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February 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

Reading Challenges

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



The February 2017 Gap: 02/28/17

Reading Gap

I had hoped to wish goodbye to the last of the 2014 reviews in February but there were too many recent things that I wanted to highlight more than I wanted to clear out the back log. I have four reviews left to post and will get through all but one in March. I'm saving one of them because two of the reviews are from the Rivers of America series.

Reviews still to post by month and year read So what happened? Most of the reviews I posted were from reads: with twelve from late 2016 and twelve from 2017. The remaining four were from 2014 and 2015.

bar graph of reviews posted by year read

As one of my larger goals is to avoid growing the backlog of reviews I want to publish, I'm pleased to see that eight-six percent of my February reviews were of books read within the last year.

Nonetheless, I still have many more books from 2016 and 2017 that I've read that I still want to talk about. Once upon a time I did experiment with posting two reviews a day. It was exhausting for me and exasperating for my readers. It was one of the few times I've received angry email from subscribers.

All told, I have thirty-eight books that I've read so far this year that I still want to talk about. That's entire month's worth of posts without even addressing the backlog from previous years. Realistically, that I won't get all of January and February's books reviewed in March.

Looking at 2016's books, I could go for nearly four months without reading a new book, based on the reviews I still have to post. I've been down that road too and it's boring. It doesn't make for a moving blog. Nor does it make for good curation.

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The Wild Robot: 02/27/17

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown starts simply with a ship losing its cargo during a storm. Most of the metal containers sink under the waves. Some crash ashore on an island but only one stays intact, allowing a single robot to be booted up by some curious animals.

Thus begins Roz's life as a wild robot. As Roz explores she comes to learn the lay of her island and the language of her animal neighbors, she begins to transcend her programming.

Through Roz's education, the book dives into some deep, philosophical explorations: on the purpose of life, on nature vs nurture, on gender, on being a parent, on adoption.

And just as it seems that anyone, even a wild robot, can move beyond their means with enough work and determination, we're taken beyond the island. We see the remains of the world that lost the cargo. We see a dystopian near future.

The Wild Robot is not what I expected. It's more than what I expected. It's also at right angles to what I expected. I recommend pairing it with Kyo Maclear's memoir, Birds Art Life.

Five stars

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Seven narrative ways to travel 02/27/17

A semi on I80 in Nevada

After two years of solid reading and research into the road narrative, I have narrowed my focus from the initial chaos that looked like something a trap door spider would make, to six main genres. These are genres I've named my self based on their most salient feature. I have also decided to keep my focus on the United States and Canada. For comparison, I will also sometimes reference narratives from the United Kingdom, and to lesser degrees Australia and New Zealand. Of course, should the need arise to expand my horizons, I will.

What I am calling genres are themes that occur in these road narratives. I'm calling them genres as it's a convenient way to sort the stories. Of course, story telling can encompass more than one genre.

My genres are:
Urban vs Rural
Utopia vs Dystopia
On the road vs There and Back Again
Driving While...
All Roads Lead to vs the Road Not Taken
Sent to the Cornfield
Autokind vs Mankind

Urban vs Rural is the dichotomy of the big city vs the small town, or the out of the way place. Road narratives often involve a journey from one to the other, or the desire to leave one for the other. The most stereotypical road narrative or memoir involves starting in a big city (New York, Washington, D.C., or Chicago) and traveling west to California. There are of course variations, like the reverse course which starts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, or Portland and travels east.

Westward examples

Eastward examples

Non-traditional directions

If the story starts in a rural town, often the story is one of escape. Someone wants to go to the big city to improve themselves, pursue their dreams, escape an abusive situation.

Utopia vs Dystopia

There can't be road narrative without a starting point. In the United States the road trip and subsequent road narrative was created in part as a way to connect the big cities with the rest of the country. Initially the mode of transportation was the bicycle that created the demand for well designed, well built, well paved roads (The Better Country by Dana W. Bartlett (1911), p. 324) but it was the automobile that ultimately benefited from the movement.

In the early days of the automobile, it was the city that had the most. Automobiles were expensive but they didn't require constant upkeep (feeding, watering, waste disposal). In good conditions they could go farther, faster, assuming one had access to gasoline.

In this regard, the road narrative within the context of the big city metropolis (usually New York, though often also Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Toronto) is often focused on the interplay of the vehicle and the very structure of the city's social fabric.

The automobile (and bus, train, subway) is a central part of the modern story set within the confines of the city. The city can either be a good place — a utopian hub — or a sign of everything that's wrong with modern society — a dystopia. Keeping in mind that "utopia" when originally coined meant "nowhere" (Pastoral Cities by James L. Machor (1987) p. 30), even the most optimistic of city stories still maintain this otherworldly view of human society.

Utopian narratives:

Dystopian narratives:

On the road vs There and Back Again

There are two different ways of traveling, one way and return trip. I've named these two genres by two of my favorite road narratives. On the road, of course is the Jack Kerouac book. There and Back Again refers to the Hobbit.

