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January 2017

Rating System

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

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Blood and Circuses: 01/31/17

Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood

Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood is the sixth of the Phryne Fisher mysteries. Phyrne goes under cover at a circus after an intersex performer is found brutally murdered in their apartment.

I'm going to hazard a guess that gender non conformity is outside of the author's comfort zone because the usual panache is completely missing from this book. I get that this series is historical fiction and that the circus has been one safe haven for people in a strictly hetero-normative world. Writing about a crime at a circus or involving ex-circus performers, though, isn't carte blanche to fetishize. Yet, that's usually where these circus stories go.

But that's exactly what Blood and Circuses does. The brutal murder of an intersex person who was also a know bisexual immediately leads to the conclusion that it must have been a crime of passion. Not a robbery gone wrong. Or argument over property. Or anything else. Nope. It's sex and it's bound to be kinky, dangerous sex.

Where do all those dangerous sex criminals hang out? The circus. Of course the circus is a very secretive, creepy, society. The only way to investigate is to go undercover. Do we send a police officer? No. We send Phryne.

I know I've been harsh on the television series adaptation. Here is a case where the television episode is better than the book. In the television show, Phyrne is retconned as having some prior experience in performing, enough so that she only has to learn a few new skills. In the book she goes in not knowing anything and ends up learning how to do acrobatics on the back of a moving horse. I get that there's centripetal force at play but it still must require a certain base level of athleticism that book Phryne isn't described as having.

Instead, Phryne is sent to the circus so that the narrative can put her in danger. Besides the raging sex criminals at loose, there's also a three tier class system, where each tier hates the others. All that's needed is a newbie to set them off. Wave at Phryne, everyone.

But mostly, Phryne is there to be the target of a rapist. Despite all her drinking, drugs, and sexual liberty, she is still cis and straight (far more so in the books than in the television series). She is there to face a potential "fate worse than death."


Two stars

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January inclusivity reading and shortening the gap in reviewing: 01/31/17

January inclusivity reading and shortening the gap in reviewing

I am still struggling to find the best way to describe how I'm reading and reviewing. My goals for the last year (roughly) have been two fold: to reach a point where half of my reading is inclusive (or as I used to call it, diverse) and to lessen the gap between reading and posting reviews.

Looking first at closing the gap between reading and reviewing, I've managed to post the last of my 2013 reviews. Yes — I've had books on the back burner for nearly four years. My next hurdle is the 2014 books. I have seven left.

The gap by year
Review to post by month read.

Or course, I don't just want to post the old reviews. That would give the blog a very stale feeling and wouldn't accurately reflect where I am now in my reading, curating, and interests. Important trends that develop would be overlooked until they are no longer newsworthy.

In that regard, I am also trying to keep newly read books (including ones published this year) on the front burner. For instance I read five books published in 2017 (three released in January, and two coming out in April) and managed to post reviews for all of them.

I still, though, have twenty other books read in January that I wish to post reviews about. To keep chipping away at the front of the pile, I have a new policy. Every book I've rated three stars or higher I will put in the upcoming reviews queue. That said, I still have 52 books from 2015 and 129 books from 2016 that I want to talk about. That means I already have 201 books I want to talk about on my blog before even getting to the ones I'll be reading this year. Put another way, that's 55% of my potential posts for 2017. If I keep up with posting 10 reviews in the month I read them, I'll be left with an excess of 220 books by the end of the year, plus what ever is left from the 129 books.

Inclusive reading and reviewing is mixed into this equation as it's directly tied to how quickly I can post reviews. In my previous years of reading, I was selecting books based on different criteria. Looking at 2014, my reading was focused on graphic novels, especially those in the middle grade and YA categories. 2015 was mostly focused on reading through my wishlist of books — so a lot of older reading.

A year's worth of reading by month
Read books by month with a breakdown of inclusive vs not.

A year's worth of reviewing by month
Read books by month with a breakdown of inclusive vs not.

Now though, I am trying to find more balance in my reading — meaning actively including more stories and authors from outside my experiences. These books will include books from different countries, though I suspect many of them will be Canadian due to the upcoming move, and from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Last month I tried to further breakdown the reading into an "own voices" category but there's still a lot of debate happening on that front and I don't feel well-read enough or qualified to get into continue subdividing my reading or reviewing in that fashion.

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On reading your own books and moving: 01/30/17

On reading your own books and moving

As the first month of 2017 comes to a close I am still waiting for the specifics of our planned move to Canada. As I wait, I have been busy reading through my personal collection in preparation to weed as many of them as I can.

Our last move in 2004 was only across the San Francisco Bay but it was a rough move. The biggest set back in moving was our book collection. Our library had exploded for two reasons: first our toddler son had his own collection of books (a good thing) and I had taken on five vegetable crates of vintage books from a man downsizing to move into an assisted living apartment. I should have weeded then but I was still naively attached to all my books.

Now thirteen years later we are facing our longest move, surpassing our South Pasadena to Pacifica move by 2206 miles (3500 km). Granted we will have access to a professional moving company who will be packing and inventorying everything (due to the international aspect of this move) but there's still the unpacking at the other end of things. There's also the reality of all my husband's professional books that are currently sitting in storage that will no longer be sitting in storage.

Inspired then by this need to pare down our home collection (meaning pleasure reading for me, my husband, and our two children), I have moved the "ROOB" graphs from the monthly review page (see January) to it's own monthly feature. By separating it out, I can concentrate more on the process of reading through my collection, rather than just crunching some numbers for interest's sake at the end of the month.

