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December 2022


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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The Children on the Hill: 12/31/22

The Children on the Hill

The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon (2022) is the last of the pastiches I read in 2022. It is a modern retelling of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). But honestly, it reads more like a gritty retelling of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (1968).

In the modern day (2019), Lizzy Shelley (can we be any more obvious?) is a monster hunter. She's out looking for proof of supernatural creatures. She's after one in particular, MNSTRGRL.

In the past, the novel is about Violet and her brother and a mysterious girl her grandmother has taken in. The children live with her on the property of a sanatorium she runs.

The problem is, this book has the same parallel structure as Daisy Darker (2022) and falls in to the same traps. To make the novel seem like something wholly other than its inspiration, it has an entirely added on bit. In this case, it's the modern day monster hunter thread. Yes, Frankenstein has some of this too but not to the extent of McMahon's novel.

The second problem is the novel spends too much time trying be anything but a Frankenstein retelling. Essentially the novel ends up at war with itself. Sometimes it's a mediocre thriller set in 1978 about an old woman who has taken in three kids for obviously nefarious reasons. But in case the reader might forget that Frankenstein is the underlying inspiration, the novel will drop an obvious reference. These references are out of place in the over all feel of the novel and do nothing save for pulling the reader right out of the tenuous story.

The Children on the Hill also happens to sit on the Road Narrative Spectrum. With it being a Frankenstein pastiche, the travelers are the scarecrow (protector) and minotaur (monster) (99), though which is which is the "big" mystery of the novel. Their destination is the wildlands (99), a forest where the modern day confrontation is made. Their route is the cornfield or tkaronto, as represented by the lake where the confrontation takes place (FF).

Two stars

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls: 12/30/22

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (1973) is as old as I am but I only heard of it when the movie came out in 2018. That said, I haven't actually seen the movie but now I've read the book.

It's 1948 (or 1955 in the film) and Lewis Barnavelt is on a bus to New Zebedee Michigan to live with his bachelor uncle in a mansion. Turns out he uncle and his next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann, are wizards. The house itself is magical and cursed.

If this were a modern day middle grade fantasy / horror, Lewis's adventures would take place over the course of weeks, not months. He would be completely focused on learning the truth of the house's curse and putting a stop to the big, undead bad.

Instead, though, this short novel (just shy of 200 pages) unfolds over ten months. Lewis spends his summer learning how to play baseball. He makes a crucial mistake while trying to impress the kid he hopes is his friend. He goes to school and nearly completes the entire year before the climax.

Throughout all of this, there are illustrations by Edward Gorey. His interpretation of events is what pushes this strange tale into the horror category.

This novel also sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. Lewis is a literal orphan traveler (FF). His journey is to uhoria (CC) in that he's dealing with the evil past of his uncle's house. His route there is the maze (CC) as represented by the house's changeable nature and the danger its secrets pose.

The next book in the series is The Figure in the Shadows (1975).

Four stars

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Daisy Darker: 12/29/22

Daisy Darker

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney and Stephanie Racine (Narrator) (2022) is an And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) pastiche. But it opens with a note from the editor that the story might seem unbelievable, extraordinary even, but is presented as it was delivered to them.

Set on a tidal island near Land's End, England, it's two stories in one. First is the 2004 disastrous gathering of a family at the matriarch's home, one that is isolated by the tide twice a day. The second is the tragic life of a young woman born with a defective heart and the family who just couldn't quite love her, save for her grandmother.

The narrator of both stories is Daisy Darker, the woman with the heart problem. Over the course of the novel she recounts all the times her heart failed her — the times she died. Meanwhile in 2004 she watches, horror struck, as her family members die, one an hour, as they are trapped by high tide.

I happened to listen to the novel as an audiobook. Stephanie Racine, the narrator, does a fine job with the text presented. There just happens to be too much of it, especially in Daisy Darker's extended flashback on her tragic life. Had I read this book in print, I would have skimmed, or even skipped huge chunks of Daisy's childhood.

Comparing the length of Daisy Darker to the Christie's mystery, the newer book has nearly one hundred pages on the original. Those extra pages do nothing for the main focus of the book, namely, who is killing off the family? Daisy's life is mostly a distraction.

But if you really care what Daisy Darker's "secret" is, it's told to you in the first few paragraphs of the book. If you're annoyed at how little Daisy does — how she seems more like set decoration than an actual character — that's all explained too. If you don't get it early on, all will be explained at the end.

Since I was paying attention in the first few minutes of the book and tend to take clues literally, I wasn't at all surprised by the dramatic reveal at the end. The shocking solution is the only one that makes any sense — the only one that gives the killer any motivation.

This mystery also sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. The travelers are the Darker family (33). Their destination isn't uhoria as only one of them is aware of the connection to the past. Instead, their destination is the wild lands (99), in the form of the tidal island. Their route there is the maze (CC), in that there are lots of traps and actual danger.

