Book Review · Year in Review

2019 in Books

I almost didn’t do this report this year, and TBH, the only reason I’m doing it is in the event that a year or so down the road I may be irritated with myself for failing to record the data. For some reason I’m suddenly realizing exactly how dumb and nerdy and useless this whole exercise is… but I guess everyone needs a hobby, right? And heck, maybe someone other than me would like to see the full trajectory of these dumb and nerdy and useless Year in Review posts… at which point, you go you.

Standard disclaimer: I don’t log all/most of the books I read for work. The books I do log are done so capriciously, chaotically, and with complete lack of rhyme or reason (outside of the fact that if I definitely liked a book, I’ll log it). Probably my #1 purpose in logging books in Goodreads to help me remember which I’ve already read, so this past year I included all of the books I was reading for the Mock Caldecott class so I didn’t lose track. Skews my stats a little, but since I’m doing this for gits and shiggles, I’m not too concerned.

Favorites!

I read so many really great books this year that it’s hard to narrow it down. The first that jumps to mind is Martha Wells’s Murderbot series. These were such a fun read! These books are novellas, which make them quick and zippy, and their protagonist is one of the most original and strangely endearing I’ve encountered in science fiction. I’ve been recommending these a lot to people who enjoy science fiction, especially the kind with lots of adventure and intrigue and humor and fight scenes, and who like their stories clever without needing to use all of their brain cells all at once.

On a whim last summer, I visited a library branch I’d never been to. And on a whim, I picked up and borrowed this book off their New Releases shelf. What a ride! Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer is the true story of a young woman who — basically on a whim! — entered what might be the world’s most grueling horse race, completely unprepared, and not only survived but won. This was one of these books that takes you on a trip while you read it, and I really felt like I was seeing and experiencing the things Prior-Palmer wrote about. She was a fascinating and unique narrator, sometimes infuriating, often endearing, and I found myself researching her and this race after finishing the book. I’ve had good luck recommending this book to junior high students as well.

The Newsflesh series. Holy moly. I could not read these fast enough — and that’s saying something, because they’re zombie books, and zombies are not my thing. Reading these books and their spinoff stories (all by Mira Grant) was like watching really enjoyable action movies. A perfect balance of relatable, likable characters, fast-paced adventure, intrigue, political/social commentary, interpersonal relationships, humor, and sorrow/horror.

I’ve been introducing Seanan McGuire and Mira Grant (same person, different genres) as my current favorite author for over a year now. I adored everything of hers I read this year, but definitely have to highlight McGuire’s Middlegame. This book strained against pretty much every genre I tried to assign it and left me with the best kind of book hangover. In no particular order, it’s got biopunk (think Frankenstein), alchemy, adventure, survival, romance, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, superpowers, mathematics, murder… more than that. I’m usually pretty good at describing and “selling” books, but this one basically leaves me speechless. I end up just thrusting it at people and saying, “You should read this.”

Without question I also need to acknowledge This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. This book — a science fiction love story told from the alternating perspectives of two incredibly advanced lifeforms on opposing sides of a catastrophic war — is deceptively small but packs a big punch. This was one of the most challenging books I read, and I found myself struggling (in a good way!) to understand or guess what was happening. It was exquisitely beautiful and breathtakingly weird. Reading this book gave me the same feeling that I got the first time I saw classic marble statues at the High Museum and realized what people were talking about when they said the marble seemed almost alive. Like I was in the presence of something too big to really understand and too glorious to look away from.

I’m going to talk about one more favorite, because it was an outlier for me and I think pushed me in a direction to try some new things. What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr is a realistic mystery novel centered on an older woman who has been wrongfully institutionalized in a dementia center. As she regains her faculties she’s revealed as a kickbutt, quirky, amusing, no-nonsense, fearless heroine. I read this while taking a MBSR class, and was deeply amused to recognize mindfulness and meditation techniques that this book’s Rose used to great benefit. The experience of reading this book was a complete 180 from the experience of reading Time War, and it definitely wasn’t what you’d call a brain-breaker, but it was thoroughly entertaining and charming and fun.

On to the Stats and Charts and Stuff

My monthly bar graph is all thrown out of whack thanks to September, when I read a TON of picture books — a very large batch of wordless picture books for a lesson I was helping to create for a teacher, and another large batch of previous Caldecott award and honor books. My summer reading was better than last year’s by a long shot; I still don’t fully understand what happened last June! This year, I had an unusually weak April but mostly stayed pretty consistent throughout the year.

When we look at pages read each month, rather than books,you can really see how the picture books skewed September. Yeah, it was 52 books, but it was only 2,381 pages — not even one of the top 3 months for page count. That honor goes to July, followed by December and then June. As usual, I’m doing my most reading in the summer when I’m not working, and in the darkest part of winter.

It’s not surprising to me to see a large slice of the pie devoted to science fiction; this year was a bigger SF year for me than some, but it’s always one of my favorites. It’s a little more interesting to note that I read more mystery and thriller than usual. This includes some of the urban fantasy (like McGuire’s October Daye series), but I dipped my toe into realistic mysteries (What Rose Forgot and D.A. Bartley’s Blessed Be the Wicked)… which in turn inspired me to branch out into J.D. Robb’s semi-realistic In Death series in December. (They’re science fiction, in that they take place in the late 2050s/early 2060s and have improved technology, but they’re essentially realistic-adjacent). This series sunk its teeth into me and I imagine you’re going to see a huge mystery/thriller spike in 2020 as a result!

