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September 2018

Rating System

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

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Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question: 09/17/18

Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question

Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question by Martha Freeman is about a girl who asks the right questions and manages to stop a generation long feud. Before she can do that, though, she has to say good bye to her parents (temporarily) as they are off to fly their solar plane around the world. She meanwhile is off to rural Pennsylvania to live with her aunt and uncle.

Effie has a brand new bicycle and the expectation that she will stay out of everyone's hair. Her problem is that she doesn't know the territory (to quote The Music Man) and worse, she doesn't know the rules that goes with the territory. She doesn't know the long standing rivalries or the power structure of the area.

She's also well off and used to getting her way. That means she takes chances and isn't afraid of people. When a neighborhood kid is in her yard harassing one of the farm animals, she barges in to get the kid out of trouble before something worse happens. That sparks an uneasy friendship between the Zooks and the Yoders.

Tied up into all this mess is story of her family fortune. For this book, the Zooks were related to the man who patented the airsickness bag. In reality there's an entirely different story that the author includes in the afterword. The point here, though, is the inventor had apparently one good idea and nothing else and that lead to other tensions and a family riff that has now turned into a feud involving the Zooks and the Yoders.

The final lesson of this book is that family secrets suck. They ultimately cause more harm than good. They can tear people apart and keep future generations apart, even after the initial hurt has been forgotten.

Four stars

Comments (0)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 17): 09/10/18

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?
Hosted by Kathryn of Book Date.

My husband is out of town this week so all the home and parenting duties will be mine this week. Both kids have busy schedules so I have no idea how much reading I'll get done.

I made no progress on the hummingbird painting. I didn't even touch it. Maybe this week?

What I read:

Holiday Grind The Million Lavender Lies A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge Giant Days: Extra Credit

  • Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle; personal collection (audiobook)
  • The Million by Karl Schroeder; personal collection
  • Lavender lies: a China Bayles mystery by Susan Wittig Albert; library book
  • A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld; personal collection
  • Giant Days: Extra Credit by John Allison; personal collection

What I'm reading:

Death by Dumpling Running with Lions Road to Oz The Great Shelby Holmes and the Coldest Case

  • Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien; personal collection
  • Running With Lions by Julian Winters; personal collection
  • Road to Oz by L. Frank Baum; personal collection / research
  • The Great Shelby Holmes and the Coldest Case by Elizabeth Eulberg; personal collection

Up Soon:

Bruja Born An Unkindness of Ghosts The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part Two Once Upon a Spine

  • Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova; personal collection / research
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon; library book / research
  • The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part Two by Michael Dante DiMartino and Irene Koh (Artist); personal collection
  • Once Upon a Spine by Kate Carlisle


Reviews Posted

Comments  (20)

Lemons: 09/16/18


In Lemons by Melissa Savage, a single mom decided to make the best of an unexpected situation and named her daughter Lemonade. Now Lemonade finds herself an orphan, shipped off to live with a grandfather she doesn't remember, in the redwoods north of Eureka. The only thing going for this place is a supposed Big Foot sighting.

Lemonade herself now has to learn how to make do. She has to learn how to live with her gruff grandfather. Before she gets a chance to make her own friends, she's paired up with a boy with is running a Big Foot investigation service for the town. His goal is to get solid proof — something better than that famous blurry photo — to really put his town on the map.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the late 1970s, to the early 1980s. The Vietnam War has been over for some time but it's still fresh in the minds of the adults who lived through it. In the same regard it's not fresh in the minds of the children in the book, beyond maybe having a parent who died in the war.

The three separate plot threads: Lemonade as an orphan, the Big Foot Sightings, and the lingering effects of the Vietnam War all come together in a delightful unexpected way.

Five stars

Comments (0)

Bob: 09/15/18


Bob by Wendy Mass is a middle grade American road narrative set in the Australian bush, west of Melbourne. I'm going to arbitrarily say it's somewhere near Dunkeld just because it fits the setting of being a small rural town west of Melbourne about an hour or so's drive away. Despite the location, the book fits comfortably in the scarecrow wildlands cornfield category.

The book opens with Livy, her mother, and her baby sister arriving at her grandmother's farm. She was five the last time she was here and she doesn't remember any of it, except for a vague memory of a "weird chicken."

All is explained, though, when she discovers a "zombie" in a chicken costume living in her closet. The "zombie" is named Bob and has been waiting patiently for Livy to return.

