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!

Hey Kiddo by Jarret Krosoczka

Hey, Kiddo - Jarrett Krosoczka

This graphic memoir has gotten a lot of attention since well before its release, and for very good reasons. Jarret Krosoczka is a prominent author and illustrator of the kind of silly books that entice even the most reluctant reader to get excited about reading. This book is a radical departure, covering the ground of his troubled childhood and relationship with his opioid addicted mother. 


For most of Krosoczka's childhood his mother was in prison and he was raised instead by his maternal grandparents. His father was completely out of the picture, too. This is an honest look at his relationship with his family, growing up in sometimes difficult situations, discovering his talents, and, of course, accepting the truth and moving on.


Real life doesn't make for tidy narratives, but I still felt some problems with the transitions from scene to scene and from era to era of his childhood. I think there could have been some restructuring of certain sequences and some better narrative bridges. A lot of things, such as him getting roughed up by a kid after staying out to late, just happened with no clear reason for it being included other than that, well, it probably happened in real life.


Still, this will be a valuable book to many out there who are dealing with similar situations and haven't seen their story on a page yet. There is also a great deal about compassion and how to let go of harmful elements of the past that all of us can stand lessons in. 

The Gift of Dark Hollow, Longburrow #2 by Kieran Larwood

The Gift of Dark Hollow - Kieran Larwood

This was a great follow-up to 'Podkin One-Ear'. In that book it was clear that there were many more adventures to come and, even better, Larwood introduces events into the present timeline that up the stakes considerably. There is no guarantee that these adventures will make a fireside tale. The world of the Longburrow is set in some distant future after humans and not all characters are what they appear to be at first glance.


I failed to mention in my last review that these books are supplemented with great Illustrations from David Wyatt that are at once terribly cute and disturbing. The Gorm is made up of rabbits who have been taken and possessed by a vengeful machine-deity from deep in their past. Ancient evil brought up by those who dug too deep....


As I said, this goes into 'present-day' events, where the elderly storyteller from Podkin sets out with a new apprentice to the gathering of bards. There is some trouble hanging over his head and I'll leave his identity for readers to find out. 


In the past, Podkin and his family have found a safe haven in Dark Hollow, but Gorm patrols still pass nearby. The greater problem of how to defeat the Gorm is still in front of them, but an ancient clue offers a solution, but also leads Podkin, Paz and Pook into danger again. 




Next: 'The Beasts of Grimheart' (UK only, for now)


Previous: 'Podkin One-Ear'

It's All About the Accessories by Hillary James Shilkitus

It's All about the Accessories for the World's Most Fashionable Dolls, 1959-1972 (Revised) - Shilkitus,  Hillary James

This book is as advertised. It features photos of each accessory that went with Barbie and co.'s outfits from 1959 to 1972. The accessories are grouped by category so that there are pages and pages of little plastic heels in a rainbow of colors. It also lists all of the outfits a particular accessory went to and all the variations. But necessary if you need to figure out what is missing from a particular outfit or what to do with the odd miniature gold dimple purse that clearly doesn't go with Enchanted Evening.


Seriously, this is a useful tool for the collector, but the fact is there are more useful and comprehensive books out there. They just happen to be out of print. There were some omissions and arbitrary decisions as to what constituted an accessory and what didn't that were occasionally frustrating.


It's kind of why I like collecting Ken more than Barbie, he has like six shoes to her hundred.

Wheel of Time Reread Books 13-14 by Leigh Butler

Wheel of Time Reread: Books 13-14 (Wheel of Time Reread Boxset Book 5) - Leigh Butler

As usual Leigh Butler's reread synopses and commentaries were often funny, always insightful, and clued me into a lot of what was going on in the series that I might have missed. I was never involved in fandom so there were a lot of terms and theories I had never been aware of. There are so many threads in Jordan's pattern there is not keeping on top of all of it, even this time around when I read them all in a 9-month period.


Absolutely recommended for the longtime fan looking to get a little more out of their latest reread of the series.

The C&U Guide to Vintage Barbie Dolls

The Complete and Unauthorized Guide to Vintage Barbie Dolls: With Barbie & Skipper Fashions and the Whole Family of Barbie Dolls - Hillary Shilkitus James

The last six months have brought me into the Ken and Barbie collecting world. It was something my husband had been into years ago and, on buying a Victorian house, had decided to sell most of them since they didn't fit the aesthetic.


Last summer we found a bag with two beat-up vintage Kens and some outfits at a local junk shop and we'd had fun fixing them up. For me it was like having a couple miniature Don Drapers! I've grown to appreciate my husband's doll fanaticism and appreciate them as artifacts and art, but something about these really clicked. I bought this guide and it's companion from the Schiffer backlist catalog at the store.


