|Now||2021||Previous||Articles||Road Essays||Road Reviews||Author||Black Authors||Title||Source||Age||Genre||Series||Format||Inclusivity||LGBTA||Portfolio||Artwork||WIP|
Spore by Alex Scarrow is the Eighth Doctor novella from the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary boxset. The Eighth Doctor had one adventure for an American made miniseries in 1996 — and a brief cameo in "The Night of the Doctor" (Doctor Who, 14 November 2013). So there's not much in the way of screen time to build on. There might be books but I haven't read any.
Since he was an American creation or regeneration to use the in show term, it makes sense for this adventure to take place on American soil. Specifically it's set near Las Vegas in a small desert town. The town is under attack by an unknown but 100% lethal pathogen. The Doctor, though, recognizes it and knows he has to jump in before Earth is destroyed.
Apparently the Spore, the Doctor's name for the invading pathogen, is a test of sentience. If sentience is proved to its satisfaction it will self destruct before completely destroying the planet.
After all the horror of the dead in the town and the Thing-like mutations, the climax was a bit of a let down. Yes, the Doctor likes to talk. They (to include the current regeneration) tend to ramble. But after all that set up, a Socratic discussion between aliens on behalf of the Earth just wasn't a satisfying ending.
Clues to the Universe: 01/30/20
Clues to the Universe by Christina Li is a middle grade historical fiction set primarily in Sacramento. Told in alternating points of view it's the tale of two young teens who miss their fathers and connect with them via their hobbies.
Rosalind "Ro" Ling Geraghty is Chinese-Irish-American. Her father instilled in her a love of science and specifically space, space travel, and rockets. They were to build a rocket together when he was killed in a hit and run accident.
Benjamin "Benji" Burns loves comic books: reading them and creating them. Recently he discovered that his missing father is the author of his favorite comic book series.
Ro and Benji team up to complete their projects. Together they will build the rocket and enter it in the science fair. They will also search for clues in the comic books to discover the whereabouts of Benji's father.
Their friendship is real and raw and organic. It grows over the course of the novel after the two accidentally swap folders. This is a friendship in the days before texting and cellphones but there is still bullying, rumors, and other middle school nastiness.
The goal of finding Benji's father puts this novel on the road narrative spectrum. Benji and Ro work initially as a couple (33)(platonic) but later require the help of their families (also 33). The destination, while literally is the father's location, it's metaphorically uhoria (CC) as Benji wants to learn about his father's past and wants a future with him. The route they take is the interstate (00). Clues to the Universe can be summarized as family traveling to uhoria via the interstate (33CC00).
Across the Green Grass Fields: 01/29/20
Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire is the sixth book in the Wayward Children series. This one covers Regan's time in the Hooflands where she lived with a centaur family.
At home, Regan found herself between two friendships. There's the girl who likes bugs and science. And there's the popular girl who believes in destiny and in behaving a certain gender based way. Regan choses popular over interesting and later regrets it.
When the other girls are starting to change and starting to get their periods, Regan doesn't. It's then that her parents tell her why she hasn't. She's intersex. She might not care but the popular girl does. Different is proper. Different is enough of a sin to no longer be friends.
So it's in that emotional state of mind and the desire for an unconditional friendship that summons Regan's door. Even in Hooflands, though, humans are different. They're useful. They're signs of the upcoming revolution. They're portents of greater destinies. Regan, though, wants none of that. She just wants to live her life with her found family.
Going into this novella, I knew the author collects My Little Ponies. It was hard not read without the theme song in my head, but with "pony" replaced by "centaur."
Despite my personal hiccup, the novel provides interesting world-building that considers how horses live and how the horse experience might shape centaur society. Further more the centaurs are at top of a caste system, one where the other inferior equine creatures are animals and even sources of food.
Given how short the book was, I wish more time was spent in the Hooflands. Regan's life from early childhood to the point she leaves was a bit of a slog. These pre-doorway scenes could easily be labeled as a prolog and left to the individual whether to read them or not.
Across the Green Grass Fields like the previous books in the series sits on the road narrative spectrum. Regan takes two journeys: one to the Hooflands, and one in the Hooflands. Both, though, are built from the same three narrative building blocks.
Regan is an orphan traveler (FF) in that she takes both of her journeys alone. Her goal or destination in both is home (66). In the first case it's the making of a found family with the centaurs. In the second case it's the journey that ultimately returns her home after six years in the Hooflands. Her route is the labyrinth (99), both figuratively and literally. Figuratively at first in that she has to mature in order to take her journey in Hooflands. Literally in that she meets the Minotaur and he sends her home. Thus Across the Green Grass Fields can be understood as an orphan finding home via the labyrinth (FF6699).
Book seven will be Where the Drowned Girls Go. It releases in January 2022.
Black Canary: Ignite: 01/28/20
Black Canary: Ignite by Meg Cabot and Cara McGee is Cabot's debut graphic novel. Dinah Lance has her sights on winning the Battle of Bands. But she keeps getting in trouble at school for freak accidents. Things break around her and the principal wants her expelled.
In most of the other DC graphic novels I've read, the future powers or future identities of characters are left out of the story. There are exceptions: the Teen Titans series by Kami Garcia, You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez (2020), and Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê (2020). For the most part, I prefer the ones that are less power oriented and more alternate timeline character development.
Ignite is unusual in that it starts as a character driven narrative and then pivots at the halfway point to being about her coming into her abilities. A villain in the world is also revealed more blatantly than almost all the other books, the Minh Lê graphic novel being an exception.
