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The Newlyweds: 09/30/18
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger is about bride who has moved from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York. A hundred years ago she would have been a mail order bride. Now she is a member of an internet matchmaking site. She's here to marry George. He's bought a house and she's expecting to start a family.
And then nothing happens because they don't really know each other. And they have their separate lives. Amina is homesick. There's also the difference of religion.
But heres the thing, Freudenberger wrote outside her realm of knowledge. She's not a Deshi. She seems to have created Amina to be an exotic fish out of water, rather than to be a well rounded person who hasn't found the life she was expected and also feels like she can't hold up her end of the bargain.
Anger Is a Gift: 09/29/18
Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro is YA fiction set in Oakland, California. Six years earlier Moss's father was murdered by OPD, having mistaken him for someone else. Now a sophomore in high school, he's finding himself in a school that wants to treat him like a criminal with random locker searches, metal detectors and OPD roaming the hallways.
The book opens with Moss and friends riding BART to West Oakland. On the train, Moss flirts with a cute boy about his age. Then their train is stopped due to police activity at the station. They are eventually let off the train and Moss ends up having a panic attack.
It seemed unlikely that BART would let anyone off the train if there was police activity. Typically what happens is the train is allowed to roll to the next station and riders can either get off at the next station and wait until it's okay to ride back or if it's a long time thing, BART sets up a bus bridge between the stations.
For this book, I decided to take this first scene with a grain of salt.
Most of the scenes, though, take place at Moss's high school, West Oakland High School. Wait, what? West Oakland is a BART station, the end of the maze as I80 becomes the Bay Bridge. Other than that it's shipping and train yards. Besides on small condo complex, there is no housing in West Oakland.
As the book unfolds, the high school's failings continue to be introduced. It doesn't have money for working lockers or new textbooks, but it does have money for a police officer and for metal detectors at the front door.
Do drive home the point that Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are treated differently than White neighborhoods, Moss is given a friend who until recently went to the same school as him but now because of how the catchments are drawn, goes to wealthy Piedmont High School. Moss is shown riding his bike along Broadway to the Piedmont "neighborhood."
There are two HUGE things wrong with this set up and both are related to geography. First and foremost, Broadway doesn't end in West Oakland; it ends at Jack London Square. Second, Piedmont, while completely surrounded by Oakland is like West Berlin before German reunification. Piedmont is its own city with its own school district. It is literally impossible for Moss's friend to have gone to an OUSD school if she has lived her entire life in Piedmont.
Now let's look at Moss. If he lives on Broadway near the western terminus, he either lives near or in Oakland's China town. While the author makes a point of including a diverse group of friends — including numerous queer characters, various abled, and a wide arrange of Hispanic characters, there are no Chinese Americans.
The omission of Chinese Americans like so many of the other odd details in this book makes me believe that the author didn't do his homework. The author in his bio mentions living in Oakland briefly, but his roots are Los Angeles. I have to ask why he didn't set this story in Los Angeles where they do in fact use metal detectors in high schools?
Oakland Unified maintains its own police force. Their brief statement on that is on their website. A list of contacts is also provided here. They also have a way for the public to register complaints with treatment by the school police.
Mark Oshiro's depiction of Oakland bears little resemblance to actual Oakland. It reads like cherry picked details from Los Angeles relabeled as Oakland.
That's not to say Oakland is a perfect city. It has its problems stemming from gentrification, lack of funding due to California's screwed up property tax laws, and sky rocketing home and rental prices. This book, does not reflect any of Oakland's actual problems.
The Wonder Engine: 09/28/18
The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher is the conclusion to the Clocktaur duology. Adventurers Slate, Brenner, Caliban, and Edmund have arrived at their destination of Anuket City. Now they need to discover the source of the Clocktaurs and find a way of neutralizing them or die trying.
Over the course of the last book (or the first half if you want to count this as one book divided into volumes, rather than a book and a sequel) the travelers have gone from a loosely knit group of squabbling companions to an ersatz family. Becoming closer in someways makes them less powerful but it also makes them less vulnerable to the dangers of the road.
This volume also goes into more of Slate's background (the last one giving backstory time to Edmund and Caliban). We know from early on in The Clockwork Boys that Brenner was put in charge of the mission because of her ties to Anuket City. Now we learn just how close and dark those ties are, and how dangerous returning is for her.
Besides our initial party we are introduced to a couple of gnoles. It is through the exploration of gnole culture and language that Kingfisher does what she does best — examining and deconstructing gender roles and expression in society.
