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October 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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This Is All Your Fault: 10/31/20

This Is All Your Fault

This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi is a YA set during a twenty-four hour period in a Chicago bookstore. The store, once a thriving business in a protected historic building is now slated for sale. Three employees: Rinn, Daniella, and Imogene will try their best to save it.

In terms of narrative structure, this novel has the multiple points of view of The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay (2019) and We Didn't Ask For This by Adi Alsaid (2020).

By keeping to a tight schedule and a fixed location, there's no wiggle room. There's a chance for repetition, a chance for feelings of claustrophobia, and frankly boredom. There's no opportunity to get to know the characters beyond their names and what little we can glean from their time in this building. In novel form, it doesn't work — but This is All Your Fault would be perfect as a stage play. In that form it would have the same vibe as Arsenic and Old Lace or Noises Off.

The last three and a half years have been rough under the current administration. The economy has suffered. And the economic uncertainty has inspired numerous books about failing businesses, and that reality also plays against This Is All Your Fault. In my personal reading, it's competing against

The Printed Letter Bookshop, Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan (2019) and This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura (2019).

Three stars

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The Ash Family: 10/30/20

The Ash Family

The Ash Family by Molly Dektar is set in the present but reads like something from the late 1960s to mid 1970s, save for the occasional inclusion of cellphones. Nineteen year old Bernie is on a bus to college, a school she doesn't want to attend. On the way she meets a man who promises her a life and a family she feels like she hasn't had yet.

To join the Ash family she has to give up her name and her ties to her old life. She has wandered into a cult promising free love and and freedom. But really it's an abusive, dangerous situation, one where dissenters end up dead.

There really isn't anything new here. Bernie cum Harmony narrates the entire thing with a dispassionate monotone. Her life before was bad. Her life on the farm is worse. But no where does she seem to come out of her depressive fog to take a hold of her life.

Bernie's journey such as it is, places the narrative on the road narrative spectrum. Bernie goes through her journey with no sense of agency, and gives up what little agency she had to join the Ash Family. Thus she's a marginalized traveler (66). The location of the cult is a rural (33) one — an old farm they are squatting on. Her route there, first via bus and then truck to the farm, is the Blue Highway (33). In other words, Bernie's story is one of a marginalized traveler going to a rural area via the Blue Highway (663333).

Two stars

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Steeple: 10/29/20

Steeple

Steeple by John Allison collects issues one through five of his latest comic. It opens with a young vicar on her way to her new assignment when her car bursts into flames. She has to get a ride the rest of the way on the back of a motorcycle, driven by a member of the local Satanic church.

If you believe the vicarage's housekeeper, all the town's ills stem from the rivalry between the Anglican and Satanic churches. Whatever rivalry there is between the two is pretty minor. The problems the town faces are from other sources (some supernatural).

There are sea monsters akin to something you'd find in the Legends of Eerie-on-Sea series by Thomas Taylor. There is an attempted man-made rapture. There is a witch convention. And some other mayhem.

While this book comes to a satisfactory end, Allison's website states it's volume 1. I hope this is the case. In the meantime, the continuation of the comic is online.

Five stars

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Dough or Die: 10/28/20

Dough or Die

Dough or Die by Winnie Archer is the fifth in the Bread Shop mystery series. Ivy Culpepper convinces her boss and mentor, Olaya, to participate in the pilot series of a new baking reality show. Her Bread for Life class will be featured but things are contentious from the first day. Before shooting ends, the camera man is in the hospital and the local co-host is dead.

Thematically this volume shares a lot with volume two, Crust No One (2017). This time, though, the home she visits is a women's center. She learns of it through connections to the Bread for Life classes.

While there are structural similarities to book two, I didn't figure out the solution this time. I got close but maybe with listening to the audio and multitasking, I missed some key clues. Half of the ending came out of the blue for me.

The next book, Dead Gone A-Rye, comes out in April 2021.

Four stars

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Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim: 10/27/20

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim opens in Montreal on the news that Natalie's mother has died. She returns home to Chinatown in San Francisco to her mother's estate in order.

Natalie it turns out is a chef and her grandmother ran a successful restaurant in San Francisco. She's shocked to find it in her mother's building. She decides to get it up and running. To be successful, though, she must follow Miss Yu's orders and cook three meals to help her neighbors.

That plot alone would have been sufficient. Combined with meeting a handsome tech worker and discovering the truth about her father, this novel would have been a sweet romance with some magical elements.

Unfortunately, Lim includes a subplot about gentrification that doesn't fit the location. The San Francisco Chinatown that Natalie returns to is one that is falling into disrepair and is being encroached upon by the tech industry. What the author is describing, in San Francisco terms, is South of Market (or SoMa) from twenty years ago. Chinatown has faced this particular threat.