Three stars

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Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape): 12/28/22

Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape)

Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape) by Carrie Jones is the sequel to Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend (2007). Belle is trying to move on with her life post break-up and is helping her friends buy condoms and tampons because she's not embarrassed to do so. She would desperately love to be having sex with someone but so far that's not happening.

Then things take a turn when Em misses her period. She's pregnant and like Belle, still in high school. Belle is the first person she turns to while she decides what to do. OK, decide, is being generous here as by about the second paragraph after finding out she decides to keep the baby.

I remember loving the first book which I read eleven years ago. My interests in reading have changed and I've read other books that tackle these plots better, such as Counting to Perfect by Suzanne LaFleur (2018). Now, though, I just wanted Belle to show any amount of growth as a character.

My initial thoughts after I finished the book still sums up my feelings about it,

It's like a Lucy Stone mystery but from the POV of a teen. Belle, despite having so many boxes ticked in her character sheet (guitar playing, dead father, allergies, seizures), she has zero personality.
.

Three stars

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Tumble: 12/27/22

Tumble

Tumble by Celia C. Pérez (2022) is set in a rural New Mexico town where wrestling is a big deal. Addie Ramirez's stepfather wants to adopt her but she wants to learn about her biological father before she makes a decision.

As you can probably guess from the cover, Addie's father is a professional wrestler, from a family of wrestlers. Over the course of a few months, she finally gets the chance to get to know a family she didn't know she had.

I'm not a fan of professional wrestling but Celia Pérez presents enough of what a reader needs to know to keep the story going. She presents well rounded, interesting characters, and a sense of place that is as much a character as the people who live there are.

My favorite character is Addie's grandmother. She is an ex-wrestler and the matriarch of her family. She has made a second career for herself as an artist. She specializes in turning tumbleweeds into figures — and snowmen in the winter. She also helps Addie understand the tough decisions her mother has had to make, because she had to face similar problems in her past.

The novel also happens to sit on the Road Narrative Spectrum. As this is a story of family, the family is the traveler (33). Their destination is uhoria (CC), looking both to their shared past and to wonder about their future. Their route there is the Blue Highway (33) that connects their homes.

Five stars

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles: 12/26/22

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and Hugh Fraser (Narrator) (1920) is the start of the Hercule Poirot mystery series. Last time I read it it was twenty-two years ago. While going through my list of books read, I realized I haven't actually read all the Poirots (or all of Christie's novels) and thought it would be fun to re-read / complete my reading. But this time, I'm going to do it with audiobooks as much as possible.

Lady Emily dies and fingers her husband as she dies. It's clearly death by poisoning but there's a locked room situation. So was it suicide or was the murderer incredibly clever? Arthur Hastings who is a guest where the murder took place enlists the help of his Belgian friend, Hercule Poirot.

Although there are many tricks and scenes that have inspired newer mysteries over the century, they are put together in a different way here. The first major difference is how long it takes from murder to unveiling the murderer. It takes months which includes a police investigation, an inquest, and a formal trial.

The next book chronologically is Poirot Investigates (1924). There are also numerous short stories which I won't be focusing on at this time. In printing order, the next book is Murder on the Links (1923).

Four stars

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Primordial: 12/25/22

Primordial

Primordial by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino (Artist) and Dave Stewart (Artist) (2022) is an alternate history, speculative fiction take on the early days of the space race. It begins with a scientist being called in to decide which pieces of equipment from the space program since it's been discontinued.

Rather than trying to send people into space, both the USSR and the United States have shuttered their programs after the deaths of the animals they sent into space: Laika, a dog, and a pair of primates, Able and Baker.

Curiosity, though, leads the scientist to Laika's trainer. And that's where things get weird in a typical Jeff Lemire fashion. Time is never just linear in his stories. Space is never a coherent thing. Death isn't necessary death, either.

For the three animals, they've been kidnapped, a la Flight of the Navigator (1986). And like Joey, relativity means they won't get home when they left, even though they know the way home. Unlike Joey, there's no easy fix, no FTL. So their story — Laika's reunion with her beloved trainer — will take her human the remainder of her life.

In the background of this dog and primates find their way home story, is an alternate history. It's one where the Soviet Union doesn't dissolve and instead manages to spread further into Europe. It's one of a very different political atmosphere.

It's also, like every Lemire comic or graphic novel I've read to date, one that sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. As this is a joint American / Soviet story, the travelers are in a scarecrow / minotaur dichotomy (99). Their destination is utopia (FF) — a place outside of time and space — in a hope to reunite with the Laika and the apes. Their route there is an offroad one (66).

Five stars

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Break the Chains: 12/24/22

Break the Chains

Break the Chains by Megan E. O'Keefe (2016) is the second book in the Scorched Continent trilogy. A year has passed since the close of Steal the Sky. The characters who came together for reasons have gone their separate ways. But now circumstances are such that they need to get back together — if they can break one of them out of prison.

