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July 2020

Rating System

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

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Then There Were Five: 07/31/20

Then There Were Five

Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright is the third book in the Melendy Five series. The United States is now involved in WWII and the effects are felt even in the countryside. The Melendy father has been called to Washington and Cuffy, the housekeeper, has to care for a sick cousin. That leaves the four siblings on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Like the previous two books, the narrative is divided up into episodic vignettes. But this time they are centered on a boy named Mark Herron. They meet him while looking for junk to donate to the war effort. He lives at a decrepit farm with an abusive uncle. It's clear Mark will probably die if he continues to live with this man.

Thankfully for Mark, luck is on his on his side. The remainder of the book, framed in the context of the road narrative spectrum, is how the Melendy siblings find a new home for him.

Chart showing the RDS progression of the four novels

It is Mark's status as an orphan traveler (FF) that gives him the uncanny luck to survive the tragedy that befalls his uncle. His destination, even before his uncle's death, is a home (66). In his case, that home (and the family that goes with it) is the "Four-Story Mistake" as the Melendy family calls their house. The route he takes is an offroad one (66), represented by all the great exploration spots Mark shows his future family. All together, this book is about an orphan finding a new home via an offroad route.

The final book in the series is Spider-web for Two (1951).

Four stars

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Uzumaki: 07/30/20


Uzumaki by Junji Ito is the collection of the entire run of the manga series. It's 648 pages of manga, though broken down into shorter stories, each one being a bit like a Twilight Zone episode.

Everything is set in the small fog-bound town of Kurouzu-cho. It's a town infested with evil spirals. Spirals that drive people mad, kill them, mutate them.

These horror shorts are narrated by a girl and a boy who live in the village. The boy loses his father to the spirals and then his mother. The girl's father is a potter and his pieces become distorted by the spirals.

These entire series, though Japanese, sits in the road narrative spectrum as an outlier. The boy and girl are marginalized travelers (66) because they don't have much in the way of personal agency. They are trapped in Kurouzu-cho by circumstance and probably by the spirals like everyone else in the town. The destination is the rural town (33) itself, or rather all the traveling is done within the confines of it. The route taken is the labyrinth (99) — which is just a fancy way of saying the spiral. While the spiral is usually a peaceful, contemplative means of transformation, the gist here is that the transformation is horrific. All together, Uzumaki is the tale of marginalized travelers trapped in a rural town on a labyrinthine path.

Three stars

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Claws for Concern: 07/29/20

Claws for Concern

Claws for Concern by Miranda James is the ninth in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. Charlie is enjoying working part time at long last at the public library. Author Jack Pemberton wants to feature Charlie and Diesel in an upcoming true crime book but he doesn't want the notoriety.

At the public library, though, Charlie ends up meeting a man who might be his cousin. When that man is struck by in hit and run, Charlie learns he has ties to a horrible murder in a nearby town. Charlie teams up with Jack Pemberton to solve the cold case and the hit and run.

The set up and details of the cold case are similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. There are a few glaring differences, ones needed to make it work in the context of a cozy mystery. The biggest changes involve the timing and the fact that someone survived.

The tenth book is Six Cats a Slayin' (2018).

Four stars

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Descender, Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics: 07/28/20

Descender, Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics

Descender, Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics by Jeff Lemire ends the brief and tenuous sibling relationship of Tims 21 and 22. After a brief chase through space, Tim 22 returns, carrying the body of 21, pretending to be 22.

This is the volume where everyone questions their relationships. Does Andy want his brother back or is he just out for revenge against another robot? Will Telsa reconcile with her father? Will she even survive?

Like volume 2, Orbital Mechanics is a liminal volume. It's a time of escape, a time of movement, a chase through space.

Chart showing the progression through the RNS of the four volumes

In terms of the road narrative spectrum, it's retrograde motion. With the familial ties to the Tims severed, the surviving Tim shows his true monstrous identity. He is a minotaur traveler (99) — made a monster by circumstances, now reveling in that status.

Tim's goal is home (66). Home here is the Machine Moon, but it could also be the planet where his ancient prototype was found. It could also be the code base he shares with the other Tims, the original robot, and the Harvesters.

As this is set in space, the route is offroad. It is as the title states, travel via "orbital mechanics" (66).

All together, Volume 6 is about a minotaur traveler heading home via an offroad route (996666).

Four stars

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Lu: 07/27/20


Lu by Jason Reynolds is the conclusion of the Track series. Lu is the albino on the team and all summer he's been struggling to learn how to run the hurdles. Now at home his mother announces that she's pregnant and his father says Lu will have the honor of naming his baby sister.

When Lu isn't on the track, he's helping his mother at her job. She makes edible sculptures. Her one rule is that Wednesday is her day off. Anyone who orders on Wednesday will get a camel sculpture. No ifs and or buts! If you're curious, camels are made out of bananas and kiwis.

I loved seeing the relationship Lu has with his mother. So many books involve children trying to avoid chores or helping with the family business. Lu genuinely seems to enjoy helping his mother, even if peeling oranges seems a bit tedious at times. Likewise, he's clearly very proud of her.

All in Lu was a nice, quiet ending to a thoroughly delightful series. Track was the series that made me a fan of Jason Reynold's books.