The remainder of the book is primarily focused on two things: who is Bob and why is there such a long drought? The two questions end up being related. Early on I guessed primarily from Bob's location and the way Rebecca Steed draws him that he is a lost Wandjina, or rain spirit. Technically he's a little too far east to be one but Wendy Mass comes up with a more generic term for what Bob is.

In a broader sense, Bob is a scarecrow — a protector of crops. That he's a water based one and has a memory protection aspect to his being (meaning people forget him unless they have something specific to remind themselves of him). His home and his goal, though he has forgotten it, is in the middle of the wildlands just outside of town. His home then is through the cornfield at the heart of the wildlands.

Even without such a deep reading, Bob is a delightful book. It's beautifully designed with Steed's illustrations being brought into the text in the same way as the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz edition.

Five stars

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The River at Night: 09/14/18

The River at Night

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik is a thriller / horror set in the wild lands of Maine. Four women decide at last minute to take a river rafting trip with a hot guide that they've done minimal research on. Everything goes down hill from there until they are left to survive on their own.

I read this book in the early days of sorting out my road narrative spectrum. I was specifically looking for novels about marginalized people having adventures through wild lands and going off road to do it. A river rafting adventure that becomes a tale of survival seemed like a perfect fit.

In away, it is, in that it follows every trope like a paint by number. We have the four women suddenly deciding to leave the "safety" of the city for an off road adventure. There is the single man to protect them who very quickly fails and dies in the process because of his own stupidity. To make the threat of traveling with out male protection, the river has to take them to somewhere even more dangerous than itself — namely nearly feral people living in the wilderness.

These women are actually fairly privileged. They are successful. They have the money and time to spare do this trip. But they see themselves as marginalized — or at least, at risk while traveling. As the author herself is fairly privileged (being white and successful) their perceived danger at the start of the novel is just that, a perception of white fragility. That their concerns are rewarded by everything possible going wrong over the course of the trip is there to justify the perception but results in a very unsatisfying read.

Two stars

Comments (0)

Runaways: Battleworld: 09/13/18

Runaways: Battleworld

Runaways: Battleworld by Noelle Stevenson collects issues 1 - 4 of the Battleworld plot. I read it to maybe get some insight into the series Rainbow Rowell is currently writing. Silly me. Marvel doesn't work that way.

Anywhoo.... In this version of things, there's a battle world with different themed areas. Personally I think of it as Planet Acca (but that's because I watch more anime than I do read Marvel comics). Kids with superpowers (dare I say, mutants?) have been collected to attend a special school.

But come on, it's clearly run by space Nazis. And gasp, the kids are tricked into fighting each other to the death until the elite (survivors) are in the senior class. But our heroes, the Runaways, are smarter than the remaining student body. And they decide to runaway.

Hijinks ensue. Or something. It was okay but not my thing.

Two stars

Comments (0)

Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami: 09/12/18

Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami

Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami by Sharon Kahn is the third of Ruby, the Rabbi's Wife mystery series. Ruby and members of her temple are taking a cruise down to the American Virgin Islands. But from the first moment on board things go wrong, when one of their group ends up dead during after getting their photograph taken.

Like Title Wave by Lorna Barrett, most of the book takes place on the cruise ship. What differs here, is that the cruise itself seems to be poorly run.

From the get-go the who behind the crimes is obvious. But that doesn't matter because Ruby knows it too and has to figure out how to deal with it while her life is in danger. Had this book been any different, I would have have been compelled to write a long ranting post about how unrealistic the cruise was.

The fourth book is Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox.

Four stars

Comments (0)

FFCC66: Orphans traveling off road through time: 09/12/18

FFCC66: Orphans traveling off road through time s

Today I will be comparing and contrasting five road narratives that share the same three components: orphans (solo travelers), a uhoric destination (one that's out of time or through time), and an off road route. The five books are All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017), The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas (2017), Emily the Strange: Dark Times by Rob Reger (2010), Little Robot by Ben Hatke (2015), and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1969)

All of these books are science fiction and use travel to explore modern day societal issues across or outside of time. Though the road doesn't feature in any of these novels, it is there through the implied or explicit travel. Two of these books are written for adults. One is YA. One is for middle grade readers. The last one is for young children.

