A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.


I write something about every book I read, but only publish reviews close to the release date of the book. If you see something on my shelves and there's no review, feel free to ask me about it!

A Story About Cancer (With a Happy Ending) by India Desjardins, Marianne Ferrer, and Solange Ouellet

A Story About Cancer (With a Happy Ending) - India Desjardins, Marianne Ferrer, Solange Ouellet

This is a charming story about a girl heading to the hospital with her parents for a meeting with the doctor. The news could be good or bad. On the way she reflects on having had cancer for so long, the impact on herself and her family, the friendships she's made, and what she wants out of life.


The book is fully illustrated with sparse texts that still paints a picture of a young girl who remains a teenager despite what she's going through. It was honest and presented the reality of growing up in a hospital and the unintentional pressure loved ones and well-wishers can bring. This girl does not belong in a movie of the week.


Desjardins wrote this book in response to a fan she met in the hospital who complained that there were no stories about children like her with cancer that had happy endings. Desjardins delivers that here. This book is incredibly moving and a great gift.

Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth by Wesley Craig, Rick Remender & Lee Loughridge

Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth TP - Wesley Craig, Rick Remender, Lee Loughridge

I liked the concept of an assassin's school and the style of the art, but on almost every other level 'Reagan Youth' failed to catch my interest.


Our protagonist is a bit of a blank, sad backstory, etc., but we're given no reason to really root for him - side characters are given more dimension. The two women existed to be exotic, brandish exotic weapons, and be desired. Urgh. 


Add weird high school dramatics and a drug-fueled trip to Vegas and you have a comic book that fails to make the most of its premise. I don't know where this series is going and I don't aim to find out. 

Flocks by Leigh Nichols

Flocks - Leigh Nichols

'Flocks' by Leigh Nichols is a memoir about growing up in the South in a breaking home, being a part of a religious community, being intelligent, and not belonging for reasons that can't be expressed. There have been a lot of graphic memoirs published lately, the medium allows for a balance of raw honesty and subtle expression that is appealing.


I'll be honest, I picked this up at Winter Institute because of the dolls on the cover. I was thinking of adding to my husband's side collection of books featuring dolls and toys. The subject matter of a young trans man working his way towards acceptance and happiness is better that your average creepy doll book.


I liked how open Nichols was about his faith and what it meant to him growing up and now. It was a simultaneous source of comfort and pain to him, and it took a long time to reconcile the intolerance and hostility and the kindness and support coming from the same individuals. This is a thorny problem to grapple and I think Nichols does it well. Though there really isn't anything I would call "adult content", the depth of this work makes it more suitable to mature teens or older readers.

The Ruin of Kings, A Chorus of Dragons #1 by Jenn Lyons

Ruin of Kings - Jenn Lyons

Do not be fooled by the generic cover, 'The Ruin of Kings' is the real deal. There has been a load of hype and comparisons to every best-selling fantasy author the PR folks at Tor could think of, but this book truly goes in interesting directions. This is a save the world fantasy that takes on some serious questions, but never takes itself too seriously. This was pure fun.


Jenn Lyons does a wonderful job of building up a world filled with deep history, magic, gods walking the earth, and all sorts of political and moral problems without ever resorting to info-dumping. The story grows organically. A lot of that is thanks to the unusual narrative structure.


The book is in two parts, the longer first part is a magically recorded conversation between a prisoner and an unusual jailer. The two take turns telling the story of the prisoner, Kihrin's, life from when he was sold into slavery and some years earlier when he was a thief in the Capital City and discovers he's the scion of a noble family with a sinister reputation. That means there is a switch between 1st and 3rd person perspectives and three timelines to keep straight (the two stories and the "present" of the stories being told. On top of that there are occasional interjections from the compiler in a fourth timeline (after the end of the book) who appears in the narrative as a character as well. The second part of the novel is pulled from eyewitness accounts and is a little more straight-forward. All of these events lead to the burning of the capital.


Written out, that looks complicated, but I didn't have a problem keeping events straight. The chapters are clearly labelled as coming from Talon or Kihrin's, the "present" is delivered in italics, and the future is all foot and end-notes. This divided timeline allowed for greater tension building and kept the fates of certain characters up in the air.


