Counting to Perfect: 01/31/20
Counting to Perfect by Suzanne LaFleur is about a younger sister coming to terms with being an aunt to her high school aged sister's daughter. Cassie had a routine: school, swim team, hanging with older sister Julia, dinners with her parents. Now she feels invisible. Everything now is about Julia and baby Addie.
The trouble isn't just in the home. It's Cassie's friends too. Some are reluctant to visit her home. Others are forbidden by their parents. There's a stigma around teenage mothers and everyone is acting like Cassie's going to next.
Summer vacation and things still haven't improved at home. Cassie has swim team but her schedule has to fit with Julia and Addie's. She feels burned out. She feels like she'll never be back to normal.
In all of this upset, though, Cassie knows one thing. She still loves her sister and she definitely loves her niece. This isn't a book about jealous. It's about burnout.
Julia when she turns eighteen decides she needs time away from her parents. She needs time to learn how to be Addie's mother without being mothered herself. With money loaned to her by Cassie, she buys a car and decides to set out on a roadtrip.
Because Cassie decides to go to with her sister and niece, the back half of his middle grade novel sits on the road narrative spectrum. The biggest question about Counting to Perfect's placement comes down to who are the travelers? Clearly Cassie is. Clearly Julie is. By themselves, they would be sibling travelers. But there is Addie. Does she count as a traveler?
Yes. Addie counts. Although she only has a few babbly lines near the end of the book, she is the point of the trip. Time on the road is time to bond with her and again as sisters. With Addie in the equation, the travelers are family (33).
The destination, while an unplanned one, and unnamed in the narrative, is a known one to the characters. It's something the parents back at home are tracking Julia, Cassie, and Addie's travels. Therefore, the destination isn't utopia. Instead I will go by the description: a lake up in the mountains somewhere. It is the wildlands (99).
The route the girls take is meandering and through rural and wild places. From the landscape and the small motels, I am inferring a Blue Highway (33) route.
Thus the bonding Cassie, her sister, and her niece do is the tale of family traveling to the wildlands via the Blue Highway (339933).
Beautiful Darkness: 01/30/20
Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann is French graphic novel, published originally in 2009 as Jolies ténèbres. The book opens with a pretty blond girl getting ready to have tea with a prince when suddenly the world falls away and she finds herself and everyone else she knows marooned in a forest.
Aurora, it turns, out is what's left of the inner voice of a school child who has died or perhaps been murdered, in the forest. She and the others literally crawl out of the girls's corpse, primarily through her eyes and ears, implying quite literally that they are (or were) homunculi.
The remainder of the book is the rise and fall of civilization among these once imaginary creatures now made physical through death. The creatures of Aurora's mind (we learn from a notebook that the child's name was also Aurora), are drawn in an early twentieth century cartoon style. While they range from the cute to the grotesque, their actions are often barbaric.
Even Aurora the homunculus whom we've been lead to believe, falsely through her beauty and her apparent refinement, she is just as brutal and heartless as all the others. She ends up being the most brutal and the most determined to do away with the others.
Beautiful Darkness is a stunningly beautiful and equally disturbing read.
Death by Coffee: 01/29/20
Death by Coffee by Alex Erickson is the first of the Bookstore Café mystery series. Krissy Hancock has just moved to a small midwest town from California to help her friend Vicki open a café and bookstore. On the very first day of business Brenden Lawyer ends up dead from a peanut allergy. When your café is called "Death by Coffee" it doesn't bode well for business.
To save her business and her reputation, Krissy decides to investigate. Her approach to investigating is rather blunt and something I've not seen outside of Murder She Wrote.
For an inaugural volume it has the usual rough edges. The characters are too driven by rigid character sheets. The situations are a series of connected tropes. The clues are a bit obvious.
But as an audiobook, performed by Melissa Moran, it's still a fun listen. The second book is Death by Tea (2015).
There's a Murder Afoot: 01/28/20
There's a Murder Afoot by Vicki Delany is the fifth of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mysteries. January sixth is Holmes's birthday and the slowest time of the year for the bookshop. Gemma, Jayne, and Ryan head to London for the Sherlock Holmes convention. Gemma is there to give a speech and pick up uncle Arthur's award.
Gemma's uncle, an art forger of note, is at the convention selling his unique homages to the original Strand illustrations. He clearly has ruffled some feathers as evidenced by a mysterious man who warns Gemma and her parents about him. And then on the same night as Gemma's speech, he's found strangled, and Henry, Gemma's father is next to his body.
Gemma and company decide to prolong their London stay to investigate the uncle's murder. They have help from Gemma's older sister who seems have as many ties to British government as fictional Mycroft does.
The plot's fun but a little drawn out in parts. There's too much time spent playing armchair tour guide. There's also too many gags around near disasters at the bookshop back in West London.
The core plot though is satisfying. The clues are there and an observant reader can figure everything out before Gemma and friends.
The House That Lou Built: 01/27/20
The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio is set in San Francisco and the North Bay. Lou Bulosan-Nelson loves to build and has a dream of construction her own tiny house. She'll build it at home and then find a way to tow it up north to a small plot of family owned land.
But there are two snags in Lou's plan. The first is that she's a middle schooler and has limited resources. The second is that the property taxes haven't been paid and the land is about to be auctioned. Finally, it looks like she and her mother are about to move to Washington.