Five stars

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Where the Watermelons Grow: 07/26/20

Where the Watermelons Grow

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin is told from the perspective of twelve year old Della Kelly. Her parents are watermelon famers in the South. Her mother has schizophrenia. There's a drought that is making everything worse.

This is a very slow middle grade fiction. The first third is just set up of the atmosphere. It's hot. The air conditioner is broken. It's unbearably hot and humid. Della and her baby sister can't sleep. Everyone is irritable.

Then things finally mosey into Della's introduction to the Little Free Library and her life outside of the home. It's about her love of drawing, her best friend, helping at the farm stand.

And then there's the Bee Lady and her honey. And it's supposed to fix things but the things you need not the things you want. But frankly by this time in the audiobook I was bored and ready to move on.

I think this book would have worked better for me in print. At least skimming would have been easier.

Two stars

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A Deadly Inside Scoop: 07/25/20

A Deadly Inside Scoop

A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette and Joell Jacob (narrator) is the start of the Ice Cream Parlor mystery series. Bronwyn "Win" Crewse has returned home to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to run her grandparents' ice cream parlor. Her aunt had tried turning it into a something more akin to a touristy bodega and had nearly bankrupted the store. Wyn's plan is to return to the tried and true: just ice cream, sundaes, ice cream cakes — all featuring her grandmother's recipes.

From the very get-go, this cozy mystery has the feel in terms of setting and that sense of tradition of a long running shop to Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian (2018). The big differences, though, it's a mystery, and it features a Black family, written by a Black author.

This mystery takes its sweet time introducing the characters, the setting (both the shop and the town), and the family dynamic, and the family history (including a near disastrous run in with a con man some years back). Then after staying with Wyn through her first slow day of running the shop, the mystery part is finally introduced. How things unfold is organic and the timing is perfect. Frankly I would have happily kept listening even without the sleuthing.

The second book is A Game of Cones and will release on March 2, 2021.

Five stars

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The Missing Years: 07/24/20

The Missing Years

The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott is set in the Highlands of Scotland at an old manor rumored to be haunted or cursed. Ailsa Calder and her half-sister have returned, twenty-seven years after their father disappeared with a case of diamonds. With her father still not declared dead, they can't sell or rent the house. All they can do is live in it or leave it rot.

The Manse is as much a character as Ailsa and Carrie. It is a place with a history. It's a place where animals refuse to enter. It's a place that is giving Ailsa nightmares. It's a place her neighbor Fiona is obsessed with and will do anything to enter, whether or not she's invited.

The choice of character names, though, made for some humorous unintentional crossover scenes in my imagination. I happened to be reading The Missing Years at the same time as Death and Daisies by Amanda Flower (2018). With both books being set in rural Scotland and centered on magical houses with many of the same character names, the lighter cozy kept bleeding into this psychological thriller.

Despite the eerie setting and the weird goings on, The Missing Years is a contemporary, realistic mystery. The paranormal is explained, as is the father's whereabouts. An observant reader can figure out the mystery, although it's not as obvious as many of the mysteries I've recently read.

Although this novel is set in Scotland and is written by an English author, it sits as an outlier on the road narrative spectrum. While fiction from the UK isn't as universally tied to the road as North American fiction is, themes and tropes do appear from time to time. That is the case here.

Ailsa and Carrie are sibling travelers (CC). Sure, they are nearly strangers. They are only half sisters and there is a large age gap between the two. Ailsa remembers happy times in the Manse; Carrie doesn't. But they are now compelled to return to the Manse.

The destination may physically be the Manse, but it's the history of the Manse. It's also the mystery of where did their father go? It's all the memories good and bad and the rumors that have taken root around the Manse. Essentially, the destination is uhoria (CC).

Their route is the maze (CC). The landscape outside has changed (flooding and mudslides). The Manse itself is full of hidden secrets and hidden dangers. The route to learning the truth is fraught with danger and blind alleys.

All together, then, The Lost Years can been read as a tale of siblings traveling through the maze to uhoria (CCCCCC).

Lexie Elliot's next book is How to Kill Your Best Friend.

Five stars

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Giant Days Volume 13: 07/23/20

Giant Days Volume 13

Giant Days Volume 13 by John Allison is the penultimate volume. It's the spring break of their final year. Esther is at home desperately trying to write her dissertation on liminal spaces in the American road novel. Daisy is still looking for love. Susan is trying to comfort her boyfriend after his father dies.

But my all time favorite part of volume 13 is the cricket game. It comes before McGraw's father dies. He's at the pub with his cricket team. They have the best chance to win, better than they've ever had. Except the fish and chips gives most of the team food poisoning. So McGraw can either forfeit or take the team Susan can put together.

Before the game can even start — done in the same silliness that the typical baseball issue or episode would be done here in the States or in Japan — Susan gives her version of the rules of cricket. While it's not wrong exactly, it's very simplified, completely bonkers, and absolutely hilarious.

Volume 14, the final volumes, releases October 27, 2020.

Five stars

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Death by Vanilla Latte: 07/22/20

Death by Vanilla Latte

Death by Vanilla Latte by Alex Erickson is the fourth in the Bookstore Café series. Krissy's father, James Hancock, has come to visit Pine Hills to do a book signing. When his obnoxious agent is found murdered, James ends up being the prime suspect!

