Stack Overflow: Recent Reads

Stack Overflow: Recent Reads

Books Columns Comic Books Stack Overflow

Life has been zipping along lately, and I’m in that stage I hit periodically where I feel like there’s just too much entertainment to consume—books, TV shows, board games, video games—and there’s also so much going in on the real world—the war in Ukraine, my kids on spring break, Supreme Court nomination hearings, continued adjustments to COVID-related mandates. There’s a lot I’m trying to cram into my head, and a lot I’m trying to get out of my head in some sort of useful form. But books (at least when I’m not fixating on the sheer number of unread books on the shelf) can help take me to a different world for a while, and then I can bring back new perspectives when I return.

So today I’ll start my stack with a comic book about mindfulness, and then after that we’ll go on a bit of a whirlwind tour of my reading from the past few weeks.

The Art of Living


The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life by Grant Snider

Whew! With that title, you’d probably expect this book to be a self-help book with lots of advice on taking time out to destress or exercises to do. In fact, The Art of Living is a collection of comics that read a bit like poetry: there’s usually just a little bit of text, a few sentences that have been split across different frames that illustrate the text, sometimes literally, sometimes with creative metaphors. Snider isn’t necessarily offering advice so much as opening a window into his own mind as he thinks about all sorts of topics: being busy, being lazy, appreciating the different seasons, making space, being creative, and more.

I really like the way that Snider puts ideas into pictures, often taking one metaphor and stretching and squashing it in many ways. For instance, one page called “how to relax” has cartoon Grant lying in a hammock, with “don’t be too high strung” showing the hammock way up high between the trees, and “don’t start too early” depicting the hammock sunk down between two saplings that aren’t strong enough yet.

It’s not a book you need to read from cover to cover (although my daughter and I both did), but one that you can dip into from time to time. I think it’s one that I’ll enjoy returning to, looking at a particular page and letting it simmer for a bit in my brain. For that, there’s a handy index at the back that lists the topics covered in the comics, so you can find a page to read about “overthinking” or “cures for boredom” or “resentment.” I hadn’t read Snider’s comics before, so this was a really fun introduction to them. He has two other comics collections as well, The Shape of Ideas and I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelf (which sounds fantastic for bookworms like me).

The Glork Patrol Takes a Bath

Glork Patrol Takes a Bath by James Kochalka

It’s been a while since I’ve read a new James Kochalka book. My older kids had a lot of fun with titles like Dragon Puncher and The Glorkian Warrior series back when those began, and my youngest has now read them as well. Glork Patrol is a newer series (the first book was published in 2020), featuring the three-eyed Glorkian Warrior and Baby Gonk in a shorter format—a 40-page hardcover comic. They’re still just as silly as ever, though.

In this one, Gonk and Baby Quackaboodle (that dragon-looking creature on the cover) have had candy for breakfast and have made a huge mess. The Glorkian Warrior really doesn’t feel like going on patrol—but Gonk and Quackadoodle have made a robot suit for Super Backpack so it can go on patrol (wearing Gonk as a backpack), with some hilarious results. And, meanwhile, the Glorkian Warrior attempts to give Quackadoodle a bath. There’s a lot of slapstick humor and a lot of totally absurd situations, so if your kid likes extreme silliness, this is a fun series to share.

Blue, Barry & Pancakes: Enter the Underground Throwdown

Blue, Barry & Pancakes: Enter the Underground Throwdown by Dan & Jason

Continuing with the extreme silliness, here’s the upcoming fourth installment of the Blue, Barry & Pancakes series (expected in June). Blue has gone to hang out with the Society of Spelunkers, even though it’s the perfect day to go to the beach. Pancakes is content to enjoy the beach day, but Barry just can’t be happy, knowing that Blue is out hanging out with other friends. It ends up leading to a mix-up where the Spelunkers head to the beach while Barry and Pancakes wind up deep in the Cave of the Jelly Gem.

It’s a ridiculous adventure that involves wrestling and talking rock formations and free ice cream—but it’s also a story that teaches that, you know what? It’s okay for your friends to have other friends, too. It doesn’t mean you’re not friends anymore. That lesson can be a valuable one for kids, and it’s wrapped in goofy humor to make it easier to digest.

The Anti-Book

The Anti-Book by Raphael Simon

You might not recognize the name Raphael Simon, even though he’s written two pretty successful kids’ book series—but that’s because he’s previously written under the pseudonymous moniker Pseudonymous Bosch. This is is first book published under his real name, and it takes some of the wordplay and imaginative wackiness of his previous books and combines it with some very real emotions that some kids struggle with.

Mickey is mad most of the time—though he’ll deny it if you say so. His parents just announced right after the holidays that they’re getting a divorce, though they’re still very good friends—and also both happen to be getting married to other people (both named Charlie). His sister’s boyfriend bullies him whenever she’s not around. He’s not having a great time at school, particularly in the Human Development class taught by his dad, who is also his counselor. Really, the only thing he likes is Bubble Gum King bubble gum.

In his latest pack of gum, he finds a strange coupon for a free prize: the Anti-Book, with the instructions “To erase it, write it.” He fills the book with all the things he dislikes … and the next morning discovers that they’ve actually disappeared: his parents, his sister and her boyfriend, even his school. But then he winds up in the Anti-World, where everything reappears in strange new forms. His big sister is now literally tiny, fitting in the palm of his hand. He made a housefly disappear—and now it’s a flyhouse, a tiny flying house that looks suspiciously like his own. He wants to get back home, and the only person who seems to know what’s going on is a boy named Shadow, who’s invisible to everyone else and seems to have his own secret agenda.

