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May 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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A Playdate With Death: 05/31/21

A Playdate With Death

A Playdate With Death by Ayelet Waldman is the third mystery in the Mommy-Track mystery series. Juliet has some time to herself where she works out with a personal trainer. On the day of her appointment she finds out that he's dead of a suspected suicide.

In commiserating with his coworkers she discovers that he was Jewish. She learns some other personal things about him and decides things don't add up. He had too many irons in the fire for a man who would kill himself. So she decides to investigate.

What unfolds is one of the saddest, emotionally wrenching mysteries I've read in a long time. It involves adoption, anti-semitism, and a gross misunderstanding of genetics that is used to justify all the other actions.

With this book being nineteen years old, I was also glad I hadn't read it when it was newly published. Bobby was written to be only six months older than I am. Ian and I both had the genetic testing that led to all of Bobby's troubles and for the real reason he ended up a carrier. Juliet's youngest child is two years older than my oldest. 2002 was a stressful and emotional time for me and I think this book would have absolutely devastated me.

The fourth book is Death Gets A Time-Out (2003).

Five star

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The Air-Conditioned Nightmare: 05/30/21

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller is a collection of essays on life in America from a recently returned ex-pat. It's similar in concept as Bill Bryson's books, but separated by fifty years. This post isn't going to be a review or analysis per-se. Instead it's about why I decided to not finish reading it (and thus rate it one star).

In 1995 when I was attempting to get into UCLA's PhD program in the film and television department, I put together a proposal around American roadtrip films. At the time I was into semiotics and wanted to look for ways in which real life coding of road signs, road markings, and other roadside signage would inform narrative structure. To do so I would need to understand the history of the automobile, city and urban planning, and highway design. I spent eighteen months researching and reading and didn't get into the program. So I set the project aside.

Twenty years later while talking to a friend who was embarking on her own research project, I mentioned my shelved project. She got me excited to revisit my research. It was in the process of tracking down the books of my original project that I added Arthur Miller's book. I was still convinced that understanding the automobile was key.

Two years into the revised project I realized that the vehicle wasn't important. In fact many of the pivotal sources for the 2015 version of the project didn't even involve vehicles. See my essay, Getting there: it's the road, stupid. But by this time, I already had purchased a copy of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

Now three or so years later (or five going on six years into the project), I have finally made the effort to read Miller's book. What his essays contain are long, nearly stream of consciousness paragraphs inspired by a particular local or situation as he traveled around the United States. His essays reveal him to be a typical white cis-gendered privileged man. His voice is the piece of equation I'm least interested in.

The white man in his fancy automobile on a roadtrip type of literature has been analyzed to death. There is no need to mine this area further. See There are 216 road narrative stories I'm interested in to understand why I set aside Miller's book.

Finally, there's a lot of racism and classism worked into The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. I don't care to read his views on ethnic groups he wasn't part of. The other as tourist stop is another done-to-death topic in road narrative analysis that I won't be doing as part of my project.

One star

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Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 2: 05/29/21

Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 2

Nightschool: The Weirn Books Collector's Edition, Volume 2 by Svetlana Chmakova is the conclusion of the series. It collects books three and four. Will Alex be able to solve the mystery of her missing sister? Will the hunters survive the attack on them? Will the evil that is erasing people from the universe be stopped?

Collected now as a two volume omnibus, each volume is massive. Volume two comes in at 435 pages. Much of the book, especially early on, is spent on fighting and posturing. That means a lot of dramatically struck poses, open mouthed shouting, and pages and pages of black stripy lines.

I am not a fan of extended fight scenes especially in manga rendered in black and white. With so much emphasis put on showing how extreme the fighting is with all those lines it's easy to lose track of who is who or even what a character's name is. That's especially true of a book that's now only two volume and the second one starts with the fight.

At long last the battle with the hunters and then their recovery is over and the last one hundred or so pages can pivot back to Alex's problem. Her story is what got me reading in the first place.

Without her sister, Alex finds herself without a home. Her landlord doesn't remember renting the place. Nor does she recognize Alex. Saving Sarah now becomes a necessity of survival on top of the filial connection.

Four stars

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Death Gone A-Rye: 05/28/21

Death Gone A-Rye

Death Gone A-Rye by Winnie Archer is the sixth book in the Bread Shop mystery series. Bobby and Em are married and off to their honeymoon. Before they can leave, word comes in of a murder of the Santa Sofia school board president, Nessa Renchrik. Miguel Babtista is top of the list of persons of interest.

Sometimes a mystery has a dearth of suspects. This one almost has too many. Nessa had burned a lot of bridges. She was a career Karen.

In fact, it was the emphasis on how awful Nessa that first reminded me of The Big Nap by Ayelet Waldman (2001). The big difference, though, is who the focus is on. In Waldman's mystery, it's the missing girl's father. He's awful and therefore must be one behind her disappearance. Nessa, though, is the victim and her murder is justified because of her awfulness.

Despite the clunky set up, I found the mystery engaging. Much of it is tied up in events that happened ten years earlier. For Ivy the challenge is piecing together two different timelines: events a decade ago and the last days of Nessa's life.

