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Tyler Johnson Was Here: 04/30/18
Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles is a debut novel based on true events in the author's life (per the description). Tyler is the older brother of a set of twins and his story is told by his younger (by three minutes) brother, Marvin.
Marvin, Tyler, and their mother live in a small apartment in an urban area. There is gang activity. There is police brutality. There is racial profiling. There is poverty. Their mother sees college as their way out of all of this. Marvin, though he's the louder, mouthier twin, is on track to attend MIT.
Tyler, the quiet twin, has gotten involved in dealing drugs. Times are tough. Money is tight. But it's not his drug dealing that gets him killed. He's shot three times in the back by a cop.
Tyler Johnson Was Here, though, isn't the same story as The Hate You Give but with a male protagonist. It's a messier, angrier story. It's the harsh, messed up reality that a Marvin's mother has to rely on the police to help her find her son, and later rely on them to investigate his death, when they are responsible for his death.
For Marvin's part of the story, it's about how much more difficult being Black makes everything. Marvin has to work so much harder to prove himself. He's called into the principal's office numerous times because his work isn't good enough or is making a mockery of the school because he's taking inspiration outside of the acceptable Black role models. For instance, A Different World isn't art according to Marvin's teacher and the principal, and can't be considered inspirational.
Not surprisingly, this book has an inverse bell curve of ratings. People either love it or they hate it. Those who hate it almost always point out the language. There is swearing. There are words in there I would never use. But this is Marvin's world. He's growing up in a city with increasing amounts of police brutality and more and more examples of white people using the police to keep Black people out of areas where they want to be. If you want to get mad over something, get mad about racism, about police brutality, about double standards, about White privilege.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (April 30): 04/30/18
It's the last Monday of April. I've read 29 books, so a book a day on average for the month. As the year progresses, I'm focusing more and more on newly published books. I have a bunch of books I've purchased in the last two months that I want to read. I have, so far, read thirty-one newly published books. That accounts for a quarter of all the books I've read so far.
This weekend I think most movie goers were seeing a certain Avengers film. We, however, went to a re-screening of Labyrinth.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly is a tween fantasy from the POV of a young chimera aptly named Kymera. She explains how her father has a long list of rules for her to live by, like avoiding the city of Bryre especially in daylight. She also outlines the history of girls falling ill to a curse brought on by an evil wizard.
But she takes forever to make the next step to connect the dots. Who does she know has the power to wield magic? Combined with the dull, monotone narration and I cycled from wanting to through the book out the window to just yelling at it and Kymera.
Ravenous, the next book in the series came out in 2016.
Mapping Labyrinth (1986): 04/29/18
Labyrinth (1986) is the story of a much older half sister who accidentally wishes her infant half brother be taken by the goblin king when she is once again asked to babysit him so her father and step mother can go out on a date. She must then solve the Goblin King's labyrinth in 13 hours or Toby will be forever turned into a goblin.
Through Fantom Events, I was able to rewatch the film on the big screen, though I have seen it many times between that first and current screening on television (first as a VHS and later as a digital copy). Rewatching it in a theater gave me a chance to think about the question posed by Dan in The Way to Bea (review; analysis). Is Labyrinth misnamed?
For Dan's definition, a labyrinth has one path in and out, with a central goal. A maze on the other hand, has blind alleys and a monster in the middle. I argue that the route to Jareth's is both. It has the single-mindedness of a labyrinth and the path through it gives Sarah time to realize that she loves her half brother more than she loves her stuff or her fantasy stories. There is, however, a monster in the middle, namely Jareth himself who will, if not defeated, transform Toby into a goblin.
Although Sarah and the companions she meets along the way fall into traps and sometimes come across blind alleys, never is she shown truly having to backtrack. In mapping out all the spaces of the film, one comes up with a space that at first glance looks like a maze (which plays into the theme of not taking things for granted as well as the motif of optical illusions).
From the opening credits of the CGI owl, who we later learn is Jareth, to the introduction of Sarah in the park, her run through the town to home, to her transportation to the Goblin Kingdom, can all be mapped as part of the path Sarah takes. Given the film's classic three act transformation sequence of A, B, A-, B-, A', the entire path through the film, if the narrative is seen as one physical space, Sarah's path is one single spiral just like a classic labyrinth.
After the defeat of Jareth, Sarah and Toby are transported home and the clock strikes midnight. Since she didn't have to go back through the labyrinth and since Jareth's transformation is complete, back again to a barn owl, the narrational path is a spiral. Thus the labyrinth is both a labyrinth and a maze.
The Cave of Bones: 04/28/18
Cave of Bones by Anne Hillerman is the 22nd of the Navajo mysteries, and her fourth one. This one has Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito working on separate missing persons cases.
Bernie's case involves a missing camp counselor who has failed to return after bringing back a girl who had wandered away from her campsite during an overnight solo. Chee meanwhile is looking for a man who was last seen doing landscaping jobs but hasn't returned now that it's the winter season.
Jim Leaphorn, meanwhile, is recovered enough now to be able to do the research Bernie and Chee need while working out in the field. While it's nice to see him doing better, if this series continues, Leaphorn will eventually need to die to keep any sense of realism. Or Hillerman will just have to decide that the characters are living in the "now now" like Elizabeth Peters did with her Vicky Bliss series.
The set up of Cave of Bones reads like The Wailing Wind (book 15) in the setting of a Thief of Time (book 8). There are old remains and new remains, missing people, and gossip getting in the way of the investigations.
But the big difference here is that Anne Hillerman has a much better grasp on the characters and setting than her father ever did. Hillerman originally started the series as a gimmick, a way to set his mysteries apart from others.
As his series gained readership and the attention of the Navajo Nation, he at least recognized that his initial portrayals were pretty shitty and he did his best to fix his mistakes. Jim Chee was part of that effort (and a way to have a character that Hillerman had control over when it looked like he had lost Leaphorn to the movie and tv studios).