In case you're wondering why the graphs are all called "ROOB" it dates back to a reading challenge I participated in back in April 2010 — read our own books. The idea was to read as many of our own books without buying new ones, spending too much time on ARCs, or taking too many books out from the library.

Although I wasn't the winner of the reading challenge, I have been enamored with the metrics it generates by weighing difference sources of books. A "perfect" score for a month would be a -5. A complete failure (meaning all new books) would be a 5.

5 = all new books, -4 = all to be reads. The goal is to be as close to -4 as possible.
5 = all new books, -4 = all to be reads. The goal is to be as close to -4 as possible.

Although January I read seventeen of my own books, five of these books were published in January. I suspect my ROOB score will suffer even with reading so many more of my own books (and so few library books) because I am also striving to read more currently published books. These new books are primarily ebooks, although CatStronauts: Mission Moon and CatStronauts: Race to Mars were paperbacks.

5 = all new books, -4 = all to be reads. The goal is to be as close to -4 as possible.
Same data as the above graph, just broken out by year.

Looking at the running ROOB graphs by year, this January's uptick is not as high as last year's despite reading more current books. The offset is due to the fewer library books and the in flux of older books on my TBR list.

Monthy ROOB average
Monthy ROOB average

Finally there is the running average by month. Interestingly, most months come out about the same, being a mixture of library and to be read books. My "worst" months are March and October. March seems to be a popular release month for graphic novels and October usually means I'm buying things for CYBILs.

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Pantomime: 01/30/17

Pantomime by Laura Lam

Pantomime by Laura Lam is the first of the Micah Grey series. Micah Grey is the stage name of an intersex circus performer. Micah was raised female but the older they get, the more conflicted they feel.

The plot is interwoven between the present day where Micah is learning how to perform and with the past that forced them to leave. It's life in the circus without the fetishizing of characters as in Blood and Circuses.

As this is a circus in a fantasy world, the world building is done both through the places the circus stops to perform, and through the flashbacks to Micah's pre-circus life.

The atmosphere of this book reminded me quite fondly of Lord Valentine's Castle. Here though, the transformation of Micah isn't one of magic and their goal isn't to return to a life stolen. Micah's transformation is self created out of a desire for autonomy and a need to come to terms with being both male and female in a society that doesn't recognize a spectrum of genders or biological differences.

Five stars

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Stef Soto, Taco Queen: 01/29/17

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres is a middle grade fiction about a girl who is struggling to distance herself from Tia Perla, the taco truck her father owns. Stef wants more responsibility in her life: the ability to walk home or ride the bus, the ability to stay home by herself, maybe a cellphone, and the ability to stay at her friends house or attend events with friends without parental supervision.

The problem for Stef, though, is that her parents remember how hard it was for themselves at her age. They were immigrants in their teens and life for them was frightening and dangerous. Although they have managed to scrape together enough to own a house, raise a daughter, and buy a taco truck, they don't feel comfortable enough to let Stef have the freedom that some of her schoolmates have.

Stef though is forced to see things from her parents perspective when her father's livelihood is threatened by the city proposing new restrictions on food trucks. Worried about his ability to testify at the town hall meeting, Stef's father (and many of the other food truck owners) fear that they will be put out of business.

This was a story where I could completely relate to the parents — especially on the being over protective. The thing with letting your child go to someone else's house or go somewhere with them (chaperoned or not) is the expectation that somewhere down the line you will be expected to reciprocate. If your situation is such that you can't and you can't see a time in the future where that will change, it's very difficult to say yes.

This is a short book, perfect to read in the course of a weekend, or together has a class over the course of a week or two. While it has a happy ending, it's not a Disney happy ending. Stef doesn't get all her wishes answered. Instead, she gets to better understand her parents and to appreciate the importance that Tia Perla has in her life.

Five stars

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Drunk Tank Pink: 01/28/17

Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter

Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter is collection of examples on how psychology goes into our understanding of our environment. Before reading the book I had hoped most of the book would be about the intersection of architecture and psychology but sadly, only the title seems to have been the example.

The rest of the book is basically a laundry list of pop-psychology. There's very little in the way of citation and most of the stuff in here has been used as filler on morning news shows or similar. Basically there is nothing earth shattering here, just a lot of rehashed ideas on how the brain works.

But the book is primarily adult cis-het-white-middle class-male centered. So if you fit into that category, then maybe this book is amazing. For everyone else, it's a book you can pass on.

Two stars

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Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation: 01/27/17

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear is a memoir framed around a year she spent birding with a Toronto musician. Originally I bought the book because I am familiar with Maclear's children's books. Like the musician, I am also an amateur birder and bird photographer.

The memoir and the year of birdwatching was inspired by her father's ill health. Birdwatching became her way of learning how to wait. Her life has always been busy — being taken from place to place as a child, being a parent, working, being creative. But she always has to be doing something. Birdwatching requires just the opposite — great deals of quiet waiting.

While the book isn't what I was expecting it is what I needed. I began the book the same week that I had to face the reality that yes in fact, we will be moving. We will be moving close to where this memoir takes place. My life for the next four to six months will be punctuated with hurry up and wait moments.

But in the end, when the dust has settled — and it will eventually — I will have new birds to watch. I will have new hotspots to learn. I will be back to square one, like I was five years ago when I first started hiking and birding here in the Bay Area.