Tom Barren (All Our Wrong Todays) and Billy Pilgrim (Slaughterhouse-Five) are both traveling through time through some of the worst moments of recent human history. Tom's travel is one of self exile, having through his own apathy broken the best of the world timelines and has stuck us with our current (meaning Trump as President) reality. Billy Pilgrim's situation isn't self made but he still suffers the same personal disconnect from seeing WWII and other horrible or odd things first hand. Both men come to appreciate the absurdity of life after seeing so many different options play out.

Stella Rodriguez (Care and Feeding...) is traveling through time — or more precisely versions of the present — for her own doing. Unlike Tom Barren, she doesn't have a time machine. Instead, she has a black hole, a semi-sentient space entity. Her isolation — her self imposed (but temporary) orphaning is one of grief and anger. Ultimately her story is one of coping with grief after the death of a parent.

Emily the Strange (Dark Times) has a limited amount of time travel capability to go back in time to save her town and her family legacy. Whether she succeeds or fails, she will probably end up orphaned (or separated from her mother and friends in the present). Emily's travel is a celebration of Goth culture, heavy metal and skating — in the same way that Bill & Ted are late 1980s slackers and late glam rock aficionados.

The Girl in Little Robot is alone for unstated reasons. She lives in a time of robots (near or far, undetermined future). Her story is about befriending and fixing an escaped factory robot. Though unstated (as the book is nearly wordless), the illustrations provide commentary on present day consumerism and car culture (via all the junk left behind) and a warning about war (via the robots who seek out the missing robot).

All five books use the route between now (the now of when the books were written/published) and either times past or future to comment on the human condition and the good and bad of present day society. Narrative focus is kept simple through the use of a solo traveler-protagonist. By comparing five books across different age groups, I hope I've shown how similar narrative building blocks can be tailored to tell a wide range of stories. Despite the differences in intended audiences, the building blocks are still the same.

Works cited:

See also:

Comments  (0)

Young Frances: 09/11/18

Young Frances

Young Frances by Hartley Lin is a Canadian graphic novel about a young law clerk who is in a constant struggle with insomnia. Meanwhile, her roommate has moved to Hollywood to star in a television series eerily familiar to Frances's life.

On a personal level I found the insomnia plot the most relatable piece. Frances tries everything from white noise, to early morning jogging, to redoing her bedroom, and so forth. Nothing works permanently.

In the office, I'm reminded in terms of the high stakes, high pressure atmosphere of Ugly Betty. Frances, while not liked by her immediate cohorts catches the eye of the most notorious of the senior members. For reasons all his own he starts grooming her for a much larger role in the company.

Throughout all of this Frances remains aloof — from a combination of being overworked, under-rested, and the usual feelings of imposter syndrome. Despite this, I find her a likable, or better put, understandable protagonist.

Five stars

Comments (0)

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes: 09/10/18

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert opens with a pile of newspapers falling on Annabelle's sister's head. Their mother has a hoarding problem. It's tied up with her depression and anxiety and it only seems to be getting worse. The incident sparks a fight between parents that might lead to a divorce.

It also leads to an intervention by Grandma Nora. She reminded me a lot of the no-nonsense grandma from The Someday Birds except here, her goal is to help Annabelle's mother clean up the house so that the family can start acting like a normal family.

I happened to read this book coming off the most unpredictable year in my life since my husband and I decided over Memorial Day weekend, 1999, to move from one end of California to the other. Until last June we had spent thirteen and a half years as a family of four (and two cats) living in a two bedroom condo really designed for one person (if one room was set up as a home office). I calculated that each human had about 100 square feet of personal space. Suffice it say, it was crowded and cluttered and sometimes felt like it was on the edge of becoming a hoarding situation.

And then circumstances changed and we had an opportunity to move into a house — an actual proper house with a yard, and a garage, and a bedroom for each child. We just had to put ninety percent of our stuff in storage and put our most important, day to day stuff, into as few boxes as we could manage so that we could sojourn in a local apartment that was even smaller than our condo.

But all that madness was over by the time I sat down to read about Annabelle and Grandma Nora did their best to bring some normalcy back to the family. I was reading about their oh too familiar story (I had a roommate in college who hoarded newspapers until the super forced her to recycle them all) while I was sitting in a near empty house on a recently purchased couch.

Now five months later, more furniture has arrived. We're starting to bring our stuff in, but in an orderly fashion and we've agreed to keep the less important stuff in storage, and get rid of things we don't need or want. Although, in truth, we got rid of so much in the move from condo to apartment.