But Jim's traditional beliefs and his studying to be a haatali come across a lot of times as exotic tourism. Nearly every book has superstition, fears of the supernatural putting the investigations on hold. Anne Hillerman, working with the same characters, same setting, same traditions, doesn't fall into this trap. Joe, Jim, Bernie and everyone else act like people. Their reactions to things, while couched in tradition, are also rounded by common sense.
So this book doesn't waste time on blaming chindi and skinwalkers. Instead it builds suspense on the foibles of personal shortcomings and with the harsh changeability of the landscape.
A Buss from Lafayette: 04/27/18
A Buss from Lafayette by Dorothea Jensen is historical fiction set in New Hampshire in the early years of the United States. It's set against the weeks leading up to the tour General Lafayette took throughout the colonies, celebrating his part in independence.
Clara Hargraves is struggling to come to terms with her family situation: her aunt is now her step-mother and she's expecting a child. Her aunt / step-mother wants Clara to act more like a lady: no more swimming in the pond, no more wearing riding breeches, and no more riding astride a horse.
Although Lafayette's impending arrival is the big story, mostly the book is about the way families change and how Clara and her stepmother come to terms with their relationship. Clara learns things about her stepmother that she didn't know. The stepmother lets her guard down enough to show that she too is grieving for her sister's death. Clara realizes she can love her stepmother and still love her mother.
All in all it's a quiet book about families and about self confidence set in historic times. The choice of setting and the events around Lafayette's visit are inspired by actual events. This book is in part, a fictionalization of that buss (or kiss) that Lafayette gave and is now being passed down through the generations.
Paper Girls, Volume 4: 04/26/18
Paper Girls, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan is set in the we hours of new year's day, 2000. The girls have arrived in the middle of a giant robot battle between the time traveling teenagers and the adults – lead by a man nicknamed Grandfather and a woman known as Prioress.
In landing back in 2000 (or forward from the main characters' POV), the girls have been separated. Tiff is on her own. She also seems to be the only one who is able to see the cloaked robots.
As we have three volumes now (or fifteen issues), it's time to flesh out the world a bit. Interspersed with the robot fights, is a scene that give us more of a glimpse of the girls' immediate futures, and another that paints a larger picture of time travel and the war that it spawned.
One thing that isn't covered, and maybe not thought about, is how much time is passing for the girls. I'm not really sure how long they've spent in each time.
Title Wave: 04/25/18
Title Wave by Lorna Barrett is the tenth of the Booktown mysteries. It follows in a long tradition of mysteries aboard ship. The tradition goes all the way back to Agatha Christie (Death on the Nile, 1937) but the mystery on cruise ship really hit its stride in the 1960s-1980s when every weekly mystery show had an episode on a cruise ship.
Though set in the present day, Title Wave brings to mind those old TV episodes with fondness. The Booktown shop owners have booked passage on a writer's cruise. Tricia, expecting a break from everything (the rebuilding of her shop, being the town jinx, the death of her ex-husband). But a murder mystery book wouldn't be a mystery without a murder.
The set up to this one really felt like a Murder She Wrote in that there were a group of bickering, likeminded folks in a closed, remote (in this case cruise ship), and one really obnoxious person hated by everyone else. That hated person ends up dead. At first glance it appears to be death by suicide but clearly that can't be the case because of inconsistencies with the person's cabin at the time of death. By the way, did you know that there were three episodes where Jessica Fletcher goes on a cruise only to have someone end up dead?
I do have to admit that the cruise ship setting is gimmicky. It will either work for you or it won't. It pretty much stands alone in terms of over all plot arcs. So if you like the series but don't like the sound of this one, you can skip it.
Personally, I hope you don't. It's fun. It's cheesy fun. It takes familiar — albeit somewhat outdated tropes — dumps our characters into the middle of them and lets things play out.
This Fallen Prey: 04/24/18
This Fallen Prey by Kelley Armstrong is the third of the Rockton books. As Casey is helping bury the winter dead in a mass unmarked grave an unscheduled plane approaches the airstrip. Expecting that it's a lost pilot they go to scare them off. Instead, they're handed a prisoner whom they are told is a sociopathic serial killer.
The prisoner they learn is a guy named Brady and they are given conflicting stories as to what exactly he did. He either killed a bunch of people in Georgia or he shot a bunch of people in California. For reasons unknown to anyone is why he's been schlepped all the way up to a hidden village in the Yukon. Trust me, there are plenty out of the way places within the United States and its territories to dump a prisoner of have a hidden, off the grid town.
Like clockwork things start going to shit. That's the biggest drawback for me with this series. By this third volume the timing and types of events can be predicted. I even managed to predict who would be behind them.
Sometimes this predictability makes a book or a series fun. It doesn't for this series — at least not for me. Casey and the others in this town are all dumber than sticks. Even though they all seem to be criminals in hiding, they all seem to be repeatedly surprised by this fact. Even after repeated incidents of betrayal, coming roughly every four to six months, they're still always SHOCKED that it could happen in their nice little hideaway.
I don't know if there are more books planned in this series or not. Regardless, I'm done with Rockton.
Puerto Rico Strong: 04/23/18
Puerto Rico Strong edited by Hazel Newlevant is a collection of comics made in response to the devastation of hurricane Maria (September 20, 2017) and the United States' complete and utter failure to do anything in the way of support for Puerto Rico.
Seven months later and the island is still without repairs, still sometimes experiencing island-wide blackouts. It's a shameful state of affairs. As this compilation shows, it's only one in a long history of abuses the island and her people have experienced at the hands of her invaders.
The stories are a mixture of history, from the days of the Taíno, through the landing of the Spanish, the importation of slaves from western Africa, through the United States wining it as a territory at the end of the Spanish American War. There are also accounts of the hurricane, the immediate aftermath, numerous tales of American based families coming back to Puerto Rico to search for loved ones (and understandably expecting the worse).