There are multiple points of view and lots of different schemes to keep track of. There's also a complex world with equally complex political situations. While I'm all for letting characters live their lives rather than have a bunch of exposition, this is a series where I really could use some hand holding from a narrator. Barring that, a single point of view.

I suppose the difference scenes are taking place relatively simultaneously. I think the novel is trying for a cinematic, action packed experience. I have to admit, I struggle with this type of story telling in print (and always have). This volume started out fun. I do love the world and what can be done by certain people. But as the book progressed, it became work to read, and not fun work.

The final book is Inherit the Flame (2017).

Two stars

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The Liminal Zone: 12/23/22

The Liminal Zone

The Liminal Zone by Junji Ito (2022) is a collection of four horror story manga. Each one focuses on a place of transformation.

The first story is about a village of professional weeping woman. It's only visible to those who need it most. Unfortunately a woman with the potential to be the next great weeping woman happens to get to near the village and begins crying uncontrollably.

La Llorona, she isn't. Nor are any of the other professional weeping women. Though the village profits from their abilities, they aren't grieving for lost ones or for their own sins. The universe has decided they need to cry and that's that. The lack of explanation, the lack of an out, gives this story an unsatisfying ending.

The second story is set in Aokigahara, the suicide forest. A man with a terminal goes to kill himself with his girl friend's blessing. Except they end up finding a transformative spirit river and both end up rather monstrous, though she more than he.

The other two follow this trend where the woman in the couple gets it in the teeth. She either dies or becomes the monster. It's rather misogynistic.

Three stars

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Murder by the Book: 12/22/22

Murder by the Book

Murder by the Book by Lauren Elliott and Karen White (Narrator) (2018) is the start of the Beyond the Page Bookstore mystery series. Really and truly it is, even though the first couple chapters might have you doubting that fact.

Addie Greyborne has moved to New England having inherited her aunt's estate. She's now living in a mansion and has used some of her windfall to open a bookstore. But her bad luck seems to have followed her here as someone is sabotaging her store before opening day. Things keep escalating until her new friend, Serena, is arrested for the murder of another merchant.

Many cozy mystery series start with an inciting event. There's something that brings the main character to a new town or into a new job. In series from the 1990s and 2000s, that event often involves the death of a relative.

Addie's case, though, is an extreme one. Before the start of the book she lost her fiancé to murder, her father to a car crash, and then her aunt to presumably, old age. As a long time mystery reader, I see each of these deaths as separate mysteries, meaning, it feels like Murder by the Book should be book four. I can't tell you how many times I double checked that this volume was in fact the first one of the series!

With so much going on in Addie's life in terms of deaths, break-ins, and the store sabotage, I'm surprised at how long it takes her to agree that she's being targeted. I did like how the chief of police (newly appointed) takes her situation seriously. The relationship between Addie and Mark is supposed to be set up as a romance, but they gave me more a Jessica Fletcher and Sheriff Amos Tupper vibe. Sure they're younger, but Mark just happily invites Addie along as he investigates.

I listened to the audio book, read by Karen White. White has certain types of characters she does. I'm not sure Addie, et al fit naturally with the types of characters she normally performs. The characters seem bubblier than the narrator's usual fare. We'll see how she grows into them as the series progresses.

The second book is Prologue to Murder (2019).

Four stars

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What Moves the Dead: 12/21/22

What Moves the Dead

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher, like Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) is a retelling or pastiche of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe (1839). It's also the first of a series of retellings I've read at the end of 2022.

Alex Easton, a retired soldier is summoned with the news that his childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying. He with the help of a steadfast English mycologist hope to unravel the truth of what plagues the Ushers. It doesn't take long to figure out the Usher estate is suffering from a fungal infestation of epic and horrifying proportions. Coming into a retelling of this particular Poe story, mushrooms are to be expected.

T. Kingfisher who lives on a large expanse of land, who loves to garden, but also has a healthy respect for the untamed landscape, is extremely skilled at creating visuals that will stick with a reader, and burrow into their very psyche. If those details happen to be something that the reader is somewhat squicked by, they will be in for an uncomfortable, lasting, but oddly, satisfying read. What Moves the Dead was one of those books, much more so than almost any other book I've read by this author.

Adding to the atmosphere is Alex Easton who really feels like a refugee from one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Easton and perhaps the Ushers too, come from a country with a complex gender nomenclature. Kan's thoughts on gender and language were a nice distraction from the fungal elephant in the room.

A chart showing the relative positions on the Road Narrative Spectrum of What Moves the Dead and Mexican Gothic

Alex and the Usher's tale of horror and death happens to sit on the Road Narrative Spectrum. So does Mexican Gothic, though in a different location. I should go back and re-read Poe's story to see if it too has a place and if so, where it is relative to these retellings.

