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The Magician's Secret: 01/31/18
The Magician's Secret by Carolyn Keene is the eighth book in the Nancy Drew diary series. As so often happens with me and series, it was the first book I read. A world famous illusionist with a routine similar to David Copperfield has come to perform.
At the same time, some key evidence for an upcoming trial goes missing. Nancy and her friends are convinced Drake Lonestar is tied up in the disappearance. If they can figure out how he makes buildings appear to disappear, they can find the missing evidence.
Of course things are more complicated than first appear. There are secrets, hidden pasts, and all sorts of other information that Nancy and friends need to uncover.
This one was just the right balance of nods to the old series with a solvable but satisfying mystery. It's something that can be read in an afternoon or over a few mornings over breakfast.
A Darkness Absolute: 01/30/18
A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong is the second of the Casey Duncan trilogy set in the wilderness of the Yukon. The book opens during a manhunt through a driving snow storm. There's a crash. There's blood. There is an igloo and a cave. And then a shocking discovery — a missing woman, presumed dead — alive but emaciated and imprisoned in the cave.
Before Nicole's discovery, I half expected the entire book to take place during that snow storm — away from the town, trying to fight the elements. Or trying to escape the cave. Or being captured and trying to escape before unthinkable things happen.
Thankfully my worse case scenario didn't play out. Although if you'd like a middle grade fiction with those plot elements and wolves, I recommend Hear the Wolves set in next door Alaska.
Rockton is a remote place within a remote province. It has a small, rotating population with most people only given five years residency. It's small enough that everyone knows everyone. Near it are two other populations — the settlers, the original Rockton population who decided not to leave but couldn't stay in the town for reasons. Then there are the wild ones are akin to the Reavers of Firefly. Altogether there's a population of maybe three hundred (and two hundred of that is in Rockton). The book itself though has all of a dozen characters — and that's if you include Casey's new puppy.
My point is, that there just aren't that many people to pick from to be the criminal. If you read enough mysteries — especially if you've read early Agatha Christie when she was dabbling in thrillers — the criminal is obvious within the first fifty pages. It takes Casey and crew until there are only about fifty pages left to put the pieces together.
My alternate theory for why Casey and friends can't figure shit out is that Casey is actually in a coma back in Toronto. She fell in the line of duty and she's dreaming up this weird other life while she recovers.
Book three, This Fallen Prey comes out February 6th. I will be reading and reviewing it next month.
Waiting for Unicorns: 01/29/18
Waiting for Unicorns by Beth Hautala is set in the arctic during the summer. Talia McQuinn is there with her father, a whale researcher. She's there because her mother is dead and there's really no where else to go. So she spends her time listening to their Inuit housekeeper tell stories about narwhales and learning how to grieve.
Or something like that.
You have to understand, I first read this book in the middle of the 2015-6 Cybils and it was a death heavy selection that year. Seriously, I could do a Venn diagram showing where each book sits based on the plot elements.
This one would go into: marine biology, remote northern location, dead mother, culture clash.
It's a perfectly fine execution of that kind of story. But it's competing against a large number of similar stories. It did also have the unfortunate effect of making me think of Futurama, both the Mushu episode and the longer one where Fry ends up being a narwhale trainer. It also got the narwhal song stuck in my head.
So rather than drag on this review: here's a Youtube sampling of what this book made me think of.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 29): 01/29/18
It was a quiet week. I took some hikes early in the week. Last year with the move, I hardly did any hiking. Even places I used to frequent look different to me.
I'm still adjusting to my new schedule of reading and reviewing, especially the making room for one newly published book each week. I get them on Tuesday (typically) and that gives me until Saturday to get them read and reviewed.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: 01/28/18
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant is the first in a new tween series about Anastasia who is suddenly thrust into an extraordinary adventure after being told her parents are dead.
Anastasia who had gone to public school every day and lived with her parents and squabbled with them too is picked up one day by a pair of elderly women claiming to be her aunts. They take her to their home, a former insane asylum that is so expensive to run that she's forced to eat nothing by gruel.
Of course whenever a main character is given instructions to not go into specific rooms, she's going to there. Anastasia is no different. And there are enough clues around to suspect that her "aunts" are up to something sinister.
It took a little while for the plot to settle into the kind of story it was telling. The opening takes longer than it needs to push Anastasia to the point of rebellion. Given how very different her life suddenly is and how unconvincing her aunts are, I'm surprised she lasts as long as she does before deciding to investigate.
But once it settles down it becomes a classic sort of mad scientist, haunted building type horror / mystery. It's somewhere akin to Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
Love, Hate & Other Filters: 01/27/18
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed is set in Batavia, Illinois, the author's home town. Maya Aziz is a senior in high school who with the help of her aunt has gotten into NYU's film school. There's just the problem of telling her traditionally minded Muslim Indian parents and getting them to agree with it. They have other well intentioned plans for her.
Much of what Maya experiences and narrates is put through the filter of filmmaking. She either compares her life to films she loves. Or she reports on how she is filming an event. Or she thinks about how she could have filmed it. In most books with a budding filmmaker, pages and pages lost to scenes being transcribed as if they were a film script. I HATE that technique with a fiery passion. It is so cliché. Maya, though, does none of this. Her love of film is shown through what she knows about the craft and its history.
The book starts of similar to When Dimple Met Rishi in that there appears to be possible romance between the acceptable suitor — Kareem. Then at school there is Phil who is on the football team, is dating the most popular girl. He is her crush and now he seems to like her too. The first couple of chapters seem to promise a Bollywood love triangle with an American twist even though Maya prefers Western films.
And then it doesn't. At about the halfway point the novel abruptly shifts gears. Maya and her world are shattered by events outside of their control. For the astute reader, the hints of this direction are there from the very beginning. If you're reading for fun (as I admit I was) the change of tone is as shocking to you as it is to Maya.
Samira Ahmed's next book is Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know (2019). It's a YA thriller that pairs a Muslim-American teenager with a descent of Alexander Dumas to unravel a 19th century mystery.