The last lingering memory of Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes is the "forbidden room." In Anabelle's family, it is the dining room. It has remained locked as the rest of the house has filled up. This detail reminded me so much of my grandmother who had a compulsion to collect things, a habit she picked up from her mother. Except, in both their cases, instead of the majority of their homes taking on collections, they kept their treasures behind locked doors. For my great-grandmother it was the bedrooms or her long since grown up children that were overflowing with a century's worth of ephemera, and a disused garage filled with I'm not even sure. My grandmother, meanwhile, had a third bedroom, a bedroom that could have been for a second child if she'd had one. Instead it held whatever she couldn't integrate into the rest of the house or give to someone. It was a weird jumble of stuff.

Anyway, the book hits home for anyone who has lived in a cluttered or hoarding situation or knows someone who does.

Three stars

Comments (0)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 10): 09/10/18

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?
Hosted by Kathryn of Book Date.

The second week of school went well. While the kids were at school I finished a painting of a turkey vulture. Now I'm working on a juvenile Anna's hummingbird.

Turkey vulture done with acrylics

What I read:

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Wind/Pinball Boot & Shoe The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One Hold the cream cheese, kill the lox

  • The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall; personal collection (audiobook)
  • Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami; personal collection
  • Boot & Show by Marla Frazee; library book
  • The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One by Michael Dante DiMartino and Irene Koh (Illustrations); personal collection
  • Hold the cream cheese, kill the lox by Sharon Kahn; library book

What I'm reading:

Holiday Grind The Million A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge Lavender Lies

  • Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle; personal collection (audiobook)
  • The Million by Karl Schroeder; personal collection
  • A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld; personal collection
  • Lavender lies: a China Bayles mystery by Susan Wittig Albert; library book

Up Soon:

Death by Dumpling Running with Lions Road to Oz The Great Shelby Holmes and the Coldest Case

  • Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien; personal collection
  • Running With Lions by Julian Winters; personal collection
  • Road to Oz by L. Frank Baum; personal collection / research
  • The Great Shelby Holmes and the Coldest Case by Elizabeth Eulberg; personal collection


Reviews Posted

Comments  (22)

Dear Poppy: 09/09/18

Dear Poppy

Dear Poppy by Ronni Arno opens with Poppy, her father and older brother moving to the old family farm. Poppy's mother has recently died and her father isn't coping well with the loss. Moving to her old home is his last ditch effort to regain some control in his life.

After moving in, Poppy finds some letters apparently addressed to her, written by her mother back in the 1980s. The letters end up oddly paralleling events in Poppy's present day life, including her 4H project and the apparent sabotage of it.

In the present day, Poppy's dad seems to be falling in love with his deceased wife's old rival / bully. Their relationship and Poppy's relationship with the rival's daughter is fascinating and eye opening. It's a good character study on how some people can't let go of old grudges.

Dear Poppy is a tightly crafted story with a concise timeline and a strong sense of place.

Four stars

Comments (0)

Hello Lighthouse: 09/08/18

Hello Lighthouse

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall is a picture book about a lighthouse's last keeper. The book opens with the keeper arriving and ends with the keeper, his wife and their child leaving as the automatic lighting system is installed.

Sophie Blackall, an author illustrator out of Sydney, Australia, I primarily know through her illustrations of children's books: Polly Horvath's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny books, Big Red Lollipop, and the unfortunately conceived A Fine Dessert. Most readers, though, will probably recognize her work from the Ivy & Bean series.

Hello Lighthouse with it's cutaways of the interior of the building as well as the exteriors over the course of different seasons and different weather conditions has for me the type of story, albeit condensed into forty-eight pages, that I was hoping for in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

Five stars

Comments (2)

The Witch's Glass: 09/07/18

The Witch's Glass

The Witch's Glass by Holly Grant is the third book in the League of Beastly Dreadfuls. Anastasia who has come to terms (more or less) with being a member of the royal family of Nowhere Special, now must struggle with coming into her ability to transform while trying to solve the mystery of her missing grandfather.

Book one, The League of the Beastly Dreadfuls introduced magic and changelings into the ordinary world. Anastasia goes from having parents to being the prisoner of two so-called aunts and befriended by the ghosts of the children they've already killed.

Book two, The Dastardly Deed removes Anastasia from the ordinary world, into a magical, subterranean one where she is unusual for her lack of understanding of her history. It's also where the foundation of the split between witches and changelings is laid.