That's not to say San Francisco's Chinatown isn't facing a form of gentrification. Chinatown remains a vibrant, active Chinese / Chinese-American neighborhood. Where the threat comes from is Chinese investors who have been buying up restaurants and hotels to make high end travel destinations.

So does Lim's version of gentrification make sense in the context of a Chinatown? Yes. It's what's happening in Montreal. Thus it would have made more sense to reverse the cities: making it a tale of a Canadian woman in the Bay Area who must return home to Montreal to put her mother's estate in order, and decides to stay.

Four stars

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Incendiary: 10/26/20

Incendiary

Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova is the start of the Hollow Crown series. Renata Convida can take the memories from people through a simple, but painful touch. Her abilities led to the killing of thousands of her people and now as an adult she's out for revenge.

The plot — a quest to get close enough to the king to kill him — shares similarities with the Tiger at Midnight trilogy by Swati Teerdhala and the A Song of Wraiths & Ruin series by Roseanne A. Brown. All three of these series draw from regional histories and myths giving each a rich tapestry of world building and characters.

Where this book falls short is in how the memories Renata takes are represented. Rather than summarizing and internalizing what she's learned, each memory is rendered as an extended scene written out in italics. Some take a paragraph and some go on for pages. Even the shortest of memories is hard to read as a block of italics. To be honest, I skimmed or skipped most of the memories.

The next book is Illusionary. It releases on May 11, 2021.

Four stars

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How to Catch a Star: 10/25/20

How to Catch a Star

How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers is the first in The Boy picture book series. The Boy is fascinated by stars. He wants nothing more than to catch one, very much like the mole and the moon in Bringing Down the Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban.

The book goes through all the different ways the boy tries to get a star. Despite his set backs, he keeps trying and keeps believing that someday he'll manage.

A trip to the beach is finally what it takes. Does he get an actual star? Not exactly. Instead he finds an earthly equivalent — something that lives in the sea.

A guest teacher and artist used this book during my summer art camp. The goal was to design a mask inspired by the book. As I was doing a bird themed camp, the starter mask was a barn owl. The campers had to combine the owl with the themes of the book.

Four stars

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The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found: 10/24/20

The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found

The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser is the fourth book in the Vanderbeekers series. All the action takes place over the course of two weeks: October 20, 2019 to November 03, 2019. It's the last days leading up to the New York Marathon and Mr. Beiderman is participating. He's been training with Orlando for months.

That's the good news. But the residents of 141st street have two troubling things to worry about. The first is Mr. Jeet's failing health. The second is the homeless person living in the garden shed.

After three books, Karina Yan Glaser has populated her fictional corner of Harlem with a close knit extended family of characters. We know where they live, where they work, their hopes and dreams. In the case of Mr. Beiderman we know of his heartbreak. Now, though, we all experience the surprise of a dear friend not only now homeless, but having secretly faced it many times before. And we experience loss as it's clear Mr. Jeet won't be recovering.

Both the homelessness and Mr. Jeet's death are handled with care. While both are upsetting in their own way, it's not out of the blue shocker of Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (1958). For those worried about this being a sad book, I can say it has a happy ending.

According to the back of the book, there's a fifth book in the works with a release date sometime next year. At this time I don't have a specific title or date. I can say, though, that I will be reading it.

Five stars

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Julia's House Moves On: 10/23/20

Julia's House Moves On

Julia's House Moves On by Ben Hatke is the sequel to Julia's House for Lost Creatures (2014). Julia and her guests have made a comfortable life for themselves in their seaside home. Things change, though, when the house becomes restless and decides it's time to move.

To her credit, Julia does recognize the house's restlessness and she does start to put a plan in place to move everyone and the house. Unfortunately, she's probably too thorough and methodical for the house. Whether by design for cosmic coincidence, the house takes off before anyone is ready.

The house riding into the sea on the back of a turtle while an amorous turtle looks on from the horizon.

The remainder of the book is Julia's frantic attempts to save the house from its unprecedented journey. Her adventure while going from bad to worse to completely hopeless, also puts this book on the road narrative spectrum.

Chart showing the progression on the road narrative spectrum between the two books

The original book and this book share a route, offroad (66). But the travelers and the destination are different. While the first volume had the marginalized (aka "lost creatures") as traveler, this volume sees them all come together as a family (33) of travelers. Their destination changes too, from home (66) to utopia (FF), because it is the house essentially that is picking the new location, and thus is unknown to them. Put all together, the series progresses from marginalized travelers traveling to home via an offroad route (666666) to a found family traveling to utopia via an offroad route (33FF66).

Five stars

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All Together Now: 10/22/20

All Together Now

All Together Now by Hope Larson is the sequel to All Summer Long (2018). Summer is over and Bina is enjoying writing songs for her band, comprised of BFFs Darcy and Enzo. But things change for the worse when Darcy and Enzo start dating.