Another important reason to go ahead and write this up, is that this is my tenth year doing this, and now I have a decade of data! Huzzah! Behold, the last ten years of my life, as seen through reading charts! As you look at Books Read 2010-2019, you might be thinking, “Hey, she managed to keep reading quite a bit when Kid #2 showed up and added a newborn to her toddler circus!” It’s understandable that you might get that impression…

…But let’s go ahead and clear that up with Pages Read 2010-2019:

Ah, picture books. You never fail to warp charts. 🙂

Anyway, that’s pretty much that. I’m tackling XBooks again in 2020, but releasing myself from the expectation of doing artwork for every book, which I think is a little bit too bad and also what I needed right now. Still tearing my way through the pleasantly long In Death series. Can’t wait to see what amazing books cross my path this year!

Librarianing

Genrefying our Junior High Library, Part 1

I am ready to begin the physical work of genrefying our junior high library and am making myself hit the pause button to do a “pre-reflection” on the process so that I can remember everything and share with others if anyone ever asks.

Making the Decision

When I started out as a school librarian six years ago, I knew about the concept of genrefying (that is, organizing a library’s fiction section by genre so that all  of the fantasy books are in one place, all of the mystery books were in another, etc.). I knew about the concept, and I hated it. In retrospect, I think there were two reasons that I disliked genrefication so much:

  • It felt very elementary, and if we genrefied the middle school library, how would they be able to find anything in a non-genrefied high school or public library?
  • As a speculative fiction fan (science fiction, horror, paranormal, fantasy, etc.) I couldn’t get over the hurdle of books that didn’t fit neatly into one genre.

I was in the same middle school library for five years, in a school with a terrific culture of reading. Every year I would get the same questions (especially from incoming sixth graders) about where to find _____ genre of books, but I used lists/collections and personal reading advisory to help them find what they wanted. Circulation was great, and the system was working okay. But as I entered that fifth year, I noticed that I was hearing a lot more about genrefying in the professional journals and conferences, and that my concerns were beginning to be addressed in ways that I could sink my teeth into. I also noticed that increasingly, the public libraries and high school libraries and bookstores in my area were organizing their fiction by genre, greatly minimizing the legitimacy of my concern about how I was prepping them for the future.

But more importantly: as I grew into being a more seasoned school librarian, I learned which of my cherished biases and beliefs to let go of.

It took time for me to relax, to be able to say to myself, “Yes, it is true that steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction under the umbrella of alternative history, and that science fiction is defined by explaining the speculative elements of the story using science rather than supernatural forces, so these superhero stories are science fiction while these superhero stories are fantasy…… but your students don’t know or care about that. Your students think superheroes are sci fi. Your students think steampunk is fantasy. And it isn’t important for you to teach the nuances of speculative subgenre to 12-year-olds. It’s important for you to get books into their hands.”

And just as I was wrapping my head around the idea of possibly trying it at that school, I ended up moving over here to the junior high.

Our library is physically small. Weirdly laid-out. Not ideal for genrefying at all; for best results, you want plenty of well-defined space for each section.

But this library also has low circulation. It’s not easy to browse. The kids aren’t proactive browsers. Their parents provide them with home libraries (which is a GOOD AND AWESOME THING, but doesn’t do my circulation stats any favors).

And when the kids did come in to check out books, probably 75% of them had the same question: “Where are the [genre] books?” And that question didn’t fade away as the year went on. They are still asking it in May even after being told repeatedly how to find the books alphabetically by author after referencing genre lists in our catalog.

In February or March, in that time of year when my creative energy begins to quietly percolate, I decided: cramped, weird physical layout be damned — we need to genrefy.

Preparations

By fourth quarter of this school year, our library was divided into the following sections:

  • fiction (along the west wall)
  • nonfiction (along the north wall and on three shelving “islands” on the north end of the library)
  • graphic novels (long shelving island adjacent to the computer lab)
  • manga (two spinning media towers)
  • short story collections (between the fiction section and the door)
  • picture books and hi-lo reads (on one of the nonfiction islands)
  • books translated into Spanish (on the same nonfiction island)
  • an “archive” section containing old yearbooks, a collection of books about state history that technically ought to be weeded but that I couldn’t bear to toss, and oversized books, on the south end of the library
  • audiobooks, on the south end of the library

My first step was weeding. My predecessor had done a pretty extensive fiction weed last year, which helped a lot, but I was able to go through and remove some unneeded duplicate copies and series that had lost popularity as well. I focused a lot of energy on weeding nonfiction, which was sorely needed not only to improve the collection but also because I wanted the space! My goal is to move the nonfiction entirely onto the three islands, opening up the north wall for fiction.

Next was planning for the actual sort. I read several accounts of how other libraries had gone about it, but I’m not sure that I’m going to do exactly what anyone else did. For one thing, I have more preference and aptitude for digital work than some, so my genrefying adventures started at my keyboard instead of in the stacks.

I started by emailing Follett and asking them to do a genre analysis report for me. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I received the report (like, within the same business day!) and was able to easily manipulate it in Excel to reflect the information I actually needed.

I used my Excel Sorcery skills to massage the spreadsheet and sort most of the fiction books in my collection into one of six categories: fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mystery, realistic fiction, and science fiction. I chose these six because they are the most frequently requested genres, minus “funny books,” because it seems to me that funny books exist within every genre and aren’t a genre to themselves — maybe this is another area where I have room to grow, but for now, this is where we are. I know that more genres might be “more better,” but there just isn’t enough room in our space to accommodate them. Heck, I’m honestly not sure if I can make six sections work!