Five stars

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The Great Shelby Holmes: 01/26/17

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg is the start of a new middle grade mystery series inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories. One thing my daughter has suggested to take into account the many moods of Dr. Watson (and his changeable first name) is that Watson is actually identical twins: one named John and one named James. Eulberg takes the Watson problem and solves it by making Watson into two people: his mother, an army doctor just returned from Afghanistan, and John Watson, diabetic boy who therefore can't partake in the same excesses as his neighbor, Shelby.

Like Elementary it's set in New York City. That gives a familiar city for Watson to adventure in with Shelby, while removing it from the clichés that pop up when set in London.

Shelby Holmes is not wealthy in this one. She's living in an apartment with her parents — two assistant professors at the local university. Because their heads are full of assignments and grading, Shelby has a lot of free time on her hands. Shelby has taken that time and put it to good use, making friends and allies around the borough.

As this is the first Shelby Holmes story, it must give a quick nod to the first Sherlock Holmes story — which it does in a case that's similar to that in "A Study in Scarlet." The problem with that first book is the incredibly long flashback after the case has been solved filled with sensationalism.

So rather than drag us through a cleaned up, middle grade appropriate back half, Eulberg jumps to the conclusion of that initial crime (mostly related to some graffiti) and then moves onto the actual crime of the book — a dog napping.

This second story is sort of like the hound of best in show, if you will. There aren't any giant, phosphorescing hell hounds, but there is a missing dog, and a suspect who is known to sleep walk.

The gist of the mystery is that a famous show dog has gone missing without showing up on any of the CTVs in the building. No one heard the dog leave even though she barks at almost everyone. She needs to be found before her competition at the upcoming dog show.

It's a really fun start of a series. Via a couple of tweets exchanged, I have it from Elizabeth Eulberg that there are at least two more books planned, with each one coming out in the fall. Book two, just announced is The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match.

Five stars

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CatStronauts: Race to Mars: 01/25/17

atStronauts: Race to Mars by Drew Brockington

CatStronauts: Race to Mars by Drew Brockington is the second of the CatStronauts books. The cats of CATSUP are enjoying their hero status but have basically been grounded by it as well. Meanwhile, around the world, other teams are readying crafts to head to Mars as the space race heats up.

The strongest contender in the Mars race is the Russian CosmoCats, based out of SOCKS. They have already sent ahead their equipment and are now readying their ship to rendezvous with it.

The last act of the book has the introduced CatStronauts and CosmoCats stranded on Mars in a set up that is a nod to The Martian but with more than one character and those characters all being cats.

This book, though, didn't gel for me as well as the first one did. I saw some missed opportunities. For instance, Japan is absent from the race to Mars, even though they are currently active in the space program. Wouldn't it have been funny to have NEKO as one of the agencies with homages to the numerous space based manga (Space Brothers, Saturn Apartments, Twin Spica — to name three)? None the less, it's still a fun book and if there is a third one, I will gladly read it.

This book like the first one, comes out in April

Four stars

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Hello, My Name is Octicorn: 01/24/17

Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller

Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller is a picture book that tackles the subject of blended families with off the wall humor. Octi is a one of a kind creature, the child of an octopus and a unicorn.

His parents met at a costume party, or so the story goes. Being one a kind and part of two very different worlds, Octi often finds himself unsure what to do and the people around him are unsure how to treat him.

Despite the awkwardness of the situations, Octi keeps his sense of humor. It's a cute book and I think can serve as a ice breaker for children to understand or explain their own unique situations.

Four stars

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The Bubble Wrap Boy: 01/23/17

The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle

The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle is about Charlie Han and his over protective parents. He's a British-Chinese kid and his parents run a Chinese takeaway place. His mother is over protective to the max and he wants desperately to do anything to get out from under that protection.

Charlie one a particularly bad day sees something he's never seen before, someone flying along the street and over things on a skateboard. So of course he has to learn how to skateboard, going against his parents' will and going head to head with the bullies at school.

Here's where the book essentially lost me and I began to focus more on the huge assumptions and stereotypes holding this plot together.

First there's Charlie. He's short. He's Chinese. He lives in a Chinese takeaway. He has over protective parents. There is nothing about these attributes that are explained. They are just given and are therefore playing on stereotypes.

Looking at a chart of average heights of men by country (2012 data), Chinese men are on average only two inches shorter than English men. Some of that is genetics. Some of it is environmental. All in all it's a wash.

Looking at Chinese in Britain and BBC (British Born Chinese, not the network of the same name), at a census done in the 2000s, approximately a quarter of all Chinese in the UK work in or own a takeaway. So the chances of Charlie being both short and living in a takeaway are slim at best.

Then there is skateboarding. Skateboarding is not a new thing. In one form or another they're about a hundred years old, though in its modern recognizable form, dates to the 1960s. Granted, the modern skateboarding scene developed in my home state, that was more than fifty years ago and it's since spread all over. There is a long standing, vibrant skateboarding culture. It's not a new thing.

What the author is missing is that Charlie first and foremost is British. His parents might be immigrants but he isn't. He should be British. He should be completely immersed in the culture of his nation, his country, his city, as well as his parents' culture.

It's not that skateboarding can't be a release for Charlie. It's that it should have been presented in a more believable fashion. Why not have Charlie be completely obsessed with skateboarding before deciding to start it? Why not have the challenge being keeping it secret until he's given a chance to show off his skills in a public fashion?

Two stars

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Weetzie Bat: 01/22/17

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is the start of a seven book series (the last one being a prequel published in 2012). It's really more of a novella than a fully fledged novel.

