Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman 354 pages.


Handler, the author of all the Series of Unfortunate Event books really knows how to write. And he does a very convincing teen-aged girl. I did not think I would enjoy reading a tale of two high-schoolers breaking up after dating for a short while quite this much. I credit Kara for convincing me to read it with her compelling review here.
It's 11:50 something, and the month is over. Go read this one. You'll enjoy it!

Where'd You Go, Bernadette


Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, 330 pages.
A popular favorite from 2012 and a very fun book to read, Semple's novel follows Bernadette, now a reclusive mother of a gifted eighth grade daughter, but who was, once upon a time, the star of the architectural firmament, as she battles with her inner demons and her neighbors, with the help of her assistant, who may be sitting in a third-world call center, or who may exist only online as a front for a very large scam.
A fun read.

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The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, 443 pages.


Christa raved about this one, It was an ALA Notable Book, and it just won the Pulitzer. 
Pak Jun Do, the title character in this award winning work, has to learn to let things go. Having something, anything, means having to lose that thing, your connection to it and the memory of it. None of it belongs to you, all of it is just a story. Jun Do has been a kidnapper, a fisherman, and a national Tae Kwon Do champion. He has also been none of these things. It depends on who you ask. It depends on when you ask them.
Every summary that I read of this book was misleading. Every bit of praise was a bit too spare.
Hypnotic, and hopelessly exhilarating, this is a book to be savored. I listened to part of it on audio, too, and that was well done.
One of the best  of the year.

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Downloadable audio.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared


The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson  384 pp.

I'm not sure what I like best about this book, the senior citizens who manage to outsmart some not very bright criminals and the police, or the not quite accurate historical flashbacks of the life of the main character, Allan Karlsson. Karlsson slips away from his retirement home by crawling out of the window of his room and leaving on the afternoon of his 100th birthday celebration. What follows is a story of crime, unusual deaths, romance, estranged brothers, perplexed police, an over-ambitious prosecutor, and an elephant. That story alternates with Karlsson's life story of improbable and impossible events involving a collection of world leaders from Generalissimo Francisco Franco to Richard Nixon. With all that going on, the author manages to tie up all neatly at the end with everyone living happily ever after, including the elephant.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, 288 pages

OK, here's what it says in our OPAC: "After a layoff during the Great Recession sidelines his tech career, Clay Jannon takes a job at the titular bookstore in San Francisco, and soon realizes that the establishment is a facade for a strange secret." If you're going to describe it in one sentence, that certainly does it. HOWEVER, that description doesn't explain the appeal of this engaging page-turner. In this book, Sloan has written a love letter to the awesome power of books and the Internet, and he's done it by creating a novel that has a little bit of adventure, nerdiness, fantasy, realism, and downright awesomeness for everyone. The characters are great, the locations are well-realized, and the plot kept me guessing until the last page. I don't know the last time a book did that. Fantastic.

The Ruining

The Ruining by Anna Collomore; young adult, psychological suspense; 336 pages

After growing up in the housing projects of Detroit, Annie's life is finally looking up:  she's been accepted into college in San Fransisco, and has landed a job as a live-in nanny for the wealthy Cohens to help pay for it.  But the more time Annie spends with young, glamorous Mrs. Cohen, the more things start to seem off.  But Annie can't tell if things are really as strange as they seem, or if the problem lies with her. 

I started out with high hopes for this book:  one review I read said it was a retelling of The Yellow Wallpaper, one of my favorite horror stories of all time.  And Collomore does a great job of capturing the surreal qualities of that book--Annie narrates, and as the book goes on, it's clear that reality is starting to blur and her own mind can't be trusted.  It's a chilling, suspenseful read that made the first 4/5s of this book riveting.  The last 50 pages, though, were kind of a let-down.  I won't spoil the ending, except to say that Collomore wraps things up much more neatly than Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, and it all feels a little too perfect (so much so that I was waiting for one last twist, right up until the last sentence--but it never came).  I still recommend this--as I said it's a terrifying horror story--but be prepared for a rushed, too-happy the ending. 