The quality of these toys is astounding. I remember my sister's dolls and their flimsy synthetic clothes with Velcro. The vintage dolls and the clothes on the other hand are as detailed as they could be with that scale. The clothes were fitted so close it can be a struggle to get them on, which is why so many of them are in poor condition, but they are so cool when they're all together. For example:


Allan and Ken

On the left is Allan in 'Fun on Ice' and on the right is Ken with 'Ski Champion' both outfits are from 1963. I'll have to take some proper pictures for another review so the whole outfit and their accessories are visible. I only have a few reference pictures on my phone at the moment. You can still see some of the construction of the clothes.


Now if you're a collector yourself, you'll understand, to everyone else...we went a little crazy. Our collections were pretty restrictive before based on scarcity and/or high prices. Suddenly, we were interested in something that they made millions of in the 1960s. Millions. So we started finding them. And finding them. And finding them. Factor in also that prices for Barbies have dropped precipitously in the last decade. "This is such a good deal, let's buy it!"


So now we have a guest room with a dresser crowded with Barbies, Kens, Allans, Midges, Francies, Skooters, and Skippers. We've also made room for two Julias and a PJ. We're working on a display that looks a little more sane, but at least most of them have stands.


Barbie group


Oh yeah, and the actual book:


The full title of this is a real mouthful: 'The Complete and Unauthorized Guide to Vintage Barbie Dolls: With Barbie & Skipper Fashions and the Whole Family of Barbie Dolls' by Hillary Shilkitus James. I give this guide a lot of credit because it does provide photographs for all of the vintage outfits for Barbie & co. up to 1972 with some including original packaging. The book inspired the above.


What she doesn't do is list or picture any of the original outfits/swimsuits that the dolls came with. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you get into the late 60s there were many new characters released, variations to the original Barbie and her friends, etc. and they all had a suit they wore. If I didn't have any other guides how would I know what to find if I wanted to restore an original bend-leg Francie or talking Ken? Its a minor thing, because we do have the internet and there are plenty of other books out there, but it just seemed like a glaring flaw to the book. The other failure is that while she pictures every doll that had tagged outfits for itself, the  author does not picture the different faces or even name the various other 'same size' dolls that didn't have tagged outfits of their own.

Restoration Heights by Wil Meaderis

Restoration Heights - Wil Medearis

The noir detective novel, if not resurrected, is complimented by Wil Medearis' debut novel 'Restoration Heights'. Reddick is an artist with a day job in Brooklyn as an art handler, until an encounter with a girl changes everything.  Hannah is the fiancée to the heir of a powerful family, but they don't appear to be lifting a finger to solve her disappearance. Reddick's quest for answers becomes an obsession that is set off well against the changing backdrop of Brooklyn.


This is such a cool book. I've become a little wary of New York stories, but I like how Medearis underlines racial and class divides that still exist, and points out Reddick's own blind spots in that area with humor. There will be no end of Brooklyn stories before you this season, and those following, but the nod to genre plotting makes this one stand out.


This is out today in your local bookstore!

Holy Lands by Amanda Sthers

Holy Lands - Amanda Sthers

The author skillfully justifies how her characters, a 21st century well-to-do family, communicate so often with letters - which make up this novel - but she does not create a satisfying story.


'Holy Lands' is the story of a scattered family, headed by a father and ex-husband, who is a Jewish pig farmer in Israel. The opening of the novel is a flurry of angry, perplexed letters between the farmer and a local rabbi. This argument turns into a friendship. The farmer's ex-wife and his two children are brought into the narrative. Each have their own struggles and successes - notably, the father has refused to speak to his son, or respond to any of his letters since he discovered his son was gay.


There are bright moments of humor and I really did get a feel for these characters, but the plot, such as it is, is spurred on by a diagnosis and with that characterization seemed to have been tossed out the window to further the emotional impact of the plot.

A Memory of Light, Wheel of Time #14 by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light - Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson

This series was a long road, there's never going to be anything like it for me ever again. There are other epic fantasies out there and there is one, still on-going, that I began around the same time I started this one - but, I'll admit it, 'A Song of Ice and Fire' can't match this. The Evil Empire is developing a fauxevision series of the show as I write this. It will be interesting to see them attempt it, but it won't be pretty. Gray Men can't make, duh.


This was my first time reading the entire series over again. The early novels I've read 6, 7, 8 times at least, but around the time I hit 'Winter's Heart' I wasn't feeling the love as strongly anymore. This reread, prompted by the 'Great American Read' (was it supposed to make me read something I hadn't before?), has made me fall in love all over again. Even with the typos that riddle these trade paperback editions. I've come to terms with the errors, the books still look pretty anyway, even if they aren't on the inside.