This book, then, reconnects Nowhere Special to the ordinary world. It also fills in the blanks both in Anastasia's personal history and that of Nowhere Special. This is accomplished through the efforts of Anastasia, Ollie, Quentin, and Gus as they work together to solve the mystery of the Witch's Glass.

Thematically this book reminded me of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder, and Winterhouse by Ben Guterson with a dash of the Eclipsa arc from Star vs the Forces of Evil.

In terms of it being a road narrative, this third installment is a privileged trip to (or through) a uhoria by way of a metaphorical cornfield (ie, magical passage through a magical barrier). The journeys, though, reveal things about both the royal family as a whole, and of Anastasia's personal history that might put both in jeopardy, or herald change in the society as a whole.

League of Beastly Dreadfuls The Dastardly Deed The Witch's Glass
orphan, wildlands, blue highway
family, utopia, offroad
privileged, uhoria, cornfield

At the time of writing this review, there is no mention of a fourth book. The third book ends without total closure. I hope this signals an opening to a fourth book.

Five stars

Comments (0)

99FFFF-990000: Scarecrows and Minotaurs: 09/06/18

99FFFF-990000: Scarecrows and Minotaurs

This week I'm taking a break from thematic analysis to focus the category of road narrative protagonist, the scarecrow / minotaur. While scarecrows and minotaurs seem like completely different kinds of characters, and really more often than not, monsters or secondary characters to a human protagonist, they function as obverse and reverse of the same thematic coin.


A Scarecrow in its most literal depiction is a humanoid figure, usually male (or more precisely dressed in male styled clothing) made of rough material (burlap or canvas) and stuffed with hay, straw, or cornhusks. They are often associated with cornfields and feature in Halloween and horror stories but not always.

It's the not always that makes them interesting.

More broadly speaking, the Scarecrow is there to keep people and other creatures (crows, for instance) out of the fields. When the cornfield is serving as a literary barrier or shortcut for the road narrative, the scarecrow is often brought in as a horror element — a monster to catch or even kill trespassers.

But again, not always.

A few notable exceptions: Feathertop (Nathaniel Hawthorne), the Scarecrow of Oz (L. Frank Baum), Jack Pumpkinhead (L. Frank Baum), and Turniphead (Diane Wynn Jones). Feathertop, who serves as the stylistic prototype for Baum's Jack Pumpkinhead, is created by a witch to pull a prank on a high society party. Turns out, though, that most (maybe all) of the other attendees are also the witch's creation from previous years. He and Jack both have carved pumpkin faces and are brought to life through magic. The Scarecrow, meanwhile, is brought to life by usefulness. There wasn't any intentional magic used, just the sheer willpower of the Munchkin farmer who made him and his own desire to be as useful as possible. That though spirals into a free will desire to get down off his stick and explore the world with Dorothy (as well as get some brains). Finally, Turniphead, is a cursed scarecrow, made into the form to hide a prince and start a war.

The key thing about scarecrows, is that they are there to protect the cornfield (or whatever it is they have been placed in front of or in the middle of).


The Minotaur, meanwhile, derives from a single story, though there are many many retellings and pastiches. The Minotaur or Minos Bull is the half human, half bovine offspring of the Queen of Minos because of a revenge plot by Poseidon. The labyrinth exists to hide him away from the world. That he is also useful in disposing of pesky foreigners is a secondary "benefit."

Most of the Minotaur road narratives I've read so far have been with literal. There is David Elliot's poetic narrative that retells the myth from Asterion's point of view before and after his incarceration in the labyrinth. Steven Sherrill's modern day novels envision a now free Minotaur who has shed his original name and now just goes by the initial M.

But there are metaphoric minotaurs as well. The one that comes immediately to mind is Corwin and his siblings and extended family in the Chronicles of Amber series. They are a royal family who can travel between worlds via their ties to the "pattern" — a complex path that is somewhere between a maze and a labyrinth. For them, there is no escaping the pattern and for others, it can be (and usually is) deadly. Although they are not literally inside the pattern, they are so tied to it that they might as well be. It is that connection that makes them metaphorical minotaurs.

Scarecrows vs Minotaurs

The difference between these two is one of purpose and agency. The Scarecrow is there to protect the cornfield. The Minotaur is trapped by the labyrinth. Both can serve as "monsters in the middle" and both can be protagonists.

