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October 2022

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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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Beat the Backlist 2023

Canadian Book Challenge: 2022-2023

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Spy x Family, Volume 6: 10/31/22

Spy x Family, Volume 6

Spy x Family, Volume 6 by Tatsuya Endo (2020) takes a break from some of the more intense plot threads of recent volumes. This one reprises some of the fun of Anya's dodgeball tournament in Volume Three (2020).

This time, though, the participants are adults: Loid Forger (Twilight) and Fiona Frost (Nightfall). Instead of it being dodgeball, the sport is tennis. But it's like no tennis game you or I have ever seen. Cheating is allowed. Mechanical aids are allowed. All of these things, though, are aimed at making sure the house wins.

Of course ultimately this tennis match is tied towards the political machinations between the two countries. How the game and the ultimate prize fit together reminds me of some classic Leverage plots. I'm not going to describe what the prize is or how they ultimately go about getting it. It's too fun to spoil.

Five stars

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The Secret Staircase: 10/30/22

The Secret Staircase

The Secret Staircase by Sheila Connolly and Emily Durante (Narrator) (2021) is the final book in the Victorian Village mystery series. Work is finally beginning in earnest on the Barton Mansion. Kate Hamilton has hired an electrician and crew, but on their first tour of the house they discover a walled up staircase and a mummified body.

Like the second book, a huge chunk of this final mystery is focused on Kate Hamilton trying to figure out how she wants to realize her vision for a restored mansion and town. With the wall torn down and a newly discovered staircase, she's further confused by possibilities.

The Secret Staircase also addresses the question of who was Mary Barton. Her story is finally revealed, thus completing the question of who the Bartons were and why the house was left essentially to the city.

Like in Crowned and Moldering by Kate Carlisle (2015), the cold case is later tied to a present day murder. This present day mystery is fairly pedestrian. It serves mostly to keep the book on a schedule. Without the modern day murder, the entire book would be Kate Hamilton being unable to make up her mind about project details.

Four stars

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The Dachshund Wears Prada: 10/29/22

The Dachshund Wears Prada

The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London (2022) is the start of the Paws in the City romance series. Isla Thompson was a social media mavin until she accidentally streamed a Disney starlet vomiting. Now she's been reduced to being the dog sitter for billionaire Theo Garrison who lives as a recluse in his grandmother's penthouse.

Theo's dog was his grandmother's, a pampered dachshund, was a rescue dog and has people issues. Starved for love and clearly grieving the death of her person, she has become a miniature hell hound. But for whatever reason, she likes Isla.

The book's title comes from the Instagram Isla sets up for Camilla. Isla, while under an NDA to respect Theo's privacy (think of him as Bruce Wayne without the Batman outlet for his angst), she does her best to keep the posts anonymous but funny. In the close knit Manhattan world of pampered pooches, Camilla's site goes viral.

But this isn't just a story about another online pet become a celebrity and Instagram influencer. This is a romance. It's about how four broken hearted individuals come together as found family: Isla, Theo, Camilla and Isla's teenage sister, Dami. It's also about the simmering sexual tension between Isla and Camilla.

The book is a good read for fans of the The Beck Sisters romances by Trish Doller.

The second book in the series is Pets of Park Avenue (2022) and it releases on December 6th.

Five stars

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Candy Slain Murder: 10/28/22

Candy Slain Murder

Candy Slain Murder by Maddie Day and Laural Merlington (Narrator) (2020) is the eighth book in the Country Store mystery series. Robbie is looking forward to the Christmas season but things get weird when a man claims to be the long lost brother of her café assistant. Then skeletal remains after a fire force Robbie back into amateur sleuth mode.

I like how Maddie Day keeps South Lick and its surrounds fairly consistent. Even when the author doesn't need a new location for plot reasons, she includes enough extra geography and places it in relation to established and real world places to make Robbie's world seem real and consistent. Likewise, when she adds in new characters for plot reasons, they tend to stick around, meaning everything progresses, rather than each mystery feeling episodic.

This mystery is a cold case tied to a modern day mystery. While the newly discovered half brother serves as a possible suspect, he's clearly going to be more than that as the series continues. After having read two other long lost relatives where they were included to be temporary plot devices (and then fridged), I'm grateful to see genuine character construction here.

I also like that as Robbie's understanding of the diversity of South Lick and surrounds, that this enriched culture stays. Characters introduced continue to be customers, friends, employees, and so forth. With this new half brother, acknowledged by his birth mother, we have a man who is forging his own way with his Quaker upbringing and his conversion to Islam.

The mystery itself is a fun one involving a cold case, twins, and an obvious bad guy who is protected by privilege. In terms of the logistics of the mystery, I'm reminded of The Secret Staircase by Sheila Connolly and Emily Durante (Narrator) (2021) or Crowned and Moldering by Kate Carlisle (2015).

The ninth book in the series is No Grater Crime (2021).

Five stars

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Our Tragic Universe: 10/26/22

Our Tragic Universe

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas (2010) is at its core, metafiction about storytelling. Meg is an author who has been trying to finish her novel for years, while also being one of a handful of ghostwriters for a children's mystery series.