Though this is epic fantasy Lyons writes in a casual style and characters use idioms and language that is much more modern than the high-falutin' language of her forebears. It was done so well I didn't mind at all. It helps that even when characters are at their lowest the book doesn't give in to grimdar brooding and self-pity.


I hate the hype machine, so I totally get if people want to wait for the paperback, but this series should take off.


Over the Wall, Anya #1 by Peter Wartman

Over The Wall - Peter Wartman

'Over the Wall' by Peter Wartman is an overlooked gem of a graphic novel. First published in 2013, its about time you acquainted yourself with it as the sequel 'Stonebreaker' is due out in June.


Anya lives in a village outside the walls of an ancient city, haunted by demons. Long ago her people lived there and performed wonders with the help of the demons, but the something went wrong and the demons rebelled - now taking all the memories of those they get ahold of. A barrier prevents the demons from escaping to the wider world, but as a rite of passage young men of the village must enter it to prove they are still masters of the city. Not all of the men return. Anya's brother has just failed to exit the city the night before and, even though her memories of him begin to fade because of this, she sets out alone to rescue him.


I loved the world building in this. Wartman's illustrations and spare text give a gorgeous picture of a whole civilization and culture - influenced by the Aztec and Maya - while hinting that this is only the beginning. Anya and the demon's relationship is playful and I look forward to reading more about it. Special order this one from your local bookstore if they don't carry it, you won't regret it.

Feathers by Jorge Cordona

Feathers - Jorge Corona

'Feathers' is about a boy named Poe who was abandoned as an infant in a back street of the "Maze" a sprawling, chaotic settlement surrounding the "City". Two entities are responsible for his being there, to address something cryptically referred to as "The Balance". 


Also, he's covered in black feathers and a sensitivity to light requires his wearing of goggles.


On the night he is found by his adoptive father, a predator begins stalking the streets stealing away homeless children, known as Mice. The action begins years later as a near-adolescent Poe has taken to helping the mice go about their business of surviving - by stealing - and escaping the guardsmen. He must do so in secret, for fear of being attacked because of his differences, and the children view him as a ghost to be frightened of rather than a savior.


Meanwhile in the City, Bianca is bored and pesters her father to allow her to accompany him to the city docks, on the other side of the Maze, for business. She ignores his warnings about the dangers of the maze and jeopardizes herself, her father and a lot of innocent people of the Maze and City who will get hurt because she felt like having an adventure.


I didn't like Bianca, I don't think as a reader you're supposed to dislike her, but I did. 


Guess who run into each other? So the narrative may be a little predictable, but the setting is full of lore and questions that will leave readers begging for more. Poe and Bianca working together make some mistakes but uncover some terrible secrets and do a lot of good in the process.


This is the kind of fun graphic novel that needs discovering, be sure to check it out!

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel - Kate Mascarenhas

Four women working together in a remote laboratory invented time travel in 1967. Over five decades it has became one of the most influential forces in the world. The Conclave, as the center of time travel is called, is an entity in and of itself with its own laws and traditions. One of the pioneers suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after their discovery was announced, and was forced out of the field. In 2017 her granddaughter Ruby is drawn into the intrigues of that world when her grandmother receives a cryptic note reporting the murder of an unidentified elderly woman. Is this a warning, or a sign of something much larger?


This was a lovely blend of sf and mystery, The narrative jumps back and forth through many different women, each chapter is headed by a month and year and name, though the story centers mostly on Ruby and Odette's separate journeys to understand the crime. The perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders add to the story and fill in gaps about the world of time travel and what, of course, psychologically that would do to a person.


'The Psychology of Time Travel' is fantastic. At times the jargon became confusing (though there is a glossary in the back) and the timelines were complicated, but the thrust of the story overrode any objections I might have had. I loved how detailed the world was, effortlessly diverse and female. Another great debut novel for 2019.

Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu

Eventown - Corey Ann Haydu

Elodee and Naomi are identical twins and though in many other ways they are very different, they've always been close. A recent tragedy is threatening their relationship, however. Elodee begins to see them drifting farther apart. Its changed her relationship with her parents, too. Something has happened to the family that is so terrible it is left unspoken.


One of the results of this change in their lives is their mother accepting a position in Eventown, an idyllic planned community they visited once on a vacation. Elodee is angry about the change coming, but is angry also at the awkward treatment her family receives in their old community. In the end, they are all looking forward to a fresh start in Eventown.


Eventown is perfect. It is set in pleasant hills, the homes are all large, stone, and covered in roses. There are no cars - everything is in walking distance. While the rest of her family settles in to the new rhythms of life in Eventown, Elodee is uncomfortable. There's something off about the town and its people, and she is scared to see her sister drifting even farther away as she embraces Eventown's way of life.


I'm not familiar with Haydu's other work, but 'Eventown' was interesting. It examines how people experience emotions, good and bad, and how even the worst of experiences can help people come together. Tranquility can be achieved, but at what cost to yourself and others? The novel drifts into magical realism territory and won't hold up to overly serious scrutiny, but for its age level it successfully addresses these issues.

Glinda of Oz, Oz #14

Glinda of Oz (Books of Wonder) - L. Frank Baum

'The Wizard of Oz' was the first real book I read cover to cover, and as soon as I saw listings for 14 Oz books I wanted to read them all. It didn't happen, which was probably for the best, but about five years ago I acquired digital copies of all of them and meant to knock them all out during my then-long bus commutes.


Other than the first two sequels - 'The Land of Oz' and 'Ozma of Oz', which are vital, works of wonder - these books are disappointing nonsense. Scratch that. Disappointing garbage is what is was. Continuity is routinely flouted for no good reason and Baum aggressively advertised his other book series in hopes of getting kids and their parents (and his creditors) to stop forcing him to write more Oz books. No dice, pal.


And then there was the whole weird fairyland subtext that no one grows old or dies ever since, long long ago, the Fairy Lurline enchanted Oz and went on her merry way. People can be hurt, people can be eaten, or chopped up, but those pieces don't die. This is so much better than explaining death to little kids.


Baum is still capable of wonderful invention throughout this series, but its the laziness of his plots and characterization that make the books difficult to read. The plot here should have been decent. Ozma and Dorothy read in Glinda's magic book that two hitherto unknown peoples in a distant corner of Oz are about to go to war. Ozma and Dorothy wish to stop this so they head over there, and when they get in trouble, a rescue party of most everybody else in Oz goes after them, with mixed results. No one talks about the problems of war except in the most abstract terms, Ozma's argument is purely divine right and when that's rebuffed she just waits for someone to magic the problems away.


The best line was when the Patchwork Girl predicts that someday Button Bright will wander off and no one will find him again.


If you somehow have made it through these books and desire more, there are some 26 other Oz books that were published through the 20s, 30s, & 40s and more dribbling into the modern era.




Next: 'The Royal Book of Oz' by Ruth Plumly Thompson


Previous: 'The Magic of Oz'

When You Read This by Mary Adkins

When You Read This - Mary Adkins

Iris Massey, having been given a terminal diagnosis, blogs her meditations on life and existence, on everything she's leaving behind. 


After her death her sister and her close friend kindle a relationship. An unusual epistolary novel, 'When You Read This' uses diagrams, e-mails, texts, and ad-copy to tell a story of grieving and acceptance with humor and insight.


I've always been a sucker for novels with an unusual structure, pulled from various bits of media and its especially a pleasure to find one that succeeds in developing its characters within that format. 'When You Read This' is a light and engaging novel about serious subjects.

Escape From Fire Island! by James H. English

Escape from Fire Island! - James H. English

This is a splendid take on the childhood favorite 'Choose Your Own Adventure' series. The 'A Date With Destiny' series only has one other title -  'Night of a Thousand Boyfriends'.


'Escape From Fire Island!' finds you and your narcissistic best friend Jose battling the weekend crowds to Fire Island only to have a zombie apocalypse break out almost as soon as you set out your towel.