That left quite a few books that Follett couldn’t or didn’t satisfactorily genrefy for me, so my next step was going book-by-book and categorizing them. Many were easy; I knew the book and could quickly identify which section kids would think to find them in. Some took some research. Some gave me such trouble that I went to social media to ask all my friends where they thought the book would fit. And after days of this, I still have about a dozen books that I haven’t decided on a placement yet.

I color-coded my spreadsheet and bought transparent colored label covers to match. Then I did more Excel Sorcery and (virtually) broke down my fiction collection into its six new divisions.

spreadsheet

This is giving me a chance to guess how much space each section is going to need, and see which of our new sections might benefit from some focused collection development. I’ve been really keeping my eyes peeled for good YA and middle grade mystery and horror after doing this analysis:

genre pie

So then we get to today. Part of me is eager and excited to get started (I think my next step will be going shelf by shelf and applying the colored label covers). Part of me is terrified. Part of me thinks this is going to be relatively easy and effective. Part of me thinks it is going to be daunting, backbreaking, and that no one will notice or care.

But all of me ran our circulation stats this morning, and they weren’t pretty. Circulation isn’t good. I’ve never had felt like such a failure as a school librarian as when I saw those stats. And it’s not comparing our circulation to my last school’s — I know that would be dumb. In comparison to previous years at this school, this year has SUCKED. I’ve always been the book-moving fairy. And this has been the worst year for fiction circulation in solid decade, by more than a thousand books. It ain’t pretty.

So I’ve got to do something different. And this is a thing I can try. Worst case, we get to remove a heck of a lot of labels and move a heck of a lot of books back into place.

Here goes nothing. Or something.

Book Review · Librarianing · XBooks

All Systems Red: XBooks Challenge #2

XBooks Challenge #2: Award Winner

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I stumbled upon this book from a mention or recommendation from someone I follow on Twitter, and thought it sounded like something I might enjoy, but as I began reading it I found myself wondering about its XBooks category. I’d already used my colorful title, and I hated to use science fiction yet… and I wasn’t really sure this qualified as a recommendation from a friend. Then I looked up the book on Goodreads and guess what, y’all? This book has won, like, ALL OF THE AWARDS.

Rad.

All Systems Red is the first in the Murderbot Diaries series which, let’s be honest, is what caught my eye. Murderbot? Really? Again: rad. Each book in the series is novella length, which seems to be either a hot trend in awesome speculative fiction or just something that’s particularly appealing to me lately.

The story opens without preamble on an alien planet where our narrator, who is without identifiable gender and refers to itself as Murderbot, if anything, has been assigned as the security detail to a group of scientists/surveyors. Murderbot is a cyborg and is supposed to be controlled by a governor module; however, it’s found a way to disable the module and — although still doing its job and following all orders — is secretly free. This allows it to reflexively act with greater compassion during an emergency extraction than would have been expected from a correctly-operating cyborg. The scientists — who are Good Guys — begin to suspect that there is more to Murderbot than meets the eye, but because we’ve had the infinite good and amusing fortune to have been inside Murderbot’s thoughts this whole time, it’s not news to the reader.

Murderbot is an awesome character. Wells somehow perfectly imagined the mind of a cyborg, with computer and human tendencies, and created a protagonist who is funny, sympathetic, clever, self-deprecating, and brave, and very real-feeling. Even though (as a novella) this book didn’t waste a lot of space explaining the technology, I had no problem accepting the premise and rolling right into the team’s (mis)adventures.

The more I read, the more I wondered whether Martha Wells had deliberately drawn Murderbot as an analog for an autistic adult. And yeah, that’s an uncomfortable concept, especially in the midst of #puppetgate and controversy surrounding ABA and its creator’s belief that autistic people were not actually people. So yeah, when I say, “the cyborg in this book seems autistic,” I can feel the red flags unfurling! But it’s not like that; this book doesn’t read like someone trying to say that autistic people are robotic. It reads like a metaphor for all of the difficulty that an autistic person can have understanding their identity and autonomy in a world that is not only constructed for people who think in entirely different ways, but in a world that benignly neglects and discriminates against those who don’t fit into the norm. And at no point is there a sense that Murderbot is less than — the opposite, in fact.

When I finished the book, I searched for others’ reviews and comments. I was super curious as to whether anyone else drew a similar conclusion, or if the author had acknowledged deliberate intent. I found a TON of other readers drawing comparisons between Murderbot and the autistic experience, and was also fascinated to see that there were many who read it as a metaphor for the trans experience, or the queer experience, or the immigrant experience. Y’all, it is this bookworm’s opinion that a book that speaks that clearly to that many different people is pretty damn well-done.

(And, in re-reading some of these reviews just now, I stumbled upon the NPR review that says pretty much everything I would like to say but much better, so you should probably read it.)