Meg also sometimes reviews books and one in particular, a theory of how the universe will end, puts her on a path to change her life. She leaves her useless boyfriend, moves out of her damp house, and finally gets started in earnest on her novel.

But mostly this novel is a series of conversations between Meg and the people in her life as they take apart the art of storytelling. They look at basic plots.

All the other Scarlett Thomas books I've read have been about a socially naive character who stumbles upon some universe altering secret. This one has that same promise with the omega point. But as the point of this novel is the challenge of telling a storyless story, this novel is essentially that.

Despite this being metafiction, it also is one of the rare British novels that sits on the road narrative spectrum. Meg, working essentially by herself to better her life, is an orphan traveler (FF). Her destination is a new home (66) and more broadly, a new life. Her route there is the labyrinth (99), represented literally by the labyrinth that opens at the end of the book, but more broadly by the way her decision to change her life results in that transformation.

Five stars

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Ellen Outside the Lines: 10/25/22

Ellen Outside the Lines

Ellen Outside the Lines by A.J. Sass (2022) is middle grade fiction about the way a class trip can change a person. Ellen Katz is thirteen, autistic and anxious. She's also Jewish and Southern with an Israeli mother. She's also a lesbian with a bi father. Basically it means a lot of ways to struggle to fit in and a lot of ways to be overwhelmed. She'll be put to the test during the ten day class trip to Barcelona especially once she learns that her Spanish teacher has changed how the trip will work!

Before I begin, I have to mention how close to home Ellen hit. She's so much like my daughter save for a couple details. I kept having to stop to read passages to my daughter. She's also like my oldest daughter who in fact went on a ten day Spanish class trip that included an extended stop in Barcelona.

Ellen we learn has been been planning for this trip for at least a year. She has a bullet journal full of the previous itinerary. She has noise cancelling headphones. Her father has come along as a chaperone in case she needs help advocating for herself. She and her long time best friend have managed to get a room together. So how will she be challenged beyond the expected jet lag, foreign language, and crowded city (which by themselves are already a lot!)?

It's a biggie: a scavenger hunt with teacher selected teams. Team work at home never goes well. It goes worse for neural diverse people. Turning a school trip into group work is a thousand times worse and frankly has me as an outside reader scratching my head!

Worse yet for Ellen, she's not on the same team as her roommate and best friend. I would think just to keep the tension lower and to prevent cheating or bullying, the teacher would at least assign teams based on rooms, rather than individuals in said rooms.

The one thing that Ellen "lucks" out on (although it's implied these teams weren't all that random to begin with) is that she's put on the oddball team. She's there with a nonbinary student, a boy with ADHD, and a gay boy. Though they weren't friends before being put together, they become friends over the course of the trip.

To get Ellen "outside the lines" this novel takes a ton of liberties with how school trips work. Readers who expect contemporary fiction to be as realistic as possible might find this novel annoying. Readers who are willing to let the novel take liberties to create situations that test the characters will find this book an engaging page turner.

Five stars

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Into the Woods: 10/24/22

The Unkindness of Ravens

Into the Woods by J. Torres and Faith Erin Hicks (Illustrator) (2012) is the start of the Big Foot Boy middle grade graphic novel series. In it, Rufus discovers the Q'achi while lost in the woods behind his grandmother's house. When he says the word sasquatch he turns into one, or as he calls himself, Big Foot Boy.

I originally read this book when it was newly published in 2012. I was on the Cybils committee for graphic novels that year and it was one of the nominees. I had decided to hold off on reviewing what I read until after the short list was released and never copied my notes into the application where I write my reviews. Only in re-reading the book did I find my initial notes. I'm including them below:

Wonderful Canadian tween graphic novel about a boy who discovers a sasquatch totem and becomes big foot boy. He's half first nation and befriends a first nations girl who has a skunk spirit guide. It just feels genuinely Canadian without being moralistic.

In re-reading it now with the benefit of having read the entire trilogy, I can see that it's environmentally focused and prescient for the present day practice of first nations land being leased to developers, rather than just outright taken. This trilogy covers the pushback against the deforestation that comes with careless development.

Mostly, though, this volume is here to set up the world and introduce the characters. We have Rufus, the boy who is visiting his grandmother while his parents work through a rough patch. We have his grandmother, aunt and cousin, Penny.

Penny feels she should be the one guarding and wielding the totem. It's her forest and she knows the traditions and stories behind the totem. It's part of her culture in a way that it's not for Rufus, despite his ancestry.

There are also the forest animals whom Rufus can talk to when he's Big Foot Boy. There's a squirrel who acts as his guide, a group of crows who are interested in the totem for their ties to Thunder Bird (see The Unkindness of Ravens (2013). Finally, there are the wolves who could pose a threat, but never seem to reach their potential.

Five stars

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Bird & Squirrel All or Nothing: 10/23/22

Bird & Squirrel All or Nothing

Bird & Squirrel All or Nothing by James Burks (2020) is the sixth Bird & Squirrel graphic novel. It opens with a flashback of Bird and his father during a brutal looking desert race. Young Bird was more interested in making friends with the other racers and some of the animal hazards, resulting in the father/son team losing the race.

