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!

Happy-Go-Lucky Skipper by Carl Memling

Happy-Go-Lucky Skipper - Carl Memling

'Happy-Go-Lucky Skipper' was likely meant to kick off a whole series of early chapter books in 1965 - this was at the same time Mattel had heavily invested in their 'The Barbie Look' campaign that saturated every television network as well as print media - but I can tell there wasn't even the small bit of heart in this piece of licensing that was in the Barbie Random House novels.


There's really no fault with the story: Skipper Roberts is impulsive and free to roam and get into hi-jinks with her best friend Imogene Ann. Barbie is an indulgent older sister and her parents can only shrug and exclaim 'Kids!' in a sitcom way. There are a few charming scenes matched with illustrations: Skipper bothering moving men at a neighboring house, Skipper being precocious with an old woman at the grocery store, etc. I guess it just didn't feel on-brand.


An effort was made in the novels to design end-papers that illustrated Barbie's accessories and, wherever possible, characters and plots highlighted some aspect of the doll's many-faceted personality without sacrificing the semi-realistic portrait of a teenage girl.


Skipper in this book is a realistic little girl, but little in this outing ties in to the doll. Other than her name, the font on the cover of the book and one illustration showing her in an available outfit, this could be any generic storybook character. No mention was made of Ken or Midge, and bizarrely, Barbie is drawn with a Midge-like flip haircut instead of her iconic ponytail. It's not even the pageboy 'American Girl' cut that debuted in '65. This is in sharp contrast to the picture book published a year before this that heavily featured illustrations of Skipper in genuine outfits and other characters were name-dropped. 1965 even saw the premier of Skipper's first two friends, Skooter and Ricky, who should have been far enough along to be mentioned here.


But, anyway, I was delighted to learn of this book's existence and it will look good on the shelf next to the other Barbie fictions. Carl Memling did another doll story: 'Barbie's Adventures at Camp'. Maybe that will meet my punishing standards, lol.



Skipper and Skooter, otherwise known as Miss-not-appearing-in-this- book.

Portrait of Skipper by Ellen Lenhart

Portrait of Skipper - Claudine Nankivel, Ellen Lenhart

This picture book follows Skipper on her adventures from Halloween to Christmas.A fortune-teller predicts that "something wonderful" is in store for her future, what could it be?


While their parents are off in Europe for, I don't know, forever, Barbie is tasked for looking after Skipper. This seems to be a painless affair, especially since there's a woman who looks in every now and then to help with the shopping and the "usual" chores. Though elements of this storybook are blantant propaganda for the toy line, this book works better as a story about a young girl and as a marketing tool than 'Happy-Go-Lucky Skipper', which came out a year later and made no attempt to expand upon, or even work with, the story crafted for the toy..


I especially liked the numerous illustrations that detail pretty much every outfit available to Skipper in 1964. Never mock synergy, Lemon. Skipper even receives some dolls in international costume that suspiciously look like....you guessed it:


Bad Twin by Gary Troup (Laurence Shames)

Bad Twin - Gary Troup

This book started off as a promising homage to the noir genre with perhaps some pleasing Easter eggs for the 'Lost' TV show, but it quickly went downhill and got a little pathetic.


I gave up. We re-watched the show some time ago (I've come around to that ending, still not great - but at least its an ending) and I thought I'd pick up the tie-in novels. 'Bad Twin' is a book-within-the-show as opposed to the usual book-about-the-show or novelized version of a never-produced script. I would have preferred either of those to this...blatant money-grab. I feel sorry for the people who bought this in hardcover under the expectation of revelations about the show.


This sat on my bedside table for months and then for weeks more while I thought about going for a few more chapters. Did not finish, but I may check out the three actual tie-in novels, which are at least honest about their content.

Karen's Witch, Baby-Sitter's Little Sisters Graphix #1 by Katy Farina

Karen's Witch - Ann M. Martin, Katy Farina

Karen Brewer is the young step-sister of Kristy Thomas - founder of the 'Baby-Sitter's Club'. I didn't read many of these growing up and I didn't even know about the 'Little Sisters' spin-off, but when a copy arrived damaged at work I took the opportunity to get to know better the series that so many kids are asking for.


This book is kind of...lame. It doesn't have much plot to it and ultimately, spoiler alert, Karen is rewarded for her bad behavior towards her neighbor and no one even addresses her poor use of her friend Hanni.


