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September 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

Reading Challenges

Canadian Book Challenge: 2020-2021

Beat the Backlist 2020



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For Whom the Book Tolls: 09/30/20

For Whom the Book Tolls

For Whom the Book Tolls by Laura Gail Black is the start of the Antique Bookshop mystery series. Jenna Quinn has been forced to leave Charlotte, NC after being accused of theft and murder. Her uncle has offered her a place to stay in Hokes Folly. He has an apartment over his book shop, with a back entrance. On her first morning there, she finds her uncle dead at the bottom of the stairs leading from the apartment to the store.

When Jenna ends up being the sole heir to her uncle's estate she also finds herself under investigation for murder again. She also has a man claiming to be the uncle's long lost son. Will she lose the store and her new home to a man she's never met?

This first volume reads like a blend of the early Booktown mysteries by Lorna Barrett and the Cat in the Stacks mystery series by Miranda James.

The book relies on tried and true cozy tropes, though some of them were more popular a decade or two ago. In this regard, For Whom the Book Tolls reads like a throwback. That said, I'm curious to see where the series will go.

Four stars

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Tempest in a Teapot: 09/29/20

Tempest in a Teapot

Tempest in a Teapot by Amanda Cooper is the start of the three book Teapot Collector mystery series. Amanda Cooper is a pseudonym for Canadian author, Victoria Hamilton.

Sophie Taylor has moved to Gracious Grove, a small, dry town in the Finger Lakes area of Upstate New York. She will be working in her Aunt Rosie's Victorian Teahouse. She had run her own restaurant in New York, but it had failed after three years. Now she needs a change of pace.

Typically in a cozy mystery, especially in the first volume, the murder takes place in the location that will be the feature of the series. For this series, one would expect the murder to take place in Aunt Rosie's shop. Instead, it happens across the street at a rival tea shop.

From that choice onwards the pacing seems off. A lot of time is wasted on repeating the same ideas and theories with little no further forward progress.

In fact, early on, a character calls the police to finger someone. While she's not entirely correct, she's close enough that if police and the main character had explored that lead, the book would have been half the length.

Cooper uses multiple points of view just as Hamilton does in the Constable Molly Smith series. While it makes sense when the main character is a police officer, where the investigation is done by multiple people, it doesn't here. The book opens with Sophie Taylor, with a very strong point of view. One would expect that POV.

The second book is Shadow of a Spout (2015).

Three stars

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The Cooking Gene: 09/28/20

The Cooking Gene

The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty is a culinary history of Black life in America, wrapped up in his own personal journey of discovering his roots through travel, cooking, and genetic testing. There is a lot of digest here and is a book I plan to re-read in the future because I'm sure I missed a lot on this first pass through it.

Twitty looks at a variety of traditional Black and Southern dishes and uses them to explore the influences of Africa, specifically those countries where slaves were taken from. He looks at crops that were introduced, along with recipes, and the ways in which these foodstuffs were adapted for the Americas and substitutions made with American ingredients.

Along with the food he looks at how messy Black genealogy is because of slavery, because of white men raping and impregnating Black women, of the intermarriage with indigenous peoples which while rare is more common in Black families than white.

I listened to the audiobook version read by the author. He does an excellent job of narrating his work. But with so much covered in this book, especially with words I'm not familiar with, I want to re-read this book in print either a physical copy or an ebook. I'm personally leaning towards ebook to make highlighting easier.

Four stars

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Sandhill Cranes: 09/27/20

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes by Lynn M. Stone is a nonfiction children's picture book. While I couldn't plan another summer camp due to COVID, I needed a quick intro to this specific bird species. As I've said before picture books are great distillers of information.

In mid December I was commissioned to paint sandhill cranes. I've only seen a sandhill crane once and my five photos were crap. I needed to quickly learn about them and their personalities so I could wisely chose public domain photographs for references.

This book covers the basics. Where the birds live. Where they migrate to. Where they breed. What their nests are like. How many eggs. How long it takes to reach adulthood. What courtship is like.

Basically the book had what I needed. If anything I wished it were a little longer. I did however get two important facts that the reference photos weren't showing: the birds are primarily gray and their red heads are bare skin.

Four stars

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Gargantis: 09/26/20

Gargantis

Gargantis by Thomas Taylor is the sequel to Malamander (2019). In this one, the map is expanded to show more of the coastline, a glimpse of the sea. There's an endless storm overhead that is threatening to wash Eerie-on-Sea into the ocean.

The adventure begins with the delivery of a wind-up shell to the Lost-and-Foundery, and the discovery of a fish shaped bottle that Mrs. Fossil, Dr. Thalassi, the local fishermen, and the son of a fisherman lost at sea, all claim. Lady Kraken further complicates things by entrusting Herbie to find the most deserving owner.

The storm, the fish bottle, and the mysterious script on the bottle, all help build more of the history of the area. Eerie-on-Sea now has a timeline going back a thousand years. It's also absolutely tied to the supernatural happenings that appear to be a normal part of the ebb and flow of the town.

Like Malamander the overall lesson is to second guess the stories. If there's a monster involved, question why its perceived as a monster. The second lesson is to question the authority of adults. Finally, one should learn to trust one's ability to find the answers, even to emotionally tough questions.