I also have to give huge amounts of credit to Leigh Butler, whose 'Wheel of Time Reread' on Tor.com made an excellent companion during my reading, helping me clear up long-standing questions and allowing me to see connections I never would have made on my own. 


In my first review of the book I praised Sanderson, and my only real criticism was my feeling underwhelmed by the conclusion and having been bored during a lot of the endless battle scenes. Some of that still holds true, but reading the whole series so close together this past year makes me appreciate even more how cohesive the series was and, frankly, amazed that more threads weren't dropped. The ambition of this series still staggers me.


These books still made me laugh, shiver with anticipation, and gasp in surprise - Sanderson wasn't great on laughs, but he nailed other important aspects and nixed arms crossed over breasts, so - it is so nice to be able to say that this series has aged well. I'm going to read it again. There's a lot that could be said about the sequel series in Seanchan Jordan talked about writing, or the other prequel novels, but this is what we have and its enough.


Oh, and I've been reading the official companion now that I've read the whole series over. I have some thoughts.


The Wheel of Time


Next: 'The Wheel of Time Companion'


Previous: 'Towers of Midnight'

In An Absent Dream, Wayward Children #4

In an Absent Dream - Seanan McGuire

This book kept staring at me from the new release shelves, and I couldn't resist it. The 'Wayward Children' series has entranced me even since I discovered it almost two years ago. McGuire uses the short length of the stories and the subject matter of the series itself to delve deep into the many facets of troubled childhoods.


I've had moments of disappointment with the series in the past, that's true, but only because I will always want deeper and more explicit answers than McGuire wants to give. Most storytelling, especially when it deals with the deep wells of adolescence and responsibility, requires a veil or two to coax the reader towards insight. Clear prose is desirable, bald prose not so much.


Sorry to be hedging around the point. 'In An Absent Dream' is the best entry yet in the series. McGuire tells the story of Lundy, a minor character in 'Every Heart a Doorway', and crafted a powerful story in her origins in our world and in the Goblin Market. More so than any other characters in this series I felt a sense of kinship with Lundy and sympathized with the choices she felt compelled to make.


Each of these stories can stand alone and publication order is almost always the most correct way to go about these things, but I wouldn't hold it against a reader if they wanted to read this one second.


Wayward Children


Next: ?


Previous: 'Beneath the Sugar Sky'

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Wayward Children #3

Beneath the Sugar Sky - Seanan McGuire

I can't recreate my original review, but it was mostly gushing anyway. This book took me completely by surprise, I remember. I had wanted something light to pass the time while helping my husband at a doll show. I ended up reading it in a single sitting, letting him take care of customers while I was lost in a fascinating candy world and reading intriguing backstories to the characters.


Little did I know that the characters are all about 90% backstory with their screen time not adding much to the 'present' at the school. That sounds bitchy, I know, but I loved this book and when I finally got a chance to read the first two books in the series I was disappointed there wasn't more substance to them.


That said, I still recommend them to fans of classic fantasy who want an author rooting around in the tropes box willy-nilly with fantastic results. It makes for great 'treat' reading. The fourth book has recently been released, covering the history of one of the more intriguing characters of the first book. Check it out at your local booksellers! That review is coming tomorrow.


Wayward Children


Next: 'In An Absent Dream'


Previous: 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones'

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Wayward Children #2

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire

This was almost disappointingly more of the same, but I still enjoyed it. 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones' follows twins Jack and Jill and how they came to the Home for Wayward Children, and why they left it in the manner that they did. By necessity this was more tinged with horror and gives a few more hints into the myriad mechanics behind children finding their 'doors' to other-lands.


A nice addition were the illustrations. Their dream-like quality helped balance the horrors of The Moors. It was an interesting setting - very 'Ravenloft' - and I liked how it flat out stated that the mortality rate of The Moors was so high that it needed constant importation of children (and, presumably, others) to keep things stable. At some point evil should have a long sit-down and crunch some numbers just in case the whole magical door thing doesn't work out. 


Wayward Children


Next: 'Beneath the Sugar Sky'


Previous: 'Every Heart a Doorway'

Every Heart a Doorway, Wayward Children #1 by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire

The Wayward Children series explores the what-ifs and uncomfortable questions behind portal fantasies where children are brought to a magical other-land, save a kingdom or perhaps conquer their fears, only to wind up home again once the adventure is over. Classics of the genre include 'Alice in Wonderland', 'The Chronicles of Narnia', and 'Coraline'. McGuire is not the first person to ask these questions, sanity has always been a dubious virtue in many of the other-lands. I loved the concept of these books, I read 'Beneath the Sugar Sky' some time before this, but I seem to have misplaced that review somewhere on the internet.