In the present, Squirrel wants to do something nice for Bird and decides to enter the duo into the current race. Squirrel does this to show how far he's progressed in overcoming his own phobias and anxiety. Bird, though, is still scared from the trauma of being berated by his father for their loss.

Of course Bird and Squirrel do end up running the race. The other teams give a range of approaches and attitudes towards the race. The back third of the novel covers the running of the race and it requires a wide range of skills and team coordination to succeed — and survive.

This novel feels like a departure from the previous ones. It's the first one where the two willingly do something potentially dangerous and potentially fun.

The seventh book is Bird & Squirrel All Together. It's released on October 4th, 2022.

Five stars

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Harlem Sunset: 10/22/22

Harlem Sunset

Harlem Sunset by Nekesa Afia and Shayna Small (Narrator) (2022) is the second book in the Harlem Renaissance mystery series. Louise Lloyd and Rosa Maria Moreno are living and working together. Things seem to be as perfect as can be expected, until Nora Davies reappears in her life.

Nora Davies was one of the girls Louise helped rescue when they had all been kidnapped. Now she's dead and Rosa Maria is the prime suspect. So Louise is forced to investigate another murder.

What unfolds is series of very personal, targeted attacks. The more she investigates the more her life and safety unravels. And frankly the more I got annoyed. The villain with a grudge, especially one with personal ties to the main character is one of my least favorite tropes.

What kept me reading was the historical setting and Louise's own self awareness. She's as annoyed by the situation as I was as a reader. But she also finds herself in a situation like Blanche White — completely aware she's in danger and being played, and not able to do much about it.

This novel wraps up threads from Dead Dead Girls (2021). If there's a third, hopefully it will give Louise something new to investigate.

Four stars

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Heartstopper: Volume Four: 10/21/22

Heartstopper: Volume Two

Heartstopper: Volume Four by Alice Oseman (2021) is the penultimate volume in this graphic novel series. The book opens with Nick thinking back on the time Charlie has spent away getting treatment for his eating disorder.

After a bunch of scenes to catch us up on what has happened between the end of Volume 3 and the start of this one. On the one hand it's good to see Charlie getting help. On the other hand volume three and four feel so damn manipulative.

What saved this volume for me was the dinner where the two families meet. Nick's brother is an ass and breaks his phone. Nick, though, has grown a lot in the time Charlie was away and stands up to his brother. Thankfully his mother supports Nick.

The final volume releases sometime in 2023.

Four stars

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Endangered Species: 10/20/22

Endangered Species Endangered Species by Nevada Barr and Cindy Williams (Narrator) (1997) is the fifth book in the Anna Pigeon mystery series. I am trying to go through older audiobooks I have in my collection and I found this one. More on the audiobook aspect of it later in this post.

Set on Cumberland Island, Georgia, Anna is working the fire season. A drought has made the situation dire and it's vital that fires be located and contained as quickly as possible. The rangers have a plane to help spot potential problem areas but the plane goes down, starting a fire and sparking a murder investigation.

The mystery then settles on a couple questions: how did the plane crash and what was the motive for causing the crash? Figuring out the first bit involves understanding a thing or two about how planes fly. The second question involves understanding everyone's past and their connections to each other.

In a typical Anna Pigeon mystery the pacing of the novel follows a typical pattern. First the location is introduced: where it is, what it's known for, it's ecology, the specific challenges of being a ranger there, and finally how well Anna feels she's a fit for this particular assignment. Then the characters are introduced and tensions between them established until it becomes clear who the most likely murder victim will be. Then about a hundred pages in, Anna discovers the body and evidence of a crime against the place where she's working. Anna then has to juggle her regular ranger duties while trying to investigate the murder. She eventually whittles down the suspects to the most likely one and puts herself in a dangerous situation so that she's forced to fight against the murderer. She survives and manages to either incapacitate the murderer. The book then ends with a brief coda to check in on Anna during her recovery.

From the very first moments of listening to the audiobook I noticed something was off. First, there was no mention of chapter breaks. Second the narrator sounded like she was reading as fast as she possibly could. I even checked to see if I had set the playback speed to 1.5x or higher; I hadn't. I suspect the recording itself was sped up to save playback time. Turns out the version I bought (and the only version currently available) is an abridged version. An audiobook that should take about nine hours to listen to has been reduced to just under three hours.

Two stars

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Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods: 10/19/22

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods by Catherynne M. Valente (2022) is a middle grade fantasy novel borne out of the grief and anger engendered by COVID-19. Osmo Unknown is called to save his town of Littlebridge from the Fourpenny woods when his mother breaks the treaty by murdering the queen of the Quidnunk.

Catherynne M. Valente has a way with words. That's an established fact. This particular volume hits similarly to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011). Both feature children who want nothing more than to escape. But September's journey and heroism is self driven, while Osmo's is forced upon him when his parents fail him. The former was written before motherhood, the latter, after and during a pandemic. Read the afterword where she lists the people in her family she lost to COVID.