Speedy in Oz: 01/26/18
Speedy in Oz by Ruth Plumly Thompson is the twenty-eighth Oz book and the 14th written by Thompson who took over as the "Royal Historian of Oz" upon Baum's death in 1920.
According to the Oz Club's site, Thompsons Oz books usually have an American child acting as companion to a magical creature (usually a talking animal) to an obscure corner of Oz or one of the surrounding nations. There is also an element of romance, something that is more typically devoid of in the Baum books. Speedy in Oz certainly fits this description, being about a teenaged boy, "Speedy" who is thrust into the atmosphere along with a dinosaur skeleton after the unexpected eruption of a geyser at Yellowstone National Park.
Like the whale and petunia who suddenly come into being in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the dinosaur bones on realizing its hurdling through the sky, comes to life as an animated, thinking, talking skeleton. Speedy and he, expecting to plummet to their deaths (or the dinosaur's second death), become friends on the way down.
Except, they don't die. Like Dorothy — near death experiences bring them into the realm of Oz (or at least into the dimension or whatever you want to call it) that contains Oz and its neighbors. I will address the ways to Oz in an upcoming essay on why Oz can't be dystopian. For now, suffice it to say, that Speedy doesn't die.
Speedy, it turns out, has already been to Oz and therefore comes to expect that's what's happening now as he is now traveling with a talking dinosaur skeleton. That's the set up.
For our look at Oz and Ozma's power, and the underlying feminist message, there is an interesting discussion on what to do when in trouble in Oz (or, in this case, over Oz). In floating island stories, there's often a giant living on top. For this book, though, there are regular sized people living up there and their island kingdom is snagged by a giant who happens to reside behind a mountain in Oz. Though the giant holds no special loyalty to Ozma, he is one of her subjects and under her protection. He, though, threatens island dwellers and wishes to make the crown princess his official boot-lacer.
The immediate discussion that follows takes two sides. The first is, to send someone down to Oz to request help with the giant. The second is to fix the island as quickly as possible and run away to avoid the wrath of Ozma. She is well known by now for protecting all of her subjects and she is well known for being extremely powerful. A floating island without a flight plan wandering into Ozian airspace is understandably troublesome. The leaders of the island (including the king and his advisors) know that they are in the wrong, but there is a long debate as to how to respond.
As the question of Ozma is the big lingering conflict of this novel, she and the rest of Oz remain out of the picture until the very end. What builds over the course of Speedy's time on the floating island is a picture of fear on the part of the male leadership (mostly in the form of the advisors) over projected responses and attitudes of Ozma based on what they know of her: she's powerful and she's loyal to all her subjects.
While the adventure of Speedy with the Umbrellians is a pretty standard adventure in to another world, it does offer an interesting outsider's look at Oz and the perception of Oz. It also has some observations on gender roles with (a la El Hazard) Speedy being asked to dress up like the crown princess.
It also gives some glimpses at possible chinks in Ozma and Dorothy's relationship. Dorothy near the end of the book expresses a moment of jealousy at Speedy's apparent elevation to wizard among the Umbrellians. It is the first instance I can recall of Dorothy desiring power like Ozma. I am now going back and re-reading the Oz books (as I can find them) to look at a number of things: ways to Oz, gender in Oz, Dorothy's desire for power, and possible signs of dystopia in Oz.
Koko Be Good: 01/25/18
Koko Be Good by Jen Wang is one of those books that will forever be associated with a time and a place. It was the first book I read in my new-to-me house. I read it at a time when I had just gotten the keys to it and the only furniture in there was a folding table, folding chairs, a futon, and two mattresses on the floor. Basically it wasn't much different than Koko's attic hideaway, just on a larger scale. And like Koko I felt like an interloper.
The titular character wants to be good. She's been living as a grifter and inspiration strikes. She decides the best way to make her life meaningful is to be good. But how exactly to do that exactly isn't clear. She will try all the things.
On the other hand, there's Jon, who is so committed to being good that he has decided to give up his passion for music to follow his girl friend to Peru for a humanitarian mission. He's doing it because it's what he's supposed to do but with no particular reasoning beyond that.
Though the setting is San Francisco the art style (especially character design) and fast paced scenes remind me of the Giant Days comic (John Allison, et al). Koko reminds me of Esther and Jon reminds me of Ed Gemmel — for body language and general philosophy on life.
My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2018 01/24/18
Last year I was invited at the end of the first month of the challenge to join the My Kind of Mystery Challenge. At the time I joined because I needed some cheering up after facing the very possible reality of the entire family relocating to Kitchener. Well, that didn't happen but I did have fun with the challenge.
In the last challenge I managed to read and review 42 mystery books. This year my goal is a minimum of 52. Since the summer I've been reviewing a mystery once a week — on Wednesdays. I hope this year to expand a bit from my usual either middle grade mysteries or my cozy mysteries. But I am fans of both.
What I've read:
2018-19 reviewed books
The Dark Lady: 01/24/18
The Dark Lady (or Il Trio della Dama Nera) by Irene Adler is the first in the Sherlock, Lupin, & Io mystery series. Irene and her family are vacationing in southern France where there is rumor of a cat burglar. Then on the beach, a body washes up, hinting at something even more sinister than a night time thief.
Irene, who is bored out of her mind and tired of being forced to stay in their summer home, is lured by the excitement and danger of this mysterious death. In her excitement she meets two boys also curious about the events: William Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin.
The mystery itself reminds me of The Trouble With Harry if it were seen by an outsider. Irene, Sherlock, and Lupin are only part of the mystery by their proximity to the event and to the others involved. Their youth and their status as outsiders give them a fresh and sometimes humorous take on the events.
Having Irene, Sherlock, and Lupin (who is from a completely different set of stories) together as childhood friends is the ultimate in fan fiction. This mystery appeals to me for the same reasons that I adore the long running anime series Lupin III.
The second book in the series is The Soprano's Last Stand (Ultimo atto Teatro dell'Opera).