Legend in Green Velvet: 01/27/20
Legend in Green Velvet by Elizabeth Peters is a standalone mystery from early in the author's long writing career. As it's forty-five years old, it's rather dated. Some of that might be the result of an author finding her voice and some of that might be my tastes changing in so many years of reading.
Susan has gone to Scotland to work at a dig. She's planning on spending a couple days in Edinburgh playing tourist. She's been a fan of the country for as long as she can remember. If she could be swept back in time like Beth Pudding in A Man in a Kilt by Sandy Blair (2004), she would go willingly.
Not off the bus more than a few minutes, Susan finds herself in the middle of a mystery. An old man has slipped a coded message into her pocket. That night he ends up dead and the handsome stranger who has helped her is fingered for the crime.
The plot comes off like a hackneyed mixture of Macbeth and The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915). Granted, both are classics but here they didn't work for me.
Oh My Gods!: 01/26/20
Oh My Gods! by Stephanie Cooke, Insha Fitzpatrick, and Juliana Moon (Illustrations) is middle grade graphic novel about a girl going to live with her father while her mother takes on a new job. For Karen her mother's news means moving from New Jersey to Mount Olympus. And while it may be obvious to the reader what's going on, it takes Karen a good long while to sort things out.
The conceit here is that the gods and goddesses of Olympus get bored with immortality and reinvent themselves from time to time. Their current incarnation is as middle schoolers. Karen's father, Zed, is the principal and mayor of the town.
In the second half of the graphic novel there's an introduced mystery. Someone is changing people and animals to stone. The book takes on a police procedural / amateur detective feel with Karen and her new classmates investigating.
While the set up is goofy, the characters are self aware enough to lampshade their situation. What could be cringeworthy comes off as lighthearted and fun.
Karen's journey is also on the road narrative spectrum. As she's traveling to her father at her mother's behest, she is part of a family of travelers (33). The destination is utopia (FF), although this version of Mount Olympus is mapped both in terms of where it is relative to the rest of the world, and where things are in the town. The route is an offroad one (66), via airplane. To summarize, Oh My Gods! is a family traveling to and through utopia via an offroad route (33FF66).
The second volume The Forgotten Maze is scheduled for release on January 4, 2022.
The Meet-Cute Project: 01/25/20
The Meet-Cute Project by Rhiannon Richardson is a YA romance set against the impending deadline of an older sister's wedding. Mia's sister Sam is getting married and has demanded that she bring along a date to the big event. Mia isn't currently dating anyone and doesn't know how to go about finding a date; she'd rather focus on Math Team, Swim Team, and documentaries. Her BFFs, though, love rom-coms and have a plan.
Like Mia, I'm not much of rom-com watcher. When I watch romantic comedies I tend to go for the old school screwballs. I haven't seen any of the films Mia watches — although I've heard of a handful of them. So like Mia, I learned that "meet-cute" is the plot device where the couple first meets and are set on their path towards an eventual happily ever after.
For Mia, the meet-cute project her friends set up mean putting herself and her potential dates in a variety of staged events that are outside of her usual day to day activities and interests. As you can imagine, these initial meet-cute attempts are embarrassing and ineffectual.
But the experiences combined with frustration over Sam's sudden return home and encroachment on Mia's space, gives her the impetus to push her boundaries. She becomes more flexible with her routine and begins to rebel a bit. Some of that works to her benefit and some of it backfires.
The relationship between Mia and Sam and their parents hit the mark for me. I come to this romance as the much older sibling and was the one putting my then fourteen year old brother (as well as my husband's seventeen year old brother) through wedding planning hell. Older children grow up with inexperienced parents and often parents who are less financially secure. By the second child they've learned a thing or two (although each child is a unique challenge) and they might have more disposable income and/or free time. This is certainly the case with Sam and Mia's parents and a big source of conflict between the sisters. It's real, raw, and relatable.
I know I've been completely ignoring the romance details. They're sweet and charming. She has some hit or miss moments but finds a great date and longer-term boyfriend in the end.
The Hound of Florence: 01/24/20
The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten and Huntley Paterson (Translation) is the tale of an artist's son who in his hour of misfortune finds a magic ring and wishes to be a nobleman's dog. He gets his wish, though only part-time, and the novelty of being a greyhound quickly wears thin.
In the past I've gone through periods where the majority of what I read is older than I am — often from the early 20th century or as far back as the mid to late 19th century. I'm not in one of those periods, but sometimes an older book still manages to pique my interest.
My journey towards The Hound of Florence began in late 2019 when I read The Ghost in Apartment 2R by Denis Markell. The book includes a tale of a man being transformed into a dog by his wife. While that story is from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights it got me thinking of The Shaggy Dog (1959) film.
It's been about thirty-five years since I last watched the film or its sequel, The Shaggy D.A. (1976). I have not seen the remake. When I was younger I didn't bother with reading the credits. This time I did and saw that The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten was listed as the source material. Salten was also the author of Bambi (which I have neither read nor watched).
The Hound of Florence is historical fiction with a dose of fantasy. It's set, as far as I can, during the Renaissance. It starts in Vienna shortly after the death of Lucas Grassi's father. His father had been artist but now Lucas is an orphan and will be out on the streets soon.