Lou's best ally is Mr. Keller, her shop teacher. In this day and age it might seem unrealistic to include a shop class in contemporary fiction with so many of them having closed in schools around the country. Locally, though, (meaning the Bay Area where the book is set) there are shop classes here and there. Our local high school has one and another one in town has a metal shop.
Everything that Lou and her cohorts accomplish is grounded in the Bay Area. The places are realistically portrayed including the length of time and the amount of effort it takes to go from one part to another part.
Lou's adventures in housebuilding fit into the road narrative spectrum at 336633. While she does a lot by herself, she does recruit her family whenever possible. As things are finally accomplished with a group effort, the traveler for this narrative is the family (33). The goal as the title states is a home. Lou wants to give her mother a place of her own; they currently live with Lou's grandmother. Thus home (66) is the destination. The route to home is the Blue Highway (33). Anyone familiar with the main route from San Francisco to the North Bay knows that it's via the Golden Gate Bridge, aka U.S. 101, a classic and still well traveled Blue Highway. Put all together, this book is about a family finding a home via multiple trips along the Blue Highway.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 27): 01/27/20
Last week was a short one for my kids. No school on Monday or Friday. All day Saturday felt like Sunday. This week will be a normal one.
What I read:
What I'm reading:
Bob the Artist: 01/26/20
Bob the Artist by Marion Deuchars is about a bird who doesn't fit in with the rest of the flock. Bob's legs are much longer than the others'. Until recently his legs haven't bothered him but someone made a comment and now Bob's got some serious body dysphoria going on.
Bob tries exercise and other methods to change his legs. But they remain long and thin, much longer and much thinner than everyone else.
Absolutely down in the dumps, Bob wanders into an art museum. It's there that he's inspired to paint his bill in colors and patterns inspired by Matisse and then by other artists.
Basically this is the story of someone finding their way to express themselves and to live comfortably in their body. It's a good message about body positivity, self expression, while also giving a quick run through of some 20th century artists and art styles.
Come Tumbling Down: 01/25/20
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire is the fifth of the Wayward Children series. If one is just following Jack and Jill, this is their third novel. The first two being Every Heart a Doorway (2016) and Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017).
The novel opens back at Eleanor's school. I continue see her as the literary progression of Shirley Jackson's protagonist in The Haunting of Hill House (1959). I realize Eleanor West has her own history, including inheriting the house cum school from a head relative — where it was Luke who was the heir to Hill House. But the way she is tied to the house and way she continues to isolate herself and the school from the real world though land purchases, feels very on brand for Eleanor Vance.
But this isn't Eleanor's story. She is just the prolog. Instead, it's about a rallying of the troops for a quest to the Moors. The quest itself is a literary exploration of body dysphoria as Jack has been switched into Jill's body against her will, while Jill is hoping to use Jack's body for her own dark purposes.
Jack arrives with her fiancé and leaves with Christopher, Kade, Sumi, and Cora. Except for Sumi, who is going just for the fun of it, the Moors are tempting alternatives for the students still searching or waiting for their to return.
In Down Among the Sticks and Bones the Moors are kept to two counterpoint areas: the windmill which is similar to the world of Frankenstein, and the castle which is equivalent to Dracula. This time the world expands to the sea and it's right out of Lovecraft's version of Rhode Island.
As with the previous four books, Come Tumbling Down sits on the road narrative spectrum. The group of questers have become friends and an ersatz family (33) at Eleanor West's school. Even if one were to focus only on Jack and Alexis as a couple, the traveler category would be the same (33).
The destination, the Moors, is for Jack and Alexis, home (66). For the others, it's a promise of a potential home. As they progress through their quest, though, it becomes obvious that the Moor's promises aren't as grand as they first sounded. A similar world is not the same. Thus for everyone else, home is redefined as a return to Eleanor West's school.
The route taken, aka travel by lightning, is offroad (66). Even once to the Moors, most of the travel is across the Moors, or through the water, or off a cliff or two. There are roads, but they aren't the route for these travelers.
All together, Come Tumbling Down is about a family of travelers looking for home via an offroad route. It's also about a couple returning home via an offroad route.
In the chart, I've included two different paths of narrative progression on the road narrative spectrum chart. The black arrows show the progression in publication order of all five books. The gray arrows show just the progression of Jack and Jill. The fifth book is the series's deepest foray into horror.
If the series will continue to form, book six would be another fantasy tale involving either an orphan, siblings, or a scarecrow/minotaur duo. Looking at the announced title, The Land of Hoof and Horn (2021), it appears the traveler will indeed be a scarecrow/minotaur story.
The Pretenders: 01/24/20
The Pretenders by Rebecca Hanover is the sequel and conclusion to The Similars. Emma is still coming to terms with a huge personal secret revealed to her at the end of the last school year. She just wants to graduate from Darkwood Academy without last year's drama and danger but she knows that's not going to happen.
Where the previous volume was speculative fiction bordering on horror, this one is straight up horror. Where once there were seven clones (or "similars") now there is the reality of an army of them. The first ones show up at Darkwood, masquerading as their DNA originals but with fewer inhibitions. But then they start to improve in their imitations. They have memories and mannerisms they shouldn't have.
The Similars builds on the cloning technology proposed in The Pretenders and spins the narrative to a modern pastiche of (Invasion of) the Body Snatchers (1955). Instead of just a town under siege, or just Darkwood Academy, now the entire nation is at risk.
Like the first book, this one also sits on the road narrative spectrum. Understanding the spectrum shift shows how the duology slides into horror.