Usually when an author comes to a main character's town for a book signing, they end up dead. I can't recall another book where the agent ends up dead, although I can think of one example where the agent was the murderer.

Of course, here, the author is a recurring character and the protagonist's father. Familial association gives him a level of protection not given most authors in a murder mystery.

Maybe because I'd read a bunch of visiting boorish people being murdered books in close succession, I found this particular mystery not as engaging as others in the series. The father as suspect, also brought to mind the current TV version of Nancy Drew.

That said, I do appreciate how Erickson plays with expectations. The usual tropes appear in his books, as is to be expected, but the way they unfold is usually contrary to expectations. The downside, though, is that Krissy continues to spend an inordinate amount of her narration time over thinking situations.

The fifth book in the series is Death by Eggnog (2017).

Four stars

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Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe: 07/21/20

Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe

Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe by Sarah Mlynowski is a companion piece to I See London, I See France (2017). Sam, the protagonist, is the girlfriend of Eli, one of the Americans Sydney and Leela meet midway through the novel. The hot sailing instructor, Gavin, is the boyfriend of Kat, the woman they stay with in Paris. That said, both books stand alone just fine and can be read separately or in either order.

Samantha "Sam" Rosenspan has been invited by "Danish" to work as a camp counselor for the junior girls in Bunk 6. She'll be there for six weeks, slightly longer than Eli's backpacking trip through Europe. She'll have the same group of girls and the same counselor bunkmates for the entire time.

Sam's initial motivation is lingering embarrassment over her one disastrous summer at this camp. She was bullied by one of the campers and given a terrible nickname. She's working in terror that her nickname will resurface or that she's recapitulate the same clumsy move that earned her the nickname.

Mostly though the novel is about the dynamics of the Bunk 6 counselors and the girls. Sam finds herself defending Janelle, a free thinking oddball, against the disapproving so-called popular counselors: Lis and Talia. Lis, especially, holds a grudge because Sam arrived a day late, thus leaving all the pre-camp work to her and the other two.

The juniors, who are upper elementary aged, are a mixed bag of chaos. They remind me fondly of the red heads in Camp Spirit by Axelle Lenoir (2020).

Like the original book, Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe is marketed as YA, but it reads like NA. Sam and her cohorts are adults. They're in college. Yes, they're too young to drink in the United States, but most of them do, in moderation and now while working. Yes, they're sexually active and yes, those hookups have consequences. But they are adults.

Five stars

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In West Mills: 07/20/20

In West Mills

In West Mills by De'Shawn Charles Winslow is historical fiction that follows the life of Azalea Knot Centre from 1941 to 1987. It's in a Black community in rural North Carolina.

Azalea, known to most as just Knot works a teacher. She has a drinking problem and a man problem. She loves both too much.

Early in the book she falls pregnant and is forced to give her daughter up for adoption. Much of the rest of the book is the aftermath of that event.

The book is on the short side, at 272 pages. But it's a dense one. It's not a quick read and one under non-pandemic circumstances I would have spent more time with. Someday I will re-read it at the slower, more thoughtful pace it requires.

Three stars

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The Future is Blue: 07/19/20

The Future is Blue

The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente is a collection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories. They employ Valente's usual word play.

The title comes from a story about a name quest by a young person living in a society built on one of the floating islands of trash. Different communities have grown around the different types of garbage collected in areas around the island.

I'm going to say that Valente's short fiction is always a challenge for me. She is a wordsmith. Each story is an extended metaphor that informs the very structure of the narrative. As I tend to read fast, I don't always feel like I get her shorter fiction. But I enjoy the effort.

Four stars

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Every Missing Piece: 07/18/20

Every Missing Piece

Every Missing Piece by Melanie Conklin is a middle grade novel set in North Carolina. Since she was eight, Maddy Gaines has been obsessed with safety. That was the year her father died and her life turned upside down.

She and her mother and step-father live in a two bedroom house. She's been in a turf war with Diesel, who used to let her swim in his backyard pond. She still goes over there to explore the long forgotten cemetery that's nestled between homes in the suburb that has grown up around it. On her most recent trip she meets a boy she's sure is the kidnapped Billy Holcomb, whose story has been on the news.

Maddy is a bit like the boy cried wolf, having called the police for one too many things. Before she calls about the boy calling himself Eric, she decides she needs to investigate. In her investigation she learns more about her anxiety, bonds more with her stepfather, and mends old friendships.

Maddy's story also sits on the road narrative spectrum. Maddy and her friends are all marginalized travelers (66). First because they are all minors and are restricted to their own neighborhood and where they can get to on their bikes. For Maddy it's also her anxiety taking away some of her agency. For Eric, it's the threat of being found. For Diesel, it's the impossible burden of holding onto adult secrets.

Their destination is uhoria — meaning a place outside of time (CC). For Maddy, it's getting back to the comfort and self confidence she felt before her father died. For Eric it's a time in the future when he and his mother can be safe. For Diesel it's a time when he and Maddy can be friends again as he's unaware of the grudge she's holding or the fact that his brothers have been actively sabotaging their friendship.

The route is the cornfield (FF). Or rather, it's the cornfield's other form, the tkaronto, or "place where trees stand in water." In Every Missing Piece, the tkaronto is the cemetery and forest around Diesel's pond. It is the place that all the characters go to or flee from. It's the catalyst for change.