It's while he's out on a walk, lamenting his fate and mourning his father, that Lucas first sees archduke's coach and the beautiful greyhound running alongside. He wishes he could be that dog. The next morning he finds that he is that dog. He's literally inside the mind and body of the dog.
There are three big differences between the book and the film. The first is the setting — Italy, or rather individual city states that would later be brought together under the Italian flag, vs. some unnamed American city. The second is the time period — four hundred years in the past from when the book was published, vs contemporary — the late 1950s. Third, how the transformation works. In the book, Lucas is transported to where the dog is and in his human form wakes up near where the dog was. In the film the dog transports to where Wilby Daniels is, meaning it's the dog's sudden appearance in places where he shouldn't be that alerts others to the curse.
While neither version is perfect, I much prefer the simplistic, gag driven Disney film to the slower, more plodding novel. There is more cruelty to animals in the novel. That beautiful greyhound is beaten for disobeying. Much of that disobedience is a direct result of Lucas being in control of the body. The Archdukes's growing hatred of a perceived untrainable dog becomes Wilson Daniel's allergies and dislike of dogs. But for all his blustering, he's not violent against the sheepdog in the same way that the Archduke is to the greyhound.
Stella's Stellar Hair: 01/23/20
Stella's Stellar Hair by Yesenia Moises blends astronomy, family, the environment, and hair care to tell the story of a girl trying to find the right look for the upcoming Big Star Little Gala. As the publisher's blurb describes it, "Black girl magic takes on the solar system."
Stella's hair just isn't behaving for her. At her mother's suggestion she hops on her hoverboard to visit her aunties. One by one she's given a new do and while she likes the look and loves spending time with her aunties, none of the styles feels like her. In this regard, Stella reminds me of a younger, but more magical kindred spirit to Tessa Johnson in Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant (2021). The big difference, though, is she has aunties to help.
Ultimately Stella does find something that works for her and is true to her own inner spirit and sense of style. She's able to incorporate something from everyone while being uniquely herself.
The back of book includes a discussion of the different heavenly bodies in the solar system as well as how their environments influenced the hair styling each auntie chose. Those choices are then further drawn back to real places on Earth where those styles developed and are worn.
No Such Thing as Ghosts: 01/22/20
No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon is the fifth of the Dragonbreath series. It's set during Halloween, meaning the bus that can take Danny and Wendell doesn't feature. Instead, it's a night of trick-or-treating with a diehard skeptic, invited by Danny's father.
The Halloween routine involves a brief trick-or-treat run along Danny's street and then a drive to a wealthier area for the full sized candy bars. Driving to other neighborhoods wasn't something I did as a kid, our suburb being too far removed from anywhere else. But it is something my kids have experienced when trick-or-treating with their friends.
The set up, though, is Danny, Wendell, and Christiana are tricked into investigating an abandoned house by a group of bullies. When they're trapped in there, they have to face the fact that the house might actually be haunted.
The house itself reminds me of a few haunted houses in kid's fiction:
The ghost, and yes, there is one, though, is more frustrated than grudge. She is one of many child ghosts I've read recently. As I get older, more and more of these child ghosts would have died during my childhood, making them contemporaries. Looking forward, though, to post COVID-19 times, I wonder how many future child ghosts will be contemporaries of my youngest.
Like the house, the ghost reminds me of others in children's fiction:
No Such Thing as Ghosts like the previous books in the Dragonbreath series, sits on the road narrative spectrum. As with volumes one through four, the travelers are marginalized (66) (as they are children). This time the destination is home (66) in two senses. The first is Danny and friends' desire to get home. The second is the haunted house — the ghost's home. Their route is the labyrinth (99), in that their time in the house changes their understanding of the situation as well as their reaction to the ghost. They go from being afraid of her to wanting to help her. All together, then, volume 5 is about marginalized travelers going home via the labyrinth (666699).
Volume six is Revenge of the Horned Bunnies (2012).
Ghost-Spider, Volume 2: Party People: 01/21/21
Ghost-Spider, Volume 2: Party People by Seanan McGuire and Ig Guara (Illustrations) is primarily about the reappearance of the Storm siblings after being missing for five years. On the B plot, in the other dimension, there's a new law forbidding superheroes under the age of 21 unless they have a sponsor. Both plots give Gwen a lot to consider as she is trying to find a workable balance between family, school, and being a superhero.
Of the two plots I found the Storm one the most compelling. At first glance it's a lost time mystery. They swear to they don't know what happened. But there's clearly something off about their story which reminds me all the way through of the duplicitous nature of Alicia Bitch Long Legs in Shopaholic to the Stars by Sophia Kinsella (2014).
The alternate universe plot is there to remind readers that Gwen's story is part of the larger Marvel Universe. There are notes for anyone who wants to pick up the other comics. I am personally not in any particular rush to do so.
Mistletoe Man: 01/20/21
Mistletoe Man by Susan Wittig Albert is the ninth China Bayles mystery. China's new business, Thyme for Tea is booming. She's happily married now and enjoying being a step-mother. It's coming up on Christmas and she can't get enough mistletoe. Then her supplier ends up dead in an apparent hit and run!
The majority of this mystery is set on a former ranch which has been broken into smaller lots. The deceased was the original owner and lived at the top of the property. Friends (and suppliers of other things) of China live in the largest parcel. They are also the prime suspects.
I liked the confined setting. The landscape is a well defined space within the context of this mystery. It was a refreshing change after the last couple melodramatic volumes.