Works cited

See also

Comments  (2)

Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 1: 09/06/18

Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 1

Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 1 by Ryoko Kui is the start of a manga series that reminds me very fondly of Rutabaga the Adventure Chef by Eric Colossal. Interestingly, they are contemporaneous, though we had to wait two years to read the manga in translation.

The opening scene is of a member of an adventure party being eaten by a dragon. The remainder of the book is them trying to level up and chase down the dragon to get their companion back — or get revenge.

But here's the thing. They also have no money for supplies. They have no money for food. So they decide to cook and eat the things that they kill or harvest in the dungeon. Imagine, if you will, a dungeon filled with monsters that are equivalents to Japanese food ingredients.

There's just one more thing — you have to know what you're doing. You need an adventure chef (borrowing the term from Eric Colossal). This dungeon has one of them too and he ends up being the chef for the adventure party.

I absolutely loved this first volume. I have the next three to read and plan to do so soon.

Five stars

Comments (0)

Decaffeinated Corpse: 09/05/18

Decaffeinated Corpse

Decaffeinated Corpse by Cleo Coyle is the fifth of the Coffeehouse mysteries. Clare Cosi finds herself and the village Blend in the middle of another mystery when a man tied to a decaffeinated coffee plant ends up dead. Her ex-husband and a friend of his are in the process of a new business venture that will use the beans from this plant.

Mixed into this particular mystery is the history of coffee and the science of removing the caffeine from it. There's also a long discussion of colonialism and environmentalism and just how bad coffee has been for the world and the global economy.

My one complaint with this book that the other books in the series haven't relied on, is the need for two big what-ifs. The first is the existence of a naturally caffeine free coffee plant. The second is the existence of a fictional Caribbean nation that can play with stereotypes without being overtly racist.

The mystery itself, though, involves a lot of derring do with Clare and Madame. There are some fun chases through New York and there are consequences for some of Clare's actions.

The sixth book is French Pressed.

Four stars

Comments (0)

Two Times a Traitor: 09/04/18

Two Times a Traitor

There is a mindset in fiction for youth that the narrative should both be educational and engaging for contemporary readers. These two goals are often addressed through the time travel trope. A classic TV example is series one of Doctor Who. The Doctor was introduced through his school aged grand-daughter and she and he would go on time travel adventures in his TARDIS, thus introducing young viewers to the exciting world of history. That plan lasted until episode five when the Daleks were introduced.

Two Times a Traitor by Karen Bass is a recent middle grade historical novel that uses this trope. Laz Berenger our modern day ever teen (meaning, white, middle class and spoiled rotten with a horrendous attitude) is on a forced family holiday to Halifax. He's angry over the family moving and decides the middle of a guided tour is the perfect time to pitch a fit. When that doesn't work, he runs off to explore the Citadel by himself. That's when his beloved St Christopher medallion burns hot and he's whisked back in time to 1745 to experience first hand all the stuff he was being forced to learn about on the tour.

Here's the thing, this framing plot is identical to Time Ghost by Welwyn Wilton Katz. There is just one huge difference; Time Ghost was speculative fiction about the dangers of global warming and the time travel aspect was well established as a scientific possibility within the first chapter.

The time travel here in Two Times a Traitor is an excuse for lazy writing. Rather than create a contemporaneous character with Laz's heritage (mixed English / French at a time when the two are at war), we're given a modern day kid who is privileged and written with an absolutely toxic attitude.

The history lesson part of this book writes itself thanks to the roadmap littered with cliches. First, Laz has to wake up and not realize he's in the past. Next he has to be captured and use his knowledge of the future to charm his way out of his situation. But his every move is thwarted by his lack of basic living skills from the era, to the point that he can't even dress himself. (So of course we have to have the getting into the period piece costume scene.) But then there's a game of wits or skill and our "hero" finally gets to prove himself. By the end of the book he will have proven himself worthy, grown accustomed to his home in the past, and maybe grown a little more humble, only then to be whisked back to the present.

Yup. This book has all of that while making sure to wheel Laz into each and every historically significant location and event so that he can be an eye witness and reporter on HISTORY!

If you like this type of paint by number historical fiction, you will probably like Two Times a Traitor. Or you might find this book as tedious as I did.

Two stars

Comments (0)

One Good Thing about America: 09/03/18

One Good Thing about America

One Good Thing about America by Ruth Freeman is an epistolary novel about a girl's first year of school in America after moving here from a French speaking country in Africa. Where exactly she's from isn't specified but given that her name is Anaïs and that her English is peppered with French words and phrases, it can be inferred that she's from a French speaking nation.