Osmo's journey is tightly written, with no detail overlooked or word wasted. There's a central theme woven around a complex version of chess called doublechess. The doublechess aspect brings to mind Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Saw There (1871).

But it's only one of many this novel brings to mind. With the isolation of the village and inability of anyone to leave, I'm reminded of The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert (1968). The sentient mushrooms are certainly a contributing factor, too!

Then there's Osmo's journey to the Eightpenny woods, the Fourpenny wood's version of the afterlife. The journey itself brings to mind the miniseries, Over the Garden Wall (2014). His betrothal to the dead queen, though, had me thinking of The Corpse Bride (2005)

Osmo and the Eightpenny Woods also sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. Osmo on his travels to wed a ghost is set up in the scarecrow/minotaur (99) travel dichotomy. They are both protectors of their homelands, and monsters to the opposing population. His destination is the wildlands of the underworld, represented literally through the Eightpenny Woods (99). His route there, is the interstate (00) in that he has no real option save for going forward to meet his fate.

As this is such a richly composed book, I plan at sometime to do a more in depth re-read with annotations. For now, though, I am content to mull.

Five stars

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Pint of No Return: 10/18/22

Pint of No Return

Pint of No Return by Dana Mentink and Stephanie Nemeth-Parker (narrator) (2021) is the start of the Shake Shop Mystery series. Trinidad Jones is the third wife of an embezzler con-man. As part of his settlement before prison, he's given her an ice cream parlor in Upper Sprocket, Oregon. On a day when she's trying to get payment for an errand she finds the body of the Popcorn King in a bucket of popcorn.

Since the theme is an ice cream shop, I was initially reminded of the Ice Cream Parlor mysteries by Abby Collette. But the way the murder is presented is more like Caramel Crush by Jenn McKinlay (2017).

I spent much of my time listening to this mystery comparing it to other mysteries I'd recently listened to. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly a starting point, especially when being introduced to a new series with a new town and new characters. On the other hand, sometimes I found myself distracted.

One bit, though, I especially liked was Trinidad's friendship with brothers Quinn and Doug. It felt more genuine and believable than the early relationship between Maggie and Xander as presented in Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (2016).

The second book is A Sprinkle in Time (2022).

Four stars

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Final Sentence: 10/17/22

Final Sentence

Final Sentence by Daryl Wood Gerber is the start of the Cookbook Nook mystery series. Jenna Hart has left a high stress job in San Francisco to move south to Crystal Cove where she will help her aunt run a culinary bookshop and café. The celebrity chef (and long time frenemy) invited for the grand opening is murdered, her body left on the beach as part of a mermaid sand sculpture.

Crystal Cove is the second fictionalized Santa Cruz I've read featured in a mystery series. The other one is Santa Sofia, featured in the Bread Shop mystery series by Winnie Archer. Despite the similar location, this novel reminds me most of the Fixer-Upper mysteries by Kate Carlisle.

Jenna has come to Crystal Cove as a recent widow. In this regard she's like Anna Pigeon (written by Nevada Barr) or Merry Wynter (written by Victoria Hamilton). The question for me, is how well will she move on? Will she continue to mourn for volumes and volumes like Anna or will she continue to live her life like Merry?

Like many first volumes this one suffers from trying to do too much at one time. There's setting up the characters, the main character's new life and business, introducing the new town, creating an ensemble cast, and finally setting the basic tone of the series. Final Sentence didn't gel for me as well as it could have. The pacing seemed off and Jenna doesn't seem well suited for her new life running a cookbook shop.

The second volume is Inherit the Wind. I have it on hand and will be reading it. Then I'll decide if I want to continue with the series. There are eleven books in total, so far.

Three stars

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Murder Is No Picnic: 10/16/22

Murder Is No Picnic

Murder Is No Picnic by Amy Pershing and Patti Murin (Narrator) (2022) is the third book in the Cape Cod Foodie mystery series. Samantha Barnes gets a chance to cook with one of her favorite chefs, Clara Foster. Together they bake the best blueberry buckle. Then sadly, the next morning, Clara is dead in a house fire, but Samantha knows it has to have been murder.

The mystery centers on three factors. The first is the habits of a world renown chef. The second is the priceless items presumably destroyed in the fire. Cookbooks and paintings lost. Or were they? Finally there is an environmental factor. Clara's estate: her funds and her home can make the difference for a local conservation organization.

There are so many possibilities in this mystery that I had trouble (but fun) keeping track of everyone and every potential motive. Eventually things settle down and I did spot the murder before Samantha does.

The only frustrating thing about this volume is Samantha's relationship with the harbor master. I don't read mysteries for the romance. I find the added drama of him being offered a job elsewhere unnecessary. Either the series will continue and Samantha will still be there working for the paper, writing her articles and making her videos. Or, it won't, and I guess, we can assume that she goes after her boyfriend.

As of writing this review, there are no further volumes announced.