One of my favorites is a near future science fiction that gives the history of the island from its days being known as Borinquén up through the hurricane and the eventual rebuilding of the island. Then it goes further and imagines a future where Puerto Rico takes the lead for alternate energy production and advanced space travel.
All proceeds for this book go directly to UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support Puerto Rico. The book can be purchased online or special ordered at any traditional book store.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (April 23): 04/23/18
Last week I ended up sending back a bunch of library books unread. One exception was the L. Frank Baum biography. That one I sent back but then bought an ebook version which I finished on Sunday. Without so many library books to worry about, I was able to concentrate on books I've been setting aside. I finished a bunch of them.
I also realized that I had a book I thought I could start, I hadn't actually purchased it yet. I've now ordered the book, Dear Mrs. Bird and I'm just waiting for it to come in. From last week's returns, I've re-requested Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami by Sharon Kahn but will have to wait for it to show up at the library again.
The sink in one of our bathrooms has developed a leak, so now we're all sharing one bathroom for brushing teeth and washing hands. It's not a big deal but it will be at least another week until it's fixed. Our usual plumber is booked up through the end of the month.
On Saturday my daughter completed the second part of Program Aid in Training. The last part will be working as a PAinT at the local Girl Scout day camp at the start of summer. She'll be going by the name "Tabby."
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth: 04/22/18
Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth by Jeff Anderson is about two boys forced to work together to run the annual dance fundraiser. The problem is one has been bullying the other all through school. If they can't sell all the chocolate there won't be a dance and the sixth graders will be disappointed.
There are so many of these last minute fundraiser stories where kids not interested in fundraising or not liking their cohorts are thrown together with no other support. No friends helping. No teachers. No parents.
In some places in the country six grade is part of middle school or jr. high. For me, though, and my children, sixth grade was the end of elementary school. Fundraising in elementary school is almost entirely parent driven.
My daughter is now in middle school. Fundraising is about 50/50 between parents and children. Fundraising is done for dances, though usually the things needed for the dances are asked for directly from the students and parents rather than raising money to purchase the things. More importantly, though, the fundraising is done by a group of student volunteers who sign up for a seventh period (after school) leadership class. Their motivation for successful fundraising isn't through threats made to them, it's for grades and school credit.
Then there's the lingering dance as plot device. It too doesn't exactly ring true. Dances are certainly part of the middle school scene but they aren't the all school student body phenomena that they're always portrayed as in fiction. If a dance were cancelled for a lack of fundraising probably half of student body wouldn't notice or care.
More realistically, a partially funded dance could still be pulled off. They aren't that expensive to run since they are usually run on campus in the gym or cafeteria. It wouldn't be that hard to request participants to bring their own decorations.
Long story short, Zack Delacruz's anxiety over this fundraising seems forced for a situation comedy type story. None of it rings true and there's also an unfortunately written overweight character who ends up eating all the chocolate she's promised to sell. Really, what was the point in that except for fat shaming?
Space Opera: 04/21/18
Follow Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter and you'll learn just how passionate she is about Eurovision. Last year during one such love fest / bitch fest Space Opera was born. It started as a joke and like so many fantastic off the cuff ideas, it quickly took on a life of its own. By November, the joke had become a book deal to be published by the same house that published The Refrigerator Monologues.
Space Opera is set in the near future and alternates between stories about life the universe and everything and the tale of a 2000s glam band wrangled to save Earth from total destruction.
Earth has gotten the attention of the sentient species of the galaxy and they've created a Eurovision-esque way for species to prove their sentience. Those that come in last, have their planets wiped clean of life so it can start over and maybe get things right the next time.
Before you read this book, listen to at least one episode of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play.
Now you know the tone in which to hear Space Opera in your head. Valente has captured Adam's banter but she's also brought in her mastery at word play and world building (or in this case, universe building).
To truly enjoy Space Opera, you need to have a soft spot for glam rock from about 1970s to the early 2000s. Space Opera is peppered with lyrics and titles and other references. You'll probably find yourself singing along to some long forgotten song or watching it on Youtube.
Catherynne M. Valente has tweeted that she would love to write more books set in this universe if Space Opera sells well enough. I hope it does because I would love to see what she does next.
Player Piano: 04/20/18
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a post war story about out of control automation and the people whose lives are affected by it. I read the book as a narrative analysis dialog with the player piano that features so prominently in season one of Westworld.
Before I read the book, I also hashed out some of my ideas in an off the cuff proto-essay on my Tumblr: The OST of the Uncanny Valley. The opening sequence of Westworld shows skeletal Host fingers playing the opening theme. The fingers happened to be rotoscoped 3D animations of the show's composer which brings its own special level of uncanny valley into the experience.
The use of the player piano / Host / rotoscoped composer to play music in Westworld I still need to address in a fully realized essay. Suffice it to say it was the inspiration for me looking for books featuring player pianos. One of the titles that cropped up was Vonnegut's.
The title is a metaphor for the post war automation this particular town is experiencing. On one side of the river are the factories. On the other side of the river are the engineers. The factories, once employing people to build things now uses robots to do the same. Of course that has happened but these robots are more like player pianos in that they run on the recorded movements of the most efficient human employees.
Beyond the uncanny valley of half a town being given over to automation, there is a weird, racist pseudo-Arab sounding delegation that has come to learn about the automation process. Their presence happens to coincide with a laid-off worker rebellion.
Then on a more personal level, there is the failing marriage of one of the few remaining human workers in this town who ends up having an affair whilst out on an all night drinking binge.
The book isn't my favorite Vonnegut. Nor is it in the realm of my favorite. But it did serve as a way to think through the player piano motif of Westworld.
The monster in the middle: 04/20/18
Dan in The Way to Bea insists he prefers labyrinths (meaning the spiral mediation paths) to mazes (rectilinear paths with blind alleys) because they "don't have a monster in the middle." In revisiting my notes and saved quotes from Kat Yeh's middle grade novel, I've been thinking a lot about the monster in the middle.
