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December 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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Beat the Backlist 2021

Canadian Book Challenge: 2020-2021



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Giant Days, Volume 14: 12/31/20

Giant Days, Volume 14

Giant Days, Volume 14 by John Allison is the conclusion to the series. The girls are graduating. The first half covers the events up to and during graduating. The second half is almost a back of book after graduation bonus story.

Daisy wants to keep control of her resident hall charges for the last days but she's met her rival. By far the first five pages were some of my favorite in the series. I should say I'm extremely biased as the gag involves a hen.

The year later chapter involves a paranormal event that could imply that Giant Days exists in the same universe as Steeple (2020). One can hope for a crossover since Daisy has gone into archeology.

Five stars

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Raven Black: 12/30/20

Raven Black

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves and Gordon Griffin (narrator) is the first mystery in the Shetland Island series. It's also the inspiration for parts of the first series of Shetland ("Red Bones") and the first mystery of series two ("Raven Black"). I saw these first two mysteries on Shetland a couple years ago and decided to read the mystery series.

I recall Shetland being rather confusing in parts and now having read Raven Black I can see it's because a central artistic theme was stripped from it and applied to "Red Bones." This theme is fire and ice, taken from the Robert Frost poem. By stripping the fire of Up Helly Aa and slapping it onto an entire different mystery, destroys the narrative flow of both mysteries.

The book opens with an elderly man, Magnus, inviting two teenage girls to his home for cake on New Year's Eve. They live at the end of the lane near his place. They are tipsy and not inclined to go home, so they accept his offer as a lark. Both girls eventually head home. A couple days later, one of them is found murdered near the man's home and the village is convinced he did it. See, 19 years earlier, another girl who was friends with him went missing but he was never convicted.

The remainder of the mystery is an investigation of the dead girl's last days. It's a look into her history, her family, her love life, and ultimately a video project she was doing on the village, called "Fire and Ice."

Like In the Shadow of the Glacier by Vicki Delany (2007), the narrative switches among multiple points of view, although the protagonist is clearly Inspector Jimmy Perez. Perez is from a different island but has settled here to work. His family, mother especially, wants him to come home and settle down, but he's conflicted.

Also like Delany's mystery, Raven Black's main appeal is its setting. It's a mystery set in a small, remote place with a harsh climate. In this volume, that setting is explored through the Robert Frost poem, just as the victim's life and character is.

The second book is White Nights (2008).

Four stars

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The Cruelest Month: 12/29/20

The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny is the third in the Three Pines/Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series. Clara and Peter, long suffering married artists join up with an Easter seance in the Old Hadley house. Of course someone related to that event ends up dead again.

In the vein of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959), "it's the house!" Does every single book in this series have ties to that one house?

This murder happens earlier in the book compared the previous two. Padded around the seance death, though, is a whole bunch of meandering thoughts on Easter, Easter eggs, and angry mother bears. It's another holiday themed example of how Three Pines has the same passive aggressive community feel as a gated community with a strict HOA.

Like Dead Cold, Gamache spends much of his time fixated on the first piece of evidence without stopping to take in the bigger, obvious picture. The solution too, once Gamache is done with his wild goose chase is pretty much the same as the previous two books. Put bluntly, there's a lot of pent up rage in the families of Three Pines.

The fourth book is A Rule Against Murder (2008).

Three stars

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I'm Not Dying with You Tonight: 12/28/20

I'm Not Dying with You Tonight

I'm Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal is set over an evening that begins with a football game and ends with rioting across the neighborhood. It's told from alternating points of view, Lena, a Black teen who has lived in the area her entire life, and Campbell, a white teen recently moved here after her mother leaves the country for work. When they are trapped together in the concession stand after a white boy incites a fight through his repeated racist comments, the girls team up to get to safety.

The school sits on the border of two very different neighborhoods. One is gentrified and one isn't. The "safe" way, meaning through the gentrified neighborhood is blocked by the influx of police brought in to break up the fight, but clearly there to stir up extra trouble. The other way is through a neighborhood that Lena knows and Campbell has been taught to be afraid of.

While the novel doesn't take place where I live, it shares a similar geography, with the high school sitting right in the middle of two very different parts of our valley. If a riot or some other disturbance happened at or near the high school, getting around the problem could be extremely difficult.

Lena and Campbell's flight can be plotted on the road narrative spectrum. Together they are marginalized travelers (66) in that they are teens fleeing violence at night, on foot. Their goal is home (66). The route is the blue highway, or more precisely, the streets near the high school, between there and somewhere safe (33). Summarized, I'm Not Dying with You Tonight is about marginalized travelers trying to get home via the blue highway (666633).

Five stars

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The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle: 12/27/20

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle by Shannon Hale is the seventh book in the series. A terrible stench has risen over the goat pasture. The Princess in Black and the Goat Avenger are trying to get rid of it but every time they do, it blows over another neighboring kingdom.

It takes a village to raise a child, and several kingdoms to bathe a monster. There's a particularly dirty one who refuses to wash. It's going to take the cunning and patience of several princesses in disguise to get him clean and save the day.

It's a cute addition to the series and reintroduces princesses from book six, The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare (2018).

