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March 2021

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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Plantation Shudders: 03/31/21

Plantation Shudders

Plantation Shudders by Ellen Byron is the start of the Cajun Country mystery series. Maggie Crozat has moved back to Pelican Louisiana to help at the Crozat Plantation B&B. Her first night back is a full house with everyone there for the Fête de l'été. The last couple to arrive, a grumpy newly wed elderly couple, end up dying that night.

While it's clear the husband died of natural causes, it's just as clear that his wife was poisoned. Maggie hoping to save the family business and keep her grandmother out of jail decides to investigate. It doesn't help that the local sheriff has a financial interest in wanting the Crozat B&B to fail.

With a cast of characters and a limited setting, the novel has a similar format to Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Certainly each of the guests had a reason to dislike the murdered woman but the actual crime isn't as well coordinated as in Christie's novel.

The setting had me nervous. I expected more rhapsodic praise of Southern gentility than even the Cat in the Stacks series by Miranda James. Maggie, though, appears to be more realistic about her town's history and her family's culpability as former slave owners.

The second book in the series is Body on the Bayou (2016).

Four stars

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A Deadly Chapter: 03/30/21

A Deadly Chapter

A Deadly Chapter by Essie Lang is the third book in the Castle Bookshop mystery series. Murder finds Shelby at her home when a body is trapped between the dock and her houseboat. The man ends up being someone who spoke to her briefly about a woman he was trying to track down.

With the murder victim appearing in chapter one as a body there isn't any sort of build up. Shelby knew the man better than we, the reader, do and even she barely knew him. That doesn't leave much impetus for our amateur sleuth to go clue hunting or to interview people.

Instead of being focused on who killed the man who washed up under the dock, Shelby's attention is almost entirely on her relationship with Zack. He's up for promotion and that would mean relocating to Boston. Thus her situation is similar to Angie in Death by the Dozen by Jenn McKinlay (2011).

The big difference between Roach and Zach is one of plot. Yes, Angie is seriously considering moving to Los Angeles, but she and Mel are kept busy by a baking competition as well as the ongoing murder investigation. Shelby's time in A Deadly Chapter is primarily given to her job at the bookshop, which gives her lots of time to pine over her beau.

The solution to the murder is a rather obvious one. It has to be because no time was spent introducing a cast of potential suspects and motives. The way the investigation comes to a close is also rather unsatisfying, being done so in a similar fashion to Bedeviled Eggs by Laura Childs (2010).

Five stars

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A Game of Cones: 03/29/21

A Game of Cones

A Game of Cones by Abby Collette and and Joell Jacob (narrator) is the sequel to A Deadly Inside Scoop (2020). Win Crewse is enjoying her time running the family ice cream shop. The repairs are done and business is booming. But now a big time developer who is trying to bring a mall to Chagrin Falls ends up murdered and Win's friend from New York is the prime suspect.

The set up for this mystery is centered on gentrification and a very firm sense of place. Curious this time, I had to look up Chagrin Falls, Ohio. It's a real place and while Win's ice cream shop isn't, the location overlooking the falls, is.

Win takes a less active role in investigating but she's egged on by her local best friend and her concern for her New York friend. Win's also in a bit of an emotional tug of war between her aunt (the previous owner of the ice cream shop) returning and her previous job offering her a raise if she returns to New York.

The mystery itself was a satisfying balance between red herrings and tangible leads and motives. That said, I figured out who had done it and had a pretty good idea why well before Win did. Despite figuring it all out, A Game of Cones was an enjoyable cozy to listen to.

I hope a third book is planned for the series!

Five stars

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These Unlucky Stars: 03/28/21

These Unlucky Stars

Belly Up by Eva Darrows is a frank and funny book about teenage pregnancy. Sara has consensual break-up sex with a hot boy she's only just met at this summer party. It's also a last fling before she and her mother move in with her grandmother. They don't use protection and she ends up pregnant.

This book isn't about family drama or shaming over her situation. Instead, mother and grandmother put aside their differences (for the most part) and fully support Sara.

More importantly they share the messy parts of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery with her. And thus, Sara, in her frank, humorous voice, shares the gross parts with the reader.

It's not, though, just a book about being a pregnant teen. Sara also makes new friends in her new school, and even falls in love. Leaf, her new boyfriend, is Romani and the book explores a lot of the stereotypes. Leaf, throughout, is presented as a human being. He and his father are individuals.

After so many teen pregnancy books where the pregnant teen is often absent from the narrative, Belly Up was delightfully refreshing. In the middle grade books I've read, the teen mother is the older sister and ends up being a huge burden/disruption to the family. If she's not banished to the heartbreak of the sibling protagonist, her baby ends up being the responsibility of the younger sister. As Sara is an only child, none of that can happen, giving room for her to go through character development instead.

Five stars

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These Unlucky Stars: 03/27/21

These Unlucky Stars

These Unlucky Stars by Gillian McDunn is about a girl believing she's unlucky and her unlikely friendship with an elderly woman. Annie believes she was "born under an unlucky star" which explains why things so consistently go wrong for her. She also believes she's the reason her mother left all those years ago.