Chart showing the drastic shift on the RNS between the two books

Also like the first book, Gargantis is an outlier, being a British book that sits on the road narrative spectrum. This time five elite groups end up traveling together. As each person on the final journey have a necessary skillset, collectively they are privileged (00) travelers. Their destination is the wildlands (99) — namely a dangerous location offshore. Their route their is the labyrinth (99) in two forms: one is the classic spiral, this time in the ocean currents, and the other is metaphoric, in that the journey changes the perceptions of nearly everyone involved. In summary, Gargantis can be said to be about privileged travelers who go to the wildlands via the labyrinth to save their town (009999).

There's a third novel in the works.

Five stars

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Minor Mage: 09/25/20

Minor Mage

Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher is a middle grade fantasy novel that she originally tried to publish as Ursula Vernon. Unfortunately she's been pigeon holed as an author of upbeat, colorfully illustrated hybrid-comic fantasies. After years of trying to make this novel acceptable for her publishers, she decided to release it as an ebook. Her T. Kingfisher books are ones she "likes to write."

Oliver is a minor mage in both senses of the word. He's a child and he's a mage of rather limited capacity. He has an armadillo as a familiar and a very short list of spells.

He, though, is his village's last hope for stopping the drought. In the past, heroes have gone through the woods and up into the mountains to bring home the rains. But now he's the only wizard in the town.

Along the way, though, Oliver comes across a worse threat, ghuls. Here's where things get dark. But it's no worse than what Tiffany Aching faces in any of her adventures, the first being The Wee Free Men (2003).

Oliver, like Harriet Hamsterbone, excels at lateral thinking when it comes to magic. In Harriet's case, it's using the curse to her advantage. In Oliver's, it's using the push me pull me spell to it's full capacity.

The quest to find the rain (as well as destroy the ghuls) is mapped on the road narrative spectrum. Oliver leaves his village alone, essentially as an orphan traveler (FF). The destination are the mountains, specifically a farm up there somewhere, which can be represented as the wildlands (99). The route he takes is the Blue Highway (33), meaning he sticks to the road he's memorized as best as he can (save for numerous detours to avoid the ghuls and other threats along the way). Minor Mage can be summarized as an orphan traveling to the wildlands via the Blue Highway (FF9933).

Five stars

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School-Tripped: 09/24/20

School-Tripped

School-Tripped by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm is the third book in the Babymouse, Tales from the Locker series. Babymouse and her classmates are heading into the city on a field trip to the art museum. Babymouse and a few others have their own ideas for an adventure in the city. As you can imagine, things to awry very quickly.

Before I dive into this review I must hang my head in shame. I read this book in February as COVID-19 was first looking scary. I was also sick at the time (possibly with COVID but testing such as it is, I wasn't tested then nor have I been given the opportunity to be tested now for antibodies). It's been a long time since I've let a review slip this long, without at least writing it. So, let's just say I had my very own Babymouse moment with this review. Sorry.

One of the big things Babymouse is excited about is getting the newest smartphone on the market. Given her repeated bad luck with cellphones, I'm surprised she got one so fancy. Further more, the permission slip says to leave all devices at home but Babymouse fudges that part. She will of course regret these decisions before the end of the book.

While Felicia Furrypaws and her besties head one way and Babymouse and Penny head another way. While it's fun to see the big city from her point of view, I really was looking forward to more of the museum. The humor this time is really at Babymouse's expense, at her own shortsightedness and failure to plan. If you're going to sneak out, wear comfortable shoes, learn the routes you want to take, and don't wander too far. As she would say, le sigh.

The fourth book came out in July. It's Curtain Call.

Four stars

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Booked for Death: 09/23/20

Booked for Death

Booked for Death by Victoria Gilbert is the start of the Booklovers B&B mystery series. After a recent renovation, the Chapters B&B is hosting a Josephine Tey themed event which includes a costume party. During the party, one of the owner's outspoken guests ends up murdered. Former school teacher (a la Jessica Fletcher), Charlotte Reed decides to investigate, to at least clear her dead aunt's name.

Like To Kill a Mocking Girl by Harper Kincaid, Booked for Death is set in a real town, this time Beauford, North Carolina. I admit to being curious with this new trend, and wonder how these two series will keep with the real landscape while expanding their fictional worlds.

Readers knowledgable with Josephine Tey's mysteries will have a leg up on solving the mystery. Gilbert does give enough clues to everyone else to have a chance at solving the murder. I've only read one Tey novel, but now also want to read Brat Farrar (1949).

Charlotte's friendship and chemistry with her housekeeper / cook, brings to mind the friendship of Gemma and Jayne in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery series by Vicki Delany. The difference here, though, is age. Charlotte is a Gen-X lead, meaning she's in her 40s. Most of the cozy leads I read are in their late twenties to mid thirties regardless of the age of the author.

I am eager to see where this series goes next.

Four stars

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Valley of the Lost: 09/22/20

Valley of the Lost

Valley of the Lost by Vicki Delany is the second of the Constable Molly Smith mysteries. Lucky Smith, Molly's mother, is leaving the women's center when she hears a baby crying. She finds Miller in the bushes and nearby the body of the woman she believes is the baby's mother.