Bina struggles to hold onto her creative drive once she's forced to go solo. She has some opportunities but they have tight deadlines and she's not in the right emotional headspace to produce.

The other thing in Bina's life is love. Rather, all her friends seem to be finding it. She's unprepared for when she feels herself crushing on someone. Can she balance new, awkward feelings, restore her friendships, and make new music?

Again it was fun to revisit neighborhoods I once lived in or visited on a regular basis. Larson's artwork makes every place recognizable which adds a level of enjoyment.

These two books are now listed together as the Eagle Rock series. I hope that means a third book is in the works.

Five stars

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Death and Daisies: 10/21/20

Death and Daisies

Death and Daisies by Amanda Flower and narrated by Eilidh Beaton is the second in the Magic Garden Mystery series. Fiona Knox has returned to her new home at Duncreigan. Her younger sister, Isla, has come along to spend some time in Scotland and help her run her new flower shop.

Fiona has continued to earn the ire of the local minister. When he's found dead after the grand opening of her shop, Fiona worries that she might be the prime suspect again. She's not, but she still feels compelled to help investigate.

I happened to be listening to this audiobook mystery in the same week I was reading The Missing Years by Lexie Elliot (2019). Both share a similar landscape and similar characters and plot points. The big difference here is that magic actually exists and Fiona is learning how it works.

As with Flowers and Foul Play (2018), Amanda Flower builds her mystery through a strong sense of place. Here it's the high street, the harbor, and the church. How characters interact with their environment gives good insight into motives.

Four stars

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Batman: The Smile Killer: 10/20/20

Batman: The Smile Killer

Batman: The Smile Killer by Jeff Lemire is a back of book additional comic included in the hardcover release of Joker: Killer Smile (2020). This one is a reimagining of the Batman origin story that draws on themes from Batman the Animated Series.

Smile Killer tries to be the inversion of Killer Smile. The basic Batman origin story is that young Bruce Wayne watched in horror as his parents were murdered by a gangster. In Batman the Animated Series, the shooter is the man who would later become the Joker. Lemire's version also points a finger at the Joker but again using the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari twist.

In my favorite versions of Batman, the other concession is that the Joker can't get into Bruce's head because he's already living in his own alternate reality fueled by a lifetime of trauma and depression.

Here, though, Lemire suggests an alternate timeline, one where the Waynes weren't part of the one percent. The origin story begins instead in a walkup brownstone with young Bruce watching the Joker on television. The big question then is, what if Batman created himself because he can't accept responsibility for killing his father?

I like this set up enough to wonder what happens next. I don't know if a next is planned. As is, it has a Twilight Zone feel to it.

In terms of the road narrative spectrum, it has the same placement as Joker: Killer Smile. Take that as further evidence that Lemire is showing how similar the two are, or perhaps, how in control of Gotham the Joker actually is.

Four stars

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Something to Say: 10/19/20

Something to Say

Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée is about an unlikely friendship between an introvert and an extrovert. Janae is used to being invisible at school. She has her favorite YouTube show: Astrid Dane. Then a new boy comes to school: Aubrey. He's friendly and loud and also a "Danish." He decides to be her friend.

At home, Aubrey lives with her mother and brother in her grandfather's house. Gee loves John Wayne movies and little else. Malcolm, the brother, was in college on a basketball scholarship. Now he's home, injured and depressed. With Mom working long hours, most of the house upkeep and dinner fixing falls on Janae.

A big chunk of Janae's desire to be invisible stems from a series of bad coincidences. She believes her bad thoughts lead to bad results. For example, she missed her brother and now he's home injured.

But the heart and soul of the novel is Janae learning to find her voice — to voice her opinions. At home that means standing up to her relatives. At school it means being brave enough to do the debate assigned in English. In the community it means giving public support to the name change proposed for her school.

My one wish though, is that Janae found her voice sooner in the novel. She spends so much of the book paralyzed by her fear of speaking up and public speaking. There was a lot of potential wasted here. I also felt bad for Aubrey who is penalized for her inaction.

Four stars

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The Game Masters of Garden Place: 10/18/20

The Game Masters of Garden Place

The Game Masters of Garden Place by Denis Markell is a thinly veiled middle grade novel about Dungeons & Dragons. Here it's called Reign of Dragons but I suspect that's to keep whomever currently owns DnD from complaining.

A group of kids have been role playing for years with Declan, the neighborhood babysitter as their DM. Now he's off to college and the group feels at a loss. They try taking turns at DMing but no one is having fun anymore. All of them save for Ralph get interested in other things.

Ralph then ends up with magical dice. Of course these dice bring to life their role playing alter egos. Now everyone has to LARP to save the day from their alter egos and whatnot. The dice, of course, come from this book's Gary Gygax equivalent. The idea is that the game's creator is actually a wizard from another dimension.