The art was charming, of course, and it did set up and introduce many characters from the rest of the franchise, but let's hope there's a little more material for the graphic novel author to work with.


Baby-Sitter's Little Sisters Graphix


Next: 'Karen's Rollerskates'

Come Tumbling Down, Wayward #5 by Seanan McGuire

Come Tumbling Down - Seanan McGuire

As much as I felt I was done with Jack and Jill, this sequel to 'Down Among the Sticks and Stones' was well-told and full of everything I've come to expect from a 'Wayward' book.


Christopher is brooding in his room when lightning begins striking in his room. The noise draws the attention of the lovelorn Cora and they witness an oak and iron door appear. This is not their door, but Jack and Jill's come again. A large, mute girl carries a prone figure in a lacy gown through the door and into the room. It's Jack, and she's come to the school asking for help.


As Eleanor has warned them, quests are a hard habit to break, and knowing the risks of such a dangerous world as the Moors, Christopher, Cora, Sumi and Kade accompany Jack and Alexis back there.


Cora and Sumi's characters are explored more thoroughly here, which was nice. I'll welcome another story about these children any day.


Wayward Children


Next: '?'


Previous: 'In an Absent Dream'

Barbie as the Island Princess by Judy Katschke

Barbie As the Island Princess (Junior Novelization) - Judy Katschke

My old roommate and I still exchange gifts at Christmas, usually something based on our current obsession - one year I'll get him My Little Ponies, the next he'll get me a Ken doll in the form of an action figure of wrestler Ken Shamrock.


This year it was a short stack of Barbie novels with personal annotations written in the margins. They pointed out logical fallacies, implications for the larger Barbie-verse, or were just plain old filthy jokes.


The annotations made this book worth it, otherwise this story of Ro, the little blonde orphan girl washed up on an island and befriended by a red panda, a peacock and even a baby elephant was a bit too saccharine and convenient. Someone, somewhere wrote that their biggest problem with Disney was the idea that stories end with weddings rather than begin with them. Sometimes that trope works, but literarily this whole story was just about getting married, the reveal of Ro's parents was given no emotional weight. It's weird.


A highlight was the evil villain, with a surprisingly thorough and specific backstory and decent plans, who was a much more well-developed character than our heroes.


But, because weddings are the. most. important thing. I'll be ending each of these reviews with a wedding doll, because I fricken have that many now.



A groovy, talking PJ still rocking her pigtails in 'Bridal Brocade' from 1971.

Road of Bones by Rich Douek and Alex Cormack

Road of Bones - Alex Cormack, Rich Douek

It's 1953 and in a Siberian prison camp there is no justice and little hope of surviving the year, let alone a full sentence. A plan of escape forms between three men Grigori and Sergei, who have ties to the Russian mafia, and Roman, a man who was sentenced as a dissident after telling a Stalin joke at a party.


Roman is the central character here, he is essentially an innocent in the camp and gets into trouble for leaving food offerings for a domovik - a domestic protective spirit - but there seems to be more to the myth then people suspect...


When the opportunity strikes, they make it out of camp, but with little food and thousands of miles of snow-laden wilderness between them and civilization they will have to make terrible sacrifices.


This book is brutal, quick and terrifying, and made all the more so by the fact that it is grounded in reality. These prison camps existed and few prisoners survived them. Many inmates were guilty of little more than the mild political joke that Roman made at the wrong party. The horror elements compliment the nasty reality perfectly. This is absolutely worth seeking out.

By Night, Vol. 2 by Sarah Stern

By Night Vol. 2 - John Allison, Sarah  Stern, Christine   Larsen

They made it out of the strange world beyond the Eidolan gate, but what can they do with the footage? Jane and Heather's friendship is explored in this volume as well as some more backstory on their erstwhile companions.


This was pretty funny. Oscar was especially endearing. I never thought I'd root for a low-level mob enforcer, but, you never know.


There are a lot more reveals about the other world too, and machinations I wasn't expecting.


The biggest thing I've learned is that this was a limited series all along, everything gets concluded in the next volume - which publishes Tuesday!


By Night


Next: 'Vol. 3'


Previous: 'Vol. 1'

A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman

A House at the Bottom of a Lake - Josh Malerman

I usually don't go for short stories, especially at this price point, but the cover design was striking and I really enjoyed Malerman's last novel.


'A House at the Bottom of a Lake' doesn't disappoint. It's a story about first love and fear of its loss and of the wider, stranger world yawning in front of you at 17. I feel this easily could have been developed into a novel.