Five stars

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Blanche on the Lam: 10/15/22

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely and Lisa Reneé Pitts (Narrator) (1992) is the first book in the Blanche White mystery series. Blanche ends up in the employ of a murderer when she flees from an unfair prison sentence for a bounced check.

The murder takes place in the family's summer house. She's oddly the only domestic taken to this second location, the regulars given time off. She's working for a timid acting woman (Grace), her snobbish husband (Everett), a man with Down's Syndrome (Mumsfield), and a drunk elderly woman (Emmeline). Before anything even happens, Blanche knows something is off with this family.

Soon, though, Blanche is facing news of multiple murders and she knows one of her employers did it. She's also stuck, though, because of her circumstances, and because she's Black. Her only ally is Mumsfield, who like Blanche is essentially invisible due to his disability. He, though, is just as observant as Blanche and together they're able to identify the murderer.

Blanche on the Lam feels really dated and I kept having to remind myself, that it is a thirty-year-old mystery. It's natural for it to feel dated. The biggest difference is Blanche's reliance on the phone in her employers' kitchen as this is a decade before the ubiquitous cellphone. There's also no internet — no way for her to research her employer or call for an Uber if she needs to escape. She's essentially trapped and left to her own wits and strength to save herself.

The second book is Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

Five stars

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Poultrygeist: 10/14/22


Poultrygeist by Eric Geron and Pete Oswald (Illustrator) (2021) is a picture book that tackles head-on the dual nature of the "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke. It's also a rather irreverent look at death and roadkill.

It's one of the first jokes children learn and little ones take it literally where the joke is that there isn't a joke. The joke then becomes one of word play. For example: "Why did the child cross the playground? To get to the other slide."

For adults the chicken joke seems to be a litmus test to see if one is neurotypical or not. Online discourse goes something like: "Did you know that the chicken joke is about death?" In one of these lengthy threads of people responding that they were "todays years old" when they learned the death punchline to the chicken joke someone posted a link to Poultrygeist and it became an instant purchase for me.

It's set up like a typical isekai, except that it's a chicken — the chicken — in the middle of a country road. At the horizon is truck-kun in the form of a red and white eighteen wheeler.

Turn the page and the remaining plot with the chicken is set at night. The chicken is now a blue ghostly outline of its self. Floating on the other side, or if you prefer, el Otro Lado, are numerous different ghost animals who are there to welcome the chicken and break the sad news that they are a former fowl.

As with the little kid version of the joke the road kill explanations of the situation are done as puns. As it's a picture book, these puns are also part of a larger rhyming scheme.

It's a short, dark, and very silly take on a difficult subject. It's one of those picture books that works well with older children — aka teenagers — as well as the intended kindergarten to grade three age range.

Five stars

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Yokohama Station SF National: 10/13/22

Yokohama Station SF National

Yokohama Station SF National by Yuba Isukari, Tatsuyuki Tanaka (Illustrator) (2017), and Stephen Paul (Translator) (2022) is a follow up collection of interconnected short stories or vignettes that feature a sentient, self-replicating subway station.

Most of this volume involves people from outside of the station who are trying to infiltrate it for information and sabotage. These are residents on Hokkaido, protected by seawater and distance. But they'd like to push back on the station's neverending attempt at expansion.

My favorite story, though, is told from within the station. It involves a man with Caucasian ancestry who can read and speak English along with Japanese. He has in his office an English dictionary. To avoid spoilers, I will say that his office is destroyed — though how is a big part of the story.

What happens next, though, is fascinating. This volume works through the logic of a self replicating station with the current advances in AI. What happens when something manmade — something that can no longer be made — is replaced with the AI of a self replicating station?

Chart comparing the first and second volumes on the Road Narrative Spectrum.

Like the first volume, Yokohama Station SF National, sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. Both volumes feature marginalized travelers with an interstate (or railroad) route. What changes between volumes is the destination. The first volume had uhoria as it's destination, meaning that the exploration was primarily on how did we get here? and what was this place like before the Winter War and self replication? Now the destination is the wildlands, namely outside and various landmarks hidden beneath / outside the station.

Five stars

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Huda F Are You?: 10/12/22

Huda F Are You?

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy (2021) is a YA graphic novel inspired by the author's childhood in Dearborn, Michigan. Huda and her family have moved to a town with a vibrant Muslim community — a big change from where they were the only one. Now Huda feels the need to change up how she does things so she can stand out more.

In tone and theme, Huda's awkwardness in her new school reminds me of the Babymouse: Tales from the Locker series by Jennifer L Holm and Matthew Holm. With her many sisters, including the amusingly invisible one, I was reminded of the Friends graphic novel series by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham (Illustrator).

I found Huda's desire for practicality and comfort in her day to day attire relatable. Although her choice and my choice on that account are very different, I got where she was coming from.

But this isn't just about being the oddball at a new school. In the background of her time at high school is a boy being arrested for making a fake bomb. It was a Halloween costume. For a longer exploration of these events, I recommend Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed (2021).