Because of the confines of the city and the exploration of gender, prejudice, and class, The Wonder Engine reminds me both of Snuff by Terry Pratchett and of the recent middle grade fantasy, Beast & Crown by Joel Ross.
In terms of the road narrative spectrum, the novel is confined within the city of Anuket, where the goal is to prevent further release of the Clocktaurs or somehow get word back home as to how they are made. The traveling party has pretty much become a family, meaning that they have started to care about everyone's wellbeing. To get to the Clocktaurs, they have to take unconventional means to get around the city, meaning they are going "off road" (via rooftops and other low traffic areas).
Thus this novel sits in the rather "safe" end of the spectrum, even with unexplained horrors that seem to defy the logic and magic of their modern day world. The big piece of this book, then, is the unraveling of the mystery. That is where Edmund gets to earn his informed title of "Learned" through a mixture of book research and the tracking down of local knowledge.
That's not to say that victory is easy for our heroes just for the sake of them being heroes. We already know that every other person sent on this mission has failed horribly. Instead, I contend that it is easier for them because they have come together and have taken their time getting there — time well spent on becoming a "family." There is strength in numbers.
Wandering Son: Volume 4: 09/27/18
Wandering Son: Volume 4 by Shimura Takako is primarily the aftermath of Shuichi's modeling gig. So distraught from being called out for being transgender, she has stopped wearing dresses and reverted to her expected form, namely dressing and acting as a boy. Despite that her sister continues to be nasty to her.
Likewise, Yoshino, for reasons of his own, is being pressured to dress in a feminine fashion. He's pretty miserable too and their friendship is suffering for it.
In and among all this family abuse, the kids at school decide to start teasing. It's played up as kids being kids and "love is in the air." But most of these rumor driven "comedic" love triangles are frankly toxic.
Out of all that school horror, though, the two protagonists come to realize that they might want to be more than friends.
Whatever trouble I was having telling characters apart in Volume 3, didn't happen here. Maybe I was less distracted. Maybe it was my glasses (I wasn't wearing them with volume 3). Maybe there's a maturity in the artwork?
FFFFCC: Orphans, Utopia and Mazes: 09/27/18
The second most extreme road narrative journey is the one an orphan (or solo protagonist) takes to utopia via a maze. For this project, based on arguments made within the narrative of The Way to Bea, I separate the maze from the labyrinth.
The maze, being the more difficult to navigation as it is one with blind alleys, traps, and often a "monster in the middle", is placed higher in the spectrum than the labyrinth.
Now English being English, not all story tellers (be they authors, filmmakers, etc) are consistent with how maze and labyrinth are used. Take for instance the film Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is for this project, a maze, with Jareth as the "monster in the middle." On the flip side, the "maze" in first season of Westworld is actually a labyrinth as demonstrated by the icon used for it throughout the series. As it was also a metaphor for sentience, it makes sense that there is only one way in and one way out.
A classic example of an orphan going to utopia by way of a maze is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1871). In the Once Upon a Time Map Book by B.G. Hennessy and illustrated by Peter Joyce, Wonderland is mapped as a hedge maze. Similarly, Sarah's journey through the Labyrinth can be mapped using Peter Joyce's approach.
Beyond Wonderland, my reading has come across one other example, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente. September's second trip to Fairyland is a much darker one, driven by depression over her father's involvement in the war. Her journey is a confusing one that takes her underground and through the land of the revels, who are the cast off shadows of the Fairyland residents. Where her first trip was primarily one of exploration until she at last decided to go home, this one is dark, dangerous, and confusing. It is full of blind alleys (as literal city features) and monsters.
That's not to say more don't exist, just that I haven't read one yet. My narrative spectrum is only three months old. In that time I've been tagging as many books I can that fit gaps in my spectrum but with reading one or two road narratives a week and then reviewing only one, that means I've read about two dozen books and reviewed twelve.
If you know of a recent book, film, or television episode that qualifies, recommend it in the comments.
French Pressed: 09/26/18
French Pressed by Cleo Coyle is the sixth of the Coffeehouse mysteries. Joy Alegro has taken an internship at a fancy French restaurant. When Clare and Madame go to wish her well, they encounter terrible coffee and an out of control sous chef. Meanwhile, a missing prep cook is found murdered and Joy is the prime suspect.
