of comics but I'm counting all of them as one series. They're set in the time after the last episode of the animated series. It's the events that lead up to the founding of Republic City.

 

 

Three: Ghostbusters by Erik Burnham
cover art

Ghostbusters: Get Real
Review

Here's another comic series I'm following. I've been a Ghostbusters fan since the very beginning: films, the cartoon, and now the comics. These are comics I re-read every couple of months. They're so much fun.

 

 

Two: Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg:
cover art

The Great Shelby Holmes
Review coming

I love Sherlock Holmes stories — the original set, the homages, and the pastiches. My kids are becoming fans too. Yay! Recently my daughter shared one of her Sherlock head-canons: that Watson who is sometimes James and sometimes John, is actually identical twins. Both are doctors but one is more competent than the other.

Elizabeth Eulberg is on the same wavelength as my daughter (who happens to be her target audience). She has split Watson into a mother and son. The mother is the doctor and war vet. The son is the pal of Holmes (named Shelby this time) and is the writer of the adventures.

The first adventure involves a missing show dog after a brief nod to the original first story: A Study in Scarlet. The rest though is a completely new story and a fun mystery that kept me guessing for a while.

I have confirmation via Twitter that there are at least two more books in the works. Each book will come out in the fall. So I'm eagerly awaiting fall 2017 to see what the two will solve next.

 

One: Hamster Princess, Harriet Hamsterbone by Ursula Vernon
cover art

Ratpunzel
Review

I bought this series originally because my daughter's name is Harriet and I used to have hamsters as pets. It's a stupid reason to pick up a book but it's the truth. By page three I was completely, utterly, one hundred percent madly in love with the book. The first one was a retelling, feminist deconstruction of Sleeping Beauty that plays off the idea that until the curse plays out, Harriet is invulnerable (a concept used in the "And the Self-fulfilling prophesy" episode of The Librarians).

By Ratpunzel, she's no longer invulnerable but she has a ton of skills now from all her questing. She's also earned a reputation for herself and is hired semi-regularly to go on quests. The books continue to be hilarious feminist deconstructions of well known fairytales.

 

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You Are a Lion!: 12/15/16

You Are a Lion! by Taeeun Yoo

You Are a Lion! And Other Fun Yoga Poses by Taeeun Yoo is a picture book that introduces children to various yoga poses. Each page shows a child next to the animal in question and they are both in the pose. Good for kids who want another way to be their favorite animal, or for the rambunctious kid who needs to unwind before nap time.

Yoga is an old discipline that is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. More recently, the physical aspect of it, namely the poses, have become something associated with young, upwardly mobile, women. It's something advertisers have turned to, to show women that they are selling to them. I suspect there might be some appeal to those women if they now have children and want to share the experience.

But, I suspect the book is actually written with Montessori teachers in mind. At least, it's in the context of the pre-K and lower elementary grades that I've seen Yoga introduced as a way of getting an entire class of children focused for a day's worth of learning.

Five stars

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The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde: 12/14/16

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale is the third of the Princess in Black series. In the last book, Princess Sneezewort stumbled upon Princess Magnolia's secret identity. Despite that setback, the two are still friends and today they are having brunch together.

I don't think this series can have a story, though, without an interruption from the monster world. At least this time the monsters are something different — bunnies.

gif of Anya singing about evil bunnies.

Bunnies as monsters isn't a new thing. It's been done — Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail and of course, Anya the ex-vengeance demon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But this is the first time I can think of bunnies as monsters in a children's book.

The bunnies are frankly more horrifying than any of the previous monsters. They are destructive. They tear apart the environment. Their population is out of control. They are a danger to Magnolia's land as well as the monsters'. And yet, she shoos them back into the hole. The lesson here, is that Magnolia is overwhelmed by her double duties as princess and warrior. She needs help. She needs recruits. She needs a confidant.

I hope that Princess Sneezewort is that help. She may be shy and unassuming but she is also observant, smart, and just possibly the person Magnolia needs.

Five stars

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Raymie Nightingale: 12/13/16

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

I'm never sure what to expect with a Kate DiCamillo book. I respect authors that keep me guessing and keep experimenting with their voice. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo comes close to reading like it was written by Polly Horvath.

