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November 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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Sisters of the Neversea: 11/30/21

Sisters of the Neversea

Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith is another in the present day trend of retelling and reconceptualizing Peter Pan against a modern setting. Of the ones I've read so far, this one is the closet to the original text and the most critical.

In this version, Wendy and John are the step siblings of Lily and the half siblings of Michael. Lily and Michael through their mother are Muscogee Creek. Wendy for her storytelling is a rare girl to be invited. Lily, being an "Injun" as Peter calls her, is left behind when Wendy and Michael take off for Neverland.

Neverland in the original is set up as a late 19th century, early 20th century British boy's utopia. It has animals to hunt, tree houses to live in, endless sword fights, pirates, a man eating crocodile, and so forth. Cynthia Leitich Smith through Lily and Michael has a dialog with the original text to decolonize Neverland.

Lily with help from Peter's shadow ends up at Neverland despite not being invited. Through her we get to see where the Indian kids go, (if/when they are lured to Neverland). We also learn through them the history of the island and of its failing environment due to poor land management by Peter and the Lost. It's an interesting and rational observation that Barrie's version of Neverland wouldn't be, couldn't be sustainable for the century and more that Peter's been living there with the Lost (Boys).

One detail all the recent pastiches/retellings I've read share is that Peter Pan is a villain. Because of inviting the Darlings to Neverland, he is remembered as a kidnapper of children. In the original the Lost (Boys) are orphans and have made a found family of sorts on Neverland where they stay perpetually children. While the text is there to be a hopeful/ joyful message for children, especially to those who don't have a family or don't have the ideal family, Peter's actions can have darker interpretations.

In this version, Peter's destructive nature is blamed in part on an over exposure to Belle's fairy dust. As in absolute power corrupts absolutely. And when it's magic power, its corruptions can be monstrous.

Neverland, being a utopia, naturally sits on the road narrative spectrum.

This particular version sits slightly lower than the original since the dialog with the text has refocused on protecting Neverland and its resources. The travelers (the Native children vs the Lost children) are set up in a scarecrow (protector) and minotaur (monster/destroyer) (99) dichotomy. Their destination is still utopia (FF) and their route their is still an offroad one (66).

Five stars

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Sugar and Iced: 11/29/21

Sugar and Iced

Sugar and Iced by Jenn McKinlay is the sixth Cupcake Bakery mystery. Mel's mother is a judge at the Sweet Tiara beauty pageant and she's gotten the bakery to provide cupcakes for the contest. Oz's skating pal, Lupe, is entering the contest for the scholarship; she wants to attend Stanford. Mel who hates all things beauty themed is reluctant to involve her beloved bakery or to encourage Lupe.

Of course there's a murder. This time it's a judge who got into an argument with Lupe. To protect her, Mel and Angie decide to solve the murder while working the pageant. Sleuthing, though, will reveal even more of the dark underside of the beauty industry.

The mystery itself is pretty straightforward. The clues are well spread out and easy to spot for an observant reader (or attentive listener). The barebones of the book — the mystery and the character development of Lupe — I thoroughly enjoyed.

But the book is bogged down with even more relationship melodrama between Mel and Joe. When she finally comes to her senses, of course there has to be a cliffhanger involving unsavory people in Joe's life who want to harm him by harming her. It's a trite plot twist and makes for a disappointing ending.

The seventh book is Dark Chocolate Demise (2015).

Three stars

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The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt: 11/28/21

The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt

The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt by Riel Nason and Byron Eggenschwiler (Illustrator) is the story of a ghost who doesn't quite fit in with the other ghosts. Although his parents are sheets, Little Ghost is quilt. It's no consolation to him that his grandmother was a lace curtain.

Typically books about anthropomorphized characters who are somehow different end up being about teasing. While yes, Little Ghost looks different with his bright blue and white squares, he isn't teased. He's not ostracized by friends or family.

Instead, this is a book about being disabled. Being a heavy quilt makes flight difficult. It makes hiding difficult. Little Ghost is slower than the other ghosts.

But he learns he can be useful. Quilts are good on cold nights. Quilts are snuggly. Quilts can keep you warm or keep strangers warm. The lesson here is that everyone should be given a chance to contribute to society even if it's not in the usual ways.