Five stars

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Cemetery Boys: 12/26/20

Cemetery Boys

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is set in the days leading up to Día de los Muertos in East Los Angeles and a secretive brujx society. Yadriel wants to prove himself a brujo in time for the holiday but his family is having trouble accepting his true gender.

On the same night that Yads and Maritza perform the ceremony that would make his portaje and swear his allegiance to Lady Death, the brujx society is turned upside down. Everyone feels Miguel die but no one can find his body. Yads, prevented from joining the search, heads off with Maritza and together they find another spirit, Julian.

After so many rave reviews I was hoping to get swept along with the misadventures of Julian and Yads but his introduction brings the quick pacing of the first couple chapters to a halt. While the first big chunk of the evening takes place in about forty pages, the remainder drags on for twice as long.

Julian is snarky. Maritza is angry. Yads is suddenly hung up on the minutia of everything.

The book seems to be populated with people who don't know how to search. The adults especially brought to mind the clichéd Scooby-Doo chase. Yads and Martiza's trouble is more understandable because they do have school and chores to manage too, but the narrative pacing was still frustrating.

At about the halfway point a big clue is dropped. It was enough for me to figure out how things were going to play out. If I were younger, I probably wouldn't have caught on. I might also have been more invested in Yads and Julian. As is, though, I will admit to skimming to the end and having my hypothesis confirmed.

The novel, though, does sit on the road narrative spectrum. Yads and Julian together make a traveling couple (33). Their destination is within the city (00) but their route is a dangerous one full of traps and blind alleys — a maze (CC). Thus Cemetery Boys is a tale of a couple traveling though the city via the maze.

Three stars

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The Wall and the Wing: 12/25/20

The Wall and the Wing

The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby is the first book in an alternate New York City duology. Every hundred years or so a Wall is born, a special child who can turn invisible. Something went wrong after the last Wall was born and now she's lost somewhere in the city, being searched for two two thugs.

Gurl and Bug are orphans at the Home for the Hopeless. Like the workers at Yubaba's bathhouse, the children there have their names and memories stolen. The mechanism though is very different and rather creepy, and similar to a magical machine in Malamander by Thomas Taylor (2019).

The New York that Gurl and Bug live in bears thematic similarities to Ruby's more recent York series (2018-2020). Both paint modern day versions of the city that have been taken into an alternate timeline by a big event in the last 150 to 200 years. The big event has fundamentally altered something about how the city or its people work. In this earlier version, most people have gained the power of flight.

I liked the dynamics of Gurl and Bug. They have a similar friendship / rivalry to the kids in City of Orphans by Avi (2000) or the more recent girls in Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet (2020).

The second book is The Chaos King (2007).

Four stars

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Hey, Kiddo: 12/24/20

Hey, Kiddo

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a graphic novel memoir by the author of the Lunch Lady comic books and more recently, the Jedi Academy books.

Krosoczka's tone throughout is rather detached and from seeing what his family life was it's understandable. He talks about his grandparents and their many children, including his mother. The artwork uses an earthy selection of tones, popular in the 1970s, thus giving a sense of time to the events in the author's life.

He shows how his grandfather's approach to parenting problems was to rent or buy a nearby place for the child in question, regardless of their age. That didn't work out well for anyone involved.

Jarrett's mother had him when he was young. She was a drug addict before and shortly after. They had a few years together, in one of the grandpa bought houses before she lost the house and had to go into extended rehab.

This memoir has three main threads. There are the biographical events. There is his art and how he became the graphic artist he is today. Finally there is the coming to terms with his life and his family.

Four stars

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Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers: 12/23/20

Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers

Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers by Shauna Holyoak is the start of a middle grade mystery series set in Denver, Colorado. For as long as she can remember, Kazu has wanted to be a detective. She's somewhere between Harriet M. Welsch and Nancy Drew. Her neighborhood and her parents are sick of her meddling especially now that she's getting older, and therefore more capable of getting into serious trouble.

Kazu, though, as a papergirl, is the perfect observer as dogs go missing. Someone is taking dogs from people's yards and they're getting bolder. Things become personal when the dog she's walking is taken right before her eyes.

This mystery works well because it has a strong sense of place. The Denver neighborhoods and streets are recognizable, albeit altered slightly here or there to make the plot flow better.

Observant readers will be able to solve the mystery. All the clues are there. There are a few red herrings too, but not too many. There's danger too for Kazu and her friends. It's a similar read, although for a pre-teen audience, as Mimi Lee Gets a Clue by Jennifer J. Chow (2020).

The book also sits at the marginalized home blue highway (666633) spot on the road narrative spectrum.

The second book is Kazu Jones and the Comic Book Criminal (2020).

Five stars

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Bran New Death: 12/22/20

Bran New Death

Bran New Death by Victoria Hamilton is the start of the Merry Muffin mystery series. Merry Wynter has put her worldly belongings into storage and has headed north to Autumn Vale in Upstate New York to a castle she's inherited. Her late uncle Melvin died in a car crash. Having been blacklisted from modeling, she has nothing else better to do than to see the place in person and hopefully sell it.

