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October 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

Reading Challenges

Canadian Book Challenge: 2021-2022

Beat the Backlist 2021



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What the Cat Dragged In: 10/25/21

What the Cat Dragged In

What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda James is the fourteenth volume in the Cat in the Stacks mystery series. It opens with Charlie Harris driving to his grandfather's house having learned that he recently inherited the property. As far as he could recall his grandfather had sold the house to the Hale family. Apparently he didn't.

It's been almost fifty years since Charlie was last in this house. Being back triggers long lost memories. It also brings him to a literal skeleton in the closet. Why is it in the attic?

This mystery has two components: the identification of the skeleton and learning why it ended up in the house; and the modern day murder of Martin's grandson, a man claiming ownership of the house. Tying the two together is the question: why did grandpa Harris lease the house to Martin Harris when they were clearly not friends.

The attentive reader will need to keep track of three timelines to solve the case before Charlie and Diesel. There's the present day murder, clues and events from the late 1980s, early 1990s, and finally Charlie's memories from the early 1970s. Despite these different time periods, the mystery is tightly crafted.

Five stars

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The Starless Sea: 10/24/21

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is a long treatise on the nature of story telling and fate vs freewill. It's a blending of myth and fantasy quest. When the layers are peeled back it's the tale two grad students being swept into quest to save a magical, underground port on the edge of the Starless Sea.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins, originally from New Orleans, is a graduate student in Vermont. He likes to read the forgotten books in the university library and he finds one that while mostly fables about Time and Fate as well as a disjointed tale of a metaphoric pirate, there's one story in there he recognizes as being about himself. It involves a son of a fortune teller and a door painted on a wall.

Like Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, doors lead to stories. Doors select those who can go through them. And like the road in [link]Rules for Vanishing[/link] by Kate Alice Marshall (2019), doors can remember their purpose and continue to work long after the place they were has crumbled to dust.

Wrapped up in all these layers of storytelling are homages to The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959). It's the inclusion of another magical Eleanor that might necessitate an update on the Three Faces of Eleanor essay to include a fourth.

Beyond the canonical references to those to works, The Sunless Sea mostly reminds me of two works by Tomihiko Morimi, namely The Night is Short, Walk On Girl (the 2017 film) and the anime series inspired by a different novel, Tatami Mat Galaxy (2010). Both share a world and a cast of characters who take on different roles but are essentially the same people. In Starless Sea, the same few characters return over and over through the stories and then in the present day adventure. Whether it's reincarnation or just stories being retold and evolving, is up to the reader.

Overall Starless Sea is full of beautiful turns of phrase and interesting takes on story telling. But it suffers from pacing issues especially early on. It takes too long to settle on Zachary's story and then when it does, he's too much like Quentin, who might as well be made from cardboard.

Four stars

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When the Grits Hit the Fan: 10/23/21

When the Grits Hit the Fan

When the Grits Hit the Fan by Maddie Day and Laural Merlington (Narrator) is the third book in the Country Store mystery series. Robbie's been supplementing her restaurant's income by hosting university dinners during the off season. After over-hearing a heated argument, Prof. Charles Stilton is found dead.

Closer to home, Maddie has an intruder. Someone has been coming into the rooms above the restaurant. The visitations seem tied to remodeling she's doing in the effort to transform the old living quarters into a bed and breakfast.

When the Grits Hit the Fan is the first volume I've listened to instead of reading it in print. Laural Merlington's performance brought the characters to life in a way my own inner voice hadn't managed to do. I think a great deal of my enjoyment of this volume stems from her work.

With the secret way into the store and the hidden treasures, I was reminded of the Kitchen Witch series by Lynn Cahoon. Maddie Day's series though doesn't feature magic or paranormal events, though. The similarities are strictly in terms of the architectural settings of the two series.

The fourth book is Biscuits and Slashed Browns (2018).

Five stars

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Tippy Toe Murder: 10/22/21

Tippy Toe Murder

Tippy Toe Murder by Leslie Meier is the second book in the Lucy Stone mystery series. With a fourth child on the way, Lucy is staying at home to focus on her children and her current pregnancy. Between little league and the upcoming ballet recital, she's kept busy.

The last Lucy wants is to be pulled into another investigation but now she's facing two. Caro, the ballet teacher, has gone missing, leaving behind her dog. Lucy and many of the other women who know her believe something has happened to her.

The second mystery is the murder of the local hardware store owner. Lucy's involved because the murder weapon is something she loaned to the store's long time employee.