The mystery, while apparently straightforward has some nice surprises. There are enough red herrings to make things interesting but not so many to be confusing or ridiculous.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also like For Whom the Book Tolls by Laura Gail Black (2020). The tenth book in this series is Bloodroot (2001).
Winter of Secrets: 01/19/21
Winter of Secrets by Vicki Delany is the third Constable Molly Smith mystery. An unusually thick snowfall has the highways and streets clogged with accidents keeping Smith and the other constables busy. Her last call of the night is for a yellow SUV off the road and into the river. Two dead men are pulled recovered when the SUV is pulled from the water.
The two men are part of group of wealthy tourists from back east. The friends and parents of one of the dead men expect a swift release of the bodies. It was a tragic accident, right?
One body appears to have died in the river. The other, though, appears to have been already dead when the car went into the river. Constable Molly Smith who made the initial visit to let the friends know about the deaths is paired again with Detective Winters.
The first two books have rather convoluted plots with parallel mysteries adding up to one much larger crime. While there are two mysteries, a shoplifting spree, and the mysterious death, the two aren't as interconnected as previous volumes would lead one to expect. Thus I found this particular mystery pretty easy to solve, although the particulars of the timeline were as tricky for me as they were for Smith and Winters.
The fourth book is Negative Images (2010).
These Violent Delights: 01/18/21
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is set in Shanghai in 1926. Juliette Cai has returned home from New York to help run the Scarlet Gang. Their main rival is the Russian gang, the White Flowers. At first squint, this novel is clearly inspired by Romeo and Juliet but reframed, re-contextualized.
But this isn't strictly a historical fiction about Europe's continued interest and meddling in China. Primarily this is a horror mystery. There are multiple sightings of a monster. There is some contagion coming out of the water that is driving people to kill themselves.
I'm going to freely admit that the bug mystery is what kept me reading. Rather than a straight up retelling of tragedy reframed as a more recent historical fiction, we get to see versions of Shakespeare's famous enemies to lovers being forced to work together to save their city from a potentially supernatural threat.
That said, the mystery can be solved. The clues are there. It's a satisfying conclusion and a rip-snorter of a climax. I look forward to what Chloe Gong comes up with next.
The sequel, Our Violent Ends is scheduled for release on November 16, 2021.
Shopaholic to the Stars: 01/17/21
Shopaholic to the Stars by Sophie Kinsella came out the year I started listening to the series on audiobook with Confessions of a Shopaholic. Becky Brandon, daughter Mini, and husband Luke are living temporarily in Los Angeles. Luke has a Hollywood client and Becky wants to be a stylist to the stars.
From the introduction I was already taken out of the world of the book. The narrator pronounced Los Angeles as Los Angelees. It's Los Angelus.
Discounting the narrator's accent, appropriate of course for the main cast of characters, the text itself was hit or miss. Los Angeles didn't feel like the real place — not in the way that London does in the earlier books.
For instance, one of the first things Becky participates in is a charity race. It's called a "Ten Miler." Except for marathons (26 miles) and half marathons (13 miles), all other long distance races, especially the charity ones, are metric. She would have been doing a 10K which is only about 6 miles.
The biggest plot point is the rivalry between Sage and another actress sent up a huge red flag. Hollywood doesn't foster that sort of rivalry. I'm frankly surprised the studios let them carry on for as long as they did. The second irksome plot point was the fight between Becky and Suze.
But finally, the ending at the start of a roadtrip was a huge glaring missed opportunity. It also shows just how British this series is, even when books are set in the States. If this novel had been written by an American (or more broadly, a North American), the road trip would have been the final act of the novel. It would have been the point where Becky would have been transformed and would have better come to understand her home away from home.
The next book is Shopaholic to the Rescue (2015). This book covers the road trip. I've just finished listening to the audiobook.
Happily Ever Afters: 01/16/21
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant is a YA romance set in a Long Beach arts high school. Tessa Johnson has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her best friend Caroline is her number one fan (and only reader).
Now, though, in a new school and in a creative writing program, she'll be expected to share her work. Jitters over having to share has given her writer's block. It's bad enough she's likely to fail her novel writing class.
On the romance front, there are two boys.
There's Sam, her across the street neighbor. He loves to bake. He's reliable and respectful. He gets on well with Tessa's older brother who is disabled.
Then there's Nico. He's gorgeous. He's in the writing program. He knows how to say nice sounding things. He makes her swoon but he has a girlfriend.
In terms of how Tessa freezes under the stress of sharing her work I'm reminded of the middle grade novel Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée (2020).
I personally find Tessa's inability to write after changing schools unrelatable. However, I know others who have gone through similar experiences, so Happily Ever Afters will resonate with readers.
Elise Bryant's next novel is One True Loves and is scheduled for release on January 4th, 2021.
The Haunting of Rookward House: 01/15/21
The Haunting of Rookward House by Darcy Coates was originally published in 2017 but a U.S. edition released this year. While much of the book remains recognizably Australian despite the Americanized spelling, there is the odd substitution of a raccoon for what was probably a ring-tailed possum.
The book opens in the late 1960s with a family of five. Thomas, the husband, is worried that Amy has followed them to their new home. He can hear her voice on the baby monitor. At this point it's not clear if she's there and alive, living in the walls like Eugene of Housebound or if she's a vengeful ghost who is personally haunting Thomas. The long answer is actually "both" but it depends when in the story one is.