Much of this novel is Molly and the other investigators hitting wall after wall while trying to track down information about the dead woman. The quickly discover that she's not Miller's mother. With more effort they learn she came to Trafalgar from Vancouver, as did one of the drug counselors, but that's it.

Where the interesting bit of the mystery lies, is with Lucky Smith. Or rather, with Miller. Why is everyone interested in him? Why does the woman from child protective services insist of rehoming him when he's safe with the Smiths?

The dead-ends on the police front show the time needed for their information about Miller and the murdered woman to get out to other agencies, other provinces, and ultimately other countries. One odd choice, I think, is an extended scene with Miller's actual family that gives away a big part of the plot before the climax.

The third book is Winter of Secrets (2009).

Four stars

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Cinderella is Dead: 09/21/20

Cinderella is Dead

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron is a retelling of Cinderella. It reads like a blend of Ash by Malinda Lo (2009) and You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (2020).

Kalynn Bayron imagines a kingdom that has built its entire culture and laws around the ball where Cinderella won the heart of Prince Charming. But it's an oppressive one, fixated on a strict gender binary. The king is all powerful and everyone else, save for a few elite families, can't leave.

It's been two hundred years under this system and sixteen year old Sophia wants something different. She's in love with Erin. The man who has offered her a way out, is gay. When he is taken away in the middle of the annual ball by palace guards, Sophia knows she has to save herself.

Tucked into this retelling is a critical examination of gender politics, toxic masculinity, racism, among others. That said, Sophia's skin color isn't used as a teachable moment. Sophia is a fully realized character with a family, a history, likes and dislikes.

Sophia goes off script and in the process meets a young woman who has the skills to help bring down the king and end the ball for good. Her journey to becoming the hero her kingdom needs. This journey is on the road narrative spectrum.

Sophia and Constance travel together to find the information to save their city. It's clear early on that there is a sexual tension, attraction between the two. They are traveling as a couple (33).

The destination is the White Woods. It's a place specifically off limits. It's a place that features heavily in the Cinderella story. In terms of the road narrative spectrum, this destination is the wildlands (99).

Their route is offroad (66). There is a path but it is heavily guarded and patrolled. As they have rejected society and will be imprisoned and killed. They can't take the road.

All together Cinderella is Dead can be summarized as a couple traveling to the wildlands via an offroad route to save the kingdom (339966).

Five stars

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The Next Thing on My List: 09/20/20

The Next Thing on My List

The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski is admittedly outside my normal range of reading. June Parker survives a terrible car accident which kills her passenger, Melissa. She has left behind a partially finished list of things to do before turning twenty-five. Now June has reluctantly decided to finish the list.

High on Melissa's list was to lose weight. Many of the other items involve becoming the sexy popular girl she wasn't in school. June who also doesn't fit into that category and is a bit of a wallflower has to force herself into behaviors that don't come naturally or comfortably.

After spending most of the book understandably doing this list halfheartedly, she embraces the list and is of course transformed by the experience. She ends up a better, happier, person with a boyfriend.

This novel would be more satisfying if it were played for the horror that it is. A tragic accident killed a woman and left the survivor with the memory of the accident and her death. She internalizes that tragedy and practically becomes the dead woman!

Two stars

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Dehaunting: 09/19/20

Dehaunting

Dehaunting by J.A. White is the sequel to Archimancy (2019). Cordelia, Benji and Agnes have permission to continue their work of helping ghosts over the summer break, until the nephew of the school's architect (and resident poltergeist) starts exploring the school, hoping to learn all he can about the ghosts. The principal rescinds her offer and the kids aren't allowed back until the first day of school.

When they arrive for the first day of school, things are different. Ghosts have started refusing their brightkeys. The teachers are acting strange. There seems to be a plague of headaches among the staff.

The other big news is there might be a way to automate the brightkey process, effectively dehaunting the school. With the chance of being able to do stuff other than helping ghosts is one of a few divisive items in the kids' lives and friendship.

Like the first book, this volume is tightly crafted. Details in the first chapter have lasting effects through to the end. Be observant and see if you can solve things before they do!

Like Archimancy, Dehaunting is on the Road Narrative Spectrum. The children having earned the trust of their principal and with their skills at seeing and helping ghosts, have changed from marginalized travelers to privileged ones (00). Their status change also signals that this book is more ensconced in the horror genre than the previous volume.

As this is still a ghost story, the destination remains uhoria (CC). Here they need to learn more about Elijah Shadow's life as well as lives of the phantoms he took care of before building the Shadow house.

This time, though, the route taken is the labyrinth (99). While there remains danger in the school, it's primarily the teachers who are at risk. The trio, and their extended group of friends, know most of the secrets of the school and its architecture. Knowledge keeps the blind alleys and other en route dangers at a minimum.

All together, Dehaunting can be summarized as privileged travelers going through uhoria via the labyrinth.

Five stars

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Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge: 09/18/20

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is set in Chicago and is what I wish the Dresden Files were but never quite are. Imagine a world where magic can be preformed by the careful mixture of alcoholic drinks. Imagine if bartenders and bars were placed just so to protect humanity from the demons who would like to do them harm.

Recent college graduate Bailey Chen is back home and working at her friend Zane's bar. It's there after accidentally mixing a perfect (and thus magical) screwdriver that she's initiated into the secret world of bartending and ale-chemy.