Five stars

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The Goose Girl: 10/11/22

The Goose Girl

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (2003) is the start of the Books of Bayern series. We bought the book shortly after moving into a condo. Although my husband read it and loved it eighteen years ago, this was my first stab at reading it.

It's a retelling of a Grimms' fairytale, one if I've read, I don't remember. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, should be queen when her father dies after a riding accident. Instead her mother sends her to Bayern to marry the Crown Prince. Along the way she realizes her maid is trying to kill her and take her place, so she flees into the forest where she is befriended by an old woman.

Now here is where I grumble about being spoiled by stories that have come after this novel. Maybe, just maybe, had I read it in 2004 when we first bought it, I would have loved it. But in that time two stories have come to tell similar in tone tales of displaced royalty: the anime, Ranking of Kings and Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher (2022).

The princess finds work at the royal goose girl for the King of Bayern because she knows the language of birds. Through her ability to talk to horses she accidentally falls in love with her intended — though he doesn't reveal his identity until the end (of course) — and she's too naive or stupid to realize who the guy with the fancy horse is.

Except for the time when the princess was running for her life through an unfamiliar forest, I felt almost no sympathy or even basic connection to her. Beyond her talent to speak to animals, she's dumb as rocks. She succeeds because she's lucky more than anything else.

The second book in the series is Enna Burning (2004).

Two stars

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The Sacred Bridge: 10/10/22

The Sacred Bridge

The Sacred Bridge by Anne Hillerman (2022) is the twenty-fifth book of the Navajo mystery series (also known as the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series).

Jim Chee has reached a point in his life where he realizes he needs to make changes to regain his sense of hozho. To begin this process, he's traveled to Lake Powell to see the Rainbow Bridge. While there he discovers a murdered man floating in the lake.

Meanwhile Bernie is witness to a brutal and intentional hit and run murder of a Chinese man on the highway leading to Window Rock. His death leads to her going undercover at a new hemp farm.

Both Hillermans have their strengths and weaknesses as authors. For Tony, originator of the series, he was great at building a complex but reader-solvable puzzle, but he relied to heavily on setting up the Diné characters as others in their own nation. Anne meanwhile is vastly superior at treating all her characters like well rounded, fully realized people but her mysteries never connect into one interesting puzzle. Instead, Anne's mysteries read like straight up police procedurals — think Law and Order Dinétah. I miss Tony's puzzles in the newest books even though I otherwise love how Anne has fleshed out the characters and landscape.

The other problem with the series is time itself. The series is fifty-two years old but neither author has ever come out to just admit that time doesn't work like it does in reality because it's fun to keep the characters in the present but have them age more slowly.

Four stars

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The Marvelous: 10/09/22

The Marvelous

The Marvelous by Claire Kann (2021) is an updated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964) but written for a YA audience. Except this one removes the parents, plays up the horror of that sort of situation, and gives a cast of much nicer participants.

Jewel Van Haren, the Willy Wonka of this novel, started a social media video site called Golden Rule. Members have to show their faces and the site is heavily monitored to keep out bullies. At the height of her popularity, the founder disappeared.

Upon her reappearance she announced a special weekend at her ginormous estate in the North Bay. Specific users were invited to play a game where two winners would get half a million in cash.

Six players, each assigned a color. They're cut off from the outside world and are at the beck and call of specially programmed tablets. They have a riddle presented as recipe to solve as well as challenges that happen throughout the day.

Over all the challenge has an Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass atmosphere and illogical logic to it. But the atmosphere is that of a horror novel, like And Then There Were None (1939).

The novel also sits in the Road Narrative Spectrum. As these are invited guests, the new elite of Golden Rule, they are privileged travelers (00). Their destination is home (66), both Jewel's home and as the game goes more and more off the rails, the desire to be able to go home. Their route is the maze as the house is confusingly built, the riddles themselves are confusing, and combined, the two are dangerous (CC).

Five stars

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The Blessing Way: 10/08/22

The Blessing Way

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman and George Guidall (Narrator) (1970) is the first of a long running series, one that the original author's daughter has taken over writing. With her books included, the series includes twenty-five books as of 2022. I originally reviewed the book ten years ago as I was making my way through the series in order for the first time. I thought it might be interesting to revisit that first review having now read all the books in the series, save for the most current one, The Sacred Bridge.

Put into perspective of this reader's life time, the series is three years older than I am. The oldest character in the book, a hataalii who complains that the younger generations don't know how to behave during a sing, states he's 82 year old, as far as he can reckon. That would put his birthday in 1888.

Put another way, Joe Leaphorn, the young detective here, is still old enough to have fought in Korea. That was twenty years before this novel, meaning he's probably thirty-eight. By the current novel, Leaphorn is older than the oldest character in The Blessing Way.

This first novel introduces the Navajo Nation landscape, the people, and their culture. But all of these introductions are done by a white man who had studied them. Although the mystery is primarily from Leaphorn's perspective, he is a fictional Diné from the imagination of a white dude.

In Hillerman's attempts to sound authentic, he ends up highlighting his perceived otherness of the culture he's portraying. He includes ceremonies and beliefs and history in a way that on a second read comes off as heavy handed. It's not that a person doesn't fully partake in their culture, but it's often not with the same amount of focus that Hillerman gives the majority of his characters.