After a failed attempt at playing ding dong ditch leaves neighbor Gloria with a broken arm, Annie commits to helping her and taking her dog for walks. Gloria is a bit of a hoarder and she's becoming forgetful. Annie and later her brother are able to help her and she in turn helps them by sharing her life lessons.

In the background of Annie and Gloria's friendship is the town planning for their first festival dedicated to the rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda). The festival involves a parade and Annie finds ways to use her artistic skills on two different floats.

The glue that holds this novel together is its strong sense of place. I especially loved the restaurant that was a fusion of two competing barbecue styles. At it's most literal, it made me hungry for barbecue! But it also thematically serves to show Annie's growth and how she learns to compromise without being untrue to herself.

Five stars

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Paladin's Strength: 03/26/21

Paladin's Strength

Paladin's Strength by T. Kingfisher is a follow-up, companion piece to Paladin's Grace. On the romance front, paladin Istvhan meets his match in nun Clara.

Clara is accidentally rescued by Istvhan. He is leading a party to find and stop the source of the smooth men golems. Clara needs to rescue her sisters who were kidnapped. Both have secrets. Both feel an instant zing. Both are too polite to act on it for two thirds of their journey.

Clara in a couple dozen pages earned her place as one of my favorite T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon characters. She's big, strong, sexy and knows what she wants. Yet she respects personal boundaries even when it's clear the other party is also interested. She's also deliciously blunt after she gets to know a person.

The mystery of the smooth men comes to a satisfying conclusion. Their source isn't anything I would have expected. Their progenitor ended up reminding me of a fantasy world's version of George E. Ohr. Paladin's Strength like most of Kingfisher/Vernon's books, sits on the road narrative spectrum.

Istvhan and Clara are a scarecrow / minotaur pair of travelers (99). Both are protectors (scarecrows) and both because of personal secrets/history see themselves as minotaurs (monsters).

Their destination is the wildlands (99). Specifically it's the source of the smooth men and the location of the missing nuns. The location is off the beaten path.

Their route is the maze (CC). Sometimes its literal for them — especially in the rescue of the nuns, once they've been found. Throughout, though, their journey is full of blind alleys, misdirection, and life threatening dangers.

Summarized Paladin's Strength is thematically about scarecrow/minotaur travelers going through and to the wildlands via the maze (9999CC).

Five stars

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Victor and Nora: A Gotham Love Story: 03/25/21

Victor and Nora: A Gotham Love Story

Victor and Nora: A Gotham Love Story by Lauren Myracle and Isaac Goodhart is a YA imagining of how Victor Fries met Nora. In the versions I've seen before, Victor and Nora were adults when the met and when he ended up freezing her. I'm not sure it works as effectively when Victor is a wunderkind young doctor and Nora is a teen who is facing the reality of not making it to adulthood.

Nora Kumar has moved back to her home town with her father and brother. She has an incurable disease that is slowly killing her. That knowledge has given her a carefree bordering on reckless take on life. At first glance she comes off as flaky and careless. At second and third glances, it's obvious she's hoping for suicide by adventure, rather than a disease driven death.

Victor Fries has closed off his heart since losing his brother in a house fire. He's been focused on his research. But Nora's lust for life has warmed his heart. But learning about her diagnosis puts him on a dangerous research path.

Here's where the story falls apart for me. Nora as a teen doesn't have the agency to be a willing partner in Victor's experiment. Sure, he ultimately wants to save her life, but he goes about the process in a way where she can't possibly consent. He's also clearly making unethical choices because of lust disguised as love.

As there is frank talk of death and suicide in the graphic novel, the back of book has resources for anyone who may need them.

Four stars

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Wicked Weaves: 03/24/21

Wicked Weaves

Wicked Weaves by Joyce Lavene and Jim Lavene is the first book in the Renaissance Faire mystery series. Jessie Morton spends her summers working at Renaissance theme park in Myrtle Beach. This summer she's apprenticed to Mary Shift, a Gullah-Geechee basket weaver. When a man ends up dead, Mary is top of a short list of suspects.

Mary and her circle of acquaintances and family outside of work are the weakest link this disappointing mystery. She comes off as a token character and not as a well rounded, believable person with agency. Frankly none of the characters do, but calling out her heritage and her artisan skills and then to make her (and her extended circle) the only Black person in this book shows that the authors have put her in book one to get a cookie and nothing more.

The remaining characters are completely forgettable. They each have a job at the park, some skilled, some not. All of them seem to be interchangeable horny teenagers regardless of how long it might take a person to learn their craft. The park itself seems to be one or two violations away from closure and yet seems able to keep running.

In the midst of this incomprehensible setting, there's a murder mystery. As I could barely make heads or tails of the cast of characters, I had barely any investment in the murdered person or in discovering who committed the crime, beyond wanting it to not be Mary.

The next book is Ghastly Glass (2009).

Two stars

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The Old Boat: 03/22/21

The Old Boat

The Old Boat by Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey is a stylistic follow up to The Old Truck (2020). Like the previous book, it follows a vehicle and the family who uses it over time and what becomes of it.

For the truck, much of its time in narrative was spent abandoned by the side of the barn. It was the younger generation who fixed it up and made use of it. Here is just the opposite.

The old boat in question is old at the start of book and remains in use over the course of a character's childhood. It eventually succumbs to a strong storm at sea.