Five stars

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Mango, Mambo, and Murder: 11/26/21

Mango, Mambo, and Murder

Mango, Mambo, and Murder by Raquel V. Reyes is the start of the Caribbean Kitchen mystery series. Food anthropologist Miriam Quinones-Smith has moved home to Florida with her husband and their preschool aged son, Manny. While she's from Miami, they've moved to nearby wealthy white enclave, Coral Shores, where the Smith name means something.

Miriam expects to be spending her time unpacking, setting up her office, maybe getting a part time job, and mostly, avoiding as best she can her horrible mother-in-law. Frankie Corzo's performance of her mother-in-law made me picture Emily Gilmore from the Gilmore Girls. During a women's club meeting a woman ends up dead right after drinking a custom tea. Miriam's long time friend and self made real estate star is arrested, accused of poisoning the woman.

Mango, Mambo, and Murder builds a narrative around the path Miriam has to take as a Cuban American woman married into a wealthy white family. While her husband is onboard with raising their children equally in both cultures and bilingually she has to face the racism and micro-aggressions of her neighbors, relatives and strangers in Coral Shore. She also has to learn how to wield her privilege — one not earned through her education (she has a PhD) but gained through marriage.

Her investigation into the death, though, also gives Miriam a way to establish herself among the Latinx community. She's able to parlay her knowledge as a food anthropologist into a new career, one that is her success and hers alone — something her mother-in-law can't take credit for. She's able to provide for her family while still being an active parent in Manny's life.

Finally I loved how Spanish is used in the novel and left primarily untranslated. You either understand it or you don't. The way it's rolled into the narrative and the dialog is natural and helps to world and character build.

Five stars

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Best Friends: 11/24/21

Best Friends

Best Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham (Illustrator) is the second book in the Friends graphic novel memoir series. It covers Hale's time in sixth grade and how she began to struggle with anxiety.

Originally I read this book a year ago. I clearly remember writing the review and mentioning LeUyen Pham's attention to detail especially on the amusement park that is such an important part to this book. When I went to look up my review I couldn't find it anywhere: not on my blog and not queued to post.

The start of Best Friends is full of anticipation. Shanon will be at the top of her school. She has a strong friend group and lots of games they like to play together. She's now friends with the most popular girl in the school. Nothing could possibly be better. Right?

But sixth grade brings changes. Her friends become more interested in boys than in make believe. Staying current with popular culture takes on new urgency for them too. Relatably, though, Shanon can't seem to keep up whatever is currently hot. What will come with age is the ability to let go of that need.

The other important detail of Best Friends is young Shanon finding a new outlet for her love of stories. At night she spends her free time writing fantasy stories inspired by her day to day life. She also finds a sympathetic ear with a new teacher who recognizes her potential as a writer.

The third and final book was recently released: Friends Forever (2021).

Four stars

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Samantha Spinner and the Perplexing Pants: 11/22/21

Samantha Spinner and the Perplexing Pants

Samantha Spinner and the Perplexing Pants by Russell Ginns is the fourth book in the Samantha Spinner series. Nipper's Yankees are a few short games away from being forced to disband. Meanwhile Samantha and her father will team up to rescue Uncle Paul, kidnapped by SNOW.

The sibling rivalry that hindered the siblings' progress in Samantha Spinner and the Spectacular Specs (2019) has been worked through. While they don't completely agree on things and don't always understand each other, they have at least learned how to compromise. I love that they've grown as characters, showing some added maturity.

Through their previous adventures, Nipper and Samantha have also learned how to work on their own. They've also learned that they can ask others for help. I hope in further books we'll see more of their extended network of helpers.

Another interesting twist to this volume is that older methods of travel are revisited. There is a mine cart railroad added to the mix but it's not the main source of travel.

Chart of the four books on the road narrative spectrum

Like the previous volumes, Samantha Spinner and the Perplexing Pants is situated on the road narrative spectrum. This adventure is built from the components as Samantha Spinner and the Spectacular Specs, but executed differently. Here the family (33), while working separately at times, is working towards a singular goal: rescuing Uncle Paul. Their destination is again a city (00) and their route is again the railroad as represented by a variety of transportation methods.