The parallel timelines brings to mind another mystery I recently enjoyed, A Side of Murder by Amy Pershing (2021). The two mysteries also share a murder victim who managed to burn enough bridges to make solving their murder difficult.

Book seven is A Murder Yule Regret which is scheduled for release on November 30, 2021.

Five stars

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Hearts: 05/27/21

Hearts

Hearts by Hilma Wolitzer is a road trip novel from 1980. It was contemporary fiction when it was first published and now it reads like a time capsule.

Linda and Robin Reismann are stepmother and stepdaughter. Linda was married for a few weeks and now she's a widow and responsible for a teenager who isn't much younger than she is. They set out on a cross country drive from New Jersey to California to start a new life.

In 2015 when I first re-started my road narrative project, I added Hearts to my list of books to read. Most scholarly work on American road narratives, be they novels, memoirs, or films, is focused on a very narrow range of author/experience. The white male traveler — the white male author — is written about as if this type of story is the only one that exists. Rarely, women's stories are included — usually in opposition to the male experience to demonstrate how dangerous the road is for a woman without a man.

Hearts by academia's logic shouldn't exist. Linda and Robin shouldn't safely make it across the country. One or both of them should have expected to face a "fate worth than death." While their journey isn't a smooth ride, save for one scene at an abortion clinic, the ride is uneventful.

Obviously Linda and Robin's journey can be plotted on the road narrative spectrum. They are a traveling family (33) even if they don't feel like one at the beginning. Their destination is San Francisco — or more precisely, the nearly completed I80 highway. The bit along the western edge of Salt Lake City, UT wasn't complete until 1986. Regardless, the destination can be inferred as the city (00). The route save for a few minor exceptions is the interstate (00). Thus Hearts is the tale of a new family traveling to the city via the interstate.

Four stars

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The Last Book Party: 05/26/21

The Last Book Party

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1987. Eve Rosen is an aspiring young writer who has landed a job in publishing. That job has introduced her into a close circle of writers. Some are long time success stories and others are up and coming. All of them are corrupt and terrible in one way or another and she's completely suckered by them all.

The crux of this story is the plot of a novel. The up and coming young author is about to build his career on it. From the description though, it's a typical white privileged man writing a savior story. To disguise what he's doing, he's written it from the point of view of a young woman with leprosy. It's the same trick used in What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein (2016). I didn't like the plot device when it involved Tibetan elephants and orphans and I don't like here at the shining example of literature (even as a fictional example).

Of course there can only be one masterfully conceived of plot and it turns out this leprosy novel was stolen from another author — the gracious host of the titular "book party." Here's the point where the novel could have redeemed itself. If novel lamp-shaded the way some men make their careers by writing savior wanker fiction disguised as literature, then this book could have been funny in a train wreck sort of way, like The Player by Michael Tolkin (1988). Imagine if entire careers going back centuries had all been variations on this idiotic plot? Comedy gold.

As it is, it's a dry, angsty book about a young woman making poor choices in 1987.

Two stars

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To Know You're Alive: 05/25/21

To Know You're Alive

To Know You're Alive by Dakota McFadzean is a collection of comics, each one a self contained story. Some are surreal. Some are horror. All of them are disturbing, save for the last one.

The comics are done in a bold color scheme — white, black, and some bright color, like magenta. In that aesthetic they bring to mind the graphic novels aimed at upper elementary kids: Babymouse and the Lunch Lady series for instance.

Except that there's something off about each story. Background details shift. Smiling faces become monstrous. Faces look like they are partially fungi. And so forth.

Then after all these horror vignettes, there's a short story about being an artist/author and a stay at home parent. It's presumably an autobiographical story.

I liked the experience of reading these short comics but I don't see myself re-reading them any time soon.

Four stars

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A Side of Murder: 05/24/21

A Side of Murder

A Side of Murder by Amy Pershing is the start of the Cape Cod Foodie mystery series. Samantha Barnes has returned home to Cape Cod after a disastrous YouTube video shows her cutting off the top of a finger of her abusive husband and restaurant co-owner. She has inherited her aunts dilapidated house and an enormous Labrador puppy.

To pass the time, she's taking up the job of doing restaurant reviews. She takes a group of friends and acquaintances to the revamped Bayview Inn. Dinner is delicious and everything thing is going well. That is until she decides to get a breath of fresh air where she finds the body of a women she had a run in with as a teen.

Pershing has managed to write a perfect blend of the Cape Cod novel (think Joseph C. Lincoln) and the modern day cozy mystery. Samantha's story is punctuated by the distinct landscape of marshes, creeks, rivers, sandbars, bays, and open ocean. She is adept at sailing and even manages to use her skills to her advantage. Samantha is a woman capable of saving herself — though certainly won't turn down help when it arrives.

The second book is An Eggnog to Die For and is set to release on November 2, 2021.

Five stars

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House of Cards: 05/23/21

House of Cards

House of Cards by Michael Dobbs is the novel that spawned a trilogy of British mini series and later an American series on Netflix. I haven't seen the American version, but I've watched the British ones numerous times.