The majority of the book, though, is set fifty years later. Guy while helping his mother clean her house finds a deed to a house. It's out in a rural area, off the grid, and hasn't been lived in for decades. Thinking the house would be a good distraction from what happened with Savannah, his ex-girlfriend, he sets out to fix it up to sell.
The setting of the house and the way the vines have so thoroughly invaded the outside reminded me of how Hill House is shown in the Netflix adaptation. I'm also reminded of the creeping willows of The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (2020).
The abandoned stone house, covered in vines, along a wild river, though, also brings to mind a familiar and very real landscape. It also happens to be one near where the author lives. Back in 1990 I spent two weeks backpacking in winter along the Hawkesbury River. On a canoeing part of the adventure we stopped for lunch at an abandoned orchard with a stone house covered in vines that might as well have been Rookward House.
How events unfold for Guy and his ultimate meeting with the ghost of Rookward is pretty standard but still entertaining. The more he explores and the time he spends, the closer he comes to meeting the ghost. The question, then is, how hurt will he get before he accepts that the place is haunted? The follow up is, will he be strong enough of mind and will to survive the encounter?
Although this novel is Australian, it does have a spot on the road narrative spectrum as an outlier. Guy as the owner of the house is a privileged traveler (00), a fairly standard protagonist for this type of horror. His destination, though, is not uhoria, even though he's interacting with a ghost. Instead, it's a rural destination, as the isolated nature of the building is highlighted above all else (33). The route he takes, though, is the maze (CC) in that the ghost is dangerous and has the ability to change the surroundings to suit her needs.
Many of Darcy Coates novels are available as audiobooks, so I will probably continue reading in that fashion.
Mighty Jack and the Goblin King: 01/14/21
Mighty Jack and the Goblin King by Ben Hatke is the sequel to Mighty Jack (2016). With Jack and Lilly climbing up the remains of their garden, one can expect a variation on the Jack and the Bean Stalk tale. The goal, here, though, isn't a golden egg laying goose, it's the rescue of Maddy, Jack's sister.
The title meanwhile implies that Jack will be going head to head with the Goblin King. Instead, there's a turn of events that gives Lilly a chance to be the hero. This is the volume where Lilly gets to shine and show off the skills she was hinted at having in the first volume.
This volume ends up being an homage of sorts to Labyrinth if it had been directed or designed by Terry Gilliam. Maddy takes the place of Toby, except she's much older and potentially more capable of taking action than an almost toddler. She's there to recharge the castle and continues to be little more than a prop in the form of a selectively mute maiden in distress.
Like the first book, volume two sits on the road narrative spectrum. Where the first one is fantasy because of the sibling travelers, this one is horror because of the change in traveler. While Jack's goal is still to reunite with Maddy, his sister, and while she has also traveled (via kidnapping) to this other world, the travelers with any sort of agency are Jack and Lilly. Together they work as a couple (33), though not as a romantic one.
The goal or destination for both is home (66). It's to return home. In the case of Jack and Maddy, it's also to save their home from foreclosure. Their route, is once again the cornfield. It's a metaphoric one, represented by the seeds they use and the vine they climb.
The third book is Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl (2019).
Magic and Macaroons: 01/13/21
Magic and Macaroons by Bailey Cates is the fifth of the Magical Bakery mystery series. Katie Lightfoot's spellbook club is interrupted when a stranger comes in, warns about a missing talisman and then passes out. Her appearance is related to the death of the former detective.
Much of this book is taken up with visiting different practitioners of voodoo. Katie has to earn the trust of each one and figure out which ones have actual powers and which ones are trustworthy.
I usually roll my eyes when voodoo is a plot point. It's often overdone. As there were so many different characters, there was enough room to capture some nuance. It was also a rare one where voodoo didn't automatically equal evil magic.
The sixth book is Spells and Scones (2016)
Ascender, Volume 2: The Dead Sea: 01/12/21
Ascender, Volume 2: The Dead Sea by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen came out in June but I have been taking my time reading and reviewing the Descender series. Back in April when I reviewed volume 1, I did so without realizing it was a follow up.
The Dead Sea is a combination of Mila's flight across the sea with Telsa and Helda, the sudden pickle Mother finds themselves in, as well as Andy reuniting with Mila's mother. All of that is mixed together with flashbacks to the Descender series.
While the Descender series fit on the road narrative spectrum (like the majority of Lemire's works that I've read), Ascender doesn't. As a continuing of a six volume series, it feels disjointed and distracted. There are too many old characters competing for attention, thus taking away from the core of the new series: the need to protect Mila from Mother.
Book three is The Digital Maze and it released last month.
Spoiler Alert: 01/11/21
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade is a romance set in the Bay Area. Marcus Caster-Rupp has finished filming the last season of Gods of the Gates where he has starred as Aeneas. Knowing the fandom will be outraged at the way the show ends, he returns to California.
April Whittier is a geologist. She's found a job in Oakland with a great team after numerous toxic jobs for big petroleum. She's also finally feeling confident enough to share her cosplay selfie where she's dressed as Lavinia — as she is in the romance series inspired by The Aeneid.
Because April isn't skinny like the star who plays Lavinia the trolls come after her. Marcus, though, sees her and is instantly smitten. He invites her out to dinner and after the initial shock wears off, she accepts.
Before the date even begins, the reader knows the two have a history. The two have been helping each other with their fanfics. By the end of the first date, Marcus knows she's Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, but he doesn't tell her that he's Book!AeneasWouldNever.