The on the road type narrative is the never ending road trip. It is the tale of the itinerant traveler. In television, a long running series that in its first season took direct inspiration from Kerouac is Supernatural. But there are plenty of other stories where the main character(s) can never go home again.

The There and Back Again narrative is the quintessential British road narrative. It's one that goes way back — I would argue to the crusades. Looking more recently though, and at the inspiration for this category's title, Bilbo Baggins took part in a great adventure but his goal from the very beginning was to get back home and to write about his adventures.

On the road narratives:

There and Back Again narratives:

Driving While...

At first glance there's not a lot of diversity or representation in the road narrative. Certainly if you look only at the most popular ones or the ones receiving the most praise, you'll see a homogenous selection of books written by white middle class cis-het men.

Any author or any protagonist who isn't a young white middle class man is often treated as a speciality genre by some. A lot of times these non-white-male stories involve extra dangers or consequences for anyone else daring to go out on the open road without a straight white male chaperone.

Of course, sadly, there is basis in reality for this threat of danger with racial profiling by cops, discrimination by hotels and restaurants, and sexual assaults on women. Of all my categories, this one is one of the hardest to pin down as these narratives are so out numbered.

Driving While... narratives:

All Roads Lead to vs the Road Not Taken

The All Roads Lead to genre applies mostly to speculative fiction, urban fantasy, and horror. There are stories where the road can't be escaped and the destination can't be changed.

The Road Not Taken is the most prevalent of the non-road trip road narratives. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the idea here is that not all road narratives are told from the point of view of someone who is on the road. For more on this genre, please read the road not taken (April 1, 2016).

All Roads Lead to narratives:

Road Not Taken narratives:

Sent to the Cornfield Sent to the Cornfield is a sub-category of the Road Not Taken. The cornfield is a way to hide towns and imprison people. To learn more, please read Crossing the Cornfield (January 16, 2017).

Cornfield narratives:

Autokind vs Mankind:

This last genre is taken from Autokind Vs. Mankind by Kenneth R. Schneider (1971). Schneider's thesis is that automobile culture will be the undoing of American society. More broadly in terms of the road narrative, autokind vs mankind narratives are those where machine and man are at odds with each other. It can be as simple as a lemon car not being up to the task of the journey or as extreme as sentient cars taking over for humans and creating a dystopian society.

Autokind vs Mankind narratives:

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Dead Beat: 02/27/17

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Remember how I've said that books all have their own pace they want to be read at? Typically the Dresden File books require a fortnight of my time. This time though, I made the silly mistake of beginning the book right before first round reading for the CYBILs. That sort of commitment gets in the way of the majority of my fun reading.

So with this post bear in mind that my internal sense of the book's pacing is off. Had I read it at my usual fashion the review would be more upbeat. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher is the seventh book in the Dresden Files. This time Karrin calls in a favor. A vampire wants the Word of Kemmler or he will destroy her reputation. Since Harry owes her more favors than he can count, of course he says yes.

The big thing threatening Chicago this time is necromancy. It means too that Dresden has to let others in on his secret, namely the rather vanilla medical examiner, a guy name Waldo Butters. As Dresden himself is a bit one note with his stock phrases and favorite spells, adding to his ensemble cast is a good thing.

Butters in my mental vault of characters is like a combination of Mr. Buttler and Dot, both in the employ of Phryne Fisher. Except he works with dead bodies is now forced to come to terms with all number of paranormal beings.

Animo from the Washington BC episode of Ben10
Animo from the "Washington BC" episode of Ben10.

The final scene, my husband's favorite of all the books and one he was eagerly awaiting me to hit, didn't wow me like it did him. Again I was finishing this book while in that post reading binge daze of the CYBILS. To me the ending was a bit like Dresden taking something from Dr Animo's play book (see "Washington BC" from Season 1 of Ben 10).

Three stars

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The Maypop Kidnapping: 02/26/17

The Maypop Kidnapping by C. M. Surrisi

The Maypop Kidnapping by C. M. Surrisi is set in a small town in Maine. Quinnie has just sad goodbye to her best friend and is facing the reality that her BFF's house will be rented out to a new family and a new student. This is town is small enough that Quinnie and her BFF are usually the only students.

Ms Stillford, though, doesn't show for classes, even after giving Quinnie the lesson plans. Quinnie is convinced that something terrible has happened to her teacher. Her mother — who wears many hats in town including mayor and sheriff wants her to stay out of the investigation. Quinnie, though, can't help but look.

Maybe it's the setting — a small, fictitious coastal Maine town, but The Maypop Kidnapping has a similar structure to a Murder She Wrote episode, if it were Mrs. Fletcher who was missing and one of her students had to solve the mystery (she is canonically a teacher).