The book is divided up around different cocktails that feature in a supernatural fight. Each drink is then explained — it's invention, it's history, magical uses of, and any lingering academic dispute among the bartending elite. In this regard the book's humor is punctuated in a fashion similar to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker books.

Bailey ends up being reassigned to a neighboring bar. The idea is to keep her out of trouble. She's young and enthusiastic and frankly too observant for some. Her new bar, though, ends up being just the place she needs to be to uncover a plot that threatens the well being of all of Chicago (and perhaps the world).

The mystery, though, can be understood in terms of the road narrative spectrum. Although there are paranormal elements, the novel sits on the realistic side of horror, rather than the fantasy / speculative fiction side.

The deciding factor for its placement is the traveler. Collectively they are Bailey and her mentor and the other bartenders who work there. My favorite of them is a transgender Canadian who frankly needs his own book. Bailey and all of her friends / coworkers for one reason or another are marginalized (66). Collectively they are not one of the elite bars and aren't seen as a serious threat.

The destination is Chicago. More precisely, all the travel takes place within the confines of the Windy City (00). As it's a well known city, and with the exception of the demons and magic, presented realistically, it's as low as one can go on the destination axis.

The route is the Blue Highway (33), though here it's used more broadly to mean the city roads of Chicago. The roads feature heavily, with actual roadsigns being repurposed as weapons. The bars themselves are located strategically to protect overlapping quadrants.

Put all together, a marginalized group of magic users working in a realistic city and fighting on realistic streets makes for horror with paranormal underpinnings (660033).

Five stars

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Catstronauts: Digital Disaster: 09/17/20

Catstronauts: Digital Disaster

Catstronauts: Digital Disaster by Drew Brockington is the sixth book in the Catstronaut series. A billionaire has built a luxury space hotel, completely automated and run by an AI. The Catstronauts and some plucky space camp kittens have been invited to spend a few days testing out the site.

In the modern day sense, Digital Disaster is inspired by Space X. More precisely, it's inspired by the push for space tourism for the ultra-rich, although, space hotels have yet to exist.

For readers who know some classic scifi, will recognize the hotel as the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Readers will also be correct in assuming the hologram AI will have similar problems to HAL-9000.

I don't know if a seventh one is planned but if one is released, I will definitely read it.

Five stars

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Some Enchanted Éclair: 09/16/20

Some Enchanted Éclair

Some Enchanted Éclair by Bailey Cates and Amy Rubinate is the fourth in the Magical Bakery mystery series. Hollywood has invaded Savannah's historic district for a romcom set during the Revolutionary War. When the movie's "fixer" fires the caterer, the Honey Bee crew comes to the rescue. Then when the fixer is murdered, Katie Lightfoot sets out to solve the mystery.

This volume is a bit of a departure from the previous three where the focus has been on the local magical societies and rivalries. This one is still at its heart a magical mystery, but it's an outside one. It's an unknown threat with unknown consequences.

I liked the added catering angle. Usually the action in the bakery stays there, and the other magical stuff is done off hours. Catering gave the narrative a new outlet to get Katie and the rest of her coven/coworkers a way to be part of the mystery and the investigation in an organic fashion.

The one big change here for me as a reader is format. I've gone from reading the ebooks to listening to the audiobook. Amy Rubinate's narration is a little dry for me in places. Some of that stems from the long sentences of the text. Overall, her performance really is a reading more than Katie recounting what's happening. What I mean is, when I'm listening I don't feel like I'm in Katie's head. Instead, I feel like I'm listening to someone else read her statement of events.

Book five is Magic and Macaroons (2015).

Four stars

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Family Tree, Volume 1: Sapling: 09/15/20

Family Tree, Volume 1: Sapling

Family Tree, Volume 1: Sapling by Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester is the start of a new horror comic series. The end of the world begins with the transformation of a girl into a tree. She's not the first in her family but she's the one would draws the attention of those looking for the signs.

A single mom with help from her father-in-law tries to get her eight year old daughter (the one who is transforming) and her son to safety. There are forces at play that the father-in-law understands but she refuses to listen. It's all too weird and things are happening all too fast.

For the reader, there is very little time to take in the world. It's a page or two of exposition before jumping right in. The pacing is similar to the first issue of Winnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles.

With the family as tree, or the literal manifestation of a family tree as family members becoming trees and being spiritually part of a larger tree, I'm reminded of an episode of Infinity Train. Season Two, episode two is "The Family Tree Car" and it's about the ongoing feud between two family trees. Each branch is a different individual. While the story is different, the imagery of the episode and the comic are very similar.

Like every other Jeff Lemire story I've read, Family Tree fits into the road narrative spectrum. As family is in the title, and it's about a woman being forced to reconcile with her estranged father-in-law, the traveler is the family (33). The destination is uhoria (CC), mostly shown through the scenes inside the tree. It's a look back at previous family members and a look forward to the impending apocalypse. The route is by way of the tree itself, the cornfield (FF). Thus the first volume can be summarized as a family traveling to uhoria via an internalized cornfield (33CCFF).

Four stars

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Restaurant to Another World Volume 1: 09/14/20

Restaurant to Another World Volume 1

Restaurant to Another World Volume 1 by Junpei Inuzuka and Katsumi Enami (Illustrations) is an isekai set inside a Western style restaurant. Every Saturday when the restaurant is shut in Tokyo, the bell over the door creates portals across the countryside of an alternate world — one with magic, dragons, faeries, elves, and so forth.