These letters are homework for Anaïs to practice her English. Her ELL teacher also hopes that by writing down one nice thing about America each day will help her adjust and come to love her new home. Over the course of these letters we get to learn more about her past, her current situation, and her feelings about her new home.

The novel was inspired by the author's many years working as an ELL teacher. I can appreciate that the author probably doesn't want to risk revealing personal information about any of her students, so chose instead to leave Anaïs's background vague.

Unfortunately, by not even giving her a country, Anaïs becomes just one more generic "African" although she's not as bad a walking stereotype as she could be. Imagine instead if Anaïs was from a French speaking country in Europe. I think more readers would be up in arms that her background wasn't specified. But here due to institutionalized racism we have come to see Africa as somewhere other — a completely separate unknown country, rather than the hugely diverse continent made up of fifty-four nations and roughly 16% of the world's population.

Three stars

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It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 03): 09/03/18

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 30)
Hosted by Kathryn of Book Date.

First week of school has gone well. Now that they're settling in I'm starting the job search process, after two years.

I had a good week of reading, finally getting through some of the back log. As I've volunteered for the CYBILs again, I'm going to try to read through as many of my purchased books this month because the remainder of the year could be dictated by the nominations.

What I read:

Bob Does My Head Look Big in This? Young Frances Whatshisface? Captive Hearts of Oz Vol. 1 Anger is a gift Exit Stage Left The Enchanted Egg

  • Bob by Wendy Mass; library book / research
  • Does My Head Look Big in this? by Randa Abdel-Fattah; personal collection
  • Young Frances by Hartley Lin; personal collection
  • Whatshisface? by Gordon Korman; personal collection
  • Captive Hearts of Oz Vol. 1 by Ryo Maruya and Mamenosuke Fujimaru (Illustrations)
  • Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro; personal collection (ebook)
  • Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell; personal collection
  • The Enchanted Egg by Kallie George and Alexandra Boiger (Illustrator); library book

What I'm reading:

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Wind/Pinball Holiday Grind The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One

  • The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall; personal collection (audiobook)
  • Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami; personal collection
  • Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle; personal collection (audiobook)
  • The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One by Michael Dante DiMartino and Irene Koh (Illustrations); personal collection

Up Soon:

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge The Million Death by Dumpling Hold the cream cheese, kill the lox

  • A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld; personal collection
  • The Million by Karl Schroeder; personal collection
  • Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien; personal collection
  • Hold the cream cheese, kill the lox by Sharon Kahn; library book


Reviews Posted

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Night of the Animals: 09/02/18

Night of the Animals

Night of the Animals by Bill Broun has sat on my wishlist so long I don't recall the circumstances that inspired me putting it there in the first place. Last summer as I was facing an uncertain time between addresses, sojourning in an apartment in the catchment of my children's schools, I relied primarily on ebooks and digital audiobooks as they didn't take up a lot of physical space.

I will be upfront and say that some of my reaction to this book is probably due to the medium I chose. Some ebooks — especially ones written for adults — tend to explode when converted to epub. The UX reasoning is to make the typeface adjustable to help readers who might need a larger size. A large typeface on a small screen (especially on my little iPhone) disrupts the textual flow and makes an already long book (560 pages) an extraordinarily long book (more like 1700 pages).

Add to this reading experience two other problems. The first was that the book, for whatever reason, kept forgetting its digital bookmarks. The second is that I was in serious need of glasses but didn't have the time to get my eyes examined during the craziness of selling our condo. Combine the two and I was re-reading entire chapters (sometimes multiple times) in as small a typeface as I could manage.

On a night in 2052, homeless man Cuthbert Handley decides to listen to the animal voices he's been hearing and release the animals from the last remaining zoo in the world. It happens to be the London Zoo. The United Kingdom is run by King Harry 9, a rather Trumpian sounding extrapolation of current Prince Harry. His reign is set against a world that has been taken over by a Wikipedia equivalent — again with the recent Russian hacking and influencing of U.S. politics via Facebook, Twitter bots, and some election hacking, not that hard to envision.

Handley has a social worker / doctor who wants to help him off the mind altering and highly addictive drug he's on. It's a drug that has flooded the nation and has hit the poor especially hard. It's again not to hard to imagine given the opioid epidemic that is so often on the news.