The book opens with Raymie taking baton practice so she can compete in the 1975 Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. With her are Louisiana who is prone to fainting and Beverly who wants nothing more than to sabotage the entire event as she's sick of being forced into these competitions by her mother.

The first chapter gives the impression that this book will be about a girl who has never competed before being pushed into a world she doesn't understand. She'll be bullied by the seasoned professional (Beverly) and become a stronger, more compassionate person with the help of a shy and misunderstood competitor (Louisiana). But that's not how it goes at all.

Each of these girls is her own, completely rendered individual. Each has a reason for participating in the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest. Despite being competitors they also become friends.

The thing that brings them together is Louisiana's living situation. Her parents are dead and her cat was dumped off a shelter by her grandmother. Her cat is her one remaining tie to her family and she's grieving over him — feeling (rightfully so) that she has betrayed him.

What could have been just another story of a popularity contest, we get a story of girls coming together to rescue a cat. It's a quiet story about little miracles in the midst of hardship and tragedy. It's about getting on with life and making the current situation as good as possible.

Five stars

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Sticks & Stones: 12/12/16

Sticks & Stones by Sarah Mlynowski

Sticks & Stones by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins is the sequel to Upside-Down Magic. Nory and Bax and the other UDMs are settling nicely into their class but there's new trouble at the school — a petition to close the program!

The reason behind the petition is that weird stuff is happening. Someone is petrifying stuff around the school. In order to save their program, the UDM students have to work extra hard to understand how their magic works and how to keep it under control.

Nory, though, has an out for her magic — kitten ball. As long as she keeps most of her body kitten shaped, she's allowed to play — no — encouraged to play as a dritten (dragon kitten).

It's a cute addition to the series. At the end of the year there's a third book coming out, Showing Off.

Four stars

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Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain: 12/11/16

Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain by Valeri Gorbachev

Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain by Valeri Gorbachev is a book my daughter chose. She picked it because it was about a cat and like our cats, she hates rain.

Catty Jane is distraught when a rainstorm keeps her in doors. Mom does everything she can to cheer up Catty Jane, including inviting her best friends over. Even they have trouble cheering her up.

Catty Jane's given so many good and fun ideas of things to do indoors. There's lots of ideas for parents and children stuck in doors by weather. But Catty's attitude gets in the way and drags down the book.

That said, I think my daughter liked the book more than I did.

Three stars

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Favorite books of 2016 by month: 12/11/16

Favorite books

Here we are in December. As the year winds down it's time to look back and reflect on the standouts. My first list isn't a top ten. It's a top twelve, if you will. I went through my reading list for the year and picked one favorite from each month.

Keep in mind, these are my strictly my favorites. They're picked for sentimental reasons, for that initial emotional zing.

 

January:
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Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe
Review

Derring-do, airships, capering, and general mayhem. A simple heist turns out to be anything but, throwing the crew into the middle of a hot steaming mess of political intrigue, shape shifters, and revolt.

 

February:
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The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry
Review

I'm reminded here of 1Q84 for how competing decisions can cleave the world as we know into distinct possibilities. Only those directly involved in that moment can interact, cross form one reality to the other. But crossing is hard and heart breaking. Knowing how things should have worked out, is ultimately devastating.

 

March:
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Amulet 7: Firelight by Kazu Kibuishi
Review

The Amulet series is coming to a close with two more volumes planned. I've been following it since the very beginning. While I'll be sad to see it go, I've enjoyed watching the characters grow and the world expand. There's a very definite arc to the series.

The artwork throughout the series has been beautiful and detailed. Every volume, though, seems to be prettier and more complex than the last. This one features wonderful cutaway diagrams of an airship. It also has a delightfully silly fish slap.

 

April:
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The Circle of Lies by Crystal Velasquez
Review

This is the sequel to Hunters of Chaos. A group of girls at an elite all girls school in New Mexico have learned they have the power to transform into magical cats. Their powers have gotten the attention of Anubis and he is trying to keep the girls separated to conquer them one by one. Three of the girls head to Mexico to look for Ana's missing aunt and uncle. The other one has been sent to India to find her family completely changed and probably under Anubis's spell!