This particular light novel reads more like a series of connected short stories. Most of the chapters are from the point of view of a customer — often on their first trip through the door. A typical chapter will include who has found the door, where they were when they found it, and what they end up ordering.

As the novel progresses, individual characters are shown together to give a better, richer sense of what the alternate world is like.

If you've seen the anime of the same title, all the stories in volume 1 will be familiar. I have volume 2 on hand and will be reading it soon.

Five stars

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America for Beginners: 09/13/20

America for Beginners

I read America for Beginners by Leah Franqui for the road narrative spectrum project but found that it doesn't qualify despite the blurb and the cover art. The description says that a widow travels from India to California to find the truth of how her son died. While that is the basic narrative (plot) it's a misrepresentation of the narration (story telling).

Pival Sengupta, widow, has let her servants go, and spent her savings on a custom package tour from New York to California. She knows her son is dead and that he had been in a relationship with an American man. She has decided to go to where her son died and kill herself.

The reason this book doesn't qualify for the road narrative spectrum project is that Mrs. Sengupta's road trip is really an after thought to the rest of the narration. Her point of view is diluted by numerous other point of view chapters. Time is given to the man who runs the package tour, to her son and his lover, to the woman is serves as her guide. So much time is given to these other minor characters that Mrs. Sengupta's last days on earth are really more of a footnote to this book. Take everything else out of the novel and you're left with a terse and dispassionate novella.

Two stars

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The Forest of Stars: 09/12/20

The Forest of Stars

The Forest of Stars by Heather Kassner is a middle grade fantasy about a girl trying to find her father after her mother's death. It reads like a blend of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011) and Spell & Spindle by Michelle Schusterman (2018), set in a world that resembles the changeability of the film, Mirror Mask.

Louisa LaRoche needs somewhere safe to live after her mother dies, her broken heart eaten away by love-bugs. Like her father, who she only knows by name, she can float in the air. The wind can carry her away if she's not careful.

When there's nowhere else to turn, Louisa is given an invitation to the Carnival Beneath the Stars. It's a place where magic is real and a home to other magical orphans. The carnival offers a home and a place to learn how to use her magic. It might also be the way to find her father.

Heather Kassner paints a world that works on the logic of wordplay. The world is different than ours but it's internally consistent. It's poetic and sometimes dark but there is hope.

Louisa's journey also fits on the road narrative spectrum. Although she starts the journey alone, she is following in her father's footsteps. She and he, unknown to each other, are family travelers (33). Her destination is home — a new home for the one she lost with the death of her mother (66). The route is offroad, through the forest and through the air (66), the same one her father took. Altogether The Forest of Stars is about a family reuniting in a new home after an offroad journey (336666).

Five stars

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Paola Santiago and the River of Tears: 09/11/20

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia is the start of a middle grade fantasy series. Paola "Pao" Santiago lives with her mother in a crumbling apartment building near the Gila River. Below her lives Dante, one of her best friends. Emma lives in a nice bit of town, but the three have been friends forever.

Although the children have received numerous warnings about the dangers of the Gila River, including the recent drowning of a girl about their age, it's one of the few places they can hang out undisturbed. It's also hard to take the La Llorona ghost stories seriously. Pao is too rational to believe the distraught ghost of a woman who drowned her children is still drowning children from beyond the veil.

When Emma goes missing, either drowned or kidnapped, the novel goes into high gear. It doesn't matter how rational Pao and Dante are, all the stories their families have told them are true and now they're sent to the liminal space along the river to rescue their friend.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is steeped in Latinx folklore. Tehlor Kay Mejia uses Spanish terms but doesn't define them, outside of context clues. It's an effective narrative choice to show how removed Pao and Dante are from their families' culture and language.

The quest to rescue Emma takes the novel into the road narrative spectrum. Although Pao and Dante travel together neither one gets any closer to finding her when they are working together. It's only after Pao is separated from Dante that the true journey begins. Pao on her own is an orphan traveler (FF).

The destination is somewhere on el otro lado. It's described as a veil and a void. It's not given a proper name and no one who has access to it wants to particularly give away any information. While it's not Oz, it is utopia, namely a no-place (FF).

Although this novel is set in the outskirts of Gila Bend, Arizona, along the Gila River, the route is the cornfield (FF). More specifically it's a tkaranto, with cacti standing in for the trees at the water's edge.

All together, this novel can be summarized as an orphan traveler going to utopia via the cornfield to rescue her friends (FFFFFF).

The next novel is Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares (May 2021).

Five stars

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A Man and His Cat, Volume 1: 09/10/20

A Man and His Cat, Volume 1

A Man and His Cat, Volume 1 (おじさまと猫 1) by Umi Sakurai was voted the best manga by booksellers in Japan in 2018. It's now being released in English. The cat is a funny looking Scottish fold who has been overlooked by everyone in the pet shop. He's now a year old and figures he's un-adoptable. When he has given up hope, a man comes and adopts him.

Through brief flashbacks we learn that the man and his wife had wanted to get a cat but never did. He's clearly a widower now and to honor his wife's memory, has decided to adopt the cat.