First of all, let's get the bad stuff out of the way: some of the humor is dated. The jokes against drag queens and transsexuals can easily be taken the wrong way. There is a spirit of fun to the piece, but....urgh. On the other hand, the radioactive zombies' "tells" are a penchant for boas and calling you Mary as their press on nails slice open your throat, so some aggressive language against the queen zombies is to be expected.


The other problem I had was more mechanical, in several instances the exact page is duplicated: same text, same directions at the bottom, etc. Why not just have instructions go back to one page instead of wasting space? We could have fit in a couple more story threads with those pages.


Everything else about this book is amahzing. The cover design and interior illustrations call back to the original book series and it was a lot of fun seeing all the adventures to be had while saving Fire Island from Champagne Toast's zombie horde and/or President Bush's nukes. There were mermen, there were sexy secret agents, there were glory holes. It has everything.


I needed a good laugh, and you probably do too. This should do the trick.

Barbie Doll Fashion: Vol. 2, 1968-1974 by Sarah Sink Eames

Barbie Doll Fashion: Vol. 2, 1968-1974 (Barbie Doll Fashion) - Sarah Sink Eames

This is second in the three volume overview of Barbie fashions. The photographs are clear, with many variations and examples with original packaging shown. Eames also makes sure to include a section at the end on the various versions of the basic outfits for every doll released in these years.


For the most part Eames presents everything chronologically and grouped together by character, making note if an outfit is repeated from year to year. This volume goes beyond Hilary Shilkitus James' books by two years, going up to the point where Mattel stopped tagging the clothing.



A 1962-1965 Painted Hair Ken in "Goin' Hunting" (1965) looking at "The Casual Scene" (1971). He's pretty stoked he'll never have to wear it.



A 1969 New Good Looking Ken in his original shirt and odd pieces. 1969 Julia in her original nurse's uniform.


It is a broad range, covering the late 60s, the talking dolls, and what many (including myself) believe to be the last years of real ingenuity and quality in the doll and its accessories.



A 1965 bend-leg Skipper in 'Town Togs' (1965) (missing green trench-coat and cabbie hat to match leggings), 1969 Julia doll in 'Leisure Leopard' (1969) hostess pajamas, and 1970 Francie with Growin' Pretty Hair in the real fur trimmed coat from "Furry Go Round" (1967). As I've mentioned, I just don't have enough of the clothes complete or the dolls themselves from these years to a do a real overview.


This is the only one of the three volumes I've read, but all three follow the same format. In total the series covers every outfit and doll released from 1959 to 1979. Volume III is scarce and a buyer will have a hard time finding it without paying out the nose.

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

He Knew He Was Right - Anthony Trollope

I had fallen in love with Trollope's writing with his 'Chronicles of Barsetshire', particularly 'Barchester Towers' which had all of the social comedy I wanted from a period novel and a broader portrait of life in England in the mid-19th century. Trollope wore his prejudices proudly and his biases were as informative for me as a historian as any impartial work of the era could have been. As I read further into the series I was impressed further with the depth of his characters, particularly his occasional nuanced characterization of women in his era. There were always one or two at least who were rewarded even for bucking the conventions of society, and even those who were caricatures of female vanity or shrewish are excused by the narrator, because of the narrow confines they as women must inhabit to avoid ridicule.


I was talking about this to a customer, perhaps about a year ago, who asked if I had read 'He Knew He Was Right." I said I hadn't and she said she'd be very interested in hearing what I had to say about it. Well, a year or so later I've finished it and I'm not sure what to say.


The central plot is the deterioration of the marriage of Louis and Emily Trevelyon. They are a happy, prosperous couple with a healthy young boy when Louis has a seed of doubt about Emily being visited so often by an old friend of her father's, a man with a lingering rakish reputation despite his age. Louis tries to maneuver Emily away from this acquaintance, and even orders it to stop, but her resistance to the suggestion and scorn at the order - obeying it only to the letter - leads to open distrust and eventual separation.