But here's where things started to fall apart on me (and this is in part due to the unfortunate re-reading glitch) — the proportion of world building to plot was off. So much of the book is devoted to explaining how the internet driven dystopia of 2052 got there that the basic plot — man wants to free animals in zoo because he believes they can talk — gets lost in the endless details of how the drug was invented and distributed, how Harry 9 came to power, how social media was used and corrupted and reformed into a global Big Brother.

Then there is a side plot of Handley trying to find his long (very long) lost brother. Handley is elderly and his brother was even older. The chances of his brother actually being alive are slim to one but we still have to slog through Handley wondering what happened to him and his eternal hope that he can find him.

One star

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August 2018 Sources: 09/02/18

September book sources

August was similar in mixture to July. I read an equal number of purchased books as library books. None of the purchased books were from August, meaning that my ROOB score didn't have any positive hits.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In terms of numbers read, I had another light month. I read one more than I did in July (twenty-two). As there were no new (some month) purchases, my ROOB score dropped to -3.41, which is back to where I was in June. August 2018 was my lowest (meaning best) ROOB score ever.

The trend line has begun to dip towards the negative again after months of being nearly flat.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

Looking at all previous years, September 2018 is the second lowest (meaning best) month for reading from the to-be-read pile.

ROOB monthly averages

Since I didn't read any of the books purchased in September, my average for September dropped from -2.46 to -2.56.

In September I hope to read through more of the books I've bought this year.

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Island of the Mad: 09/01/18

Island of the Mad

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King is the fifteenth of the Mary Russell mysteries. Mary is called to help find a missing woman who was on a supervised outing from Bedlam. Sherlock, meanwhile, is pressed into doing some dirty work for Mycroft in Venice as Mussolini is taking hold of Italy. If you know anything about Venice, you can see both by the title and the cover art that their two investigations merge into one larger and more dangerous mission.

The missing woman's plot was pretty much the introduction to the Mussolini plot. Very early on it's well established that she is probably a lesbian and she and her nurse have run off to Venice to be together because circumstances have made Bedlam unsafe for them.

But of course her brother, the man in charge of the estate and the title and the one most eager to dispose of her so he can have total control over both, follows her to Venice. He's also a fascist sympathizer (as was Britain officially at the time this book is set).

With these period pieces it's so tempting to make the fictional characters cross paths with nonfictional ones. The Murdoch Mysteries television series has made twelve seasons out of doing this. In this book, la celebrità del romanzo, is none other than Cole Porter.

Porter being there as the BIG QUEER of the book is the point where I started to lose my grip. Here's the thing: his personal life is still notorious. His music is still popular. He's probably more popular and more an icon now than he was then. He was at the time a wealthy weirdo who wrote racy songs that flew under the radar enough to avoid censorship. They were songs that everyone knew were dirty and they were fun to dance to and he was fun to gossip about.

But here, his caricaturization is awkward and forced. There are painful passages where Sherlock and Mary discuss Porter's marriage and his sexuality in something that is neither exactly the language of the time nor is it modern language. It's just embarrassing and comes off as perhaps the author being embarrassed writing it. All the while, one could (and should) be wondering about the age difference between Mary and Russell. Their fictional marriage is frankly weirder and more off putting than anything associated with Cole Porter.

The last straw for me was the climax where the British fascists are exposed to Mycroft's satisfaction. The scene takes place at a crossdressing party that reads like a mashup of Cabaret, The Producers and the remake of To Be or Not to Be.

Three stars

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August 2018 Summary: 09/01/18

Reading report

August was the last month of summer vacation. It was also the month of the summer flu, with all of us getting mildly sick for about a week. Being sick means not being interested in reading — not even for audio books.

With being busy with back to school and with catching the flu, I had another light (for me) reading month with only twenty-two books completed. Although I finished a seven books published in 2018, none of them were released in August.

I currently have thirteen books due at the library. I'm trying to focus more on reading books I've already purchased. Of these, two have run out of renewals and must be read this month.

August's reading was one higher than July's. I did, however manage to meet my goal of having at least 50% of my books be by Writers of Color, Native, or from other countries. Eleven books counted towards that goal and ten did not. August's reviews also met the goal with sixteen of thirty books counting towards the goal.

At the start of July I had thirty-five reviews from 2016 to post; that's now down to twenty-eight. My 2017 reviews dropped by one to twenty-eight. My 2018 reviews rose slightly from seventy-six to eighty.

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