Upstate seems to be rife with castles in cozy mysteries and tiny towns that are so close to Canada they're probably floating on yet to be discovered islands in Lake Ontario. Such is the life of the cozy series written by Canadians for Americans. As I have family from both sides of that border, I don't mind.

Shortly after Merry arrives and begins the arduous task of getting the the mansion and its grounds, a man ends up dead. Merry is now stuck in Autumn Vale until the killer can be caught.

Merry Wynter is unusual among the cozy mystery leads I've read. She's older and more jaded. She's almost a throwback to Kinsey Millhone or Anna Pigeon. Unlike those two, though, she's also very clearly part of Gen-X. Most of mystery series I've read jumped from having Boomer sleuths to having Millennial ones.

While Merry will clearly be earning her keep in Autumn Vale through her baking, her ability to solve this mystery isn't directly related to her baking. Besides working in fashion, she's had a bunch of other jobs, some of which come in handy here for recognizing the shenanigans behind the murder. I like Merry is a well rounded person.

The second book is Muffin But Murder (2014).

Five stars

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Restaurant to Another World Volume 2: 12/21/20

Restaurant to Another World Volume 2

Restaurant to Another World Volume 2 by Junpei Inuzuka and Katsumi Enami (Illustrations) focuses more on how the Western Cuisine Nekoya restaurant actually works.

The light novel opens with the arrival of a demon girl in the restaurant. Aletta fell asleep in the basement and is discovered by the master. Had she fallen asleep in the dining area, she would have remained in her own land. But she made her way to a part of the building still anchored in Japan.

We also learn more about the other people in master's life. There's the previous owner and the barkeep upstairs. The previous owner of course knew about weekly trips to another world. The barkeep doesn't know as much but he knows he does a good side business with special customers.

For the Satur customers, my favorite chapter involves halflings. These are the antithesis of the Tolkien hobbits. Tolkien's characters are snooty cottage gore gourmands. These guys are more like Appalachian farmers. I'm going to assume in the original Japanese they're given rural accents. In the translation those rural accents are rendered as if they're from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Another interesting chapter involves a person trying to get into the restaurant. They have to recruit someone else to go with them to open the door. Do a runner on paying once, and the door will never open for you again.

As with the previous book, each chapter reads like a self contained but related short story. They make an enjoyable weekend read.

I have volume 3 on hand and will be reading it soon.

Five stars

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The Golden State: 12/20/20

The Golden State

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling is set in a fictional high desert county in Northern California, near both the borders of Nevada and Oregon. Daphne is feeling the strain of being a single parent while her husband is stuck in Turkey. No longer able to cope she leaves work early, takes her infant daughter, Honey, out of daycare and heads to her parents' home in Altavista.

Kiesling describes the drive and for the most part sticks to actual landmarks. But when Daphne heads into her fictional county, the made up landmarks are very close to nearby ones, just ones south of Tahoe, instead of north of it. I personally found the choice to flip north and south distracting — the first of many details that pulled me out of the novel.

The entire timeline takes only ten days. Ten days spread over 304 pages. Unfortunately these days are weighted so that the first few are given the bulk of the pages. The last quarter of the book is where everything happens but I had already lost any ability to care about Daphne and her daughter.

The 225 or so pages before the actual plot is bloated with the mundane details of day to day life. Most of these details are centered on the minutia of Honey's life: what she eats, what she vomits, when she needs her diaper changed, what kind of mess in said diaper. Etc. The second favorite filler is the physical demands of motherhood. We get all the details of what it's like to be pregnant, to postpartum bleeding, the first period, breast feeding, etc., etc.

Here's the thing, I've been there and done that. I'm not sure what entertainment or literary enlightenment I'm getting by reading through these laundry lists of life. Frankly, it's boring. It was so boring that before Daphne had even met Alice, I no longer cared about anyone in the book.

Two stars

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Love, Jacaranda: 12/19/20

Love, Jacaranda

Love, Jacaranda by Alex Flinn took me by surprise. I saw the audiobook when I was looking for something new to read. I liked the title and the pretty cover. I bought it without even reading the blurb. My ears perked up though with the opening quote from Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912). As the original epistolary is one of my favorite books, I settled in for a very delightful read.

This novel is a contemporary retelling that reframes Judy, now Jacaranda's situation from being an orphan to being a foster child whose mother is in prison. Jervys is now Jarvis and is only a year older than Jacaranda, who calls herself Jackie at her new school. This time she's discovered through a viral video where she sings a grocery store jingle while bagging groceries.

Jackie's letters to "Mr. Smith" provide biting criticisms of life among the one percent as well as the added stress of constantly having to rebrand herself. Jackie spends the first half of the book, roughly the first half of the school year, learning how to live as if she's had the same opportunities as the majority of her classmates while constantly playing catch up.

Love, Jacaranda is a good follow up read for fans of Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow (2018) and Withering Tights by Louise Rennison (2013).

Five stars

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Wanderers: 12/18/20

Wanderers

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig is a doorstop of a speculative fiction that opens with a teenage girl walking from her home in a trance. Soon she is joined by another. Before long there is an entire crowd. As this is an alternate history, the CDC is brought in to monitor the situation.