My only other complaint is about the cover.  The swimming pool at the house plays a pretty important role in the story, and I love the symbolism of Annie slowing sinking under, but the model they used seems to be another case of whitewashing in YA book covers.  The one and only description we get of Annie describes her as having "olive skin and dark hair," so it seems like they could have chosen a better model. 

Recommended for anyone looking for good psychological horror, or who loved The Yellow Wallpaper as much as I did. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lost at sea

Lost at sea: the Jon Ronson mysteries / Jon Ronson 400 pgs.

Jon Ronson had me as a fan after reading The Psychopath Test. Now he is back with a series of features about situations that are less extreme but each weird in their own way.  How do you feel about pedophiles, assisted suicide, hypnotists, and Insane Clown Posse?  Each are featured in this new book by Ronson where he tells the stories of the fringes of our society.  I don't know what it is about his writing but he never makes fun of a situation that seems ripe for a little ridicule but actually is a genius at questioning their practices in the most respectful way. Some of these stories will disturb you, others will delight you.  I'm probably going to read everything I can by Jon Ronson for the rest of my life.

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The information

The Information: a history, a theory, a flood by James Gleick 526 pgs.

This book is a great introduction to information science.  A revelation about how we talked about information and communication before there was a way to measure it.  Loved the chapters about Ada Lovelace and Claude Shannon but also the information about communication via drums.  Duh, the white visitors to Africa took years to figure out that the drums were a form of communication since there was no written language, they didn't think there could be another way.  Samuel Morse and his code made the telegraph practical and useful so much that when telephones came along, some people didn't see the need for them.  Claude Shannon created information theory that has revolutionized many fields including physics and biology.

I love the way Gleick gives technical examples but makes them simple to understand and I also enjoy the personal details of the individuals featured.  Highly recommended for those interested in science and technology.

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The handbook for lightning strike survivors

The handbook for lightning strike survivors by Michele Young-Stone 372 pgs.

This is the story of Becca and Buckley but they don't meet until the very end of the book.  Becca is a lightning strike survivor.  Buckley witnessed his mothers death by a lightning strike.  Each have had setbacks and family issues that inform their development.  When they finally meet, it changes both of their lives.  When you read this description, you immediately think that this is a love story...and it is, in it's own way but the two do not become lovers.  They become friends and they share their lightning strike history with each other.

This book is full of quirky characters and interesting scenarios.  I listened to the audio version and enjoyed it.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 213 pages

Written as a series of letters to an unknown recipient, The Perks of Being a Wallflower gives readers insight into the life of Charlie, a quiet, observant high school freshman, as he goes from being a complete loner to having friends, to dealing with tough situations. Chbosky's characters are complex and fully realized, though there's something just a little bit unbelievable about them, like they're a bit too good to be true (especially Sam, Charlie's crush). What was particularly great about this book was the way Charlie's writing evolved from the first to last letters. The changes are so subtle that it's almost completely unnoticeable; I honestly don't think I would have noticed at all if a friend hadn't specifically pointed out that element in her recommendation to read it. Chbosky's writing is excellent, and this novel stands up well, despite being written more than 20(!) years ago.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The tiger

The Tiger: a true story of vengeance and survival by John Vaillant 329 pgs.

This was one of those books that I could not put down. The excitement during several parts where there is some experience with the wild life is indescribable in the post.  The background information about the lives of the people and the tigers featured here is also wonderful.  Ever wonder what it is like in Siberia? Not the most inviting place but still livable.  What happens during the breakup of the Soviet Union and the related economic crisis?  Not much if you are subsistence living in Siberia.  But really, none of this information matters as much as the featured character.  These are the biggest cats in the world.  Related tigers are tiny by comparison.  These tigers are solitary hunters and are not to be trifled with.  Oh man, if you like this type of book, John Vaillant is a master.  I cared about every person and every animal in this book.

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Life after Life / Kate Atkinson 529 p.