The titular character is a young woman looking for true love and adventure in Los Angeles. Everything though is written in a roundabout, metaphoric language. Takeaway the lyrical prose and it's a simple, sweet little story about a woman, two men, and the the baby they decided to have together.

Near the end though, things turn dark as the specter of AIDS rears its ugly head. In 1989, AIDS was still a huge, scary, deadly epidemic that was hitting the gay community especially hard. In a book written like a fairytale, it might as well be the big bad wolf.

Also in 1989 when this series started, I was sixteen and just starting high school. In the suburban area I lived I never heard of the book, even though it was one of the most talked about books of the decade. I can say that had I read it, I would have been absolutely captivated by it. Reading it now as an adult, I still enjoyed it but it seems rather sweetly naive.

Four stars

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Born with Teeth: 01/21/17

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew recounts her life, her career up through Star Trek: Voyager, and her struggle to find the daughter she gave up for adoption.

There is a lot of space in this book spent on her childhood. It's there, I suppose, to set the stage for the decision she made at twenty-two. It frames things within the context of an Irish Catholic upbringing. That said, the childhood section was by far the most uncomfortable portion to read. I will leave it at that, to avoid passing judgment as it's not my place.

The next big piece is her first pregnancy and the adoption and its consequences. Things she was promised didn't come to fruition. She was lied to and while her daughter did end up having a good life with loving parents, it wasn't the life (or parents) Kate had been promised for her.

I mostly, though, read the book for two parts in Kate Mulgrew's career: the short lived Mrs. Columbo and the later more successful Star Trek Voyager.

Kate Mulgrew's career is more varied than those two points in time, including work on stage. Her heart and soul is on stage, something I did not know about her until reading this memoir.

Like You're Never Weird on the Internet, this is another case of reading a memoir where despite my enthusiasm for some of an actor's work, I am not the intended audience. For this main reason, I can't give this book a fair review.

Three stars

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Because of the Sun: 01/20/17

Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez is a slim volume that takes The Stranger by Albert Camus as a starting point and weaves it into a quiet tale of a teenager who is lost after her mother is mauled to death by a bear.

Both books begin with the death of the main character's mothers. Both go on to explore their disassociation from reality, though Meursault's actions turn outwards and he ends up murdering a man on a beach for no reason. Dani's actions, though turn inwards, becoming potentially self destructive.

As she has no relatives in Florida and only a neighbor to stay with, Dani is taken to Columbus, New Mexico to live with an aunt she has never heard of. Her aunt lives is a too large house a town that is mostly desert and mobile homes.

In the background of Dani's life is the bear. He's always there watching her, waiting for her. She has internalized everything wrong with her life into the bear, made him something more than he ever was in that moment of mauling her mother. Perhaps, it is the bear who is Meursault.

Dani copes by walking in the heat of the summer sun until she faints. She's fortunate to have neighbors who care. It is on her first outing that she meets Paulo and his grandmother. They have direct experience with loss, violent death, and grief. Paulo says of his grandmother that she can help a person grow a new heart.

Because the Sun is a quiet but compelling story — one that can be read over the course of a weekend, or in one very intense sitting.

Five stars

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Finding Fortune: 01/19/17

Finding Fortune

Finding Fortune by Delia Ray is set in the failing town of Fortune, once known for its beautiful mother of pearl buttons. Ren discovers her own personal sanctuary there when it becomes apparent that her parents won't be reconciling.

On her first night running away from home, Ren ends up in a boarding house situated inside the old town's school. She befriends the owner and the residents. Although Ren ends up going home after her first night away, she finds her way back.

Ren's goal for summer is to save Fortune. The boarding house and the town are both failing. There's a rumor of hidden treasure. It would be enough to save the school and the town.

Finding Fortune is a quiet, quirky little book grounded in the author's memories of button factories in Mississippi. It's populated with believable, eccentric personalities. Each of them have come to Fortune because they don't belong anywhere else.

There's an afterword with photographs and a brief history of the button industry.

Five stars

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The End of Mr. Y: 01/18/17

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

When I read books, I mentally map them into my reading map; cities of books and movies — complex ones with numerous overlapping neighborhoods. I don't do this consciously, it just happens.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas resides in a neighborhood that contains Die unendliche Geschichte and The Thirty-Nine Storey Treehouse. But it's also at the intersection of Men Who Stare at Goats, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Being John Malkovich and it's adjacent to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and down the street from Ringu.

The End of Mr. Y is metafiction about reading, perception, and epistemological explorations of existential crises. It takes apart reading, sensation and perception, and the basic building blocks of life, the universe, and everything, in a similar off the cuff way that Melville dives into whaling in Moby-Dick (if you don't skip all the tangential chapters).

At the heart of this book is the notion of the cursed artwork. There's always that one book, that one painting, that one play (looking at you, Scottish play), that one joke (Monte Python) that comes with a price. The highest price you can pay is your own life and that's what The End of Mr. Y requires of most of its readers.

Ariel Manto has been researching the life and times of Mr. Y's author, Thomas Lumas, a strange Victorian author whose career stagnated after this book. His most infamous novel is hard to come by. Ariel knows of one copy locked away in a safe.

Then the unexpected happens — one of the university buildings falls into a disused subway tunnel and temporarily knocks Ariel off on a different path. Just as Aomame in 1Q84 choses to leave her taxi and the freeway, Ariel choses a different path on the way home. Though she gets lost, she finds a bookshop and it contains to her immense surprise, a copy of The End of Mr. Y.

Now when you find a cursed book, do you read it? Of course you do.