Like your typical disaster story, the novel is populated with multiple points of view. There is the older sister, the first Shepherd. There are various members of the CDC. There's a guy who is essentially like Harold from Person of Interest in that he gets all his information from a vast AI/supercomputer.

While I loved the set up and the first two hundred of eight hundred pages, the length of the novel began to work against my enjoyment. There's an entire subplot about a religious leader/ cult leader who is stirring up trouble for the sleepwalkers and their shepherds. Except for the part where they walked through his town and picked up someone who was capable of seeing what made the sleepwalkers different, his plot is irrelevant, boring filler.

Ultimately this novel comes together as a series of recognizable puzzle pieces. Read enough, watch enough, and you'll catch the twist well before the main characters do. Essentially Wanderers shares narrative elements with Immortality INC, Simulacron-3, The Santaroga Barrier, War Games, and Person of Interest.

Regardless, Wanderers does have a place in the road narrative spectrum. For reasons that are revealed glacially, the sleepwalkers are privileged travelers (00). Their destination is uhoria (CC): both the past (the undoing of their trances) and the future (a plan also revealed slowly). Their route, which you can literally follow on Google maps and figuratively through their transformation, is the labyrinth (99). Summarized: Wanderers is about privileged travelers going to uhoria via the labyrinth (00CC99).

Three stars

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Solutions and Other Problems: 12/17/20

Solutions and Other Problems

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh is the follow up to Hyperbole and a Half, a book that came out of a webcomic of the same name. Originally this second book was expected the next year or so but health problems and other random life events prevented that from happening. If you're curious, the author has been sharing a digital collage of what happened in those seven years on Facebook.

Like the previous book, Solutions and Other Problems is an exploration of life events and her ongoing struggle to figure out social interactions and other things. It also goes into some of the awful stuff she experienced between books, some which started just as the previous book was launching.

There's a heart wrenching chapter on her sister's death and her parent's separation. While they weren't close, she comes to realize how similar they were. She wonders about the reasons they never quite meshed.

The final chapter, though, is my favorite. It's a how to learn to love yourself. She draws herself twice, one being helpful (or attempting to be) and one being confused and in poses she also uses for drawing her dogs. The written text, though, contains a lot of gentle advice.

Five stars

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Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines: 12/16/20

Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines

Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines by Jennifer J. Chow is the second book in the Sassy Cat mystery series. Mimi goes to pick up Alice at the elementary school where she works expecting a fun night together but those plans are put on hold when they find another teacher dead in her car. Alice is now a person of interest and Mimi decides she, with the help of her cat, will clear her sister's name.

This book continues with the talking cat plot first introduced in Mimi Lee Gets a Clue. In the first volume, Marshmallow's ability to talk isn't explained beyond it being part of their bond as pet and owner. Now with the introduction of Nimbus, a gray kitten with the same ability, albeit to a lesser degree, Chow includes a secondary plot thread to explain why and how.

The oddest part about Nimbus is where she's found. She's found near the murder scene but her relationship to the murder is mostly coincidental. The dead teacher had been feeding her but it's hinted at that Nimbus had been to the teacher's apartment. It's unlikely the cat would have also been taken to school. Thus her appearance under the car is farfetched.

The mystery this time is less centered on Mimi's job as a dog groomer, although she does use her connections from people met through her work to solve the case. I found some of Mimi's leaps in logic hard to follow, but not enough to not enjoy the mystery as a whole.

Four stars

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Charming as a Verb: 12/15/20

Charming as a Verb

Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe is primarily set in New York City, in and around FATE school. Henri Halti Haltiwanger is a senior and his entire life he's been set on attending Columbia. To save up money he's been working as a dog walker and it's through that gig he meets the girl who might help him reach his goal.

Corinne Troy lives in the same building as him. Her mother is a Columbia dean and might be his last ditch hope to get in after bungling his interview. She, though, can see through his charms and blackmails him into helping her be more social so she can get into her first choice college. While helping her, they become friends, and then fall in love.

Author Ben Philippe is a Canadian living in New York. Midway through the novel, Henri's path to college takes a detour. Like Tiana in the Disney adaptation of The Frog Princess (2002), he'll get what he needs, not what he (or his parents) want. The novel also touches realistically on the fall out of highly competitive schools and imposter syndrome.

The Canadian detour places the book on the road narrative spectrum, down in the realistic fiction. Halti and Corinne travel as a couple (33). Their destination is the city (33) of Montreal. Their route is via railroad (00). Thus the narrative tangent that puts Halti on a new, unimagined path, can be summarized as a couple going to the city via the railroad (333300).

Five stars

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Sister of My Heart: 12/14/20

Sister of My Heart

Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the first of the Anju and Sudha dualogy. Anju and Sudha are cousins, born on the same day, living in the same house. Anju is the daughter of an upper caste family and her cousin, who feels more like a twin to her, is the daughter of the black sheep of the family.

After a slow set up that goes through their childhoods as well as some meandering into the family backstory, the novel settles on the marriage prospects for both young women. One finds an American husband and through him possible freedom. The other has a local suitor.

The narration (words chosen) while poetic throughout, crafts a rather flat narrative (story). I never really connected with either. Instead I found the tale of their fortune seeking fathers the most interesting piece of the book, even though (perhaps because of) they failed utterly.