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with this page in my notebook. This is a story where all the interesting stuff happens between the narrator’s ears, and that’s not very visual… so I decided to go back through and collect my favorite quotes/lines, and incorporate them somehow. I ended up modifying a free desktop wallpaper image of a planet that felt kind of like what I was visualizing as this book’s setting, and then adding the cyborg from the front cover art (by Jamie Jones). Instead of trying to handwrite the quotes and inevitably messing up or smearing the ink, I typed them in a layer over the planetary scene and manually wrapped them around the place where Murderbot would be once all of the pieces were laid down. I screwed up the alignment a bit, resulting in an uneven bottom border that I camouflaged with shiny silver tape. Finally, I really wanted to trace over the climactic quote with my awesome black-to-red shimmer gel pen, but when I started I realized it was coming out too dark, so I just used it to highlight the first six words and left the rest alone. This isn’t my favorite page but it does the trick, and I hope that anyone who looks at it will be intrigued by the quotes and find the book to read for themselves!

Book Review · Librarianing · XBooks

Captain Marvel: Mighty Origins: XBooks #3

XBooks Challenge #3: Became a Movie

Captain Marvel: Mighty Origins by various authors

I do feel like this entry into my XBooks challenge might be a little bit cheaty. There are so many book-length novels that have been made into movies, and quite a few of those are books I really ought to have read and haven’t… so yeah, I’m feeling a tiny bit of guilt that I’m using a relatively short compendium of comic books for challenge #3.

Then again, I’ve said and will continue to say that the point of this challenge — for ME — hasn’t been “read more books” or “read different kinds of books,” but rather the entire journal-keeping adventure. And I really, really wanted to make this journal page. Sooooooo. Ta da!

When I went to see the new Captain Marvel movie, I knew about as much about the titular character as a person could know without having read any of her comics. I knew that she’d taken over the title from a male predecessor, that she’d been infused or some such with alien powers, and that there was also a Ms. Marvel who I thought also ought to have a movie. I knew that Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel had evolved from a 70s high-cut bikini-wearing Charlies Angels type to a tough feminist icon who might be the MCU’s best bet to win the Endgame. But I didn’t know much else beyond that.

After watching the movie, I was one of many women who saw a pretty rad role model in this iteration of Captain Marvel. Without going into too much philosophizing, she seems like the hero [not-Gotham] needs right now — and frankly, the hero at least half of us deserve. Timely, kickass, tough, and vulnerable. All kinds of good stuff.

This collection of comic books includes some of the very earliest Ms. Marvel comics from 1977, much more contemporary comics, and an installment pairing up Captain Marvel with a young Muslim Ms. Marvel in a post-apocalyptic mess of a scenario. It gave me a taste of her backstory and the different ways that creators have brought the character to life over the last four decades, and a greater appreciation for the character she’s become in the new movies.

This particular selection of comics was done, I believe, with younger audiences (or “all ages”) in mind, because I got it through Scholastic. I’m sure there are some pretty dark and grim storylines and imagery that I could have encountered, and most of the stories in this collection were not only fairly straight-forward but also gave helpful nods to more familiar-to-the-average-noncomic-reader audience.

I enjoyed seeing the 70s version of Marvel grumbling about the Avengers not being around to help in the midst of a crisis (not that she needed the help) and I also got a kick out of a scene where Spider-Man and Captain America grappled a bit with her and helped her come to terms with the idea of officially embracing her title of Captain Marvel. It’s an interesting part of her character development that, in my opinion, tells us a lot about her without saying much at all.

For this spread in my notebook, I wanted to use Captain Marvel’s iconic uniform emblem as a background and then incorporate the different styles and visions for the character through the years. I decided on the more retro shades of blue and red to help the pictures pop and laid down some thick gel crayon. The star itself came from a free phone wallpaper I found online, which I scaled to match up with a double-band of gold washi tape; I embellished the star with a completely awesome gold gel pen (Pentel Hybrid Dual Metallic Liquid Gel Roller Pen, if you need one). Then I added my favorite Captain Marvel moment from the movie (and Goose, because you can’t forget Goose), Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel ready to get to work in her gorgeous kameez-inspired costume, old-school Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel in her bare-thighed glory, and two 21st-century images, with and without space helmet thingie.

And this time (drum roll please!) I thought through my layers and put things down on paper in the right order!

Book Review · XBooks

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: XBooks #5

XBooks Challenge #5: A Book of Poetry

beautifuldayintheneighborhoodA Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers with illustrations by Luke Flowers

I’m swear I’m really not cheating by picking a book of children’s poetry for this challenge; I read a fair amount of grown-up poetry too.

When I saw this book in my kindergartner’s Scholastic book order, it immediately grabbed my attention, and when I saw that it wasn’t a little picture book but instead 144 pages of poems/songs illustrated by Colorado Springs artist Luke Flowers, I knew that I had to have it. I mean, sure, I was hoping that my boys would like it — they both watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood — but this book was for six-year-old me as much as it was for them.

I love all of the things about this book. The volume itself is beautifully bound, hefty, with lovely paper and endsheets. The fonts they used were a perfect update to the original hand-drawn titles. Luke Flowers’s illustration style perfectly captured the beloved characters and sets with a subtly retro color scheme and style, while adding in contemporary details that brought to life a vision of what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would look like if it were airing today.

And I was taken aback by the poems themselves. Although they are certainly “childish,” I kept finding myself pausing over a line or a stanza and thinking, Wow, what a great way to explain that to a kid who is struggling with that situation, or This would really help a socially-delayed kid figure things out, or They could use this in an elementary PBI setting, or even — shockingly, because I am NOT an early education person, I wish I were a kindergarten teacher so I could use a poem from this book each day as a bellringer and theme for the day. (I emailed all of our elementary librarians to recommend they add it to their next purchase!)