While the previous mysteries have been coffee focused — on the business, the cultivation, the history, etc., this one is on the high end restaurant business. I found Clare being a little out of her league refreshing. It also helped to build suspense in ways that the previous one, Decaffeinated Corpse didn't.
As with previous Joy centered stories, I found Joy's characterization immature. Yes she's young. Yes she's making some idiotic mistakes (like being seduced / pressured into an affair with her mentor). Yes, Clare had her at a young age, but boy does Joy whine a lot.
That said, the mystery was still compelling enough to keep me listening. The seventh book in the series is Espresso Shot (2008).
A Holmesian Approach to Magnum PI: 09/26/18
I haven't watched much broadcast TV since the switch to a digital signal because I don't subscribe to cable and digital signals don't travel well through the nooks and crannies of the Hayward Hills. What little TV I do watch is in the form of season passes I purchase through Apple.
I literally only just heard about the redo of Magnum PI about a month ago when iTunes had the entire original series on sale as a bundle. Next to it was the season pass for the relaunch. I ended up buying both (even though I already own the original series on DVD).
My husband teased me with my instant purchase by reading a rather disparaging review of the reboot. The gist of the review was that it was trying too hard to hit all the things from the original and that the new Magnum doesn't have Selleck's trademark 'stache. That's like complaining that modern day Sherlocks don't have Basil Rathbone's deerstalker.
But there are things that make Sherlock, well, Sherlock. He has an older brother who works directly for the Crown. He is a recreational drug user (or more recently, a recovering addict). Watson is a doctor and a war veteran. Sherlock's nemesis is Moriarty. He lives at 221B Baker Street. He plays the violin. He keeps bees.
For Magnum PI it's not the mustache. Thomas Sullivan Magnum and his buddies, Orville "Rick" Wright, Theodore "TC" Calvin, are war veterans. Magnum is a Detroit Tigers baseball fan. TC is a pilot and runs Island Hoppers. Rick hates his given name, has a thing for Casablanca, and is the guy who knows a guy. Then there is Higgins, who is the majordomo of Robin's Nest (and later revealed to be Robin Masters — a rewrite after the actor playing him died). Magnum has access to Robin's cars, preferring the red Ferrari. TC has his orange and brown helicopter. Rick is usually at the King Kamehameha resort (after his Cafe American closed). Oh and there are the dobermans.
The new show has those things. The current set of actors may look younger, but with the exception of the woman playing Higgins, are all older than the originals were when the show started.
Jay Hernandez, the current Magnum, is a very young looking 40 (compared to Selleck's old looking 35 at the start of the series). He's a Mexican-American and I have to wonder if some of the negative reviews is downright racism. Do I buy him as Magnum? Yes. He has the banter down. His voice over monologues have the cadence of the originals.
Stephen Hill, the current T.C. doesn't have as extensive a biography online as Hernandez. For the first episode he did a good job. I will have to see how his character evolves in later episodes as he didn't have much screen time in "I Saw the Sun Rise."
Rick. Interestingly they made more of a big deal over Rick's given name than they did in the original, including showing a clip of the Kittyhawk flight. Zachary Knighton is also a very young looking 40. Like the other two, he seems to be doing just fine.
The biggest change is clearly Higgins who like Watson in Elementary has been given an update and a new gender. Higgins is now the youngest of the ensemble. John Hillerman was 45 at the start of the show, where as Perdita Weeks is 33. She's actually Welsh, whereas Hillerman was from Texas. I really enjoyed her performance.
Having just re-watched "Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii" parts one and two and "I Saw the Sun Rise" I can honestly say they are on a par. While the two part opener from 1980 had the Magnum PI theme, later episodes in that season open and close with a god awful jazz riff.
The new opening is the "Magnum theme" albeit sped up and remixed in a similar fashion to what was done with the new version of Hawaii Five-O. All the pieces are there, though, Hawaii, Magnum, Rick, TC, Higgins, Robin's Nest, and the Island Hoppers helicopter.
There's the fast red car. In the original two-parter, Magnum drives a red Ferrari that isn't the one he drives for most of the series. This car is pre "Robin-1." In "I Saw the Sun Rise" there are two Ferraris, a modern day one and the older "Robin-1." Both are destroyed by other vehicles in this episode — although the destruction of Robin-1 was clearly done with CGI and it wouldn't surprise me if the car is somehow magically fixed and used again in a later episode.