The Lucy Stone series is thirty years old and on-going. In 1991 when this series started, cozies weren't the booming subgenre they are now. Tippy Toe Murder was published and marketed as a thriller and that's what it is. It shares similar themes and tone with The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham (1987).

If you're coming to these earliest books from later ones, keep the tonal shift in mind. I'm starting at the beginning and working my way forward. I'm curious to watch the evolution from thriller to cozy.

The third book is Trick or Treat Murder (1996).

Three stars

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Muffin But Trouble: 10/20/21

Muffin But Trouble

Muffin But Trouble by Victoria Hamilton and Margaret Strom (Narrator) is the sixth book in the Merry Muffin mystery series. Since the conclusion of Muffin to Fear (2017), Merry and her husband have moved into their dream home. Wynter Castle is on its way to being transformed into a center for the arts.

While running an errand Merry is accosted by a doomsday cult member. She's called a harlot and a jezebel. Rather than ignoring him and moving on, she decides to investigate. Her curiosity leads to the realization that there are a number of missing young women as well as a number of other women found murdered. Merry comes to the conclusion that the murders and the missing girls are probably both tied to the cult.

This volume is a particularly grim story. It has a similar tone and similar themes to Tippy Toe Murder by Leslie Meier (1994). Basically, Muffin by Trouble reads like a thriller that's been repackaged as a cozy. It covers brainwashing, sex trafficking, and abuse among other things.

The next book is Double of Muffin (2021).

Four stars

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Big Hero 6: The Series, Volume 1: 10/19/21

Big Hero 6: The Series, Volume 1

Big Hero 6: The Series, Volume 1 by Hong Gyun An is a manga inspired by the cartoon that spun off the film. I haven't seen the animated series but there's enough continuity in this first volume that watching the show isn't necessary to enjoy the book.

The book opens in the gap of time between losing Baymax in the void and building a new body for him once Hiro discovers the CPU that Baymax gave him before they were separated. So the first chapter involves adventures with a disembodied Baymax, where he is a program on a screen but doesn't have his autonomy restored.

In this introductory volume, the plot primarily deals with Hiro's adjustment to being a college student. As he's so young, he's been paired with another young student in a mentoring situation. Unfortunately it's an extremely toxic forced relationship. Except she has fallen in love with Hiro when he's being a big damn hero. Of course.

The manga loses some of its momentum in the second chapter, choosing to spent more time on Hiro's back story and his grief. It's getting to be like Peter Parker and Uncle Henry or Bruce Wayne and his parents. We get it; death inspires some to become superheroes.

Fortunately the final adventure is back in the present and forces Hiro to balance his college responsibilities with his part on the Big Hero 6 team. There's also the question as to whether or not the group should continue to be heroes in light of what had happened to Baymax.

All in all it was a fun, quick read. I am looking forward to a second volume. Hopefully this Big Hero 6 series will get more than two volumes. As of writing this review there's no confirmation of a second volume release date.

Four stars

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When Fairies Go Bad: 10/17/21

When Fairies Go Bad

When Fairies Go Bad by Ursula Vernon is the seventh of the Dragonbreath novels. Mushrooms have popped up in the Dragonbreath yard and Danny's mother makes the mistake of stepping on one and not removing the others. That night she's kidnapped by the Fae so Danny and Wendell have to take the bus to Faerie to save her.

I love the conceit that a particular bus can take people to alternate universes or through time as needed. This time it's not a direct route. The transfer point gives a few pages to glimpse at an unnamed but well described Oz. It's a place where houses fall from the sky and then take off again; where faded yellow bricks wend their way through menacing cornfields.

As the blurb says, the Fae Danny and Wendell go against are not Tinkerbell. They are devious and maliciously compliant. Everything off the road is a threat. Everything on the road is doing its best to get them off the road.

Danny and Wendell while often distracted and goofy, manage to stay on task for this one. They know the stakes are high and they remain focused. They have a similar wariness as Tiffany Aching in Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (2003). But there's also a similar creepiness in the form of forest as threat as the author's recent adult horror, The Hollow Places (T. Kingfisher, 2020).

Progression of Dragonbreath books through the Road Narrative Spectrum

As with the previous six novels, When Fairies Go Bad sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. Once again, Danny and Wendell are marginalized travelers (66). Their destination is utopia (FF), though not the one they first arrive at. Their route is once again the Blue Highway (33), namely the road taken by the bus. As this is one is a marginalized traveler going to utopia via the Blue Highway (66FF33), it's the highest journey on the spectrum so far for these two — but still straddling the line between horror and fantasy.