But there is a new life for it there and an environmental message. Like The Mess That We Made by Michelle Lord and Julie Blattman (2020), The Old Boat has a secondary message about pollution and the ocean. It is that learned lesson that is carried onto the next generation, rather than the upkeep of the old boat.

Five stars

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Birds by the Shore: 03/21/20

Birds by the Shore

Birds by the Shore by Jennifer Ackerman is a memoir of three years of living on the Atlantic coast at Lewes, Delaware. It's nestled between the Great Marsh Preserve and the Cape Henlopen State Park.

Ackerman focuses each chapter on a different aspect of shore life. The recurring theme though is the changeability of the landscape. It's an area of active sand movement and a shoreline that is forever advancing westward.

I read the book primarily for the birds, purchasing the volume initially when I was planning my bird themed summer art camp. The birds are there but they are just one small detail in a larger portrait of the area.

It was a quiet and quick read. It would be a good follow up read for fans of Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1955).

Four stars

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Oddity: 03/20/20


Oddity by Eli Brown and Karin Rytter (illustrator) is a middle grade alternate history fantasy set in lands inspired by the Louisiana Purchase but supposes a time when the United States didn't expand beyond the initial states and in fact lost two. The fantasy elements involve oddities that in their number and variety bring to mind Warehouse 13 (which given the timeline would be Warehouse 12) combined with the wild west as imagined by Briscoe County Jr..

Clover's mother collected oddities but that hobby contributed to her death. Clover wants to honor her mother by collecting them too. She found an icy cold Ice Hook while helping her physician father. That decision results in him dead and her on the run as an orphan.

Creating an alternate timeline along with populating it with apparently magical items is an ambitious undertaking. To sell it, the characters need to feel natural — like they belong in their world. Clover understandably spends much of her time after her father's death thinking about him. That leaves her traveling companions, a snake oil saleswoman and a talking rooster who unfortunately brings to mind Chicken Run, to fill in the world of the oddities. They don't beyond one quick tale of a wine goblet making a marsh after spilling and getting lost in the process.

While Brown keeps the white societies in his novel (France and the United States), he tries to skirt the problem of Native American representation by creating two fictional peoples. The Black characters in his book don't fare better either. For instance, on arriving in a city she comments on how "tidy" a poor Black girl and goes on to compare her hair to licorice.

Two stars

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The Last Treasure: 03/19/20

The Last Treasure

The Last Treasure by Janet S. Anderson is a middle grade novel about two children who are the last hope for a family to hold onto their multigenerational home. Jess and Ellsworth aka Zee are the youngest members of Smith Mills square — thirteen homes, a field and a pond. They must solve the mystery of the third and final treasure in an abandoned home on the property to keep everyone in their homes.

While Jess has been living with her grandmother for some time in a home along the square, Zee and his dad have lived a few states away in an old motel. When the letter comes asking for help, Zee is compelled to go, even if it means riding alone on a bus.

The situation with the Smith family reminds me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This is another family home (or compound) that is at the end of its line. The difference here is that the youngest generation is willing to help the older generation to preserve the home, and the older generations are willing to accept said help after decades of inaction.

The family dynamics, though, especially the reoccurrence of twins, also brings to mind The Ghost Road by Charis Cotter (2018). The difference, though, is the lack of a curse. Some of the Smiths believe in a curse but it's been borne out of bad luck and misunderstanding of the final clues.

The puzzle of the last treasure hidden away in an abandoned house can be mapped on the road narrative spectrum. There are two different groups of travelers, however both groups are in the same category. The initial travelers are the young cousins who work as a platonic couple (33). Ultimately the task of solving the mystery becomes a family affair.

Their goal or destination is uhoria (CC). First it's understanding the clues of a puzzle that's more than a hundred years old. Second it's the saving of the family property for the future.

Their route is the cornfield (FF), or tkaronto, as represented by the pond in the center of the family compound. The last clue is a painting of the homes surrounding the pond. The painting as described sounds so wonderful and I wish the cover art was a better representation of it.

Summarized, The Last Treasure is about a family traveling though uhoria via the cornfield (33CCFF) to save their family home.

Four stars

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Séance Tea Party: 03/18/20

Séance Tea Party

Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee is a graphic novel about friendship and self esteem. Lora feels herself drifting apart from her friends. They are becoming interested in boys and makeup and she still enjoys make believe. While pretending to have a séance tea party, she ends up meeting the ghost, Alexa, who haunts her home.

Alexa is willing to play with Lora but she knows from experience that she'll lose her as she has every other child that has lived in her home since she died. Alexa, though, isn't ready to move on until she can remember her life and her death.

We eventually learn when Alexa died and we hear from an old (and still living friend) that 50 years have passed. That puts Séance Tea Party in 2027. Like The Haunting of Rookward House by Darcy Coates (2017), the book confuses how much time has passed between the character's death and the present.

Séance Tea Party reads like Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks where the ghost story has been emphasized. With the way Alexa and Lora pal around, I'm reminded of The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alka (2020) — minus the curse. The inclusion of a middle grade aged ghost haunting a home, also brings to mind No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon (2011).