There's a fifth book in the works where the siblings will go against the HEAT. The title and release date, though, haven't been announced yet.

Five stars

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Yule Be Dead: 11/20/21

Yule Be Dead

Yule Be Dead by Lorraine Bartlett, Gayle Leeson and Jorjeana Marie (narrator) is the fifth book in the Victoria Square mystery series. Dickens Days is upon the square and all the vendors are in costume. But the festive mood is marred by the murder of Vonne, the daughter of Afternoon Tea's owner.

Meanwhile, Katie is obliged to play host to Margo, her dead husband's mother. They were never close when he was alive but it appears she's come to make amends. They do actually end up closer when Margo is there to care for Katie after she's deliberately hit by a car.

Yule Be Dead has a bit of a Trouble with Harry Vibe, except that the dead woman isn't deserving of the scorn. She was grieving for her dead father and otherwise didn't have a great family life. Her desire to find a man who love her regardless of the other consequences unfortunately resulted in a number of men who want to keep her secrets secret now that she's dead.

The sixth book is Murder Ink (2019).

Four stars

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Shadowhouse Fall: 11/18/21

Shadowhouse Fall

Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older is the second book in the Shadowshaper Cypher series. This book was released in the year when we were moving so I missed reading it even though I had enjoyed Shadowshaper (2015).

Sierra and her friends have fully embraced their new powers as Shadowshapers. They practice after school. They go on patrols. It's a responsibility but one they also have fun with through their training.

A new force though is at play in the form of a tarot deck, one where literal people embody the different trump cards. Through the deck, all the players and powers of the magical houses are tracked. Now the real Hound is after Sierra and she needs to figure out who they are and how to stop them.

The Deck of Worlds is an interesting idea and its execution brings to mind the trump cards in the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny. Here though the magic is rendered through the lens of being a Black teen in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately for me it had been too long, I think, since I read the first book. I'd lost the momentum and struggled with this volume's pacing.

Three stars

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A Stitch in Time: 11/16/21

Chickens on the Loose

A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong is the start of a time travel romance series. Bronwyn Dale has inherited an English estate she last visited as a teen. As a child she was friends with a Victorian era boy named William Thorne. Now that she's back, she's shocked to find that she can still visit him in his time and that he has also aged into a handsome man.

As an adult and now the owner of this estate, Bronwyn has to contend with the rumors that the house is haunted and that her Victorian boyfriend was a serial murderer. By village lore he's accused of killing his fiancée, his sister, and a childhood friend.

Bronwyn's investigations done in both the present (through ghosts and research) and in the past (traveling there and doing more conventional amateur sleuthing, have a story structure similar to the Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson. The difference, here though, is that Bronwyn is the narrator protagonist for both halves of the mystery which makes the narrative flow more smoothly.

Bronwyn's sleuthing / romance with William puts this book on the road narrative spectrum. Bronwyn as the present day owner of the estate is a privileged traveler (00). Her destination is uhoria (CC) in that she can both travel back in time to visit William and she can interact with ghosts. Her route there is the railroad (00), albeit a metaphoric one. Early on in the novel she comments about how quickly her life has gone by as a speeding train and she's hoping now to take more time for self care.

The next volume in the series is a novella called Ballgowns & Butterflies (2020).

Five stars

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The Ghost and the Femme Fatale: 11/14/21

Chickens on the Loose

The Ghost and the Femme Fatale by Alice Kimberly is the fourth book in the Haunted Bookshop mystery series. Quindicott's local movie palace has been restored and is hosting its first ever Film Noir festival. Hedda Geist and her co-star are the honored guests. On the first night Hedda is nearly killed by a falling speaker. After that the festival is plagued by murder.

As it happens, ghost Jack Sheppard has a cold case related to Hedda Geist and the studio she used to work for. Through dreams he's able to bring along bookseller Pen to help with his case while he helps her figure out the modern day murders.

The book relies heavily on the history Film Noir and weaves together actual films and film history with the fictional one created for the mystery. Throughout the series, the mysteries have used Film Noir and the hardboiled detective tropes since Jack was working during the heyday of these films and mysteries. This particular volume enters into a dialog between the tropes and its awareness of them. Interestingly, Jack for his usage of the language, seems otherwise unaware of the genre conventions.