All together, Every Missing Piece is the tale of marginalized travelers (children) going to uhoria (times where they will feel safer) via the cornfield (aka Diesel Jessup's pond) (66CCFF).

Five stars

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The Patchwork Girl of Oz: 07/17/20

The Patchwork Girl of Oz

The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum is the seventh book in the Oz series. It comes three years after the close of The Emerald City of Oz in which Baum said Ozma had cut him off from knowing future adventures. But a new technology made communicating possible:

"[T]he Historian rigged up a high tower in his back yard, and took lessons in wireless telegraphy until he understood and began to call 'Princess Dorothy of Oz' by sending messages into the air."

"And that was the way Dorothy heard that the Historian wanted to speak with her, and there was a Shaggy Man in the Land of Oz who knew how to telegraph a wireless reply."

In that time radio had begun going mainstream, being now a communication device on all U.S. ships, though speech over radio waves was a few years off. Think instead of Baum and Oz having SMS texting.

Book seven also initiates the second era of Oz, the time when Ozma's power over the nation becomes absolute as she transforms it into a eutopia (good place). The Patchwork Girl, Glass Cat, and the Phonograph are refugees from the era before when the practice of magic was more commonplace.

In Marvelous Land of Oz, Tip uses magic powder to bring to life Jack Pumpkinhead and a Saw Horse. The Patchwork Girl is created by the same powder, by the man who has continued to make it even though it's now contraband. He has also been mixing the formula that turns people to stone, and during Scrap's creation, the magician's wife is so turned.

Ojo, a Munchkin boy believed to be unlucky, decides to set out the Emerald City to ask Ozma to fix his aunt. Scraps, the Cat, and the Phonograph all decide to go even though their existence is proof of illegal magic wielding. Gone are happy go lucky farmers in blue clothing in this revisit of Munchkinland. Industrialization and crime have reached all the way here in the thirteen years since Dorothy's first visit.

While the journey to the Emerald City seems like a gender reverse of the first book (a boy traveler and a rag girl instead of boy scarecrow), it's also a reversal on the road narrative spectrum. The original book is the most extreme version of a road narrative: an orphan to utopia via the cornfield.

Here, though, we have nearly the polar opposite. Ojo and his travelers are known. They are traveling with a reputation. When they meet up with the Shaggy Man, an Oz celebrity for his ties to both Dorothy and Kansas, their status is further enhanced. This party of travelers are privileged (00).

The destination, while it might seem like the same place, namely the Emerald City, Dorothy's overall destination was Oz. More broadly put, her trip was to utopia (a no or unknown place). For Ojo and his companions, Oz is a known place, so the destination is just the city (00).

Now, though, the route taken, one might think is the blue highway (err, yellow brick road) but it's instead still aligned with an agrarian ideal. The route taken is the cornfield (FF), as represented by Ojo's traditional Munchkin attire and his enchanted loaf of bread that provides food no matter how much of it is eaten.

All together, book seven is the tale of privileged travelers on the way to the city via the cornfield (0000FF).

I will do a deeper dive into The Patchwork Girl Oz at a later date. The next book in the series is Tik-Tok of Oz (1914).

Four stars

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Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 1: 07/16/20

Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 1

Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 1 by Svetlana Chmakova collects volumes one and two of a four volume English language manga published in 2009. You might think schools lock up at six PM, but some schools stay open for an entirely different student body. Handling the switch over are the two keepers, the Day Keeper and the Night Keeper, that is until the Night Keeper goes missing.

Alex's sister, Sarah, leaves on her first day of working as the Night Keeper. She's supposed to check in with her homeschooled sister throughout the night. She does at first but then she goes silent. Alex realizes something is amiss when her number doesn't go through and her image vanishes from all the family photographs.

Besides Alex and Sarah's story, there is a side plot about hunters who are associated with the school. There's a broken seal and something has put most of their team into a coma.

Overall I found the book a quick and fun read. Sometimes the individual plot threads get confusing. Sometimes the characters are hard to tell apart. Some of that stems from my reading the book so fast, of course, but not all of it.

That said, the second half of this reissue was recently released and I'm eager to dive into it.

Four stars

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Twelve Angry Librarians: 07/15/20

Twelve Angry Librarians

Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda James is the eighth book in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. For the last couple months Charlie Harris has been working as the interim library director at Athena College. One of the people applying for the job is a former MLIS classmate, one who Charlie has nothing good to say about. He's also there to give the keynote address, only to end up dead midway through.

Most of the mystery series I read that feature libraries and librarians, take a rather rose tinted view of both. Miranda James presents the hard work and the seedier side of the career. This volume builds on the sad truth that there are some men in the field who are misogynistic leches.

The question then is, who among the dead's past and current cohorts hated him enough to kill him? Charlie, who has had a physical run-in with the deceased is on the list of suspects.

I haven't been to a library conference but I have enough friends who have to have heard first hand accounts of harassment and worse at them. So far, I'm not aware of any murders happening at them, though. Regardless, I found the darker details of this fictional conference rang true and made for a compelling, albeit gut wrenching at times, read.

The ninth book is Six Cats a Slayin' (2018).