Ursula Todd is born in 1910 and promptly dies.  Then she's born again (on the same day, same time), lives for awhile, experiences catastrophe, and dies again, and so on.  Her 'life,' which is a word with a very fluid definition in this novel, is alternately smothered and revived through most of England's 20th century big-ticket events:  Spanish flu, the Blitz, poor reproductive medicine (OK, not an event, exactly).  She learns, or not, because she has only a partial view of her other lives.  Don't think about it too much!  Just read it!  Fantastic entertainment which may have deep meaning, or no meaning at all, just like L I F E itself. 

Paddy's Lament: Ireland 1846-1847, prelude to hatred / Thomas Gallagher (no relation, that I know of) 345 p.

When I was a kid, my Grandpa practically threw my brother out of the room for wearing a T-shirt with the Union Jack on it (I think it was the Kinks, if that matters...).  It was something we laughed about for years; after reading this famine history it seems a little less funny.  Unlike The Famine Plot, this is not a chronological examination of events and policy; rather, it is a portrait of the experience of ordinary Irish men and women during the famine.  Much of the detail is horrific and gruesome and painfully sad to read.  The latter portion deals with a journey on a 'coffin ship' to New York and the experiences of immigrants' arrival in that city.  This was less interesting to me, probably because as an American reader I have read so many accounts of 19th century NY tenement life for all sorts of immigrant groups that the story loses specificity.  Occasionally too sentimental for my taste, but very vivid.

Far from the Tree / Andrew Solomon 962 pp.

If I were a poet, I would write an ode to this book.  Or the author.  Anyway, I'd take Dr. Solomon over a Grecian urn any day of the week.  In 12 chapters he explores a variety of what he calls 'horizontal identities,' that is, conditions which set children into a culture or identity group different from that of their parents.  Examples include deafness, dwarfs, Down syndrome, and schizophrenia and others.  For each condition he conducts extensive longitudinal interviews with families who are grappling with these profound parent/child differences.  Here we meet good, bad, and mediocre parents, as well as some acutely 'difficult' children; it's Solomon's gift that he conveys each and every story with empathy and grace.  Most importantly, this is not a book about disability.  It's really about parents figuring out how to see and accept their children as the individuals they are, and by extension, how we can turn those same wide-open eyes upon our neighbors, co-workers, and friends.  Yes, it's a long book...I checked it out multiple times to finish, and I don't regret a single page. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sacrilege

Sacrilege by S.J. Parris  423 pp.

This is the third in a series of books about excommunicated, Italian monk, Giordano Bruno. Bruno is a spy for the court of Queen Elizabeth. It is 1584, and he is reunited with Sophia Underhill, the disgraced daughter of the Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, who he met in Heresy, the first book of the series. Sophia is on the run after being accused of murdering her husband, a magistrate in Canterbury. Bruno goes there in an attempt to clear her name while also acting as a spy for the Queen and the Earl of Walsingham. While there he discovers that there is much evil in the famous cathedral city. Other murders, including those of two children, draw Bruno into a dangerous situation and ultimately being accused of murder himself. There is evil, intrigue, suspicion, and the mystery of what happened to the bones of Thomas Beckett. All combine to make this a page turner.

Carrie and Me

Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story by Carol Burnett  205 pp.

This was comedian/actress Carol Burnett's tribute to her multi-talented daughter Carrie Hamilton who died of lung cancer at age 38. The book is part biography, part memoir, part collection of letters and emails between mother and daughter as Carrie took a trip across the U.S. while writing a novel which was never completed. The play that Burnett and her daughter wrote was finished and produced after Carrie's death. Hamilton was a performer, producer, playwright, singer, poet, and songwriter. The last quarter of the book is Hamilton's unfinished book "Sunrise in Memphis." Hamilton asked her mother to finish it for her but Carol Burnett was never able to because as she told her daughter "I'm not sure I could write what you were aiming for."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Trickster

Trickster: Native American Tales: a Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembicki, 231 pages

This graphic collection draws together 20-odd Native American folktales from across the country, each told and illustrated by a different narrator and artist. I use the term "narrator" here because it is obvious that Dembicki worked hard to keep the voice of the Native storytellers in each tale; I could almost hear the voices of the narrators as I read their words. In an author's note, Dembicki explains how difficult it was to get many of the storytellers on board for the project, and how each was able to choose the artist (from a handful of options) and approve the final version before the book was published. The artwork is varied, and while none of  the artists particularly blew my mind here, they're good and convey the stories well without  resorting to stereotypes (which is particularly nice, considering how few of the artists have Native American heritage). Short of hearing these stories from the mouths of Native American storytellers, this is a wonderful way to learn them.

