Book Review: The Cartographers


Novelist Peng Shepherd pulls a nice trick with her book – The Cartographers — in that she maintains elements of mystery and surprise in a book that has a single old map at the center of the story. Even as a lover of maps, I didn’t think a single map could fuel an entire story. But here, it does.

And I won’t give the story away, but The Cartographers is an engaging tale that begins with a suspicious death, the discovery of an old road map with an odd marking, and a threading of a deep backstory into the present, all the while keeping a focus on Nell, the main character at the heart of the story. Nell’s father’s death is the event that sparks the tale, but it is also her search for her mother, or a memory of her mother, that propels the plot.

There are plenty of twists and turns, and the writing keeps it all moving forward. Focusing in on a collection of characters with a love of maps — from the old, dusty troves of ancient maps to a modern, algorithmic software program — Shepherd allows us to see how powerful maps can be on our imagination, and our perceptions of reality (or misperceptions, too).

It would give the main story away to share Peng Shepherd’s Author’s Notes at the end of the book, but the story she tells there of a real event that inspired her thinking about this fictional story is really quite fascinating — it’s a story of a map that signaled one thing, only to lead to something else altogether, where the map became a path forward in a place that was never real, until it was.

The Cartographers was a fun, lively read.

Peace (off the edge),

Book Review: The Storyteller’s Handbook


What to say about The Storyteller’s Handbook? It’s glorious, and packed with the most strange and wondrous illustrations, and very few words, and all in the service of sparking stories for the reader. (And an introduction by Neil Gaiman doesn’t hurt to set the stage for something magical unfolding in the pages).

It’s impossible not to look through this collection of art by Elise Hurst and not wonder about what happened before the moment, in the moment and then beyond the moment, and so, as a tool for sparking writing, The Storyteller’s Handbook does a fine job.

Every one of the 52 illustrations has something intriguing, and as I was wandering through, I began to wonder if there were narrative threads connecting some, if not all, of the illustrations together (or maybe it is just that I was mesmerized by Hurst’s artistic vision). She plays with scope and dimensions, of turning the mundane into something extraordinary, of placing the fantastical within a jar to looked at and then released.

All that, and more. See Hurst chat about the book in this short video:

At the book’s website, there is even a detailed Teacher’s Guide to use with the book in the classroom, and it is packed full of interesting ideas, prompts and activities (including a scavenger hunt!).

Peace (and Stories),

PS — I am sucker for stories of how books came to be, and Hurst gives an evocative telling of where she came up with the idea for The Storyteller’s Handbook:

Book Review: Musical Tables (Poems)

You can read this entire collection of poems within an hour. Billy Collins, whose work I have long admired and enjoyed reading, turns his attention here to the concept of “small poems” — short verse, of just a few lines.

“I love the suddenness of small poems. They seemed to arrive and depart at the same time, disappearing in a wink … The small poem is a flash, a gesture, a gambit without the game that follows. There’s no room for landscape here, or easeful reflection, but there is the opportunity for humor and poignancy.” — Billy Collins, Musical Tables, pages 139-140

Like Collins, I also am immersed in small poems, writing them just about every morning from either a prompt off Mastodon, Twitter or blogs, and find that elements of capturing an idea in a confined universe of space and words opens up creative doors for poetry. Mine are hit or miss, and some I come back to later to tighten up but most are part of my morning routine — writing over a cup of coffee before getting ready for work at school. But I enjoy the routine and the form.

So I was excited to learn that Collins was also a fan of small poems and Musical Tables gathers together many of his pieces. It’s funny to see his small poems on the printed page of a book because there is more white space in this published collection than inked out words.

There are some gems here that I really enjoyed — his poems about writing poems, a favorite theme of mine, are witty and funny — and his observational style that is the center of so much of his poetry, along with his slanted humor, comes through. I laughed at times, for sure.

BUT — I wasn’t blown away here, and too many of the poems truly seem like throw-aways, something he might jot down on a sticky note in any other time and file away as an idea for something to be developed. Many in the collection here lack a real center or substance, in my opinion.

In fact, I find the small poems that people write and share on Mastodon and Twitter with the #smallpoems hashtag are more interesting and provocative pieces of art, and for the most part, Collins’ work in this book never really rose to that level, for me, anyway.

However, his interview on National Public Radio is fascinating, as he talks about small poems and the ways they allow a writer a path to expression in ways that longer poems may not.