The travelers remain the same as before: scarecrows and minotaurs. All of the travellers are clones. Some are scarecrows — in that they want to protect the world, rescue their friends, and save the world. Others are minotaurs — trapped and in need of rescue. Who is who, I'm not going to tell and for the purpose of the road narrative spectrum, it doesn't matter as scarecrows and minotaurs (99) are the same kind of traveler, just with different circumstances.
The destination is home (66). What and where home is depends on the traveller. Again, I'm not going into details to avoid spoilers. Regardless of who the traveler is, each of them in their own way wants to get home. The concept of home while a universal one, is still an individual one. There are many home destinations here.
The route taken is the Blue Highway (33). Yes, there are many off road jaunts too but out of all trips home, there is one that narrationally counts more than the others. The final home is back to where it all started — Darkwood Academy.
With home and the Blue Highway being two of three axes in The Pretenders's placement on the road narrative spectrum, there is a fundamental shift towards horror, while still staying in the speculative fiction or fantasy side of the chasm.
The Bride Was a Boy: 01/23/20
The Bride Was a Boy by Chii is a manga memoir about romance and transition in Japan. Chii writes about her childhood and her early adulthood when she realized she was a girl.
Mostly it covers her romance, engagement, and marriage to her husband. Except for the wedding — most of the book is pre-surgery.
It's a sweet book about falling love and the lengths a person will go for their significant other. As the laws in Japan regarding gender and marriage are different than here in California. Given the messiness that is law in the United States, I'm not going to hazard a guess about how Japanese law compares to the other forty-nine states.
But this short manga is one glimpse into the life of a transgender Japanese woman. It's presented with humor and frankness. It's approachable for young readers. My daughter read it in middle school before I did, drawn to it because she has transgender friends.
Holiday Buzz: 01/22/20
Holiday Buzz by Cleo Coyle is the twelfth book in the Coffeehouse mystery series. It's Christmas again and Clare and the Village Blend are participating in the Great New York Cookie Swap, an annual tradition where pastry chefs make themed delights for charity.
At the one held near the carousel in Central Park, Clare's part time employee, "M", is bludgeoned to death. A new detective with ties to the mayor declares her death is part of the "The Christmas Stalkings" attacks, but Clare believes otherwise.
In the background of this, there is Mike Quinn still working in Washington, DC. He's supposed to be home but the weather just isn't going to allow it. The plane he was supposedly on crashes and Clare expects the worst.
Frankly it would have been better to kill Quinn off. His relationship with Clare seems be getting all the more poisonous. Being in a job now where he can't share day to day things with her has made him surly and secretive, even on things he can talk about. He's prone to over react and handcuff her and ask questions later.
Anyway, one death leads to another. Investigating it involves pretending to be a Russian ice skater. There is other derring-do and enough mix of red herrings and actual clues to keep things interesting and moving.
My only on-going complaint about this series is the underlying misogyny. The misuse of female, especially in a derogatory manner is annoying. The continued forced binary between men and women with no wiggle room, no trans or non-binary characters in a city as large and diverse as New York, is shameful.
The 13th volume is Billionaire Blend (2013).
Bowled Over: 01/21/20
Bowled Over by Victoria Hamilton is the second in the Vintage Kitchen mystery series. It's Independence Day on the American side of the border. Jaymie and friends will be watching the festivities from the park with everyone else. She's brought along potato salad in one of her vintage bowls, something she'll later regret when it ends up being used as a murder weapon.
In A Deadly Grind, Jaymie spends her down time wondering what she did to piss off her once best friend in high school. Now that former friend is dead and the truth will out during the investigation.
There's a lot to unpack with this mystery but it all centers on a family struggling with finances and more broadly, executive function. The dead woman's mother is a hoarder. The family home has suffered in recent decades. Her surviving daughter was in a custody battle with her sister over a child.
And then there's a side plot about another high school friend who has been suffering a debilitating and degenerative disease. She's in a wheelchair now. And she's one of a handful of suspects because of an altercation she and the deceased had.
I'm being vague because the plotting is tight and worth a read or as I did it, a listen. The characters are all memorable. Loose threads are tied up. It is a very satisfying second volume.
The third volume is Freezer I'll Shoot (2013).
A Love Hate Thing: 01/20/20
A Love Hate Thing by Whitney D. Grandison is a YA contemporary romance set in California. Tyson Trice has lost everything and needs somewhere to stay for six months until he turns eighteen. He's been offered a place with a family who used to employ his grandfather as a gardener.
The novel is broken up into alternating chapters, one from Trice's POV and one from Nandy's POV. Nandy is the daughter of the family Trice is staying with. She and he used to be close but now she's wary of him and he thinks she's spoiled.
The conflict between Trice and Nandy stems from the very different environments they've been raised in. Trice is from Lindenwood, presumably a Black inner-city neighborhood a larger California city. Nandy's family lives in Pacific Hills, situated near the beach in a tract housing complex with a country club. The two are supposedly an "hour apart."
But here's the thing, California as described by these two fictional places, doesn't read true. The country club tract housing as described takes up a shit ton of land. The land near the coast (which is primarily cliffs and rocks and is prone to erosion) is already built up. New housing at this scale happens east of the cities, not west. That's away from the ocean.
Then there's Lindenwood which doesn't have an inner city connotation. There's only one Lindenwood in the state and it's part of Atherton — old money, mansions, and very white in Northern California.