And if you were a fan of the show, you’ll be transported. Who could forget the gentle assurance that we wouldn’t get sucked down the bath drain? Or the love in Mr. Rogers’s voice when he sang, “It’s You I Like”? The flip of the shoe as he changed into his cardigan and asked, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”? (Links go to pages from the book.)

This was a wonderfully nostalgic read for me, especially thanks to the illustration work. I turned to the spread with the poem “Mister Rogers’ Invitation” and found myself breaking into a huge grin as the details from the Land of Make-Believe set jumped out at me — especially Corney’s Rockit Factory right in the center of the picture. I couldn’t remember what in the world it was when I saw it — and lemme tell you, that’s a hard sort of thing to Google — but I could just see those dials and gauges working as clearly as if I were watching the show at that very minute. I spent several lovely moments remembering the sounds of the trolley going through the tunnel and along the tracks. It was all pretty dang rad.

So do my kiddos like it? I read a few of the poems to them in the car, and they recognized some of the phrases and informed me that this was PBS Kids dot org, which is either darling or an indictment of the use of screens in our household. And while I was making my page, my little guy (barely 3) was fascinated by the cut-out of Daniel Tiger. He kept coming back and holding it and telling me that “bear is sad” — I guess the modern Daniel Tiger has a different-enough appearance that he didn’t recognize him. I’m looking forward to seeing if my kindergartner will read some of the poems; I know he’ll be captivated by the trolley. Come to think of it, I need to show him some old Neighborhood Trolley footage. He’d go nuts.

Because the illustrations spoke so much to me, I really wanted to highlight them on this page of my XBooks Notebook and do an illustration collage. I scanned in images, used Photoshop to isolate them from their backgrounds, and then dropped them into Publisher to try to figure out the layout so I’d know how big to print them. As I was doing it, I accidentally dropped in an enormous Daniel Tiger and started to remove it before realizing I really liked the way it overlapped with other elements, so I “made the tiger bigger” and went for it. I used polka dotted washi tape to fill in the negative space (NOTE TO SELF: DO THIS BEFORE GLUING DOWN THE OTHER STUFF NEXT TIME) and added some music note washi to the trolley track. Finally I used metallic Gelly Roll pens to write a few quotations from the book. I like the way it turned out quite a bit!

Challenge 5

Book Review · XBooks

River of Teeth: XBooks #17

XBooks Challenge #17: Historical Fiction

River of Teeth book coverRiver of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

This was another fun one that could have fit in several different XBooks categories. It was, truthfully, a bit of a stretch to put it in the historical fiction slot, but I went with it, because this is my dang reading list and I can define genres the way I wanna. 😉 River of Teeth also would have qualified as fantasy, LGBTQIAP+ characters/themes, nonhuman characters (slight stretch; what makes something a character?) regional author (Gailey lives in Portland, OR), or — in my case, anyway — “book you’ve been meaning to read”. I also think the main character was ethnically different than me (was he supposed to be Korean? I feel like that is in my head but I doesn’t specifically remember reading it) which is another category. And if you count “alternative history” as a subgenre of science fiction, it would fit there as well.

Before I say more about this book, I need to share some true nonfictional real historical information. In the early 1900s, the United States came up with a brilliant plan: hippo ranching. Importing hippopotamuses from Africa and raising them in Louisiana would, Congress posited, alleviate a growing meat shortage in the country and would solve some issues with invasive aquatic plant species. It was an creative approach, and had some support (amongst some very colorful and shady characters, incidentally) but ultimately — obviously — we didn’t go through with it.

River of Teeth asks, “but what if we had?” It takes place several years into a failed Louisiana hippo experiment, after Americans have had a chance to realize that hippos are not aquatic cattle, but are instead the deadliest land mammal on the planet. The rivers and bayous are infested with bad-tempered feral hippos that can snap a person in half with a single bite of their massive tusks (no, really; their tusks/canine are about 20 inches long). In an America where horses have become a rare novelty, brave souls train and ride different breeds of hippopotamus instead — and as a result have weapons they can ride.

The story centers around Winslow Houndstooth, a somewhat scoundrelly former hippo rancher, who has accepted a commission from the government to clear a bunch of feral hippos out of the Mississippi River. He recruits a crew of mercenary hippo wranglers, Oceans 11 style, to undertake a task that Houndstooth steadfastly denies is a caper. Unfortunately, as is often the case with group capers (even the kind that you deny are capers), there’s betrayal and complications galore….

Honestly, River of Teeth didn’t turn out to be the book I was expecting. I opened it expecting lots of awesome gore and blood and guts and hippo action… and yeah, that was there, but it was very much in the background of what I felt was a much more character-driven narrative. Instead of an action-horror story, it felt more like a queer period romance. Gailey created a dazzling diverse cast of characters, and their relationships and hinted-at backstories drowned out the actual plot. What would this novella have looked like if it had been expanded to full novel length, with room to really get to know the (nonbinary? transgender? agender?) demolitions expert, the pregnant femme fatale assassin, the zaftig pickpocketing disguise artist… not to mention the mysterious protagonist, his devious foes, and the hippos?!?!?

(Maybe I should read the sequel?)