Peace (in little text and lots of space),

Book Review: Poetry Unbound (50 Poems To Open Your World)

I’ve been listening to Padraig O’ Tuama in my ears a few times per week since the Pandemic with his wonderful Poetry Unbound podcast, where he explores a poem through various lenses and celebrates the art of writing with heart and compassion. It’s a beautifully produced podcast.

O’ Tuama has just released a book with the same name — Poetry Unbound (50 Poems To Open Your World) — and like the podcast, the book explores poems, but through his insightful and personal own contexts, giving each poem a short introduction (some read like prose poems) and then a longer essay on the poems.

His curation of poetry — some of which are featured in his podcast but then recast here through slightly different analysis — is enlightening, and most of these poems are ones I would not have come across before. His work as conflict mediator in Ireland through the times of trouble there gives him a certain perspective on tension on the page, and of love and resilence, as does his own personal life as a gay man who grew up in a conservative Catholic culture.

I tried to read this book slowly, letting each poem simmer as O’ Tuama’s analysis dug in, deep, and settled into my head. I found a deep appreciation for  all the writers here, and what they achieved and hoped to make resonant with a reader like me, and I am appreciative to O’ Tuama for finding these pages of verse, and bringing them to the page and to my earbuds on a regular basis.

This is a book I highly recommend, whether poetry is your thing or not.

Peace (within pages of poems),

Book Review: This Is What It Sounds Like (What The Music You Love Says About You)

This Is What It Sounds Like Cover

Give me a book about music, and I am a happy reader.

This new book by Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas goes beyond that. This Is What It Sounds Like is a tour de force, a well-written invitation to think about our choices in the music we listen to and that we love in the moment and over time, and Rogers (who is the primary voice here) is the perfect tour guide.

Rogers’ background is impressive, beginning as someone who helped build recording studios, to a stretch of time as a producer/engineer with Prince, to a producer of many other artists, to her time now as a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Ogas is a published author of books about the brain and the way we think.

The book weaves in and out of Rogers’ stories in the music recording field, but finds it anchors in some key areas as the book explores why we love the music we do, why everyone’s tastes in music will be different, and how we can expand our ideas of not just what art is but how art provides an opportunity to enrich our lives.

The chapter titles give an overview of the topics of music listening:

  • Authenticity
  • Realism
  • Novelty
  • Melody
  • Lyrics
  • Rhythm
  • Timbre
  • Form and Function
  • Falling In Love

In each section, the reader is given insights on the listening to music that is intriguing, with “Record Pulls” — the sharing of songs with others that gives an insight to someone else on your own personality. The songs we share with others say something about ourselves, and Rogers believes in the idea of “Record Pulls” to shine a light on not just our listening but aspect of our personalities. (You can even join the online Record Pull that they have set up at their website:

All in all, this book was beautifully written (a few sections veer deeper into brain science, in relation to music, but it was definitely approachable to the general reader) and the insights had me thinking in new ways on songs and artists and music that have defined who I am for years.

I highly recommend This Is What It Sounds Like. Plus, you can listen in to the Virtual Jukebox of songs referenced in the book.

Peace (and song),

Graphic Novel Review: 5 Worlds (Book One: The Sand Warrior)

It’s nice to see a female hero in the graphic novels for middle school readers. This first book in the 5 World series (which I only found out about through a Scholastic Book order) is a satisfying read on many levels. 5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior is a fast-paced adventure in which our protagonist — Oona Lee — must summon powers she does not know she has in order to start the process to save the worlds.

The story is rather complicated in a summary retelling, but I was not confused during the reading of it (except for all of the odd names of planets and such). While a familiar story arc ensues, I still was rooting for Oona Lee and her friends, and even when I figured out the twist facing her (it has to do with family), I thought the writers (lots of them, apparently) pulled it off quite nicely.

The concept of sand as power, and of how some, like Oona Lee, can summon the sand as magic, and then how that magic can transform a sand dancer into a sand warrior, worked just fine. I appreciated, too, the world building here, and the variety of strange characters — all with important back stories that you can see might unfold in later chapters of the tale.

This book would appeal to girls and boys, in equal measure, and that shows the power of a good graphic novel, where the colorful art matches perfectly with the story on the pages. I’m looking forward to where the story goes from here — there are now five books in the series, I see.