Meanwhile, there's Pacific Hills. Again, not many places bear the name Pacific in California. There's PB in San Diego — bungalows and apartments, not the wealthy enclave described. And there's Pacifica, a bedroom community along the coast near San Francisco. While it's primarily white, it's not a country club place.
Two unconvincing settings provide an insufficient foundation for the narrative. This entire novel feels more midwest. As the author is based in Akron, why not set the book in Akron and Cleveland? Why not make the beach along Lake Erie? If Nandy and Trice were grounded in familiar territory they would come off as genuine teenagers.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 20): 01/20/20
Last week was rough. My husband was traveling to Denver and I still had a bad cold (or maybe a weak flu). I did manage to stick with my art366 project and even got some painting in. The painting mostly happened late in the week when I was finally feeling like myself.
My spouse is home. The cats are ecstatic, especially Tortuga. She really missed him.
What I read:
This week's reading was primarily audiobooks and short texts.
What I'm reading:
Wonder Valley: 01/19/20
Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda is a complex book about people trying to find themselves or their place in the world to varying degrees of success. It's told from multiple points of view across different times and places. In print, I found these jumps between locations, times, and people confusing, but it all seemed to come together as an audiobook.
The book opens with a man stuck in traffic on the 110 in downtown Los Angeles. As he's sitting there, a naked man runs by. Rather than just watch him go by, he gets out of his car and chases after him.
Other characters include a pair of homeless ex-cons who are walking through the California dessert, a woman who has fled UCLA after a car accident, a new age cult in the desert, and an older teenage boy who has tracked down his not-so-great mother in western Los Angeles.
All these disparate pieces are connected but it takes a good long while to see how they all fit together. You have to be in the mood to be patient with the narrative. If you're not, set it aside and try again later.
I originally read it for my road narrative project, but in reading it and in re-focusing my project, I have come to realize that Wonder Valley, while it shares elements with the road narratives I'm analyzing, it doesn't actually qualify as one.
Just Like a Mama: 01/18/20
Just Like a Mama by Alice Faye Duncan and Charnelle Pinkney Barlow is a picture book about a little girl living with a woman who isn't her mother because her parents "live miles away." The reason why isn't given and isn't necessary. This story is about the bond between Carol Olivia Clementine and Mama Rose.
Mama Rose does all the things a parent would. She teaches Carol who to ride a bike. She combs her hair. She gets her into her winter gear. They do chores together. She sees her off to school.
Per the note from the author, the book was written in response to all those "fictive kin" families. These are families with an older sibling or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or some other adult taking the responsibility to care for children when the parents can't. The author explains who her own mother had to raise her younger sister after their mother died.
The illustrations are vibrant watercolors by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. She specializes in patterns and they are here in the clothing, the wrapping paper, and the linens. She fills the world of Carol and Rose with bright primary colors, reflecting the joy the two are building together.
The Winterhouse Mysteries: 01/17/20
The Winterhouse Mysteries by Ben Guterson and Chloe Bristol is the conclusion of the Winterhouse series. Elizabeth has settled into a happy routine at her new home. She's excited to hear Freddy will be here for Easter, as will the two men who have been working on the puzzle.
But her powers are acting up and some of the guests are acting strange too. Elizabeth suspects Gracella Winters is trying one last time to come back from the dead. There is one last item that can grant that wish. Elizabeth and Freddy want to find that item and stop Gracella from using it.
Like the previous books, the clues are hidden in riddles and other forms of wordplay. They are all puzzles that a middle grade puzzle lover can solve. This particular volume has some extra special ones in the form of old school stereograms. They can be done with just typed words and that's how they are done here.
The observant puzzle lover will be able to solve the riddles before Elizabeth and Freddy. If they don't, the plot is still fun. They solve them in story in an organic and satisfying way.
Like the previous two books, The Winterhouse Mysteries sits on the road narrative spectrum. The first book was at the fantasy end, being about an orphan going to utopia via the interstate and railroad. With the kinship between Norbridge and Elizabeth established, the second book sits nearly at the realistic end of the spectrum: a family fighting for their home in the maze.
This last volume settles the series closer to the horror end, without actually being horror. Like The Secrets of Winterhouse, the travelers family: namely Norbridge, Elizabeth and the other members who are at Winterhouse. This time, however, Elizabeth and Norbridge come to realize that there is strength in family and strength in reconciliation.
The destination this time isn't home. Winterhouse as home has already been firmly established. Elizabeth is accustomed to living there and is happy. Now the destination is uhoria ( — understanding the past to procure a better future. If Elizabeth and the others can learn the lessons of Winterhouse's history, they can guarantee a future for the hotel.
The route is like the second book's, but with less danger. Rather than being a maze built out of confusing clues, boarded up passageways, and misdirection, it's a labyrinth (99). The worst aspects of Winterhouse have been secured and neutralized. What's left is a transformative path, one where Elizabeth, her friends and family, and the hotel regulars can all grow as people. Put together, the final Winterhouse book is about a family traveling through uhoria via the labyrinth (33CC99).
Although this is the conclusion to Winterhouse, Ben Guterson has mentioned that he has other books in the works. The first of them will be The Vista Point Einsteins (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2021). The second announced is The Hidden Workshop of Javier Preston (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2022).
Queen of the Sea: 01/16/20
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis is a graphic novel that draws inspiration from the Tudors. Call it an alternate England. It's narrated by Margaret, a foundling on a small British isle that ends up being part of a royal coup.