Alexa's journey from dead girl, to imaginary friend, to ghost friend, to released spirit, can be mapped on the road narrative spectrum by how her two friends travel. Lora, her young friend, and her original best friend, are marginalized travelers (66). Their destination is uhoria (CC), essentially Alexa's past, to help her remember her life and death so she can move on if she wants. Their route is through the cornfield (FF) as represented by a large overgrown hill they travel up regularly with Alexa. Altogether, Séance Tea Party can be seen as marginalized travelers going through uhoria via the cornfield (66CCFF).

Five stars

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The Big Nap: 03/17/20

The Big Nap

The Big Nap by Ayelet Waldman is the second of the Mommy-Track mystery series. Juliet Applebaum is feeling overwhelmed by her newborn. This second child isn't sleeping well and is constantly hungry. Since Juliet is breastfeeding, she's being run ragged.

A chance encounter at a local Hasidic bakery results in a babysitter and a well needed nap. Unfortunately, the babysitter goes missing and no one seems willing to do anything to find her. Juliet decides to investigate.

A lot of time and many pages are spent on Juliet wrapping her head around why anyone would want to be Hasidic, especially for the women she meets. It's a weird gate keeping tangent that serves primarily as filler.

Looking strictly at how the clues are presented and what leads Juliet choses to follow, The Big Nap is structurally similar to Hold The Cream Cheese, Kill The Lox by Sharon Kahn (2002). Both rely on lengthy, expensive travel driven by vague red herrings. In both cases, the solution is at home with a solution obvious to the attentive reader.

The third book is A Playdate with Death (2002).

Three stars

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Stray Bullets: 03/16/20

Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg is the third Detective Greene mystery. A shooting at a Tim Horton's leaves a child dead. Greene and Kennicott are certain early in the investigation that the server who worked there knew the shooters but her story about who actually shot the boy doesn't add up. A missing employee is believed to be their eyewitness, if they can find him.

As with the previous two, this one is less a mystery and more a Law & Order: Toronto. The difference is that Rotenberg includes what the lawyers and the Crown prosecution are doing early one. There are also chapters from the POVs of the various witnesses and persons of interest.

I find the inclusion of the trial one detail (and three or more characters) too many. Since these scenes are always followed up by a chapter in conversation with either Greene or Kennicott, they serve mostly as filler.

One improvement in Stray Bullets over the previous two is that the person responsible isn't disabled. The disabled person as criminal or accidental killer was a disappointing solution to books one and two.

The fourth book is Stranglehold (2013).

Four stars

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Restaurant to Another World Volume 3: 03/15/20

Restaurant to Another World Volume 3

Restaurant to Another World Volume 3 by Junpei Inuzuka and Katsumi Enami (Illustrations) builds the world that Western Cuisine Nekoya visits each Saturday. Specifically it introduces a mythology / creation story to the series. Along with the eons old backstory, Master gets a new employee: Kuro.

With the prolog that introduces both a world destruction / recreation story and brings Kuro into the restaurant's employ, volume 3 highlights how many of these before times forces are still around. Also, each of these forces have taken to living among the people or monsters of the world. We know this because they are customers of the Restaurant to Another World.

I enjoyed getting a bigger picture view of the world. But what brings me back to the series are the different foods Western Cuisine Nekoya serves in both worlds. Each story is a customer or a group of customers, where they've come from, and how the food impacts on their lives. For some it's nostalgia. For others it's a matter of life or death. In one case, it's a birthday celebration.

Volume 4 released in English translation last December. I plan to read it soon.

Five stars

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Nothing O'Clock: 03/14/20

Nothing O'Clock

Nothing O'Clock by Neil Gaiman is the eleventh book in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary e-shorts. The Doctor and Amy return home from an adventure only to find all of humankind missing.

Back in the 1985, people in masks are buying up all the real estate for 2020 prices. They're buying at such a rate that there's no where to move. Even rental properties are being purchased and the residents evicted.

The people doing the purchasing end up being the Kin, a single entity spread throughout all of time. The masks are part of how they can exist in multiple times, multiple places.

How the Kin work and the way they change the environment around themselves reminds me of the Woman in White in The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (2020). But this is a more simplistic, pared down version of the mushroom as single organism, multiple threat antagonist.

Five stars

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The In-Between: 03/13/20

The In-Between

The In-Between by Rebecca Ansari is a middle grade urban fantasy about loss and disappointment. Cooper and Jess live with their mother on her income and the little bit extra their father sometimes send. Across the street an abandoned house has been fixed up and now there's a girl in a private school uniform who has taken to staring at them.

Jess, though, is intrigued by the across the street girl. She finds a connection between her school uniform and a mystery dating back to 1928. With more research Jess and Cooper realize that the girl's school uniform has appeared on the bodies of other children in other disasters throughout history.

At school, Cooper befriends a new kid, Gus. The two boys end up having a lot more in common than Cooper and his ex-friend Zack had. Through his friendship with Gus, Cooper is able work through his emotional trauma over the divorce.

In the background of this oddballs becoming friends tale is a narrative similar to Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie (2020). The main difference is that there are multiple events instead of just one.