All the clues are there in the setting, the characters, and in the events that happen around Quinnie as she investigates. There is grumpy lobster fisherman; there are the dotty nuns; there are the rowdy punks from out of town; there is historic district that can't be changed or improved and is falling to pieces.

The Maypop Kidnapping is a very satisfying read. It keeps a good balance between being a whodunit and a thriller. It keeps you guessing and turning the pages, but does drop enough clues to help you sort out the solution if you're paying attention.

There's now a sequel, Vampires on the Run, coming out in March.

Five star

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Quiet!: 02/25/17

RQuiet! by Paul Bright

Quiet! by Paul Bright is the tale of jungle animals living in fear because a lion cub needs a nap. The lion, the mis-named "king of the jungle" has a cranky new baby who needs his nap. The only way to do that is to get the entire jungle (no matter that lions don't naturally live in the jungle) to shut up.

It's supposed to be a humorous look at all those animals cowering, trying to keep their children quiet. But it's not. It's an anthropomorphic rendering of male privilege, domestic violence, and the systematic subjugation of minorities.

Sure, the lion gets his comeuppance at the end of the book when he is shushed but let's stop and think about this for a second. How often does someone with that amount of power and arrogance actually get served a slice of humble pie? Most of them with privilege and power continue to act unchecked, even when behavior escalates to violence.

So for children reading (or being read) Quiet! the acid test must be, does the child relate to the lion (as a schoolyard bully, or with expectations of future male privilege) or the rest of the jungle?

One star

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Akata Witch: 02/24/17

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is an urban fantasy set in Aba, Nigeria. Sunny was born in New York but is living now in Aba. She wants as normal a life as possible, but it's difficult being the new kid and an albino — especially in a place where albinism is associated with witchcraft.

Going into the book I really expected the focus to be entirely on the bullying aspect of Sunny's life. It's a YA novel, so that sort of plot is to be expected. Thankfully, though, it isn't.

Instead, there's a mystery about children going missing and the parents being understandably upset. Fears over the regularity of these disappearances compels the adults in the town to put strict curfews on their children's lives and force them to walk together in pairs or groups.

It's that fear that forces Sunny to be closer with a group of her peers. And then something wonderful happens. Sunny becomes part of an ancient society of magic users. Her magic, though, isn't tied to her albinism but it is part of her family heritage.

In terms of the over all feeling of the story, it reminds me of the animé Rewind, without the time travel aspect, with perhaps a smattering of Stranger Things. Sunny and her friends as children are underestimated by the adults and hunted by one of them. Yet they have the power and knowledge to save themselves and the most recent victims.

Although I went into this book somewhat reluctantly, I ended up enthralled, finishing it over the course of a single afternoon.

Five stars

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Edible Numbers: 02/23/17

Edible Numbers by Jennifer Vogel Bass

Edible Numbers by Jennifer Vogel Bass is one of the most beautiful counting books I've ever seen. It's also an introduction to fruits and vegetables. It's the follow up to Edible Colors.

This time the focus is on numbers and on different kinds of things to eat. Depending on the number being illustrated, there will be that amount of either fruit or vegetable, rendered in beautiful photographs.

If the page shows peppers it will show more than just the standard bell pepper. Unless you are very into heritage gardening or run a stand at a farmer's market, there will be at least one new to you fruit or vegetable on every page.

Five stars

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Fenway and Hattie and the Evil Bunny Gang: 02/22/17

Fenway and Hattie and the Evil Bunny Gang by Victoria J. Coe

Fenway and Hattie and the Evil Bunny Gang by Victoria J. Coe is the sequel to Fenway and Hattie. Nicely settled into a new home and a new routine, Fenway thinks everything is perfect. That is until a new menace starts threatening Food Woman's garden — bunnies!

The arrival of the bunny stench begins the unraveling of Fenway's life. He finds himself blamed for the destruction in the garden (even though there are obvious bunny droppings nearby). He then has to share his home and his Hattie with their leader, Thumper.

Like the first book, the entire story is told through Fenway's limited point of view. Fenway's understanding of human speech is limited. His interpretation of events is pure dog — seeing Hattie and her parents as his pack. A pet brought into the home that smells like the territory invaders must also be a threat.

Fortunately there are enough clues to tie up all the lose ends. Things are not what Fenway thinks they are, especially when it comes to the actions of his human family. He is, however, spot on about the invading bunnies and gets to have a heroic moment at the end of the book.

Four stars

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Extraordinary: 02/21/17

Extraordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin

Extraordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin is about Pansy trying to come to terms with her best friend's sudden brain damage from meningitis contracted at camp. Pansy was supposed to go too but she chickened out. And now she's feeling like Anna's illness is her fault.

Anna can no longer walk and she has seizures sometimes. Pansy learns that her friend will be going through brain surgery to help control the seizures. She naively believes the surgery will "fix" her friend and return things back to how they were before camp.