For The Way to Bea there is no literal monster in the middle but there is a metaphorical one, namely the social anxiety both Dan and Bea feel. They are their own monsters. Without routine and a clearly marked path, their fears and sense of disorientation is their worst enemy.
Since then, I've been rethinking my crossing the cornfield and labyrinth road narratives now in terms of who or what the monster in the middle is. I've come to realize the monster can be literal (M, for instance, who is literally the Minotaur) or metaphorical (such as Dan and Bea's monsters). It can be a protagonist or an antagonist. Not all monsters are the bad guys.
I've plotted some of the crossing the cornfield / labyrinth road narratives now against two axes: one that goes from literal to metaphorical and the other that goes from antagonist to protagonist. The intercept of the two at zero would be the big gray area where it's hard to tell who the monster is. The closest one to that intersection is the main character from All Our Wrong Todays.
Having multiple ways of looking at road narratives that at first glance appear incredibly different helps to map their shared landscape. This alignment graph accounts for the "reluctant scarecrow" and the minotaur, the warden, the orphan, and any other sorts of characters one might find in a road narrative.
Giant Days, Volume 7: 04/19/18
Giant Days, Volume 7 by John Allison takes us outside of the university setting to see what Daisy, Esther and Susan and everyone else are like in "the real world." There's a Christmas family reunion, an MMPORG wedding, a very relatable case of insomnia, and a protest against gentrification.
Over Christmas hols we get a decoupage comparison of family life for Susan and her big family vs Daisy and her grandma. At Susan's house her parents have split — Mum taking the house while Dad's in the caravan parked in the front garden. Susan, distraught over seeing her once boisterous family torn asunder tries to enlist the aid of her older sisters. Daisy meanwhile is trying to keep Mum about her love life.
The online wedding, though, reminds me fondly of the recently ended animé Confessions of an MMO Junkie, but acted out with the Giant Days characters.
But the most relatable chapter for me was Daisy's insomnia. With her girl friend over all the time – and sharing a bed — she's finding it hard to sleep. I happened to read volume 7 as I was going through a particularly bad bought of insomnia and it probably was about two-thirty in the morning.
Volume 8 comes out the end of August.
Murder Most Frothy: 04/18/18
Murder Most Frothy by Cleo Coyle is the fourth book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series. It's also a chance of location and the first big test of the set up and character dynamics.
Clare Cosi, her former mother in law, and her daughter are guests at the home of a restauranteur. Clare is working part time as his barista during her stay while David gets his exclusive new restaurant opened in the Hamptons. Now apparently getting anything bought or sold or opened or changed in that exclusive bit of Long Island takes a miracle or a blood sacrifice. Somehow, though, David has pulled it off.
On the night of his big party, though, the host is absent from his own party — suffering from a migraine. There's a commotion and another guest (one who looks just like David) ends up dead. Claire believes the shooter came in off the water and left the same way.
The mystery here is one that isn't dependent on Soho's history or on Claire's extensive knowledge of coffee. It's a chance for her to take what she's learned and apply it to a completely new situation. That means more red herrings and derring-do. It makes for a fun read.
Book five is Decaffeinated Corpse, which I just finished reading.
Every Hidden Thing: 04/17/18
The David Fickling edition of Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel describes the book as "Romeo and Juliet meets Indiana Jones." And while it's a catchy elevator pitch, readers picked up the book based on that description register the most dissatisfaction with the plot. I happened to pick up the HarperCollins Canada audio version which instead highlights the rivalry between the two fathers with the son and daughter caught in the middle.
The HarperCollins cover art as well so perfectly encapsulates the book. It's one of those illustrations that has two distinct purposes: giving enough of a gist of the plot to lure readers into the book, while simultaneous giving a payoff to those who have read the novel.
The novel is a fictional account of the discovery of the first tyrannosaurs rex skeleton. Of course the t-rex remains a popular species, so it's an obvious choice. But, one has to accept Oppel's alternate fiction which can be difficult with such a well known species. For this story, the discovery is done by a prospector out in the "badlands" near Sioux territory.
The first paleontologist team to get the information are the father and son team of the Bolts. Their part of the story is narrated by seventeen year old Samuel Bolt. It's his father who in this version coins the name "tyrannosaurs rex." In reality, it was coined by Henry Fielding Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History in 1905.
Because the father is lackadaisical with this correspondence, the prospector has already moved onto the next person on his list, Bolt's rival, Dr. Cartland and his daughter Rachel. As he has university backing, he is a force to be reckoned with. He can afford to do things on a bigger, flashier fashion than the Bolt's can.
The clues both teams are given is a tooth — a giant, curved, black one. It's too big to be anything previously found. The second clue is a local legend of the "Black Beauty" — an ebony colored monster that a recently deceased Sioux chief claimed to have met and fought while on his spirit quest as a youth.
This "Black Beauty" dinosaur, being both massive and more darkly colored than many fossils, brings to mind perhaps the best known T-rex skeleton: Sue. Sure, Sue, named for Sue Hendrickson, is fun to include in a novel, but readers who know the real story might be gritting their teeth.
To make the rivalry sand out in high contrast, Dr. Cartland is made out to be as racist and classist as possible. He desecrates a burial site found. Along with the human body parts they take, Rachel finds a fossil, thus making her a junior version of her father.
Mixed into the race to find the t-rex is a relationship of convenience between the two teens. Samuel's idea of love boils down to boobies, good smells, and oh yeah — someone who can talk about paleontology with him. Rachel meanwhile, sees him as a means to and end — a way to escape her father's outmoded Victorian ideals. She wants to go to university and become a paleontologist.
So in the last third there are some god awful romance scenes. They are not a romantic couple. Their sex scenes are painful to read (or listen to). I ended up having to fast forward through the sex because it was so laughably bad.
This book could have been better without the "romance" and time and energy put in to inventing a fictional dinosaur, rather than fictionalizing actual discoveries.