And finally there's Robin's Nest. The original looked impressive with it's private tide pool, guest house, large rolling grassy hills, palm trees, and electronic gate. While it ended up being as much of a character as the stars and the vehicles, it's not even given an establishing shot until the second half of "Don't Eat the Snow." Even then, the establishing shot is done at night!
The current Robin's Nest I've seen a couple times in the modern Hawaii Five-O, just as the original Robin's Nest was used in various episodes from the original Hawaii Five-O. That said, this establishing shot makes the place look massive. It also looks like more like a hotel than an estate. It's the one piece of the equation I wish they had dialed back a little.
Overall, I liked the first episode of the reboot. I'm curious to see where it goes and to see how it grows into being its own thing.
The Enchanted Egg: 09/25/18
The Enchanted Egg by Kallie George is the second of the Magical Animal Adoption Agency trilogy. Clover is left in charge of the agency while Mr. Jam heads out to consult with an expert in magical eggs because one has shown up that he doesn't recognize.
Of course while Mr. Jam is away the egg hatches and Clover has to find the animal and then figure out what it is and how to feed it. While she is dealing with an unknown baby she's also still working her charm with matching magical animals to magical adopters.
The main plot was cute but the part that really charmed me were Clover's interactions with the adopters. In particular, a Leprechaun father brings in his daughter to adopt a pet. He believes she needs a real pet to counteract her overactive imagination. (It turns out she can actually see invisible animals).
As Clover notes, she has never heard of Leprechaun families or female Leprechauns. She sort of imagines them as green wearing, rainbow and gold loving Smurfs. Turns out they are just secretive and prefer to keep their villages hidden to most people.
There's one book left, This Missing Magic (2016) which I will be reading soon.
Finding Perfect: 09/24/18
Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz is a middle grade novel about Molly who wants to win the poetry slam to convince her mother to come home early from her year long sabbatical. The problem though is her good luck habits and cleansing rituals are getting out of control.
Finding Perfect was the sixth or seventh middle grade OCD novel I read in tight succession last year and frankly the breaking point for me on this particular topic. It was also the third poetry slam book. It basically had the bad fortune of coming after so many similarly themed books.
Middle grade characters are tricky. They're right at that point where they're going through that last big growth spurt. They're rapidly growing into their adult body and the young version of their adult mindset. They can be prone to emotional outbursts and breakdowns — anyone can be but in middle grade fiction sometimes these outbursts are over done, making the main character seem much younger than they are.
Molly suffers most from being written too young. I know she misses her mother. I know she's trying to cope with both the feelings of loss and betrayal as well as her growing need to ritualize her life but she still comes off as three or more years younger than she is. The effect is to make her a less sympathetic and less relatable character.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 24): 09/24/18
We survived the week but I've come down with a cold. I got a lot of reading done, primarily in the form of short things saved on my phone. I also managed to finish the hummingbird painting. I'm thinking of working on an owl next.
In other news, I have been invited back to be a first round reader for middle grade fiction for the CYBILs.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
The Frozen Rabbi: 09/23/18
The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern is a weird book. You have to be in the right mood for it. You might have to set it aside if the mood passes. I'm putting that right out there before I even get into the specifics.
Back in Russia in the pogrom days a Rabbi of some renown lies down to mediate. He does so well at it that he manages to survive being frozen. Fearing a curse or divine retribution or just enjoying the good luck that seems to come with having a frozen rabbi on hand, his body is passed down generation to generation until it ends up in the extra freezer along with the grocery store specials and leftovers of holidays past. That is until Bernie Karp accidentally unfreezes him.
The rabbi who emerges goes through an initial stage of being horrified at how un-Jewish his host family seems to be. Then he comes around to thinking maybe this is his reward for all those years of thoughtful prayer and whatnot. It may not be paradise but it's interesting and maybe he's supposed to partake in all the vices.
Reading this, I couldn't help but imagine the rabbi as performed by Mel Brooks (he hasn't but the almost twenty years ago when this book first was published, he would have been perfect). Young Bernie Karp I see as Matthew Broderick from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
It's weird. It's memorable.
You Go First: 09/22/18
You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly takes place over the course of a week. It's told in alternating points of view with the chapters being the different days of the week. There's Charlotte in Pennsylvania who is reeling from her father's recent heart attack. Then there's Ben in Louisiana who is running for office in school to hide the fact that he's devastated by his parents' announced divorce. The two are connected through an online game of Scrabble.