The War at Ellsmere: 01/23/18
The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks is set at a remote all girls boarding school. Juniper is the newest student — and a scholarship one at that. The popular girl has decided to do whatever it takes to get her expelled. Meanwhile, she's been roomed with Cassie, aka "the orphan" who probably could buy the entire school if she wanted to.
Because of its remoteness and the very obvious fish out of water plot, at first glance War at Ellsmere is like any number of magical girl manga (when they're set at a school). A recent anime equivalent would be Märchen Mädchen (2018). Looking just at the social dynamic of the bully and the main character, Hick's graphic novel pairs nicely with Dear Poppy by Ronni Arno (2017).
But there is also a magical element to this book. The school isn't as magical as Hogwarts but it does have an enchanted forest — one similar to the woods of Nagspeake. There's really nothing else to say without giving away plot points. Go spend an afternoon at Ellsmere.
The Refrigerator Monologues: 01/22/18
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente is a novella in a series of interconnected short stories. They are set in an afterlife purgatory for the women killed by superheroes and supervillains.
Each story comes in two parts: a present day, life after death or time in purgatory, and the life before. Most of these deaths comes down to the toxic masculinity of the typical big comic book publisher's worlds. Women have been scarce in comic books, though more so since the grittier, edgier "realism" that started in the 1990s. They have been often relegated to being damsels in distress or to dying to force the hero to become the hero or regain his desire to be the hero. Valente has populated her book with women who represent these tropes.
I think if I were more invested in the big publishers and the big superhero comics (and their numerous film franchises) I would have gotten more out of this book. As is, I just didn't care. Valente's complex, poetic language just lengthened the process of slogging through another life and death I couldn't relate to.
A better, shorter, similar story (and told in comic book form, no less) is the Black Hammer series by Jeff Lemire.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 22): 01/22/18
All in all it was a quiet week. The only excitement was being able to pick up a painting I first inquired about in October. "Destination Unknown" was part of a series of road landscapes done in oil by a local artist named Nicole Leming. Her art was on display at the library.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11: 01/21/18
Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin is an upper elementary aged mystery. The class hamster has gone missing and Smashie decides she needs to figure our who did it.
I get that kids that age spend most of their time in school but there are only so many wacky classroom stories I can plow through before my brain starts to turn to mush.
To make this book stand out, we're first given a titular character with a wacky name. Nothing says appealing more than a nickname you've never heard before.
Now to add to the mix, change the usual setting. Give the class a substitute. Make the substitute significantly different. If the original teacher is female, make the new one male. Or visa versa.
Then make something GO WRONG. Make it something get canceled or scheduled that normally isn't. Put the kids in a pageant or a play or put them in charge of some school wide event. Or in this case, have the class pet go missing.
Have whatever the wrong thing is be something the main character is really not into, bad at, scared of, or have some tragic history with. In this case, Smashie doesn't like the hamster, so everyone thinks she's part of its disappearance.
Make the main character have to get into the thing they don't like. Hilarity will ensue and eventually the main character will have a change or heart, maybe do some character growth, and come out a better and possibly more popular person.
Yes, this book does all these things. It's a little After School Special in print. If you have a class pet, have a thing for hamsters, then go ahead and read the book. If you don't, feel free to skip it.
I was looking for a follow up to Ghosts of Greenglass House and Winterhouse by Ben Guterson seemed like a good fit. The book opens with Elizabeth Somers arriving home on the last day of school before winter break to find a note from her aunt and uncle and a train and a bus ticket to Winterhouse for the three weeks of vacation.
Winterhouse is up in the mountains — I'm going to guess the Cascades just because the author is from Seattle — but they could be any snowy mountains. It sits alongside Lake Luna. It's been run by the Falls family for more than a hundred years. The current proprietor, Norbridge Falls is the end of the line.
Although the hotel has thirteen stories and numerous guests, there are only a handful of characters, which keeps the story fascinating and tightly paced. There is Elizabeth who sees the mysteries of the hotel as an escape from her own weird life — a rather loveless one with an aunt and uncle who barely talk to her. Then there is Freddy, a boy her age who spends every winter holiday at the hotel while his parents travel. Like Elizabeth he loves puzzles and word games. There are a pair of jigsaw puzzle aficionados and their wives; they've been working on the same massive puzzle for two years. There's Norbridge Falls and Leona Springer, the hotel's librarian. Finally there are the Hiemses who rode in on the same bus as Elizabeth.
Atmospherically Winterhouse reminds me of a middle grade version of the Overlook from The Shining (the book, more so than either the film or miniseries). Imagine the Overlook in its declining years before it had gotten to the point where it had to be shuttered over the winter months. Imagine the Overlook when despite the tragedies and the impending curse it was still a relatively happy place. Imagine the Overlook at a crossroads — where it can either get better or fall into ruin.
Tied up into the fate of Winterhouse are a number of puzzles, a missing book, some family legends, a bunch of adults not willing to share what they know because of their own grief or their own desire to protect the next generation.
The final piece of what makes this a great middle grade mystery-fantasy is the artwork by illustrator Chloe Bristol. Her illustrations bring the characters to life as well as the impressive sounding interiors of the hotel.
Per the author's website, Winterhouse is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book is The Secret of Winterhouse and will be published early 2019.
Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone: 01/19/18
Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone by Hiro Kamigaki is an I-spy and Where's Waldo type children's puzzle book. Originally published in Japan as 迷路探偵ピエール ～うばわれた秘宝を探せ! (Meiro tantei piēru ~ ubawa reta hihō o sagase!), the book features 15 full spread pages for searching and solving.
At first glance, the book is a simple find the characters type book. Where is Pierre? Where is the thief? Were are the people he's stolen from? And so forth. As one grows familiar with the pages and the typical hiding places for people and things, other recurring details appear: start and finish signs.
Each page is, in fact, a maze. The mazes increase in difficulty, from the first one — being a simple, straightforward path through a garage, to a gorgeous one through a sky filled with hot air balloons.
I read this book as I was chasing down some tangential ideas for my crossing the cornfield research for the road narrative project. Nina Laden's Are We There Yet? had confirmed my hunch that there could be a connection between the cornfield and the Minotaur. While looking for other books that brought these two elements together, my search brought up Kamigaki's book.