For more on t-rex and it's cousins, please see the article on Live Science.
How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child: 04/16/18
How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana and Abigail Pesta is a memoir about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, life in a refugee camp, and life as a refugee in America.
The book opens with Sandra at age ten expecting to be shot. It then goes back to earlier memories of life before the rebels took over. Life wasn't perfect but everyone was comfortable and the neighborhood looked after everyone. These chapters help to put everything else into perspective.
This is one of those books that should be read and is hard to explain without giving a full biography of the author. Things aren't glossed over, nor, though, are the horrific ones lingered over.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (April 16): 04/16/18
We're half way through April now. I have a ton of new books to read — which is exactly the opposite problem I was having back in January. I also have a bunch of library book (still!) coming due from what I was checking out in January.
I'm enjoying what I'm reading but I'm also feeling torn between the new books I want to read and review in the upcoming weeks and the library books which are due NOW but can be reviewed whenever I feel like it. Of course the reality of the situation is that I'm not taking ARCs or egalleys. I haven't promised anyone but myself.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
My Life in Dioramas: 04/15/18
My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando is about learning to cope with unwanted change. Kate Marino loves living in Big Red, her family's converted barn house but the downturn in the economy has knocked too many holes in the family budget and they have to sell the place in order to downsize.
Kate decides to stop her family's move by sabotaging the sale. It's a plot rather like "Run Candace Run" (Phineas and Ferb season 3) where Doofenshmirtz is trying to do everything he can to stop the sale of his building. Unlike him, though, Kate doesn't have a wealthy ex-wife to ask for a last minute loan. Her fate is sealed. What matters here is how she reacts to the upheaval.
In school, Kate's assigned to make a diorama of something important in her life. At first she blows off the assignment but then these little boxes of recreated memories become her way of coping with the uprooting of her life..
The Poet X: 04/14/18
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is the story of Xiomara Batista. She's a too tall twin growing up in Harlem. Her smaller, quieter twin is everything her mother wants. She on the other hand is everything her hyper Catholic mother fears.
She's interested in one boy only but because she's Black, mixed race, and buxom, she gets male attention, female scorn, and a reputation that has a life of its own.
Xiomara finds her escape through poetry. Most of the novel is told through her free-form poems, though there are some texts and short essays too.
At about the close of the first act of the book, Xiomara catches the attention of a new teacher. She's invited to participate in a poetry slam contest — much like Miles Morales is in Jason Reynold's novel. But her outlook on life and her escape through her art reminds me more of Jade from Renée Wilson's Piecing Me Together (2017).
I've already set aside The Poet X to do a closer re-read. I must admit to racing through it but next time around I want to spent more time on the individual poems.
Children's fantasy that isn't British: 04/14/18
Back in January 2016, the Atlantic published an article bemoaning the state of American children's fantasy, using only examples of moralistic realistic fiction in comparison to more modern British children's fantasy. Yesterday the article resurfaced on Twitter leading off a round of discussions. I did my own paragraph by paragraph breakdown of what was wrong with the article's assumptions (including the absurdity of comparing The Adventures Huckleberry Finn to the Harry Potter series.
Below are children's fantasy stories I've reviewed broken up into categories. I'm still compiling the list, so check back later to see more recommendations. The list is primarily American fantasy but there are some other countries represented as well.
Gods and Monsters:
Dorothy Must Die: 04/13/18
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige is the first of a modern day Oz series of the same name. I originally bought the book new, well before the kerfuffle, and then decided to let the book sit until the kerfuffle had blown over. In that time four more books, plus a bunch of novellas have come out. My husband has purchased and read the novels and wants me to read them so we can have discussions.
In those intervening years, I've also restarted my road narrative project and I have been reexamining Oz (see my essay on crossing the cornfield), both Baum's take, as well as the Ruth Plumly Thompson books. Basically I'm looking at Oz as it was from 1900 to 1972. Despite an entire lifetime of Oz books it seems that modern tellers of Oz stories always want to go dystopian and Dorothy Must Die is just one of many that envisions Oz post Dorothy as a smoky wasteland of its former Technicolor glory.
I've posted an essay, the splendid dystopia in the Marvelous Land of Oz, on why I don't think the concept of a dystopian Oz works. My critique of Paige's book isn't hinging on her following this cultural trend. If anything, she has done the best job of imagining an Oz in decline, one that is actually based on the books that came after The Wizard of Oz. Another good (but weird) take on Oz post Dorothy is A Barnstormer in Oz by Philip José Farmer. Interestingly, Farmer and Paige share similar visions of Glinda, though Paige's version is more Glam Big Brother and Farmer's is more Mae West with a magic wand.
The conceit to Dorothy Must Die is that Dorothy has been given too much power. By book 11, The Lost Princess of Oz (1917) of the original series, Baum has elevated Dorothy to a Princess of Oz. My personal take on it is that Dorothy was Ozma's paramour. Regardless, she was as close to Ozma as was possible and had access to Ozma's various magical items. Paige extrapolates on the old addage that absolute power corrupts absolutely and sees how that would affect the Ozian landscape.
Originally when reading Dorothy Must Die I was adamant that Dorothy could never be as power hungry as she appears to be in this first installation. But then I read Speedy in Oz (1934) by Ruth Plumly Thompson and near the end of the book there is this line: "'Oh, are you a wizard now?' Dorothy, who was herself a Princess of Oz, could not help feeling bit envious of Speedy's new position on this strange island." (p. 290-291) So there it is, an officially sanctioned, moment of Dorothy being hungry for power — albeit it briefly and to no consequence. But what if a better carrot were dangled in front of her?
Over all though, the set up has some weird conceits. First, Dorothy is still alive (or else, why would she "must die?") Granted, Baum and Thompson weren't exactly precise with their timelines — either with time elapsed on Earth or with time elapsed in Oz. Nor did they ever really state what the time differential between the two worlds was (if any). There's still a one hundred fourteen span of time between The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy Must Die.