Five stars

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In the Shadow of the Glacier: 07/14/20

In the Shadow of the Glacier

In the Shadow of the Glacier by Vicki Delany is the start of the Constable Molly Smith mystery series. Set in fictional Trafalgar, British Columbia, it's two mysteries in one. The A plot mystery is the murder of a developer. The B plot is the rash of bicycle robberies, including the constable's.

Constable Moonshine "Molly" Smith discovers the body while on her beat. He's in the alley behind a local restaurant and kitty-corner from the tour agency her parents run. She expects to take lead on the investigation but someone else is brought in, a detective recently moved to the hinterland from Vancouver.

Meanwhile the town is beset with outside protestors, come at the beck and call of a conservative news host from the United States. Trafalgar was a safe haven for American draft dodgers. Now a fountain and park is to be built honoring them if the city council will approve it.

In the past I've only read Vicki Delany mysteries written for Americans, set in America. Sure, some Canadianisms bleed into her American mysteries, but this series is different. It's unabashedly Canadian. One of the phrases repeated by many characters is "...but we're in Canada..." whenever a visiting American forgets.

I liked the quirky Molly Smith. She's young, naive, opinionated, but dedicated. Her circumstances are similar to Brooklyn Wainright. She has a goofy name and hippy parents. The difference is that more thought has been put into Molly's backstory, including the repercussions for going into law enforcement.

This first volume is rough around the edges but the mysteries are entertaining. They're just the right mix of clues, red herrings, and general goofiness. This series isn't a cozy even with a female protagonist, but it has cozy elements.

The second book is Valley of the Lost (2009).

Five stars

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Once Upon an Eid: 07/13/20

Once Upon an Eid

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali is an intersectional exploration and celebration of Eid. As the introduction explains, there are two Eids and when they occur shifts year to year due to the lunar calendar.

Besides being about the anticipation or the celebration of Eid, the stories are also glimpses into the vast diversity of Islam and the many different traditions that families follow.

The list of stories are:

  1. Perfect by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (USA/Black)
  2. Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake by Aisha Saeed (USA)
  3. Kareem Means "Generous" by Asmaa Hussein (Canada)
  4. Don'ut Break Tradition by S.K. Ali (Canada)
  5. Just Life Chest Armor by Candice Montgomery (USA/Black)
  6. Gifts by Rukhsana Khan (Canada)
  7. The Feast of Sacrifice by Hena Khan (USA)
  8. Seraj Captures the Moon by G. Willow Wilson (USA) and Sara Alfageeh (USA)
  9. Searching for Blue by N.H. Senzai (USA)
  10. Creative Fixes by Ashley Franklin (USA/Black)
  11. Taste by Hanna Alkaf (Malaysia)
  12. Eid Pictures by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (USA/Black)
  13. Not Only an Only by Huda Al-Marashi (USA)
  14. Maya Madinah Chooses Joy by Ayesha Mattu (USA)
  15. Eid and Pink Bubble Gum, Insha'Allah by Randa Abdel-Fattah (AUS)

My favorites are "Perfect", "Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake", "Kareem Means'Generous'", "Don'ut Break Tradition", and "Not Only an Only."

"Perfect" is about misguided bad feelings. One girl is embarrassed that she only speaks English. The other feels her English isn't good enough.

"Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake" is a stone soup for Eid, where the perfect brownies are made even better with some help from family.

"Kareem Means'Generous'" is about a one boy helping another keep his paper route after his bike is lost, and making a life long friend in the process.

"Don'ut Break Tradition" is about a girl using her Eid money to keep the donut tradition going when her mother is too sick.

"Not Only an Only" is about a second Muslim girl attending the small high school. The two girls are very different but too everyone else, they seem the same. Can they get over their differences and become friends?

There's also a delightful comic midway through the book, written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Sara Alfageeh. Imagine if Eid couldn't be announced because there were too many lanterns, blocking out the light of the moon. What can a child do to make sure the holiday isn't missed?

Five stars

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The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody: 07/12/20

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis opens with Oliver Prichard in school having his plans for his history project dashed to pieces. Oliver is obsessed with the Civil War and wants to profile one of the famous generals. Instead, he's been partnered with the least enthusiastic student in the classroom and their group has been assigned a private who died long before even getting to the battlefront.

I am rather split minded about this book. The protagonist comes across as toxic and rude. He's not an interestingly flawed character or a villain with a compelling backstory. He's just extremely selfish, extremely focused, and privileged enough to expect to get his way. That he doesn't get his way on this assignment is probably a rare even in his short fictional life.

But the private he and his partner are assigned is actually interesting. Both his part in the war (even with it cut short) and the methods used to learn about his life and death.

I've read plenty of other middle grade books that include a family tree project but these are usually set against a larger plot where the protagonist comes from a crunchy family situation or an unusual family. In these cases the family tree is a plot device to reveal all the protagonist's secrets at school and to make their home life even more uncomfortable.

The private that Oliver and Ella are assigned isn't part of either of their trees but researching him requires the same sorts of tools they would use (beyond family knowledge and family documentation) to research their family trees.

The bulk of the book is actually focused on their research methods. I can't think of any other book that builds a story out of genealogical research tools.