Despite all the flaws of this series and especially of this first novel, I still like the book. A lot of that lands on George Guidall's performance. He has a soothing voice and is able to breath some dimensionality into characters who come off as flat in print.

The second book is Dance Hall of the Dead (1973).

Four stars

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Hollow Fires: 10/07/22

Hollow Fires

Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed (2022) is a YA novel about the fallout after a teacher accuses a Muslim student of bringing a bomb to school. The "bomb" was a DIY jetpack costume he made at school. His arrest brings out the worst in the community and results in his kidnapping and murder.

I realize the first paragraph reads like a giant spoiler. It isn't. The first page of the book outlines most of what I included there. Jawad Ali, the boy in question, narrates half the book as a ghost.

The other half of the book, the living half, is told from the point of view of Safiya Mirza, a Muslim high school girl who wants to be a journalist. She runs the school newspaper and wants to use it to highlight the racism she witnesses at school as well as to cover Jawad's arrest, suspension, and disappearance. We also know from the first chapter that she is the one who finds his body.

The majority of the novel is told out of order, flashing forward and back as the narrative tone needs. This isn't a mystery or a novel of suspense. Instead it's something to be felt and then ruminated over.

Four stars

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My Dress-Up Darling, Volume 3: 10/06/22

My Dress-Up Darling, Volume 3

My Dress-Up Darling, Volume 3 by Shinichi Fukuda (2019) introduces the professional cosplayer and her younger but taller sister to the series. The cosplayer who goes by JuJu shows up at Wakana's home hoping to hire him for a project. Marin is beside herself with joy at meeting someone she admires and wants desperately to do a joint cosplay even though JuJu swears so only does it solo.

The blurb hints that there might be a love triangle brewing with the appearance of JuJu. There isn't. Wakana is too dedicated to his work and too afraid of disappointing his new client to be at all interested in her. JuJu meanwhile is too dedicated to her cosplay and photo-sessions to be interested in Wakana.

There is, however, nudity. It didn't strike me as particularly fan-servicey. But it's there. Wakana sees more than he wants to but manages to act mature about it.

Mostly, though, this volume is about the nitty gritty of being a serious cosplayer. There are pages and pages about photography: different kinds of cameras and lenses, different lighting techniques, different framing techniques, shutter speed, depth of field. If you're not a photography nerd, there's a bunch to skip here.

The book ends on a mini-cliffhanger as the four check out a shooting location. JuJu who puts up a tough acting facade is actually nervous about certain locations. The abandoned hospital the group has chosen to rent isn't in her comfort zone but she tries to put on a brave face. Wakana who's not there to cosplay or photograph is able to recognize her discomfort, thus continuing his status as a completely trustworthy person.

Five stars

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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill: 10/05/22

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman and Emily Rankin (Narrator) (2019). I originally read this book in print form in 2020. Somehow in the chaos of shelter in place for COVID, I neglected to review the novel even though I had sent my copy to someone else via Paperback Swap. This time around I chose to listen to it as an audio figuring it's cozy vibe would translate well; I was correct.

Nina Hill lives in Los Angeles in a neighborhood about halfway between downtown and UCLA. She walks to work and practices bullet journaling. She has anxiety and is a bit of a misanthrope. Her social interactions are what she gets at the perpetually failing book store where she works, the quiz tournaments she participates in, and her book club.

Nina's life, though, is turned upside down when a lawyer tells her she has been included in a will. The father she never knew had lived close by and fathered a huge family. She now has half siblings and nibblings. They're not sure they want her and she's not sure she wants them. What they all can't deny is that they're a lot alike.

Besides' Nina's newfound family, she has a new potential boyfriend — a rival from another quiz team. He smells like sawdust and is somehow interesting to her despite not being much of a reader.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill really and truly reminds me of so many of the cozy mysteries I love to listen to. The only difference is that there's no murder to solve. Now if Nina's father had been killed and she had ended up identifying the murderer, it would be a quintessential cozy mystery.

The sequel is Adult Assembly Required (2022).

Five stars

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The Suite Spot: 10/04/22

The Suite Spot

The Suite Spot by Trish Doller (2022) is the second book in the Beck Sisters romance series. This one follows younger sister, Rachel, who is a single mom, working in the hospitality sector, and living at home with her mother. All that changes when a high roller tries to rape her and the hotel lets her go rather than press charges.

While Rachel faces the prospect of working at a motel that charges by the hour, a friend sends her a lead for the resort management job of her dreams. The only down side is that it's out of state, meaning a long drive from Florida to Ohio.

It also means a move to a remote location. It's not a remote as Anna and her boyfriend who live on her boat. But it's still a small island in Lake Erie — Kelley's Island. The resort she's been promised isn't even finished and she and her daughter will be living with her boss.

Despite the odd introduction, there's instant chemistry between Rachel and Mason. He's good with Rachel's daughter. He gives her the freedom to make this resort in her own vision. He clearly enjoys Rachel's company.