Assuming Dorothy was around the age of ten at the start of the series, she would be one hundred twenty-four years old! If the book series followed the six months story gap between books that say a lost of mysteries series do, that gap in years would be more like fifty-seven years, making Dorothy sixty-seven. Or if you ignore the time after the last Thompson book, then there's only seventy-two years, meaning thirty-six years of plot time, thus making Dorothy around forty-six. This last option is closest to how Dorothy is presented in Paige's book, in that she's older but she's not elderly or geriatric.
Discounting the mental math needed to figure out how old Dorothy might be and how much time has elapsed on Earth vs. in Oz, there is just a general lack of pacing. Rather, there seems to be a lot of hurry up and wait in this book. Much of that waiting period is filled with numerous dropped names to show that Paige has read many of the original series, and possibly some of Thompson's too. But often these dropped names feel more like they are there to be checked off a master list, than to actually be living in post Dorothy Oz or be plot relevant.
Finally there is just the on-going similarities to the three part dystopian Oz miniseries, Tin Man (2007). Amy, the protagonist in Dorothy Must Die acts and talks so much like D.G. that I just started picturing her as Zooey Deschanel. But I think that's more telling of how lasting of a cultural influence that miniseries has on modern day visions of Oz — especially when there's a need to make the kingdom darker and edgier. I will address why Oz would probably never be darker and edgier in that upcoming article.
Noragami: Stray God Volume 05: 04/12/18
Noragami: Stray God Volume 05 by Adachitoka continues the Bishamon plot with more being revealed with how she is being manipulated by her most trusted advisor. Meanwhile, Yukine's new friend is missing and he makes a startling discovery about his disappearance.
More broadly, this volume is about kith and kin, and life and death. As I mentioned in my post about volume 4, Yato and Bishamon have opposing ideas on how to approach the fragility of human life. Both agree that life is precious but how they go about celebrating and protecting it is very different.
Bishamon can't save everyone hurting and feels guilty for every life lost. She tries to make amends by taking on those lost souls as her regalia, thus creating for herself a large and complex family. Yato, meanwhile, does his best to help people help themselves. He wants them fight back against the depression, the bullying, etc., and live.
Although I am still reading through the manga, this is the last volume I'm going to review individually. I might do a summary review once I've finished a major arc or the entire series.
The Cathedral of Fear: 04/11/18
The Cathedral of Fear by Irene Adler is the fourth of the Sherlock, Lupin and Me series. The Adlers are back in France, in the countryside away from the war in Paris. While out exploring Irene is approached by a mysterious woman who says her mother is in danger.
One of the side plots all the way through is that Irene's father isn't her biological father. As these stories are written as pseudo memoirs, this fact has been dropped in all the books but now we're creeping up on when she finds out. By this late in the series, though, it's not really shocking and it just serves as a distraction from the book specific plot.
The other problem with this book is that it's getting hard to believe that the three friends will all show up together every time Irene's family moves. The amount of handwaving needed to get them back together is taking more and more of every book. It's frankly tiresome.
Tess of the Road: 04/10/18
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman from the publisher's point of view is the start of a new fantasy series. It's actually more of a spin-off or a side series or even a sequel to the Seraphina books. I haven't read the original series and this post will reflect on that.
Tess is bitter that she has been forced to take second place to her twin sister. Once her twin sister is finally wed and out of the family's hair, Tess feels it is time to leave and sets out to make her own in the world.
Tess's initial troubles and her fall from grace as her name implies is due to having a child out of wedlock. It's basically a reimagined Tess of the D'Ubervilles but played out in the world built through the Seraphina series.
I know Thomas Hardy's contribution but I don't know Goredd. Although Hartman does pepper in flashbacks and extended interior monologs about Seraphina's past, out of context it reads like filler. Since I am expected to know her story to appreciate Tess's story, I am setting my copy of Tess of the Road right now to go back and read Seraphina and possibly Shadow Scale.
So right now on this initial review, I'm giving the book two stars, meaning it's okay, but it doesn't work as a standalone story. Nor does it work as the start of a new series. After I go back and read the other books sent in the same world, I will re-read Tess of the Road and see if it reads better as part of a larger body of work.
Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring: 04/09/18
Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti is at first glance a fictionalized account of the work of Mary Bowser. It's the story of how she is working as a spy from inside the house of Jefferson Davis. She is the perfect spy because as a black woman she is practically invisible and isn't expected to be able to read.
At this level the book is interesting but not exactly engaging. There's very little in the way of text and hardly any character development. The book does include some information on her at the back but this book works best if the reader goes into the story knowing a thing or two about her and her work. In a classroom setting, this book could be used in conjunction with some longer texts or lectures.
The second piece of this book is a riddle that's thread throughout the book that gives the location of where Mary Bowser has hidden the diary mentioned in the body of the text. The book uses cyphers and clues that can only be revealed by using the red cellophane strip included.
If I were still in the target age range, I would find these clues amazingly fun and I'd probably want to collect the entire series (or at least check them all out). As an adult, I found the book rather gimmicky.
Right now there are two books. The second book is Spy On History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army, which was released on January 23, 2018.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (April 09): 04/09/18
Last week was a busy and weird week. My left for Europe with his Spanish honors teacher, five other chaperones and about thirty other classmates for Europe. They traveled from Milan, to Nice, to Monaco, and finally to Barcelona. He got home Sunday afternoon.
My daughter meanwhile was on spring break so she and I spent the week together. Monday she went to see Love, Simon with her best friend. Tuesday we went kite flying. Wednesday she had three friends over for a picnic. Thursday we stayed home because I had to take my neighbor to the doctor because her friend couldn't. Friday it rained all day so we stayed home.
Tuesday you might have heard about the shooting at YouTube. My husband was in the building across the way. He wasn't affected beyond having to evacuate. He ended up having to leave his car over night and ride BART home. As you can imagine everyone there is still rattled.