For this book’s spread in my XBooks Notebook, I wanted to bring in a lot of red and I wanted to feature the tusks or teeth. I had some washi tape that reminded me of hippo skin and swirling water, and then found some red tape that turned out to be just the ticket. Other than the washi tape, all I used for this layout was cutouts from the internet. This wasn’t the scariest hippo photo I could find, but I discovered while looking that the inside of a hippo’s mouth makes me very squeamish, so that cut out a lot of my options. The picture propped up behind my notebook was of an actual hippo attack, but I decided to go with this more quietly-menacing picture instead. (I also wanted to represent the heroic non-feral hippos, so a milder picture worked well.) The tusks are about half their actual size. I added a picture of an ivory-handled dagger, a historically-approximate ranching hat, and some old-looking playing cards to tie in different elements from the book. And even though it was a pain in the neck to cut it out, I couldn’t leave out the meteor hammer!

page layout for River of Teeth

By the way, if you’d like to know more about the real hippo ranching scheme, Wired Magazine wrote a tantalizing little article a few years back that you can read here. This one on Interesly is pretty good, too.

Book Review · XBooks

Spider-Verse – Spider-Gwen: XBooks #10

XBooks Challenge #10: Comic Book

Spider-Man: Spider-Verse – Spider-Gwen by Marvel Comics
(originally published as Edge of Spider-verse #2, Spider-Gwen 2015A #5, and Spider-Gwen 2015B #1-2 and #13)

I bought this kid-friendly (ages 10+) compilation of Spider-Gwen comics for my school library in the wake of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse‘s popularity, and because I thought Spider-Gwen was rad. I decided that it was going to be my pick for challenge #10 because I want to read Seanan McGuire’s Ghost Spider comic(s), and I felt like it would be a good idea to “warm up” first — to get acclimated to the unique style and structure of comic book storytelling — so that I could really appreciate Seanan’s contributions to the canon.

See, I personally struggle with visual storytelling. I’m the person who, when reading a textbook or magazine article, literally won’t even notice the graphs, infographics, or other non-verbal information. My eyes just don’t even see it… and if I’m required to read it, I find that it takes me a comparatively enormous amount of time to comprehend what it’s trying to tell me.

I can generally read graphic novels without too much trouble, because they tend to have a lot of text and are pretty linear in terms of helping you follow the trail of the story. But comic books are… different. They’re serialized; the same character can be written by many different people; and in comic-land, conflicting and contradictory storylines not only coexist but sometimes converge. To make those connections between issues — and universes, timelines, etc. — comic books will do callbacks and flashbacks to other issues. And, in my experience, they do so very abruptly and without any hand-holding. You’ll be reading along, panel to panel, feeling confident in your ability to follow the story, and then WHAMMO! — suddenly you’re ten years in the past, or two weeks in the future, or watching something happen to another character that you’ve never even seen before, in a different country and century! — and we’re back. For someone who isn’t used to comics, it’s jarring and disorienting. I had some idea that this was going to be the case, and I wanted to give myself some “practice” (and some more Spider-Gwen background) before tackling Ghost Spider. I really liked what some of my more comics-savvy friends said about comics  having their own visual “vernacular” or “dialect” that takes a little bit of getting used to.

Anyway, this Spider-Gwen book was a fun little introduction into Gwen Stacy’s universe and life. We get to see her as the slightly unreliable drummer in an band called (naturally) The Mary Janes, and we get to see her somewhat uncomfortable relationship with her NYPD detective father. Spider-Gwen takes us behind the scenes of Gwen’s attempts to hold a normal job and maintain normal friendships, even as life circumstances erode her ability to keep her secret identity secure. Only a moment or two is spent on Peter Parker, but we do get to meet Samantha Wilson, a Black female version of Captain America who was recruited by Peggy Carter (who has become a White female version of Nick Fury, complete with eyepatch!) Again, this was all a little jarring; it took me several minutes and ultimately an internet search to remind myself that all of this took place in a different universe/timeline (Earth-65) than the more mainstream Marvel fare I’d previously consumed.

The book also included what I kept thinking of as a Simpsons Halloween episode. The Mary Janes are (rather inexplicably, not being children) trick-or-treating, and end up breaking into an abandoned carnival that turns out to be populated by zombies and hallucinogenic substances and other creepy weirdnesses. Much like the Simpsons Halloween episodes, a lot of this “chapter” seemed composed of non sequiturs and inside jokes that I didn’t get. I’m not entirely sure why the editors decided to include that issue in this book; it didn’t really fit with the others and had a really disjointed feel to it. Maybe they just wanted to bookend the volume with The Mary Janes?

Anyway, if you enjoyed Into the Spider-Verse and want to know more about Spider-Gwen, this book is a pretty good option!

I really like the way this page turned out. New favorite! Then again, a full-color comic book was bound to lend itself to an aesthetically appealing spread. I used color print-outs of Gwen, both masked and unmasked, as well as one of Earth-65’s Captain America and one of the lizard critters they fight off, and tied them together with some of Spider-Gwen’s fuchsia and turquoise webbing. The silver negative space (Ooly Sparkle Watercolor Gel Crayon) created kind of a spotlight effect, which I liked. I added holographic turquoise tape along the webbing and edged the spread with a really nice thin silver tape that has almost a leather feel to it. I printed out blank speech balloons and hand-wrote a couple of definitive quotes, then lined the speech balloons with metallic Gelly Roll pens.

Book Review · XBooks

Breach: XBooks #32

XBooks Challenge #32: One-word Title

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Breach by W.L. Goodwater

This book was an impulse borrow off the new release wall at the public library. The cover art grabbed my attention, and then I read the words on the front cover and knew that if it was written well that this was probably going to be a “me” sort of book. And readers, I was not disappointed!