Pansy does eventually come to accept the new reality of her best friend's life. But it comes after pages and pages of her playing the martyr and / or whinging about how terrible it is to have a brain damaged friend. It's not until the very end that Anna ascerts herself that Pansy really seems at all interested in being friends with Anna as she is now.

Three stars

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The Girl from Everywhere: 02/20/17

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig is the start of a YA time travel series. Nix has been traveling with her father and their crew for her entire life. Now after years of adventures, she has a chance to learn the truth behind her birth as they travel back to Hawaii.

In adventure stories and road trip movies have a travel by map montage trick to compress the story into something reasonable. In Nix's case, time travel literally works as travel by map.

While local, human knowledge of a place is the still the most efficient way to discover information about a place (even when using computers to then analyze and model data), relying on human drawn maps for time travel can open up cans of worms(or wormholes). A map is as good and as powerful as the artist's connection to the location or their personal conviction in its veracity. A cartographer with sufficient imagination could make a map good enough to take time travelers to an alternate or completely map up reality.

After revealing that time travel by map is a potential crap shoot, the book settles down in Hawaii in 1868. Nix and the crew end up in a heist that's straight out of a Hawaii Five-O (original more than the remake) but with some paranormal twists.

I'm rather conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I love the idea of traveling by map and time traveling pirate ships (I imagine that Captain Hook was such a traveler but couldn't get a good map to get out of Neverland). I like a good caper. I like Hawaii Five-O (both versions). But the pacing in this book is off. It's too long in parts and too short in others.

The second in the series, The Ship from Beyond Time is out this month.

Three stars

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Thanks for the Memoirs 02/19/17

Felicia Day from the cover of her memoir

Like everything else on this book blog, the archive / index is a work in progress. Originally I had the books sorted just by author and by title. It was a quick way to see what I had reviewed, how many reviews I had written, and whose books I had reviewed.

Since then I have been breaking the original title list into smaller categories based on reader interest and readers' advisory questions. Most recently I've had enough questions regarding recommendations for memoirs, that I'm now including a memoirs list in my genre index.

The list includes books for all ages. There are graphic novel memoirs on there, such as:

From my road narrative project, I am including personal accounts of road trips, even if they're only memoirs in the most glancing sort of way. For example:

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Extreme Babymouse: 02/19/17

Extreme Babymouse by Jennifer L. Holm

Extreme Babymouse by Jennifer L. Holm is the 17th of the Babymouse series. Babymouse and "friends" hit the slopes. That is, if Babymouse can convince her parents.

These books always have the same formula: Babymouse is asked if she's going do to the latest "cool thing" and she's of course clueless. But she instantly wants to do it too, no matter what it is. Then she has lots of obstacles, in the form of her parents and her own unwillingness to work for the goal. And all of this glued together with her lengthy hallucinations.

In most books too, the bully, a mean girl cat, ends up stealing the limelight and Babymouse's so called friends. This time, though, the bully gets a taste of what Babymouse has been put through. A lot of Babymouse's bad luck is self inflicted and that's exactly what happens here.

Each one of these books has a moral, though how well these morals play out varies wildly across books. The message here is twofold: take your time and listen to your inner voice. It's basically the same message as Candace's "Give Up" song from "The Last Train to Bustville" (Phineas & Ferb (2011))

Fortunately and REMARKABLY, Babymouse actually takes these messages to heart. She does take her time and she does hold off from doing the insanely dangerous things the bully tries to goad her into doing. And she does eventually learn how the basics of snowboarding.

Four stars

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Oh!: 02/18/17

Oh! by Kevin Henkes

Oh! by Kevin Henkes is about winter, about the clichéd winter that school children regardless of where the live are taught is winter. It's soft rolling snow, and snow bunnies, and squirrels hiding nuts, etc.

It's a dime a dozen type book. He has a newer book out, When Spring Comes that follows suit. There's melting snow. Things are waiting to grow. The trees are bare. Little baby animals come out to explore.

I can recite the plots of these types of books with my eyes closed. But for children here in California (and so many other places, too), these stories are un-relatable.

So imagine, instead, Oh! set in coastal California. The off shore winds of fire season have changed to an on shore, cooling breeze. A windy night strips the rest of the leaves, brown since early August, off. Fog becomes the normal morning and evening event — it blankets everything. Beautiful and hungry birds begin to show up at the feeding stations, as they spend their winter. Monarchs come to rest in the eucalyptus groves, painting the forest orange. Ladybugs head for the redwoods to sleep the winter in quiet solitude. Barn owls screech every night.

Oh! is that rain. Will we get enough this year? Will fire damaged areas wash away in mud and debris? How is the snowpack looking? Will it be enough for the water supply next year?

That is the California winter. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were pictures books that reflected alternate versions of winter?

Three stars

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Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas: 02/17/17

Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar

Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar with illustrations by Priya Sundram is a mathematical mystery involving a missing bunch of bananas, done as a comic book with panels made from collages. It feels like it should be part of a series but it's a standalone.