I enjoyed Markell's previous book, Click Here to Start. This time, the set up and the ultimate pay off didn't work for me. The pacing is off and the set up just wasn't as engaging.

Three stars

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Wayward Witch: 10/17/20

Wayward Witch

Wayward Witch by Zoraida Córdova is the third book in the Brooklyn Brujas series. It opens with the family celebrating Rose's birthday/death day. She's recently come into new powers but she's not sure how she feels about being a magical hacker. Then there is the new house in Queens and her amnesiac father, whose memory can't be fixed by potions or spells.

But all of those concerns have to be set aside when Rose and her father end up in the land of the Adas. Her father is a prisoner of the king and Rose has been entrusted on a quest to save the island from a creeping blight.

The land of the Adas is inspired (per the afterword) by the word, hadas, or faeries. With it being an island and being encroached upon by a blight, I am reminded of Oz. The corruption of a magical place is a recurring, popular theme among Oz pastiches.

Like Themyscira, Adas is situated on Earth, hidden from humanity via magic. While Wonder Woman's home is probably in the Mediterranean, Adas is in the Caribbean, within sight of Puerto Rico on days when the veil weakens. Oz, on the other hand, is accessible to Earth only via acts of near death and Ozian magic.

As with the previous two books, the world building, magic building, and word play is rich. Through the inclusion of Lin, a child of a human and an Adas, Rose learns the world brujex, a gender neutral word for a magic user. While Rose comes to the land of Adas knowing its stories, she learns how to interpret them against the reality she faces through her quest with Lin, Arco, and Iris.

The thematic hit of Wayward Witch is an inversion of The Emerald City of Oz. In that book, Ozma invites Dorothy's aunt and uncle to live full time in Oz. Most of the book is the road trip Dorothy takes them on to introduce them to their new home. Interestingly, Emerald City of Oz sits on the same row of the Road Narrative Spectrum as both Labyrinth Lost (2018) and Wayward Witch.

Chart showing the progression of the three novels through the road narrative spectrum.

Wayward Witch continues the series' exploration of the road narrative spectrum.

All three books, though for different reasons, have the family as traveler (33). In the first it was the goal of rescuing the family. In the second it was the family working together in New York. Now, it's the strengthening of the family bonds through the trip to and around Adas and home. I am being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers.

In volume one and three, the destination is utopia (FF). In the first book it's Los Lagos. Now it's the land of the Adas. Also, from the perspective of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, it's utopia.

Where the three books differ is in the route taken. In Labyrinth Lost, the route is titular: the labyrinth. In the Emerald City of Oz, it's the Blue Highway (or Yellow Brick Road, and other roads). Now, though, it's the cornfield (FF). More precisely, it's a series of portals that form in mud, thus having that plant/water connection of the tkaronto. In summary, book three can be seen as family traveling through utopia via the cornfield (33FFFF).

Five stars

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Ten Ways to Hear Snow: 10/16/20

Ten Ways to Hear Snow

Ten Ways to Hear Snow by Cathy Camper and Kenard Pak is a celebration of family traditions and the changing weather. Lina wakes up on the day she's to walk to her grandmother's to make warak enab (a dish similar to dolmas) to find it has snowed over night. As her grandmother is losing her eyesight, Lina wonders if she realizes it has snowed.

The act of wondering about how her grandmother might experience snow, Lina's walk turns into an aural exploration. On her way she stops to listen to different snow day scenes, noting each new way to hear snow.

While the book does have an illustration on how to wrap up the filling with a grape leaf, it doesn't include a recipe. I really wish it had. The dish looks delicious. I did find this one online, that I will be trying.

Kenard Pak, a San Francisco based illustrator, specializes in "quiet, unusual stories." For Ten Ways to Hear Snow the outside illustrations are naturally primarily white, with features brought out with light blue shadows. The people, including Lina, dress in muted earth tones. Each sound is given prominence, the new way of hearing presented in a bold blue typeface. The interiors, while still earth tones, are a warmer palette, giving a cozy, loving, homey feel to them. Pak is also the illustrator for The Fog by Kyo Maclear (2017).

The book also fits into the road narrative spectrum. Lina, while not a literal orphan (FF), is one for the purpose of her journey. She walks alone to her grandmother's house. Lina's destination is home (66), or rather her grandmother's home. Her route is the Blue Highway, meaning here the streets that she follows (33). Summarized, Ten Ways to Hear Snow is about an orphan traveler going home via the Blue Highway (FF6633).

Five stars

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Teen Titans: Beast Boy: 10/15/20

Teen Titans: Beast Boy

Teen Titans: Beast Boy by Kami Garcia is the second in the series. Garfield "Gar" Logan is short for his age. He's been doing everything he can to bulk up but so far he's only netted about five pounds. He also hasn't managed to impress the "Chosen Ones" of his high school.

In this version, Gar reminds me of a young Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys (1995). Gar isn't mentally ill like Goines but he does have parents who work on dubious animal testing, while he has friends who are vehemently against such activities. His actions are also tied to future changes, albeit not plague causing ones.

The impetus for Gar to accidentally discover his powers is a Youtube dare devil. Each prank of his goes viral and Gar wants similar fame at least at his high school. Of the DC Ink graphic novels I've read in the last year, Beast Boy is one of the rare ones where a future hero actually comes into his powers. The other exception is You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh (2020)

The third book is Teen Titans: Beast Boy Loves Ramen by Kami Garcia, scheduled to release February 23, 2021.

Five stars

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Cat Me If You Can: 10/14/20

Cat Me If You Can

Cat Me If You Can by Miranda James is the thirteenth book in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. At the Ducote sister's request, the mystery book club is spending a week at a boutique hotel in Asheville, NC. Their first night there the self proclaimed fiancé of one of their younger members crashes the event and makes an ass of himself. The next morning he's found dead.

Long running mystery series hit a point where I suppose the author is bored of the setting, unless a change of setting is built into the series, such as the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr. To mix things up, the author contrives a vacation for the main character(s). By this time, the series has also probably developed a full supporting cast who play off the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. These extras have become crucial to the flow of the narrative. The author can either leave them home and make up new characters for this mystery, or come up with a reason (usually a package tour) for everyone to tag along (even if in the past they haven't shared interests with the lead.

Some authors also manage to compromise, having the vacation be somewhere nearby or cut short because of the murder. A good example of this approach is Cast Iron Alibi by Victoria Hamilton. Cat Me If You Can goes for the package tour approach with the added push of the super rich, super influential Decote sisters throwing their weight around (including insisting that Diesel be allowed to stay at the hotel). It's just so painfully dripping with white privilege that I was already put off by the initial chapters.

But then there is the victim. Besides being an abusive, loud mouth ass, he's also bisexual. All of his behavior and everyone's reaction to him (most of which is negative) is attributed to his orientation. This series has had problems before with queer representation but this volume is by far the worst. Second worst honors go to Six Cats a Slayin' for it's transgender murder victim.

Three stars

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Joker: Killer Smile: 10/13/20

Joker: Killer Smile

Joker: Killer Smile by Jeff Lemire was released last year as a three issue comic. This hardcover omnibus also includes a new story, Batman: the Smile Killer, which I will review separately.

Save for Batman the Animated Series, I usually avoid Joker stories or movies. Most of his versions are ridiculous: too violent. Too silly. Too clownish. Too insane. Too powerful. Too too too. The only reason I chose to read this version is because I enjoy Lemire's work.

The book opens with Dr. Ben Arnell taking his turn as the psychotherapist to the Joker. Although there is a glass wall between them and although he's in custody, anyone who knows anything about Arkham will know Dr. Arnell isn't going to come out of this well.

Intertwined with the interviews and with Dr. Arnell's home life is a twisted children's story about a clown who disturbs a utopia of cute animals. I was reminded a bit of the unintentionally disturbing A Color Clown Comes to Town by Jane Belk Moncure (1987). Except this clown has a chainsaw. This story is the first clue that something has already gone wrong.

The twist is the one common to the doctor and patient story. It's been used in Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2003) and all the way back to it's purest form: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This comic, and the follow up, also sits on the road narrative spectrum (just like everything so far I've read by Jeff Lemire).

The traveler is Dr. Arnell. He sees himself as a protector, a scarecrow (99), but through narrative expectations, we know he is a minotaur (or a monster in the middle). Scarecrows and minotaurs are the same kind of traveler, so the reveal doesn't change the position on the spectrum.

The destination is uhoria (CC). At first it's the Joker's past. Then it's the apparent time slips that Dr. Arnell is experiencing. Finally it's the revealed truth of forgotten memories.

The route is the maze (CC). There are traps and blind alleys (namely in the form of repressed memories). The route is fraught with danger both to the traveler and to people he encounters.

To summarize, on the road narrative spectrum, Joker: Killer Smile is the tale of a scarecrow learning he's a minotaur while traveling to uhoria via the maze (99CCCC).

Four stars

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Grown: 10/12/20

Grown

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson looks at the way men in power, in this case, the entertainment industry, groom and abuse young girls. This novel reads like a blending of Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton (1939), Allegedly (2017), and A Star is Born (1954).

Enchanted "Chanted" Jones loves to sing and loves to swim. On the way home from practice she convinces her mother to let her try out for a televised talent show. She doesn't get a spot but she catches the eye of former child star and current rock star, Korey Fields. He's gorgeous. He has a sexy singing voice. There are also rumors about how he has been abusing girls throughout his career.

We know from the very get go that the rumors are true because Jackson opens the book with Chanted finding Korey's mutilated body. The questions then are: What lead to someone being pushed to committing such a violent act? Who committed the murder?

The book is a heart stopping page turner. It's an excellent but depressing and rage inducing checklist for how abusers charm their prey and then keep them under control.

The most important takeaway from this novel is that teenagers under eighteen are children. It doesn't matter how developed they look or how much make up or fancy clothing they wear. They are children.

Tiffany D. Jackson's next novel is Smoke (2021).

Five stars

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The Third Mushroom: 10/11/20

The Third Mushroom

The Third Mushroom by Jennifer L. Holm is the sequel to The Fourteenth Goldfish. Ellie is now going to middle school with her grandfather, Melvin, He's still stuck in a fourteen year old body. He doesn't want to go to school all over again!

Ellie decides to help him with his science experiments. It involves the genes of a variety of different exotic creatures. They will be testing it on fruit flies. The hope is to harness the youth serum that made Melvin young again, but this time have more control over the process.

This second offering is more focused on the consequences of one's decisions, rather than the mad capped adventures of the first. For instance, Jonas the cat is hit by a car and can't be saved.

But it's a good grounding for the first book. It's good to see Melvin and Ellie both learn some important life lessons.

Five stars

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The Black Kids: 10/10/20

The Black Kids

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed is set just before, during, and just after the Rodney King verdict and resulting riots. The author knows the details of the time period and sets the stage so well that before King's name is even mentioned, it's clear when and where this novel is set.

Ashley Bennett is a wealthy black teenager, part of a family that owns a vacuum repair store. Her family has done well and her parents have managed to get her into an elite private school. Her older sister, though, has married young and now lives right in the heart of where the riots will be.

While the Rodney King riots are the setting, Ashley's story more nuanced. The best way to describe how she navigates her experience, her emotions, her reactions, is dreamlike. Many of the scenes have a freeform poetic feel to their segues. In the acknowledgements, the author thanks Aimee Bender (among others), which explains the almost surreal tone to this otherwise realistic historical fiction.

Five stars

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The Invisible Boy: 10/09/20

The Invisible Boy

The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth is set near Washington D.C. and deals with human trafficking. Nadia loves the Superman comics, specifically she loves Lois Lane and wants to be a reporter like her. She sees her world in terms of ace reporters, superheroes and supervillains.

Nadia's first supervillain is a boy she calls Paddle Boy after she witnesses a neighbor take one of her canoe paddles and smash it against a tree. Her first superhero she calls Invisible Boy, a kid who does good deeds around the neighborhood but is otherwise never seen.

Over the course of the book, Nadia becomes friends with both Paddle Boy (who isn't a supervillain, nor a bully) and Invisible Boy. Through her aunt's work with a human trafficking non-profit, she also realizes that Invisible Boy is probably being held against his will. She and Paddle Boy decide to team up to help him.

I'm keeping the identities of Nadia's two friends secret because the friendship develops in a satisfying, organic fashion. Learning their names, as well as other identities that they take on, is part of how they all grow as characters and all learn to trust each other, even with some rough spots along the way.

The process of getting help places this middle grade novel on the road narrative spectrum. Nadia and Paddle Boy are scarecrows — protector-travelers (99). Invisible Boy, who served as a protector in a limited sense on their street, is revealed to be a Minotaur or a trapped-traveler (also 99).

The destination is home (33), specifically Invisible Boy's mother. More broadly, home is somewhere safe, somewhere he will no longer be abused, where he will be able to attend school, and so forth.

The route there is the Blue Highway (33). It is represented by the roads and bike paths Nadia and Invisible boy take to reach that goal.

Thus the novel can be summarized as being about a pair of scarecrows helping a minotaur find his way home via the Blue Highway (993333).

This novel would pair well with Every Missing Piece by Melanie Conklin (2020).

Five stars

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Mighty Jack: 10/08/20

Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke is the start of a graphic novel series that overlaps with Little Robot and Zita the Space Girl.

Jack and Maddy live with their mother in a rural town. Their mother works long hours to make ends meet but it looks like they're still going to lose the house. Jack, meanwhile, is in charge of his selectively mute sister. While it's never stated why Maddy needs extra attention, it's implied she's autistic.

While at the flea market, Maddy and Jack end up trading for a box of magic seeds. (It's also where Maddy sees the girl from Little Robot with her box of odds and ends.

Their magic garden draws the attention of neighbor Lilly. She, Jack and Maddy become fast friends. But the magic harvest also draws the attention of extra-dimensional creatures.

While I like the interaction of Jack and Lilly, I'm disappointed with Maddy's portrayal. She is a burden to her brother and a source of worry and hardship for her mother. She's also a source of trouble because of her curiosity and naïveté. She's duped into taking the seeds. And finally she's kidnapped by a magical creature, thus launching the hook to the second volume. Maddy is essentially a prop and a plot device, not a wholly realized character.

Jack and Maddy's story is framed in the road narrative spectrum. As brother and sister, they are sibling travelers (CC). Their initial journey, the one that eventually leads to the second book's adventure, is a rural one — one through the town and the neighborhood (33). Their route is the Blue Highway, namely the road through town (33). Summarized, this volume is about siblings who begin their adventure with a rural trip along the Blue Highway (CC3333).

Four stars

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Flowers and Foul Play: 10/07/20

Flowers and Foul Play

Flowers and Foul Play by Amanda Flower and Eilidh Beaton (narrator) is the first book in the Magic Garden mystery series. Fiona Knox has come to Duncreigan to inherit her godfather's cottage and garden. She's shocked to find his solicitor dead in the heart of the garden and even more so to be accused of his murder!

While Fiona is trying to get over her jet lag, she's also contending with a close-knit village who sees her as an interloper. Meanwhile, she needs to learn who she can trust and what's expected of her as the Duncreigan heir.

As with her Magical Bookshop series, there's a magical element to this series. Here it's wrapped up in the legend of the first resident of Duncreigan and how he was saved from drowning at sea. He promised to stay away from the sea and in return was given a safe place to live with a magical garden that thrives even in the worst of winters. Now it appears that Fiona has that same connection with the garden.

One big difference here that the garden doesn't take an active role in helping Fiona solve the murder. Her connection to the garden is a separate thing but still a nice element to this series.

Fiona is originally from Kentucky but has spent many summers in Scotland. She's not ignorant of the place she's calling her new home. As I'm listening to the series in audiobook, the narrator has a ton of work to do. Eilidh Beaton does a fantastic job moving between characters and accents.

Four stars

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Halfbreed: 10/06/20

Halfbreed

Halfbreed by Maria Campbell is a memoir of growing up as a Métis (halfbreed) in Saskatchewan. It then follows her life as she moves west as an adult.

To be honest, I didn't make it to the end even though this book is short. It's only 157 pages. But it's a both a dry and repetitive read.

Other than some good things she has to say about her Cree great-grandmother, Cheechum, everything else in the hundred pages I read are filled with abuse and alcoholism. Everything is also presented through internalized racism.

I'm not objecting to the content, just to its presentation. The narrative is monotonous. It reads like a book report, leaving very little sense of any of the people in the author's life, nor of the author herself.

Two stars

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Red, White & Royal Blue: 10/05/20

Red, White & Royal Blue

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston assumes an alternate timeline. Instead of Trump we have a woman as president. She's not Hilary Clinton either. She's been remarried and her adult children are living at the White House. Her adult son, Alex Cameron-Diaz has a long standing rivalry with the Prince of Wales.

Before you imagine Prince Charles, take a deep soothing breath. In this alternate timeline, there's also a different royal family. The Prince of Wales is in his twenties and named Henry. He's also frustratingly perfect and boring.

After a disastrous incident involving a wedding cake, Alex and Henry are forced together in a series PR events. It's during these heavily staged events that they go from enemies to lovers.

The couple are cute and the sexual tension is palpable. There are times where the scenes jump a little too quickly. Other times the sexy times get weighed down in politics. But all in all it was a fun read.

Four stars

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Saving Winslow: 10/04/20

Saving Winslow

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech is a good follow up read for fans of the Bat series by Elana K. Arnold. When Louie's father brings home a sickly newborn donkey, Louie decides he's going to be one the make sure it thrives.

Louie's family lives in suburbia but his extended family runs a farm. None of the adults expect a positive outcome for Winslow. Quiet determination, though, on Louie's part helps to get the donkey to take a bottle and to gain his strength.

In suburbia, though, most people aren't expecting the braying of a donkey. The next door neighbors have a new baby and they are convinced Winslow is keeping the baby awake. Louie has to work extra hard to make sure Winslow is welcome.

If I had read this book as a child I wouldn't have given this plot any credibility. But now, where I currently live, I can see Winslow showing up in my neighborhood. I live in an unincorporated area that shares its name and some of its services with the next door city. Anyway, this is a place where donkeys while not commonplace can and do show up.

Without spoiling the story, I will say it does have a happy ending. Winslow thrives and finds his place.

Five stars

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The Voting Booth: 10/03/20

The Voting Booth

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert is set on the day of the presidential election. As it's contemporary, that makes it November 3, 2020. The book, though, assumes an election not affected by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

Marva Sheridan has been doing everything she can to get out the vote, even before she was old enough to vote. Now she's eighteen and it's her first election. She's first in line. She votes successfully.