The eighth book is Nightmare of the Iguana (2013).

Five stars

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Rules for Vanishing: 10/14/21

Rules for Vanishing

Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall is a YA horror that reads like a blend of Alice Isn't Dead by Joseph Fink (2018) and The Magnus Archive. It's also one of the most interesting qualifiers for Road Narrative Spectrum I've read this year.

A year ago Becca disappeared with her boyfriend into the forest. Her sister, Sara, knows she managed to summon the road and now she plans to save Becca. From included transcripts it's clear that while she succeeded, things didn't go as planned.

This is a book I will need to (and want to) re-read and annotate. While I've found 638 examples as of this review it's the rare volume that reads like a treatise on road narrative construction. In previous reviews and essays, I've suggested that a house — especially haunted houses — are road narratives, usually through uhoria and often via the maze. Here, though, in one of the waypoints along the journey, Sara and her companions go into and ultimately through a house that is the literal embodiment of the road.

To make Rules for Vanishing all the more compelling, there is a tightly knit lore around the road and the game teens play to summon it. As with many oral traditions, the lore has evolved over time — obscuring the truth and yet the journey down the road reveals what has been hidden through its very landscape. The manifestation through landmarks is one of the things I want to do a deep dive on in a later re-read.

For this post, though, I will just look at the very basics of three part construction that determines placement on the Road Narrative Spectrum. While Sara goes to retrieve her sister and does, throughout her account and the others' accounts through interviews, it's revealed that there are monsters among the travelers, thus setting up the scarecrow/minotaur dichotomy (99).

The destination, while inspired by historical events, isn't to a place out of time (uhoria). It's stated in multiple places in the story that the original destination was destroyed. The road having "lost its purpose" has essentially gone feral and recreated to the best of its ability the landmarks that used to make it a road. As these places are reconstructions in a place outside of reality, the destination is utopia (FF).

The route, though, is the Blue Highway (33). Rather, it's an ancient road's memory of being a road. It's not a straight and gentle road promising safe travels like an interstate. Nor is it a fixed route like the railroad. This is a road that can be strayed from — and one that will punish those who do stray from it.

As with many horror stories, the ending is left somewhat open. Did Sara succeed? Is she a victim of horrors brought home or is she the monster? Will the road continue on to take more travelers?

Five stars

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Samantha Spinner and the Boy in the Ball: 10/13/21

Samantha Spinner and the Boy in the Ball

Samantha Spinner and the Boy in the Ball by Russell Ginns is the third book in the series. Nipper's missing, having been kidnapped by the next door neighbor. Samantha wrangles help from a pair of friends, while her uncle and her dad head out on their own adventure.

As with the previous two books, new modes of transportation is revealed. These are wheel and ball based. They're also the first example of a highway system from a different country.

With the siblings separated there's no chance for the to squabble. Nipper working alone is forced to rely on his own wits and intuition. Meanwhile, Samantha gets to work with two like minded girls. It's nice seeing her branch out and I hope the other two end up being recurring characters.

Chart showing the relative placement of the three books on the Road Narrative Spectrum

Like the first two, this book sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. As all the family members are traveling, albeit on separated routes, their goal is the same. Thus the travelers are once again family (33). The destination is a reunion at home (66). Their route their is the labyrinth in that none of them are in any real danger but the journey provides a transformative experience in that they each learn something new about themselves (99).

The fourth book is Samantha Spinner and the Perplexing Pants (2021)

Five stars

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Dead Dead Girls: 10/12/21

Dead Dead Girls

Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia and Shayna Small (Narrator) is the start of the Harlem Renaissance mystery series. Louise Lloyd saved herself and two other teenaged girls from a kidnapping. Now a decade later girls are going missing again and their bodies are left to be found near the speakeasy where they worked.

Louise has the misfortune of finding one of these dead girls. That puts her in contact with a slick talking detective. He forces her into working with him on the investigation. It's a set up that reminds me of Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990). The difference here is that the stakes are higher, just as they would have been if Mosley's book had been written from Daphne's point of view.

As with a few other mysteries I've read this year that were also published this year, Afia's novel addresses police brutality. This one, though, being a mystery by a Black women about Black women, also looks head on at racism, misogyny, and patriarchy. The afterword includes the author's thoughts on writing the book as well as her decision to use a historical setting to comment on today's issues.

Five stars

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A Dilly of a Death: 10/10/21

A Dilly of a Death

A Dilly of a Death by Susan Wittig Albert is the twelfth book in the China Bayles mystery series. McQuaid has switched gears to be a private investigator. His first client is Phoebe, the CEO of a the local pickle factory. But before he can get started, she goes missing.