In the run up to the climax all sorts of details come together in a very satisfying manner. I'm normally an observant reader but I was so focused on Cooper and Jess's story that I completely missed the bigger picture. Observant or not, the big reveal is as satisfying as the big mystery in in The Sixth Sense or Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2003).

How Cooper, Jess, Gus and the girl across the street interact and relate to the historic tragedies, can be mapped on the road narrative spectrum. This analysis will include spoilers.

Cooper and Jess are sibling travelers (CC). Their destination is the titular In-Between, a literal utopia (FF). Their route is the cornfield (FF) — or a golden field as described in final third of the book. Summarized the In-Between is about siblings traveling to utopia via the cornfield (CCFFFF).

Five stars

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Tin: 03/12/20


Tin by Candace Robinson and Amber R. Duell is the first book in the Faerie of Oz. There's also a prequel, Lion, for Kindle readers. Dorothy has lost her aunt and uncle and is days away from losing the farm ten years after her one and only trip to Oz. Now with nothing left to lose, she's finally welcomed back, only to find Oz a much different place than she remembers it.

For fans of Oz pastiches, Tin reads like a romantic blend of the film, Return to Oz (1985) and the miniseries Tin Man (2007). It's more latter than the former, save for the fact that the main character is Dorothy.

The Oz Dorothy returns to appears to be an alternate timeline, one where the events of the books that came out in the ten years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Tip has transitioned in Ozma. Ozma failed in her attempt to defeat Langwidere of Ev and she in turn has invaded the Quadling Country.

In this case, Oz's dystopian state of affairs is a direct result of Dorothy's decade long absence. There is another twist in that this Dorothy isn't canon Dorothy. It's not that she's been rewritten, rather, our Dorothy is a changeling. In this regard, this version of Oz reminds me of the Captive Hearts of Oz four part manga by Ryo Maruya and Mamenosuke Fujimaru (2019)

Like all things Oz, Tin has a placement on the road narrative spectrum. If you don't want spoilers, please stop reading. Dorothy here is scarecrow (literally, in that she is Crow's daughter), traveling with and falling for a minotaur (Tin, who even in the Baum canon is fairly monstrous) (99). Their destination is the wildlands (99) as they are trying to defeat Langwidere and return Oz to self rule. Their route is the labyrinth (99), both for how they spiral in on Langwidere's location and for how the journey affects Dorothy's understanding of who she is.

Four stars

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Moriarty the Patriot, Volume 2: 03/11/20

Moriarty the Patriot, Volume 2

Moriarty the Patriot, Volume 2 by Ryōsuke Takeuchi and Hikaru Miyoshi (Illustrations) contains the Noahtic arc which introduces the brothers Moriarty to their future rival, Sherlock Holmes. From there it does a rather straight up re-imagining of A Study in Scarlet (1887).

Noatic arc is unique to the manga/anime. The canon introduction of Moriarty is frankly underwhelming. Most of his brilliance and nefarious motivations are informed attributes. His main goal was to kill off Sherlock Holmes so Arthur Conan Doyle could go off and write other projects — and you know how well that worked out!

Ryōsuke Takeuchi and Hikaru Miyoshi instead create a meeting that comes before the canon timeline. Set on the Noahtic ship — named after Noah — it's William James Moriarty's magnum opus to lay bare the inequities of the British class system and take down a specific aristocrat, known for hunting the poor on his estate for sport. For reasons unknown to him, the Noahtic has drawn the attention of a young consulting detective, thus setting up their first meeting.

The pivotal scene takes place at the base of a grand stairway. How both men react to the staircase gives each man the chance to learn everything they need to about each other. For fans of the canon and pastiches, the staircase scene is fun. Even before Sherlock utters a word, it's clear who he is by how he's standing and how he's sizing up Moriarty who is struck by the mathematical beauty of the staircase. Props, therefore, must go Hikaru Miyoshi's character designs and skills at conveying personality through stance.

The Study in Scarlet redo that starts off in volume 2 and creates the cliffhanger for volume 3, is titled "A Study in Sherlock." The primary goal, though, of bringing together Dr. Watson and Sherlock at 221B Baker street, is beautifully and humorously met.

Volume 3 in English translation releases on April 6, 2021. The manga in the original Japanese is up to volume 13, with volume 14 also releasing in April.

Five stars

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Long Island Iced Tina: 03/10/21

Long Island Iced Tina

Long Island Iced Tina by Maria DiRico is the second of the Catering Hall mysteries. Mia Carina is planning a baby shower at Belle View for her friend Nicole. The problem is Nicole's stepmother, Tina. She has a well deserved terrible reputation. What Tina isn't expecting is to have her found dead in the water near the catering hall. Before Tina's murder, she was shocked by the unexpected extra shower gift, a painting that's been missing for two decades.

Mia's catering know-how, combined with her mob ties, means she can spot when something isn't right. Her goal this time is figuring out how the returned painting relates to Tina's murder, and how both might relate to some shady business at a rival catering hall.

In the midst of running Belle View and investigating Tina's murder and the decade's old heist, Mia is learning how to drive. These moments provide some necessary levity in an otherwise faced paced, multi-threaded mystery.

The mystery while more complex than many of the cozies I've read, provides enough clues amongst the red herrings to make putting everything together possible and satisfying. Long Island Iced Tina is enjoyably similar to Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames (2011) and Once Upon a Spine by Kate Carlisle (2017).