Margaret has been raised by the nuns who live on the island. She expects to become one when she is of age. Those plans evolve first with the arrival of a noblewoman and her son, and again with the arrival of Queen Eleanor, forced to flee by her half sister, Catherine.
Although this is a graphic novel and full of interesting and amusing asides, it's also a long and complex story. I can normally read a graphic novel in a single sitting. This one took three evenings.
Without giving anything away, the novel ends with enough of a hook to suggest a second book in the works. I personally would love to read the further adventures of Margaret and Eleanor.
Bound for Murder: 01/15/20
Bound for Murder by Victoria Gilbert is the fourth of the Blue Ridge Library mysteries. Sunny's grandparents are having work done at their farm. The backhoe digs up a skeleton — the remains of a man who went missing in the 1960s when the farm was a hippie commune.
Amy Webber as the library director, and Sunny's boss, helps her research the missing man. As with the previous books in the series, investigating the past stirs up trouble in the present. To make matters worse, an out of town reporter has started dogging Amy and Sunny.
There is a lot of information especially in Amy's research. If you're good at logic puzzles you'll be able to figure out who committed the murder and who is trying to keep the truth hidden.
In previous volumes the modern and historic mysteries were well balanced. In this one, the modern day mysteries were separated from the plot by time and geography — suspicious deaths of people on a list of former commune residents. They are already dead by the time Amy starts investigating. Their deaths aren't local. Frankly, it's one of those things where the murderer could have laid low and neither case would have been solved.
Black Hammer, Volume 4: Age of Doom Part Two: 01/14/20
Black Hammer, Volume 4: Age of Doom Part Two by Jeff Lemire is the conclusion of the series. Seen in its entirety, Black Hammer uses a cinematic narrative structure where the ending is an altered/re-contextualized but recognizable version of the opening.
When examined in terms of the road narrative spectrum, we see the transformation more clearly defined. The first two volumes are from the spectrum's point of view, stable. Both volumes are confined within the tale of scarecrow/minotaur traveling within a rural setting via the cornfield. Those two volumes are from the point of view of superheroes who were defeated and exiled by their last battle.
The last two include a new superhero, the daughter of Black Hammer, who has now taken up the mantel. Her travels are what knock the series out of its initial state.
Like volume three, Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part One, volume four dips into metafiction as a means of travel. First it's Lucy Weber, who becomes the new Black Hammer, who travels different dimensions to learn the truth. Now it's Weird who makes the trip. I'd love to say that Weird's trip was weird but it's actually derivative and predictable. He essentially recapitulates Duck Amuck (Warner Bros., 1953).
After Weird's trip, we're given a look at what has happened to all the other characters. They are back in Spiral City, but a version where superheroes don't exist. As they have all had their powers stripped, they are collectively marginalized travelers (66).
The journey this time is Spiral City (00). They have returned home but at a huge price. The original Black Hammer is still dead and now Weird is too. He failed to complete the space mission where he received his powers. Further more, the city is under threat again from Anti-God.
The route they take is the labyrinth. Yes, there's the threat of the Anti-God but he's off screen for this entire volume. The neverending storm is the closest he comes to manifesting. Without a manifest threat, the maze becomes a transformative path, namely a labyrinth (99). It's shape is reiterated in the city's very name: Spiral City.
Thus Black Hammer goes from two volumes of scarecrows and minotaurs traveling to and through a rural landscape via the cornfield (9933FF) to a family of travelers going through utopia via the cornfield (33FFFF), to one last journey of marginalized travelers going to and through the city via the labyrinth.
The Tiger at Midnight: 01/13/20
The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in a landscape inspired by Indian history and myths. It's told in alternating points of view between a soldier, Kunal, and an assassin, Esha.
The country is one recovering from a bloody coup where the royal family was slaughtered, save perhaps one daughter. Drought too has settled in, parching the landscape. Believers say the gods have forsaken them because the ancient rituals can no longer be performed.
But mostly it's a cat and mouse game that settles into something similar to The 39 Steps (the film, not the novel). Kunal and Esha end up having to work together even though he has been sent after her. He's supposed to capture her and take her back to the garrison.
In all of this chase northward, one is reminded of the title. It's the first part of an adage that says a tiger at midnight is the manifestation of unfinished business. Kunal and Esha both have their own tigers — figurative and literal. The figurative one is the hook for the second book, The Archer at Dawn, which is released on May 26, 2020.
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles: 01/12/20
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and illustrated by Erin E. Stead is a picture book about a man who lives by the sea and has taken upon himself to deliver messages in bottles. Except one day a bottle contains an invitation to a party. The problem is, he doesn't know who to deliver it to.
The conclusion is rather like that of The Monster at the End of This Book (1971). The intended recipient is the one who usually delivers them. The party is a thank you for all the deliveries he's made.
The illustrations remind me of Barbara Cooney's work in Miss Rumphius. Both are done in soft pastel colors that give a dreamy feel to the seascapes and to the over all story.
The Mess That We Made: 01/11/20
The Mess That We Made by Michelle Lord and Julie Blattman is about plastic trash polluting the world's oceans. It is a "House that Jack Built" type progressive narrative. I'm normally not a fan of this type of storytelling but it works here.
There are two halves to this book. The first half establishes just how bad things have gotten. It begins with four children in a boat floating over a body of water littered with plastics and the caption: "This is the mess that we made." It ends where it began, though this time with a whale swimming through that mess and the repeated line: "Look at the mess that we made."