The 1989 version has a similar relationship to the 1990 mini series that Arthur C. Clark's 2001 has to Kubrick's 1968 film. Both share the same characters, same settings, but go tangents to arrive at endings that can't possibly spawn the sequels that the films do. Yet, both authors opted to go with the photoplay ending when writing sequels.

In 2014 after the success of the Netflix Americanized version, the author decided to revise the original novel. I had hoped to get hold of an unrevised version, but the copy I was given is in fact the revision.

In the 1990 mini series, the climax and rapid denouement happens on parliament's rooftop garden. It involves a confrontation between a reporter and Francis Urquhart. The two have also been lovers in the course of his underhanded bid to be Prime Minister. It's here that the source material and the adaptation part ways.

In the original version (as I've read descriptions), Urquhart jumps to his death. The British mini series cast Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. He has such stage presence that he turned a rather weak but devious character into a cool, cunning, and deeply evil character. Richard's Urquhart doesn't come across as someone who would die by suicide. That said, he could have lost in some other fashion that would allow Maddie Storin, the reporter, to live.

Instead, her life is swapped for his. In that final confrontation, rather than Maddie presumably talking him to the point of realizing and regretting all the evil he's done in the name of political power, she starts her confrontation and promptly loses. While Ian Richardson pulled off an impressive presence in his characters, he was still only 5'9" and playing a man in his mid sixties.

The life sized rag doll he picks up in place of Susannah Harker (the actress playing Maddie) and tosses over the wall of the garden completely breaks the tension of the moment. It looks fake. It looks ridiculous. To then read Dobb's revision that essentially describes what he watched on the mini series makes for an equally ridiculous ending in print.

Three stars

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Once Upon a River: 05/22/21

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield opens with a lengthy poetic introduction to the Thames and life along it — not life in London, but further up stream. It then settles on a pub that's at water's edge, where a man and a girl are found nearly drowned. The girl they believe is beyond saving, until she awakens and is declared a miracle.

This opening promised a similar narrational approach to storytelling as Greenglass House by Kate Milford but aimed at an adult audience. More accurately, the novel promised to be a modern (albeit with an historic setting) Canterbury Tales in prose.

Instead of getting a bunch of distinct but intertwined or related stories, the novel unravels into two many similar narratives of missing children and broken families. The gist is the half drowned man and girl brings a number of hopeful family members to see if she is their missing child.

While numerous family reunions could be a satisfying read, this book suffers from pacing issues and having too many characters of similar type and name. To get the most out of this book, if, say, I was reading it for a literature class, I would need to diagram everyone as they are introduced and track their progress. As I was reading for pleasure, I skimmed the majority of the book save for the first hundred pages and the last hundred pages of nearly five hundred page volume.

Two stars

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Over the Woodward Wall: 05/21/21

Over the Woodward Wall

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker is the start of the Up-and-Under middle grade fantasy series. Avery is a fastidious child. Zib is an unpredictable child. They are neighbors but go to separate schools. They don't know each other exist until two sets of roadwork put them on the same path to a woodward wall they've never seen before.

Avery and Zib in a moment of spotenaity, decide to climb the wall. Instead of a shortcut to their respective schools, they find themselves in a new world — the Up and Under.

In every other middle grade fantasy that involves travel to another world, the children who travel to utopia, have the agency to find their way home. Even the teens in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children YA fantasy series find their way home (and then have to deal with the consequences of their return). This is the first book I can think of — from the many I've read — where the children don't make it home at the end.

Children who travel to other worlds and get home at the end of the book can (and do) return. Alice and Dorothy are prime examples from classic literature. Dorothy does eventually emigrate to Oz but it's under her own schedule and under her own rules, which included bringing her aunt and uncle along. September and Suzy are modern examples.

It seems that Baker is writing a middle grade isekai instead. In isekai stories the characters who are sent to these other worlds almost always are there for the long haul. In many cases it's because they've died and been reincarnated. In rare cases the characters have special talents that let them travel back and forth — such as the two women in Otherside Picnic.

From the moment the children land on the other side of the wall they are given a series of steps in order to find their way home. It's the classic formula for this type of book. What's missing here, though, is the children's own desire and self reliance to get themselves home. Children in these types of books are typically capable of decoding how the world works and what they need to do to get themselves home. Avery and Zib, however, just follow what they're told but they don't put anything extra into the process.

I predict that Avery and Zib won't get home until they actually develop the self awareness and agency to take care of themselves and their own destinies. They need to learn how to question the world they find themselves in. They closest they got to doing that was making the impossible road appear when needed.

Avery and Zib's journey is part of the road narrative spectrum. The children with no familial ties to each other but families at home on the other side of the wall, are marginalized travelers (66). A big part of their collective character sheets is their repeated insistence that they are in fact children who should be in school and are being missed by their parents. What's missing is their dogged determination to do whatever it takes to survive in the Up-and-Under and to find their own path home.