The old ways: a journey on foot, by Robert Macfarlane



Unlike Harold Fry’s imaginary walk in the book reviewed previously, this is a true account of many shorter journeys on foot by an experienced hiker and scholar.  Primarily following “the old ways,” networks of foot paths and sea trails in use since the birth of Britain, the author takes the reader along introspective and fascinating byways of nature and thought.  Beautifully written and best read one journey at a time.  350 pp.

The lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan



Set just two years after the Titanic disaster, this fictional tale of another shipwreck is told from the viewpoint of one of the 39 inhabitants of a lifeboat launched as the ship went down.  We know from the first page that Grace Winter has survived the experience and that for some reason she has been imprisoned upon her arrival back on dry land.  Grace is newly married and returning to New York after a honeymoon in England.  As days pass in the overloaded boat, we learn of her life and of the factions that are developing amongst the passengers.  We see glimmers of what may have happened.  But all is filtered through Grace’s perception and her self-deception.  A morally complex tale that gives one a lot to think about, the kind of book that might be a candidate for a Washington University “Freshman Read” selection.  274 pp.

The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce



When recently retired Harold receives an unexpected note from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he worked with and hasn’t seen in 20 years, he learns she is dying of cancer.  Scribbling off a couple lines of sympathy, he sets off to post it near his house.  And he just keeps walking past one postbox after another, unable somehow to mail it.  Near the edge of town, he runs into a young woman who is a clerk in a service station.  Hearing his story, she tells him that her aunt was dying of cancer but she saved her through her faith that the aunt would survive.  Suddenly, Harold seizes on the idea of delivering the note in person.  He will walk the 500+ miles from his home in the south of England to near the Scottish border where his co-worker is in hospice care, believing that she will hold on to life until he arrives.  This is the story of his journey, equipped with only a waterproof jacket, his wallet, and wearing yachting shoes.  Walking gives him plenty of time to reflect back on his life and his damaged relationships with his wife and son.  Along the way, he meets strangers, learns to live off the land, becomes a minor celebrity, and comes to terms with the mistakes he has made in his 65 years.  At times hilarious, at times sad, it is truly a remarkable journey and a small gem of a book.  320 pp.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Little Wolves

Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman; drama, suspense, "historical fiction"; 352 pages

The small town of Lone Mountain, Minnesota is still reeling from the shocking news that Seth Fallon, a troubled teen, has shot and killed the sheriff, before committing suicide in a cornfield outside town.  Most affected by the news are Grizz, the boy's father, and Clara, Seth's English teacher and wife of the town's new pastor. 

It's really hard for me to describe what this book is about.  If I were to list off things that happen in the book, it would all seem pretty inconsequential compared to the major event at the beginning, but that doesn't mean this is a dull read.  Far from it.  Clara is a failed PhD student of Anglo-Saxon literature who has been teaching her students Beowulf.  She has a particular bond with Seth, despite the fact that he's the class outcast, and it's Clara's house that Seth visits moments before he makes his final trip into town (the book opens with Clara in the back of the house, filled with an urge to not answer the door without knowing why).  Clara's haunted by that choice--could she have talked Seth down, or would she just have been one more victim?  On top of that, Clara's dealing with her how fledgling marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and the strange feeling that drew her to this town, seeking a mother she only knew through he father's fairy tales.  Maltman's use of language here is amazing at creating a mood and setting that fits the dark story perfectly.  He also weaves in Norse mythology with Clara's father's stories of wolves and mountains, which just makes the story feel more like some dark story told on a winter's night. 