With the themes of mothers' duty to their daughters and their daughters' struggle to assert themselves gives Sister of My Heart a similar reading experience to This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura (2019).

The follow up novel is The Vine of Desire (2002).

Three stars

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Shadowspell: 12/13/20

Shadowspell

Shadowspell by Jenna Black is the sequel to Glimmerglass. Dana Hathaway and her human mother are living in protective custody in Avalon. Meanwhile the Erlking is terrorizing Avalon and seems to have taken an interest in Dana.

In the first book I liked the mix of modern day life with traditional fantasy elements. Fae going out of Starbucks and sushi was charming and a little kitschy.

But now there's this larger than life force coming after Dana and she's too busy being a teenager to care. In the previous book she's shown having to care for her alcoholic mother. The desire to have some time to herself is why she ran away.

Her sense of responsibility is completely gone. She goes on dates. She's distracted by every hot guy she sees, even when she knows he's trouble. And then things go completely off the rails when she agrees to sleep with the Erlking.

The third book is Sirensong (2011) but at this time I have no plans to continue with the series.

Two stars

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The The Girl and the Ghost: 12/12/20

The The Girl and the Ghost

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alka is a middle grade fantasy that begins like a fairytale. An old witch dies and sends the pelesit she has enslaved to serve her grand-daughter. With a few drops of blood the little girl and the magical creature who spends most of his time in the form of a grasshopper are bonded.

But this fairytale is set in modern day Malaysia. It's also about Suraya growing up poor but doing well enough academically to get into a better school. It's about her being bullied and not wanting Pink (her name for the pelesit) to take revenge on her behalf. It's about her making friends with a new girl and the jealousy that arrises in Pink.

It's also about family secrets. It's about the witch and a well intentioned bad decision. It's about a mother's guilt and desire above all else to keep her daughter safe.

The resolution to events set in motion by the witch places The Girl and the Ghost onto the road narrative spectrum as an outlier. My analysis here will contain spoilers. If you've not read the book, stop reading now.

The short, non-spoilery version is that I loved this book and rate it five stars. The book is a good read along thematically with:

The way I've defined the different narrative types centers the protagonist, or traveler as I call them. Who the traveler is in this novel is the crux of the surprise. For the majority of the trip that Suraya takes to break Pink from the witch's curse, one can argue that she and her companion, Jing, would collectively count as marginalized travelers. However, over the course of their journey, it becomes apparent that Pink is more to Suraya than a bonded spirit. He and she are siblings (CC).

The journey to learn the truth and break the curse is a journey to uhoria (CC). Namely they need to retrace the witch's life to find where she first captured Pink. The destination in the literal sense is a graveyard, another waypoint in uhoria.

While the destination is a magical one, the route there is a practical one, namely the blue highway (33). As this is Malaysia, it's not a literal part of the older US highway system. Instead, it's a bus route through paved roads and towns with numerous stops along the way. In this regard, I'm reminded of the recurring afternoon bus in the Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon.

To summarize, The Girl and the Ghost sits on the road narrative spectrum as the tale of siblings traveling to uhoria via the blue highway (CCCC33).

Five stars

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The Santaroga Barrier: 12/11/20

The Santaroga Barrier

The Santaroga Barrier is my favorite Frank Herbert novel. I originally read it in 1988, a few weeks before I read Dune (1965). When I started the road narrative spectrum project, I knew I wanted to re-read the novel for the project.

In thirty-two years I've forgotten a lot, although the basic gist stuck with me. A man goes after his girl friend when she unexpectedly leaves college. She's a native of a mysterious and insular town that in modern parlance would be called "off grid."

Reading it now as an adult and a college education, I see that from the very first paragraph, Herbert has peppered his book with psychology/philosophy terms to give a deeper meaning to his novel. Put another way, he's giving an informed reader a short hand or not so secret handshake to know what's going on before the protagonist does.

Take for instance the protagonist, a psychology professor from Berkeley. He's named Gilbert Dasein or "bright pledge being there." Meaning, he's duty bound to finish what he starts because he's just that kind of mensch. He's going to figure out what makes Santaroga tick and win back his ex-girlfriend's affections no matter what. He's going into this trip knowing that the two previous men sent by the university died.

The heart and soul of Santaroga is the Jaspers Cheese Co-op. That's the second big clue. It's a reference to Karl Jaspers. Santaroga is infected with something that will bring along the sort of collective human experience Jaspers wrote about. As it's a cheese co-op, the controlling factor is in the cheese. The second season Ben 10 episode, "Camp Fear" is also a good summary of what's at play in Santaroga.

The other aspect of Santaroga is how difficult it is to find. In this regard, it's like Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink (2015). Except, Fink has made it clear through long running story arcs that Night Vale isn't in our dimension, although it sometimes interacts with it. Santaroga is cut off by an organic thing and by the people who purposefully made the effect stronger through science. The town that now mistrusts the outside scientific world was enslaved by it's own scientific explorations.