But like Keane from Float Plan (2021), Mason has emotional baggage he needs to work through. Despite all that, this second book is a kinder, more cuddly romance. In the afterword Trish Doller explains that this book needed to be cozier in response to the stress of living in the time of COVID.

Like the first book, The Suite Spot sits on the road narrative spectrum. Both books, being romances, have couples as the travelers, although with Rachel's child, she's also in a traveling family (33). Their destination is a place they can call home (66). Their route there is the Blue Highway as represented by the drive there (33).

The third book is Off the Map and is scheduled for release in 2023.

Five stars

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Noragami: Stray God, Volume 14: 10/03/22

Noragami: Stray God, Volume 14

Noragami: Stray God, Volume 14 by Adachitoka focuses on the aftermath of the attack on the hospital. Yato is once again feeling horribly guilty and once again decides the best thing to do is to avoid Hiyori until he's a proper god of happiness.

The series seems to be setting up Yato and Hiyori for an impossible situation. If what this volume says is true, Yato is essentially cursed to repeat the crimes he was created to do. The world and the other gods are also cursed for supernatural storms if Yato is to continue to live.

My complaint is that Yato's "father" is essentially a serial killer. His difference is that he uses supernatural means to do accomplish his murders. He's also into gaslighting and other forms of abuse — abuse of his shikis and of the gods who trust him. He's also, like most serial killer characters, a boring villain.

Four stars

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Batman: Detective Comics, Volume 2: The Victim Syndicate: 10/02/22

Batman: Detective Comics, Volume 2: The Victim Syndicate

Batman: Detective Comics, Volume 2: The Victim Syndicate by James Tynion IV, et. al. (2017) collects Detective Comics 943-949. It follows up on the aftermath of Rise of the Batmen (2016). More broadly, it looks at the collateral damage from the numerous fights Batman and co. have had with super villains over the years.

Gotham is under attack by villains who claim to be victims of Batman's careless vigilantism. They demand that he unmask and stand-down. Frankly with all the shit Gotham's been through, I can see their point.

Batman and his cohorts, though, are also dealing with their trauma from the Batmen attack and the betrayal by family. There's also Robin's sacrifice which they haven't had time to grieve over.

Ultimately the situation is messy. Batman is culpable. So are the criminals. The city has had so many years of being the center of an eye for an eye approach to justice that there's no clear way how to stop the cycle.

The third book is League of Shadows (2017)

Four stars

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September 2022 Sources: 10/02/22

Previous month's book sources

In total numbers of books read and general enjoyment of those books, September was one of my best in many months. I'm on track to keep my older goal of 300 books.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In September I read 18 TBR books, up from August's 17 TBR. No books were published in September. Eight books were for research. Four were from the library. My ROOB score for September, -4.07, is lower than the previous month: -3.58 It's my second best September in 13 years of tracking this metric.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

I did better than I had predicted for September. I predicted a -3.75. Given September's success, I'm predicting a -4.0 for October.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for September improved from -2.71 to -2.81.

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This Is a Book for People Who Love Birds: 10/01/22

This Is a Book for People Who Love Birds

This Is a Book for People Who Love Birds by Danielle Belleny and Stephanie D Singleton (Illustrator) (2022) is a slim volume to introduce people to birds and birding. It's written for people who have been kept from birding through gatekeeping — namely anyone who isn't a white man of privilege.

Before launching into the listed birds, the book has an introduction to birds and birding. As this is a new book it begins with the fact that birds are dinosaurs. Rather, they are the evolved species from a specific branch of the extinct dinosaurs. I still get a tingle of a thrill when a bird book includes their ties to the dinosaurs of yore.

Then while describing the challenges and rewards of birding, Belleny outlines ways in which white male bias has been built into the science and hobby of birds. There are racist names and names for colonizers. Modern day birders if they aren't white and male are often made to feel unwelcome, or even have the police called on them. Frankly, I wish more books addressed these problems — but most books I've read are written by the very people who have these biases.

Finally, then, there is a short list of species of birds from North America. As the author is based in San Antonio, Texas, her selection tends towards the southern half of the continent. Of course there are two species that are included in most of these beginner guides: the Cardinal and the Blue Jay. Of course, living where I do, neither of these are in my state.

This Is a Book for People Who Love Birds, though short, is one of the engaging birding books I've read. It's up there with Birds of Lake Merritt by Alex Harris (2022) and A Californian's Guide to the Birds Among Us by Charles Hood (2017). I hope Danielle Belleny writes more birding books — longer ones that are more regionally focused that also expand on the biases and racism that clouds birding.

Five stars

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September 2022 Summary: 10/01/22

Reading report

September meant back to school and back to routine. It also meant heatwaves and hunkering inside, conserving electricity. All that time inside meant extra time to read.

I read more books in September, 30, up from 24 in the previous month. Of my read books, sixteen were diverse. I reviewed 30 books, up from 21 in August. On the reviews front, eighteen qualified. Five read and six reviewed books were queer.

I have forty-nine books left to review of the 242 books I've read this year.

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