In both retellings, the traveler is a privileged one (00). In Mexican Gothic, the horror is from power being derived from an unhealthy relationship with the fungi. In Kingfisher's version, the horror is from a titled family being unable to stop the fungi as it takes control of their land, home and ultimately bodies. The books, though differ in their destinations and in the routes taken. Alex, familiar with the Ushers, is essentially returning home (66) just as Roderick and Madeline have already done. The route, though, is the cornfield, or tkaronto (FF) as represented by the disgusting lake near the Usher mansion.

Finally, some thoughts on reading retellings / pastiches. They can be fun, having a familiar starting point, and seeing how the same story can hit different in the hands of a different author or by putting the characters in a different time or place. But they can also be tedious to read, where there are no surprises and getting to the end seems like a chore.

T. Kingfisher's book was a delight (albeit, a hair-raising one) to read. So was Mexican Gothic back in 2020. Two other 2022 releases, though, were not. One was a retelling of And Then There Were None with a nod to the film, The Sixth Sense. The other was a retelling of Frankenstein with a nod to 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma (2013). Both of these latter books suffer from being too long: one being 352 pages and the other 338, whereas this one is a novella at 156 pages.

Five stars

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The Biograph Girl: 12/20/22

The Biograph Girl

The Biograph Girl by William J. Mann is about a man who ends up interviewing the first movie star and learning about her incredible life, and then how he profits off her. The blurb makes is sound more interesting, describing: "a wild roller-coaster ride through the 20th century, led by a sassy, chain-smoking 107-year-old actress named Florence Lawrence." Oh how I wish that were true.

The novel opens with a banger. Florence is in the morgue staring at the body of a woman who could be her doppelgänger. She's going to switch identities with the corpse, essentially faking her own death so she can leave the rat race that is Hollywood.

But then we flash-forward to 1995 to a retirement home. In comes the actual main characters to interview an old man. Unfortunately he died in his sleep after breakfast. So instead the nun introduces him to 107 year old Florence. The problem is the main characters are entitled Boomers on the cusp of being Gen-Xers.

I really hoped the novel would spend most of its time on Flo's life. As in, I hoped the annoying present day folks would be a framing device showing up only briefly as narrative punctuation like the grandfather does in The Princess Bride. No luck.

Nor is there any sense of a timeline for Florence's life. Things rock back and forth from before faking her death to afterwards. The things she reminisces about seem thematic. On the one had we get the experience of listening to a dotty old lady (even though she's described as whip-smart). On the other hand, there's nothing in the way of segues between scenes or between different moments in time.

One star

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Leviathan: 12/19/22

Leviathan

Leviathan by Jason Shiga (2022) is the first book in the Adventuregame Comics series. Although it feels like it should be the second since it uses the same graphical interface as Meanwhile (2011) to turn a comic book into a choose you own adventure.

This time you're making decisions for a young villager who is looking for a quest. With your help, she can defeat the leviathan.

To be successful, you'll probably need a pad of paper or some other way to keep track of where you've been and what clues you've learned. Sometimes you'll find a blank circle where you have to supply the correct number. Of if you want to go completely nonlinearly, you can guess a number.

Like all the other Shiga comics I've read, Leviathan takes turns of logic that are unexpected but satisfying.

Five stars

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The Templeton Twins Have an Idea: 12/17/22

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner and Jeremy Holmes (Illustrator) (2012) is an upper elementary mystery / caper. John and Abigail help their father when the devious Dean twins try to steal one of his prototypes.

Like the Terrible Two series by Mac Barnett, Jory John, and Kevin Cornell, The Templeton Twins is written in a very chatty, break the fourth wall method. The narrator who acts as a separate character, think, Powerpuff Girls (1998). The narrator explains and sometimes over explains the situation, but they're part of the charm of this short book.

Puzzle solving, especially in the form of cryptic clues as well as some basic logic, is a big part of this book. These are like those five minute mysteries that were popular when I was a child in the 1980s. Except here, it's roughly a puzzle a chapter, unless the twins are working together in which case there might be two or more. The inclusion of puzzles, gives this book a similar read to the Winterhouse trilogy by Ben Guterson.

The sequel to the book is The Templeton Twins Make a Scene (2013).

Three stars

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Sophie Go's Lonely Hearts Club: 12/16/22

Sophie Go's Lonely Hearts Club

Sophie Go's Lonely Hearts Club by Roselle Lim and Annie Q (Narrator) (2022) is set in Toronto, primarily in a luxury apartment complex where a group of elderly friends live. Sophie Go has moved in to make her mark as a matchmaker. She has to work fast because she only has so long to reapply for certification after leaving Shanghai in disgrace.

Sophie Go's best option for making a name for herself is the Old Ducks Club, a group of elderly bachelor men. She can see their red threads and overheard them talking about wanting more from life. On a dare, she offers to match one of them for free.

All of Roselle Lim's books seem to be in the same world as they follow the same rules. The most important rule is that matchmakers don't have a red thread. They are supposed to be neutral in love, to keep their minds and hearts focused on their clients' needs.

From Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop (2020), we know that matchmakers can get their red threads back and they can fall in love. Sophie Go has to come to realize that she is deserving of love.

Four stars

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Cryptid Club: 12/15/22

Cryptid Club

Cryptid Club by Sarah Andersen (2021) is a collection of single page (two to five panel) comics involving socially awkward paranormal creatures. The humor is similar to her Sarah Scribbles series but with those hard to photograph urban legends and well known horror monsters.

The cryptids featured include bigfoot, chupacabra, the classic ghost, cthulhu, extraterrestrials, the Flatswood monster, the Fresno nightcrawlers, jackalope, kraken, the Loch Ness monster, mothman, siren, siren head, the sleep paralysis demon, and slender man. The situations these creatures find themselves in is similar to the awkwardness of What We Do in the Shadows. They are all still monsters, but they're not always "on."

One of my favorite pages involves a pair of ghosts encountering the Flatswood monster. They're clearly frightened by the chance meeting and stammer out a compliment, "Uh, I like your dress." The monster replies happily, "It has pockets."

Another favorite has the classic set up. It's a quiet sea. No land in sight. The panels list off some facts about the ocean, ending with the question, "What goes on down here in the dark, dark deep?" The punchline is a panel showing the kraken wearing headphones with the label, "vibing."

Five stars

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On This Airplane: 12/14/22

On This Airplane

On This Airplane by Lourdes Heuer and Sara Palacios (Illustrations) (2022) is about a long distance flight and people aboard it. It's essentially an illustrated poem as many picture books are.

Per an interview with Betty Bird, Heuer's poem was inspired by two pivotal flights that have affected her family. One was her parents' migration to the United States from Cuba. The other was a pair of flights she took to Spain with her son.

On This Airplane, though, is fictional. Although the illustrations show a tropical place being left and an urban place at arrival, the places, time of year, and even the diverse group of people on the plane are generic enough to let children infer their own stories.

The poem doesn't sugarcoat the flight. Nor does it try to magic flying seem magical, though it does offer the possibility that it can be. It also, though, shows difficult it can be. It can be uncomfortable, scary, irritating, boring. What makes a flight special, easy, comfortable, etc, is the people on board: flight attendants, crew, passengers. It's people being good and caring to others that makes a flight, or any other even, a good thing.

Illustrator Sara Palacios fills the plane with a diverse group of people. Even the main family appears to be a blended, multi-ethnic one.

Five stars

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The Orphan and the Mouse: 12/13/22

The Orphan and the Mouse

The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman and David McPhail (Illustrations) (2014) is historical fiction inspired by Stuart Little, E.B. White (1945). Here it's about a widowed mouse and her unlikely friendship with an orphan living at a dubiously run orphanage.

Children's books are at their best when they state their intention upfront. A book can have multiple narrators and a long and winding plot but it needs to be established early in a way that isn't always necessary for adult novels. This novel doesn't do that and thus risks losing the reader's attention.

First and foremost, the title puts the orphan, Caro McKay first. Expectations are that she would be in the first scene. She isn't. Instead, it opens with the death of Zelinsky Mouse.

Then we're introduced to Mary Mouse, the widow, who takes on her husband's job as art thief. Along with her new job comes a long exploration of corruption in mouse society — something that feels more at home in the many cozy mysteries I read than here.

Children's literature can absolutely be written as a mystery, even a cozy mystery. The Bowser and Birdie books by Spencer Quinn are absolutely cozies for children. But they are focused on the mystery, instead of trying to be a classic children's novel and a mystery at the same time.

Besides the obvious corruption inside the mouse society, once Caro is introduced, there's a clear mystery surrounding her mother's death as well as current baby trafficking happening in the orphanage. That gives this book three distinct plot threads, in a book that's only 220 pages and written for an upper elementary aged audience.

Individually any of these plot threads are interesting and engaging. Together, though, they are a mess. The book jumps from scene to scene and point of view to point of view that it's difficult (even as an adult) to focus on any particular scene.

Two stars

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A Killing in Costumes: 12/12/22

A Killing in Costumes

A Killing in Costumes by Zac Bissonnette and Melanie Carey and Paul Bellatoni (Narrators) (2022) is the first book in the Hollywood Treasures mystery series. Set in Palm Springs, it features a pair of divorcees who have gone into business together. They're still best friends despite it all; they just each realized they were gay.

Jay Allen and Cindy Cooper run Hooray for Hollywood, a movie memorabilia shop. Unfortunately expenses have out stripped income and they need a miracle to save the shop. That might be in the form of Yana Tosh, a ninety year old actress who has amassed a massive collection of costumes that she now wants to sell.

Unfortunately there's competition in the form of a much larger auction house. Things only get worse when the representative of that house ends up dead and Jay and Cindy are persons of interest. Working with their prospective client, they hope to solve the murder.