Though this book does include a city wide — world-wide maze, these mazes serve no plot purpose. These mazes are for the reader only. And that's fine. It's a beautifully crafted book; it's just not relevant to my project.
Locke & Key, Volume 2: Head Games: 01/18/18
Locke & Key, Volume 2: Head Games by Joe Hill focuses on the head key. It can open up one's mind and allow someone else to remove memories and emotions.
Bode's head is full monstrous representations of people he's met. He takes delight in pulling different things out to see what they are. He also wants to share his discovery with his family.
The reaction to the head key is wide and varied from utter disgust to utter fascination. Their reactions reveal character. There's the older brother who wants to literally cram for school by putting entire books into his head. There's the sister who wants to remove her fear so she can stop reliving the nightmarish violence that happened to her family.
Meanwhile, there's more history tied up with the well. The threat is lingering, biding its time, waiting for the chance to strike. But the two plots: the stuff in the house and the stuff outside still feel pretty disjointed. Hopefully things come together in later volumes.
Not the Killing Type: 01/17/18
Not the Killing Type by Lorna Barrett is the seventh in the Booktown mysteries. It's November and time for the Chamber of Commerce elections. Tricia's onboard to help her sister run in opposition to Bob. Neither party, though, is expecting a third runner. Before they can even vote, the third candidate is found murdered.
This volume, like Sentenced to Death puts me in a Gilmore Girls state of mind. Bob reminds me of Taylor Doose. So when the central goal is to defeat Bob (and solve a murder mystery) it's hard not to start recasting all the characters with the actors from Gilmore Girls.
Mostly this volume is a whole string of red herrings. Obvious murderer is obvious. It's obvious from the very get go and really this is more about Tricia trying to avoid her label as the town jinx. And frankly, it doesn't matter. By book seven I'm fully invested in the town and its residents.
The transformative power of the cornfield: magic in the Marvelous Land of Oz: 01/17/17
This essay covers the first two chapter of the Marvelous Land of Oz.
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1904) opens as The Wizard of Oz does, on a farm in the countryside. As Oz doesn't have a middle of nowhere because it's capitol is in the center of kingdom, the farm is located in the north, in the land of the Gillikins. It is there in a cornfield, hiding from his guardian Mombi, that we meet Tipperarius (Tip). That Tip and Mombi's introduction is done on a farm and from the perspective of a cornfield (a place to hide, (p. 2)), the cornfield as an important motif to Oz is re-established. The title itself is another indication of the importance of land — and of farm land — the first thing to appear in the book — to the magic of Oz.
In Crossing the Cornfield I suggested that Oz is encircled not only by the deadly dessert and the sea, but also the cornfield. After sitting through a lengthy discussion between my husband (a math PhD) and our son (currently the D.M for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for his friends and sister) on the geography of the tesseract, I'm going to expand my notion of where Oz lies relative to Earth and suggest that it and the other lands, are contained within the tesseract that also contains the Earth (or more broadly, our universe). It would explain the reversal of east and west between the worlds and the oddball ways it's possible to travel between Earth and Oz and Oz and other lands, while still keeping them separate. The thing though that separates or hides or otherwise obscures the borders between cubes (worlds) within the New World tesseract is the cornfield.
Mombi, though she has magic, cannot by Oz law call herself a witch or practice witchcraft. Unlike the Puritanical belief that witchcraft is inherently evil, Ozian magic is hierarchal with Witch being the highest magical rank available, and with there only being for spots available: one for each of the Lands (though Dorothy of course, took out the witches of East and West with a house and a bucket of water, leaving presumably only the North and South under the rule of a Witch. Here then Witch is a title like Duke but with magical benefits. Mombi, then can only at most be a Wizardess or Sorceress (p. 2) Nonetheless, it is established Mombi is a practitioner of magic (whether lawful or not) and she maintains a farm with a cornfield large enough to hid the antics of a boy as well as a pumpkin patch.
Readers familiar with the Oz series know who Tip. Reading it with modern, twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy and tempting to peg Tip as the first transformation of this book and of this cornfield. Let us instead put ourselves in the mind set of a 1904 reader. The cornfield and pumpkins and magical old woman (keeping in mind that Witch by Oz standards isn't the correct term for Mombi) would be a familiar set of motifs. Readers would be drawn to expect a pumpkin headed scarecrow to be brought to life based on Nathaniel Hawhtorne's short story "Feathertop" (1852). Mombi and Tip together (magic and a desire to play pranks) share the key pieces of Mother Rigby's character traits. A literal reading of "Feathertop" would be that all (or most) of the denisons of the nearby village were at one time, creations of Mother Rigby, as noted by her exclamation, "He'll meet plenty of his brethren at every street corner!" (Hawthorne, Feathertop).
Feathertop, the precursor to Jack, begins as a "a mere thing of sticks, straw, and old clothes, with nothing better than a shrivelled pumpkin for a head." (Hawthorne, Feathertop). Tip's creation is made from "stout, straight saplings, which he cut down and trimmed of all their twigs and leaves." (p. 10). The body is made from "thick bark from around a big tree, ... fashioned ... into a cylinder of about the right size (p. 11). Everything is then jointed and pinned together with "pegs whittled into shape with his knife." (p. 11). After fashioning a neck to hold the pumpkin head, Tip selects the clothing: "purple trousers, red shirt, and a pink vest dotted with white spots." (p. 12). To that he adds a pair of Mombi's knit stockings and his old shoes. Compare that to Feathertop: a plum-colored coat, a faded golden velvet waistcoat, and a pair of scarlet breeches ((Hawthorne, Feathertop). The clothing is similar as are the colors, though not identical. The two are similar enough for Jack to harken to mind, Feathertop.
Thus a retelling of a familiar story only fifty two years old at the time (the same age difference as 2017 and Fox in Socks and Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,, sets up the expectation of a transformation from pumpkin headed scarecrow to living man. Oz, being Oz, Jack isn't glamoured up to appear more than he is and when Tip laughs at his creation brought to life by Mombi, Jack admonishes, "'I hope you are not reflecting on my personal appearance." (p. 21).