Captain Coconut, not to be confused with Calvin Coconut or Kokonotsu "Coconuts" Shikada, is a mathematically inclined detective. He's called into a case where a woman is missing most of the bananas she bought yesterday. She knows how many she bought. She knows how many she and her family ate last night but there are more than that missing.

Know your Coconuts
Captain Coconut Calvin Coconut Kokonotsu "Coconuts" Shikada

With lots of counting, lots of addition and subtraction, Captain Coconut is able to confirm that bananas are missing. Even more mysteriously, more bananas go missing during his investigation.

Mathemtaically it's a simple book but it's designed for kids new to math and new to reading by themselves. It's engaging and entertaining. I hope to see further adventures of Captain Coconut.

Four stars

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Roller Girl: 02/16/17

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is a graphic novel inspired by her experience as a skater with the Rose City Rollers, a roller derby league in Portland. As it's written for a middle school audience and is chuck full of details, it reads like Reina Telgemeier's Smile.

Astrid Vasquez in the summer before middle school and she's fallen head over heels for roller derby. She's enrolled in a summer camp with the Rose City Rollers — the Rose Buds. She's assumed her best friend will be joining her and is disappointed when Nicole choses ballet camp instead.

The cover art is the perfect summary of the book. Astrid — whose name means stars — is shown wearing the jammer diaper. The jammer is the only team member who can score. The others try to keep the opposing jammer from scoring. But being a jammer is hard work requiring strength, speed, and stamina. At the start of Roller Girl, Astrid can barely stand up in skates and she spends much of the book falling down.

This book is inspirational and entertaining. Roller Girl is like Tomboy but for a younger audience.

Five stars

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March: Book One: 02/15/17

March: Book One by John Lewis

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell is the start of a trilogy that recounts Senator Lewis's participation in the civil rights movement. Lewis's memoir is framed in the story of him meeting with some attendees to President Obama's second inauguration.

This nonfiction comic covers the early years of the movement, beginning with a Lewis's childhood where he was in charge of the chickens and how he spent his time preaching the gospel to them. His early calling and his aptitude for giving entertaining sermons caught the attention of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The second half of this book focuses on the sit ins at lunch counters and the training the participants went through to guarantee that they would keep their cool no matter how awful they were treated.

If I had read this book when it was first published, I suspect I would have read it with greater optimism. It's presented in a hopeful tone on that draws a line from the the sit-ins and the marches to Obama's presidency.

Now though with how the election has gone, I see these books more as manuals for the next generation of protestors. Things weren't perfect but now racism has an open forum and it scares me.

Five stars

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Bird & Squirrel on Fire!: 02/14/17

Bird & Squirrel on Fire! by James Burks

Bird & Squirrel On Fire by James Burks is the fourth book in the graphic novel series and it feels like a good place to end it. Bird and Squirrel are home after all their misadventures — falling off the mountain, ending up in Antarctica, fighting wolves.

But even the old home and neighborhood doesn't stay the same. Someone or something has started terrorizing the forest animals. Then upstream, the water's been stopped but an overly eager beaver.

Awkward conversations are had

Being home has given Squirrel too much temptation to fall into his old ways. His phobias and anxiety are back in full force. He just wants to crawl into bed and stay there. Fortunately for him, he has Bird and he has a new friend too, Red.

The lesson here for Squirrel is that it's okay to be anxious. It's okay to be depressed. And when you are, reach out to your friends and family.

Five stars

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Giant Days, Volume 1: 02/13/17

Giant Days, Volume 1 by John Allison

Giant Days, Volume 1 by John Allison is the first volume in a new comic by the author of Bad Machinery. The illustrations are by a Disney artist, Lissa Treiman.

While Bad Machinery takes place in a middle school, Giant Days takes place at university. These are three incoming first year students who through the luck of the room lottery are now roommates.

There's the tough girl who has an ex-boyfriend / rival who has managed to grow a magnificent mustache. He means well but just can't fathom whatever wrong he has done and thus is cursed to perpetually be pissing her off. There is the Goth girl who is surrounded by a field of bad luck — which can be harnessed for good or evil. And there's the homeschooled shy girl who has a secret wild side waiting to be revealed.

All of these quirks and back stories come into play brilliantly when the girls catch the dreaded university flu. Each one goes through a hilarious story arc of illness, recovery, and retribution for what mayhem they caused while under the weather.

These funny scenes are further brought to life by Lissa Treiman's illustrations. Each character is instantly recognizable no matter the situation and there are numerous spots where the story is carried on the artwork alone like an old fashioned silent movie comedy.

Finally mention should be given to Whitney Cogar, the colorist. Giant Days is a vibrant series. The colors are eye popping, saturated, and luscious. Never though do they get in the way of the story telling. They are though as memorable as the colors in the FBP series.

Five stars

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The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer: 02/12/17

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua is a graphic novel that explores the lives of Ada, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage and then extrapolates an alternate, steampunk timeline based on their work on the difference machine.