Their destination is, of course, utopia (FF). It's utopia in the purest sense — a no-place. It's a place that appears as a wall on a street that shouldn't have a wall. It's a place that removes itself from Avery and Zib's world in the blink of an eye. It's not like Wonderland which is tied to the world through one way paths: down a rabbit hole or through a mirror. Nor is it Oz which is reachable through moments of near-death danger (a cyclone, a large ocean wave, a sinkhole during an earthquake, etc). Nor is it by means of travel that require the main character to decide to go (via a flying cat or a dimension traveling train).

The path the children take is the interstate (00). The interstate is represented by the impossible road which repeatedly appears to keep the children headed towards the city they've been told to walk to. So while they have moments of offroad travel, these moments are part of the process of luring back the road.

Summed up, Over the Woodward Wall is the tale of marginalized travelers going through utopia via the interstate (66FF00).

The second book in the series is Along the Saltwise Sea which releases October 12, 2021.

Four stars

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Sabrina: Something Wicked: 05/20/21

Sabrina: Something Wicked

Sabrina: Something Wicked by Kelly Thompson and Veronica Fish (illustrator) collects issues six through ten. Or if you're like me and wait until they're gathered into a book, it's the sequel to Sabrina the Teenage Witch (2020).

Sabrina is still trying to solve the problem of the wendigo curse. Meanwhile there is also a serial killer. Some want to blame the cursed siblings but Sabrina and her aunts know they aren't responsible. They don't, however, know that she's pulling late nights to find a counter spell for the curse.

Much of Sabrina's problems this volume stem from her fatigue and her lack of communication. All she needs to do is talk to her aunts. Likewise she should just tell her high school friends what she's facing.

Finally there is her naiveté. She is too trusting of stand-ins for family when she's not in the mood to talk to her aunts. This is a recurring theme and certainly is a strong one in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack (2016) and its Netflix adaptation.

In my review of volume 1, I mentioned the sad lack of Ambrose. He's back but only in a last page hook. I hope he's the evidence that there is more to come. Hopefully there will be issues eleven through fifteen, and a volume three.

Five stars

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Foul Play at the Fair: 05/19/21

Foul Play at the Fair

Foul Play at the Fair by Shelley Freydont is the start of the Celebration Day mystery series. Event planner Liv Montgomery has gotten her dream job allowing her to move from New York City. Liv's first event is an autumn fair but on her second day she finds the body of a man in a cider press.

First books in a mystery series have to do a lot of work in about three hundred pages. They have to introduce the main character and their specific skills that will aid in solving this and future mysteries. The secondary characters will also need introducing. If the setting is a small town, then it an its cultural dynamics will need establishing.

Although Liv is introduced with a specific job— event planner— almost no time is spent showing her doing her job. Instead, she jumps right into her sleuthing. Without the time spent establishing the town and Liv's new life, I found the mystery extremely tedious.

The second book in the series is Silent Knife (2013).

Two stars

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This is Munich: 05/18/21

This is Munich

This is Munich by Miroslav Sasek is the sixth book in the This Is... picture book series. This one is set in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Germany.

As with most of the books I've read so far, I read a reissue. This one was reprinted with an appendix of changes in 2012. Of the books I've read so far, this one felt the most dated.

The one big detail that popped out for me were the shear number of horse drawn carts of various types, including sand wagons on snowy days, and ice wagons during Oktoberfest. Another interesting detail was the library train, since replaced by a bookmobile.

The next book in the series is This is Venice (1961)

Five stars

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Chili Cauldron Curse: 05/17/21

Chili Cauldron Curse

Chili Cauldron Curse by Lynn Cahoon is the prequel to One Poison Pie. In the first full length mystery from the Kitchen Witch mystery series we're given glimpses into events that lead to Mia Malone and her ex-boyfriend's sister moving to Magic Falls, Idaho. This novella is a short mystery that takes place just before those events.

Mia and her still boyfriend's sister meet in Magic Falls to help clean and organize a food pantry that has been receiving deliveries without anyone to manage it. The place is full of rotting fruit and other formerly fresh food and canned and dried goods that need sorting and inventorying. On the second morning of working through the backlog, Mia discovers the body of her grandmother's boyfriend.

Chili Cauldron Curse has only nine chapters. For the first seven, the pacing is similar to a longer mystery. What's different here is the abruptness of the ending. There's a point where Mia is confronted by the murder. In a longer book, she would either be captured and later manage to escape, or she would manage to talk her way out of the situation to postpone the final confrontation. Here, though, rescue comes quickly because the authorities aren't corrupt nor are they incompetent.

There's another novella immediately following One Poison Pie, Murder 101, which released in ebook format on April 27, 2021.

Four stars

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Crow: 05/16/21

Crow

Crow by Candace Robinson and Amber R Duell is the second of Faeries of Oz romance series. Now reunited after twenty-one years, Crow and Reva are headed north to take down the Witch of the North.

As an older reader I found the romance between older main characters. Sure, they're probably immortal and probably permanently hot, but the important part is they have a history together. They're married. They have a daughter. And, yes, a whole busload of baggage to work through.

Their journey northward also gives more time to expand the world building and flesh out the timeline. Dorothy — this version of Dorothy — didn't get to Oz until she was around eleven. That makes her older than the Baum Dorothy but younger than the MGM one. Assuming a starting age of six in 1900 (The Wizard of Oz, we can extrapolate an arrival at age eleven happening in 1905. That puts Dorothy's delayed arrival just after The Marvelous Land of Oz.