Jack's discomfort at his appearance, or perhaps, his demands to be accepted as is, is the first clue to the final transformation of the book. It's also telling of how internalized self expectations can be expressed as disregard or disrespect for someone going through same thing. The final transformation in these introductory chapters, is in fact that of Tip. Rather, it's a threatened transformation. Rather than deciding to "beat him black-and-blue" (p. 17), Mombi cooks up a potion of "equal parts of milk and vinegar", "several packets of herbs and powders" in a kettle. (p 24-5). The concoction when drunk will turn Tip into a marble statue for her flower garden (p. 25-6).
This threat of transformation is what prompts the rest of Tip's story. He will flee Mombi and the cornfield. That he is an orphan, or a boy who "remembered nothing of his parents," (p. 7), Tip at this point has orphan magic at hand — just as Dorothy did, which allowed her to travel safely to Oz, survive on her quests, and find her way home.
Welcome to the Real World: 01/16/18
Welcome to the Real World by Angela Melick is the second of the Wasted Talent compilations. This one covers her first jobs and her engagement to Trevor. Theses vignettes from her life are interspersed with some situational humor.
The book settles down into two main threads: Angela's attempts to learn how to mountain bike and how she settles into her job. Her job meanwhile has two distinct parts: newbie in the big city, and newbie in the countryside (Mission). Her job, especially in Mission, reminds me of my friend Alice's work. Both are engineers and both work with keeping pipes working. Alice, though, works with sewers. Both though involve messy work in remote (but sometimes beautiful) locations.
The book includes an appendix of rejected comics, a tutorial on how to draw comics with pens, and a list of notes about different scenes in the book. The third compilation is Cubical Warrior. At the moment I can't find a copy.
Juana and Lucas: 01/15/18
Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina is an early reader inspired by the author's childhood in Bogotá. She begins by outlining the things she likes and doesn't like and what her life at home and school is like. Then she settles into how she had to learn English in school and how difficult and frustrating it was and how stupid a class it seemed at the time.
Her outlook on English changes as all the important people in her life see it as an essential life skill and something she is lucky to be learning. That doesn't make the process any easier. It is a weird language.
The book design is a blend of a traditional early reader and a graphic novel. The way the text and the illustrations blend together reminds me a school life manga or anime. Medina is an illustrator and an art instructor, so this book plays to her strengths. It's a wonderful example of write and draw what you know.
I wish there were more books featuring Juana and Lucas.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 15): 01/15/18
Every year the local art gallery hosts a build a better birdhouse competition for high school students who are in an art or shop class. This year my son had a birdhouse in the show. I bid on it and two others and won all three! My son's birdhouse and another one will be going into the garden for the local birds. The third one, a gorgeous ceramic acorn called "Sea Mist" will be on display in our house. My daughter actually opted to spend her allowance money on it; so it's now hers.
Also every year, the national PTAs host an art contest for students (grades 2 through 12), called Reflections. The theme changes every year. This year's theme was "Within Reach." My daughter won at her level at her elementary school and was invited to the regional awards ceremony. Unfortunately she didn't earn a spot at the state level but she's determined to try again next year.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Teddy Mars: Almost a World Record Breaker: 01/14/18
Teddy Mars: Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly B. Burnham is about a boy obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records. He wants more than anything to set his own record and get himself into the book.
Meanwhile he's plagued by being part of a large, noisy family, with a younger brother who doesn't respect his space and seems hell bent on making his life miserable. Deciding to get away from it all by sleeping in a tent in the backyard.
Next door to the Mars family is an old man who has an aviary. Impressed by Teddy's declaration of independence, the man decides to hire the boy to help with his birds.
I personally (and this is me speaking as a parent) wanted to see more involvement from the parents but I realize that not every family is the same. I also, though, have to respect Teddy's restraint with his out of control brother.
From all of this mayhem comes the story of a boy learning to accept his family, take care of himself, and make amends with his brother. It's a bit of a diamond in the rough.
The Terrible Two Go Wild: 01/13/18
The Terrible Two Go Wild by Mac Barnett, Jory John, and Kevin Cornell is the third of the Terrible Two series. It's summertime and Niles and Miles are spending their days in the Yawnee Valley Regional Park and Outdoor District. Particularly, they are spending their time watching and pranking Josh Barkin and his squad from the Yawnee Valley Yelling and Push-Ups Camp.
Josh has come back to camp willingly (the only kid to ever do so). And thus because of his experience, enthusiasm, and love of yelling, has been made a junior counselor of sorts. Under him are a set of twins whom he's nicknamed Splinters and Mudflap. When their company flag is stolen by the Terrible Two, Future Principal Barkin vows revenge.
The book unfolds over the course of the summer — during which time Josh remains at camp, though numerous sessions, I'm assuming. The Terrible Two spend much (but not all) pranking Josh and his father and preparing for the revenge they expect.
A couple interesting points though of character growth. First, Josh, actually does have some leadership skills (though he still lacks compassion and some basic common sense). Niles loves to read and has put a mini-library inside their hideout. Principal Barkin likes hiking (but isn't very good at it); he also has come to realize that he likes being pranked.
My favorite prank in the book was one my grandmother used to play (though more as an art piece, than a large scale prank). It's the "turn me over" prank that's painted on the top of a rock. Turn it over and it will have some variation on "Gotcha! Now turn me back over to prank the next person."
I don't know if more is being planned, but I will definitely read a fourth book if one is published.
Otis and the Scarecrow: 01/12/18
Otis and the Scarecrow by Loren Long is the sixth book in the Otis picture book series. I read it as part of my on-going exploration of the crossing the cornfield category of road narratives.
If cornfields are magical barriers between worlds, or supernatural prisons, there needs to be a warden. The scarecrow, a mundane creation of straw and old clothes and a painted on face, is there to keep away the birds who want to eat the corn. But when the supernatural is brought into play, the scarecrow is often brought to life as a warden or bogeyman.