I should note, though, the reason "historical fiction" is in quotes up at the top of this entry:  Maltman sets his story in the mid-1980s, but the rural setting makes it feel more timeless.  In fact, until someone mentions a date near the end of the book, I was under the impression that this book was set in the present day.  My one complaint was that it was a little jarring to realize that I was picturing the wrong time period for the last 300 pages.  If you enjoy good literary writing and dark, chilling stories, this is a must-read. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Words from the White House

Words from the White House: words and phrases coined or popularized by America's presidents by Paul Dickson 197 pgs.

This is a very fun book with some unexpected information like the fact that "hustling" is a word first used in a 1760 diary entry of John Adams.  Normalcy is credited to Warren G. Harding's 1920 campaign  Gag rule is a term created by John Quincy Adams in 1840.

The entries are short and informative. If you a history buff, like the presidents or a "wordy" this book could be great for you.

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May we be forgiven

May We Be Forgiven/ A.M. Homes 480 pgs.

This is an amazing book about a family that has a few issues.  George is a little off the rails.  He crashes a car and kills a couple of people and not long after kills his wife.  Harold is his brother with whom he has never had a good relationship.  Seems George's wife did ok with Harold as they were having an affair at the time of her untimely death.  Harold suddenly finds himself playing parent to George's two children, taking care of his pets and finding himself in a world of different messes.  He gets fired from his job and joins the Internet sex community.  I know this doesn't seem like it based on my words here but this book is hilarious and very entertaining. I savored every word and recommend it highly.

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Which brings me to you

Which brings me to you: a novel in confessions by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott 304 pgs.

This is a cute story of a couple who meet at a wedding but decide to get to know each other through the old fashioned post...yes, as in Post Office and actual letters they write back and forth to each other.  The confessions are of their past loves and relationships...a lot about sex but some about people and attitudes.  I listened to the audio version and enjoyed it a lot.  My biggest distraction was comparing the length of this novel to my own life.  Perhaps if I were to start a project like this with someone, I could participate on Twitter.

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Me before You / Jojo Moyes 369 p.

I picked this up based on Linda's favorable recommendation, and Ms. Ballard is still batting 1000 for me.  What should have been a sticky-icky story - handsome powerful man becomes quadriplegic, down-on-her-luck small town girl becomes his nurse, predictable emotions ensue - wasn't, and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out why not.  Instead, it was moving, sweet, funny, and true.  And I didn't even find Moyes' writing particularly graceful, but she created a couple of three-dimensional human beings in a believable and poignant situation, which was enough to keep me reading frantically right until the end, and to feel glad that I had.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life

Scott Pilgrim. Vol. 1, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley, 168 pages

Scott Pilgrim is 23, he's in a band, he shares a one-room apartment (and the sole bed in said apartment) with his gay roommate, and he's kinda-sorta dating a high schooler named Knives Chau. However, he's also been having these dreams about a roller-blading delivery girl with a distinctive haircut. And what do you know, she's real! Once he meets the object of his obsession, he's determined to date her, despite his sorta-relationship with Knives.

This was a super short graphic novel, and I thought it was pretty good until the end. At that point, it started getting less real and more video-gamey, with no build-up to this admittedly interesting turn of events. I saw the movie based on the Scott Pilgrim series, and although it pains me to say it, I liked the movie better (scandalous, I know). I thought it did a better job of setting up the video game element, though that could be because it encompassed the whole series rather than just this first volume, which amounts to a tiny portion of the movie. But as to the book, I liked the artwork, I liked the names (Knives Chau! Ramona Flowers! Stephen Stills!), I liked the snark. But I don't know that I'll keep following this Pilgrim's progress.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Suspect

Suspect by Kristin Wolden Nitz, 199 pages

Jen is 17 and her mom left without a trace when she was just a toddler. Over the years, Jen's mom sent notes and presents, but otherwise, nobody in the family has heard from her. Jen's come to accept the fact that her mom is gone, so when her Grandma Kay announces her theory that Jen's mother died all those years ago, Jen is shaken and begins questioning everything. This mystery set against the backdrop of an annual murder mystery party at Kay's B&B. This year's mystery was written to mirror the disappearance of Jen's mom in the hopes of scaring up a few clues to the cold case.