Also ironically, while Night Vale is in an imaginary place, it is actually more easily mapped onto the real world than Santaroga. Herbert who was from Oregon, had some passing knowledge of California but conflated two different locations. In the opening chapter, Gilbert Dasein is described as turning off from the Avenue of the Giants. That puts him half way between Berkeley and Humboldt. Later, though, various passersby are told they are 25 miles away from Porterville and that US 395 is 40 miles away. That location is as far away from Berkley as the first, but in the opposite direction!

All of these pieces of the Santaroga Barrier add up to a spot on the road narrative spectrum. Gilbert who quickly hooks up with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny Sorge or the "fair phantom of caring". The two travel together for the majority of the novel, and as her presence in Santaroga was Gilbert's inspiration for the trip, the two count as a traveling couple (33). Santaroga's location (regardless where exactly) is a rural one (33). The route they take is the maze (CC), in that it's full of blind alleys and danger. Throughout the novel Gil manages to barely escape death, although various residents aren't as lucky. Gil only finally escapes the maze when he fully accepts the Jaspers. To summarize, The Santaroga Barrier is about a couple traveling through a rural location via the maze (3333CC).

One last thought— is my own personal headcanon, is that Jaspers is the spice of Dune. What if Dune, set in the far future, is the end result of Jaspers escaping the bounds of Santaroga. What if the barrier is as much as a containment field for the Jaspers as it is for the people?

Four stars

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Queen of the Nile: 12/10/20

Queen of the Nile

Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack is the sixth and final book in the Cleopatra in Space series. Cleopatra and the Pharaoh have to face up to their parts in a millennia old prophesy. One of them will have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the kingdom and the universe.

The final volume is mostly hiding, planning, and then fighting as Xaius Octavian finally finds them. The battle and the stakes while confined primarily to one planet, reminds me of Descender, Volume 6: The Machine War by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (2018).

For me the best part of this conclusion was how the time travel threads were tied up. There was no reset switch to undo all her adventures, but Cleopatra does find a way to go back in time and eventually be the queen history remembers her as while still having the option of adventures in space and the future.

If you subscribe to Peacock, there's also an animated series. I don't personally. If you've seen the show, let me know what you think.

Five stars

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Handbook for Homicide: 12/09/20

Handbook for Homicide

Handbook for Homicide by Lorna Barrett and Cassandra Campbell (narrator) is the 14th Booktown Mystery and a book I've been waiting all summer and most of fall to read as the audiobook version released later than the print and ebook editions. Tricia Miles and Marshall Campbell have just returned from a so-so tour of Ireland. They arrive to the news of a break-in at Haven't Got a Clue and the discovery of a dead homeless woman in the Dumpster behind the store.

While there is no chance Tricia could have had anything to do with the woman's death, Pixie, her long time assistant is a person of interest. She was also friends with the the dead woman.

On the home front, Tricia's sister has had surgery and isn't as mobile as she normally is, meaning any investigating she helps in will need accommodations. Also, Tricia's niece and former employee is stressed out by her work, home, and parenting obligations.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery here, even though I figured it out at about the halfway point. I didn't mind Tricia's investigations in the wrong direction because it did still help find Susan's next of kin, as well as one of her homeless encampment friends. This series is unique among the ones I follow in that it does include discussions of homelessness, mental health, and other societal problems that most cozies ignore.

Book fifteen, A Deadly Deletion is scheduled for release in July, 2021.

Five stars

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A Death Long Overdue: 12/08/20

A Death Long Overdue

A Death Long Overdue by Eva Gates and Elise Arsenault (narrator) is the seventh book in the Lighthouse Library mystery series and one I had completely missed when it first released. While I started reading this series in print, I've recently started re-reading them as audiobooks. On finishing the first in the series, Apple Books helpfully recommended the most recent one.

Bertie James, the director of the Bodie Island library is hosting a fortieth anniversary reunion for her library cohorts. As part of the celebration she, Lucy and the other library staff have put together a collection of items showing what library work was like in the pre-internet days.

One of the items that catches the most attention to the bafflement of the Lucy and Bertie is a coffee stained, heavily underlined copy of Celestine Prophesy. When the guest most affected by the book and it's checkout slip ends up murdered in the marsh, Lucy ends up having to discover what happened twenty-five years ago in order to solve the modern day murder.

This year marks the first year where many of the novels I've read with extended interest in decades past has covered time periods in my own life time that I remember well. It wasn't a slow but steady sliding scale either. We seem to have gone in discrete chunks from 1929 to 1940 to mid 1950s to 1963 to 1968 and now to 1980 and 1995 while bypassing the 1970s.

The mystery was complex enough to keep me guessing even if I'd figured out early on the logistics of the 1995 mystery. There are enough suspects and enough motives to make spotting the actual killer tricky. In terms of narrative flow between present and past, A Death Long Overdue is a good companion read to For Whom the Book Tolls by Laura Gail Black (2020).

Eva Gates is a pseudonym of Vicki Delany, and therefore this book qualifies for the Canadian Book Challenge even though it is set entirely in North Carolina.

Five stars

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Don't Date Rosa Santos: 12/07/20

Don't Date Rosa Santos

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno is set in Port Coral, Florida. Rosa Santos lives with her grandmother while her artist mother travels from place to place, following her dream. Now the quirky seaside town is set to lose its port to a developer. Can the town rally to raise the money to keep its small town charm?