Book two ends on a cliff hanger and I hope that means a third one is the works.

 

May:
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Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 2: Feasts of Fury by Eric Colossal
Review

Feasts of Fury is another sequel. It's a graphic novel series that I've been talking up since the first book was published last year. Usually in a quest story, the main character carries a sword. That's not always, of course. Look at Taran from the Chronicles of Prydain; he's an assistant pig keeper. Rutabaga, is a chef. He travels the world looking for new recipes, new ingredients, and heroes or kings to cook for.

To me, this series is a mashup of Food Wars! and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I don't know if there's a third book in the works, but I guarantee you I will be first in line to preorder it, if one is announced.

 

June:
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The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks
Review

Here's a book that everyone's been talking about. It's a graphic novel about a city that has been conquered so many times, no one is sure of it's history. Kaidu, has come to the city to learn how to be a warrior but his world view is turned upside down and inside out by a chance meeting with a street urchin named Rat.

It's an entertaining but thought provoking introduction to conquest, privilege, and institutionalized racism.

 

July:
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Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar
Review

This book takes place in New Mexico and I happened to read it while on a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona. I admit, the timing of the two contributed to an extra magical reading experience. At first glance, this book is about a family coming to terms with the deteriorating health of the patriarch — a man who has stubbornly stayed on his drought ridden ranch. As the family works to move him off the ranch and into assisted living, he tells his grand daughter a magical story of a village kept young by a tree. As the villagers grew bored with a sheltered life they began to take apart the tree, hoping to carry its protection with them into the world. Ultimately the destroy the tree and with it, the land among them.

The question then becomes, how much truth is in the grandfather's story? How real is the magic he speaks of? Did the bees really steal the water and are keeping the rain away?

 

August:
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Hip Hop Family Tree Book 4: 1984-1985 by Ed Piskor
Review

Hip Hop Family Tree is another of my favorite series. This one uses comics to chronicle the history of hip hop. 1984-1985 covers artists and albums that even I as a clueless suburbanite had heard of back in the day.

 

September:
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Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Review

Ravi and Joe don't seem like they would end up being friends. Ravi is from India and is struggling with no longer being the popular kid. He's also insulted at being given ESL lessons. Joe needs extra help coping with the stress of school. He knows the subjects but he gets distracted. Meanwhile, the boy that Ravi looks up to is the same sort of bully that he used to be. Except now, Ravi's the one being bullied.

Normally I'm skeptical of alternative points of view, but here Weeks and Varadarajan take turns to make their characters shine. We get into both boys' heads to see the big picture. All this comes together in the final chapter when there's a class exercise to see how well the students know each other.

 

October:
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Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford
Review

Radio Girls was my lunchtime book for the remainder of summer. The book is set in the late 1920s and the early 1930s in London. Maisie Musgrave is struggling to make a go at living here. She doesn't want to go back to New York. She's been hired into a tug of war between the director general of the BBC and the head of Talks, Hilda Matheson.

Maisie quickly catches the eye of Hilda and eventually becomes her personal secretary. It is through the interactions of the two that we get to see Europe gearing up for WWII.

 

November:
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Finding Fortune by Delia Ray
Review

An absent father prompts Ren to explore the failing town of Fortune, once a boomtown in era of buttons made from shells. She befriends the woman and her boarders who are trying to keep the place going. She has a treasure hunt. And it's all based on a real place — there is an afterword with photographs and other info.

 

December:
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Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock
Review coming

Shannon Hitchcock draws on her own childhood experiences to write a fascinating story of a family adjusting after a horrific car accident. The youngest, a six year old, survives but needs physical therapy. The physio combined with the other hospital expenses forces them to move to the family home. All of this family drama is played against desegregation. Sarah and Ruby have been friends forever but the stress of Robin's recovery and the adults talking in shushed tones about how much trouble desegregation will bring, takes their friendship to the breaking point. It's a very frank look at racism and doesn't offer any sort of pat, happy ending — save for Robin's eventual recovery.