But to read it, Ariel has to give up her entire monthly budget. She can't eat. She can't smoke. She can't heat her home. Thus before even opening up the book, she has fallen into the clutches of the book's curse.

I'm not going to describe what she sees or how the book affects her. All of that is the back half of this weirdly wonderful volume. Thank you to Joel Ross for recommending it to me. I have a copy of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas to read soon, also recommended by Joel.

Five stars

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In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse: 01/17/17

In the Footsteps of Crazy Hors by Joseph M. Marshall III

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph M. Marshall III with illustrations by Jim Yellowhawk is set in South Dakota and starts on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Jimmy McClean lives there with this parents and grandparents but he feels out of place. See, his father is white and he's inherited a lot of his looks and he's being bullied at school.

Grandfather suggests a road trip to help Jimmy get his mind off the bullying. Actually, though, he has a plan to help his grandson experience first hand his Lakota heritage and learn about the boy who became the hero and leader, Crazy Horse.

The road trip is an American tradition. Road trip stories most often are treated as a rite of passage for young white men. Here though it's a Lakota road trip, one that is backed by oral tradition and the history of the area.

The book has been short listed for the middle grade fiction category for the 2016 CYBILs.

Four stars

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The 39-Story Treehouse: 01/16/17

The 39-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths

The 39-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton is the third in the series about a pair of friends who live in a treehouse and write books. Well, they write books whenever their publisher Mr. Big Nose demands one; the rest of the time they add to their house and goof off.

This time the pair learn a hard lesson: how to balance work and play. They've always been master procrastinators. Now they take it too far. They have a machine they believe will write and illustrate the book for them. It's art without the heart and soul.

What happens next is a comedic mixture of horror and existential crisis. It is in the same realm of story telling, albeit done in a lighter tone, as a die unendliche Geshichte by Michael Ende, and The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas.

Five stars

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Crossing the Cornfield: 01/16/17

Crossing the Cornfield

In my review of "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby, I looked at the roll the cornfield plays. I said it "serves as a barrier, marking a threshold between the safety (perceived or actual) of the town and the outside." Further, I suggested that those who can cross the cornfield and can otherwise control have power over everyone else — even if they don't perceive their power.

And this got me to thinking about Oz. Oz is a kingdom of four countries ruled from a centrally located capital, the Emerald City. The kingdom is encircled by an impassable desert. In later books this desert is then described as being encircled by various seas. The other key factor about Oz is that it's compass is flipped from ours so that east is west and west is east.

map of Oz drawn by yours truly

This flipping of the compass along one axis makes me think of "the upside-down" as described in "Chapter Five: The Flea and the Acrobat" episode of Stranger Things. Despite Oz's remoteness and the Ozian subjects being unable to cross out of their kingdom, there are outsiders who can get in (and out) of Oz.

Before Dorothy, there was the Wizard. He came to Oz by way of balloon from Omaha, Nebraska. Dorothy, on her first journey, came via tornado from Kansas. Interestingly, too, the wizard claims he had the Emerald City built — though that explanation is ignored in later volumes, especially with the return to power of Ozma.

Let us suppose perhaps that he found the Emerald City in ruins, inhabited by shepherds and their flocks. Let us suppose he had the city rebuilt, rather that built from whole-cloth.

Now there is Dorothy who rides her house through a tornado to Oz. Her very first act upon landing in Munchkin Country is to crush the Wicked Witch of the East to death. The Munchkins having their long time oppressor suddenly dead assume that the girl who has come from the direction of an impassible desert and infinite sea must be a witch herself. She promptly denies their claim, speaking towards her innate ability to understand the cornfield. Her act of crossing it was one of survival, not of travel with the aim to conquer.

Later in the Road to Oz, Dorothy and a raggedy man travel back to Oz by way of the cornfield. It all begins when the raggedy man arrives at the Gale farmstead and asks for directions to Butterfield. Dorothy's instructions begin with: "You cross the ten-acre lot, follow the lane to highway, go north to the five branches, and—" Essentially the traveler is asking to get to an impossible place from where he is starting. Dorothy, to show him the way, ends up having to show him. Together they get lost at the five branches and after numerous adventures, end up in Oz. Had she taken the long way around — sticking to actually roads — none of this would have happened.

The thing that the travelers have in common is their proximity to cornfields. It's not the cornfield itself, per se, that allows them in, but, I argue, their understanding of cornfields that allow them safe passage.

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Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia: 01/15/17

Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia by Won-Ldy Paye

Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia by Won-Ldy Paye is a children's picture book retelling of a Liberian creation tale. Many cultures have a story about where mankind came from. This is Liberia's version.

Head is bouncing along doing his thing when he meets up with body. And then legs, arms, hands and feet. They realize that together they can get the delicious cherries hanging from a nearby tree.

Here is a creation story that also has a strong message of cooperation. Differences come together to make a strong, more talented whole. Wouldn't it be nice if more groups thought like that? Think of what the world could accomplish.

The book was recommended to me by my daughter. She read it in school.

Five stars

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Road Trip: 01/14/17

Road Trip by Gary Paulsen

Road Trip by Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen is a father and son collaboration about a trip to get a dog from a rescue shelter. But it's more than that. It's the sort of family, friendship building.

With road trips the rules are simple: have a map and keep your vehicle in good repair. Dad doesn't follow either of these rules. Nor does he tell Ben ahead of time. It's a first thing in the morning, spur of the moment type thing.