Three stars

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The Power of Her Pen: 07/11/20

The Power of Her Pen

The Power of Her Pen by Lesa Cline-Ransome and John Parra is a picture book biography of journalist Ethel L. Payne. Payne was a long time White House reporter. This book goes into her life, education, and career in a way that's approachable for children and interesting for adults.

Having grown up in a very white, very conservative San Diego suburb in the 1970s-1980s, I didn't learn about Ethel L. Payne. I like these picture book biographies as quick introductions to people I would like to learn more about. This volume (like many) includes a short bibliography.

The illustrations are done by John Parra, who has a number of picture books, including other biographies, under his belt. Parra works with acrylic on board, after working out the specifics in a mixture of hand sketching and digital clean up. More on his process can be found in this Q&A.

Five stars

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The House in Poplar Wood: 07/10/20

The House in Poplar Wood

The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee is a middle grade horror that brings to mind the Death of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, except that this is Earth and there are more than Death. Also there are two other types of fates working to control human destiny. They can't, though, work directly on humanity, they need a human to do the actual one on one interactions.

Felix and Lee, twin boys, live in a divided house in Poplar Wood. While they can see each other, they can only see one parent each. Before they were born, their parents broke a taboo, the apprentice to Memory fell in love with the apprentice to Death. Death and Memory hate each other and are now forced to reside in the same house. So they've made the Agreement and that's what keeps the family separate.

Add into the mix, the daughter of Mayor who feels slighted because she's not being taught the family magic. When a girl ends up dead before her time, Gretchen decides to prove that Death broke the rules, essentially murdering her.

Although this book is built on a simple three-way concept for how personifications of supernatural forces can work with humanity, Ormsbee goes the distance to expand the ramifications of such a set up across a larger scale than the book itself. I like that there are different versions of each of the Fates and different interpretations of the rules. Some are better bosses than others, and the ones in Poplar Wood are corrupted, twisted versions.

This novel also falls onto the road narrative spectrum.

Felix and Lee are sibling travelers, as are Gretchen and her brother. Sometimes the four work together and sometimes they work in different types of teams. Through out all of this, there are two sets of siblings (CC) both traveling to a common destination.

The destination is uhoria (CC). It's uhoria in the sense that Felix and Lee want to get to a pre-Agreement time. Gretchen wants to understand what happened to the dead girl. Both solutions lie in understanding the past of the area and how the rules were first written, the ones before the Agreement.

The route is offroad (66), namely through the woods. The woods are how the children get to and from the town. It's where the clues lie for understanding the girl's death.

Altogether The House in Poplar Woods is the tale of siblings who are traveling to uhoria through an offroad route (CCCC66).

Five stars

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A Match Made in Heaven: 07/09/20

A Match Made in Heaven

A Match Made in Heaven by Trina Robbins and Xian Nu Studio is the last of the My Boyfriend is a Monster graphic novels. Morning Glory Conroy is an aspiring comic book artist. Her best friend Julia has a bad home life that is getting worse.

Morning Glory wants to help her best friend. Her desire to help brings a guardian angel into their lives. Unfortunately for Julia, the angel, Gabriel, falls head over heels in love with Morning Glory.

Of the eight books, this one doesn't really fit. Gabriel is a powerful, paranormal being, but he's not a classic monster. Nor is he written as a monster here. He is an angel who has strayed from his mission and furthermore has debased himself by falling in love with a human.

Four stars

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The Amelia Six: 07/08/20

The Amelia Six

The Amelia Six by Kristin L. Gray is a middle grade locked room, well, locked building, mystery set in the real world Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.

Amelia "Millie" Archer, named by her pilot mother for Earhart, is one of six girls invited by the caretaker and the Ninety-Nines, to spend a night. They are to participate in a themed scavenger hunt before Earhart's famed goggles move onto the Smithsonian. During the hunt, Millie notices that the goggles have gone missing.

As there is a blizzard outside, outside help isn't an option. Escape isn't an option. The thief is one of them. There are six girls and four adults. Can the girls solve the mystery and stay safe?

Millie as the narrator has a unique and engaging voice. All of the girls, including the set of twins, have distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Every girl is able to contribute to the task at hand — finding the goggles and discovering the thief.

In terms of set up, The Amelia Six reminds me of And Then There Were None except that no one dies. The mystery thankfully doesn't delve into solving Earhart's disappearance, thus keeping the mystery believable and manageable for something to unfold over the course of a night.

This mystery also sits on the road narrative spectrum. The girls as the collective protagonist, are marginalized travelers (66). Their destination is the wildlands. Yes, the house sits in a Kansas city, but the isolation caused by the blizzard changes the landscape to wildlands (99). Their route is the maze (CC). The author took some liberties and included a secret passage way. Mostly, though, the maze is derived from the danger of the unknown, the unpredictable power, and the lack of telephone/cell service. Thus, The Amelia Six is about marginalized travelers going through the wildlands via the maze (6699CC).

One parting thought, I loved the dynamics of the six girls. I loved how they worked together, how they squabbled, and how they complemented each other's skillset. The book ends with a coda where the six have reunited in Houston. I would love to see them solve another mystery. I realize it would have to be fairly contrived to get them together in that situation again, but it would be a fun read.