Maybe it's the fact that the main female character has the last name Cooper, or maybe it's just her banter with Jay, but this book has a similar vibe to the Cupcake Bakery mystery series by Jenn McKinlay. But since these two are twenty years older and have already tried marriage, there isn't the awkward and forced romantic tension to get in the way of the mystery solving.

My favorite bit of this mystery was Yana Tosh's role as a Columbo villain, presumably back in the 1970s. Knowing how Columbo episodes work, it made her character all the more interesting and set the stage for how this mystery would play out. That said, Cindy and Jay aren't Columbo, so they put themselves in a lot more danger than he ever found himself in.

There's no second book announced yet but I will definitely read it when it's available.

Five stars

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Manor of Dying: 12/11/22

Manor of Dying

Manor of Dying by Kathleen Bridge and Vanessa Daniels (Narrator) (2019) is the fourth book in the Hamptons Home and Garden mystery series. Meg Barrett and Elle Warner have been hired to inventory a remote mansion's furniture to see what can be used for an upcoming made for TV movie. A blizzard strands them in the house's old elevator. When they're finally able to exit it, they find one of the owners dead in the basement.

With a murder in a remote location during a freak snow storm, I expected this mystery to be a locked room type mystery. To my relief, it wasn't. The weather is a factor in the timing of events but not to the point of forcing all or the majority of the action to happen in one location.

Like the previous books, this mystery is a two parter. There's the murder during the time when the house was a sanatorium. Then there's the modern day murder of a relative of the doctors who ran the place. The past as recreated through things Meg reminds me of The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward (1946). The modern day one, is even more sinister.

The nuts and bolts of the modern day mystery is pretty straightforward. There's only so many possible people who could have done it. Despite that, it was a compelling read.

Five stars

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Unseen Magic: 12/10/22

Unseen Magic

Unseen Magic by Emily Lloyd-Jones (2022) is set in Aldermere, a small, fictional town nestled among the redwoods of Humboldt county in Northern California. It's one of those rare places with magic and with that magic comes a series of rules its residents must live by.

Fin is the town's newest resident but she's never lived in a place for long. This town is the exception and maybe it really is her home. Her mother was from here originally. She's just afraid of messing things up, a feeling that's compounded by her anxiety.

Fin unleashes a magical being on the town when she tries to perform the magic she's been relying on since arriving. Unfortunately the woman who normally does it for her is in the hospital, recovering from a fall. Fin doesn't know all the steps and spends much of the book trying to fix things.

With Aldermere being rather insular and protected by its location in the redwoods as well as its magic, I couldn't help but compare the town to Frank Herbert's Santaroga Barrier (1968). The difference here, is Aldermere's magic doesn't seem malevolent in the way that Santaroga's jaspers is.

Another thing this book has in common with Herbert's, is both novels are on the Road Narrative Spectrum. As Fin wants to protect her new home but feels she might have done it irreparable damage, she as a traveler, is in a scarecrow/minotaur dichotomy (99). Her destination is a rural one (33), in that Aldermere is very remote and Fin hasn't become comfortable enough to consider it home. Her route is through the cornfield, or more precisely, the tkaronto, as represented by the river which crosses through the forest and is something Fin crosses and confronts numerous times as she tries to fix things (FF).

The second book, Unspoken Magic releases on February 21, 2023.

Five stars

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The Lathe of Heaven: 12/09/22

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971) is a near future (or now distant past) speculative fiction primarily about climate change and environmental destruction but it's also a horror novella. It's set in Portland in, waves hands, approximately 2002 but with the ever adjusting timeline, actual timing can be up for debate.

I mention the date it takes place because that was the first time I read the book. It's also the year that the second film version was released. We had cable back then and a station, I don't remember which one, broadcast both the 1980 version and the 2002 version. I watched both and read the book to make sense of what I had seen. So here I am twenty years later, rereading the book, realizing how much I missed the first time around.

George Orr is forced into counseling when he's caught borrowing another's pharma card to get extra recreational drugs. In therapy he admits that his dreams change things in the real world. Dr. Haber waltzes into this with bravado and convinces Orr to let him hypnotize him.

Here is the first instance where the reader needs to pay attention. Le Guin spends most of this short novel on descriptions. On the city, the interiors, what people look like. Pay attention! It's in these descriptions that Orr's power is revealed.

Of course Dr. Haber catches on to the changes. Of course he uses his power over Orr to his own advantage. In the process the world changes, some for the best, some for the worst, and some for the completely weird.

I plan to do a third, more in depth reading, probably logging my progress on Tumblr. This book is one of those gems of on the Road Narrative Spectrum.

The relationship between George Orr and Dr. Haber is one of scarecrow and minotaur (99), with each taking turns as the protector and monster. Their destination is uhoria (CC) from the changes in the time line to the numerous discussions on how things got to where there are "now" (with now being a peskier than usual variable). Their route, though, is the maze (CC) as many of the changes are dangerous, resulting in billions of deaths. Summarized, The Lathe of Heaven is about the back and forth between a scarecrow and minotaur as they travel to uhoria via an especially dangerous and unpredictable maze.