I wasn’t even thinking of XBooks when I checked Breach out, but it fit neatly into the “one word title” category. This book could also count as fantasy (11), set in another country (42), or historical fiction (17), or probably even science fiction (40), and as I type this I’m kind of wishing I’d used it for #17 instead, because I sometimes find it hard to pick out historical fiction that I really enjoy.

Breach is probably best described as historical urban fantasy. It takes place “during the Cold War” but doesn’t specify a time period; I had to adjust my mental image a couple of times but think it’s probably set somewhere in the 60s or maybe 70s. In this version of the past, some people have the ability to harness magical ability; because Nazi Germany cultivated this ability, magic use is seen as somewhat suspect in the United States. Nevertheless, the US has an American Office of Magical Research and Development, and one of its scientists is a promising young magician named Karen O’Neil. Although her male colleagues try to marginalize and compartmentalize her, she has superior magical ability and ends up being selected by the director to help the CIA with a little problem at the Berlin Wall.

Except… it’s a big problem. Because the Berlin Wall isn’t made out of concrete and steel in this story — it’s made out of the most incredible, intricate magic that Karen has ever seen. And it’s about to come tumbling down. And — biggest problem of all — the CIA has laid its hope of saving the day on Karen, and if she fails, she’ll be proving her obnoxious male colleagues right (not to mention, not stopping WWIII).

Cue Nazis! Stalinists! Oversized Scotsmen! Hapless Americans! Feckless Frenchmen! Berliners struggling to survive! Doublecrosses! Triplecrosses? Whiskey and bullets and mind control and flying tool chests and breaks in the time-space continuum and a sentimental set of jacks! And a climactic scene right out of a Jean Grey comic!

This is a historical time period that I’m not particularly well-versed in, so it took me a few false starts and stumbles to really get my mind around the historical context framing everything. Despite knowing on a rational level that the Cold War immediately followed and was caused by WWII, I hadn’t quite internalized the idea that Nazis were directly involved with the whole “Berlin Wall” thing. I think I might have had an easier time with this if the author had overtly stated the year, but nevertheless, I feel like I have a much better grasp on some elements of the Cold War than I did before starting this (admittedly fantastical) novel. For one thing, I finally actually feel like I understand what the Berlin Wall was, thanks to this book and to asking my history teacher husband for clarification and illumination along the way.

Definitely an enjoyable read, and if a sequel materializes I’ll definitely want to read it.

This was a fun page to make in my notebook, and it took me longer than most. I started with a photograph of the Berlin Wall and used Photoshop to add and manipulate transparent layers to create the illusion of enchantment, instability, and distorted reality. Then I spent more time than strictly suitable trying to find a picture of a woman from this approximate time period who wasn’t wearing an apron and heels or bellbottoms. Finally I started searching for female spies, filtered out the many excellent images of Emma Peel and Agent 99, and finally found this cute gal. Since she was holding a laptop computer and grinning beguilingly, I used Photoshop again to give her an old-fashioned map, a worried facial expression, and the magical pouch or locus that she wore around her neck instead of a business tie. I wanted to include a melting coin that plays a quick but important role late in the book and had to create it myself because all of the ones I could find online were euros. Finally I put it all together with some holographic tape and a gel crayon background that echoed the book cover.

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Book Review · XBooks

The Cardboard Kingdom: XBooks #22

XBooks Challenge #22: Multiple Narrators

30623090The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell with Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez

There were a lot of books I could have chosen to fulfill this requirement, but I really wanted to read this one… and there were a lot of categories that I could have used this book to fulfill, but here we are! Not only does The Cardboard Kingdom feature multiple narrators, but the stories within come from multiple authors collaborating to create one cohesive summer saga.

This graphic novel is stuffed with nearly 300 pages of beautiful art, heartfelt action and adventure, relatively spare narrative, authentically diverse characters, and a whole big bunch of nostalgia.  It tells, without depending on much in the way of framework or connective tissue, the story of a neighborhood full of children spending their summer with a wealth of cardboard and imagination. Their make-believe cooperative allows them to embrace and explore their dreams and identities in a way that their parents sometimes don’t understand, but are met with mostly encouragement and enthusiasm from their friends.

I had heard of this book but hadn’t paid it a lot of attention until it ended up on the long form of the 2019 Rainbow Book List. I’d imagined that it was a strictly non-controversial elementary-level romp, based on what I knew of it, and was curious as to how it ended up being recommended as one of the excellent “books with significant gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning content, aimed at children and youth from birth to age 18”. Now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to say that not only is it an excellent addition to that list, and a fairly non-controversial elementary-level romp… it is also a pretty awesome, affirming story for those of us who have left our playground days far behind us.

Each of the characters gets their own little story in the book. There’s a girl tasked with keeping her little brother in line who becomes the Huntress pursuing her “where the wild things are”-esque sibling. A spoiled-seeming little girl who insists on being in charge of all she oversees, who nevertheless finds companionship when a neighbor stumbles into her realm. Two feuding curbside entrepreneurs who combine their wares and creativity to create an imaginary goods emporium. A boy who feels helpless in the face of his collapsing family and finds inner strength by donning a cardboard helmet and blanket cape. Another boy who loves the idea of being a powerful, glamorous, sassy sorceress and doesn’t see any reason why being a boy should stop him from some wicked fun. There’s a girl who gets told she’s too loud and brassy by some, who channels her vivacious personality into the perfect cardboard beast. A boy who wants to experience the rush of a fairy tale romance… and who secretly wishes for his own Prince Charming.