 

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Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain: 12/11/16

Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain by Valeri GorbachevCatty Jane Who Hated the Rain by Valeri Gorbachev is a book my daughter chose. She picked it because it was about a cat and like our cats, she hates rain.

Catty Jane is distraught when a rainstorm keeps her in doors. Mom does everything she can to cheer up Catty Jane, including inviting her best friends over. Even they have trouble cheering her up.

Catty Jane's given so many good and fun ideas of things to do indoors. There's lots of ideas for parents and children stuck in doors by weather. But Catty's attitude gets in the way and drags down the book.

That said, I think my daughter liked the book more than I did.

Three stars

 

 

 

 

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Ratpunzel: 12/10/16

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon is the third of the delightful Hamster Princess series. Harriet's hit a slow point in her questing and is stuck at home with her parents. Thankfully, her friend Wilbur desperately needs her help — a hydra egg has been stolen and needs to be retrieved before it hatches.

Vernon's book marks the third Rapunzel inspired story I've enjoyed. As a child Rapunzel's story had been distilled down to a princess or lady with a long braid, thick as a rope, who waits until a prince finds her and asks her to "let down her hair." He climbs up. They fall in love and he somehow manages to get the two of them out of the tower. The end.

In those stories the how and why of Rapunzel's incarceration is left out. I honestly didn't know about the witch or her motivation until first reading Rapunzel's Revenge by Shanon Hale. Then Tangled looked at how abusers keep their victims. Rapunzel was also given a reason — beyond straight up revenge — for being kept in the tower away from everyone.

Veron's version takes a decidedly different approach, again focusing on the kidnapper — a shrew — and how abusers are often repeat offenders. Here the second victim is the hydra — or will be as soon as it hatches. Rapunzel herself isn't really the point of the rescue, though she is rescued because it's the right thing to do.

Mostly though the book is about Harriet pushing herself to the limits in the name of being a hero. It's also a chance to see her friendship with Wilbur grow and for him to show some growth as a character and a hero.

The next in the series is Giant Trouble with a scheduled release of May 9th, 2017.

Five stars

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OCDaniel: 12/09/16

OCDaniel by Wesley King

OCDaniel by Wesley King is a roman à clef that would have been better as a straight up memoir. Daniel suffers from "zaps" which get in his way — interrupting his sleep schedule, his studying, his chances on the football team, and his dating prospects. What he doesn't realize is that these "zaps" and the rituals that come out of them are part of living with obsessive compulsive disorder.

If you take the book at face value it's a run of the mill story of an unpopular boy who is upset that he can't get the things he wants: the girl, a proper place on the team, and a chance at being popular. Since these types of books are a dime a dozen (even though there's always someone wining about how books are all about female protagonists now), Daniel needs something to set him apart. Here the problem is OCD.

How this book fails to get across how scary it must be to a teen with undiagnosed OCD is that we're never really in Daniel's teenage head. Rather, the zaps and other symptoms are explained from the present tense — told presumably from an older Daniel. Rather than getting a compelling first person account of OCD from Daniel, we're given a monolog reminiscent of the schlocky voice overs from The Wonder Years.

At the close of the book there's an afterword about the author's own experience with OCD. It's by far the best part of the book. It's written in a genuine voice — the voice that Daniel should have had throughout the book.

Two stars

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Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle: 12/08/16

Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the tenth and final (according to the blurb) in the series. The Lunch Lady and her trusty assistant, Betty, are out of work. There are lots of other changes coming at the school too.

As with so many finales, it's time to bring back all the previous villains. It's a fun revisit with favorite foes. Mine are the librarians.

There's also a plot that extends beyond the school or even the town. It's positively out of something from Doctor Who. Except, that's actually better thought out than the corresponding Who episode, "Kill the Moon."

two panels from the book

Four stars

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A Long Pitch Home: 12/07/16

A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi is the story of a Pakistani boy trying to fit in now that he and his family have moved to Virginia. He was a champion cricketer and now is trying to learn baseball. Along with the trouble of the games being so frustratingly different, he's also upset that the star player is a girl!

In the last couple of years there has been a trend in middle grade fiction — stories about immigrant children trying to fit in their American schools. The stories either focus on how weird English is — so that even if you learn English in school, you'll still have trouble when moving countries, or they focus on sports because American sports are so different from the rest of the world's.