The first volume is primarily the two getting to know each other and settling on new routines. I'm reminded of My Roommate is a Cat (同居人はひざ、時々、頭のうえ). Except here, the man has done his homework and truly wants a cat in ways that Subaru hasn't.

The second volume in translation was released in July 2020.

Five stars

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Careless Whiskers: 09/09/20

Careless Whiskers

Careless Whiskers by Miranda James is the twelfth book in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. Charlie has washed his hands of amateur sleuthing after that close call. His focus is on his family, especially his daughter and son-in-law's play being performed at the university. That is until the last minute replacement for the lead suffers through a bunch of unnerving pranks and then ends up dead!

There are essentially three things going on in this mystery. First there's the dubious ownership of the play, with two different men claiming to have written it. Then there are the non-fatal pranks. Finally there is the murder.

Murders set during plays isn't a new thing. This particular novel is the fourth example I can think of from recent mysteries I've either read or watched. The one I'm most reminded of is Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham (1989), although there the prop in question was a knife.

With Charlie choosing not to investigate, until near the very end, much of the novel has to contrive reasons for him to be present. That means sitting through many different rehearsals, and reading (or hearing in the case of the audio) the same strands of fictional play dialog and stage direction. It borders on dull and repetitive and the requires commitment to the characters/ fictional world of Athena, to continue reading.

The next novel is Cat Me if You Can (2020).

Four stars

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Mexican Gothic: 09/08/20

Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is set in the early 1950s in Mexico. Noemí Taboada enjoys parties, good music, and fun. When she's not enjoying the night life of Mexico City, she's a college student. Her parents would like her to find a man and settle down like her cousin did.

Then a letter from her newlywed cousin calls everything into question. It's a plea for help. Noemí agrees to go visit her prima to visit her cousin in rural central Mexico. If she needs rescuing, she'll bring her home.

From its very introduction, High Place and the Doyles who live there are very clearly evil to the core. Howard Doyle, a reference to both H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle, is the overbearing patriarch. From the name alone he's clearly a monster. For more on the author's inspiration, please read her Goodreads post.

In horror written by white men, with this setting, the roles would be reversed. Noemí would be white and they would be Mexican (or some other "foreign" group). Here, though, Noemí is Mexican, with ties to an indigenous group. But she's also wealthy and privileged. She is the very embodiment of the things white supremacists fear and hate.

There are lots of horror novels that Mexican Gothic evokes. For me, these are the ones that stand out most. First and foremost is Frank Herbert's The Santaroga Barrier (1968), for how tied the inhabitants are to their environment. Next there is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for how Noemí is treated and expected to adhere to rules she doesn't understand. For how corruption is reflected in the architecture, I'm reminded of The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield (2006). For how the family members are means to an end, finally, I'm reminded of The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner (2019)

While Noemí travels via bus to the old mining town, her journey of discovery, the one that takes place within the bounds of High Place, fits into the road narrative spectrum. As I mentioned before, Noemí is a privileged traveler (00). The house's special powers — the way it holds onto memories — and the way the Doyles continue to live in the fading glory of the days when the mine produced silver — puts the destination in uhoria (CC). The route through uhoria (and to finally escape from it) is the labyrinth (99). The house transforms all who live there and kills those who can't. While the house has been dangerous to many before Noemí, it takes a liking to her, and thus isn't as fully dangerous as the maze. To summarize, Mexican Gothic is the tale of a privileged woman traveling through uhoria via the labyrinth to save her cousin.

Finally, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in British Columbia, this book counts for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Five stars

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Parachutes: 09/07/20

Parachutes

Parachutes by Kelly Yang is a very personal response to the Me Too movement as the author explains in her afterword. It's an honest portrayal at how women will be tossed aside to protect the reputation of the men around them, even when those men are predators. It's told in alternating points of view between Dani, a Filipino-American teen on the debate team, and Claire, a Chinese-American exchange student from Shanghai.

Claire comes from a wealthy, though not 1% wealthy, family and after getting a bad grade on an essay is sent to Los Angeles. She'll be staying at Dani's house. Her piece in the story shows that money and status can't protect against sexual predators.

Dani, on the other hand, is there on scholarship. She needs her debate team wins to get into a good college. She's aiming for Yale. She believes she's the team's star and is blind to her coach's advances until he's blatantly obvious.

As an adult reader, how these sexual predators, whether teen or adult, begin to control Claire and Dani is obvious and heartbreaking. For younger readers, their machinations might be eye opening to some.

It's a long book, 476 pages, plus the author's note. It's sometimes a hard read because of what the characters go through. But it's a worthwhile read.

Five stars

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Time for Bed, Fred!: 09/06/20

Time for Bed, Fred!

Time for Bed, Fred! by Yasmeen Ismail is a picture book about the futility of trying to put a dog to bed. Metaphorically it's about parents and children and the many stalling techniques used to stay up a little bit longer.

At it's most literal, this book is adorable. Dogs do fall into family routines and they can be put to bed, or rather, to their kennel or dog bed. A well raised dog is actually pretty easy to put to bed.

But it's the metaphorical side of this book that has readers divided across the chasm of an inverse bell curve of high and low ratings. Those who rate it low cite the importance of children being obedient to their parents and other adults.