From Ozma's description of what happened, it appears that her escape as Tip happened as expected. The only difference is that the Wizard wasn't sent home and has become power hungry. His actions contributed to the power grabs by Langwidere of Ev and the (G)nome King. Both these invasions, though, presuppose ways around the Deadly Desert, though one can imagine the (G)nome King tunneling through and Langwidere using that tunnel too.

Chart showing relative positions of Tin and Crow on the Road Narrative Spectrum.

Crow and Reva's journey can also be mapped on the road narrative spectrum, just as the previous volume could. These travelers are a married couple (33). Their destination, the witch's location in the north, is a rural one (33). Their route, though, is the cornfield (FF) as explored through both Crow's name and his on-going ties to a cursed cornfield. (3333FF).

This second book with an established (albeit estranged) couple thoroughly changes the dynamics and tone. A couple is far more vulnerable to trouble on the journey than a paired scarecrow (Dorothy) and minotaur (Tin) are. They will have more steps to take, more danger to face, and more chances at failure or worse. And yet, because of a curse they are able to travel along more magical means than the previous pair of travelers.

The third book is Ozma and it releases May 26th.

Four stars

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The House on Mango Street: 05/15/21

The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is one of those recent (meaning within my lifetime) classics apparently now widely taught that I've only just now read. I saw the book mentioned in The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas (2020) and decided to read it.

Esperanza Cordero shares her life through a series of vignettes. Many of them read like free form poetry. Each vignette covers a page or two and a singular topic. Together they build a portrait of a childhood in the Martin Luther neighborhood of Chicago.

Cisneros creates a very strong sense of place through the house, her neighbors' places, the nearby stores, and the houses she lived before Mango Street. Among more recently published books, The House on Mango Street is a good companion read to Like Home by Louisa Onomé (2021).

Four stars

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Montauk: 05/14/21

Montauk

Montauk by Nicola Harrison is set at the very tip of Long Island during the summer of 1938. Beatrice Bordeaux has been left here at this up and coming resort by her husband, Harry. He wants her to use her to drum up business deals by befriending the wives of wealthy businessmen.

Beatrice feels removed from the other wives. She's from a working class family who has married up. She finds friendship instead with the townsfolk, including the woman who does the resort's laundry. She also finds herself falling in love with the lighthouse keeper.

While the blurb sets this book up as a historic romance, it's really a disaster novel. Montauk, despite it's historic setting, is in the vein of Condominium by John D. MacDonald (1977). Beatrice is like Barbara Messenger. She's there to survive, to see the storm wreak havoc on Montauk and the resort. She's there to watch people she's known, die.

Four stars

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A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 2: 05/13/21

A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 2

A Witch's Printing Office, Volume 2 by Mochinchi and Yasuhiro Miyama continues the adventures of Mika and the unprecidented success of her Magiket. Each chapter includes a different story about an unusual visitor or some misadventure to set up.

My favorite involves a young noble woman who runs away from home to attend the market. She's extremely lucky that a ship diverted to her floating island home. After a fun and busy day, she discovers the reason for the diversion. It's a hilarious punchline of an awkward meeting.

Another fun one involves an elderly wizard who I swear is the lovechild of Rincewind and Twoflower. He loves to travel but is antisocial. He's also on the lam (sort of). Finally he's very powerful but his magic is a bit chaotic. Of course Mika doesn't know any of this and gets along swimmingly with him. He gets the vacation he needs and wants, and she gets some last minute help.

There's a third and fourth volume and I plan to read both.

Five stars

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Unplugged: 05/12/21

Unplugged

Unplugged by Gordon Korman is a middle grade novel set at a wellness camp in Arkansas. Jett Baranov is the spoiled twelve year old son of a Bay Area tech CEO. Imagine a rival to Amazon, Alphabet, and Apple. Jett doesn't get much time with his parents but he has access to the near infinite funds that Fuego offers, and has his Fuego satelite phone — that is until he's sent to Oasis to unplug. Like Slacker (2016) and it's sequel, Level 13, Jett's time at Oasis is told from multiple points of view. The other POV's are a long time visitor, a boy with allergies, Jett's bodyguard, a devotee of the camp, and the camp bully.

Of all those characters, Jett is the least likable. He also is the character who has the most growth the make. That said, all the characters grow some over this summertime.

Oasis, while set in a fictional, unnamed area approximately an hour from Little Rock, is clearly based on the area around Hot Springs. One of the features of Oasis is The Bath — a geothermal pool that guests sit in to relax. That is, all except Jett, who is too impatient to get used to the temperature. There's also a swiftly moving river abutting the camp. In the book it's called Saline River and it's said to lead all the way back to the bayou. More likely it's the Ouachita River.

Finally, there's Needles — the reptile pictured on the cover. He is the orphan who brings the kids together and gives Jett something to focus on beyond wanting to escape or wanting to get his phone back. The camp has a strict no pets rule, but the kids, starting with Grace (the devotee) come together to keep Needles safe and fed.