The mystery itself was interesting and complex. There's the original case and how it influences the modern day murders. An observant reader will probably figure things out before Pen and Jack do. A reader familiar with this plot as its been done on TV in a variety of mystery series will be even more prepared for putting together the clues.

The fifth book is The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion (2009)

Five stars

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Elegant Yokai Apartment Life, Volume 2: 11/12/21

Chickens on the Loose

Elegant Yokai Apartment Life, Volume 2 by Hinowa Kouzuki covers Yushi's move to the newly built and opened school dormitory and his slow realization that he's not happy living in these new quarters. It follows on a theme that's fairly common in stories with sympathetic paranormal characters, namely that the living — that humans — are often the more monstrous than the supernatural.

Yushi's time in the human dormitory highlights problems with forced social interactions. There are two ways things can play out: people can form cliques that can result in isolation and / or bullying. Or everyone can be so focused on not causing ripples that causes self isolation, antisocial behavior, and depression. Yushi comes to realize the new dormitory isn't conducive to his mental health.

So for readers who like the yokai characters who reside in the apartment, volume two is a bit of a slog. It's a necessary one to explain why Yushi decided to go back after finally being able to move into a school dorm. But in the longer run of the series (21 volumes total), volume 2 is road bump.

Five stars

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Chickens on the Loose: 11/12/21

Chickens on the Loose

Chickens on the Loose by Jane Kurtz and John Joseph (Illustrations) is a picture book about a flock of urban chickens on the run from their coop. While their humans give chase the chickens take a hilarious tour of the nearby downtown.

Along the way the poultry visit a thrift shop, make some art, run amok in a pet shop, and grab a snack from some food trucks. As they make their way through town, they gather an every growing parade of people trying to catch them.

As someone who lives in an urban area with a history of chicken farming and current laws allowing the keeping of chickens (including roosters) I found the similarities to my town an extra bonus. There aren't many picture books that really capture what life in Hayward is like but this one does.

But this book isn't just about some chickens going on walkabout. There's a back of book section that includes a brief introduction to keeping chickens in an urban setting. The book mentions that many cities don't allow rooster keeping. Unincorporated areas, like where I live, do, however. Your local city or county government website will have more information if this book inspires you.

Five stars

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The Tell Tail Heart: 11/10/21

The Tell Tail Heart

The Tell Tail Heart by Cate Conte is the third of the Cat Café mystery series. The summer season is over and Daybreak Island is winding down for the year. Maddie hopes this means she can cross a bunch of things off her to-do list while the café is running limited hours.

Everything is going to plan until a woman accuses her of stealing her cat. J.J., the inspiration for the cat café and her constant companion followed her home from the cemetery. There's no way he could be her cat. Her outrage also scares off Maddie's one full time customer, a mystery writer who is paying her $100 a week to sit in the café while he works on his latest book.

To make matters worse, the writer ends up dead. His death — which might be murder — leads Maddie into another investigation. It's one where those closest to her clearly know more that she does and they don't want to share. People she has felt she can trust are now making her question that feeling.

The modern day mystery after lots and lots of starts and stops ends up dredging up a much older mystery. This cold case brings to mind all the Dick Francis mysteries my mother used to read. The investigation into the cold case also answers the question to the identity of the Cat Café's benefactor.

Throughout the book I found Maddie unnecessarily clueless. She seems to spend a lot of time demanding people explain things to her — things I swear she knew in previous volumes. It seems that she had to act as the clueless companion to a host of other sleuths.

The fourth book is A Whisker of a Doubt (2020), which I am currently reading.

Four stars

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Jackpot: 11/08/21

Jackpot

Jackpot by Nic Stone is a YA novel with a slow burn romance centered on a teenager trying to track down the owner of a winning lotto ticket. Rico works as many hours as she can at the Gas 'n' Go to help with bills. She has a single mom and a nine year old brother and no future beyond finishing high school and working retail for the rest of her life.

Rico sells three tickets before the lotto and one of them is a winner. She knows she doesn't have the ticket and she knows the man who always pays with a fifty dollar bill didn't buy it. That leaves a little old lady with a self-described faulty memory. Rico hopes if she helps the woman remember that she bought the ticket, she might get a finder's fee reward.