In the earliest of the automobile road trip books I've read, the journey required many more people than a modern day one does. In those early ones it's rarely the loan wolf trudging across the countryside. There is the need for a mechanic, a cook, sometimes even a driver, and for the least inhabited areas, some form of protection.

As Ben is the narrator of this road trip (save for some end of chapters commentary from the dog), then he is taking an old school road trip. He has his dad as his driver, his dog as protection, and later a mechanic and a waitress.

All in all it's a humorous deconstruction of the classic road trip with a heartwarming goal, namely a puppy. There's a sequel, Field Trip that I plan to read.

Five stars

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Bisbee, Arizona, Then And Now: 01/13/17

Bisbee, Arizona, Then And Now by Boyd Nicholl

Bisbee, Arizona, Then And Now by Boyd Nicholl is a short picture history of the old mining town, Bisbee. Like the usual Then and Now format, the book has a spread with a historic photograph compared to a more recent one.

I've not personally been to Bisbee but I have family ties to the city. My step-grandfather was born and raised there. Some of the historic photographs are from when he was living there, though he would have been a toddler.

This book must have had a small run. By the time I heard of it (in about 2006 or so) it was already out print. Bisbee is 90 miles southest of Tucson (and for other familial reasons, Tucson was the farthest east we ever seemed to go on our family car trips). As of 2010 it had a population of 5,575. At it's largest in its boom town days (1880-1920) it had a population of about twice what it has today.

Although the new photographs in the Bisbee book are now themselves years old, some being twenty or so years old, they're still interesting. Bisbee with its stable population and its arid climate seems comfortable in a slow rate of change. Granted, tourism to see the historic mining town and the mine, is probably part of the incentive to keep things the same, I think it's just one of those towns that doesn't feel the need to reinvent itself every decade or so.

Five stars

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It's a Good Life: 01/12/17

It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby

When reading Bone Gap by Laura Ruby and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third got me thinking about the role the cornfield plays in the American road narrative. In both these stories, the cornfields play significant roles in hindering the main characters' desire to use the road.

Specifically I was looking at the cornfield as a setting in relationship to what I call the "road not taken." In a road narrative, there are those who can pass through easily, and those who either cannot or chose not to leave.

The cornfield serves as a barrier, marking a threshold between the safety (perceived or actual) of the town and the outside. And that brings me to my current review, a short story — "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby. Twilight Zone fans will recognize this story as the source material for season three, episode eight, staring Bill Mumy as six year old monster, Anthony.

Anthony can do things with his mind and he's been holding the townspeople hostage for some unstated amount of time. Anyone who disobeys his wishes is "sent to the cornfield." In the television episode, being "sent to the cornfield" can be seen as a euphemism for banishment or imprisonment. In Bixby's original text, it's explicitly entombment. Anthony is using the bodies of his victims (human and animal alike) to enrich the soil.

The cornfield besides being a mass graveyard, serves as it so often does, as the demarkation of the town (population 46). It is the furthest reaches of Anthony's mind and power. Beyond that cornfield is anyone's guess. It could be the rest of the world that they've been cut off from or it could be a void if they are now living in a bubble.

The isolation that the cornfield provides for Anthony's prisoners is similar to the way the maze of maize is used by the trickster in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth to protect the entrance to the underworld. The cornfield in Bone Gap meanwhile acts as a barrier between the town and the place where Roza is being held captive.

"It's a Good Life" is one more interesting look at the cornfield motif in the American road narrative. I will be posting a longer article about cornfields soon.

Four stars

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Azalea, Unschooled: 01/11/17

Azalea, Unschooled by Liza Kleinman

Azalea, Unschooled by Liza Kleinman is yet another tween story set in Maine (a very popular locale this year). Azalea and her family have moved once again because her father's last job didn't work out. Now he's trying to be a tour bus driver around Portland. Except it seems that someone wants to put them out of business before they even get started.

Meanwhile Azalea and her sister are meeting up with the local neighborhood's unschoolers. They've been homeschooled before but this way offers a less structured, more child driven method.

Reviews I've seen have praised the book for making the unschoolers seem so normal. That I can't speak on as no one in this book seems fleshed out enough to even count as a character. Instead this book dashes between between being a how-to-unschool pamphlet and a very loosely crafted mystery. Frankly the book would have been better if more time was spent on the mystery — the who is sabotaging the tour bus, than on proving how normal it can be to not go to school.

Two stars

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The Unforgotten Coat: 01/10/17

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce is the story of two Mongolian brothers living in England and their desire to get back home. Julie documents their brief stay in her school on journal lined paper and Polaroid photographs.

Chingis, the older brother, insists on having Nergui in the sixth year class. Nergui is being stalked by a demon who will make him disappear if he's not constantly watched. In this sleepy Liverpool suburb where nothing ever happens, Julie and to a lesser degree, take the boys at their word.

But it's Julie mostly who takes it on the task of helping Chingis protect Nergui. The book itself is rather cagey about the reality of the situation. Is it magic? Is it pretend? Is it metaphor?

The short answer is yes. Yes in a way that brings to mind the excellent film, MirrorMask. There magic, imagination, drawings, and the real world collide in a tale of two girls trading places.

Here, the brothers find pieces of Bootle and the surrounding areas that are close enough to their old home to stand in for their home. Think of it as representational magic. It's a quiet, thoughtful, wonderful book.

Five stars

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How the States Got Their Shapes: 01/09/17

How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein is a history of the political decisions that influenced the shape the individual states in the United States took.

Besides the obvious rivers, lakes, and mountain ranges, there are lots of straight lines in our states. On closer examination, some straight lines have little bites taken out of them. Or they don't align. This book strives to answer those hiccups, along with other ones like, why is California no much larger than its neighbors?