Needles is also the impetus that gives Unplugged a Carl Hiaasen feel. Think Hoot (2002) or Flush (2005). In caring for Needles, the kids become aware of a larger mystery. Ultimately it was the mystery that won me over.

That said, all of Jett's adventure at Oasis can be mapped onto the road narrative spectrum. Jett is by no stretch of the imagination, a privileged traveler (00). His destination at Oasis is a rural one (33). His route there and around there is offroad (66): first by airplane, and later by river. Thus Unplugged can be categorized as the tale of a privileged boy going to a rural wellness camp via an offroad route (003366).

Four stars

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Bloodroot: 05/11/21

Bloodroot

Bloodroot by Susan Wittig Albert is the tenth book in the China Bayles mystery series. China receives a frantic phone call from her mother and reluctantly agrees to drive back to Mississippi to help. She's expecting to be dealing with her sick Aunt Tullie, but instead has to deal with a missing man, later found murdered, and a possibility of an old property deed resurfacing at an inopportune time.

I honestly should just learn from past books to skip the volumes where the main character ends up traveling, especially when said character is heading home. Another red flag is if the home is one the character has forsaken but now feels compelled (by plot) to revisit. I rarely like these stories and I certainly didn't enjoy this one.

With a travel story the narrative has to do extra leg work with world building and family history. Work already accomplished in previous volumes won't suffice here because it's a new location. But ten volumes in, in this case, means, expectations are high. There's no way Jordan's Crossing can possibly feel as real as Pecan Springs.

This mystery has two main parts. There is deed to a piece of the plantation that at one time would have been prime real estate but no longer is. The second is her aunt's illness which is a genetic thing. Her illness as well as other similar deaths in the family tree suggests some misconceptions as to who is related to whom.

Aunt Tullie's illness from the get-go was an obvious narrative device to get China out of Texas. It was also obvious given its degenerative effects that China wouldn't be a carrier. To make this possible there has to be other family tree secrets. Except, given that they're the descendants of plantation owners, the obvious solution is well, obvious. Understanding that makes the murder mystery an easy thing to solve.

Book eleven is Indigo Dying (2003).

Two stars

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Death of an English Muffin: 05/10/21

Death of an English Muffin

Death of an English Muffin by Victoria Hamilton is the third in Merry Muffin mystery series. Merry has taken in some renters to offset the cost of maintaining Wynter Castle. Now, though, she's starting to have regrets. To complicate things further, her most onerous guest ends up murdered.

Much of Death of an English Muffin hinges on and old and cantankerous history that Merry's renters share. They have been friends of a sort for decades in New York, though Cleta's place in this group seems suspect.

Besides the renters' past, Merry ends up dredging up more of her own. She learns more about her ties to Wynter Castle and her uncle's plans. There are some bittersweet revelations.

As with Muffin but Murder (2014), book three takes too much time to wrap up after the mystery has been solved. I am invested in Merry and her friends' stories, but I wish they were more tightly paced with the mystery solving.

The fourth book is Much Ado About Muffin (2016).

Four stars

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The Ballad of Ami Miles: 05/09/21

The Ballad of Ami Miles

The Ballad of Ami Miles by Kristy Dallas Alley is set about a hundred years in the future in Eufala Alabama. Years earlier a virus rendered most women infertile and society as we know it crumbled as a result. Ami Miles is the last child of her family's compound and she choses to flee in search of her mother when her grandfather decides its time to breed her to a much older man.

The post virus world is shown through a very narrow focus through the eyes of one very sheltered, religiously raised teenager and the two spots she's lived. These spots are extrapolated from current extant places giving this novel a solid sense of place.

Some pre-Covid reviews of the book take issue with the number of children who live at the site of the former Lakepoint State Park. After nearly a year and a half of living through the pandemic of highly contagious virus, we've learned first hand how uneven the infection rates can be, even in places that are a few minutes away by car. What Ami experiences is possible and relatable in this post-Covid world.

Beyond the set up of Ami's world, is how she grows once she's free of her grandparents. She discovers love and the many different ways families can be formed. She gains access to new to her music and new to her books. She learns more of the history of her area and her former country.

Ami's journey can also be marked on the road narrative spectrum. Ami takes her journey with little in the way of personal agency, making her a marginalized traveler (66). Her destination is a new home (66) — one where she is safe to be herself. Her route, while through the forest, follows the path of a known Blue Highway (33), US 431. Summarized, The Ballad of Ami Miles is about a marginalized traveler finding a new home via the Blue Highway (666633).

Five stars

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Farm to Trouble: 05/08/21

Farm to Trouble

Farm to Trouble by Amanda Flower is the start of the Farm to Table mystery series. Shiloh Bellamy has returned home to her failing family farm after fifteen years of a successful career in Hollywood as a producer.

Set in fictional Cherry Glenn, a small farming town near Traverse City, Michigan, it's not only Bellamy farm that has seen better times. Shiloh has carelessly gotten herself and her family farm embroiled in a deal with an unscrupulous developer who has been buying up the town.

Before Shiloh even sees a penny from him, she finds the developer murdered. She and her elderly father are now the prime suspects. Shiloh needs to clear their names before she can begin trying to save the farm.