The book could have ended there with the whale and her calf swimming through garbage with the tiny boat of children on the surface. It would have been a dark and biting critique of the current state of our oceans.
But there is the second half, one that revisits the text with calls to action. "[W]e are the ones that save the day." Here the beach is shown with people participating in a beach clean-up day. After outlining all the ways we can fix things, it shows the same whale and calf in pristine waters, teaming with fish and the text: "that swim in the ocean that WE save!"
Throughout the book, the illustrations by Julia Blattman are what drive the narrative. Blattman is a visual development artist at Paramount. Her two page spreads show a cinematic eye. These pages could be stills from an animated film or storyboards for a live action films. The Mess That We Made is her first illustrated book. I hope it's the first of many!
The Great Brain Robbery: 01/10/20
The Great Brain Robbery by P.G. Bell is the sequel to The Train to Impossible Places (2018). Suzy Smith is back working for the Impossible Postal Express, for the dedication of the repaired train. What should have been a quick after dinner event ends up being a multiple day adventure to save Trollville from destruction after a horrendous earthquake.
Although Suzy will miss school and her parents will miss work, she has to stay to save Trollville and her friends. While she and the train will use the impossible rails to get help, the postmaster will stay behind to investigate in the city. Suzy also has Frederick's help; he of the formerly cursed snow globe.
This volume goes more into the details of how Trollville works. There is extensive time spent exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of the city. There is exploration of the city's history, its culture, and its government.
While this series is from the UK, it continues to sit on the road narrative spectrum as an outlier. This second book takes a shift towards horror in which and how the road narrative building blocks are used.
The first book was a fantasy similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz except for the railway being the route. Now, though, the destination is a known place, thus removing it from utopia, from Suzy's point of view.
The biggest shift on the spectrum, though, is a change in traveler type. In the previous book, Suzy as an orphan (separated from her family), was the most powerful type of traveler. Now, though, she knows she can eventually return and she and the other postal workers are acting as protectors (or scarecrows) for Trollville (99).
When there is a scarecrow type travelers, there is often also a minotaur. The minotaur is a traveler trapped by circumstances, and sometimes also a threat to the wellbeing of other characters. That's the case here. The titular character is the minotaur to Suzy and the others' scarecrows.
As the destination is no longer utopia (a no or unknown place), it must be somewhere else on the spectrum list. The destination this time is a bit more metaphorical. It's a time before the earthquake. Or more precisely, it's an understanding of what built Trollville and a desire to prevent its destruction. All these time sensitive prompts makes the destination uhoria (CC).
The route, though, remains the railway. Thus The Great Brain Robbery is the tale of scarecrows against a minotaur to uhoria via the railway (99CC00).
Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 01/09/20
Sabrina the Teenage Witch by Kelly Thompson and Veronica Fish is a collection of issues 1-5. It's a redo or reimagining of Sabrina and her aunts, and of course, Salem the familiar.
It's been probably forty years since I read a Sabrina comic. As a kid I remember head-canoning that this Sabrina was the same Sabrina from Bewitched, just younger. The white hair / black hair difference could be explained away with dye. Of course that's all just my silly retconning of two unrelated series.
My other early memories of Sabrina is the Filmation series. I did most of my Archie comics consumption via the cartoons that were on in the 1970s. The late 1990s TV series I've seen maybe an episode or two. By then I was an adult I just couldn't take animatronic Salem seriously enough to want to watch regularly.
The thing that ultimately brought me to reading Thompson and Fish's comic is the Netflix adaptation of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The comic was originally by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack, which I have yet to read.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch like the comics since the 1990s removes Ambrose from the Spellman household. Pity, because I rather like him. This comic then is more in line with the sitcom. Salem at least is back to being snarky and awesome.
The plot is essentially a multi-issue mystery. There are monsters in the forest near the school. Sabrina quickly realizes that the monsters are transformed high schoolers. The big question is why? And who is behind it?
The book was a fun read. The series continues this year with Something Wicked.
The Space Between: 01/08/20
The Space Between by Dete Meserve is about an astronomer coming home from a conference to find her husband missing, presumed kidnapped. She has to do everything she can to find him while planted evidence makes her look responsible for his disappearance.
The book is set in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Sarah, her missing husband, and their near-do-well son, Zack, live in Bel Air and she commutes every day to Pasadena. Right there I have questions — how did they afford the house and why isn't her commute worse given the distance and the lack of major freeways near her home. Or maybe I'm still traumatized from my two years of commuting to and from UCLA when I was living in Pasadena.
The evidence against Sarah include a million dollar deposit, a deleted security camera record, an alarm that wasn't set, and a loaded Glock she's never seen before. Then to make things more complicated, there's evidence her husband may have killed a woman he was seen with during a business trip to New York.
The mystery itself was along the lines of an elaborate Columbo plot without the benefit of seeing the crime committed. Given the husband is missing and the murder victim is someone Sarah has never met, there's not the emotional draw like the cozies I regularly read would have.
The set up for the actual murder plot — the woman in New York — took longer to set up than it needed to. There's a lot of time spent with back story about Sarah's relationship with her husband and the trouble they've been having with their son.
The setting also isn't used to its full potential. Sarah's place of employment ends up being a made up one, named for Carnegie — which brings to mind turn of the last century libraries, not modern day science labs. If Pasadena is key to the plot, why not make her employer either JPL or Caltech?