Five stars

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Empty Smiles: 12/08/22

Empty Smiles

Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden (2022) finishes the Small Spaces middle grade horror series. The Smiling Man has one last game for Coco, Brian, and Phil. At stake is Ollie's freedom as well as the release of numerous children kidnapped and transformed by a sinister traveling carnival.

The previous volumes were very focused, being set in one location with all the children working together. This one is different as the Smiling Man tries to divide and conquer. Ollie for the majority of the novel is separated from the others, and presumed drowned. Another one ends up injured. Even the parents, who were on board for the third book are separated as their homes are threatened.

These novels are all short, coming in around two hundred pages. Empty Smiles, though, has more plot and questions than the previous three combined.

First is the train that has been serving as Ollie's home since the lake. It seems to be akin to the Infinity Train or a Hell Train but there isn't time to for Ollie to explore. Nor is it ever really established how the train relates to the carnival beyond expecting the reader to know that carnivals often travel by train. A cursed carnival probably comes by a cursed train.

Next there are the children already imprisoned by the carnival clowns. How do they relate to the Smiling Man? Are they part of something bigger or is the Smiling Man now somehow their prisoner too?

Finally the book ends with Ollie realizing that the Smiling Man is as much a victim of his games as the children are. Did their first encounter the previous October somehow entwine their fates? What makes Ollie et al different from the other victims?

As this book is the end, I suspect none of these questions will be explored further. I think instead a deeper re-read of the four is in order.

Chart showing the four books' relative placements on the Road Narrative Spectrum.

Like the previous three, this novel sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. The novel ends midway between the two extremes, with the children now as marginalized travelers (66). Their destination is home (66): a return to home being a safe place and the rescue of Ollie and others so they can return home. Their route is the cornfield, described through out the novel as the place where the carnival sets up in each town (FF).

Five stars

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Curtain Call: 12/07/22

Curtain Call

Curtain Call by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Illustrator) is the fourth book in the Babymouse: Tales from the Locker series. Babymouse wants to be part of the upcoming middle school play. Unfortunately her usual distraction and impatience results in having a one line role.

This volume is a good companion piece to Friends Forever by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham (Illustrations) (2021). Both have themes of anxiety and bullying set against a school play. I would also argue that Babymouse reads as possibly having undiagnosed ADHD.

Of all the books in this middle grade series, Curtain Call reminds me most of the previous graphic novel series. It's been a while since Babymouse has been this distracted and this hyper.

The fifth book is Whisker Wizard (2021).

Four stars

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Cheddar Off Dead: 12/06/22

Cheddar Off Dead

Cheddar Off Dead by Korina Moss and Erin Moon (Narrator) (2022) is the first book in the Cheese Shop mystery series. Cheesemonger Willa Bauer has moved to Yarrow Glen in the Sonoma Valley to open her business. After a nighttime class she finds a local food critic dead in his car. She is now one of many under suspicion.

There's a fine line between making someone an interesting murder victim and making them an obvious one. The critic was on the obvious side. He also wasn't at all sympathetic, meaning his death had almost no emotional hit beyond creating problems for Willa.

Like the Avery Ames Cheese Shop mystery series, there's a lot of information about cheese, cheese making, and the pairing of foods. While I admit to enjoying learning about new cheeses, I think sometimes the added details served as a distraction.

I think the second book when Willa's shop is better established will give her and the other supporting characters time to blossom.

The second book is Gone for Gouda (2022).

Four stars

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Along the Saltwise Sea: 12/05/22

Along the Saltwise Sea

Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker (2021) is the second book in the middle grade fantasy series, The Up-and-Under. Avery and Zib are still trying to get to the city by way of the Impossible Road. When they stop to rest and quench their thirst, they are sidetracked by a wishing well. Can they find their way back to the Impossible Road?

These Up-and-Under books are short, even by historic page counts. They are just shy of two hundred pages. Baum's original Oz books come in around 260 pages. I point this out, because Baker's series seems most influenced by the wordplay logic of Oz.

The children in Baum's books have agency, even if they are captured or enslaved by witches. They also manage to get to their stated goal even with numerous detours within the bounds of a single book. Avery and Zib have so far gotten pretty much nowhere on an uncooperative road and now are forced to work for a pirate captain.

Although Avery and Zib are the stated protagonists and they are ultimately the ones trying (sort of) to get to their respective homes, their presence in the Up-and-Under seems to be a vehicle for telling the stories of the full time residents. In the Oz books, meanwhile, there are books where no one from Earth visits (The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), for example

Chart showing the relationship between the first two books on the Road Narrative Spectrum

As the focus of the novel is on the Pirate Captain's story, she becomes the traveler in terms of the road narrative spectrum. She and her mysterious prisoner are Scarecrow and Minotaur travelers (99). Their destination is the wildlands (99), meaning the high seas. Their route is an offroad one (66) via the ship.