This disagreement and refusal to compromise ruins both of their lives and almost certainly the life of their son. Houses are given up, scandal is spread through London and wherever either Trevelyon or his wife go. Emily's stubborness rests much on her pride and her Victorian refusal to even touch on the subject of impropriety in conversation until its too late. Trevelyon's insistence becomes more and more adamant and leads to madness. Tied into this mess are Emily's sister Nora, who must make her own decisions about love in the shadow of the terrible example of her sister and brother-in-law, and their whole family who must endeavor to fix this situation or make the best of it.


Nora's two beaus are Charles Glascock and Hugh Stanpole, the former the heir to a peerage and grand estate, the latter a gentleman who makes comparatively thin means writing for a radical newspaper. Each of these gentlemen connect the Trevelyon's marriage plot to happier plots involving young ladies making happy marriages. Hugh's sister Dorothy in going to live with a wealthy maiden aunt inhabits practically her own novel full of botched proposals, village gossip, and just desserts.


There is a lot going on in this lengthy book and it is full of the period detail and social commentary I adore from Trollope, but plot-wise it runs out steam about halfway through. The rift between the Trevelyons is intractable and ends up covering the same ground repeatedly. The marriage plots of Nora and Dorothy are finalized so quickly there is little to do but wait for the wedding, which, on the page, isn't as compelling as you'd like. Other marriages and character arcs are also wrapped up while the reader still has hundreds of pages to go to hear the same loops of conversations and social necessities pass by.


It frankly baffled me. Trollope has never stinted on words in the novels I've read, but there was never this feeling that much of it was so...unnecessary. In doing some reading I found a reference to the novel in Trollope's 'Autobiography' that shows that Trollope was disappointed in the novel:


"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story. It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is in part redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters."


I appreciate his honesty there. I would go further than saying it is only sympathy for Trevelyon that is lacking. This novel tries to tackle a heavy issue and doesn't quite manage it. Trollope didn't have the vocabulary to dismantle the toxic masculinity that led Trevelyon to becoming unhinged in the way he did. There are some other commentaries about women that I read as thin satire, but was still distasteful to read. Without the fun or interest of other subplots to shore up the devastating weight of the central arc, I would have been unable to finish this novel if I hadn't read 80% in airport terminals last week. I will read more Trollope, but I don't think I can recommend this one to anyone except diehard fans.

The Wheel of Time Companion by Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Maria Simons & Alan Romanczuk

The Wheel of Time Companion - Maria Simons, Alan Romanczuk, Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan

After Robert Jordan's untimely death in 2007 there was unfinished business in the Wheel of Time universe. Brandon Sanderson was tapped to finish the series that year, but there was a need for a book to act as a comprehensive index for the series. Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan's widow, promised an encyclopedia-like book to be released shortly after 'A Memory of Light'. It was hinted that the book would contain passages from Jordan's own notes. I thought that might mean it would shed light on aspects of the books that had never seen print.


As an index, I was pleased with this book. There were a few odd choices in the organization of the book (as in which characters were listed by first name and which were listed by surnames), but in the end you can find every single named character in the book and there is detailed strength in the One Power descriptions for many of the Aes Sedai and Asha'man. That is awesome.


Other highlights include an Old Tongue glossary and alphabet and descriptions of nations. This was cool. I suppose I should include the art, because it wasn't bad  - it was just that (obviously) they didn't match what was in my head. The sole exception was a picture of Mat and Queen Tylin, which...was fan service? It was repulsive. 


However, what I was really looking for were hints to the unwritten sequels and prequels that Jordan may have been toying around with, substantial information about characters that never made it into the final books, and behind-the-scenes snippets about what sources Jordan used to help him create this engrossing world. There was none of that. The entries for 'Bela' and 'Chair of Remorse' were the only ones that expanded my knowledge by a significant degree other than the power levels and the Old Tongue entries mentioned above. I mean - not even some explanation on 'The Book of Translation'? Even 'The Big Book of Bad Art' had some unique substance in the form of 'The Strike at Shayol Ghul'. It was likely too much to ask, if other substantive notes exist Jordan's estate is well within their rights to hold on to them for future use (how magnanimous of me).