In Otis and the Scarecrow, there is a disconnect of expected tropes and actual outcomes. It's not a deconstruction of the tropes — just an oversight due to the way the series is set up. Otis, for his many years of service the farm tractor has gained sentiency and freewill — something the farmer realizes at the end of Otis. The story here, then, is Otis — a living tractor — being jealous of the newcomer — a scarecrow put up near the cornfield by the farmer.
Otis, who is friends with the farm animals, takes in instant dislike to the scarecrow because it doesn't frolic. It's rather neutrally painted face is rendered in a chiaroscuro fashion making it appear rather threatening. Except throughout the book — even in a driving rain storm — the scarecrow is shown to be an inanimate object.
The book ends with a close up of the scarecrow's face after Otis has decided that the scarecrow isn't like his other friends, but also isn't a threat. It's subtly implied that maybe in the distant future there might be a spark of life in it — but only after years of service.
Regardless, the scarecrow / cornfield part of this book is set apart from the crossing the cornfield road narrative. The farm is already isolated, with a set cast, and with the central character being a tractor. With the scarecrow being the outsider set to work at guarding the cornfield, there's no real threat to the other characters. If anything, the scarecrow is at the mercy of the other characters should one of them decide that it's not welcome.
This scarecrow might fall into the category of "reluctant scarecrow" which would include the Scarecrow from the Oz series and Feathertop, a creation of Nathaniel Hawthorne. At this juncture, though, I'm not sure how relevant the "reluctant scarecrow" tangent is to my road narrative project.
Habibi by Craig Thompson is a graphic novel set in an Islamic dystopian future. Dodola and Zam, two refugee slaves make a life for themselves in a boat washed up on what's now a desert at the edge of a vast city.
Dodola is sold into marriage, escapes, and later is captured and taken into a harem. Much of her story seems to be an excuse to draw her naked.
Zam, a young African boy has a good childhood with Dodola until he hits puberty. Then we have lots of awkward scenes of him watching Dodola dress and bath.
Mixed into this voyeuristic romp through rape fantasies and Orientalism are lessons from the Quran. Politely put, it's an awkward juxtaposition.
Put another way: imagine the outrage if the same story was told except Dodola was former indentured servant living near Monument Valley with a former slave boy, only to be kidnapped and forced to be a sister wife to some Mormon elder with chapters being introduced with calligraphic excerpts from the Book of Mormon.
Sabotage at Willow Woods: 01/10/18
Sabotage at Willow Woods by Carolyn Keene is the fourth of the Nancy Drew Diaries. Nancy and her friends get caught up in campaign sabotage in a neighboring town. George's cousin is running for city council but it seems that someone is out to ruin the campaign.
One of the big complaints reviews have for this volume is that the cover art has nothing to do with the plot. The titular Willow Woods is the location of a proposed expansion for the high school football field. There is a brief scene near the climax where Nancy is running through a wooded area, though it's not necessarily the Willow Woods.
While I'm for covers that are narrationally relevant, I don't think this cover fails its book. This liminal cover bridges the gap between the older Nancy Drew books that often showed Nancy creeping through a wooded area, and this new series that puts Nancy and friends in the midsts of modern day mysteries.
Here the sabotage isn't of the woods — it's of the campaign that hinges on building on the site of the woods. The woods in question are old growth and opponents to the plan argue that it would an environmental disaster to clear the area.
Given the recent presidential campaign, and the gutting of numerous environmental laws and agreements under forty-five, Sabotage at Willow Woods is eerily timely. The motivations of the saboteur are good even if the methods border on the terrifying at times.
One thing I like about this modern series is that the plots are less cut and dry. There's a lot of moral ambiguity that Nancy and friends have to face. Nancy doesn't have a clear cut path to thwart the villain.
Black Hammer Volume 2: The Event: 01/09/18
Black Hammer Volume 2: The Event by Jeff Lemire picks up where Secret Origins ends. The woman — a reporter by trade — has tracked down the location of her missing father and his companions, only to find herself trapped too. With her arrival we're given the origin story of Black Hammer as well as the gruesome details of his death.
If anyone will find the way out of this utopia it will be she. Being a reporter — one who already has had the chops to find the missing superheroes — she knows what questions to ask. She is observant. She can see that the town and its people are off. And they can see that she's aware of the artifice.
More importantly, though, she is an orphan (albeit metaphorically, as her mother is still living) with her father's disappearance. Now on the other side of the portal, in a rural town outside of known space and time, with the reality of her father's death, she is imbued with orphan magic. For The Event that permeation of magic is manifest in her being able to wield her father's hammer.
Other interesting side plots show more insights into the stories of the other heroes. There is a side story about the meeting of Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky (TLK-E WLK-E) which gives insight into the nature of Rockwood.
Finally, there is further reasons given for Gail's bitterness. She was retired and in a relationship. That relationship is the hook for Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil Volume 1 which comes out in May.
Patina by Jason Reynolds is the second of the Track series. Patina is the daughter of the woman who lost her legs to diabetes. This is her story — about why she runs and how she juggles her life with her foster parents and her mother.
Patina is a survivor. Her story as a runner pivots on the night her father's death. Although his death is health related, how Patina reacts and copes with his death is similar to Starr after Khalil's. Also like Starr, Patina lives in two worlds and that wears thin on her patience.
I love this series and getting to know how each kid on the team. Reynolds gets kids. His writing continues to be relatable. The next book in the series is Sunny, out in April.
December 2017 Sources: 01/08/17
Like November, December came in two distinct parts. The first was the remainder of the Cybils so we could have time to vote on the short list. The second half was free reading and the holidays. Unfortunately we all got sick to one degree or another and I didn't get as much reading done as I had hoped in those last days.
The Cybils reading for the first three weeks of December skewed the overall score upwards, though not as high as November's. The last ten days allowed for time to read books from my personal collection (the ultimate goal of this metric). As there were two new purchases in that selection, the reading score wasn't as good as it otherwise would have been.
Looking at 2015, 2016, and 2017, as year long trends, my reading has continued to improve in terms of working through older books on my shelves. Looking just at the last December, though, the month's score was higher than all previous Decembers for the last three years. Typically December's reading falls under the trend line, with this December rising above it.