The California one is a rather easy one to answer, and therefore makes for a sadly short chapter. I say, this of course, as a native Californian. The short answer is that California already had it's shape when it became a state. And since California's statehood was people driven, rather than government driven, the process wen so fast that there wasn't time to squabble over shape or size or to propose breaking it up into smaller chunks.

California's story, though, should come at the start of the last third of the book, followed by states like Arizona, New Mexico, with Hawaii and Alaska rounding out the book. But no. Just like the oddly planned Nature's Building Blocks by John Emsley, this one is organized alphabetically.

Our states weren't created alphabetically. There was a westward flow based on lots of other factors.

The book should have been organized geographically or by timeline or something similar. Putting them alphabetically makes for very disjointed reading. There's no story here. There's no natural building of understanding how one state's shape influence's another — like how Maryland lost every single land argument it had with its neighbors.

Please writers of nonfiction, RESIST the urge to organize your subject alphabetically — unless you're writing a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or an index.

Three stars

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Glimmerglass: 01/08/17

Glimmerglass by Jenna Black

Glimmerglass by Jenna Black is the first of the Faeriewalker series. It's set in Avalon, a mountain town outside of London that sits on the border between the human and fae dimensions.

Dana Hathaway has run away from the United States and her perpetually drunk mother to meet a father she's only just tracked down. She knows something is up as soon as she crosses into Avalon and is asked a second time for her passport.

Rather than finding her father, she's locked up by a woman claiming to be her aunt. Soon she learns that her father is a very important member of the Seelie court. Because of course he is. It's not like in one of these stories, you're going to be the daughter of a faerie janitor or something.

The biggest problem for this book is how much time is spent in gaol or under house arrest. Dana is constantly locked up and during her incarceration we are privy to info dump after info dump.

I wish Dana had been given more chances to explore Avalon. It had an interesting set up, being a spiral village. I picture it being like Castle Mount on Majipoor. But we only get a glimpse of the city near the end when Dana is doing her best to escape.

Three stars

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Hold Me Closer, Necromancer: 01/07/17

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

I wouldn't normally think of Seattle as being a hotbed for necromancy, but that's where Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride is set. Sam, who works in fast food, doesn't either, until he's attacked my something paranormal and accused of being an unregistered necromancer.

For the most part, this book is about Sam and his best friend trying to figure out what to do now that he's been given a deadline (emphasis on dead) to comply. There is also the talking but severed head of a co-worker of theirs adding to the compulsion to do something — anything.

But there's also a side plot involving the council approved necromancer and a werewolf he has taken prisoner for reasons that are eventually explained. The werewolf's plot is tied up in the old Seelie, Unseelie battle of the centuries and frankly, I'm bored — so very bored of it.

As with many multiple points of view stories, their pieces of the book can be skipped because the plot can't really move forward until Sam, the protagonist, is gotten up to speed. Telling us before telling Sam, just means, we have to sit through it twice. It's not like we can jump in and tell him ourselves.

Three stars

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CatStronauts: Mission Moon: 01/06/17

CatStronauts: Mission Moon by Drew Brockington

CatStronauts: Mission Moon by Drew Brockington is the first book in a new graphic novel series about cats in space. Rather, it's about an elite team of space cats who save the earth from an energy crisis. The only way to get enough power for all the devices in use is to beam solar energy down from the moon.

Like the ensemble cast in Space Brothers (an excellent anime, and on-going manga), these cats are individually very goofy. But they are still the best in their field and just the cats needed keep the earth from a permanent blackout.

I know. I know. Officially I don't take ARCs. I haven't been taking them for about two years and made the policy official last year. But sometimes an ARC falls into my hands that's too irresistible to ignore. If the book is coming from a known, trusted source that doesn't expect a review or any special treatment, I sometimes say yes. And sometimes if the planets are in alignment, I'll even review the ARC.

In this case, it's actually two books in one: CatStronauts: Mission Moon and CatStronauts: Race to Mars. Both are being released in April. The series title right away sets the tone: it's a graphic novel series about cats who are astronauts.

Although these books are being marketed for children in grades two to five, there's a lot here for older readers too. Tucked into the story are puns, such as the agency they work for: Catsup. There are visual Easter eggs too: such as the floating can of tuna at the chapter breaks — a very silly nod indeed to one of the most ridiculous episodes of Robotech ever.

Five stars

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Pippi Moves In: 01/05/17

Pippi Moves In by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Moves In by Astrid Lindgren is a graphic novel hybrid with short adventures with Pippi and her neighbors, Annika and Tommy. For anyone who has seen Pippi on the Run and has wondered what inspired that bizarre romp that starts with a camping trip and ends up with a flying car, much of those adventures and gags seem to have come from this book.

This comic book is a reimagining of stories published originally in Humpty Dumpty magazine from 1957-1959. In the adaption to comic and in the translation to English, some of Pippi's Pippiness has probably gone awry. But that as a kid growing up with VHS tapes recorded from off the air broadcasts of the Pippi movies, dubbed into goofy English, that strange disconnect has always been a part of the Pippi experience.

But the thing that holds true to Pippi, no matter what, is that Pippi does things on her own schedule and for her own purpose. She lives at home alone because she has decided to come home to her mother's house for reasons that are her's alone. She choses to go camping or choses to join a circus because those things suit her needs at those times.