Enter Zan – a wealthy classmate, heir to a huge company. He knows computers and can help get access to the security footage from the store. After he helps once, though, he keeps on helping. Although Rico struggles to imagine the life Zan lives she does slowly become friends with him.

The relationship between Rico and Zan is refreshing. It's not love at first site, even though Rico is attracted to him. Nor is he trying to save her. His feelings for her grow out of an admiration for her closeness to her family and her freedom — two things he doesn't feel he has. Essentially both see the traits they wish for themselves in the other. That combined with the search for the woman bring them together.

Interspersed with Rico's story are points of view from other key pieces of the puzzle. Think of them as MacGuffins that offer further insight into the situation. They're there to give the reader knowledge Rico doesn't have, to build suspense and tension.

From start to finish Jackpot was a delight to read. It has a happy, albeit surprising ending.

Five stars

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Checking Out Crime: 11/07/21

Checking Out Crime

Checking Out Crime by Laurie Cass is the ninth book in the Bookmobile Cat mystery series. Winter is rapidly approaching and Minnie's worried that Rafe won't get their house finished in time. She needs to get her houseboat into dry dock before it gets to cold to live on it.

To complicate things, Minnie and Julia discover a dead man on the road while they're out with the bookmobile. It turns out he was a bicyclist and his murder seems tied to his hobby. Minnie decides to join the group to see if she can figure out what the connection is.

This book follows with the trend I've noticed in the last year or so: a cynicism against those in power. Usually in mysteries, especially cozy mysteries, people in power are usually exempt from suspicion. Even when they act as foils to the amateur sleuth, their intentions are good. Ultimately they will work together with the main character to solve the case.

But the recent call for accountability with police, politicians, and so forth, is inspiring a new form of introspection in the cozy mysteries. This new potential set of murderers brings to mind the previous century's cliché that the butler did it. The butler or the priest or other helpful but otherwise invisible people made for unexpected villains — until readers learned to scrutinize all the supporting characters.

Book ten, The Crime that Binds is scheduled for release October 4, 2022.

Five stars

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Copycat Killing: 11/06/21

Copycat Killing

Copycat Killing by Sofie Kelly is the third of the Magical Cats mystery series. Kathleen Paulson takes a terrible fall when the hillside at feral cat colony collapses. When the debris settles a skeleton is discovered. Meanwhile in town a local artist is found dead, floating in a flooded basement.

Both mysteries: the cold case and the recent drowning were relatively easy to solve. The fun part was in discovering if and how the two related to each other.

The cold case brought to mind two other mysteries I've read recently: Among the Departed by Vicki Delany (2011) and Red Bones by Ann Cleaves (2009).

The present day drowning has an obvious solution for the observant reader. The first time that relevant clues were dropped I knew exactly what had happened. Honestly, the artist's death serves more as a distraction and foil for Kathleen to keep her from efficiently solving the cold case.

The fourth book in the series is Cat Trick (2013)

Four stars

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Friendship Cake: 11/05/21

Friendship Cake

Friendship Cake by Lynne Hinton is the first book in the Hope Springs series. This book was one of those rare re-reads for me. I last read it seventeen years ago. At the time I was going through a huge move, had a toddler at home, and was relying heavily on book swapping sites and the library for my reading materials because money was extremely tight and I am a voracious reader.

COVID safety measures and closures made my usual methods for weeding my personal collection difficult to impossible. Thus the on-line book swapping sites were again a useful tool, this time mostly to find new homes for my books. But with credits amassing, the sites are useful to finding older books on my wishlist. Or in the case of Friendship Cake, a chance to re-read. I remembered it being a quick and satisfying read — even though it was far outside my usual genres.

Friendship Cake is a series of interconnected vignettes tied together by a church women's group attempting to put together a cookbook among a reluctant congregation. Each chapter begins with a recipe, most of which are typical of these fundraising cookbooks. About thirty-five years ago I helped my mother edit one so I can say the recipes and whole experience of putting it together rings true in this novel.