Looking at all Decembers since 2010, this December was right about in the middle of usual reading patterns. It is a mixture of library and older books
In fact, December 2017's reading was so typical of December reading, that it didn't affect the month average at all. The month average is -2.44 and the month's score was also -2.44.
January is Cybils free for me but I am trying a new thing with my blog. I want to concentrate on reading and reviewing more current publications. As I plan to be purchasing and reading on average four new books each month, my ROOB score will certainly drift upwards. While this might seem like a bad thing, it's actually a reflection of the previous years' work at whittling down the backlist of the to be read shelf. Having so many books now read and reviewed, I have the luxury of being able to schedule in more new books.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 08): 01/08/18
Here it is the second week of 2018. The family is gone home. The Christmas decorations are down. Our live tree is now planted on the hill. Vacation ends today and the kids are therefore back in school.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
If You Find This: 01/07/18
If You Find This by Matthew Baker is a middle grade novel about musical prodigy trying to find his grandfather's lost treasure, if there is one. The problem is that his grandfather suffers from dementia and is only lucid for a few minutes at a time.
The basic story is a treasure hunt caper on a small scale. It's set among a dwindling family history and a crumbling house along an abandoned road. There are clues mixed up in the grandfather's ramblings and tattooed on his body.
But the presentation suffers from two things: a narration that talks down to reader and a narrator who uses quirky notation to show off how he's a prodigy.
Nicholas thinks of everything in terms of musical notation. OK. No problem, right? Yes problem. The book includes notations above the words for whenever there's a sound to show how loud or soft it was. It gets tiresome by the end of the first chapter. An entire book of this is intolerable.
You know how some authors get stuck on catch phrases for character traits, like the character who says everything wryly or the one who is always saying things sotto voce? Right. It's like that except above every sentence. Even music real sheet music isn't as notated as this book is.
December 2017 Summary: 01/06/17
December, except for the Cybils was quiet. We had Christmas at home and invited our family for New Year's Eve. We also all caught the flu and spent a lot of time in bed either sleeping or reading or just feeling miserable.
December continued the trend of diverse book being the majority of the month's reading. That said, this majority was smaller than previous months. Most of the reading in December was determined by last minute books read for the Cybils.
Reviews for the month fell short of my goal to include a majority of diverse books. Part of that stems from trying to work through as much of the backlog of reviews.
January continues on the path of scheduling I started over the summer, though with a couple changes. First is that Sundays are devoted to backlist books. First, that means the remaining reviews.
I have twenty-three from 2015 that I would like get posted soon. Next priority is the sixty-five from 2016, and finally the eighty-three from last year. Baring no other reading, that would mean nearly six months of just posting old reviews. Of course that's not going to happen. With my plan to devote Saturdays to new publications, I would need seven months for the remaining reviews. Keeping in mind my Canadian book reviews, on Tuesdays, I'm more realistically looking at eight months to clear out the entire backlog.
Now That You Mention It: 01/06/18
Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins is about a doctor returning to her island home in Maine to recuperate after she's been hit by a van. Nora needs time to regroup after she overhears her boyfriend flirting with a nurse while she's in the emergency room. She suddenly feels the need to see her family and her home town even though she hasn't been home for seventeen years.
Emotionally Dr. Nora Stuart reminds me of Hattie Troutman, the protagonist and narrator of The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews. Like Hattie, Nora has a sister who is in trouble (in jail in Seattle) and a niece who needs her. Poe, though, isn't on her own like Thebes and Logan; she has her taciturn, self-reliant grandmother. Wrapped up in Nora's ambivalence is the story of why she left in the first place and why she hasn't been back. It involves a missing father, a college scholarship, horrific bullying, and a deteriorating relationship between sisters.
The novel is set in Boston and fictional Scupper Island. The island contains a small, self contained village that's big enough to have it's own high school but small enough to be reliant on the summer tourist trade. It sits among the other Calendar islands in Casco Bay. For convenient plot reasons, the island offers ferry service both to Portland, ME, and Boston, MA.
The island, though, could be any small, rural community within reach of a large, metropolitan area. This is the type of place at the heart of the road not taken road narrative, even though it's located on an island. Here, the water is the source of the isolation, with extra effort being needed to come to or leave the island.
Higgins populates her book (and the island) with some wonderful characters. There's Nora's mother who is the sentimental owner of a bird (Tweetie) who she treats better than her children, but could easily butcher a deer. There's Poe, Nora's blue haired, sullen teenaged niece who has a thing for sewing. There's Sullivan, who runs the docks where Nora is living; he's, the mostly deaf, potential love interest (if Nora can figure out her Boston boyfriend). There's Audrey, Sullivan's daughter who desperately wants to be Poe's friend.
All in all, it was a fun two-day read. It was one of those rare books that actually left me with a bit of a hangover, feeling like I wanted more book.
Sunflower House: 01/05/18
Sunflower House by Eve Bunting tells about life cycle of a sunflower, but told through how a group of children use the flowers for some summer fun.
The title tells the basics. The children plant the seeds in a circle instead of in a line. As the flowers grow up, they end up making a natural fort that's only big enough for them to enter. The parents, though, can only enjoy it from the outside.
The sunflowers, though flop over as they become heavy with seeds. I know from my own experience, they probably weren't watered enough. Those giant sunflowers are thirsty plants. They do, however, manage to get some seeds from their crop — enough to replant the house the next year.
Ghostbusters 101: Everyone Answers the Call: 01/04/18
Ghostbusters 101: Everyone Answers the Call by Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening is the album of the Ghostbusters 101 comic arc. I read most of the arc as digital issues over the course of the year but saved the last issue to read in print. There were a couple reasons for that: I've collected most of the albums and by fall I was in serious need for glasses making reading in digital format extremely difficult.
Back when the all woman reboot of Ghostbusters was announced and the dude bros pissed and moaned about their childhoods were being ruined, I wrote a post defending the decision, using Erik Burnham's comics as evidence for an alternate reality of Ghostbusters. This arc unites the original ghostbusters with their female counterparts. It is epic and it is awesome.