On a personal level, Rosa and her family believe they are cursed by the sea. Her grandmother lost her husband on the way here from Cuba. Rosa's father set sail one day and didn't return, presumed dead. So Rosa has refused to fall in love, refused to date. But now there's sweet natured Alex Aquino who has a boat.

While Rosa is trying to decide which college to attend, planning how to save her town's landmark, and whether or not to follow her heart with Alex, she's also forced to face the curse head on. Her itinerant mother comes home to help with the town plans. She also comes home with a hostile ambivalence to the stories associated with the family curse.

I went into this novel expecting a different done — something more akin to The Taming of the Shrew, such as Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016). Instead, Don't Date Rosa Santos is a quiet book populated by a delightful cast of characters. Port Coral reminds me of Cicely, Alaska, from Northern Exposure.

Rosa's working through the family curse also sits on the road narrative spectrum. Rosa travels both with her family (mother and grandmother) and a couple with Alex (33). Her destination is uhoria in two forms (CC). As a family, it's the history with Cuba. As a couple, it's finding a hidden golden turtle. Her route is offroad (66), meaning on the water she has been raised to fear. Summarized, Don't Date Rosa Santos is about a couple and a family traveling through uhoria via an offroad route (33CC66).

Five stars

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The Ripple Effect: 12/06/20

The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect by Malorie Blackman is the Seventh Doctor adventure from the Doctor Who Fiftieth Anniversary Shorts. The Doctor and Ace are stuck in a temporal trap in deep space. Their last ditch effort to free themselves and the TARDIS ends up with them far-flung across the universe to a very wrong Skaro.

To Ace and the other people they meet on Skaro, the Doctor seems to be over-reacting. The Daleks are peaceful. They're running a university for interplanetary studies, similar to Oomza University in Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

Can the Doctor figure out what's going on? If the Daleks are genuinely peaceful, should he try to fix the universe to put them back to their warlike ways?

The Ripple Effect is a quick series of "What if"s. It's a thought piece that looks at the good that can come out of atrocities.

Ultimately, though, the choice to fix things is made for the Doctor because this alternate world isn't stable. I personally would have preferred to have the Doctor convince everyone rather than have the universe essentially demand to be fixed.

Five stars

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Rent a Boyfriend: 12/05/20

Rent a Boyfriend

Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao is a rom-com set over the course of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chinese New Year. Chloe Wang trying to avoid being forced into a relationship with the reprehensible Hongbo rents Drew to play the part of her perfect boyfriend from Chicago, Andrew.

Drew works for Rent for Your 'Rents, a company specializing in fake boyfriends for Chinese American women who are under pressure from their parents. The set up, while gender swapped and focused on Chinese culture, reminds me of the anime, Rent a Girlfriend (Summer 2020).

Chloe's mother reminds me of Lana Lee's mother from the Noodle Shop mystery series, especially in the earliest books. Chloe's mother means well and doesn't want her daughter repeating her mistakes, but she's terrible at expressing these thoughts. Instead she comes off as the most extreme of the helicopter parents.

Meanwhile, Chloe's father is stoically trying to deal with his health and the reality that he's much other than his wife. He wants to make sure his daughter will be cared for but can't see that she's perfectly capable of doing that herself.

Drew meanwhile is living with the fear that he'll never measure up to the perfect characters he plays. If he opens up to Chloe he's sure to disappoint her. He's sure to not get the approval of her parents.

All of this unfolds organically and over a believable amount of time. As it happens, I started the book during Thanksgiving and it was weird reading things in real time.

Five stars

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The Sea Fairies: 12/04/20

The Sea Fairies

The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum is the first Trot & Cap'n Bill books. Trot and Bill were supposed to be heroes of a separate and equally popular series. But the majority of the fan mail regarding them was to ask when Ozma would invite them to live in the Emerald City, which he did in The Scarecrow of Oz.

The year before this novel, Baum had moved to California. The move is reflected in his choice of setting. Mayre, or Trot to her friends, lives with her mother and Cap'n Bill on the California coast. Her father has taken over Bill's ship after he lost his leg in an accident. But Trot spends most of her time with Bill.

The Baums first move to California was the Hotel del Coronado. The influence of the area shows in how Trot and Bill's adventure begins. They meet a mermaid, or a "sea fairy" in a coastal cave. The place in San Diego that has caves like that is La Jolla.

Trot and Bill are transformed into merfolk and invited to visit their home beneath the sea. In their merfolk form, Trot and Bill can travel hundreds of miles in a few minutes. They stay dry but can fly through the water. They can breath easily and talk to all the sea creatures.

But Trot is no Dorothy and Bill is not the Wizard. Where Dorothy is practical and calm to her very core, Trot is flighty and bratty. Bill takes pleasure in complaining. Where Dorothy sees beauty in a magical creature's uniqueness, Trot is judgmental. Trot on meeting Zog, the chimera big bad of the book, she asks him, "Why don't you kill yourself?" Dorothy would never show level of callousness.