The Darkwood Mask, Inquisitives #4 by Jeff LaSala

The Darkwood Mask - Jeff LaSala

Tallis breaks into a high-security residential tower in Korth intent on stealing as many of the spell scrolls he's been hired to procure as he can carry, as well as any other loose valuables for himself, when he finds himself witness to a political assassination. A single assassin strikes down nine people in minutes, including two young children, leaving Tallis fingered for the crime.


Soneste is an inquisitive with a reputation on the rise. She has recently been involved in two high-profile cases in Sharn so is unsurprised when she is summoned into her agency's office and finds she has been requested for a special case. It turns out to be a commission from the Brelish crown to investigate the death of an ambassador in Karrnath. All she has to do is use her skills to find the killer and she can leave the rest to the Karrnathi government. It sounds simple.


LaSala does a wonderful job invoking the setting and working with its darker elements. Korth is the oldest city in Khorvaire and the capital of Karrnath. Karrnath survived the Last War by throwing its lot in with necromancers, and its culture, including a prominent religion, are centered on the undead and harsh laws. There was little question as to who was behind the murders, the mystery centers on the why. This was a brisk read and a worthy addition to any Eberron shelf.


The Inquistives


Previous: 'Legacy of Wolves'

Legacy of Wolves, Inquistives #3 by Marsheila Rockwell

Legacy of Wolves: The Inquisitives, Book 3 - Marsheila Rockwell

The more I think about this one, the more I liked it. Rockwell takes some creative risks with the structure and the main characters that mostly pays off. This is a fantasy and mystery novel that rises above expectations.


'Legacy' opens on a dark street in the city of Aruldusk in Thrane, where the bard Zoden and his twin brother are wandering home after a late night. The recent spate of murders are discussed and ultimately they are attacked by...something. Zoden escapes with the cries of his dying brother in his ears.


Zoden's family is nobility and on that strength he petitions the Queen of Thrane for aid. Many being murdered are supporters of the royal family over the theocracy that has ruled Thrane for almost a hundred years. The blaming of the deaths on the shifter community seems racially motivated as well. After some political maneuvering the Queen sets the bard up with a Dwarven inquisitive, Greddark.


Meanwhile, Irulan Silverclaw has come to Thrane's capitol with her own petition. She wants her brother freed from prison. Javi is one of the shifters imprisoned on charges of murdering the royalists (Throneholders) on circumstantial evidence. Through chance she gains the favor of the Keeper (the leader of the Church of the Silver Flame) and is partnered with Andri, a paladin with a dark, broody history.


The two storylines converge and there are false leads and a lot of wheels turning in the background. Rockwell exploits to great effect the turbulent history of Thrane, religious persecution, and the Dragonmarked houses to create background to the story. All four main characters are distinct and well developed.


Ultimately there was only one flat note: the 'surprise' reveal of the murderer wasn't that surprising. But, this is a licensed novel and the creativity on display here while following the 'rules' of the Eberron setting was refreshing and entertaining. 


The Inquistives


Next: 'The Darkwood Mask'


Previous: 'Night of Long Shadows'

Me & Mr. Cigar by Gibby Haynes

Me & Mr. Cigar - Gibby Haynes

I only made it to the half-way mark of this novel, so bear that in mind, but I had read enough.


'Me & Mr. Cigar' is a ya novel about a genius rich kid who has a dog with supernatural powers. There is a prologue that covers his childhood and the story moves on to his approaching the end of high school and his establishment as a promoter of drug-fueled dance parties. Eventually cutting-edge tech and government spooks get involved.


The question of whether or not a ya book should be about a bored rich kid throwing drug parties for profit is appropriate is not the question here. I don't care. If a kid is in a position to be influenced by a novel to go into the drug-party business, all the power to him, I guess.


My issue is the poor characterization, plot development, indifferent imagery, the verbage.... Do they think by marketing it as a 'surreal' novel they'll bypass any criticism? I'm sure the novel was going somewhere with his sister's abduction and the government wanting the insect-based tech and magical dog power for itself, but this wasn't for me. The cover art was interesting, and I had a lot of Butthole Surfers in my stereo in college, and I thought that would be enough to get me in.