Burnham brings the strengths and weaknesses of both groups into play. The original set have the advantage of years more experience as well as their franchises. They have strength in numbers. And they have Jenine who remains the brains of the operation.
But they are also a bit old school and a bit too trusting of their technology. Containment breaches be damned. It is their trust in unsupervised technology that opens up the portal between their universe and the Ghostbusters 16 universe.
The women are still relatively new in the business of busting ghosts but they are more up-to-date with technology. Their traps are wireless. They also are more cautious with technology, meaning that if they had a portal, it wouldn't have accidentally been open. That's probably a built in defense from keeping Kevin in staff.
But mostly, let's just stop to appreciate the wonder that is Jillian Holtzmann. She's an awesome character in the film. She's even more so in the comic. I swear reading these issues took three times as long because I was taking screenshots of nearly every panel she was in. One favorite from early in the arc:
Five Stars in 2017: 01/04/18
During Monday's "What Are You Reading" link-up, I read a post by another participant that included the covers of all the five star books reviewed in 2017. I got curious to see how mine stacked up. Four days later I can tell you! When you read a lot, it takes a lot of time to compile these sorts of posts.
Last year I reviewed 365 books. From that total list, one hundred and four (just under a third) of the books I reviewed were published last year. The remainder were backlist titles, published in 2016 or earlier.
From the 2017 books, sixty-one of them (or nearly 40%) of the books I reviewed received five stars. It's a combination of 2017 being a really good year for books and me being pickier with titles I decided to read.
For the backlist books, ninety books (or roughly one quarter) of the books earned five stars. The backlists books are a mixture of research and titles that have been sitting on my wishlist for long enough can't always remember why I wanted to read them.
Books Published 2017 that received five star rating
Backlist titles that received five star rating
A Pug's Tale: 01/03/18
Back in 2008 I reviewed the first of Alison Pace's pug novels, Pug Hill. I didn't give it the best of reviews, complaining there wasn't much there for a 312 page novel. Put in perspective, I was swamped with reading tons of review copies, trying to keep a rigid schedule of posting, and being the parent of two young, rambunctious children.
But there was a positive feeling lingering too. And over time only the positive feelings remained. So I've gone back to Hope and Max to read of their next adventure in A Pug's Tale.
Hope works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cleaning and restoring paintings. A wealthy, eccentric woman is donating a pile of dough to the museum and in return, the board is letting her host a pug party. Since Hope brings her pug, Max, to work on a regular basis, she doesn't see the harm in crashing the party with him.
During the mayhem a painting is removed and delivered to the Hope's department. Of course she quickly sees that the painting is a forgery, albeit, a damn good one. Before calling the police or alerting anyone else, her boss decides that they should figure out what happened to the original by themselves.
The clues themselves aren't traditional mystery clues, not even cosy mystery clues. These are more caper clues in that each clue is designed as part of a greater treasure hunt. The nature of crime and the nature of the clues, makes the who behind the crime pretty obvious but it's still a fun read. Even Hope is well aware of who is probably behind it. But she still feels compelled to follow the clues.
It's a charming and goofy novel. I'm glad I took a chance and revisited the characters.
Adventure on Whalebone Island: 01/02/18
Adventure on Whalebone Island by M.A. Wilson is the first of the Maple Harbour mystery series for middle graders. It's published by Rainy Bay Press out of Gibsons, British Columbia. I don't normally point out publishers, but it's a small house but knowing where it is, helps to picture the setting of this book.
If you've been to western British Columbia, you know that the province ends with a series of islands. In fact the capitol is on an island, Vancouver (not to be confused with the city, which is about thirty minutes drive north of the border on the mainland). We spent Christmas in Victoria for 2014, 2015, and 2016. Getting there and back requires an hour and a half ferry ride.
We've always gone to a large city on the largest island. Maple Harbour is a much smaller village. It's the sort of place where you could draw the entire island on a single sheet of paper and list everyone's name and telephone number. It's a place where you have to be water savvy and boat savvy. Claire, one of the two island children in the this book has a sailboat and is on her way to being a champion sailor.
Claire and her brother, Nathan, and their parents, are playing host to cousins Ryan and Kendra. They're expecting to swim and laze about but Claire quickly gets them involved in a hunt for sunken treasure.
I grew up reading The Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden, two American mystery series for children. Maple Harbour has that same feel — with a bit of the Famous Five. Or more recently the foursome is like Nancy Drew and her buddies from the Nancy Drew Diaries. But their adventure is set in (for me) a familiar area which makes it all the more magical.
Finally, the bonus, and I'm speaking here as an American again, is that publisher is small enough that there is no American edition. If you buy the book (and I hope you do), you get the Canadian edition. That means it's Maple Harbour and not Maple Harbor. It's 100% unadulterated Canadian children's literature and it's delightful.
The second book in the series is The Mystery of the Missing Mask which I have on hand and will be reading later this month.
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry: 01/01/18
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught is set in Oxford, Mississippi. Dani's Grandmother lives at home with them because she is in the later stages of Alzheimer's. Before the illness she was an author and historian and got into a renowned literary feud with another local author. Now Dani has decided to track down the truth behind the feud.
What transpires is a mixture of what it's like to live with a relative who no longer remembers their family or themselves even, and the handwritten history — primarily letters written to Dani by her grandmother.
Through the grandmother's letters the history of Oxford from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era is outlined with remarkably few punches pulled given that this is a middle grade book. The history is messy, honest, and full of the on-going racism and the fight against it.
The book ends with an afterword explaining the genesis of the novel. The grandmother's dementia is a framing story to give space for these letters and the history. Vaught is distressed over how much of the history is glossed over when its taught to children.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 01): 01/01/18
Happy New Year! From the last Monday link up of the year, to the first one! Last week I mentioned that I was done reading for the Cybils. If you're curious what's on the short lists, they will be announced starting around 9AM Pacific Standard Time (or 5PM GMT).
What I read:
What I'm reading: