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November 2020

Rating System

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

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Three Keys: 11/30/20

Three Keys

Three Keys by Kelly Yang is the sequel to Front Desk (2018). This novel is set in the final weeks before the 1994 election when Pete Wilson was reelected governor and Prop 187 passed.

At the motel that Mia's parents and full-time residents have purchased business is improving. The Tangs are starting to have some time for themselves and with Hank's help, they're starting to establish their credit. But the racist atmosphere of Prop 187 is bringing out the worst in a lot of people and the Tang's immigrant friends are understandably worried.

At school Mia and her friends have to contend with a new teacher who is too pro-Wilson for their comfort. Being treated fairly is an uphill battle in class. Tenacious Mia isn't about to give up and she brings what she's learned from helping at the motel to improve things in the classroom.

To drive home how bad things were around prop 187, there's a side story about Lupe and her parents. Her mother has to travel to Mexico for a family emergency but can't get back across. Meanwhile, Lupe's father is arrested in San Diego and held for deportation. His case will be one of the first ones to test the new proposition.

The book is a good follow up read with The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020).

The third book is Room to Dream, scheduled for release in September 2021.

Five stars

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Class Action: 11/29/20

Class Action

Class Action by Steven B. Frank is about the overabundance of homework. Sam Warren no longer has time to play jazz piano or hang out with his friends. He's slammed with hours of nightly homework and projects: like the California Missions Project. When he's given a packet of CAASP review he decides enough is enough. He refuses to do it or any more homework.

In regards to the Mission project, this book is dated. The statewide project for either fourth of fifth graders is no longer part of the California curriculum. It was phased out in 2017.

The remainder of the book covers the consequences of refusing to do any more homework. The first is a three day suspension. Then comes a class action lawsuit with a cranky neighbor (and retired lawyer) as their counsel.

I found the premise hard to swallow. It plays on the idea that all schools are uniform with how they assign homework. It puts more emphasis on the importance of CAASP. It's an assessment test, yes. Students do find out their results but these results are given out the next year. They don't affect a students grades.

And while each state sets its own curriculum, interpretation of it is done by individual school districts. Then individual schools do their own interpretation of the curriculum. Teachers too. There are too many factors at play.

This novel would have been more plausible on the scale of the individual school or the school district. At a state or national level this plot doesn't make any sense.

Three stars

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The Midnight Library: 11/28/20

The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a variation on themes explored in The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (2010). The difference is that Haig's is ultimately a hopeful take on depression and Niffenegger's isn't. Trigger warning: both books contain themes of depression and suicide.

Nora Seed had lots of dreams when she was younger. She could have been an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, living in Australia, or the lead in a rock band. Instead she's living in a musty flat, working in a failing musical instrument store. And then she's out of a job and her cat has died. Feeling she has nothing to live for, she attempts to kill herself.

Rather than finding oblivion or an afterlife, she finds herself in a very strange library, run by her old primary school librarian. It's from here she's able to revisit all the decisions she made to see if she could find a better life for herself.

While all of Nora's alternative lives are interesting and the last one is a bittersweet one, the solution to her problem is apparent from the beginning. The only question then is will she or won't she succeed? There isn't the larger scale risks that one sees in a true time travel book like All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017).

As a metaphorical journey, The Midnight Library sits on the road narrative spectrum as an outlier. As I've mentioned before, I am primarily focusing on North American literature for the road narrative project. Sometimes though, a book from another country will qualify.

As all of the journeys are Nora's alone to take, she is an orphan traveler (FF). Her goal is to find a life worth living and thus her explorations are through uhoria (CC) as she tries out different timelines. Her route is the maze (CC) — one she calls out early in her time at the night library. It's a maze because there is the danger that she will ultimately die before she discovers her perfect life. To summarize, Nora's journey through The Midnight Library is that of an orphan going through uhoria via the maze (FFCCCC).

Five stars

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Lair of the Bat Monster: 11/27/20

Lair of the Bat Monster

Lair of the Bat Monster by Ursula Vernon is the fourth of the Dragonbreath books. While at the local swimming pool, Danny rescues a bat trapped in the pool filter. Careful to avoid being bitten, Danny takes the bat home and asks his mother what to do. She sends him and Wendell down to Mexico to a relative who specializes in bats.

Where the first three books were entirely fantasy, this volume is grounded, somewhat, in fact. Namely, it's about wild animal rescue and rehabilitation. It has specific instructions on how to handle injured wild animals and how and why to avoid rabies.

There is, of course, an element of fantasy, namely in the form of a giant, mythological bat that happens to be real. Danny ends up befriending the bat.

Chart showing the relative positions of the first four Dragonbreath books on the Road Narrative Spectrum

Like the previous books, Lair of the Bat Monster sits on the road narrative spectrum. As it happens, this book returns to the same placement as the original Dragonbreath: marginalized wildlands blue highway (669933).

The fifth book is No Such Thing as Ghosts (2011)

Five stars

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Big Hero 6, Volume 2: 11/26/20

Big Hero 6, Volume 2

Big Hero 6, Volume 2 by Haruki Ueno is the conclusion to the manga adaptation of the Disney film. Disney, for whatever reason, only seems to go for duologies for their manga. Big Hero 6, though, has enough world building to really need more volumes.

Volume 1 made so many changes to the world, premise, and basic plot that only the first act of the film was covered. To force this adaptation into two volumes, essentially the last act is cut, thus moving the trip through the portal to the secret island, rather than the epic fight at HQ in the City.

Put bluntly, volume 2 feels rushed and half formed. I really want to see more of Ueno's version of the characters and city. There's a lot of good insight here that isn't allowed to fully develop.

Four stars

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Killer Kung Pao: 11/25/20

Killer Kung Pao

Killer Kung Pao by Vivien Chien is the sixth book in the Noodle Shop mystery series. Lana Lee is content now with her unexpected role as the manager of the family restaurant. With her added responsibility she's too busy to go looking for trouble, but trouble finds her anyway.

A car crash in the parking lot of the Asia Village sets in motion a series of events that will culminate in a murder by electrocution. Lana who was getting her hair colored at the time ends up having to solve yet another mystery.

There were two problems with this mystery: pacing and suspects. The set up for this murder is just so random that it didn't have the usual slow burn that builds up a particular character to be the victim and a small set of other characters who all have the motive to kill. Without that initial set up, one that typically takes around fifty pages of a book this length (280 pages), Lana is left to just interrogate everyone she hasn't vetted from previous books. Although in longer running series, such as the Book Town Mysteries by Lorna Barrett, recurring characters can and do become murderers.

What's left then is Lana essentially wasting her time and annoying fellow shop owners. When the obvious solution is revealed in a dramatic climax, one that also seemed to come out of nowhere, there's a sense of let down. Other than the out of character weapon choice at the end, the identity of the murderer isn't much of a surprise.

The next book is Fatal Fried Rice. It releases March 9, 2021.

Three stars

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Descender, Volume 6: The Machine War: 11/24/20

Descender, Volume 6: The Machine War

Descender, Volume 6: The Machine War by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen concludes the Descender arc and launches the Ascender arc. This volume is backstory heavy, focusing on the events that lead to the current onslaught by the Harvesters.

Having read Ascender, Volume 1: The Haunted Galaxy (2019) before starting Descender, my question throughout this volume wasn't how do the humanoids win? Instead, it was, how badly do they lose?

The ending volume with Tim-22 dead and destroyed realigns Tim-21 at the protagonist or traveler, in terms of the road narrative spectrum. In fact, the final volume resets Tim's status to that of the first volume, namely as a scarecrow (protector) (99). The only difference now is that his ties to the Harvesters and the Descenders (a term finally defined in story) are well defined.

Chart showing the progression of the Descender arc through the six volumes

Thus Tim's status of protector is re-contextualized against how he is also predetermined to carry out certain actions and to be affected by others. He is then both scarecrow (protector) and minotaur (monster / prisoner) because he wants to protect the people he lives with but can't escape the Descender's plan to pull all robots out of humanoid space.

Tim's destination is utopia (FF) in the form of the Descender's home world. Where it is located and how travel to there works is another large piece of this final volume.

The route Tim takes is a metaphorical Interstate (00). Interstate routes are direct ones, one that are quick and efficient and don't lend themselves to detours. Once Tim's fate is sealed, he is on his way just like all of the other surviving robots.

Thus volume six can be seen as a tale of a scarecrow/minotaur going to utopia via the Interstate (99FF00).

Volume six ends with a coda narration by the protagonist of the Ascender series.

Four stars

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This Time Will Be Different: 11/23/20

This Time Will Be Different

This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura is set near the area of the peninsula collectively known as Silicon Valley. CJ Katsuyama works part time in her aunt's flower shop, a business her family started before the Japanese internment, lost because of it, and bought back at great hardship in 1973. Now the business is struggling and CJ's mother wants to sell it.

CJ and her mother haven't been close in the last year or so for reasons that are slowly revealed. Events leading up to that revelation, though, are told out of order. Some of the details are shocking and seem completely out of place until the end when enough is known to understand how everything fits.

What brought me to the book was the language of flowers. CJ's aunt truly believed in the magic of just the right message. I really wanted her to succeed, even though the over all message of the book is a good one.

Four stars

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Space Unicorn Blues: 11/22/20

Blacktop Wasteland

Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry is a good follow up read for fans of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente (2018). Imagine the classic fantasy creatures and put them in a galaxy similar to that of Firefly.

The book opens in a dive bar. Gary Cobalt is trying to win back his ship. He lost it when he was arrested for the grisly murder of a human. He's one of a kind with a unicorn father and a human mother. But he can't afford to let anyone know that, not when the Reason are trying to round up the Bala, and not when unicorn horn is a precious commodity.

Imagine if you will that FTL space travel runs on magic. The most efficient form is unicorn horn. A little sliver of it will take a ship good long way. Gary's horn is hidden somewhere on that ship he lost.

Meanwhile Captain Jenny has important cargo to deliver by a specific time for a conference. But she has her own side hustle which includes breaking her wife out of the Reason's Bala concentration camp.

I know what I'm describing sounds like a random collection of details that shouldn't work. Except they do. They work in the same way that Douglas Adams's jokes come together to tell a compelling tale of the end of humanity and its redemption in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Except this time the foundation feels more Discworld than Hitchhiker's.

Five stars

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Blacktop Wasteland: 11/21/20

Blacktop Wasteland

In Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, Beauregard Bug Montage is lured back into committing two heists when he can't get out from under business and personal debt. Beauregard, though, is married, has two young sons, an auto repair shop, and a mother in a nursing home. He doesn't want to be a getaway driver any longer and his wife certainly doesn't want him to.

Every decision Beauregard makes, including taking the first job, is judged against memories of his father both as a getaway driver and as a parent. For most of the novel the conflict is the compartmentalizing of criminal life as Bug and respectable life as Beauregard. But his crimes find their way home. His children either become criminals or are hurt by them.

While Beauregard is a driver and knows cars and trucks as well as he knows his own body, the novel doesn't find its placement in the road narrative spectrum until the climax. How it fits has nothing to do with the Blue Highways and other backroads he knows. Nor does it have anything to do with the cities and towns he travels between for his jobs. Instead, the road narrative spectrum placement defines the decisions he makes to end his involvement in crime to keep his family safe.

Beauregard is a marginalized traveler (66) for a number of reasons. He's Black. He's in debt. He's the son of a criminal. He's now wanted by the law. He's also in the middle of a war between two much larger syndicates than his usual small time stuff.

Beauregard's destination is home (66). Home as in safety, security, and his family. He doesn't want to leave like his father felt forced to do. Home is his happily ever after, and something he's not sure he'll achieve until the very last chapter.

His route is through the cornfield (FF). Now in the road narrative spectrum, the cornfield is often a metaphoric one. Not here. Beauregard literally takes out one of the men who led to his family being threatened by running him over in a cornfield.

To summarize then, Blacktop Wasteland is about a marginalized traveler going home via the cornfield (6666FF).

Five stars

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Quentin Corn: 11/20/20

Quentin Corn

Quentin Corn by Mary Stolz was released when I was twelve, and although I read other novels by Stolz, I only heard of this book as an adult. Quentin is a pig who decides to run away from the farm when he learns his fate is to be eaten.

Quentin steals some clothing off a line and starts to walk upright. From the clues in the narrative, he's a contemporary of Freddy the Pig. But Quentin has a lot more to learn about humankind and how to live like one.

Most of the book is about how Quentin tries to settle into his new life. He lives at a boarding house. He works for a fix-it man. He joins the church choir. And he's betrayed.

The language in this novel is weirdly stilted. Some of it might be a reflection of Quentin's status as an outsider. Some of it is an attempt to capture the olden days. Regardless, the text is awkward and off-putting.

Quentin's story, while odd, does fit into the road narrative spectrum. Quentin while masquerading as a human wants to protect his new friends and neighbors. But deep down, though, he fears he'll be perceived as a freak or a monster if his secret is revealed. Quentin, thus, is both a scarecrow (protector) and a minotaur (prisoner) (99).

His entire journey is in a rural setting (33). He leaves a farm and goes into the nearby town. It's still an area defined by the natural landscape.

His journey is primarily offroad, though there is a brief jaunt in an automobile at the start of his flight from the farm. The rest though is through fields and forests (66).

To summarize, Quentin Corn is about a scarecrow/minotaur going to a rural place via an offroad route.

Three stars

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A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 1: 11/19/20

A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 1

A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 1 by Mochinchi is an isekai with an unusual focus. Rather than the main character finding themselves in another world and becoming the big damn hero, this one starts a printing press and a Magic Market, inspired by the Comic Cons she was so found of in her previous life.

Mika Kamiya died on the way home from a Comic Con and now in this new world where magic is real and an every day thing, she's found a new niche, a publisher of magic tomes. When she realizes there is a demand for an organized place to buy spells and spell books, she takes what she knows about comic conventions and applies it to making the Magic Market.

Except, the manga doesn't start that way. Instead, it opens with a more typical scene. There's a village beset by monsters. They're invading and trampling everything. The gag is, that they're just passing through, as oversized familiars to stand in line for their wizard, witch, or mage masters.

Twenty years ago I worked for a marketing department for a tech firm business. One of our big jobs was the planning, organizing, and running of two annual conventions. The types of problems Mika and her employees have mirror the ones we had. I found the situational mashup of an alternate world, magic and magic users, and the logistics of running a convention, hilarious.

The second volume was released in translation this April. I have it on hand and will be reading it soon.

Five stars

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Brewed Awakening: 11/18/20

Brewed Awakening

Brewed Awakening by Cleo Coyle is the eighteenth and as of writing this review, the final volume in the Coffeehouse Mystery series. Clare Cosi wakes up on a park bench unsure how she's gotten back to Manhattan after moving away with her young daughter, Joy. She knows she's near the Village Blend and she goes there for help. She's shocked to learn that it's fifteen years in the future!

This volume acts almost as a reset button, taking Clare back to before the events of On What Grounds (2003). Listening to Clare's memories brings into question the time that has passed between the first and last book of the series. I will address these gaps in time in a separate post.

Clare is taken in for psychiatric evaluation. The doctor in charge of her case orders her separated from all of her friends and family. He wants to keep her drugged. Clare, while she has no memories of the last fifteen years, is still smart enough to know something is shady with his treatment. When Blanche and some of the Village Blend employees help break her out.

Like in Dead to the Last Drop (2015), Clare has to help solve the mystery of her amnesia, as well as the circumstances of a woman's disappearance, while essentially on the run. That said, the authorities aren't written as all powerful / all knowing as they were in book fifteen.

The means behind the amnesia is completely fictional. That gives narrative freedom to have the cure be something that fits with the timing of other events. It's also more believable than more traditional reasons like being bonked on the head.

Ignoring the amnesia gimmick, the actual mystery is a satisfying one to solve. The gist is that the woman who owns the hotel where Clare and Mike's wedding is to take place has gone missing. She and Clare went missing at the same time. While some want to frame Clare's appearance as proof that she's responsible, it's clear that she's not. The clues to what happened to the woman and where she is being held are all there for the observant reader.

Five stars

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The Gryphon's Lair: 11/17/20

The Gryphon's Lair

The Gryphon's Lair by Kelley Armstrong is the sequel to A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying (2019). Rowan has settled into her her new role as royal monster hunter and healer. She continues to adopt various monstrous orphans. Her current project is the pregnant gryphon she rescued. When her labor and delivery is sabotaged, Rowan has to rethink how she cares for monsters.

The first half of the book establishes how things have progressed since the close of the first volume. There's tons of interesting world building in terms of monster medicine, new techniques, and of course more monsters to learn about. The appendix includes drawings and info on each of the featured creatures.

The second half is essentially an adventure. It's time to return the gryphon baby to the wild. The logic is that a gryphon mother won't mind one more child. The plan though reveals how little Rowan et al know about gryphons.

In terms of tone and what's revealed I'm reminded fondly of Thursdays with the Crown (2015) minus the foreigner jokes. However the emphasis here is on gryphons as wild animals with complex social structures.

The third book, The Serpent's Fury is scheduled for release in June 2021.

Five stars

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X Marks The Spot: 11/16/20

X Marks The Spot

X Marks The Spot edited by Theo Hendrie was Kickstartered in 2019. It's a collection of essays, poetry, and comics by genderqueer authors about their experiences.

The essays, content-wise ring true as a non-binary person. Many of the authors are much younger than I am but they explored gender construction in their cultures in many of the same places I did. The places that crops up most are Tumblr and Twitter.

In terms of tone and variety, X Marks The Spot is a good read-along for (Don't) Call Me Crazy edited by Kelly Jensen (2018).

This book would have benefited from copyediting and design. The essays are inconsistent in their quality, the final edits probably left to the contributors. I realize the goal was to get as many authors' into the book as possible and probably to get as much compensation to each as possible. But the typos and other inconsistencies interfere with an otherwise enjoyable read.

Four stars

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Al Capone Does My Homework: 11/15/20

Al Capone Does My Homework

Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko is the third in the Al Capone at Alcatraz middle grade series. Moose and Natalie and their parents are still living on Alcatraz. Their dad has been promoted to Associate Warden and that's when the trouble starts. There's a fire in their home and everyone seems ready to blame Natalie because she's autistic.

If we strip away the window dressing — namely the historical backdrop of the 1930s and the physical location of Alcatraz — book three is a straight up middle grade mystery. There was a fire in the home while Moose and his sister were home alone. The adults want to blame the sister because she doesn't act like a "normal" teenager and has been further infantilized by her parents to keep her in the special school longer. Moose, knows she couldn't have done it, and sets out to prove who actually set the fire with help of his friends.

But this being part of the Al Capone series means that Moose and the others have to somehow interact with prisoners. It never makes much sense when they do, but they always do.

As always, Natalie is more of a prop than a character. She's the reason they've moved to San Francisco. She's the reason they feel compelled to stay at this dangerous job. But we very rarely get a sense of what she's going through or how she feels about living on the island or going to the school well past the age when she should be, even thought Natalie has been on occasion shown to have opinions and the ability to self care, albeit with some help.

My point is, this series would be very different but more genuine if it were told from Natalie's point of view, rather than using her as a plot device for Moose to be having all these adventures on Alcatraz Island.

Three stars

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The Hollow Places: 11/14/20

The Hollow Places

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher captures some of favorite elements of Canadian horror while being set in North Carolina. Kara, recently divorced, has moved in with her uncle to help him run the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy in Hogs Chapel. To keep busy, she sets about inventorying everything.

Things get strange after the arrival of a wood carving from the Danube river. A hole in the wallboard opens up to a cement lined corridor. Kara with her barista friend Simon, sets off to explore the bunker. Kingfisher weaves together snarky humor into the horror to create a pair of protagonists who are genre aware. Their repartee brings me mind Harriet Hamsterbone and Wilbur if they were human adults. Makes sense as T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon.

At first the tone of the novel reminds me of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000) for their first foray through the hole in the wall. Once they reach the outside, though, it settles on being more like Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking (2017).

The willows are what set the tone shift. That they are living and spreading through shallow water that also has invaded numerous bunkers is what defines them as the tkaronto. It frankly wouldn't surprise me if the protagonist from Hosking's novel also had a bunker among these.

Like Danielewski's and Hosking's novels, The Hollow Places is part of road narrative spectrum. Kara and Simon are a found family of travelers (33). Their destination is utopia (FF), meaning a no place. Their route there and back is through the tkaronto (FF). In other words, this novel is about a found family traveling to utopia via the tkaronto (33FFFF).

While Kara and Simon's adventure is over, I would to revisit the willows from the point of view of another bunker. There's some of that in the bible journal, the lost ranger, and the bus full of kids from some alternate earth. All those stories are over by The Hollow Places but there could be others.

Five stars

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Tik-Tok of Oz: 11/13/20

Tik-Tok of Oz

Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum marks the second of the last Oz books written by Baum. By this time he and his wife had moved to California. It also marks the first time a new American visitor is sent to Oz since Dorothy.

Betsy Bobbin arrives from Oklahoma via a near death experience similar to Dorothy's second trip to Oz in Ozma of Oz (1907). Presumably she was on the Arkansas river?

Although Betsy is new to Oz, this novel isn't her story. Despite Tik-Tok being the titular character, it's not his story either. Instead, it settles on being about the Shaggy Man's quest to rescue his brother from the Nome King.

Previous Oz books are fairly focused in their plots. This time, though, the focus is more gag oriented. The previous attention to detail is lacking too. For example, in the previous seven books, Glinda has been the Good Witch of the South. Now, though, she's described a living in a palace to the north of the Emerald City. It's no wonder MGM decided to make her the Witch of the North.

There's a lot to unpack with this novel. Like Ozma of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the novel doesn't take place in Oz, save for a few scenes in the Emerald City. Instead, the novel is in Ev, the Rose Kingdom, the Dominions of the Nome King, and a few other edge of the map places.

By the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz (1910), Oz is essentially a stable utopia, and well-mapped through Dorothy and Tip's adventures. I suppose Baum was bored with Oz, or was worried that his loyal readers were.

At the heart of novel, the Shaggy Man wants to rescue his brother. Thus, in terms of the road narrative spectrum, the travelers are siblings (CC). As the brother is known to be the in the Dominion of the Nome King, an underground location, the destination is the wildlands (99). The route taken, is the labyrinth (99) in that there isn't any particular danger to any of the characters, and the path out is the same as the path in, though the character's emerge changed by their journey. Thus Tik-Tok of Oz can be summarized as the tale of brothers traveling through the wildlands via the labyrinth (CC9999).

The next book is The Scarecrow of Oz (1915)

Four stars

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Act: 11/12/20


Act by Kayla Miller is the third book in the Click series. Olive Branche decides to run for school council when she realizes not every student can go on field trips because not all families can afford the fees.

Olive actually goes through a bunch of steps before the council run. She tries various forms of protest and organizing. It's only the council run where she gains any traction. Along the way, though, friendships are threatened and self esteem tested.

Olive is ultimately successful but the ending sends the wrong message. More precisely, the ending is too cynical. Rather than earning her place on the council, she's given it when one of the winners, a boy, decides to be his friend's advisor, rather than co-council member.

The message here is clear to young readers: women in politics can never succeed unless a man takes pity on her. After all the misogyny in politics in recent years I was looking forward to a more hopeful message. She ran a good campaign. Why not just let her win fair and square one of the spots?

The next book is Clash which releases in July 2021.

Three stars

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Death by Eggnog: 11/11/20

Death by Eggnog

Death by Eggnog by Alex Erickson is the fifth of the Bookstore Café mysteries. It's Christmastime and Krissy Hancock has been roped into joining the annual holiday play. Shortly after the starts practice the man playing Santa ends up dead.

I don't normally like holiday themed novels but mysteries seem to be better than most genres at not getting carried away with holiday cheer. Krissy has a streak of cynicism that makes this particular mystery more fun. She's also feeling jilted this year because her father has made plans with his new girl friend.

One detail I don't like in this series or any other series is the return of the ex, whether it's a boyfriend or a spouse. In this case, it's the boyfriend she left to move to Pine Hills in Death by Coffee. These exes all come off as stalkers who distract from the mystery at hand.

The next book is Death by Espresso (2018).

Four stars

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Descender, Volume 5: Rise of the Robots: 11/10/20

Descender, Volume 5: Rise of the Robots

Descender, Volume 5: Rise of the Robots by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen is the penultimate volume and begins the set up for the Ascender series. The Robot Resistance has all its key players ready and this is their moment. Meanwhile the origins of the Harvesters will finally be revealed.

If this were a film, volume five would be the big climatic fight where the seats would be reverberating from all the explosions. There's a ton of cutting back and forth between key fights and our various heroes, still separated by circumstances. There's also the beginning of personal and large scale reckonings. On the personal level, Tim-22 is defeated.

As with so many of these volumes that are essentially just the climax, I found myself less invested that I was in any of the previous ones. I know fights are fun to write and fun to draw. I know a lot of readers get the most excited for the final fight. I'm just not one of them.

From screen time (panel time), Tim-21 is the clear protagonist in this volume. How his narrative progresses also defines the series' shift from cyberpunk/horror to fantasy in the road narrative spectrum.

Evolution of the Descender comic on the road narrative spectrum

Tim-21 as the last remaining boy shaped robot with the original codex by dint of his survival becomes an orphan traveler (FF). He is well beyond being just a product of his programming to be once again a scarecrow traveler. His destination is home, or more precisely the source of his codex (66). His route there is a watery one, an extraterrestrial rendition of the tkaronto (FF). Volume 5 then is about an orphan traveler going home via the tkaronto (FF66FF).

Four stars

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Now That I've Found You: 11/09/20

Now That I've Found You

Now That I've Found You by Kristina Forest is centered on the relationship between grand-daughter and grandmother. One is an up and coming star and the other has retired after a life time on the silver screen.

Evie Jones, named for her famous grandmother, was betrayed by her so-called best friend shortly after landing the role that would have launched her career. Now she's off the project and in New York to spend time with her grandmother. She's expecting an easy summer to get her head back on straight but nothing is the same. Gigi's driver is retired and there's a young musician, Milo, living part time with her.

And weirder yet, Gigi goes missing on Evie's first full day in New York. Which leaves the bulk of the book being about Evie and Milo's search for Gigi. Except sometimes it's also about getting to Milo's gigs and going to events that Gigi should have attended but stuck Evie with.

I realize this novel is supposed to be a romance but I didn't feel any chemistry between Evie and Milo. If anything, I'd rather have read more about Gigi's career and her on again off again marriage to her co-star. She was interesting. Evie was just too young and too busy feeling entitled to be interesting.

Three stars

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The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare: 11/08/20

The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare

The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham is the sixth book in the Princess in Black series. Princess Magnolia has been working hard on her botany project. The other princesses and princes have been busy too.

The science fair should be a monster free zone. But that's not the case. Not when some monster goo has been mixed into the volcano model.

This time Magnolia as the Princess in Black has an entire room of masked superheroes. Together they use science and engineering to save the day. With so many masked heroes, I'd love for someone to figure out that they're all royalty in disguise.

Besides the applied science aspect of the story, I especially liked how the volcano monster was treated. They're treated fairly and humanely. They're given a new home. The whole thing ends up being a huge character development boost for the monsters in this series.

The seventh book in the series is The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle (2019)

Five stars

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Scritch Scratch: 11/07/20

Scritch Scratch

Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie is a middle grade horror novel set in Chicago. Claire's father runs a nighttime ghost tour through the historical haunted spots of the Windy City. Normally he has an assistant but on this particular night, Claire is forced to help her father.

Claire suffers from undiagnosed anxiety and going on the ghost tour is well beyond what she wants to do. She goes and manages to do a good but she still feels uneasy. At the end of the tour Claire spies a boy in wet old fashioned clothing. None of the tourists nor her father see him.

From that night onward, Claire is personally haunted by the ghost who was on the bus. Like some of the kids in Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (2019), Claire finds other children who are also affected by the ghost.

The pacing for this short book is intense. While written for a middle grade audience, I found myself needing to keep the lights on while I was reading the ebook! I also found myself getting curious about the history included in the book.

To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you who the ghost is. I will say that the book includes information for readers who want to learn more. The history is also online.

Claire's adventure to help the ghost puts the book on the road narrative spectrum. While Claire does have outside help in the form of a friend, the solution to her paranormal problem comes only after her entire family (33) is involved. While her parents can't see the ghost or the way he manifests in the house, they do believe her and her brother and they are willing to help.

The destination or goal is to help the ghost. To help Claire must understand what happened and that means learning about the past, as well as experiencing it directly through her paranormal connection. That means a journey to uhoria (CC).

The route to the solution is the tkaronto (FF). The journey involves paranormal paths through water, and finally a very real path where water meets the land.

All together Scritch Scratch is about a family traveling through uhoria via the tkaronto to help a ghost (33CCFF).

Five stars

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Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything: 11/06/20

Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything

Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland is set in southern Arizona in a small town at the edge of the Sonoran desert. Sia feels trapped by circumstances. It's been three years since ICE took her mother and deported her to Mexico, a country she didn't know, having left at six months old. She and her father have been told her mother died while trying to cross the Sonora. Now as she's trying to move on and her life is about to get very weird.

Instead of this book being a contemporary realistic fiction about white supremacy, ICE, the dismantling of the DREAMERs program, the novel goes on a science fiction tangent. Essentially this novel embraces all the themes that Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson (2018) danced around before going for a contemporary/realistic approach.

Even before the narrative turns towards science fiction, the overall tone reminded me of the 1986 film Hombre mirando al sudeste, which leaves you wondering if the main character really is an extraterrestrial. If, however, you look at the original film poster, you'll see symbolism from Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943). That implies quite heavily that yes, he is an extraterrestrial. More so, he might very well be the little prince. The 2015 3D film further plays with the theme of a jaded, grown up little prince, though in this case, he's a janitor in an oppressive society.

I bring up these tangential thoughts because Sia's story shares some themes and overall mood with the three related stories. Sia's mother is in the role of the prince, being both literally magical and yet practical when it comes to the hardships of life. Sia is like the pilot who has lived through the aftermath of her mother's disappearance, assumed death, return, and well, possible death. While her mother has been gifted with extraordinary abilities, Sia despite her anger and PTSD remains hopeful and more of a believer in magic than her mother.

The novel for all its twists and turns sits on the road narrative spectrum. Sia's journey is one taken either as a couple (with Noah) or as a family (with her father, and later mother and father). Couple and families are the same kind of traveler (33).

Her destination is uhoria (CC), figuratively and literally. For the figurative, it's the desire to undo her mother's deportation. For the literal, it's the abilities she gains from her mother to potentially control time, although like in Hombre mirando al sudeste, whether she can or not, or whether she'll actually be able to rescue her mother, is left to the reader's imagination.

Finally, the route Sia and her family takes is the labyrinth (99). For her mother, it's the spiral of being taken to Mexico, and returning, but not directly. For Sia is a physical transformation brought about after meeting her mother.

All together, Sia's story can be summarized as a couple/family traveling to uhoria via the labyrinth (33CC99).

Five stars

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Fangs: 11/05/20


Fangs by Sarah Andersen is a collection of comics that chronicles a paranormal romance. There are two kinds of fangs among the classic monsters: vampires and werewolves. What happens if a vampire woman falls in love with a werewolf man?

It's adorable. It's awkward. It's wholesome. It's funny.

Vamp, introduced at first with the allure of Theda Bara, has been looking for her match for three hundred years. The werewolf isn't suave but he's sweet and loyal. He's willing to adjust to her specific needs and sometimes gets belly rubs out of it.

Five stars

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Mums and Mayhem: 11/04/20

Mums and Mayhem

Mums and Mayhem by Amanda Flower is the third in the Magic Garden mystery series. Fiona Knox has the contract to provide flowers for the folk music festival, featuring the village's most famous fiddler, Barley McFee. Her parents are visiting and by the end of the day, her Dad is accused of murdering the fiddler.