The third book is Into the Windwracked Wilds (2022).

Three stars

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Guidebook to Murder: 12/03/22

Guidebook to Murder

Guidebook to Murder by Lynn Cahoon and Susan Boyce (Narrator) (2014) is the start of the Tourist Trap mystery series. Jill Gardner's elderly friend Emily is being forced out of her home with an impossible deadline to fix up her house. Before Jill can get her help, she finds Emily deceased in bed. While the authorities want to call it natural causes, Jill is certain her friend was murdered.

Emily's death opens up Jill to a whole new range of responsibilities. She has inherited Emily's house and all the must fix orders, along with the impossible deadline. Meanwhile her friend at City Hall has gone missing.

I really liked how the various mysteries: the murder, the identity of a mysterious lawyer, and the missing friend were all tied to Emily's house. Although the town is fictional I did like how it had a believable sense of place and a good understanding of California history as both are highly relevant to solving the mysteries.

The second book in the series is Mission to Murder (2014) which follows on some of the plot threads left open in this novel.

Five stars

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Smile Beach Murder: 12/02/22

Smile Beach Murder

Smile Beach Murder by Alicia Bessette and Karissa Vacker (2022) is the start of the Outer Banks Bookshop mystery series. Set on fictional Cattail Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, this mystery involves some suspicious deaths at a historic lighthouse. Callie Padget's mother, Teri, was the first to die, twenty-six years to the day before the new deaths started.

Like so many recent mysteries, this one begins with a woman forced to return home after her career has ended due to downsizing or some other economic downturn. Now she is forced to work part time for her aunt at her bookstore. She's grudgingly surprised at how well she does in her new job and how much she enjoys it.

With the deaths (and thus the mystery) being located at a historic lighthouse, and with a further mystery involving a long forgotten treasure hunt, this initial offering has a similar vibe as the Lighthouse Library mystery series by Eva Gates. There is also a discussion of ghosts and curses too, something the Outer Banks seems to engender.

One other thing I'm having to get used to as I read new mysteries that use updated tropes and narrative twists, I'm reminded at how I'm getting older and the authors are getting younger. I don't mind but I am amused at how more and more I'm relating to the mentor characters in these series. For example, in this story, the death twenty-six years ago, puts the cold case, the flashbacks, if you were, in 1996, one year into my married life!

The second mystery is Murder on Mustang Beach which releases May 16, 2023.

Five stars

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November 2022 Sources: 12/02/22

Previous month's book sources

Despite it being a busy month, November was another good month for reading. I ended up hitting my traditional goal of 300 books at the end of the month.

ROOB Score for the last three years

In November I read 18 TBR books, down from Octobers's 20 TBR. No books were published in October. Nine books were for research. Three were from the library. My ROOB score for November, -4.1, is slightly lower than the previous month: -4.0 It's among some of my best Novembers, but not the lowest.

ROOB score mapped year after year to compare trends

I did predicted a -4.5 for November and didn't hit it. For December I'm going to predict a -4.5 again as I have no books out from the library.

ROOB monthly averages

My average for November improved from -2.72 to -2.83.

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Due or Die: 12/01/22

Due or Die

Due or Die by Jenn McKinlay and Allyson Ryan (Narrator) (2012) is the second book in the Library Lover's mystery series. Library director Lindsey Norris oversees the election of a new president for the Friends of the Library. The ousted president, a rather snobbish man, accuses Lindsey of rigging the election before he storms off.

After such an off putting election, Lindsey takes home the newly elected president. Together they find the president's husband dead in the living room — shot through the heart.

This is the second murder at a library board mystery I've read in the last few months. The first one was Valentine Murder by Leslie Meier and Karen White (Narrator) (1999). Despite that, I am more reminded of Lorna Barrett's most recent, Clause of Death (2022).

The reason behind the murder and how it relates back to observed events — namely the election — is convoluted. This is one of those mysteries that is set up like a shell game. If you happen to be paying attention to the correct detail in the blizzard of details you'll at least know what the motive is. Figuring out how that motive circles back to a particular person will take another set of mental gymnastics.

The climax which took me a bit by surprise for my over estimation of Lindsey's common sense, hits like another wonderful mystery I recently read, Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (1992). That said, I actually read the Neely book after Due or Die. Had I read it first, I might have figured out the final crucial piece of the puzzle before Lindsey did.

The third book in the series is Book, Line, and Sinker (2012).

Five stars

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October 2022 Summary: 11/01/22

Reading report

October meant flu and COVID. We're starting off November with the tail end of COVID. November might also mean a kitchen redesign if we can squeeze it in without impacting Thanksgiving.

I read fewer books in October, 28, down from 30 in the previous month. Of my read books, eighteen were diverse. I reviewed 30 books, the same as the previous month. On the reviews front, twenty qualified. Six read and five reviewed books were queer.

I have fifty-one books left to review of the 270 books I've read this year.

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