8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

ambuscades, burglarious, cachinnate, rodomontade

The Moving Toyshop: A Detective Story by Edmund Crispin. Walker and Company, 1946. 0802754341.

I was complaining to a co-worker about having to give up on two classic mysteries in a row because they were too dark. (I have to be in the right mood for a really gritty book.) He recommended a series featuring a crime-solving Oxford don and loaned me this book. (Thanks, Tom!) It turned out to be just right.

English professor Gervase Fen is a delightful sleuth: he has a keen, logical mind, a tremendously dry sense of humor, and drives his red sports car (named Lily Christine III) around Oxford like a maniac. His poet friend Richard Cadogan comes to Oxford on vacation. On his way into town late at night, he finds the door of a toyshop unlocked. He enters to let the shopkeeper know, makes his way to the apartment upstairs, and finds the body of an elderly woman who was strangled to death. The unseen killer knocks him out with a blow to the head. After Cadogan comes to, he escapes through a back window. When he brings the police to investigate, both the body and the toyshop are gone. The police figure he imagined it all because of his (very real) head injury. Fen thinks otherwise. Together they piece together the clues to a murder without a body.

The crime itself is a complex and baffling puzzle. Even the suspects comment that it is an impossible murder, a locked-room mystery in an unlocked room. Several times I was convinced that I knew who had done it, only to have the evidence clear that person and a new suspect emerge. The solution brought everything together in a satisfying way. I am definitely going to follow the rest of Gervase Fen’s cases!

Both Fen and Cadogan are wonderfully eccentric, and they manage to gather quite a few odd characters to help them. My favorites were Wilkes, a hard-of-hearing elderly professor who always ends up near the liquor and beautiful women; an unnamed truck driver with a great appreciation for literature; and Mr. Barnaby, a student who interrupts his intellectual madeira-and-cake soiree to gather a mob of drunk undergrads and chase down a suspect. I found the book richly written and quite fun, with some lovely turns of phrase and a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary quite a few times. There are many entertaining literary references including a plot point involving the poetry of Edward Lear, a pair of heavies nicknamed Scylla and Charybdis, and a running joke involving Fen half-starting a discussion about Measure for Measure every time he’s on the phone with the police.

Renaissance Woman

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462694.

Bagge’s first biographical comic, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, was the kind of history-is-stranger-than-fiction book I love, so I was pretty excited that he’d written another one. And it’s about Zora Neale Hurston: writer, folklorist, and star of the Harlem Renaissance. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of the same kind of outrageous behavior, headstrong self-confidence, and perseverance in doing what needed to get done. Her life had family troubles! Literary feuds! Scrapes with death in rural Florida while collecting folklore! (There was a woman with a knife in a turpentine camp who felt Hurston had been putting the moves on her man!) And lots and lots of romantic relationships! (See also the previous parenthetical!)

There is a but coming: Hurston’s very full life, complex political beliefs, friendships and sometimes enemyships with a list of influential people as long as your arm means that you get plunged into the middle of  her life without a lot of lead up or context… until the notes section at the back. The notes, arranged in order by the page they explain, have the same tone as the comics with lots more detail. I just wish the information from each section could be combined better with the notes. I’ll be first in line for any future biographies by Bagge, but now I’ll be sure to flip back to the notes section as I read them.

Big Dreams… Of Murder!

Agatha Christie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Elisa Munsó, translated by Raquel Plitt. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017. 9781847809605. In the series Little People, Big Dreams.

I’ll admit that I was confused by the series name Little People, Big Dreams. Are all the biographees short? No, turns out they are all about women who had some aspiration in childhood that led to their achievements as adults. In Agatha Christie’s case, she thought up better endings for the books her mother read aloud to her. She grew up to learn about poisons as a nurse in WWI, and later created the legendary detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote mystery novels that became famous all over the globe. (The afterword notes that her books have been translated into more than a hundred languages and that her book And Then There Were None is one of the ten most-read books in the world.) This book is both an accessible biography for kids who won’t be reading Christie’s novels until they’re older, and an encouragement to explore their interests.

I wish I had Gene’s eye and vocabulary for illustration so I could say something more informative than “I really liked it!” The pictures are black and white pen drawings full of detailed patterns and swooping lines. Each page has an accent in red, and the faces are simple and appealing.