Meanwhile China has taken in Amy, Ruby's daughter. She's pregnant and unmarried. She's uninterested in revealing who the father is and everyone who knows her are taking bets on who he might be.

To top it off, the worst rain storm Pecan Springs has seen in years has arrived. It's cancelled the Pickle Fest. It's made the roads unsafe. It's making everyone and everything wet and soggy.

This particular volume has a good sense of place and history. The pickle factory feels like a real space with real problems, including how to deal with all the brining leftovers without damaging the environment.

It also takes advantage of using the weather as an extra character, one who acts as a foil for all the parties involved. Pecan Springs often feels like a collection of sets whose relativity to each other changes as the plot demands. This time, the town feels like a single place tied to geography.

All this attention to detail, though, hides the fact that the core mystery is a very familiar one. I won't spoil that here, even though the mystery is seventeen years old.

The thirteenth book is Dead Man's Bones (2005).

Four stars

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Muffin to Fear: 10/09/21

Muffin to Fear

Muffin to Fear by Victoria Hamilton and Margaret Strom (narrator) is the fifth book in the Merry Muffin mystery series. Merry and Virgil return home from their honeymoon to find their house invaded by a ghost hunting television crew. Really and truly, Merry's life would be so much simpler if she didn't leave Pish in charge of Wynter Castle.

Of course someone ends up dead. And then someone else appears to have committed suicide. As both deaths take place at Wynter Castle this volume is essentially two locked room mysteries in one.

The mystery is also tied up in the production demands of a "reality" TV show. I found the details of the production interesting. The tricks the crew played to make for a better story.

For the most part I enjoyed the mystery and piecing the clues together. I didn't figure things out as quickly as I sometimes do, but I also wasn't completely baffled either.

My one quibble is Pish. He is a continued source of trouble for Merry. We've been told many times of his value as a friend but as a house guest, he has more than overstayed his welcome.

The sixth book is Muffin but Trouble (2019).

Four stars

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Coached to Death: 10/07/21

Coached to Death

Coached to Death by Victoria Laurie and Rachel Dulude (Narrator) is the start of the Life Coach mystery series. It's also a spin off from the Ghost Hunter mystery series. So while demons and ghosts aren't part of this mystery, and I suppose not part of the series, the series exists in the same universe and shares some of the same characters.

Catherine "Cat" Cooper has settled in the Hamptons to start a new career as a life coach. She has a beautiful new home with an ocean view, a smart guess house, and a house guest — Gilley. The set up reminds me of the Merry Muffin series by Victoria Hamilton, if Merry Wynter were financially set to run the castle from the very first book.

Cat's new life gets complicated when her next door neighbor is poisoned after a luncheon. Cat had been asked to bring punch as part of an elaborate hazing routine. Her neighbor is later found poisoned with the punch in her stomach.

Although she's pretty quickly ruled out as the suspect her arrest forces her involvement in solving the case. Her investigation, though, also coincides with a number of other deaths. In this regard, I'm reminded of a newer mystery I just read, A Deadly Deletion by Lorna Barrett (2021).

Overall, I enjoyed Coached to Death. Victoria Laurie has matured as a writer which in turn has given Gilley a maturity he didn't have in the earliest books of the Ghost Hunter series. One other change is in how I'm reading this series — via audiobooks. Rachel Dulude narrates and she really captures everyone's personalities.

The second book is To Coach a Killer (2020).

Four stars

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Checked Out for Murder: 10/06/21

Checked Out for Murder

Checked Out for Murder by Allison Brook is the fourth book in the Haunted Library mystery series. A self described psychic introduces herself to Carrie Singleton. Since Carrie is friends with a ghost she believes Daphne and sets her up for a presentation at the library. Meanwhile Carrie's mother and her new husband are in town along with a film crew. He's staring in a rom-com.

Daphne and an actress on the film are murdered within days of each other. Carrie believes Daphne's murder is related to her father's murder — a cold case. But is the actress's death also related?

Although this series has a ghost who has in past books helped Carrie sort things out, she's barely in this novel. Frankly I found her absence refreshing. The mystery was tight enough to not need supernatural help.

My one gripe with this mystery is the unnecessary bi-erasure. So many mysteries hinge on characters not considering that a person might be interested in more than one gender.

The fifth book is Death on the Shelf (2021).