This is a great volume to have for any fan of 'The Wheel of Time', but hardly necessary. 

Barbie Doll and Her Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World of Fashion by Joe Blitman

Barbie Doll & Her Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World of Fashion - Joe Blitman

I know, another one! There should be only one more of these, though. Until we get more. Haha.


1967 was a year of big changes for the toy. Ken was being discontinued and wouldn't reappear until 1969 with a bigger body and a new head mold. Her first and best friend Midge vanished as well, replaced by Christie - the first black doll the same size as Barbie (there had previously been a black Francie doll) - and the British Stacey. Midge's head mold would be used again as Barbie's new best friend PJ in 1969.



The difference is startling. The clothes were brighter, shorter and more and more of the dolls would come with "real" eyelashes. Above left is a 1963 Midge in "Lunch Date" (1964), right is a Talking PJ in her original mini-dress. Her pigtails are supposed to have multi-colored "love beads", which we have, but haven't figured out how to get them back on her as the elastic is gone!


Barbie herself had a new face mold debut this year as Twist and Turn Barbie, but we oddly haven't found one of those yet. So here is a 1965 American Girl (Bendable Leg) Barbie in "Fraternity Dance" (1965) contemplating her future wardrobe, in this case "Pajama Pow!" (1967) it also has chartreuse flats and insane earrings.





I don't have a Stacey, but we did find a matched Talking Christie and Talking Brad (both 1969) in their boxes in a shop. I know why I shouldn't take them out of their boxes, even if the boxes are in poor shape, but the struggle is real:


Brad and Christie


They, like the Talking PJ, are mute. The mechanism was rubber-band based and very few are still working. They are missing the pull strings which may explain why they were never taken out of the box. Talking dolls can be repaired but you have to cut open the torso so there really isn't any value to add.


Anyway, the mod years are a lot of fun because of the Austin Powers aesthetic. I'm talking clear raincoats and bucket hats, hostess pajamas, neon negligees and crazy go-go boots all in eye-bleeding color combinations and patterns. I'd like to have had more examples to photograph, but the mod clothing and dolls are some of the most desired still by collectors. Additionally, since some of the really cool ones were too weird to be popular and had crazy fragile accessories they are scarce. Still, it wouldn't be fun to collect if we could just find them all in the first places we looked.


Winter Institute 14 - Albuquerque

I came back yesterday from a week in Albuquerque where I mingled with some 700 other booksellers and hundreds of reps from publishers and authors. There were so many truly lovely people it was amazing to get a chance to meet and talk with them. So I was able to schedule posts but didn't have much chance to look on the site.


Winter Institute is an annual convention of independent booksellers who are members of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Its a week of learning, networking and previews of upcoming titles. This was my first time at the event - I've previously only been to the regional conference in Providence, RI - and have come back charged with great ideas for the store and a new perspective on how to approach my store as I look forward to taking ownership in a few years.


What I really loved about it was the sense of community. Booksellers are just the nicest people. All of us have a shared purpose and it is only beneficial that we can share each other's best ideas. There are still parts of the country that are suffering bookselling wise, but on the whole 2018 was another great year for indie bookstores.


My only regret is that there was so much going on with the convention I couldn't explore the city more. Albuquerque is a small city and the landscape is beautiful. My husband had the chance to go out to Old Town and see the sights, but even he got pulled into the convention because the seminars on visual merchandising were just as useful to him as to it was for me.


Since a perk of the convention is being able to get great arcs and finished copies of books that are highlights of the coming seasons I just have to wait a few days for the boxes I shipped out to get to my store. It was definitely worth the personal expense of getting out there (my store covered many expenses, but not all) and I encourage anyone to make the effort if they're booksellers.


Has anyone been to BookExpo or similar events that are open to librarians and bloggers as well as booksellers? I'm wondering if it would be helpful.

Currently reading

The Immortalists
Chloe Benjamin
Progress: 60/352 pages
Watership Down
Richard Adams
Progress: 325/472 pages
The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
A Modern Comedy
John Galsworthy
Progress: 553/862 pages