This one, like Kiki and Jacques, takes the sports angle. In Kiki and Jacques, at least the sport was one that's basically the same in both countries: football / soccer. This time, though, it's cricket. Cricket and baseball, except for the pitching a ball and the batting of a ball, are the exact opposites of each other.

Before we even get to the sexism of this book, let's look at this set up. Boy who is from Pakistan and loves to play cricket is suddenly stuck playing baseball because that's all that's available in backwards Virginia.

Yes, baseball is the "national pastime" but that doesn't mean cricket isn't available. There are cricket pitches in Virginia. Mind you the leagues are smaller but it would still be possible for Bilal to continue playing the game he loves.

Now onto the part that bugs the most — Jordan. Or rather, Bilal's reaction to her. As a kid the only team sport I wanted to be part of was a little league baseball. Back then it was a lot hard (nearly impossible) for girls to get onto baseball teams. Girls were expected to play softball lest they get hurt. BARF.

That unfortunate split still exists but it is easier for the baseball loving girls to get onto little league teams. Since the other team members — the Americans — are written as being okay with her on the team, Bilal's reaction is there just to show how much he has to learn about gender equality. Basically it's the story of backwards, sexist boy learns a valuable lesson while playing baseball in America.

My point is that sexism exists in both countries. Realistically Jordan would be facing it from her native Virginians well before Bilal joins the team.

In looking at the structure of this story, I think A Long Pitch Home should have picked either baseball or sexism rather than trying to do both. Imagine if Bilal was super excited to find a cricket team near his new home. Imagine going into it with lots of expectations and then being shocked to see a girl on the team!

Two stars

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Kiki and Jacques: 12/06/16

Kiki and Jacques by Susan RossKiki and Jacques by Susan Ross is set in Maine, in an area with a Quebecois community. Jacques is looking forward to this season's soccer and it's likely he'll be the team captain. That is until a Somali boy starts at his school and is just as good, if not better, than he is.

Now you'd think the book would be about the rivalry between a town native and a refugee, but it isn't. Instead, it's about a friendship that develops between Jacque and his rival's sister.

In the background of this friendship is Jacques's other troubles. His grandmother's bridal shop is failing. Hie father is drinking himself to death. There are bullies who want to enlist Jacques into illegal and dangerous activities.

But all of that is over looked as the town is nervous about the Somalis. They are so very different from everyone else. Remarkably, Jacques sees Kiki and her family as a good influence in his otherwise tumultuous life.

Four stars

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How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me from Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel: 12/05/16

How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me from Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel by Jennifer Brown

How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me from Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel by Jennifer Brown is a middle grade story of a school that competes in everything and never wins. Luke Abbott is happy just playing video games with his friends after school but he's being forced to join the school's robotics team to put his video game skills to use.

So reluctant Luke is thrown in with a close knit club of (from his point of view) oddballs. There's the bossy girl who has been secretly bullying Luke since second grade, the two Jacobs who act like twins but aren't, a boy obsessed with sunflowers, a girl who does everything with her feet, and the mysterious titular character who is the glue of this unlikely group.

Lunchbox Jones reads like a simplified retelling of Robotics;Notes which is a Japanese visual novel, a console game, and an anime series. In the anime a group of high schoolers fight to restart the robotics club, the goal being to finish large fighting robot. This is all done against the background of a world recovering from a time when nearly everyone blacked out. The club through its research into robotics stumbles upon the ugly truth behind the incident and its lasting effects.

Now this book has the struggling club and the betrayal by one of its own but it's otherwise pretty tame. Mostly it's about the quirky characters and Luke finding to his own chagrin that he fits in just fine. It just needs more of a hook to pull everything together.

Two stars

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All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook: 12/04/16

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor is a middle grade fiction about a boy who has spent his entire life in prison. His mother was arrested while pregnant and the warden has let Perry live on site. Now, six months away from his mother's parol hearing, Perry's suddenly living in the district attorney's house.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I appreciate that there are children in the United States growing up with incarcerated parents. Representation matters for all readers. But this book doesn't paint a very realistic portrait of prison — or more accurately speaking "correctional facilities."