Three stars

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The Honest Truth: 01/04/17

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart is about a boy in a losing fight with cancer and decided he'd rather climb Mt. Rainier with his dog. So he buys a ticket on Amtrak and back tracks from Seattle to mountain. Along the way he gets beat up and has all sorts of other bad things happen to him but he continues on.

The book has numerous positive reviews but from the very first chapter it just didn't work for me. First and foremost given how close the boy is to the mountain he wants to climb I find it extraordinary that he'd take a train so far out of his way. There are municipal buses that share overlapping routes that would have been cheaper and probably something he'd be more familiar with.

Then there are the bullies popping out of nowhere. Because of course kids instantly know when a kid from somewhere else is coming into their territory. Of course they are compelled to beat up all strangers. They are reacting to a need of the plot, not by any actual observed teen behavior.

Then there's the mountain itself. Although the thing is MASSIVE it's not as abandoned as it's portrayed. I doubt he'd get as far up the mountain as he did by himself. And yet, when things are finally dire enough that he literally needs rescuing, his dog is able to run back down the mountain to get help in time! Remember how I said Mt. Rainier is MASSIVE? Again, this is a plot driven convenience.

The Honest Truth reads like a late 1970s, early 1980s After School Special. If you like that sort of story you will like the book. If you want something with a little more realism, read something else.

Two stars

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The Upper Mississippi: A Wilderness Saga: 01/03/17

The Upper Mississippi: A Wilderness Saga by Walter Havighurst

The Upper Mississippi: A Wilderness Saga by Walter Havighurst is the second of the Rivers of America series. Rather than starting with the biggest, most impressive, and best known part of the Mississippi, the series choses to go with the top half of the river, the part that runs from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to Cairo, Illinois.

The Upper Mississippi I know far less about than I do the Lower Mississippi, beyond the exploratory parts I learned about in Down the Great River by Willard W. Glazier, which I read as a freshman in college.

Walter Havighurt's book focuses on the Norwegian settlers' experience. There's still a large portion of fictional reconstructions of life along the river and plains around it. Nonetheless, the Norse experience was still fascinating.

Four stars

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The Green Mill Murder: 01/02/17

The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood

The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood is the fifth book in the Phryne Fisher series. A murder during a dance contest ultimately leads to a hunt for a missing ANZAC veteran, hiding away in the Australian Alps.

As with the other books that were adapted for the Miss Fisher Investigates television series, there are a lot of gaping discrepancies between the book and episode. It's really difficult to not compare and contrast the two.

The television series unfolds its stories based on two motivations: character building of its core characters (Phryne, Dot, Jack, Collins, and made up Aunt Prudence), and to further the dramatic plot. That means that most of the work is done by the four core characters and that the plot is edited and distances are shortened to make dramatic rescues by said core characters possible.

In the editing process, criminals have their character sheets so vastly altered to give them completely different motives for their crimes. Some criminals are completely erased from the story, or given personality transplants so that they are no longer criminals, thus leaving huge gaping holes in the plot.

That's the case here. In the original, the murder at the Green Mill leads Phryne fairly quickly to realize her date for the night, Charlie, isn't the sort of person she thinks he is. His disappearance in the book is suspicious because he is violent and unhinged. In neither version, though, is he the Green Mill murderer.

In the television series, women are usually more angelic than their book counterparts except at times when the plot can't be sanitized any more. The mother of Phyrne's dance partner is portrayed as a nervous woman in both versions, though in the book, it's a complete put on and Phryne knows it. The mother isn't an innocent woman mourning the potential loss of a second son; she is a manipulative, abusive, horrible person, and the trigger for the third act in the book that is excised from the television episode.

The second half of the book (and really only a coda in the episode) is Phryne's trip to the Australian Alps. Though the names are kept in the episode, travel there is shortened to a quick, dramatic drive, rather than a multiple day flight through dangerous terrain and weather (low visibility / freezing weather) by plane.

Phryne's skills as a pilot are removed from the television episode. Maybe it was to save location shooting costs. Maybe it was to give another opportunity to show off Phryne's car. I don't know. But I loved looking over Phryne's shoulder as she planned her route, and carefully executed it.

Where Phryne ends up is rural, mountainous, and dangerous. It's a place where one needs to keep their wits about them to survive. It's a quiet place perfect for a man recovering from shell shock to live out his days. It's a place that needs time to be described and a place that needs time to get to.

And then there's the closing act, up there on the side of a mountain involving rugged terrain, jealousy, sibling hatred, years of festering abuse, and a wombat.

So it goes. Every book from the Kerry Greenwood I read, the less I like the television series.

Five stars

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Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile: 01/01/17

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber is the sequel to the The House on East 88th Street. As a child, I remember this book being on my short list of books I was always asking my grandparents to check out for me. So like my The Cricket in Times Square post, this one is fueled by raw nostalgia.

Shopping for antiques with Lyle

Lyle is a lime green crocodile who lives in Manhattan and acts the child minder and companion to Mrs. Primm. She and he like to go out on the town running errands, browsing antique shops, and going on shopping sprees.

Unfortunately for Lyle, their neighbor has a cat who is scared to death of Lyle. The grumpy neighbor decides to get Lyle evicted and sent to the zoo. Lyle, though, is a peaceful crocodile and is willing to rise above petty revenge.

Asking about Lyle at Information.

So of course everything is eventually sorted between the neighbor, the cat, and Lyle. That leaves Lyle to have nine more adventures. I'm sure I've read other books in the series but it's this volume I remember best. I am planning to re-read through the series assuming my library has the books.

Five stars

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