I like this book primarily for the silly dog, preferring to take the book literally. For the metaphorical reading, I believe it's highly important for all people to have agency regardless of age and ability to communicate through "normal means." Even a newborn if you're attentive will make their needs known.

Fred taken as a child who doesn't talk (for whatever reason) still makes his desire to stay up later abundantly clear. In the long run does it matter if Fred goes to bed by a fixed schedule every night of his life? Probably not. The same goes for people.

Five stars

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River of Dreams: 09/05/20

River of Dreams

River of Dreams by Jan Nash is a YA fantasy about a sister trying to rescue her brother from a paranormal induced coma. After a series of nightmares and daytime hallucinations, Finn Driscoll learns she comes from a long line of dreamwalkers, travelers in the river of dreams.

Her brother, Noah, was too until something got him during one of his walks. With help from an adult family friend, and a friend from high school, Finn learns how to harness her power. The good and the bad of this novel is that no time is wasted on waiting for Finn to figure out what's going on. The bad is that the book has long passages, sometimes entire chapters of dream sequences that are rendered in a hard to read italic type face.

The mechanism for dreamwalking and how Finn runs the risk of losing herself in the river of dreams, reminds me of The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006), but with a more direct path. And that direct path, minus the required dream imagery, is what makes a potentially interesting fantasy into something as dry as a "what I did for my summer vacation" presentation.

One interesting coincidental detail with my recent reading, is the use of malum as the name of the entity going after dreamwalkers. I'm drawn immediately to the comparison with Malamander by Thomas Taylor. Here, though, the Latin word for evil is used for an entity that is the immortal embodiment of evil. It's an obvious word choice and nothing beyond agreeing that, yup, he's evil, is done with the word choice.

Essentially this novel takes the narrative equivalent of an interstate freeway. Finn discovers she has powers. She has dreams that tell her what happened to her brother. His powers are confirmed. She learns how to use her powers and gets help from friends and family. She finds her brother. She finds the malum. There's a battle. She wins. The end. It's a boring, direct adventure.

Finn's journey also happens to sit in the road narrative spectrum. Finn wants to protect her brother against the monster who has taken up residence in the river of dreams: a classic scarecrow/minotaur paring (99). The river of dreams is a utopic place, meaning it's one outside of reality (FF). The route she takes is the maze, in fact the specific maze (CC) is described in length in the book. The maze is similar to the one in Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking (2017). To summarize, River of Dreams is the tale of a scarecrow going after a minotaur in utopia via the maze (99FFCC).

Three stars

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Malamander: 09/04/20

Malamander

Malamander by Thomas Taylor is the first book in the Legends of Eerie-on-Sea middle grade urban fantasy series. In the summer time, this seaside town is Cheerie-on-Sea but come winter, the Ch falls off, the tourists go home, and the town settles into its true nature.

Herbert "Herbie" Lemon is twelve and has been working as the Grand Nautilus Hotel's Lost-and-Founder for most of it. He's tasked with returning lost items to former visitors. Now he has his toughest case yet, helping Violet Parma find her parents. She was left in the hotel as a baby and has returned in hopes of learning what happened.

In the background of Violet's quest, is the malamander. She's a sea creature who estivates and comes out to lay a single egg on the winter solstice. The egg is said to be able to grant a wish. But it's also said to be cursed.

Eerie-on-Sea as a fictional seaside town fits in nicely with two other middle grade towns that run on puns and paranormal hijinks. I recommend this first book to fans of the Nagspeak books by Kate Milford and the Secrets of Topsea books by Kir Fox.

The malamander, a portmanteau of malmum (evil) and salamander, is the driving force in this novel. She's a misunderstood, magical sea creature. Yes, her actions to protect her egg can result in a cursed existence for those foolish enough to go after it, but she's not inherently evil. How Violet and Herbie discover this is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

While this novel is British, it is one of those outliers on the road narrative spectrum. Although Violet returns to where she was abandoned, her journey is within the confines of the town, and it's not one she can return home from at the end of the novel. Maybe at the end of the series she will. For now though, she shares a journey with Herbie.

Herbie and Violet are both orphans (FF). Or presumed orphans in that the whereabouts of both sets is unknown. Both want to know what happened to their parents, though, Violet more so than Herbie. Through the magic of the malamander's egg, they can get a glimpse at the past. That desire to know what happened is a destination in uhoria (CC). Their route is offroad, namely across the muddy ocean floor (66). Thus book one in this series can be summarized as an orphan's journey to uhoria via an offroad route (FFCC66).

The second book in the series is Gargantis (2020).

Five stars

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Kerry and the Knight of the Forest: 09/03/20

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest by Andi Watson is a British middle grade graphic novel fantasy about a boy trying to get home with medicine for his ill parents. Like many British fantasies, the misadventures stem from straying off the path. In this case, he's led astray by the creatures who live in the forest.

The best part of this book are the illustrations. They're colorful and geometric. There's a retro feel to them. Collectively they do most of the heavy lifting for the narrative. Frankly the novel would have been better without any text.

The main detractor from this novel is Kerry himself. He oozes white male privilege. Even when he's apparently doing good for others, it's performative. Yes, he's motivated by the need to get medicine to his parents but that doesn't excuse his obnoxious, entitled behavior.