The third in the series is It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder. It releases October 26, 2021.

Five stars

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The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life: 03/09/21

The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life

The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life by Dani Jansen is another queer romance framed around a school production of a Shakespeare play. Alison Green has been given the daunting task of producing her school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream knowing full well that the theater teacher is difficult to work with. Soon her friends are teasing her for taking on "ye olde Shakespearian disaster."

One potentially good thing to come out of the ordeal is meeting Charlotte. There's an instant chemistry and soon she's crowding out thoughts of homework and other tasks towards Al's goal of becoming valedictorian. Romance blossoms but threatens not only her chances at being the top of her class, but her overall GPA. Al needs to learn how to manage her time between schoolwork, romance, the play, and fun.

Working with a varied group of students on the play also makes Al realize she's not as out as she thinks she is. She also has to face the reality that others might be closeted and gaydar isn't a thing (certainly not one she has). Other reviewers have commented on Al's refusal to use the word lesbian to describe herself. I took her lack of a vocabulary as part of her explorations of her options and coming to terms with her sexuality, rather than as an automatic negative.

This book has a similar narrative feel to As Far as You'll Take Me by Phil Stamper (2020). Both focus on the minutiae of serious creative endeavors — although Marty is more advanced in his craft than Al is. Both include internal emotional struggles as well as older friendships and new relationships being threatened by self growth. Here, Alison is better off in that she's not suffering from anxiety and she has a more supportive home and school environment.

What kept me from enjoying The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life was the pacing. There was so much time spent on the play that other plot threads didn't get the pages they might have needed. Even as a former theater kid I felt like the play's production was happening in real time — over weeks and months — rather than the 295 pages of the book.

Four stars

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The Gilded Ones: 03/08/21

The Gilded Ones

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is described by the author as an "African-inspired world & basically imagines what would happen if the Dora Milaje from Black Panther were stuck in The Handmaid's Tale and decided they weren't going to take it anymore" (Twitter). It's the perfect description.

Sixteen year old Deka has lost her mother to the red plague and has been helping her father who is struggling with the long tail symptoms post recovery. Coming up, though, is the blood ceremony which will test if she's pure or a demon. If her blood runs gold she'll be arrested and put to death.

Before the ceremony has even begun it's interrupted and Deka's powers reveal themselves. It's a surprise to her and an instant death sentence. Except that it isn't.

While Deka's world is very much a mixture of Gilead and Wakanda, the ceremony and the red plague bring to mind Ascendence of a Bookworm. The two share the combination of the blue ceremonial dresses, the lingering affects of a disease, and the rigid class system.

The remainder of Deka's story is one of travel and training, being forced to fight for the emperor. She is among an elite group of alaki who can't be killed in the standard ways a demon can be killed. The sudden switching of gears and life plan to one that's entirely training and fighting, also brings to mind Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (2020), but in a fantasy setting.

Deka's journey from scared teenage girl to confident warrior also places The Gilded Ones on the Road Narrative Spectrum. This analysis will contain spoilers. If you haven't read the book and want to avoid surprises, please stop reading. Deka over the course of her journey learns that she was created by a goddess to change the course of the country. As such, she is a scarecrow (99), traveling with minotaurs (the other alaki). Both types of traveler sit in the same tier. Her destination or goal is uhoria (CC), here being both an understanding of the true history of her people and country, and a desire to improve the future. The route she takes is the maze (CC) in that the way to her goal is fraught with traps, dangers, and death. Summarized, the theme of this novel in terms of the road is that of a scarecrow traveling through uhoria via the maze to save her country and people (99CCCC).

Five stars

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Reaper Man: 03/07/21

Reaper Man

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett is the eleventh Discworld book and the second one featuring Death. Out beyond the veil of the universe the Auditors have decided Death has taken on too much personality. Death should be an efficient force of nature and nothing more.

Death, realizing his number is almost up, decides to leave home and live what little life he has left. He heads for the country side and takes on the life of a farm hand.

As this is an early Discworld book it lacks the formatting of the later ones. Namely, it has no chapters. Instead it's a series of connected scenes and gags.

While the main story is that of Death working under an assumed name at a farm, there's also a secondary plot involving a wizard at Unseen University who should have died but can't because of Death's absence. In any story where Death is gone, there's always on of these subplots. He, though, is the only un-dead character I've seen who actively tries to kill himself repeatedly to finish the job.

On a side note, there are other scenes involving death — really more gag scenarios than full scenes — that I clearly remember even though I've never read Reaper Man. I think, but I'm not one hundred percent certain, that these scenes were used as filler in the Soul Music, seven episode series from 1997. I don't recall them being in the original book.

Four stars

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The Raconteur's Commonplace Book: 03/06/21

The Raconteur's Commonplace Book

The Raconteur's Commonplace Book by Kate Milford first appeared as a framing device for Greenglass House (2014). (See also the road narrative spectrum reading of the book). Unexpected guests staying over a Christmas blizzard discuss their favorite tales from the book while recapitulating many of them at the inn.