The Big Shrink: 01/07/20
The Big Shrink by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins is the sixth in the Upside-Down Magic series. This one is primarily from Marigold Ramos's point of view. She is the deaf student who has a problem accidentally shrinking people and things.
Before settling into Marigold's point of view, the first chapter is from Nory's. She was the protagonist / narrator for the first four books. She's at home for Thanksgiving and is introduced to the hot new toy, Dreggs. They are mini-dragons that hatch out of eggs and are active during the day. The more one plays with them, the more tricks they will learn. Nori goes back to her aunt's and to her school with a stash of these Dreggs to give to her friends.
The Dreggs quickly become the hot thing at Dunwiddle Magic School after Nori gives one to each of her classmates. Kids in other classes decide to get them too and there's finally something the regular kids and the students of Ms. Starr's class can bond over.
Enter Marigold. She has extra tutoring for her shrinking magic problem from a grad student. While the tutor is a bit of a ditz, her lessons do genuinely seem to be helping. While she's getting her powers under control, the Dreggs are becoming a nuisance from the administration's POV and are subsequently banned.
Here though is where the book took a tangent from where I thought it should go. The toy dragons are so life like I expected them to be shrunken dragons. I thought maybe Nory and Marigold could have worked together to figure this out and solve the mystery. Instead, they work together to mount a school wide protest. A seventh book has been announced: Hide and Seek but I don't know the release date.
Magnificent Birds: 01/06/20
Candlewick Press may have provided the text for Magnificent Birds but Narisa Togo's illustrations give the book its heart and soul. She is an artist living and working in Japan and has a life long love for birds. I read her book as research and inspiration for the summer camp I was planning: birds of a feather, dinosaurs together.
The book contains two page spreads of fourteen birds. They are painted in their habitat. The book gives their common name, their scientific name, and where they are native. The book offers something from all the continents.
The illustrations are bold and inviting but made up of a limited selection of colors. They are lino cut illustrations. Many of the birds are ones that will be easily recognized: flamingo, ruby throated humming bird (the cover illustration), barn owl, and so on.
It's Monday! What Are You Reading? (January 06): 01/06/20
New Years was fun. My in-laws visited from Monday through Thursday morning. We put together a jigsaw puzzle, a tradition we've had for at least as long as I've been part of the family.
So far I'm sticking with my #art366 plan.
On Sunday I finished the Black-necked Stilt painting. It's an acrylic on an 8x10 canvas.
I also did another two fireworks paintings for the sketchbook which is due in February.
What I read:
To start off the year I read a bunch of short books. Two of them are new releases, World's Worst Parrot, and The Mess That We Made.
What I'm reading:
The Troubleshooter's Guide to Do-It-Yourself Genealogy: 01/05/20
My mother's cousin has built and maintained the Weber family tree for a number of years. He set up accounts for all of us. As it happens the service he used was also one I could access through my library. It was a website, then, that I am comfortably familiar with, albeit in reduced capacities when I was a subscribed but non paying member.
Thanksgiving 2017 my mother in law told me how there was conflicting information about when her father changed the family name. The question was basically: did he do it before or after he was married? I volunteered to figure that information out.
But here's the thing, I couldn't save any of what I had learned to my first cousin once removed's family tree. The site only allows one administrator who is in charge of adding or removing people from the tree. If I were going to ad my MIL's tree (or even my husband's tree), I would need to be a paying member and be the administrator of the family tree.
In March, I felt like I had hit a dead end with confirming my grandfather in law's history. To see if I was missing anything obvious, I checked out The Troubleshooter's Guide to Do-It-Yourself Genealogy by W. Daniel Quillen. The book verified that I was doing what I could with the online tools and that I wasn't missing out on anything obvious.
If you are just starting with building your family tree, Quillen's book will be a good place to start. If you have already started and feel like you've hit a brick wall with what you can do online, this book won't be advanced enough. The book is also slanted heavily towards Family Search, the Mormon run site. Personally I've found that site hit or miss with a lot of stray or cloned data.
World's Worst Parrot: 01/04/20
World's Worst Parrot by Alice Kuipers opens with Ava learning that she has inherited her great uncle's African gray parrot. There's a note saying the uncle remembered her loving the parrot when she was younger but Ava has no memory of him or the bird.
Ava lives with her mother and brother. Her father is separated or divorced from her mother and has relocated to Vancouver. His leaving has been hard on all of them. Her once carefree mother is now a neat freak and has done a massive decluttering of the home. A parrot (or any sort of animal) doesn't make sense in the sort of environment she has created for herself and her children.
For Ava the biggest conflict comes from her desire to be popular on Instagram. She wants to present herself as living the perfect life. It's a complete fabrication. Gregg, though, posts photos and videos of her with the parrot and those get the sort of numbers of followers, likes, and comments that she's been struggling to get.
At school, too, Ava comes to realize her friendships aren't as genuine as she thought. The parrot ends up being a divisive factor. Her so called friends will only continue being friends if she gets rid of him.
Although the family dynamic is different, World's Worst Parrot reminds me of the Bat books by Elana K. Arnold. In A Boy Called Bat (2017), it's up to Bat to be the skunk kit's champion. He does all the heavy lifting in terms of learning how to care for the skunk and then providing the care. Ava is in the same position with the parrot, the biggest different being that he is an adult bird.