The first chapter or adventure or issue, if you want to treat it like a compilation of comic books, is a straight up biography of Lovelace and Babbage. It's still humorous but it's far cry from the tangential exercises and general mayhem that follows.

Ponies + Statistics = :D

Maybe it's just me, but the way Lovelace and Babbage are drawn remind me of Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. Babbage, especially later on, is show in the same sort of double breasted lab coat that Dr. Frankenstein wears.

In the later adventures — the pocket dimension of what if — the two team up and receive a huge grant from Queen Victoria. In the name of crime fighting and betting on ponies, they build a warehouse sized difference machine. It's so large that one can easily get lost inside. It's probably a steam driven TARDIS.

The book is both educational and riotously funny.

Five stars

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Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part Two: 02/11/17

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

Avatar: The Last Airbender - North and South, Part Two by Gene Luen Yang continues the plot of Part One in the Southern Tribe village, turned city. Katara and Sokka are upset over their father's new girl friend, a developer from the Northern Tribes. They have a festival to attend where Malina and Maliq will be introducing their development plans.

I can't help but think the plot of this trilogy is in direct response to the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL controversies. Native Americans have been protesting the laying of oil pipelines on their land, near precious drinking water.

Here the Southern Water Tribe is facing a similar situation. The Northern Water Tribe development team in conjunction with Toph's Earthen Fire Industries have found oil under Southern Water Tribe. Their plan involves the pumping and transport of that oil for Northern Water Tribe use and profit, and the colonization of the Southern Water Tribe.

With two very similar cultures (though separated by thousands of miles) Gene Luen Yang is able to explore the ramifications of colonization, of one people taking the natural resources of another people, without falling back on historical tropes. It's a way to see both sides of the issue without a clear good guy, bad guy (even if Maliq is very clearly taking the roll of bad guy).

Five stars

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Bird & Squirrel on the Edge!: 02/10/17

Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! by James Burks

Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! by James Burks is the third of the Bird and Squirrel graphic novel series. The titular characters are returning from their adventures with the penguins and hope to make it home.

Along the way Bird, the brave of the pair, suffers and injury and forgets who he is. He doesn't know he's a bird. He doesn't know he's brave. He really doesn't know much of anything, except that he's friends with Squirrel and can trust him.

Squirrel now has to step up and get both of them to safety. That's a problem with a bear cub following them and a wolf pack out for blood! Along the way, though, he has to contend with Bird trying to find himself. Is he a bear? Is he a squirrel? Is he a frog?

Squirrel saying NO to Bird

On the Edge continues to deliver the adventure, buddy camaraderie, and humor of the previous books. Next week I'll review their current adventure, Bird & Squirrel on Fire!.

Five stars

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The 52-Story Treehouse: 02/09/17

52 Story Treehouse

The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton is the fourth book in the series. As always, Andy and Terry are too busy improving their treehouse to notice their impending book deadline. That is until they notice that Mr. Big Nose, their publisher, hasn't contacted them to yell at them.

Andy and Terry decide to leave the treehouse and set out to solve the case of missing Mr. Big Nose. Along the way they end up having to use disguises pulled from their Disguise-o-Matic 5000 to break into a castle run by vegetables.

It's all very absurdist both in text and in illustrations. Each volume has a theme that it riffs. This one, is the world of publishing, meaning that many of the puns and gags are book related. There are nods to The Hobbit and the Very Hungry Caterpillar among others.

Too see some of my favorite scenes, please check my Tumblr where I live blogged the book.

Five stars

 

 

 

 

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Towers Falling: 02/08/17

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

I am normally reluctant to read historical fiction set around events that are still in living memory but aimed at younger generations. So often in these types of books there is the assumption that readers too young to have experienced the event (or too young to remember it) will still naturally feel as passionately about it as those who were directly affected by it.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, though, is different — beautifully, heartbreakingly different. Though it is written about the destruction of the World Trade Center it is set in the present. Rather than reliving events, it looks at the scars left behind and on the bewilderment the generations born after feel because they can't relate.

The story focuses on Deja, a young black girl recently moved from her home in Brooklyn to a homeless shelter for families in another part of the city. Her new class is doing a community project that culminates with the World Trade Center.

Deja, though, struggles with the assignment all the way through. First because she's new and doesn't feel part of this new community / neighborhood. She's embarrassed by being homeless. She's angry over losing her home.

As things progress she comes to realize that her understanding of recent events — recent at least in her parents' lifetime — is lacking. Something terrible happened and it has had lasting effects on the city and on her family.

As Deja learns about the events of September 11, 2001, she also learns about her father's decline — his growing depression, the reason why he can't hold onto a job, and his mood swings every fall.

Deja's experience, with the help of a classmate who has access things she does not (like the internet) is heartbreaking. She comes to learn about the event and the people who died. She comes to understand and internalize the events that she didn't experience.