Often this type of parallel story irritates me but Erin Entrada Kelly makes it work. She keeps each character's story simple and to the point. She gives the two distinct voices, goals, and outlooks on life meaning that it's easy to tell them apart. But she doesn't go so far to completely change the overall flow of the words or use odd grammar for one to set the two apart as so many authors do.
It would be tempting with essentially two interwoven novellas to pick a favorite character or story. The truth is, I can't. Both kids are lovable in their own ways. Both are going through BIG things.
Erin Entrada Kelly has two books in the works for next year: The Girl Who Heard Sparrows and Lalani of the Distant Sea.
Clockwork Boys: 09/21/18
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) is the first book in the Clocktaur duology. It's a quest to get information on horrifying surreal creatures that are terrorizing the trade routes.
The book draws heavily on your typical D&D campaigns but tweaked in way that Vernon does with her middle grade books, but with an adult audience in mind. That means there is swearing, drinking, violence, atrocities, sex, etc. There is still her humor and her unique take on things.
Now in terms of the road narrative project, this first volume can read as a scarecrow / minotaur adventure to the city by a well traveled road. The scarecrows are the party, coerced to protect the kingdom by means of flesh eating tattoos that somehow know when they are straying from their mission. The road is the trading route that has now been overrun by the clockwork boys (later renamed clocktaurs). The goal is a well known city, now known only as the possible source of these armies of destruction.
In a greater world view, one could argue that the final destination isn't a city, but a uhoria in that there is a longer history than what the current kingdoms know about. There are Wonder Engines (also the title of the second book) that harken to a more advanced era.
But as this advanced era is a thing of the diagetic past and not exactly influencing the present, I am sticking to the city as the highest destination goal for this book.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call: 09/20/18
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call by Kelly Thompson is the compilation of five comic issues that ran from late 2017 through early 2018. I originally read them in digital format but opted to save the review for the trade paperback.
Kelly Thompson took a turn at drawing the Ghostbusters from the 2016 film which Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening connected to the original and Real Ghostbusters (among others) through their on-going multiple dimension plot. It's basically a way to let all the different versions of Ghostbusters exist in their own timelines without having to retcon it all together. The art for this series is by Corin Howell. After years of reading the Burnham / Schoening, it was weird (in a fun way) to revisit a part of the Ghostbusters universe but from a different creative perspective.
I'm not convinced that either team has hit upon the quintessential 2016 Ghostbusters representation. I prefer Schoening's character models for Abby and Erin and Howell's versions of Holtzmann and Patty.
In terms of writing, I think Thompson has done a better job of getting beyond the characters' surface traits, especially Holtzmann's. Burnham plays her up for gags, which, granted was a big part of her role in the film, but he sometimes takes her beyond where I think her limitations would be, playing her strictly for the mad scientist lesbian without thinking through the whys behind her boisterous facade.
Thomas uses her five issue arc with the women to do a think piece on how they think as individuals and why they've come together as a team. She does this by creating a ghost who can make use of a person's deepest fears, thus giving an in to the vulnerabilities of each character.
I'm not going to go into all four of the women but do want to mention Holtzmann's dream sequence. It begins with her in a cubical farm, in either sales or marketing. She bolts for the exit and ends up holed up in the bathroom where she attempts to built something to use to facilitate her escape. Instead, her fingers turn to rubber and she no longer has control over herself.
While the setting was New York City, the nightmare explorations of the Ghostbusters reminds me of a M*A*S*H episode where the surgeons and nurses are so sleep deprived that they end up hallucinating their worst nightmares. Holtzmann's nightmare is a direct nod to Hawkeye Pierce's which culminates with him armless in a rowboat drifting across a river of arms.
I don't know if Kelly Thompson and Corin Howell will do a second Ghostbusters series. I suspect that Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening will because they seem to enjoy doing these crossovers and the readers seem to enjoy them (I certainly do) based on Facebook discussions. Thompson is remarkably busy but I hope there is time in the future to revisit her version of the Ghostbusters.
FF9966: Orphans off road in the wildlands: 09/20/18
Among the orphan as protagonist, getting to the wild lands through an off-road route is the next large clumping of road narratives that I've analyzed.
The books discussed here are Amped by Daniel H. Wilson, The Balloon Boy of San Francisco by Dorothy Kupcha Leland, Keeper by Kathi Appelt, Questions Asked by Jostein Gaarder, Akin Duezakin, Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, and The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown. With the exception of Amped, this books were all written for children. From the children's books, Questions Asked, is a picture book and Rapunzel's Revenge is a YA graphic novel.