I am not much of a consumer of fanfic (although I do like fan art) so that aspect wasn't what drew me in. Initially it was the cover art which is absolutely gorgeous. Then it was Marcus and April's ages; they aren't teens nor are they twenty-somethings. Next it was April's career; she's a geologist. Early on there's an adorable scene where the two are flirting while comparing Loma Prieta to Northridge. Finally it was the location: the East Bay — Oakland and Berkeley.
Both characters are flawed making what at first appears to be unbalanced in terms of agency (famous actor vs. geologist). Marcus is dyslexic and extremely shy from years of disappointing his parents and later girlfriends. Frankly, his inability to read social clues and his hyper-focus on whatever he needs to learn for his next role, reads as if he's autistic but undiagnosed. April has her own insecurities from her mother's constant worry over her weight and appearance.
What all this means is a friendship and romance built out of careful communication and consent. Even during the steamy sex scenes, there is careful talk to make sure each one is being satisfied.
There's a follow up, Slow Burn which covers Alex and Loren's romance. It releases June 15th.
Something Borrowed: 01/10/21
Something Borrowed by Richelle Mead is a Sixth Doctor novella from the 50th anniversary box set. The Doctor and Peri Brown are on a Vegas themed planet for a wedding. Pretty quickly after their arrival it becomes apparent that there's something off with the bride.
As they investigate they also learn about the marriage traditions. The wedding must take place when the two are close to being able to physically transform. How they transform is driven by their love for each other.
But in this case, the bride to be isn't from the planet and won't be able to transform. That by itself isn't a problem if the groom can still go through his.
The Sixth Doctor is one of two regenerations that I've not seen any episodes. I can't say whether or not this novella is in character for him and his companion. I can say that I found their adventure entertaining with the mixture of Vegas and Pterodactyls. I can also say that the larger exploration of marriage, love, and class was thought provoking.
The Seventh Doctor story from this collection is The Ripple Effect by Malorie Blackman.
Roman and Jewel: 01/09/21
Roman and Jewel by Dana L. Davis is a YA Broadway romance built around a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Jerzie Jhames has been hired as the standby for the lead, mega-star Cinny. Playing Roman, is the talented and drop dead gorgeous Zeppelin Reid.
While the majority of the narrative beats in this romance are inspired by Romeo and Juliet if they were given a Hamiltonesque hip hop treatment, there's also a 42nd Street vibe, just on a slower burn. For Cinny to be the main foil between Zeppelin and Jerzie, she can't break her ankle in the first act.
Jerzie's time in New York, living with her aunt, reminds me too of the second book in the Better Nate Than Ever series by Tim Federle. Jerzie as a minor has fewer freedoms than the rest of the cast. Unlike Nate, though, she does have her parents' full support and has been studying music and musical theater her entire life. Her talents are a realistic mixture of drive and hard work.
Zeppelin Reid, meanwhile, reminds me of a younger version of Marcus Caster-Rupp, the male romantic lead in Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade (2020). I am currently reading Dade's book, so my impressions are based on reading the first half.
Regardless, I loved Jerzie's voice. I wish she hadn't let herself be baited as much by Cinny. But she is young — only seventeen by book's end. I would love to read about her further career when she's older and more experienced. She'll grow to have some fantastic stories about working on Broadway.
Sky Island: 01/08/21
Sky Island by L. Frank Baum is the second Trot & Cap'n Bill novel. Button Bright also makes an appearance, arriving on a magical umbrella, which brings to mind the umbrellas that hold up and entirely different floating island in Speedy in Oz by by Ruth Plumly Thompson (1934). While I was hoping for a first glimpse of the island Speedy visited, what I got was something entirely different.
Button Bright ends up inviting Trot and Bill on a flight. They plan to go to "Sky Island" an island off the La Jolla coast, which is probably San Clemente. The umbrella is a stickler for accuracy, not intention, and takes them instead to a floating island high up in the sky, thus "Sky Island."
On one side are the Blues. They're run by a cheating tyrant whose reign should be over by law. He has hidden the book that keeps track of how long he's been on the throne, to prevent his successor for taking over. This bit is rather similar, albeit simplified, to Trump's shenanigans.
On the other side are the Pinks, a matriarchal society that shows Baum's racist views. The woman with the lightest pink skin gets to be the queen regardless of any other qualifications. Trot by dint of being a sunburned white girl ends up becoming queen.
In the Sea Fairies (1911) I mentioned how bratty Trot is and how proudly ignorant Bill is. They are the polar opposites of Dorothy and the Wizard. Yes, the Wizard was a conman but he made the effort to make himself better. There is no redemption arc for Trot or Bill. Trot becoming Queen of the Pinks (and then ruler of the Blues through conquest) is not a good thing, even if it results in a way for the three of them to go home.
Sky Island like all the Oz books I've read so far, sits on the road narrative spectrum. The three, protected by fairy magic, even before Trot conquers both the Pinks and Blues, are privileged travelers (00). Their destination, an unknown to them (or any other Earthling, I'd hazard to guess) is utopia (FF). Their route is a metaphorical interstate or railroad (00) in the form of the umbrella that takes you to where you state and doesn't change course until that destination is reached. Thus Sky Island can be categorized as a tale of privileged travelers going to utopia via the interstate (FF00FF).
Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 6: 01/07/21
Delicious in Dungeon, Volume 6 by Ryoko Kui returns to the problem of what to do with Falin. Reviving her has not played out as hoped and now she's been repurposed by the dungeon as one of the big monsters.