The set up of this one reminded me a bit too much of a mixture of two Midsomer Murder episodes: "The Axeman Cometh" (Series 10, episode 4), and "The Ballad of Midsomer County" (Series 17, episode 3). Basically there's a famous musician with ties to the village and to unexpected characters.

While a long standing rivalry or festering hurt feelings may seem compelling, they didn't fit here. Like Hold The Cream Cheese, Kill The Lox by Sharon Kahn (2002) or White Nights by Ann Cleeves (2008), the answer is closer to home, metaphorically speaking. In all three mysteries, the actual clues are presented as background noise more than promising leads. While it's a clever ruse the first time, it gets easier to spot after a few mysteries.

Four stars

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Dead Cold: 11/03/20

Dead Cold

Dead Cold by Louise Penny is the second of the Three Pines mysteries (aka the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series). It has also been published as A Fatal Grace. It's Days before Christmas and CI Armand Gamache has two murders to investigate. One is in Montreal: a homeless woman, and the other is a self published life coach in Three Pines.

First and foremost, the residents of Pine Cove remain despicable. They are horrible, selfish, nasty people. They share that feature with the folks of Midsomer County. And yet the mystery is a good balance between compelling puzzle and obvious clues.

Fortunately Armand Gamache hasn't been described at being especially analytical or above average at solving puzzles. There's no reference to "little grey cells" or similar. Which is good because from a reader's point of view, the clues were blatantly obvious, especially the ones connecting the dead woman in Montreal to the dead woman in Three Pines.

The third book is The Cruelest Month (2007).

Four stars

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Hearts Unbroken: 11/02/20

Hearts Unbroken

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is set in Kansas and is themed around the Wizard of Oz as a talking point on racism and especially racism against Native Americans.

The book opens with Louise Wolfe cleaning up after a party as her boyfriend openly mocks Native people. She tries to ignore it and ultimately decides she can't. She breaks up with him and that decision moves her onto a path for examining how non-whites are treated at her school.

Things come to a head when the new drama teacher actively encourages and casts a diverse group of students in a production of The Wizard of Oz. A committee is formed to protest the casting which raises tensions at school and in the town.

Louise's own research into The Wizard of Oz, and more specifically, L. Frank Baum's life and writing outside of children's literature, makes her question the sense of her brother playing the Tin Man.

The novel includes two passages written by Baum that are extremely racist. What the book doesn't address is how Baum's views might have changed over time. Frankly the book doesn't need to as the important lesson is that racist language, racist views, are imbedded in American culture.

The one drawback to Hearts Unbroken is its pacing. There is so much covered in terms of topics and time, that very few scenes actually have the time to play out to their full potential.

Four stars

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October 2020 Sources: 11/02/20

Previous month's book sources

October was the seventh 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. We voted early by mail and so did our now adult daughter.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In October I read 18 TBR books, up from September's 15 TBR. I also read 2 published in October. Eighteen books were for research, up from the last month's 13. None were from the library. The higher number of TBR books brought my ROOB score down from -3.10 to -3.67. Like September, October was my second best score for that month.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

With the year wrapping up my focus is turning more towards 2020 published books but I am also still working through my 2018 and 2019 purchases, as well as books received through Paperback Swap. November tends to be low for me, so we'll see what happens.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for October improved slightly from -2.01 to -2.16.

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Earth to Charlie: 11/01/20

Earth to Charlie

Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson is about a high school outcast wishing he could be abducted by aliens. Charlie Dickens believes his mother was abducted years ago. Since then life with his father has been difficult and the teasing at school, non-stop. Things change, though, when popular boy Seth befriends him.

Besides Seth, Charlie's only other friend is a housebound man who pays him to walk his dog. When Geoffrey has to go to the hospital, Charlie takes responsibility for the dog and for his life here on earth.

Earth to Charlie is a mixed bag. Charlie is both jaded and naive enough to believe in alien abduction. The side plot with Geoffrey seems to be there just to give Charlie someone to feel sorry for. It's not until Geoffrey starts taking more care of himself that Charlie decides to do the same for himself. Likewise, Seth is just there to validate Charlie.

Basically stuff happens to Charlie and eventually he decides to take charge of his own life. He spends three-quarters of the book being essentially passive and mopey. Sure he's being bullied and sure he misses his mother, but shouldn't he have at least a little bit of agency?

Three stars

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October 2020 Summary: 11/01/20

Reading report

October continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. Oldest is doing well in college — all remote learning from her apartment. Youngest is doing well in high school, again remotely, from home.

I read fewer books in October, 27, down from 31 in the previous month. Thirteen books of my read books were diverse, meaning I didn't meet my goal for the month, but only by a little. 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 1 from 4, and my 2019 books to review remained at 2. This year's books are down one to 63 of the 293 books read.

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