I'm not suggesting that this type of road narrative is best suited for children. The clumping here reflects my own natural interest in reading middle grade books. Now that I have a more focused understanding of the road narrative I am being more mindful of selecting from a wider range of ages.
The key piece of this segment of road narrative is the wildlands. It is similar to the cornfield but is less likely to be itself a barrier to a different world or the walls of a paranormal or metaphorical prison. The wildlands instead are those places not touched by the road and not touched by mankind. The wildlands are often set up as a foil or obstacle for the protagonist. Or it's a place to hide, an unlikely place to be found because of its remoteness.
Calling a journey to a remote, removed from the road, narrative also "off-road" may seem redundant but there are plenty examples of blue highways and interstates (or railroads) going to the wildlands. Roads do make the wildlands accessible (think National Parks, for instance).
Interestingly, three of these seven examples involve robotics: Amped, and the two Wild Robot novels. Owen Gray, technically, is a cyborg, not a robot, in that he is a human modified by technology, not a fully autonomous mechanical device. But going back to the source, robot is from the Czech, robota, meaning "forced labor" (via Čapek's R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots. Also interestingly, Roz (aka the Wild Robot) is a Rossum's robot.
For Roz and Owen Gray, the wildlands offer a way to get "off the grid" and way from the prying eyes of their AI or robotic overlords. Initially for Roz, the island was an accident as she was washed ashore when a cargo ship lost a shipment of robots. She was the only one to survive the accident. For Owen, the off-grid area is one of forced isolation as the U.S. government decides amped people can no longer be trusted. They are sent to concentration camps away from society.
Water features in five of these seven narratives. The ocean appears four times and a lake the fifth time. For Roz, the ocean becomes first the source of her isolation and later becomes a major barrier to her ability to return to her animal friends and family. For Keeper, the ocean serves as a reminder of her abandonment. Keeper believes the mother who left her at a tiny community in Texas pressed right up against the Gulf of Mexico and a nature preserve, was a mermaid. Over the course of this book she will try to reunite herself with her mother (to near disastrous results as this is realistic fiction, not fantasy). Questions Asked (aka Det spørs) features a lake where a family tragedy occurred a year or so earlier. The lake, accessible through the forest, is destination. For The Balloon Boy, the water in this case is the San Francisco Bay / American River as it takes place in a time before the Benicia bridge was built.
The outlier in terms of the type of isolation and the type of wildlands is Rapunzel. Anyone familiar with the story knows that she is trapped at the top of a tall tower and has grown her hair long enough that it can reach the ground from way up there. In the traditional version, she is rescued by a man using her hair as a rope. Shannon Hale (and later Tangled) imagine two versions where the man in question is a scalawag and she rescues herself but tags along with the man because he's entertaining.
Hale, though, removes Rapunzel from the luscious forrest she's usually put in for a familiar landscape of southern Utah. Rapunzel has been trapped somewhere visually equivalent to Mexican Hat or maybe even southern Colorado, namely Mesa Verde. The area gives a chance to imagine Rapunzel using her hair as a lasso and makes her tower all the more isolated.
How do all of these qualify as "road narratives" when there's nary a road? The road here — or rather the lack of a road — serves as narrative negative space. It's absence is what drives the narrative and informs the decisions that these six orphans make. Each protagonist has a destination in mind even if they can't reach it or need to take unconventional (off-road) methods to get there.
Depth by Lev A.C. Rosen is a noir styled mystery set in a near future after a global flooding. It could even be in the same near future described as the Big Water in Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, except this time the location is New York — or rather what's left of it.
A flooded New York isn't a new idea, certainly. And anyone familiar with the city knows it will flood when the sea levels rise. Rosen's taken on a post flood New York is rather upbeat compared to the dystopian gang-run, illness rampant New York of The Ward by Jordana Frankel. That's not to say it's a utopia in the modern sense but New York has taken its isolation from the mainland in stride and rebranded itself as a safe-haven from the hyper conservative, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic regime that is the remains of the mainland United States.
But that's just the setting. There is an actual cut and dry (despite the flooding) mystery here. Simone is a private detective who has been hired to tail a man suspected of having an affair. When that apparently simple task takes a strange turn, Simone finds herself juggling more work than she wants: a missing persons case, a murder, missing artwork, and the search for a mythical underwater tunnel to the mainland.