Meanwhile Shuro's and Kabru's parties have joined up. Tensions are running high with so many conflicting personalities and approaches to dungeon crawling. Can they come together over a meal and leave peacefully?
Frankly the front half of volume 6 was slow going. There was too much emphasis and time spent on the stories of the different parties, than on the usual find a monster (or be found by one), kill it, prepare it in an appealing way, eat it. I'm mostly invested for the delicious aspect.
The second half, though, where the parties break apart into their usual, smaller groups, is where things get interesting. While the initial party is trying to figure out what the dungeon wants with Falin and what the true nature of the magic used to revive her is, they're infiltrated by monsters who take on the appearance and personalities of party members. Each member now has two doppelgängers and it's up to Laios to sort out who the originals are.
As with the previous five volumes, this book sits on the road narrative spectrum.
While most of the books have been in the family (33) group based on the closeness of the party members, the doppelgänger plot changes the traveler type to scarecrow/minotaur (99), with the originals being scarecrows and the fakes being minotaurs. The goal is home (66), meaning guaranteeing that the originals are safe to leave the dungeon and go home (and not be eaten by their duplicates). Their route is the labyrinth (99), in that the dungeon is now transforming monsters into heroes, and in that the experience of being duplicated has resulted in the party being closer again. To summarize, volume 6 on the RNS is about scarecrows/minotaurs trying to get home via the labyrinth (996699).
On What Grounds (re-read): 01/06/21
Three years ago during a move, I listened to On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle, the first of the Coffeehouse mystery series. Now that I've caught up with the series, I've decided to go back and re-listen to the audios. I'm not planning on re-reviewing all of them, but I felt in light of some major plot points in Brewed Awakening, I should take a second look at the beginning.
As I've discussed before in my review of The Laughter of Dead Kings (2008), mystery series tend to be long running and the longer they run, the more disparity of plot time vs. real world time there is. On What Grounds was published in 2003, a mere two years after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Brewed Awakening, meanwhile, was published in August of 2019, sixteen years after the series started.
In looking at the two ends of this series, the question I want to address is, how much time has passed in universe? The reason this question is at all relevant, is that Clare suffers from a temporary amnesia making her think it's fifteen years in the past. Sixteen years has passed between books, but Clare in the last books believes she has just moved to New Jersey and is in the early days of her divorce from Matteo Allegro.
So let's start at the beginning. In book one, Clare, now an empty nester, has accepted the position of manager of the Village Blend, a place she worked at during her nine years of marriage to Matteo. Now that Joy, their daughter, is in culinary school in New York, Clare is returning to Soho to live in the apartment above the coffeehouse. She and Matteo have been divorced now for ten years.
With simple subtraction, we can see that five years have passed in universe between the first and last books. If it's 2003 as it's implied to be from the recent rawness of the post-World Trade Center city, then 2019's mystery is set in 2008. If Clare is 39 going on 40 and Joy is 19 going on 20 at the start, by the end they are 44 going on 45 and 24 going on 25 respectively. Put another way, there roughly 3 months and ten days time passes in universe between each book. I personally think that's an ambitiously tight timeline and will be seeing if that actually plays out as I re-listen to the audiobooks. For comparison, Sue Grafton's Alphabet series was intentionally paced at six months between in universe mysteries.
If you're interested in seeing my takes on more books in the series as I re-listen, please let me know in the comments.
Hide and Seek: 01/05/21
Hide and Seek by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins is the seventh of the Upside-Down Magic series. Nory has gotten her magic skills honed enough to reapply to Sage Academy. This time she passes and is given a January start date.
While Nory is trying to decide whether or not she wants to switch schools, Dunwiddle school suffers a flooding. Nory's class is sent to Sage while the school is repaired. For Nory, this is bad news. She's living back at home while her friends are in the dorms. She's having trouble following the rules and she's frustrated to see how unprepared Sage is for handling upside-down magic.
Now it was interesting reading a book set at Sage after having watched the awful Disney adaptation of the first book. Book seven is the first time we truly see Sage beyond where the test is administered. The way it's described is remarkably similar to the Disney movie.
The part I liked most, though, was how Sage ended up being a good fit for one of the Dunwiddle students. While Sage is proud of its rules and its uniform, there are teachers and clubs who are willing and able to see the potential in upside-down magic. Another bit I liked was seeing Rory interact with her siblings and more importantly, how they stood up to their father on her behalf.
The next book is Night Owl!, scheduled for release on June 1, 2021.
My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life: 01/04/21
My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life by Rachel Cohn reads like a YA mashup of Lost in Translation and Annie, if she had been reunited with a long lost father, rather than adopted by a wealthy man. Elle Zoellner on her sixteenth birthday is taken out of foster care and flown to Tokyo to live with Kenji Takahari.
Elle isn't ready for the huge cultural shift of living in a different country, in a luxury tower (that her family owns), going to an elite private school. Sure, she has a thick binder of what to do and what not to do, but she's still overwhelmed, and understandably pissy through the early days of her stay.
One of the awkward plot points is Elle's mixed heritage. Not only does she have an American mother and a Japanese mother, but her mother is Black. Rachel Cohn is neither Japanese nor Black and some of Elle's observations, experiences, and interactions come off as awkward.
Frankly the big themes: a girl living in foster care being plopped into the middle of a wealthy family she didn't know she had could have just as easily been set in the United States. The cultural differences of one region/class vs. another region/class could easily have been done without leaving the country.