Seven years later, we get to read a new edition that includes material not present in the "slim red volume" Milo was given. Both Greenglass House and The Raconteur's Commonplace Book were inspired by a Charles Dickens novella, The Holly-Tree Inn (1855).

In Raconteur's Commonplace Book it's the rising floodwaters that has brought together a group of travelers and kept them in the Blue Vein Tavern. To pass the time they all take turns telling stories, many of which are directly related to Nagspeak history.

Whereas in the course of the Oz canon, it becomes clear that all roads and near death experiences lead to Oz, in Milford's works, all roads and waterways lead to Nagspeak. On the way, they often detour to the Kairos Mechanism. This novel is no different.

Milfred's books are a bit like the Narnia series, in that publication order isn't the chronological order of the narrative time. As time travel is a recurring theme in the series as a whole it makes sense that they don't follow a strict forward pacing (as opposed to the Oz series, which primarily does).

The afterword of Raconteur's Commonplace Book includes a list of the novels referenced in the traveler's stories for readers who haven't read Milford's previous books. That said, being aware of what's being referenced adds to the experience.

Also as with Milford's previous books, including those not packaged as being "Greenglass House books," this one sits on the road narrative spectrum. Again, that's not a surprise in that Milford's concept of "orphan magic" was one source of inspiration for how I classify travelers.

Among the travelers there are orphans, siblings (twins), a scarecrow (meaning a constructed protector), and a minotaur (meaning a paranormal traveler). However, each of these travelers is approaching the end of their story, meaning that they have gained notoriety through their deeds and adventures. By the time they are at the tavern, they are collectively, privileged travelers (00).

Their collective destination is uhoria (CC), or a no-time. For some it's the nostalgia of past adventures. For others, it's unfinished business. For others it's the unspoken elephant in the room, the kairos mechanism.

Their route is the cornfield (FF). More precisely, it's the tkaronto (a place where trees stand in water). It's liminal space in its most magical form. In their case, the rising floodwaters are bringing this liminal space to the tavern. If they don't act, all will be lost.

Milford's next book is Rialto (2022) which has promised connections to The Boneshaker, which in turn has ties to both The Broken Lands and The Kairos Mechanism.

Five stars

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As Far as You'll Take Me: 03/05/21

As Far as You'll Take Me

As Far as You'll Take Me by Phil Stamper is about a summer spent in England after the original plans fell through due to a botched audition. The book touches on anxiety, disordered eating, emotional abuse, and homophobia.

Seventeen year old Marty is an oboist who is using his mother's UK citizenship to enter post-Brexit Britain with a British passport. This will give the time he needs to find a job without the deadline of a visa.

Marty, though has two things going against him. He's gay but from a very religious family (and town). He's also living with anxiety. The anxiety more than his sexual orientation is his biggest hurdle for success early on in London.

Meeting up with a hot, gay, musician friend of his cousin on his literal first day in London, though, ends up complicating everything. The would be boyfriend knows how to push all of Marty's buttons. At first and second glance, and even after warnings from his cousin and new friends, he seems like the man of Marty's dreams. To anyone who is older and either been through a toxic relationship or knows someone who has will recognize the warning signs.

Most of As Far as You'll Take Me is Marty's journey of self discovery. He's learning how to live away from his parents. He's learning how to make friends that aren't ones thrown together at school. He's learning how to manage his anxiety. He's also learning how to recognize toxic relationships.

Marty's journey can also be placed on the road narrative spectrum. Because of his youth, his anxiety and how he sees himself, Marty is a marginalized traveler (66). His destination is home, both in the desire to make a home (66) for himself and in his realization at the end that he can go home to Kentucky and not have that decision be a point of failure. His route is the labyrinth (99). While all the problems I listed above could have presented a danger for Marty, he's lucky enough to have a support system in friends and family to make the troubles he face a transformative one. Thus As Far as You'll Take Me thematically is about a marginalized traveler finding his home via a metaphorical journey through the labyrinth (666699).

Five stars

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Nubia: Real One: 03/04/21

Nubia: Real One

Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smith is another standalone YA graphic novel from DC Comics. Nubia has been raised to keep her super strength a secret. The few times she has used it, her moms have forced her to move to a new city, a new school. She's now happily settled with two good friends and a life she likes. A robbery at the local bodega will change everything.

Nubia's split decision to use her strength at the bodega unfolds in a series of events that threatens the life Nubia has come to love, even if she sometimes feels smothered by her overprotective parents. She's pulled over by the police and handcuffed as a person of interest for the robbery. She's racially profiled and feared for her powers, while white superheroes are revered for the same feats.

Aside from direct plot of the fallout from the robbery, there is a much scarier one about how white men invade marginalized spaces for their own self gratification. Her best friend Quisha is being targeted by a white classmate. He has already hurt his previous "girlfriend." Now facing rejection from Quisha and humiliation from Nubia, he's decided to take matters into his own hands in the most violent way possible.

While most of these standalone novels avoid a direct acknowledgement of the main character's future role as a superhero. Like Black Canary: Ignite by Meg Cabot and Cara McGee (2019), Nubia: Real One includes a meeting with her Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman.

Five stars

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle: 03/03/21

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is the thematic corollary to The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Here is a home torn apart and driven into ruin by generations of families refusing to let go and move on.