Kerry yelling to the forest from on top of a giant snail

Kerry's journey home, also sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. As a British book, it's an outlier. It's ending demonstrates why I'm not including most British road stories into my project. More on that at the end of this post.

Kerry through his attitude and his insistence that everyone in the forest must help him even with the threat of greater dangers out there, demonstrates that despite his age, is a privileged traveler (00). His destination is home (66) to bring his parents medicine he went to get from a neighboring village. His route is the maze (CC), represented by the magically changeable forest and the creatures / spirits who are trying to keep him trapped there. Thus Kerry and the Knight of the Forest can be summarized as the tale of a privileged traveler heading home via the maze (0066CC).

In my essay Seven Narrative Ways to Travel (February 27, 2017), I discuss the quintessential British road narrative. How their stories differ from new world ones is in the importance of returning home at the end. The road is a means to a holiday. There is no expectation that the trip be one way, whereas in North American literature, it often is. The return trip is a rarer event.

Kerry complaining that he should be home by now.

Kerry's stated desire is to get home with the medicine. His successful return home, even with the children he rescued from the forest, would have been the expected ending in a North American graphic novel. However, this being a British novel, there's a coda showing Kerry and the children returning to the new recovered forest to show the Knight that they are well and happy. In this regard, the children, while they have a new home, are given the chance to symbolically return home. Thus Kerry and the children have the ability to go "there and back again."

Three stars

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Shot in the Dark: 09/02/20

Shot in the Dark

Shot in the Dark by Cleo Coyle is the seventeenth in the Coffeehouse mysteries. Clare and Mike are trying to settle on the date and venue for their wedding but they can't find a place that meets expectations, and size for a price they can afford. Regardless, they're happy to have found each other as the dating app craze has hit Village Blend and surrounding neighborhood hard.

Clare's first made aware of dating apps when a woman attempts to shoot her date in the upstairs seating area. Videos of the event are quickly posted and just as quickly go viral. As Clare is trying make a recovery plan for the Village Blend, she finds a woman floating in the river and discovers she was a developer for a local dating app.

To help solve the murder, Clare goes undercover, posting a fake profile on the dating app in question. It's supposed to safe for women to use but that's clearly not the case.

Dating apps have been around for a while, nearly as long as the series, but Clare seems especially clueless. The question arises, then, when is Shot in the Dark taking place? Have only a few years elapsed in 2003 in plot time? Or is it supposed be closer to the actual time elapsed in publication time?

Ignoring Clare's odd ignorance of dating apps, the mystery is entertaining, albeit a bit on the obvious side. The murderer doesn't announce themselves per se, but they come damn close.

Book eighteen is Brewed Awakening (2019).

Four stars

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August 2020 Sources: 09/02/20

Previous month's book sources

August was the fifth full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. Time at home was still caring for puppy, painting, playing video games, chores, reading, and now reading through the news. Near the end of the month our oldest moved to Los Angeles to start college. She seems to be settling into her new life.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In August I read 16 TBR books, down from July's 19 TBR. But I read no books published in August. Like July, eight books were for research. None were from the library. The lack of new books resulted in my best ROOB score ever, dropping from -4.03 to -4.33. That score out does all previous scores.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

The ROOB trendline continues downwards. I am continuing to focus on reading through my 2018 and 2019 purchases. Hopefully that will mean another low month.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for July improved from -2.68 to -2.83.

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Still Life: 09/01/20

Still Life

Still Life by Louise Penny is the start of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series, also known as the Three Pines mystery series. Later titles differ across editions and it appears to have first been published in the UK even though the author is Canadian and the series is set in Quebec.

On the morning of Thanksgiving Sunday, Jane Neal is found dead in the forest. CI Gamache and his team are called in from Montreal to investigate. Was it murder or a tragic hunting accident?

Jane was an artist and had just gotten her first painting into the local members' show. Her painting, "Fair Day" is both unsettling and something special that no one can quite put a finger on.

With the older DCI, the older cast of characters, the surviving best friend, and a previous, recent death I was reminded of The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham (1987). What's thankfully different here is there are no sexual hangups, no fetishizing, no kink shaming.

Maybe because I read a ton of mysteries (around 60 a year), I found the solution rather straightforward. Despite the easy solution, I still enjoyed the set up of the series. I am intrigued enough by the main characters and the small town and the politics to keep reading.

One annoyance, though, is there were a few copy editing inconsistencies and one typo. Canadian English spelling is nearly identical to British English. However, I saw attempts to Americanize, namely the u dropped from words like colour and neighbourhood. But words where an s would be used instead of a z were left alone. Then the word centre was spelled both ways. I'm hoping future editions I find in this series are more consistent.

The second book in the volume is Dead Cold (2006) aka A Fatal Grace (2007).

Four stars

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August 2020 Summary: 09/01/20

Reading report

August continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. Our oldest had her eighteenth birthday and with Ian's help, moved to a studio apartment near her college. The classes will be all on line but there are other things she needs access to. She's doing well and we text nearly every day. Meanwhile our youngest has started high school, also completely online.

I read fewer books in August, 24, down from 28 in the previous two months. Thirteen books of my read books met the diverse reading goal. On the reviews front, I also had a good month, with twenty 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 6 from 8, and my 2019 books to review are down to 5 from 8. This year's books are at 58 of the 233 books read.

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