It Devours!: 01/03/20
It Devours! by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is the sequel to Welcome to Night Vale (2015). Nilanjana Sikdar a scientist who works with Carlos is investigating the giant sink holes that have started swallowing up buildings on the edge of town. Meanwhile, Darryl is trying to recruit for followers for the Church of the Smiling God. The tug of war of science and faith might spell the end of Night Vale.
The central themes this time are the need to belong — be it to a community like Night Vale or a church or a place of work. It's also about being true to yourself even in the throws of faith. Nilanjana needs to decide how much of herself she can comfortably change to lose her interloper status. Darryl needs to decide how much of his life he should continue giving to the Smiling God. Carlos needs to decide how to balance science and family.
As Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are genre savvy, the Nigh Vale stories in any form make full use of the road narrative tropes to explore themes, build characters, and to entertain. This second novel moves right into the horror zone of the road narrative spectrum.
One could argue that with the coupling of Nilanjana and Darryl, as well as the marital status of Cecil and Carlos, that the traveler remains the couple between books, but I argue that it is the privileged traveler (00). Darryl makes progress because of his behind the scenes access at the church. Nilanjana and Carlos both have an effect on the wellbeing of Night Vale (for better or worse).
The destination this time is utopia (FF). For the farmer it's a trip to the land on the other side of the house that doesn't exist. For Darryl it's wherever the Smiling God promises. For Carlos and Nilanjana is their ties to the world outside of Night Vale.
The route is the labyrinth (99) as shown through the spinning of the entity that might be the Smiling God. While falling through the earth might seem like certain death, but the farmer shows it's not the case. While the other world means being separated from friends and family, it's not a dangerous place. It's a place of stasis. Travel through the old oak doors is a transformative one.
All together, It Devours is the tale of privileged travelers going to and from utopia through the labyrinth.
The third book in the series is The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (2020). It releases in March.
Road Narrative Update for December 2019: 01/03/20
I covered 15 narratives in the spectrum. That includes 11 reviews and 4 books still needing to review. I'm taking a break right now from writing essays to focus on reading.
I still have 44 spots open in the road narrative spectrum where I still need to find an exemplar. I've found exemplars for 80% of the spectrum.
Swing it, Sunny: 01/02/20
Swing it, Sunny by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm is set in the 1976-1977 school year after her late summer trip to Florida in Sunny Side Up (2015). She's entering middle school and feels both scared and saddened that her reputation is tainted by her brother's time here. He's meanwhile at a military school as part of his post drug abuse recovery plan.
The book is a series of vignettes through the course of the year. Some of them involve her brother — either how he's doing at school — or how his absence is felt at home.
There are two things that have stuck with me most. The first is the news that Al has died in Florida. Sunny imagines that the alligator has died and that the retirement villagers have thrown an elaborate funeral for him. Turns out it's one of the residents, also named Al.
The second vignette involves Sunny buying a gift for her brother and sending it to him at school. It's a pet rock — one of the most quintessential fads of the decade. His growth as a person, and the signs of his recovery are how his reaction to the present change. At first he's annoyed but by the end, he has it proudly displayed.
The third book in the series is Sunny Rolls the Dice which came out October 1st, 2019.
December 2019 Sources: 01/02/20
December was a busy month with an art commission and holiday planning. The commission meant I needed a library book for research. Total reading numbers were up despite being busy but the ROOB score wasn't as good.
I read seventeen TBR books, and two published in December. Eight books were for research. Two were from the library. My ROOB score was higher by .34, which means a trend in the "wrong" direction.
At the end of 2019, the ROOB trendline continues downwards. December 2019 was the second best December ROOB score since I started tracking these metrics. I hope January continues this trend.
My average for December improved from -2.56 to -2.65.
Out of Circulation: 01/01/20
Out of Circulation by Miranda James is the fourth book in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. The Ducote sisters are hosting the annual library fundraising gala at their home. Vera Cassity, their loudest opponent ends up dead in a disused staircase and Charlie Harris's housekeeper, Azalea ends up being the prime suspect.
Even before Vera's death, Charlie learns of her reputation and sees some of her bad attitude in action. She was a harsh, demanding woman with a temper. She wasn't the genteel white former plantation owner family that everyone else wants.
Afterwards, though, Charlie comes to learn why she acted the way she did. He also learns some deep and long buried secrets involving the Ducote sisters.
The mystery hinges on genealogy, finances, and sex. Ultimately the murder is a crime of passion. Observant readers can pick out who the killer is early on. The clues are there if you pay attention. Then comes the fun of understanding why the killer did it (beyond Vera being a terribly annoying person).
The fifth book in the series is The Silence of the Library (2014).
December 2019 Summary: 01/01/20
December was busier than November, taken up with painting, drawing, planning for the holidays, the holidays themselves. With everything going on I wasn't inclined to push myself to read during free time. Schedules I had made back in fall had to be revised.
One change was I started using the library again, albeit in a limited way. I'm restricting myself to only one or two books out at a given time. I have to read what I have out and return it before getting something else. Likewise I'm keeping my hold requests to one or two at a time.
I read more books in December, 29, up from the previous months' 21. I made my my diverse reading goal. It wasn't as spectacular as November.
January I will be focusing on selling my art. First I have a commission to finish. I don't know how my reading will be affected.
On the reviews front, I continued to mostly review diverse books. As I've worked through most of my backlog of reviews, the posted reviews closely mirror my monthly reading.
I only have 2018 and 2019 read books to post on my blog. My reviews to post from 2018 is down to 25 from 27, and my 2019 books to review are down to 72 from 74.