Five stars

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No Grater Danger: 07/07/20

No Grater Danger

No Grater Danger by Victoria Hamilton and Emily Woo Zeller (narrator) is the seventh Vintage Kitchen Mystery. Jaymie Layton Muller is now happily married to Jakob and has fully embraced her new role as mother to Jocie. Jocie's principal invites Jaymie to put together a history through cooking lesson as part of the school's new hands-on learning initiative. It's in her research on nutmeg graters that she gets embroiled in her next mystery.

Lois Perry, Mrs. Stubbs's cousin, has first hand knowledge that Jaymie needs for her lesson. She also has a reputation for being a grouch. She owns the land and buildings by the ferry and numerous people want to get her to sell. Meanwhile, her neighbor wants her help in putting through a historic hiking trail near their homes and she refuses. Is she cranky for cranky's sake or is there a grounded reason behind her refusals?

Jaymie who has the patience to talk to strongly opinionated elderly women becomes instant friends with Mrs. Perry. It's clear to her that Mrs. Perry's reactions are completely rational. Her home has been broken into, extremely valuable heirlooms have been stolen and nothing has been done by the police.

Things come to a head when there is an attempt on Mrs. Perry's life. Jaymie finds her alive, in time that she'll probably recover. But from evidence left behind it was very clearly not an accident. Soon after, there's a murder on the land near Mrs. Perry's yard. This death, though, doesn't seem to fit the pattern of crimes against Mrs. Perry, but they are clearly tied together because a nutmeg grinder is found on the body.

This mystery was more complex than others in the series. There are a bunch of people at play. It's not obvious at first who is friend and who is foe. But all the information is presented and an alert reader or listening can piece together the clues. There are some scenes that set up important clues that are very cinematic. One of those early on had me instantly suspecting a character who was barely introduced beyond being a background character (albeit a loud one).

The eighth book is Breaking the Mould (2018).

Five stars

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Property of the Rebel Librarian: 07/06/20

Property of the Rebel Librarian

Property of the Rebel Librarian by Allison Varnes is a middle grade novel about censorship at Dogwood Middle School. It all begins when June Harper's parents discover an author of horror books is doing a presentation at the school. They believe the tale of witchcraft is inappropriate for their daughter and for any other student.

After the event is canceled things escalate quickly. The librarian is suspended. A committee is formed and the library is gutted of any "inappropriate" book. At home, all of June's books are confiscated and edited by her parents.

But it's when June sees a Little Free Library that she takes on the mantel of the Rebel Librarian. The majority of the book is how June and other students continue to read what they want in spite of the crackdown at the school. While the book that sets off the chain of events is fictional, the remaining books are actual titles — ones that have been challenged or banned.

The book is a celebration of today's youth. It's a reminder that tweens can make their own decisions about entertainment. They can self censor. Adults should give them the tools to do these things but not stifle them.

But this book's ending isn't a reset switch. June, the librarian, the school, the students, the parents, all end up in a new place. It's better than where it was at the height of the censorship, but it's a messy resolution.

Five stars

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This Is New York: 07/05/20

This Is New York

This Is New York by Miroslav Sasek is the fourth in the "This is..." series of picture books. This one is a 1960's look at New York City.

This book predates the World Trade Center towers. Reading it now in 2019 for anyone young enough not to remember what the skyline looked like for about thirty years won't notice its absence.

Other things though are a little bit dated but still feel very New York. For instance, there are the mailboxes: one for in city mailing and one for everywhere else. Anyone living in a city will be familiar with those two boxes, even if the color scheme has evolved.

Mail boxes

Then there are things that have changed completely, like the Giants. The Giants are still playing out of New York but their uniform hasn't looked like this in a long while.

New York Giants

Reading this book as I was working through my Turkey is like a T.rex sketchbook, I was amused by the out of date skeleton included in the book. The skeleton is bolt upright as was the way until the 1990s when evidence began to mount that dinosaurs were ancestors of birds. The modern posing would have the head and torso leaning forward in a more bird like stance.

outdated t-rex skeleton

The next book in the series is This is Edinburgh (1961).

Five stars

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Hunted by the Sky: 07/04/20

Hunted by the Sky

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena is a two POV fantasy that does for the Agra area of India what A Song of Wraiths & Ruin does with West African lore. Gul is a young woman marked by a star birthmark and cursed by a prophesy that she'll kill the king. Cavas is a young stable boy whose father is terminally ill. They meet one night and their lives are forever changed.

Many parallel POV books alternate chapters giving the two protagonists the chance move the story forward at regular, predictable intervals. Hunted by the Sky doesn't, giving both characters arbitrary numbers of chapters before switching. While this method can be successful, it doesn't work here.

Put bluntly, Cavas's side of the story is boring. He's essentially stuck in the capital working with horses and nearly working himself to death to keep his father alive. Meanwhile, there's a potentially dangerous mage who is coming into her powers under careful training. She has the potential (and the revenge fueled desire) to commit regicide. Her story is the driving force behind this novel.

If Cavas's chapters were cut and the novel were slimmed down to a tight two hundred and fifty pages, it would have been a page turner. Instead, I found much of it a chore to read.

Three stars

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Roll with It: 07/03/20

Roll with It

Roll with It by Jamie Sumner is a middle grade novel about a mother and daughter moving to Eufaula, OK to help care for a grandfather with Alzheimers. Ellie, the daughter, is wheelchair bound because of cerebral palsy. Her passion is baking and she's hoping the move will be a chance at greater freedom.