Five stars

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New Cat: 02/07/17

New Cat by Yangsook Choi

New Cat by Yangsook Choi is about the special friendship between the owner of a tofu factory and a cat. New Cat has been living in the tofu factory since she wandered in as a stray. She likes the office. She keeps Mr. Kim's seat warm when he's on the factory floor. She keeps eye on the computer mouse. That sort of thing.

That is until rats start to show up. They're sneaky enough to avoid Mr. Wu's attention. But not New Cat's. Rat's though are dangerous. They like to chew. The chew through anything — including wires.

Mr. Wu nearly loses the tofu factory to a rat started fire. Of course he cares about his factory and his workers but it's New Cat he's most worried about. New Cat, though, probably needs to be renamed Smart Cat for how she saves the factory and herself.

Four stars

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Dreadnought: 02/06/17

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Dreadnought by April Daniels is one of the best books I've read — ever. I heard about it back in September 2016 — on a list of upcoming queer YA. The brief blurb promised a transgender superhero. On that very brief bit of information I pre-ordered a copy. BOY AM I GLAD I DID.

Like If I Were Your Girl, the transitioning of the main character is over and done with at the very start of the book. The coming to terms with gender identity on a personal level isn't the point here.

Both books chose to look well beyond where the typical book ends. The former is a realistic fiction (beyond the fudging to make the main character young enough to still be in high school). The latter is wrapped up in a superhero adventure story.

Danny at the start of the book is keeping herself sane by painting her toenails. It's the one part of herself she has autonomy over. Her parents, as we learn later in depressing, rage inducing detail, are not supportive of her. To them, she is and always will be, their son, Daniel.

And then all hell breaks loose and Danny finds herself in the middle of a battle between a superhero and a supervillain. This is an alternate Earth where superpowers have been part of the landscape since WWII. What Danny doesn't expect, is to receive the mantel (and powers) of Dreadnought as he succumbs to his injuries. What she also doesn't expect (and no one else does either) is to find herself transformed into the body she wants.

All of this is just the first, very short chapter. It is the set up for a fantastic superhero story that has the twist of the person receiving the coveted powers being a transgender lesbian teenage girl. Danny doesn't find a happy escape through her new powers or a safe-haven with the League who is obligated to be interested in her because of her powers. Nor does the book promise that sort of escapism.

Instead, the book is a mystery — one to find Dreadnought's killer, to discover what she has planned, and to find a way to stop her. It's fleshed out with discussions of power and corruption, gender and privilege, and transphobia.

The sequel, Sovereign is due out in July.

Five stars

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: 02/05/17

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is the first (and probably last) of the Inheritance series that I'll be reading. Yeine Darr is royalty from the barbarian branch of the family. Her mother left the capital to marry for love. Now suddenly, Yeine finds herself summoned to the palace and embroiled in a fight for ascension.

So within the confines of Yeine's family, we have the battle for the throne that's winding down in Neil Gaiman's Stardust. But there's also a supernatural aspect to Yeine's backstory, making her mother an approximation of Una and Rose Quartz (of Steven Universe).

Yeine turns out to be more like Steven than Tristan, in that she is the corporeal embodiment of something otherworldly. But that's really more a thing of last act of the book.

The book is 427 pages (or roughly 900 pages as an ebook), most of which is Yeine walking around the Tower of Babylon styled palace, either marveling at its architecture, reminiscing about her childhood, or having theological monologs with herself. Nothing is ever simply described. Nothing can just be the color ________. It was to be the color adjective adjective ___________ qualifier, some sort of metaphor tied in with a parable.

Here's the thing, she's a stranger in a strange land. How the expletive of your choice does she know any of this? She doesn't. She can't. She's making up stuff just to fill pages and sound self important.

Two stars

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If I Was Your Girl: 02/04/17

RIf I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo is one of the best YA romances I've read. Full stop. Amanda Hardy is the new girl in Lambertville, come home to live with her father. She's planning to just get through her last couple years of high school, flying under the radar as bast as she can. And then she meets Grant Everett and all those plans go out the window.

Amanda has a past, one she's not sure she's ready to share with her new friends. Frankly she's not willing at first to share that past with us either. But slowly over time, through flashbacks, we're given the full story.

The big picture, though, is that Amanda is transgender. This is her first time going to school with her chosen name and her chosen pronouns. Even her father, though not as enthusiastic as she would like, is on board.

In the case of Grant, who has his own secrets, there is still the fear of revealing too much. There is the fear of teasing, the fear of being beaten up — all this Amanda has experienced. She has also tried to take her own life.

While all those things are common plot points in all the other books with a transgender protagonist I've read, they aren't really the point here. Instead, it's about the after — about the moving on. So many of these books end at the point that the main character gets on the preverbal soapbox and announces to the world that they are transgender.

All of that has happened and is over and done with. Amanda is out. Amanda is Amanda. She's now on the threshold of adulthood and a life she's going to carve out for herself on her terms.