This book gave me All The Feels. I could have easily been a kid in these pages… or more than one of them! I look back and think of all the multitudes I contained, all of the different people I was or could have been. I see one version of myself so clearly in the lemonade — er, magic potion — stand vendor; when the neighborhood would gather in the streets on their Hot Wheels and tricycles, I was the one who dragged the Little Tikes gas pump out to the curb and fueled everyone up. I certainly played the Huntress at times, tromping through the woods with my toy bow-and-arrow in hand, stalking imaginary or little-sister prey. But I also see myself in the Sorceress, fascinated by power and magic and disdainful of the restraints of gender. Growing up, I didn’t want to be a boy, and I didn’t think I was a boy, but I coveted the adventures of male storybook heroes. In my mind, I was Robin Hood, a knight, a (male) Indian scout, a (male) wizard, a (male) racecar driver, James Bond, Han Solo. I loved my princess dress and my Ponies and all of that, but in the land of make-believe, I knew that guys had all the fun.

Heck, I see a childhood version of myself in the boy dreaming of his prince, too. When I got to that age where I began to think about things like “happily ever after,” my rose-tinted daydreams were just like his: awkward re-imaginings of the stories and movies I loved, plugging myself into the romantic centerpiece. I think that’s another really awesome thing about this book: yeah, that chapter features a boy who’s crushing on another boy, but that’s not the point. It’s just love, just a crush, just a person who has feelings for another person, and he’s terrified that people will find out and tease him, just like any kid would be, and anyone could relate. So yeah, it’s a chapter about a gay character, but it isn’t about being gay. It’s about being human. (Sidenote: I especially liked this chapter because the fairy tale they’re re-enacting is “The Princess and the Pea,” a personal favorite of mine… and the addition of an evil pea monster was pretty rad.)

This book made me smile. I wish I had another word for “nostalgia” that fully encapsulated the power it had for me. Lacking that, I strongly recommend that anyone who was fortunate enough to grow up before the age of omnipresent screens take an hour or so to enjoy this book and see how it strikes you… and maybe share it with today’s youngsters. Who knows; maybe it’ll inspire them to put down their phones and go find some empty boxes this summer.

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Book Review · XBooks

The Soul of an Octopus: XBooks #26

XBooks Challenge #26: Nonfiction audiobook

35026395.jpgThe Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

Talking to a group of sixth graders about XBooks and how it was awesome for helping readers find new things they might like, I gave them my best “cool adult aunt is gonna tell it like it is” face and said:

“Guys, there are two things I do not like. The first is audiobooks — I know, you love them! They’re great! But my ears are not good readers — and the second is gross scary underwater stuff. And I’ve spent the last week listening to an audiobook about octopuses.” [Cue dramatic shudder, not entirely feigned.] “And you know what? It’s pretty awesome. I mean, yeah, I’ve had to take a break a few times. It is not cool to be trying to eat your lunch and suddenly have someone telling you all about octopus eggs. But my ears have gotten better at focusing on the book as it went along, and I’ve learned some really cool facts, and because of XBooks, now I know that I can kind of enjoy a nonfiction audiobook. As long as I’m not trying to eat when it gets into really gross stuff.”

I won’t lie; my reading comprehension of The Soul of an Octopus was not great. I kept wishing I could go grab the print version and either read along or cheat by reading a few chapters with my eyes so I could skip ahead for my beleaguered ears. Despite my best efforts to pause the recording when other things were going on, I kept finding that my attention had drifted and that I’d missed out on goodness knows how many paragraphs or pages. This was definitely more because of the medium than the content, which was interesting and informative without being pedantic — just like a great NPR segment, which is what I was hoping to find. That said: please don’t quiz me on this book, because I’m not going to pass! 🙂

My takeaway from The Soul of an Octopus, format aside, is that the author is obviously a great lover of animals and has managed to build herself an adult life that a vast number of kids can only dream of. Although she romanticizes her subject matter in a way that would probably cause some more technically-minded readers to roll their eyes, she backs up her admiration and personification with a fair amount of heavy lifting. Montgomery learns about the octopus through research, through shadowing and assisting the experts, and even undergoes strenuous and dangerous training so that she can scuba dive and learn about the wild octopus in its natural environment. She’s basically an octopus fangirl, but she’s fully committed and works hard for it.

I started to consider whether this book convinced me that an octopus has a soul or personality or consciousness, but realized that I had already believed that they did, to whatever degree an animal would. Before starting the book, I was aware of the apparent intelligence of cephalopods and knew that they showed signs of awareness and personality. Instead, I now find myself pondering whether I think all animals do, or whether I have a line… I have a hard time ascribing personality or soul to a cod or a worm, but certainly believed my longtime pet goldfish was a little wet person… My dislike for underwater “stuff” leads me to want to categorize sea creatures as monsters, aliens, but when I poke at that feeling I find myself full of uncertainty.

The experience of listening to this book led to a few laughs — like when the mating scene blasted out unexpectedly at my desk at work — and gave me some new octopus trivia to dazzle unsuspecting passerby with. I’m not anxious to start another audiobook, but if I see another Montgomery book lying about I’d probably give it a look.

I also had some fun with gel crayons and their remarkable ability to cover a lot of paper very quickly and smoothly for this one:

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