Beyond the cookbook, there is a woman taking in the love of her life as she succumbs to Alzheimer's and her own family feels like they can no longer care for her. There is a teenage pregnancy that is further complicated by the fact the mother is white and the father is Black. That said, neither life altering event ends up turning into something melodramatic. The various people involved, while emotional are fairly level headed and flexible, and that's a big plus. So often these big events are played for drama in the same of art and end up being ridiculous. Here, the quiet ebb and flow of things feels more realistic.

My one complaint is the cheesy ending. A particular contributor to the cookbook uses alcohol in her recipes. The final recipe is for a friendship cake that apparently has left people soused. So the women on the cookbook committee decide to end the book (and thus the novel too) with a metaphorical version of the cake. It's of the "Friendship is magic" or in this case, cake, variety. It's a lame, overly sentimental ending to an otherwise good book.

Four stars

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Murder in a Teacup: 11/03/21

Murder in a Teacup

Murder in a Teacup by Vicki Delany is the second of the Tea by the Sea mysteries. Rose's dear friend Sandra is visiting but her visit has turned into a messy family reunion. Then her son in law, Ed French, dies after a trip to the hospital. Suspicion falls on the Tea by the Sea even though he had been drinking his own brew.

Rose is turning out to be this series' Pish (see the Merry Muffin series by Victoria Hamilton. Rose has friends who bring trouble to her B&B and into Lily's life. Lily loves her grandmother but she's also forced to clean up all her messes.

Ed's death is the first of a string of bad things that happen during the visit. It's one of those murders that if the murderer had just stopped and managed to keep the rest of the family under control, they would have gotten away with it. But actions add up and lead to more evidence.

Four stars

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October 2021 Sources: 11/02/21

Previous month's book sources

The quarantines are over and October ended up being the closest to normal we've had in a long time. I've been keeping busy with scanning and color correcting my in-laws' large slide collection. I'm currently working on a box from the early 1970s.

I'm enjoying the relaxed reading and reviewing schedule. Those nights off from posting are nice. I'm still enjoying blogging but I have other things that I can do instead.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In October I read 17 TBR books, up from September's 26 TBR. I read two books published in October. Three books were for research. None were for review. The new books raised my score from -4.6 to -3.73. It's the second best October I've had in twelve years.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

As the year is wrapping up and I want to get through more recent purchases, I expect my ROOB score will climb higher to maybe -3 or even as high as -2.5.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for October improved from -2.16 to -2.29.

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Going, Going, Ganache: 11/01/21

Going, Going, Ganache

Going, Going, Ganache by Jenn McKinlay is the fourth of the Cupcake Bakery mystery series. Angie and Mel end up having to host a cupcake bootcamp after a photoshoot is sabotaged by their rival. The second day into the boot camp, one of their participants is found murdered outside the store.

As the people in the bootcamp work for a huge media concern, the dynamics of the different campers reminds me of a mix of Ugly Betty and Supergirl (specifically Catco) characters. Collectively, then, Angie and Mel take the roles of being Betty and Cara. They have to learn over the course of the book how to push back against the toxicity of the others.

I liked the barebones murder mystery. The suspect pool is interesting enough. There are plenty of motives without there being too many to be confusing. Also the recipes they develop sound good!

But there's this whole other unnecessary B plot involving a love triangle. Mel is engaged and yet the detective investigating the murder has the audacity to flirt with her. She ends up doubting her engagement and things get messy. There is so much filler spent on her relationship and so many awkward times. If I had been reading the book in print I would have skimmed through all these stupid scenes.

Four stars

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October 2021 Summary: 11/01/21

Reading report

October was probably the most normal month we've had since March 2020. No more quarantines, a regular work schedule for Ian, and some well needed rainy weather. We even had some trick-or-treaters on Halloween — though not at pre-COVID numbers. Maybe next year.

I read more books in October, 22, up from 20 in the previous month. Of my October read books, fifteen were diverse. As my reading has slowed to the point I can no longer maintain enough of a backlog to review every day regardless of what I read in a month, I had to switch to posting reviews only on days when I finish reading a book. In October I reviewed 21 books, down, from 27 the previous month. On the reviews front, fourteen qualified. Seven read books were queer and eight reviewed were.

I have 22 books of the 256 books read this year to review.

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