As Simon tracks down leads and keeps herself out of danger, we are given clues to the history of the flooding and the dystopian regime that rose up from the remains of the nation. Both the mystery and the near future time line are well thought out and tightly woven. Everything comes together in a rewarding and heart stopping conclusion.
While this book is a standalone, I would love to revisit this flooded New York. Simon is an interesting detective living in a plausible and fascinating version of the Big Apple. I want to follow along as she solves other mysteries.
While I read this book for the mystery, it does qualify for the road narrative project. New York as the starting point for many of the traditional (eight percent) road narratives it has featured prominently in the American road narrative tradition.
In this case, New York isn't the destination. As this is a near future version, uhoria is the destination. The main character is a private investigator and disgraced cop. For this reason I'm counting her as marginalized.
Before I go into the method of travel, let me warn you that this will be a spoiler.
In a city covered entirely by water, it might seem odd to be thinking about roads. Or it might be tempting to think of the road as "off road." But New York when it's not the start (or finish) for a road trip, is known for its subway system. The subway here — or rather a very special station — is the treasure of this mystery.
With a marginalized protagonist in a uhoria searching for railroad (or subway station), we have a 66CC00. It's fitting spot on the spectrum given that this mystery is primarily a 1930s noir but set in a near future science fiction New York.
The great logic puzzle of life: 09/18/18
Five years ago my mother's cousin created an online family tree for his piece of the family tree. It contains the family tree that I grew up hearing about plus some more recent discoveries. But it's very focused on those stories.
For the first four years I pretty much ignored the emailed updates from the site because it was just a digital version of the stories my grandmother told me.
In the meantime, my local library began subscribing to a version of the same website, giving me more access to records than I did as a member of the family tree. I started poking around and researching local historical figures. It was fun but it was also just a diversion.
Flash forward to last Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law had a question about her side of the tree. I knew I could look up some things via the library version but if I had full access I could start connecting the dots and building a tree for her (as well as my husband and our children).
And that's how I came to starting the Sammis family tree. I began with what I knew: my immediate family. Myself, my husband, our children, our parents, our siblings, their spouses, their children. And then I started copying over the Weber family tree.
After planting the tree with what I was sure about, I began to work on what I didn't know, namely my mother-in-law's father and grandfather. It took about six months flesh out her branch based on what she knew and what documents I could find that fit into the story as we knew it.
One of the early hiccups was being rushed and too trusting of the automated bits of the website. It's not that the database behind these trees creates incorrect links, it's rather that like a game of telephone where tiny errors snowball until the message is either garbled or completely changed.
Different branches have different puzzles. My husband's side of the tree is made up of long time residents from the earliest days of the colonies, combined in the last hundred and forty years, recent immigrants.
When there are personal, family stories — they are the best place to start. But keep in mind, that people like the embellish. People lie. And in the case of the census, enumerators make mistakes or they write down the version of things they think is the truth, even if it isn't.
The second weird thing about people is that they tend to clump. By family lore, my husband and I should have family trees that are rooted in specific places, with the movement to California being in the last century.
Flash forward to April. My mother asked a question about her grandmother's side of the family. Specifically she asked about one person who seemed to be the end of the paper trail. She wanted to see if I could connect our ancestor to the well known family of the same name (albeit different spelling).
Quite accidentally (I was looking for historic photos of people in the tree) I came across two should have been no-brainers, namely that the Internet Archive and Google Books both have scanned versions of genealogies written in the late 1800s. They were all the rage back then.
It was there that I found a genealogy of the Bemis family. While it didn't directly have our ancestor, it did have siblings that I had already had connected to him. But the book also contained three hundred pages of family information, much of what I had but tons that I didn't have.
From April until September of this year I transcribed the genealogy into my family tree. Of course I found errors, missing information and some other inconsistencies but it was still a huge resource both in terms of over all data and in better understanding the clumping in the five major branches of my tree.
I've found married cousins with in branches (no major surprise) as well as cousins across the branches. People who shouldn't have been related (per family lore — or rather a lack of lore) were in fact.
The online family tree site makes growing a tree easier by matching data from other family tree. Basically distant relatives can converge on a unified story of what happened by importing each other's data or clicking to verify already added data.
But careless clicking, especially easy in large, complex trees, can result in creating clones of people and from these clones, spawning branch after branch of duplicated data. Once I noticed that was happening, I started keeping a spreadsheet of big family names as they showed up in the major branches. Then if I found that name in another branch, I would stop what I was doing and search for the name. If I found it, I would verify the family information and then instruct the site to connect the two branches.