The first third of the book is used a set up to show what life is like for Ellie. We're shown a day in her life at school and at home and how she has an aid at school and doesn't want one. We see how she has been on anti-seizure medicine for most of her childhood but has now apparently outgrown the need for them. We get to read her letters to different celebrity chefs with baking questions.

Had Ellie and her mother not moved, Roll with It would have been a very different book. I think it would have settled into a novel about how difficult CP makes life and the annoyances of being in a wheelchair. The move, though, shakes things up and gives both Ellie and her mother a chance to live and adapt, so that we can see them as people, rather than just character sheets.

The move also puts the novel onto the road narrative spectrum. Mother and daughter are a family of travelers (33). Their destination is rural Oklahoma (33). Their route is the Blue Highway, the roads actually called out in the novel (33).

All together, then, Roll with It is about a family traveling to a rural town via the Blue Highway (333333).

Four stars

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Superman Smashes the Klan: 07/02/20

Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru is a graphic novel reimagining of the radio play arc that started on June 11, 1946 and ran for sixteen episodes. Gene Luen Yang takes the same basic plot of the Klan of the Fiery Cross and adds an immigrant's perspective to it.

If you're familiar with the radio play, you'll know that there's already an immigrant perspective, in the form of a Chinese family who have moved to the suburbs of Metropolis from Chinatown. The neighborhood head of the Klan takes exception to the Lees moving in. Roberta, the family's daughter, decides to investigate, inspired by Lois Lane, and saves the day (with Superman's help).

In Yang's version, he points out the obvious: Superman is also an immigrant. He's an illegal immigrant, and he's an alien from another planet. Sure, he's been raised by the Kents and Smallville is the only home he's ever known before moving to Metropolis. But, his powers are a constant reminder that he's different.

The friendship that grows between Superman and Roberta is one of familiarity. Roberta recognizes the ways he's trying to hide his true nature, to hold back on his powers, as a way to assimilate. It's like how she and her family have taken new first names and how they avoid speaking Cantonese.

The graphic novel is set in the days before Superman has learned how to fly. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but not fly. He gets around by running quickly atop the telephone wires that crisscross the city. Yang ties his stunted powers to his desire to seem as human as possible while still serving the city as a superhero.

Five stars

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June 2020 Sources: 07/02/20

Previous month's book sources

June was the third full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. Although there were some soft-openings, with COVID infection rates spiking, July is looking like a return to April and May closures. Time at home was still caring for puppy, painting, playing video games, chores, reading, and now reading through the news.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In June I read 16 TBR books, up from May's 12 TBR. I also read four books published in June. Eight books were for research. None were from the library. The higher TBR number resulted in a slightly better ROOB score, dropping from -2.59 to -2.86. That score is the middle for June scores.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

June 2020, the ROOB trendline continues downwards. June is lower (meaning better) than May and but higher than April, though lower than January-March. Too many things are in flux right now to make a prediction for July's score.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for June improved slightly from -2.80 to -2.81.

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The Grim Reader: 07/01/20

The Grim Reader

The Grim Reader by Kate Carlisle is the fourteenth book in the Bibliophile mystery series. Brooklyn and her husband are in Dharma for the first annual book festival, where the theme is centered on Little Women. Before the event can even begin, the event's treasurer is murdered and there are two hot headed suspects Brooklyn and Derek have to investigate.

It seems every time another one of these books visits Brooklyn's hippy home town, it becomes more and more gentrified. Now every sibling, it seems, and every minor character from a previous volume, has a thriving, kitschy store on the Lane. Brooklyn herself is now a multi-millionaire. And yet, she seems to be perpetually in her early to mid-thirties. How is that even possible?

Ignoring the series plot holes, this particular volume has a mediocre mystery. It falls back on plot and characterization of the early volumes, where there is at least one loudly rude character who will either be the victim or the main suspect (but won't have actually committed the crime). Meanwhile, the murderer will turn out to be the most forgettable character with the least page time.

Two things that keep me coming back to this series, are the mysteries are short, easy reads, and I like following Brooklyn's work in restoring the featured book. This time it's an altered first volume, first edition of Little Women.

Three stars

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June 2020 Summary: 07/01/20

Reading report

June continued the COVID-19 shelter in place, although with some modifications to what was allowed to be open. The bookstore can now do curbside pick-up or drop offs at the coffee shop. The protests have died down for now and the daily COVID-19 case numbers are reaching new and staggering records. In the middle of this my husband and our oldest child drove down to Los Angeles to find an apartment for the fall. UCLA has rescinded its housing and dining promises, meaning it's off campus living for the next four years. July should have been our 25th wedding anniversary road trip to Canada, but we are stuck at home because of COVID-19.

I read one less book in June, 28, up from May's 29. I just missed my diverse reading goal. I did however put together a Black author index for my blog.

On the reviews front, I had a good month, with eighteen books qualifying.

I still have 2018, 2019, and 2020 read books to post on my blog. My reviews to post from 2018 is down to 10 from 13, and my 2019 books to review are down to 11 from 16. This year's books are at 71 of the 178 books read.

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