Peace (in magic and sand),

Book Review: What If? 2

What If? 2 by Randall Munroe

I suggest it’s best to read through Randall Munroe’s latest collection of “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” slowly, allowing the questions and the answers, and the funny comic illustrated quips, to settle in with you in his latest book, entitled What If? 2.

The science is deep (he worked for NASA as a roboticist, and he knows his science) but so is the funny, and if you know Munroe’s distinct style from either his XKCD comics or his other books, you know he balances the deep science and math thinking with an incredible array of bizarre ideas, in this case, generated by his readers. (The first What If? book was great, too, as are his other collections.)

The questions from kids here are the best, such as the opener here from a five year old: What would happen if the Solar System was filled with soup? Near the end, another question from a seven year old: How many snowflakes would it take to cover the world in six feet of snow? Munroe answers those questions and dozens more, too, and all are entertaining and interesting and educational.

His writing style and writing voice is something intriguing — he certainly knows his science but his ability to add the comic aside while celebrating the question (for the most part) is very effective. His signature stick people doodles show how far you can go with stick figures, too, and each answer has its collection of small comics that will leave you chuckling while also thinking.

Peace (and questions to ponder),

Book Review: Diper Overlode (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid 17)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Diper Overlode - Signed Copy | Booka Bookshop

With no kids in my house under 18, it’s kind of odd that I still find pleasure in sitting and reading new installments of Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, but I do. It’s not deep literature. But it is fun.

The latest book, which just came out, is called Diper Overlode, and the focus is less on Greg and more on his older brother, Roderick, and his desire for fame and fortune with his hard rock band: Loded Diper.

As an amateur musician, I giggled quite a bit here, as the band’s antics to get a gig, to play at a Battle of the Bands, to ask for advice from an aging rocker, to getting set up for a show only to find some equipment missing, to not getting paid after playing a gig because you didn’t read the fine print, to trying to find practice space, to lugging the heavy equipment around …. those all ring pretty true to me.

I even texted some of the hilarious cartoons in the book to my bandmates, who enjoyed the sharing.

I don’t know how many more years Kinney can keep this up, and certainly interest in his books has waned over time in my sixth grade classroom, but I am still enjoying his sense of humor each fall, when the new book arrives and I read the story of Greg and his friends and family in an afternoon or two (and then, bring the book to my classroom for any interested students to read).

Seventeen books in, and I remain a fan.

Lot of 15 (#1-13 plus) DIARY OF A WIMPY KID Complete Series Set ...

Peace (and rock and roll),

Book Review: Leviathan (AdventureGame Comics)

The book is a game, and the game is afoot!

Jason Shiga, the comic creator whose Meanwhile interactive comic book a few years back amazed me and my sons for its innovative use of a choose-your-own-story theme (complete with more than 3,800 choice possibilities), has a new book (and a new series, it seems) that builds on the concept that was in Meanwhile (which Shiga later turned into an app built on the concept of the Infinite Canvas idea of Scott McCloud).

Leviathan: AdventureGame Comics is a non-linear tour of story that is wrapped up in a sort of game, where the reader makes choices by following the “tubes” that lead to different pages in the book. Sometimes, Shiga leaves places for the reader to choose their own page, leaping back into the story at random points. Some pages have multiple story lines grouped together, with “tubes” running in different directions. Some pages are maps, with streets that lead to other sections of the book.

You never know what you’re going to land on when you turn to a page.

Here’s the book blurb:

Leviathan is set in a medieval coastal village, where residents live in fear of a giant sea creature. Your goal as a reader is simple: defeat the Leviathan! As you wander through the open world, the town’s backstory is revealed. You can attempt to visit the library to try and learn why the Leviathan destroyed it years ago. You can stop by the castle to discover the town was once riddled with crime and theft—and how that’s stopped as the Leviathan will wreak havoc on the town for the smallest misdeeds. If you’re lucky, you may find your way to the old wizard who may possess the one thing that could keep the Leviathan at bay. But not everything is as it appears in this village. Can you discover the secrets and stop the Leviathan before it’s too late?

I’ve been spending time wandering the book, zipping through the pages, following the adventures but have yet to find the ending point. I suspect, for many fans of Interactive Fiction, the end is not the point, anyway — it’s the journey that counts.

I could see middle school readers, in particular, enjoying Shiga’s new book (and Meanwhile, too) and its creative use of comic panels and narrative tubing makes for a very different kind of reading experience.

Here is Shiga, talking about the book (I can’t even begin to fathom how he planned it out and put it all together!):

Peace (connecting the tubes),