There are a few co-correctional facilities but they don't allow for the intermingling of men and women as shown in All Rise.... If Perry were growing up in a correction facility he would primarily have access to women — his mother and the other women being housed there with her.

The other odd feature of this book is a lengthy middle section where Perry has to write a paper about his family's history — namely how they came to live in Surprise. Perry decides to write about his entire extended family and as he researches the lives of the people at the correctional facility, we a chapter for each story. Again, I think these chapters fall into the category of representation but they're dropped into the story in a rather clunky way. In terms of the narrative, they're filler.

Finally there's how little Perry seems to know about his situation. I'm not expecting Perry's mother to tell him why she's been incarcerated. Rather, I'm surprised that Perry doesn't know (because that's how it's presented in the final third of the book) that the Warden is his foster parent. The book presents Perry's situation as a secret — that he's been hidden away in a storage room turned bedroom — when in actuality he's being fostered (albeit on site) by the Warden.

I think more time should have been spent on explaining the foster care situation, rather than bloating the book with tons of backstory from supporting characters. Had this book been about a boy in the foster care of the warden of a woman's correctional facility whose situation is suddenly changed because a new to the area district attorney doesn't think fostering on site is in the boy's best interest, the story would have been tighter and more compelling.

Three stars

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Allie, First at Last: 12/03/16

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes is about an extraordinary family who have all won an award or achieved something amazing while still in elementary school — all except for Allie who hasn't. She's in her last year at Sendak and has one last chance to win an award — for the trail blazers essay contest.

Allie Velasco choses her bisabuelo (great grandfather) and his bravery in WWII. Frankly, her great grandfather is the most interesting person in the entire book. It's not that he's a war hero. That's not what's played up. He doesn't brag about his heroics. He's more reserved — maybe even humbled by his time as a GI. He's also the one person in Allie's immediate family who recognizes the pressure she's under to live up to the standards set by all these awards.

Another interesting and well rounded character is Victor. Allie completely misreads him, especially after he makes an idiotic, impulsive move at the science fair. He though is Allie's counterpart — the one who wants to be first to succeed in his family. He wants to be the first to graduate high school and the first to attend college.

While Allie's family is a multigenerational Mexican-American family, Victor and his family are immigrants. It is through Victor's story and his struggles to improve himself and to make his mother proud, that Allie begins to better understand her bisabuelo's experience.

Four stars

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Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part One: 12/02/16

Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part One by Gene Luen Yang

Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part One by Gene Luen Yang is set in the Southern Tribe village — revisiting the on-going strife between the North and South.

Katara and Sokka return home while Aang is with Zuko. They had left a village of loosely connected home buildings and meeting houses. Now they're greeted with a huge bustling city and construction crews everywhere. Gentrification has hit the South Pole and with it corruption, racism, and the social unease that major cities are currently facing.

It's interesting to see Katara and Sokka's home at a midway point. We know what it was like when they first met Aang — small, isolated, and torn apart by the Fire Nation. We see it with Korra too — a modern city, different from the Northern Water Tribe city but definitely not this rapidly built monstrosity that Katara and Sooka encounter here.

Five stars

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Two Naomis: 12/01/16

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

The original Electric Company "Love of Chair" sketches has forever warped my reaction to the name Naomi. Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick maybe can answer the four decade's old question: "But what about Naomi?"

In all seriousness, though, the story is about the troubles of blended families — especially when two children are so close in age. To make the stakes even higher, both girls share the same name and the same taste in shoes. Neither girl is prepared to have their mother and father dating each other. They don't want to be expected to get along.

Although this blended family is also a biracial blending, that's by far the least concern of the girls. Both Naomis love their lives in New York and they each have their own special take on what makes the city theirs. They have their favorite restaurants, parks, stores, places to go. New York being a large metropolis has lots to offer and many different ways to be interpreted.

Part of becoming a family (even couples) is learning how to bring together those favorite things and experiences and to make new ones. The parents have already done that on their dates but now it's time for the two girls to find their middle ground and to find things that the entire new family can to together.

Four stars

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