I originally read this novel in response to the TV adaptation of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's use of the novel, and more broadly of Shirley Jackson's life and works, as filler for a two volume plot that was otherwise too thin to sustain multiple seasons. I also was curious to see if it, like Hill House fit into the road narrative spectrum; it does not.

At the heart of the novel is a mystery. Mary Katherine (Merricat), Constance, and their uncle are the sole survivors of a tragic poisoning. With Merricat as the unreliable narrator we're given pieces of their past to put together. By the end we'll know when it happened and how it happened. We'll also know a good deal of the troubling history of the Blackwood family and its toll on the house.

Besides Merricat's first person narration, we also have Uncle Julian's attempts to write his lengthy memoir about the family and the day of the murder. His obsession with the past serves as an example of what previous Blackwoods must have been like. The root cellar full of preserves well past their shelf date is another example. Finally there is Merricat's observation that every new Blackwood had to find a place for their things without disturbing the places of everything else. Once in, nothing leaves unless it is broken beyond repair, and sometimes not even then.

In chapter seven there's an interesting observation by Uncle Julian. It can be taken as the ranting of a dying man, but taken at face value it changes the nature of the over all novel. He says to Charles, the visiting cousin, "My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister's trial for murder." Although Charles protests that she is in the room with them, I would argue that Merricat who was obsessed with preserving the static nature of Blackwood House and removing all obstacles to that goal, could be a poltergeist.

What about the bits in town? We only have Merricat's word that she is maintaining her routine. It could also be that Constance has taken on her sister's persona for trips out of the house. Given how long it's been, would anyone recognize one for the other?

What about Charles? If he's there to take the house and the house's treasure, he would be motivated to play along. The abuse he suffers at Merricat's hand could either be through paranormal means or through Constance embodying her dead sister (see Norman Bates and Mother).

The beauty of this disturbing novel is how open ended it is. Merricat's narration spends so much time on routine, town history, geography, and family history, that the big ticket details of what's happening in the present are left wide open for interpretation.

Four stars

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Negative Image: 03/02/21

Negative Image

Negative Image by Vicki Delany is the fourth Constable Molly Smith mystery. A photographer is found shot to death in a hotel and John Winters's wife Eliza is the primary suspect. The damning evidence is a thirty year old photograph of her.

As with the previous books in the series, Molly is preoccupied with a secondary mystery — a series of robberies. How the B&Es are related to each other is key to solving the murder. It's a fun puzzle, tricky but not impossible to solve.

On the personal front, Molly is hit from two fronts. Her stalker is turning violent. Her father is in hospital. On the work front there's a rumor going around that she and Detective Winters are having an affair. There's a lot to take in but it all comes together into a satisfying mystery and more broadly, a compelling novel.

The fifth book is Among the Departed (2011).

Five stars

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February 2021 Sources: 03/02/21

Previous month's book sources

February was the eleventh full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. In the middle of this month we will hit our year anniversary. Our oldest though will be able to come home for spring break. Ian's parents are still stuck in Canada.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In February I read 12 TBR books, down from January's 21 TBR. I read four published in February. Six books were for research, with an extra one as a rare ARC, running even with January. None were from the library. The four new books brought my score up from -2.91 to -2.48. Nonetheless, it was in the middle for February months for eleven years of tracking. I didn't make my predicted score of -3.0.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

March will have a mixture of new and previously month's books. As I'm running even with reading for what I'm reviewing, I predict another score around -2.5.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for February stayed put at -2.44.

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Remote Control: 03/01/21

Remote Control

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor is a near future novella set in Uganda. Fatima infected by an alien seed becomes Sankofa, or Death's Adopted Daughter as others call her. She is the sole surviver of a terrible accident, one that she will regret for the rest of her life.

As her powers to kill are also instantly detrimental to technology, including vehicles, she must walk from town to town as she searches for something taken from her while she was still Fatima. Her only companion is a fox who is as out of place in this piece of the world as she is.

In the background of Sankofa's story is a tale of foreign corporate greed and an over-reliance on technology. There is one town in particular that has fully welcomed the American company and their technology. While their immediate safety and health seems to have improved one wonders about lost personal freedoms.

Like the other Okorafor works I've read, Sankofa's journey can be mapped on the road narrative spectrum. She is a literal orphan traveler (FF). Her destination or goal is home (66). At first it's a replacement for the one she's lost. Later it's a return, now older, wiser, and more in control. Her route is the cornfield (FF) represented by the bush she so often must live in, the Shea trees of her home, and the alien seed that set everything into motion. Summarized, Remote Control is the tale of an orphan looking for a home via the cornfield (FF66FF).

Five stars

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February 2021 Summary: 03/01/21

Reading report

February continued the COVID-19 shelter in place. Mid March we will reach one year of working/learning from home. Fifteen percent of the state has been immunized now. Our family is at the end of the list in terms of priority.

I read fewer books in February, 23, down from 35 in the previous month. Of my February read books, thirteen were diverse, down by five from the last month. But given the fewer overall number read, my percentage was higher. On the reviews front, nineteen qualified. Of those thirteen read, five were queer. Of the reviewed books, four were.

I have 24 books remaining from 2020 to review, and 27 books of the 58 books read this year.

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