You’re Gonna Make It After All

Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects: Build, Invent, Create, Discover by Jack Challoner. DK Publishing, 2016. 9781465451354.

Make: Props and Costume Armor: Create Realistic Science Fiction and Fantasy Weapons, Armor, and Accessories by Shawn Thorsson. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680450064.

I’m really happy that some libraries have started including makerspaces in their services. The hands-on exploration and learning of the maker movement is a great fit with the library’s more traditional learning methods via books and videos. Now that I’m offering maker activities at work, I have to ask myself “What’s a maker activity and what isn’t?” My own working definition is that it must have some problem solving or design decision involved, and that the learning aspect of the activity can be successful even if the final product isn’t beautiful or operational.

Maker Lab and Make: Props and Costume Armor really point to the huge spectrum in making. Maker Lab looks just like the experiments and educational activities that used to go in science fair books and kid magazines. Remember learning about growing crystals by making rock candy? Totally in there. Unlike the books I devoured in my youth, it also shows you how to make a cardboard amplifier for your smartphone. Make: Props and Costume Armor features near-professional-level fabrication, mold making, and painting. It looks like the sort of thing that the Mythbusters do when they’re not busting myths. After my first encounter with the 501st (at Dragoncon), I was curious how they made their armor. Turns out it involves softening a sheet of plastic in your oven and using a homemade vacu-former. Yikes! This book covers that and more: many are definitely the kind of projects that will expose you to toxic fumes and household fire hazards.

Bookmobiles!

Bookmobiles in America: An Illustrated History by Orty Ortwein. Createspace, 2015. 9781514813171.

Bookmobiles in America definitely looks self-published: the pictures are black and white and sometimes low resolution, and there is the occasional misspelling (though let’s be honest: too many books from mainstream publishers have them, too). But the research is top notch, the writing is enthusiastic, and the book is much-needed. Ortwein gathered information from libraries all over America and delved into historic documents to tell a fascinating story.

There’s a section on early mobile libraries, which were often small wooden cabinets moved from city to city and left in non-library buildings. There’s a page on the man who may have been the first bookmobile driver: John Sanderson of the Perambulating Library of Mealsgate, England, who rotated mobile collections between cities using a kind of wheelbarrow. (There’s a picture and it’s great.) The earliest American bookmobiles were horse-drawn When automobiles and trucks were first used, the drivers were often library janitors. Custom-built bookmobiles followed. Military mobile libraries during World War II increased not only reading among the soldiers and sailors but support for libraries after the war.

Politics, weather, geography, money, and even the fuel shortages of the 1970s influenced the look and use of bookmobiles from state to state. Mobile library service was even shaped by segregation, a topic too rarely covered in library history. The WPA library projects of the thirties initially tried not to rock the boat over race. Later they collaborated with black philanthropic societies to fund depository collections and bookmobiles for black communities. Even then, the WPA estimated that there were two million people without access in areas served by whites-only libraries. Some of libraries that did serve blacks had separate bookmobiles for their black and white patrons.

The pictures are just delightful and make the book worth picking up even if you don’t read the history. There are historic bookmobiles galore, including boats, planes, streetcars, and converted military vehicles. But I recommend you do read the text. Don’t miss the story of a bookmobile in rural Montana in the 1950s that showed movies at a local tavern (chosen because they had electricity) called the Dirty Shame, Jr!

I Love Beets

Polska: New Polish Cooking by Zuza Zak. Quadrille, 2016. 9781849497368.

This cookbook checks all my cookbook-requirement boxes: gorgeous food photographs, delicious ingredients, dishes I’ve never tried, instructions that aren’t too fiddly or time-consuming, and the very first page I flipped to had a recipe I want to make: roast beetroot slices with a garlic-filled white bread sauce. It’s worth reading through the recipes and not just skimming the dish names — there are alternate preparations, as well as recipes for sides, that sound great on their own, like a creamy cucumber and dill salad that’s tucked in the meat section with a recipe for breaded turkey escalope. Add the gorgeous cover and I’m completely sold. (It’s even prettier in real life than the picture: the reds are glorious, there’s spot gloss, relief, and an elegant gold accent. If this book was a dress, I’d wear it all the time.)