The Anti-Book reminded me a little of The Phantom Tollbooth (one of my faves), because of the way a kid is pulled into a magical world where things are a bit upside down and sometimes weirdly literal. In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is just bored of everything, and he learns on his journey how fascinating the world can be. Here, Mickey is mad at everything, and the Anti-World helps him acknowledge his own anger and figure out where it’s coming from. It’s about learning that it’s okay to feel bad—to be angry or sad or frustrated—and it’s also about figuring out how to handle and manage those feelings.

The Rema Chronicles

The Rema Chronicles: Realm of the Blue Mist by Amy Kim Kibuishi

This is the first book in a new comic book series. Tabby Simon’s father was obsessed with a strange tree that leaks mist, and he was found dead nearby under mysterious circumstances. Ever since then, Tabby has been trying to figure out the truth, despite her mom’s insistence that she let it go. A mysterious boy shows up near the tree, dressed in odd clothes, and opens a portal—so Tabby follows him in, hoping this will finally lead her to some answers. She finds herself on another world entirely, with no way back.

Rema is a world with magic, though there’s a risk in using it. After discovering that Tabby followed him, Philip tries to get her back home, but things go wrong, and Tabby begins to learn more about this world, including its creation myth and the story behind the magic.

It’s a cool beginning to the series, introducing several colorful characters and raising a lot of questions about what’s going on. Tabby’s not entirely sure who she can trust on Rema, though she’s a bit smitten with Philip and I can see there might be a developing romance story there. There’s a lot of action in this volume, but it’s primarily setting the scene and familiarizing the reader with the new world—I’m excited to see what comes next!

City Spies: Forbidden City

City Spies: Forbidden City by James Ponti

Forbidden City is the third book in this middle grade series, which features a team of kids who are secretly MI6 agents. This time, they’re trying to investigate Sir Reginald Banks, a British billionaire who’s suspected of having ties with Umbra, a shadowy agency with nefarious plans. This time, they’re attempting to recruit a nuclear scientist from Korea by inviting his son to an international chess tournament.

The story takes us to several locations—not only Beijing (as you may have guessed from the title) but also Moscow for the chess tournaments—and also mixes in a popular boy band (also owned by Sir Reg) that seems to be used as a cover for Sir Reg’s covert meetings around the world. Sydney goes undercover as a junior reporter covering the band’s tour, and Paris brushes up on his chess skills to get into the tournament. The stakes are high, because MI6 would also love to woo the nuclear scientist, and the chess tournament may be the best opportunity to get the father and son out of Korea.

The City Spies series has been a lot of fun to read: there’s action, secret messages, costume changes, spy tools, and code-breaking. But these are also kids, navigating things like friendships and jealousy and disappointment and summer school. I like the way that the books spend time with different kids throughout the stories so that you get to know them a bit and see things from their perspective, and the relationship that Mother (the man leading the team) has with the kids is really sweet. In this book, we do get to find out a little more about Mother’s own history as well (along with how he got his nickname). If you’ve got kids who love spy stories, I recommend giving this series a try!

In the Serpent's Wake

In the Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman

I mentioned this one a while ago when I’d started reading it; it’s the sequel to Tess of the Road, which is itself a sort of spin-off from the Seraphina duology. I’ll say this right up front, in case you haven’t read the others and want to avoid any spoilers: these series are among my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. After I finished In the Serpent’s Wake, I honestly didn’t want to read anything else for a bit because I knew it would be a bit disappointing in comparison. There are books that I enjoy because I think the plot is really fun and engaging even if the writing isn’t great, and there are books where I don’t mind a mediocre plot because the writing itself is beautiful. Rachel Hartman, however, manages to do both: it’s an exciting, surprising, fantastical story that’s told well. It’s one that I enjoyed both for the plot and the writing.

Tess is still on her journey to find the World Serpent (along with her quigutl friend Pathka), and now they’ve reached the end of the road. It’s time to take to the sea. She talks her way onto an expedition with the Countess Margarethe, though it soon becomes clear that the countess’ intentions for finding the World Serpent don’t align with Tess’. And that’s not all: it seems this will be a race, because there’s another expedition, led by dragons, who are hoping to hunt down and kill the World Serpent because they see it as a threat to their own dominance.

Once we leave the mainland, the journey takes them through many of the small islands in the south, where we see the effects of colonialism on their lands and their cultures. Tess has her eyes opened and wants to help the islanders, but quickly learns that she also has a lot more to learn. It’s a really great illustration of the harm that colonizers have on indigenous culture, whether their intentions are to exploit lands for resources or to “elevate” and “educate” the natives.

There’s also a wonderful thread throughout this book of storytelling and myth. Hartman switches to a different voice in parts of the book, and you gradually understand whose voice it is and what they mean. There’s also a bit of folklore about a boot-maker and a tiger that gets told multiple times by people from different island nations, and it’s fascinating how the story’s shape and meaning change from telling to telling, showing the values and priorities each teller has.

It is, all in all, a beautiful story (even as it contains some of the ugliest parts of human nature), and I highly recommend it. I know it was just released in February, so it will probably be a long time before I get to read any more of Tess’ story, but I’m definitely on board for whatever comes next!

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books. Affiliate links to help support my writing and independent bookstores.

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