Five Unicorn Flush: 01/03/21
Five Unicorn Flush by T.J. Berry is the sequel to Space Unicorn Blues (2018). Gary Cobalt and his father are exiled to a distant planet with all the other Bala. Meanwhile Captain Jenny will do anything to find the Bala prison planet and reunite with her dryad wife. But it might be a slow, life long process as there is only one remaining, functioning FTL drive and it belongs to the Reason.
Like the first book, this one has everything I like about The Last Unicorn, the Discworld series, and the Hitchhiker's Guide series, all under one cover.
The plot is intricate and fleshed out with details that are simultaneously ridiculous and totally believable. FTL travel works by unicorn horn (which there isn't any because of the Bala exile). The earliest slow-ships were so poorly planned that the surviving ones have resorted to institutionalized cannibalism. Rockships are hollowed out asteroids, manned by dwarves.
It's also a universe with queer representation. Not just the humans. The Bala too. Asking about and respecting one's pronouns are normalized. It's done organically as part of character and world building.
I don't know if a third one is planned but I would definitely read it.
Bait and Witch: 01/02/21
Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders is the start of the Witch Way Librarian mystery series. Josie Way, a Library of Congress cataloger has taken a last minute job in Wilfred Oregon. She and a coworker overheard something they shouldn't have and after giving their depositions, her coworker has gone missing. To avoid the same fate, she's going off grid while pretending to be on vacation to New York.
Wilfred is the unincorporated remains of a once thriving mill town. Like the library in Lighthouse Library mystery series by Eva Gates, the library is in a historic building (the old Wilfred family house) and the librarian has an apartment inside as part of the deal.
On Josie's first full day in Wilfred things start to go awry. She learns her new library job is essentially doomed from the get-go. She also has the misfortune of discovering a body near the library. Josie jumps to the conclusion that the victim was there to kill her.
The basic mystery is fairly straightforward to the attentive reader. If you pay attention figuring out who is the murderer doesn't require any knowledge outside of what's presented.
As the book and series titles imply, though, there is also a magical element. Josie, like Katie Lightfoot of the Magical Bakery mystery series, doesn't know she's a witch at the start of series. She comes into this knowledge and meets her familiar over the course of solving the murder and saving the library. Her magic and how it relates to books and mystery solving is similar to Violet's in the Magical Bookshop mystery series, but ultimately more nuanced and less dependent on regularly timed rituals.
The next book is Seven-Year Witch. It releases on August 24, 2021.
December 2020 Sources: 01/02/21
December was the ninth full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. December's trip down to Los Angeles was cancelled because of the rapid rise in infections.
In December I read 20 TBR books, down from November's 21 TBR. I read two published in December. Seven books were for research, down from last month's nine. None were from the library. The two TBRs brought my score up from -4.14 to -3.76. Nonetheless, it was my best December in 11 years of tracking my reading in this fashion.
With a new year started, the ROOB score is guaranteed to rise. From previous years, I can predict the score will fall around -2.5.
My average for December improved slightly from -2.65 to -2.75.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn takes place at the University of North Carolina in a world where magic is real, demons are real, and the heirs to the original round table are fighting to save the world. Bree Matthews is a high school student there for a summer residential program. Her first night there she witnesses a magical fight. She also almost gets expelled.
Instead, though, Bree finds herself being mentored by a man in the secret society she wants to investigate. Like Malik in A Song of Wraits & Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown (2020), Bree ends up competing to join the society she doesn't trust.
What's different, though, is Bree is a Black girl in Chapel Hill. She has an unknown heritage because of slavery. She has a mixture of magical skills too because of it: access to both aether and root.
The book is a wild ride. I'm normally not a fan of competition heavy plots, but this one has enough other things going on to keep things moving. There's also an ongoing mystery as to who the mole is.
December 2020 Summary: 01/01/21
December continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. It has gotten bad enough that we canceled plans to bring our oldest back up for winter break.
This is my second month of tracking queer books as a subset of my diversified reading. I am running consistent with the books running two to four each month. I would like to increase those numbers this year.
I read more books in December, 29, up from 21 in the previous month. Like November, 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-one, qualified. Of those sixteen read, two were queer. Of the reviewed books, four were.
At the start of 2021, I only have 2020 books in my backlog to review. This year's books are down to 57 from 58 of the 346 books read.
Beat the Backlist 2021: 01/01/21
I'm starting off the new year by thinking about my reading goals. Once again I completed by GoodReads reading challenge of reading 300 or more books. I plan to do the same this year.
The Beat the Backlist goal, though, is focused on books published in previous years. My most basic goal for this challenge is to have half my reading be backlist. Numerically that would be a minimum of 150 books. Last year I surpassed that goal with more than 171.
My focus, though, will be on the remaining books purchased in 2020 and 2019 that I've yet to read. While I won't limit myself to these books only, I'm posting my current list of TBR books and their release months for the last two years. I do have older books on hand I'd like to read but they are primarily in storage. Getting them out of storage, read, and weeded is another longer term goal.
My 2020 purchases weren't as numerous as 2019, but I still have some left overs. For 2021, I plan to purchase fewer books. I know now from three years of doing this challenge how many new books I can easily read and review in a timely manner. I will do my best to keep my purchase numbers closer to that ceiling.
Below is my list of unread books from 2020 and 2019. I will cross them out as I read them. I will also add other books to the list as I read them, and will bold them.
TBR from 2020
TBR from 2019