It wasn't. I'm sure Mr. Haynes will excuse me. I honestly think this was a case of a manuscript being shipped over to the teen market after being rejected by adult imprints, because, against all evidence to the contrary, someone thinks kids are more likely to swallow this kind of thing.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

After Me Comes the Flood - Sarah Perry

This book is due for an American release, but since it was published in the UK in 2014, I'm publishing the review now.


Drought grips London and the surrounding country and John decides to visit his brother on the coast. Before long his car overheats and John idly wanders into the nearby woods and happens upon an old brick house. The residents there have been expecting him, and even greet him by name.


Most of the book keeps up this great feeling of suspense - John feels like an imposter, but is unable to own up to his deception - the people of the house invite him into their interior lives and the narrative breaks from John to give most of the residents a chance to recap their history and how they came to the house.


As a reader sometimes it is difficult to tell if a book was unsatisfying because of some oversight on my part or on the part of the author. There were times when the narrative voice changing felt jarring and was occasionally unclear. At the same time the characters made sense in the hazy summer heat-stricken world of the novel.


I enjoyed Perry's other two novels, but this one left me with doubts.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett

'A Little Princess' is the story of young Sara Crewe. She is brought by her father from India to be boarded and educated in London at a select school. Her father arranges for her to have a ridiculous abundance of luxuries - which, somehow, don't spoil her - and special priviledges from the headmistress. When Sara's father's fortune goes South, Sara is stripped of her fripperies and made to work as a drudge. Through it all she stays true to her friends and keeps up her spirits through imaginary games.


This took me by surprise, the story's language is uncluttered and straight-forward. The modern young reader may need to have some contextual talk about the classism and mild racism present (Ram Dass' 'soft, oriental tread'). I personally have little qualms about offering this up as a classic that stands up to modern scrutiny.


Where the book really loses points is after Ram Dass informs his employer of the sad conditions the two little girls live in in the attic, they elect to only offer Sara magical comforts such as a lit fire and a soft mattress. It's a good thing that Sara is who she is and shares her good fortune with Becky, which makes up for this bit of snobbery, but it took me out of the story.

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 6: 1961-1962

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 6: 1961-1962 - Charles M. Schulz, Diana Krall

In these years Sally becomes a full-fledged character, aging in time to fret about the tyranny of being sent to Kindergarten. The biggest debut is Frieda & Faron. Growing up I had no idea who Frieda was because she had the briefest lifespan of Schulz' main characters so hardly appeared in any strips after I was born. She and the other forgotten characters did appear in my hand-me-down  'Charlie Brown Dictionary' set, but that doesn't give much in the way of characterization.


The span of this comic staggers me if I really think about it. He kept up a daily strip with relatively few repeats for fifty years.  


Otherwise, there is being to be a lot more interaction between Snoopy and the birds, he talks with them, allows them to rent out his doghouse for club meetings and is a rest stop during migration. Woodstock, of course, is a few years way. My favorite strips were where he befriends snowmen, only to have them melt. 


Lucy's psychiatric booth gets into full swing and there was an interesting storyline where the Van Pelt's new tangerine pool table causes unrest among the mothers. They spend so much time playing during the day they forget about their children.


Complete Peanuts


Next: 'Volume Seven: 1963-1964'


Previous: 'Volume Five: 1959-1960'

The God Game by Danny Tobey

The God Game - Danny Tobey

Charlie and his friend Peter are messing with a bot online that has supposedly been given the attributes of God. Messing with bots is a time-honored past-time, but things get weird when after insulting the bot, it goes quiet and the next day the boys receive an invitation to 'the God Game' on their phones. How did the bot know where to contact them, what is the game? Only vague, off-putting rumors exist online about the game and the invitation tells them that winning the game makes their dreams come true, but losing costs them their lives.


So, of course, they enlist three more friends, the five of them make up a computer club and have called themselves the Vindicators for reasons including the fact that they're geeky teenagers. The Vindicators quickly immerse themselves in the game, they find it advanced and quickly start getting benefits.


The game, however, starts asking them for favors and refusing comes at a high cost.


'The God Game' has a terrific pace, really good characters, and a lot of nail-biting action. There are some great twists I didn't see coming. We spend the most amount of time with Charlie, presumably because he's white, and despite his whining and lack of effort in the game, he gets rewarded, a lot, by that game. There is some internal logic of the book that could explain this (straight white males tend to get bonuses), but I don't KNOW if this was all that intentional. Add that doubt to a lame-ass ending and I'm left with mixed feelings about the book.

Currently reading

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