Now ten months later, my family tree which in April was at 1,500 people has now — mostly through the Bemis genealogy, expanded to twenty thousand.
Whatshisface by Gordon Korman is about a twelve year old with a haunted cellphone. Roderick Northrup died during the reign of Elizabeth I of the plague. Now he's suddenly in Cooper's phone for reasons you'd find in a made for cable tv children's movie.
Before going more into Roderick's piece of this story, let's look at the setting. The town that the Vegas have moved to is known for two things: the wealthy billionaire who lives on the outskirts of town and the annual Shakespeare festival (at the request of the billionaire).
Of course the play the school is putting on for the festival is Romeo & Juliet. Heavens forbid that any other play ever be considered. And of course, Roderick's ire is piqued because he recognizes the play as his own with just the names and the ending changed.
Ultimately this book boils down to being a supernatural buddy caper where the goal is to prove that Roderick was the original author of the play. This falls into the trope of Shakespeare not being creative enough or well educated enough or whatever to write all those plays and sonnets. That's not to say that Shakespeare lived in a perfect bubble and didn't have access to other's people's work. There is evidence that he like everyone else back then was borrowing from the pop culture of the day and making it his own.
The basic plot of this book even with its goofy set up doesn't bother me. What does is how completely clueless Roderick comes off most of the time despite the fact that he had to be educated enough to write a play at the age of twelve in the late 1500s.
English changes a lot. It takes on new words from other languages and it coins new words. The big dictionaries at the end of the year list the words that they have decided to add to their lists. Besides the new words, the grammar, spelling and pronunciation changes too and has changed more widely than many other languages.
But Shakespeare's era is about the time that modern English started to form. The bard is credited with coining many of our modern words. Shakespearean English is tricky but not impossible to read.
Which brings us to Roderick who speaks in a pseudo old timey English with lots of thees and thous. I can't tell if Korman is making Roderick flippant by using the familiar thee/thou with Cooper when he clearly sees him as a wealthy upper class person because of his apparent personal wealth as well as the overall wealth of the town, or not. I hope it's not here just because it's what's expected even if it's not appropriate given the dynamic between the two.
There are other oddities that just rub me the wrong way with how Roderick's old timey nature is presented. For instance, he always calls Cooper, Coopervega as if he only has one name consisting of his given and family name. The language might change, but naming conventions in English go back that far at least. If anything, Roderick should be teasing him for having a family name as his given or "Christian" name as Roderick would most likely call it. (A cooper makes or repairs barrels.)
Finally there is a lack of understanding in the scale of 1590s London with a modern day American or Canadian small town as described in this book. Let's take Hayward since I'm familiar with it. Hayward city has an estimated 160,000 residents.
Add in the unincorporated Fairview which also goes by "Hayward" for the case of postal addresses, and that's another ten thousand people. London in Roderick's time was 200,000. There is no reason he would mistake a busy school with a city as large or larger than the city he lived and died in.
Ultimately it's the sloppiness of details that lost me in Whatshisface. There were so many missed opportunities to show how alike Cooper and Roderick are and how big and influential London was back then.
Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question: 09/17/18
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.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 17): 09/17/18
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:
What I'm reading:
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.
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.
The River at Night: 09/14/18
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.
Runaways: Battleworld: 09/13/18
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.
Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami: 09/12/18
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.
FFCC66: Orphans traveling off road through time: 09/12/18
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.
Young Frances: 09/11/18
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.
Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes: 09/10/18
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.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 10): 09/10/18
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.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Dear Poppy: 09/09/18
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.
Hello Lighthouse: 09/08/18
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.
The Witch's Glass: 09/07/18
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.
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.
99FFFF-990000: Scarecrows and Minotaurs: 09/06/18
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.
Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 1: 09/06/18
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.
Decaffeinated Corpse: 09/05/18
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.
Two Times a Traitor: 09/04/18
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.
One Good Thing about America: 09/03/18
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.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (September 03): 09/03/18
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:
What I'm reading:
Night of the Animals: 09/02/18
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.
August 2018 Sources: 09/02/18
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.
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.
Looking at all previous years, September 2018 is the second lowest (meaning best) month for reading from the to-be-read pile.
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.
Island of the Mad: 09/01/18
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.
August 2018 Summary: 09/01/18
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.