I've been reading Amanda Flower's novels since her debut, Maid of Murder (2010). While I have read every single book, I've read enough to see a marked change in tone for this series. In the other books and series I've read, Flower's characters tend to be young and optimistic even when facing challenges and solving murders.

Shiloh Bellamy is thirty-eight, while still younger than I am by ten years, she's had a career and has decided it's time to go home. She spends much of this first volume feeling defeated by the enormity of the task before her. She also has to face the reality that her eighty-something year old father has become frail during her time away. There is also the fact that half of the original farm has already been sold off, so her half may very well be headed to a similar fate.

With her age, her experience, and her loss (a fiancé), Shiloh reminds me of Merry Wynter of the Merry Muffin series by Victoria Hamilton. The only difference between the two is that Merry has had more time to come to terms with with twists and turns of her life and has put together a support team in the form of a found family. Shiloh in a book or two will get there too.

Four stars

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Big Little Lies: 05/07/21

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is centered on a death during a fundraiser at a school in Sydney, Australia. While it sounds like the set up for a mystery, it isn't. Instead it's a melodrama dressed up as literary fiction. The "mystery" aspect of it takes place in the first and last twenty five pages, for a total of about fifty pages in a four hundred page novel.

The focus instead is on a group of women — mothers of the children who attend the school. There are first wives, second wives, single mothers, and the men who they love, are married to, sleep with, and so forth.

Everyone is unhappy. Everyone is classist. Everyone is a Karen or a Chad by modern day slang. It's a predictable train wreck that we already know will end in a man dying. We know this from the first twenty-five or so pages. For me, this sort of set up is unsatisfying. For a more thrilling novel written in this fashion, I recommend Those People by Louise Chandlish (2019).

Looking just at the death, the narrational structure of this novel is a gender swapped version of "Lullaby of Broadway" — the original dark, blood sacrifice take on the nightlife of New York from Gold Diggers of 1935.

Two stars

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Those People: 05/06/21

Those People

Those People by Louise Candlish is set on Lowland Way, a council controlled street in London that gives parents the feeling of suburban life with an easy commute. The house at one end of the street is sold to a man and woman who instantly engender hate and despair from the other homeowners which only gets worse each day they're there. Eventually a woman ends up dead and the question is, was it neglect by the owners or sabotage from one of the other neighbors.

The novel begins with the woman's death and then rewinds to the moving in of the new owners. As it creeps forward to the death, alternating points of view, as well as police interviews, raise the tension and justify the sabotage we know is coming.

I don't normally like mysteries that rewind after the death. Those People, though, works, through relatively short chapters, a good creation of tension, and interesting and flawed characters. None of the other neighbors are any better than the ones who have moved in. What's different about them is their socio-economic status and their collective desire to not let any chinks appear in their apparent street long utopia.

Also the book includes enough of a long tail ending to show how the police investigation goes about after the woman's death. That extended present time coda also allows for more time for the inevitable unraveling of the tenuous utopia.

Four stars

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On Borrowed Crime: 05/05/21

On Borrowed Crime

On Borrowed Crime by Kate Young and Dina Pearlman (Narrator) is the start of the Jane Doe Book Club mystery series. Lyla Moody works as a receptionist for her private detective uncle — a job her parents don't approve of. She's also part of the Jane Doe Book Club — a mystery loving club her mother derisively calls "the Dead Club."

While her best friend Melanie is on vacation, Lyla has a near run-in with Carol, the wife of a local judge. She's also a member of the club. Not thinking anything of it, she's surprised to learn later in the day that Carol is officially missing.

Timed with Melanie's return, Lyla discovers Carol's body in a way that implicates Melanie and bears a striking resemblance to a series of "Jane Doe" murders along the local interstate. This is the set up for the remainder of the mystery.

While the small town setting and the cutesy title implies a cozy mystery, the brutality of the murder and the very real danger Lyla is facing makes this novel more of a thriller. There were places in the novel that I found difficult to listen to. It wasn't gore for gore's sake nor was it fetishizing violence against women, but the emotions were visceral.

The second book is Reading Between the Crimes. It's scheduled for release on September 7th, 2021.

Five stars

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Wondercat Kyuu-Chan Volume 1: 05/04/21

Wondercat Kyuu-Chan Volume 1

Wondercat Kyuu-Chan Volume 1 by Sasami Nitori is a full color manga about a young man and his cat. The cat, while he doesn't have full language thought bubbles like Garfield, the two cats share certain special abilities well beyond the average cat.

The jokes fall into three categories: Kyuu-chan being extremely cat like, Kyuu-chan trying to help and completely misreading the situation, and Kyuu-chan being unexpectedly human-like.

The second volume in English translation releases in May 18, 2021.

Four stars

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Curiosity Thrilled the Cat: 05/03/21

Curiosity Thrilled the Cat

Curiosity Thrilled the Cat by Sofie Kelly is the start of the Magical Cats mystery series. Librarian Kathleen Paulson has recently moved to Mayville Heights, Minnesota to oversee the remodel of the 1912 library. The remodel is behind schedule and fraught with accidents and errors.