On Saturday my Mother drove up from San Diego to see us. Sunday we did Easter so that she could participate. We dyed eggs and hid them for my daughter. She's getting a little old for it but still had fun.
Decided not to read:
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Bo at Iditarod Creek: 04/08/18
Bo at Iditarod Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill is the sequel to Bo at Ballard Creek. Bo and her brother are the adopted children of a pair of men living in Alaska.
There's not a lot of conflict or drama in this book and frankly that's a good thing. So many books aimed at tweens are thinly disguised messages on how to solve certain kinds of problems: bullying, peer pressure, homelessness, divorce, death of parent, death of a friend. Granted these types of stories are important but it's also nice to have an option to escape from the life lessons for something quieter.
Basically this story is of the family of four moving from their houseboat to a mining town. It's a glimpse of rural life in Alaska in the days when it was a territory. It's the story of the wilderness and the oddballs who are drawn to such a remote place.
Front Desk: 04/07/18
Front Desk by Kelly Yang is a fictionalized account of the author's childhood of living and working in a motel. After living in their car and trying to work in a restaurant, the Tang family finds work managing a motel owned by Taiwanese Mr. Yao. They've come for a better life but so far Mia thinks staying in China would have been better (except for the hamburgers).
Running a motel is difficult and running one when the owner doesn't pay adequately, doesn't hire enough help, and is basically a greedy, terrible person, is nearly impossible. But Mia is smart and tenacious.
As her parents are always so busy cleaning the motel that Mia is left to run the front desk except when she's in school. The motel has good days and bad days. Among the bad: a broken washer, a stolen car, racism, and loan sharks.
Mia, though, also learns how the motel runs and how it should run if it had the money and support. She also comes up with a plan to "get off the bad rollercoaster" and onto the good one.
Mia is an engaging narrator. She's not perfect but she's feisty and her heart's in the right place.
This is Kelly Yang's first novel. I hope she has future ones.
The Left-Handed Fate: 04/06/18
The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford is another Nagspeake middle grade novel. It's the sequel to the Kickstarter-ed (and soon to be reprinted) Bluecrowne. In terms of print order, it's the sixth book in the series (and as they are all in the same universe, I'm counting them as one series). Chronologically, it's the second book, coming after the events of Bluecrowne.
Right now I'm making big dramatic sighs and rolling my eyes not at Kate Milford or her books but at myself. When this book was announced on the heels of Greenglass House I had just read (skimmed really) The Broken Lands and I didn't know they all fit together, nor could I see the connection on my own. I had raced to read The Broken Lands because it was a library book and Milford's books aren't for speed-reading.
As you'll recall from my review of Ghosts of Greenglass House I complained that I wanted to see more of Nagspeake. Well, this book, the second half, at least, is set there. But like any Milford book it opens up more questions than it answers.
The book opens with the Left-Handed Fate, a British ship pulling into the Baltimore Harbor in as low key a fashion as possible. The United States is at war with Britain in the early days of the War of 1812. Maxwell Ault has hired the ship to take him here to pick up a piece of a weapon that his father was tracking down.
The item is no longer there and Ault not knowing for sure what he's looking for, only has the rumor that the item is now on a ship headed for Nagspeake. The Fate reluctantly agrees to chase after the ship, knowing that they might just be fast enough to intercept it before it reaches Nagspeake.
Their route takes them from Baltimore to Norfolk to Nagspeake. That's a southerly coastal route and it goes right by Nags Head — one of the places I supposed Nagspeake might be near. (See the first couple paragraphs of my Ghosts of Greenglass House review for my reasoning.
I'm not going to go more into where is Nagspeake or what is Nagspeake in this review, though both questions are big parts of the second half. I have at least one separate essay on Nagspeake in the works but I want to wait to read Bluecrowne before I finalize it.
The first half of the novel is basically character development and setting. It's there to flesh out stories told second hand in Greenglass House. It's there to keep Nagspeake grounded in reality and history before the second half where the fantasy elements take over.
Nagspeake is in many ways like a thematic marriage of Neverland and the Emerald City (or maybe Ev in its heyday). It is like the traveling city in Catherynne M Valente's Fairyland books but without the fae rules for human travelers. Put simply, Nagspeake is fascinating.
If you haven't read Ghosts of Greenglass House but plan to, I recommend that you read The Left-Handed Fate first.
Herding Cats: 04/05/18
Herding Cats by Sarah Andersen is the third Sarah Scribbles book. The first half is dedicated to her typical one to four panel comics and the second half is about creating art for oneself even — especially when living with anxiety and/or depression.
There is the usual mixture of vignettes of being an artist, living with a sometimes graceful cat, living with enthusiastic weird humans (dog and boyfriend), and the annoying uterus with a mind of its own. There are some new ones and some favorites from within the year since Big Mushy Happy Lump came out.
One of those favorites is the fandom on fire.
A Fatal Chapter: 04/04/18
A Fatal Chapter by Lorna Barrett is the ninth book in the Booktown Mystery series. It's also the one where Stoneham comes apart at the seams.
Tricia is working for her sister at the Chamber of Commerce while she waits for the insurance money to come through for the fire (Book Clubbed (2014). She out walking Angela's dog, Sarge, when she comes across the president of the historical society, suffering from an apparent heart attack. When he dies, Tricia ends up in the middle of another murder mystery.
There are things about Stoneham to the observant should be obvious. All (or at least a sizable chunk of them) come out in the open in this book for one reason or another. With Tricia not running her store she has more time to look at other problems. I see some of these big revelations as head nods to long time readers who have probably figured out these side mysteries, or have made predictions as to who will be the next volume's murderer.
Thematically, A Fatal Chapter reminds me of Double Shot by Diane Mott Davidson. Both come well into their respective series. They are the points where the series turns a sharp corner by eliminating the original impetus for the protagonist to have begun a side career as an amateur sleuth.