This could be an interesting book IF (and it's a BIG if) it had better writing. Nitz supplies a lot of details, but they're the wrong ones. She tells us what highways Jen takes on her drive to the B&B, but gives us little to no information on the suspects. This story is set in Augusta, Missouri, with jaunts into St. Louis. It's painfully obvious that Nitz does not live, nor has ever lived, in this area. It seems like, in her quest at authenticity, she's simply Googled St. Louis and name-dropped some of what she found (Six Flags, the aforementioned highways, etc.). For example, if your dad works at SLU (which is only vaguely implied), are you going to call it St. Louis University in casual conversation with your grandma? Probably not. If she was truly striving for authenticity, we'd know what high school Jen attended (even if it was a fictional one) but the reader still has no clue by the time the book is over. Maybe this wouldn't be so annoying to someone who doesn't live here, but it just reeks of fakery to me.

The Evolution of Mara Dyer

The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, 527 pages

OK, so I know my review of the first book in this trilogy (why must they always be trilogies?!?!?) may have come across as a bit tepid, but the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was by the whole story. Mara's definitely suffering from PTSD, but is she hallucinating or is something more going on? I had to pick up this second book to find out. Honestly, I'm glad I did. Hodkin keeps the twists and turns coming, and I'm just as flummoxed by this book as I was by the first. And when a character is going through the traumatic experiences that Mara's dealing with, that makes it all the more real. I'll definitely be reading the third book in this series, as I'm curious as to how this whole story will shake out. Gotta say though, if this turns out to be all a dream or some dumb thing like that, I'll be seriously ticked off.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, art by Maira Kalman, 354 pages

Sixteen-year-old Min has just broken up with her first love, Ed. This book is her rambling letter to him explaining exactly why they broke up.  At the beginning of the book, Min explains that she's dropping a box of the stuff from their short relationship on Ed's doorstep, then proceeds to write about each object in that box. She explains why it's there, and why, from the moment each object appeared in their relationship, she should have known right then that they'd break up soon.

It sounds really simple, and to some degree it is, but this book is also completely and totally awesome. Kalman's illustrations of every item in the Ed box are fantastic, and Handler hits exactly the right note as he mixes the magic of first love with the bitterness of first heartbreak. The characters are unbelievable too. Min and her wry sense of humor very much remind me of Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars (which, if you've heard me talking up that book, you'll know is very high praise indeed). Why We Broke Up is simply incredible. Read it.

Also: check out the Why We Broke Up Project. It's really cool, and a continuation of the breakup stories that make up the author endorsements on the back cover.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

March Totals

Books/Pages: 

Annie:  3/952
Kathleen:  4/1133
Christa:  10/2503
Marilyn:  3/251
Linda:  4/1252
Kara:  8/3387
Patrick:  14/4819
Karen:  7/1946

Total:  53 books; 16,243 pages

Digger Volume Six

Digger Volume Six by Ursula Vernon  157 pp.

This is the last installment in the series. Digger the wombat, Murai the monk, and Grim Eyes the hyena make the trip back to the temple of the Ganesha statue. Digger must then head underground to complete their mission of destroying the heart of a god that is being kept alive by artificial means by a demon. The ostracized hyena, Ed joins Digger on the mission leaving the injured Murai to delay Captain Jhalm and his monks from stopping them. Eventually Grim Eyes' hyena clan joins in to stop Jhalm. In the end, Digger returns to the surface to tell the statue goodbye. She then heads for the town but along the way again meets up with the mysterious traveling merchant who agrees to take her home. I'm sorry to see this series end. There is an afterword by Ursula Vernon about the creation and publishing of Digger in its original form as an online comic. What was originally planned to be about 100 pages long eventually grew to over 800 pages and won a Hugo award and other recognition.