Learning how to be open with her closest of friends (and boyfriend) is the next big hurdle. It's frankly a hurdle that all adults face repeatedly. It's a hurdle that Grant is also facing. And this book is about how they both learn to trust each other and open up — rather than about a character being trapped in one gender/body and wanting another.

There's an afterword from the author about why she chose to write this story as a post transition YA. The author explains: "I did this because I wanted you to have no possible barrier to understanding Amanda as a teenage girl with a different medical history from most other girls." Amanda, she goes on to explain isn't meant to stand in a gospel for how to be transgender. There are many different ways of being transgender and every experience is valid and important.

As suicide is mentioned in the book, she also includes a couple different hotline numbers for any reader who needs someone to talk to.

Five stars

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Toto Trouble: Back to Crass: 02/03/17

Toto Trouble: Back to Crass by Thierry Coppée

Toto Trouble: Back to Crass by Thierry Coppée is the "first chapter" in a new series, and so far, thankfully the only one to be translated into English. Toto is a school aged boy who is nothing but a screw up, lives with parents who hate him, and is apparently hilarious for all the mayhem he creates.

Long story short: he isn't funny. He's most certainly crass. But even crass can be funny. But not here. Crass here involves child abuse (and probably spousal abuse), violence to animals, and misogyny.

It's the same hateful vitriol rehashed page after page in the so-called name of humor. It was old by the second page. By a quarter of the way through, with some skimming, it was obvious that the same "jokes" would be continuing all the way through.

sample panels from the book.

One star

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Lily and Dunkin: 02/02/17

Reading Gap

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart is really two stories in one. There's Lily, a transgender teen who is desperate to start hormone therapy before puberty starts. And then there's Dunkin, is self medicating his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with coffee and sugar.

The chapters trade points of view between the two. In Lily's chapters, we see how she's struggling for acceptance at home and at school. Her father is dragging his feet in signing the papers for the hormone therapy. Lily can't start unless both parents sign off on it as she is a minor.

Dunkin meanwhile is dealing with trying to be accepted at the new school. A group of bullies who happen to be athletes and want him to join their team. Dunkin meanwhile has an invisible friend, Phineas, who gets in the way of things. The way to keep Phineas under control is with strong coffee with lots of sugar.

Dunkin — nicknamed by Lily — is the only person besides Lily's mother who accepts her for who she is. Although he's also duped into thinking that she is her own sister — when Lily is forced to attend school under her given name and assigned gender — a boy named Timothy.

While this book does go into more of the technical details of what's required to help preteens with body dysphoria avoid the puberty they don't want so that they can grow into the bodies they do want, Lily isn't as convincing a character as Dunkin is.

How Dunkin tries to cope with his dipolar disorder, how Phineas manifests, how he can't remember what really happened to his father — all come with the raw emotion of someone who has experienced these things first hand. In the afterword, the author explains Dunkin's half of the story was inspired by her son's experience.

Three stars

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Rock with Wings: 02/01/17

Rock with Wings by Anne Hillerman

Rock with Wings by Anne Hillerman is the twentieth in the Navajo Mystery series and the second on by Anne. It's a series that is three years older than I am and one I've been following my entire adult life.

The title for this book refers to Ship Rock (the land formation that's unmistakable as you're driving into Shiprock). Apparently Shiprock the city was made one word for the convenience of the U.S. postal service. As a resident of a nonexistent piece of Hayward (in that it's actually an unincorporated neighborhood named Fairview), I can see the postal service doing this.

But the mystery is really two pieces of a larger whole — again, something that's been a trademark of this series since its earliest days. One mystery is set on the outskirts of Shiprock and the other is set just outside Monument Valley. While both Jim and Bernadette who should be on vacation together, they each end up investigating a crime. Jim's involves an illegal burial on Navajo lands and Bernadette's involves a nervous man carrying dirt.

I'm going to be up front and say that I figured out Bernadette's half of the mystery very quickly. With any mystery, if you have personal knowledge it's easy to connect the dots with the first set of clues. Nonetheless, it was still fun to see all come together.

Now if my mother had read the book (and maybe she has) I bet Jim Chee's half of the mystery would come together first. It involves the long history of the area being used for filmmaking, starting with Stagecoach. I've certainly seen the film but I've never visited the valley nor have I stayed at the hotel that plays such a big part in Jim's half of the book — but she and my dad have.

As with Spider Woman's Daughter, Bernadette is a fully rendered character. Frankly I find myself relating more to her than either of the other two leads. Back when she was first introduced in Hunting Badger she was presented as someone even more superstitious (meaning traditional) than Jim Chee (who was originally training to be a hataali). As originally written there was no believable reason for her to have chosen to be on the police force. All that has changed under Anne Hillerman's fleshing out of Bernadette Manuelito.

The next book in the series is Song of the Lion which comes out this summer.

Five stars

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