John R. Neill's illustrations for the Oz books are a big part of the magic. He clearly understood country life and domestic animals. Though he illustrates this one, his drawings demonstrate he had no solid understanding of sea life. The goofy drawings further detract from the potential enjoyment of his undersea fantasy.

Like the Oz books, The Sea Fairies sits on the road narrative spectrum. While it should seem that Trot and Bill would be the travelers, serving as a de facto family, Bill and his long lost brother (CC) are the travelers. The destination is utopia, namely the under sea kingdom (FF). The route they take is offroad (66) (through the sea). To summarize, The Sea Fairies is about sibling travelers reuniting after a journey to utopia via an offroad route (CCFF66).

The second Trot and Cap'n Bill book is Sky Island (1912).

Three stars

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Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles Volume 1: 12/03/20

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles Volume 1

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles Volume 1 by Naru Narumi is the first volume of a manga about a girl's crush on a ramen loving girl. The manga was first published in a magazine aimed at older male readers and later adapted into an anime. I came across the manga via the 2018 anime.

The protagonist is unhealthily obsessed with new girl Koizumi who has recently transferred to her high school. She wants nothing more than to go on a date with Koizumi and be her girlfriend (a plot point downplayed in the anime). She stalks Koizumi around Tokyo to different ramen shops, where she learns about ramen, and slowly gets her own appreciation for ramen.

But mostly, this manga is made up of vignettes of eating specific kinds of ramen in specific places. Volume 1 includes my favorite ramen (and my favorite anime episode): "horse oil" ramen as the protagonist misreads the kanji. It's actually black garlic ramen and so so delicious!

Volume 2 was re-released in translation in May 2020.

Five stars

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A Man Lay Dead: 12/02/20

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh is the first of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries. There's a party at a country manor. It's full of privileged twats doing idiotic things. One of their games is a murder game, except, one of them actually ends up dead.

I suppose in 1934, this plot would have been new and exciting. After eighty-six years and countless numbers of mysteries being published, it's a fairly pedestrian mystery.

Maybe too I would have enjoyed it more under different circumstances, but this was my last library book as the shelter in place order meant my husband was working from home and our children were doing their schoolwork online. On top of those distractions, we also had just brought home a new puppy. Under those circumstances, I didn't lose myself in the mystery. Nor did much of it stick with me beyond the basics.

The second book is Enter a Murderer (1935). At this point I'm not sure when or if I'll read it.

Three stars

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November 2020 Sources: 12/02/20

Previous month's book sources

November was the eighth full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. November followed the now established routine except for an overnight trip to Los Angeles to pick up our oldest from college.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In November I read 21 TBR books, up from October's 18 TBR. I also read zero published in October. Nine books were for research, down from the last month's 18. None were from the library. The higher number of TBR books brought my ROOB score down from -3.67 to -4.14. This was my best November in 11 years of tracking my reading in this fashion.

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. December like November tends to be low for me, so I'm expecting another good month.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for October improved slightly from -2.40 to -2.55.

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Bloom: 12/01/20

Bloom

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel and Sophie Amos (narrator) is the start of the Overthrow series. It's a horror / disaster novel set on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. After an extraordinary rain three varieties of black plants spring up overnight across the island. Soon it's become apparent it's a worldwide floral invasion of man eating plants.

Anaya, Petra, and Seth are three teens living on Salt Spring Island. They are the only three who seem to be immune to the plants. The pollen and acid these plants produce in abundance doesn't affect them. The Canadian government takes notice and decides to recruit them to help find a way to fight the plants.

The set up of how the three teens are unique reminds me of a combination of two YA books I've enjoyed: The Gathering by Kelley Armstrong (2011) and Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything. by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland (2020).

The plants themselves, though, remind me more of horror from the 1950s-1960s. Specifically I'm thinking of Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951) and the "Man-Eater of Surrey Green" episode of the Avengers (Series 4, Episode 11).

There's on detail that bugs me, and that's the inclusion of male teens who are immune to the plants. Essentially these teens are test tube babies with human DNA and alien DNA. The human DNA comes from their mothers, yet there's Seth and other male teens, we learn late in the book. With no explanation given to how this is possible, I will head canon all of them as being trans.

The second book is Hatched (2020). The audiobook version released today and I will be listening soon.

Four stars

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November 2020 Summary: 12/01/20

Reading report

November continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. I spent two days bringing oldest home for Thanksgiving. It was nice having her home. My car threw a bolt on the trip down and is now in for repairs. Thankfully nothing scary happened; things could have been a lot worse.

Starting this month I'm moving where I track queer books to my diverse books graph. I originally had it as a genre which I post as pie charts at the conclusion of the month. I am now tracking it here instead. The queer books would be a subset of the overall diverse number. I might in the future separate it out to its own graph. I haven't decided yet.

I read fewer books in November, 21, down from 27 in the previous month. Sixteen books of my read books were diverse, meaning the majority of my books qualified. On the reviews front, two thirds of the books, twenty, qualified. Of those sixteen read, two were queer. Of the reviewed books, four were.

I only now have 2020 books in my backlog to review. As it's the last month of the year, I have added 2021 to the spreadsheet. This year's books are down to 58 from 63 of the 317 books read.

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