Four stars

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Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End: 10/05/21

Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End

Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino is the final volume in the Gideon Falls series. Those who remain standing are in a flight to stop the end of the world by controlling the darkness spewing forth from the remains of the Black Barn.

Just as the worlds have spiraled into each other, the artwork mimics their falling. Portions of the book have to be read upside down. Further more that same spiral is replicated in the series' progress through the Road Narrative Spectrum.

Progression of the entire series on the Road Narrative Spectrum

The first volume began in the top right quadrant with the characters acting as scarecrow travelers (99). They are briefly a found family of travelers (33) at the halfway point. Then back to their original status before spiraling down to a more literal family (33) by way of a two volume stint as privileged travelers (00).

In their journey, the characters' destination has simplified from the fantastical — utopia (FF) to ultimately the city (00), the final reconstructed, whole Gideon Falls.

That final journey through the cascading Gideon Falls dimensions is a labyrinthine (99) route. It's a route they've been taking for the back half of the series, starting at The Pentoculus (2020).

Four stars

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Talking as Fast as I Can: 10/04/21

Talking as Fast as I Can

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham was written during the time the Netflix Gilmore Girls movies were being filmed. It was released later that year around the time I was watching the original series for the first time while packing up our condo before our last move.

Lauren Graham played Lorelai Gilmore and from this book I would upgrade "played" to "embodied." So much of her costuming and props were from her personal collection.

Outside of the Gilmore Girls, I'm not really familiar with Graham's career. For example, I haven't seen any episodes of Parenthood, the other series she had a long role in. But I liked the title o her memoir and was curious.

Of all the recent celebrity memoirs I've read recently, Talking as Fast as I Can is one of my favorites. It's up there in humor, engagement, and practical advice as If Someone Says “You Complete Me," RUN! by Whoopi Goldberg (2015).

Graham writes as if we're reading one side of a lengthy conversation. She covers the early bits of her life and career but doesn't turn the events into something that reads like a very dull book report. Instead of going through every year in finite detail, we're giving the highlights.

The part, though, that Graham expands upon is the part I was most interested in — namely the filming of the original series and the later Netflix movies. So many of these memoirs skip over the parts the authors are best known for to expand upon other events they'd rather be known for. In Graham's case, she clearly loved playing Lorelai Gilmore and doesn't mind talking about the show.

Four stars

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September 2021 Sources: 10/02/21

Previous month's book sources

We're on our second ten day quarantine for our youngest. The first one made sense in that she was exposed and had symptoms (but later tested negative). This time she has stupidly been sent home for a reaction to a flu vaccine.

September forced me to cut back on how often I post reviews. I have now a very slim margin of books read and reviewed from what I used to have. Fifteen years ago I had a backlog of four hundred reviews that needed posting. Now I have seventeen.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In September I read 16 TBR books, down from August's 20 TBR. I read zero books published in September. Two books were for research. One book was a review book. The lack of new books lowered my score from -3.81 to -4.6. It's the same score I had in July of this year. It was my best September in 12 years of tracking this metric.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

I suspect my October ROOB score might dip lower than -4.6.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for September improved from -2.53 to -2.71.

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Mardi Gras Murder: 10/01/21

Mardi Gras Murder

Mardi Gras Murder by Ellen Byron is the fourth of the Cajun Country mystery series. Floods have put a damper on the annual mardi gras plans for Pelican. During the floods, the body of an unknown man washed up near the Crozat B&B. His death though is met also by the murder of the annual pageant president.

With two deaths, the mystery falls into the A plot and B plot formula that the Constable Molly Smith books use. Of course the two are related but how they are is part of the overall fun of this mystery.

An observant reader will pick up on the clues dropped early and often. These details are peppered throughout the book as conversational asides well before Maggie Crozat has enough information to focus her investigation.

The fifth book is Fatal Cajun Festival (2019)

Five stars

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September 2021 Summary: 10/01/21

Reading report

September was punctuated with two quarantines from high school for our youngest. The first one was the scariest as there was a genuine COVID exposure. The second one was paranoia on the part of the administration when she was slightly dizzy from her flu shot. Dizziness is not on the list of COVID symptoms but she's stuck home until October 8th.

I read fewer books in September, 20, down from 27 in the previous month. Of my September read books, fourteen were diverse. On the reviews front, sixteen qualified. Of those read, six were queer. Of the reviewed books, six were.

September was the month where I had to accept that I no longer had enough read books in backlog to keep up with a daily posting routine. So for the first time in fifteen years, I am only posting reviews on days when I actually finish a book. I have 22 books of the 213 books read this year to review.

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