Duke Crenshaw is also now eighteen. His parents are activists. They've been as busy as Marva. He believes he's preregistered and is also early in line. When he tries to vote, he's not on the rolls. Marva, not wanting to see him miss his chance to vote, jumps in to help.

Thus Marva and Duke strike up a friendship and go on a day long quest to get him to vote. Besides the many hiccups in getting Duke's chance to vote, they have other misadventures. Some of them are related to ditching school. Some are from racial profiling. And some are related to Stella, aka Eartha Kitty, being missing. There's also romance. It develops organically and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

I would love to read an update on Marva and Duke in four years. What have they been up to? How have the four years treated them? Of course the outcome would probably depend on the outcome of this election.

Five stars

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A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking: 10/02/20

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher is another children's fantasy that Ursula Vernon couldn't get published under her actual name because it's so different from her Dragonbreath and Harriet Hamsterbone series. Her other recent children's fantasy is Minor Mage (2019) In this case, the trouble is that it opens with a dead body in a magical bakery, found by the fourteen year old protagonist, Mona.

Mona's age aside, my initial reaction to this opening chapter was to proclaim that T. Kingfisher was writing a cozy. Frankly, she got close to that with Paladin's Grace (2020). Other than this novel being set in a fantasy kingdom (really more of a city-state as Mona explains), where magic is known but not exactly commonplace, this book is no different than the set-up of the Magical Bakery mystery series by Bailey Cates.

The cozy bit of this book is over in about the first fifty pages. Mona is accused for the murder, taken in for trial, and manages to prove her innocence in short order. Getting home takes her more time than the trial. So despite the traditional opening, A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking isn't a cozy. Instead, it's best summarized as Malamander by Thomas Taylor (2019) meets The Hobbit (1937). Basically, it's an adventure through the city with some magic and derring-do, followed by an epic battle.

Mona's adventure through the city takes off after she meets Spindle, the brother of the dead girl. He knows the city and how to get places better than anyone. He's a bit like Gaston from Ladyhawke (1985), including knowing how to use the sewers and cesspits as safe ways to travel.

Once Spindle joins Mona in the quest to save the city and the duchess from a coup that has begun with the murdering of wizards, the novel finds its stride on the road narrative spectrum.

The travelers, Mona and Spindle, and later Mona's aunt and uncle collectively are a family (33). Spindle, does eventually become a formal part of Mona's family. Their destination is the city (00), in that they want to protect it from being conquered through an invasion. Their route to victory is the cornfield (FF), or in this case, the wheat field as represented by flour and sourdough starter. All together, A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking is about an extended family traveling through the city via the cornfield (or sourdough starter) (3300FF).

Five stars

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Displacement: 10/01/20

Displacement

Displacement by Kiku Hughes is a time travel graphic novel where a modern day Japanese American teen is transported back in time to the Japanese interment camps. Based on actual family events, it's a way for the author to explore her own history.

Kiku is on vacation in San Francisco with her mother when she suddenly finds herself in the early 1940s, watching her grandmother perform a violin solo as a teen.

Her first couple times are brief experiences, until she finds herself in line to take a bus to Tanforan to await processing. This time, she's stuck. She's given a room with another single teenage girl. They are given the converted stall next to Kiku's grandmother and her parents.

As Kiku is from the present day, and from a family where the events of Japanese internment weren't discussed, and the language wasn't spoken at home, she has a lot to learn on the fly. She is thus the eyes and ears for any readers who haven't learned about the internment.

The artwork throughout is detailed and realistic. The architecture in San Francisco, and other cities, is recognizable. There are numerous top down views of the various camp locations that are also architecturally complex.

Kiku's journey isn't unique but it does place this graphic novel on the road narrative spectrum. While it seems that Kiku is an orphan traveler, it's revealed in the final act that it's an experience she shares with her mother. It's also an experience that can be controlled as her mother demonstrates. Thus together, they are family travelers (33).

The destination is uhoria (CC), namely important moments in the timeline of her family. The majority of the trip is spent in the 1940s, with enough time to have travel from San Francisco, to San Bruno, to Topaz, Utah. But these movements are in contrast to the larger displacement through time.

The route taken is offroad (66). Specifically it is through a fog. The fog rolls in and transports Kiku and sometimes her mother, to important times in the past.

The graphic novel can be summarized on the road narrative spectrum as being about a family traveling to uhoria via an offroad route (CC6633).

Five stars

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September 2020 Summary: 10/01/20

Reading report

September continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. It was our first month as a family of three in fourteen years. I miss my oldest but she is doing well in her studio apartment. Today is her first day of college, done remotely of course. My youngest continues to take her high school classes online.

I read more books in September, 31, up from 24 in the previous month. Twenty-one books of my read books met the diverse reading goal. On the reviews front, I barely met my goal with sixteen 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 4 from 6, and my 2019 books to review are down to 2 from 5. This year's books are at 64 of the 264 books read.

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