For the Goldie Bear series, this change of direction came two thirds of the way through the series. For Booktown, it would be four-fifths of the way through, but with a new book planned for next year, perhaps that means there are more books coming. Going though for the numerous thematic wrap ups in A Fatal Chapter and the fact that we're ten books into a series, I predict that the series will end in 2018 or 2019. That said, I don't want it to, and I will continue to follow it for as long as it continues.
The Good Little Book: 04/03/18
The Good Little Book by Kyo Maclear is about a boy who discovers a favorite book and through it the joy of reading. It begins with him being put on time out in the family library. There he finds a discarded children's book. Bored and with nothing else to do, he reads it. And the book wows him.
As happens so often with that first special book, it becomes a favorite re-read. The boy takes it everywhere with him and reads it until he has it memorized.
And then he loses the book. The what happens next is the back half of the book. I'm not going to spoil it for you. It's a very readerly ending and one that will make adults who read this tear up a bit.
Sovereign by April Daniels is the sequel to Dreadnought (2017). It's been nine months since Danny took the mantel of Dreadnought and already she is feeling the stress of being a hero. She's also fighting for emancipation from her transphobic parents.
Meanwhile there is a new global threat. There's an asteroid approaching that seems to be tied to the super powers that some people get. But now a supervillain has found a way to control it and who gets and doesn't get affected by it.
As with so many second books, more emphasis is put on the action scenes — on seeing Dreadnought in action. There are times to see her excel, times to see her go too far, and times to see her fail. Although there is the on-going plot of her parents' poor reaction to her gender it feels tagged on this time.
Put another way, there were so many scenes of different fights that the strong world building and character building just wasn't there to as strong a degree. Basically, this story feels rushed. It could have been two books to give the competing plot threads more time and space.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (April 02): 04/02/18
I ended up sending back three library books unread. Two of them were ones I had picked out on a whim and didn't have time for. The third was on my wishlist but the first chapter and them some random skimming didn't make me want to keep reading.
I'm still plodding along with Tess of the Road. At the rate of I'm going, I'll have it finished sometime in August. I keep rescheduling when I'll post a review of it because I haven't read enough to have anything meaningful to say.
This week both kids are on Spring break. My son left in the wee hours of Saturday morning for a week long class trip to Europe. He's going with forty other honors Spanish students at his high school. They are visiting Milan, parts of souther France, and Barcelona.
My daughter meanwhile is making plans to hang with her friends. She's going to see Love, Simon and later have her BFFs over for lunch. When she's not socializing, she's gardening or animating or composing music. She keeps very busy.
Decided not to read:
What I read:
What I'm reading:
March 2018 Sources: 04/02/18
March was a cold, rainy month, meaning time home to read. I also had a bunch of library books come due and that redirected my planned reading some. The stress of books coming due competing with a planned reading and reviewing schedule, namely, the review of at least one new book each week, actually slowed my reading down.
Except for last March, the month of March for the last three years have been above the trend line, approaching positive territory. A positive score means I'm reading almost exclusively newly purchased books. March's score was basically flat with February: -2.15 vs -2.11.
Looking at all previous years, March 2018 is right in the middle. March continues on my typical February trend where I start reading books I purchased the year before but didn't get to. It's also where my wishlist reading kicks into gear.
Reading newly purchased books in March had no effect on the month's average. It is holding steady at -2.07.
April has seven new books scheduled, where they will be purchased and read in the same month. If I keep to that schedule chances are April's numbers will tick upwards. March through saw the need to push back some reviews and April might end up the same.
When the Silliest Cat Was Small: 04/01/18
When the Silliest Cat Was Small by Gilles Bachelet is a follow up to My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World. Every pet owner probably has a story about how they got their pet. That's what this one is, the brief childhood before being adopted by the narrator.
Like the previous book the conceit here is that cats look like elephants. I don't know if all cats in this picture book world, or just the cats that the narrator is interested in adopting.
We see the typical kitten adoption story of mama cat, her kittens, the different developing personalities as the kittens grow, and the final picking of a kitten.
Now re-imagine mama cat and all her kittens as elephants, but with the coloring of cats. Now this choice to make the other kittens colored in typical cat patterns seems like an odd one. It opens up questions that just aren't answered and would be difficult to answer given the short format of a children's picture book.
Frankly I would have preferred to stay with the initial set up — an elephant being a cat. So rather than a litter of cat colored elephants, I'd rather the text to go with scenes of an obvious elephant herd, obvious elephant mother.
March 2018 Summary: 04/01/18
March was completely free to read what I wanted and the first month where I had a small pile of newly published books I wanted to get through and review. At the start of the month I had a very ambitious plan to read and review those new books but I also had a ton of library books coming due. That combination slowed down my reading. I ended up pushing back new reads in a bunch of places to later weeks and into April.
I have requested fewer books in March so hopefully that conflict between new, old, and library will be less. When I get stressed out about reading I actually read less. In March I only read twenty-seven books, down from thirty-four in February.
March is the ninth month in a row that I read more inclusive books than not. March's reading also was focused on diverse writers, especially among the newly published books. One type of reading / reviewing where I am not being good about diversifying my reading is the mystery genre. As that's one day a week, I'm diluting my efforts.
March's reviews featured a majority of diverse books. It was the first time since July last year that the reviews worked out this way. As I've been saying in previous summary posts, my reading efforts would eventually show up in how the reviews are distributed.
April will continue to work on the goals of reading and reviewing with more attention to representation. I will try to stay with my current schedule although I must admit that Tess of the Road, though good, is very long and might get pushed back. Originally I had it planned for review two weeks ago. Now it's tentatively scheduled for later this week but it might get pushed back another week.
At the start of March I had seven reviews from 2015 to post. That's now down to three. The 2016 reviews are down by one to fifty-eight. I posted eleven reviews from 2017, brining that total down to fity. My 2018 reviews stayed steady, rising slightly from forty-six to fifty.