Meanwhile there's the music festival. The guest conductor ends up dead the day after he ridicules Kathleen because the computers aren't set up yet in the library. Circumstantial evidence makes Kathleen a person of interest. To clear her name, she decides to solve the murder.

Mayville Heights is built around a now abandoned mansion. The grounds host a colony of cats who are related to the original pets. Kathleen owns two of these cats who followed her home: Hercules and Owen. As this is the "Magical Cats" series, these two cats are capable of things other cozy series pets aren't. Their skills help in the tracking down of clues. Despite them being magical, they are still primarily cats.

The mystery itself has two parts: the A plot (the murder) and a B plot (the problems with the remodel). They come together in ways similar to the Constable Molly Smith mysteries. The specifics, though, also brings to mind Careless Whiskers  by Miranda James (2020). Both mysteries Kathleen faces are pretty easy to solve but the characters and the town are interesting enough to keep reading.

The second book is Sleight of Paw (2011). Sofie Kelly is the pseudonym of YA author and multimedia artist Darlene Ryan. She is from New Brunswick, Canada.

Four stars

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The Printed Letter Bookshop: 05/02/21

The Printed Letter Bookshop

The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay has the set up of a cozy mystery without the murder. There is, however, a death and a funeral. Aunt Maddie has died and has left her entire estate to her niece, Madeline. That includes a bookstore, two employees, a house, and a huge debt.

Madeline plans to sell everything as quickly as possible, but her plans change when she doesn't make partner at the law firm. She's passed up for a younger, brasher, sloppier lawyer. She decides to give running the shop a go.

The novel doesn't just have Madeline's point of view. We're also given lengthy scenes or even full chapters from the two employees. I found their scenes boring and for the most part unnecessary, save for a few scenes near the end of the novel that help solve a tacked on mystery.

If this novel had been a mystery, the sabotage / vandalism that comes at the start of the third act, would have been the end of the first act. The near destruction of the bookshop would have come on the heels of Maddie's death, serving as evidence that her death might just have been murder. Here, though, the damage serves to force Maddie to accept defeat.

There is a happy ending of sorts, one that finally brings the three protagonists together. But as the ending to a novel, it felt rushed.

Three stars

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April 2021 Sources: 05/02/21

Previous month's book sources

April was the thirteenth full month of shelter in place for COVID-19 precautions. Ian's parents are still stuck in Canada and have now earned permanent resident status. Ian and I are now fully vaccinated.

April also marked a need to change how I schedule my reviews. For the last three years I had focused more and more on reading newly published books. The problem is I've now run out of my backlog of reviews meaning I was constantly reading new books over everything else, thus defeating the purpose of "read our own books." The other problem stems from COVID, in that it has gotten impossible for me to donate recently read books to local schools or the Friends of the Library. In response to a growing pile of read books I don't have room to keep, I've been offering them via Paperback Swap. I've also been buying fewer physical copies, to focus on reading what's on hand (and in storage).

As my reading habits have changed, my blogging habits needed to change. So the themes I had been posting with for the last three and a half years have been set aside. Now I am posting reviews in a rotating order: new, last year's book, older books, books from Paperback Swap. I'm not sure if this is a posting routine I'll keep in the long run, but it is working for me right now.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In April I read 19 TBR books, up from March's 13 TBR. I read one published in April. Six books were for research. None were from the library. The fewer new books brought my score down from -2.21 to -4.12. It was my best April ever in twelve years of tracking. I shattered make my predicted score of -2.21.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

May will continue to 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 low score, maybe around 3.90.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for April improved from -2.36 to -2.50.

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Little Bookshop of Murder: 05/01/21

Little Bookshop of Murder

Little Bookshop of Murder by Maggie Blackburn and Christa Lewis (Narrator) is the start of the Beach Reads mystery series. Summer Merriweather has returned to her island home for her mother's funeral. She had been a healthy, active woman, so it's inconceivable that she would have suddenly had a heart attack. Summer decides to spend extra time determining the truth.

Besides the funeral, Summer has her mother's estate to deal with. There's her home and her book store, Beach Reads. As a Shakespeare scholar, she scoffs at her mother's love of romances, cozy mysteries, and other light reads. Yet, to honor her, she joins the book club to read the current romance.

To the observant reader, the book club selection is full of clues to bigger mysteries in Summer's life. In this regard, the book is similar to Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James. 

Set on fictional Brigid's Island, North Carolina, Little Bookshop of Murder has a strong sense of place. It has a similar feel to the Lighthouse Library mystery series by Eva Gates.

The second book is Once Upon a Seaside Murder. It releases October 12, 2021.

Five stars

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April 2021 Summary: 05/01/21

Reading report

April continued the COVID-19 shelter in place, bring us to our fourteenth month of shelter in place. Vaccinations continue in California and Ian and I have received both doses.

I read more books in April, 26, up from 24 in the previous month. Of my March read books, an seventeen were diverse vs not. On the reviews front, eighteen qualified. Of those read, four were queer. Of the reviewed books, five were.

I have six books remaining from 2020 to review, and 38 books of the 109 books read this year.

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