This was the first book in the series and I suppose I expected more groundwork than from what I'd inferred or had been told outright in the exposition of the third book. That's the reason for my rating being less than perfect. This is a delightful slice of fantasy, I think I just want more. I'm not sure any of the characters had a chance to grow beyond their initial descriptions, which are repeated as they appear again in the next volumes. The series is a wonderful idea nonetheless, and I appreciated the small time I could spend with it.


Wayward Children


Next: 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones'

Help Me! by Marianne Power

Help Me! - Marianne Power

This was an amusing and self-indulgent memoir about the author's experiment with living by the advice of a different self-help book every month. Understandably, the experiment doesn't go great and extends half a year and more than planned and causes the author to seriously question her judgement.


I'm not immune to the desire of wanting to get my shit together, but I've always been skeptical of self-help books. It's easy to read or hear good advice, and completely another thing to have it actually inspire you to change your life.


Still, the book was enjoyable and I appreciated Powers' sense of humor and her honesty in describing the pitfalls of each book she adheres to each month. I was a little baffled that she didn't follow through on the advice that was working from one month into the next, but it wasn't my artificial experiment so she was allowed to make up her own rules.


Oh, and btw, they apparently changed the cover since I added the book to the database. It's pink now.

Joy Enough by Sarah McColl

Joy Enough - Sarah McColl

In 'Joy Enough' McColl writes about the woman her mother was, and the choices that she had to make while taking care of her mother in her final battle with cancer. This is a moving memoir about love, and family, and coping with end of life care. It is heart-wrenching and not to be missed.


McColl's book is made with the small details: the kindnesses, the fragile hopes, and day to day successes and failures in caring for loved ones with a terminal illness. McColl throughout this ordeal re-examines her life and, without minimizing her conflicts or attempting answers where there are none, finds a new path for herself.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field - Madhuri Vijay

In Madhuri Vijay's 'The Far Field' a young woman named Kalyani explores the fraught and tender relationship between herself and her mother, and the roots of a tragedy. This debut novel is astonishing in its ambition and in how it succeeds.


Following her mother's death, Kalyani leaves her privileged life in Bangalore for Kashmir, still scarred from the insurgencies of the 1980s and 90s. She seeks to find the man who was her mother's only friend. Her quest, and its consequences, matched with lucid prose makes for an engrossing and accomplished novel.


Kalyani is a young woman with little experience of the outside world, her circle at home, in college, and her stunted professional life, was limited by class and the trappings of a comfortable existence. Her mother was the only one who ever seemed to buck convention, and it was her that she lost the most touch with as she grew older.


The novel is told from the future, a world-weary and wiser Kalyani recalling her role in the events of the past. This tone lends the whole book weight as the reader follows this seemingly innocent quest of finding a missing person.


There are many fantastic books coming out this season, but this has become my favorite.

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 4: 1957-1958

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 4: 1957-1958 - Charles M. Schulz, Jonathan Franzen

After a long hiatus, I've resolved to start reading these again. Whenever I feel like I need a boost I'll go ahead and buy another volume. I mean, I'm never going to retire anyway so what's the point of having a savings account?


Edit: Also, sorry folks you have to click through to the blog to see the whole comic strip. 


These were good years for the strip, with Schulz continuing to refine his technique, there are long sequences here - notably Linus' pledge to go without his blanket for two weeks and Charlie Brown's epic baseball gaff - and thee are jokes with almost identical panels repeated many times. This repetition wasn't detrimental, it seemed more like Schulz working out a joke in his mind until it reached maximum absurdity. Violet's hi-fi parasol inevitably becomes Lucy's hi-fi jump rope.




Much of the humor appears timeless, but the Peanuts gang were children of the 1950s, young baby boomers as observed by the previous generation. Their are many gags that deal with no outmoded technology, branding, or early television, but those dealing with child psychology were some of my favorites. This was the beginning of parenting being serious business:





Snoopy's impressions took off in the last volume, but he adds many more to his repertoire in these years and in general is just delightful.



There were no additions to the cast, the last two comics have everyone in them (the very last even with names)  but Schulz has a lot on his hands figuring out the group dynamics, good and bad. Schroeder and Charlie Brown compete for who's better at despairing over contemporary pop culture:



It was truly difficult picking a Sunday for this review, but this one touches on a lot of things I love about the series. Poor Charlie Brown, he suffers all the pangs of childhood and rarely catches a break:



Maybe it gets better for him next year, but I doubt it!



Complete Peanuts


Next: 'Volume Five: 1959-1960'


Previous: 'Volume Three: 1955-1956'

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